Sunday, July 19, 2009

Black Mountain Zen & Belfast Peacemaking

Straight man for a predictable punchline to a sectarian joke? I felt wary when asking about Buddhist peacemaking in the North of Ireland. I was pleased that this dialogue's taken seriously in Belfast. Although I am sure that humor comes in, somehow, given the inspiration of such as Shunryu Suzuki's San Francisco Zen Center, where the founder of this initiative studied many years.

Thanks to journalist Liam Clarke, who sent me this timely piece, I'm sharing it with you. While I figured, given the presence of Zen centers across Ireland, that such an initiative had begun long before my inquiry, it's encouraging to see it spread. "Black Mountain Zen Centre" has a very comprehensive array of material, with many talks by Haller to download. A very basic directory of other centers: "Buddhist Network Ireland".

Clarke added that actor Michael O’Keefe belongs to "the Zen Peacemaker Order which is led by Bernie Glassman. I think the[re were] stress reduction classes which Paul gave to community. Women’s and survivors groups were the most lasting and some guided meditations were reproduced on a CD with the help of a grant from Belfast City Council. He uses the Jon Kabat-Zinn programme, which has Zen elements but is also different, for this."

Zen Buddhist monk aids peace efforts in native Belfast
Special to The Japan Times. Saturday, June 27, 2009.

When the Zen monk Dogen Zenji returned to Japan from China in 1227 with the ideas that would become the Soto school of Zen, could he have imagined that centuries later, on the other side of the world, those very ideas would be used by people to try to overcome their society's deeply rooted conflict? Most likely not, but that is exactly what is happening.

In Northern Ireland, which is primarily known in Japan as a place of violent, religious conflict, small Soto Zen groups have been formed and are flourishing.

The people behind this unlikely development began by bringing together former combatants from the two conflicting groups, the Irish-Catholic and British-Protestant communities, and using Dogen Zenji's ideas to help them overcome their differences. To tell the story of how this came about it would be best to tell the story of the man who started it all — Irishman Paul Haller Roshi.

Haller is the abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, but he spends his time between San Francisco and Ireland, working with the Zen groups he helped establish and overseeing their peace-building work.

Originally from the Falls Road area of Belfast, he witnessed his society collapse into bitter sectarian conflict as a young engineering student in the late 1960s.

The Catholic Falls Road area became the cradle of the Irish Republican Army's campaign of violence aimed at securing independence from Britain.

In 1969, Paul Haller joined the legions of young people who left Northern Ireland looking to escape the conflict, find a better life or just explore the world. He first moved to London and then traveled through Europe, the Middle East and Asia, before ending up in Tokyo.

In an interview from the San Francisco Zen Center he reflected on his early travels, "I was very religious as a child and my travels really engaged my interest in religion, from the various Christian faiths, the Koran to Buddhism."

In Tokyo, he began to focus his attention on Zen Buddhism. "I had read Alan Watts' book, "The Way of Zen," among others, and I wanted to study more. I met a young student Soto Zen monk in Tokyo, whose father was a Soto Zen monk, and we used to talk about Zen a lot, but in order for me to study Zen formally in Japan, I needed a letter of recommendation from a teacher, which I didn't have."

Determined to continue his Zen studies, Paul went to Thailand where he didn't need such a letter. In Chiang Mai in northern Thailand he entered a monastery and studied under Buddha Dasa, a famous Thai teacher at that time.

He then moved to a remote meditation center in a forest nearer to Bangkok where he spent months immersed in meditation and seclusion.

"My time in Thailand was a time of great personal questioning, but the time spent in the meditation center was very beneficial for me. It was my first experience of intensive meditation." Soon afterward, he was ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk in Bangkok. It was 1973.

"My time in Thailand had been very good for me, but I wanted to practice Zen in a Western society."

"Soon after being ordained, I met a young American-Thai monk who suggested that I make the journey to San Francisco, to join the Zen center established by the famous Japanese Zen monk Shunryu Suzuki, which I did."

Paul settled in San Francisco and stayed at the Zen center, in time becoming a co-abbot.

Twenty years later, major moves toward peace in Northern Ireland's long, drawn-out conflict were being made. Against this background Paul's close friend and Zen practitioner, the movie actor Michael O'Keefe ("Caddyshack," "Michael Clayton") suggested to Paul that Soto Zen might have something to offer a society emerging from decades of sectarian violence.

Paul agreed and soon arrangements were made. A group went to Belfast with plans for a retreat that would include ex-combatants to see if they could be helped to overcome the suffering they had endured during the conflict.

"Initially, 25 of us traveled from the U.S. for the early work. We held the retreat in Belfast itself and we had people who had fought on both sides come together.

"We asked them how they had suffered, because the basic teaching of Buddha is to address suffering. There we had people who had once been mortal enemies, many of whom still didn't want to be in the same room together.

"But they listened to each other's stories of how they had suffered and they came to empathize with each other. We saw real progress being made then."

At the time, Haller said, many people and groups from around the world converged on Belfast to offer their "cure" to Northern Ireland's ills.

"People were coming in for a short time, undertaking some sort of peace activity and then leaving again," he said, "But I wanted to establish a center which could work with people's long-term development and sensibilities."

Therefore, a Zen meditation group was formed, with its membership drawn from both of the conflicting communities. Within a short while, permanent premises in the center of Belfast were secured and the new Black Mountain Zen Centre became Northern Ireland's first Soto Zen group.

Now, Paul tells us, it has a flourishing membership and schedule. There are regular peace-building workshops dealing with trauma and stress reduction.

Local community workers are involved in much of this work. Bi-annual Zen meditation retreats are held out of the city in the Irish countryside, and are often attended by as many as 50 people. Now another five new Zen groups have formed in towns around Belfast.

"Those groups in Northern Ireland that strongly and simply align themselves with Soto Zen do so because they see it as a method of meditation, as was taught by Dogen Zenji, rather than a religion," Paul said.

"They don't see themselves as adhering to a church or religion, whereas in Japan it has more of a religious identity, of course noting the difference in Western and Japanese understandings of the term 'religion.' Meditation is the most important thing about Soto Zen to them, not funeral rites."

"The heart of Dogen Zenji's teachings is relevant to any society at any time and that is what I attempted to bring to Northern Ireland. Through Dogen's method of meditation, to practice awareness and live in the moment is to discover what Shakyamuni Buddha was teaching and to discover for yourself the way of life that he proposed."

Caption to photo: Friends of peace: Haller (center left) stands with members of the Catholic and Protestant communities at the Black Mountain Zen Centre in Northern Ireland. To Haller's left is his close friend American actor Michael O'Keefe, who had encouraged Haller to return to Northern Ireland to engage in peace-building activity. COURTESY OF BLACK MOUNTAIN ZEN CENTRE

Permalink to Japan Times article, with another picture of Paul Haller in his robes: "Zen Buddhist Monk aids peace efforts in native Belfast."
P.S. My own review of David Chadwick's biography of Shunryu Suzuki, "Crooked Cucumber," can be found on Amazon US, and on July 9, 2009 at this blog "here." Without Liam Clarke's suggestion, who knows when I might have gotten around to this fascinating book-- and, it's refreshingly not a hagiography-- by an early follower of Suzuki during San Francisco's countercultural heyday. Perhaps one day I will turn off that favorite route of mine, a long lovely country road south of that city, between Carmel Valley and Greenfield, for the even more sinuous path up to a remote place I have never seen, S.F. Zen Center's retreat at Tassajara, to buy their bread.


Tony Bailie said...

I briefly spoke to Paul Haller a few years ago when he was in Belfast to try to set up an interview, although in the end it was a colleague of mine who profiled him. He is an interesting character. I've attached link to article.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, and Liam himself if he peers in here: I was forwarded this Sunday Times article back via a NUIM sociologist, Laurence Cox. He's a specialist in social movements and activist research, including Western Buddhism & "new religious movements." His co-written article in the "Journal of Global Buddhism" titled "Border country dharma: Buddhism, Ireland and peripherality" is forthcoming.

Tony, re: Bimpe Fatogun's 23.05.03 "Zen-like calm descends on museum," in that Irish News article, only a teaser line opens for non-subscribing freeloaders. I tried Newshound's archive, no luck.

I add re: Michael O'Keefe: "Zen & the Art of Irish Reconciliation" by Amy B. Wang, in a Columbia U. journalism blog "Beyond the Brogue: Covering Ireland's Changing Religious Landscape," March 6, 2009.

Finally, Liam's "Zen in Belfast" piece I resurrect here since its link given by Dr. Cox from "buddhistnews" has ceased its manifestation for us.

Sunday Times, November 03, 2002, Contributed by Liam Clarke

Belfast, Ireland -- VETERANS of the Troubles in Northern Ireland are seeking the help of Zen Buddhists in facing their traumas.

Loyalist and republican former prisoners are among those who have signed up to join the Black Mountain meditation centre, which is due to open in Belfast later this month. The Buddhist retreat is the brainchild of Paul Haller, the Zen Abbott of San Francisco and a native of Belfast's Falls Road. Frank Liddy, a north Belfast community health worker who has been a practising Buddhist for the past seven years, is also behind the scheme.

Haller, who left Belfast 30 years ago to become a Buddhist monk in Thailand, but later moved to San Francisco, said: "I feel a great commitment to helping Belfast. I have been coming back every year for the last five years, and I've found that many community programmes are trying to build peace in Northern Ireland. We feel that the Buddhist training offers a unique contribution to facilitate that, not to replace what is already there, but as a complement to it."

The Black Mountain centre will be the second Buddhist centre to open in Belfast. At the end of the summer the Potala Buddhist centre opened its doors in Belfast Donegall Pass, a working-class community where it is offering meditation classes under Kelsang Drolkar, an Irish-born nun.

The steering committee for the new Zen centre includes Liddy, a former Sinn Fein activist, and Dougald McCullough, an executive committee member of the Progressive Unionist party, the political wing of the UVF. David Ervine, the PUP leader, is not a Zen enthusiast but supports the project. "If they can contribute anything to help us through our pain, they are welcome," he said.

Tony Bailie said...

John when I posted link I didn't actually read article. I just remembered that Bimpe had interviewed Paul Haller and thought this was the profile. However, it seems to be a short news piece, although I definately remember reading a feature-length profile at the time which has not been archieved on the IN website. Anyway for now I've pasted news story and I'll see if I can track down longer piece.

Fionnchú said...

Here's Prof. Laurence Cox's article on Irish Buddhism, with Maria Griffin. "Border country dharma", Journal of Global Buddhism 10 (2009): 93-125. From a NUI Maynooth Oct.'09 conference "Alternative Spiritualities in Ireland" conference (search my blog for more about it), their research also appears here, as does mine on "the invention of Celtic Buddhism": "New Religious Movements in Ireland"(Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011).