|Forest Sangha Newsletter||January 1992|
Crossing the Green Divide
Over many centuries the Emerald Isle has provided a home ground for men and women who have given up their lives to follow a religious calling. No doubt today there are still saints, holy people, living there quietly and earnestly striving for inner and outer peace. However, we tend to hear more often these days about unholy occurrences - notably in the north-eastern corner of the island - designated Northern Ireland, in sharp contradistinction to Eire, or Southern Ireland.
I was extremely surprised when, almost two years ago, I was asked if I would like to lead a retreat in Northern Ireland. 'Fine,' I thought, not realising that this was to be the start of a two-year 'posting'. Ajahn Tiradhammo, then based at Harnham, was the first of our community to go there, responding to Paddy and Linda Boyle's request in 1985. In 1987, with the realisation that the Harnham 'parish' had perhaps become too large, it was suggested that someone from Amaravati be the next regular visitor - so Ajahn Amaro took over. Although much of the teaching was given in the North, interest was also growing among Buddhists south of the border in having teachings from the Theravadin Sangha.
Once over the initial surprise, I was pleased and mildly daunted at the prospect of visiting a country where people were obviously in need of some clarity and kindness: would I be able to come up with the goods? I felt honoured in a humble way to be able to serve in such a situation. I was also apprehensive; one has only to hear of a car bomb or other terrorist act to believe that it is an extremely dangerous place to visit. Ajahn Amaro tried to reassure me, 'Oh, as a Buddhist nun you certainly won't be a target...' I still felt a little bit worried.
Oh, that's a brave hercutt yiou've got therr!
|Security checks at the airport were noticeably more rigorous for passengers on flights to Belfast, but there were still unexpected moments of friendliness and humour. When it was my turn to be searched, the woman security officer, looking at my shaven head and brown robes, exclaimed in horror: 'What on earth are you!' And once on the plane, a young man sitting beside me turned to me with a grin and said in a broad Irish accent, 'Oh, that's a brave hercutt yiou've got therr!'|
On arriving, one has the feeling that people have simply grown accustomed to the violence, like a constant ache or running sore - one would like it to go away, but what can you do? It's there. Driving in the countryside, there'd be groups of young soldiers, barely out of school, walking in the lanes with all their equipment of war, and we'd be stopped - regularly by armed police or soldiers checking who we were, where we'd come from and where we were going- their interest was not particularly friendly, but on each occasion I felt the inclination to be as helpful as possible, and in my heart I wished them well. In Belfast, on a wintry afternoon, armed soldiers walk among Christmas shoppers; police stations and Court rooms are well barricaded; and each day one hears on the radio news of the latest violence, somewhere in the city. . . . It's there, but what can you do?
|As a Buddhist nun, I realised that all I could offer was my practice; the effort to view all experience from the perspective of Dhamma, to live in accordance with that, and to encourage people who are interested to do the same.|
My first meditation retreat was held at Castleward - a large estate owned and maintained by the National Trust. Amid hundreds of acres of glorious woodland, the 'base camp', as it was aptly named, provided shelter -- basic, rather grubby, but definitely adequate. We were grateful. Together we applied ourselves to watching the flow of conditions in Nature. Within, our doubts, fears and anxieties and our obsessional habits of thinking mingled with times of ease, calm and happiness. Externally, there were high winds, lashing rain and snow which were interspersed with warm sunshine, clear, clear night skies and the gently changing light of dawn and dusk. Cultivating refuges in simply watching, knowing how it is moment by moment, a sense of Sangha evolved naturally as we supported each other, both in the stillness and silence, and in the more active aspects of living together: chopping wood for the log fires, the daily cleaning duties and taking care of the cook who invariably took very good care of us.
Driving south to Dublin after that first retreat, we crossed the border which people had made, corrugated iron and barbed wire forming a high fence across the land. A radar station on the top of the hill could, I was told, pick up conversations in cars a hundred yards away. It was interesting to notice that the undercurrents of stress, arising from what are euphemistically referred to as 'the troubles', were strangely absent as soon as we crossed over. The people of Eire speak of what is happening in the North as though it was a million miles away, although I noticed in conversation a distinct reluctance to visit there - especially at night - unless for some very special reason.
|Theravada Buddhists throughout Ireland, while having a definite interest and appreciation for that particular form - many of them have visited Amaravati and Chithurst Monasteries as well as attending retreats given by bhikkhus or siladhara - are also on extremely good terms with Irish Buddhists of other traditions. Marjorie Cross, who is in touch with Theravadins both north and south of the border, is actually a long-standing disciple of Lama Panchen Rimpoche. Her gracious mansion in Cocavan, where he normally resides, provided the perfect venue for an autumn weekend retreat. In Dublin, the meditation group still has signs of its Zen sitting-group origins, and public meetings where I was invited to teach took place at the Tibetan Centre in Inchicore. John O'Neill looks after the centre with great care and devotion; and in 1991 The Wheel - Ireland's first Buddhist magazine, containing news and articles from Buddhists all over Ireland - came into being, thanks to the impressive efforts of his wife, Vawn. Regular visitors to the centre, newcomers, and members of the Theravada meditation group attended on a number of occasions, and I was always made to feel very welcome. Photographs of visiting teachers adorn the walls of the reception area; it was touching to see various members of our Sangha there, alongside His Holiness the Dalai Lama and other eminent Tibetan lamas.|
Currently, the Theravada groups in Ireland are considering establishing their own centre, where they could meet and offer accommodation to visiting Sangha members on a longer-term basis, and perhaps hold retreats. As with all such ventures, much groundwork would be needed. That sense of dis-ease, so prevalent in the North, takes its toll and it seems that there is not much of a reserve of energy for establishing anything new. Just keeping going, meeting regularly, organising the Easter retreat and other teaching visits for monks or nuns is as much as the group in Belfast can manage at present. A waiting time . . . waiting patiently, watching and allowing the way forward to become apparent, as individuals allow their own ideas and preferences to fade, and they consider what can realistically be undertaken for the benefit of all.
I found it a real pleasure to meet people who, while practising their chosen way with integrity, are yet free to acknowledge and be open to the ways of others without a sense of fear, competitiveness or the inclination to convert. One might make an unfavourable comparison with what is happening elsewhere in the religious life of Ireland, but perhaps that would be unfair. The history of strife existing between the Protestants and Catholics is complex, going back hundreds of years. It is also only a part of the common problem of human ignorance, presenting a stark reminder of the harm which is perpetuated when we cling to an identity. On the other hand, when our refuge is in Dhamma, God, the Truth - whatever name we choose - our common humanity comes into focus. Protestant, Catholic, Irish, English, Theravadin, Tibetan are mere labels for a national or religious identity; in the context of life, death, pain and delight, they have no meaning. But who can see that?
Change which happens in accordance with Dhamma is not always obvious - like a plant, it may take a long time of patient cultivation before the blossom appears. However, I found it very heartening to be among people who are simply keeping at it, and to observe the arising of that clarity and compassion which may quietly challenge those positions to which human beings can cling with such tenacity and desperation.
Hatred does not cease by hatred; hatred ceases by love. This is the eternal Law, as it says in the Dhammapada.
May all beings everywhere be free from suffering.