A Bit about My Life

“What drove me more than anything was always, and it sounds so noble I know, was always the wish to understand things; the wish for truth.”

Ven. Robina shares a bit about her life

Ordained since the late 1970s, Ven. Robina has worked full time since then for Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s FPMT. Over the years she has served as editorial director of Wisdom Publications, editor of Mandala Magazine, executive director of Liberation Prison Project, and as a touring teacher of Buddhism. Her life and work with prisoners have been featured in the documentary films Chasing Buddha and Key to Freedom.


The below Q & A was excerpted from Becoming Your Own Therapist Weekend Workshop, Sydney, January 2007

Question: How did you become who you are? I overheard you saying that you couldn’t meditate for the first seven years. You walked. So there was obviously a struggle there. There was obviously a process you went through.

Ven. Robina: Sweetie Pie, are you assuming that because a person’s a Buddhist, they didn’t struggle? It’s like saying you now can play basketball like Michael Jordan. Of course there was a time when you couldn’t play basketball, when you struggled. That goes without saying.

Question: I guess I’m wanting to know what your life experience…

Ven. Robina: You want to know my life history?

Question: Yeah, a little bit.

Ven. Robina: (Pause.)

Well I’m Sagittarius. (Laughter.) Born at four o’clock in the morning in Melbourne at the Mercy Hospital. I came out bottom first, Sagittarius rising, four in the morning. My mars is in Sagittarius too. My moon is in Aquarius – this is what I have heard – I was the second of seven children. Catholic family.

Question: That’s actually exactly what I wanted to know.

Ven. Robina: Oh, all right. (Laughter.)

My father wasn’t a Catholic. My mother had eight children in nine years and one died, I think. She didn’t start until she was 33. So since I was a little girl I really liked God. I ran to mass, and from the moment I went to mass I knew it was my job. Like it was written in the sky, Robina will be a priest. And I announced it to everyone in my family and of course they all laughed because girls can’t be priests. I didn’t even get it intellectually; I just assumed that it would be my job. I thought, oh all right, I’ll be a nun.

So all the time on the one side I was a very naughty girl, always rebellious, always making trouble, and on the other, very religious. We were a pretty dysfunctional family, but we had a very close connection. I loved my father, loved my mother, loved my sisters and brother. And poor. But my mother managed to send us to the fanciest Catholic schools – education was important to her.

My memory of childhood was always like chaos and fighting and shouting; because I was a bit of a fighter, shouting and fighting with my father and fighting with my sisters and fighting at school. But all the time internally I think what drove me more than anything was always, and it sounds so noble I know, was always the wish to understand things; the wish for truth. To find out why things were the way they were.

So I think by the time I was 15, all this Catholic stuff so deep in me, so strong, loving.

When I was a little girl, when I was 12, that was in the ’50s and we were all into Elvis.

Any widgies and bodgies here? Remember girls and boys, we were widgies and bodgies, weren’t we? In the ’50s, the widgies were the girls and the bodgies were the boys We wore a thing with studs on it and we had a thing around the neck that said Elvis.

So I’d go to Woolies and steal these pink fluorescent earrings and wear them with lippie.

And I remember walking down the street and falling in love with Tony Kinkota, the greengrocer.

And I remember trying to flirt with him and then my mother found out and she freaked completely and she sent me to boarding school for my last two years at the same convent I had been at since I was little.

Anyway I was always wanting happiness for sure, wanting the truth. These were the two themes in my life, I think.

So when I was 16 I went to our school fair and I bought a record of Billie Holliday, a seven-inch. It was sixpence and I remember thinking I wonder who he is. I was attracted to the name, don’t know why.

So I bought Billie Holliday and that really began — my religious aspirations became sort of social, from 15 to about 20-something. The Black American experience was very strong for me in my evolution — jazz and everything.

Then by the time I was 19 I fell in love with a married man and I was too scared to sleep with him. So I ran away to Adelaide to try and put my life together and I gave up going to mass.

All this time I am studying singing with my mother. She’s a classical musician; she had great hopes for me. So I was studying singing.

I think she’d be pleased I can still do my breath right. You learn how to hold your breath, don’t you, when you’re a singer? I think I’ve got that a little right still.

So, 23, kind of hippy already, went to London. Lots of political activity. All the time looking for truth more than happiness. I had relationships. Totally into men.

Robina in London in 1971 when she and her older sister Jan worked full-time with the political activist group Friends of Soledad, which supported three black American prisoners charged with the murder of white prison guard at Soledad Prison in California in 1970.

“Jan and I were visiting friends in Kent in the UK, in the spring of 1971, when I was 26 (the photo was taken by our dear friend James Spence, who died recently). The button on Jan’s left shoulder says ‘Soledad Brothers’: we worked full-time with a political activist group called Friends of Soledad, in London, which was started by a friend, Mary Clemmey, which supported three black American prisoners in California, who at the time were a cause célèbre. Mary was the literary agent of one of the three, George Jackson.”

But the moment it went wrong I was gone. Like the dust. You couldn’t see me. I couldn’t stand being around with this drama and this jealousy and this panic. Oh, I couldn’t stand it. I’d rather have freedom any day. I never wanted to live with anybody. I never wanted possessions. I never wanted houses. I never wanted a baby. Not even for half a second in my life ever has the thought of a baby come up.

So I didn’t want those things. I never gave them up. I just didn’t want them.

Sex? Drugs? Yes, gosh, plenty please!

Jazz? Plenty, thank you very much!

So – kind of finding my way. And this was interesting. With my mum, with my family, I was never the good girl. I never did anything in the house. I knew my mother was suffering and I knew she wanted us to stay at home and I didn’t care, I just knew what I had to do. So even though she cried, I left.

My other sisters were kind of nervous and worried and tried to take care of Mum. Of course she got mad at them – but I didn’t care. So there’s a good thing to that. I didn’t go around trying to make my mother happy. It was selfish but there was a good side to it. You get my point here? I followed what I knew I had to do and I knew my mother’s suffering was hers. It was okay. She cried when I finally went off to be a nun. I mean she cried all the time. When I was a hippy and I started sleeping around and having drugs she cried. Then I was a bit of a leftie and she cried. Then she came to London and I was hanging around and sleeping with all these black men and she cried. Then I became a feminist and she really cried when I brought girls home to sleep with, this was really too much. But she always forgave me and rang me up the next day as if nothing had happened. My dear mother was so kind I can’t tell you. Because she always wanted me to love her, it’s not the other way around. She always wanted me to love her. So there is a good side I can see now when I look back. I followed my own thing. I kept trying to find —and all my sisters felt sorry for me.

Poor Robina hasn’t got a husband. Poor Robina hasn’t got any money. Poor Robina hasn’t got a job. Poor Robina is always paranoid and struggling.

Anyway, whatever, maybe they don’t anymore. So it just kept going until finally, by the time I stopped being a hippy and hating all the straight people; a communist and hating all the rich people; then into black politics and hating all the white people; then feminist and hating all the male people. I knew I couldn’t hate the entire human race. There was only me left.

“Two of my five sisters, Jan, to my right, and Julie, visited me at Kopan in 1993 when I lived there for a year. Here we are at a hotel in the mountains just out of Kathmandu.”

So then I started doing martial arts. It really suited me. It harnessed all this energy and then I started back into something spiritual again, trying different things. TM, went back to mass, and then finally, 30 years ago now, bumped into these Tibetan lamas who turned out to be the ones I would say now are my teachers: Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa.

So this was in Queensland, in the first centre that they started in Australia. I was back in Australia for a while, having been in other countries for years, and I was doing karate. Totally focused on this. Fanatic. I was always fanatic, training six days a week, completely going in this direction. Kind of felt I had found my path.

And then I was in East Melbourne, a posh suburb. I was driving and there were these two old ladies —they were probably younger than what I am now — but they were old then, driving their car. They stopped in the middle of the road and I hopped out (I had no shoes) to help push their car. Somehow, and I never can work out to this day how it happened, there was this bizarre car accident. This bloke passed me and somehow my left foot was out, I don’t know how, I was pushing this car, and he ran over it. And I heard it snap, this little bone. I fell on the road and I remember freaking out. I couldn’t do my karate. I was in a state of hysteria and this bloke came over and I screamed at him You ran over my ***** foot! He said ‘Oh I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.’

He was very sweet. His name was Bill Bright. I’ll never forget him. I’m very grateful.

He took me to the Mercy Hospital, where I got born, and they fixed me.

But I was devastated, absurdly so. Because I couldn’t do my karate.

So anyway when I was deeply depressed and sitting in this restaurant Shakahari in Fitzroy and I saw a poster of a course by Lama Yeshe and this name sort of triggered something – Lama Yeshe. I couldn’t do my karate so I thought oh alright I might as well go.

So I went up to Queensland and that’s how I met these lamas and that’s how I met this path.

So how old was I then? 1976. So I was 31. I can look back on my life and it was this complete internal evolution. Constant wish to understand the truth; constant looking. Searching for it. Definite.

“It was March 9, 1978, Tushita, Dharamsala. I’d arrive recently from Kopan, where I’d taken rabjung vows with Lama Zopa Rinpoche on February 9, so was already wearing robes. I was doing a Tara retreat and Lama Yeshe had organized an ordination ceremony for three of us to take our next set of vows, the 36 vows of the novice – me, Vicky from Sydney, and Stefano Piovella, an Italian. Lama had requested Ling Rinopoche, His Holiness’s Senior Tutor, whose house was a five-minute walk from Tushita, to run the ceremony but Rinpoche was busy, so Tarab Tulku gave us the vows. As it was a novice ordination, there needed to be at least five fully ordained monks (there are no nuns fully ordained in the Tibetan tradition), so Lama and Rinpoche were two of the five. I was very glad they were there! Afterwards, out the back near the kitchen, my friend Sylvia Wetzel grabbed her camera, handed me a rhododenron, which flourish in the area, and took the photo.”

“I arrived in Rinpoche’s room at Kopan before dawn on the morning of Tibetan New Year, February 9, 1978, ready to take my rabjung vows, the first set of 8 vows. Rinpoche took his pad of paper and peeled off this sheet and said, ‘I just did a little drawing for you.’ I clutched it all day, like a little girl, I was so happy! The phonetics of my name are ‘Thubten Kunsel.’”

At the same time pursuing what I wanted. Doing what I wanted. Trying to get happiness. Trying to see these two together. This was always what pursued me. More than the wish for security. More than the wish for happiness and things.

I’m not saying I don’t like things; it’s just that this is what drove me in my life. And lots of up and down. Completely crazy, manic-depressive, fighting with people, dramas, relationship dramas, angry dramas — this is my memory of my life.

Then I met these lamas and a whole new phase of dramas started and that’s the last 30 years, the hardest years of my life. So there you go. That’s the answer. Is that enough?

Question: Yes it is!

Ven. Robina: Okay.