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7 September 2000 (Australia)  »

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A powerful experience
4 January 2004 | by (Vancouver, B.C.) – See all my reviews

Robina Courtin, a Tibetan Buddhism nun and director of the Liberation Prison Project in the United States, does not fit any of our pictures of a spiritual person. She can be abrasive, outspoken, tough, and fiery and her rapid-fire speech underscores an insatiable energy. The Australian documentary Chasing Buddha, directed by Robina's 20-year old nephew, Amiel Courtin-Wilson, is a portrait of the nun that focuses on her work with prisoners, including several death row inmates in the Kentucky State Penitentiary. Nominated for Best Direction in a documentary by the Australian Film Institute in 2000, the film also describes the difficulties of her childhood, her relationship with her father, her activist life, and her search for spiritual truth that led her to Buddhism in 1977.

A former Catholic, Communist, and militant feminist, Robina, an Australian, was trained as a classical singer. She went to London to organize support for imprisoned black activists in the U.S. and soon took up kung fu and karate, and became involved with radical feminist causes. "I was always looking", she says, "always politically active, wanting to change the world". She ultimately came to a realization that her blaming others did not cure either her spiritual longing or the ills of society. "I'd blamed straight people, white people, rich people, all males. Then there was no one left. There was only Robina". She found her calling in 1976 when she attended a meditation course offered by two Tibetan lamas and found what she was looking for. Robina spent over five years as the main editor of Mandala, an international Buddhist newsmagazine until she resigned in 2000.

As director of Liberation Prison Project she has taught Buddhism in prisons to over 400 inmates in 150 institutions, several with life sentences or on death row, many involved with both street and prison gangs. Robina can see that, like herself, prisoners may have a soft inner core beneath the hard exterior she has to confront one-on-one. Robina's compassion, effort, energy, and commitment to the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) are what she brings to those in the bleakest of situations. It is a powerful experience to see condemned men reviewing their life and, perhaps for the first time, quenching their thirst for intellectual and spiritual knowledge and wisdom. These are the opportunities and gifts that Robina is willing to drive two hours in each direction to bring to the prisoners.

Her teachings to the prisoners include starting the day in gratitude for being alive, vowing to use that day for your own benefit and for the good of others (which often means, staying in isolation of others for their own protection). As she says "he (the prisoner) has the choice of going crazy or going inside and finding his own mind", the mind that he is now cultivating in a deep spiritual way. Using family photographs, interviews, and home movie footage, Chasing Buddha shows Robina in all her complexity and contradictions. It is an inspiring example of "engaged Buddhism" but I would have liked more teaching and a bit more probing into what drives her fearsome energy than what is contained in this 51-minute film. Nonetheless it is a fascinating experience and one I would recommend to those whose pictures of Buddhism begins and ends with shaven male monks fasting and meditating in a remote mountain retreat.


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