Chant of a lifetime
According to Jim Eakins, principal teacher of RE at Leith Academy in Edinburgh, a visit to the Samye Ling Buddhist monastery near Dumfries is "like going to Tibet for the day".
I vow to test the theory and, at first sight, I have to admit that the setting is not dissimilar. The surrounding countryside is cold and bleak and one can easily imagine being at the foothills of the Himalayas. And just as in Tibet where the golden and yellow roofs of the monasteries stand out for miles as Buddhist beacons, the distinctive shape and colour of the temple is unmistakable.
Driving through the gates, the statues and stupas - more on those later - are outsized and colourful. These statues alone are as good a reason as any to take a school trip to Samye Ling.
Even senior secondary pupils find it hard to widen their focus outside their immediate world. The Tibetan centre reveals an alternative way of living, a different culture, another set of beliefs. Travelling the world is obviously one way of discovering what is out there, but this is closer to home and just as valid, more so, in that the monastery shows that we all have choices. Most pupils visit as part of their Higher RE course where Buddhism is one of the options. But for Jim Eakins, it's the only real option to choose.
"It makes sense to teach Buddhism for the Higher when there is a working example of the religion down the road," he says.
I met up with Genden, who has been a monk since 1984. Before that, he was a youth and community worker in East Kilbride. He takes school groups around the centre when they visit and he is perfectly equipped to do the job: he is friendly and chatty, and explains things very clearly.
First stop is the temple, which is an incredible sight. Everything is gold-plated and the altar wall incorporates a huge golden Buddha with 1,000 small Buddhas on either side. Other statues of important masters surround the Buddha, and the overall effect is startling. It takes a while for the pupils to take it all in, Genden tells me.
While the pupils are in awe, Genden takes the opportunity to explain some of the principles of Buddhism, using the images in the temple as aids. This part can cause confusion, so be warned. It appears that the way the school and the textbooks teach Buddhism, and the way it is actually practised, can differ.
This, Mr Eakins explains, is because the books tend to be theoretical and teach from the head, while real Buddhists approach the religion from the heart. There are also different strains of Buddhism - Tibetan is only one - so explain this to pupils before they visit.
The experience of the temple is heightened when the monks and nuns are praying and it is worth timing a visit to include this. Cymbals, bells and drums punctuate the rhythm of the chanting and this sound, along with the smell of incense and the glorious colours of the temple interior, make this a sensory experience to remember.
The trip is completed with a walk in the grounds and a look at the stupa, like a mausoleum, where the ashes of the dead are kept. It is lucky to walk round the stupa clockwise, so I do.
Samye Ling is an amazing place and is a wonderful destination for students, of RE or otherwise. A quick chat with the sixth-year students from Leith Academy confirms this. Their attitude was positive.
"The monks were just on a totally different plane from us," said one. "It was great to see that what we are learning is actually happening," said another. "It reinforced everything we are reading about in class."
"It was weird to see all this so close to Edinburgh, it wasn't like Scotland at all."
A bit like Tibet maybe?
Samye Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre, Eskdalemuir, Langholm, Dumfries and Galloway DG13 0QL. Tel: 013873 73232; email: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.samyeling.org