It’s a Tuesday evening in the small country town of Milton on the south coast of New South Wales, and the scent of the freshly brewed chai and homemade soup about to be served is wafting through the draughts in the Country Women’s Association hall as discussion veers between death, killing, war, abortion, prison and suffering.
Around 50 people, some longtime members of the local Buddhist group, other curious newcomers, are seated cross-legged on the wooden floor or on plastic chairs, a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II looking down, listening to a Buddhist nun. The topic for the night: “How to stay positive in a negative environment.”
“Our problem is we think the outside world is the main cause of our suffering – and our happiness,” says Venerable Robina Courtin, an Australian, now 77, who was ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition in the late 1970s.
“We understand that when it comes to becoming a musician, that you program yourself and that you are the main cause of becoming a musician – the work is in your mind, you need precision and clarity and perfect theories and then you practice and practice. We know we create our own selves in that sense,” she says.
“But when it comes to turning ourselves into a happy person we don’t believe we have this capacity. But the Buddhist approach is that we produce ourselves, whether it’s a musician or a happy person. We’re the boss.”
But what about all the extra suffering of the past few years, asks a woman, citing Covid, floods and war in Ukraine. Courtin relays the story of two imprisoned Tibetan women who were tortured and sexually assaulted, yet were able to “interpret this experience” in a way that “allowed them to bear it”.
The questioning woman looks dissatisfied. “What is it?” Courtin asks. “Come on, say it, it’s important.” Courtin can be at once warm and piercingly direct – when a questioner interrupted her mid-sentence at the previous evening’s event she responded, “Can’t you hear I’m trying to answer your question!” – and it takes a moment for the woman to reveal what she’s thinking. “It just doesn’t seem practical,” she finally says.
“It is practical when you are being sexually abused in a prison,” Courtin says. “We have the power to change the way we interpret our lives, and they were able to do that. And they were even able to have compassion for their torturers. The result of this? They didn’t lose their minds. It’s not moralistic; it really is practical.”
“Honey-child, listen to me,” says Courtin, softening. “Our trouble is we can’t cope with our own suffering or the suffering out there, so we just want to make it all go away. We can not. All we can do is our best in this crazy insane asylum called planet Earth.”
From convent school to death row
Earlier that day, over lunch, Courtin explains: “I’ve always been involved in the world. I like the world and I like crazy humans.” She’s a “newspaper and news junkie”; her favorite publications include the Financial Times, the Economist and the Washington Post.
Courtin grew up in Melbourne, one of seven children in a rambunctious, poor, Catholic household. The “naughtiest kid in the family”, at 12 she was sent to board in a convent school. “I was in heaven, it was bliss,” she says. Not only did she finally have her own bed, but “there was no chaos around me, I had discipline. I went to mass every day. I was in love with God and Our Lady and the saints. It was perfect for me.”
In her late teens, she discovered boys. Realizing she “couldn’t have God and boys at the same time”, she “very consciously” decided “goodbye God, hello boys”. A secondhand record, picked up for sixpence, led her to jazz. “I got this seven-inch LP that said ‘Billie Holiday’. I had no idea, I who hey was! That opened me up. Just blew my mind because it opened me up to this Black American experience, of suffering human beings.”
In the late 1960s, Courtin made her way to London, “rough and ready for revolution”. There she joined “radical left” demonstrations and supported the Black Panther movement. In 1971, she started working full-time for “Friends of Soledad”, a British political activist group supporting three Black American prisoners charged with the murder of a white prison guard. Then, she moved on to the radical feminist movement. Shedding her taste for men, she became a “radical lesbian feminist”, learned martial arts and moved to the US into a lesbian-run dojo in New York City.
In 1976, back in Australia, in Queensland, with a broken foot that stopped her martial arts practice, 31-year old Courtin spotted a poster advertising a talk by two Tibetan Buddhists – Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche – and decided to go along. “That’s when I found my path,” she says. “I was always looking for a way to see the world, why there is suffering, what are the causes of it? And I think I’d exhausted all options for who to blame for the suffering of the world.”
Since she was ordained, 44 years ago, Courtin has worked as an editor of Buddhist magazines and books. In 1996, after receiving a letter from a young Mexican American former gangster serving three life sentences in a maximum security prison in California, she founded the Liberation Prison Project, a nonprofit that offers Buddhist teachings and support to people in prison.
Courtin ran the program for 14 years, watching thousands of inmates, and still stays in touch with her “prison friends”. Recently, she visited one who has been on death row in Kentucky since 1983. “He lives in this garbage dump of a prison, no sensory pleasure whatsoever, the food is just horrible, no freedom to do much at all, he’s seen as a monster, and he’s this happy guy,” she says. A practicing Buddhist, “he’s fulfilled and content. He’s worked on his mind, accepted responsibility for his actions, and although he would love to be released from prison, he accepts his reality. ‘I’m ready for that electric jolt,’ he told me.”
I ask Courtin if she feels any sense of anger about this man’s plight. “No, I don’t. I try to help him where he’s at. That’s it,” she says. “I remember when I was a radical political activist in London in the early 1970s, that was when I was angry. That was when I was in a rage. Racism, sexism, injustice are just as bad now, if not worse – the prison system in America’s fucking outrageous – but I work differently now.
“The trouble is, we conflict seeing a bad thing with being angry. We feel if we give up anger, we chuck the baby out with the bathwater.” Courtin says she’s “still an activist”, but maintaining anger is like stabbing ourselves with a knife – “it just paralyses you”. Instead, she practices what she calls courageous compassion. “There’s a saying in Buddhism, a bird needs two wings, wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is the internal, putting yourself together. Compassion is when you put your money where your mouth is and help the world.”
Living in this world without losing your mind
Since the late 2000s, Courtin’s lived out of a suitcase, teaching in Buddhist centers around the globe, only coming to a halt in March 2020 in Sante Fe when the pandemic hit. She started teaching over Zoom – “I adore Zoom” – and a friend set up and runs her social media. Her dela TikTok account, which has 85,600 followers, has short videos, sometimes responding to current events, with titles such as “How to live in this world without losing your mind”.
“There’s a way of using the world to develop your practice,” she says. Take former US president Donald Trump, for example. “I’d watch Mr Trump and, instead of ranting and raving about how bad he is, I’d go, ‘Well, that’s lies, I recognize that. That’s anger, I recognize that. That’s vanity, I recognize that. That’s arrogance, I recognize that’. There’s not a single damn delusion Mr Trump has that I don’t have as well. The Buddhist view is that we all have these states of mind; we’re all in the same boat. So then I go, ‘Thank you for showing me how not to be.’”
Recently, Courtin shared on social media that her sister, Jan, had died after an accident at home. She says the huge response to her post “touched me deeply, because people were so kind”. She got on a flight from the US as soon as she heard about the accident. Alongside her her siblings her in a hospital in Melbourne as Jan’s life room support was withdrawn, Courtin whispered the Buddhist mantras that accompanied her death while the rest of the family boisterously sang the Sydney Swans team.
Once Courtin finishes this current Australian teaching tour, she’s moving to New York City, where she plans to settle “for the last years of my life”. She plans to write and edit, continue her personal study and Buddhist practice, and teach via Zoom. Maybe “I’ll go out to a jazz club in the evening,” she says, before adding, “I’m just joking, I probably won’t go to the jazz club.
“I’m going to try and not waste my life. Try and stay useful. Be useful before I drop dead.”