Gen Drolkar and the Potala Buddhist Centre

Graham Crothers meditates on the role of Buddhism in Belfast

Steadily earning a reputation as the main outpost for Buddhism in Northern Ireland the Potala Buddhist Centre based on Belfast’s Donegall Pass offers a range of meditation and study classes for inquisitive novices right up to experienced practitioners.

From lunchtime meditation sessions to evening study classes available for those wishing to deepen their experience of Buddhism, all are designed with the intention of alleviating the pressures and stresses we often encounter in our everyday lives.

With twelve years teaching experience in Belfast to her name, Gen Drolkar is the resident teacher at the centre and senior student to the Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, a fully accomplished meditation master, who founded the Potala Centre and is the spiritual director of the New Kadampa Buddhist Tradition practiced at the centre.

‘When people come to the centres they want to be connecting with people who are interested in the same thing.’ Drolkar explains, ‘Its good to be establishing some sort of spiritual community that people feel supported by.’

Drolkar is keen to reiterate that they are not here exclusively for those of the Buddhist faith. A cross section of the local community come regularly to the centre seeking solace and solitude. From 84 year old grandmothers and their twelve year old grandchildren to a large number of foreign nationals including Polish, Malaysian, Chinese, French and German.

‘In the beginning we often had people who left Northern Ireland and came back again. Generally its easier for people who have lived outside the country to feel comfortable with something that is a little bit unfamiliar.’

There are numerous branches of Buddhism at large today with the most ancient of all the teachings dating back over 2 500 years. The Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, affectionally known to his students and disciples as Geshe-la, first left his native Tibet 25 years ago to settle in the United Kingdom with the humble intention of bringing pure Buddhist teachings to the western world.

Today you’ll find him based at the first ever UK Centre for Kadampa Buddhism, the Manjushri Centre in Cumbria’s Lake District where he works tirelessly to present Buddha’s timeless wisdom to the modern world in the form of teachings, books and practical advice.

Established in 1975 the Manjushri Centre has since blossomed into a home for a spiritual community of Buddhist monks and nuns as well as lay practitioners from all backgrounds and countries. Eight hundred centres now populate the world providing study programmes, prayers and retreats for those curious on seeking spiritual fulfilment.

‘In Buddhism we are encouraged to discuss the teachings. With any class I give we always have a 15 minute discussion where people try and clarify their own thoughts, whether they understand it or have any problems or any reservations with it. I think westerners feel more comfortable with that now rather than having it as, "this is it, it's true, believe it."’

Imagine the scene if you will: the swinging 60’s, an age of liberation where spiritual alternatives were looked upon as a plausible way of life. Gen Drolkar was a student of clinical psychology and was finding the arguments and ideology of the western world unconvincing. It would not be long before she eventually turned her attention toward the dominant thinking of the east.

‘I always found it more profound because it dealt with questions like "What is the meaning of life?" and "What happens when you die?" that obviously western psychology doesn’t attempt to deal with.

As a postgraduate Drolkar struggled to accept all that the Christian teachings professed to offer. Years passed before she would take a brief interest in political affairs only to discover that it too failed to answer her probing questions about the nature of existence.

‘People are quite obsessed with the idea that we clean, nourish and exercise our body. Mediation says that that’s what we need to do with our minds. We need to clean, nourish and exercise our mind, and people don’t initially think like that.’

Happy to oblige to any suggestions that may aid the Buddhist cause in the wider community, Drolkar’s wisdom teachings have already taken her to Bangor, Newry and Derry. She continues to receive occasional invitations to schools and just recently she orchestrated a number of meditation sessions at the Body, Mind And Spirit Festival at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall.

So although the shop front style of the centre has proven a successful and inviting proposition down the years, Drolkar acknowledges the need for recreation and rebirth and expresses an interest in someday establishing a World Peace Café.

Several operate around the UK and further afield already with the proceeds going straight to World Peace temples across the globe.

‘Like anything in its first years we’re kind of laying down the foundations here. I would like to offer classes to people everywhere. With this centre it will only become stronger if the people here want it to.’