If you’d told me a year ago that I’d spend a week at a Buddhist retreat in Ireland, I would’ve laughed and asked, “Are there even Buddhists in Ireland?” But the end of a grey Irish April found me in the city of Cork, in a crowded hostel room above a loud bar, prepared to leave for Dzogchen Beara Buddhist Meditation Centre and a week of meditation.
With some time in Europe before I walked the Camino de Santiago, wanting to find walking paths to train for the pilgrimage and a place where I could begin to quiet my mind, I’d stumbled across Dzogchen Beara online and had immediately reserved a bed in their hostel, along with a flight from Italy (where I’d started my journey abroad) to Ireland.
I’d never thought that Ireland would be a place I’d like to visit for spiritual reasons. I pictured a grey, boring country with a lot of sheep (I wasn’t wrong about the sheep!) and a lack of the warmth and heart that I’d found to be so spiritual in Italy.
When I found Dzogchen Beara, however, and saw photos of its gorgeous grounds and views, I thought I’d give Ireland a chance.
My first impression of Cork was that I would’ve done better to stay in Italy. The full Irish breakfasts were greasy and the coffee was weak. Each night, I had to choose between staying out all night drinking Guinness in a bar with my newfound hostel friends, or listening to other people do just that in the bar beneath my shared bedroom.
I often chose the former, and although I enjoyed the live music scene in Cork and the odd collection of young French, American, Italian and Australian people who happened to find themselves in the hostel with me, by the time the day came for me to head to the retreat centre, I was ready for a good spiritual cleansing and some quiet time.
After some research, I found that the only way to get to Dzogchen was to take a local bus from Cork to the town of Castletownbere, and a cab another 20 minutes from there. In order to reserve my place on the local bus, I had to call a number I’d dug up from the depths of the Internet and talk to a woman with a thick Irish accent.
I headed out on the colourful streets of Cork, under the sky that always threatened rain, to meet the van with Castletownbere across its side in blue lettering. As I waited for the driver to return from his break, I talked with an older Irish woman who was the only other passenger waiting for the bus. She asked me lots of questions about America, and told me about her weekend in Dublin to see her son in the “big city.”
The driver arrived: an old man with messy white hair, picking the few teeth left in his mouth as he walked very slowly from a nearby pub back to the bus. When he spoke, the older woman had to translate for me, as his missing teeth exaggerated his Irish brogue.
Surrounded by music and candlelight, I felt content and knew it was a good omen for things to come.
With my heavy bags, I walked into MacCarthy’s and into the midst of a live music night. A plump, smiling woman behind the bar invited me in. She told me to leave my things behind the bar and sit and enjoy the music while she called the cab driver from an old-fashioned telephone. The walls of the pub were plastered with various photos and postcards from around the world, and there was a collection of penny candy, gum and shaving products for sale.
I ordered a Guinness to sip as I watched people gathered around candlelit tables strumming guitars, playing the flute and singing Irish songs. Surrounded by music and candlelight, I felt content and knew it was a good omen for things to come.
Dzogchen Beara, a 15-minute drive of winding country roads from MacCarthy’s pub, was just about as peaceful a place as you could imagine. The hostel was a small, wooden cabin-like structure with a central sitting room and kitchen, and rooms with wooden floors and wooden bunk beds with thick blankets. The whole place smelled like pine and cats. The view of the craggy coastline was breathtaking, and outside the hostel was a small garden with a bench and a plastic chair for meditating or quiet reflection.
Every morning at 9 a.m., there was meditation in a simple room with a wall of windows that looked out on the water. While sitting there, it felt as though you were teetering on the edge of one of the cliffs.
After the morning meditation, I’d often go to the centre’s cafe for a breakfast of either a croissant or scone, jam, cream and a large coffee. There was no Wi-Fi, but in my seat by the window, I managed to get enough phone service to write to my family. I’d sit there for hours and read or write in my journal, while sipping a cappuccino that was several notches above the coffee I’d had in Cork.
During my time at Dzogchen Beara, I managed to read two books—something I hadn’t done in months. I made my way through both The Bhagavad Gita and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rimpoche, who founded this centre and one in France.
At 1 p.m. each day, lunch was served in the meditation room. The lunches consisted of a buffet of different delicious vegetarian options—usually a rice or couscous dish, potatoes, a stew, some roasted vegetables and a salad. After lunch, I’d head out for a walk. The centre was connected to a donkey sanctuary, so I explored that first. I then continued on the path that hugged the coastline past the animals’ enclosure, down to where the grassy hill bled into a collection of huge rocks on the edge of a brilliantly blue pool of water. A perfect place to meditate.
One day, I walked the seven miles (about 11 kilometres) back to Castletownbere for groceries. I’d started to head back, when suddenly the sky opened up and released a floodlike downpour on me and my paper bag of groceries. For the first time in my life, I stuck out my thumb, and was immediately picked up by a friendly townsperson. My saviour was a teacher at the local elementary school who said he frequented the loving-kindness meditation held in the afternoons at Dzogchen Beara.
Another day, I walked five and a half miles (approximately nine kilometres) to the tiny seaside town of Allihies, had a piece of chocolate cake in the town’s only cafe (inside a coal mining museum) and walked all the way back to Dzogchen.
On my walks, I’d think over the things I’d read that day, and the feelings that had come up during my meditation. I’d gaze out at the farmhouses, the coastline in the distance and the tangle of greenery that made up the landscape, and ask myself what I considered to be deep questions:
- How can I find out who I am, if at the same time, I’m supposed to let go of my ego and find my sameness with the universe?
- How can I devote my life to living fully, in the moment, while also keeping in touch with the greater universe?
Back at the hostel
The hostel volunteers were a joy to be around. One, a sweet little old man with the build of a farmer, said “Yeah, I would be meditatin’, yeah,” when I asked him if he followed the practice. He sang in a chillingly beautiful voice one night, when those of us staying in the hostel sat around sharing songs and stories. One of the other volunteers, a young German girl, told me this man had been an alcoholic for years before starting to meditate.
I learned to step away from the rush of modern life, including the technology and online universe and the comforts of living in a city.
I can’t say my time spent in meditation at Dzogchen Beara yielded much more than a few semi-blissful moments, but the gifts of my time in Ireland went far beyond that. In Ireland, I learned to step away from the rush of modern life, including the technology and online universe and the comforts of living in a city.
I discovered how to find space for contemplation. I learned to walk through my thoughts and send my questions to the wind and the hills. I learned to read and sing, and to tell and listen to stories. I experienced the unexpected Irish friendliness in the warmth of each bartender or cafe worker who asked “Are you OK?” instead of “Can I help you?” and in the wave of each passerby.
Yes, there are Buddhists in Ireland, and there might just be some kind of ancient wisdom to be found in the country’s expansive farmlands, unruly hills and rocky coastlines, too!