Wednesday 22 January 2020

You have to get lost to be found

Frank Coughlan takes the long road west in search of the mysteries of the east, his eventual destination a Buddhist centre perched high on a cliff overlooking the ­Atlantic in remotest Cork. Will he find himself or simply get lost along the way?

Breathe in: Frank (left) with other participants in the Meditation Garden at Dzogchen Beara Spiritual Centre near Castletownbere, Co Cork. Photo: Tony Gavin
Breathe in: Frank (left) with other participants in the Meditation Garden at Dzogchen Beara Spiritual Centre near Castletownbere, Co Cork. Photo: Tony Gavin
Contemplation: Frank looking at the Atlantic, again. Photo: Tony Gavin

So, breathe. Listen. In and out. Concentrate and do it over. Again, then again.

But I can't because the women a few rows up hasn't settled. She's a fidget. Wriggling in her seat, adjusting her shoulder strap. Sneaking a peep this way and that.

I'm distracted and it's her fault. But perhaps not. The naggings in my head, like jumbled radio frequencies, are racing and overlapping. All sorts: flashbacks from the long drive down, that overdue bill I meant to pay before I left home, the WhatsApp message I received this morning. And so much more.

Our instructor Susan Browne repeats the message she had led us in with. She's calm and reassuring. She's zen.

Settle, she repeats. Sit upright. Comfortable. Knees inches apart, your fingers splayed on your knees or lap.

Relax. Eyes open, mouth too. Slightly, as if you are about to saw 'aww' but don't. Then inhale. Thoughtfully, slowly, deliberately. Then, slowly, let it out.

We try again, all 20 and more of us on this three-day retreat programme in Dzogchen Beara, the Buddhist meditation centre in the deepest, loveliest and most hypnotic stretch of remote West Cork.

This is where the jagged edge of Europe meets the Atlantic. Dzogchen is discreetly perched on steep cliffs and commands uninterrupted views that can both humble and inspire at the same time.

This time, I get something back. I get a little rhythm of breath and peace, peace and breath. The cacophony doesn't voluntarily go mute but I find I can at least corral it for a few moments at a time.

How was that, she asks?

The class speaks up, hesitantly at first. She and her co-instructor Olivier Riche have been teasing out different methods for us to try and they are keen to hear our verdict.

It is our second of three days and everybody seems to be responding differently to the various shamatha - 'peace abiding' - techniques sampled so far in our 'Contentment: the Greatest Treasure' course. It is for the over-50s and focuses loosely on coming to terms with whatever it is life has thrown at us and then making peace with it. For me, that is about learning to hold on to what I have and let go of that elusive something I might have thought, at some stage, was my due. It's that and a long-time curiosity that has me here.

No two in the class see it the same, but we have more in common than divides us.

All our heads are full of the same useless clutter and exhausting competing distractions, heightened in this shouty modern world of 24/7 everything, a place where silence is almost regarded as a capitulation.

Quiet is something you have to buy

Quiet, as one shrewd person observed on the night I arrived, is something you have to go out and buy these days. It was certainly something I had on my shopping list for my West Cork pilgrimage.

Words like stress, anxiety, worry and sleeplessness flitter around the room.

By now, having got to know each other ever so gingerly, we begin to open up. If only, we all agree, the volume dial in our heads could be set to silent for a few minutes a day. This could transform our lives. Or, at the very least, recalibrate it. This is what brings most to this outpost down a winding road to Garranes, Allihies, a few miles beyond the fishing town of Castletownbere.

We took different routes to get here and harboured different hopes now that we had arrived.

Many went looking for an answer to, or at the very least finding a better way of asking, that eternal question: what is it all about?

More of us were not expecting to shed any light on that great imponderable, but perhaps were just looking for a few signposts to help find a way home on those occasional nights we lose our bearings.

Dzogchen Beara doesn't do showcase miracles as a rule. It doesn't advertise itself as a Knock or a Fatima. If miracles do occur, they are the little ones its pupils might create for themselves, and only then after a long slog.

To understand the origins of this hodgepodge settlement of simple white buildings sitting on the edge of a cliff you have to go back to the early 1970s. It was then that Peter Cornish, a young, unorthodox Englishman, and his girlfriend drove their battered Renault 4, weighed down by a tea-chest containing all their belongings, on to the Swansea-Cork ferry. They had already wandered all over Britain and were close to abandoning their quest to establish a Buddhist spiritual centre when they stumbled upon Garranes.

After viewing the run-down farm on a horse-and-cart they knew they had found their nirvana. Now began the task of turning it into everybody else's. As Peter admits in his biography Dazzled by Daylight, they were equipped with nothing but the confidence of amateurs, mindfulness and some essential gelignite. They then set about transforming the wind-blasted cluster of ruins into what today is a renowned Buddhist retreat.

In 1986, they invited Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, to visit and gifted the centre to his organisation, Rigpa. Not long after Dzogchen registered with the Charities Regulator and in 2016, the last available figures, it reported gross income of €1.5m and expenditure of €900,000.

There are ambitious plans for the future, too. Next year, or in 2020 at the latest, the retreat will unveil its new Buddhist temple, designed by London architect Giles Oliver, set in a secluded corner of the site.

It will be easily found for those who seek it out, but it makes every effort not to be a blot on the landscape. Conceived in 2008, it will have cost something in the region of €3.5m by completion.

Project manager and Dzogchen director Leon Rossiter says the temple is really the culmination of Peter Cornish's life work. The impossible ambition of this exceptionally determined man, now in his seventies and living close by, is about to become a reality.

More accommodation will then follow. But scale is important, and the directors must be mindful that the very thing that makes Dzogchen unique isn't unintentionally diluted. Sometimes less is more. Most of those who travel up the narrow, grassy entrance, flanked by delicate silk prayer flags decorated with Tibetan blessings, aren't much interested in Buddhism.

They may come to respect it, but really they make the journey there primarily to unlock some of its perceived ancient wisdoms which they can then put to use in their busy everyday lives. Sort of spiritual shoppers, trying out different ideas in search of that elusive something.

A dishonourable surrender

Between short meditative sessions we again sit in groups of two or three and share experiences or perhaps even small intimacies prompted by themes suggested by our instructors. I no longer find this awkward. Some others are increasingly effusive and find the talk cathartic. Others still reveal a lot by saying very little but expressing it wisely.

We are tasked with picking apart the very concept of contentment. To most of us it suggests reaching a plateau of acceptance or making peace with your lot.

But those with a more challenging view of the world, and their place in it, regard contentment as something of a dishonourable surrender.

We also address impermanence and the difficulties people slipping into middle age and out the other side have with change, loss and a growing realisation of their own mortality.

Dzogchen runs 32 retreats annually, ranging from those on grief to relationships and work stress to confidence building. But such focused and intense meditative workshops are not for everyone.

Alternatively, you can simply book in, stay, mind your own business and concentrate on being mindful. That way you can drop in or out of the daily meditation sessions if and when you please. Nobody even needs to know you are there. Many of those on our course have travelled alone. Others arrive and share with friends. Some others come as couples and, happily, leave as couples, too.

There is a mixture of both urban and rural, men and women, those still working and many retired. Considering the time of year, a generous smattering are both primary and secondary teachers, some of whom plan to bring mindfulness right into their classrooms.

One thing we all have in common is a curiosity about the place, its magical location and a yearning to see if this polytheistic religion of the east can reach the parts of us that more familiar western creeds simply can't.

But it is a journey on many levels, some of them literal. Those of us driving from greater Dublin spend nearly six hours of our lives we will never get back on the road south. On an island this small, there are few treks that ask as much. At one point I despair of ever getting there and wonder, have I imagined the place.

I even manage to lose my bearings in Macroom outside Cork city, which isn't easy. My satnav falls silent, as if in some meditative space of its own. I, on the other hand, don't feel mindful at all.

But you have to be lost before you can be found. Who knows what I might have unearthed in Garranes. At the very least the quest has been exhilarating. I may even be back.


Staying put: keys to the kingdom

There are three types of accommodation at Dzogchen Beara, ranging from the farmhouse hostel which sleeps 20 in functional comfort, through to seven double rooms in the Care Centre, three of which have conservatories with private views of the vast ocean just below, and three self-catering cottages where families can stay.

A dormitory bed in the hostel is €20 per night, all-year round.

I stayed in a simple, smartly turned-out guestroom in the Care Centre, which comes in at €75 per night (€45 pps) for a minimum of two nights in the high season.

The conservatory rooms are €85 (€55 pps), again for a minimum of two nights, while the family cottages work out at between €230 and €280 for two nights in the summer.

Again, beautifully turned out. And the views? Just the bloody Atlantic again, I'm afraid.

But there are plenty of bed and breakfasts locally between Castletownbere and Allihies. Many on our course chose that option.

Our retreat (€240) included a daily vegetarian lunch and supper. Plenty of tea, coffee and biscuits, too. You can meditate on an empty stomach but it's much harder to stay in the moment.

For those with time on their hands, or in need of scrubbing the slate pristine clean, there is a three-month retreat penciled in through April to July of next year. It costs €4,775.

But be warned: it's for early risers with group Ngondro, or foundational, sessions beginning at 4.30am.

You'd need your Weetabix for that.


House Rules at the retreat


The first rule I became aware of was that there were none. Buddhism isn't really about telling you what you can or can't do.

They don't demand that you leave your smartphone aside for the few days, but I much rather they did. That thing follows me everywhere.

You don't have to sit in the Lotus position for the meditative experience either, which could be intimidating and even off-putting for the novice. Tried it; didn't like it.

There are no televisions in the bedrooms, but there is a flatscreen in the library of the Care Centre. It was on one evening and I flinched. A big orange Trump was bombasting for all he was worth. I could have done without that.

While they teach meditation they encourage chat, too. The kitchen area in the Care Centre, where you can make up your own breakfast or snack from a full fridge, was where we tended to debrief. Okay, gossip.

And while alcohol doesn't necessarily sit well with the meditative experience, and Buddhism rather frowns on it, glasses of wine were clinked by the more contented members of our class on at least one occasion. But I can't say by whom. That would be telling.

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