Travel: Zen and the art of a good day out

Discover the mellow side of Glasgow with a trail of the unexpected into the hip heart of the city.
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The Independent Culture
Zen has famously been associated with many things; meditation, China, Japan and motorcycle maintenance to name just a few. With roots in Buddhism and Buddha's teachings, it is not often linked with Glasgow but a walk through the Scottish city is a Zen-seeker's nirvana.

A good place to start your walk is the Insomnia Cafe at 38-42 Woodlands Road, on the western edge of the city centre. Bizarrely decorated with salvaged wooden tables and utility chairs, and with two old baths acting as goldfish tank and plant pot respectively, the place is (as the Americans say) 24-7 - it never closes, a definite boon for anyone getting up at 4am on a Zen retreat. Amid the clutter, the cafe serves all kinds of teas, coffees and cakes and, for those who adhere to a strict Buddhist diet, you can even order vegetarian haggis.

Stomach full, begin "walking meditation" with a stroll to the Botanic Gardens. Here, practice "just sitting" meditation under the ornate ironwork and tropical leaves of the steamy Kibble Palace. While you're there, look out for the Spear Lily from Queensland, Australia. It has recently started flowering for the first time in 40 years. Wierd.

Leave the Botanic Gardens and walk past Hillhead's elegant houses to Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. Here you'll find the stone head of Bodhisattva from a Chinese Buddhist temple. Probably dating from the Yuan Dynasty (AD1279-1368), it is believed that it represents Kuan-yin, one of four celestial Bodhisattvas and one which presides over water and symbolises mercy, both important Zen qualities. Another reason to visit the museum now is that it is hosting an exhibition of Frank Lloyd Wright's designs for the Living City; Glasgow says so long to the architect on 11 April.

On your way back into town, stop for lunch at Air Organic (36 Kelvingrove Street, 0141-564 5200), a light, white restaurant where much of the menu is organic and vegetarian. Eat at one of the ultra-modern tables or get a bento box to take with you to the Glasgow Buddhist Centre at 329 Sauchiehall Street (0141-333 0524). Open from 10am to 4pm, it organises meditation classes and retreats.

Further along Sauchiehall Street, at number 217, you'll come to the Willow Tea Rooms (0141-332 0521), designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh and an oasis of elegance stranded between Houseworks and a closed down branch of The Sweater Shop. If you're feeling thirsty, take time out for a little tea ceremony and switch off from the conversations around you, protected by graceful Mackintosh-designed high-backed chairs.

There's a chance that the streets may be less busy this afternoon at least, with most of Scotland's attention being focused on the rugby international against Ireland being played over on the other side of the country at Murrayfield, Edinburgh. Enjoy the space as you ebb towards the Gallery of Modern Art, its four floors each named after an element, and stop to catch your breath in the Air Gallery. Higher up, in the Water Gallery, there's a chance to meditate in front of Bridget Riley's Punjab painting. The red, white, blue and green stripes that "appear to rise like heat waves in a desert" certainly appear calming - either that or they just make your eyes go funny.

Fully meditated, exercise your mind at 98 Buchanan Street at Scotland's only branch of Borders. Browse through the shelves of books on Zen (try Thorson's Principles of Zen by Martine Batchelor, pounds 5.99) or just sit in the cafe and listen to the live music.

Almost opposite Borders, at 147 Buchanan Street, is a branch of The Pier. It's "Zen" dining chairs and table are probably not much use to those seeking a simple life but it also stocks "Zen" candle holders (from pounds 9.95) and simple mats (pounds 19.95) to ease your meditation practise.

Further down Buchanan Street is Princes Square, a glamorous shopping centre full of designer shops. Not very Zen, you might think, but devotees will know the importance of cleanliness and Princes Square has just the solution. Take care of your body with the pampering products on sale at Space NK Apothecary. For instant Zen, buy a tube of Stila's All Over Shimmer.

Body and mind sorted, it's time for the soul. St Mungo, the city's Christian patron, is said to be Glasgow's founder. These days he lends his name to one of the most pleasant museums in the city; St Mungo's Museum of Religious Life. Sunlight filters through the "friends and followers of Christ" stained glass window down onto bronze Buddhas from Burma and Tibet. In the "religious life" room, there are all manner of exhibits from photographs to cymbals. There may be no direct telephone line to God but you can recline on a wonderful sculpted wooden seat and pick up the receiver to hear various religious thoughts.

Upstairs, sit on the simple stone bench and gaze out of the floor-to- ceiling window to the slate and moss tones of the Victorian Necropolis. To Zen followers, symbols of death are a welcome reminder of change. Behind the museum is a Zen garden, created by Yasutaro Tanaka in 1993. Zen priests began to build small gardens to help aid contemplation and the dry stone gardens are designed to look good in all weathers - even like the day I visited when there wasn't a single chink in the bright Glaswegian sunshine. The inscription reads "you do not need to be a Zen Buddhist to appreciate the beauty of this garden". I remembered that as I walked back to the Budda Bar and Restaurant at 142 St Vincent Street (0141-243 2212), the fat gold Buddha in the window welcoming me inside for a very un-Zen glass of beer.

Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery (0141-287 2700) on Argyle Street, the Gallery of Modern Art (0141-229 1996) on Queen Street and St Mungo's Museum of Religious Life (0141-553 2557) on Castle Street are all open from 10am - 5pm Monday to Saturday and 11am - 5pm on Sundays and all are free

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