Postcard 14 from Robina: Brisbane, Monday September 26, 2011

2011-09-26 11:00:00

Three weeks in Australia already, the sounds and smells and look of the sky all so familiar: they must have left a deep impression since childhood, even though I didn’t pay attention to such things then. Adelaide first: 10 days there at the invitation of Buddha House; and now Brisbane, at the invitation of Langri Tangpa Centre.

I have a soft spot for Adelaide: it’s where I ran away to when I was 19 and full of angst about my wasted life. I was still going to Mass as a good Catholic and had fallen in love with a married man who worked for our family business, Commando Printing Services, but was too scared to do anything about it. And I felt my life was a mess and I wasn’t achieving anything. I borrowed £20 from a friend and took the overnight train to Adelaide, 400+ miles away. I’d never been there before, so I have no idea why I chose it – perhaps Sydney, which is bigger, seemed too scary.


I stayed in a Catholic hostel on North Terrace and went looking for a job. I’d never had to do that as I’d always worked at Commando since I’d left school at 16 (our father, who served in a commando unit in New Guinea during World War II, called it that – according to the dictionary a commando is a member of “any of the specially trained Allied military units used for surprise, hit-and-run raids against Axis forces”). I spent nearly a month job-hunting: I was so naive and I had no experience worth talking about. I lied to get a job as a waitress, but it took the cafe-owner all of an hour to see that I was hopeless at it. Eventually I got a job at some government department as a clerical assistant, earning a pittance. I was very earnest and wanted to put my life together, I remember, and would spend nights at home writing essays and attempting to draw, full of ideals and yearning.

It was during this period that I decided to give up going to Mass. I’d made a decision that it was time to be serious about men and give them a go, and as a good Catholic you can’t have both, so it was Goodbye God, hello boys. My mother – whom I’d write to regularly and whom I told everything to it seems – was devastated and came over to Adelaide to drag me back home. But I wasn’t ready yet. That was 1964.

As for Brisbane and Queensland, I have a soft spot for here, too – although the sticky humid summers make a mess of my memories. Queensland, in the northeast of the country, is Australia’s Florida. I did my first Buddhist course here, at Chenrezig on the Sunshine Coast, 100 km north of Brisbane, in June 1976. It was winter and the wind came howling through the as-yet-to-be-glassed-in louvre windows around the entire gompa as well as through the cracks between the floor planks in this typical Queensland building on stilts.

The place was packed with 200 people for the lam-rim course of Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s. One part of me knew I’d come home, but much of me was shouting in resistance. Plus, I didn’t understand most of what Rinpoche said. I couldn’t get my head around the concepts; they seemed so arcane, medieval. I kept thinking, “Where’s the Buddhism?!” But I happily went to every session for the entire month.


Lama at Chenrezig Institute in 1976.

What saved me was Lama Yeshe, wonderful Lama and his clear, funny, modern, down-to-earth, psychological way of putting things. He’d come in the evening. He had me for sure. I used to think, “Who are you? Where have I met you before?” He seemed very familiar to me. I stayed on for another month and did the retreat with Lama on a lovely practice composed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama when he was 19, called The Inseparability of the Lama and Chenrezig. (Years later I edited the teachings for Wisdom, published as Becoming the Compassion Buddha.)

Back to the present. In Adelaide, where I arrived from Israel September 1 – after 50 hours of flying back and forth across the globe (just as well I don’t get jet lag any more) – I stayed with my old friend Lyndy Abram: we first met at Manjushri Institute in 1978. She was the director of Buddha House for many years and now takes care of the spiritual program.

VRC_Buddha_House.jpg A._Buddha_House_students_3.jpg

The crowd at Buddha House.

We hear the news from Kopan that Lama Lhundrup passed away September 7. He sat in meditation for days afterwards while the monks recited prayers around the clock. We did Medicine Buddha practice. He’d been the resident teacher at Buddha House for several months in 1986.

And news about Lama Zopa Rinpoche? Always, the thought of Rinpoche at Kopan is there; always praying that he is becoming stronger and stronger. All I can do? Practice and keep my vows perfectly. For the students of a lama, the lama’s actions are our karmic appearance: every word, every breath is showing me something.


Beloved Abbot of Kopan Monastery in Kathmandu Khen Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup with Lama Zopa Rinpoche just days before he entered clear-light meditation.

In Brisbane I’ve been with Miffi and Eddie all week. I’ve known Miffi since she was a little girl, before I became a nun; her mother Inta started the centre here. Miffi takes care of the program, as well as the office, and both she and Eddie teach some of the classes. Langri Tangpa, which used to be at Inta’s home, is now in a former church, which they bought four years ago.

Miffi met the lamas when she was eight. She remembers one dinner party with Lama and Rinpoche as the special guests, attended, she says, “by Inta’s outrageously camp hairdresser friend Ted and my Korean tae-kwan-do instructor and his Croation neo-nazi students.” Miffi totally adored the lamas: “Lama was my very best friend.”

She is an aging Goth, she says. “But now I’ve discovered pastels – candy skulls, that is.” Believe me, she has them, and skeletons and suchlike. She’s a trained seamstress and used to make costumes for people in the circus and for sex workers. Eddie is Maori from New Zealand and is a former heroin dealer and addict who spent some years in prison. They both do an amazing job now at Langri Tangpa, living downstairs, totally dedicated to their work, a huge support for Jaimee the director.


Miffie and Eddie.

My driver for the week was Mark Kerle, a former Queensland policeman. My MacBook Pro and iPad both had problems, which took five trips to the Apple Store at Chermside to fix (the store at Robina, a town on the Gold Coast, was too far away). How I admire Steve Jobs and what he’s achieved! If Dharma centers were run the way Apple runs, the world would be pervaded by Buddhism. His vision and clarity and conviction are extraordinary. The one Brisbane store has a staff of 150, with at least 35 on the floor at any given time. From the second you enter the door, you’re taken care of and sent in the right direction. All the staff, mostly young, seem as if they’ve won the lottery in having their job – and indeed it’s as if they have: one of them told me that there were 2,000 applicants for the position he got. And the place is packed with customers, all buying things. If you make beautifully designed products, market them brilliantly, sell them in elegant shops, and provide perfect service, what else but success could possibly come?

Now that my iPad is back online I can continue to read my newspapers. One of my favorites is the New York Times, and one of my favorite sections is the Weddings & Celebrations. I can’t wait for the new wedding stories on Sundays! The photos of the couples, including gay couples, and in particular the one story they feature each week that goes into depth about how they met, etc. just grips me. There they are, so happy, with their life together ahead of them, full of expectations, full of hope. And of course, because they’re human beings like the rest of us, with attachment and anger and fears and the rest, you just know what will unfold as they live their lives together.

The other section I love to read is the Obituaries. And it’s the same thing. There is this person, in the beginning so young and innocent and beautiful and eager for life. Then their various pursuits and ups and downs. And then, like a dream, all gone, just like that. It’s a vivid meditation on the reality of impermanence. Unless there are some virtuous imprints left on the mind and some good activities left behind us when we die, what’s the point of it all? It’s all gone like a flash of lightning.

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