There is a slightly different format to this blog post – a bit more personal than usual. I have been wanting to write about this trip but a typical blog post just didn’t feel right – hope you enjoy! Big thanks to Greg for most of the photographs!
The date is April the 16th 2018 and I’m somewhere between Lockerbie and the middle of nowhere. Sunlight is streaming through the windows of my boyfriend’s car, an unusually sunny day for April I note as a breeze floats through the open window. After a roughly four hour drive on countless motorways and a short-lived disagreement about why the sat-nav decided to take us on some shady unnamed roads, we finally pull on to the B723. We’re headed to Kagyu Samye Ling, a Buddhist Monastery situated beside the village of Eskdalemuir. Having visited once for a school project when I was 15 I had decided that now would be a great time to return as my art has become focused on meditation and zen, and what better place to find inner zen than meditating with monks?
Having booked this trip 4 months ahead of time I guess I am also acutely aware that I was very seriously ill this time last year. It was almost as if I had anticipated my need to escape the cocoon of comfort zone I knew I would wrap myself in. My anxiety had sky-rocketed the week before with memories rushing back and I almost pulled out of the trip altogether, but now gazing at the sun kissed rolling hills as far as the eye could see, I am very pleased that I didn’t.
Japanese Breakfast has been playing on repeat for the last 40 minutes through the car – ‘dreaming baby took that corkscrewed highway/lightless miles/of big rigs…’ The soothing chords are dulled as I turn the volume down, vaguely aware we’ve been driving for about 20 minutes in the middle of nowhere. Greg asks me if I’m sure this is the right road and I reply I am, even though we haven’t seen any signs of human life and only the odd sheep here and there. I watch as the signal bars on my phone gradually drop to zero. Finally as I had predicted in my scrawled sketchbook route, we pass Sibbaldbie and eventually Boreland – both small clusters of houses that I’m surprised have collective names at all.
After what seems like an eternity we drive into Eskdalemuir which looks incredibly eerie despite the sunshine – consisting mostly of a church and a massive graveyard. Finally we’re on the B709 and around 10 minutes later we arrive at Samye Ling.
Stepping out of the car to stretch we both remark on how quiet it is. The only sounds are the wind on the prayer flags, bird song and the quiet roar of the River Esk. We leave the car in the car park and walk through the peace gardens to find reception. A monk in a burgundy robe appearing from the temple greets us and shows us to our room. We have to take our shoes off as we enter the building. The first thing I notice is the cleanliness of the accommodation. It is definitely cleaner than most hotels I have stayed in and has a lovely calm ambience. Our room is situated near the temple and the floors of the hallways are beige stone and wood, large and spacious. Our room is simple but comfortable, as is the en suite. The monk excitedly tells us that there is a tea room in our hallway for our personal use and we can have a cup of tea any time we like. We are given wifi codes which don’t work and I am presented with the delightful juxtaposition of a monk puzzling over his smartphone settings. I don’t mind anyway, I didn’t come here for wifi. He informs us the next meditation session is in an hour and we are welcome to attend.
I am excited about the prospect of meditating in a temple setting but I want to take advantage of the glorious weather. I grab my camera and we stroll around the temple and gardens, taking in the sights as we take turns taking photographs. An hour passes and we make our way to the temple making sure to leave our shoes outside.
The temple is quiet with only the occasional shuffling of feet. Incense fills the air as I take a seat on one of the meditation cushions and settle into the red and gold light shining from the altar. Monks and guests file in, each kissing the floor in front of the image of Buddha as they enter. From somewhere outside a gong reverberates and the meditation begins. A lineage prayer is recited in this incredible goose-bump inducing chorus – we both remain silent, listening. Another gong is then sounded to signal the beginning of the silent hour long meditation. My mind is incredibly busy at first, but once I settle in to my breathing it becomes easier. There is an incredible atmosphere in the temple, almost like simmering shared energy. I am aware of my back hurting more than usual as I am sitting in the half-lotus position but try to concentrate on my breathing. Then all too quickly it is over. We finish up with another lineage prayer and head to supper.
We respectfully wait until the monks have their food before serving ourselves. A delightful scent of homemade vegetable soup and rice fills the air – a surprisingly delicious combination. All of the food is grown in the monastery gardens by monks and volunteers – organic, untouched, delicious.
After supper I want to draw so we head out for a wander while it is still light. I sit by the river Esk sketching for a while before moving to the prayer wheels and the peace gardens. It begins to get dark, cold and starts to rain so we retire to our room. I realise that we must be one of the few people staying at this time of year, as the retreat accommodation building is eerily quiet and dark – almost like having an entire hotel to ourselves. I take a long shower and as night descends we take advantage of the tea room the monk told us about earlier in the day. I boil the kettle, choose a mug with gold patterning and proceed to make a cup of ginger and lemon tea. Padding around the entire hallway barefoot we come across a lounge/library for residents, empty because we are about the only ones in the place. We take a seat and talk about life for an hour in the quiet. I reflect on how incredibly peaceful it is here. Before going to bed I turn the lights off and stare out of the window. I have never seen a night so black. We are far from any street lights to pollute the sky and are situated in-between rolling hills – the only light is a small candle lit down by the river. Sleep comes quickly and deeply.
My alarm sounds – it is 6:30am. We didn’t quite make it for the 6am Tara prayers but I wasn’t going to miss breakfast at 7am. Padding down to breakfast in my socks, I notice the whole forecourt of the temple is like a mirror – it is raining pretty hard. After eggs on toast we head to the temple for the 8am morning meditation session. The energy feels strong in the room again but different. I start meditating and I am immediately aware of the pain in my back from the lotus position. I start concentrating on my chakras as I do every time I meditate – I usually get a variation of crown, heart and third eye – violet, green and indigo respectively. I focus on the sound of the rain steadily falling on the temple roof and the scent of incense which is incredibly peaceful. Something changes. I no longer feel the pain in my back from sitting in the lotus position. I begin to see an orb in front of my vision at my third eye. Bright white in the centre and cycling through all of the chakra colours – like a crystal in sunlight. I get excited at seeing this and it immediately disappears. So I continue to focus on the rain and the incense and it appears again. Time seems to go incredibly quickly during this meditation and when the gong sounds signalling the end of the session I find I don’t want to leave.
Regardless, we head to the reception to pay and collect our room key. The monks are incredibly trusting and relaxed about the whole affair of paying even though we’ve already stayed a night. After this we head to the Tibetan Tea Rooms situated just across from the temple. The room is warm and cosy in bright red and yellow paint. We order two peppermint teas and sit down to relax. By chance one of my favourite songs by Lhasa De Sela (Is Anything Wrong?) starts playing – I find the lyrics quite fitting to the Buddhist ideas – ‘People outside/they know just what to do/They look at me /and they think that I know too…’
After nursing the peppermint tea for a couple of hours the rain still hasn’t let up. It is lunch anyway so we head to the dining room for a big feed. The monks consider lunch the main meal of the day, and there was a lot of it – chickpea curry, naan, veg, salad and homemade ginger cake for dessert. All organic, vegetarian and delicious. We head back to the room for a nap afterwards as I am so full. I start reading ‘Restoring the Balance’ by Choje Akong Tulku Rinpoche – one of the founders of Samye Ling. It is incredible, very accessible and I vow to buy myself a copy. We realise that the rain has stopped and wrap up to do some more walking. We head down to the River Esk again which is almost overflowing from all the rainwater. The air is cold but my determination to sketch overrides the temperature and we spend a few hours walking about the peace gardens and tying a piece of cloth onto the Clootie tree.
Eventually 5pm rolls around and I am excited to meditate again. I see glimpses of the crystal orb but not as strong as it was during the morning. The temperature in the temple is cold and I find that distracts me from achieving a deep meditative state. Someone in the temple also seems to have developed a cough so I keep being brought out of my trance. After supper of tomato soup we head to the Chenrezig Prayers. We are given the translation by another guest who is clearly more adept that us and I give my best shot at Tibetan chanting – a lot more difficult than it sounds. Equal emphasis is put on all of the syllables in the words, meaning the rhythm is difficult to get used to.
We return to the temple later on at night – around half past 9. The temple is open until 10 and although the monk had told me it was fine to take photographs I did not want to be disrespectful by taking photographs when people were meditating. It is quite eerie being in the temple alone and we make sure to bow to Buddha when we enter and leave.
We head back to the room and have another cup of tea before falling into another peaceful slumber.
6:30am and I wake with birdsong. My body seems to have gotten used to waking this early and I hurriedly get dressed for breakfast, eager for honey on wholemeal toast. It is still raining although not as heavily. We sit down for our last meditation session at 8am and I find it peaceful. I don’t feel as cold and I have a comfortable meditation. I see my chakras clearly but the orb doesn’t reappear. It is now my own meditation goal to see that crystal orb again. I don’t know if it symbolised my chakras aligning themselves or what but it was spectacular.
We pack and leave Samye Ling with a heavy heart, although it will stay in my mind for a long time. The monk we met on the first day gives us a hearty farewell as we get in the car. I couldn’t help but imagine he was away for another cup of tea. Back on the B723 now wise to the tricks of the sat-nav, we drive incredibly slowly through thick fog – ginger, lemon and honey still lingering on my tastebuds. Emerging on the other side in Lockerbie we are back in the land of fast food, smartphone wifi and traffic noise.
I could have almost sworn we had entered a time slip for a few days…