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 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. I had a quite stressful job (Chamber of Commerce). So that all finished.
Fast forward to about the early nineties now. I got a phone call from an ex-colleague of mine at the chambers. “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. I knew nothing about Buddhism at all. Brought up a Roman Catholic. I knew quite a lot about Samye Ling because I’d worked in the Middle East as a soldier and so on. 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 didn’t exactly move into their new centre in? but I bought a derelict cottage which was there on their grounds. They had to sell it because the bank wanted them to sell it to help offset the initial borrowing. Bought it for £35,000, sold it for £150,000 a few years late so I made a bit of money on it.
Things I’ve 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 here for Christmas/New Year. This was in 2007 I think and I came up with her. Ken Holmes was a teacher. I was very impressed. Samye Ling it wasn’t a subject that was new to me. I had gone through the Gelugpa tradition…but all the lineage stuff is the same here or similar. But he was a really, really good teacher. So that’s what got me into it.
What was your first impression of Samye Ling?
Samy 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 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, possibly by accident. 2012/13, three of us went for a walk and we wondered, “What’s up there?” So we walked to Garvald. We met someone who was known as Irish Tony living in Garvald cottages and it was quite a surreal conversation we had. Within about 20 minutes, this couple that I was with – and me, decided we would like to renovate one of these barns. So that’s how it happened.
We rushed back to Samye ling, breathlessly related it to Ani Lhamo. She said, “Well put it in writing.” So that was the start of it.
What was your very first action concerning the property?
Through Ani Lhamo we organised an interview with Lama Yeshe (Abbot) to get permission to do it which happened in February 2013.
A couple of days after the account I just told you the other two phoned me. They lived on the south coast of England and they told me they had backed out but they said, “Why don’t you go ahead?” There is a row of derelict barns. I was going to renovate one third of it as a single person’s dwelling. They were going to do the other two thirds as a family dwelling.
To be honest, when I went in to see Lama Yeshe with my kata I was half hoping he would say “No” because it was too much of a project. A very wise old guy is Lama Yeshe. He pointed me in the direction of the bit I did build. 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 a hold of an architect and then literally do the work. During this time I stayed in my motorhome.
As a rough estimate, how much would you say was your expenditure?
It’s not a straight answer. It sound as though I’m 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. I discounted any sort of income when I first looked at it. So, putting all things together I think it was about 65k. That’s everything…fitting it out, kitchen, furniture, the lot. That’s not 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 very 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 Garvald?
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 are 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 built up a bit 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 SAMY LING. The people I’m thinking of are Ani Lhamo or ? Dorje. Probably, he’d point you in the right direction. I’m assuming that it would them be the same process as I experienced. An interview with Lama Yeshe or Katia Lama perhaps ad 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…the classic self-build insurance. I got the details from my neighbour Steve Kent whose the only other person who’s done this at Garvald and he built his house about six or seven years before I arrived. And I used the same company as him. It wasn’t too expensive but it wasn’t too much. I took out eighteen months of building insurance and renewed it as necessary.
As far as the facilities were concerned, did you have any problem with electricity or anything else?
No more problem 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 just got a standard meter box which were literally stood on a couple of cement blocks and is now in the wall. That’s how I started. The meter is permanently installed but I built round it.
Did you have any problem getting materials up there?
No, I didn’t actually. I had accounts with Keyline and Jewson, nationally known builders and various other organisations. They regularly use Samye Ling. The Garvald track is not the best in the world. I got to know the delivery guys very well. 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.
Other articles about Ernie Buck can be found on Ernie Buck