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.
Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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