|Forest Sangha Newsletter||July 1988|
Things seem quiet in the city. After the uproar of the killings last week there was apprehension about our visit but once here we have found life carrying on regardless. There is tension and suspicion as ever. Nervous glances at the airport - eyes darting into the car as we drive past - everyone is watching everyone, but in a situation of danger this is only natural. People learn to live with the stress or survival would be impossible. Paddy mentioned yesterday that Tommy, a member of the Buddhist group, and his family had been right by one of the grenades which went off in the graveyard, I asked him -
The Buddhist group's little - centre, The Asanga Institute, is a symbol for the situation here: inside a tall ragged house on the Antrim Road - the ground floor windows barricaded with sheet metal - the door armoured as well - up the battered stairway, in a small room at the top, is a clean bright peaceful place to shelter. A symbol of the heart, it is a place of warmth and brightness amidst the forbidding icewalls of suspicion and fear. It is a place to go and remember the possibility of quiet and illumination, where the powers of goodness can be recalled and cultivated. The symbol of the Refuges is very vivid here.
I felt like I was with my oldest friends, which on reflection I guess I was - the presence of Truth, the great friend, how good to see you again.
Paddy played videos of the two incidents which had ignited Belfast over the last week or so. These were very disturbing and it was good to have Tony (who had been at the first funeral) right there to talk it over with. It had been pretty hard to cope and he and Tommy had both been quite caught up with it all -
"We know all these guys, we were at school with them, how can you not be involved? If you live there, to a greater or lesser extent you are in it; these are the people you share your lives with, they are your folk y'know."
It is so easy to forget how much it is the tribal and protective instincts which keep driving this monster of destruction. A few days later I talked to Tommy about all this: he said the Falls Road area had exploded with rage that night - hooded men hijacking cars, throwing petrol bombs off motorway bridges onto the traffic below. He had ridden off to the mountains on his bicycle, hoping to burn off what energy and emotion he could. In trying to come to terms with it - and then the murder of the two soldiers - he said he kept thinking of Enniskillen, where an IRA bomb had killed eleven innocent people and injured many more on Remembrance day last year. He had never really accepted that his people had perpetrated that outrage - but he realised now that the people in that town felt just as he and his did in the Falls after the graveyard killings. When he mentioned this to others most were sobered by the thought, realisinq that the situation was identical.
A day or two later we went to Enniskillen to give a public talk. Once we arrived in town and met up with Bob Kelly, we were whisked off to his family's lovely house, perched on a steep hillock above the church of this village, Ballinamallard. He and his wife welcomed us with great respect and cordiality. Their daughters were very shy at first but after we had eaten, as I was talking with Bob over a cup of tea, I noticed a small furry creature edging across towards me. Silently it inched closer and I recognised it eventually as a skunk. It tilted its little nose up and cocked its head in greeting - doing the job for the little girl whose hand was animating it. I greeted it and asked its name -
"Flower," came the whispery reply soon my conversation with the skunk proved unnecessary as the two girls became brave enough to talk to us direct.
This town has had a shadow on its name since the bombing here last year, but, far from being shot at - as some thoughts in England had predicted - the talk at the public library was a pleasant and calm event. About thirty people turned out, a massive number apparently, and the talk and questions seemed well received by all. These things are always a bit frosty at the start but if you keep pouring it out eventually things begin to melt. By the second hour I felt like I was with my oldest friends, which on reflection I guess I was - the presence of Truth, the great friend, how good to see you again.
The morning after the public talk Bob drove us to a large forest on the southern shore of Lough Erne. We followed a narrow lane through several miles of pines to a cliff edge high above the water. Below us was spread the great stretch of blue with large islets scattered here and there. We wove our way back to Ballinamallard through the long rolling roads, rapt in conversation on Buddhist life.
After packing up and farewells we took the long road back to Belfast, passing through Armagh and Newry down by the border with the South. Traversing this country there is the constant feeling of being in two parallel worlds: the land of perfect little hills and pocket-sized farms, ancient hedges, empty roads and crystal air; a land of unhurried and gentle folk, strong in heart and spirit. On the other hand it is a place of rain and black helicopters, police checks, barbed wire and bullet-proofing. We passed the church hall in Enniskillen where the bomb had exploded; like a headless corpse the whole of the roof and upper walls were as if they had been sliced off, the gaping innards of the place opened to the sky.
Running up to the retreat there was often the feeling - "These people are depending on me, it's their first long retreat and I have got to produce the goods to help them. What if I fail? - If they all get fed up and leave? If it just becomes a crushing endurance test? Oh dear ... and it's all up to me!" - the proliferating mind burbling on. The sound of "I am", "me" and "mine", a resounding foghorn of wrong understanding. Listening to this kind of mental creation there comes a natural response of letting the self-centred elements dissolve. Why turn an idea about the future into a personal problem? I began to reflect: "I am not going to Ireland to zap these people with ethereal vibrations and entrancing Dhamma talks, nor to rescue a nation from the grip of savagery. I am not even going to try to teach anybody anything." I made the intention clear to just go and spend a week in the woods with some friends; the time would pass, efforts would be made to cultivate the good and what ever came out of it I would endeavour to learn from. As the retreat began I said all this to the retreatants and encouraged them to regard the forthcoming time in the same way - simply to be there and make efforts to learn from life, however it happened to be. It makes such a difference when life is viewed in terms of universal nature rather than self.
Clumps of celandine and saxifrage border the wellbeaten tracks of this forest and, from the brambleburied mass of an ancient log, a colony of wood anemones peeks out. The air is dense and still, full of the growing light of an April evening as spring roars into its full spate. In this land Of spirited and powerful people the imagination soars to convey the wonderful balances, formless, vivid patterns that spin out of each moment as it comes. Ss simple yet so mysterious awesome, testing, frightening, beautiful and terrible - familiar and safe, the oldest friend, yet a yawning, hungry chasm of possibilities. When you can't go forward and you can't go back and you can't stand still, what do you do? Vanish - the Truth supports itself.
I tried to guide the retreat so that there was not a "super-concentrate and get high" environment, but rather that of focussing the mind to see what is habitually done at the interface between the mind and the world. It seemed a crime to be on the edge of this lovely wood and not to take the chance to meditate amongst the trees: so, once people were well settled in, we spent most afternoons there. With the mind open - feeling the moment with the whole being - all positive and negative aspects would naturally fall into alignment. You would find yourself at the centre of some vast arborial mandala - a spread of projection, perceptions, proliferations, all strung together in a web of intricate harmony. Leaves glittering in unison as a billow of wind would stir the forest. Love and hate, anxiety and hope all shimmering in their individual perfection.
The next couple of days were spent in and around Belfast, spending time with people from the Buddhist group. The presence of the troubles and divisions in the society made a continuous impact on the mind.
During the afternoon we walked up to MacArt's Fort, on top of Cave Hill, which overlooks the whole of Belfast. It was a shining day of vivid blue skies, arcing over all the land and sea below us, The city seemed so innocent from that height. The slate roofs of the Ardoyne, combed like a well-ploughed field, the gentle blue haze settling in still air, the thrum of engines from the motorway - who would have thought that the human mind could have turned such a haven into a horror story. From above there was no sign of anything but charming busy-ness; drivers and pedestrians, workers and children, as blameless and empty as wooden dolls. This distance epitomised the principle of detachment - with aloofness you could see all the drives and strains, compelling strictures and values of the system, were nothing but human creations. But it also echoed the insensitivity of selfishness - a person distanced from the feelings at the heart of the city.
North from Belfast the towns are more often decked with loyalist Union Jacks, red white and blue kerbs, well- tended murals of William of Orange, "1690" and "No Popery Here!", It is hard to believe how strongly we need to defend our identity against the foe; fear, suspicion, mistrust, centuries of aggression and catalogues of misdeeds all mingle to form the position-taking of today. Rays of hope get extinguished as fast as they are kindled; however, it is for sure that peace is possible - in the wake of all battles the flowers return.
A day travelling around the countryside of the North softened the jarring images which had dominated the trip so far. This led us gently into the atmosphere of the retreat which was to be held in a woodsman's cottage, beside a large forest, at the southern end of Strangford Lough.
This house could not be much more perfect: a lot of work is required to keep the wood fires in, there is no electricity and only gas-light downstairs - this lends itself to the rousing of mindfulness in getting around in the dark, conserving batteries and developing general care and sensitivity for the physical supports.
Newcastle sits at the very foot of the Mournes so, after leaving Avril and family, we climbed solidly until we reached the tree-line below Slieve Donard, the highest peak.
Next morning we aimed to break camp quite early and climb to the top. By then the cloud had dropped to swirl around us but we could see a peachy glow beneath, showing the lowlands to be sunny and clear. Through the cloud we reached the pass below Donard and, although it was in the direction opposite to the one we wanted to take, we decided to climb it anyway. Now and again a break would appear and a sudden flash of the valley and mountain-sides would strike us.
We left our packs at the base, ascended through the thick white whisps and soon found ourselves at the summit. We sat at the foot of the cairn we had seen from so many miles away and could only make out a fifty-foot circle around us. This bore a striking resemblance to how it often is in the religious life: all the work can be done, but until the natural conditions come into line and support it, there need be no vision to bear witness to the Truth.
It was curious how all through the day - and to be truthful through the whole journey to these mountains - a song about the Mournes that I knew from years before, rang through the mind more than the feel of the mountains themselves. When we get used to thinking about life all the time, all we notice is our thoughts, not life itself. This also appears as a perpetual search to know - "Where are we?". "What time is it?", "What is this thing called?" - seeking for names and knowledge to capture the hidden spirit and fix, in this uncertain mysterious world, same vestige of permanence and solidity it is more inviting to drift into some sentimental idea about the hills, than to absorb the rocks and heather, the mighty crags, the whispers of grass bending to the wind. It is strange how the mind goes: we are more ready to worship our images of the Buddha than to realise Buddhahood itself.
"Don't you go followin' them fashions now Mary McRea, in the place where the dark Mourne sweeps down to the sea".
Our journey ended safely with a long drive back to Belfast, a good bath and a softer bed for the night. The next day our flight to England was due so we bowed out, taking many fond feelings with us.
Here, at the germinal stages of things is the promise of great goodness. I feel honoured in helping to set the seed and to cultivate the ground. As I leaned on the Mourne Wall up at Hare's Gap I felt my heart melting deep into this land - pouring in through the treasured jewel of these mountains, pouring through to permeate the nation. Ireland's good spirits have done us proud, this whole adventure has been a charmed and blessed event. In this land the spiritual life has long been valued and now this branch of the Sangha, having sprung from the forests of Thailand, has endeavoured to practise the Buddha's Way and offer it to the people here. This most precious of treasures now comes into Ireland, a fitting shrine for an offering from the land of the Emerald Buddha.
After the retreat Jakob, Nick and I headed off for a few day's walk, along the coast and up over the Mountains Of Mourne. The retreat had been good but I am sure it was hard work for everyone - as a first retreat, though, that hardly came as a surprise. To wish it otherwise would have been a frustration - what a relief we do not take unremitting success and happiness as our refuge.
It is evening now on Dundrum Bay. I write this leaning on some dry seaweed perched on the edge of a sand-dune. Perhaps we set too much store by the examinations which we create with our thoughts and then feel we have to bluff our way through with hypocrisy and deceit - maybe they do not mean so much after all. Does this cliff, this sea, these lichens, this seal who watches us at breakfast, do they really know or care about all the attainments and problems conjoured into being by the mind?
Next morning the sky came clear and blue, the day warming to Mediterranean heat. The boots Paddy had lent me fitted well enough, but large blisters had appeared which I had swathed in padding protection - all to no avail - each step was painful. We turned off the main road, and joined an abandoned railway line which took us all the way to Dundrum town. Even though this was leafy and thick with the delights of new spring growth, I was quite blind to the bursting greens around me. I noticed my thoughts were becoming childlike and frustrated - a regression to simple self-hood followed pain, whining and complaining like a spoilt five-year-old.
"My feet hurt. I want to stop. It's not FAIR!!"
We reached Dundrum and, with a change into my sandals, the world took on a different face. The sands of Murdough Bay were completely empty. During the walk along the beach, amidst the vast open sunlit space, with the cloud-capped Mournes before us, all the negativity of the morning slowly played itself out. One step after another, the mind's additions to the moment became quite clear.
Avril, who had been on the retreat, had invited us to stop by her parents' house in Newcastle. We spent a while with her mother who chatted with us with great interest. Avril was utterly delighted that we had come, it turned out that it was her birthday, and she glowed with gladness at this brief visit. As Nick pointed out, for many people interested in Buddhist life, to introduce their families to what is so significant to them is very important.
Paddy and Linda Boyle 75 Knutsford Dr., Cliftonville Rd. Belfast BT 14 Tel,: (0232) 754623