Noirin Sheahan / Ayya Puññanandi
Noirin has been practising meditation under the guidance of Bhante Bodhidhamma for almost thirty years. Born in Dublin in 1954, she is now retired from her work in a Dublin hospital, originally as a medical physicist / engineer and more recently as meditation teacher.
She has taught vipassana under the guidance of Bhante Bodhidhamma at Satipanya, Gaia House, Sunyata and other centres in Ireland. Since the opening of Satipanya in 2007, Noirin began a serious study of the Dhamma and formed a group to explore the teachings.
In 2011/12, she spent the better part of the year in the meditation centres of Gaia House, IMS in the US and at Satipanya. By the end of that year, her insight was such that Bhante asked her to run her first weeklong retreat. Bhante has now recognised her as a fully trained Dhamma Teacher.
In July 2013 Noirin underwent surgery for throat cancer in which she lost her voice box. She now has the distinction of being the first person to teach the Dhamma using an electro-larynx! Though this sounds mechanical, most people understand it well enough after a while. Noirin’s Dhamma talks are now pre-recorded by a friend and so far, retreat assistants have kindly volunteered to do some additional readings during retreats. See Noirin’s essay “Teaching through an Electro-larynx” for more information and see below for feedback from retreatants on how it was to be led by a teacher without a voice-box.
In 2011, during an ordination retreat in Passaddhi Retreat Centre, Noirin ordained under Ariya Ñani, in the Burmese nun’s tradition. She was given the name Puññyanandi (meaning “one who rejoices in the power of goodness”). The Burmese nun’s tradition welcomes temporary ordination as a means of deepening one’s connection with the Buddha-Dhamma-Sangha. Although Noirin feels her life in Dublin is best led as a lay-person, she decided, following her second ordination retreat in 2015, to re-ordain whenever she comes to Satipanya. Thus, when you meet her, she will be in pink robes, shaven head and going by the name of Ayya Puññyanandi. “Ayya” means “Sister” and, as Puññyanandi is a bit of a mouthful, call her “Ayya” for simplicity.
One aspect of Ayya’s teaching which has not been affected by laryngectomy (the operation to remove the vocal chords) is to offer on-line courses to those who attend Satipanya retreats. A forum has been set up on the new website to host these courses which run for a number of weeks and focus on some aspect of the Dhamma e.g. the Four Noble Truths, the Hindrances, the Factors of Enlightenment etc. A ‘study group’ is formed of those who wish to participate. Each week Ayya provides notes and exercises to help people recognize and work skillfully with that particular Dhamma as it appears in everyday life. Participants may then post their reflections on the Forum so these can be shared with the the full group. This helps people to bring their practice more fully into ordinary life and to learn from one another as well as gaining confidence in expressing their understanding of the Dhamma. In time, hopefully, this activity will also reinforce the sense of belonging to a Satipanya Sangha.
Feedback from first retreats after laryngectomy.
I didn't know how things would be, being on retreat with a teacher with a speech impairment. Despite having been to Satipanya a few times before it is never the same - be it the centre itself, the teachings, or how they are delivered. Being with a teacher who was willing to share her experiences of meeting difficult circumstances with kindness and compassion was inspiring. I do not mean explicitly discussing details of these circumstances, but through observing the gestures of care, and the quality in communication and listening shown during the retreat, and the humorous reflections and insights shared. Dhamma talks recorded by a friend were offered which were very useful, but I was most touched by the depth of practice. The dhamma was fresh and alive, palpable, embodied, a simple persistent resilience in learning from what is, accepting and adapting, and dwelling with things in light harmony. Nothing 'manufactured', rehearsed nor polished, but done with a light touch, softly spoken and deeply felt. Karen
I had problems just in few cases to understand your speech, you already know English is not my native language therefore my ability is not excellent. Anyway that was not a real obstacle to me. Daniele
I was lucky enough this year to take my second retreat with Aya Punyananda. Noirin had ordained and taken robes. I wasn't worried at all at the beginning of the retreat. Just glad to have the time and space and Ayya for support. I had worked with Noirin on one retreat before prior to the larengectomy, I have every confidence in her as a teacher and didn't expect her lack of a voice to be an issue at all. I didn't even think about it! I was just absolutely chuffed that this teacher had come back to us when I was quite sure at one point that her loss of voice was the loss of our teacher.
But you see a lot happens in a week. The opportunity to witness the mind at work... so of course I was going to react to an electronic voice somewhere along the road. It's not without effort that Noirin speaks! It requires some technology and I was impressed by the use of headphones and wires and Noirin's willingness to be totally up for it all. However deep inside my impatience was just daring to show itself! And then the guilt. So it's something to observe. .. and I learn. I also began to react to the tone of the electronic voice. Despite the Dublin accent which I loved I began to feel annoyed with the techy sound, and I missed Noirin's lovely Irish voice. In the midst of the meditation I felt guilty that I felt sad, after all this was Noirin's loss ...not mine. Finally on the last day Noirin played a CD I had heard probably 5 years earlier ... a Body Scan – recorded with her old voice. As I worked through the exercises I felt the sadness arise and grief. Of course I can feel sad... it is a loss. I am entitled to feel sad too. And I learn.
I can find interview times very difficult, awkward somehow. It's hard to discuss and explain the meditative experience. But the slowness and great mindfulness of the process of working with the headphones/amplifier meant that there was lots of space for thinking and reflecting. I found myself more articulate and willing to persevere with explaining the experience.
Throughout the retreat Noirin had been resourceful in working with the assistant to ensure the integrity, structure and routines that we have become used to weren't compromised. And there was that wonderful testimony that when something tragic happens we can all rally and something quite wonderful fills the loss.
I do miss Noirin's voice but I want to embrace this new voice and its wires and feel glad that Ayya Punyananda is still up for encouraging us on this path. How can we be anything but inspired? Gwen
I have been slow to respond to your request on account of still missing your voice. What a loss for all of us.
To focus on the positive: It is a reminder of the impermanence of the faculties. Speech, sight, hearing , moving about - we take them for granted , and perhaps don’t use them as we should. A Dhamma teacher who is unperturbed and continues to work as usual impresses one with the sustaining nature of the path, which does not change with circumstances. I hope the example will teach me to use the gift of speech wisely and not too often. Mai
The Autumn retreat with Ayya Punyanandi, aka Noirin, was rewarding and inspiring. I was the course assistant responsible for cooking the meals and facilitating with the practicalities of the course. I was unsure how Ayya would manage to communicate as a teacher and give instructions. It was a delight to find that she had become very adept in speaking with the electro-larynx and was able to communicate fully and clearly - with her familiar Irish accent coming through! If we were in group situations or interviews Ayya asked us to connect up to an amplifier with small ear-phones and it was perfectly easy to hear, understand and converse like this. As retreat facilitator I was asked to read some short passages before or after meditation sessions which I enjoyed doing.
It was such a privilege to be on this retreat. It felt as if the difficulties that Ayya had been through in the last couple of years had further deepened her relationship with the Dhamma. Her teachings often referred to her experiences of the illness and surgery and how these had influenced her spiritual life. Ayya's sense of reclaiming a sense of deep meaning and joy in simple everyday experiences after the trauma of the surgery was so inspiring. I hope that she might one day publish her talks and reflections as I'm sure they could benefit many others, especially those going through serious illness, as well as anyone on a spiritual path. Ayya writes with engaging honesty, fluency and clarity and uses vivid, often poetic, images to illustrate what she is communicating.
My overall experience was that Ayya's speech challenges didn't cause any difficulties and that, if anything, the opposite was true because using the link to the electro-larynx via headphones seemed to connect us in a mutually supportive shared experience. Even more importantly, this retreat was special for me because of seeing Ayya’s deep commitment and sincerity in teaching the Dhamma and how courageously she had come through her ordeal to embrace life with joy. Wendy
Go to Noirin's Teachings for Essays and MP3's