Postcard 33 from Robina: Sydney, Tuesday, June 18, 2013

2013-06-03 11:00:00

It’s been seven months since I wrote a postcard! I can’t believe it. It feels like a minute ago that I was in Toronto, in December, and the last place I wrote about. So I’ll start again, this time with an event in Sydney in June and go back every now and then to cover the places I’ve been since Toronto.

The event was the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Sydney June 14-16, who was in Australia for 10 days or so. As always, amazing. So full of energy and enthusiasm, and always showing so much kindness to us modern-day people. His Holiness didn’t use the throne for most of the public teachings, sitting instead in an armchair, with his shoes on and his feet sticking out, very relaxed indeed! For Tibetans it’s considered one of the worst of bad manners to stick your feet out, but there was His Holiness, being just like us for our sake.

His Holiness taught in Sydney June 14-16. As always, amazing. So full of energy and enthusiasm. Photo Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013.
His Holiness teaching to a packed house at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Photo Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013.

It reminds me of ads that the bank HSBC does showing the same behavior in various countries: in Asia, for example, taking off your shoes when you visit: good. In the West, taking off your shoes when you visit: bad. Which nicely proves emptiness: that things exist how we label them. So, same here: at the teachings in a Tibetan monastery, wearing shoes in the gompa and poking your legs out: BAD. In the West: just fine. Thank you, Your Holiness.

In an answer to a journalist about being reborn, His Holiness mentioned not other realms but other galaxies! Again, how Western. And often these days when His Holiness gives the lay vows in big groups, he gives the killing vow, which usually involves committing to not kill humans or animals, only in relation to not committing murder, as he puts it. And often, too, the no drinking alcohol vow comes from His Holiness as not getting drunk, always quoting as his precedent his own root lama Ling Rinpoche who, after having given the vow to one old guy, relented when the old guy panicked and declared that, No! I couldn’t give up drinking! “Okay then,” Ling Rinpoche said, “Don’t get drunk then!”

For Tibetans it’s considered one of the worst of bad manners to stick your feet out, but there was His Holiness, being just like us for our sake. Photo Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013.
His Holiness with Australian actress Cate Blanchett (right) and her mother (left). Cate introduced His Holiness at the public teaching on June 16 to a crowd of some 10,000 people. Photo Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013.

And His Holiness was forever cracking jokes. And telling people off. So no-nonsense. Even the whiff of a dumb question would have him giving back an in-kind answer. During the Young Minds conference that Tony Steel of Vajrayana Institute organized, a 19-year-old girl asked His Holiness what advice he’d give to his 19-year-old self. What a silly question, he said! And gave an answer to fit the question: “Drink more!”

His Holiness answered questions from children and teens on the opening day of the Young Minds conference organized by FPMT’s Vajrayana Institute in June. This little girl asked His Holiness what his favourite book was – a book on astronomy he told her. Photo Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013.
His Holiness was forever cracking jokes during the Sydney teachings and interviews – here at FPMT’s Young Minds conference. Photo/Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013.
His Holiness also visited patients at Westmead Hospital during his Sydney visit. Photo Rusty Stewart/DLIA 2013

Lynn Bain, who runs The Dalai Lama in Australia, kindly offered us space at the Sydney event to sell the film Chasing Buddha, which my nephew Amiel made in 1999. Finally, after all these years of sitting on it, doing virtually nothing to promote or sell it, the producers gave the film to Amiel. We agreed to work on it together and get it out there and he’s offered my Bodhichitta Trust fifty percent of all profits on its sale.

My nephew Amiel, the Australian filmmaker who directed Chasing Buddha, his first documentary film, when he was just 18. Amiel’s aspired to make movies since I can remember: his father would allow him all-night showings of lord-knows-what-kind-of-movies when he was tiny. Photo Hannah Courtin-Wilson.
Amiel and me together in Melbourne in May.

It launched his career, I’d say. He was nominated for Best Documentary Director at the 2000 Australian Film Industry awards, and it got a theatrical release in various Australian cities and was shown on television by SBS, who partially funded it.

Amiel’s aspired to make movies since I can remember: his father would allow him all-night showings of lord-knows-what-kind-of-movies when he was tiny. In 1998, when I was based in the States, he emailed that he wanted to write a script about my life. Joking but serious, I said, “Why don’t you come and make the movie?” And he did.

The work of Liberation Prison Project had been happening for a couple of years already; I was still editor of Mandala and we called the work then Milarepa Prison Project. I managed to get permission for Amiel and his “cinematographer” – as he grandly referred to Vinnie, his childhood mate and the one with the camera – to come into Kentucky State Penitentiary with me. That was unusual, for sure. The kind man who gave permission was a rarity in prisons: open and friendly and happy to accommodate our wishes. The footage is, for sure, some of the most moving parts of the film.

Scenes from Chasing Buddha: TOP: My old friend Ralph Ospalski and me in the Kentucky State Prison Chapel; MIDDLE: giving a teaching to the death row guys (in red jumpsuits) and others (in white) – directly to the left of my head you can see Mitch Willoughby (with the beard), a dedicated Dharma practitioner, and to my right Leif Halvorsen (also with a beard), a devoted Catholic; BOTTOM: Ralph and me, again, discussing his practice.

The version we’ve put out now – The Bodhichitta Trust has funded and organized it – has two and a half hours of extra materials, including outtakes from interviews with the prisoners, as well as recent phone interviews of two of our old friends there, who are in the movie, Mitch and Ralph, bringing us up to date with their situations. Mitch is on death row and is getting close to his death date, unless something out of the blue happens. “I’m ready for that electric jolt,” he told me recently. And he is. Unlike most of us, he realizes he will die and is preparing for it. How? By recognizing the reality of impermanence, taking care of others, doing his practice – in other words, making the most of this precious life. As Lama Zopa Rinpoche says, we absurdly divide the world into living people and dying people, but we’re all dying, it’s just a question of time. I remember one of our friends there, Frank, who no doubt was counting down the years before his execution, was diagnosed with leukemia and died from it. Even your execution date is not permanent.

Mitchell Willoughby has been on death row in Kentucky since 1983. “I’m ready for that electric jolt,” he told me recently. And he is. Unlike most of us, he realizes he will die and is preparing for it. How? By recognizing the reality of impermanence, taking care of others, doing his practice – in other words, making the most of this precious life. Photo Mitchell Willoughby.

Anyway, Kate Macdonald came from Portland to Sydney to organize the stall and sell the DVDs. It’s selling at the centers now, too, and online at Our dear friend Guillermo in Raleigh, NC, who does so much work for the prison project and others, did the website, the DVD covers, etc., etc. Actually, the original design was done by my sister Julie Cattlin in Melbourne back in 2001 when we were given permission to use it for fundraising for the prison project.

The stall Kate Macdonald set up to sell Chasing Buddha DVDs during His Holiness’s teachings in Sydney, June 14-16. Amiel has kindly offered 50% of all profits from sales of the DVD to my Bodhichitta Trust, which supports the work of Lama Zopa Rinpoche and FPMT.

Since then Amiel has made several movies, some featured at Cannes and Venice. Just now he’s received funding for a movie he made in Cambodia, in Cambodian – a love story, I think he said.


Back to December. Where did I head to after Toronto? It was Boston, to spend my now annual two or three weeks at Kurukulla Center, where I get to stay in the nice front room with the winter sunshine pouring through: a very pleasant room, I must say.

I left there just before Christmas. But first I had a meal in Cambridge with Tim McNeill, who runs Wisdom. I met Tim first in the mid-1980s before he worked for the FPMT – these days he’s also on the FPMT board – although he’d first met the lamas himself when he worked in Asia for the Peace Corps. He’s got a big, very nervous German Shepherd-Doberman mix. I had to just move and he’d put his teeth into me!

Tim McNeill and Jangchub, who was named by Lama Zopa Rinpoche.

Then I flew to New York and on to Los Angeles, where I spent a few days with Rashel Adragna, an old friend who used to work with me at the prison project and is now a realtor in LA. We spent Christmas Day at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a famous pink establishment. I like Los Angeles. Even though I spent all of my time in the US from 1994 till 2008 in Northern California, I always preferred it down south. I’d often drive down the coast, especially when I was visiting friends in prison, and I’d liven up the further south I’d get.

Rashel Adragna (far right) worked with me for years at Liberation Prison Project, and her good friends Whitney Mixter (far left) and Sara Bettencourt (center), with whom she runs ZOPA Realty, an international real estate consultation company based in Los Angeles. Rashel founded ZOPA Realty last year. Photo ZOPA Realty.
Rashel and I spent Christmas Day at the Beverly Hills Hotel, the famous pink establishment.
We also visited the Grove, an outdoor mall in LA, enjoying its spectacular lights and Christmas decorations. Photo Rashel Adragna.

More Postcards

Postcard 78 from Robina, Cumbria, March 26, 2017

2017-03-26 11:00:00 It was straight to London from Riga, February 6, for two months in the UK. From Heathrow I took a train to London. As usual, instead of flying, my usual method of getting around the world, I got myself a senior’s train pass that allowed me to go...

Postcard 66 from Robina: Bogotá, January 25, 2016

2016-01-25 11:00:00 A pre-dawn drive with Violette and Francois from Marzens to Toulouse airport got me to my plane for London. I had a six-hour wait, which is not unusual. Because I have so many miles in my Qantas plan, I get to stay in the first class lounges at the...

Postcard 67 from Robina: San Juan, February 28, 2016

2016-02-28 11:00:00 Here I am in Puerto Rico again, at Yangsi Rinpoche’s center; my last visit was two years ago, also in March. The first bit of sun I’ve had for a while. It’s Spring here, and a lot warmer than up north. But before this, during the past month after...

Postcard 68 from Robina: Laguna Beach, March 28, 2016

2016-03-28 11:00:00 Thubten Kunga Center director Rebecca Smith met me in Miami on Monday February 29 and drove me the hour up the coast to Deerfield Beach. The center has been there for twenty-plus years, started by Jacie Keeley, one of Lama Yeshe’s former...

Postcard 69 from Robina: Brisbane, May 20, 2016

2016-05-20 11:00:00 It’s six weeks since I left Los Angeles, at 10:30pm Monday March 28, and landed in Sydney 15 hours later, at 6:30am Wednesday the 30th. It was Spring in California and Autumn in Sydney, but it felt pretty much the same, weather-wise. I went...

Share this article