The art of living and dying


A quiet revolution in how we approach death is taking place in a Buddhist retreat centre on the Beara peninsula in Co Cork, writes MIRIAM MULCAHY.

IT’S RARE TO come across such a concrete manifestation of a dream as Dzogchen Beara, a Buddhist retreat centre on the Beara peninsula in west Cork. Strings of Tibetan prayer flags, tattered and whipped by the sea, adorn a whitewashed cluster of buildings at what feels like the edge of the world. Overlooking it all is a recently opened Spiritual Care Centre, a place where people who are ill and dying can visit for respite. It has been built on a site hewn from bog and rock, and was inspired not by financial motivation but by one woman’s death and the teachings of a book.

The woman was Harriet Cornish, an Englishwoman who came to west Cork with her husband Peter in the early 1970s with a dream of establishing a spiritual centre. They had travelled all over Britain on their quest, and were close to quitting when they came to Castletownbere. They were brought in a horse and cart to look at a derelict farm a few kilometres outside the town; when they stood on the cliff-top, and saw the ocean spread below them, they knew they had found the place they’d dreamed of.

Over 20 years they renovated and built a series of buildings, creating a retreat centre that now has a hostel, offices, cottages and a meditation room with kitchens and tearooms. Inspired by Tibetan Buddhism, the centre is a perfect location for reflection, peace and meditation. In 1986, the couple invited Sogyal Rinpoche, author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying , to visit, and gifted the centre to his organisation, Rigpa. He chose the name Dzogchen Beara, which means the highest teachings in the Buddhist tradition, great perfection.

Sogyal Rinpoche was, like many of the great Tibetan masters and lamas, forced from Tibet by the Chinese invasion in 1959. His book has sold more than two million copies. Its aim was to create a quiet revolution: life for the living, and death for the dying. Rigpa has 108 centres around the world, including monasteries, retreat centres and study groups.

Throughout the year the centre runs retreats on bereavement, deep listening and meditation. “So much of the Buddhist teaching is rooted in the idea, everything changes, everything is impermanent, and it’s looking at where’s the support, where can we draw comfort after such a loss,” says Ally Cassidy, national co-ordinator of the Spiritual Care programme run by Rigpa. “We offer healing practices, and people find it amazing to have this space to talk about death, because you can’t talk about death in Ireland. The worst thing about grief is we don’t know what the hell to do with it, there’s no understanding of it, no education. Part of what we’re doing on a weekend like that is educating people as to the signs and symptoms of bereavement.”

One of those healing practices is pho’wa: “You can do this for yourself in preparing for death, but it’s also incredibly healing to be able to do that for someone who has died. And it can be done in the context of any faith, or no faith at all. These are very powerful tools to work with. So many of the Buddhist teachings are about recognising that we suffer, and how to transform that suffering.”

Cassidy came to Dzogchen Beara after years of study at the Rigpa centre in London. “There was a picture of Dzogchen Beara on the wall, and I was really captivated by it. When you’re Irish and living in London, and your heart’s always singing for home, you’d cry into a cup of tea.”

Matt Padwick, the director of the centre, had been travelling for years when he came across the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. But it only made an impact on him when he lost his grandmother. He went to Lerab Ling, a Rigpa monastery in the south of France, to study, and 10 years ago he ended up in Beara. “Sogyal Rinpoche says we should find meaning in life and hope in death. That for me brings it all together; it’s not about your death, it’s to find meaning in your life.” He maintains there’s such a thing as an inspiring death: “Suffering can show people another way. When you feel you can help, it helps you feel better about the whole process.”

The retreats are often run over weekends, and people can stay at the centre or offsite. “People enjoy being with like-minded people. Those that come here are all ages, all backgrounds, but they come here with one thing in common; to take time out, to learn to meditate,” says Padwick. “The most important thing is not just the weekend here, it’s what they learn, taking it back, and putting it into their everyday lives. Reading it in the book is one thing; when you sit down with a group of people it goes a little bit deeper. When you receive teachings from an authentic teacher, it’s the next level again.”

Like many others who visit this place, a death brought me here. My father died suddenly last September, and it was unbearable. When we had to decide what to bring into the church to represent his life and place on his coffin, along with a fishing rod, a well-travelled Munster jersey and a photo of his beloved Kerry, we chose the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. He had been reading it before he died. It captured his interest in meditation, in philosophy and his lifelong quest to be one of life’s rare beings: a good person, a gentleman.

After the funeral, a tsunami of letters and cards streamed in. A letter came from France, from the daughter of one of his closest friends. Orla Studdert is a student at the Lerab Ling monastery in the south of France, and her words shone like the beam of a lighthouse to a shipwreck: she wrote honestly about death and told us how, for my father, she did the Tibetan practices for the dead for 49 days. She mentioned Dzogchen Beara, and urged us to go there. Weeks later, I headed for west Cork.

In Dzogchen Beara, I experienced something completely new and unexpected: here is a place where it is okay to be bereaved. Maybe it’s the location, clinging to the edge of the Beara peninsula, like a limpet on a rock, tenaciously dug into the cliffs that guard Bantry Bay. Maybe it’s the distance from cities, where realities melt and dissolve over distance and crises that torment everyone in a vice-like grip disappear. It could be the orientation of the centre; all the windows, terraces, gardens, paths and walkways display one thing: a vast expanse of shining sea, intercut by white ribbons of surf that dance around the cliffs. All you can hear is the eternal thump of the ocean as it encounters land, over and over again.

The horizon is wider because of the height; boats work the waters below, and colonies of seabirds criss-cross the silver vista of sea and sky that changes relentlessly, yet somehow always stays the same. The people who live, work and study there are not freaked out by death; they embrace it as part of life. Many of them came here because of a death that led them to the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and on to meditation, study and practice.

The shrine room, where group meditations take place, has a beautiful altar with a large Buddha, photos of Tibetan lamas and posters of Tibetan deities. Outside the shrine room is a traditional Butter Lamp House, where lamps are lit for souls that have passed on, or for loved ones. The experience of meditating in that room, even for a novice, is a gift of pure peace.

This year, the Dechen Shying Spiritual Care Centre opened, inspired by the death of Harriet Cornish who died in 1993 from cancer. Despite her wish to die as she had lived, in her room overlooking the sea, she had to be moved to a hospice. Her husband and friends transformed the room she died in into a haven of peace and meditation, with a shrine, pictures and hangings of Tibetan deities. They meditated, chanted and never left her alone. After her death, her body was not moved for 24 hours, while her husband Peter continued to do practices for her. A doctor told Peter afterwards that Harriet had shown them all there was another way to die.

Sixteen years later, the care centre is finally open. Rock and cliff have been blasted and cleared away, yet more dreams and dogged belief have created this incredible building. For the guests there are rooms with conservatories that open out on to ocean views, and rooms for families, including a communal kitchen and sitting room. The jewel in the crown of the ecologically-designed building is the vast, circular meditation room. An arc of floor-to-ceiling windows fills it with views of the sea and sky. “We are looking to support people leading up to death, at the time of death, and after death,” says Darci Meyers, director of the centre.

Meyers also came here after a series of deaths of friends and family, reading the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, and becoming a student of Rigpa.

“When my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, I really looked further into the Tibetan Buddhist teachings. I started working in hospices. I experienced a lot of death from an early age, and it became a part of my life. That’s what Sogyal Rinpoche’s book did for me – for the first time I could read about death and dying in a different way. It doesn’t have to be negative, scary, difficult, painful; we can use it as an opportunity to create more love, more connections. There’s not many places where you can be supported while you do that. Or you don’t hear some cliche, or some uncomfortable response, because people don’t know how to talk about it.”

If dying well can be a gift, then Harriet Cornish’s death will benefit many people. By taking away the fear of death, in an intensely spiritual way, yet curiously a way that welcomes all religions and equally none, by offering the Tibetan practices surrounding death, what is happening here is nothing less than a quiet, slow and steady revolution: it is holding death in the heart, turning to it and looking at it squarely, right in the eye.

Sogyal Rinpoche is leading an annual retreat at Dzogchen Beara until July 5th. Free Spirit, a free mini-festival featuring Luka Bloom, John Spillane and Theo Dorgan, with meditation, art and music, runs on July 10th-13th.