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Buddhism in Scotland

True path from Tibet to... Eskdalemuir

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.

Akong eventually 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.

The monastery 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.

Farmers in 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.

Unsurprisingly, 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 out."

The 1970s became an extraordinary period of spiritual activity at Samye Ling.

"Many great 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.

Fife-born Lord 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 Scotland.

"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."

Top Scottish 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."

Businessman Thom 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.

On Rinpoche's 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 the head.

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 March.

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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