Cork Buddhist nun organises Chinese New Year celebrations

Ahead of Chinese New Year celebrations, COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Buddhist nun Mary P O’Connor about upcoming events in Cork
Cork Buddhist nun organises Chinese New Year celebrations
Mary P O Connor, Director Chinese Esoteric Buddhist School Ireland.

CORK-BORN Buddhist nun, Mary P O’Connor, of the Cork Chinese Esoteric Buddhist Centre, says that before her conversion, she was “an atheist, a non-believer of anything and a lapsed Catholic.”

Now, this 60-year old Lama (teacher of Buddhism) is organising celebrations for the Chinese New Year, which falls on Saturday, January 25 and is bringing “the road show” to Tralee on February 1.

There will be activities for children on February 2 in Nano Nagle Place in Cork, where some of the Chinese New Year celebrations are taking place.

Mary, an artist and photographer, who is a graduate of the Crawford Art College and also attended the Royal College of Art in London as well as the San Francisco Institute of Art, invites me into her shrine in her inner city apartment, where she gives meditation classes. The shrine, a small room with an altar and Buddhist icons as well as photographs of Mohammad, Jesus Christ and Krishna (she respects different religious leaders) is bathed in orange light. When Mary is practising and giving meditation sessions, she wears a yellow top and burgundy robes.

According to Chinese astrology, this is the Year of the Rat.

“Every year, out of the 12 signs, there are four signs that have conflict. The rat is the source of major conflict while the horse, the rooster and the rabbit are the three signs that have minor conflict associated with them this year.

“Last year was the Year of the Pig, which is my conflict year. I had a low depressive period. Bad things happened but also intensely good things happened. There are techniques that we use to try to make the year smoother. You can put your name and date of birth on various Buddhist altars. I had one in Beijing, Los Angeles and one here to help smooth the ride. I’d hate to have gone through the year if I hadn’t had this done.”

Along with having your name on altars and being prayed for, you make a donation of €32.

“That money supports the temples here and in Beijing and LA (which is the main temple.)”

It is, says Mary, a bit like having a Mass said for someone. But Mary has come a long way from Sunday Mass. She says the nuns would probably say that she always had spiritual beliefs.

“I believed as a child. I became very disillusioned as a teenager because of the way I saw the church behaving, particularly towards girls. And there was abuse which people knew about. That was very discouraging to me, I lost all belief in the church. So when I realised that there is something after you die, it was such a huge relief.”

Mary believes in reincarnation. But she doesn’t necessarily want to come back as some sort of lower being.

“I would hope to achieve what I’m supposed to achieve in this particular life so that I’ll be given the choice to maybe leave the planet and go somewhere else and not be reincarnated on planet earth. That is the ultimate aspiration. It’s when you achieve the fourth Zen state. You could become an enlightened person, a bit like the famous ones; Jesus, Krishna and Mohammad. I’m not trying to compare myself to any of them. But they’ve achieved something and managed to teach it to other people. It’s a long road.”

The start of the Chinese New Year is “a going into the light”, she adds.

1000-Light & An Tai Sui Dharma Rites for an Auspicious & Prosperous Year take place at The Unitarian Church, Princes Street on January 25.  Picture: Clare Keogh
1000-Light & An Tai Sui Dharma Rites for an Auspicious & Prosperous Year take place at The Unitarian Church, Princes Street on January 25.  Picture: Clare Keogh

“One thousand candles will be lit in the Unitarian Church, on Princes Street (on January 25). There will be 25 to 30 practitioners coming to Cork from the U.S, England and Germany for this public event. They are mainly women who are senior teachers or lamas. We are asking people to light a candle with their intentions.

“There will be a wish box. The candle lighting ceremony is offered for people’s intentions and to hopefully make people’s passage for the year a little bit easier. Then we’re going to take the entire thing on a road show, bringing it to Tralee to St John’s Church on Ashe Street. Everyone is welcome. You don’t have to be religious. It’s making a wish.”

While there will be a Buddhist altar in the Unitarian Church, Mary said: “We’ll also put Jesus up there, something from the Jewish book and something from the Koran. It’s very inclusive. After an hour of lighting candles, there will be a chanting ceremony, a break and food and drinks. Then there will be a Buddha relic blessing.”

How did Mary become a Buddhist nun?

“I first met my Chinese guru, Dechan Jeueren, in 2007, outside of London. I saw a photograph of him in a newspaper on my sister’s kitchen table in Essex. I was drawn to the photograph and told my sister that I had to go and see him. He was in a retreat centre. When I met him, I could not stop looking at him. My sister had to leave but I stayed on and started photographing (the guru) and others with him. Strange things happened. Being a typical Paddy, I asked them if they had anything to drink. They brought out a bottle of wine but it was gone off as it had been opened for a few days. One of the monks took it, did something with it and handed it back to me. It tasted completely different; it was decent wine. When I was taking photographs, strange effects were on them, like lights which I couldn’t explain technically.”

A scene at the Unitarian Church, where 1000 candles will be lit on January 25. Picture: Clare Keogh
A scene at the Unitarian Church, where 1000 candles will be lit on January 25. Picture: Clare Keogh

Through a translator, Mary was told to bow to the guru three times and to put some money on the table. She was also told to be in Essex in nine days’ time.

“I thought he was off his rocker.”

Why the request for money?

“There has to be an energetic exchange. It’s what’s called ‘taking refuge.’ I think I put a tenner on the table. I left and nine days later, I arrived back in the UK and went to this place. I officially became Dechan’s disciple.”

Mary invited Dechan to Cork and so the teachings of the school were brought to this country. Mary was ordained in China in 2010 and a year later, she established the Cork Chinese Esoteric Buddhist Centre.

Mary went through a challenging initiation process in a Spartan monastery in China. For several months, she rose at 4am and starting chanting with seven other people at 5am.

“A hole in the floor was our bathroom. It was relentless but good training. If you can survive that, you can survive anything.”

Mary is not a vegetarian.

“Vegetarianism is a choice. In Buddhism, there’s nothing not allowed. It’s a personal thing. If you misbehaved sexually or alcoholically, you will pay for it through Karma. So it’s about personal choice. A lot of our practitioners are married. I’m not. I choose to be celibate.”

The world, comments Mary, is in a terribly dangerous state.

“Whether I can personally do anything to stop it, I don’t know. But I can look after myself and the people who come to me for guidance and meditation classes.”

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