Buddhist nun's social activism

by Peter Kirkwood, Eureka Street, June 16, 2011

Sydney, Australia -- The Australian Buddhist nun featured here on Eureka Street TV breaks the stereotype of Buddhists as being quiet, mellow and laid back. She is larger than life, a very colourful character, and it's easy to be distracted by the colour.

As described in a December 2000 article in The Age, Robina Courtin has 'been a black belt in karate, one of many daughters in a large Catholic family, a supporter of the Black Panthers, a radical lesbian separatist feminist and a lot else besides ... she speaks at a million miles an hour and can swear like a truck driver/politician. But all that is colour. The substance is that she is a Buddhist nun.'

Courtin is a woman of great substance. She has been editorial director of a prominent Buddhist publishing house, director of a project to bring Buddhist teachings to prisoners, and is now a highly respected teacher of Buddhism in western countries.

Courtin was born in Melbourne in 1944 and was raised a Catholic. She went to a Catholic girls' school, and, after realising she couldn't fulfill her wish to become a priest, shifted her desires towards a vocation as a Carmelite nun.

But alongside her deep and abiding interest in religion, she was drawn in many other directions. She loved music and had a good voice. As a teenager, at a school fete, by chance she bought a record by Billie Holiday whose singing awakened a passion for black American music, and an appreciation of the injustices and prejudice suffered by African Americans. This stirred the beginnings of a strong social conscience, and a drive to become a social activist.

As a young adult she went to London to study singing. While there she joined the feminist movement, and began work on behalf of prisoners' rights.

She spent time living back in Australia and the USA and, in 1974, began studying martial arts. Injuries from a freak accident in 1976 prevented her from practising karate, so she decided to attend a Buddhist retreat in Queensland conducted by leading Tibetan teachers, Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She was captivated by these monks and by Buddhism. This set the direction for the rest of her life.

The following year she went to Kathmandu in Nepal and studied at Kopan Monastery. There she was ordained as a Buddhist nun in the Tibetan Gelugpa tradition, in the lineage of Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa.

Since then Courtin has worked in various capacities for the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) which was founded by Lama Yeshe in 1975. Lama Zopa is spiritual director of the organisation. The FPMT has monasteries and nunneries in six countries, meditation centres in 40 countries, and runs health and nutrition clinics, hospices and programs in prisons around the globe.

According to its website, the FPMT provides 'integrated education through which people's minds and hearts can be transformed into their highest potential for the benefit of others, inspired by an attitude of universal responsibility'.

In the 1980s and '90s Courtin was editorial director of the FPMT's Wisdom Publications, and editor of its magazine, Mandala.

From 2000 to 2009, she was founding director of the FPMT's Liberation Prison Project in the USA which looked after the spiritual needs of hundreds of prisoners spread through some 150 institutions, sending them Buddhist literature and letters, visiting and giving teachings and advice.

In this role, she once asked Lama Zopa to write a card to a young Latino prisoner serving a life sentence. He wrote: 'Your prison is nothing in comparison with the prison of ordinary people: the prison of ego-grasping, the prison of attachment, the prison of anger, depression and pride.'

Courtin often repeats these words, and they have inspired her to take Buddhist teachings to broader society, to spread its message among ordinary people. This is now her main work.

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Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.