A Retreat in Ireland
By Caroline Dwyer
The realization of a long-held vision of the Irish Sangha was brought to fruition when dear Thay and fifty monastics were joyfully welcomed to Irish soil and led a four-day retreat in Killarney, County Kerry in April 2012. It was the first Irish-based retreat to be held on this scale.
The level of public interest in joining the retreat dawned on many of us on the organizing team months before, when we had to expand our original capacity to enable more and more people to attend. In the end, around 790 retreatants came on the retreat, including over eighty children aged from babies of a few months old (one just days away from being born!) to energetic teens.
Killarney is an area of incredible natural beauty. The retreat hotel buildings looked out over Killarney National Park and the McGillycuddy Reek mountains. The Killarney Convention Centre auditorium became the beautifully decorated Dharma Hall, while two hotels and blocks of apartments on the same site and a hostel in Killarney town housed the remaining retreatants and became our haven of transformation and peace for four days. We had the chance to enjoy the lush, green backdrop during a walking meditation that the Sangha undertook together, which ended in a picnic lunch on the grass overlooking the sparkling Lakes of Killarney. The famously changeable Irish weather held dry that day! The teens’ group also made the most of the surroundings by taking a hike into the park.
Playfulness and Healing
The innocent and joyful presence of so many beautiful children brought a palpable lightness and exuberance to this very special retreat. Many people commented on how the presence of the children created a quality of playfulness and how the great reverence for the children was apparent in the way they were celebrated.
The children’s programme made a musical offering to Thay. They played a lively Kerry Polka on traditional instruments such as the tin whistle (beloved of Irish school children), the fiddle, concertina, banjo, and flute. Voices of the other retreatants joined the children in singing songs that generations of children would have learned while attending primary school. Some children took the two promises in a very joyful ceremony. At one stage a preoccupied little toddler wandered onto Thay’s podium, causing Thay to comment that the child was practicing walking meditation. This caused ripples of delighted laughter from the retreatants.
Thay’s Dharma talks embraced many issues that are current in the Irish psyche: suicide, abuse by clergy in the past, healing of wounds from the troubles in the North of the country. He also offered to bring a party of monastics to facilitate the bringing together of both sides of the conflict using deep listening and mindful breathing practices.
Thay expounded on the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing and beautifully explained the benefits and purpose of the “Namo Avalokiteshvara” chant, which the whole Sangha sang together … a precious memory for this retreatant. Sister Chan Khong led deeply transformative and healing sessions of Deep Relaxation and Touching the Earth on the second and third days of the retreat. The Five Mindfulness Trainings were taken by many people in a very moving ceremony on the final day of the retreat.
Treasure Trove of Joy
The springing up of new Sanghas, the huge interest in setting up others in counties that previously had none, and the meeting of a Wake Up group during and since the retreat, are a tangible testimony to the timeliness of Thay’s visit to Ireland and the embracing of his message of compassion, hope, and mindful living. These new Sanghas are a beautiful flowering of the seeds sown before and during Thay’s visit, watered by the hard work and dedication of committed volunteers who worked for over a year in preparation for the visit.
Reflecting on my own experience of working on Thay’s visit to Ireland, I can appreciate now what a rare opportunity it was to work together with fellow practitioners for such a sustained period of time. When starting out, I didn’t realise just how absorbing and, at times, intense this work would become and how many challenges it would offer. I struggled to maintain my mindfulness and my equilibrium on many occasions, but it really brought home to me the high importance that this practice has in my life. I gained a deeper understanding of what my practice of mindfulness actually is in “real life” with all its perceived strengths and weaknesses, and how important it is that I remember to nourish it in order to maintain balance, perspective, and happiness. Very valuable lessons to learn! I am grateful to the family and Sangha support that was given so generously and became such a treasure trove of joy and laughter.
A deep bow of gratitude to Thay and the monastics who visited us here in Ireland, bringing this precious experience of the Dharma to our country. Thanks also to our brothers and sisters in the UK Sangha who generously shared their experience with us.
Caroline Dywer, Compassionate Stream of the Heart, lives in Midleton, Co. Cork with her husband, John, and little daughter, Grace. She practices with the Cork Sangha, the Awakening Seeds Sangha (a telephone-based Sangha for parents), and the Clear Mind, Joyful Heart Sangha based in Midleton.