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."


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