Episode 21: Venerable Robina Courtin — Buddha’s Science of Mind

Venerable Robina Courtin, Buddhist nun and advocate for prisoner's rights

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This is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment with Scott Snibbe. We’re excited to introduce a new type of episode this week: the first in a series of interviews with advanced meditation teachers and practitioners. Our first guest is Venerable Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun and advocate for prisoner’s rights. In our interview, recorded last month, Venerable Robina touches on some powerful topics, including how activists can leverage meditation and mind training; how Buddhism functions as a science of the mind; and how being a Buddhist doesn’t mean being a pushover. I think you’ll enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed speaking with her.

Scott:

Today, I’m excited to launch our first interview with someone who I consider a teacher, a hero, and a friend. I’m chatting live via Zoom with Venerable Robina Courtin, the first Western teacher of Buddhism that I encountered in real life, whose teachings profoundly affected me.

Since 1978, Venerable Robina has been an ordained Tibetan, Buddhist nun, a student of Lama Yesha and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She served as the editorial director of Wisdom Publications, where she edited my favorite book on meditation, How to Meditate by Venerable Kathleen McDonald. And she also served for many years as the editor of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition’s Mandala Magazine.

Venerable Robina is a lifelong advocate for prisoner’s rights and the founder of the Liberation Prison Project that offers Buddhist teachings to prison inmates. She teaches and travels worldwide and has a uniquely powerful personality and teaching style that resonates with both newcomers and longtime Buddhist practitioners.

She turns many stereotypes on their heads of how a nun and how a Buddhist should act—all in a good way—and I’m so pleased to have her as our first guest on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment.

Hello, Venerable Robina.

Ven. Robina:

Oh, I’m happy to meet you, Scott. So Glad. Looking forward to our conversation.

Scott:

Yes, me too. Thank you so much. So, Ven. Robina, From knowing and hearing you, I would guess that, if not now, certainly in the past, you’ve considered yourself a skeptic. So, as a skeptic, how did you find this path?

Ven. Robina:

So let’s get our definitions clear, shall we? What’s the dictionary definition of a skeptic?

Scott:

Without looking it up, I’d say that it’s someone who looks critically at everything that comes before them. They don’t just take it on face value.

Ven. Robina:

Okay. That’s the correct way to live life. It’s using your intelligence. Even when I was a Catholic, a little girl, I was born a Catholic and I was in love with God. I was happy to accept everything God’s said, but I always thought about it. What is the meaning of God? What is this? What is that? Why this? Why that? I mean, I was in love with God, but I always wanted to know why. Absolutely. So maybe that’s what a skeptic does, yes.

Scott:

We actually use a specific term sometimes called a rational skeptic. Because someone who’s too strong of a skeptic is just someone who can’t really believe anything, whether it’s true or false. So, the question for you is, as someone with that kind of critical mind, how did you encounter this path?

Ven. Robina:

This is not the words I used back then when I was a little girl, when I went to Mass. I was in love with God and I knew immediately, I recognized my job. I felt like I’d won the lottery. And I announced the time I was going to be a priest. It felt very familiar, you know. But it wasn’t much to do with my external world. I was the naughtiest kid at school and the naughtiest kid in the family.

But my inner world was all about the meaning of life and who is God and what is God? I read all the Catholic nuns, these great yogis and their stories. I was in love with all of them. All the time I think the background was wanting happiness; definitely wanting pleasure, wanting happiness, but always inquiring into these things.

I got to London when I was about 23, ripe and ready for revolution in 1968. So then I think I immediately started getting involved in radical left politics. And then that moved into sort of black politics that moved into feminist politics. All the time, trying to make the world a better place, but always trying to understand things, wanting a way, wanting a world view.

And then at the age of about 29 I started martial arts and I stumbled into two Tibetan Lamas: Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe. And they started telling me that the mind plays a role. And that blew my mind. So since then, I’ve been trying to relate to the mind and understand the mind, which of course is central for the Buddhist approach.

So it was an evolutionary process. I didn’t see it then, but I continued to follow my heart using logic all the time in my mind, using logic and stumbled into following the Buddhist approach.

Scott:

You mentioned that it was something about the mind, which you found really attractive in the way Buddhism was introduced to you. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

Ven. Robina:

More than even the mind. I mean, that was the thing I’d never done before. I blamed the entire world. I kind of joke and say, when I was a Catholic, all the non-Catholics were the problem. Always looking on the outside, that’s what we do.

Then I was a radical lefty and it was all the rich people who were the problem. And then it was the white people. Then it was the male people. And then I got to the Buddhists, they started me onto the mind, that’s the central player. That was the shock.

But the bigger piece to me that was really powerful about Buddhism, was that Buddha is not a creator. He’s stating what he thinks, he’s allowed to do that.

Years ago, in New Zealand during a teaching, a scientist, he said, Who revealed the teachings to the Buddha? And so I said to him, well, would you ask Einstein who revealed relativity to him?

What that shows is the assumption we have about religion. Then there’s Buddha, and this is what blew my mind. He’s not a creator, he doesn’t assert a creator. We don’t need a creator, he says. So his whole view is, he’s a regular guy, just like Einstein, who used his intelligence, who used his mind, came to observe the way the world is.

You know, Einstein didn’t make up relativity and then dump it on the world. Einstein observed the way the world works and then identified this thing, articulated it, codified it, and then presented it. That’s Buddha, exactly Buddha. So every word the Buddha says—karma, reincarnation, the concept of what the mind is—is an entire worldview coming from his experience.

So, blind belief is an absurd idea in Buddhism. That’s what I found most powerful and over the years is what I do find powerful.

And as the Dalai Lama says, if you follow Buddha’s methodology, and you find that what he found to be true, isn’t true, you must reject him. And that’s what we call scientific. But that’s exactly what it’s always been in Buddhism since day one.

I mean, this amazing history that we’re learning now, isn’t it? Coming from India, these great, brilliant, clear logicians and thinkers and yogis and scholars and all that comes together in Buddhism: spiritual practice and intelligence. There’s no contradiction for Buddhism and that’s what I find most powerful.

Scott:

So it’s interesting, at first you were saying you weren’t following a kind of scientific path. But now as you describe how you came to Buddhism, you described it in a very scientific way: that what attracted you was that the way of approaching reality was through a science of the mind. And that it was more a notion of looking at reality, our inner reality and how it truly is.

Ven. Robina:

That’s the Buddhist approach. That Buddha is telling us things are a certain way. And it’s our job to find that. And the crucial point for the Buddha is that the pursuit of wisdom, the pursuit of reality absolutely has to come along with ethics and with compassion. And equally with happiness, we can’t separate them. That for me is a profound point that Buddha makes.

Scott:

The connection of ethics to having a happy, stable mind.

Ven. Robina:

Absolutely. Having a happy, stable mind by being in touch with reality as well. They’re all linked, aren’t they?

Scott:

So there’s something you mentioned as you were talking about how you came to Buddhism, which is that the Buddha gave the advice to validate his teachings personally, to not take them on faith. Could you talk a little bit about the role of critical inquiry in Buddhism, the way the Buddha taught it and also the way that you see it?

Ven. Robina:

Absolutely. I mean, this is why that scientist asked me that question. It’s a very valid question if we assume a creator religion, which is the usual view we have of religion. It’s information made up by somebody. The universe is made up, then God, this is the concept of God, is information that God has created. He created the laws, he created the rules. In Buddhism, there’s no concept like this. We are the boss, Buddha says.

So for me, the scientist, as I said to him, You would not ask Einstein who revealed the teachings to you, which is the assumption we have of spiritual. And it’s hard for us to hear this because I know when I have Buddhist classes and we talk about karma. Because we assert in the materialist model, the physical brain, and we know perfectly well that brain doesn’t have the potential to see the past and to see the future and to see the minds of others, we assume that’s all there is.

So as soon as we hear the Buddha say, we’ve got a past consciousness and a future one, we go, “Oh, you’ve got to believe it.” But when we realize that the Buddha’s view of the mind, which is crucial to state, he posits these subtler levels of mind. And it’s these Indians, I mean the Dalai Lama said more than 3000 years ago, that these amazing Indians were the ones who began the investigation into the nature of self.

It’s only now with His Holiness and these incredible conferences that are going on in the West, that we’ve been discovering it. We clever Westerners. We think we’re the ant’s pants, don’t we? These more than 3000 years ago, they’re the ones who created this incredible, brilliant, psychological skill that enables you to plumb the depths of your consciousness, your cognitive process, which does not depend upon a brain.

I mean, we don’t even posit that. So as long as you posit the possibility—which is always the approach in Buddhism—of mind being at a subtler level of cognition, then we can bring in these concepts of past and future and take them as a hypothesis. This is the crucial point. Like any decent scientist has to start with a hypothesis. You’ve got to first open your mind to that possibility. And then you begin to prove it. That’s the Buddhist approach.

Scott:

Identity politics is stronger than ever today. There’s more and more labels. And many of them extremely beneficial in empowering people that weren’t empowered before. What can you say about that? Because it sounded like you had to give up a lot of political beliefs in order to get into this path. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because it’s been so much on the rise, since the Me Too movement and Black Lives Matter.

Ven. Robina:

That was the final culmination of my political activity. And it was in one of the most powerful of course, because I’m not black, I’m not poor, I’m not working in class, but I am a female. So that was very powerful stages I went through deeply inside, identifying myself in that way.

On the one part I felt there was something there that I really appreciated. When I heard about no creator, when I heard about “I’m the boss,” when I heard about karma, they were powerful for my mind.

So, I don’t think I gave up anything. Initially, it felt like that, but it was more about using logic and clarity and really the fundamentals. That’s why I’m sitting here 45 years later, that the nature of mind is pure. That mind is not physical. That mind is not male or female.

The other point that was very powerful for me—became the encouragement—was these two teachers: Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe.

I mean, they were just pure love and wisdom and clarity and joy. They were still labeled as males and Tibetan. You have traditions. But I realized that, if Buddhism is authentic, if any philosophy is authentic, It can repackage itself and it can still remain authentic in a different culture. And that I felt very confident about.

And for me over the years, I felt very strongly that it’s our job in this period between the movement from Tibet to the West; it’s our job right at this time, we Westerners, it’s our job to internalize it and then repackage it—not make it up—but repackage it in concept that we understand. If it’s authentic, you can do that.

So for me, if I had to give up my femaleness, how could I do that? It’s impossible. Because I knew it was beyond male or female. It was just the cultural packaging. So then it was okay. Do you understand?

Scott:

I get it, so—

Ven. Robina:

I’ve never used the word believe by the way, Scott, ever, ever, ever. It was never my belief. For me it was a truth we were looking for, so you start with a hypothesis, isn’t it?

Scott:

Would you talk a little bit just about the qualities of your teacher, Lama Yeshe? I’ve noticed in my life, the three teachers who I really learned so much practically practice-wise from were the direct Western students of Lama Yeshe: yourself, and Venerable Kathleen McDonald, and Venerable René. My mind is always going to the ways that you have unfolded the teachings. But I never had a chance to meet Lama Yeshe myself.

Ven. Robina:

It was in June, 1976 in Australia, in Queensland. I was in Melbourne. I remember wanting a path, wanting a philosophy strongly at this point. So, I remember I was driving a car in Melbourne and I stopped and helped these two women push their car out of the intersection. It had broken down.

Somehow a car drove by and ran over my left foot. And then I heard the foot snap and I was on the ground. I remember thinking, Oh no! And then he came up to me, this poor gentleman. And I said, “You ran over my foot!”

And he said, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” So he took me to the hospital. And that sort of stopped me in my tracks. And then I was feeling completely depressed sitting in this restaurant in Melbourne. And I saw a poster. And all I remember is that it said Lama Yeshe.

And until this day—and that’s 1976—I’m convinced I’d heard his name before. I even now think, when did I hear that name? So I went to that course and that’s what happened. So Lama Yeshe was a starting point for me.

So, what happened was, it was a very intensive, traditional Lamrim course: one intensive month, six, eight, ten, twelve hours a day, 200 people packed into this gompa. And it was completely insane. I did not know a single word that Lama Zopa was saying. I heard the English, but it was the packaging. It was like 14th century, arcane abstract. I had no idea what he was talking about. I stayed, I persevered. I went to every class, you know. And then occasionally, Lama Yeshe would pop up. And I would sigh with relief. I could not believe the relief.

Somehow whenever he talked, he always made you feel, Thank God. Now I can get it. Now I understand. Now it’s possible.

All the more for me too, Scott, because over the years, one of my jobs is to edit books, I edit the lamas. So the most recent book I’ve edited of Lama Yeshe’s, which is just so blissful, called Mahamudra, this beautiful meditation technique.

Editing Lama, it’s just incredible to see the effort he would make to use concepts and terms that we comprehend. He didn’t just speak like a Tibetan. And the more we hear traditional Tibetan, I’m not complaining. And then you hear Lama. It was like he was born a hippie. And when I edit him and listen to his transcripts, it’s unbelievably moving.

I identified in this Mahamudra book, in the Buddhist classical text, the term affliction is the key term used for all the neuroses inside of us: attachment, anger, jealousy. And that’s the simple word that’s translated from the Sanskrit.

Well, Lama came up with like 21 or 22 different synonyms made up by Lama in his effort to communicate this. This is what was so moving to me. It was so moving that he spent his life trying to communicate. Not just present from Tibetan and make us go to him. He came to us and he presented in an unbelievably simple way that gave you courage and made you feel it’s possible.

It was Lama Yeshe who grabbed me, who hooked me. He kind of got me by the scruff of my neck and wouldn’t let go.

Scott:

So, the clarity, the simplicity, the creativity of the way he presented it.

Ven. Robina:

And the compassion that informed it, the wish to communicate. Crucially, too he could see the suffering and the depression, low self-esteem, and the self-loathing that we have. And that’s what really broke his heart. And he all the time was trying to lift us up, trying to get us to see that we have this potential. We are not what we think we are. That was really very powerful. That was what informed all of his teachings.

Scott:

Oh, that’s a very beautiful description. Thank you.

I have a question about a quote I have from Lama Yeshe that was very inspiring. He said, and you’ve probably seen this quote, he said, “Give up religion, give up Buddhism, go beyond Buddhism, put the essential aspect of the philosophy into scientific language.”

Can you tell me more about Lama issue’s interest in a secular form of Buddhism and how that relates to the pure form of Tibetan Buddhism that he taught you and that we’ve studied together?

Ven. Robina:

What we can see as Tibetan Buddhism, it’s the mind, mind is the central player. Mind is what creates happiness. Mind is what creates suffering. The literature about the mind and its nature and its capacity and its characteristics is massive in Buddhism. We’re geniuses at the brain, but that’s not Buddha’s expertise.

So, when you really begin to see in Buddhism, the heart of it is this incredibly sophisticated, wide, deeply presented presentation of the nature of cognition. This is the unique thing in Buddhism.

To know your own mind and know your own emotions and be able to distinguish in neuroses from the virtues, that’s the job of being a Buddhist. That is actual practical, psychological logic. And that’s what moves Westerners. It’s not trying to cheat and sort of hide Buddhism behind something simple. That is the nature of being a Buddhist. You become a Buddhist when you work on your mind, when you become your own therapist, as Lama Yeshe said. That is Buddhism. I mean all the way to Buddha.

I mean the actual word, Buddha, the etymology of that word is so powerful. It tells us the job of being a Buddhist. The word budh, as we know, implies the utter eradication from our own consciousness, our mind, of all neurosis, all ego, all fears, all the nonsense. And it’s got nothing to do with belief, it has to do with internal work.

And so, if we know that’s our potential—rid of all the rubbish, full of all the goodness—that tells us the method: become your own therapist. Even abiding by the laws of karma and practicing ethics, that’s common to the world, a good communist would do that. That’s not uniquely Buddhist at all.

Working on your mind is Buddha’s unique approach. And even the whole practice of compassion is logical, is psychological as well. So it is about the mind. And that everybody can taste and experience as well.

Scott:

So, the core aspect of Buddhism, of understanding your mind, its relationship to reality, and that it can be trained.

Ven. Robina:

Radically deconstructed and reconfigured into this amazing marvelous potential. That’s what Buddha’s telling us. And it’s a totally internal process. You don’t need to know where your brain is to do it. That’s Buddha’s expertise.

Scott:

Fantastic. That’s a great explanation.

One of my favorite ways that you teach is that you help people understand that being a Buddhist doesn’t mean being a pushover. I wanted to ask you a little bit what you mean by this. Sometimes people think if you become a Buddhist, you know, you have to just do what everyone says and be very meek. We live in a time of great conflict, obviously. So, could you talk a little bit about how a Buddhist might act when you’re faced with a conflict, like with your boss, with a neighbor, with someone from the opposite political party, for example.

Ven. Robina:

You know, I think it depends on where you’re at. If we understand that the way that Tibetan Buddhists package Buddha’s teachings, we really get to see that it’s incremental. It’s like any body of knowledge. You start at the early stuff, you go to the middle and then you go to the most advance.

Psychologically speaking, it’s the same thing. If we start at the normal level of where we all are, which is being a samsaric person, which for Buddha would mean being completely caught up in your own misery, your own low self-esteem your own attachment, your jealousy, your anger; believing that you’re the cause of all my happiness; believing, you’re the cause of all my suffering. If that’s your normal world, like before you even enter into junior school, how would you be then: miserable, you’d get depressed, angry, jealous, you’ll be a pushover, or you’ll be a bullying, whichever one is your personality.

Then you start to think, Well, Buddha says you can change your mind. Wow. That’s incredible. Before you do that, you ought to change your speech, control your body and speak first, that’s junior school.

So beginning even in my relationship with you, let’s say you’re my bully boyfriend. Well, I’ve got to first recognize, is this something worthwhile here that I better start controlling my own behavior? And that already is enormous responsibility, instead of blaming you for everything. This is already profound.

So, if I’m already at that level, at least I’ll control my speech, which is stupendous. At least I’ll not do more harm. Then I’m really courageous. I’m going to even be able to change my mind. This is even more advanced. Once I recognize there’s something worthwhile in this relationship, there’s something worthwhile in that job, I’ve made a decision.

And that’s part of the problem. We don’t make a decision. We’re like lemmings. That’s the typical way your ego is. So, if I’m really beginning to take responsibility, I’m going to start controlling of my body and speech—for my sake—and then I’m going to start controlling my mind.

The assumption here is that there is something that there is something worthwhile in that job. I know it’s not a perfect job, but I’m going to become braver and clearer and wiser. And then I’m going to have more self-respect. I’m not going to put up with your bullying.

If you keep bullying, I’ll say that’s enough of you, Scott, I’m out of here, baby. And then you become more clear and more strong, more confident. So it’s progressive up to what you can handle, you know? If you’re such a bully in my life and I’m still a victim, best I leave, and that already takes courage, so you gotta know where you’re at.

Scott:

I found it quite wise, and also a little surprising the way you answered that question, which is that when you’re faced with a conflict, when you’re faced with the other, to immediately look into your own mind and understand what’s happening there first, before you start, before you make any kind of action; whether it’s capitulating, leaving, arguing.

Ven. Robina:

And the point about that too, is, I mean, for example, a person would say I’m in the middle of being angry with my boyfriend. I’m in the middle of it, what can I do?

Well, I say to him, it’s like asking me, you’re going a hundred miles an hour on the freeway and you discover your wheels are falling off. What’ll I do? It’s too late to ask the question. Because we haven’t noticed that the wheels are wobbling. And that’s the crucial point that the Buddhist approach is telling us because we don’t pay attention to what is going on in our mind. We don’t know the anger is there until it’s vomiting out my mouth. And then it’s just too late.

So, how could I possibly deal with conflict? If I haven’t already know my own mind, I haven’t already worked on myself. Haven’t made decisions to control my body and speech and mind, which is stupendous.

Then, I’m prepared when the conflict arises. I’m more qualified and I can handle it. Because I’ve watched my wheels when they’re wobbling. And I know what to do when they start to fall off. And they wouldn’t fall off. In fact, I’d be able to handle it.

And you cannot possibly deal with conflict, an external conflict, without first having worked on your own mind and being prepared. How could I walk into a karate fight? That’s a really obvious example. If there’s a fight there I’m going to walk onto the floor and do a karate fight. It’s not possible if I’m not qualified. And that means I have to learn karate myself. It’s just emotion otherwise, useless.

Scott:

I love that. In one of the very first teachings I attended with you, I remember a student asking, What should I do when I get angry? And your answer was, very close to that. You said, that’s like asking what you should do when you get in a car crash. First, you need to learn how to drive.

Ven. Robina:

And this is our tragedy, I think, Scott, when we look at it. Because in our philosophical materialist view of the world—which, of course, is the view that prevails—it is completely in oneness with that world.

And that nothing wrong. That’s a marvelous view. But because of that, because we emphasize only with the objects, only the outside world, then we don’t have skills in our culture early on to become familiar with what’s going on in our mind.

If you and I are in our relationship and we’re happy. And then I decided I’m going to go to my therapist. She says, What are you here for? You don’t have a problem.

We don’t even go to a therapist until the wheels are falling off. But it’s just simply too late. It’s a bizarre idea. We know how to take care of our cars and our electricity and our house and our bodies. So that we don’t wait till all the teeth are falling out to go to the dentist. We don’t wait till the wheels fall off, but we do when it comes to the mind.

Because we’re so fixated on the external, that’s the tragedy. And that’s what the Buddha’s psychological model can offer us, this brilliant insight; that ability to become familiar with what the hell is going on between my ears, to prepare myself and keep myself steady. Then, when the dramas come up, able to handle them. It’s so logical. It’s not religious. It’s logical.

Scott:

Of course, that starts to touch on positive psychology. Right? That’s such a great observation that you only go to the psychologist when you’re sick.

Ven. Robina:

It’s madness, you know.

Scott:

But psychologists did start thinking about this only 20 years ago, of course.

Ven. Robina:

That’s right! We think we invented it. When you hear His Holiness say it was these Indians more than 3000 years ago who began the investigation into the nature of self, we smarty pants in our culture, we probably thought it was Freud a hundred years ago. We’re very, very arrogant, you know It’s quite shocking to hear this.

Scott:

You know, it’s interesting though, because you also mentioned how we don’t bring our car until the wheels fall off. But, actually, if you’re a wise car owner, you’re more like an airplane owner, right? Because the way the most advanced scientists, technologists approach machines is perpetual, continual maintenance.  If we treated planes like that, no one would fly the plane. Because they’d be crashing all the time!

Ven. Robina:

That’s the whole point I’m making. But we don’t have that view about our mind. Because we don’t have skills to notice what is happening in our thoughts. And this is the crucial point. Because we’re so fixated on the physical, we don’t notice what’s going on in our mind until the body is shaking; until you’re inert in bed, it’s only then that you realize you’re depressed. You only realize you’re angry when the words are vomiting out your mouth. Because we’re so body-fixated, we just don’t notice the mind.

The vast majority of all humans on this planet have no idea that what goes on in their mind—meaning their thoughts and feelings and emotions—have no idea that what goes on in the mind plays any role at all in their lives.

And that shows our fixation on the external. And our knowledge is all there. Our genius science is the external. But we’re missing the crucial one for the Buddha, we’re missing the internal. And that’s the skill that he offers us; not to throw out the physical. No, he’s not saying chuck out the external, he’s saying add the mind to it. That’s the revelation for the Buddha.

Scott:

That’s fantastic. Any practical advice for someone beginning, on how to do that? How should they get started?

Ven. Robina:

I think the first step, and this is what I got for me, the encouragement from Lama Yeshe, the first thing is to go, Wow, I want to do that. I’d like to be in control of my mind. I want to know that I can change my mind, that I’m not set in stone. I think the first step is that confidence. From there, it follows.

The next step has to be, to use one of these practical skills that Buddha taught. You know, the world vaguely knows it as mindfulness now—there are 27 variations of it, and that’s okay. He doesn’t have copyright on it. But it’s important if you want the Buddhist skill, you need to learn properly what the Buddhists do, not just make up your own idea.

So, then learn a skill that enables you to get some focus. So that you can use that focus from the moment you open your eyes from the morning meditation to not just notice what the boyfriend is doing and notice the traffic.

 But to also start beginning to pay attention to this seeming chaos inside here. So we can start to become familiar with it and unpack and unravel and reconstruct it. That’s the job of being a Buddhist. He’s a brilliant cognitive therapist, without a doubt. But it’s a long-term goal. You’ve got to be in for the long haul. It’s not going to be magic overnight. You’ve got to find the right teachers, that’s up to us.

Scott:

So, Venerable Robina, some people look at Buddhism and I’ve heard this from some people saying that Buddhism takes the fun out of life; that somehow if you take on this worldview, it’s like in The Matrix when you had that choice between the red pill and the blue pill and the guy who took it, went back in and took the other pill and sacrificed his friends because he wanted to eat the steak and drink the wine, and so on. Which, in Tibetan Buddhism, we know how to enjoy all those things without attachment (or eventually we should be able to). Could you talk a little bit to those who are hesitant to take on these practices for fear of losing out in the fun of life?

Ven. Robina:

It’s absurd. I mean, if we really want to look at the big picture point of view of Buddha, you have to first start what the hell do you want to do it for. On the face of it, anything might look like that.

So, I mean, I just think of anything in our world. If I want to be seriously a tennis player. And I look at Federer and I go, yeah, I want to be like Federer, there’s the ideal tennis player. Have a look at what I have to sacrifice. I’ve got to join the tennis club. I’ve got to be there eight, ten, twelve hours a day. That means I can’t do football. I can’t eat popcorn. I can’t go there. I’ve got to sacrifice 90% of my life.

But look, people absolutely admire Federer and his sacrifice and his dedication.

But as soon as it comes to the mind, we’re like infants. We have a really grotesque understanding of the mind. I mean, it’s just phenomenal. We think you’ve got to give up, you’re giving up happiness and that’s what Lama Zopa says, for example.

And this is getting to the point. When we hear what Buddha says attachment is we conflate it with happiness and joy. So, once we study, we know it’s completely different. But that’s the first thing because we don’t have a term called attachment in the way Buddha describes it. And we know we want pleasure and they seem to be linked. Not just linked, but we seem to think they’re the same thing.

So, coming at it with that view, as Lama Zopa says, when you hear that Buddha says you’ve got to give up attachment: Oh, I’m going to give up my heart. I’m giving up my happiness. Well, if that’s true then Buddha is a monster. Buddha is a complete horrible monster.

So you’ve got to first question that assumption. It’s just naive to walk stumbling into Buddhism thinking, I’m going to become more mindful, I’m going to give up attachment, give up to this.

This is where we misunderstand, why some people become depressed Buddhists. That’s not being a Buddhist. I mean if you want to look at Lama Zopa, he’s laughing hysterically all the time. So if it’s taken his fun, I don’t know where he’s got his fun from, secretly replaced?

If you look at the Dalai Lama, who’s been through incredible suffering in his last 60 years, he’s the happiest funniest fellow you could ever meet.

So the evidence is staring at us, clearly it can’t be giving up happiness. So we’ve got to be a bit more humble and a bit more patient and look into it and get clear understanding what the hell Buddha’s talking about before we just leap in and start phony practice, you know, that’s my answer.

Scott:

I would agree with that. Because that was what brought me to Buddhism was actually achieving most of those things: having a nice life and some money, and a partner and so on. And then still feeling not quite happy about things. And then noticing, bumping into people like the Dalai Lama, and seeing how happy they were with fewer of those things. And just wanting to buy that ticket.

And what you talked about is also about having a model or a hero. That it takes seeing somebody who embodies those qualities, which is interesting because a lot of people now coming to Buddhist practices through apps and mindfulness may not have a hero, right? They come from a therapeutic model that they have a problem that they want to address and they’ve heard that meditation can help with it. But I think what you’re saying is quite important, that ultimately you do need some vector. You need some, some North Star pointing toward the benefits of this practice. That they’re not abstract. They need to be embodied in somebody.

Ven. Robina:

I think in our daily life, we find that. I think anything we’ve learned, since we’re born, is from another person who’s embodied it, who’s done it. Even if it’s just one plus one is two.

And because we’ve all got this little human heart, as Lama Yeshe says, we’re all dying for love. It’s so powerful to meet someone, whether it’s even just the tennis player, the person who’s taught you one plus one is two.

You know, when I was little, one of my teachers, she gave me a hug one day. I’ll never forget it. She moved my heart and then I was happy to learn mathematics from her.

So we need other human beings who have embodied what we’re trying to learn. And that’s how you learn anything.

So to find someone who you can relate to—who’s the example of what you want to become—this is so powerful. I mean, we can read all the guru devotion teachings in the Buddhist literature. And it sounds so abstract and technical and kind of weird. But we just see the huge human aspect of it, we need people we can relate to. Because we need to be loved. We need that. We’re going to use it on the path. So we have a person we’re happy to offer our heart to.

That’s why they say in the teachings that we should check our guru very carefully. Pabongka Rinpoche says, it’s my favorite phrase from Pabongka Rinpoche, check your guru very carefully, you’ve got to end up like them.

And that’s why for me Lama Yeshe for sure was the teachings, but the example, this person in front of me showing me nakedly, Wow, I want to be like that. And that I think is the function of a Dalai Lama on the planet. He doesn’t try to go around making anyone Buddhist. It’s the opposite. But look at the benefit. Look at me, look at the function he has on this planet. Millions of people adore that man. He’s showing what is like to be like to be a valid, amazing wise, fully developed human being with a big heart. This is incredibly powerful for us.

Scott:

So what would you say to a real beginner, a curious, skeptic, listening to this, about this guru devotion topic. What does guru devotion mean to an ordinary person who just believes in science and—

Ven. Robina:

Even in a scientist you want to person you revere! This is sort of obvious, but we just don’t have these terms “guru devotion.” That’s what throws us, this arcane, Indian, Asian concept. But if we have enough intelligence, we can unpack the concept. We know it already.

We know this, but the trouble is we dump our hearts on any old Joe and wonder why we get upset. Because we don’t do our proper checking. We don’t do analysis. We’re following attachment instead of intelligence. But it’s what we all know in our world. We yearn to have mentors, people who we revere, people who already have that knowledge and we can turn to and ask questions. We just don’t label it. We all need that.

Scott:

So it’s very common sense. It’s just having a hero, a mentor, a teacher. These are all the same things.

Ven. Robina:

We’ve got to learn to be intelligent about it. And check the qualities of that person. We haven’t checked on his qualities. We haven’t checked whether they’re valid. We need to do that. And then take responsibility. Because we get very much caught up in all the dramas of so-called guru devotion; all the dramas of people running around abusing their students, misunderstands. Because we’re not grown up enough. We leap in, all full of good heart. Wow, he must be a guru. We’re so childish. I’m sorry. We’ve got to take responsibility for these relationships.

Scott:

You brought up this topic of the misbehavior of teachers. And that’s become very disillusioning. I, myself have met people who even abandoned Buddhism because of becoming disillusioned or disappointed in a teacher, which is heartbreaking for those of us who follow that path. How would you advise people to address some of those issues? When someone appeared to be the right kind of teacher for a long time, and then it was revealed that they weren’t.

Ven. Robina:

Just use our intelligence! But because we mystify religion. And because we follow attachment. And because we’re so emotional. People go to some teaching, and because the person is really powerful and charismatic, get all excited.

And that even follows for the Dalai Lama. He is very charismatic. He’s very powerful. You got to a talk of five, ten thousand people; they’re move by him. But that’s not enough to like the Dalai Lama, because he makes you feel good. That childish.

We need to check on his history, check on his qualities, check on his disciples, check on his work. Then we have a valid basis for committing to like the Dalai Lama.

We do that with science. We do that with even with a dressmaker. We do that with a doctor. We wouldn’t go to a doctor because they’re charismatic, we’d be shocked. We check on their qualities. But as soon as it comes to spiritual, we lose all common sense. So we’ve got to grow up.

Scott:

It’s just another reminder to go back to that point of what the Buddha himself taught, which is to be critical. This is also a very deep topic. And I’d like to step aside to ask you a couple of meaty questions about some difficult topics often for people coming to Buddhism.

So, I want to talk a little bit about karma or cause and effect, a somewhat difficult question. Is it possible for karma to make sense without rebirth?

Ven. Robina:

To some degree. Of course, it’s to some degree. There’s evidence, obvious; cause and effect is obvious. If I punch you in the nose, you’re not going to love me.

A simple understanding is that how I behave now, in general, can bring a fairly immediate result, but it doesn’t follow if we keep going. We all know very well that there a people who are kind and good and loving and generous and never do anything wrong. And then they’re accused of doing something wrong and they’re executed. So that’s where we start getting puzzled.

And that’s where our experience of karma just in this world simply does not work.

But the thing is for me, why would we want to? I mean, we’re grownups, Scott: super intelligent, super educated people. But we seem to lose all common sense and get all hysterical and emotional as soon as we hear this concept of reincarnation and karma.

The point is not just to pretend, not just to not like it, that’s childish. If we want to use intelligence and rigor and understand the whole Buddhist view—because let’s face it, Buddhism really is a theory of everything.

And they study in the Tibetan monastic university system for 20, 35 years. And that’s come all the way back to the great Nalanda tradition of India. We’ve got to understand that no one has to believe that the Buddha’s true. Buddha’s not asking you to believe him.

We’re just allowed to say it’s a theory of everything. And it is, it’s a view of the entire universe.

So, we’re grown-ups. What’s wrong with positing something? Buddha might be wrong. Once we establish that Buddha might be wrong, we’re brave enough to say, well let’s discuss what he has to say about karma.

So let’s discuss it. What is it? It’s perfectly feasible, feasible for intelligent Westerners as well. We’ve got to look at the logic of it. The crucial point has to be that we’ve got to hypothesize the possibility. The first step has to be this. We’ve got to hypothesize the possibility consciousness is not a function of the brain; is not itself the brain.

That’s not difficult for anybody. I remember recently, when I was editing Lama Zopa’s book about how to help at the time of death, I read this wonderful book by this wonderful American medical journalist, Dick Teresi. And it’s called The Undead.

It’s not about zombies, it’s about all his own findings in the American medical profession and all the stakes and the big contradictions and obstacles that are happening now because of the business of giving organs; people coming back to life, which has always been in all cultures. But now it’s forcing them to look at their assumptions about what consciousness is.

This guy has a whole chapter—he’s an atheist himself—a whole chapter on experiences of people on the operating table, under anesthetic, who have this experience of observing what’s going on. Buddhism exactly has explanations of all this, because that’s what’s called your subtle consciousness, which is beyond your physical, beyond the conceptual, beyond the sensory. That can be explained.

But he had a whole chapter and even he said, one woman had had to such a radical procedure, that they practically had to make her dead before they did it. But she reported the most vivid experience of observing the doctors, what they did, where they said. Nobody can argue with it. So, as one doctor interviewed in this book said, I can tell you now a certainty, that consciousness is not a function of the brain. I don’t know what it is that much I can say. So this is fantastic. We shouldn’t be so afraid of this concept, which is so common now.

And the amazing talks the Dalai Lama’s having; these incredible conferences of last 40 years. Brilliant philosophical materialists are now I’m looking into these possibilities. It’s really a topic that we can all handle if we want to:

The first one is that we hypothesize that consciousness is not physical.

Second, it’s not a product of your mother and father. The more we take Buddha’s view about consciousness and karma, which I’m going to say briefly. The Buddha’s view is not complicated. Consciousness is not physical. It didn’t—you didn’t—begin at conception. Your consciousness goes back and back and back as a river of mental moments.

Three, your consciousness continues on and on and on. This is a general view, continuity of consciousness, not physical. Every millisecond of what we think can do and say is this intricate process that occurs. It’s a natural law. No one runs it. No one’s punishing. No one’s rewarding. It’s a natural law. It happens. It’s called karma. Meaning every millisecond of what we think and do and say programs our consciousness. Every millisecond of what we think and do and say sews seeds in our consciousness, which naturally will ripen further down the track in that consciousness as the experience of that consciousness. That’s not a complicated concept. It’s not punishment. It’s not reward. It’s not a creator. It’s not random. It’s a natural law. And anybody since him, following his steps has observed the reality of this.

Scott:

This is great. So, you had kind of two answers to that. The first was the everyday answer, to just notice that, as you condition your mind, if you do negative things, you tend to do more. And if you do positive things, you tend to do more and condition your mind. So that’s easy to accept.

Ven. Robina:

That’s called learning! You’re not surprised you can get better at piano. But we are surprised if we keep being angry, and we get better at anger, because we want to keep blaming someone else. That’s our problem.

Scott:

That’s very good. That’s a very good quote. If you keep getting angry, you get better at anger. But then your second point is somewhat subtle. And I think quite strong, which is don’t take on karma and rebirth as beliefs, but take them on as hypotheses.

Ven. Robina:

And this is the point, Scott. If you hear Einstein tell you about relativity, we know he didn’t have a dream or a vision. We know he didn’t just make it up. We know it wasn’t revealed to him from above. We know he used his noggin, he observed things, and he presented it. That is Buddha, no more and no less. So exactly was relativity. You must start with it as a hypothesis. You can’t understand immediately. The same with this, there’s not a fraction of difference in the process.

Scott:

So, your second point is to be a, an intelligent adult and accept these hypotheses. Not, not as belief—

Ven. Robina:

Take it as a hypothesis! Maybe relativity is true. That’s interesting. Now let me do the job of proving it. But one step at a time, baby. It’s what scientists do already. But we think we have to believe it. Why? Because we assume we can’t prove it. We’ve got to be intelligent. Look at these hypotheses. See if we can think it through, first theoretically.

And this is my other point, Scott. Any body of knowledge, not just some random moments and weird experiences, which is what we think of spiritual. If any body of knowledge, whether it’s acupuncture, numbers, botany, or Buddhism, if it’s a valid body of knowledge—this is really crucial for me—it must first be coherent theoretically.

Scott:

Could you talk a little bit about—there’s a traditional argument for  the continuity of consciousness in Buddhism, could you talk a little bit about that? And how it might make sense again to newcomers?

Ven. Robina:

Okay. We’ve got to first posit the possibility, we’ve got a first state, “That’s interesting. Einstein said that. Now I want to look into it.” You start with the existence of relativity. You have to say that. So you start with the existence of nonphysical conscious. You don’t try to prove it first. You’ve got to first start with the thought, “Okay, consciousness is not physical. Now let’s prove it.” And you learn the theories. You learn the ideas, you learn the concepts, you learn the model.

And then as you do it, the dots start to join. And you’re still taking it as a hypothesis. You will not have a direct experience until you’ve got single-pointed concentration, which is pretty advanced. Then you’ll prove it to be true. But before that you’ve got to have confidence in the theories. You start with a hypothesis. Buddha might be wrong. And you’ll be the first one to prove him to be wrong, if he is.

So one of the first thing was someone asked Dalai Lama, How do you prove reincarnation? One of the crucial points is if, as His Holiness says, if we’re taking the position that consciousness, the capacity for cognition, itself is not physical. At the gross level, it’s supported by the brain obviously. But itself, it’s not physical.

So, this moment of happiness, for example, this is moment of anger, this moment of love. You want to take this as a hypothesis. That’s the moment of consciousness. That’s a moment of cognition.

Happiness is a moment of cognition. Love is a moment. Anger, jealousy, depression, you name it, all these things we call emotions.

They’ve got the physical component, but that’s not a direct function of anger. Because the mind and the body are intimately connected. But anger itself is the mind, it’s mental. If we take that mental is not physical, this moment of anger in my mind, its main cause has to be something of the same character: the milli-millionth of a second before that, which would be called a moment of anger or a potential to be angry.

And where does that one come from? The previous millisecond of that tendency to be angry. What did that come from? The previous millisecond of that tendency to be angry. It’s that level of precision that you have to think about first.

And this is the thing we’re not used to in our psychological models in the West. We don’t talk about the minute type of precise, clear internal cognitive process. We don’t have a talk like that. We describe the brain in detail. We don’t describe the subjective cognitive process itself. So it’s so precise in Buddhism.

So these are the concepts that we have to take on board as our hypothesis. And then as we go slowly, slowly, we’re still taking it as a theoretical level. Of course you are. To know the mind directly is a highly evolved thing, because it’s not physical. So it’s not that easy to prove it by your own experience overnight. You can’t. But you take it as a hypothesis and you work with it and base the rest of your life on that assumption.

Scott:

What you’re saying is, is quite powerful and quite subtle because it’s exactly the way scientists work, right? Scientists don’t go into a lab and tinker around and figure out, just go in and say, I’d like to discover something. The core element of the scientific process is to start with a hypothesis. And then to go in and try to prove or disprove it.

Ven. Robina:

So, let’s talk about karma more. It’s all very nice to have the theory, but the biggest point in Buddhism, as we know, what’s the point of the theory, if you don’t make it experiential. So the real question surely should be, If I do take karma as my hypothesis. And if I take the view that my mind is not coming from mommy, daddy, or creator, what’s the learning from this?

And this is the point. So, in other words, what are the experiential implications of this?

Well, I’ll tell you the experiential implication of believing that you didn’t ask to get born; of believing that your mother and father made you; of believing it’s everybody else’s fault; of believe that God made you; is the job, this victim. We even say, I didn’t ask to get born. It has nothing to do with me. It’s not my fault. Buddha says, a load of rubbish. You are the fruit of your past. In the same way that if I’m playing the piano, it is the result of my hard work.

Well, my anger is result of my hard work, my love and my kindness and the learnings from that is very powerful. When you take, as the hypothesis that my mind came into this womb of my mother’s fully programmed with my tendencies.

So then immediately it becomes ownership. I mean, it takes a while. Because we love to blame. But then it becomes ownership. It’s my anger. It’s my love. It’s my kindness. This is powerful experientially.

And then, gradually, as we live according to this, it lessens our attachment lessens anger, lessens blame, lessens guilt, lessens shame. This is all the rubbish. We grow up and become more accountable.

And because we know that every millisecond of what we think and do and say will produce who I am tomorrow and next year and next life, of course, I’m going to want to practice morality and goodness and ethics.

Who wants suffering? Not me baby! So karma is a profound philosophical view that informs our practice. Not just some interesting concepts that live in your head. It transforms the person. You take responsibility. It’s powerful.

Scott:

When you take on the hypothesis of karma, as you practice that over many years, you see the positive effect it has on your life.

Ven. Robina:

That’s the point. That’s the encouraging point, that it helps you transform. Because you start growing up, you start taking responsibility, you stop being a victim, you stop blaming. It’s a very powerful result. And it lessens attachment and anger. They’re the philosophy of a victim. I’m not being rude, but this is how we all are.

Scott:

Oh, very nice. Well, it has been really lovely talking to you. It’s a pleasure, and it expanded my mind a bit and I think it will be a great benefit to the people who listen to this eventually. Anything else you’d like to mention before we sign off?

Ven. Robina:

I think the bottom line is, if there’s anything that’s in any of these ideas, even 1% that you think, wow, that’s interesting, I’ll see about putting it into practice.

Scott:

Put it into practice.

 Ven. Robina:

Never give up on our amazing potential. We’ve all got amazing potential. And we can develop the two wings of the bird, Buddha says, the wisdom wing and the compassion wing. Compassion wing’s the point, to help others. But you have to develop the wisdom wing first, which is the nuts and bolts of working on yourself. Then, to that degree, we can help others. That’s it.

And don’t give up. That’s my thought. Don’t give up.

Scott:

Well, thank you so much. Thanks for everything you do for the world. You’re a real treasure. I hope you live very long and continue to do all your wonderful, activities.

Ven. Robina:

Oh I do my best! Fighting death. Thank you, Scott. So nice to talk to you.

Scott:

We hoped you enjoyed our first interview with Venerable Robina. If you’d like to discuss this episode, or any other topics from A Skeptics Path to Enlightenment, please join our private meditation discussion group. You can find a link to it at the bottom of our website at skepticspath.org.

Transcripts of all our episodes are also available on our website, If you ever want to go back and read part or all of an episode.

Thanks as always to Stephen Butler, my partner and producer in Skeptics Path, for conceiving and producing this new interview format for our podcast.

Credits

Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio

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