It’s absolutely calm. The mist hangs on the surface of the sea. It feels as though Charon, the boatman is transporting me over the Styx to Hades. The tranquillity is disturbed only by the thrub of the boat’s slowing motor as the shore appears. At last the sun forces its way through the heavy haar.
Eight unearthly white objects, gold-topped, with pennants ragged in the wind, seem to float into view from the shingle. An incongruous welcome party in this most Scottish of landscapes. I have stepped from the boat on to Holy Island, lying in Lamlash Bay off the East coast of Arran. Here you will find an interfaith retreat called the World Peace Centre, this enterprise run by the Samye Ling Monastery welcomes guests retreating from the madding crowds of busy urban life to begin a journey of self-discovery.
Right now, with global focus on the unremitting misery of war, a bit of repose wouldn’t go amiss. Everywhere you turn, every minute of television and column inch of newspaper is dedicated to conflict. It could almost be happening at the end of the street; so familiar are those broken streets of Ukraine.
As the struggle between nations, cultures, faiths and ideologies is played out on our planet, life becomes more and more weighed down with the absence of consolation. And it’s at times like this, more than ever, that a moment of reflection is in order. Time to retreat from the affray of world politics. Time to look for inner peace.
Of course, in Scotland it’s easy getting solitary in the unending theme park of wilderness. Nowhere else in Europe is kicking back and forgetting the rest of the world so simple. But sometimes in order to be lasting and effective, our time of reflection and consideration has to be more structured. When we disappear from the stress of our acquisitive and intense modern lifestyles, we might need to find somewhere where we can truly dispense with the trappings of it all and adopt an altogether more humble, simpler structure for our day.
This is certainly true of the Buddhist retreats in Scotland. Driving over the Vale of Ettrick towards Eskdalemuir in Dumfriesshire, the last thing you expect to come across is the ornate gilded pagoda roof of the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery of Samye Ling. The shock of colours is a surprise against the relentless dun of moorland.
Lama Akong Kulku Rinpoche founded the monastery in 1967. Having escaped the persecution of the Chinese, he decided to build the first lamisary outside Tibet. Here of all places. Apparently the landscape reminded him of his homeland. The temple has taken over twenty years to build. Brick by brick it was constructed by western Buddhists, lamas and master craftsmen from Tibet.
Here you’ll find a long tradition of retreat. Once the farmhouse at the centre of the monastery complex became too small, Samye Ling built a larger modern building nearer the river to accommodate guests. It’s basic. The rooms are spartan with no frills but that’s the point. It’s about refocusing and relinquishing the accoutrements of the day to day life that we’re used to.
The monastery day tends to revolve around the timetable of the temple. And the prayers at dawn are an important moment of grounding. You imagine you might feel self-conscious but are soon immersed in the low liturgy of Tibetan tradition, as the monks utter their growling prayers, interspersed with sharp ringing of bells. The smell of incense rises and the vibrant murals and devotional altars are a delicate backdrop to this ethereal experience.
The meditation sessions are the same – even without practice. Looking within isn’t always easy. But having a bash might improve your chances of furnishing yourself with some more permanent and lasting adornments than most of our urbane and materialistic lives can sustain. That’s the idea anyway. Sure it’s tempting to pop off down to the local pub, after the evening prayers finish at 8pm. But in the end just sitting in your room with a book from the library or out in the garden listening to the wind chimes and the prayer flags flapping in the wind is rewarding in itself. The magnificent Stupa, its surroundings lit by butterlamps, will transport you into an enchanted world, far from the jingoism and oppression of war.
It’s possible to turn up and just stay a night or two, joining in the parts of the daily ritual that appeal. Otherwise you can join a group at Purelands, a larger house on the hill behind, where you can embark on longer retreats. When staying at Samye Ling you’ll be asked to help wash up, serve food or work in the garden. It’s an opportunity to break down the inhibitions and reticence. And talking to the others staying will give you an idea of the range of people who come here. Not all are Buddhists, while others may be taking monastic orders or have come from all across the world to learn from the teachings of the lamas. Whatever your experience you’ll be edified. And the only thing you are asked to respect are the 'Five Golden Rules'. These seem pretty obvious for a couple of nights stay in a monastery. No killing, lying, stealing, smoking, drinking or opportunistic sexual encounters. Hardly unreasonable requests in a spiritual sanctuary.
Samye Ling offers organised courses in things like meditation, yoga, Buddhism for beginners and Tibetan medicine. Tulku Rinpoche and Lama Yeshe Losal the monastery’s Abbot also instruct a self-healing technique called ‘Taming the Tiger’. Rinpoche believes that if we perceive the world in an unclear way, confusion and suffering result, ‘It is like someone with defective vision seeing the world as being upside down, or a fearful person finding everything frightening’, states the Lama. ‘The mind can be compared to a wild tiger, rampaging through our daily lives. Motivated by desire, hatred and bewilderment this untamed mind blindly pursues what it wants and lashes out at all that stands in its way, with little or no understanding of the way things really are.’ Sound familiar? There are a few world leaders who would benefit from a weekend under the lama’s tutelage soon enough.
Even a few days of abstinence and contemplation can be a struggle for those of us who would normally thrive on the indulgences and stimuli of western life. But the really serious stuff goes on in the closed retreats. Thirty years ago, Yeshe Losal put in an offer for Holy Island. One of his plans was to set up a closed retreat. This is not for the faint-hearted. People from all over the world embark on a retreats lasting three years, three months and three days. During this time they have no contact with the outside world except a caretaker, doctor and the Abbot himself.
The story behind the purchase of Holy Island is a miracle in itself. ‘At the time the owner had wanted £3/4 million for the island but she had a vision from the Virgin Mary. She was instructed to sell the island for peace and meditation’, recounts Losal. So the abbot was able to buy it for half the selling price. His vision, now realised, has been to set up an international centre for peace where people of all religions can find refuge.
Establishing the World Peace Centre here added to a long history of pilgrimage and retreat for the island. For many centuries people made the journey to ‘The Holy Isle’. It was originally associated with a Celtic Christian, Saint Molaise, who is believed to have lived in a cave in the sixth century. There is certainly evidence of a monastic community on the island and it is thought that pilgrims have found hospitality there for seven hundred years. According to tradition, the people of Arran have always had a special regard for the island as a place of therapeutic qualities. And the water of St Molaise’s well is thought to have healing properties.
The Centre has been built around the original farmhouse with two wings and a central courtyard behind, where the vast Elephant stone channels the energies. It can accommodate up to 50 people and the same house rules will apply as Samye Ling. Again, the rooms are basic but warm and comfortable, floored in French chestnut and panelled in Red Cedar. And some have aspects over the bay that could just change your view of life forever.
The whole place has a serene, self-containment about it. All the food is grown on the island and prepared in the kitchens. A small peace garden was designed based on the Celtic cross and the Mandala. In Tibetan Buddhism, a Mandala is an imaginary palace that is contemplated during meditation. Each object in the palace has significance, representing some aspect of wisdom or reminding the meditator of a guiding principle.
The World Peace Centre is Britain’s first large residential building designed entirely around long term ecological strategies for sustainable living. The island itself which has a small herd of nine wild Eriskay ponies, wild Soay sheep and goats, is proving the perfect place to set environmental precedents. A major theme is the re-establishment of woodland and protection of rare plants such as the relic population of Rock Whitebeam. Thousands of native trees were planted and the drystane dykes have been replaced. As well as his calling as a spiritual leader, Abbot Loshal, who comes from a nation of six million Buddhists, is a pragmatist. He has thought of everything. Even the water supply for the Centre goes through an ultra-violet purification system and the sewage is filtered through natural reed beds.
The designs for retreats in the hillside incorporate completely environment enhancing and ecologically sound habitations set into the ground. The plans for these were created by Andrew Wright; a protégé of Pompidou Centre architect Richard Rogers and winner of Young Architect of the Year in 2000.
On the shore of Holy Island in front of the Centre, the eight white stupas backed with brightly coloured prayer flags stand like sentries on the beach. They are monuments, symbolizing the mind of the Enlightened Buddha and are intended to help maintain peace and good will. An anniversary, he says smiling sagely, he’d prefer to remember. Returning to the world across the bay, an upright pole stands at the head of the jetty. Written in Tibetan, Gaelic and English a blessing goes with you, ‘May peace prevail’.