Buddhist monks seek solace in a retreat from the modern world: After four years in isolation, a group of novices at Europe's largest Tibetan centre emerged to face some familiar prejudices. Tim Kelsey reports

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The Independent Online
CHODRAK'S father works in an engineering factory in Birmingham and his mother is a cleaner at a local school. He worked in a branch of Halford's, the car accessories shop, until someone came in one day with a poster advertising a new meditation centre.

Chodrak, 32, is now a Tibetan Buddhist monk. He has taken his full 253 vows, and intends to remain a monk for the rest of his life. He has a shaven head, and wears long burgundy robes which seem to offer slight protection against the wind and Scottish snow.

Last month he emerged with 34 others from a four-year retreat at Samye Ling, Europe's largest Tibetan centre in Eskdalemuir, near Lockerbie, in the Scottish borders.

The retreat was conducted in complete isolation. The novices - men and women from all over the world - were not allowed beyond the back door of their segregated dormitories. They spent most of the time meditating in small wooden boxes, in which they also slept. They were denied access to radio, television and newspapers.

The retreat master, Lama Yeshe Losal, an exiled Tibetan monk, told them some news: that the Berlin Wall had collapsed and that the Gulf war had started and finished.

Some had relatives waiting for them when they walked for the first time out of the dormitories. Chodrak's parents had decided not to attend. 'Their attitude is that if I'm happy then they're happy,' he said, adding that he found the occasion 'overwhelming'.

Those who walked out of the retreat were also surprised to find dozens of photographers, cameramen, and reporters standing among the holy flagpoles that lined the rutted path out of the retreat waiting to talk to them. The Buddhists of Samye Ling have always suffered from prejudice and intolerance. Leaders saw the end of this retreat as an opportunity to explain themselves. Wanting to be understood and not viewed as some sort of social threat, they decided to allow the press to attend.

The hill farmers of Eskdalemuir have, for the most part, grown accustomed to them. Twenty-five years ago, the first of the Tibetans arrived and with them a horde of Europeans seeking instruction and peace of mind.

The Tibetans, exiled by the Chinese, came to ensure the survival of their culture. They put their European followers to work and five years ago they finished Europe's largest and most spectacular Buddhist temple built entirely with donations. Next month, they will start work on a library to house Britain's largest collection of sacred Tibetan texts.

The Eskdalemuir valley is now home to several hundred Buddhists; the local primary school has only one Christian pupil.

'There are some who don't like it, even now,' said the woman who runs the village's single shop - a shelf in the hallway of her home. 'It's very different cultures. But I see them quite often. They come down here for their cigarettes.'

Over the last few years, the community has grown so quickly it has become necessary to expand. Two years ago the centre bought Holy Island, off the Isle of Arran in the Firth of Clyde for pounds 350,000, with the intention of building two retreating centres: one for Buddhists, the other for use by members of all faiths.

Not all the locals have reacted positively. One letter to the local newspaper complained that: 'Their presence on the island would attract all kinds, from religious cultists to spivs and junk male (sic) and could detract (sic) our English visitors whilst property values could diminish . . . our precious Scottish Christian and cultural heritage is not to be bargained with.'

Some locals have started a campaign of opposition against the purchase on the grounds that it contravenes traditional rights of way across the island.

Lama Yeshe is diplomatic: 'Everybody is finding that working together is better than against each other. Some religious groups have created very bad relations - like the Hare Krishnas - everybody who sees a shaven head thinks they have a Krishna on their hands.'

The Lama fled Tibet in 1959, when he was 14, after the Chinese expelled the Dalai Lama. The religious leader will be visiting the temple in May, a mark of its importance.

Lama Yeshe has tried the Western way of life. He went to New York during the 1970s to see if he 'could be happy', but found having a good time 'meaningless'.

He is at a loss to understand why he and his brother (the abbot of the temple) chose Scotland as the home for Tibetan culture in exile. 'You know I can only think it was the karma that brought us here. Why else would we have come to the coldest, dampest place? For practising religion it is good. If it was sunny and beautiful you couldn't practise. We don't look for comfort.'

Tom McCarthy, the centre's administrator, said the first British emissary to Tibet in the 18th century came from Lanarkshire. 'There are lots of similarities between Tibet and Scotland. They both have large neighbours that have influenced them.'

Mr McCarthy, an American, volunteered for Vietnam in the late 1960s and saw a year of active service. He later ran a chain of clothes shops in Edinburgh before living on a commune not far from the site of the Buddhist temple.

Lama Yeshe returned earlier this month from Nepal where he had spent 49 days in total darkness and silence in a mountain cave in what is widely regarded as the most demanding of the Buddhist retreats.

He goes back into retreat next week. But his students do not have another opportunity until November, when a year-long retreat begins.

The Lama Yeshe's students - brought up in a different Western culture - may never reach the levels of peace he has achieved. 'They have to come to the understanding that there is no solidity in the world - and to see everything in a dreamlike state. It will take a long time,' he said.

But this does not deter Chodrak, who is preparing to join the November retreat. He has to pay a small amount for this and will be returning to Birmingham in the meantime where he hopes to find temporary work as a cook.

(Photographs omitted)

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