The robes are mustard and plum. The glasses are thick as jam-jar bottoms. The head is shaven to a dark, prickly fuzz. The smile can only be described as beatific.
When the Dalai Lama steps out on to the stage of the SECC in Glasgow on Saturday afternoon, the applause generated from 10,000 admirers will match that for U2, Britney Spears or any other previous occupant of the concert hall. Packed in the audience beside the scarlet robed monks of the Tibetan monastery in Eskdalemuir will be plumbers and teachers, office managers and doctors, the young and the old. All believe the path to serenity and happiness lies in the 2,500-year-old teachings of the Buddha, the jolly fat chap with the rotund belly whose effigies in clay or brass are cropping up with increasing regularity in homes across Scotland.
The Dalai Lama, in his first visit to Scotland in more than a decade, will give a lecture entitled Inner Peace, Outer Harmony, advocating the practice of meditation as a means to achieve contentment. Unlike other spiritual beliefs, Buddhists have science on their side, with recent medical research revealing that practitioners of meditation lower their stress levels, heal faster and are freer from anxiety and depression.
So why in this secular age is a spiritual movement that seeks to eradicate the “self” gaining ground? In a time when avarice and greed is epidemic, why is a belief system that targets desire and possessions as the cause of unhappiness drawing hundreds of new followers each year? And, more curiously, how did the Scotland of the Kirk become an international centre for the Karma?
Today, according to the General Register Office for Scotland, there are 6,580 Buddhists in Scotland, a figure that puts the faith on a par with Judaism and Sikhism and ahead of Hinduism, the root from which it first sprang. As Christianity sub-divides into denominations such as Catholic, Baptist and Protestant, so Buddhism in Scotland is divided into Zen, Sri Lankan, Western and the Tibetan practices of the country’s oldest institute, the Samye Ling monastery nestled among the lowlands of the Borders near Eskdalemuir.
According to Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel, of the department of theology and religious studies at Glasgow University, the popularity of Buddhism in Britain is down, on one level, to its relative novelty in a traditionally Christian country. This, combined with high-profile followers such as Richard Gere and Tina Turner, can make it attractive to those in search of a new spiritual path. But, while many express an interest in Buddhism or attend classes in Buddhist meditation, the faith has a high turnover. “Buddhism has a reputation as an accepting faith,” says Prof Schmidt-Leukel. “But if you study and practise you realise that it is as rigid on matters of sexual practice as any other world religion. It requires commitment, it puts strong limits on your behaviour.”
JOYCE HENDERSON, 42, has always sought answers to the big questions of life. Baptised in the Church of Scotland, she first encountered Buddhism, as so many teenagers do, in the pages of Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, which tells the story of a search for enlightenment. The death of her brother, William, from cancer when she was just 26 accentuated her questioning. A few years later, while on a Buddhist retreat in Shropshire, she discovered that meditation had greater benefits than prayer. “I feel in Buddhism I’m seeking answers in the right place. I’m sure the same answers can be found in Christianity, but I felt it was in a coded language I couldn’t understand,” she says.
Nicola Nisbet, 19, a student in public art at Falkirk College, encountered Buddhism through her teacher while studying for higher philosophy. She attended her first class in Buddhist meditation in January and on 2 July will become a Mitra – a person who considers themselves a Buddhist – during a short ceremony where she places flowers, a candle and incense by the Buddha’s statue. “I don’t believe there is a god,” said Nicola. “But Buddhism will help me to be a better person while I am here and I want to find peace within myself.”
Buddhism’s hip appeal is broached in Anne Donovan’s novel, Buddha Da, in which Jimmy, a Glaswegian painter and decorator, goes in search of enlightenment. Although not a Buddhist herself, Donovan has taken classes in meditation and will be attending the Dalai Lama’s talk this weekend. “I have a great respect for the culture and spirt of Buddhism and meditation. Anything that encourages people to slow down their busy lives and appreciate the now can only be helpful.”
Scotland’s first brush with Buddhism came in 1967, when Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist centre in the West, was established by two Tibetan rinpoches or “precious ones”. The pair had fled Chinese-occupied Tibet in 1959, and were attracted by the location’s serene surroundings. For the next 25 years, the community gathered lay students of Buddhism and supported only a handful of monks and nuns. In 1992, the centre was animated by the arrival of a new abbot, Lama Yeshe, the brother of the original founder. One young monk described him as “the rock’n’roll rebel of institutionalised religion”.
Unlike the vast majority of Tibetan monks who enter holy orders as children, Lama Yeshe had experienced life in all its western decadence. Although born in Tibet and raised in a monastery, he fled to India at the age of 15 and spent his 20s in America, where he rode a motorcycle, had a string of girlfriends and developed a passion for Hendrix. Drawn back to his faith, he took his vows aged 30.
When Lama Yeshe arrived at Samye Ling he set about making it more accessible to western minds. Instead of taking vows for life, he introduced a probationary scheme, an unprecedented move in Tibetan Buddhism. He was accessible to the media and turned the monastery into an international destination for courses and seminars for those interested in all aspects of Tibetan life. Last year saw the fruition of his Holy Island project – when the retreat centre for world peace was finally opened.
In Glasgow during the early 1970s, just as Samye Ling was becoming established, a group of young Scots, infused by the vibe of the times, were experimenting with meditation. Sangha Rakshita, a Buddhist teacher of the Western Buddhist Order, lent his services and a centre was established. For the last 25 years the Glasgow Buddhist Centre has been based up a tenement close on Sauchiehall Street, bringing a stillness of mind and clarity of thought to a generation of curious Scots.
The current director is Virya Devi, formerly Maggie Graeber, a 51-year-old former music teacher. Each morning at 7am she sits before a Buddha figure and lights a candle to signify the light of wisdom, looks at the flowers to remind her of the impermanence of all things and breathes in incense that represents the spirit. She then meditates for 40 to 60 minutes. Today the centre has 60 Mitras, while four times this number attend meditation classes.
“The appeal of Buddhism, for me, was that it was not necessary to take on a set of beliefs,” explains Devi. “Buddhism taught me in practicable terms how to be kind to myself and to other people. Other people may be drawn because there is a distrust of organised religion, which is a pity because all religions have to be organised. For me there is depth to Buddhism, but it is also very practical.”