Scottish oasis for seekers of Nirvana

If all goes to plan, a remote island will soon be home to a Tibetan religious retreat buried in a hillside, reports Mark Rowe
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The Independent Online
HOLY ISLAND, a tiny blob of land off Arran, across the Firth of Clyde from mainland Scotland, has long drawn religious souls to its shores. Now, a Tibetan monastery has been granted permission to carve dramatic cave retreats into the isle's breathtaking, 1,000ft slopes.

The Buddhist community has already established a small foothold on the island, refurbishing the old lighthouse keepers' cottages. A wide range of people has visited the island, including rock star Annie Lennox and Lolicia Aitken, the estranged wife of disgraced former minister Jonathan Aitken, together with regular volunteers.

The plan for the retreat envisages 108 sunken caves to be dug out of the hillside in rows of steps or terraces, with startling views out to sea as part of a community for those devoted to long-term meditation and the discovery of their inner selves.

It may not be so far removed from what St Molaise had in mind when he arrived on Holy Island in the 6th century. For centuries, the island, like its namesake off Northumbria, attracted a stream of pilgrims.

That Celtic Christian history is now making way for a modern-day retreat, proposed by the Samye Ling Buddhist centre of Eskdalemuir, which is based in a remote part of south-west Scotland.

The pounds 9m project, recently given approval by the local authority, North Ayrshire Council, will be eco-friendly, with solar power and three 50ft- high wind turbines providingenergy for the community.

The rooms will be split into male and female quarters either side of a valley and built on top of one another in seven tiers, stretching with the slopes away from the shore into the island. The base will have 12 rooms with fewer rooms in each ascending tier, with heather and soil making up the roof. At the bottom will be a large meditation hall, prayer room and dining room.

The cost is expected to be met by fundraising and donations and the aim is for work to start as soon as possible and be completed by the year 2000. The design has been drawn up by London-based architect Andrew Wright, a former member of the Richard Rogers Partnership, who won a design competition launched by the Samye Ling's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The cave retreats, complete with compact washing facilities, will have the ultimate view, facing south and looking dramatically out to sea through a glass window.

In addition to being warmed by solar and wind power, the rooms, which are approximately 14ft by 10ft with a plain timber finish, will be further insulated from the biting winds that flutter the island's Tibetan prayer flags by the hillside into which they are built.

Water will be drawn by gravity from the surface and from a small borehole and waste water filtered out through reed beds before being discharged on to the land or used for irrigation.

It is in these conditions that people will be able to retreat from the world for precisely three years, three months and three weeks: the time, according to the Tibetan view of life, it takes to carry out the necessary practices to find your inner self.

The daily routine is, on the face of it, stark: rising at 4am, the day is made up of meditations, devotions and other practices. The final meal of the day is lunch (simple, vegetarian food). Some of the exercises are completed in isolation, others in a group. A six-month vow of silence is also required during the three years.

Although it is barely 50 miles from Glasgow as the crow flies, Holy Island, just two miles from north to south and less than a mile wide, remains a remote and peaceful retreat. There are no roads and it can only be reached by a 15-minute boat-trip from Arran. In winter, the ferryman sets sail every Thursday.

It was this pure environment that attracted the Rokpa Trust, which runs the Eskdalemuir monastery, and which was set up 30 years ago as a meditation group by Dr Akong Tulku Rinpoche, a Tibetan refugee. Although it caters to 80 people, Eskdalemuir has been running short of facilities.

The monastery bought the island for pounds 250,000 in 1992 from Kathleen Morris. She had been anxious for the island's religious tradition to continue, and it is said that Lama Yeshe Losal, Eskdalemuir's chief abbot, had a vision of an island retreat: the rest, according to the community's publicity officer, Rinchen Khandro, was "karma".

"It will be extremely eco-friendly. We do not want to despoil the environment and are keen to enhance it wherever possible," says Rinchen, whose name in Tibetan approximates to "Precious" or "Jewel of Teaching". To this end, the community has already planted 30,000 trees throughout Holy Island. However, the community has not quite abjured all worldly goods: the caretaker on Holy Island has a mobile phone, for instance, and the centre at Eskdalemuir boasts full fax facilities. It will also set truth-seekers back around pounds 2,500 a year to retreat from the pressures of everyday life. Day-trippers and tourist buses are frequent visitors to the monastery. There is currently a six-month waiting list for some activities. The caves project may not be the end of the tale for Holy Island: plans are afoot for a 60ft stupa - a Buddhist monument which, the faithful believe, transmits the energy of the universe - to be erected on the island.

"We're not just offering the opportunity for Buddhists. We don't seek to convert people," says Rinchen. "Anyone looking to explore themselves is welcome to come along.

"The idea is to free yourself of suffering, and through that help all sentient beings to be free of suffering."