Kesang Takla in Scotland

Kesang Takla, His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Northern European representative, was in Edinburgh for two days during May, prior to the Dalai Lama's visit here in June. Interesting for a host of reasons - being the only woman doing a job like this, she was born in Tibet and was educated in a Roman Catholic convent, and was married to HHDL's head of security who accompanied him out of Tibet in 1959, dressing him as a soldier.

Kesang Takla It is the epitome of the impenetrable nature of karma. We cannot know the thought processes of Avalokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion from whom all the Dalai Lamas are descended.

Kesang Takla, who is the Northern European representative for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, was educated at St Joseph's Roman Catholic Convent in Kalimpong, West Bengal. The Irish nuns there, she says, "were very kind and compassionate to us. I didn't find their value system all that strange."

These early exchanges across the ecumenical spectrum have proven to be important in Kesang's longer term career and commitment because they have, as she explains, "opened up other religions, other cultures, from an early age." It is partly because of her intuitive empathy with other religions that she is as much at ease with Jews, Muslims, Christians and those on various spiritual journeys of discovery.

Buddhism remains a tiny faith community in UK terms, although anecdotal information suggests exponential growth in the last few years. In 2001, there were just 152,000 Buddhists, representing 0.3 per cent of the religious make-up of the country. There were 42,079,000 people describing themselves as Christian, 71.6 per cent, and the next largest community was Muslim at 2.7 per cent and 1,591,000. In Scotland, Buddhists account for just 0.1 per cent, with 6,830 members.

Unlike fundamentalist Christianity, Buddhism does not evangelise and the Dalai Lama often warns against trying to take up a religion that is outside one's natural cultural orbit. His message is to question everything, accept nothing, then adopt only those practises with which you feel comfortable. It is a kind of religious cherry-picking which would see the Rev Ian Paisley apoplectic with horror but which allows many individuals seeking spiritual direction options that they can accommodate.

That 9,000 people will fill the SECC in Glasgow on Saturday 29 May, and another 2,300 will listen in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Wednesday 2 June is testament to at least a growing curiosity. The visit of His Holiness to Pittencrieff Park, Dunfermline, on Thursday 3 June is open and free to all and could accommodate up to 50,000 people.

Kesang Takla was in Edinburgh to run through the arrangements, a part of her job as Northern Europe Representative. Her story is typical in some ways and totally unique in others. Her father was a profoundly religious man, "we often had monks staying in the house, and we were brought up in an environment of prayer and commitment to those essential Buddhist values such as caring for all sentient beings, offering service to others and being kind and compassionate."

Managing a shop in Llasa, Tibet's capital, he sold the kind of wide range of goods that is so typical of retail businesses in areas poorly provided with them. "We sold everything from Yardley face cream and German shaving soap to fabrics and foodstuffs. Whatever people wanted to buy," says Kesang.

Because her father carried out most of his business transactions through Calcutta in India, ordering and collecting his goods at the busy sea port, he travelled there frequently. It was this that prompted him to think his daughter and two younger sons would benefit from an education that would teach them English and better equip them for the changing world than anything Tibet at the time could provide.

The year was 1953, not long after Tibet had been invaded by the Chinese but opportunities for local children were already contracting. The Chinese made sure that their own people were properly catered for, but they weren't - and still aren't - much interested in developing the skills of the indigenous population.

So Kesang found herself being surrogate mother to her little brothers when they arrived at St Joseph's. "They were crying all the time at first. I didn't have time to think about myself." She stresses that the nuns were kind, but the environment must have felt very strange for her. "We had to go to Mass and Benediction every day and of course I spoke no English then, but we had to learn all the hymns and prayers. I found that very hard."

An able an intelligent pupil, she rapidly learned English and performed well academically. Her exposure to a different religious culture wasn't as painful as it might have been because many of the values of the Roman Catholic Church sat comfortably with her own experience. "The nuns talked of service and compassion, of being kind to people and having care for others, and that was familiar to me. There were other Tibetan children there too, and that helped me."

She'd completed the equivalent of GCSE levels - including in Religious Knowledge - and had registered for further education when she got the call from Dharamsala. "By then, His Holiness had begun establishing the Tibetan Government in Exile and there was an urgent need for Tibetans who could speak and write English, for correspondence and interpretation and so on."

And so Kesang Takla went to Dharmasala instead of going to college, working with the young refugees pouring into the area after harrowing treks across the Himalayas. The only female on site, the Tibetan officials at first had a problem accommodating her, eventually deciding the children's nursery was the only possible place. "Oh, it was dreadful, very sad. These children had often lost one or both parents along the way, and they were very malnourished. They often had bad skin infections and were very exhausted and stressed out. Sometimes their parents had put them into the care of other adults, maybe friends or relatives, and they were very sad."

There was also huge fulfilment in seeing how quickly they regained their health and began to open up and feel more confident again. "I was very young myself, only a schoolgirl really, and it was very moving to see; very satisfying in a way."

Out of that initial work grew the Tibetan Children's Village, where Scottish support groups hope to be able to establish a house similar to those already established by other countries. When 80,000 refugees poured out across the mountains along with the Dalai Lama in 1959, the infrastructure to care for them wasn't there. "We had children lying six to a bed, crosswise, there were so many of them. We had big problems setting things up, organising catering and so on."

With that experience behind her, Kesang went on to set up the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, and later became Executive Secretary of the Board and Administrator of Delek Hospital - another pioneering position as the first woman incumbent.

She married in 1968. Her husband, P T Takla, had been married to the sister of the Dalai Lama, who tragically died very young. "Mr Takla was His Holiness's chief of security. He was therefore one of the people closely involved in helping to disguise the young Dalai Lama as a common soldier to help his escape from the Summer Palace in Tibet in 1959, and he travelled through the Himalayas with him."

Kesang and her husband worked together, first in Delhi then back in Dharamsala, where Kesang set up the Tibetan Health Department, introducing primary health care and TB control programmes in all the Tibetan refugee settlements in India and Nepal. Another first for a woman with serious pioneering tendencies.

After five years in the health department, Kesang went to London for the first time. "I was involved in setting up the Tibet House." In fact, that is an unduly modest way of describing her role. She set it up with the help of one other person. From here, she has organised and supervised visits by His Holiness to countries from Scandinavia to Ireland, London to the Baltic States and Czechoslovakia, and of course the memorable visit to Oslo in 1989 when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

After a couple of years setting up a new Office of Tibet in Taipei, Taiwan, and another period back in Dharamsala, Kesang returned to London. As the chief diplomat for His Holiness, she is astute and aware of the political currents that emanate in Chinese pressure, and in the ongoing, relentless oppression of the Tibetan people.

"All Tibetans hope that one day they will be able to return home. His Holiness says that we must have courage and hope. We have to struggle harder because our country is occupied. Our young people are denied the education that would get them jobs so unemployment is a real problem. The Chinese now outnumber our own people and that is a very great difficulty. Also, Tibetans are not free to show their love and support for His Holiness.

"But we left everything behind in Tibet in 1959, and because we have tried, because we have struggled, we have much more now. We have improved a lot and that gives me the strength to keep on struggling and trying always to do the right thing."

As she visits Edinburgh and Dunfermline to check out the arrangements in place for His Holiness the Dalai Lama's visit in June, Kesang Takla is without pretension or pomposity. Her demeanour is always calm, always polite and controlled, whatever the provocation around her - and it must be considerable at times - perhaps it is a testament to the best of Buddhism and the best of Roman Catholicism.

Written by Maggie Stanfield

Maggie Stanfield is the Chief Executive of Written Words - a full communications service based in Edinburgh. They write in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and online - and they write for business clients, devising marketing literature, composing speeches, newsletters, corporate communications and features. Find out more at their website: