Page 5, 5th January 1996

5th January 1996
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Page 5, 5th January 1996 — Be a Buddhist nun for a few days
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Be a Buddhist nun for a few days

If you venture over the border, you will find a little part of Scotland given over to the peace and mysticism of Buddhism, and you will be welcome, whatever your religion. Jocasta Shakespeare meditated at Samye Ling

THERE IS A corner of a foreign field that is forever Scotland: in the valley of the Esk river, the golden dragons of Tibetan Buddhist temple roar into the wind.

This is Samye Ling, a buddhist community which for the first time is inviting westerners to become nuns and monks but only for a year, not a lifetime. The offer is drawing surprising numbers of people from as far away as Australia to the Scottish lowlands.

You don't have to be buddhist to come here and people of all faiths visit Samye Ling to meditate and take a holiday for the mind as well as the body. Many return to be ordained as monks or nuns and take the five main vows: celibacy, no intoxicants, lying, stealing or killing.

Tibetan Lama Yeshi, 49, who heads the Centre says "everything starts with the mind. We need to be unshakeable. Impermanence teaches that nothing is there forever, and not to take anything for granted. The five vows deal with the causes of suffering. We are not offering an escape from the world but a chance to confront reality without distractions."

It would be hard to be distracted in this isolated spot. A taxi from Lockerbie takes you across wild and windswept moors cut by rivers that fall into the scythe of the Esk which curves around the compound.

Once inside the stone gates and past the red, blue and yellow prayer flags, you enter another world. White peacocks saunter through a watergarden where eider ducks and rescued battery hens sit under shrines supporting marble buddhas. At night, windchimes and the hunting call of owls mingle with the running Esk and the bronze gong that calls the community to prayers.

Then inside the temple, seated on a crimson cushion under the gaze of a huge golden buddha, you could imagine yourself in another country. Two drums beat and small bells resonate: "jangling" horns and the moan of a conch are punctuated by the chanting, in Tibetan, of monks and nuns. When silence falls for a period of meditation, the atmosphere is charged and steady as the single candle flame glowing at the altar.

Lama Yeshi says "we are here to help anyone who finds benefit in what we have to offer. If, through learning to meditate here, a Christian finds that his or her faith deepens, we will be delighted." He says Buddha himself taught that there are 84,000 ways to attain enlightenment and recommended that his followers experience truth for themselves rather than accept it on hearsay. This means that in Samye Ling, no one is attempting to convert anyone and you are left largely to your own devices.

Lama Yeshi says "many people come here with different religious beliefs. There are lots of different ways to the centre and nobody should deny another religion or its teachers." On Holy Island, off Mull, Samye Ling has another refuge dedicated to interfaith dialogue. People of all religions are invited there to exchange views and, of course, to meditate.

Two nuns at Samye Ling previously belonged to a Catholic order. There are also a number of Northern Irish Catholics among the visitors to Samye Ling. Nicholas Homes says "Jesuits like Dennis Johnson or Father Anthony de Mello, or among the Anglicans, Bede Griffiths, have imported buddhist meditation techniques into Catholicspirituality.

"There is cross-fertilisation between buddhism and Catholicism, with many appropriating the techniqueswithout necessarily taking in the philosophy."

Steven O'Brian says "Catholic mysticism is similar to buddhism in its appreciation of direct experience. People like Meister Eckhart or Jan van Ruysbrouck describe how the mystic experience lies beyond concept and has difficulty fitting into the doctrine of the Church. Buddhism is experimental, not a doctrine."

Another Catholic visitor from Belfast tells me, "It is a misunderstanding to see the ideal of Nirvana or enlightenment as a purely passive and negative state.

"The central tenet of buddhism which is to Do No Harm, is in fact a dynamic and active proposition that requires great effort and learning. To desist from all evil is not a negative goal."

His friend Mairead McGill quotes Thomas Merton as an ideological ancestor and adds that modem politicarbackdrops, like Marxism or conservatism are not helpful in understanding buddhist thought. At Samye Ling, people appear keen to find the similarities, rather than the differences, between religions.

It is quite possible to spend all your time alone here, no one will bother you. But if you want to talk, you discover a kaleidoscope of world views and experiences. In the dining room at lunchtime, it seems that there are a few places where you might share a rhubarb crumble and custard with a curious mixture of people. You might find Koo Stark sitting next to Malcolm, a contraband smuggler in Thailand and David, a GP from North London. Or two German jetsetters sitting next to Ani Lhamo (who was a software analyst in Glasgow before she became a nun for life) and Stefan, a former East German border guard. Add a film producer, a Vietnam war veteran, an ICI executive, an Argentine painter and a Burmese sculptress and you could hardly hope to find a more eclectic group of visitors.

We are joined by ex-television presenter Becki Adam who became a nun last year and whose new Tibetan name means "Lotus Light." She says "I thought I was a very free woman out there. I could travel where I wanted, money wasn't a problem and I was free to have a relationship with whoever I wanted. But that way oflife accumulates a lot of burdens of unnecessary thoughts, feelings and desires.

I wanted to get rid of it all again through buddhist practise. This is liberation from all that."

For those who have no wish to be so liberated, a few days of getting up at five in the morning to hear Green Tam prayers, followed by porridge and cream handmilked from Silver and Buttercup (resident cows) and a brisk walk to local spots that sound like crosses on a treasure map the Magic Woods, Fairy Hill, Watergarden, Temple can be enough. And for those who can't take anymore, there is always the Pub, just two miles walk away.

But some go the other way: into Retreat The retreat house is a small white building half a mile away where forty monks and nuns are secluded for three years, three months and three days of intense and segregated buddhist practise. Alice Maxwell was only 23 when she decided to become a nun and go into Retreat for four years.

She "came out" last year, aged 27 and says "We are trained to focus the mind. It's to do with Jesus Christ's wOrds that you have to take the mote out of your own eye before you can take it out of anyone else's. The worst part was missing my family, but I found it very useful."

Now Alice had disrobed and is living in a stone farmhouse near Samye Ling with a new boyfriend. She says "it's great; before I became a nun, I couldn't handle my emotions, but I'm more relaxed now. It gives you time to think. There is a buddhist proverb that says "if you tie a snake in knots and leave it to its own devices, it frees itself'. I'm happier now and more free."

Using time out as a monk or nun to unwind and even as a type of psychotherapy appears to be becoming more and more popular. Thom McCarthy who is a resident at Samye Ling says buddhism can be a good way of dealing with life's traumas. Many people who seek refuge have problems in their lives which they are trying to resolve. Thom was a Marine in the Vietnam War and says that he now suffers from agoraphobia: "I wanted to be safe at base camp rather than out in the boonies. But my agoraphobia is the best teacher I have in dealing with fear. Fearlessness is crucial to buddhism."

People arrive here with high aims, like a search for fearlessness or freedom. Pema Ithandro (Sky Dancer), 36, is Polish and was a fashion designer in London before she became ordained as a buddhist nun for a year. She says "I never wanted to be famous or a business woman. The most important thing for me was to be free. I visited Samye Ling and within two weeks I packed up the business and gave everything away. If someone had given me £200,000 to change my mind, I wouldn't have done it. When they shaved my head, I suddenly knew I wasn't hiding anymore but saw such a strange face in the mirror."

Two 25 year-old friends who are taking a year out as a monk and nun in Samye Ling say that together they decided to shave their heads, put on monastic robes and take the five vows. They have also been given Tibetan names: he is now called Karma Norby (Precious Jewel) and she Jinp (Generosity).

Karma says "I was never religious before I came here. I was an atheist and used to refuse to sing in assemblies. Now everything has changed. We thought it would be good for our relationship. This way, you can't be distracted by a cuddle. Your dealing with the other person as they really are. You get to know each other in a way that wouldn't otherwise be possible." This sounds more like a spiritual version of Relate.

Pedron, 28, also says she fell in love just before she was ordained. "But it's a lesson in non-attachment and it's necessary to discipline the mind. It's important not to look to other people to give you qualities you don't have. Love is about enjoying people for who they are rather than what you want from them."

At the end of her year as a nun, Pedron decided to take vows for another three years: "My perspective has changed" she says, "All the things that seemed so important to me before I became a nun are now irrelevant. It is difficult to give up the prospect of having children, but I may decide to remain a nun for life."

For some, one year is enough. Aaron Sanders took a year out at Samye Ling between school and university. Now 21 and no longer a monk, he says "you can be of any religion or none and practise buddhism. It showed me what attitudes I had to things and taught me patience. Samye Ling offered me the space in which to learn and reflect."

Buddhism is Britain's fastest growing religion with 270,000 followers (500 million worldwide). 35,000 people visit Samye Ling on daytrips each year and 1,200 come to stay to join workshops on Tai Chi or meditation or, as Lama Yeshi says "to relax and recharge their batteries." And it is true that when I left for London, I felt recharged. It might have been the wild rather than the principles of Impermanence and Non-Attachment that blew the cobwebs away, but my mind had cleared.

Samye Ling Tibetan Centre Eskdale Muir Near Larigharn, Lockerbie, Scotland Tel: 0387373232




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