Lesbian Socity The Fastest Nun In The West
Robina Courtin

From radical lesbian separatist politics to becoming a Buddhist nun and teaching in Dharamsala. Robina Courtin wouldn’t have it any other way.

I heard that you wanted to be a catholic nun when you were a little girl….what has been your journey from wanting to be a catholic nun to Buddhist nun?

Well it went from hippy communist, black politics, feminist politics, lesbian feminist politics, lesbian separatist feminist politics to Buddhist like an evolution. The thing that brings it all together, I was always looking for a world view. A way of understanding the world, which is how I got into politics. I always wanted happiness and I put these two together and I suppose I was looking for a way to explain the world.

I went to London in the late 60s and that was the time of the revolution and how I got into black politics and I became very involved with the black panthers on the side.  I heard about fem – in-ism

(Robina purposefully trips over the word), I didn’t even know the word! I couldn’t even say it! Ok I thought I am  a woman  I’m a female that makes sense , I  am not working class, I’m not black  so that moved me very strongly into feminist politics. And then I went very seriously involved in that, and then slowly I wanted something spiritual again

I tried  women’s religion,   in the mid 70s in Australia and being radical  over all the different feminist politics I went through feminist, radical feminist,  lesbian feminist politics and lesbian  feminist separatist politics ,  then I moved into women’s religion  and it just didn’t make sense  to me so I kept moving forward and bumped into some Buddhist monks in  the mid 70s and this is where I have been ever  since.   What Buddhism gave me was incredible methods, methods to know my mind to know myself. Not some great external theory.

In your own experience what is the most common cliché about Buddhism?

Well people meet me and think well how can that be a Buddhist?! Because I am the speediest person around, I can be totally actioned orientated. People have this clichéd idea about walking slowly and being mindful and looking miserable. If you just give a cursory read through the Buddhist teachings it can easily be interpreted or misinterpreted that way.

The way I understand Buddhism what appeals to me, is it gives you a big picture, a world view.  The way the universe is.  This is where the business of karma comes in. The key thing is the incredible understanding of your mind Buddha’s expert view of the mind.  There is an extremely powerful understanding of how the human mind works and how to work with it and how to transform it.

One of the biggest clichés is being mindful – to be a Buddhist is to be mindful.  This is not true as my teacher once said – “thieves need mindfulness. Being your own therapist that is what it is about. Why do you want to see your mind? Not just to be holy but you can change the way you interpret things Buddha is like a cognitive therapist really.

Buddhism is about reconfiguring the way you think, which reconfigures the way you feel, which reconfigures the way you act and interact with people.  The goal is it to help you become wiser, and more fun and more enjoyable and happier, less neurotic, happier and more loving. Not just calm and mindful that would be boring.

Can you tell me a bit about the Liberation Prison Project?

Well I am not doing it anymore. I gave that up three years ago.  I am still involved with it today but not in the same sense as when I first started it up.

I was based in California since 1994    I was editing a Buddhist magazine – that was past profession, as an editor, writer. I got  letter  from a young Mexican guy in  a Californian prison and he was very moved  by the talk of compassion from Buddhism so I sent  him a book and within a year  I had 40 people writing to me . The project grew from there. The need was so immense we could tell.

So I stopped editing the magazine in 2001 and started up the not for profit group to help the prisoners. It started up in Australia too.

The central program we had was to receive letters from prisoners.  In the states there is an immense amount of people in prison, ten times the amount in prisons per head of population that anywhere else, ten times more people in prison per head of population than anywhere else.

They say that the States has got 5% of the world population but it has 25% of the prison population in the world, ¼ of all human on this earth who are in prison are in the US . The need was so intense, ex gangsters and mainly working class, in these unbearable sentences in this monstrous places and the need was so enormous.

So we began answering letters and we had to focus on that because the country is so huge you can’t visit all the prisons so we had to focus on that.  I stopped in 2009 and handed it over to one of my colleagues in Australia, we had a team of 9 full time salary staff and a budget of 40 000 dollars per month. We received up to 1000 letters per month from prisoners and had a team of mentors around the world in 20 counties who would write to the prisoners.  That was the most intense thing because you would get these one on one relationships. Most of these people have no body they have nothing, it is probably the only contact they are getting with the outside world, they have their inmates and the wardens and that’s it; many of them had no one else, no other contact.

It was very powerful and still is.  I was asked to be the resident teacher in India so I gave it up I still have contact with the program and send blogs and write postcards.

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Do you think the prisoners who write to you are drawn to Buddhism because all their autonomy and choices are stripped  away from them in prison and their mind is something they still have control over , that they can change?

I think that is the point and what is people who really get involved in it discover. The vast majority who have written to us aren’t the educated ones, they may even have no education at all but they are hungry for something, give them a book and you will see that.  But you are right they have no choice about anything, no freedom, absolutely nothing in these long sentences.

It would be word of mouth how they hear about us. The prisoners who write to us are the ones who were searching for something, wanting something.

It is mostly men who write to us in these prisons, it’s interesting you go to any Buddhist centre around the world; you go to a spiritual centre, a church and its 90% female.   But I can’t find reasons why we didn’t hear much from women we got letters from women but what would happen, the men would tell their friends and it would be from word of mouth but I can’t think of any reason why not many women wrote to us, I can count on one hand the amount of women we had writing to us.

In the 14 – 15 years I was running it. We probably got letters from 25 000 inmates and not even 100 were female.

What drives you?

What drives me  –  I didn’t have the words in the beginning as a kid, I was in love with god with our lady  but I didn’t have the word for it.  I was wanting a way to understand the world.  The bigger picture, I’m an action person the thought of mediating or going to study philosophy initially, I thought what are you talking about?  I want to get on with things

Becoming monastic narrowed my options/choices down a bit – I didn’t want a relationship, I didn’t want babies, I took a vow of celibacy, but that was super, super clear, I was completely into having relationships but I had no interest in security I had no interest babies, no interest in having a house or roots anywhere, I never gave it up because I never wanted it in the first place.

What you are left with in a relationship is the companionship and the sharing, but I had no interest in that. I never wanted to live with anyone, it would be like putting me in prison, call it what you want

I  got into feminist politics ,I was  a pretty intense person you can see that , but I have to say all the torment and anguish and heartache, jealousy, fears that came along with that pleasure was a no brainer.  I would rather give up the suffering and have some freedom; I’m not trying to sound noble. I wanted truth – that probably sounds neurotic or noble, but I wanted truth and I wanted freedom.  That is my nature – to give it all up it didn’t matter.

What is the positive – if you have two half people holding up a relationship, then it’s a nightmare and if you think you are going to find yourself with someone else then forget it

That is what I like about Buddhism it is not a belief thing. Buddhism wasn’t a creator there is no concept of creation in Buddhism.  You have to take it as your hypothesis this and work with it.

It’s an ongoing every single day process. So far so good, if it works for you, the system works for you, you can’t expect more just keep moving, keep going.

Can you imagine doing anything else?

No, I can’t imagine doing anything else, thinking about the nature of the universe, once you start you can’t look back and finding methods to internalise and becoming a more useful and productive person I can’t imagine doing anything but that, but label me a Buddhist nun, or editor, I could do something different than that but in terms of my mind, I can’t imagine doing anything else with my mind.

Do you have a base somewhere you feel most happy?

Since I gave up the resident teaching job in Dharamsala I haven’t got a home, or a base. I have one small bag, one set of robes one set of underwear, my iPod with all my prayers on it, and my iPad, but nothing else.  No place now. I can’t describe it.  As to what i like I’m a city girl, give me a city, New York, London.

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 Why do you think so many people are drawn to Buddhism?

For scientific people, the people who find the studying approach in Buddhism, the logic and analysis of Buddhism they like that. The coherent way of not blindly believing. If you can follow the steps that Buddha said and follow the steps and find that the Buddha is wrong then you must reject him, it puts the onus on you.Buddha makes you accountable, this I found immensely appealing it is up to us; he is like a doctor giving you advice.

When bad things happen we think it is someone else’s fault, Buddhism makes you aware you how your mind and doings affect things- this is why is demands accountability but also for the good stuff as well not just the negative.

We tend to agonise over why bad things happen to me, why do bad things happen but we never ask why good things happen. Even the smallest good thing, it’s not punishment or reward. Buddha is a natural law, he didn’t create it he observed it.

Buddhists just take it on board you stop being a victim,  it is very empowering , you stop moaning , you stop complaining , you stop getting angry  cause you know  you have created it ,  like my teacher says  “it is like a lion you draw and then you grow afraid of it.”

You are forced to own it and then deal with it.  In other philosophies you are a victim it is rather intense, but I would rather be in control then someone else thank you very much!