Will Self: I'm on Holy Isle, practising mindful walking

Not many people realise how strong Buddhism is in contemporary Scotland, or that arguably the reason for this is topographic as much as spiritual. 

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We are practising mindful walking on the shore of Holy Isle: a group of thirty or so, mostly in our fifties and sixties, we have formed a large and ragged circle. “Lift, raise, lower, touch,” our leader instructs us; and so we do, foot after foot planted on the sheep-shot-bedizened turf where the person in front has just lifted hers. From a distance we must, I think, resemble a particularly duff channel ident for BBC1 – this slow-revolving blur of sluggish human animals. And we are being viewed from a distance: a side-wheel paddle steamer of antique vintage is sailing down the sound between Holy Isle and Arran; there are passengers on deck waving and shouting at us, but we pay them no attention at all, being mindful only of lift, raise, lower and touch – an interior communion between body and locale.

Not many people realise how strong Buddhism is in contemporary Scotland, or that arguably the reason for this is topographic as much as spiritual. Refugee Tibetan lamas were invited to a Buddhist centre that had been started in a house near Eskdalemuir in Dumfries and Galloway in the mid-Sixties. Over the years they transformed Johnstone House into a thriving community and study centre; pupils have included such cultural luminaries as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. A cynic might suggest that the affinity the Scots have for Buddhism is born of negative character traits: full of anger and deeply sexually repressed, they are obviously ripe for a credo that makes pacifism mandatory and abnegates fleshly desire. A more charitable view is that the connection between Tibet and Scotland was cemented through northern India.

Exiled in 1959 after the Chinese invasion, many Tibetan Buddhist clergy fled initially to Dharamsala in Himachal Pradesh, where they found a landscape not dissimilar from their own lost horizons – a hilly one of ­coniferous woodland, rhododendrons and isolated tarns. No wonder the lamas who got as far as Scotland felt right at home, inasmuch as any being who has transcended the bounds of earthly existence can feel at home anywhere. (Or possibly this is the whole point: they feel at home anywhere.)

The Samye Ling Monastery in the Borders (ling means “place” in Tibetan) established this outlier community on Holy Isle in the early Nineties, opening their Peace Centre in 2003. Their aim is to make Holy Isle into Europe’s biggest spiritual sanctuary, and to that end they have become enthusiastic curators of the island’s biodiversity. The Peace Centre occupies an old farmhouse, the orchard and gardens of which have been fully renovated and planted with native species; the old stone dykes have been repaired and the community’s water comes from natural springs; electric power is drawn in part from the sun; sewage is disposed of through a natural reed-bed filtration system. All visitors to the island are asked to follow the Five Golden Rules of Buddhism, one of which is to refrain from taking any life.

So it is that herds of wild Saanen goats and ancient Soay sheep remain running wild on Holy Isle while they’ve disappeared from Arran just across the sound. True, no one has morally instructed the Eriskay ponies – a herd of which is also in residence – and during my stay I heard dark mutterings about the corpses of males forced off the cliffs on the uninhabited west side of the island during very un-Buddhistic battles over mating rights. Still, the lack of wanton human predation is palpable as soon as you arrive on the Island: oystercatchers nest on the rocky foreshore and swifts flit over the bracken – up in the skies the upthrust wings of peregrines can be seen turning and turning in a widening gyre over the peak of Mullach Mor (“Big Top”), the 313-metre ­summit of the three-kilometre-long island.

I expect regular readers know I’m not the sort of fellow easily swayed by the irenic – but I have to say Holy Isle soothed my troubled psyche more than anywhere I have been in recent years. The sheer profusion of life in the gardens and open spaces around the Peace Centre banished all gnawing anxieties about ageing and death; the meditation practice ensured that I stayed resolutely in the here and now, rather than drifting away to either that “other country”, the past, or another island that is yet to erupt volcanically from the turbid present: the future. Should I have been surprised by this? After all, Holy Isle has been so called for a very long time – in the 7th century it was home to Saint Molaise, who meditated in a well-appointed cave halfway along the eastern coast. Thus the Celtic Christian tradition of isolated anchorites has mutated organically into the modern Buddhist way, because the Peace Centre has its own outlier cohort of monks and nuns who undertake long, silent retreats in sequestrated cells.

I was so chilled that I didn’t recover myself until I was chugging along on the train from Ardrossan Harbour back to Glasgow Central. I was sharing the compartment with a middle-aged Scots Buddhist nun whom I’d seen wandering about Holy Isle looking very striking, what with her slaphead and her dark orange robes. To begin with, we sat in contemplative silence – but soon enough we began arguing (albeit gently) about independence.

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Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double