Postcard 15 from Robina: Melbourne, Wednesday October 26, 2011

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I will have covered quite a bit of southeastern Australia during this visit. I had more of Queensland before heading to Sydney on October 1. Up to the Sunshine Coast, 100 km north of Brisbane, to the miniature town of Eudlo, then a few more km along Johnsons Road till it dead-ends at Chenrezig Institute.

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This is the first center that Lama Yeshe started outside Nepal (Kopan Monastery in the Kathmandu Valley) and India (Tushita in Dharamsala). Chenrezig was born in 1974, called after the Buddha of Compassion. Lama’s next two centers were called after the other two main aspects of an enlightened being: Manjushri Institute in the north of England (wisdom) and Vajrapani Institute in California (power). (And, of course, it’s where I met the lamas a couple of years later.)

It’s based on 80 acres (more or less) of hilly land, 30 km inland from the coast, which can be seen on a clear day. It has a community that includes 20 nuns and some monks, who mainly study the intensive program there, which has been a highlight of the place for many years.

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His Holiness greeted at Chenrezig Institute earlier this year, on June 16, with a Welcome to Country ceremony by dancers from the Gubbi Gubbi tribe, the traditional owners of the land.

These days they’re still delighting in their first-ever visit from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in June. Director Maureen Walshe says that four thousand people, including hundreds of local school children, greeted His Holiness, who gave a talk in the newly-renovated gompa and blessed the Enlightenment Garden. “It was such a magical day,” says Maureen. “Perfect weather, perfect everything.”

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Then I went to Stradbroke Island, just east of Brisbane. Straddie, as it’s called – Australians shorten just about every word in their vocabulary! – is home to Gail Bell, who visited Tushita when I was there in 2009. She has started a little group and we had a weekend course, our second.

Next was the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney, where I flew into from Brisbane, for a weekend course at Kunsang Yeshe Centre in their lovely house on five acres of land. And then to Sydney, where I spent a year in 2009, raising money for the prison project and where I handed over running it to Chokyi, a nun at Vajrayana Institute. I like Sydney: a big, booming city and, because of its harbor, stunningly beautiful.

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With the group at Kunsang Yeshe in the Blue Mountains (above); and a view of Sydney (below).

I was born in Melbourne and didn’t see much of Sydney most of my life. Most of my family – six siblings and their families – live in or around Melbourne; my older sister Jan lives in Sydney.

I only really got to know Sydney by driving around it in 2009 – in an old bomb of a car lent to me by my dear friend David Heilpern, a magistrate (equivalent to a district court judge in the US). I learned the hard way about speeding – by getting hundreds of dollars of tickets. I was used to the States where you’d have to be stopped by a policeman to get fined but in Australia they rely on technology: there are cameras everywhere! You simply don’t have a choice: you just can’t afford to speed. The top speed on the freeways is never more than 110 km per hour (66 mph). Very boring.

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With Osel Rinpoche in Landox Park, across the road from Tara Institute in Melbourne, in 1987. Photo by Jane Lewis.

It was in Sydney that I first started my job of teaching. At the end of my ten-year stint with Wisdom Publications, in October 1987, at a retreat with Lama Zopa Rinopche in New Zealand – Osel Rinpoche, who was two at the time, stayed with us nuns and was around throughout the five weeks – I had no idea what I’d do next. During a meeting with Rinpoche he said, “Go to Sydney and teach.” I have in my mind the image of Michelangelo’s Hand of God Giving Life to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel – I visualize Rinpoche pointing his finger towards Sydney and directing me there. I don’t think it was like that, but it felt like it.

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Actually, I don’t think the center needed anyone at the time, but they ended up with me. It was in a rented house on the North Shore, in Cremorne, not far from the water. I remember vividly being very nervous about talking to people, mainly fearing that I’d run out of words. Then I decided that 1. I’d talk as if I was talking to one person and 2. if I couldn’t think of anything else to say I’d ask people to ask questions. From then on I relaxed and it’s worked ever since.

This time in Sydney, on October 7, I heard about the death of Steve Jobs. Like so many other people around the world, I was sad to think about a world without him. That man really touched my heart. As I said in my last postcard, I am so inspired by his qualities, his courage, his vision, his clarity.

Also in Sydney I met my friend Joyce Morgan, the arts writer at the Sydney Morning Herald and author of her first book, just out in Australia, about the Diamond Sutra, the world’s oldest printed book: Journeys on the Silk Road, published by Picador. We met at our mutual friend Phillipa Drynan’s, who does communications for artists and musicians, who has lived for years at the home of Margaret Olley, one of Australia’s most well known artists, who died in July at the age of 88. Philippa said that she’d just finished the last of her works for her big new exhibition at Sotheby’s in Sydney when she passed away early the next morning.

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One of Margaret Olley’s still lifes; Philippa and Margaret; with Joyce at Margaret Olley’s in Paddington.

Even though she was 88, she, like the rest of us, probably didn’t expect to die that day. But for Steve Jobs, impermanence was in the front of his mind. In a speech he gave to students at Stanford soon after he was diagnosed with cancer, in 2005, he gave the most perfect advice to all of us: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

As Lama Zopa says, “Best to think, I will die today.”

Next was Hobart, at the southern end of Australia, in the little island state of Tasmania. My dear friend Ven. Lindy Mailhot runs Chagtong Chentong there and we had a weekend course and a couple of days together. On my last day there I visited Risdon, the only prison in the state (except for a couple of remand centers, like US county jails). The women’s section has about 25 inhabitants, the only female prisoners in Tasmania it seems. Apparently there are 170 prisoners per 100,000 adults in prison in Australia, compared with 750 or so per 100,000 adults in the USA.

After Hobart I flew across Bass Strait to Melbourne, my hometown, where I spent time with my family. More about them next week.

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