Buddha in the potato patch: adventures in comparative monasticism

We’ve now spent two weeks on the island, busy living and working on top of each other, with the last couple of days particularly cramped due to some awful weather. As today was our day off, it was no surprise that I chose to strike out alone off inland. I followed my nose westwards across Islandshire, off past Yeavering and into the Scottish Borders. Then I struck out up Ettrickdale, followed the valley of the Tima Water and soon crested over into the valley of the White Esk in the heart of Eskdalemuir Forest. Here stands, more than a little incongruously, the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Samye-Ling.

Having been spending a lot of time thinking about Anglo-Saxon monastery it was thought provoking to explore a living monastery, albeit one of a very different tradition. Despite, or even because of, the huge differences between 7th century early medieval Christianity and 21st century Tibetan Buddhism, my exploration of this beautiful, peculiar, welcoming site at Samye-Ling got me thinking about cross-cultural commonalities in monasticism; some that are identifiable in the archaeological record and some that may not be.

There are some obvious similarities visually- the vivid use of colour found at Samye-Ling was probably also a feature of Anglo-Saxon monastic sites. We know that early medieval stone sculpture was often painted and that church interiors would have been decorated with elaborate fabric wall hangings and many lamps. Exactly the same scheme occurred in the prayer hall at Samye-ling which was adorned with figurative thangkas, fabrics, food offerings and oil lamps. This must have been very much how the interior of early churches appeared – incredible, sensory experiences which would have been particularly pronounced in a world before electric lights.
The first thing that struck me about Samye-Ling was the relationship between boundedness and the wider landscape. Whilst there was nothing like a monastic vallum of the kind we usually associate with medieval monasteries, there were elaborate ceremonial entrances to the site – marked by gateways and temples. Yet, despite the clear importance of these boundary markers, there was also an interplay with the wider landscape beyond these defined edges. Visually, the monastery was clearly a landmark- in particular its burnished gilded rooflines and prayer flags meant that its impact bled out into its hinterland. I wasn’t there for any ceremonies, but there were large cases of Tibetan trumpets and bells in the main prayer hall, so presumably the noise of worship, music and chanting, would also have been audible beyond the confines of the sacred centre.

This permeable nature of the boundaries was not just one way. I don’t know much about Tibetan monastic traditions, but the landscape location of the monastery was clearly important and engaged with the views beyond the enclosure. In a general sense, the remote rural location seems to have been important- perhaps echoing (in a small way) the mountainous landscape of Tibet. But more immediately, I noticed the careful placing of a small monument on the edge of the river White Esk that bounded the eastern edge of the monastery at the confluence of the river and the Mood Law Burn – it had clearly been located there with a view to framing this natural feature which lay outside the monastic enceinte. Obviously, from my Lindisfarne perspective it made me think of the architectural elaboration of key observation points within the monastery, particularly along the rocky outcrop known as the Heugh. Here recent excavations by another project have revealed a church and a possible cross base, to add to another cross base already known up there. The Heugh commands views not only to Bamburgh, but also Cuthbert’s cell on Inner Farne, as well as looking down on the monastery interior; its ritual importance seems to have come as much from its wider views as its immediate context within the monastery.

A second thing that struck me was the casual combination of the mundane and the ritual. There were clearly marked edges to the site and also well-defined areas of particular religious intensity, such as the prayer hall and the Victory Stupa prayer-wheel house. These nicely echo traditional Durkheimian notions of the sacred and profane; but in practice the situation was more complex. The Samye-Ling complex integrates lots of practical, day-to-day elements within it- as much space is given over to the vegetable garden as the prayer hall. Yet, even in these areas, the sacred intrudes – prayer flags flutter over the green beans and a figure of a buddha stands grandly over the potato patch. The boundary between the holy and the practical is a muddy one (quite literally after this weekend’s weather) – we tend to think of Anglo-Saxon crosses marking out holy areas – wells, boundaries and cemeteries. Perhaps we should also think about them imbuing cabbage patches, stables and barley fields with blessing. After all even Cuthbert on his island fastness on Inner Farne had to miraculously ensure his crop of barley succeeded when his crop of wheat had failed. It also recalls the crosses carved on querns from Dunadd and the cross-marked fishing net weights from Hartlepool. Yet again, despite the importance of inscribing boundaries, there is, in practice, in both monastic traditions a real overlap between sacred and profane.

A further aspect of the monastic experience that Samye-ling brought home to me was the importance of the monastic ‘body’ and comportment – both Buddhist monks and nuns, like Anglo-Saxon monks, are marked out by distinct robes and haircuts that separate them from the lay presence in the monastery. But there were more subtle aspects to bodily discipline that crosscuts the lay-monastic divisions. For example, at Samye-Ling, entry to the prayer hall required removal of footwear. Presumably originally a requirement to keep the inner sanctuary clean and as a mark of respect, but in a culture where we are not used to removing our shoes in public areas (as opposed in a domestic context) I found it provoked a surprising sense of vulnerability (particularly when wearing a pair of walking boots which required quite some getting on and off). The importance of the contextual significance of dress can still be seen today in some Christian churches – men are meant to remove their hats in church (unless they are a priest) whilst there are often demands for women to cover their heads in some traditions; having been brought up a catholic I’m old enough to remember seeing women wearing mantillas over their heads in church and in a completely different tradition, it’s worth watching the occasional broadcast of Free Presbyterian Psalm singing on BBC Alba as a reminder that the tradition of the Sunday church hat is still alive and kicking (check out the FP Church website for their ‘fun’ doctrine on gender and physical appearance and deportment).
Within the prayer hall itself, it was also interesting how visitors responded to the space in terms of their bodily posture. Many lay visitors reacted to being in a sacred space by holding their hands carefully, either clasped behind their back or in front of them and there was a noticeable reluctance by visitors to turn their back on the central focus of the hall (roughly equivalent to the position of the altar in a Christian church) – intriguing that people from a Christian background were interpreting the space of the Buddhist shrine in terms of the use of space in a church particularly in terms of how they physically held their body and oriented themselves within the structure. Whereas, the Buddhhist monks acting as what seems to have been vergers were far more business-like in their engagement with the holy space
Given the adoption of monasticism as a mode of life in a number of religious tradition – Christian, Hindu, Jain and Buddhist – and the use of other forms of collegiate religious life such as madrasah in traditions such as Islam – it would be interesting to explore the comparative aspect of this kind of communal religious experience more

PS: Finally, and slightly at a tangent, archaeologists are particularly prone to talk about technologies of commemoration or technologiesof worship – usually as a metaphor. However, in some Buddhist traditions, prayer wheels are used to say prayers- each rotation of a wheel being equivalent to saying a prayer or a mantra. Usually these are hand-held wheels spun manually. But in some cases, the rotation can be mechanised, with the wheel attached to a water-drive wheel or even powered by an electric motor. At Samye-ling they had a rank of these electric powered prayer wheels – fantastic examples of real rather than metaphorical technologies of worship – they also reminded me of Douglas Adams’ ‘electric monk’ in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency– “The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or a video recorder. Dishwashers washed tedious dishes for you, thus saving you the bother of washing them yourself, video recorders watched tedious television for you, thus saving you the bother of looking at it yourself; Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all the things the world expected you to believe.” But don’t get me on to the agency of inanimate objects…

Published by David Petts

Assc. Prof Archaeology, Durham University - landscapes - old music/books - folk traditions - early med Britain - community heritage - post-medieval - views own @davidpetts1 outlandish-knight.blogspot.co.uk

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