Holy Isle – a message from Lama Yeshe Rinpoche

Lama Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, Abbot of Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery and Director of the Centre for World Peace and Health, Holy Island

In this very special message from Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, we hear about the environmental work that has been undertaken on Holy Isle since the Centre for World Peace and Health was established in 1992. While he cannot be on Holy Isle at present Lama Yeshe has a very close relationship with the island and volunteers who live there, and he continues to oversee the work that goes on. He leaves us with some wise words on how we may tread carefully through the world especially at this time of continuing lockdown.

The entire Holy Isle project is my brain child.

As the people of Arran know, historically, Holy Isle has an important place in the Christian tradition, so from the beginning I have been very much committed to preserving that and also to promoting Holy Isle as a sacred space for interfaith dialogue. Over the years many people of different faiths have come to the island, to visit and to participate in interfaith events, and in recent years two well known Christian practitioners have led courses regularly.

Everyone is welcome on Holy Isle, there is no discrimination on account of colour, race, gender or religion. Everyone is welcomed with open arms.

I am very concerned about the environment so all building and renovation has been done according to ecologically sound principles, so that there is no damage to the environment. We have also planted 40 to 50 thousand indigenous trees on the island, mostly broadleaf varieties and some Scots Pine.

Historically Holy Isle was covered with Scots Pine but by the time we took over, there were only a few trees left, so for the first few years I focussed on planting trees. In the beginning, since it was easier. we planted mainly at the north end, and now, more recently, we are able to plant all over the island.

When we arrived on Holy Isle, there were three rare breeds of animals: Eriskay ponies, Sanaan goats and Soay sheep, which had been brought there by the University of Glasgow. I was advised by many well known experts in animal welfare and environmental management. They all had different ideas, some said animals would eat too much vegetation and others said trees would use up too much of the animals’ grazing. So I personally took charge, and decided to take care of the animals according to my Tibetan tradition. I made sure there were paths the animals could follow around the island and that there were plenty of places where there were springs so they had enough to drink. And I invested heavily in fencing so all the tree planting areas could be protected until the saplings were mature enough to survive.

One example is the Dunblane memorial tree planting area which is beside the path near the north end. It was fenced off for many years and when the trees grew sufficiently the fence was removed and now the animals can walk in amongst them for shelter and grazing.

Some years ago we fenced off a large area at the south end of the island and planted many hundreds of trees, mainly broadleaf varieties as well as some pines. They have now grown quite tall and healthy though they are not yet mature enough to remove the fencing. Ever since I bought the island I have had one monk, Rinchen, who I call the Holy Isle Ranger who goes around the island every year, checking and thinning out the trees. This is an ongoing task which continues year after year.

The people of Arran will be familiar with the problems posed by overgrown rhododendrons, which was a big problem at the north end of Holy Isle. However, over a period of several years and with the help of groups of enthusiastic volunteers we gradually cleared them all away.

The ponies run freely over the island and we don’t interfere with them. Left to themselves, they have formed very nice family groups and seem never to produce too many foals so the groups remain about the same size. Several researchers have studied the animals and so far they all tell me they are in robust good health.

When we arrived on Holy Isle I was told there were about 10 species of birds on the island. Now after planting so many trees I believe there are up to 40 or 50 different species. This seems to be because the habitat has improved and also as Buddhists we give animals and birds the same rights as humans so they are all very well treated, and consequently they have very little fear of humans. Many of them will even land on your hand.

Holy Isle has become one of the best known retreat centres in Europe. Whoever comes there becomes peaceful and happy, even if they are very stressed when they arrive. They leave enriched and joyful, expressing gratitude for the peace, solitude and beauty of the island.

Of course we have to focus on using the island meaningfully so we have the most wonderful organic gardeners who have made use of horse droppings and seaweed to feed the soil and the garden. They manage to provide delicious, nourishing vegetables, fruit and salad almost all year round.

Although it will be very expensive, I plan to sink a bore hole to help provide hot water to reduce the island’s use of grid electricity, so we can reduce the considerable amount that we currently spend on electricity. There are no motor vehicles and everything is transported around the island on foot. And generally we have done everything to provide green energy and to be environmentally friendly.

As Director of Holy Isle I want to say everyone is very welcome to visit. All we ask of our visitors is to follow the ‘Five Golden Rules’ (a name I was proud to hear is now being used by the UK government!) so we can all contribute to making the world a better place.

Most tourist attractions take advantage of the opportunity to charge people for their facilities, so I decided that as a Buddhist, facilities should be freely available to visitors, so we offer a pleasant place to sit inside, with tea or coffee and the use of toilets all free of charge – though if they wish, they are welcome to make a donation.

Guests staying at the Centre for World Peace and Health are charged for their accommodation but any profit is reinvested, which helps us maintain and improve the buildings. And of course, at present, while we have the Coronavirus, there is no income at all, and we still have to look after the group of about 20 people who are living on the island.

Ever since we bought Holy Isle, so that Arran people can see what we are doing, we have an open day each year. On that day everyone is welcomed and given the opportunity to look around, to meet the residents, and to enjoy refreshments. I feel that over the years we have developed a good relationship with the local people, though for health reasons, I myself have not managed to visit Holy Isle for some time.

Finally I ask all the people of Arran to remain stress-free, calm and kind hearted, and to think of others rather than oneself. Always remember that other people are going through the same difficulties, so always remember loving kindness. Then maybe this situation can benefit all beings. This virus has brought us together and together we shall overcome it.

Even though I can’t be there at present, I am with all of you, wishing you the very best.

Lama Yeshe
in Kagyu Samye Ling

With deepest thanks to Lama Yeshe Rinpoche for contributing this piece for the July issue of the Voice.

Featured image of Holy Isle pre-dawn. Photo credit to David Hopley.