Inspiring Women: Venerable Robina Courtin || Buddhist Nun

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Venerable Robina Courtin is a pivotal person in my spiritual life and a great example of the power that simply seeing someone who has a karma connection to you can have in waking up a spiritual part of you. You could say I came across Venerable Robina by accident, but nothing is accidental, and it was simply the right time for me to intersect with Buddhism and the teachings. Here’s how it went down: I was meant to be going to the Blue Mountains to have a one week retreat with my good buddy Reed.

We had booked our places at the local Buddhist temple where it was being held, but mere days before I was to fly up to Sydney, the Lama cancelled due to ill health. We decided to create our own little retreat and just hang out anyway. As I was tooling around the website of the temple, I noticed they were having a movie night while I was up there, screening a film about an Australian feminist nun who had developed a program for prisoners on death row. They had me at feminist nun, so we decided as part of our self guided retreat, we would go to dharma movie night.

Some of the things I love a lot involve feminism, and also prisons. Ever since I heard about the change to prisoners that had undertaken vipassana meditation practice, I had an interest in how meditation could help people who were suffering and incarcerated. So I was super motivated to see about the program she was running, and the results. The film, Chasing Buddha, is compelling. Shot by Ven. Robina’s nephew, it is a fly on the wall doco about her life and work, blending her life story with her travels in the US working with prisoners, supporting her Lama, and lecturing at various Buddhist centres.

Venerable Robina is nothing short of a force of nature. Her life defined by an urgent personal search for meaning and happiness, fuelled with the fury of injustice, and the sense of time being too short to possibly deliver all of the things she needs to do in the world. A deeply religious child, she believed she would be a catholic nun, and after a decade in the world fighting the good fight for women, race and equality, she met Tibetan Buddhists Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche at a chance meeting in Queensland, and knew she had found her spiritual teachers.

If you had any preconception that Buddhist nuns were sweet and demure and all spiritual like, Ven. Rob will blow that right out the window. She wears her struggles and frustrations close to the surface, and will happily and brutally directly advise people of her thoughts and feelings. It can be an uncomfortable experience watching people squirm under her questioning, but there is also a deep love and gentleness in the way she delivers her truths to people, and everyone gets the teaching they need to receive in the way that will have the most impact for them.

I had never read any Buddhist philosophy or teachings until I saw Chasing Buddha. I loved Hinduism and all of the Gods and stories of that religion, and was quite content to wallow around in my yogic world. When I was watching that film, however, I couldn’t take my eyes off Robina. It was like in her I saw my own struggles, frustrations and urgency do shake things up. I saw that spirituality could be embraced with purpose and determination and used in the real world with pathos and humour, while uncompromisingly getting shit done. I saw a nun who was real and relevant, and she was my nun.

I left the movie night with a powerful sense that my life had changed somehow. I started looking at the lineage she was part of, and reading the teachings, and was appalled at how different it was to the philosophy I was used to – and how freaking complicated. I quickly dismissed any thoughts of Buddhism as too hard, that I would never be able to learn all the new mantra or read the hundreds of thousands of different teachings. But I couldn’t unsee it. And bit by bit, I kept going back, reading, re-reading, listening to audio books, finding the gateway teachings that allowed me to get a flavour for understanding compassion and kindness. Of course they all complimented the world I already knew spiritually, but took me to a new level of meditation and mental discipline.

Venerable Robina’s teachings are vast, and readily available, and I was able to listen to her and watch her deliver her messages in such a real and accessible way, all with her strong Australian accent, a powerhouse of woman in a compact robed up body. Robina is in her seventies, and still works 365 days a year, passionately loves the Sydney Swans, and leads epic pilgrimages through hard physical and emotional terrain. She has inspired so many people and shown how spirituality can be real and embodied. She has helped so many prisoners to find inner peace in diabolical circumstances through her Liberation Prison Project, and by just being her, gave me a mirror to see what my dharma could be

Polly McGee