At 24, Freeman Trebilcock is a young Buddhist monk who thinks actions speak louder than words, which is why he is often very busy. Recently on the road with the visiting Nepalese singing nun, Ani Choying Drolma, the organising demands of the tour tested Freeman’s Buddhist practice to the limit.
Keeping a Spiritual Diary was a grounding experience for Freeman, who after twelve years has not yet found a stable routine to his spiritual practice.
Freeman’s special interest in interfaith work has won him accolades and awards, but being CEO of Interaction in Melbourne and founder of Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth has also confirmed his view that young people have strong spiritual interests and a desire to work for the common good.
Rachael Kohn: Imagine this; an Aussie high school kid wearing the red robes of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Character building? I’d say so. Especially given this fella made friends, played in the school band, and liked popular music, like the John Butler Trio you’re hearing.
[Music: ‘Better Than’, John Butler Trio, Grand National]
He’s young, enthusiastic, and he accepted my invitation to keep a spiritual diary for The Spirit of Things. Hello, I’m Rachael Kohn, and today you’ll hear from the 24-year-old Freeman Trebilcock, Venerable Freeman Trebilcock. You’re tuned to RN.
I first saw Freeman a couple of years ago in Wellington at a multi-faith forum, where he spoke about the work he was doing among people his age from different faiths, on projects like community gardens and feeding the homeless. It was about action, which is why his organisation is called Interaction. At 22 he impressed me as a fine communicator with real purpose.
Freeman Trebilcock was recognised in 2010 as a Young Social Pioneer by the Foundation for Young Australians and as a Global Fellow of YouthActionNet by the International Youth Foundation in 2011. Recently he managed the Australian tour of Ani Choying Drolma, the singing Nepalese nun. He lives in Melbourne and this is his spiritual diary:
Freeman Trebilcock: [Diary] October 30th. This is my first entry. I’m sweaty from a bike ride and the last two nights I’ve only had four hours sleep. Planning for the Ani Choying tour is coming together but there are so many last-minute things to do. I can’t wait for her to get here and we can finally see this special Buddhist nun face-to-face.
November 3rd. It’s 1:21am and I’ve just gotten home after our first concert with Ani Choying Drolma. Now finally, after all this hard work, it is real. I have to confess there are moments when I wondered why exactly I was doing this. Was it worth my while? Was all the stress, the meetings, little annoyances, big risks and time worth it? Now I know that it is. Ani Choying’s voice has the ability to transform people in a way I can’t explain in words. And being in her presence, you feel you are receiving a blessing.
We didn’t quite fill the auditorium tonight. This was always my fear, but tonight I realised the people who were there where exactly the right people. I looked back on the glow of their faces reflected in the light and I saw so much happiness and release. So forget about whether or not we’re going to make a profit with this tour. Already everyone touched by it has profited in an invaluable way.
I also know that I especially have a lot to learn from this experience. There have been moments, in fact a couple in the last few days, where the shit has pretty much hit the fan, and there is nothing I can do but to sit with it, acknowledge the situation and then act, hopefully to improve it.
There are also these cycles that I tend to go through. Incredible highs where I am literally pumping my fist in the air. These moments come from a sense of mastery that, yes, I can do this incredible massive task. At the moment I feel elated and indestructible. And then eventually, or in some cases may be only a little while later, I come crashing down to a point of feeling hopeless, and I feel like I’m sitting there in a pile of my own mistakes and inadequacies. Which one is real? Which one should I believe in? At least I’m a little more aware now, so when it’s happening hopefully I don’t get too sucked in.
The other thing that has been interesting is sleep. I’ve been averaging four or five hours sleep a day for the last week. That is exacerbated by the fact that the other 19 or 20 hours are full-on, working through task lists and making stuff happen. Exhausted, my brain doesn’t get a rest.
I haven’t hit the meditation cushion for almost two weeks now. While I’m not a hard-core practitioner anyway, the fact that I haven’t slowed down to reconnect is certainly taking its toll. I feel very un-Buddhist to be working so hard on something so external. It’s very un-Buddhist to get so wrapped up in things. You lose awareness and get sucked in. I want to change this.
So we hit the road with Ani Choying, and I imagine the stress is going to get more intense as we are travelling with 10 people across three states in two cars. And I’m supposed to be managing the whole thing. Hmm, better get some sleep so I can figure out how on earth I’m going to pull off this next frighteningly big task.
November 8th. I stumbled my way to my meditation cushion this morning, sat for 45 minutes, felt great. This regular morning meditation has been missing in my life since the busyness of organising this tour has landed upon me. Two things keep coming up in my mind. Firstly, what I’m going to do when it’s over, how I’m going to take more time for myself to decompress, recharge the batteries. And two, whether I want to be a manager of these kinds of projects in the future or not.
Last night a good friend came into my room and we chatted for half an hour. He called me on this idea that I’d find time to practice and be still when the project is done. ‘You’ll just collapse into a depression,’ he said. I knew his words came from a place of caring and wisdom. ‘You need to find time now, in the middle of this hectic project, so that you are fully present and fully engaged with it and the people involved. Then you can end the project and put it down with a full sense of accomplishment and move on to a genuine rest.’ And he added, ‘By not keeping your spiritual practice going, you’re borrowing energy from the future. You have to pay that debt back somehow.’
He hit me strongly. Last night I shaved my head. I don’t do this on the holy days as recommended by some traditional Buddhists, I just do it when I’m feeling in need of a reminder, of renunciation or rejuvenation. It felt like the right time.
Rachael Kohn: Freeman, thank you so much for keeping a spiritual diary for me. I know you were pretty concerned about doing it in the midst of your busy schedule.
Freeman Trebilcock: I was actually. Yes, when you first asked me I thought, oh my gosh, this is the worst possible month to start something like this because I knew how busy I was going to be. But it turned into actually a really nice discipline, a really nice practice, and something to do in the morning. So yes, thank you very much.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, a great counterbalance for all of the stuff you had to do organising Ani Choying Drolma’s tour. Listeners to The Spirit of Things would have heard her a few weeks ago, but gosh, it’s quite an undertaking. Had you ever done anything like this before?
Freeman Trebilcock: It is an undertaking, it’s absolutely massive, and no, I’ve never done anything like this before. I think if I’d realised just the scale of what was involved in organising a national tour in places like the Sydney Opera House and the Melbourne Recital Centre I probably wouldn’t have started, I probably would have jumped ship at the beginning. But with these seemingly impossible things I think you just begin, you just take the first step and then you take the second step and then gradually everything comes together and you find yourself there.
Rachael Kohn: Have you always set high goals for yourself?
Freeman Trebilcock: I guess so. People often tell me that…I don’t like the word ‘ambitious’, but that I do big things and push myself a lot, maybe too much. I generally don’t push for things which are just about me. I don’t remember making decisions around money or career or things like that, it was usually where I could be of service that I would really set myself a big goal. And in this project that has really been the main driver, what has been behind this is we are all volunteers and myself putting a lot of hours into this is totally just because I think that it’s worthwhile. And any kind of self-sacrificing that you do is part of the journey.
Rachael Kohn: Well, being a Buddhist monk and still in your early 20s probably sounds like a big self-sacrifice to many. When did you decide you wanted to be a monk as opposed to a lay Buddhist, an ordinary lay Buddhist?
Freeman Trebilcock: That’s a really hard question to answer actually. I’m not sure exactly when the idea first came to me that I wanted to wear the robes, to live the life of a monastic. I grew up in a Buddhist family. My mum at the age of 22 hitchhiked from Toorak up to the Sunshine Coast for the first ever Buddhist retreat, the opening of the first ever Tibetan Buddhist Centre, Chenrezig Institute, which is where I visited on the tour as well.
And so it has always been a part of my family, and I’ve always been around Buddhism. I think probably the first time I said I wanted to be a monk I think I was probably three years old or something like that, which is ridiculous, right? But I asked my teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, if he would ordain me, and he did some checking and there’s all these things that they have to do. And it was eventually at the ancient of 12 that Lama Zopa said, ‘Yes, come up the hill, we’ll shave your head and put some robes on you,’ which is very unusual, unorthodox for Westerners particularly. It happens all the time in India and Tibet but…
Rachael Kohn: Gosh, it is a tender age. What did your father and mother think? What did your parents think?
Freeman Trebilcock: Well, my dad wasn’t in the picture but my mum…I think she was surprised in a sense, she was surprised by my keenness. Mum never pushed me into this. I think some people sometimes, particularly back then, questioned whether or not a 12-year-old knows what they are getting into and maybe someone else is pressuring them or it is not their idea, but for me it was always very clear. So Mum was very supportive of me in that, she knew that it was coming from a deeper place. And the fact that I’ve stuck it out and maintained my connection I think maybe is evidence that it was the right thing to do. It certainly hasn’t turned me into any kind of weirdo or unusual person. I think I’m quite a normal person, in fact probably much happier because of it.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think you were struggling with unhappiness, and was Buddhism a way to resolve some of that?
Freeman Trebilcock: Look, as a 12-year-old I’m not sure that was the calling. I think the reason I was called to it so young was the connection with the lamas. I think I met the Dalai Lama the first time when I was eight, and that connection, meeting someone like that who is such an embodiment of this great wisdom and compassion and who is just such an authentic human being, you can’t fake that. And so I think as a young person that really attracted me, these really authentic human beings, these really special people. I don’t think it was a retreat from suffering or a great renunciation that I had or anything like that, although going through high school, having Buddhism as a touch point…I kind of sometimes talk about it as like a suit of armour which I would wear into battle as a teenager, and it was really useful.
Rachael Kohn: But was it also stigmatising? It would have been unusual for students around to have a young monk in their midst?
Freeman Trebilcock: Yes, that’s a really good point. I remember the first…I arrived at a new school when I was about 14, and I remember the moment when they first heard or found out that I was a Buddhist monk, and that was really awkward and really difficult actually, it was very hard to make friends at first. But gradually I think people get used to it, they realise you’re a human being as well.
But also my experience has been very normalised because I haven’t grown up in monastery, and so I’ve had to find a way to be just a normal Westerner, a normal Aussie, and that meant going to school, it meant playing trumpet in the school band, it meant doing very normal things, and then also maintaining a connection to my Buddhist tradition, to the teachers that I have a connection with, to deepening my understanding and wisdom, all of those things. In a sense I can be authentically both, I don’t think they are contradictory necessarily, but there are moments of tension between being a 24-year-old Australian bloke and also holding this tradition of monasticism outside of a monastic institution, which is the biggest challenge of all I think.
Rachael Kohn: That’s Freeman Trebilcock, a young Aussie Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, who’s keeping a spiritual diary for The Spirit of Things, here on RN, at abc.net.au/radionational. Scroll to the program and have a look at Freeman on our website. He took on the huge task of organising the Australian tour of Ani Choying Drolma the singing Nepalese nun who was on the program at the end of October.
Freeman Trebilcock: [Diary] In two days, we hit the road for our big drive up the east coast. I’m actually really looking forward to this now as a kind of R&R. I know driving is exhausting but I’ve spent that many long nights in front of the computer, I think I’ll find the change refreshing. Also, driving has a certain spiritual quality to it. There is a sense of progression and leaving the old behind, a new beginning is what I am seeking now, and not just this year, but this week, this day, this very moment.
November 9th. Last night was our big concert with Ani Choying, 550 people turned out. It was a big success and I felt blessed to be surrounded by people who love and support this thing we are doing. I was so happy and so relieved from the big stress involved and the possibility of it all falling to pieces. I imagine I would have felt pretty upset if it had fallen to pieces in front of my friends and family. How often I am trapped by these concerns of success and failure.
Realising how much energy I had invested in making it work made me think about a Rudyard Kipling quote about treating success and failure as illusions equally. It’s a wise quote, but my goodness it’s hard to keep a balanced mind amid all of this. It’s so easy to slip into the trap of buying into it too much, because at the same time you have to make it work, keep things ticking along and functioning. I still don’t know how to master this balance.
We leave tomorrow on the trip and I hope I can learn to just enjoy the ride, not buying in too much into the highs and lows, the gains and losses that naturally come. I hope I can have a balanced mind that is present and available to accept what comes. In short, I hope I can enjoy the next two weeks as a spiritual practice and journey in itself without worrying too much about the destination.
Rachael Kohn: Well, in your spiritual diary, you mention the highs and lows you experience as a result of how well you’re doing a given task, particularly like the tour. Do you think that attachment to the results of your actions are still one of your big challenges?
Freeman Trebilcock: Absolutely. I’m not sure how to get over that one. When you’re working on virtuous things, on things which are bringing benefit to people, you want them to succeed, and when they don’t, when things go wrong, it’s extremely frustrating, and part of that is coming from a good place I think. I think genuinely if you are wanting people to have a positive experience and to benefit them, partly that’s compassion, but then also there is this attachment to the result as well. And for me I think one of the biggest challenges of these last three weeks on this tour has been actually letting go and just letting it happen. And that is for me one of the biggest challenges, particularly when it’s such a big project and there is so much at stake.
Rachael Kohn: Freeman, you’re pretty frank about not being a hard-core practitioner. Is that unusual for a Buddhist monk? Is it all up to you to keep the discipline up, or are there others around you who can keep you on track? You said you’re not in a monastic situation, so it’s kind of all on your own shoulders to keep that discipline going, to hit the meditation cushion every morning?
Freeman Trebilcock: It is, and that’s probably why I’m so bad at it. I think when I did live at a monastery, I lived at Chenrezig Institute for a couple of years as a monk, it’s much easier in that environment to keep a discipline up, just because the energy of the group is so supportive to actually practising, particularly when you are doing group ceremonies and groups things. Yes, it’s kind of all done for you. When you’re on your own it’s much more challenging to maintain a discipline.
I don’t mean on retreat. Actually I think a retreat would be separate. I think if I was to go on retreat and I didn’t have any other distractions I think I could probably maintain it quite well. But being in the world, having to keep a job, a car, I have parking fines, you know, things like that, it’s just maintaining life takes up so much time that to actually find time for formal practice I still find extremely challenging. I still admit to people that after 12 years I still don’t have a daily practice down pat. And in times of busyness I still find it extremely hard to get to my meditation cushion.
Rachael Kohn: So what makes you a monk? There are the precepts of the Eightfold Path and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism, do you consciously uphold these day in and day out?
Freeman Trebilcock: Absolutely. I think, for me at least, although I don’t find a lot of time for formal practice, and that’s a copout, I need to work harder…although I don’t find a lot of time for formal practice, you can weave it into your everyday activities. So I don’t see that what I’m doing in life is actually divorced from Dharma or a form of practice which is working on your own mind. So for me, engaging in a project like this, although there is a lot involved in it which is quite ‘worldly’, like managing a budget and selling merchandise and credit card transactions and all that stuff, the challenges that come along are an opportunity to push through your own limitations, and there’s nothing more challenging for your mind than to put yourself in a situation which is going to make anger arise or make you frustrated and then you have to deal with that in that moment. So for me throughout this tour it’s been a huge opportunity to work on my mind. I don’t know if I’ve made any progress or not, but yes, I don’t see it as worldly versus monastic, I don’t think they are separated as much as we maybe think.
Rachael Kohn: The seven-concert tour was a great vindication of your efforts, Freeman. But what did you learn from Ani Choying herself, because she is someone who lives a very large part of her life on the road. What did you learn from her?
Freeman Trebilcock: Spending this time with Ani Choying actually has been incredibly inspiring, I have to say. She is very special and there’s something about…from a Buddhist lands I would say she is a dakini which in Tibetan Buddhism is like this very vibrant, energetic female form of enlightened activity, I guess you could say. So through my lens I see her and I’m, like, wow, this is a dakini, but from an everyday sense, she is just an amazing example of a good human being who has found a way that she can actually be of benefit to people, and she is doing it.
Ani-La, when she is with people she is very present with them, very authentic, she is herself, there is no pretence there. I think spirituality is not about pretending to be someone other than you really are. So she really embodies that. And she has also been really very direct with me. It was a huge challenge at times when she would look at me and say, look, you’ve done this, you need to do that instead, or that needs to change, really confronting, telling me it was my responsibility and just making me deal with it. She has almost been in the last few weeks kind of almost a bit like a spiritual teacher for me or a spiritual mentor.
And in terms of what I struggle with, which is maintaining my discipline and everything like that, she is a great example because she does her practice religiously [laughs], and you can see it. There’s times when she’s not available and that’s because she is in her room doing her practice. And my teacher, Zimwock Rinpoche, who also travelled with us on the tour, he also has his two-hour commitment every day. And even in the middle of the busyness they find time to do it, which is a great example and something I want to emulate.
That being said, I do want to mention one thing briefly. There’s an incredible tension that exists because people like Ani Choying, they are able to do what they do because they have great managers who work with them and support them and put systems around them to make it work, and that gives them time to work on themselves, do their practice and then be available and present for people as teachers, as mentors, as spiritual beings. The managers…I don’t think it’s possible to find the time to really truly get deep enough to connect with that authentic part of yourself.
Rachael Kohn: And of course you were in the role of the manager, which put you in that facilitator role, which is something actually you do as the CEO of Interaction, an Interfaith youth organisation in Melbourne. You’re a facilitator, you’re someone who is very much trying to achieve goals, particularly of Interfaith cooperation. So that tension must be there all the time.
Freeman Trebilcock: Absolutely. I think in my Interfaith work with the Interaction I’m continually challenged by that, to be present and authentic with people. My experience as a facilitator with Interaction has actually proved to me the value of connecting with that authenticity in yourself, with going inward, going deep, coming from a reflective space. And it’s in that state that you are the most useful to people because you’re not clouded by your own worries and concerns and neuroses, you’re really there for them.
I think someone said…I don’t know if this is a quote or if someone just said it to me once, that your greatest ability is your availability. And I think for me at least in the work that I’ve done in Interfaith, my availability with people, being able to be present in running a workshop with a group of young people and helping them connect with their spirituality in a meaningful way, that has been a real lesson for me.
But there are times, honestly, when you are too busy to do that, and you actually become kind of useless in a way. You still probably keep things ticking over but you do notice a difference in yourself and in your work when you are working with people when you haven’t had time in the day to go inward, to reflect, and you are just on autopilot. It’s not an enjoyable experience at all.
Rachael Kohn: Ah the thankless task of being the organiser of a celebrity tour. Freeman Trebilcock is a young Buddhist monk in the Tibetan tradition, like the singing nun whose tour he managed, Ani Choying Drolma. Even a monk who lives and works outside the monastery finds it challenging to keep to a spiritual practice.
This is My Spiritual Diary, the tenth in our monthly series on The Spirit of Things, right here on RN. And this is another example of East and West coming together, the French pianist Jean-Philippe Rykiel and a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the Kagyupa school, Lama Gyurme, with an Offering Chant in Tibetan, from their album Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants.
[Music: ‘Offering Chant’, Jean-Philippe Rykiel and Lama Gyurme, Rain of Blessings: Vajra Chants]
Freeman Trebilcock: [Dairy] November 10th. Today we hit the road, a ten-hour drive to Sydney. There’s something quite powerful about travel. There is a spirituality about travel, a joy of being in the moment, on the move. By physically packing up and moving on, it just so happens that the mind finds it easier to pack away its worried thoughts and move on from its frustrated obsessions.
In the car we cranked up the music loud and set the cruise control to 110. After a few hours I switched the music to some Dharma talks I’ve had sitting on my iPod for months. Finally a chance to listen to them. It made me realise just how many self-enriching things I’ve put on hold in order to focus on this external event. We arrived at the Sydney Buddhist Centre. I found myself sleeping in the gompa, the meditation hall. It was very beautiful in there and very relaxing.
November 11th. We hit the road early, right after breakfast. Six hours to Port Macquarie. Along the way there were so many dead animals, all grotesquely contorted from baking in the hot sun. Impermanence.
When we got to the destination and found our hotel, each of us collapsed and had a sleep. It has been a big two days and we’ve still got a ways to go. Luckily the hotel we are in is very comfortable. We’re so lucky.
November 12th. Arrived at the Gold Coast after a total of 22 hours on the road. Epic adventure this has turned out to be. Our teacher, who was waiting there already for us to arrive, greeted us and quickly took the boys out for…wait for it…tequila followed by cigars. I sometimes grapple with the Vajrayana tradition and its way of relating to worldly things like alcohol. Most people would have freaked out by this idea. I have to admit I found the whole thing challenging, but it really focused me in.
November 13th. Today was our first concert at Byron Bay. A bit of a shambles to the venue, but Ani Choying gave the most inspiring concert. Sell-out crowd. The beautiful acoustics as well as the general warm energy of the audience all helped to make it a very special night.
I am continually impressed by the power of Ani Choying and her ability to connect with anybody. She is a truly special being and taking the time for each person. I hope this is a quality that I can learn to emulate in some way.
November 14th. Up to Noosa was a nightmare. Tiny crowd and we really struggled with the three-hour drive up there. It’s moments like these that make me question why I commit myself to such endeavours when often the result is far from what you imagined. I guess you have to learn to take the good with the bad. Last night was such a success that tonight’s flop may not be such a problem. Rudyard Kipling was right to treat the illusions of success and failure just the same. What wisdom.
November 15th. Brisbane concert, packed out. The heat is getting to me. Reaching a state of exhaustion. The pace of this tour has been very challenging. Any of my spiritual practices such as meditation are out the window. That said, there is a certain practice in the work of being with people, getting things done and meeting the deadlines. There is a certain discipline and a rhythm to it now. In fact, the pace has left little time for distraction and confusion because it has always had to be focused on the task at hand.
Rachael Kohn: Freeman, I was really surprised to hear you mention that your teacher took you and the boys…and I gather ‘the boys’ are also monks?
Freeman Trebilcock: No, no, no, the boys aren’t monks. Go ahead.
Rachael Kohn: I was really surprised to hear that he took you and the boys out for tequila and cigars! Doesn’t this go against..?
Freeman Trebilcock: I was surprised as well.
Rachael Kohn: This would go against Buddhism’s fifth precept which is to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs. So did you partake?
Freeman Trebilcock: I’m going to refuse to comment on that question. I was wondering whether or not I should include this in the spiritual diary or not actually because I’m being very honest here, and some people might critique me for this. But yes, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition the relationship with things like alcohol and intoxicants is I guess slightly different to maybe the Theravada or the older traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.
I normally wouldn’t involve myself in situations like that if I can help it, but when it’s your teacher, when it’s your lama who is actually I guess in charge, then it is actually almost like you’re compelled to participate. It’s a strange idea, but it comes from the pujas, the ceremonies in which alcohol and meat particularly are used as substances of the ceremony. And in that case it’s actually compulsory that you take alcohol as part of that ceremony.
So when my teacher…when we arrived, the road crew arrived at the Gold Coast, he said, ‘Let’s go,’ he just took us out, just us, just the four boys. And I’m the only monk amongst them, I have to add. Zimwock Rinpoche is not a monk himself, he’s a family man. He took everyone out and it was straight into it. And I actually kind of almost checked, I looked into his eyes and checked, like, is this the right thing to be doing right now or should I not be participating, and he was very clear to me that it’s important to participate. So when it’s transformed by a spiritual purpose, yes, in Tibetan Buddhism the use of alcohol and intoxicants is actually slightly different to other traditions.
Rachael Kohn: ‘Mindfully partaken of’ I think is the rule, although I do know that there have been some infamous monks who got themselves into a lot of difficulty particularly in Colorado, and these days with legalised marijuana, who knows what awaits…
Freeman Trebilcock: I haven’t gone that far!
Rachael Kohn: In any case, clearly your teacher, you’ve mentioned he’s a family man. He had been a monk. I believe he has had an unconventional life as a teacher, who then opted out, married, had children, and came back. Do you think that unconventional life or unusual life affects the way he has related to you as a teacher and how you relate to him?
Freeman Trebilcock: That is a really good question, Rachael. You’re right, Zimwock Rinopche, his story is quite unusual. He is one of the highest teachers in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. He is on the throne holder of the Sakya Tsarpa School which is one of the three schools of Sakya, one of the highest traditions in Tibetan Buddhism, the Sakya Tsarpa tradition. So he is a throne holder and very high, he used to be the head of a monastery of 2,000 monks I think in Tibet, previous Zimwock Rinpoches.
So this is a very high teacher who has, in a sense, given up monasticism and spent I guess a lot of years in the West. Before he moved to Australia, Zimwock Rinpoche was in Switzerland. He has four daughters with his wonderful partner, and he very much understands the Western experience I think. And that has made him more accessible to Western minds. He is able to communicate very clearly in a way that many, many modern people understand.
In terms of my relationship with him, that one is actually…that’s a little bit harder for me to answer because I think for me I always see him as my teacher, and so when you view the teacher and their activities, you do it with a sense of reverence really, not because actually they are holy and they need to be worshipped but actually because if you come at them with an attitude of reference, of wanting to learn, of viewing their activities as having a certain kind of holiness and blessing to them, then…because things are interdependent and we know that we are implicated in our experiences, we will perceive them differently.
And so for me, relating to Zimwock Rinpoche as a lay teacher and his unconventional ways of doing things, it’s really important to maintain my pure perception of him as a teacher, as a lama. And definitely my experience of him and his relationship with me has been that this is a very, very wise being who has an understanding of his own mind perfectly. And there’s no mistake in his activities and the way that he carries himself out.
Rachael Kohn: The teacher of Freeman Trebilcock is Zimwock Rinpoche, a tulku whose lineage is traced back to the early 1500s in Tibet. He’s considered the reincarnation of previous esteemed teachers. Sounds like Freeman is hoping to be a teacher himself one day, but until then he’s learning a lot on the job. I liked his comment that true ability is about availability. This is The Spirit of Things on RN.
Freeman Trebilcock: [Diary] November 16th. This is our first day off in a while. At Chenrezig Institute, the place my mum first connected with Tibetan Buddhism and a place I spent a lot of time growing up. It’s beautiful here, set in the rainforest and full of spiritual energy. It holds a lot of meaning for me. I actually feel drawn by the place more than anywhere else. I wish I could live here for a longer period of time. That said, when I see the monks and nuns walking around the hill, the main feeling I get from them is that their heads are so full of ideas from the many hours of teachings and study that they do, they seem overwhelmed. Funny, here I am feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of my work, come back to the Buddhist Centre for a break only to encounter the other monks and nuns likewise overwhelmed by their demands. I’m actually not sure there is a way out. You feel stuck and overwhelmed by whatever you have to achieve.
November 17th. We did it! We did it! Two concerts at the Sydney Opera House with Ani Choying. Team working wonderfully together as I feel finally on top of things. Amazing how after seven concerts I feel in my rhythm. It’s interesting how it takes almost reaching breaking point before you feel comfortable. But more than anything I want a good sleep now.
Ani Choying seemed happy with everything. Working with her has been a great test. She is so kind but also very direct with me. It means when I make a mistake she is quick to correct me. Very good for my ego, very humbling. I have so much respect for this small but powerful Buddhist nun. She is a genuine practitioner and a powerful embodiment of these teachings. It will be sad to see her go.
November 18th. Rest day with the boys. Went to Bondi Beach and relaxed a little. Life feels like a holiday today in Sydney in the sun. Been eating well too. I realised that this great task has been in the service of my teacher. Zimrock Rinpoche is a very special teacher and I feel blessed to be able to be his student and to work for him.
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is full of stories of very dynamic teacher/student relationships, where a guru will put his disciple through incredible challenges in order to break through their ego. It feels like this has been my experience the past few weeks. What a challenge to my ego.
November 19th. Took the wrong road back, added an extra three hours to the trip. Frustration! Constantly feeling like when are we going to get home. But finally arrived back and finally in my bed. Nothing feels nicer than settling in for a nice, long sleep.
November 20th. This adventure has been one of the most challenging things in my life. Setting such a big goal has made me reach past my own sense of limitedness and strive for a truly large goal. Buddhism teaches that our potential is limitless, so by challenging myself to a task that really has been beyond my limitations, this is pushing me through them, pushing through the limitations of my own mind, my own compassion and my own discipline.
I certainly have increased compassion for project managers now. But the deep-seated feeling I have coming away from this experience is actually that I don’t think I want to do something like this again. It has been wonderful but it’s been hard, and I feel although I can do this, I’m not sure it’s my calling. I’m very glad I gave myself over to this project in service to my teacher. It has been a blessed experience. But my calling is to practice and learn and work on myself and perhaps deepen my understanding enough so that I can be a teacher of the Dharma one day too. Until then I’ll continue serving my teachers, but I must also remember that the way I can be most useful is to take these great Buddhist teachings and make them a part of my life. So the next trip I think I take will be off to the hills, not off on the road. Bring on the inner pilgrimage.
Rachael Kohn: Well, you say that Buddhism teaches that our human potential is limitless. So what is the potential in you that you want to expand specifically?
Freeman Trebilcock: Yes, the Buddhist view is slightly different maybe from some other religions in that it says that we are basically good, that our fundamental nature, if you strip it all back, is already enlightened, is already perfect, and it’s just a matter of connecting with that and I guess waking up to that rather than this hard slog of cultivating into something perfect.
So I’m 24 years old, I’m still figuring out my life and how I can be most useful and how I can be most authentic to myself. I’ve had the opportunity to spend significant times in a monastic setting and I do…there’s a lot that I like about that. I just have to say, Rachael, I feel like I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to connect with an authentic spiritual tradition from a very young age. I feel like I’ve got a head start. And in order to make the most of that I really feel like I need to make the right decisions. I guess it’s kind of, like, work on myself.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, as you said, head for the hills on an inner pilgrimage.
Freeman Trebilcock: It kind of almost sounds a little bit romantic, and I don’t have a false view about it, I know that you run off to retreat and you’re still there, so all of your problems and all of your neuroses are still there with you. But I honestly can say that having spent so much time facilitating and managing and being there to support Dharma teachers and build systems around them, that I don’t feel 100% fulfilled by that. Maybe its that I probably should have been doing more meditation while doing the management stuff, but I honestly want to just stop now and spend some time really getting to know who I am and cultivating a little bit of these qualities that you hear so much about that they are almost clichés now, of more compassion, more wisdom, more balance.
Rachael Kohn: Well, you’ve been a very busy person. You’ve founded Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth, LKPY. Sounds very nice, but what does it do?
Freeman Trebilcock: It does sound very nice, doesn’t it! So this is another thing that I’ve done for my teachers. The amazing lama who ordained me, Lama Zopa Rinpoche, he had this idea after the Colorado school shootings that nobody was talking about compassion. Everybody was talking about the music these kids were listening to, everyone was talking about the influences that they had, but no one was talking about what’s going on in these kids’ hearts and minds and what can we do about it.
And so it was his idea and, again, he looked to us and we set it up. Basically it’s a peace organisation. We have small groups that meet regularly in different places. For some reason it is really big in Mexico, there are 12 groups in Mexico who meet on a fortnightly basis. And the whole ethos behind Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth is that age-old saying that ‘peace starts with me’, and that by cultivating certain peaceful qualities I guess we disarm ourselves and disarm the anger and the hatred within us, to be of more benefit to people.
Rachael Kohn: Well, I know you’ve been travelling the world at sessions for Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth in Mexico and the Philippines and elsewhere, Thailand, so you are a very busy person and you’ve been named the Young Social Pioneer by the Foundation for Young Australians in 2010, and also a global fellow of YouthActionNet by the International Youth Foundation in 2011. So it sounds like Buddhism has been a great vehicle for you to spread the message, but also a bit of fame too.
Freeman Trebilcock: I don’t know about that!
Rachael Kohn: Can that be a trap? I mean, are there issues of ego that you are going to need to look at, and need to tame?
Freeman Trebilcock: I think definitely my ego is implicated in this, I’m not going to say that it isn’t. I constantly have to keep checking up on myself. Why am I involved in this? Is it because I’m actually going to be beneficial to people or is it about getting some award or something like that? So far the things that I’ve been involved in I think have allowed me to have a little bit of…it feels like I’m building a network at the moment of people who want to do good things in the world, want to change things. And just because I happen to be a young person, a lot of that seems to be through young leaders and people who are doing social change that way.
I have done a little bit of travelling to speak at certain conferences and do things like that, but I really try not to let that distract from the work at hand which is working with young people of faith here in Australia through Interaction, and internationally working with young people to do that sort of inner transformation stuff in a more secular way through Loving Kindness Peaceful Youth.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think Buddhism and other traditions are being practised differently by your generation? And if they are, is that an important difference?
Freeman Trebilcock: That’s a really good question. When I was up at Chenrezig during this tour I met up with a few people there who were there doing the study program, and there’s another young monk who is two years older than me who is pretty far along now and his knowledge is developing very well and I think he will be a teacher soon, a Dharma teacher, a Buddhist teacher. And I kind of saw him and the way that our two paths diverged in a very traditional and then I guess more modern, I guess meeting the world where it’s at, which is how I guess I see myself, although I’m not sure I succeed in that. And I really saw then the differences because it’s actually true that I think young people embody their faith and spirituality in a much different way than the older generation has. And I think it’s more democratic, it’s not about blind faith now, it’s about recognising that you need to interrogate this, that there are definitely beautiful things in each religious tradition but they need to be mined, they need to be dug out and I guess polished a little bit in order to be made useful to us.
My work with Interaction and running workshops with young people from all different faith backgrounds has really shown me that young people are really seeking a space where they can discern and figure out what their spirituality is. And if they’ve grown up with a religious tradition may be in their family, how does that translate into this multicultural pluralistic society that we live in? And how can it actually be something enriching, not something which is sidelined, which is, oh, religion, that’s a conversation we don’t really have around the dinner table, but something which fully informs our actions, which is the deepest part of us, so it needs to basically form the foundation of the rest of our life. So that’s something that young people are seeking.
So when people tell me that young people are not as religious or as spiritual as they used to be, I totally disagree, because I think we are absolutely spiritual beings and we are seeking a way to actually connect with that part of ourselves and make it part of our lives. And with this new world, a new way is opening up, and I think that way is very democratic, very pluralistic, it’s got its basis in universal values which everyone understands as true, and we build from there and we build a society from there.
Rachael Kohn: Well, it sounds like you’re well on the way to bringing some of that loving kindness peaceful youth to fruition. Freeman Trebilcock, thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things and for keeping a spiritual diary.
Freeman Trebilcock: Thank you Rachael.
Rachael Kohn: The Venerable Freeman Trebilcock is a young Melbourne-based Buddhist monk in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, the youngest of the main Buddhist traditions, founded in the 16th century.
Well that’s the final in our ten-part monthly series My Spiritual Diary, I hope you enjoyed it. Soon they’ll be all aggregated on our website and you’ll be able to download all of them. In the meantime just go to abc.net.au/radionational and scroll down to The Spirit of Things to download this program and read all the details and website links for my guest today, Freeman Trebilcock. I think you’ll be hearing from him for a long time to come.
Today’s program was produced by me and Geoff Wood with sound engineering by Phil McKellar.
Photo Credit: ABC Radio, The Spirit of Things