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 www.belfastmeditationcentre.org
© The Irish Times


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