The Bhagavad Gita

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The Bhagavad Gita

When I was interviewed on the Ray D’Arcy radio show last year Ray recommended that I read a book called ‘Beyond Belief’ by Jenna Miscavige Hill. The book is about a former Scientologist who lifted the lid on her life inside Scientology. It was, I think, Ray’s attempt to show me the dangers of religion and of religious belief.

I responded (uninvitedly but immediately) with a recommendation of my own  – ‘The Bhagavad Gita’, an ancient Hindu scripture which I had read for the first time in its entirety last winter. It was, I think, my attempt to show him the wisdom or beauty of some religious texts or beliefs.

Afterwards, when I got home, I realised that the Gita, as it is often called, was probably not a great choice. Within the book there is mention of things like ‘divinity’ and ‘god’ and ‘spirituality’ and ‘the divine within’. Dirty words. For some.

In today’s emerging post-Catholic Ireland, a new atheistic fervour is burgeoning. Certain conversations or words, in some circles, initiate or even unwittingly invite ridicule. I would suggest that ‘coming out’ as an atheist is now passé, the new ‘coming out’ is for those who have faith. Meaning it is, these days, sometimes a brave ‘admission’.

This cutting down of conversation means there are new conversational boundaries and social norms in relation to religion or religious belief. It also means that certain texts and ideas which could open up interesting discussions are consigned to the dung-hill-heap. And this is a shame. The Bhagavad Gita, in this new Ireland, is tricky because of the ideas and words it contains. It requires a freeze-frame of preconceptions and perceptions of ‘divinity’ or what is divine in order for a reading of it to be worthwhile or enjoyable.

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God in the sky – 15th century painting ‘The Annunciation’ by Jacques Yverni on display in the National Gallery of Ireland

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Little but powerful god in the sky – ‘The Virgin Invoking God to Heal the Hand of Pope Leo I’, 15th century painting by Antonia Romano, on display in the National Gallery of Ireland

In the National Gallery recently I saw paintings from the 15th century. Where god was portrayed as a white skinned, blue-eyed, bearded MAN, looking down on earth from up in the skies. God as a ‘supernatural being’. Such a simplistic definition of the divine lends itself easily to atheistic leanings.

Words can be tricky things. The idea of ‘god’. Labels depend on perspective. On how ‘god’ is defined. The idea of ‘god’ changes over time and space. As does the idea of ‘love’. The Hollywood ‘Notebook’ notion of love is different to love as it is lived. For most. So can it be possible to discuss the ‘idea’ of god without any assumption of belief?

On to the Bhagavad Gita.

The Gita is one of the (arguably the) most important and influential texts of Hinduism. Composed a long long time ago it is just one part of a huge Hindu epic called the Mahabharata. The Gita is set on a battlefield and is focused on a conversation between a man called Arjuna and his charioteer who is Krishna, an avatar or embodied divine being.

When Gandhi died one of his very few possessions was a copy of the Gita. It’s the key text for the Hare Krishna movement. It’s also influenced a host of western thinkers including Henry David Thoreau.

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Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland, Rosse Court, Lucan

And so, today, I headed off to the new Hindu Cultural Centre of Ireland in Lucan where, every Sunday, there is a talk about the Bhagavad Gita.

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Shrine area

The HCCI centre in Lucan is located in a small flat-roof building rented for use as a temple and cultural space. There are around 10,000 Hindus living in Ireland there is no purpose built Hindu temple – this is the closest they have to it.

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Swami Purnananda

The main room of the building has a large shrine area where there are lots of idols of different gods (or aspects of the divine). The idols are made of marble and hand carved in India.

There was some confusion today about keys and the building was late opening for the talk which was due to start at 2.30. There were about five people attending the talk which was given by a guy called Swami Purnananda who was wearing orange robes and a white-ish beard and had blue eyes and is originally from Zimbabwe and has been a monk since 1970.

The event officially began with everyone chanting ‘om’ together three times and then a recitation of a mantra called the Gayatri mantra. Then Swami Purnananda began his talk by saying that today is an important day as it is the 30th National Youth Day in India and that it is the birthday of Swami Vivekenanda. He said that he himself belongs to Vivekenanda’s tradition. (Vivekenanda is attributed with bringing Hinduism to the west and he gave a real important talk at the 1893 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago.)

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Tables with offerings and lamps in front of some of the idols

Swami Purananda talks about the god debate – saying it’s an important debate in the occident but not so important in the orient. He says that ‘in Hinduism theoretically there is no requirement for god’. He talks about the importance of concentration and the ability to not be easily distracted.

A man comes into the temple in his black-stockinged feet and rings the bell at the entrance to the shrine area, clears away empty night-light holders from in front of the idols. He then lights fresh little candles and places one in front of each idol. Another man reads from the Gita in Sanskrit and the swami translates and gives some interpretation. They are reading from chapter 10. It is their third week covering chapter 10. There are 18 chapters in the Gita in total.

The talk today finished promptly at 3.30 as a group, new to the temple, arrived. The new group were all connected to Kerala in India and told someone that up to now they had met to worship in a space over a supermarket in Lucan. News of the new temple, it seems, is still only reaching some of the Hindu community of Ireland.

Beyond talk of god and divinity, the Bhagavad Gita talks about selfless action, impermanence, reality, duty, ego, peace, detachment,  greed, fear, anger, karma, reincarnation, death.

If I could turn back time, not like Cher (and apologies for putting the song in your heads) I would instead recommend to Ray ‘Chuang Tzu In a Nutshell’. No mention of god or divine in that one. Much easier to discuss a thing called ‘the way’. Taoism. But the message seems the same. The butterfly life of illusion and no need to grieve a dream.

Some quotes from the Bhagavad Gita

‘Do your worldly duty, but do it without any attachment to it or desire for its fruits’.

‘Meet the inevitable good and bad of life with an even mind’.

‘Concentrate on freeing yourself from the tyranny of the so-called pairs of opposites. Release yourself from always trying to evaluate and judge everything. Disentangle from your habit pattern of seeing things as good or bad, lovable or hateful, pleasant or painful, and so forth’.

‘Work performed with anxiety about results is far inferior to work done in a state of calmness’.

(There are many different versions and translations of the Bhagavad Gita – I have ‘The Bhagavad Gita; A Walkthrough for Westerners’ by Jack Hawley which was recommended to me by my cousin Shelagh who teaches Hindu philosophy for yoga teachers).

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Idols representing aspects of the divine – note the ‘om’ symbol and the swastika (which Hitler adopted and twisted the meaning of)

 

 

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Kali

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Durga

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Door into temple entrance

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A poster in a window – visible from outside – the only indication that the building is used as a temple/Hindu cultural centre

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Ganesh

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Shiva and Parvati

 

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Krishna and Radha

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Shiva Parvati Lingam Yoni

A levitating Hindu yogi on Grafton Street

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Levitating on Grafton Street

Last week a Hindu friend of mine sent me a photograph of a man who was levitating in the middle of Grafton Street in Dublin city centre. The levitator was wearing the orange-robes of a Hindu holy man but was pale skinned and blue-eyed. My friend also sent me the levitator’s name (Ananda) and phone number.

I call the number and a South African-accented man answers. He tells me he is only in Dublin for a few days, that he lives in Cork. We arrange to meet. He suggests McDonalds. I am surprised.

And so this morning I head into town armed with a spiral bound notebook and we meet in McDonalds. We sit in the café section. An elderly woman sitting next to us seems to be eavesdropping and throws me occasional dirty looks as the conversation progresses.

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Ananda-Emil in casual clothes in McDonalds

Ananda is wearing a black jacket and black trousers and his long hair is held up on the back of his head, tied up with his one dreadlock. He tells me his real name is Emil. He has a small black backpack beside him.

‘I’m a world traveller’ he says. ‘I’ve been travelling for 25 years looking for a place to settle and haven’t found a place yet so I’ve settled in myself’.

He tells me that he started life in South Africa as a Christian ‘but that didn’t really do it for me and then I looked into Hinduism and that didn’t do it for me either’. So now he does his own thing. He was even a Hindu monk or yogi for a time.

He quit life as a monk because, he says, he was disappointed by his teachers. ‘They were supposed to be vegetarian and spiritual and I caught one of them doing something very far removed from the path they were teaching. I’m not going to say what it was. But I left immediately. Then I met a person who taught me what I know now’. This person, he says, was an African from a remote village.

These days Ananda lives on a farm in West Cork, makes his own electricity and lives 20 minutes walk from the nearest road. He uses a thing called ‘woofing’ whereby people come and stay on the farm and help him with the work in exchange for accommodation. He spends three or four days a month in Dublin and this is when he levitates. He tells me that he’s not vegetarian. For the moment he is celibate (but not tied to it as a life choice).

He says that in his country it is said that those who are born with a helmet on their head are called to a spiritual life. It seems the ‘helmet’ is what in Ireland is known as a ‘caul’ or ‘cowl’ which is a kind of membrane that sometimes covers the head of a baby after birth. In South Africa it is said that a spiritual life is unavoidable for people born with this helmet.

I myself once worked with a woman from county Cork who’d been born with a ‘caul’ and it was seen as a precious thing because a caul meant a person couldn’t drown. As a child she kept her caul in a shoebox under her bed. It looked like shrivelled skin. She used to bring friends upstairs, pull out the shoebox and proudly show them the caul. Fishermen or sailors sometimes used to buy cauls in the hopes it would keep them safe.

Regardless of the reason why, Ananda has spent a lot of his life searching for spiritual answers. He talks about different dimensions of being – physical, mental, spiritual, astral. He mentions twelve dimensions and says that these are not removed from god but lead to god. He says he is ‘very involved in spiritual things’.

So what about the levitation? ‘It’s an illusion’ he tells me. ‘I can’t levitate. No-one can really levitate. I saw it in India and it’s very simple to do. It’s the same as what the yogis or sadhus in India do. They fake it. In all religions there are people who make use of religion to make money’.

Ananda then tells me about an Indian guy called Basava Premanand who spent most of his life exposing the tricks of holy men in India and then sending people out onto the streets to perform the tricks. ‘There’s a lot of trickery in the Christian revival movement too’ he says.

On Grafton street when he ‘levitates’ he sometimes has a crowd of hundreds around him. He says people respond in all kinds of ways  – ‘disbelief, aggression, anger, jealousy’. He’s also been attacked but, he says, looking bemused, ‘I’ve only been attacked by women not men’.

‘Why do they attack you?’ I ask him. ‘I think it’s too much for them to comprehend’ he explains. ‘I allow them to take pictures and to check underneath. It’s very well done’.

I chance my arm – ‘you’d hardly tell me how it’s done?’ ‘No’ he says, smiling, ‘I don’t tell the secret’.

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The tiny piece of paper Ananda hands out to people who watch him levitating

So why do the levitation trick? ‘It’s something I do. I enjoy it. It makes people happy. It makes people sad. I make good money. And I give something in return’.

He pulls a little piece of white paper from his pocket and hands it to me. This is what he gives to people who watch him. It says ‘smile, be happy’. ‘The simple order in life’ he says ‘is smile and be happy and don’t think too much’.

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Ananda waiting for his ‘busking’ spot on Grafton Street to set up his levitation

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A wet January day on Grafton Street, Dublin

Dublin Unitarian Church

It’s a December evening in Dublin. It’s almost four o’clock and it’s dark and the rain is pelting down. I’m running up the side of Stephen’s green as fast as I can. People are huddled in doorways waiting for the heavier rain to pass. I’m flying past them all, belting my way up against the wind towards the Unitarian church on Stephen’s Green where I’ve an appointment to meet the minister, Brigid Spain, at 4. I can feel a coldness on my feet as my shoes start leaking. My trousers are stuck to my legs. I reach the church, ring the bell and the huge heavy wooden doorway opens into light and heat and the welcoming smile of Reverend Briget Spain.

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Reverend Briget Spain at the front door of the Unitarian church on Stephen’s Green, Dublin

Dublin’s Unitarian Church has a fascinating four-hundred-year(ish)  history in Ireland but this year is a significant anniversary for the church. The Gothic Revival building where the church is housed is marking its 150th anniversary.

Reverend Briget Spain is the first female minister of the church in the Republic of Ireland. She’s middle aged and is married with children and has been minister here for three years.

We walk inside and step up the stone stairs and I peel off my saturated coat and leave it by the heater in the hallway to dry. Inside the church the lights are off and we look at the stained glass windows, visible against the city-light behind the darkness.

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The stained glass windows of the Unitarian Church pictured on a December evening

Briget switches on the full lights and I sit in a pew as she tells me a little about what’s happening in the church these days.

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The plain decor of inside the church – Christmas tree visible (and angels too)

The church itself is quite plain inside. Simply coloured walls. No statues or pictures. Dark-coloured pews. “There are angels but no crucifixes” Briget says as we look around the walls. (The angels are up on the roof under the rafters). There’s a Christmas tree with presents underneath.

The Unitarian church has its roots in Christianity and the Reformation but it has changed quite a lot since its inception.

“We don’t have rules that people are required to follow and we don’t have a creed that we impose or that people have to believe” Briget explains to me.

In the Unitarian Church there’s no belief in the Trinity; Jesus is believed to have been an inspired teacher, a man; Mary isn’t honoured; readings are often secular; baby welcoming ceremonies are held to celebrate the arrival of children to the world and there are female and gay ministers.

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One of the angels that sits atop the pillars

“Is there a belief in the divine?” I ask.

“There is a belief in the divine” she tells me “but it’s not imposed and the divine is not defined and some people here would be atheistic”.

“We don’t follow a liturgy” she goes on to explain. “Originally it was the Bible only but now we use whatever we find useful”.

At last week’s Sunday service, for example, there were readings of pieces by by G. K. Chesterton, Pam Ayres, Dylan Thomas, Andrew Greeley and a piece from Luke’s gospel. Briget says they read what they feel like reading and it could even be readings from Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita or talks about Buddhism or other religions. Earlier this year they had a Muslim lady speak to them.

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Reverend Briget Spain inside the church

“Most are familiar with the teachings of Jesus but would say that Jesus didn’t say anything original. Jesus said “love your neighbour”. Confucious, 500 years before Jesus, had the Golden Rule which was the same thing. And in Judaism Rabbi Hillel when asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one foot said “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour””.

“Is there communion?”

“We have communion rarely” she tells me. “We have it when there are five Sundays in the month and then it’s just about sharing bread and wine together”.

Remarkably, (considering the statistics relating to other churches in Ireland) the congregation is growing. “In 1996 there would have been around 20 or 25 here on a Sunday” she says. “Now we have around 120 most weeks.”  Most of the congregation are Irish and are “mainly recovering Catholics and disaffected protestants”.

They have no holy days but there will be a service on Christmas Day. They do say prayers but the prayers can change over time – currently they are debating the use of the Our Father with some members believing it to be a bit “out of date”.

We’re sitting in the pews chatting and the wind suddenly picks up and the roof creaks. Then we hear the sound of water dripping inside. Rain has started coming in one of the windows. “At least it’s not the prevailing wind” says Briget happily. “It does come in that window sometimes”.

A man called Charlie comes in and explains to Briget that he’s looking for a bag of bread he thought he left earlier. It’s not there. Charlie says that if anyone finds it over the next few days they are welcome to it. Briget explains that on Wednesdays they have a lunchtime meditation.

As well as Sunday service and Wednesday meditation the church is open for baptisms and weddings and same-sex blessings too. For the baptisms Briget explains that they do use water “but we’re not washing away sin”.

“This year we had around 75 baptisms for children of parents who weren’t members of the church. They want a service to mark the birth of a child – a service of thanksgiving and welcome. It’s getting more popular”.

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The 102 year old organ at the back of the church which is currently undergoing restoration with fund-raising underway

Briget also says that this year she was hearing new things from people who were phoning up looking for the baby welcoming ceremonies. “I had never heard it before. People were phoning up saying that they were brought up Catholic but wanted nothing more to do with the church anymore. I’ve also had grandmothers coming up to me after the baptisms saying “my child had no sin either””. She senses changes in the attitudes of many people towards Catholicism.

I’m anxious to get to the heart of the belief system of the Unitarian Church. I probe Briget for answers to questions on dogma and truths and practice. I ask her if she could sum up the teachings of the church in one sentence (a bit like Rabbi Hillel on his one foot).

“I could sum it up for myself but not on behalf of the members” she replies.

“We are searchers. We don’t claim to know all the truth. Most churches have their truth that is set is stone, that they are imparting and want people to believe. We say our ideas of truth change all the time and they change with knowledge”.

She reads me some lines which she says are recited at Sunday services: “Love is the doctrine of this church, the question of truth is its sacrament and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve mankind in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow in harmony with the divine. This do we covenant with each other and with god”.

The rain has eased when we finish chatting and I make a promise that I’ll return for a service. “If I had a penny for every time someone has said that to me” she laughs.

Out in the foyer my coat has dried by the heater. Briget opens the big black door and I’m out into the storm again but the rain has eased enough for me to take a few photographs from the far side of the Luas line.

On the way home I’m thinking of all the people I know who would like to have baby welcoming ceremonies here…

 

 

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Taken from inside the hymn book – summing up some of the beliefs of the Unitarian Church

 

 

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Christmas tree with presents underneath donated by members for charity. One Sunday in every four the weekly collection is also given to charity

 

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The Unitarian Church, Stephen’s Green, Dublin – wet December evening

 

Lady Olivia Robertson and the Fellowship of Isis

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Lady Olivia Robertson and her brother Lawrence of the Fellowship of Isis

Lady Olivia Robertson of Huntington Castle in Clonegal, County Carlow, Ireland, died earlier this month aged 96. She was one of the founders of a group called the Fellowship of Isis – an organisation devoted to the worship of the divine feminine.

The dungeons of the castle were transformed into a large ‘temple’ filled with shrines, statues and small rooms dedicated to various forms of the divine goddess. It also had a holy well.

I visited the castle just a few times. The last time I was there I recorded a short interview with Lady Olivia. Part of this interview is included in the very first section of this short programme which was broadcast on Newstalk in 2008. The second half of this piece is at Dzogchen Beara Buddhist retreat centre in west Cork.

Her obituary was published in the Telegraph today. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/10468198/Olivia-Robertson-Obituary.html

Secular Sunday Brunch with Atheist Ireland

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The ‘Secularism, Atheism, Humanism’ stall set up by Brendan Maher (centre), of Atheist Ireland, outside the GPO on O’Connell Street in Dublin [photo taken from internet] L-R: Jon Pierson, Maureen Meleady, Brendan Maher, Jane Donnelly and Michael Nugent

“One man came up to me and asked “what’s secularism? Is it some sort of sex thing?”

It’s a cold bright Sunday morning in November and I’m in the lobby area of the Trinity Capital Hotel in Dublin’s city centre talking to a man called Brendan Maher. He’s with a small group of people from Atheist Ireland who have met up for their monthly Secular Sunday Brunch. Brendan is telling me about the stall he set up on O’Connell Street last year promoting secularism, atheism and humanism.

“I set up the stall on the 6th of October 2012” he tells me. He had seen lots of street preachers in the area from different religions – Islam, Christianity, Mormonism, Scientology, Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses – and he had engaged with them all and then decided that there had to be an alternative voice. “So I bought a table” he says “it cost me €30 or €40 and it was the first stall of its kind in the world”.

He tells me that he was extremely nervous the first Saturday. “I had no idea what would happen” he says. “Would I be arrested? Stoned? Here were all these other people talking about their gods and here am I saying “that’s all rubbish””.

The stall is outside the GPO in Dublin City Centre on the first Saturday of every month. Brendan says they don’t approach people and they don’t try to give out information but instead that they let people come to them.

“Overall the reaction has been positive” he says “although Muslims see me as the anti-christ”. He’s also been told many times that he’ll go to hell “one Texan millionaire guy said to me “all I can do is pray for you”. Around 60 to 100 pieces of literature are taken from the stall each Saturday” he says “and I talk to around 40 people a day. I enjoy it, it’s great fun”.

When I arrive at the hotel there are only about five people gathered but more arrive and soon there are twelve. There’s only one woman besides myself and she tells me that the gender balance isn’t usually like this, that there are usually more women. Two more women arrive a while later.

Atheist Ireland was set up around five years ago as an organisation to promote atheism, reason and ethical secularism. Its chairperson, Michael Nugent, who is at the lunch, tells me that there’s a lot of misinformation and misunderstandings about atheism.

“Religious people assume atheists have specific answers and at the same time they haven’t thought of the implications of their own belief” he explains. “Most atheists say we don’t know, instead of inventing explanations.”

He says people sometimes pose the question “how did the universe begin?” as though it’s a trump card proving the existence of god. “Our answer is that we don’t know how the universe began, and neither do religious people, but everything that we do know about the universe suggests that it is likely to be yet another in a long line of natural explanations, rather than an invented supernatural explanation.”

Another question he is asked is “what happens when we die?” He tells me that he sometimes counters this question by asking “what happens when dogs die?” A few other members of the group then ask jokingly “what about cats? Caterpillars?”

There’s plenty of jokes and laughter during the lunch. At one point I say I might not stay for food and one man sardonically tells me they won’t be eating babies. I stay for food.

I ask if the secular Sunday brunch is open to religious people and I’m told “if they are accompanied by responsible adults”. More laughter. On a serious note, they say that everyone is welcome to come along.

Atheist Ireland is currently fundraising to develop a course on atheism and humanism which is to be piloted in Educate Together schools. They have raised €4,000 of the €10,000 needed for the course. They are hoping the course will start officially in 2015. “God willing” one man says. More laughter.

I ask what books they would recommend for people who are interested in atheism or ethical secularism and one man says “Scooby Doo”. Another says “The Wizard of Oz”. I think they are joking but they are serious. “Just peep under the curtain” one man explains. Other authors are listed: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Bertrand Russell, Mark Twain.

The conversation ranges widely during the lunch – from religious issues to pets, procrastination and the current Constitutional Convention. There are also stories of “coming out” as atheist, discussions about religious education in Ireland, discrimination against atheists, their O’Connell Street stall, and the story of one woman who lost her lift home from a friend after posting a picture on Facebook of Jesus on a trampoline bouncing to heaven.

The chairperson, Michael Nugent, tells me about an event he attended in Limerick last year when two theologians said “atheists aren’t fully human”. There’s also talk of the new atheist church, Sunday Assembly, which held its first ever Dublin event at the beginning of the month.

The Sunday Assembly is basically a church without god. It was set up in London earlier this year by comedians Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans and now their vision is expanding with the idea to open branches in towns and cities around the world. At the church in Dublin last week they sang songs such as ‘All you Need Is Love’, and ‘Get By with a Little Help from My Friends’. There was also a talk and a minute’s silence. There are plans to hold regular gatherings.

The church is not connected with Atheist Ireland but a few members of A.I. did attend and there’s mixed reaction – including questioning the inclusion of the U2 song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as it contains the lyrics “I believe in the kingdom come”. Another guy said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

The national census of Ireland in 2011 recorded 3,905 people who self-identified as atheists. However, the number had jumped so much from 2006 (when the category numbered 929) that atheism has now become the fastest growing ‘religion’ in Ireland. Atheist Ireland themselves suggest that the real number of atheists may be closer to the 270,000 who ticked the ‘No Religion’ box on the census.

Atheist Ireland currently have around 300 paid up members and around 2000 Facebook members. As well as the once-a-month Secular Sunday Brunch they have meetings, take part in debates and discussions and are politically active by making submissions on government policies (including on issues of education and health) and campaigning for human rights and equality issues.

Most recently they took part in the Constitutional Convention on blasphemy laws and Jane Donnelly, Human Rights Officer with Atheist Ireland, is now working on a submission relating to the legal discrimination of atheists and secular citizens in areas of health and education in Ireland which will be submitted to the Equality Authority.

Atheism is not a unified belief system – there are many diverse strands – and Atheist Ireland is more than an organisation for people who do not believe in a god or gods. It’s a community, a forum for discussion and perhaps most importantly it’s a politically active group who seek change and who campaign on ethical issues.

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Leaflet for event organised by Atheist Ireland

Michael Nugent tells me that they used to hold an ‘atheist in the pub’ night but it was so difficult to try to find a wheelchair friendly pub to rent a room that they’ve stopped the meetings for the moment. “Do you have members who use wheelchairs?” I ask. “No” he tells me “but the policy in ethical atheism is to try to be as open as we can be”.

A meeting with the ‘Blessing’ guru

I always half-hoped I’d meet an Indian guru someday. But I never imagined that the meeting would take place in an Irish bungalow in the remote winding laneways of an autumnal county Kildare. That’s where I met one today. The real deal. India’s ‘Blessing’ guru – Swami Jyothirmayah Ji – clothed all in white and with flowing long black hair, beard and a white dot in the centre of his forehead.

In the email I was told that Swamiji would meet me 9.30-10am – I get to the house about 9.45 and the worried face of Shankari who had organised the interview tells me that Swamiji is very strict about time and that she doesn’t know if he will talk to me as I am late.

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Swami Jyothirmayah in Ireland

A few minutes later a tall Indian man in long white cotton robes comes into the kitchen with an almost-luminous smile – everything about his face exudes warmth and openness. I smile in return. He welcomes me into the living room where we sit down to talk.

‘So’ I say ‘it’s exciting to meet an Indian guru’.

‘Guru?’ he replies. ‘I’m not a guru, I’m only a disciple, a student’.

‘Oh’ I say. He is still smiling. ‘But people do call you the ‘Blessing’ guru’.

He tells me he is from Bangalore in India and that he is Roman Catholic by birth. ‘I have a strong belief in Jesus Christ’ he tells me. He says that the title ‘Blessing’ guru comes from the fact that he goes around the world blessing people and that he has blessed over three million people.

‘I just touch people on the head for a few seconds’ he explains. ‘Some people are getting miraculous healings – physical and mental.’

I ask him if he feels anything when the healings occur. He laughs heartily. ‘That’s a trade secret’ he says.

He tells me that the title ‘Swamiji’ is for someone who has dedicated their life to society and to helping other people. He says he lives a life of celibacy and ‘cannot enjoy worldly things’. His home is in the ashram (temple) in India. ‘We are here to share, we keep moving, we give help wherever it is required’.

He belongs to the organisation Art of Living Foundation which he tells me is ‘beyond religion’. He is here in Ireland for five days as part of a visit organised by the Irish branch of AOL.

‘Does a person have to believe in God?’ I ask him. ‘Not necessarily’ he replies. ‘They just have to believe in himself or herself’.

‘But how does a person believe in themself?’ I ask. ‘Go deep into oneself and then one will realise that one is part of divinity, part of one consciousness – it’s like in this room you can see different kinds of lights and a tape recorder and different things – if you go beyond these you will realise there is only one electricity but different projections’.

The room where we are sitting is cool. It is early morning and it is October and although there is a clear blue sky there is no direct sunlight in the room. I feel cold and realise that Swamiji is only wearing short-sleeves and is bare-footed. ‘Are you not cold?’ I ask him. ‘No’ he smiles. ‘I’ve been in minus forty, minus fifty but I never use any jacket. Pranayama (breathing exercises) will make the immune system very powerful’.

‘Is there anything you would like to say?’ I ask him. There’s a pause for a few seconds and then he says very slowly and clearly ‘life is a celebration’. Another brief pause. ‘And meditate everyday. Learn meditation.’

‘Normally people have a concept of meditation, and think it is concentration. In Art of Living we say it is de-concentration. Whatever you do effortlessly is meditation. It is to be aware of what you are doing here and now. The mind has the tendency to go into the future and the past. How to bring it back to the present moment? If we are aware of our own life and mind then our real life journey starts.

‘The best way to control emotion is to control your breath’ he continues. ‘If you’re angry you’re breathing fast and if you’re sad then you have a shallow breath so our breath and our emotions are connected. This breathing technique that we teach will help to get out of unnecessary emotions’.

I bring the conversation back to Catholicism and ask if his master follows instructions from the Pope. ‘My master is not a Christian’ he tells me, looking slightly puzzled at my question. ‘He’s a humanitarian’.

‘I’m not caught up in religion’ he adds. ‘I’m a spiritual man. I respect all of religion but I’m spiritual – we are working for one world family, beyond religion, beyond nationality, beyond caste and creed’.

He tells me he has to be strict about time so that he doesn’t keep people waiting and says ‘I think we have about two minutes left’. I ask him if I can take a few photographs and I also record a short video of him talking about religion and before I leave I ask him for a blessing. He tells me to close my eyes and to breathe deeply, to let my body relax with every breath. And then I feel the heat of his hands over my head for a few seconds as he blesses me. And then it’s time to leave.

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Swami Jyothirmayah in conversation in Co. Kildare

I drive away delighted to have met the ‘Blessing’ guru but aware that the niggling pain I’ve had in my stomach for the last while is still there.

Swami Jyothirmayah ‘Wisdom Evening’ is taking place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Blanchardstown tomorrow night from 7-9 pm (arrive promptly!). Admission is ten euro.

The Art of Living Foundation is an organisation that was set up in India in 1981 by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. Art of Living has a presence in 152 countries and has thousands of centres worldwide including an Irish branch. They teach breathing, yoga and meditation techniques and run courses regularly. Participants on these courses are required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before tuition commences. For more information visit http://www.artofliving.org/ie-en

Ireland’s largest mosque gets green light

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Clongriffin – looking towards the site where Ireland’s largest mosque will be built

An Bord Pleanala, Ireland’s national planning appeals board, have given the green light for what will be Ireland’s largest mosque.

The three-storey domed mosque planned for Clongriffin in North Dublin is part of a huge project that includes minarets, schools, a conference centre, gym, swimming pool, restaurant, crèche, library, offices and residential apartments.

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The shopping centre in Clongriffin – most of the units inside lie vacant

It’s estimated that the development will cost between €45 and €65 million. It will cater for around 550 people for Friday prayers and for up to 3,000 during festivals. 

It will be Ireland’s third purpose-built mosque. The other two purpose-built mosques are in Ballyhaunis, County Mayo and in Clonskeagh in Dublin. There is also a purpose built Shia Islamic Centre in Milltown in Dublin.

The Muslim population of Ireland is estimated to be over 50,000. Most Muslims in the country worship in ‘makeshift mosques’ in housing estates, community halls or industrial warehouses.

The Dublin Welfare Society, who submitted the planning application, currently manage two mosques located in industrial units in Clondalkin and Swords.

The group are made up of a number of Dublin-based Muslims from different backgrounds and nationalities.

Dublin City Council had granted planning permission to the Dublin Welfare Society last March for the development. However, local Labour TD Tommy Broughan appealed the decision on the grounds of size and potential impact on traffic in the area.

Clongriffin is a newly developed area of Dublin. It was born in the boom years with a major residential development in 2002.

I visited the site for the Clongriffin mosque in July when I attended a special Ramadan event hosted by the Dublin Welfare Society. The event was held in one of the spanking-new retail units that surround the ‘town’ square.

Inside, the shopping centre was fitted with clean shining floor tiles and sparkling light fittings but the elevator was frozen in time and the retail units lay empty.

Development in Clongriffin almost halted completed with the collapse of the property market. Roads have been left unfinished and many of the retail units have never been occupied.

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One of the vacant retail units in Clongriffin’s main square

Access to the dart station, which was developed to cater for the burgeoning population, has also proved problematic.

It is hoped that with the go-ahead given for the new mosque and Islamic centre, that the development will result in much of local infrastructure being completed and a new access area to the Dart station.

Full article in the Irish Times:

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/ireland-s-largest-mosque-gets-approval-from-an-bord-plean%C3%A1la-1.1509586

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The site for what will be Ireland’s biggest mosque – Clongriffin, Dublin

My first visit to Clongriffin during my Ramadan blogging:

http://religioninireland.net/2013/07/28/plans-for-irelands-biggest-mosque-and-photographs/

Industrial warehouses as places of worship in Ireland

Over the past few months I’ve been examining the use of industrial spaces in Ireland as places of worship. I first came across the phenomena about seven years ago when I made a series of radio programmes, looking at the changing face of religion in Ireland, for WLRfm. Since then, the use of warehouses as places of worship has become more prevalent all across the country.

My theory as I began this research was that Irish society ‘corralled’ migrant groups into industrial estates as these were spaces which were invisible to the majority of Irish society – that Irish society is comfortable with migrant (mainly non-Catholic) religions as long as Irish society does not have to see them. However the research took a twist following a chance meeting at a ‘makeshift mosque’ in Dublin.

I happened to be in the industrial-unit-mosque at the same time as the Mayor of Fingal County Council, Fine Gael Councillor Kieran Dennison. He told a small group of people assembled in the office that action was likely to be taken in Fingal in relation to the use of warehouses as religious spaces. I whipped out my spiral-journalist notebook and scrambled to take notes. I asked ‘when would enforcement action be taken?’ He told me the conversation was off the record.

However, if action was going to be taken, it needed to be discussed openly. Over the following weeks Councillor Dennison spoke with me about the issue on the record. Councillor Dennison told me that a survey on industrial units in Fingal in Dublin had found that twenty warehouses in the Blanchardstown area were being used as places of worship. The survey, carried out by the council, wasn’t aimed at discovering places of worship – this was a chance discovery.

In the meantime I researched migration, asylum procedures, population figures, planning acts and the Fingal development plan.

Each local authority in Ireland is obliged to draw up and publish a development plan every six years. This plan sets out the objectives for the area in terms of planning and development. It also sets out zoning areas. Spaces in each local authority area are zoned for specific uses. Each zone has a list of uses that are permitted and that are not permitted.

Most industrial units in Fingal are in areas zoned ‘high technology’ or ‘general employment’. ‘Place of worship’ is ‘not permitted’ is either of these zonings. Councillor Dennison explained that the use of warehouses as places of worship was in contravention of the development plan and that they were therefore not compliant with planning regulations.

Although my research focused on Fingal in Dublin. This is an issue that is relevant for local authorities and migrant groups all over Ireland.

If migrant groups cannot use industrial warehouses as places of worship it will be almost impossible for many of these groups to find suitable places of worship.

Adrian Cristea of Dublin City Interfaith Forum told me that finding a place of worship is the biggest religious challenge facing migrant groups in Ireland today. He said that there are no policies or regulations in relation to the issue and that there is no information easily available for migrant groups. He said that the problem is ongoing and that a consultation process is needed involving local authorities, migrant groups and mainstream churches.

Mr. Cristea also made the point that there is an expectation for migrant groups to be aware of planning laws and procedures in Ireland but that local authorities also have responsibility for making this information available.

He agreed when I suggested that migrant religious groups may not be aware of planning regulations. The leader of each place of worship that I have visited in the past few months had the view that they were compliant with planning regulations. There is clearly a lack of information available.

I realise that the use of industrial warehouses as places of worship is partly because of funding and financial constraints, but also because in industrial units migrant groups are relatively invisible and thereby do not attract attention and therefore planning complaints or objections are rare.

Local authorities can look at rezoning areas. Migrant groups can familiarise themselves with the process of drawing up development plans and can learn how to articulate their needs and concerns. Either way, the future use of industrial units as places of worship is an issue that needs to be examined and addressed by local authorities and migrant groups all over the country.

Here’s the news story and feature that were published in the Irish Times yesterday.

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religious-groups-face-planning-warning-notices-over-worship-in-warehouses-1.1503913

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/places-of-worship-when-we-first-arrived-it-was-just-an-empty-room-1.1504039

This project is supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund. 

Zen Buddhist retreat Waterford

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I might as well just be a tree

For the mind to be as still and solid and strong and immovable as a mountain. That, in a way, is the essence of Zen. To be the sky and watch the clouds go by.

I was in Tramore in County Waterford, Ireland, for a day-long Zen Buddhist retreat. It was in a family home on the outskirts of the town – a bungalow with grassy lawns and mature shrubbery and a t-junctioned hallway of shiny white tiles and greeny plants and walls of well-spaced paintings, prints and maps.

The retreat was organised by an Irish lay-Buddhist named John who is originally from Dublin but now lives in County Waterford. He leads a weekly Wednesday-evening Zen meditation group in the Edmund Rice Centre in Waterford City. It’s attended weekly by a small group of less than ten.

I’d gone to the Wednesday meeting once during the year – the only other person there that day, other than John, was an older gentleman, a devout Catholic, who said that meditation helped him with his own religious practice.

Last Sunday there was a handful of people attending the retreat – five including John – and a monk from Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northern England who led the retreat.

I was welcomed and introduced to the monk – Reverend Finán – in the clean sitting room that was lined with book shelves. The monk sat upright at the edge of a comfy armchair. He stood up, smiled and shook my hand. He was brown-robed and pale-faced with high cheekbones. He seemed very gentle. Blue-eyed. Shaved head.

One woman jokingly asked the monk if he’d like a brandy before we started.

Then we all headed down the hall to the room where the meditation was to take place. The room was a bedroom that had been cleared out of all the furniture except for a chest of drawers that had been converted into an altar. On the top of the drawers was a white ‘table-cloth’ with a statue of the Buddha, a lotus flower, a small bowl of walnuts, a tiny tumbler of water and two burning candles.

People had either brought their own meditation stools or sat on dining chairs. The monk sat cross legged – full lotus position – on the floor. We recited a verse of Buddhist scripture and then sat, facing the wall for thirty five minutes. There were no instructions given. This was probably because everyone there had attended Zen meditation previously.

The Irish Census of 2011 recorded just over 8,000 Buddhists living in Ireland – only 0.2 percent of the population. The number of Buddhists in Ireland, however, has grown steadily since 1991 when there were just 986 self-identified Buddhists in the country.

It’s believed that there are also a significant number of ‘night stand’ Buddhists in Ireland – people who might identify themselves as belonging to another religious tradition but who keep books by Buddhist authors on their bedside lockers or who dabble in meditation.

Like all religious traditions in Ireland there are many different strands that exist under the one religious banner. In Ireland there are different schools, traditions and lineages of Buddhism. Zen is one strand and the retreat that I attended was from one lineage within one strand of Zen.

We sat and ‘meditated’ for 35 minutes (sitting meditation is called ‘zazen’). Then we walked very slowly around the emptied soft-carpeted bedroom for five or ten minutes and then sat again for 35 minutes. There was a tea-break with a short talk by the monk about the Buddhist precepts (guides for living), another twenty minute sitting, lunch, and two more 35 minute sittings broken up by another walk around the room.

The sitting meditation is very much about awareness – of the breath, of the sounds, of thoughts, emotions. To be conscious of the things that enter our consciousness. To be aware of awareness. It sounds easy. Sometimes it is. But on the second-to-last session I had a serious urge to jump up and run like mad out of the room.

In modern societies the tendency is often to be ‘doing’. To be active – reading, watching TV, on phones, social media, socialising, cooking, eating. In Zen the focus is on ‘being’. There are teachings about how to deal with suffering, discomfort, pain. To experience it without running away. In some ways there is an aim to treat pleasure and pain with equal measure. Or praise and criticism.

There are ideals. I don’t know how attainable they are. But for me Zen meditation is a very empowering practice – to watch thoughts as they arise and to let them go. To dis-identify. Occasionally there are even moments of nothing, emptiness, peace.

I came home after the retreat and thought about the idea of ‘being’, just ‘being’. And I’m sure there is a balance to be had – between being and doing, being awareness and engagement. I’m not sure where the balance lies. The ideal balance. But during the week the thought did come to mind that ‘if I was to be, just be, I might as well just be a tree’. Not sure where that leaves me either. No pun intended. But for the moment I will be continuing with an aim at least of daily sitting – meditation.