The Glasgow Buddhist Centre has had to set up waiting lists for its meditation classes, informal Buddhist meditation and teaching groups have sprung up across the land and the Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery, in Dumfries, is expanding to accommodate the increase in visitor numbers .
The Dalai Lama’s visit in May is expected to encourage thousands more to take up one of the few booming faiths in the western world.
The 2001 Census recorded 6800 Buddhists in Scotland but, according to Dr Perry Schmidt-Leukel, an expert in Buddhism at Glasgow University, the true number is greater . “The Census was the first real statistic about the number of Buddhists in Scotland, but some wilder estimates put the number in the UK at around 500,000 people,” he said.
He believes that celebrity interest in Buddhism has prompted some people to join. “It is fashionable to flirt with the religion. It provides insights into the very questions of human existence and Buddhism gets a very good press through the media.
“The Dalai Lama is a very symbolic and sympathetic figure to the media, as are the number of celebrities who are following the religion, including singer Tina Turner and actor Richard Gere.”
Dr Brenda E Brasher, an expert in the sociology of religion at Aberdeen University, said Buddhism has lots of appeal for young Scots.
“Because Buddhism is a way of understanding the self and the cosmos it is particularly attractive to young people who are not strong in believing in organised religion. The way Buddhism is practised in the West makes it viable for people who want to be spiritual without being religious, it suits a lot of people, it’s easy to fit it into the life you have, without denying yourself too much.
“Christian churches in Scotland seem to be behind the times – while business runs 24/7, the church is still a staid Sunday activity, and peoples lives don’t fit into that. But meditation for example can be done anywhere at anytime, so it is contemporary way of being spiritual.”
Erik Cramb, convener of the Church of Scotland’s committee on ecumenical relations, agreed that traditional faiths could seem grey compared to the lure of something new. “I think people can be turned off the religions of their childhood – it is a natural instinct for young people especially to venture away from what their parents practise. The church, if seen as something that represents your parents, can seem a bit boring, a reputation the church has probably lived up to on occasion.
“ Buddhism offers the chance to step back and think for a lot of people.”
Buddhism focuses on personal spiritual development, rather than worship of a deity. Followers formally join a community by being ordained.
Hugh Green, who organises Buddhist meetings in Perth, said interest in the faith is growing. “There are 40 or 50 active Buddhists in the area, compared to a very small number three years ago,” he said. “Lots of groups are popping up all over the place, and I can see a real acceptance of Buddhism happening all the time.”
Joyce Henderson, who has worked for the civil service and in public relations, has spent the past six years volunteering at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre . She said: “I was brought up in the Church of Scotland but Buddhism gives you the tools to change yourself. When I first became interested in Buddhism there weren’t that many others in Scotland to learn from but that has certainly changed. I am quite conventional, but I’ve realised that it doesn’t matter how many material things you have, it really doesn’t satisfy you.”
Dr Patrick Nicholson, a physicist at Glasgow University, began finding out more about Buddhism in 1998. “With hindsight I think I had been looking for something spiritual for a while. It has changed my life – five years ago I became a vegetarian, I meditate every day, and I keep in mind the ethics of Buddhism that have become part of my life.”
Sally Watson, a marketing officer at Strathclyde University, said that while she is not ready to be ordained into Buddhism, it is now a permanent part of her life.
“When I first went to the Buddhist Centre in Glasgow 13 or 14 years ago it was quite hippy, but now there are a wide range of people and ages who go. It has definitely become a much more acceptable thing to be a part of.”
The Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery in Dumfries is in the middle of a major building programme to accommodate visitors . Ani Lhamo, a nun at the centre, said: “There is so much disillusionment with modern life and materialistic society. Twenty years ago it did tend to be the dreamy, hippy people coming, but now there are accountants, teachers, doctors and workers all looking for happiness and contentment.”
Cosmopolitan recently launched a new section to examine modern faiths. Section editor Hannah Borno said: “Young women seem not to be adopting Buddhism wholesale, but are extracting aspects of it that suit their lifestyle, for example doing 15 minutes of meditation in the morning and evening.”