I came across this place when looking online for places to visit on a short break in the south of Scotland. It burst onto my monitor in a multi-coloured flash and at first I couldn’t believe my eyes. I thought my Google search had brought up a rogue link to a place somewhere in the Himalayan foot hills, not the rolling green hills of Dumfriesshire. Closer inspection showed me that Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Monastery did indeed have a Dumfries post code. I was hooked!
The magpie in me has always been attracted to the shiny and colourful, and this place had it in abundance. The bold, ornate temple with its dramatic art and sculpture jumped off the screen. I decided I had to go there to see for myself.
I had spent many happy childhood holidays in the Scottish border regions where my family had a static caravan. My memories are fond and include more recollections of grey skies and rain than sunshine in the blue. I’ve always found brooding grey skies and hill mists powerful and compelling.
As the little bus makes its way along the narrow road, passing through miles of uninhabited heather-covered moorland and vast forests of fir, my anticipation grows. I try to picture the spectacle of this bold oriental structure against the pastoral landscape.
The temple comes into view. First I see a wide driveway with entrance through a grand ornamental archway. Lines of red, blue and green prayer flags flutter in the breeze. It all looks surreal. Entering from the road via a different route I find myself almost immediately in front of the temple building. Large and imposing, it is every bit as colourful as the photos suggest. This fascinating construction is a sight to behold; a feast for the eyes.
Stepping inside, the interior is stunning. Red and gold dominates, especially in the inner sanctum where a large golden Buddha statue sits in pride of place within a glass display cabinet. Offerings of food items and trays of candles are placed before the statue which is surrounded by manifold images of saints and deities. The richly painted ceiling is a stunning canopy. Look too closely and too critically and of course you will see that all that glitters is not gold. Grandeur or bling? Artistic or tacky? Ornate or pale imitation? What would the wise man say? Maybe he’d say, ‘Don’t look to closely and just enjoy the experience.’
Outside again, I am free to roam around the site with the only ‘off- limits’ areas being the residential apartments for the monks and visitors on retreat. A flock of small birds catches my attention as they settle on a strange object placed on a balcony. I climb the stairwell to investigate. The birds take flight as I approach and I am none the wiser as to the nature of the foodstuff upon which the feathered collective has been feasting. It most resembles a small pile of melted candle wax. Descending the steps again I pass a shaven-headed monk in full garb accompanied by an American woman I’d earlier seen inside the temple. I receive a look of disapproval from the monk; perhaps I am out of bounds.
The extensive monastery gardens are a mix of pleasure and practicality. Wildflowers, sunflowers, marigolds and lavender are just a few of the flora in bloom alongside the beds overflowing with marrows, cabbages and lettuce. Some areas appear to be a work in progress. A cement mixer and piles of flagstones suggest grand ideas not yet made manifest. A brown hare appears on the path ahead where bracken has taken over and nature rules. It stands perfectly still, almost like an illusion, before darting away at the sound of approaching footsteps. Statues of the Buddha and deities and demons of Tibetan folklore turn this Scottish garden exotic and mystical. Strips of pretty fabrics adorn tree branches, prayers and wishes moving in the wind. Insects hover above the lily pads of a still pond traversed by a pretty wooden bridge.
The ‘Tibetan Tea Rooms’ had looked very inviting on the website and I am looking forward to a wholesome veggie lunch prepared (hopefully) using the organic home-grown produce I’d seen in the vegetable garden. I am most disappointed to discover that the only food on the menu is Danish pastries and cheese & onion pasties. The enthusiastic young man who serves me informs me that there is usually soup and sandwiches too, but all the kitchen staff are new and still learning. Two packets of crisps and a refreshing bottle of elderflower cordial have to suffice. It doesn’t seem to matter in the scheme of things.
On my way back to the road I pass an intriguing building, a sort of corridor with prayer wheels arranged along one side, and what is essentially a columbarium along the other. Within glass-fronted cabinets stand rows of urns and other receptacles containing cremated remains. Most have alongside them photographs of the people and pets whose remains are housed here, presumably members of the Buddhist community and their companions in feather and fur. Exquisitely decorated vases, bejewelled caskets, Chinese-style lacquered boxes, even hand-painted cardboard tubes all repose in the recesses. Smiling faces look out from gilded frames as the prayer wheels spin in sequence, carrying a thousand heartfelt wishes onto the breeze.