Episode 59: The Venerable Robina Courtin, Tibetan Buddhist Nun, Talks Candidly about Happiness and It’s Causes and the Power of the Mind
In this rare and riveting interview with Tibetan Buddhist Nun, The Venerable Robina Courtin, we hear straight talk on the powerful tenets of Buddhism that render us completely responsible for the quality of ours lives. A lively and passionate speaker on the importance of being the innately loving and worthy beings we are, Robina candidly offers fresh perspectives on abortion, sexuality, and karma that all will benefit from hearing. To conclude, the Venerable Robina tells us about her powerful work with incarcerated men (and lack of interest among incarcerated women!) as well as the upcoming “not to miss” event “Happiness and It’s Causes” happening in San Francisco in November 2008. I will see you there! Namaste.
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Alissa Kriteman: (over the phone) Welcome to “Just For Women”: dating, relationships and sex. I’m your host Alissa Kriteman. This show is dedicated to providing today’s modern women with useful information from industry experts, in the areas of dating and relationships, sex and health, wealth and abundance.
My goal is to have the information offered on this show support women in making empowered conscious choices. Today on the show, I’m very excited to speak with a venerable Robina Courtin, who is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, an executive director of the Liberation Prison Project. She’s going to talk to us about happiness, how to find it, how to keep it.
On the show today, we’ll hear about Robina’s journey to becoming a Tibetan Buddhist nun, and what inspired her to make such a choice. We’ll learn about three attitudes that will change your life; and then we’ll talk about the Prison Liberation Project, as well as a live event happening in San Francisco called “Happiness And Its Causes.”
Robina: . . I’ve got, Alissa, a young Mexican-American prisoner in one of the top-security prisons in California called Pelican Bay, just on the border with Oregon. And it was a very moving letter, he told me he was eighteen, he had been in prisons since he was twelve which is very common among some of these gangsters. And he showed interest; he’d read a book of Laming Gyeshi , interestingly called “Introduction To Tantra”, it was in his library in his prison. And he said he was moved by the talk of compassion. . (excerpt ends)
Robina: . . Well, as you know, over the years Buddhism sort of travelled to different countries, it began in India you know, the Buddha is an Indian. And the fourth fifth century I think, from people coming from Asia, it gradually went to China, and then to Japan, then eventually, about the seventh eighth century to Tibet. And inevitably because people in cultures are different, Buddhism just like Christianity, took on its own shapes and forms. . (excerpt ends)
Alissa Kriteman: In light of what’s going on today in our economy, and the world in general, I think we could all use a little refresher course on how to find happiness and how to keep it. So Robina, thank you so much for being on Just For Women today.
Robina Courtin: Oh I’m delighted to be here Alissa! Thank you so much for having me.
Alissa: So, let me say a few words about Robina. She has been a Tibetan Buddhist Nun for over thirty years in the Galugpa tradition, and we’ll talk more about what that is. She spent ten years editing for Wisdom Publications, followed by five years as the main editor of Mandala, an international Buddhist newsmagazine.
She currently directs the Liberation Prison Project, which serves several hundred prisoners nationwide. She travels around the world teaching Buddhism to students of all ages and levels; and her prison work was recently profiled in an award-winning documentary called “Chasing Buddha”.
So Robina, you’ve been quite a busy bee, and I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to talk very candidly about some issues and questions that I know my listeners have. But you know not every day we get the opportunity to talk to a Tibetan Buddhist nun, so thank you for being on the show.
I read that you grew up Catholic, and now you have done such amazing work as a Tibetan Buddhist nun. How did you make that leap?
Robina: Well you know like all that things it’s an evolutionary thing, it’s not sort of like big lights flashing and changes occurring. It sort of happens in an organic way you know. Yes I was brought up Catholic and since a little girl, I had two sort of main things: a strong connection with the religious thing; I loved going to mass. But at the same time I had this very inquiring mind; always looking for the big picture and always thinking, and also quite a rebellious person. The evolution was in a quick sense, me on the one side loving to go to mass but by the time I was nineteen and going through all my things, I decided very clearly, ‘Thank you very much. Goodbye God and hello sex drugs and jazz!’; actually I was a real jazz fan. And that sort of six seven eight years maybe of political activity – very strongly, me kind of looking for answers but also looking for happiness too – and that evolved to maybe I was thirty, and going through a whole series of things; to come back to something spiritual. And this time glommed on to these Tibetan Buddhists, and I think I found my home there.
So it’s an evolutionary internal process I suppose is the simplest way to put it.
Alissa: Right. So tell us a little bit about the Galugpa tradition, that is what the Dalai Lama – and what most people know of in the West about Buddhism. So how does that differ from other Buddhist traditions?
Robina: Well as you know, over the years, Buddhism sort of travelled to different countries, it began in India you know, and the Buddha is an Indian. And the fourth fifth century I think, from people coming from Asia, it gradually went to China, and then to Japan then eventually in about the seventh eighth century to Tibet. And inevitably because people in different cultures are different, Buddhism just like Christianity, took on its own shapes and forms. And so Tibetan Buddhists and all the Buddhists – like all the Christians for example – have the basis the same. But it just developed very differently in these cultural packagings.
And so it happens for me the Tibetan Buddhist one – the broader one is quite appealing. But then because I like very much the philosophical approach. It’s not just the way we think about religious prayers and mantras and things – they have these great monastic universities; and there’s a strong emphasis on really delving in to Buddhist teachings about the universe, and these things.
And so, the Galugpa – one of the four main traditions in Tibetan Buddhism that has developed over the last twelve hundred years – it’s kind of well-known for its emphasis on practice as well as philosophical, and that’s probably its unique thing. Although of course, finally they all come down to the same things.
Alissa: Which is . . ?
Robina: The fundamentals of Buddhism are really - it’s about your mind. It sounds kind of cute to say it, but you could say when it really comes down to it, Buddha is this amazing psychologist. He doesn’t use the words ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, he uses the words ‘mind’ and ‘consciousness’. And the essence of Buddha’s teachings is that this consciousness of ours is not physical, it’s got a continuity it doesn’t just come from nowhere, it’s not created by a superior being, it’s not created by our parents. And this is where the whole Buddha’s view of re-incarnation comes from; that our consciousness is this river of mental moments: it goes back and back and forward. And the unique thing of the Buddha is because he’s saying we’re not created, is that our mind is literally our own. And what’s in it - the contents of it – this is the fundamental law that Buddha would say runs the universe. And he calls it The Law Of Karma. It just means the law of cause and effect; and what we do say and think, kind of leaves imprints in this conscience of ours; and it’s sort of like literally producing our selves and our experiences from moment to moment. This is the heart really of the Buddha’s idea. This non-physical mind, the continuity, and the law of cause and effect; they’re the foundations of Buddha’s view of the universe – and of happiness and suffering. And that’s the essence of all of Buddha’s one share..
Alissa: So, even though we are born from physical parents and are raised in certain physical environments, with certain teachers and influences from our parents, we’re not necessarily that. .
Robina: That’s exactly a very nice way to put it Alissa. It’s interesting, with two main views in the world, you think about it, you’re either a theistic religious person and you believe in a creator so your essence comes from God; or you’re a materialist, so your essence comes from your parents. But the Buddha’s got this sort of third view if you like, that we’ve got the body we’ve got the parents, and the genes DNA and chemicals all play a huge role. But the emphasis of Buddha is saying is that this consciousness didn’t come from the parents but came from before, and literally went to that parent’s egg and sperm. The consciousness, the mind, depends on a decent-working brain and a nervous system; but the anger the love the kindness the jealousy the depression the goodness, all the parts, that’s our own mind. That’s the unique point the Buddha’s making.
And of course the implications of this are great – it says that I’m responsible; not in a negative sense but in a very empowering sense, which is what I simply love about the Buddha’s philosophical approach to life.
Alissa: Exactly! That’s why I wanted to talk to you today!
Robina: (exasperatedly) Yes! Yes, right!
Alissa: So, you mentioned that you’re in a monastic tradition, and so I really appreciate your letting me talk to you about sex and sexuality, and I want to ask you a question about that now. We are sexual beings part of being human is our sexuality. So how do you deal with that from the Monastic tradition?
Robina: Well this again comes down to Buddha’s explanation of mind and the tendencies we have. We can see we have one way of talking Buddhist psychology, he’s got a very simple model of the mind; and this is linked very closely to the body and the way the body works. In the esoteric teachings of the Buddha, which is known as the Buddhist Tatrayana or Vadrayana. It’s this marvelous little way of describing that we have this gross body, and this gross consciousness – subtle body and subtle consciousness. And we have very subtle body and very subtle consciousness. And this is actually the model they use in the Tibetan medical system and it’s a very sophisticated way of understanding our subtle energies as well as the gross.
And so we can see at the physical level we have a body there’s no question; we have the senses and the senses are very powerful for us there’s no doubt about it. But as one Tibetan Lama put it, ‘We make the mistake of making the body the boss,’ because the mind is the boss in Buddhist terms. So what I mean by this is this: ‘So then within the mind you have so-called positive states of mind, negative ones and neutral ones. And one of the negative states of mind – and this needs a lot of clarity because we often mis-hear it - is this one that we call a Simple Attachment. And what Buddha means by that isn’t simply pleasure or love, that’s great! But this sort of over-neurotic craving neediness for something out there that we think if we don’t get it we’re going to be miserable. So we do all this hankering craving and neediness and so we dump that of course on food, on bodies, on you-know-what – who knows what.
So, the negative aspect is there, the neediness, and that causes the suffering. But inevitably because we’ve got this body, it comes along with what we call pleasure and pain which we experience through our bodies. And so the sort-of sexual one is a combination of the body, the nervous system, and then triggered by a body, say, that’s out there, or even just food or a pleasant smell. It triggers a physical experience. And then because we have attachment, we grasp at it like vampires, we know what we like you know. So the actual simple physical experience of pleasure is just a function of the body but combined with the mind. And the Buddhist one helps you get clear to extract the neurotic grasping part of it, so that you can actually end up with as one lama put it, ‘The more pleasure the better.’ So pleasure is not attachment, being happy is fantastic, pleasure is fantastic; the body – nothing wrong with it – but the mistake that we have and that causes all the suffering, is grasping at it, the neediness for it, the neurotic manipulation of the situation that underlies to get this pleasure. That’s a long answer. That’s the broad view.
So, the Buddha’s view is learned as one lama put it, ‘To be your own therapist,’ to really go deeply in to your own mind, to deconstruct what’s there, to see all the neuroses, to see the emotions, and to separate the positive parts – the love the kindness the happiness the joy – from the neurotic the misery the depression the neediness. And when you can get clear about all of this, then you can have all the pleasure without your mind going berserk, as one lama put it.
So far so good! Now go on Alissa, we’ve talked about the monastic one.
Alissa: Yeah – no – that’s where I was going. Go ahead!
Robina: Given the Buddha’s deal that neediness and expectations is the cause of all our pain, then the Buddhist approach is one option if you like to take a retreat from, if you like, from the very strong physical way of experiencing happiness as we know through contact with other bodies; and I’ve made that very clear decision because I really want to see my mind, I want to step back from it all. What I am getting at is this: it is a x x but Buddha says when you know your mind well, you’re not driven by those drives, you can drive your mind, you know where you’re heading with it; it’s not something you’re stuck with.
And I can see somebody with a very conscious choice. I was completely in to sex and pleasure, and I ‘m totally in to pleasure, it’s not as if I’m being fundamentalist about it. But I knew that what drove me in my life more than anything was a wish to understand, a wish to be clear, a wish to go beyond all the neuroses, a wish to be in the best kind of control of my body speech and mind. So for me it was a very conscious choice: to become a nun, to give up ‘sex drugs and rock n roll’ if you like; but to give me the space, it’s almost like a retreat from things. To really give me the space to see things well, to really deconstruct all the nonsense, and then to learn through that process – and this is finally the point – to really find my own bliss my own joy which I would say finally is internal.
And of course when you’ve conquered all the nonsense, you can have the best of both worlds; you can have your cake and eat it too, but maybe I have to wait for the next life for that one.
Alissa: I’ve heard that the Tantrics utilize sexuality as a vehicle for enlightenment. So what you’re saying in the monastic tradition it’s a retreat from saying mastering the separation between your mind and your body; and then is Tantra sort of after you’ve come to that place?
Robina: No. There are many ways of understanding Tantra and the teachings, especially the way they are expressed in the Tibetan lineage of teachings where it’s really - it’s the one area in the world where -it’s one kind of tradition where it’s a living amazing tradition. It’s incredibly sophisticated system. It sort of trickles down to our Western world in a fairly simplistic way, inevitably. But the essence of the Tantric approach – which is all part of the big Buddhist approach. It’s like at the very first level of practice, when you’re out of control, you’ve got to back away from the object, see. Then the second level is you’ve got to see your mind more clearly. The third level is you’re so together, you’re so advanced – I’m talking serious advanced practitioners. You can then kind of engage in an object without the mind going berserk. So, if you’re a Tibetan Buddhist, you do practice what’s coming from Tantra, but it’s internal; not as you engage with a physical object, you don’t need to. Because it’s an internal thing finally, and when you’ve really conquered your mind, when you’re in x, and that’s highly advanced of course, you’re not at all a prisoner of all the nonsense; you can have complete total understanding of the universe, and your own mind and everything else.
So the Tantric approach is a very advanced approach. It’s not a question of having better sex - which is a gross way of understanding it – it’s a very sophisticated psychological approach to understanding and manipulating your own subtler physical and psychological energies. And I’m talking at quite a sophisticated level – that’s the essence of it really. And all of it, because it’s Buddha’s teachings, is a way to transform yourself to become this marvelous being that the Buddha would say, we’ve all got the innate potential to become.
Alissa: And the reason I ask and want to spend a few minutes with this is because sexuality is in our culture so out of control, and it is such a source of suffering for people and – yeah I think pleasure at a gross level as you were saying – but there’s so much more. What happens to us when we become sexual , get married; I’m constantly looking at the divorce rate, and what’s going on between men and women, and there’s such confusion. So it’s so interesting to get the perspective from someone like you who’s celibate, right?
Robina: Yes, that’s right. Exactly.
Alissa: And then understand what that’s about, and that there are levels of understanding of body and sexual energy and what to do when it comes up because we are sexual beings. And so you’re saying that there are very specific practices that you do that help you separate something innate that’s inside your body.
Robina: Yes. And the crux of this – the crux of our ability to really be in control of our lives and our body speech and mind in the Buddhist view – is come down to this whole business of really knowing your mind well. Because when we think of attachment, say, to anything – forget the body, think of a chocolate cake – the real point is this: The Buddha is seeing several things happen simultaneously. So, for example when your eyes see the shape and color, it triggers your mental consciousness, and your memory goes – you sort of pull up your mental computer – and you go, ‘Yeah, that’s called a chocolate cake.’ And then you remember having had it before; you remember enjoying it before, this is all happening In a split second, right because we’re trained in it, we’re sort of brain-washed in to knowing about chocolate cakes. But the crucial thing is this: there’s a series of positive effects of mind going on – it’s good to say it’s a chocolate cake, it’s good to say you’ve enjoyed it, and it’s fine to enjoy it again. But this attachment, this neurotic one, which runs the show right now comes in and runs the whole show. And what that does is that part of your mind causes the cake to look really more delicious than it is, it causes all the hankering, it causes all the over-excitement. And then it’s got this little story – so quick we can’t hear it – that it believes totally when we get that cake then I’ll get happy. And that’s all the attachment part. Attachment is neediness, attachment is expectation, attachment is manipulation, attachment is expecting . And all that is running real deep in our minds and we don’t even notice it – so we shove the cake in, and we’re kind of waiting for the happiness to come; we don’t get it so we shove another piece, we don’t get it we shove another piece. And before we know it, we’re too stuffed, and we can’t put another piece in, and all we end up with is misery.
So the thing that causes the suffering isn’t the cake, isn’t the pleasure - the more pleasure the better, please enjoy cake – but the attachment is the needy part. So of course when we dump that on to a human being , it’s far more intense, it’s far more powerful, and therefore brings far more suffering, because cake doesn’t mind if you stuff it in, but human beings are different you know. So it’s not sex that causes problems you know, it’s not happiness that causes problems, it’s not love it’s not kindness. It’s this neurotic neediness which is so pervasive inside of us; we hardly even give it a name in the West. That’s what causes all the pain, that’s what causes the suffering in sexual relationships, not the sex itself. It’s a subtle point but I think psychological models in the West, we don’t really see it as clearly as this, this is my opinion, my own study and my own practice over the years I would suggest that.
Alissa: Absolutely! And after the break, we’re going to talk about attitudes that can change your life, and I think you’re starting to point to them now- it’s not about the sex it’s about the clinging and the neuroses that we put on to it – versus being empowered ourselves to know that it’s not the person or the cake that’s going to make us happy, we are.
Robina: That’s exactly right. That’s the essence of it.
Alissa: Let me ask you a quick question before we go to the break, and I want to ask you about abortion. And if your tradition is celibacy, how do you deal with abortion from a Tibetan Buddhist perspective? And how do women like yourself, who may be were out there but found Buddhism, but maybe there was some sort of experience like that, how do women heal from that? And what does the Tibetan Buddhist perspective say about abortion?
Robina: First, fear. It’s not just the Tibetan Buddhist it’s the fundamental Buddhist view that brings up one point that’s important to say here. Because when we think of religion, we tend to believe in something. But I want to say this in relation to any thing I’m saying here: it’s sort of like Buddha saying, ‘Listen people don’t believe a single word I’m telling you.’ Everything called Buddhist is coming from the direct experience of this person called Buddha; it’s something he says if we want to we can think about it and verify it for ourselves. There is no concept in Buddhism of simply believing something. That’s the first way is to remember like that. The second way the Buddhist view is fundamental – there are countless living beings in the universe; the term they use in Buddhism is ‘sentient being.’ And in Tibetan the word is ‘mind possessor’, that’s what it literally means, sem chen. The Buddha says there are limitless sentient beings – there’s humans there are countless other kinds we can’t see; there’re animals, they’re all mind-possessors. And the fundamental point in Buddhism is: We all want to be happy. Every living being – you watch the air, you watch the giraffe, you watch the dog, the human. Even behavior. We go toward what we think will give us happiness, we move away from what we think will cause us suffering.
So that’s a fundamental starting point. Countless minds, they all want happiness. So then the essential thing in Buddhism is, if you want to have one thing to use in your life - Buddha says, ‘Do no harm to any living being.’ It’s fundamental not because he says so – not in the religious guilty sense, because God said so – he says it’s practical. He says you shouldn’t harm others because, guess what? They don’t like it. So there’s that fundamental starting point. Then there’s the one of course Buddha would suggest that a living being is a mind. And so from the first second of conception - in an ant’s egg, or in a giraffe’s egg and sperm, or a human – what causes the sperm and egg to come together in Buddha’s view, is the entry in to it of consciousness from before. There’s no God puts his soul in there – which is a Christian one. Or the materialist one it’s merely a sperm and egg in there. But the literal cause of why the egg and sperm stay together and begin to develop in to a fetus, that indicates, in the Buddhist view, the presence of consciousness, the presence of a living being, for whom a few weeks ago was in another body. So the Buddhist view would be that it’s asserting – from the first second of conception – you simply have a living being there. Indeed it’s a very tiny one, but it’s still a real consciousness, you know. An unbroken continuity of mental moments, that from another body due to very strong karmic connection, went in to that body.
So, okay, when I was twenty-three, and I was a radical hippy, and I was moving in to my political days, I got pregnant. And it was very fascinating by the way, that – I remember the person I got pregnant with – I remember the day I remember the moment. Because I had this strong sense and I tell you I never thought of those things then. And I knew something had gone inside me – a consciousness, a being. I couldn’t even find words for it, it was a very vivid experience. I knew I got pregnant in other words, and of course the doctors verified it, and it was in the sixties, so I very happily had an abortion, I didn’t want to know about a baby.
So, the Buddhist view, something – a consciousness entered me at that second. And that was the moment, the beginning of a being is.
So given a mind, given that it doesn’t want to suffer, then the Buddhist view quite simply was, ‘Of course she doesn’t want to kill it.’ Abortion is simply killing a sentient being. So there’s no kind of guilt involved – it’s just kind of thinking about these points. And then we come to our own conclusions from this. So, of course life’s not simple. There are many many factors that determine our choices; but this is a basis for a person attempting to live in this way, would use to make their decision. So that’s a long answer, but that’s the basis of the way a Buddhist would think. Do you get my point?
Alissa: I – I so appreciate you sharing that with us, because – wow! what an amazing opportunity for us to learn and heal because I know abortion is such a huge issue all across the world. But to get a perspective from you with – I mean I had no idea you had a personal experience with that ..
Robina: Yes, absolutely..
Alissa: ..And to get the perspective of consciousness starts immediately and that’s what keeps it there and there’s no guilt.
Robina: It’s so important. Guilt in Buddhist terms is sort of like not taking responsibility. It’s a question of okay I look back on my own life – I thought, ‘Okay. I had an abortion. My motive at the time – I could say it was self-handed – but it was more ignorant; I never thought of it as a living being. And what was so interesting when I went to the hospital, and I got on the National Health in England – I was living there at the time – the nurses were so kind to me. But I remember I got deeply depressed; I couldn’t put together why, but I can see back now. Because we have a strong sense that something there is alive. So I made that choice then.
So, the Buddhist approach, we call it purification. There’s no action, there’s no negative action, there’s no karma that can’t be purified; there’s no concept in Buddhism of blame, there’s no concept of punishment, because we are the creators of our own experiences, and so we can change who we are. So I can assume there was a being there; so I had this deepest regret from my sake, because every action you do brings results to yourself, but also for the sake of having another being. I found I’m able to do it again. So there’s nothing that can’t be healed in the Buddhist view, but you have to do the healing: based upon techniques, based upon your reliance of the Buddhist practices, whatever you like, you know. There’s no concept of guilt and blame in Buddhism, nothing like that.
Alissa: Robina, you’re amazing! We’re going to take a short break to support our sponsors. This is Alissa Kriteman, your host of Just For Women: dating relationships and sex. I’m speaking with the venerable Robina Courtin: Tibetan Buddhist nun, and executive director of the Liberation Prison Project. And we’ll be right back.
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Robina Courtin: Hello. I’m Robina Courtin in San Francisco. We’re organizing an amazing conference here on November the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth. It’s called “Happiness And Its Causes.” At happiness-sf-dot-com. We’ve got forty of the best minds sharing breakthrough ideas about the very meaning of happiness and how to achieve it. Speakers include Paul Eckman, one of the hundred most eminent psychologists of the twentieth century; Cambridge philosopher Tuktin Jingpa, the Dalai Lama’s principle translator; Anne Harrington, Harvard University’s professor of the history of science; Melissa Mathiessen, award-winning screenwriter of Kundun and ET and Google’s jolly-good fellow Ming. Also we’re offering continuing education units to therapists, nurses and social workers in California. So please, join us in San Francisco, November twenty-four and twenty-five, and learn how to create more happiness in your life, your work and your relationships. Register now at happiness-sf-dot.com.
Alissa Kriteman: We’re back! I’m Alissa Kriteman, your host for Just For Women: dating relationships and sex. We’re having an amazing conversation with Robina Courtin, Tibetan Buddhist nun, who’s talking to us today about Tibetan Buddhism, what that’s like, the fundamental principles of Tibetan Buddhism, and how it can really have an enormous impact on our lives today, knowing that we are the creators of what goes on. Nothing, really nothing, is unforgivable or undoable.
So, Robina, let’s talk a little bit about these three attitudes that will change your life. I think that just knowing that we’re the creators, and that there’s really nothing you can’t undo is one step. Is that one of the steps? One of the attitudes you’re going to talk about?
Robina: Absolutely. This is very much a Buddhist idea that sort of we’re the creators of our own reality, our minds go back and back; every second of what we say do and think is a karma – which just means an action – really that brings a reaction in our own minds. And so more and more for a person who is a Buddhist you sort of take this on board experientially. The implications of this are that we are responsible for the happiness, we’re responsible for the suffering, and we can change and become what we want. And that’s the part that I’ve found over these years is that the more you practice, it gets deeper and deeper. It’s the most empowering idea, you know.
Alissa: Right. And so, are there other attitudes that you would offer?
Robina: Well, I’d say the fundamentals in Buddhism would be, based upon the mind being your own, not coming from your parents, not coming from a creator, and that brings this sense of empowerment. But the other one as I said, that increases that, is Karma; cause-and-effect: that everything you say think and do producing you, literally, from moment to moment. On the basis of that, actually, you get from compassion for yourself. There’s this lovely analogy in Buddhism that a bird needs two wings: wisdom and compassion. So you can really put all these practices in to both these wings. And the wisdom wing is this intensive work you do on yourself – understanding your own mind, crucially knowing that you don’t want suffering; but the major piece is realizing that what I say do and think is the cause of my suffering as well as the cause of my happiness, which then puts you in charge, then gives you courage; then on the basis of this, it’s like saying you get compassion for yourself; then on the basis of this, you can then start to look at others and realize that they’re the ones who cause their own suffering and happiness as well; on the basis of this, you have compassion for them. But a kind of mature compassion, not like compassion for victims or ‘the poor things they can’t help it.’ But a compassion based on wisdom. You know you can then help others find the message to help themselves. That’s the two-wing idea that I really like you know.
Alissa: Which is really inspiring and is a great segue in to your work with prisoners and the Liberation Prison Project. So, is that how you got in to working with prisoners, finding your own wisdom for yourself, and that your life is really your own responsibility, and then helping prisoners understand that?
Robina: Well, no. Like a lot of things, if you’re working on yourself you just go along, and you sort of learn to be really conscious of what comes up in front of you. And you try to take that opportunity when it comes. So I had no plan to work with people in prisons. What happened was in (nineteen) ninety-four I came to this country, because I’m part of a world-wide organization of Buddhist activities. And my first years were spent working with Wisdom publications as you said when we were based in England; but also teaching for the last twenty years at centers around the world. Then I was invited to come to California in ninety-four, and I then took on the job of editing the magazine of our organization, that was Mandala as you mentioned before. And then in ninety-six I got a letter from a young Mexican-American prisoner in one of the top security prisons in California called Pelican Bay, right on the border with Oregon. And it was a very moving letter, I remember he told me he was eighteen, he had been in prisons since he was twelve, which is very common among some of these gangsters. And he showed interest, he’d read a book of Laming Nyeshi’s, interestingly called ‘Introduction To Tantra.’ It was in his library in his prison. And he said he was moved by the talk of compassion. So I wrote back to him, I sent him some books, and then eventually he became a Buddhist, he took refuge I went to visit him. And then the whole Prison Project grew from there, within a year I had forty people writing to me, it was all by word-of-mouth. By now we had this non-profit, eight nine full-time staff, a hundred eighty volunteers around the world, we get a thousand letters a month just in the US office. I have a budget of forty, fifty-thousand a month which I have to raise of course to pay salaries. And really it’s built up in to this incredible project where we help people who write to us because as a Buddhist you don’t try to convert people, that’s considered very bad manners. You respond to demand, so we get these letters, then we have all the volunteers around the world who then write to the prisoners and give them support, we have a huge resources department of our books. We send out fifty packages a day to prisons, we offer books. So it just grows in this way. We’re also now in Australia for many years and we’re hoping to support projects in Colombia, Mexico, Spain, Mongolia so it’s growing like crazy.
Alissa: Wow! That is nice! What about women? Do you work with women in prison?
Robina: This is fascinating because you don’t just go out there and proselytize, it’s very inappropriate as I said, so you respond to demand. And it’s fascinating, you go to churches where seventy per cent are female. But for some reason, Alissa, and I do not really know why - I could speculate but there’s no benefit – it’s astonishing actually; in the fourteen years we’ve been going – twelve years sorry – I would say ninety nine per cent of all letters – and we get a thousand a month now – are from men. Don’t ask me why – there are thousands of women in prison. But it’s just fascinating, you know, what the reason is. And what people have suggested to me is – I don’t really know the reason I don’t want to speculate – that the suffering of women is very specific; and really it seems to be the vast majority of women in prison – I’ve heard this – the suffering comes down to loss of children, the loss of family. So maybe there’s a preoccupation with life at that level – I don’t know what it is, I could say things – but ninety-eight ninety-nine per cent of our letters come from men. We have women who write to us, of course we do. I’ve got two women here employed who’ve both been in prison that’s how we met them. So it’s kind of fascinating.
Alissa: Hah! Interesting. Of course, I’m like, ‘speculate! speculate!’ but
Robina: Of course! You’ve got all those old clichéd ideas, but the reality is, most of the letters we get are from men in prisons; and there are thousands of women in prison in this country. So, I don’t know why. Curious, isn’t it.
Alissa: Maybe it’ll shift. Maybe someone will hear this interview and people will start to wake up and want to heal.
Robina: Exactly. Because I will go wherever. I will do whatever – if we’re requested, we’ll go there. There’s no doubt about that.
Alissa: I really like what you said about responding to demand, versus proselytizing.
Robina: It really is a huge difference, I think. And the simple logical reason is, you know that no one can force you to think something. So to try and force someone to think a certain way in a religious sense is really inappropriate. When you’re really ready for it, you will go for it. You have to be ready for it, then you’re open to it. And we can see it in our own lives. Again and again.
Alissa: Right. Right. It doesn’t work when there’s this sort of charge to do it. Especially with family members!
Robina: Yeah, absolutely! Gosh yes.
Alissa: What do you mean when you say the ‘prisoners take refuge?’
Robina: Oh, it’s just this nice phrase they use in Buddhism for when you make a commitment yourself, but you want to have the Buddha’s views as your path in your life, you have a formal little ceremony. And we do it over the telephone with our prisoners, normally you do it in front of a person. And when they commit themselves to really living according to the Buddha’s teachings, to not harm others, then you take these vows never to kill never to lie never to steal etc. And it’s this formal little thing where you commit yourself to rely, if you like, on the Buddha’s teachings. It’s really a very nice little ceremony.
Alissa: Well, I can imagine that transforming – you know I think a big complaint of a lot of people is that prisoners go in with this – this young man you were talking about . . twelve years old!
Alissa: There’s no transformation in prison. He’s got no shot!
Robina: No that’s the world. And for us it’s incredibly empowering, and it’s not only Buddhism, people help people in prison in many ways. But we’re seeing the response In our letters it’s unbelievable. We put a newsletter out every two months, because that’s where the prisoners can get their community, because they can’t write to each other. The finding the message to transform themselves, it’s just extraordinary to see the results; people who have a connection to Buddhism, and who are able to use their tools at their own level. Some of our people are amazing practitioners; some just need a really good friend; want support; want encouragement; and at the most basic level. That’s what we give is enormous encouragement and support and say, ‘Listen, you can change. You don’t need to define yourself by your negative things. You aren’t innately evil. And that’s a very empowering thing to hear. When you’re a part of the lowest level of society, in a prison where you’ve only had garbage all your life. Which is so many of our people in prison. To actually hear someone say ‘you’re worthwhile, you‘ve got qualities that you can change,’ that is so empowering. And I can see that is the greatest gift we give. Hope and inspiration to know that you have human qualities. We’ve all got the potential to change, we just need to know it ourselves.
Alissa: Thank you! I’m so inspired by what you’re saying. Before we wrap up let’s talk about this event coming up in November in San Francisco, “Happiness And Its Causes: an exploration of human hapiness.” Who are the speakers, how did this come together, why are you excited about it?
Robina: Yes. Well over the years as I’ve mentioned to you, I’ve been doing this project for about twelve years, and I’ve been working at the Buddhist Centers; and seeing over the years, travelling around the world, people tend to have a really dualistic view: there’s pleasure and happiness over there, and there’s boring old religion on the other side, and we tend not to put them together. So then we think money is a dirty thing, and management is oh kind of worldly. So, often the Buddhist Centers I’ve seen are kind of poverty-mentality, not very successfully run. Because we had this sort of misconception of spiritual. So I’m seeing it’s ridiculous. There’s nothing innately bad about money or anything else. If you have a pure motivation, then everything’s fantastic. So over the years, too, having to raise all this money, I’m spending forty to fifty thousand a month, I don’t even know where I get it sometimes. But I’ve seen that I really need to come up with creative ways of making the money. And for many years now I’ve thought not just of keeping the begging mentality, I don’t want to go out there and beg people’s money from them. I’d rather be like an entrepreneur and come up with different ways. So we have a Buddhist book café here, we’re trying to do commercial things. I was in Sydney last year, and our center there invited us to come for this conference, called, in fact “Happiness And Its Causes.” It was started by my colleague in Sydney, Tony Steele, who in his own life has his own world wide company that runs conferences for businesses. And he started a couple to support his center. Three and a half thousand people came, and the Dalai Lama was one of the speakers. And from the point of view of money, he made probably a million dollars, profit, to run his center. And so I thought we should do this in San Francisco. What a wonderful title for a staff. And then you know you don’t charge for the Buddha’s teachings. People come and they give a donation. But the world accepts the conferencing, they pay five hundred bucks for a weekend, you go to workshops, you know.
Robina: But first of all, I thought what a great way to get people out there in a bigger way, not Buddhists only. It’s a great topic, there’s so much talking these days about happiness. So we’ve got about forty people; and as we plug it, we call it ‘Forty of the best minds in psychology, philosophy medicine, healing the arts sport.’ We’ve got people from all different walks of life, really qualified, marvelous people; all talking about happiness and how to accomplish it. What it is, how we define it; and it’s really this marvelous kind of energy that’s grown around this thing now. So we’ve booked a place in San Francisco. We hope to get a thousand people to fill the venue; we haven’t gotten all the registrations yet, but it’s creating so much of a buzz already. We’ve got ads on the backs of busses in San Francisco, putting them in the BART trains, we’ve put a hundred thousand brochures out, we’re doing all the best things we can to bring in those thousand people. And people are loving the idea you know. We’ve got the best speakers: Paul Eckman, one of the best psychologists of the twentieth century; really great people from Stanford from Berkeley from Harvard, you know a historian of science; we got a politician; we got a young woman whose done judo all her life, who was on the team in the Olympics, talking about the benefits of a physical discipline. An amazing woman called Gina Gibney from New York who’s a dancer; she’s got a woman’s company that goes in to shelters and work with abused women and children using movement. I’ve got an orchestra conductor talking about the benefits of song. Got wonderful things; we’ve got a concert where we’ve commissioned a piece by this amazing Guatemalan composer; he’s written an amazing little piece for us – an orchestral poem called ‘Buddhaphonias: the sounds of the Buddha’ this twelve minute piece. We’ve got a fundraising project for our Prisons Project and for the school across the road from us. So many things going on I’m just really having fun doing it, it’s really hard work, but it’s a way to get us out in to the world; to bring in people who wouldn’t normally come to a Buddhist thing, but you can hear about happiness, hear about the mind and inspire people, that’s the idea. And of course hopefully bring in some extra profit so we can run our Prison Project. That’s the thing behind it!
Alissa: And that makes all the difference I think too and I really appreciate what you said about money is not fundamentally an evil…
Robina: That’s right. Fundamentally when we get in to religion, we lose our common sense. We get all fundamentalist and guilty, and I find that that’s a really unhealthy attitude, Alissa. Really inappropriate.
Alissa: And even though Buddhism is a religion, it really is about liberating ourselves, our minds, and being fully empowered.
And if people want to learn more about Happiness And Its Causes, what’s the website?
Robina; Well it’s a long one: happiness and its causes-sf-dot-com. Or, simply happiness-sf-dot-com.
Alissa: Okay, great. And if people want to learn more about the work you’re doing in prisons, where can they go?
Robina: That’s liberation-prison-project-dot-org. But if they go to the happiness one they can see our logo, and they can link on it from there. So go to happiness-sf-dot-com and you can scroll down and see our logo; or it’s liberation-prison-project-dot-org. And I would love to hear from people. I love it. Come to our conference, you’ll have a great time.
Alissa: Yes! I will be there, and I’m very excited to meet you in person, and learn more about what’s going on on many different levels, about being happy; so listeners, come to San Francisco in November – what are the exact dates?
Robina: The main conference, the two-day is Monday and Tuesday the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth of November which people will realize is the Monday and Tuesday before Thanksgiving. But there’s lots of stuff happening in San Francisco at that time, so the dates are great. And then, we’ve got, on the Sunday and Monday and Wednesday there are workshops – wonderful workshops – a drumming workshop; somebody who works with drug addicts using drums. We’ve got Gina Gibney doing her movement stuff; we’re talking about people doing restorative justice because we’ve got people talking whose children were murdered, who have forgiven their murderers. So these wonderful workshops as well as the conference itself, but half of the conference is Monday and Tuesday November twenty-four and twenty-five. But a very lovely venue in downtown San Francisco.
Alissa: That is fantastic! Robina, thank you so much for being on Just For Women today, and talking so candidly and openly about what is possible for us, not only as women being empowered, but as human beings being empowered, and loving and empowering each other. It’s really been a gift to talk to you today.
Robina: I’m so happy Alissa for the wonderful conversation we’ve all had.
Alissa: Thank you. And listeners, a reminder, you can email me at alissa-at-personal-life-media-dot-com. We would love any of your comments, ideas you might have for future shows; happy to include that. For texts and transcripts of this show, and other shows on the Personal Life Media network, just visit our personal website at personallifemedia.com. For a copy of my book, “Alissa’s Four Cornerstones To Living Your Dreams”, just head over to my website, sacred-spa-dot-org, and click on the book icon cover. And also, if you want to leave me a phone message, here’s the number: (206)350-5333. I would love to hear any questions or comments you have as well.
So, thank you Robina again. Everyone, come out to the Happiness And Its Causes event, happening in San Francisco on November 24-25. If they’re anywhere as energetic as you are Robina, we’re going to have a really really good time!
Robina: Good. I think energy is the key to success! Isn’t it?
Alissa: Yeah. So thank you again, and listeners tune in again next week for more juicy news you can use. This is Alissa Kriteman, your host for Just For Women: dating relationships and sex.
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