By Catriona Patience
[The author spent a summer as custodian of Inchcolm Abbey, on Inchcolm in the Firth of Forth, and a winter in a Tibetan Buddhist Nunnery in Northern India. What follows is a personal reflection that draws parallels and points of connection between the two experiences.]
Returning to the island. From the boat, I see a log like an Egyptian cat, paralysed, statuesque, bobbing on its back. Later, the same log floats past the low pier on Inchcolm. The sickle moon, waxing, is adrift in clouds.
We fly into the sun, which passes us and speeds west. Time is stolen from us.
We land in Dharamshala. Women wash cloths and clothes in a river and lay them out to dry on huge boulders. Old men sit by the side of the street, turbaned and unmoving. A woman knits on a step. The heavy smell of huge pink, orange and red bougainvillea hangs in the air.
We look up to the high hills covered in trees. The fog clings to them. Then, as it clears slightly, we see the impossible mountains.
The swallows arrive.
Seven goslings totter around the Abbey, and we save a duckling from death on the beach, grasping it from the blackness under a rock. There are puffins, eider nests, greylag geese, and thousands and thousands of gulls. The shags are nesting, the oystercatchers are mating, and the goldfinches have disappeared beneath the yellow-turning-green foliage of the sycamores. One evening I sit out and watch them through the binoculars, marvelling at their togetherness.
I go down to the low pier, I stand on the edge of the steps and look in. Tiny jellyfish just forming fly past in the water, out to sea. Little transparent platelets juddering in their millions. Swallows dive and swoop along the edge of the pier, just out of the water. I splash in, and swim around Swallow Craig anticlockwise, keeping close to the rocks. Back in the swirl of the bay, I hear a “Aaaarrooooohoorrr”, and turning I see a seal looking right at me. I breath out a terrified, exhilarated “Hello, hello” and start to swim away. On the pier, I feel the sucking of the tide going out, and have a sense of being the land, bare and beached. The sky is reflected in the forgotten water on the pier, and it’s as if the world is made of shades of blue.
That evening I play the flute in the Abbey. I hear thuds and bangs in the darkness, but I think it was just the gulls and swallows. I don’t believe in ghosts.
Playing music on the rocks outside the nunnery (no music allowed within). A monkey jumps up a tree, black kites swirl above us and a farmer claps.
On the way back from town we glimpse the mountains through the houses of the village. Like seeing God peeping at you. They mist over just as we get back to the nunnery gate, then slowly as the sun sets they are unveiled in dusty faded orange, I scamper a little way up the path, saying “namaste” to a wee boy and his dad. A man whistles his goats down in the fields. I am in awe. On my way down a red robed monk stands aside at the stream, waiting for me to pass. He smiles.
Worlds flying and floating and colliding, reflected in miniature ponds and puddles, appearing and disappearing all over the island. Gulls fly upside down, soar from nothing to nowhere. Nothing more beautiful than the divine half-seen.
There have been days in the mist when land and sea and sky are all one grey, and we are floating in it. Stranded in the sideways rain. Captured in the thunder rocketing all around the island, and reverberating in the abbey as he says, “I do.” Tiny mysteries. So tiny they are unborn. Like the minute not-quite-figment of a swallow I found in the belly of the Abbey. Sweeping in the dark, its tiny form either repellent or enchanting. I buried it under the rose bush. Or the cheeping baby gull with its beak screeching into the corner of the Abbot’s quarters, its feet big and ungainly, which I plonked in the nearest nest. It’s thriving.
We reach the waterfall, totter across a wee wooden bridge where we sit in the shade with a Tibetan monk. Tiny blue, red breasted birds swoop and flutter over the pool at the base of the waterfall. “People in the west, no happy inside. Only happy outside. Buy a new car, and after one or two years, car not new anymore, not happy. In East we make happy inside, long time, thinking, meditating, this make happy inside. No lose this.” “Very many difference between China and Tibet… for example, in China, this very small bird, they put in a bowl, with many birds, and they eat this, yes, if I eat this it make me vomit. Why you eat small small bird? In Tibet a mother sees tiny bird,” and he motions a mother picking up a tiny bird, and placing it put of danger safely. “She teaches her child, and the child learns, this is what we do. They get this habit. In Tibet, we no eat bird, or fish, only sometimes some people they eat an old yak, this is the only thing.”
It’s been raining all day and the white roses are drooping. A baby blackbird, plum, brown and damp is hopping outside the backdoor.
The Russian nun says, “Sometimes I think everything apart from meditation is bad for me.” She says that the prayers written on the prayer flags are taken and carried by the wind, so that the whole country is blessed. She shows us the wheel of life, Samsara, in which we are all impermanently and continuously reborn until we reach Nirvana.
There’s two tiny bright, almost translucent, pigeon eggs in the hedge by the Abbey Undercroft. They’re nestled so lightly they’re almost floating. The swallows have fledged, and wake me in the morning chattering and wobbling on the green washing line strung across the porch. It’s dreich.
For shamatha meditation you need three things; an object, mindfulness or attention and awareness.
The young gulls are dying of starvation, the parent gulls are harsh and unrelenting, we bring a starfish in from the beach. Later rats steal it in the dark.
The nuns sing a chant like prayer in Tibetan, which they recite three times; it says there is nothing, and no nothing, emptiness and no emptiness, no sensations, no suffering, no end to suffering. The Russian nun yawns.
We are semi-aquatic, half submerged.
The island is lines of existence, in circles from the sea, to mud and seaweed, to yellow sand and yellow rocks, and a thousand lost and crushed and smoothed things washing up on the shore, to the young gulls huddled brown in flocks by the water, and their white ghost-like parents hovering above, to grass littered with white feathers, swaths of pink geraniums, red poppies, bones and plastic, amongst all this and sycamores hundreds of years old, the abbey stands.
I dream about Inchcolm. We’re up at 5:30am for silent meditation.
May all sentient beings have happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separated from happiness that is without suffering.
May they dwell in great equanimity, free from attachment to some and aversion to others.
“Attachment is not a beneficial state of mind,” the teacher continues, and it can be the source of suffering, because everything is always changing.
The island has taught us things. How to walk with your eyes fixed warily on a gull circling your head. How to walk through the Abbey by intuition like a dance dictated by stone. How to spot the merry glistening heads of seals way out at sea, and the wake of boats long gone.
”Can you think two thoughts at once?” “Is awareness also a thought?”
“Now we are going to meditate on the mind itself.” I am filled with dark caving upwardness full of light and tingling sensations all over my head.
The mountains gleam pink, indescribably clear, etched on the sky as we eat dinner in silence, like zombies or prisoners. I glimpse the mountains through the trees.
This morning we are greeted by an octopus on the pier!
We are reading about the souls of octopuses. We must be homesick for the sea.
The mystic man has found 65 ‘entities’. One is a friar in Walter Bower’s room, and there’s a malicious one down on the low pier, someone who drowned there, and a woman dressed in white in the stone room.
Llamas are clairvoyant and some people remember their meditation practices from pervious lives.
We talk about the time before and after the rainbow.
”It was like seeing the Madonna.”
On each particle there are as many buddhas as all the particles that exist…
Waking to golden, shimmering light, standing on the step looking up, a wee wren balances on the edge of the gutter just above me, then darting to the ship’s bell on the porch, it fluttering wings beat the bell, the bell answers softly.
”To you, who are most worthy of respect, I bow with as many bodies as there are atoms in all realms; in supreme faith, I prostrate. Like a star, a visual aberration, the flame of a lamp, an illusion, a drop of dew, a bubble; like a dream, a lightning cloud, we must see compounded phenomena as such!”
Attachment is the root of samsara. (the world of suffering)
I should give up my attachment to daydreaming.
I am living in my own dream. I have just come in from the dark. I stalked through nettles along the West end, to where the seals were hauled out, slumped and snorting on the rocks. I clambered down to the yellow stones and crouched on a weathered tree trunk. The seals eyed me nervously. A big white one took fright and went galumphing down into the water. I crept right up on one nestled between two rocks. He couldn’t see me for the seaweed covered stones, and when he did, he stared and stared and then leapt away into the sea. The curlews are pale spectral murmurs in the flickering dark. The rustle of rats in the grass. Hopping on the yellow luminescent rocks I look down between into the cracks and see a glimmering dragon’s egg, brushed with gold, and a huge coiled white snake, headless.
Met a two foot long brown snake in the nunnery garden today.
Her husband looks away awkwardly as a lady asks: “Are you lesbians?” We stare at each other, incredulous. So she spells it out for us. “I mean, ARE. YOU. A. GAY. COUPLE?” We shake our heads. “Ok, so is she your…. sister….? Are you nuns?”
The Abbess pretends to shoot a green parakeet — we laugh, she says, “People say, you can’t do that, you can’t pretend to shoot things, you’re a Buddhist nun! I say, I can do what I like!”
For the first time I think there might be monsters in the sea.
We find a snake skin in the garden.
It takes the rhythm of a thousand near and faraway things to make an island. From inside the cottage the island is dark, but from outside I can see a penetrating deep blue, hanging heavy in the air all around the east horizon. The kind of blue that pulls the breath out of you, and keeps pulling.
A small rat leaps across the path at dusk, another rustles in the apple hedge. Climbing down to the eastern point I find tyres and shells, surgical needles, glue, huge fronds of kelp with rusted stalks.
The wee nuns chant in Tibetan on the steps to the temple in the light of two hundred candles.
Yesterday morning. A soft, penetrating gold, creeping through previously unseen cracks in the abbey.
The steps to the temple glow gold. Early sun illuminates the prayer flags and the tops of the mountains come into the light.
A golden evening, searching in rock pools on the east end, poking around in the lighthouse, T and I running in for a final swim, the flame in the North reflected on the waves, staggering back to the cottage for some falafel and Indian-Celtic fusion tunes!
A man: So, what do you do in the winter?
Myself: Well, this year I’m off to India.
A man: Are you? What will you be doing there?
Myself: I’m going to a nunnery!
A man: Hahaha, right. So what are you really doing?
Myself: No, I really am going to a nunnery, to work in a garden.
A man (briefly silent): So, are you hoping to find more forgiveness there then?
One older gentleman asks us where we are from Scotland, “Ah yes, a great place of medicine. The royal college of surgeons, the royal college of physicians. I hope Scotland will attain its independence so you can keep making the best and strongest whisky in the world!”
It’s the last day. We say goodbye to the boat lads.
We shout and shout goodbye. But I am numb. I cannot leave the island.
We say goodnight, and watch the mountains burning from the roof. I sit on my bed and stare into nothing. How has the end come so suddenly?
It’s dark when I get back to the rail bridge. Houndpoint sparkles and glows and the flame burns over the hill. It’s too black to see any more than the flicker of the shipping channel and a huge boat alight at the mouth of the river. I can’t see the island or its light. But I know it’s there.
Catriona Patience grew up by Lough Derg in the West of Ireland and has been exploring ever since. She has lived on islands, in caravans, tents, bothies and nunneries, and enjoys writing and long walks into the hills.