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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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.