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Bringing the Dharma into the Modern World

Robina Courtin

Sunday April 30, 2023

Introduction: Venerable Robina has been ordained since the late 1970s. and has worked full time for Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, FPMT, which is the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana tradition. Over the years, she has been Editorial Director of Wisdom Publications, Editor of the Mandala magazine, long term Executive Director of the Liberation Prison Project, and  as a touring teacher of Buddhism. You can capture her life and work - particularly with prisoners - in the documentaries, ‘Chasing Buddha’ and ‘The Key to Freedom". 


Ven Robina: Thank you everybody and happy to be here, Yeah, it's very interesting, Buddhism in the modern world. I mean, one of the interesting things about Tibet was that, they were isolated, which meant that, when you know, these Tibetans they came out in 1959/1960 they talked  you could say in exactly the same way as they talked 1000 years before, because of the benefit of being isolated was this extraordinary kind of tradition coming from India, you know, carried in the minds of Padmasambhava and the other Yogi's and scholars from the great Nalanda tradition, as the Dalai Lama always likes to point out, we are the Nalanda tradition. So this incredible body of knowledge studied for hundreds of years, as we know, in this amazing place near Rajgir, near Vulture Peak, this incredible place of study and learning. I remember one time there, when we go on pilgrimages, we go to these ruins, and I think it started around the fifth/sixth century, flourished, then seventh, eighth, ninth, and then died out. And that of course coincided, not being sectarian with the influx of Islam, is what happened. And he said, when they burned the library, it took six months to burn, or he talked like that, the place apparently is astonishingly big. The dharma was flourishing, all aspects of Buddhism, totally centralized in this extraordinary place. So I think this body of knowledge is so remarkable. And I think it's good to remember where it came from. And these extraordinary so called Hindus, we don't know all the names of the different traditions there, but I remember the Dalai Lama often says it was more than 3000 years ago that these amazing Indians, well before the Buddha, they were the ones who began the investigation into the nature of self. So I think even we Buddhists, we Westerners who like Buddhism, I mean, I think it's even now we're only really seeing the incredible, incredible body of knowledge that have been existing these 1000s of years. So nourished in Nalanda, all aspects of all the Buddhist views and ideas, and then carried in the minds of these great Yogi's and the scholars and holy beings in the seventh century to Tibet, where it was kept intact, because they were so isolated.


I know when I first heard the teachings, it was in Chenrezig Institute, I think was 1976. In Australia, I think, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist centers. Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, it was like their second course I think, and my own background was interesting because I'd been brought up a Catholic in Melbourne, and then you know, about 19 or 20 and mid 60s decided to give up God and Hello boys. I mean, I've never had guilt I didn't, I thought it was a boring idea. So I just pursued my own views and became this kind of raging hippie and then went to London in the 60s and, and then kind of revolutionary and radical left politics and then black politics and then finally feminist politics. And so it's this kind of internal evolution for me looking for a way to see the world. And by the time I then a feminist radical, feminist radical lesbian feminist, and then by the mid-70s, really wanting a spiritual path again.


 Then I bumped into these lamas; went to this course at Chenrezig Institute, I'd been doing martial arts, which I thought was my path, and then some kind fellow ran over my foot stopping my karate career. Then I bumped into Lam Yeshe and Lama Zopa. Right.  I know it was a shock in many ways, especially politically, there I was female and suddenly this ancient Indian patriarchal way of presenting - quite shocking to me. But I knew there was something there that I had to pursue. What was so powerful was that in the first month of the course, Lama Zopa teaching, I heard the English words he was saying, (he'd kindly learned English), but I really didn't understand the concepts. Literally he was talking like, they would have talked in the seventh century, eighth century, 10th century. And I mean, we had to realize that it was so profoundly way, a different use of words, the concepts. the structures, everything was so utterly old, which doesn't mean it's not valid. The tendency is to want to chuck the baby out with the bathwater and make it modern, but we've got to be very cautious about that, I realized then that I had to listen carefully. I mean, if this is a valid body of knowledge, and this is valid stuff I'm listening to I can't just chuck it out and do what you like, it's so rude, it's arrogant, got to learn it first, internalize it.


Then it's our job, to present it in our culture in ways that are reasonable, not just mouth 14th century concepts, you know. So there's a danger, we can throw the baby out with the bathwater. That's arrogant. But it's I think, we are still at that point, it's only 50 years, 60 years of this transition, you know, it's got to be stable in the minds of new people.  For Western people it's got to come from experience, it can't just be words, you know, you can't just make up a new Buddhism, you've got to really treat it with respect. My feeling is often in the West we treat religion with no respect at all - because we believe religion is just something you believe, you make it up, you can think what you like - we don't trust religion, you know? I mean, that's certainly in the field of philosophical materialist view. If we look at the Buddhist view, the Buddhist world of knowledge : the Dalai Lama has been at the forefront of these amazing discussions with the best brains of the West.  


It's really now Westerners are a little bit humbled.   His Holiness said it was these Indians more than 3000 years ago who began the investigation into the nature of self. We probably thought it was Freud, 100 years ago, we smarty pants.  I think Westerners are learning this now, scientists especially, and the best thinkers in our world, are really learning about this extraordinary model of this way of seeing the world.


Of course, it’s all very nice to be intellectual and be theoretical and philosophical; it is amazing. But what's the essence of the Buddhist one, and that's what I think is important. When I first heard these teachings from Lama Zopa, I couldn't get the point, I couldn't find the essence. I couldn't hear what this is about. Slowly, slowly, I became dedicated, I took refuge, I went to Kathmandu a year later, became a nun. And here I am, 46 years later, or something. 45, whatever it is, and it's my path.  I'm sincere about it, try to be sincere try to understand it. I've done some intensive study, but not much. The essence of it, as I keep moving, keep moving with this path, and all the time trying to internalize it and be sincere, and try to find the essence of it.

The essence of it has to be the human mind; the essence is the mind. That's Buddha’s expertise.

He doesn't talk about as a separate mystical component in us, which comes from a creator or soul. Buddha talks about a mind. This is a really powerful point, you know, because as soon as we hear religion, we mystify it. Buddha is talking about the mind and that we don't mystify. But of course, his view of the mind is radically different. He doesn't say it's the brain, it does not come from your parents, it does not come from a creator, it's your own. He talks about a continuity of consciousness that goes from this life to a future one. Not just some hippy trippy idea. It's dealt with in great depth in the literature. It's a serious view, you know, this view of the mind. Like I said, it was these Indians. They're the ones who created, who investigated and created this technique that we all know is single pointed concentration, shamatha, calm-abiding. This incredibly sophisticated psychological skill  is what these Indians did.  Buddha took this technique with him when he diverged in his own direction.


It enables you to completely subdue the grosser level of our consciousness, our conceptuality and our sensory, and as we know, that's all we posit as existing in the modern world and neuroscience. So what Buddha's positing is pretty radical, it is about much subtler levels of mind, which in the long term, if we really want to achieve these things that Buddha would say everyone has the potential to achieve, that is to say, to remove utterly from our mind, all the misconceptions, or the voices of ego that cause so much suffering and causes harm to others  - anger, attachment, jealousy, low self-esteem, attachment, we know these words. The Buddhas view is these are not integral to us. These are not at the core of our being. This is his simple, profound finding, you know, this is the essence of being a Buddhist, through learning to identify, and then through these more subtle methods to drill down evermore deep and identify and unpack and unravel and eventually deconstruct and remove altogether from the mind these misconceptions that we've had for eons. Buddha says ‘literally misconceptions about the universe, about the self’, this is how he talks. If you put it in really modern words, it's a very exciting concept.


 It’s a very powerful idea;  he is saying not only can we remove all the misconceptions and the nonsense in the mind which are not at the core of our being, which are the source of our pain and suffering, the source of why we therefore harm others. Not only can we do that, but we have these other parts of our mind, that are at the core of our being that do define us that are who we really are. And they're called love and compassion and kindness and generosity and intelligence and forgiveness, nothing cosmic about it. This is the essence of being a Buddhist, whatever we do, if we say it's being a Buddhist, whatever we do prostrations, whether we wear these 14th century Tibetan robes, or I shave my head, or I do all these so called rituals all which should have meaning we're going to do them, all of the purpose have to be for this one job of lessening your neuroses and your ridiculous rubbish which has caused the cause of suffering and growing all your positive qualities, which are the cause of your happiness. This is the essence of it. So we can get that and once we get the essence of it, then all the rest we can understand where it's coming from, you know, otherwise it can be very confusing. What is Buddhism? What does it mean, you know, especially Tibetans, look at the Tibetan monasteries, you can't believe what's going on. What is all this about? What is the essence of all this? And I think that's why it's so important to really unpack it all and be very reasonable about it, not just make up our own trip and think, oh, yeah, this is Buddhism, and I don't want that like going around supermarket shopping.  We've got to sort of see the background of these extraordinary views, and there's extraordinary techniques to basically help sentient beings become less neurotic, less miserable, and more kind, happy and wise, I mean, how marvellous, that's the essence of it.


And I think, yeah, that's the essence of it for me. That's what I try to convey when I do the job I've got. Lama Zopa asked me to start teaching back in 1997. When I was in New Zealand he said, I should go and teach.  I've been doing that, trying my best. But of course, that means I have to keep studying and practicing myself, you know, otherwise, I'm a complete phony.


So that's really the essence of it, you know, and of course, this is the hardest job you'll ever do. Another way of putting it more directly, more precisely. this is coming straight from the Four Noble Truths, Buddha's first teaching.   He basically, you know,  thought the Four Noble Truths, ( or the four truths for the noble ones)  I don't think the truths are noble, just the way they call it. A noble one is a person who's achieved the realizations of this.


Well, the first one is, there is suffering. And there's three levels. The first point is the suffering of suffering. And that's the suffering we all know about. That's when the bad things happen, that we know we don't like. And that is the only suffering we understand. Then he’s got these more nuanced views, more subtle views of suffering, subtler levels, the suffering of change and all pervasive suffering.  So then the second one is, well, , there are causes of the suffering. And it's very straightforward. As far as Buddha is concerned, there are two main causes. This is where you can listen to him present his views about cause and effect, which, again, are extensive in the Buddhist philosophy. And cause and effect we all know about it, as Westerners it's called science. You know very well, if you have to grow a flower, you’ve got to be precise, what are the causes of a flower, you gather those causes together and you'll get a flower. And once you learn it you know it's going to be coherent, and it'll work every time. It's logic, that's called science. That's Buddha's approach, surprisingly to us. So the cause, he's talking about the cause of suffering now. So we identify your suffering, you've got a headache or something. It's called suffering, simple example. And he says, well, and, if you have a problem, and you want to find the solution, you first have to identify the problem very clearly, this is in ordinary life, then you have to identify the causes and that’s how we find the solution? Well, that's exactly what the Four Noble Truths are, but we can’t hear it. It's too intense, because what he's telling us is, well, guess what Robina, that's called suffering. So there are causes and you know Robina there are many causes, but the main causes are both inside you. That's the part we don't like hearing, this is too much for our minds, it's too shocking for us, we can’t hear it because with neurotic guilty self-hate, we just take it as a weapon to beat ourselves up because the first cause of suffering is called karma, which is his term in Sanskrit that really summarizes his law of cause and effect. And then the second one is called delusions, which is the neurotic parts of your mind. So then the first impulse is Oh, you mean, I'm the blame? So we definitely don't want to hear it, you know.


Why is it we find it so hard to hear this, and take it on board, and therefore apply the solution, the long term solution. Sure take a pill, nothing wrong, but the long term solution so that you won't get headaches, again, is if it's too hard for us to hear this because we don't hear it properly. I think we hear it through the lenses of our dualistic view of punishment and reward. And I'm not being critical, I was a very devoted Catholic, I'm very grateful for my Catholic upbringing. But the philosophical view there is really quite powerful. There is a being who is the creator of the universe who is all powerful, all knowing that's okay. Buddha says, we can also become all powerful, all knowing, he calls that a Buddha, but he doesn't give the job of a creator. That is a view that's fundamentally different in Buddhism, we should get clear if we want to say we're Buddhists, it's a quite a powerful point, it’s not just an incidental point, it's a philosophical point about the very way things exist. For Buddhists it’s a misconception. He posits this powerful capacity for developing wisdom and compassion, he calls that Buddha. But our Christian views, our Muslim views, most major religious views posit a creator, a superior being who runs the show, who creates, who punishes and who rewards.  I'm not being sarcastic. So then we have that view deeply in our being, and you don't blame your Catholic mother or your Jewish mother for that view, the Buddha would say this dualistic view that posits, that brings this view of guilt is misconception.   But we hear it like that, oh, you mean, I'm a bad person, we hear. But the view that we have got, he says, which is the samsaric view, basically we’re samsarists. It’s this view of the misconception of the, as far as we're concerned, the Samsaric view is the main cause of my suffering is the loud noise that caused my headache, the main cause of my happiness is the kind girlfriend who gave me a gift. So our view the samsaric view, as far as we're concerned, the main cause of suffering, and then indeed, of happiness is something out there, the main cause for Buddha is something in here. So to begin to hear this, even as a theory, it's pretty intensive, for then to unpack that theory and learn to apply it the view of karma, the view of the Buddha’s incredible view of the mind, how it works. This is what being a Buddhist is, is kind of making this paradigm shift in the mind, where we learn everything when it happens. Because for the Buddha, the first cause of everything is your past karma. His meaning was very sincere, not just some hippy trippy thing. It's deeply described in all the literature, it’s not a question of liking it or not liking it, we have to understand it, if we're going to reject it or take it on board, either way, we better understand it, not just be emotional, you know, it's a powerful concept. And the way for me, when I first heard the teachings about karma, I remember feeling that was what had been missing in my life, I found it was so powerful, because the way I heard it, the way I hear it now is it's an empowering idea.


You know, the materialists view is that your mommy and daddy decide to have sex and you come out. So in a sense they're the blame,  you should blame your parents. If you've got anger and depression, you should blame your parents. I'm not  being sarcastic. Because that's logical. If they created you, then of course they’ve got blame. Now, equally, if God created you, he has to be the blame. You can't talk like that. You know, that will be too shocking, isn't it? Although some people blame God, I heard the Italians tell me they have the rudest words for God when things go wrong, you know, and the rudest word for our lady, she's a whore. God is a pig. I mean, I was a Catholic and I nearly fainted when I heard all that. We'd never say a word against God. So it's logical if you've got a creator, they are the boss, you have to blame them, both for the happiness and the suffering. The Buddha’s view is there's no such thing as blame. You are responsible, everything you think, this is the essence of karma, every millisecond of what we think and do and say, just naturally, is the process that produces me. So in that sense, as the Dalai Lama sometimes says, karma is like self-creation. Now, who wouldn't like that idea? I love that idea. Because it means I'm in charge. I think it's empowering as I've really tried to take on board in my practice, the teachings about karma, which is huge, is really difficult. The impulse is to point the fingers out. You don't take it as a guilty thing. You use it to empower yourself. You use it to realize that you can turn yourself into the person that you want to become you are the boss, that’s the productive way to hear it.


 If we just repeat the medieval words and repeat the way the Tibetans talk because the Tibetans sound very fundamentalist, we'll never be able to understand - because our way of hearing things is so different. So I find the view of karma incredible, so empowering, so amazing that our consciousness goes back and back. Everything we can do inside programs us, and then it's up to us to do the programming, I am the one who's in charge of turning myself into exactly the person I want. I mean, you can't think of anything more empowering than that. That's the essence of karma. I love that idea. But it doesn't say it like that in the literature, you know, so we misunderstand it.  I know when I first heard the teachings  I really struggled to understand the concepts, but I knew there was something there. So I persevered. Over these years, because of my job as editing, working with words and having to speak the words and then trying to practice it myself, I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is, then all the time processing, processing, processing, finding new ways to say it, finding authentic ways to say it, not just make it up. 


Helen: The second noble truth explained this as craving. You were saying Karma.


CHECK!! Ven Robina: According to the Four Noble Truths the way I understood it and studied it, the two main causes of suffering, one is the past karma that programmed your mind that has set us up to have this experience but keep remembering it's also the same causes for happiness. Every time anything good happens, the same logic applies to happiness. So you know, you've done virtuous things that it programs your mind, you manifest, come into next life you and I meet, and you know, we are kind to each other. We give each other things. This is not just accidental. This is due to our past virtuous karma. We've been kind to each other, one is karma. The other one, which is the main one, and this is the point, now your word craving, and another word for that is attachment, or delusions in general, but specifically called the Four Noble Truths, essentially, you're absolutely right, that these two subsumed to the delusion, delusions in general, but the main one effectively is attachment, is craving. Yes, it comes down to that one. Absolutely. I agree.


Helen:  The way I've heard it, it's deeper than just sort of day to day craving, it's a craving for existence.


Ven Robina: Even to that degree.  The first level like everything is taught simply,  then as you progress, as we internalize it, our view of it gets evermore deep.    I remember Lama Yeshe saying, I can tell you about craving, attachment, desire, these words are synonymous, for one whole year.   you'll never begin to understand until you start internalizing it and developing a practice. that's reasonable, you can talk about a cake in theory for 27 years. But until you start making cakes, you won't fully understand it.  It's got to be internalized. Attachment, all the delusions, the key thing is all these neurotic states of mind, the voices of ego, if you're lik,… okay, go back a bit, if we study the Buddhist model of the mind, we're going to discover that he's very clear in presenting the three categories of states of mind.


 We have millions of states of mind, we have 1000 thoughts a second, but we can divide them into three categories, those that are neurotic, delusional, affliction, the word they use affliction, unhappy, and the source of our pain, and they're called attachment, anger, jealousy, low self-esteem, simple words, you know, and all other variations. Then you've got the positive qualities, compassion, love and kindness. I mean, we all know these words without being psychologists, but this is the stuff of Buddhist psychology. You've got this really clear analysis of the difference between these states of mind. So the key characteristic of all the neurotic ones, the deluded ones, the afflictions, as they call them in Buddhist literature, is that they're deeply disturbing  That's reasonable, check the last time you're anxious or jealous or depressed. You don't say, oh, wow, I was jealous yesterday. It was just great. You know it's painful. This is the key first thing The Buddha wants us to see, in order to give it up. But the deeper one is, once you start to really understand and study the Buddhist model of the mind, we're going to discover that these unhappy states of mind are rooted in misconceptions. They misrepresent things to us.  


So we've got strong attachment, at a simplest level, strong attachment, say, for a cake, simplest level, we know very well the cake that appears to us on that plate looks so divine, so delicious. But the person who hates chocolate cake, they're not going to see a delicious cake, they see something revolting. So it's  clear the cake that exists there is not the cake that I see.  We make up our own projections, we make up our own stories. This is the key thing in Buddhist psychology, the key function of all these neurotic states of mind, they extrapolate, and they exaggerate, they decorate, they cause us to not be in touch with reality. This is the long term view that Buddha has. So this attachment, it's multifaceted.


There's a book I edited of Lama Zopa’s, “How to Face Death Without Fear”, which is really helpful information. And as he says that the greatest, the main cause of fear at the time of death is this primordial attachment to ‘me’, grasping at ‘me’, , the most primordial instinct of grasping, arises so intensely, which is why death is so fearful for most of us. More than for sex and drugs and rock'n'roll and anything. So you're absolutely right. It's totally kind of primordial, there's instinctive attachment to me to I, and this means to this body as far as we're concerned. But if we look at it, if we unpack it in daily life, and then we're going see it's multifaceted, and one of the most primordial levels of attachment, and the Buddha would say, it's because of having practiced it in the past and bringing it with us. It brings the result of dissatisfaction, is its energetic level. And we all recognize that, this primordial feeling we're not enough, that we don't have enough, that I can't, whatever I've achieved, it's not enough. Whoever I am, it's not enough. However, I look, it's not enough. This is default assumption, and this is the energy of attachment, the result of practicing it from countless lifetime’s the buddha says, of just primordial painful dissatisfaction, and unfortunately, it manifests in our culture as self-loathing. I am not enough; we all recognize this. This is a consequence of practicing attachment, the habit of it. Then on the overt level, as a result of that, if I'm not enough, and don't have enough, the next level of attachment is evident, is hankering after something, and what's missing. So you're looking out there for something, this is the grossest level that we look for objects of the senses, the things to look at, smell, taste, touch, we are preoccupied with that, and attachment run craving is in the bones of our being running that, always looking for what we think it is that such when I get it, it'll bring satisfaction. That's what we mean by what are the causes of happiness, as far as the world is concerned, the causes of happiness, to stop that dissatisfaction is the things out there.


We spend our lives trying to manipulate the outside world to make it just so. But the Buddha is telling us that this subtle level of suffering that we only really get into when we start to learn to meditate, which is the suffering of this attachment, that it's not actually it's a misconception, following it won't bring happiness. He's not being fundamentalists. He's not saying we're not allowed to have happiness and have cakes. No, we've got the attachment, this craving is deep and inbuilt in us by misconception. And that by following it, we just increase it. You know, as my mother used to say, the more you get, the more you want. This is the key pain that Buddha was trying to identify. But it's hard for us to hear it because we think he's just being fundamentalist, not allowed to enjoy cake. And that's the trouble with religion. When you become fundamentalist, you can't hear it properly.  It's easy to make Buddhists fundamentalists when it comes to what Buddha means by attachment. It's really nuanced. What he's saying is extraordinarily powerful. But we’ve got to really go inside and look into it.


Helen: Talking about meditation, and talking about those neurotic states of mind you mentioned, to what extent is the path sort of clarifying the mind, working on the mind to perhaps get rid of those neurotic, painful states of mind you were talking about?


Ven Robina: That's the point. That's the essence. There's a lovely saying, “a bird needs to wings, wisdom and compassion”. So the wisdom wing is this job. This is the nuts and bolts of the work we have to do on ourselves, forget achieving nirvana, forget the long term results, ridding the mind utterly of this, that's nirvana. Forget that. Even the short term, if we work on our mind in this way, which is the internal work, which is the wisdom wing, wisdom is a good point because when you're caught up in attachment, and anger and misery and low self-esteem we know we can't see past our own nose, we are miserable and we’re miserable to everybody else. We can't see anything clearly; we just see our own projections. So as we practice using our meditation every day, as we practice being our own therapist, as Lama Yeshe puts it, then you really are doing the work. And the consequence of this is you become more powerful, more relaxed, more easy going, more joyful, and therefore, you break down the barriers between self and other. And then you get to become more empathetic and continue to develop the compassion wing, this is a major point. This is what practice is and this is the essence of the practice, knowing your own mind, working on it every second, instead of always dumping on the outside, and the world is painful, bad things happen. But you know I like to use my examples of my friends in prison, who live in these nightmarish environments, can't change a thing, but they know they can change their mind. They're very powerful examples. And this is the essence of what Buddha is telling us really. So it's extraordinary and very difficult. But when we can do it, we see the benefit, we are the beneficiaries in this practice, and then we can be of use to others, then we can help the world.


Helen: So how do you translate that to day-to-day practice Robina, what do you recommend?


I think Buddhist view is a very specific view of the mind. It's so specific, it's not Jung, it's not Freud. We know the words, attachment, anger, jealousy, it sounds easy. But we've got to have a sense of the way Buddha describes these states of mind and how they function so that we can identify them. It’s mystical, but we need a basic starting point, a basic program, a basic meditation practice. And there are many kinds we can do; we know that. But I think it's got to be combined with a little bit of knowledge about what Buddha says. We can't just intuit how to make a cake, you’ve got to learn the theories, you can't intuit how to know about nutrition, you have to learn the theory. This is a powerful point I think, having a practice that helps you focus your mind so you can learn to see what the hell's going on in there. Then in daily life, keep yourself steady so you know what's happening in here, not just dump it on the outside. But also, it's helpful to imbue our practice with a little bit of knowledge of actually what Buddha says, which means read some decent sources on Buddha's teachings, because that's the stuff that we're going to also be using to help us in our practice. That makes sense don’t you think.


Sharon: Tibetan Buddhism in such an ancient traditional spiritual path, how do you keep that relevant in today's world?


Well, not just Tibetan Buddhism, it's all of Buddhism, isn't it, coming from two and a half thousand years ago, tracking itself back to the Indians before that? This is the point I'm saying,  you have to learn it yourself. This is when I first heard these Tibetan lamas, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa.  Lama Zopa especially, he was very traditional. I didn't know what he was saying in the beginning. But I knew there was something in here I wanted.   I became a nun and I studied, I had to learn it, had to learn to think to use the language he was using and learn the definition of the word and learn to use it. So then as I slowly begin to understand it myself, then I can find words to express it to others.  That was a skill of Lama Yeshe.   When he first met Western students in the mid-60s, he and Lama Zopa  learned English, which was so kind of them.   On this path, when you really develop wisdom, it's kind of a pretty powerful kind of wisdom you get, because when you know your own mind, and you can work with your mind; we're all just different variations of the same mind, really, and when you know your mind, you can see someone else's mind. Lama Yeshe had this ability somehow to understand the way we modern Western people thought, he had this extraordinary wisdom. And he learned how to communicate, it was like he learned how to talk our language, which, for me, every time I edit his books, it's just so moving and powerful, because it's an utterly different way of talking. But you've got to internalize it first, know what it means first, and then with our own words, find ways to express it, but it's got to be authentic.


Helen:   I guess going back to the 70s that time when you became interested, it was so different from now, no one knew much about Buddhism. Can you sort of pinpoint something that made it so important that you gave up everything to ordain.


Ven Robina: Well, I wouldn't put it like I gave up everything. I wouldn't say it like that. When I look back on my whole life,  I can see a logical progression.  I began Catholic, I loved God, in love with Our Lady and all the saints, everything really. And then at  19 became a hippie and then communist radical lefty, then black politics and feminist politics. It looked like I was jumping from here to there, but the logic of the internal was pretty consistent. I was looking for a way to understand the world. I was looking for a way explicitly for why there is suffering in the world, you know, that’s why I was politically active. All the time moving in my own mind moving, moving, moving, and then I bumped into these two Lamas. I knew I wanted to understand their way to see the world. Up until then, I'd always been looking at the external. These lamas are  saying, that's fine learn about the external world, but  you’ve got to learn about your own mind, the human mind. Because the Buddha’s view is everything comes from the mind.   This might not be evident to us. If you take the big picture point of view of Buddhism, which means continuity of consciousness,  reincarnation, mind, everything comes from the mind, over countless eons and moment by moment. Everything --  our happiness and suffering is from the Buddhist view, based upon what's in our mind. If we can really get that on board, that's the essence of what Buddha's saying.  And that, for me is pretty tasty.


I use the example, the story of one woman on death row, she was accused of murdering two policemen, her husband as well.  She was innocent, going through hell, in the cell, in isolation. She said, finally, I realized I couldn't change anything, but they couldn't take my mind from me. She kept her clarity and sanity, did her practice, did yoga every day and came out of that prison 17 years later, not out of her mind, like so many people, but a wiser, more compassionate person, because she worked on her mind. She wasn't a Buddhist, she wasn't religious, this is why it's such a powerful example. It's logical that we can see it and work with it, you’ve got to really work hard there.  


Sky: I always consider and wonder about the benefits of long term retreats. And particularly, I know in the Tibetan tradition, you do the three years etc. Just wondering about the benefits - if you could discuss some of those as opposed to this working and living in daily life?


Ven Robina: First of all, we have to understand the logical reasons for why you would do a retreat, from our philosophical materialist point of view, it's a mystical bizarre idea. And from a Western psychological point of view, it's totally insane. I mean, the Western psychological view, tells us that we are social beings and to be functional as a proper human being, and to grow yourself as a human being, you must do it in the context of others. We've got to be social.  When you hear that that's how you become a decent human being by being socialized, and working in relation to others, that's how we discover who we are as far as our modern views are concerned, the Buddha doesn't deny that. But he says the fundamental point is, the only way to this, the most dramatic, direct way to really become who you are, which is finally an enlightened being, is to do it in isolation. Which means that you've got to get single pointed concentration, this brilliant technique, these Indians invented more than 3000 years ago, there's no way in the universe, we can realize the ultimate way of reality, there's no way we can finally unpack and unravel and rid the mind utterly of all the misconceptions all the way to realizing selflessness and emptiness, it is not a possibility to realize emptiness, unless you are in the single pointed concentration of samadhi meditation.   You need that framework of total isolation. But to do it, you've got to be a highly developed person, I mean, normal person to go into retreat for a day we lose our mind, because we don't know how to look at our mind, we have no understanding of the human mind. Without being rude to out neuroscientists, and psychologists, the Buddha's view of the mind is so incredibly sophisticated, but we  never think of it like that we just think of it as mystical. So to the long term job, but even in the short term, even just doing a weekend retreat, we can see the benefit of that, forget about realizing emptiness, just to remove yourself from the usual pressures of life can be very powerful. Why, to help you see what is going on in your own mind so you can start to deal with it. We need space, you know, in an ordinary way, but the long term, we absolutely have to get single pointed concentration and that you can't do while you're washing the dishes.


Look at the monks in the forest, in Thailand, what are they doing? They're looking into the nature of reality. It's not possible to understand it from the western point of view, it makes no sense. It's kind of like mental illness, you know, but when we understand the Buddha’s view of the mind and what the potential is, then it makes sense.  Very few of our people, go into serious retreat, because most of us, we are the other group, we're doing it in the framework of our lives.   We've got to know where we're at and what's best for us.


Cilla: The survival instinct, which is so intrinsic to all beings, has been warped by humans, as we already have pretty much what we need to survive. So this instinct has gotten out of control, isn't all craving, and attachment based on our survival instinct?


Ven Robina: I think so that's a really good way of putting it. By just using Buddha’s language to answer it, you'll see what I'm saying. Basically, I would say this survival instinct that we articulated like that, that really is what the Buddha would refer to as the deepest, most primordial, neurotic state of mind, the delusion called ego grasping. So in other words, when bad things happen,  our first instinct is to panic and protect ourselves. It sounds shocking to say that that's a delusion. But it's also common sense.  The Buddha would say it goes with the way we frame instinct for survival that we need.   At the time when a problem comes, when you are about to have a crash, or you get attacked, we need it to kind of keep us on the alert.


Let me tell a story. Basically,  Lama Zopa  was recognized in a past life as a reincarnated Yogi, right. So he got recognized as a little boy, he's eight years old, up in the mountains a sherpa. So when he was about eight or nine, after he'd been recognized as this reincarnated yogi, he was up to up a mountain up in another monastery, and it would have been about 1952. He was in a monastery and the rivers are like up there massively powerful.  Across the other side of the river there were these weird looking people, as he said, they had pale eyes, straw coloured hair. White people but he hadn't met white people before. Now, most of his students are white people now, not all but most.  He had this wish to meet them. He went across this rickety bridge - very dangerous - with his bowl of potatoes.( Sherpas use their potatoes as a gift).  But he fell in the river. This is how he told the story, very powerful. He fell in the river and these rivers are tumultuous, I tell you, and of course they don't teach them swimming up there, you know. 


 This is when they studied emptiness a lot and they meditate and learn. They talk very objectively, the head, the anger, the jealousy, not my head, my anger, I, the head came to the surface, and he said I could see my manager, panicking, running along the bank, he's having a panic attack about poor Lama Zopa falling into the water. The head came to the surface for air, he was trying to breathe. And then he said eventually,  the thought occurred to me, the person known as the Laudo Lama, that was him, is about to die. But then he said, I didn't know anything about emptiness, in that life he hadn't studied anything, but there was no fear. Meaning, this is shocking, he didn't have any what we call panic and instinct for survival. Because when you realize emptiness, when you cut the root of all fear, you literally don't have fear. But it doesn't mean he didn't have common sense. He could see exactly what was happening, and in fact, he could probably see it better because he wasn't panicking. You need intelligence to make a decision about what to do and in a dire situation and not fear.  Because he didn't have fear doesn't mean he’d have sank to the bottom of a river  - ‘oh, well, I'm going to drown’.  He still had intelligence and common sense. Eventually he got himself saved.  When you've given up ego grasping, you give up fear, you give up delusions, and you become a happy person, wise and intelligent and know what to do in a dire situation. That's my comment. What do you think? Does it make sense?


Cilla: It makes sense. I still think that we have a survival instinct for a reason.


Ven Robina: You can say that, but I'm talking from the Buddha’s perspective, and he doesn't say it that way. So all I can do is give you the Buddha’s view, you can have your view and say it like that, but I'm giving you the Buddhist take on that. The instinct survival is ego grasping and it gives rise as Helen said to this craving, the deepest craving to me and to life. So the Buddha's saying we can give it up. But that doesn't chuck the baby out with the bathwater, you end up with clarity and bliss and love and compassion and intelligence. That's what we need. That's my comment on that, you don't have to accept what I'm saying. But that's the Buddha's analysis of instinct for survival.


Helen: Given that we are representing Sakyadhita, I wanted to ask you, from a gender point of view.  I really admire the Tibetan nuns because I believe they have to sort of support themselves as well as get into their practice. I understand that they don't get much organizational support. Just how difficult is it.


Ven Robina: These days it's really good for nuns and that I think directly has come from the influence of Western women. Definitely. Definitely. I mean here at Kopan back in 1979, that’s why Lama Yeshe was so amazing he started the growth of our Khachoe Gakhyil Nunnery, now there are 500 nuns down there. Many do long retreat, many of them already graduated as geshes. They've done all the philosophical study, and I think there's so many communities of Tibetan nuns all over the in India and Nepal now that have now entered the direct result of the influence of Western women, for sure. I mean, so it's much better now. It's fantastic, actually.


Helen: The whole issue of gender equity, you know, given that it's coming from this 14th century sort of medieval background you talked about, but gender equity is in Tibetan Buddhism is moving with sort of modern attire.


 Ven Robina: I'd definitely say that, no question.  That's my experience, certainly being around this organization. Some other organizations, perhaps not. I mean, if you hear Tenzin Palmo talk that was not her experience. She came from a very different environment. Her teacher was Tibetan like mine, but they didn't speak English. And she was around Tibetans and around Tibetan monks. It was quite painful. Quite difficult. I've never found it like that and I'm talking from being a radical feminist. I was a really serious radical feminists. I would say that Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe they'd give jobs to you if you had the qualities and so many of their top people are female. I mean, yeah, I'd say so within the West, it was in the modern world. Definitely. I'd say it's a lot better and among Tibetans, for sure. Now, I would say that. I think sexism, and misogynism is a very deep and deep in our mind. And this is what I found, just as an interesting point, that I remember when I first heard the teachings, when I heard about karma, I realized, well, you know, Robina, who created you, you created yourself, you can't blame anybody else. I think sexism and these views are very deep in our mind. And if we take reincarnation as our view, we've all been men before, we've all been women before.  It's just the way that our dualistic mind manifests, that we always divide ourselves into groups, the top groups or the lower groups, It's a very dangerous thing. We’ve got to watch our minds like hawks as it’s a very deep thing in the mind for all of us.

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