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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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.