Meeting the Teacher

The role of the teacher in a Buddhist nun's development is of supreme importance, and they must be c


Having made my first visit to Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Buddhist Centre with the express purpose of attending a talk by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, my second visit, a few months later, was to find out more about the Centre itself. Driving through the soft, green rolling hills of Southern Scotland one is suddenly confronted by the spectacular temple and stupa with their glinting copper roofs and steeple bedecked by a profusion of colourful, fluttering prayer flags like some exotic, psychedelic mirage rising out of the Scottish mist.

As the first and largest Centre of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, Samye Ling has grown from modest beginnings, since two young refugee Lamas acquired a rather dilapidated old hunting lodge in Dumfriesshire, to become a world renowned Monastery and Centre of Tibetan Buddhist culture with satellite branches across the globe. Its magnificent temple was built and decorated entirely by volunteer labour under the direction the Centre’s co-founder Dr. Akong Tulku Rinpoche.

Entering the elaborate scarlet and gold shrine room for the first time is awe inspiring to say the least. The walls are hung with exquisitely painted Tibetan thangkas, the ceiling is embellished with silk screened panels depicting phoenix and dragons and the hall is flanked by ornately carved columns leading to the beautiful shrine at the north end where a great golden Buddha sits surrounded by a thousand and eight smaller Buddha statues. One is virtually stunned into silent contemplation by the sheer onslaught of one’s senses.

After spending several days exploring this unlikely yet oddly familiar corner of Tibet nestled in a sweet Scottish valley, I was curious to meet the person behind it all and accordingly made an appointment for an interview with Akong Tulku Rinpoche. I knew nothing of Rinpoche’s status as a High Lama or any protocol surrounding such an exalted being, so when the door of the tiny interview room opened to reveal a stocky, middle aged gentleman with jet black hair and café au lait complexion dressed in plain, western style clothes I simply smiled and shook his hand. He returned the handshake and smile and gestured for me to sit down.

If Samye Ling’s temple is the epitome of elaborate, sacred art its founder is a man of rare simplicity. The phrase ‘extraordinarily ordinary’ springs to mind. I am unable to recall a single word of that first meeting as I was quite literally overwhelmed by Rinpoche’s presence. He was one hundred percent present so that, even in my blissful ignorance, I knew with unshakeable certainty that I had met my teacher.

According to Tibetan Buddhism the spiritual teacher occupies a place of unequalled importance in the life of the student as it is through the teacher’s guidance along the path that the student discovers their true Buddha nature and ultimately attains complete Buddhahood. Therefore one is advised to examine a potential teacher very thoroughly so that one feels able to trust him or her with one’s life. The spiritual path is strewn with false prophets and clever talkers, but when in doubt, follow the old maxim of judging a person by their actions rather than their words. Fortunately my first impression of Akong Rinpoche has been more than born out in the subsequent fourteen years of our relationship, though I strongly suspect that I have still only witnessed the surface of the limitless ocean of his wisdom and compassion.

Picture: Akong Tulku Rinpoche and Ani Rinchen Khandro
Photo by Anna Branthwaite

Ani Rinchen Khandro is a life ordained nun in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She is based at Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre in Scotland where she has lived for the past fourteen years, apart from the three and a half years she spent in closed retreat on Holy Island. She recently wrote a book in honour of the Centre’s fortieth anniversary, entitled Kagyu Samye Ling - The Story, which is available for purchase online.
Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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