By Melinda Rothouse
From the moment I stepped into the van, I knew I had entered a different world. The other passengers were already well-acquainted with the weekly O’Donaghue bus from Cork to Castletownbere, a little town somewhere far out on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, Ireland.
Heading home from a day of commerce in the city, many passengers carried loads of shopping bags that filled the narrow aisles while others were making a weekend commute to the Peninsula. A musty odour permeated the vehicle, smoky—dusky, an infusion of cigarette smoke and body odour, perfume and food. Aromas left behind by the countless passengers who made the trip many years past. The seats worn and threadbare, the windows smudged with breath and oil from the many heads that rested upon them.
By the time we reached Castletownbere, most of the other passengers had disembarked at various points along the roadside. “Can you stop just there, at the next crossroads? Thank you, thanks so much! Goodnight,” passengers imparted before disappearing up wandering side roads or into neat modern homes. Exiting the van in Castletownbere’s tiny square, I looked around helplessly for a taxi, finally asking the driver of the van where I might procure one last mode of transportation to my destination.
“Where are you headed, then?” he asks. “Dzogchen Beara,” I reply.
Another voice joined the conversation; I turned and found the man who had sat behind me on the van, whose accent I had earlier struggled to decode as he talked on his cell phone. “Oh, yes, I’m going that way—a lad is on his way to collect me. He should be able to drop you off if he’s got room—he’ll be going right past there.” He assures me. “Wonderful,” I reply.
As we wait, we introduce ourselves, and it turns out he’s just back from Galicia, Spain, where he completed a three-month pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. My impression of him shifts drastically from country bumpkin to world traveller—religious pilgrim…And so I hitched a ride with him and Gert (Gurd?), his German friend who cheerfully rearranged the back of his car to make space for me: “Feckin’ sold me other car!” he shouts.
They asked if I have previously been to Dzogchen Beara? “No, this is my first time.”
“Well, whatever they say, don’t sign anything,” says Gert, wryly.
“What, you think they’ll ask me to sign my life away?” I inquire laughingly.
“Just don’t sign anything!” Gert insisted, slightly suspicious of the strange Tibetan Buddhist retreat center residing in their midst.
I arrived around 9:00 p.m. at the international hostel, where, like some post-millenial contortion of Tabard’s Inn from the Canterbury Tales, the party is just beginning. Gathered in the kitchen were a zany lot of merry Buddhist/hippies, cracking jokes about death and reincarnation, and celebrating the departure of Anna, a willowy, wise, gracefully aging and painfully kind guest. Though she’s the guest of honour, she jumps up when I walk in, welcomes me, and shows me to the women’s dormitory. Settling my bags, I returned to meet the other guests: There’s gentle Richard from Holland, who gave up his career in the theatre after his parents’ passing to come and live among the Buddhists, shrewd Cynthia from New Zealand, a widowed retired former hostel-owner (the Buddha’s Abode, it was called), three cheerful Italian students on summer holiday, waifish Clare-the-Mermaid from France, and Tim from who-knows-where, strumming the ukulele in a vintage three-piece suit with flowers in his hair, leading a call and response to: “Who’s got the love?” “We got the love!” Damien, the social worker-turned-musician from Dublin, whaling on his digerideedoo and a local Corkonian, Brona thrilling us all with her oven-rack-and-shoelaces-turned organ of the gods (just put those little loops at the end of the shoelaces into your ears while I run this fork across the oven rack, and prepare to be amazed—note to self: must try this at home; great party trick).
In the midst of all this mayhem, I craved a quiet evening curled up with a book, but soon accepted that there was nothing to do but join in. As Ross, my beloved dharma buddy back in Austin would say, “don’t hesitate; just say yes…”
Though Buddhist rather than Christian, this place seemed somehow in line with the long and storied Irish monastic tradition, or at least some 21st century version of it. Being at Dzogchen Beara, I felt that I had entered a living breathing community along the lines of St. Enda (father of Irish monasticism), who lived all those centuries ago on the desolate Aran Islands, an emphasis on simplicity, quietude (certainly not always observed), communal living, recycling and composting, meditation and study. Yes, in the hostel we slept in bunk beds with ten to a room rather than in individual beehive huts, but during my long walks along the craggy hillsides, and hours spent in meditation looking out over the broad, vast sea, I felt a sense of the contemplative life.
Not only did I feel a connection with the Irish monastic tradition, but also with the worldwide Buddhist community. Dzogchen Beara is one of the main retreat centers of the Rigpa sangha, under the direction of Sogyal Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama who fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion. After coming to the West and studying comparative religion at Cambridge, he founded a network of Buddhist centers all around the world. Rinpoche’s international students gather at retreat centers like this one to practice intensive meditation, study, receive teachings and spiritual transmissions, and deepen their practice. You can feel the dedication in their stories and the incredible distances they have traveled to be here. Several visitors tell me of their hometown Buddhist communities in places like Dublin, Nelson (New Zealand), and southern France, and I marvel at the flowering of this tradition of non-violence and compassion.
Chris, a longtime Rigpa member and engineer, who was helping to revamp the center’s communication systems, told me of the Rigpa center in South London, where he assisted with renovations. In its former life, before being purchased by Rigpa, the building served as the courthouse where many of the IRA trials of the 1970’s and 80’s took place. He spoke of cells where IRA members were once held, under maximum security, while awaiting their trials. These same cells are now dormitories and meditation rooms—talk about poetic justice.
During my last evening at Dzogchen Beara, a group of us journeyed into town for an evening of music at the local pub. Sitting at a street side table with the cool ocean breeze nipping at our shoulders—it’s Saturday night and the whole town, people of all ages, are out to relax and socialize—my international Buddhist friends broached the topic of religion in America. Dubliner Edward observed that Americans seem to be more religious than Europeans, who retain a post-Enlightenment skepticism about religious dogma and the intolerance it can foster. Perhaps it is this skepticism that makes Buddhism, with its pacifist and non-theistic stance, an appealing alternative for Europeans to the religious traditions of the West.
And what of religion in Ireland today? Although religious matters suffuse the tempest of Irish history, many 20th century Irish writers, most notably James Joyce and Edna O’Brien, have written about the oppressive nature of Irish Catholicism and searched for possible alternatives. Both seem to be asking, can you be Irish and neither Catholic nor Protestant? Is there another alternative?
My sense of things is that, despite Ireland’s legendary Celtic past and its staunchly Catholic identity, these days many Irish people, like Joyce and O’Brien, are skeptical, if not downright cynical, about religion. Even people who drop into Church every now and then for good measure, don’t find much that’s “deep and meaningful,” especially among the younger generation. Of course, that’s not always the case, as my friend who walked the pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela could attest. Traversing the countryside, one sees endless ruins of ancient churches and monasteries, some lovingly restored and touted as tourist destinations, and many more slowly decaying in the middle of fields, but go to mass at a contemporary church and you’ll find it maybe a quarter full. It makes me wonder whether religion, at least in the Christian sense, isn’t regarded as a relic of a violent and socially-repressive past that the Celtic Tiger is all too ready to leave behind.
And what of the ancient Celtic/Pagan tradition that’s so identified with Ireland in cultural imaginings? Sure, you catch glimpses and hear whispers, especially in the odd women’s retreat advert promising a reawakening of feminine power and sexuality, but it’s not really a living, viable practice as far as I was able to observe. What about alternative/Eastern religions? Well, as in America, people are looking for an alternative way to connect with the spiritual without all the cultural and historical baggage of Christianity. Yoga studios and Buddhist meditation centers are popping up all over Ireland, as a brief Google search will reveal. And, as my experience at Dzogchen Beara attests, although they do not appear to be as ubiquitous or as mainstream as they are in America (at least, not just yet), some people claim that religion is dead, that it has no place in the contemporary world, and yet people are turning to various spiritual traditions (often not the ones with which they were raised) in record numbers, especially in the wake of 9/11, war, economic recession, and a general sense of disconnection and spiritual malaise. If my time at Dzogchen Beara is any indication, spirituality still flows in Ireland, and indeed across the globe. Though we may not immediately recognize it, religious traditions are crossing borders as quickly as any commodity, revealing the true depth of humanity’s interconnection.
Melinda Rothouse is a writer, teacher, musician, and performer based in Austin, TX. She holds a B.A. in Biopsychology from Vassar College, a Master’s degree in Religious Studies from Indiana University, and a Master’s in Performance Studies from New York University’s Tisch School for the Arts. Her research and academic interests focus on religious experience, embodiment, and performance. She has taught courses in academic writing, composition, and creative non-fiction at Tulane University in New Orleans, and has worked in writing centers at Tulane, Texas State University, and St. Edward’s University. She is the founder of Austin Writing Coach, currently teaches in the religious studies program at Austin Community College, and has worked as a freelance educational and travel writer for a number of years. She keeps a blog on religion, culture, and travel.