HOLY ISLAND: THREE PERSPECTIVES
You can’t come to Holy Island and not be impressed!
For the naturalist, there is an abundance of wild plants including bluebells, primroses, wild strawberry, wild thyme, bog myrtle, the curiously-named quaking grass and pale butterwort, an insectivorous perennial that gets its nourishment from various flying bugs.
As well as the plants, there is also a surprising variety of wild life. Apart from a unique stock of Hebridean Eriskay ponies, there are bronze age Soay sheep and Saanen goats (confusingly for me, city born and raised, the goats are white and the sheep are brown). The goats may have been left on the island some seven-hundred years ago by the Vikings, I read somewhere.
There is a large variety of birds including, the shy eider ducks, noisy oyster catchers and the hostile seagulls, the latter mainly nesting on the southern end of the island on a steep rock face. At this time of year, June/July, the unwary visitor might be attacked by a seagull protecting its young nesting on the rocky western shore of the Firth of Clyde.
The Community of Arran Seabed Trust has negotiated with the Scottish Parliament to assign Lamlash Bay a Marine Protected Area “No Take Zone” which probably encourages common grey seals, basking sharks, porpoises, dolphins and the occasional minke whale to hunt their prey there; although I’ve only seen one seal and one shark on my various visits to the island.
Now, in the second half of June, the accommodation is filled with people here for Ringu Tulku Rinpoche’s teaching on Karma Chagme’s A Quintessential Practice Unifying Mahamudra and Mahasiddhi: and you can’t help but be impressed with the full turnout for the teaching.
John Gallagher stands out from the crowd. Hailing from Glasgow, John is over six-feet tall with a mop of jet black hair. John says he became interested in Buddhism only three-months before coming to the teaching. Although he was aware of the dharma he says, I kind of always knew about Buddhism but I just didn’t do anything about it. I wasn’t really looking for it. I knew it existed, I knew there were places in Glasgow. I felt a bit, not apprehensive, but a bit wary about it. Not in a bad way. I thought I didn’t really need it at all.
Because of some recent incidents that happened in his life, John began to look to Buddhism to try to make sense of what was happening to him. He became interested in the practices and decided that they would offer some kind of support by allowing him to develop a mindful approach to his problems.
He says of his first introduction to Buddhism, My first experience…was through my college. I was going through a bit of stress through work and dealing with certain things that came up, with college and with people as well. I needed to get more focus back because I thought I was going astray…I needed something to focus my mind on. I knew that Buddhism was actually a good thing for training your mind.
John also sensed that the sangha would offer him a social aspect to Buddhism as well.
John first found out about Ringu Tulku Rinpoche through a friend. Coincidentally, someone in his college told him about the Holy Isle Project and that Rinpoche would be giving a teaching there. He made some enquiries and after meeting Ani Sherab in Glasgow who told him about how she came to be a nun, he decided he would attend some classes.
About the teaching at Holy Isle, John explains, I think I picked the teaching up pretty well. I don’t remember all of it, but when Ringu Tulku Rinpoche is teaching I find it goes in very easily.
He also commented on the questions asked at the teaching: I find that when people ask complicated questions at the end of a session, they seem to be overly complicated. The answers sometimes seem to be a lot better than the questions. He sometimes takes a while to think about the question…then gives a simple answer. The answer is a lot clearer [than the question].
Anita Selva is from Seven Oaks in Kent. She is a tad reluctant to categorise herself as a Buddhist: I’m from Seven Oaks in Kent. I have taken refuge but still don’t like to use the term, “I am a Buddhist”.
I wouldn’t generally say that, but I guess I am, without the labels. I took refuge at Kopan Monastery, in Nepal a couple of years ago from a Lama who came from India and I just finished a one-month retreat there. I was thinking of taking refuge again yesterday but I didn’t so…
The retreat was a lamrin retreat, sort of mixed teachings, half and half silence and meditation. Quite intense, that one.
Anita considers that her experience of Buddhism before the retreat was intellectual and theoretical, so the practical experience of the retreat itself was “quite intense”.
Of her family life, Anita’s family had more of a secular approach to their religion: My parents are Hindus but they’re not very religious, only when there’s a death or something. You don’t notice anything religious going on. I don’t really put up with much religion.
In her self-appraisal of where she had come to in her experience of Buddhism, Anita was discovering different types of Buddhism: After Nepal I carried on travelling. I went to visit family, Malaysia, Australia, a few different places, Thailand. I forgot the practices I had learned in meditation. I found differences in the types of Buddhism I saw in my travels. I’ve seen Thailand. It’s very different, the way they carried out the rituals and everything and I found I’m still a complete beginner so it’s very new to me. I’m still learning. A lot of it was very different.
Anita first heard of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche about four-years ago when she attended one of his talks in London. She heard about this through her partner and “just went along”. Much of what she gleaned from the talk she felt was slightly interesting but it didn’t make a big impression on her. Gradually, Anita came to understand more about the practice. She wasn’t sure if she had made the right decision to come to Holy Island, but she was happy to be here: I’m glad I came, she says.
Anita found the course relaxing compared to the retreat she had done at Kopan Monastery. She felt, very chilled out, people are really friendly, welcoming. I really liked it. It’s not too separate. It’s integrated. Learning how to integrate, I think that’s important as well because I’m used to it being very disciplined, the last retreat, being told off…you must be in silence, that kind of thing. The course here is very relaxed compared to the other meditation retreat I’ve done.
Again, Anita reiterates her dislike of having to declare a particular practice: I like to pick and choose and not have to box myself into any thing. That was my real aversion to it to start with, the whole religion thing. So I don’t like to think about that side of it. Just sit and listen to the teachings; that helps me in day to day life.
Of her diet, Anita is articulate: I’m a vegetarian for ethical reasons, mainly. But it’s also learning about the health reasons. All the suffering of all the animals. On my own, I couldn’t bear the thought of cutting up raw meat. I just stopped having it. I’ve been a vegetarian now for about six or seven-years. My mum was brought up as a vegetarian but she started eating meat when she met my dad.
That the state of one’s mind can be communicated to animals, Anita is certain: I teach horse-riding so I try to keep up the mindfulness when I’m teaching as well. I meditate, not as often as I should, but it’s more mindfulness to me, just being aware. I don’t set a time every day when I sit and meditate, but I come on this retreat, go home and try and do it again. When I go to a horse show, I sit and still everything, just for a minute. But I’m not into any particular practice at the moment, but I do shinay.
I think that general stillness can be transferred to animals, that peaceful calmness in you. My horse definitely knows when I’m a bit agitated, if I’m riding in a more ego-centred way. If you let things just flow, you’re listening more to them and you’re just kind of calm and still. So I think it does definitely help a lot. I’m quite interested in that aspect of meditation. Dressage is what I do, so you have to quieten the mind.
Julian with his son Max
Julian Stollmeyer was born and raised in Trinidad. He lived in the United States for thirty-four years but went back to live in Trinidad to stay only one-year ago.
The primary reason I went to America was my interest in Buddhism and after seeing Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche I went back to Trinidad for a year or two; but I didn’t find any dharma or Buddhist sangha in Trinidad and I felt this very strong yearning to connect with the teaching.
Julian’s experience of Buddhism was established some years ago: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is my primary teacher, my root guru, but he brought over numerous teachers also – the Karmapa, Tai Situ Rinpoche and Thrangu Rinpoche – over many years.
Before he came to Holy Island, Julian’s knowledge of Ringu Tulku Rinpoche was from a previous visit by his friend to Montserrat in the Carribean: A friend of mine from Trinidad met Lama Rinchen in Montserrat some ten-years ago and invited him to teach in Trinidad. Lama Rinchen now has a sangha in Trinidad and Tobago that is now a part of Bodhicharya Caribbean.
Julian’s first meeting with Ringu Tulku Rinpoche was some time ago: I first met RTR about 20 or 30-years ago in the nineties when he came to Colorado and taught at Naropa Institute. I didn’t hear much about him again until a couple of years ago when I was in Colorado. His presentation of the dharma hasn’t changed that much, though I don’t have a very precise memory of what he taught back then. I remember the same, down-to-earth, accessible quality about the way he teaches.
Julian says he has enjoyed his stay on the island. The teaching, as well as the food, he found to be memorable: Holy Isle is unique. I’ve never seen anything like it; an island in Europe that’s a Buddhist island. The kind of sacred quality that it has, obviously being a practice-oriented place, maintaining the natural state. Very little has been done to change [the environment]. You can really see the love and kindness that’s gone into cooking too.
Of the teaching, Julian has this to say: The commentary on the text was clear. Rinpoche explains things very well.
The course ends and the participants depart to return to their homes. That Holy Island is a unique environment for the teaching of the dharma is unquestionable. As Julian says, the Island has a “kind of sacred quality”. And it is the memory of the Island and the teaching that the visitors will take with them.