The Barn
At the End
Of the World

The Apprenticeship
Of a Quaker,
Buddhist Shepherd

Mary Rose O'Reilley
Whenever people ask Mary Rose O'Reilley what she does for a living, she says, "I take care of sheep." She works at an university-sponsored farm, where they care for several dozen sheep, learning how to clean, inoculate, assist in the birth of lambs, and do research. However, after a couple of years of this, she picks up and goes to Plum Village in France --- a Buddhist monastery under the guidance of the pacifist and writer Thich N'hat Hanh.

Arriving in southern France, she writes, "Yesterday I was raising sheep. Today I find myself squatting in the zendo praying that all beings, which includes my wooly pals, be brought to enlightenment." Then, after a year or so at Plum Village, she returns to her home, her sheep, her music and her husband. O'Reilley, is raised Catholic, converted (is that the right word?) to Quakerism at the time of Viet-Nam, and has been meditating for many years.

I feel pretty silly with the paragraph above. I'm giving you the facts but would rather try to convey the spirit --- better, the spirituality --- of The Barn at the End of the World. The freshness of her writing cuts through the pages with honesty, curiosity, that American craving for answers --- and, intermixed with it, very human bouts of American fret-work, anger, and guilt: the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life? and what-does-it-all-mean? and what-in-God's-name-am-I-doing-here?

During the course of this work, we are invited inside her soul --- to become part of her family, feel her woe at loss of children (they grow up, they go away), experience her continuing affection for her early Catholic training, marvel at her attempt to follow the Buddhist precept of caring for all sentient creatures (including sheep, who can be smelly and pig-headed and maddeningly obstinate) --- at the same time worrying whether she is doing right, whether she is on the right path. For there she is in the midst of rigorous monastery life and she finds herself missing books and comfort and people to laugh with and Pop Tarts and her favorite hobby --- of all things --- Sacred Harp Singing.

She is, in brief, like you and me: another of those American worry-warts caught in despair at where our country is going (jet-skis and happy faces a special bane) all the while wondering if there are other cultures that have something that can lead us out of the morass.

§     §     §

The Barn at The End of the World consists of a hundred three- to five-page essays, each containing a kernel --- or several kernels --- of truth, all of them interconnected by the story of her life, and the story of her seeking. O'Reilley is giving us a series of daily meditations, but what sets them apart from those pompous religious braggarts that you and I have been subjected to over the years is her astounding honesty, her vision of the truth (within and without) and her fine writing style. This, on meeting her master, Thich N'hat Hanh, for the first time:

    I have sat Zen meditation for thirty-three years without a teacher and have come to Plum Village because this man's books have drawn me --- his gentleness, his engagement with social issues, the practical simplicity of his practice. I should have been panting for my first glimpse of the master. But instead I was crabby and emotionally worn out. Thay [Vietnamese for "teacher"] entered the upper hamlet zendo and everyone bowed as he walked in, a small, elegant, frail man of about seventy (I'm told) in the tacky brown habit and cap of his order. He is rather plain looking, has poor teeth and a kind smile. He sat down, we sat down, and I plugged myself into the wispy translation of his talk.

Note how O'Reilley sets the stage, a description of her internal mood, then a brief impressionistic picture of the master and his environs, in no way romantic ("tacky" habit, "poor teeth," "kind smile," and the "wispy translation.") This is reality journalism of the highest order.

    [He gave] a careful and conscientious exegesis of one word in Pali, Vietnamese and Chinese, one word from the Five Noble Principles or the Twelve Precious Concepts or whatever. I don't know. I get them all mixed up. Two hours of that. I could barely hear the translator's whisper, though she seemed gifted --- an Englishwoman, skeletally thin, who wore the habit of a nun. Someone called her Sister Angela. The only thing I got hold of was this gatha:

      I return
      to the island of self
      where Buddha, dharma, and sangha
      are always available to me.

Whenever O'Reilly paints a picture, you and I are smack-dab in the middle of it. If we were to go off to find a master in France or Japan or India, I have no doubt in the world what we would find would be very similar: discomfort, a translation we can barely understand, Principles and Concepts getting all mixed up in our minds, and, while struggling with this, noticing the translator, a "skeletally thin" Englishwoman. Her name? We aren't too sure, but "Someone called her Sister Angela."

The next day, it's meditation time, it's cold, she is to sit facing a wall, or, as she phrases it, "I attend my familiar wall:"

    A writer once commented about how, in a long period of Buddhist retreat, his wall would present him with a movie of wild sexual fantasy. My own wall is not so warming. I see only a procession of animal faces...I try to breathe on Thay's recommended gatha: "Breathing in, I become a flower...Breathing in, I become a mountain. Breathing in, I become water, reflecting all things. Calm water..."

    By the time I have become a mountain, my mind is off chasing foxes, dogs, and rabbits among the stones. I am roused from distraction twenty-five minutes into meditation because that is the precise moment my legs fall asleep and the muscle under my lower leg becomes at first annoyingly, then excruciatingly, cramped...

    A thought rises with a lot of intensity of feeling behind it, streaking like Comet Kahoutec:I have given this whole year to meditation and retreat and nothing is happening. I let the comet burn itself out...An inner voice tells me, "You live with all the arguments you didn't have. They are buried inside."

    Maybe yes, maybe no. I've learned to cast a cold eye on these insights that rise in prayer or meditation. They are rabbits, foxes, nothing more.

§     §     §

I've been struggling with some foxes and rabbits of my own for two months now. It's part of my work as a reviewer. Some books that come to me are a snap. I read them, sit down at my faithful computer, call up a New Page in Simpletext, crank up a Font (our Font-of-the-Month for this month is "Comic Sans MS:" although it doesn't make me laugh, it's easy to read --- especially when I put it in 24-point to compensate for my myopia).

Then I start pothering away, getting something down on the page, or on the screen, or whereever it is, in this most bizarre of media. If the book is bad, I have a great time making fun of the author for writing a bad book. If it is pretentious, I try to prick the balloons. If it is dull, I try to spiff it up with nonsense. If it is honest, I try to reflect that honesty. If it is sordid, or vain, I ask if we need more such chaff in the publishing world.

But there are some of those that don't come easy. I have been laboring for a year now over a title that came in from Stanford University Press, called Relays, Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System. It's by one Bernhard Siegert, and it is so filled with delicious, conscious insight that I feel like a fool trying to define it, to condense it down to a thousand words or so. It's Marshall McLuhan's Understanding Media for the 21st Century, jammed with facts that media-junkies should treasure, such as

    In 1835, Johannes Müller had acquired the larynxes of corpses and blew in them 'in order to study the production requirements for specific vocal sounds in concreto...'

And, again,

    Noise and wrangling on all channels: that was the situation to begin with. Language was a pipeline that constantly was clogged with the ambiguities of rhetoric. Philosophers were its plumbers.

Who couldn't fall in love such thoughts as these? I'm still working on it --- but I may never get done with this or in the next lifetime.

Ms. O'Reilley's work presents us with a similar problem. She writes with a style that is a reviewer's dream --- essays that are as light as angel-food, that are at once profound and funny and lively and insightful. And so I sit down (I have done this quite a few times in the last few weeks) to write something about it and I find myself staring at the screen, or rereading whole chapters, or idly picking at some body part, or being tempted to forget it and play one of those won't-leave-you-alone games packed in my iMac's bounteous memory. It puts me in mind of that old wheeze about the butler who dropped a piece of ice down the lady's bodice. "I feel a perfect ass," he whispers to her as he was trying to retrieve it. "Forget the compliments," she whispers back, "Just get the goddamn ice out."

I feel a perfect ass, but I can't get it out. So, here's my compromise: We've posted a couple of passages from The Barn at the End of the World at Pop Tarts and Minnesota Lakes. I believe these to be the quintessential Mary Rose O'Reilley. After you read them, if you like them, go out and get three copies of the book --- one for you, two for best friends who seem forever to be looking for The Truth; who would (in all likelihood) do something as weird as tend to the needs of sheep for a year and then, without much ado, hop on a plane and fly somewhere and join a Buddhist community for a year and freeze their asses looking at the wall and work in the garden and live on half-rations and wonder, constantly, why the hell they are doing it.

Because sometimes in this rich American life we lead, we aren't too sure that what we do is right or good, and sometimes we don't know if they will make it easy for us to surrender up our soul at that time that will come to all of us when they give us no choice; that time when they'll be making necessary plans to lay us in the ground; that time when we'll be wondering whether we did the best we could with what we had; that time that we'll be wondering whether we were honest and true to ourselves --- giving to others our help and our caring without needlessly harming, hurting, or damaging those who knew or loved us.

Ms. O'Reilley's book addresses so many of these fears --- with directness, and joy, and appalling honesty.

--- Lolita Lark

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