This brilliant article is reprinted from the Electronic Telegraph, with their kind permission. It was brought to my attention by Thomas Roberts.

Electronic Telegraph

Saturday
4 October 1997
Issue 863


The Buddhists of Eskdalemuir

It is an improbable combination: a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Scottish lowlands. But the draw of Samye Ling is so strong among young Westerners that there is now a six-month waiting list to take vows. Mick Brown reports.

YOU expect many things, but you don't expect tattoos. The shaven heads and maroon robes, the uniform dispensation of any identifying traits of individuality - all affect a kind of disguise. So at first glance it's impossible to tell who was the public schoolboy, the television personality, the sociology graduate, the croupier, or the hard-core raver doing Ecstasy every night. When a monk inadvertently moves his sleeve, and you catch sight of a tattoo embroidering his arm or laced around his neck, the effect is almost shocking - the rude intrusion of a life that has been discarded on a new life that has been found.

I mention this to one young monk. He laughs and rolls up his sleeve to reveal the motif tattooed across his own bicep, 'Born to raise hell'. That one, he explains, was done when he was 18, 'out of my head on drugs.' Then he unbuttons his shirt to reveal the Tibetan prayer Om Mani Padme Hung, embroidered over his heart - tattooed two years ago, after he had become a monk. 'A bit of peace,' he says, 'to compensate for all the madness.'

At dawn there is the screech of peacocks and the clatter of pots and pans from the kitchen in the main house - once a hunting lodge - as the mist rises to reveal the Scottish lowlands beyond. The insistent sound of a gong calls the monks and nuns to prayers. They move across the courtyard, pulling their robes more tightly against the morning chill.

The temple of the Samye Ling monastery has been built to Tibetan specifications, two storeys high, surmounted by a pagoda, its fascia etched in tiles of blue, red and green. Inside, a golden, seated Buddha, nine feet high, gazes down impassively from the shrine. A huge ornamental prayer-wheel spins soundlessly within an elaborate lacquered case. There is the smell of wood polish, the faintest aroma of incense, and a sense of absolute stillness.

The monks are ranged down the left-hand side of the temple, sitting cross-legged on cushions. There is Senge, 30 a former pupil at Westminster; Pende, 26, a sociology graduate, and Yangdak - in an earlier life, an area manager for Allied Breweries, until a drugs overdose almost ended his life.

The nuns sit facing them. Ani Chodrun, who as Beki Adam once presented the television motoring programme, Top Gear, and who has now taken life vows; Ani Sangje, a former speech therapist from Stevenage; and Ani Chochi, 22, the daughter of a retired army officer, and a nun for just six weeks.

The prayers are to Tara - a female bodhisattva, or saint, who is believed to emanate compassion. They are chanted in Tibetan, read from prayer-sheets which the monks and nuns rest on lecterns before them, punctuated by the sound of bells, finger-cymbals and drums, and long periods of meditative silence. Some of the monks and nuns fidget and yawn, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. 'Just sitting is the hardest thing for me,' Ani Chochi tells me later.

When prayers end a monk moves around the temple with a notebook, recording the number of mantras each monk and nun has recited. These are added together, a record of the merit which has been spread by the group for the benefit of all 'sentient beings'.

It is a cold morning. Having prayed for the world, Ani Chochi comes out of the temple, pulls on a sweater with a skate-boarding motif and a pair of Doc Martens, and trudges off for breakfast.

'So many young people in the West are mentally unstable,' says Lama Yeshe Osal, the Tibetan abbot of Samye Ling. 'Society tells them, if you have a good education, if you have money, then everything will be fine. But they are never taught the big price they have to pay. Their parents split up, they spend their childhood in a kindergarten, they go to school and university and still they don't have a job. So they don't have security, they are not happy. And then you have alcohol and drugs. Is it any wonder so many of them are confused?'

A portly man in his 50s, dressed in a silk, Chinese smoking jacket, Lama Yeshe is usually found strolling around the grounds of Samye Ling, hands behind his back - a smiling patriarch, clucking over what he calls 'my monks and nuns'. There are 41 of them at Samye Ling. All but one - an elderly Tibetan - are Westerners. The majority are in their 20s and 30s. The youngest is just 19. Most have come to Samye Ling under a novel probationary scheme introduced by Lama Yeshe, which allows young people to take Tibetan monastic orders for a year.

The first Tibetan Buddhist centre to be established in the West, Samye Ling was founded in 1967 by two Tibetan rinpoches (the word means 'precious one'), who had fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959. For 25 years, the community comprised mainly lay-people - students of Buddhism, erstwhile hippies - with no more than a handful of monks and nuns living there at any one time. Then, in 1992, Lama Yeshe, a brother of one of the founders, took over. Within the Buddhist community, Lama Yeshe is regarded as something of a maverick - 'the rock and roll rebel of institutionalised religion,' as one young monk puts it.

Although raised in a monastery in Tibet from the age of eight until fleeing into India aged 15, Lama Yeshe did not take vows himself until he was 30. This followed a period in America, where he rode a motorbike, had a succession of girlfriends, and cultivated an enthusiasm for Jimi Hendrix's music. 'In America I saw the advantages, as well as the disadvantages, of having everything,' he says. 'And I also saw the suffering. People taking drugs, poverty, crime - so much pain and suffering.'

Traditionally, in Tibetan-Buddhism, ordination is taken for life, and in the Seventies and Eighties a number of young Westerners took life vows, often with unhappy consequences. 'Often, young people in the West can't even make a decision for one month and keep to that decision,' says Lama Yeshe. 'Because of this weakness of mind, or because the opportunities are always there for them to keep on changing, I could see there was no way anybody could immediately take this ordination for life.'

Since the introduction of the probationary scheme, which is unprecedented in Tibetan-Buddhism, in 1994, more than 80 men and women have taken monastic orders. While the number of monks and nuns in Britain's traditional Catholic orders is in steady decline, there is now a six-month waiting list to join the sangha (community) at Samye Ling. Under the scheme, monks and nuns may either leave the monastery after one year - in which case, they may not return for a further 12 months - or renew their vows for a further three years. Only at the end of that time may they take life vows.

'After one year some say, "It's not for me." That's fine, because they will have found some benefit from being here, and be a better person than before. And if people want to stay, then they know the commitment they must make,' Lama Yeshe chuckles. 'The monastic life is very difficult.'

Yangdak runs the Tibetan Tea Room, a small cafe in the monastery grounds. Samye Ling is listed by the Scottish Tourist Board as a site of interest. 'We had a bus-load of Sikhs arrive here once,' a nun serving behind the counter tells me, 'God knows where they came from. But they all seemed to enjoy it.' It is Sunday afternoon, and the cafe is crowded with visitors. Before becoming a monk, Yangdak, who is 31, was Norman Horsburgh, in charge of supervising a chain of bars across central Scotland. He has brought something of his expertise to the Tibetan Tea Room, with its country-style tables and chairs scoured from local junk shops, 10 varieties of herbal tea stacked on the shelves, and home-made carrot-cake. Norman grew up in Edinburgh. His father worked on oil-rigs. When he was eight, his mother left home to live with another man, taking Norman and his sister with her. As a child he was bullied and as an adolescent he always suspected there was more to life than the butcher's shop where he started work, aged 16. He put himself through college and trained as a chef, then worked in a bar. By 24 he was area manager for Allied Brew-eries. Good money, a nice car, a share in a house.

It was at this stage that Norman's life began to go wrong. He got into the dance scene and started using Ecstasy; a business deal went wrong; he returned home early from work to find his girlfriend in bed with another man; and he served 16 days in prison for handling a stolen antique and he was also ordered to pay compensation.

'I was out of my face for two years. But you can't run away from yourself. The drug-dealer who gives you Ecstasy doesn't tell you, "Oh by the way, you're going to come down from this and you're going to feel like crap." And I came down, and I went as low as you can possibly go.' Eventually, he swallowed 46 anti-depressants. 'It just got too much. I didn't want to commit suicide. I wanted to go to sleep, because the pain in my belly was so hard for the things I'd done in my life.' His father usually returned from work at 5pm, but for some reason, on that day, he came home early. 'He dialled 999. The paramedics came and said, "He's dead." But they kept the machines on.' Norman was in a coma for five days.

The overdose, he says, was a turning point. 'It felt like I was reborn. I came out of hospital and went to church and prayed for the first time in my life. I don't know who I prayed to, but I prayed that if there's something out there, to give me some guidance to find a teacher, to help me to help myself, and to help other people.'

As a boy, Norman's family had taken caravan holidays near Samye Ling. 'I didn't know anything about Buddhism, but I had this feeling inside that I wanted to go there.' His father gave him a lift.

'I walked into the temple and sat down and it was as if I'd been doing it all my life. So I do believe I was destined to become a monk. But I also believe I had to go through everything else to realise that.' He took the year's ordination in 1993 and then asked to take life vows. 'There was no doubt about it whatsoever. I'd found what I was looking for. It was bliss.'

It was a year later the police arrived. He had not paid the compensation outstanding from the antiques charge. 'I honestly thought I'd paid it.' He was driven to Dumfries police station where they took away his robes. He was sentenced to three days imprisonment. 'It was amazing! I just sat in my cell meditating. The turnkey saw this and said, "Are you planning to levitate out of here?" He was such a lovely guy. He left my cell door open, but whenever I wanted to go to the toilet I'd tap on the door, just to let him know. Respect was given, y'see. And my lawyer gave me a donation towards a pilgrimage in Tibet.' He throws back his head and laughs.

All his life, says Yangdak, he used to think, if only 'I never think "if only" any more.'

As much as it is a religious belief system, Buddhism is a psychological path, a way of coming to know yourself. Buddhism as therapy and medicine are words one hears often in Samye Ling. If half the community of monks and nuns has been drawn here in a spirit of intellectual inquiry or spiritual search, the other half appears to have been spurred by confusion - a need to make sense of the bewilderment of their lives. The stories are different, and yet the same factors recur: broken homes, a disenchantment with the education system, experimentation with drugs, or a sense of something missing which neither conventional religion, nor the consolations of career or relationships, have provided.

'But if people come here for escape,' says Lama Yeshe, 'I won't have them. Here, there is no escape from yourself. And if somebody says to me, "I want enlightenment," I say, "Don't come to me. If you have these big, visionary ideas, go somewhere else. I just want to be a practical teacher who can bring some benefit if you put in the effort." '

One of the difficulties with young Westerners, says Lama Yeshe, is that they want everything yesterday. 'Always impatient,' he chuckles. 'And they don't really like to be told anything by anybody. Everybody feels they must be individual. Consequently, there is this lack of discipline, lack of commitment and very often, great instability. My monks and nuns, they will all be happy and committed for one or two days, and then they become depressed for a while because they are maybe thinking, "What have I done, what is it I really want?" It's a constant battle. And it requires discipline.'

Monks and nuns must take the five precepts which are at the heart of the Buddhist monastic order: no killing of any living thing, no stealing, no lying, no intoxicants, and total celibacy; along with a number of lesser vows, which include no singing and dancing, no ornamentation and no sitting in high places (to cultivate humility). Most of the monks live in a ramshackle collection of wooden cabins and caravans close to the river which borders the monastery grounds. The nuns are in a row of cottages a mile-and-a-half away.

For all its air of relaxed informality, the regime at Samye Ling is strictly ordered. Prayers, work, washing-up rotas, more prayers - monks and nuns are expected to attend at least two pujas (prayer sessions) a day, and to maintain their private practice. Many of the community members talk of the monastic life having instilled precisely the values they had so studiously ignored when taught by their parents or teachers: a respect for authority, commitment, sobriety, and the virtue of labour. 'It's interesting,' says one nun. 'One of the things that I've felt really happy about in coming here is that values which I've always felt instinctively to be true over the years, but which I found myself rejecting, lama will say exactly the same thing, and I respect it in him.'

Ani Sangje's first job of the day is to collect the milk from the small dairy herd kept at Samye Ling, and to prepare yogurt. Then she walks to a point in the river where a stone shrine, or 'Naga house', has been built. According to Tibetan mythology, the Naga is a spirit in charge of purifying the river. Ani Sangje kneels on the river bank and pours milk and honey into the water as an offering, then walks to the temple for morning prayers.

As Kim Seabrook, she was born 35 years ago and brought up in Stevenage - a quiet, conventional, middle-class background. Her first job was working in the investment department of a large insurance company. At the same time she did voluntary work for children with special needs. 'We were trying to raise 100 for equipment. I could make a mistake at the office and 100 - 1,000 - could be written off just like that. "Oh, we'll claim it back in tax, or we'll make that in interest overnight." And, to me, that seemed obscene.' She left to train and work for the next 12 years as a speech therapist, then came a holi-day visit to Nepal. 'We were visiting a Buddhist monastery, and I remember looking down on the monks and having a really funny feeling, as if I knew it could be my life. It sounds weird and I don't like saying it, but it was such a strong feeling.' It was the first step that was to lead her, aged 31, to Samye Ling.

Nobody in Samye Ling talks of a calling, and yet many tell stories which have about them the ring of being summoned - of some indefinable slippage from the rational moorings of everyday life. One monk first learned of Samye Ling when he found a scrap of paper with the address on his kitchen table, with no idea of how it had come to be there.

'Everybody has stories like that,' one nun tells me. 'There was a traveller who stopped here for one night with his horse. He set off next day, the horse took lame, and he had to come back. Six months later he became a monk.' And how did she come to be here? 'I had a friend who was a monk, and I wanted to tell him something in a letter, but the words wouldn't come, so I came to tell him in person.' The day before she arrived she had been at a rave. She was ordained as a nun six months later.

It is a two-mile walk to the nearest village, Eskdalemuir, and 15 miles to the nearest station, at Lockerbie. The taxi-driver who carries me from Lockerbie says, 'For years I thought Samye Ling was the name of someone who lived there. They keep themselves to themselves.' Eight years ago the Dalai Lama came to inaugurate the temple. Eskdalemuir had never seen anything like it.

To outward appearances, 'communal' seems a better word to describe life at Samye Ling than 'monastic'. The monks and nuns, and 40 or so lay-members of the community, work alongside each other, gathering together at meal-times, chatting and joking. 'It's like having loads of elder brothers,' says one young nun. But at the same time, such close proximity of the opposite sex tests the vows of chastity to the limit - and sometimes beyond. Keeping the vow, as one monk admits, is 'the single biggest problem most people face'. There has been only one instance in four years of a monk being told to give up his robes because of sexual misconduct, but several people have voluntarily relinquished their vows because they found themselves becoming attached to a member of the opposite sex.

Russell Murdoch gave up his robes a year ago after falling in love with a girl who was staying at Samye Ling. 'I'd been celibate for almost three years,' he says. 'The first year was easy - it was almost a respite from the worries of having a relationship. The second year I felt I was really beginning to understand myself in a big way. Then I fell head over heels in love. After three years it just exploded in my head. At that stage, the sight of an ankle is enough.'

When he told Lama Yeshe what had happened, says Russell, 'he just laughed. I felt I was failing him, but he didn't feel that at all. He was very understanding and gentle. He said, "You know it won't last." And he was right. It finished after six months.' Russell now works in Edinburgh as a chef, but he remains a Buddhist.

Michelle Dean says, 'When I became a nun I thought, excellent - a year away from men! This will be brilliant. But it didn't work out like that.'

She is 25 and comes from Norwich where her parents ran a health-food business. All her life, she says, she had been 'looking for something to complete myself'. A magazine article about the Dalai Lama stirred her interest in Tibetan-Buddhism. She started attending meditation classes, then found her way to Samye Ling. 'As soon as I walked in I knew that becoming a nun was the right thing to do.' She was ordained within a matter of weeks, with half a dozen other young novices. 'It was so strange. We got up that morning and we were just normal people, and by midday we were monks and nuns. We were getting a bit hysterical in the toilets beforehand - oh no, what am I doing? But it was a very happy time.'

After two months, Michelle began to think she could remain a nun for the rest of her life. 'I loved the discipline it imposed,' she says - the early morning prayers, meditation, prostrations. 'At one point I was doing 200 prostrations a day until I hurt my back. I felt euphoric. But it becomes harder. Your problems don't disappear when you're a nun, they come up twice as big and smack you round the face.'

She had been a nun for five months when she found herself becoming attracted to a man who was living at Samye Ling as a lay-person.

'It was the one thing I never thought would happen. We were both determined to be good, not to let it get out of hand. But I'd keep getting told off for talking to him. It was absolute hell for five months, until he left the community. By that time I'd decided to finish the year, then give the relationship a go. I knew if I stayed I'd regret passing up the chance of maybe meeting my soul mate, and all the other romantic things you think about all the time when you're in robes and can do nothing about.'

Nine months ago, Michelle gave up her vows, left Samye Ling and moved to Edinburgh to live with her electrician boyfriend. Being a nun for a year, she says, 'was like having a sabbatical. It was taking a year out to think "what do I want to do with my life?" It was definitely the best thing I ever did, and I couldn't have gone back to what I was doing before because something profound has changed in me.' She now works in a gift-shop and is about to start a course in midwifery. She and her boyfriend are very happy together, she says, 'But I've told him, if it doesn't work out, I'll go back. And I will.'

Half a mile from Samye Ling is the retreat centre, a small complex of single-storey buildings, divided into single rooms, each containing only a chest of drawers and a 'meditation box' - large enough for someone to sit in cross-legged.

The rituals of monastic life are a preparation for the mental rigors of contemplative retreat, in which up to 16 hours a day are spent in silent, solitary meditation. Earlier this year, some 25 monks and nuns emerged from the centre after a retreat lasting three years. Some last as long as 12 years. 'You come to know yourself extremely well in that time,' says one monk drily.

Buddhists believe in reincarnation. The asceticism of the monastic life, the weeks, months and years spent in silent contemplation, are not regarded simply as an end in themselves, but as the means towards a propitious rebirth.

The living model of this aspiration is a 12-year-old 'living Buddha', the Karmapa, who, it is believed, has reincarnated 17 times to assume his position as the spiritual figurehead of the Kagyu lineage, of which Samye Ling is a part.

The Karmapa now lives in a monastery in Tibet. His picture is found in the temple, the dining-room, and on personal shrines in the rooms of each monk and nun at Samye Ling - a small boy dressed in lavish gold robes, staring into the camera with an expression of disconcerting authority.

It was on a holiday in Nepal that Ani Chodrun first saw a photograph of the Karmapa. 'I wasn't a Buddhist. I didn't know anything about Buddhism. But as soon as I saw it I just knew that that is what I'd been looking for.' It was the first step on a path that would lead her, three years later, to Samye Ling.

Ani Chodrun sits in the dining-room, her prayer beads playing between her fingers as she talks. It is the last meal of the day: soup, bread and whatever salad and vegetables are left over from lunch. Ani Chodrun is accustomed to media attention. As Beki Adam, she used to present the BBC television motoring programme, Top Gear. 'It was the classic Eighties lifestyle,' she remembers. 'Ambition, money, fast cars. By conventional standards, people might think I was a great success, but there was always a bit of a defiance in me to make things totally unconventional.'

The turning-point came on camera, presenting an item about the Chevrolet Corvette. 'I asked the guy, "From an environmental point of view," and he gave me an odd look and said, "Well, it's a strange thing to ask about a sports car." And I just thought, yeah, well that's the end of that.'

Leaving Top Gear, she became interested in environmental issues, and the campaign to legalise marijuana. To draw attention to the campaign, she opened a coffee-shop in Brighton and notified the police that she was selling hash-cakes; they obliged by closing the cafe down after 57 minutes.

Ani Chodrun does not talk about this - I found it later in the press clippings. When she first came to Samye Ling, she says, Lama Yeshe offered her some gentle advice. 'Just try not to talk about yourself so much,' and she has taken the words to heart. Looking back on her life, Ani Chodrun reflects, 'I was trying to change the world, without looking at how I needed to change.' She arrived at Samye Ling in 1993, and 'I immediately knew - I'm home. There was a whole community of people who felt exactly the way I did.' Within two days of arriving she had decided to take orders for a year. 'It was almost an intellectual exercise,' she says. 'I'd been a journalist, and it was research, if you like. I just wondered what it would be like to stop for a year. And there was the thought, if the Karmapa can do this for 17 lifetimes, the least I can do is one year of one lifetime.

'If somebody had told me then that I'd end up taking vows for life I probably wouldn't have taken them at all. But you can't get involved with starting to look at your mind without doing it properly, and when you start you see problems you didn't even know were there.' Her first year was fraught with difficulty. 'I was very angry all the time. I had a lot of things from the past weighing on my mind that I had to work through.' When she took orders, there was a flurry of press interest - TV Girl Beki Changes Gear. She kept the press-clippings in a chest of drawers in her room, along with photographs and letters, mementos of her earlier life.

One day she left a candle burning on the shrine in her room. It caused a fire, which destroyed the chest of drawers, the press-clippings, the letters. 'I was distraught, and everybody else was sympathetic, but Lama Yeshe came up to me next morning and simply said, "You sort your head out," and walked off. It was just the most accurate and compassionate thing that anybody could have said.' At the end of her first year, she took vows for a further three. Now she has taken vows for life.

Around us, plates are cleared, tables wiped clean. For the next hour-and-a-half there will be prayer, the last of the day. By 9pm the monastery is silent. The beads click between Ani Chodrun's fingers.

Being a nun, she says, is like being in a relationship. 'You can do a year without properly giving yourself to it, in the knowledge that you can walk out if you want to. When it came to taking life vows it was like the prospect of marriage. I had this little voice in my head saying, "No, no, I want my freedom." But it was just my ego talking. Right after I'd taken life vows I felt joyously, shiningly happy.'

She smiles to herself. 'After I'd taken the vows, I asked the lama who had given them to me, "This is just for one life, isn't it?" I didn't want to get myself into anything that goes beyond that. But he said, the vows finish when your body finishes. That put it into perspective for me: it's just one life. That's not so long, is it?'


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