Samye Ling Monastery, Eskdalemuir, Scotland
Dumfries And Galloway, UK
Telling people about Kagyu Samye Ling Tibetan Monastery and Buddhist Centre is one of those things I can always rely on to make them look at me as though I've finally lost the plot. Not in a million years would it occur to anyone that there might be an authentic Tibetan Buddhist retreat hidden away in the lowlands of Scotland rather than perched precariously with several goats on a mountaintop in the Himalayas - but the more you think about it, the more obvious it seems that such a place would fit right in there, surrounded by wide plains, ravines and ridiculously mountainous hills which only fail to call themselves mountains for fear of annoying the highlands to the north. You couldn't get further away from the hustle and bustle of a busy city life without actually getting on a rocketship and going to Mars.
Every morning, the silence is broken at first light by the shrill calls of the peacocks which roam the grounds. If you're not expecting it, or you've never had the pleasure of having a peacock announce the dawn outside your window before, this is guaranteed to scare the willies out of you and really set you up for the day. Shortly afterwards, a single gong begins to call the monks to morning prayer, and shrouded figures move silently across the courtyard as the Scottish mist lifts around them. I pretty much wanted to just forget work, get in the car and drive to Scotland the moment I heard about the place...
My first of many visits to Samye Ling offered a welcome break from the busy life down south, even if the experience did seem slightly surreal at first. When I checked into my single room in the dormitory block, I had to take my shoes off and leave them on a rack in the lobby, and then found a freshly folded pair of pyjamas waiting for me on my pillow and a dressing gown in the closet. The bed, closet and sink were just about all that fit into the room, but you can't expect the ritz when your getting away from it all. The bed was comfortable enough, but every ten minutes or so throughout the night, a single goat somewhere nearby would bleat loudly just to let me know that it hadn't gone anywhere and to make sure none of the monks actually got to sleep and forgot to get up for morning prayers. Anywhere else, there would have been a stern warning sign in my room telling me not to smoke. Here, there was no mention of smoking at all. Instead, a small laminated card on my pillow advised me not to light any candles or incense in the room in case I set off the fire alarm!
I walked around the peace garden on arrival in an anticlockwise direction, until I came quite suddenly upon a sign signed by the lama telling me that it was considered beneficial and respectful to only walk around the garden in a clockwise direction, so I immediately did so twice in order to restore balance to the universe.
There is 24 hour free tea in the tea room, and an adjoining library from which visitors can borrow books to take back to their room, but they didn't seem to have the latest Stephen king among the many tomes about the wisdom of Buddha, so I studied a few of those instead and found them to be far more enlightening than Mr King could ever hope to be. When I got up early in the morning to watch the monks go in to morning prayer and to wander around the peace garden in the correct direction, rabbits happily hopped over to see what I was all about, having probably never seen a human with hair before. Neither they nor the peacocks which strutted about everywhere seemed at all bothered by people, but then I suppose Samye Ling probably isn't the most dangerous place for an animal to live. In the middle of the garden, the Prayer tree allowed me to hang a cloth over one of the branches and make a wish, inserting my donation into an adjoining box. A small scrap of paper had been stuck to it which read: "no foreign currencies, please!". Perhaps not quite as tolerant as they make out, these Buddhists!
I was well aware, throughout my stay, that my shoes seemed to be the only ones in the whole monastery which made any noise. Clicketty clacketty they went whenever I walked anywhere, as monks put on their best smiles and glided silently by. I suspect that buddhists all secretly float an inch off the ground by the power of prayer - either that, or they're all on skates under those flowing habits...
Sitting in the common area in the evening, silently reading a book, I seemed to be joined by not only the monks and nuns but also several of builders who were working on an extension to the temple. In the corner, an improvised prayer wheel consisted of a silver cake tin with mantras engraved upon it, turning silently on the turntable of a record player. Having come here hoping for a little enlightenment, I found myself listening to a rough voiced Glasweigian asking his mate if he'd finished with the Daily Sport, and another trying desperately to come up with an acceptable word for "copulation" in the presence of nuns, to which the best his mate could offer in a loud voice was "doing the horizontal hokey-pokey". When they left, he actually made a point of going up to one of the nuns and apologising for his language to the young woman, adding as she stood in stunned silence: "you know how it is, don't you, darling?".
Sometimes, I think I'm the last sane person left on Earth.
Kagyu Samye Ling welcomes both day visitors and those wishing to stay for longer periods to take part in courses which run throughout the year under the guidance of Abbot Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche. Courses include an introduction to Buddhist teachings, meditation and yoga workshops, and even a course in Tibetan - study terms run from just a few days to more intensive six month courses. For guestswishing to simply stay overnight and get away from it all, dormitories are available for as little as £23 per night and camping facilities for £15 - double and single rooms are also available. For those looking for a spiritual retreat, Kagyu Samye Ling provides a number of options from week long courses to traditional four year retreats. All are welcome to visit and experience the serenity of Samye Ling, whatever you believe, and the monastery has become popular with everyone from devout Buddhists to television personalities and ex-ravers - both David Bowie and Leonard Cohen studied at the centre in the 60s, and Billy Connolly is a regular visitor. Kagyu Samye Ling offers a rare opportunity within Britain to get away from it all and forget the worries of the outside world without having to travel half way around the world, but just make sure you wrap up warmly before visiting, because one thing you can always guarantee about Scotland is the weather...
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.