True path from
Tibet to... Eskdalemuir
By CLAIRE SMITH
FORTY years ago a
young Tibetan man arrived at the village of Eskdalemuir in
Dumfriesshire. A friend had driven him from Oxford in an old wreck
of a car, and when they reached the church the engine packed up,
never to start again. The young Akong Rinpoche finished the
journey on foot to the hunting lodge which was to become the first
Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the west.
Akong Rinpoche was
only 28, but he had already lived an extraordinary life. Taken
from his parents at the age of three, he had been declared a tulku,
or reincarnated lama, and was raised in a monastery in a remote
region of Tibet. In 1959 he was among a group of 300 who had
decided to escape Tibet and flee to India - but many died of cold
and hunger and only 13 of the refugees survived the journey.
made it to Britain, and by 1967 had been living in Oxford with
fellow tulku Chogyam Trungpa for four years. Times were hard: the
two refugees lived on Akong's wage as a hospital porter.
On that cold,
frosty day in January 1967 things were about to change, Akong had
set out to visit Johnstone House in Eskdalemuir, which had been
offered to the two Tibetans to use as a centre.
The place was to
become Samye Ling, the first Buddhist monastery in Europe,
frequented in the early years by David Bowie and Leonard Cohen
during the hippie era. As well as a spiritual centre this remote
corner of the Scottish Borders would become a tourist destination,
a place of education and healing and a fundraising centre for
humanitarian projects worldwide. In 1992 the Buddhists bought Holy
Island, off Arran, which is being developed as a centre for world
peace under the auspices of Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, Akong's brother.
complex that now stands in the grounds of Johnstone House has had
an extraordinary history - as befits a place whose name means "the
land of the wishing place".
And yet, when Akong
Rinpoche first arrived in Scotland he was, as he describes it, "a
beggar, who came with a walking stick and a begging bowl".
"When we came to
buy this place it cost £3,500, which was a lot of money in 1967.
At that time we had between us, Trungpa and myself, £50. But in my
experience if you keep doing things, money always comes. If you
make a budget first it never works."
Akong Rinpoche and
Chogyam Trungpa had experienced great hardship since leaving
Tibet. After a stint in Delhi, where they helped run a school for
young lamas, Trungpa was invited to go to Oxford to study. Akong
Rinpoche, who was a trained Tibetan doctor and who as a
reincarnated lama had been treated like a prince all his life,
worked as a hospital porter to support them both.
"For the first
three years we didn't have enough food. My wage paid for a bed and
breakfast, we bought the cheapest food and we often didn't have
the money for electricity." Gradually followers began to gather
around the two young Tibetans and in 1966 they received an
intriguing offer, the opportunity to buy a Buddhist centre in
Scotland, owned at that time by the Anandabohdi group, which was
relocating to Canada.
Of those early days
Akong Rinpoche says: "We didn't have so much spiritual activity -
we had hippies." Unexpectedly, this remote corner of Dumfriesshire
became one of the first great places of hippie pilgrimage.
Eskdalemuir still talk about running into John Lennon and Yoko Ono
strolling on the paths around Johnstone House. Leonard Cohen lived
nearby for several months and David Bowie seriously considered
becoming a monk when he went there.
Much of the
excitement centred around Trungpa, who threw himself into the
hippie lifestyle with wild abandon, but was also an extraordinary
scholar and writer. After a series of wild escapades, which
included crashing a sports car into a joke shop, he ultimately
decided Scotland was not for him and decamped to America.
During that time,
Akong Rinpoche says he was mostly "making the beds and digging the
garden". But when Trungpa fled, Akong Rinpoche found himself the
director of Samye Ling. People approached him for advice on
meditation, lifestyle and health, yet Akong was a reluctant guru.
there was a degree of suspicion and resentment among the local
community. "Some local people did not want to accept us. They
thought we were doing some kind of black magic. It upset me
because we always tried to do positive things and not do any harm.
Buddhism teaches love and compassion.
"Now people accept
us, but in the early days it was difficult. We had been pushed out
of our own country and now other people [were trying] to push us
The 1970s became an
extraordinary period of spiritual activity at Samye Ling.
teachers came, because we were the biggest centre. Because we were
the first, people stayed for weeks and months. Nowadays there are
so many centres that is almost impossible."
At Samye Ling, the
1980s were dominated by the building of a Tibetan-style temple,
the first ever to be constructed outside Tibet, India and Nepal.
At the time the Samye Ling community numbered around 200, and
everyone was expected to lend a hand with the building. According
to one account the first anyone knew of Akong's plans was when he
called everyone to a meeting, held up a spade, and said: "We are
going to build a temple. Starting now."
When it was near to
completion, the temple was visited by the Dalai Lama himself, who
gave the first teaching in a building that was still covered in
scaffolding and tarpaulin.
On 8 August, 1988,
the temple was officially opened by the then Social
Democrat/Liberal politician David Steel, and a high-ranking
Tibetan lama called Tai Situpa.
Steel, who lives just across the valley from Samye Ling, has been
a friend of the temple since its very early days.
He says: "I
remember the first time the Dalai Lama came; it was the beginning
of May and there was snow on the hills. I told him it had been
laid on to make him feel at home.
"One of the nice
things about Samye Ling is they have always made a point of
inviting people from the established religions in Scotland. I have
met the Cardinal there, and the moderator of the Church of
"In terms of the
Borders it has become a major tourist attraction. In the early
days they were responsible for saving the local school: at one
point the majority of children in Eskdalemuir were Tibetan."
hairdresser Charlie Miller, who first came to Eskdalemuir 39 years
ago as a "spiritual nomad" looking for "a guy called Sammy Ling",
believes the centre has made a wonderful contribution to Scotland.
"Scotland has been
really good to Samye Ling, but Samye Ling has also enriched
Scotland. It's an extraordinary place. I have never walked away
from it without feeling [some] benefit."
McCarthy, who was born in New York and now owns three gift shops
around the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, lived at Samye Ling for ten
years and raised £1.25 million for the Holy Island Project.
"I went there as a
war-wounded Vietnam veteran, agoraphobic and very anxious. Akong
Rinpoche turned me into a useful member of society: after ten
years he kicked me out and told me to go and do something useful."
McCarthy is now leading the campaign to establish a Tibetan Centre
in Edinburgh's Blackfriars Street.
While everyone has
their own Samye Ling story, for Akong Rinpoche the big achievement
has been the connections around the world.
"A lot has been
achieved on an international level. This centre is accepted as an
example in other parts of the world." There are now outposts of
Samye Ling, known as Samye Dzong, in 28 countries from South
Africa to Switzerland.
Since 1990 Akong
Rinpoche has been mostly occupied with charity work in Tibet.
Working to protect Tibetan language and culture, the charity Rokpa
has trained hundreds of doctors and teachers, many of whom are
orphans or who come from nomad families.
recent visit to his home monastery of Dolma Lhakong, after a gap
of 11 years, 10,000 people came to ask him for a blessing, many of
them walking for three days across the mountains to be touched on
And yet he still
finds time for his friends in Scotland. Last month, on the first
day of the Tibetan year of the female fire pig, Rinpoche
officiated at a grand new year's party, at which his own extended
family, children and grandchildren, plus around 500 people, sang
Auld Lang Syne and Happy Birthday Samye Ling.
After the party
Rinpoche unveiled a surprise - the new Samye Ling tartan - in
subtle shades of red for monks and nuns, and vibrant yellow, red
and blue for the lay people.
A former monk asked
him: "Rinpoche, does that mean that we are a clan and you are the
head of the clan?"
To celebrate the
fortieth anniversary of Samye Ling, Akong Rinpoche will be touring
centres around the world. He will be visiting Edinburgh from 15-18
On 16 March he will
perform a traditional Medicine Buddha ceremony at the Royal
College of Physicians, open to all.
Cohen lived at
Garvald, a house near to Samye Ling, for several months. He went
on to become a student of Zen.
John Lennon and
Yoko Ono came to Samye Ling when it was a destination on the
hippie trail. Charlotte Rampling, Susan Hampshire and the
Incredible String Band also stopped by in the late Sixties.
In 1969 David Bowie
spent a lot of time at Samye Ling. According to various
biographies he seriously considered becoming a thin white monk,
but opted for pop stardom instead.
Became a supporter
of Rokpa after reading a magazine article about it. She donated
her £10,000 earnings from a concert in Los Angeles and matched it
with another £10,000 to support the group's work in Tibet.
In 1994 the Big Yin
presented prizes to winners of a competition to design the retreat
centre on Holy Island at St Mungo's Museum. When he launched his
own fundraising project, Tickety Boo Tea, he pledged a share of
the profits to Rokpa.
The Buddhists at
Samye Ling are members of the Karma Kagyu school, which is one of
four main schools of Buddhism in Tibet.
The Dalai Lama is
the head of the Gelugpa School, as well as the head of the Tibetan
government in exile.
Head of the Karma
Kagyu school is the 21-year-old Karmapa, who made headlines around
the world when he escaped Tibet in 1999.
The Karmapa Urgyen
Trinley Dorje has so far been unable to leave India, but he is
expected to travel to the west, most probably to America, this
year. It is hoped he will be able to visit Eskdalemuir very soon.
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