Newsletter of the
Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies

Number 12, January 1998

Ven. Robina Courtin: Living the Dharma

Ven. Robina Courtin returns to Kurukulla Center in January for her fourth visit to Kurukulla Center in the past year. Center member Ellen Persio spoke with Robina about Buddhism and her life.

As Robina Courtin describes it, the journey that led her from a Catholic girlhood in Australia through sixties' radicalism to her present life as a Buddhist nun "just sort of happened" - in other words, it was the ripening of karma.

Robina sees her current role as Editor of FPMT's bimonthly newsmagazine Mandala as the logical result of her lifelong spirituality, a trait that first came to light when she was a small child. "The moment I first saw priests and nuns, I knew that was what I wanted to do," she says. During what she calls her "hippie phase" as a music student in London, this longing to find a deeper meaning of life may not have seemed as readily apparent, but it nevertheless remained strong. Robina describes herself at that time as a "wild kid," but explains that her unconventional lifestyle as a young adult represented something more meaningful than adolescent rebellion. For Robina, activism in feminist and radical politics was a natural expression of an innate sensitivity to the suffering of others, as well as a growing dissatisfaction with Western materialism.

Like many students in the free-thinking sixties and seventies, Robina became intrigued with Eastern culture and how it addressed her own spiritual, humanistic, and personal concerns. She was introduced to Eastern spiritual practices through her involvement in martial arts, which led to an interest in transcendental meditation and, ultimately, to her study of Buddhism.

When Robina returned home in 1976, Buddhism was beginning to gain a foothold in Australia. There was even a Dharma center in Queensland-Chenrezig Institute-where she was able to enroll in course s taught by Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. Under Lama Yeshe's guidance, Robina quickly realized that Dharma was the path she had been seeking. In Buddhism she began to find compelling answers to her questions about the nature of human suffering and the purpose of her own existence. She was also deeply moved by the wisdom and loving kindness of the monks and nuns she met there. What impressed her most about them was the way their powerful spirituality illuminated their daily lives. "After my two months at Chenrezig, it was clear that here were people who were putting what they taught into practice-wisdom, patience, and compassion- they had enormous energy for benefiting others." As Robina's studies intensified, her commitment to Buddhism deepened. A year later she traveled to Kopan Monastery in Nepal, where, in February, 1978, she took vows as a Buddhist nun. Many of the students who flocked to Kopan were so transformed by their experience that they wanted to share the teachings with the wider world beyond the monastery. Their eagerness to bring Dharma home with them ultimately led to the creation of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) with its global network of Dharma centers. In 1978, Robina accepted Nick Ribush's invitation to begin working with the FPMT and Wisdom Publications. She left the monastery for England, where she eventually assumed editorial and production duties at the growing publishing company. Ten years later, Robina began teaching at Lama Zopa Rinpoche's request.

By serving as an FPMT teacher and writer, she is able to share the insights gained on her own spiritual journey with others embarking on a Buddhist path. Asked to reflect on her impressions of Western students, Robina replies that she is "struck by their enormous sincerity. They're dying for answers that will help them put their lives together." At the same time, she is sensitive to the mental obstacles many students face with certain Buddhist doctrines. She thinks the idea of karma holds particular difficulty. "Accepting karma means truly accepting responsibility for your own life," she says, "and today's cultural climate doesn't really encourage that. Westerners like to be comfortable, emotionally as well as physically. I know from personal experience that it's not easy for us to realize that we're the cause of our own pain, our own anger, that it's our responsibility to turn around our minds."

 Highlights of a Busy Fall

"All the Buddhas from countless past eons until today have not been able to liberate us from our suffering. In this very life we need to take responsibility for creating our own happiness by seeking out someone that can show us an effective method and then putting it into practice. It is very difficult to find a qualified teacher, and our minds are very resistant to transformation, so when we do find such a precious opportunity, it is important to understand the way to get the most out of the chance we have."

Instructions such as these from Geshe Tsulga's Guru Puja commentary in September formed the basis for a season of teachings and practice. On Sunday evenings throughout the fall, Geshe Tsulga has been leading students through Shantideva's classic text, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life.

Geshe-la gave explicit instructions on the tantric practices of Medicine Buddha and Green Tara. Medicine Buddha is one of Geshe-la's favorite deities, and this was evident in the clarity and enthusiasm with which he offered the instructions for this practice. In November, students wishing to deepen their understanding of the teachings began a lam-rim study group, trying to internalize the various topical meditations by learning to teach them and by hashing out the finer points as a group. The group is ongoing and a new session begins in 1998.

On the Buddhist holy day of Lha Bab Düchen November 21st, members gathered at the loft of artist Paola Savarino to make offerings of lights to the buddhas and recite special prayers compiled for the event by Emilio Briceno

 Developing Bodhicitta: A Member Profile

For many of us in the West, practicing Dharma can be a solitary thing once we step outside our Dharma center. Sometimes we forget that service to others can be an important aspect of engaging our practice with the widest possible world. For Kurukulla Center members such as Kerry O'Brien, volunteer services to others is a perfect example of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's idea of wise selfishness. "If you do things that you love to do in service to others, then it's so easy to do," Kerry says. "The thing that really makes people happy is to make other people happy. It really is that simple."

Kerry's life outside her day job at Emerson College is busy. One night per week she volunteers as a play space leader in The Horizons Initiative, a Cambridge family shelter. She also tutors at-risk first graders three times per week-during her lunch hour-at the Josiah Quincy School in Chinatown.

For Kerry, volunteer work enacts the ideals she studies and meditates on. Her meditations on compassion and bodhicitta energize her service to others. Kerry noted that volunteering puts Dharma into action for her, reminding her that the teachings "are not just words, but actually practices that need to inform my life."

In his Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life, Shantideva reminds us of much the same: "Mere words will accomplish nothing./ Will the sick be helped/ Just by their reading the prescription?"

Service to others-informed by Dharma practice-is not new for Kerry. For four years she worked at Rosie's Place, a shelter for homeless women in Roxbury. "I knew I wanted to work with the homeless," Kerry said. "And I became more drawn to work specifically with children through my contact with the children at Rosie's."

She was there at the beginning of the literacy tutoring program at the Josiah Quincy School, volunteering as one of its original tutors two years ago. Prior to this, she served two years reading to school children in the Boston Partners in Education literacy program. Kerry credits her engaged Buddhist volunteerism with strengthening her overall practice. And of course, it is precisely this strengthened practice that she feels allows her to help other even more substantially. "You can meditate on love and compassion eternally, but it's hard to actually practice them in solitude. To me, they are not so much abstract as concrete qualities.=20 Even though Buddhist practitioners are solely responsible for their own individual minds and actions, each person exists in complete interdependence on other people, dependent on others' love, care-even their anger-for growth." She added, "I don't think everyone should be a social worker, but I do feel strongly impelled to interpret these Buddhist teachings in a way that includes social activism in my life. I've always been drawn to that form of action."

 Interview with Geshe Tsulga

For those of us who have had the good fortune of attending Geshe-la's Fall teachings and retreats at the Milarepa Center, it is abundantly clear that Geshe-la continues to bring benefit to all those around him. There is, however, much that goes on "behind the scenes" in Geshe-la's life here in Boston that many of us may not know. Kurukulla Center member Shelly Hubman, who is currently providing Geshe-la with English language lessons, was kind enough to ask him to share his thoughts with Lotus Arrow readers:

Could you please describe your daily routine for the Lotus Arrow readers?
"I get up at about 5:00 a.m. and wash my hands and mouth and then clean my room. After cleaning my room, I do some prostrations and make offerings. I sit down and think of my motivation and meditate until 8:00a.m. when I eat breakfast. I often eat oatmeal and two slices of toast and then, at 8:30 a.m., I do my daily practices, for example The Six Session Guru Yoga. I finish my morning practice between noon and 12:30 p.m. and then have some lunch. In the afternoon I read different Buddhist texts (sutra and tantra) and study. I also send faxes and e-mails and respond to letters and phone calls. Between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. people come over and visit. Sometimes they ask questions."

How do you feel about the TV interviews you do?
"I think this is very beneficial because maybe a lot of people will learn about the nature of the Buddhist tradition. The audience on TV is large so many people can understand some things and receive some help. During the last interview, the interviewer asked me why Western people study Buddhism. I answered that Western people want happiness and don't want suffering."

Would you like to say something about Sera-Je, your monastery in India?
"Yes. Sera-Je's new temple will be finished after three years of building, in December 1997. There will be a big celebration. His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] will come and open the door and then he will give teachings on emptiness for seven days. [Please contact Angela Suescun-Hoffman at (617) 254-8727, if you would be interested in participating in The Monks' Fund by sponsoring one of Geshe-la's students at Sera Monastery in India.]

Do you have a message for Lotus Arrow readers?
"I think that this century is very dangerous because their are many bombs, guns, and dangerous situations, and this comes from lack of love and compassion. Therefore it is crucial for all people to get love and compassion and to help all beings whether poor or wealthy. All people should form close bonds and friendships."

 Verses Of Dedication

Today I have made offerings and prostrations
To the objects of refuge, including the Medicine Buddha,
My lamas, and the Three Jewels. Through this virtue
May all sentient beings attain happiness.

May I and all limitless motherly beings
In all our lives attain bodies with freedoms and endowments;
And having encountered lamas who teach the faultless path,
May we perfect the practices of faith and compassion.

The great guide to peace and happiness whose nature is compassion,
The supreme Tenzin Gyatso of incomparable kindness-
May he have long life, and may he obtain the victory
Of freedom for Tibet in accord with his intentions.

In particular, may the faithful people of the West,
Being cared for by holy and qualified lamas,
Bring to perfection love, compassion, bodhicitta,
And the meditation on emptiness that is free from error.

[These verses were written by Geshe Tsulga on May 3rd, 1997 with the intention to benefit all beings as a dedication of the merit from making offerings, prostrations, and so on to Holy Medicine Buddha and his retinue.]

 Alex Berzin Wows Kurukulla Crowd

On November 5th, Kurukulla Center welcomed Tibetan Buddhist scholar Dr. Alex Berzin to Boston. The subject of his lecture was voidness, and 55 people attended. Dr. Berzin provided an explanation of what voidness, or emptiness, is, what it is not, and how to meditate on it. Combining his knowledge of western culture and modern psychology with his understanding of Buddhism, he provided insights and explanations for the "afflicted attitudes" and "disturbing emotions" which destroy or hinder our peace of mind. Noting that samsara is characterized by "uncontrollably recurring situations", Dr. Berzin presented the three-fold process of hearing, thinking, and meditating which ultimately leads to recognizing the true nature of all objects as void or empty.

 Welcome and Thanks

New Benefactor Members Fall 1997

Barry Hershey

New Regular Members Fall 1997

Jonathan Alexander, Cathy Boyle, Sharon Cardamone, Bob Clark, Barbara Cochrane, Jim Cregg, Beth Dart, Frances Diemoz, Amy Kittleson, John McCluskey, Dioni Miranda, Christina Russo, Debra Thornburg

New Friends of Kurukulla Fall 1997

Thomas Alden, Alice Chen, Bruce & Susan Braddy, Tim McNeill, Priscilla Sawa.

Special thanks to: Dan Howlett for completing the painting of the new throne; the Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive for sponsoring the new prayer books, the members of Temple Buddhiste Tibetan for their generous donation towards Geshe-la's Visa and traveling expenses, Shelly Hubman, who helped organize medical care for Geshe Tsulga, and all the Center volunteers who sustain the activities of the center in countless ways. Our deepest thanks to Geshe Tsulga for his kindness in teaching the Dharma to each of us here in the West. Thank you to Kurukulla Center's Spiritual Director, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, whose boundless compassion and bodhisattva service to others serves as an inspiration to us all.