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Book review – part two
Last week the Banner carried a first instalment of the autobiography of Lama Yeshe, the charismatic managing director of Holy Isle. When we left him he had just escaped from the Chinese communist invaders in Tibet and made it to India but his idyllic life had literally been smashed to pieces. Here Alice Maxwell continues her review.
The refugee camps in India were squalid, and lacked adequate drinking water. They were completely vulnerable to diseases such as measles and tuberculosis that were unknown in Tibet and which spread like wildfire. Like many others, Lama Yeshe contracted dysentery – and later a severe bout of tuberculosis. During this time Lama Yeshe’s brother Akong left India for the UK, with his close friend Trungpa. Both were highly respected Buddhist teachers (lamas) and together they established the Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, in Eskdalemuir, Dumfriesshire.
Lama Yeshe remained in India and Sikkim, living amongst the refugees. He was lost and lonely, unable to come to terms with the tragic loss of his country and had no idea what to do with his life. He loved Hindi films and experienced first-hand the addictive pull of material things and the trap of self-indulgence. He discovered that young people in the west were rejecting the old ways and exploring alternative life-styles, values, politics and spirituality and in 1969 he persuaded Akong to send him the money for an air ticket to Scotland.
Samye Ling at that time was cold, damp and ramshackle. Trungpa taught meditation to the handful of ‘smelly hippies’ who lived there, while Akong was a caretaker, ordering food, and mending clothes. There was no money for luxuries and the food consisted mostly of brown rice and raw vegetables. This was not at all the glamourous western life that Lama Yeshe had anticipated. He continued to ignore the Buddhist teachings given by Trungpa, and did little to help in the running of the centre. He was disconnected, adrift and increasingly unhappy.
During this time Akong married a young Tibetan called Yangchen. The couple moved to Dumfries where they ran a B&B and brought up a family. A local builder, David Robison and his wife Eta befriended them and were devoted to Akong and his family.
David took Lama Yeshe on a fishing trip to Orkney where the wayward Tibetan once again broke Buddhist precepts and caught fish after fish. When Akong saw photographs of the dead fish he was devastated.
With tears in his eyes he said to his brother: ‘I promised our parents that I would take care of you and raise you with Buddhist values….. I have protected you from .. suffering. But now I feel like a failure. I have let our parents down.’
Lama Yeshe had never seen his brother so upset. Akong had a rock-like stability and to see him in tears caused Lama’s heart to break. He made a vow there and then to move from negative thinking and action to a more positive way of being.
It took a few more years of wildness for the seed of change to take root, but in the mid-1980s Lama Yeshe finally decided to ordained as a monk and devote the remainder of his life to a spiritual path.
He undertook strict meditation retreats which are designed to free the mind from the hold of negative emotions, thus allowing one’s inherent goodness to blossom.
During Lama Yeshe’s first retreat, in Woodstock, America, he had an auspicious dream. He dreamt of an island off an island and writes: ‘I vividly recall that there was a bay on the larger island that was lit up by the lights of houses and bars and restaurants. Across this bay was a small island, shaped like a lion whose mighty paws came down to the sea…. I recall landing there and looking across to the lighted bay.’
Lama Yeshe returned to Scotland to continue retreat and help Akong with the running of Samye Ling. In 1990 he was approached by a Catherine Morris who wanted to sell her home of many years, Holy Isle, because it was such a spiritually powerful place and she ‘couldn’t handle it’. A devout Catholic, the Virgin Mary had appeared to her in a dream and indicated that she should sell the island to a Lama Yeshe. On arrival to Arran, Lama immediately recognized Lamlash and Holy Isle from his dream many years earlier.
Through the strength of his faith Lama Yeshe managed to buy the isle, which is now known as The Holy Isle Centre for World Peace and Health. The lighthouse buildings at the south have been renovated and now house a retreat for nuns, while the North End offers simple accommodation for guests of all faiths or none to come and enjoy the spiritual healing atmosphere of the isle. Day visitors are welcomed, athough the centre is now temporarily closed due to Covid restrictions.
From his wild beginnings, Lama Yeshe is now a respected and renowned teacher of Buddhism and meditation. He is grateful for the suffering he has experienced, which, he writes, have been necessary in order for him to become an effective teacher here in the west.
In a world where people the world over are suffering unprecedented loss and illness, loneliness and disconnectedness, From a Mountain in Tibet uplifts the spirits and warms the heart, and leaves the reader with a message of hope that can be carried into the New Year.
As a post-script, I would like to add that due to Lama Yeshe’s vision, I had the good fortune to live on Holy Isle for 12 years where I meditated, cooked and gardened. I then found a lovely home in Lamlash where I look out to see Holy Isle. Perhaps the lights twinkling from my windows are the ones Lama saw in his dream. Thank you Lama Yeshe!
Published by Penguin, it is available at The Book and Card Centre, Brodick.