"We think happiness is what we get when attachment gets what it wants. Buddha says happiness is what we get when we give up attachment."
“As long as space remains, as long as sentient beings remain, may we too remain, and dispel the miseries of the world.”
– Shantideva, 8th century Tibetan Buddhist scholar and saint
Alison Harr was a student of Ven. Robina’s who died tragically on June 1, 2013 in San Francisco, due to complications from a car accident. She was 36 years old. Alison grew up in Fresno, California, and spent much of her adult life in San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
Alison was dedicated to her Buddhist practice, to the Buddhist organization of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche: The Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahyana Tradition, and to helping others.
She is survived by her parents Bruce and Pearl Harr, her brother Justin Harr, her partner Irene V., and her FPMT family around the world.
Alison's parents felt she would have wanted any offerings in her memory to go to Ven. Robina, to support her work. Within her Bodhichitta Trust, Ven. Robina created The Alison Harr Memorial Fund "to support projects that help people deal with the struggles of life," just as Alison did throughout her life, always doing what she could to help others. Nearly $5,000 has been offered to Alison's fund, which Ven. Robina will use in her work with people in prison, ex-prisoners, men releasing, and her visits to prisons in the US and Australia.
Alison first met Ven. Robina in 2002 during a course at Land of Medicine Buddha, the FPMT center in Santa Cruz, California. “Ven. Robina reached to the very depths of my heart and soul, and she literally saved my life,” Alison told her parents.
In 2007 Alison began working for Ven. Robina full-time at Liberation Prison Project, an FPMT social services project that supports men and women in prison interested in Buddhist practice, primarily in the US and Australia, but also in other countries around the world. In 2007 the prison project's main offices where in San Francisco - where Alison worked for LPP - and in the Blue Mountains outside of Sydney. The project was dear to Alison’s heart. She worked for LPP until the US office relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina in 2009, and continued on as a volunteer until her death.
“What I've always admired about Alison is her courage, the effort she made to practice,” Ven. Robina said. “She persevered. The dictionary says that this means ‘to persist in anything undertaken; maintain a purpose in spite of difficulty, obstacles, or discouragement; continue steadfastly.’ Well, that's Alison!
“This was evident ever since we first met - at Land of Medicine Buddha, when I lived there and worked for Mandala Magazine. She never gave up. No matter how difficult things got, she picked herself up, renewed her faith in the Buddha, in the teachings, and kept on going.
“And she never gave up on others, either. She always had enthusiasm to help. The prisoners she looked after when she worked for the prison project felt so supported by her. She made such effort to give good advice, to write nice letters, to send the most helpful books. Our lamas tell us that without this joyful effort or enthusiastic perseverance, we simply can't succeed, we can't get enlightened. And Lama Zopa Rinpoche says that unless we make effort we don't create much merit at all. Well, Alison must have created bucket-loads!”
At LPP in San Francisco Alison worked as the US office resources coordinator, putting together the hundreds of packages of Buddhist books, prayers and practice materials that the prison project offers free to people in prison each month. She loved the work and put a lot of thought and care into each package she sent.
She also wrote to a handful of prisoners, supporting them in their Buddhist practice, and being their friend. She supported prisoners upon release, too.
“Many days on our lunch breaks we would sit together for an hour and talk about life and Dharma,” said Steve, one ex-prisoner who came to work for the US LPP office after his release. “It was during these times that I first saw such devotion to spiritual matters in a person. I used to love listening to her talk about Buddha Tara and all the joy she found from the teachings, and how she especially respected and admired Ven. Robina.”
He also recalled how Alison offered him her room at Tse Chen Ling, the FPMT center in San Francisco, where she was living at the time, and where the prison project’s US office was then based.
“I got myself in a bit of a crisis and needed a safe place to stay,” he said. “Tse Chen Ling had only a very few rooms for residents. Even though this meant Alison would have to move, find another place and such, there was nothing but joy in her heart as she told me ‘you can have my room.’”
Another ex-prisoner, Mark, says Alison was his "best friend." She spent "many hours on the phone and messaging me," he said, was there whenever he needed to talk or was going through a hard time. “Sweet Ali always had a way to pull me out of these times," he said. "She understood me in a way no human has."
“She had a natural ability to connect with people who are struggling in the most unimaginable ways,” said Carina Rumrill, Alison's friend and the operations director and teacher coordinator for LPP in San Francisco from 2005 through 2008. “Alison didn’t throw up the same walls many of us do in relation to others: she was able to find commonalities and ways to communicate with anyone, no matter their background or current situation. Ven. Robina often praised Alison for the care she gave to running the resources department.”
Alison had a big, generous heart and empathized with people’s struggles. She didn’t distance herself from others, and she never looked down on anyone because they had done time, were struggling with homelessness or addiction, or having a hard time cleaning up their lives. She was an enthusiastic and supportive friend.
“I have so much love in my heart to give,” she posted on her Facebook page in January. “Therefore I could never give most of it to just one other person. I want to find love in every being in samsara no matter if we are friends, enemies or strangers. I love you, no matter what.”
Alison first discovered FPMT when she visited Vajrapani Institute, the center in the Santa Cruz mountains, in 2002.
“I was in a dark place in my life and a friend of mine invited me to her cabin at her workplace at Vajrapani,” she told Mandala in 2009. “The minute I stepped on Rinpoche's land I found refuge, the feeling and protection I was searching for so very long. FPMT saved my life by being there for me.” That same year she would meet Ven. Robina at Land of Medicine Buddha.
Buddhist psychological tools for transforming problems and difficult emotions, and developing our innate potential for tremendous love and compassion resonated with Alison. She attended as many teachings as she could and really tried to make the Dharma experiential, to integrate the teachings into her daily life. In Ven. Robina she felt she had found her teacher, her “Number One” she said, a person who deeply understood her mind, her struggles, her ups and downs, and whose wisdom and guidance she could trust.
“When Alison discovered Buddhism in 2002 the headlamps of her search shown more radiant and bright than ever before,” her parents said. “During the next two years, she was exposed to the teachings of Ven. Robina, who became her teacher and mentor. Alison was quick to admit that it was not easy. She often fell back to old harmful habits, but Ven. Robina was always there to show her the way back to the Dharma path, a pillar of strength and support. I can think of no one who helped her more in shaping the direction of her life. Ven. Robina, we will always love you.”
One of the most profound experiences of Alison’s life, she said, was traveling to India and Nepal with Ven. Robina on pilgrimage in 2005. Traveling to the holy sites of the Buddha, doing the prayers and practices at each site, and spending time at Kopan Monastery, Lama and Rinpoche’s monastery outside Kathmandu, deeply affected her, she said, really allowing her to immerse herself in practice, strengthening her resolve on the Buddhist path. She ended up staying in Nepal for a year.
Ven. Robina and the pilgrims always dedicated their practices to the prisoners involved with LPP. Alison loved that, she said. She felt connected to the prisoners and their struggles. "As soon as I went on pilgrimage I wanted to work at LPP," she said. "Ven. Robina would tell me what great practitioners the prisoners were, and I felt I could relate to their experience. Even if you have outside support in prison, there are usually few resources for Buddhists. I wanted so much to give back, because I went through times when I had nothing. I felt I understood."
In 2007 she began working for the prison project in San Francisco full-time.
When the LPP US office relocated to Raleigh in 2009, Alison continued on as a volunteer, and studied to become a certified medical technician. She worked at San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, providing free health care services to the poor and uninsured in San Francisco, another job she loved, and where she could do what she could to help others struggling to get by.
"I love serving Haight Ashbury Free Clinic,” she said on Facebook in April. “Helping the homeless and all those in need gives my life greater meaning. I love making vitals and lab tests a comfortable experience for patients. It's a beautiful day as I watch it go by from the rooftop of HAFC on my break."
She also volunteered for Rock Medicine, a program of HAFC that provides medical care to people attending concerts, and other events, offering “non-judgmental” care.
In November 2012 Ven. Robina invited Alison to come to Raleigh, North Carolina, to help put on a cocktail party-auction to bring in funds for The Bodhichitta Trust, which supports FPMT and funded the prison project when Alison worked there. Others who worked together at LPP also came to Raleigh to help with the event. It was a precious time and happy reunion. “A great event," Alison posted on Facebook that night. "So good to work with the old prison project crew again!”
As soon as Alison entered the intensive care unit at St Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco in late May, her friends, family, and FPMT community worldwide began praying for her. Ven. Robina organized for pujas to be done at Kopan Monastery; Geshe Ngawang Dakpa, the resident lama at Tse Chen Ling in San Francisco, did practices for Alison and visited her in hospital; and Lama Zopa Rinpoche was kept up-to-date on her condition. Her old prison project friends started a 24-hour prayer vigil, which people in the FPMT community around the world participated in, doing Medicine Buddha pujas for Alison and offering recitations of the Medicine Buddha mantra and The King of Prayers. Bay Area FPMT centers Tse Chen Ling, Land of Medicine Buddha and Vajrapani all organized pujas on her behalf, and FPMT centers in France, Italy, Sydney, North Carolina, and others around the world dedicated their prayers and practices to Alison’s recovery.
When she passed away, on June 1, Geshe Dakpa and some of Alison’s close Buddhist friends were with her at the hospital, and did practices for her at the time of death. Friends around the world continued to pray for her for the next 49 days, the length of time the lamas say it takes for our consciousness to move on to the next life. And Ven. Robina organized for prayers for Alison to be done at Kopan for those seven weeks.
Her parents organized a celebration of her life at Land of Medicine Buddha on July 7, attended by over 100 people. Geshe-la led a Medicine Buddha puja; and friends and family shared a video of photos of Alison and stories of how she had touched their lives. "Almost everyone in attendance was in at least one of the pictures," her parents said. "It was an afternoon that will last in our memories."
“What came across so strongly was her ability to relate to everyone on their level,” said Ven. Katy Cole, another friend of Alison's who worked with her at the prison project in San Francisco. “She was unpretentious and that made it easy for people from all walks of life to relate to her.”
One of her friends spoke about meeting Alison through LPP – she had written to him when he had been in prison, and they had continued to be friends when he released. “He gave a heart wrenching tale of how he looked so forward to the reading material she sent,” Alison’s parents said. “He waited anxiously for her next letter, as it gave some purpose to his life. He has been out of prison for five years, and credited the prison project for his not returning to prison."
And Alison’s partner Irene shared the story of discovering a tribute to Alison outside Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco, on the corner of Haight and Clayton streets, just after her death. One of the men who had been a patient of hers there had drawn her nickname, “Sea Otter,” in colored chalk on the sidewalk, with offerings of candles and flowers. "She was the only one who helped the special people," he told Irene. "No one wants to help us special people anymore.”
“He told me how devastated everyone was,” Irene said, “And that there was no one like her who truly cared. He said that she would take care of people and send them to clinic when she saw they needed attention.”
Alison’s kindness and enthusiasm touched many lives. She shared her love, her experiences, her wisdom with anyone she met that needed love and support. Since connecting with FPMT in 2002 she remained committed, for the rest of her life, to her practice, to helping others, to offering service. She persevered, as Ven. Robina said. And had courage.
“Sending lovin’ vibes to all migrating beings suffering in Samsara,” she wrote on Facebook in January. “We shall continue to strive to reach enlightenment’s shores. Carry on despite harsh hardships.”
Donations to Alison's fund may be made to: The Bodhichita Trust, "In memory of Alison Harr," and mailed to:
The Bodhichitta Trust
6809 Chiala Lane
San Jose, CA 95129
Supporters of the Alison Harr Memorial Fund
Michael & Darla Anton
Joseph & Gail Aslanian
Scott & Deborah Bell
Vince & Reda Bono
Bullard Village Drugs
Gary & Toni Busick
Linda & Peter Coslett
Barry & Marcia Crow
Stephen & Judy Derderian
George & Jo Ann Dervishian
Steve & Kathy Diebert
Dennis & Judy Dietrich
Rich & Lisa Edwards
Joel & Jackie Figatner
Steve & Stevie Fisher
Bill & Margaret Grabe
John & Ann Good
Dennis & Vicky Hagobian
Carol Gaab Hanson & Bill Hanson
Keith Helen & Eric Herzog
John & Pamela Jeffries
Kathryn & Carl Johnsen
Donna & Ron Johnson
Dorothy & Bob Juskalian
Edward & Helen Kaye
Sue & Mike Kilijian
George & Mary Kumjian
John & Rita Lawson
Bev Choolijian Larios
Dennis & Phyllis Lee
Paul & Jeannie Mabry
Carolyn& Lee Manoogian
Matt & Nicole Medeiros
Gail & Christ Milesis
Julie B Miller
Larry & Carol Miller
Kirsten & Nick Miller
Dr. Jeffrey and Andrea Mogelof
Mike & Dona Pestorich
Janet & Jim Powell
Mark & Janet Schmidt
Vern & Joan Selland
Charlene & Rodger Simonian, as well as Alicia & Scott, & Alexis & Ryan
Thomas & Michelle Soares
Dan & Joann Suchy
Dennis & Teresa Roth
Daryl & Amanda Ruby