Southern Star – July 2014
by Jackie Keogh
A quotation by the Buddhist meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa, is a good a place as any to start: ‘You should begin to build up confidence and joy in your own richness. That richness is the essence of generosity. It is the sense of resourcefulness, that can deal with whatever is around you and not feel poverty stricken.’
Almost every word in the quotation applies to Peter Cornish, the registered-blind and somewhat reclusive man who, together with his late wife Harriet, built Dzogchen Beara, the Tibetan retreat centre near Allihies, and has just published Dazzled by Daylight, a book that is inspirational on so many levels.
Twice before our recent interview I had the privilege of meeting Peter Cornish. Having wandered into places I ought not to have been in, I met him in what was then, 25 years ago, called the Skyliner. We chatted and he asked what I did for a living. When I told him I worked for a local newspaper he described reporting as ‘right livelihood.’ I asked him to explain and he said that it was a job that was ultimately ‘for the benefit of others.’ Peter is not a guru, but I have never forgotten that simple instruction.
The second time, perhaps in the early 1990s, I met him was when I had gone AWOL from a yoga retreat that was being held at the centre. I walked the hillside and found myself peering down a ravine and there, in the brilliant mid-day sunshine, against a backdrop of pure rock, I saw Peter laying one homemade concrete block on top of another. I can still see it in my mind’s eye – a man creating something out of nothing.
The dust jacket, as always, gives a good summary of the story. Dazzled by Daylight is the true story of how it’s half-blind author built his childhood dream on a remote cliff top in the south west of Ireland. Told with irreverent humour, it is the account of a battle with convention and the elements to create a spiritual home for people of all religions and none.
‘From his rebellious youth, Peter takes us on a trip through the sixties to a Tibetan monastery in the Scottish Borders. He befriends the first lamas to reach the West, and embarks on his mission to establish a centre for meditation as a refuge from the twenty-first-century cycle of competitive consumption.
‘In a spectacular location on the Beara Peninsula, he and his wife find a derelict farm without electricity or water, accessible only by horse and cart. With the confidence of amateurs, and equipped only with mindfulness and gelignite, they transformed a wind-blasted cluster of ruins into a wooded retreat village, creating the charity that is Dzogchen Beara today.’
And, in an equally succinct note on the back cover, it states: ‘Peter Cornish attended an English boarding school from the age of seven. He dropped out of education to pursue his interest in painting, which culminate in an exhibition of his work in Knightsbridge, London, in 1969. That same year, with deteriorating eyesight, he gave up painting and moved to Samye Ling, in Scotland, to study Buddhism with Chogyam Trungpa.
‘Peter moved to Ireland in 1974, founded the Dzogchen Beara meditation and retreat centre and invited Sogyal Rinpoche to be its spiritual director. Having studied under various masters, Peter now spends much of his time in retreat.’
In conversation, Peter said: ‘It is not usual to be born without central vision and less usual to be short-sighted at the same time.’ Forced to look at the world through the side of a lens – his peripheral vision – Peter has spent a lifetime flicking back and forth, scanning each image to get the best reading. And by image he means everything – words on a page, the path in front of him, faces.
To write the book, or even an email, he has to magnify words five-fold on a screen and do the same scanning process. Reading, the way you of I might read, is not possible. Every word has to be searched out and individually read.
It is amazing then that his use of language is so fluid, so image rich, and sonorous even when one reads it privately instead of out loud, which is how words should be read as if to savour them more. The thing with Peter – a man who hadn’t seen the written word for 30 years before technology gave him a useful tool – is that he had to see the words in his head.
Sometimes throughout the conversation I can’t help but think that a red-top newspaper would run a semi-sensational story with a screaming headline that would use words like ‘blind’ and ‘hermit’ and ‘living on a cliff edge’ to grab the readers attention, but this is not that story. Peter is a delight. He is warm, funny, relaxed. He is sweet and he is sociable.
‘We have a lot of different nationalities here but the heart of the place is completely Irish,’ said Peter,’ who can claim Irish ancestry and loves that in place of the English reserve that says ‘better not’ the Irish always respond with ‘why not.’
Throughout the book there are tales of penury: of how they, as a couple, and the parents of young Flora and Tom – and sometimes Tara, Peter’s daughter from a previous relationship – moved into half-finished buildings. In fact, the couple’s first night in Garranes was spent in a leaking and wind-lashed home and the neighbour’s cattle, annoyed at having been evicted, pushed their way back into the downstairs quarters.
But at every turn they found that the universe did indeed provide just enough to meet their most pressing requirements. But no more than that. In a few shots decades they created a veritable village, including five holiday cottages, a busy hostel a centre building for retreats, and more recently a care centre that provides solace to so many people. There is even planning permission to build a traditional Tibetan temple, and, in place of the bare rock face, there are more that 10,000 mature trees and the occasional column of colourful prayer flags blowing in the breeze.
I, like so many others, am impressed by his lifetime achievement. But in typical self-deprecating fashion Peter said I am labouring under the misapprehension that he is a hard worker. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘I am incredibly lazy. It just looks as through I have done a lot. But it’s amazing what you can achieve if you’re privileged to concentrate on one thing for a lifetime.’
His vision – and so many times the word crops up in the book in a variety of meanings – can be traced back to the day his mother brought him to a boarding school at the age of seven. He said: ‘It was a perfect summer’s day and on either side of the path were deep beds of wallflowers and their scent was heavy on the May air.’ He stood there, unexpectedly and utterly relaxed. ‘Everything seemed to slow down and silently fizz with the ease of its own perfection. The warmth and its scent poured into me, until there was no room for the formation of meaning. I was alert and alone in the splendour.’
This describes, better than any quotation laden with Buddhist terminology ever could, the understanding that Peter has of how limitless, how perfect, this precious human birth really is. Research and various insights convinced him that we are intrinsically perfect, but we have strayed away to confusion. He believes that confusion – through meditation – can be dispelled by ‘the slow letting go’ because it is our thinking mind that gets in the way and causes us to view ‘no more than the slightest sliver of wafer-thin wedge of the wealth of our own reality.’
There are lots of lessons in the book: The love Peter had for his parents, and the love he, in turn, has for his own family shines through. He said: ‘I was very fortunate in my choice of parents. They looked after their boys with unconditional love.’ It was his mother who gave him the book Seven Years in Tibet when it first came out in 1961 and introduced him to something that resonated with him at a very deep level. But it was his father who gave him his most valuable instruction in life.
‘I have always had this acceptance of what happens because my father always taught me that every occurrence in life should be taken as a teaching. It was only later on in life that I realised the profundity of this simple philosophy. It is the switch that turns a negative to a positive.
‘Acceptance of everything that happens imbues even our suffering with purpose and lessens the pain. The acceptance is not the resentful acceptance of our lot – the partial acceptance that leads to enslavement. It is absolute acceptance, even of slavery, which guarantees freedom.’
Peter was blessed with a positive nature: ‘That got me through. Someone else in my position might have gone under. I think the greatest gift in life is to be blessed with a positive nature because then you can survive anything.’
Today, Peter lives in a small one-room retreat house, which is totally in accordance with his belief that happiness depends on simplicity. It has – for obvious reasons – taken him fifteen years to write this book. And like Dzogchen Beara – which in 1992 was made a registered charity for the people of Ireland and the world – Dazzled by Daylight is an offering that was made with the very best of intentions.