lIt’s a Tuesday night in the small country town of Milton on the south coast of New South Wales, and the smell of the freshly brewed chai and homemade soup about to be served wafts through the dams in the Country Women’s Association hall as the discussion between death, murder, war, abortion, prison and suffering.
About 50 people, some old members of the local Buddhist group, others curious newcomers, sit cross-legged on the wooden floor or on plastic chairs, a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II looking down and listening to a Buddhist nun. The topic of the evening: “How do you stay positive in a negative environment.”
“Our problem is that we think the outside world is the main cause of our suffering – and our happiness,” said Rev. 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, you program yourself and that you are the main reason to become a musician – the work is in your head, you need precision and clarity and perfect theories and then you practice and practice. We know that in that sense we create ourselves,” she says.
“But when it comes to making ourselves a happy person, we don’t believe we have this capacity. But the Buddhist approach is that we produce ourselves, be it a musician or a happy person. We are the boss.”
But what about all the additional suffering of recent years, one woman asks, referring to Covid, floods and war in Ukraine. Courtin tells the story of two captive Tibetan women who were tortured and sexually abused, yet were able to “interpret this experience” in a way that “allowed them to endure it”.
The questioning woman looks dissatisfied. “What is it?” asks Courtin. “Come on, say it, it’s important.” Courtin can be warm and penetratingly direct at the same time—when a questioner interrupted her mid-sentence during the previous night’s event, she replied, “Can’t you hear me trying to answer your question!” – and it takes a while for the woman to reveal what she thinks. “It just doesn’t seem practical,” she finally says.
“It’s practical when you’re 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 feel sorry for their torturers. The result of this? They did not lose their minds. It is not moralistic; it’s really practical.”
“Honey, listen to me,” Courtin says softly. “Our problem is that we can’t handle our own suffering or the suffering outside of it, so we just want to make it all go away. We can’t. All we can do is do our best in this crazy madhouse called planet Earth.”
From convent school to death row
Earlier that day, over lunch, Courtin explains: “I’ve always been involved with the world. I love the world and I love crazy people.” She is a “newspaper and news junkie”; her favorite publications are the Financial Times, The Economist and the Washington Post.
Courtin grew up in Melbourne, one of seven children in a boisterous, poor, Catholic household. The “naughtiest child in the family”, at the age of 12 she was sent to 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 that she “couldn’t have God and boys at the same time”, she decided “very consciously” “Goodbye God, hello guys”. A second-hand record, picked up for six pence, led her to jazz. “I have this seven-inch LP that says ‘Billie Holiday’. I had no idea, I was wondering who? he used to be! That opened me up. It just amazed me because it opened me up to this black American experience of suffering people.”
In the late 1960s, Courtin made his way to London, “rough and ready for revolution”. There she joined demonstrations by the “radical left” and supported the Black Panther movement. In 1971, she began working full-time for “Friends of Soledad”, a British political activist group that supports three black American inmates charged with the murder of a white prison guard. Then she switched to the radical feminist movement. She lost her taste for men, became a “radical lesbian feminist,” learned martial arts, and moved to the US to a lesbian-run dojo in New York City.
Back in 1976, back in Australia, in Queensland, with a broken foot that stopped her martial arts practice, 31-year-old Courtin saw a poster advertising a talk by two Tibetan Buddhists — Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche — and decided to go with you. “Then I found my path,” she says. “I was always looking for a way to see the world, why is there suffering, what are its causes? And I think I had exhausted all options 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 mobster who was serving three life sentences in a maximum-security prison in California, she founded the Liberation Prison Project, a non-profit organization that offers Buddhist teachings and support to people in the prison.
Courtin ran the program for 14 years, helping thousands of inmates and still keeping in touch with her “prison friends.” She recently visited someone who has been on death row in Kentucky since 1983. “He lives in this dump of a prison, no sensory pleasure, the food is just awful, no freedom to do much, he’s seen as a monster, and he’s a happy guy,” she says. A practicing Buddhist, ‘he is fulfilled and content. He has worked on his mind, accepted responsibility for his actions, and although he would like to be released from prison, he accepts his reality. “I’m ready for that electric shock,” he told me.
I ask Courtin if she’s upset about this man’s condition. “No, not me. I’m trying to help him where he is. That’s it,” she says. “I remember being a radical political activist in London in the early 1970s when I was angry. That was when I was furious. Racism, sexism, injustice are just as bad, if not worse – the prison system in America is fucking outrageous – but I work differently now.
“The problem is that we confuse seeing something bad with being angry. We feel that if we give up anger, we are throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Courtin says she is “still an activist”, but staying angry is like stabbing ourselves with a knife – “it just paralyzes you”. Instead, she practices what she boldly calls compassion. “There is a saying in Buddhism, a bird needs two wings, wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is the inner, composing yourself. Compassion is when you put your money where your mouth is and help the world.”
Living in this world without going crazy
Since the late 2000s, Courtin has lived out of a suitcase, teaching in Buddhist centers around the world, and only came to a halt in Sante Fe in March 2020 when the pandemic hit. She started teaching via Zoom – “I love Zoom” – and a friend set up and managed her social media. Her TikTok account, which has 85,600 followers, has short videos, sometimes responding to current events, with titles like “How to Live in This World Without Going Crazy”.
“There is a way to use the world to develop your practice,” she says. Take, for example, former US President Donald Trump. “I looked at Mr Trump and instead of ranting and ranting about how bad he is, I would say, ‘Well, those are lies, I recognize that. That’s anger, I recognize that. That’s vanity, recognize that I. That’s arrogance, I recognize that.” There isn’t one fucking delusion Mr. Trump has that I don’t have very well. The Buddhist view is that we all have these states of mind; we’re all in this together. So then say me: ‘Thank you for showing me how not to do it.’”
Courtin recently shared on social media that her sister, Jan, had passed away after an accident at home. She says the huge response to her post “touched me deeply because the people were so nice”. She boarded a flight from the US as soon as she heard about the accident. Next to her siblings in a Melbourne hospital room when Jan’s life support was withdrawn, Courtin whispered the Buddhist mantras that accompany death, while the rest of the family noisily sang Sydney Swans’ team song.
When Courtin is done with this current Australian teaching trip, she will move 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 go to a jazz club at night,” she says, before adding, “I’m just kidding, I probably won’t go to the jazz club.
“I’m going to try not to waste my life. Try to stay useful. Be useful before I drop dead.”