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Vegetarianism, communal living and 'plenty of craic': How do Irish Buddhists live?

We spoke to male and female Irish order members from the Dublin Buddhist Centre.

 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

IT’S ONE THE of five main world religions.

And yet, aside from ubiquitous small statues of obese Buddhas, and books on the Dalai Lama and mindfulness monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhism remains somewhat of a mystery to mainstream Irish society, in a way that, say Islam or Judaism – to pick two other Asian faiths – are not.

We visited the Dublin Buddhist Centre (DBC) off Talbot Street to find out more about how Irish Buddhists practice their religion.

Vajrashura is one of four full-time staff at the Dublin Buddhist Centre, which is a registered charity. Along with six other regular volunteers, they teach meditation to approximately 600 new students a year, and Buddhism to another 100.

The DBC is the fulcrum of a wider community of 1,500 Buddhists in the Dublin area, and has sister communities (or ‘Sanghas’) in Killaloe, Clare and Westport, Co Mayo.

Vajrashura grew up as Sean Boland in the west of Ireland, before coming across Buddhism in the TCD Meditation Society as a theoretical physics graduate.

Now 39, he is a full-time Buddhist teacher and lives with two friends in a small Buddhist men’s community in Dublin 7. There, they meditate at 7am each morning, breakfast together and go off to work – in his case as manager of the DBC.

He was first attracted by mindfulness meditation. Along with a practice called the cultivation of loving-kindness, it’s one of the two main practices taught at the centre.

994456_933486840010724_4901450880939137958_n Buddhists meditate in the Dublin Buddhist Centre. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Spaciousness

“I have a scientific training and background, and was a bit sceptical at first but I really loved it,” he recalls.

“I loved the spaciousness it gave me, I loved how it made me appreciate things again. I remember walking through Trinity after meditation and seeing it as if for the first time again.

It really helped me with my relationships with people. So I really took to the meditation.

After meditating for about a year, he says he was naturally drawn to Buddhism – albeit reluctantly, he adds:

I was a bit resistant to Buddhism – or any organised religion – having been a Catholic for most of my life.

“But I went on a retreat – a weekend away – and was surprised to find that yeah, actually, I was a Buddhist. My life was fine already. I just felt a bit existentially bored. Buddhism made the most sense to me.”

Yet like a lot of Buddhists, he insists that it’s not a religion in the traditional sense, but more of a practice.

There’s no god in it, it doesn’t ask you to suspend your disbelief. For me, it’s a path of development, and a path to meaning I suppose.

So how do Irish Buddhists – or at least these Buddhists – live?

13781979_1496593993700003_6946877561914627376_n Sadayasihi gives a talk in the Dublin Buddhist Centre following her ordination this year. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

The thunderbolt

“On one level, my life looks the same,” explains Vajrashura.

He was ordained in 2002, and was given his name, which loosely translates as ‘diamond or thunderbolt hero’ “in the sense of someone who puts the needs of others above their own”.

“I live in rented acommodation with a few friends up in Phibsborough, I have a girlfriend, I drive a car, I go to work,” he says. “I get stressed about Christmas presents!

“And at the same time I work in a Buddhist Centre, with other Buddhists in a very meaningful context.

I’m very lucky – I get to teach people how to meditate! It’s such a great job. Although you’re not going to buy a Mercedes on it.

“As a Buddhist you try and live on the basis of awareness and kindness as much as possible – or wisdom and compassion. So that’s a lot more conscious in my everyday life.”

IMG_20161212_231410 Vajrashura meditates at the DBC's men's community in Dublin 7. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Cultural

Vajrashura no longer drinks – although not all Irish Buddhists are completely abstemious.

It’s not an ideological position – I just find that I enjoy life more when it’s simple.

“It’s also more conducive to meditation to take more pleasure in connections with people.”

The DBC is part of a worldwide organisation called Triratna Buddhist Community, which seeks to bridge the gap between eastern Buddhist and western artistic traditions – while continuing the revival of Buddhism in India itself – by attempting to boil Buddhism down to basics, unencumbered by cultural or linguistic baggage.

Of the 2,000 Buddhists ordained in the Triratna Buddhist Order and Community worldwide, 15 are Irish – many based in Dublin. There is also full equality between the sexes, and different sexual orientations are represented on the Centre staff.

Community living

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Supported by his long-term girlfriend, Vajrashura chose to stay living with two friends who were also into Buddhism.

“It’s very supportive,” he says. “There’s a real atmosphere of generosity and friendship, and of shared idealism in the positive sense.

I think sharing like that is quite a powerful thing in a society that’s becoming increasingly atomised.

“It’s a much nicer way to live. Also, environmentally, I think we need to live more communally due to the looming environmental catastrophe.

“I feel a lot more straightforward now in some ways, my inner experience is a lot calmer, more positive, more enjoyable.”

IMG_20161212_231518 A statue of the Buddha at the men's community in Dublin 7. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Lioness

Around a third of Irish order members are female, although the ratio of men to women order members in the global order is much closer to 50-50.

A female Scottish president, Subhadramati, oversees the Dublin centre, meanwhile.

There is also a women’s “community” – or Buddhist house – in Dublin 7. After living there for the past four years, this year Lisa Patten became ordained into the Triratna Buddhist Order.

On a three-month retreat with 15 other women in the mountains in Spain, she was given the name Sadayasihi, meaning ‘she who is a lioness of compassion’.

“For me, it was a very meaningful,” the 33-year-old explains. “There was a strong sense of harmony. It was intense in one way, but in other way, it was very deeply positive.”

13434738_1459056817453721_4913986886638379925_n Sadayasihi with Padmasuri, who ordained her earlier this year. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Kindness

Sadayasihi works for a small NGO in Dublin, and helps out with teaching at the Buddhist Centre. After taking a brief interest as a teenager, she learned meditation while training as a solicitor.

“I went on a week-long retreat after a year and that had a really powerful effect on me,” she adds.

The experience of being with people in a different way, it meant that it was possible, it wasn’t theoretical.

As an order member, she now tries to live by 10 precepts – or training principles – which, she explains, sum up how a Buddha, or awakened being would live naturally.

“It’s basically the principles of non-harm, kindness and awareness, being truthful, being kind in your speech,” Sadayasihi adds.

“There are three main areas – body, speech and mind.

In terms of body, that would be not harming other people, either physically or in your relationships, and also not stealing, not taking the not-given.

“There’s also the speech precepts, practising truthfulness, but also being kind and harmonious, and not engaging in frivolous talk.

Small talk has its place if it’s trying to make people feel relaxed, but if that’s all you’re going to talk about… there are more meaningful things to talk about.

“Then there are mind precepts, trying to uproot the fundamental poisons of greed, hatred and delusion.”

IMG_20161212_231141 Vajrashura and Kevin Mullaney meditate in the men's community. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Precepts

For Buddhists not yet ordained, there are five precepts – training principles that govern:

  • Kindness, or abstaining from causing harm to living beings
  • Generosity, or abstaining from taking the not-freely-given
  • Contentment, or not causing harm through sexual actions
  • Truthful communication, or not telling lies
  • Mindfulness, or abstaining from intoxicants that cloud the mind.

“In practice, it means yes I do live as vegetarian, and I try to work towards being a vegan,” Sadayasihi adds.

“It was interesting, I was teaching a meditation course recently, and a woman put up her hand and said she had had a pint before coming to the class. Unsurprisingly, she found it hard to meditate.

“For me, Buddhism is about becoming more free. I’ve become happier the longer I’ve practised. Suffering is a fact of life, it’s got nothing to do with Buddhism.

But what Buddhism is saying is there’s a way to go beyond suffering, leading to complete freedom of the heart, awareness, compassion, deep kindness.

“That’s what I focus on. It’s very exciting to me.”

The mitra

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

Kevin Mullaney, a 29-year-old from Tipperary, is a ‘mitra’, or friend, of the Dublin Buddhist Centre, and is training for ordination.

The process could take anything from one year to 20 depending on his progress as decided by his ordained friends in Ireland and the UK, and involves deepening his practice of meditation and ethics. He works in an office and lives with Vajrashura and two other Buddhists in Phibsborough.

“I still have my normal name, but three years ago I expressed the wish to become a committed Buddhist in a ceremony in front of friends and family. Not all mitras need to get ordained, but I’ve been training for ordination for the last two years.”

Mullaney was drawn to Buddhism after attending art college in Cork. But neither art – not Catholicism – gave him the meaning he was subconsciously looking for.

A friend mentioned a meditation course in the Buddhist Centre in Dublin, and I thought ‘oh god, that sounds a bit much’.
But something about it stayed in my mind, so I did yoga first. I was testing the water as to what the Centre was like, whether they were complete weirdos or not.

His interest grew to the point where he now regularly goes on retreats in Ireland and the UK with other Buddhists. Some Triratna retreats are all-male, some are all-female. some are mixed, and some are geared more to younger meditators.

My experience of retreats are generally blissful – except the first one, where we agreed to turn off our phones, and have no tv.

“I was used to cities! Now I can’t wait to get on retreat.”

IMG_20161212_230937 (1) Kevin Mullaney meditates at the men's Buddhist community in Dublin. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Career

Like most committed Buddhists in Triratna, Mullaney has also become vegetarian, and moves towards veganism.

“Internally, quite a lot has changed,” he adds.

I don’t invest so much in my career. I don’t invest so much in my romantic relationships, I invest more in something that’s much bigger.

“Those things don’t have to be pushed out of your life, but how I relate to them is now much less neurotic. Careers can’t make you that happy, it can’t sustain you.

I would say I’m happier. I still get sad, and lonely and anxious, but what’s different now is I don’t over-identify with any of those states, and they move quicker.

“I still occasionally drink. Now I get drunk after a single drink,” he says, laughing.

994456_933486840010724_4901450880939137958_n Irish Buddhists Vajrashura, Danaraja, Sadayasihi and Maitridaka meditate in the Dublin Buddhist centre. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Reactions

So is there any craic in Buddhism? ”Plenty,” Mullaney says, laughing. “There’s loads of fun. The last retreat, I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in my life.

You don’t need drugs, you don’t need alcohol. My friends take the mickey out of me a little bit, but they see that I’m a lot happier and healthier.

Vajrashura recalls being nervous meeting old college mates on a night out under his new Buddhist name.

“I was expecting the usual slagging, until one them turned around and said ‘I love Buddhism, it’s the only religion I’d have anything to do with’,” he recalls.

One of the first questions people ask when I say I’m a Buddhist is ‘what does that mean you can’t do?’
I tell them I do what I want.

“The second thing people say is ‘oh I’ve done a bit of meditation before, it was nice’. Over the last 14 years, Buddhism has become more mainstream. It’s no longer so weird.

It’s also not very authoritarian compared to some religions. Nobody tells me as an order member ‘you must do this’ and I have no interest in telling people what to do.

“All we say is here is that actions have consequences. If you live more simply, your life will probably go better. It really is about living your life in the way that’s appropriate for you.”

Monks

The big surprise is that Sadayasihi and Vajurashura – despite living and breathing what they call the ‘Dharma‘ (literally the way to truth) are not monks dressed in saffron robes.

Like some other orders in Tibet and elsewhere, the Triratna Buddhist Order eschews the monastic-lay dichotomy and prizes commitment over lifestyle.

Many live with partners and families. The Irish chapter of the Triratna order numbers therapists, architects, lecturers, farmers, project managers and a musician as members.

“For us it’s about commitment,” Vajrashura adds. “It’s more about living more ethically in whatever situation you’re in, rather than the externals.

If I wanted to live as a celibate monk, or if I wanted to have a family – or anything in between – that’d be fine with my order.

“I feel very privileged. There’s no discontinuity between being a westerner and a Buddhist, it’s not an eastern thing.”

Pavara Irish Buddhist and yoga teacher Pavara teaches an advanced class at the DBC. Source: Dublin Buddhist Centre

Mindfulness boom

The western world is undergoing a mindfulness boom, with everything from the US military to corporate banks co-opting aspects of the Buddha’s teaching to further their often dubious goals.

“Buddhists have been teaching mindfulness for about 2,500 years now, so it’s always been part of the mindfulness movement,” Vajrashura adds.

The mindfulness boom is good and bad. The more people learning mindfulness the better in many ways, as it gives them space to deal with things.

Yet he believes you can’t completely strip mindfulness of the transcendental origins.

If mindfulness is just a technique to turn you into a better consumer unit, then I’d really have to question the value of that.

He recently agreed to teach mindfulness at the invitation from staff of a corporate bank in Dublin, and was struck by how unhappy they were, although he acknowledges people are under pressure to make money.

“The main quality that Buddhists try and develop is awareness, kindness, and seeing how our actions affect other people and the world around us.

“Impermanence is also a big part of Buddhism. We cause ourselves a lot of dissatisfaction by not realising that things change so much.

“Ultimately, the highest goal in Buddhism is to try and make the world a better place. It’s about being alive to the flow of life. ”

Read: Dalai Lama crosses Derry Peace Bridge with Catholic and Protestant children

Read: Column: We need meditation more than ever before

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