When and how did you first discover Buddhism?
Oh heavens! In a conventional sense I would say by accident. I started doing TM in about the early nineties or late eighties. I had a quite stressful job at Bradford Chamber of Commerce; lots of squabbles and small ‘p’ politics, that sort of thing. I got into TM as a totally secular thing. It worked fine. The mantra I used to do – a couple of times a day, twenty minutes – it did what it said on the tin. It was very effective for me. I did it for about a year and then … you gradually get out of these things. So that all finished.
Fast forward to about the early nineties now. I got a phone call from an ex-colleague of mine from the chamber of commerce days. “You used to meditate, didn’t you? It worked for you.”
And I said, “I did.”
She had seen meditation classes advertised in the Bradford Interfaith Centre. She didn’t want to go on her own. Would I go with her? Along I went. It happened to be Buddhist. Having been brought up Roman Catholic, and spending some 5 years in the Middle East as both soldier and civilian, I was pretty much au fait with Christianity and Islam but I knew nothing about Buddhism at all. So, that got me into it. And that was with the New Kadampa Tradition.
Again, I got very interested in that to the point where I became connected to their new Losang Dragpa Centre in Todmorden, West Yorkshire. In the end I bought a derelict cottage which was in the grounds of Dobroyd Castle – the original name of the Centre. Because they’d overstretched themselves with the initial borrowing, the bank made them sell it. I bought it freehold for £35k (the independent surveyor’s valuation) and sold it for £150k a few years late so I made a bit of money on it.
Things I learned while I was travelling in Dharamsala and Bodhgaya about the setup of the NKT in the UK made me think, “Well, perhaps we had to part company.” There was all the dorje shugden thing that you’re familiar with. There was this split with the Dalai Lama and so on. I wasn’t really comfortable with it.
Came back from my journey. A friend of mine was coming up to Samye Ling for Christmas/New Year. This was in 2007, I think, and I came up with her. Ken Holmes was the course teacher. I was very impressed. All though my experience so far had been with Gulugpa Tradition’s teachings, it wasn’t a subject that was new to me….….but all the lineage stuff is the same or similar in the Kagyu Lineage. But he was a really, really good teacher. So that’s what kept me coming to Samye Ling and finally prompted me to move here when I retired.
What was your first impression of Samye Ling?
Samye Ling, this was much more established than what I’d been used to. The usual friendly atmosphere, but being a bit long in the tooth I knew that, if humankind is involved, it’s not all sweetness and light. But it was very positive. Put it that way.
What made you decide to come here to stay?
I’ve got family connections but I’m free, single: my family’s down in England in various places. I was retiring…past retirement age so I thought, “Why not settle near Samye Ling?”
How did you come across the property that you decided to renovate?
Again, from a conventional point of view, by accident. On the last half day of the Samye Ling 2012/13 Christmas/New Year course, three of us went for a walk and we wandered up to Garwald; a mile and a half up a forestry track. We met someone who was known as Irish Tony living in a cottage, part of what could be described as a little hamlet – all owned by Samye Ling, as we subsequently discovered. We had what was quite a surreal conversation with him. Within about 20 minutes, the couple that I was with, and me, decided we would like to renovate a row of derelict barns; they would use two thirds of the row as a family home, and I would use the other third as a single person’s dwelling.
We rushed back to Samye ling and breathlessly related all this to the Abbot’s Assistant, Ani Lhamo. She said, “Well put it in writing”, which we did. That’s how it all started.
What was your very first action concerning the property?
A couple of days after arriving home, I received a phone call from the couple saying that they’d had second thoughts and decided to back out. They lived on the south coast of England and didn’t want to move so far away from friends and family.
Through Ani Lhamo I organised an official interview with Lama Yeshe (Abbot) to get permission for the build, which happened in February 2013.
To be honest, when I went in to see Lama Yeshe with my kata in hand, because of the enormity of the original row of barns project, I was half hoping he would say “No”. I felt it would probably be too much for me, both physically and financially. Lama Yeshe is a very wise old guy. He pointed me in the direction of the site where I’ve subsequently built. That’s how it got going.
How long did it take to finish the project?
From moving up there with a motorhome in April 2013, I moved in three years later in May. So, it was basically three years. That’s everything. That was to get the planning permission sorted, get the building warrant, get hold of an architect and then literally do the work. During this time, I lived in the motorhome.
As a rough estimate, how much would you say was your expenditure?
It’s hard to give you a straight answer. I must sound like a very bad accountant. It was difficult because I had some savings when I came up and I thought I’d have that stretched to the limit. But as I paid my way month after month some of it came out of my pension income so I wasn’t exhausting my savings so quickly. I’d discounted any sort of income when I planned the job. So, putting all things together I think it was about £65k. That’s everything…fitting it out, kitchen, decorating, furniture, etc, the lot. That’s not just the bricks, mortar and so on.
What happens to the property now?
I have a lease agreement with Samye Ling which gives me that piece of land and the house until I die and then it is bequeathed to Samye Ling which was the original intention; that’s what made it a good idea for me at the beginning.
Is there still an opportunity for others to develop a property in Garwald?
Yes, there is. There are three barns which, at the moment have bits and pieces stored in them. I was going to say derelict barns, but they are watertight presently and in fact, we’ve just renewed the guttering on them. The exterior is usable and they would make good single-person living properties with an open-plan living area downstairs and a sort of a mezzanine type bedroom. So, there are three options there. And there’s also that long row of derelict barns which I was talking about earlier. So, there’s plenty of options to do what I did.
What advice would you give to someone who in interested in developing a barn?
Think carefully. It might not be for everybody. You might not want to do it the way I did. Apart from the exterior stonework, I virtually did all of the rest of it myself. Luckily, I’m reasonably fit. I don’t have a building background but gradually accumulated a wealth of experience. So, I was able to do that – and I had a really good architect. If you’re the sort of person who sees self-build as a project management situation it would cost a bit more than it did me. But it would still be doable.
Physically what would they do? Would they go and meet Lama Yeshe first?
I would advise anyone to do what I did. See someone in authority in Samye Ling. The people I’m thinking of are Ani Lhamo or Lodro Dorje. Probably, they’d point you in the right direction. I’m assuming that it would then be the same process as I experienced. An interview with Lama Yeshe or Katin Lama perhaps and get permission to do it.
Did you have to take out some kind of insurance for this job?
Yes, I did. I took out building insurance…a conventional self-build policy. I got the details from my neighbour Steve Kent, the only other person who’s done this at Garwald and he built his house about six or seven years before I arrived. And I used the same insurance company as him. It wasn’t too expensive. I took out eighteen months of cover and renewed it as necessary.
As far as the facilities were concerned, did you have any problem with electricity or anything else?
No more problems than anybody else in a remote area. In fact, the infrastructure, the lines up the valley have been refurbished very recently. Whereas, we used to get power cuts every week it’s a reasonably rare occurrence now. To be honest, Scottish Power were brilliant with me. I submitted a plan to have electricity on to the property which had meters put into one of the barns temporarily. I had to move somebody else’s meter which was serving another place about a quarter of a mile away up the valley. I made my application. When the surveyor came, he was very, very helpful and he said, “Look you can do this temporarily much more simply than putting it in this barn.” And that helped me a lot. I’ve got a standard meter box which was literally stood temporarily on a couple of cement blocks and is now embedded in the finished wall.
Did you have any problem getting materials up there?
No, I didn’t actually. I had accounts with Keyline and Jewson, nationally known builder’s merchants, and various other organisations. Samye Ling regularly use them. The Garwald track is not the best in the world but passable. I got to know the delivery guys and it worked extremely well. There was hardly ever a weather situation when they couldn’t deliver up there.
I’ve absolutely no regrets and I’m really pleased with what I’ve done and I’ve been living in it now for eighteen months.
Tea or coffee?
Tea. A preference by taste is coffee but it scours me out.
TV or radio?
A bit of both. I like radio 4 but I like BBC television.
Meat or veg?
A bit of both but very little of the first. Once a week perhaps.
Folk or rock?
Well, given my hearing disability, probably folk.
White bread or brown?
Bath or shower?
Shower. I haven’t got a bath.
Rain or snow?
Snow for the aesthetics.
Dogs or cats?
Summer or winter?
That’s difficult. Spring.
Zips or buttons?
Phones or mobiles?
Cycling round the world or building a home?
[Laughs] With hindsight, I think cycling round the world was easier. It wouldn’t seem like that in people’s minds but it was more straightforward.
The motorhome accommodation at Garwald which served as ‘home’ for three years; situated about 30 metres from the building site.
The first two scaffolding bays erected at the rear of the site and boards being prepared prior to knocking out most of the unsound existing wall in order to ‘rebuild’.
A skyline shot of the blockwork centre part of the walls up to roof height, showing the concrete lintels above the upstairs windows.
This shows a section of the ground floor open-plan living area – giving a flavour of the finished interior.
Ernie Buck is 68 years old and has lived in various parts of Yorkshire for the last 30 years. A continual commuting cyclist, he has done a number of long distance solo expeditions within the UK, but dreamt of cycling to India and beyond for years.