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.
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In Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour has picked an unlikely winner

The party leader is making gains internally at least. 

Kezia Dugdale did not become the leader of Scottish Labour in the most auspicious of circumstances. She succeeded Jim Murphy, who lasted just six months in the job before losing his Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. She herself has survived one year, but not without rumours of a coup.

And so far, she has had little reward. Labour lost 14 seats in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, and not just to the auld enemy, the SNP, but a seemingly decrepit one, the Tories. She backed the losing candidate in the recent Labour leadership contest, Owen Smith. 

Yet Dugdale has firm fans within Scottish Labour, who believe she could be the one to transform the party into a vote-winning force once more. Why?

First, by the dismal standards of Scottish Labour, Dugdale is something of a winner. Through the national executive committee, she has secured the internal party changes demanded by every leader since 2011. Scottish Labour is now responsible for choosing its own Westminster candidates, and creating its own policy. 

And then there’s the NEC seat itself. The decision-making body is the main check on the Labour leadership’s power, and Dugdale secured an extra seat for Scottish Labour. Next, she appointed herself to it. As a counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Dugdale now has influence within the party that extends far outside Holyrood. The Dundee-based Courier’s take on her NEC victories was: “Kezia Dugdale completes 7-0 Labour conference victory over Jeremy Corbyn.”

As this suggests, Dugdale’s main challengers in Scotland are likely to come from the Corbyn camp. Alex Rowley, her deputy leader, backed Corbyn. But Labour activists, at least, are battle weary after two referendums, a general election and a Scottish parliament election within the space of two years. One well-connected source told me: “I think it's possible we haven't hit rock bottom in Scotland yet, so the scale of the challenge is enormous.” 

Polls are also harder to ignore in a country where there is just one Labour MP, Ian Murray, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. A YouGov exit poll of the leadership election found Smith beating Corbyn in Scotland by 18 points (in every other part of Britain, members opted for Corbyn). Observers of Scottish politics note that the most impressive party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, were given time and space to grow. 

In policy terms, Dugdale does not stray too far from Corbyn. She is anti-austerity, and has tried to portray both the SNP and the Tories as enemies of public service. She has attacked the same parties for using the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum to create division in turn. In her speech to conference, she declared: “Don’t let Ruth Davidson ever tell you again that the Union is safe in Tory hands.”

So long as Labour looks divided, a promise of unity will always fall flat. But if the party does manage to come together in the autumn, Dugdale will have the power to reshape it north of the border, and consolidate her grip on Scottish Labour.