Approaching Buddhism

Ani Rinchen Khandro recounts years living in South-East Asia, and how a snowy May day in Scotland ma

When one encounters anyone born in the west who is a Buddhist, the likelihood is that they were not born into the faith, but have come to it in later life as a result of their individual, spiritual journey rather than because of their upbringing. And so it was with me.

Having been born in Manchester to parents of Jewish and Catholic origins I was brought up in a Jewish household and even attended a Jewish school where Hebrew was part of the curriculum. As with many young people my teenage years were a time of rebellion, searching for and asserting my identity. In a state of confusion and uncertainty Agnosticism seemed to be the only honest position to take.

In adulthood my work as a writer and designer led to extensive travel and exposure to many different cultures and belief systems. The eight years I spent living in Bali, Indonesia were particularly influential in awakening my dormant spirituality. Balinese religion is an eclectic mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and Animism. What attracted me was the way in which the religion pervaded every aspect of Balinese life. It isn’t something practiced predominantly on the Sabbath but rather the essence of everyday activity manifesting in everything from daily flower offerings distributed to a multitude of shrines in and around the home, to joyfully elaborate music and dance accompanying endless ceremonies and rites of passage.

During this period of my life I was also a voracious reader of spiritual books of many traditions. It was a time of ‘spiritual shopping’. Gradually the Buddhist books began to outnumber the others with Tibetan Buddhism becoming particularly prevalent. The story of Tibet’s great Saint, the Yogi Milarepa, was especially inspiring as it demonstrated how it was possible to overcome even the most adverse circumstances and still become a Buddha in one lifetime. More contemporary inspiration came from His Holiness the Dalai Lama whose books I devoured avidly.

On returning to the west and hearing that His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving a public talk at Kagyu Samye Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery in Scotland, I lost no time in driving to this Tibetan outpost in the unlikely environs of Eskdalemuir near Lockerbie. Although it was May there had been an unseasonable snowfall as if to welcome His Holiness and make him feel at home. Thousands of people had converged on the Monastery, far too many to be seated in the considerable temple, so a huge marquis had been erected in the grounds.

Taking my seat amongst a motley throng of people of all ages and nationalities, drawn together by the spiritual magnetism of this Tibetan holy man of peace, I happily waited whilst people watching, lulled by the rise and fall of multi-lingual conversations that rippled around me. Suddenly there was silence. His Holiness stepped onto the stage beaming at everyone with eyes of utter love and compassion. It was a life changing occasion accompanied by an unmistakable sense of having at last come home. Little did I know that within a few months I would literally make my home at Samye Ling, much less that I would be ordained as a Buddhist nun.

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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump