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This article, by Andrea McKernon, was published in The North Belfast News, November 2002

Some film stars snort cocaine, wreck hotel rooms and suffer alcohol dependencies. Others are just far too healthy, indulging in fad diets and working out all hours, it's no surprise they cry hysterically at Oscar ceremonies. But one very special American film actor is involved in the art of meditation - a gift he says that can help societies like ours to make the often painful and difficult transition to peace.

Mchael O'Keefe is a Zen Priest. But he uses a broad range of meditations - many used in the Buddhist religion - in a plethora of situations and with people from all religious and political backgrounds. And he operates on a global scale. He also happens to be a Hollywood star, acting in scores of movies the latest of which "The Hot Chick" - is due for release at Christmas in the States.

The movie is the typical bubble gum whacky teen comedy romp. But more seriously he starred alongside Jack Nicholson in the 1991 film The Pledge. He was also nominated for an Oscar for his role beside Robert Duvall in the 1979 classic flick, The Great Santini. He has also appeared on TV playing the part of hit comedian Rosanne's brother in law and most recently in the slick smash series, The West Wing. A great friend of Hollywood heartthrob Aidan Quinn, the actor has also written songs with Irish songster Paul Brady. The two artists collaborated on the Irishman's Spirits Colliding album, writing the song entitled Marriage Made In Hollywood.

The O'Keefe name forever associates him with the Emerald Isle and the third generation Irishman has relatives living in Wicklow, Limerick and Cork. But it was an American human rights activist Tom Hayden that inspired his social consciousness and began a life journey in helping people from traumatised nations.

"Tom is a big role model for me. He was actually an international observer at the talks at Stormont in 1997. He advocates that there has to be social change as well as political out of any conflict."

The Irish roots have instilled in Michael O'Keefe a deep desire to help people of the world caught in the grip of hatred and conflict, the same way his ancestors fled poverty and hardship in the 19th century.

He is a member of the Peacemaker Circle, which is involved across the world in building a "global, effective force for social change". It integrates social action with spiritual practice, taking in the medium of mediation.

Michael O'Keefe has just completed a week of visiting various groups all over Belfast. One brought him to Woodvale in North Belfast to host a meditation session with women who were displaced during the loyalist feud. The group Families of the Displaced, Dispersed and Distressed were shown the great power of mediation, and Michael did sessions with loyalist ex-prisoners.

"You get a sense with these women that they have been kicked out by their own people and they feel a sense of hurt and that's understandable. If meditation can help them to look for something that can help them come to terms with their loss, they might be able to move on," he said.

The Peacemaker Circle has been instrumental in bringing together the most opposing peoples in the world.

"I spent three years travelling between the US and Poland and did reconciliation work in Auswitch concentration camp. In 1996 we set up a meditation retreat there and about 150 people came from around the world," he said.

"Our cross community work was to get - not just children of the survivors of the Holocaust - but also the children of the perpetrators coming along as well."

He explains the work of reconciliators like him and his community is to take no political or religious stance.

"We are not pro-Israel or pro any group. At the moment we have been creating cross community dialogue between the two communities in Palestine and Israel. For a number of years we have supported a commune led by a Muslim Sheik and a Jewish Rabbi in the region.

"I'm sure North Belfast has had its share of do-gooders but that's not what we're about. I came into the situation here as an outsider and I want to hear what the people are going through whatever their affiliation. We are honest brokers because we have nothing at stake in the (peace) process."

The actor has been a Zen practitioner for 16 years and became a priest in 1994. It complements both his reconciliation work and his acting.

"There's no particular form of meditation in anything we have done in the North of Ireland. We come together and empower people so they can go back into their own communities. We try all different forms." The latest visit is not Michael O'Keefe's first to Belfast and nor will it be his last. He will return around February to do more work with various groups, including victims' groups in North Belfast. He is involved with local Zen practitioners hoping to found a Zen Centre in Belfast apart from his work with the Peacemaker Circle.

And he has also been dealing with former hunger striker Lawrence McKeown in gaining contacts in the American film industry for the Belfast Film Festival early next year.

He realises that his public image can do much to heighten the profile of the Peacemaker community. The community brochure states that it is signed up to "a culture of non-violence and reverence for life, solidarity and a just economic order, tolerance and a life based on truthfulness and equal rights and partnership between men and women".

The core tenets are letting go of fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe and bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world.In the dog eat dog world of multi-million pound movie deals and the tinsel town image of rich actors and actresses, it's a refreshing change to find an actor with a social consciousness and a spirituality that complements those values. Michael O'Keefe, his religion and his peace organisation are such a thing and you could get away with affectionately calling him Red Zen O'Keefe.


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