Glasgow Buddhist Centre

Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow

As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.

I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.

Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.

So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.

Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.

I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.

A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.

He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra, one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.

Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.

I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.

I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.

Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:

In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.

His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.

Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.

As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.

So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.

As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.

He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.

For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.

The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.

Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.

I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.

I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.

According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.

This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.

This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.

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The Larkhall attic Margaret turned into a Buddhist shrine (Evening Times, Glasgow, Scotland)

Maureen Ellis, Evening Times, Glasgow: His Holiness the Dalai Lama comes to the SECC in Glasgow on Saturday for the first of four days of teachings on Buddhism.

An expected 10,000 people will attend his public talk, while the Solus Festival at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre in Sauchiehall Street, will hold talks, workshops, meditation and fringe events.

Ahead of Glasgow’s first Buddhist festival, MAUREEN ELLIS talks to three local people who have put their faith in the religion.

Margaret Fergusson’s quiet Larkhall bungalow would be like any other in her street. . . if it wasn’t for the huge buddha that sits outside her home.

Inside, her loft has been converted into a makeshift shrine, which Margaret affectionately calls her rabbit hutch.

The reason for the outsize Buddha and the indoor shrine is that Margaret is a Buddhist – a religion she took up 10 years ago to cope with the daily stresses of her job as a chemist in the Blood Transfusion Service.

“Somebody who didn’t know me recently described me as being quite laid-back,” she says. “I can tell you I wasn’t laid back before.

“I’ve learned to hang loose with things in life – the nice things will happen and the nasty things will happen, and that’s how things are.”

Margaret’s background set her up perfectly for an exploratory life.

Born in wartime Glasgow, yet raised throughout the Hebridean Islands, her family were staunch agnostics who would listen to any idea, provided it could be backed up.

“It was an incredibly argumentative house,” she recalls, “but it was incredibly free – no idea was considered too shocking to broach at the dinner table.”

As a youth, Margaret read Buddhist books brought back from India by her father, who had been involved in war service there.

Later she became involved with humanism and Scottish national politics, but when she enrolled in a class at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre she quickly became hooked.

“When I got there I just felt at home. I was sitting on my first night in my first meditation class, planning how I could extend my stay beyond the eight weeks that I’d signed up for.”

Margaret’s plan succeeded. Today, having retired from her daily job, she not only attends regular classes at the centre but also works as a receptionist on a voluntary basis one day per week.

Describing herself as a visual person, Margaret identifies most with the Tibetan Wheel of Life, an illustration of the essence of Buddhist teachings that provides a ready reckoner of her spiritual status.

She’s currently a Mitra (friend) of the Western Buddhist Order – the interim stage between stating a committed interest in Buddhism and becoming ordained.

As she did in her agnostic family household, Margaret endures light-hearted banter with her husband Iain and two sons, Euan aged 24 and Alan, 22.

Nevertheless, the Buddhist philosophies, while far from being evangelical, must be rubbing off on them – for the whole family will attend the Dalai Lama’s public talk at the SECC.

“None of them are seriously interested in Buddhism, but they’re quite happy to get involved. I think they see me as a bit calmer and more able to withstand the slings and arrows,” says Margaret.

Article no longer available.

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A religion for everyone? (The Scotsman, Edinburgh, Scotland)

Stephen McGinty, The Scotsman: 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. Sangharakshita, 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 Viryadevi, 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.”

• Tickets for the Dalai Lama’s talks on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the SECC are priced at £20 per day and available from the SECC box office on 0870 040 4000

Original article no longer available…

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Buddhism: the new religion of choice for 30-somethings (Sunday Herald, Scotland)

Jenifer Johnston, Sunday Herald, Scotland: When the Dalai Lama visits Scotland this summer he will find fertile ground for his teachings. Experts believe the number of Buddhists in the country has risen past the 10,000 mark and is growing. 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.”

[Original article no longer available]
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