Dzogchen Beara – Clearing the Mind and Rejuvenating the Body at a Buddhist Retreat Centre on the Wild Atlantic Way in West Cork

"The vast and empty sky does not hinder the clouds from coming or going."                     -Shitou Xiquian

The picture window in the shrine room opens up on to a vista of endless sea and sky.  It is impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends:  clouds drift by, ocean waves rise and fall and my wild-horse mind, ordinarily galloping here and there is remarkably quiet.

Eight months earlier, in November, I had, by synchronicity or by chance,  come across an online auction sponsored by the Shambhala Sun Foundation, a Buddhist charitable organization.  One of the items on offer was “Dzogchen Beara:  One Week’s Rest and Renewal in Southwest Ireland”.  I had just returned to Canada from Ireland two months before, and I suppose I was feeling a little nostalgic.  The accompanying picture of a white-washed building perched on the edge of a cliff, oversize windows facing out to the sea was irresistible.  I placed a bid just slightly over the minimum and promptly forgot all about it.  When I received an email in December letting me know that I had won, I was surprised and thrilled and I set about planning my visit for the following June.

I arrived late on a Sunday afternoon, tired and stressed.  A steady drizzle earlier in the day had given way to lashing rain and hurricane force winds.  Visibility was poor and twice I had to negotiate around downed trees. I was happy that I had rented a car with an automatic transmission the day before at Dublin airport after the long red-eye from Canada.

Although I can drive a stick if pressed, the little extra money was worth the peace of mind and I could give my full attention to the road.  I almost missed the small sign for Dzogchen Beara barely visible from the roadway.  I turned off onto a narrow track that stretched for about a half-mile across the barren landscape, praying that no vehicle would meet me going the opposite way. A sharp turn took me under an archway and past large multi-coloured prayer flags onto the property. I parked up in the gravel lot. 

As I got out for a look, I encountered a young woman hunched over, in full storm gear huddled against the weather.   On closer inspection, she was staring into her mobile phone.  She explained that there was no public wi-fi in the facility and any reception at all was to be found here in the parking lot.  When I asked the way to the Care Centre, she directed my up a pathway and a set of stone steps.  I grabbed my bag and struggled up the muddy path.  When I came to the centre, I discovered a paved parking lot I must have missed on the way in that would have saved me the exercise and a good soaking.

Dzogchen Beara was originally founded on a piece of land bought and developed by former Londoner Peter Cornish and his late wife Harriet in the 1970’s.  Peter, a gifted visual artist was on a life-long spiritual quest that led him at last to this barren cliff top at the edge of the world on the road between Castletownbere and Allihies in the wilds of West Cork.  Over the next thirty years, the couple blasted, dug, filled, imported flowers and trees and carved an Eden out of the furze and bedrock. 

In 1992 the land and buildings were created as a charitable trust with the express purpose of providing a spiritual place for people of all religions and beliefs (or none) and given over to the care of the Rigpa Buddhist organization, under the direction of the Tibetan teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche.  "Dzogchen", pronounced "zawg jen" is the Tibetan translation of a Sanskrit word meaning "Great Perfection".  It refers to the teaching of the realization of original mind, similar to Zen. 

The retreat centre consists of the Care Centre, a hostel, a spiritual centre and a bookshop/cafe, as well as a number of cottages for guests, staff, practitioners and long-time retreatants.  Both the care centre and the spiritual centre have meditation spaces with an expansive view of the sea.   Despite its remote location, Dzogchen Beara is a busy place. There are workshops and events scheduled throughout the calendar year as well as a two-week summer retreat. The centre is about to get much busier with the anticipated completion of a new temple building in 2019 that is intended to house resident monastics.  Dzogchen Beara is now also included on the Wild Atlantic Way attracting many new visitors.

The Care Centre was opened by President Mary McAleese in 2007. Inside the doors there is a plaque dedicated to the memory of Harriet Cornish who passed away in 1993 and whose vision it was to provide people in need with a respite from the outside world, and an opportunity to heal, whether from illness, disability, trauma or from personal loss. In addition to providing accommodation, the Care Centre staff offer one-to-one counselling. 

Inside, I was met by Christine, the Spirtual Care Centre Manager who directed me to my room.  The Care Centre has both private and shared accommodation, a beautiful open kitchen and conservatory,  a large meditation space and some offices and meeting rooms. Even with the miserable weather outdoors, the space was warm, open, light and airy.  My ensuite twin room was modest, but bright and clean-- more than ample and very comfortable for one anchorite for a week. I unpacked my small bag and headed out to the kitchen. I was all alone, hungry and tired.  I had been told that I was welcome to anything in the fridge that wasn’t labelled.  I found a brick of cheese and some wheaten bread and set about making myself a sandwich and put on the kettle for a cup of tea. 

The following day the weather had cleared somewhat.  After a complimentary continental breakfast of boiled eggs, toast and tea, I wandered across the hallway for the morning guided meditation.  Two other people, presumably from the hostel were also in attendance.  I took a seat on a mat and looked out onto the expanse of sea and sky that was Bantry Bay.  The sharp clang of the gong told me the meditation had begun and the staff leader guided us through meditation, helping us to focus on our breath.  A second gong signalled that the meditation was ended and I sat for a few minutes, soaking in the view and the silence.

The scenery and serenity of this remote oasis in the heart of the Beara Peninsula is stunning. Imagine a fragment of James Hilton’s Shangri-La plucked from the Himalayan vastness of his epic adventure novel and grafted onto the steep cliffs overlooking Bantry Bay.  If there is an earthly representation of heaven, surely this is it!

As I pulled open the door to the bookshop and café, the smell of coffee and fresh-baked scones permeated the room. I ordered a latte and a scone (second breakfasts are allowed I told myself).  The bookshop is well-appointed with books of an inspirational nature.  On display was a biography of Peter Cornish, “Dazzled by Daylight” that tells of Peter’s journey from childhood to his destination in Dzogchen Beara.  How could I resist?

The fresh-ground coffee was delicious and the scone to die for. I took my new book and wandered out to explore a little and to enjoy the good weather.

I wound my way down the narrow path along the cliffs until I found a small green patch of clover overlooking the undulating carpet of waves as far as the eye could see.   I sat cross-legged on the soft grass and left my thoughts to wander like the meandering sheep, plucking their path along the craggy headland, while I calmly dissolved into the elements.

Just after noon, a vegetarian lunch (available for a modest fee) was served up in the hostel:  a green salad with fresh tomatoes and a vegetarian lasagna, hearty and delicious.  I sat in the garden and chatted with some of the residents:  a young man from Dublin who had chanced upon the place a year earlier and, captivated by the experience had never left. A senior practitioner from Germany who had been a student of the Rinpoche for many years and was serving by teaching and doing administrative work. 

My daily, largely monastic routine, was punctuated by the two public guided meditations, one in the morning and, one mid-afternoon.  Before and after, I was free to explore, to wander and to dream.  In addition to my local meanderings, I did take some time to explore surrounding countryside.

To the east, just west of Castletownbere, lies the homeland of the O’Sullivan Beare clan and the ruins of Dunboy Castle.  An historical plaque commemorates the long march of O’Sullivan Beare, his retinue of 400 soldiers and 600 civilians who in the year 1602 began a 600-mile march to escape certain death at the hands of English invaders and to seek shelter in the north.  After 14 days, numerous battles and constant harassment by the English, Daniel O’Sullivan found safety in Leitrim.  Out of the original thousand there were only 35 survivors.  Today, a hiking trail, the O’Sullivan Beara trail traces the fateful journey.  Close at hand, there is a 2 hour walking loop out to the Sheeps Head Lighthouse and a beautiful view of Mizen Head and Bantry Bay.

To the West and North, the village of Allihies, once the centre of a vibrant copper mining industry from the early 19th to early 20thcentury has some lovely pubs and restaurants.  You can trek to the abandoned  turn of the century engine houses left over from the mines and you can also visit the Copper Mine Museum in the town.  In June, the town comes alive with the Martin Dwyer Memorial weekend Annual Traditional Music Festival in memory of the renowned late Tin Whistle & Fiddle player.  The town swells with visitors from as far away as Kenmare in County Kerry and Glengarriff and the pints and music flow freely.

One sunny afternoon, at the recommendation of another guest, I drove west of the centre, turning off the road before Allihies to reach the tip of the Beara Peninsula.  Here I took a ride on Ireland’s only cable car over a narrow gap with a roaring tide to Dursey island.  A small island with few inhabitants it makes for a spectacular walk if the weather is favourable as it was for me that day.  Quick tip: Take water and a snack.  There are no amenities on Dursey. 

Thursday week saw the Centre come alive with participants arriving for a three-day Photography and Meditation Workshop.  I also met a quiet middle-aged practitioner who was coming off an eight-month silent retreat and was giving herself a chance to acclimatize before returning home to Australia.

Then, suddenly the week was over. The morning of my departure was sunny, warm and clear.  Within a ten-mile drive of Dzogchen Beara heading east, I passed the site of two recent crashes, one a tourist van completely on its roof and the other a red Toyota squeezed like a giant accordion.  No passengers or emergency vehicles were to be found.  I was sorely tempted to turn the car around and head back to the refuge of Dzogchen Beara, but I decided that it would have to wait for another time.  My cellphone was buzzing and the noise of the outside world was already beginning to fill in the silent, blissful void between my ears.

In the days and months to follow I would echo the words of the poet, William Butler Yeats from "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" when he wrote: " I will arise and go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore; While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Dzogchen Beara Buddhist Meditation Centre is located on the Wild Atlantic Way 75 miles west of the Cork City and 63 miles south of  Killarney.  For more information on the centre: accommodations, events, public meditation hours, café/bookstore hours, temple construction, directions, transportation links or to make a donation contact Dzogchen Beara , email info@dzogchenbeara.org  or telephone +353 (0)27 73032

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Dzogchen Beara, Garranes, Allihies, West CorkCourtesy of the author