On Sufism

I first became aware of Sufism in 1972, when I started going out with Mary, a young, twenty-year-old student, who belonged to a Sufi group. So every Friday I accompanied her to the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh, where up to twenty of us formed a circle in the stunning, newly built hexagonal hall before we all whirled round and round until we were nearly dizzy. At the time, I was living in a squat in West Adam Street, and it was there I met Pete and Paul, two young men from Doncaster, who were also interested in Sufism. Then, when the squat folded, and the whole scene disintegrated, I went to work in Canada, while Pete and Paul went down to live on Squire Farm in Gloucestershire, where, I heard, they were helping to build a new Sufi centre.

After that, I lost contact with them and I went to live in Amsterdam, where I lost interest in Sufism and became interested in yoga instead. Eleven years later I returned to Edinburgh, but twenty years were to pass before I heard that there was a Sufi centre called Chisholm House in the Borders. So, out of curiosity, two years ago, I went down for the open day. It was a sunny summer’s afternoon, and I remember how struck I was with the whole experience. To get there was going into a completely different world. First, you drove for an hour down through the rolling Borders, until, just outside Hawick, you turned right over a small bridge onto a tiny country road. Then, ten kilometres later, you turned off onto another small country road, before you turned off onto an even smaller one. Then you turned off onto a single track which climbed towards deserted moors, before it reached Chisholm House. Surrounded by immensely tall, sighing trees, it was a beautiful old country house, which, after lying derelict for years, had been fully restored by volunteers. At the front there was a lovely lawn, while to the side, in the middle of a copse, was a small, peaceful lake where white swans swam. Beyond the lawn was a steep rise, on top of which, looking out over remote, surrounding moors, was a round white obelisk dedicated to Bulent, the Turkish teacher who had been the leading force behind the rejuvenation of Chisholm before his death.


Not much later, I discovered, to my astonishment, that both Pete and Paul — who had become completely involved with Sufism — had been living in Hawick for the last twenty years. Then, after the Buddhist group which I had been involved with for nearly a decade unfortunately more or less folded, I started,, every so often, going down to Chisholm for the weekend. Now it has more or less become my substitute spiritual home

On the earthquake in Nepal

Last week I was really upset to hear the news about the earthquake in Nepal to which I travelled overland from India in 1979. I immediately fell in love with it — the country, with its towering mountains, is perhaps the most spectacular I’ve ever been to — and the capital, Katmandu, with its countless medieval temples, narrow alleyways and bustling stalls, was absolutely fascinating.

Buddhist boy in Thangboche monastery with Mount Everest in the background

Buddhist boy in Thangboche monastery with Mount Everest in the background

So I could hardly bear to hear the reports of the thousands of people who had been killed, or hear of the destruction of so many of the unique wooden temples in Durban Square, the very centre of Katmandu, where, high up on the steps, I had sat and idly watched dozens of monkeys playing. This was not even to mention hearing about the terrible destruction that the powerful earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, had wrought in Pagan, a nearby town which, like Katmandu, was a World Heritage Site, and was, if anything, even more amazing than the capital.

But most painful of all, I could hardly bear to see the images of what had happened at Mount Everest Base Camp, to which, at 5,800 metres, I climbed that same year. Now, after a massive landslide and avalanche, the very spot where I had stopped and looked up at the vertiginous Khumbu Ice Wall was buried under thousands of tons of ice, rocks and boulders, and, at the latest count, dozens of Sherpas and climbers had either been killed or were missing, presumed dead.

Now, with those dreadful images of broken bodies, snapped prayer flags and crushed tents still fresh in my mind, I’m reminded once again of the fragility of life, and of the saying ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ …