A journey home

Tue, Jul 9, 2019

Victory Stupa, Samye Ling

In the mid 80s I’d discovered I loved climbing mountains on my own and sitting in the middle of nowhere enjoying the solitude and responsibility of decision my own route to getting there. Mobile phones or GPS didn’t exist and the consequences were of my own making. Not bad for a 16 year old who’s first foray onto a mountain was 4 years previously on Ben More at Crianlarich. Ten years later I discovered John Muir while cycling/sailing round the inner Hebrides and recognised a kindred spirit. The last twenty years have been spent exploring remote places in that spirit and last week I finally found a kindred place where that spirit lives and is kept alive. I went to Samye Ling.

The backstory is really about dealing with decreptitude using yoga. I love it. It keeps me bendy enough to enjoy the outdoors, to keep me enjoying the solitary stravaiging that has characterised my life so far, all of which caused me to start looking into what yoga really is, which led me to Buddhism and then to Samye Ling and the intriguing course on Yoga for Meditation led by Johnny Glover. Looking at the map of the area I noticed the Romans and Reivers Route meandered close, so I decided to go, try it out and enjoy some evening walks to balance everything out.

The Annandale Way near Samye Ling

A stopover in Glasgow on the way down to see my lil’ sis and sons and my oldest pal, Penguin and plan lots more hill days together while putting the world to rights and having a good old middle age moan in the coffee shop. When we first met we worried about finding mates, finding lives, finding meaning. Now we worry about pensions, his kids’ futures, my nephews’ futures, the future of the environment and why is black coffee called Americano!

Purple Cat Cafe, Glasgow

Ingram Steet, Glasgow

A late start the next day, navigate the maze of streets onto the M74 and head south. I stopped at Abingdon among the green hills to get some food and ended up at the Moffat Community Nature Reserve eating my lunch. A beautiful spot of birdsong, plentiful insects, wildflowers and a lake with hides to sit and watch. It was a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors. The roar of the nearby motorway was inhumane though. Surely wildlife has something to teach us of tolerance but perhaps from years with living with pets it’s probably a case of just getting on with it. That’s what they do.

Turning off at Lockerbie and heading across country to Eskdalemuir two things stood out. The endless ranks of conifers stretching from the roadsode to the furred horizon, a monocultural, silent wasteland where the occasional bird sings its lonely song from the brown, dead depths. The other was the regular bloody corpses of kestrels at the roadside. I counted four I think, which was surprising as the road was deserted, except for the afternoon bike gangs, cyclists and locals out for the day. Perhaps it was the logging lorries that took up both lanes that were causing the carnage. Double width ‘unbound’ roads stabbed into the coniferous wastes, announced by signs containing the corporate language of “strategic”, “initiative”, “multiuser” and such other mindless pleonasmic shite.

A few minutes after leaving the nice cafe at Eskdalemuir, refreshed with coffee and carrot cake, I spotted a sign at the foot of the road up to the Purelands Retreat Centre, then a long straight past the community hall, a glimpse of gold in the trees on the right and then the flapping, colourful lines of prayer flags stretching from the Victory Stupa as I arrived at Kagyu Samye Ling. The first Buddhist monastery in the west. Above all, after miles and miles of green conifer deadlands, the colour was the thing I noticed first. It was wonderful.

Victory Stupa, Samye Ling

In the 90s I went with my climbing club in Glasgow to see the film Kundun at the cinema. It changed me in ways I’m only now beginning to discover. The beauty, honesty and integrity of its cast of real people in the mountain environment influenced me in ways I didn’t understand at the time. What I saw slowly began to open new ways of seeing for me. Solitude, contemplation, writing, exploration, living in remote places. Something was added to the gung-ho climbing bum I was back then that is only now maturing into something of a presence that is with me in the mountains. There was something about austere whiteness of mountain summits, continuously moving colourful prayer flags and colourful people at peace in a landscape they loved and revered and cared for as well as the wildlife that called those mountains home. All those elements could be seen in a single shot. All of real life summarised in a single scene. It changed me.

In front of the temple, Samye Ling

That feeling suddently came back the instant I crossed the edge of the grounds and drove at 1mph up the narrow road, under the carved wooden gates, past the temple entrance and the wooden bridge to the White Esk and round to the car park. I switched off the engine, listened to the silence and felt like I’d come home after a long, meandering, confusing journey.

So I suppose I wasn’t coming here out of the blue. Something had been brewing for a few years. The discovery of Chinese mountain poetry, creating a haiku book, becoming more contemplative in my photography, in my writing, in my mountains. Something was stirring and I think it was being channeled by something new I discovered in Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland”, a new word for me, solastalgia. Solastalgia is “environmentally induced distress”. The sight of environmental destruction in areas I used to climb, walk, wander in is painful. The unstoppable hydro roads up almost every glen between Skye and Inverness. The miles of obscene metal fencing going up on both sides of the West Highland Line, currently reaching to the southern end of Rannoch Moor. Where, forever, there has been mossed, lichened ancient wooden posts a danger to nothing. There are now industrial, prison-like metal fences 7 or 8 feet high. It’s obscene. Allow me to share two sights I saw from the train going across Rannoch Moor, each separated by perhaps a decade. On the first, heading north, out in the middle of the moor, I saw a dead deer, up to its belly in peat mud a few feet from the line at the bottom of the embankment. Its head was slumped forward and its nose was buried in the black mud. It had most likely become stuck in the peat, succumbed to cold overnight and lowered its tired neck muscles for the last time. A natural death. The other incident was last month, heading south, just coming off the moor below the slopes of Beinn Achaladair. A deer’s hind leg had become trapped between the top strand of the new fence and the lower mesh, twisting the industrial metal into a trap from which it had hung, upside down, for who knew how long. It was dead. An unnatural, disgusting, human-caused death. It made me sick to my stomach, trying to think of the animal’s last hours, days, weeks?

As yet another climate report goes unnoticed, another football pitch of Amazon rain forest goes under the JCB, another road is driven up another glen, an initiative to curb these environmental degradations is thrown out by the Scottish parliament, at the same time trying to abolish flight duties, I wonder where this stupid little country is headed. These were all the events, thoughts, emotions, worries that had been building over the last few years. I needed another John Muir moment of inspiration, recognition of shared philosophies, empathy with non-human things. As I sat in the car, in the silence, I felt I had found what I didn’t know I was looking for.

Sleeping duck in the pond at Samye Ling

A helping hand at Samye Ling

Over the next three days I followed a fixed routine. Up at six to jackdaws being jackdaws in the tree a foot from my window. To a treecreeper creeping up and down the branches, chaffinches, blackbirds, swallows, housemartins all being what they should be. Ducks bringing up their young in the pond between the temple and the Esk, porridge at seven, “karmic yoga” at eight fifteen (on the second day). We used to call this “doing duties” in youth hostel days. Yoga from ten to twelve thirty, lunch, the main meal of the day, yoga from three to five thirty, soup at six then walks along the river or along the forestry roads up into the hills. A nice cup of coffee in Johnstone House and sit in the library as the sun set, listening to the quiet conversation or the silence of the books. In the late evening it was nice to wander the grounds, hearing the prayer flags flap in the breeze, put my finger in the Stupa pond and let a stranded bee climb aboard, vibrate then preen its translucent wings and let it sit there for a while before putting it in the grass. Back to the pond to rescue a ladybird and a moth. You can’t rescue everything but you can make a difference. We are part of nature after all, not impassive bystanders. We have a part to play, as I wrote of my natural rescues on St. Cuthbert’s Way. At night I could retire to my tiny room and be creative.

Creative in the evening at Samye Ling

On the Saturday, after two sessions of yoga, meditation and the experience of yoga nidra I felt different. Coming out of a conscious sleeping experience it was difficult to control my emotions. I walked off, up the track opposite the monastery, up onto the logging road and up to Mucklehead Knowe in a vast silence of conifers. A single bird called alone from the depths but the ditches were alive with wildflowers. Welsh poppies, pignut, yarrow, speedwell, multitudinous colours along the sides of the desert landscape of the road. I was seeing more. I was noticing more. I was being more. I walked at snail’s pace. I felt more alive then I’d felt in a long time. Three hours slipped by as I looked, touched, felt, lived. At half past seven the light changed, changed to the handover where it no longer comes from the sky but from the rocks. The light you see high in the Cairngorms in the evening when the rocks take over the job of the sun in producing light, until they fade to dusk and sleep. A deep calm descended on the landscape. Or was it coming from me? Was something finally emerging from a solastalgic soul?

Victory Stupa, Samye Ling

On returning to the monastery I made a cup of tea in the original stone house, sat in the library for a while then wandered round the pond as the sun dropped behind the low hills on the other side of the deserted road. I walked slowly, ever so slowly, mindfully round the pond again and again until the breeze dropped to nothing, the sun disappeared, the golden spire on the stupa no longer shone and the prayer flags settled to stillness. Then a hare came out of the long grass and we looked at each other for what seemed an eternity. It said it was a hare. I agreed and we both agreed it should be allowed to be a hare. To live like a hare. For without the hare, to stand for all wild things, there is no point to having a planet.

Preayer flags on The Fairy Hill at Samye Ling

The encounter with the hare summed up my experience at Samye Ling. There is life beyond the machine that human life has become and we have such an important responsibility to live that life. The whole existence, philosophy, guiding principles of Samye Ling are geared to doing just that. I’m not religious. My monastery has always been the land of mountains and remote places but during our meditation sessions, the guidance we received, I recognised feelings, experiences, emotions I’d felt when in the mountains as a young man, on my own. On the summit of Sgiath Chuil on a windless, soundless evening when I could have stretched, layed my head on Ben Lawers and run my fingers along the undulating horizon, become a mountain, become something mountains live in. It was a profound experience at the time and now I realise where it came from. My walk after that long day of yoga and meditation felt like lots of different parts of me, all living independant lives, being brought together by something I still don’t fully understand but truly appreciate the chance to experience.

Outside the Victory Stupa, Samye Ling

There are arguments, of course, of the relevance of places such as Samye Ling. Middle class, well-off, plenty time to spare but that’s missing the point. Places such as Samye Ling show there is an alternative to the life most people in the west lead. Obsessed with, addicted to, enamoured of, self image. Where the environment is “renewable” in terms of exploitation. It can be exploited over and over with no apparent ill effects. Look into how wind turbines are made, where the raw materials come from, how they reach the manufacturer to divest yourself of that ignorant attitude. Places such as Samye Ling are universities of the environment, with no tuition fees. You don’t need to go on a course, although they are affordable as is the accommodation and food, which is mostly grown in the grounds and is vegetarian. You can visit during the day, wander the grounds in the evening, sense a little of the peace of people who are truly in tune with the natural world and over time, take that philosophy out with you, into your own world. The monks and nuns of Samye Ling are fortunate in that they are able to live like that but we are also fortunate in that we have access to the philosophy and knowledge that such lives produce. It doesn’t have to be the way the increasingly selfish, mindless, greedy, obnoxious, odious politicians say it must be. There is another way. Go to places such as Samye Ling and experience that other way. It may answer lots of questions you didn’t know you had.

I’ll finish with some beautiful handpan music by my tutor, Johnny Glover and a radical thought. For what is life without dreams, imagination and hope? As the “owners” of Cairngorm mountain argue over installing zipwires, theme parks, entertainment for the masses, producing fake snow, instead, do something different. Clear up the mess, close the ski complexes, turn them into Buddhist monasteries where colour flaps in the mountain winds. Where people can go to learn to truly live in harmony with nature. Do this and, to return to John Muir, “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad”.

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