Saturday, August 26, 2006


From Ballymena to Nirvana?
by Meaghan Meban (Ballymena Guardian)

Ballymena, the home of the Seven Towers and the ‘big shopping centre’ seems like the least likely place for spirituality but Hollywood star and Zen priest, Michael O’Keefe talks to the Guardian about how his path of enlightenment passed through Ballymena.
Sipping his cappuccino in a nearby cafe, Michael explains how he made the transition from actor to Zen priest why he visited Ballymena. Twenty years ago, after reading countless books by authors like Kerouac and Ginsberg, Michael quickly became interested in Buddhism. For his 31st birthday present an old friend, him to an Introduction to Zen Practice at the Zen Community of New York. He became a Zen student in 1986 and "never looked back," he said. When this reporter commented that Michael looked nearly two decades younger than his 51 years of age, he laughed: "That’s Zen for you. It can take years off."
Becoming a Zen Priest in 1994, Michael quickly became involved in social improvement projects and has tirelessly campaigned with others for permanent accommodation for homeless and has helped to establish HIV/Aids clinics. Michael is also a member of the Peacemaker Circle, which is involved across the world in building a "global, effective force for social change". "It integrates social action with spiritual practice, taking in the medium of mediation," he added.
His work has brought him to Northern Ireland on many occasions but this is his first visit to Ballymena. Over the last several years he has conducted many types of workshops some of which have been lead by Paul Haller, abbot of San Francisco Zen Center. Having met the organiser of the Ballymena Zen group, Liam Clarke, through Paul, Michael has stayed in touch over the years. With the new Zen group forming in Ballymena, they decided that the next time Michael was in Northern Ireland, it would be the perfect opportunity to visit to town.
However, Zen isn’t his only link to the town, in fact, he is friends with our own home-grown celeb, Liam Neeson. Which quickly reminds you that he is not just a Zen Priest, he is an actor too, who has starred in scores of films and appeared in countless TV series. As an actor, Zen has helped him live his characters’ "moment to moment reality."
"It’s quite helpful to acting really," he added. As the name O’Keefe suggests, Michael has strong ties to Ireland with relatives in Limerick and Cork.
As a third generation of Irish Catholic was it difficult to give up his faith? "No not really," he said: "I think Catholicism is beautiful and whenever I’m visiting my family, I would sometimes go to mass, but this is where my passion lies now. "But the great thing about Zen is, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to experience the meditation side of it. "Some people even find that it strengthens their faith, whatever it may be."
Eloquently summing up one of the many benefits of Zen, Michael said: "The more you practice Zen, the more you find out about yourself and the more you find out about yourself, the more you want to practice Zen."

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Report and Pictures of Paul Haller in Belfast

(picture from Pacemaker, originally published with this report in the Irish Times)

Exile brings Zen philosophy back home to Belfast
Carissa Casey
The abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, Paul Haller or Ryushin Haller Roshi, has had something of a love-hate relationship with Belfast over the years. He left the city in 1971 at the age of 21, vowing never to return.
Now he visits regularly and in the last three years he has helped establish a thriving Zen community in Northern Ireland.
This week he is giving a series of public talks and holding Zen meditation events at centres throughout the North.
He grew up on the Lower Falls during the ear y days of the Troubles and says he got as far away from the place as he could as soon as he was able. The website of his centre in San Francisco notes that "he has come a long way from his roots in war-torn Ireland". He travelled across Europe, the Middle East and eventually settled in Japan. "In retrospect, I can see I went to the other side of the planet. If I could have left the planet, I probably would have been up for that too, but I couldn't," he said yesterday.
He came across Zen while living in Japan. "I liked the fact that you could have a spiritual practice that didn't have a dogma to it. You didn't have to sign up to a fixed way of being. The Zen approach seemed to just attempt to have you discover the fundamentals of spirituality rather than get caught up in a religious practice."
Haller was brought up a Catholic and, he admits, was always spiritually ambitious. When he was six, he attended Mass every day in the hope of becoming a saint. By his mid-20s, enlightenment - the ultimate Zen state - had overtaken sainthood as his goal. He spent a year in a remote Thai monastery and six months living in a cave hoping, in vain, to achieve that state.
"I didn't get enlightened. At the end of six months I decided I couldn't take it any more. I went to Bangkok and the guy in the next hut suggested I go to the San Francisco Zen Center."
San Francisco was still abuzz with hippie ideals and the Zen centre, which was established in the late 1960s, was a popular and lively place. "I was oblivious to all that. I'd been living life in a very remote area. Most of the day I'd be wandering around a forest meditating under a tree.
I arrived at the San Francisco centre on July 4th and they were having a celebration with really loud rock music. It was like I'd gone to Mars." Despite the initial shock, Haller spent the next 30 years at the centre, eventually becoming co-abbot. It is a sizeable community with some 200 full-time residents in three venues.
In that period Haller only once visited his home town. "I came back for my father's funeral, but I only came back for four or five days. At that point things were just awful. It was always somewhere in my mind. I didn't know all the daily machinations of it, but I knew it was this enormous conflict."
The ceasefires in the 1990s brought him back again on a mission of peace and reconciliation. With a group of Buddhists from the US he brought together members of both loyalist and republican communities.
Zen Buddhism, with its emphasis on meditation rather than dogma, has a lot to offer people who have survived trauma, he believes. "You can look at it as a tool for mental health. There's a way of working with people, to have them experience their body, to discover a capacity to hold difficult emotions and start to unwind the after-effects of that." After the first visit, Haller began helping to establish local Zen centres. In the last three years five new centres have opened - in Newry, Larne, Ballymena, Portrush and Newcastle - along with Belfast. "You can't heal communities in a weekend or even in a couple of weeks. It takes years and years."
For more information on where Haller is speaking, see
© The Irish Times