My apologies for two inaccuracies in the title of this entry. Firstly, the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Buddhist Centre isn’t really in the Scottish Borders. It’s a few miles past the border of the, er, Borders, in the Eskdalemuir valley in Dumfries and Galloway region. Mind you, nearly every time I’ve heard someone describe the place, they’ve called it ‘that Buddhist retreat in the Borders’, so I think we Borderers can almost claim it from our neighbours in southwest Scotland.
Secondly, of course, there’s nothing strange about the Buddhist religion. What is a little strange, however, is the incongruous sight presented by a traditional Tibetan Buddhist temple standing in the midst of some very Scottish-looking hills, fields and forestry. (The centre, it should be said, consists of much more than the temple – it also contains a college, library and museum dedicated to the preservation of Tibet’s religion, culture, medicine, architecture and arts and crafts.) Actually, located a little way south of Kagyu Samye Ling, down the B709 road towards Langholm, are some relics from Scotland’s own religion and culture in the distant past, two 4000-year-old stone circles called the Loupin’ and Girdle Stanes.
Kagyu Samye Ling was established in 1967. Helping to found it was the remarkable Dr Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who’d fled his homeland in 1959, during the turmoil of the Tibetan Uprising that erupted after eight years of Chinese rule. He was a member of a group who spent ten months crossing the Himalayas in the hope of finding sanctuary in north-west India. The group had supposedly been 300-strong when it set out. By the time they got to their destination, and after cold and hunger had taken their toll, the number had been whittled down to just 13, of whom Akong Tulku Rinpoche was one. Later, in 1963, he arrived in Britain to study English at Oxford University and he worked as an orderly in a local hospital to support himself.
At the time of its inception Kagyu Samye Ling was based in a small country house in Eskdalemuir, but it has gradually expanded. The temple, constructed with modern materials but using traditional Tibetan Buddhist architecture for its design, was finally completed in 1988. The building of the temple was entirely carried out by volunteers. Nowadays, the centre operates as a retreat providing study and mediation to visitors, and it also offers workshops and courses in a Buddhist system of psychotherapy devised by Akong Tulku Rinpoche himself. It also concerns itself with charitable work, which is carried out on its behalf by an organisation called ROKPA International – ‘rokpa’ is a Tibetan word meaning ‘help’. It has involvement in over 150 projects in Tibet, as well as in projects in Britain, Nepal and Africa.
My single visit to Kagyu Samye Ling occurred one dreich autumn’s day a few years ago and my needs were physical rather than mental or spiritual. I was cycling up the B709 from Langholm and was heading in the direction of – still distant – Peebles. I stopped off at the centre’s Tibetan tea room and, in my weary and chilled condition, I was massively thankful for the mug of steaming-hot Horlicks that the lady there served me. I also took a walk around the grounds and snapped a couple of photographs, which I’ve used to illustrate this blog-entry.
I’m afraid that there’s a sad note to all of this. A couple of days ago, word came through of Dr Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s assassination in the city of Chenghu in south-west China. Police there claim that he, his nephew and his driver were stabbed to death by three assailants in ‘a dispute about money’. The Free Tibet Campaign have declined to comment on his death until more information about it is made public – though I have to say that it sounds very dodgy. Here’s a link to Akong Tulku Rinpoche’s obituary in The Scotsman newspaper: