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The Dalai Lama’s Cat
A Novel (Book 1)
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The Art of Purring
A Novel (Book 2)
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The Power of Meow
A Novel (Book 3)
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The Four Paws of Spiritual Success
A Novel (Book 4)
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Awaken the Kitten Within
A Novel (Book 5)
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The Queen’s Corgi
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The Astral Traveler’s Handbook
& Other Tales
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Buddhism for Busy People
Finding happiness in an uncertain world
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Buddhism for Pet Lovers
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Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate
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Hurry Up and Meditate
Your starter kit for inner peace and better health
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Enlightenment to Go
Shantideva and the power of compassion to transform your life
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The Power of Meow
I am ashamed to have to begin this book with a confession. A revelation so embarrassing I’d much rather not be making it. Living with the Dalai Lama, surrounded by monks at Namgyal Monastery, and constantly encountering the most revered meditation masters in Tibetan Buddhism, one would assume that among my many admirable qualities I am an accomplished meditator.
Alas, dear reader, I am not!
I may be gorgeous beyond words, with my mesmerizing blue eyes, charcoal face, and sumptuous cream coat. I may be a global celebrity whose well-being is a subject of frequent inquiry by luminaries as diverse as the occupants of the Oval Office, Buckingham Palace, and the more rarefied enclaves of the Hollywood Hills.
But a natural meditator? If only!
I have tried, on several occasions. But no sooner have I settled my mind on the sensation of my breath than I find myself thinking about Mrs. Trinci’s diced chicken liver. Or the discomfort in my hind legs. Or, somehow, both of those subjects mixed up at the same time.
There is a general belief that we cats are mindful creatures, who constantly “live in the moment.” While it’s true that we can focus our minds with great intensity, especially when our hunting instincts are aroused, it is equally true that we spend much of our time thinking. We give little outward show of this. But how many of your own thoughts are visible? And if they were, would you have any friends left, pray tell?!
If you ever doubted that your feline companion has her own inner life, just watch what happens when she falls asleep and loses conscious control of her physical being. Inevitably you will notice a twitching of limbs, a quivering of the jaw, sometimes perhaps a snuffling noise or a meow. What are these, if not the involuntary accompaniment to the imagined drama playing out in her mind? Cats may indeed be capable of great mindfulness. But we are thinking beings, too.
In my own case, unfortunately, a being who thinks rather too much.
For exactly this reason I had come around to believing that even though meditation is useful, transformational, a practice to which I should definitely apply myself, it wasn’t something I was going to do—at least not just yet. Maybe next year, when the Namgyal monks went on retreat. That would be a good time to make a concerted effort. Or perhaps during the dark winter months when most beings feel a natural inclination to withdraw from the world, to go inward. There seemed to be plenty of ideal occasions to restart my meditation practice.
Just none of them happened to be today.
The world is full of meditators who have lapsed, dabbled, or read a dozen books on the subject but don’t regularly meditate. I, dear reader, have until recently considered myself one of them. But something happened to change me. And I have come to discover that, for most meditators, the same is true. Some event, some trigger, propels you in a direction you may have been contemplating, but to which you were never fully committed.
Very few people are born meditators. Others learn to become great meditators. Most of us, however, have meditation thrust upon us. In sharing my story with you, I am doing so not because I think it’s very special—I am distinctly special, of course; that matter is beyond dispute. What I’m talking about here is the story of how I came to meditation. The reason I share it is because I feel it may be one you can relate to. One you understand. You may even see a teensy-weensy bit of yourself in me—how lovely for you!
So how is it that I came not only to comprehend but to experience what I call “the power of meow”?
Settle yourself in a favorite chair or sofa, dear reader. Ensure a ready supply of your favorite beverages and snacks. Turn off that irksome phone, or better yet, leave it in another room entirely. Beckon your own beloved feline to join you.
Are you ready? Quite comfortable?
Very good, then. Let’s begin.
It all began through casual curiosity. A stray dog had taken to sleeping part of the night on the doormat of our building. On my way out one morning, I paused to take in the pungent odor left in its wake, trying to place the breed. On my way back inside, I paused again.
A short while later I was resting on the windowsill of the Dalai Lama’s first-floor room. This was my all-time favorite spot, not least because it offered the ideal vantage point from which to achieve maximum surveillance with minimum effort. Simply being in the same room as His Holiness is the most wonderful sensation you can ever have. Whether you call it his presence, his energy, or his love, when you are near him, you can’t help being touched by a sense of profound and abiding well-being. The heartfelt reassurance that, whatever else is going on, beneath the surface, all is well.
That particular morning I had no sooner settled on the sill, eager to be absorbed into the field of benevolence surrounding the Dalai Lama, than I suddenly felt my skin crawl. In an instant I twisted my head around and began a frenzy of licking. But the itching only got worse! I scratched and gnawed, even biting the skin of my stomach and back. I had never felt anything like this. It was as though my whole body was under siege from an army of invisible assailants!
His Holiness looked up with concern from his desk.
Moments later, the itching stopped as abruptly as it had begun. Had it all been something in my imagination? Some perverse quirk of karma originating from who knew where?
Later that same day, following my return home from another outside visit, I came under attack again. The pain was so unexpected and intense that I leaped down from my perch on the filing cabinet in the executive assistants’ office, landing unsteadily on the floor. I twisted into another spasm of furious back-licking and biting. A hundred tiny attackers seemed suddenly upon me, crawling all over my skin, nipping me with red-hot fangs. Their assault was comprehensive—I could think of nothing except how to chase them off me, whatever they were.
Tenzin, the Dalai Lama’s right-hand man on all secular diplomatic matters, peered over the side of his desk. Midway through writing an e-mail to a prominent Scandinavian ’80s pop icon, he regarded me with surprise.
“HHC?’’ Ever punctilious, he referred to me using my official title, His Holiness’s Cat. “This isn’t like you!”
Indeed it was not. Nor were the further bouts of prickling, scouring, and writhing that continued for the rest of that day and all through the night. I felt like I was losing my mind.
His Holiness summoned his assistant first thing the following morning. “Tenzin, our little Snow Lion is in trouble.”
The Dalai Lama’s personal term of endearment for me usually filled my heart with gladness. Not on this occasion. As though on cue I doubled back, attacking the upper part of my tail in a tumult of savage gnawing.
“She was doing that yesterday, too,” observed Tenzin. The two of them stood, watching me for a few moments before they met each other’s eyes. They reached the same diagnosis in unison: “Fleas!”
Tenzin immediately sent out for a flea collar, which he clearly intended to attach to my neck. Not only would this get rid of the cause of my unhappiness, he assured me, it would also prevent fleas for the foreseeable future.
I was struggling, trying to come to terms with what had happened. Fleas? Me?! Was the Dalai Lama’s cat not immune to such a common and squalid vexation? And could there be any deeper humiliation than having been infected by a stray dog, of all things?
Initially I resisted Tenzin’s efforts, not wishing to parade my infested status in public, but with a firm grip and reassuring tone he fixed the collar around my neck. Next he quarantined me in the first-aid room while the Dalai Lama was out, supervising an important monastic exam. During his absence, Tenzin oversaw a top-to-bottom spring clean of His Holiness’s office and all the corridors I ever used.
Word of the stray dog came to light, and, when the doormat was studied, it was shown to be so heavily infested that it had to go. It was soon replaced with a handsome new coir mat with short bristles and a red-colored border. The security detail was put on notice to be alert for the stray dog and told that if it reappeared it was to be taken to the monastery until a permanent home could be found.
It seemed the whole flea incident had come to an end.
But life is more complicated than that. Even though I was soon thankfully rid of fleas, such had been their impact that, at odd times of the day and night and for no apparent reason, I’d imagine them upon me. I’d be sitting at the window, absorbed in tranquil contemplation, when suddenly my skin would crawl. Or I’d settle down to meditate and, from nowhere at all, the idea of them would burst into my mind. I’d find myself twitching and scratching at a half dozen imagined pests scrambling in different directions beneath my fur. Even if I managed to hold off reacting physically, my mind would become a tumult of distraction. In occasional moments of peace I’d try to reassure myself that my traumatic past was behind me, but I couldn’t ignore the truth of my own experience: I may no longer be infested, but I still suffered from fleas.
It was at this very same time that something else happened that sent shock waves through the whole community. I was there at the time, an inside observer. What I would never have guessed was the direct impact it was about to have on my life, or the way that I would be drawn inevitably into being a participant. In particular, it made me aware that cats are not alone in suffering from fleas.
The incident happened during one of the VIP meals occasionally hosted by the Dalai Lama. A high-powered delegation from the Vatican was visiting for lunch. Downstairs in the kitchen, Mrs. Trinci, the Dalai Lama’s VIP chef, had spared no efforts in making sure that His Holiness’s guests would be dazzled. For the past three days she had been hard at it, fussing and fretting over every last detail. Being Italian herself, it was as though she wanted to prove that whatever gastronomic heights might be scaled in the finest restaurants of Rome could be equaled, if not surpassed, here in the Himalayas.
After the pasta dishes had been cleared away, there followed a delightful interlude while His Holiness communicated with his guests—not only with words but also through his mere presence. I observe the effect that the Dalai Lama has on visitors every day of my life, and still I never tire of it. Today it was the Vatican visitors’ turn to enjoy basking in the sense of abiding well-being. As they did, I remained on the first-floor windowsill, waiting for my own lunchtime treat with mounting anticipation.
Of all the people at Namgyal Monastery, had I been asked who was my favorite—apart from His Holiness, of course—I would have had no trouble in naming Mrs. Trinci. Effusive, flamboyant, a commanding presence in the kitchen, from the very first time she’d caught sight of me, Mrs. Trinci declared that I was the Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived. I need only appear in the kitchen for her to swoop me up, place me like the most delicate piece of Ming porcelain on the countertop, and produce some succulent morsel for my delectation. As I devoured a saucer of diced chicken liver with noisy relish, she would watch me through her amber, mascara-lashed eyes, murmuring sweet nothings in my ear.
Even when I was out of sight, I was not out of mind. Mrs. Trinci could be preparing a most elaborate meal for visitors from as far afield as the White House, Prague Castle, or Palácio da Alvorada, but she would never fail to remember me. Along with the mouth-watering treasures of the dessert cart, she always made sure that a bowl of lactose-free milk, or perhaps—as a very rare treat—a tablespoon of clotted cream was provided for yours truly.
That particular day saw a procession of panna cotta, tiramisu, and tortes to the dining table. Accompanied, as usual, by smiles of appreciation from His Holiness’s guests. The waiters served each of the guests. After dessert, one by one they withdrew, leaving only the head waiter, Dawa. I looked over to the dessert cart, but my usual small, white ramekin was nowhere to be seen.
Surely I hadn’t been forgotten? Was such a thing even possible?
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. As I sat, bereft of my usual indulgence, His Holiness glanced up from an involved discussion about St. Francis of Assisi and looked directly from Dawa to me to the dessert cart. There was no need for him to say anything. Moments later Dawa was opening the door and whispering urgent instructions.
But my attention was quickly distracted by something else: the distant wailing of an ambulance. It seemed to be heading directly toward us.
Ears pointing forward, I tuned in to the approaching sound. There was no question—it was coming up the hill. As the white vehicle with flashing lights appeared at the entrance to Namgyal, I rose to my feet.
As did Tenzin. With conversation around the table becoming impossible on account of the siren, he excused himself and stepped over to the window. For a few moments, the two of us watched together. The ambulance entered the gates and drove slowly across the courtyard. Groups of monks and small bands of tourists scattered out of the way, staring at the clamorous apparition. The siren intensified even more as the vehicle drew closer, rising to an almost unbearable level. Then there was sudden quiet as the ambulance drove around to the front of the building and disappeared from view.
An eerie silence followed. Around the dining table there were raised eyebrows and expressions of concern. Several of the Vatican delegates crossed themselves while glancing upward. Tenzin returned to his seat, and conversation slowly resumed.
Watching the courtyard below fill with the usual mix of red-robed monks, umbrella-wielding tourist guides, and couriers in their high-visibility vests, for a short while I forgot about that lunchtime’s inexplicable omission—until Dawa arrived with my usual ramekin, which he placed on the sill with an elaborate bow.
A short time later the Vatican envoys were bidding His Holiness farewell. There was talk of future contact being made via Skype, and then they began making their way outside in a swirl of cassocks. For a few moments the Dalai Lama stood alone, his hands folded at his heart, murmuring mantras under his breath. It was something I’d observed him do on several occasions before. Intuition told me that something significant was afoot.
Only moments later, Tenzin returned quickly down the corridor.
“I’m sorry to tell Your Holiness, but Mrs. Trinci seems to have suffered a heart attack.”
I looked up—had I heard correctly?
Compassion filled not only His Holiness’s face but the whole room. It was as though his concern could not be contained; it seemed to flow outward, touching every living being in Namgyal and far beyond.
“The ambulance came quickly,” Tenzin continued. “She is being taken to the hospital. I’ll let you know as soon as I have more news.”
The Dalai Lama nodded. “Thank you,” he said softly. “May she make a full and speedy recovery.”
Tenzin, too, brought his palms to his heart before turning to go.
The days that followed were unusually somber. Word of Mrs. Trinci’s heart attack spread through Namgyal and beyond. Although she wasn’t a daily presence at Namgyal, she was one of its most colorful members of staff, as well known for her volcanic temperament as for her generous heart. There were few at Namgyal who hadn’t sampled her superlative cooking—even if it was only one of the delicious cookies she baked regularly for the monks.
The first official news from the hospital confirmed the diagnosis of a heart attack. Tests were under way to determine the extent of the damage. For a while there was no further information at all about what was happening at the hospital. Then, a few days later, Mrs. Trinci’s daughter, Serena, phoned to update His Holiness. He was in the middle of reciting mantras, so he put the phone on speaker as he continued to move mala beads between his fingers.
Serena had grown up in McLeod Ganj and had been a sous chef in the downstairs kitchen from the time she’d been able to slice a carrot. Because her mother had been widowed at an early age, His Holiness had occupied a fatherly position in her life, doting on her when she was a little girl and offering paternal love and reassurance as she grew up.
Even though she’d spent most of her adult life in Europe studying as a chef and working in several famous restaurants, Serena retained a special connection to the Dalai Lama. As she did to me. From the moment we met, Serena and I were the very closest of friends. She explained that her mother had been discharged from the hospital. The heart attack caused no major damage. There was no need for surgery, nor was Mrs. Trinci in any pain. But she was suffering from high blood pressure, and from now on, she needed to take medicine every day. In addition, the doctor had strongly advised her to find a complementary method to help manage her stress: meditation.
His Holiness immediately volunteered to be her teacher—an offer that delighted Serena. “Personal instruction by the Dalai Lama!” she exclaimed.
“And of course you are welcome to join her,” His Holiness added. When the Dalai Lama made such offers, they were never casually intended. “If we suffer from stress, if we lack peace of mind, meditation becomes more important. For all of us.”
On a nearby armchair, I was following the conversation with interest.
“Pain is inevitable,” the Dalai Lama continued. “Suffering is optional. We will all have to endure trauma and challenges. What matters is how we move forward afterward. Do we keep carrying the trauma and its causes in our mind? Or can we find a way to let go of them, to end our own suffering?”
The conversation was starting to have a personal relevance.
“This is where mindfulness can help us.”
As I turned to observe His Holiness, I discovered that he was looking directly at me.
I expected Mrs. Trinci and Serena to appear in His Holiness’s rooms within days. But a whole week went by, followed by another, and still there was no visit. There seemed to be some kind of obstacle. Surely Serena wouldn’t have forgotten? And what possible reason could Mrs. Trinci have for not seizing this opportunity? My own Post-Traumatic Flea Disorder was nowhere near as threatening as a heart attack, but it was still the cause of deep mental agitation, a gnawing concern that I was eager to hear the Dalai Lama explain.
As it happened, I had to wait more than a month before, late one afternoon, Mrs. Trinci and Serena appeared at the main gates to Namgyal. A short while later, the two of them were ushered into His Holiness’s chamber. Ordinarily, his visitors would be seated demurely on one of the chairs opposite him, but these were no ordinary visitors. They were family. Catching sight of me on the sill, Mrs. Trinci immediately came over to where I was sitting.
“Oh, little dolce mio!” she exclaimed.
I got up, stretching my front paws out ahead of me with a luxuriant quiver, then arching my back appreciatively as she stroked my neck.
“But what is this?”
“Flea collar,” said His Holiness.
“Mamma mia, my poor little treasure!” she said as she bent down, nuzzling my head with her face. “How you have suffered! And how I have missed you!”
“She has missed you, too.” His Holiness was standing by his chair, observing this all with a smile. “And all the special treats from downstairs,” he added with a chuckle.
“Don’t worry, she gets plenty of those at the café,” came Serena’s droll voice from next to him. Serena was co-manager of the Himalaya Book Café, one of my favorite haunts, conveniently located less than ten minutes away.
Once the three of them settled into their chairs, I made my way toward them, eager not to miss out on anything.
“Tell me, my dear,” His Holiness said as he reached over and took Mrs. Trinci’s hand in his own, as was his custom no matter who was visiting. He gazed deeply into her eyes. “How are you?”
Finding herself in his compassionate presence suddenly became too much for Mrs. Trinci. Overwhelmed, she dissolved into tears and had to retrieve a handkerchief from her purse. Through sobs, she explained how much of a shock the heart attack had been. How desperately she had just wanted things to go back to normal. But her doctor told her there could be no such thing. There had to be a new normal. She needed to make changes to her life if she was to manage her high blood pressure and to avoid future heart problems.
From the carpet I studied Mrs. Trinci’s face closely. I don’t know whether it was that she wasn’t wearing her customary mascara or that she was bereft of her signature bracelets, which would clang emphatically whenever she moved her arms. But it seemed to me that something had changed. Something about her energy was less vital. That unquestioning invincibility about her presence had gone. For the first time that I could ever remember, Mrs. Trinci looked vulnerable. Walking over to her chair, I hopped up and settled beside her, offering reassurance in the form of a gentle purr.
“The doctor said I should take up meditation. I am very grateful to you for offering to show me how,” she said, reaching over to stroke me.
“Yes, I remember saying this to Serena,” replied His Holiness. “When was that?”
Mrs. Trinci turned to Serena. “Ten days ago?”
“One month,” confirmed the Dalai Lama in a thoughtful tone.
There was no need for him to say anything else. As twilight deepened, an unasked question became so loud, so self-evident, that Mrs. Trinci felt compelled to answer it. “I . . . I didn’t come to see you earlier because, well”—she was shaking her head sadly—“I’m not sure I can meditate.”
Perhaps she had expected His Holiness to chastise her. It was hard to tell from her tone if she was embarrassed or despairing. But the Dalai Lama glowed with amusement, as though what she said had to be a joke. In that moment, whatever tension had been present in the room seemed to shimmer away. First Mrs. Trinci and then Serena picked up on the Dalai Lama’s mirth, and they both got caught up in the hilarity of what Mrs. Trinci had just said.
“Tell me,” said His Holiness, eyes still twinkling with amusement, “why do you think you can’t meditate?”
“Because I have tried!” Mrs. Trinci’s voice rose. “Several times.”
“My mind.” She met his gaze. “It’s out of control.”
“Very good!” He brought his hands together, chuckling at her observation. “Had you ever noticed this before?”
“No.” It didn’t take her long to ponder the question. “Not really. I’d never tried to focus like that.”
“Then you have already made the first, most important discovery,” said the Dalai Lama. “It is only when we acknowledge we have a problem that we can do something about it. You now have first-hand understanding of how out of control the mind is. You see, my dear,” he said, regarding her closely, “when we are suffering from stress, it isn’t only because of our circumstances. Generally, we think everything is about what’s outside of us. The externals. We think that if I didn’t have this problem, if I wasn’t in this situation, then, no stress. But there are other people in even more challenging situations who are thriving. The stress isn’t coming from ‘out there.’ Mainly it is coming from our mind.”
The Dalai Lama leaned forward in his seat. He was including all of us in what he was saying—not only Mrs. Trinci. “When we practice meditation, we begin to monitor our mind. And when we pay much closer attention, we can start to manage it.”
“But is there really any hope for me?” Mrs. Trinci asked. “When my mind is so crazy?”
His Holiness regarded her solemnly. “When we begin trying to meditate, most of each session we are thinking about everything except the chosen object of meditation. This is the same for everyone. Normal.”
I had never heard the Dalai Lama speak so directly to a beginner before. But what he said came as a massive relief. I wasn’t the only one! It seemed that Mrs. Trinci and I had an important thing in common—apart from our love of gourmet cuisine. We both suffered from fleas. We might want to enjoy meditative calm, but no sooner would we begin a session than there’d be a scurrying, an agitation. Our contemplation would be abruptly overturned. Unwanted thoughts would intrude into our concentration, utterly destroying our peace of mind. Cats evidently weren’t alone in this. When it came to meditation, it seemed, humans were flea-infested, too.
“It is the same for all of us,” continued the Dalai Lama. “All of us have to start somewhere. Where you start is unimportant. What matters is where you finish.”
There was a pause as we contemplated this. Then Mrs. Trinci spoke, her voice softly apologetic. “So you are willing to teach me how to meditate, even though my mind is so bad?”
“Of course!” His Holiness’s face lit up. “This is why we are here.”
The Dalai Lama seemed to be referring not only to the fact that we were gathered in his room; he seemed also to be hinting at a greater purpose, an underlying connection.
“You have always been so generous, cooking wonderful food for our visitors,” the Dalai Lama said as he brought his palms to his heart and bowed to Mrs. Trinci. “Perhaps in some small way I can repay your kindness.” His expression turned suddenly serious. “But you must never say ‘my mind is so bad,’ because this is mistaken thinking. You may experience great agitation. Much distraction. But this is temporary. Thoughts arise, abide, and pass. They are not permanent. Like clouds, no matter how completely they fill the sky or how long they seem to stay there, they, too, will pass. And when they do, even in brief moments after the end of one thought and before the next one begins, you can catch a glimpse of your mind. You can see it for what it is. Your mind, my mind, all our minds have the same qualities—perfect clarity, lucidity, boundlessness, serenity . . .”
As he spoke, Mrs. Trinci began to well up. His Holiness was communicating, and not only with words. He also conveyed the meaning of what he said in such a way that the feeling of it became wonderfully palpable.
Looking over at her daughter, Mrs. Trinci noticed that Serena’s eyes also began to fill.
“As you abide with mind,” he continued, “more and more you will also come to discover that your own primordial nature is one of pure, great love and pure, great compassion. All begins with abiding in this moment, here and now.”
For a while we sat in silence. An early-evening breeze rippled through the open window—air that was fresh from the mountains and steeped in pine. It seemed to carry the promise of something new.
Then the Dalai Lama said, “I would like to give you all a challenge. I would like you to meditate for ten minutes every day, for a period of six weeks. At the end of the period, we can all review whether meditation holds some value. If so”—he nodded—“if there is some change, then we carry on.” He shrugged. “If not, we can say ‘I tried.’ Does this seem fair?”
“Only ten minutes?” Serena raised her eyebrows.
“To begin with, yes. You may be surprised how much change we can experience with only a short period of focused attention each day.”
Serena was nodding, accepting His Holiness’s challenge. She glanced over at her mother, who, after initial hesitation, began nodding, too.
On the chair, I felt the full gazes of the Dalai Lama, Serena, and Mrs. Trinci upon me.
Responding to the attention, I looked up. And meowed.
All three of them laughed.
“The power of meow?” suggested Serena as Mrs. Trinci stroked me.
“Exactly,” said His Holiness, chuckling. “It is the pathway to well-being and to discovering our own true nature.”
That night, the Dalai Lama attended a session in the temple. By the time he returned the moon had risen, casting the courtyard in ethereal silver.
I always love how the moon transforms a familiar scene into something quite magical. If daylight belongs to the dogs, then we cats are creatures of the night. We are the feline yin to the canine yang. Denizens of a time of mystery and wonder. For my own part, I enjoyed nothing more than sitting in nocturnal reverie beneath the brooding Himalayas, their icy peaks coolly gleaming in the starlight.
That particular evening, I noticed a curiously beguiling new scent carried on the breeze. It wasn’t a fragrance I had ever detected before, and there was something powerfully compelling about it. My nostrils flared. I had no doubt that its origin was a flower or plant of some kind. But where was it coming from exactly? And why had I never noticed it before? As I lifted my face to the wind, I knew it was a mystery that deserved further investigation.
But not just yet. Just then, His Holiness returned to the room. Seeing me sitting in the darkness, I think he, too, sensed something of the magic of that moment. Instead of turning on the light, he came over to where I sat looking out the open window to the brightly lit temple. He eased himself down next to me, and for a few moments the two of us became watchful observers.
Snatches of conversation rose from the courtyard as monks made their way from the temple back to their residence, where orange squares of light flickered to life. A cooling breeze stirred, bringing with it ribbons of night jasmine—along with that enchanting new scent. Over at the temple, the lights were being turned off one by one. First the roof and the auspicious symbols that decorated it suddenly fell into darkness. Then the steps leading up to the entrance and the intricately colored doorway became instantly monochrome.
For a moment, all that remained lit was a solitary gold lotus flower—the Buddhist symbol of transcendence, renunciation, and hope—on the front of the temple. It floated on the unseen surface of an ocean of shadow.
“A good reminder, my little Snow Lion,” murmured the Dalai Lama. “Lotus plants grow in poor conditions. Their roots are in the mud, sometimes dirty swamps. But they rise above that. Their flowers are very beautiful. Sometimes when we have problems we, too, can use our difficulties to create something we may not even have considered before. We can turn our suffering into the cause of extraordinary growth.”
Like so much else of what His Holiness said, his words could be understood in different ways. I knew he was making not only a general observation but offering a deeply personal message—one that referred not only to my own recent challenges but to Mrs. Trinci’s, too. And, more important, to the fresh direction in which they could propel us. Instead of believing my infestation to be a cause of nothing but biting misery, I was beginning to see that it seemed it could become fuel for personal growth.
The Art Of Purring
Have you ever marveled, dear reader, at how the most apparently trivial decision can sometimes lead to the most life-changing events? You make what you believe to be a humdrum, everyday kind of choice, and it has outcomes as dramatic as they are unforeseen.
That is exactly what happened the Monday afternoon I decided that instead of going straight home from the Himalaya Book Café, I would take the so-called scenic path. It was not a route I had taken very often, for the simple reason that it isn’t really very scenic—or even much of a path. It is more of a humble back alley that runs along behind the Himalaya Book Café and the adjacent premises.
It is, however, a longer way home, so I knew it would take me ten minutes rather than the usual five to get back to Namgyal. But having spent the afternoon asleep on the magazine rack of the café, I felt the need to stretch my legs.
So when I reached the front door, instead of turning right, I headed left. Ambling past the side doors of the café I made another left turn and walked along the narrow lane used for garbage cans, redolent with kitchen scraps and tantalizing aromas. I continued on my way, somewhat wobbly, as my hind legs have been weak since I was a kitten. I paused once to cuff at an intriguing silver-and-brown object lodged under the rear gate of the café, only to discover that it was a champagne cork that had somehow gotten jammed in the grill.
It was as I was preparing to turn left again that I first became aware of danger. About 20 yards away, on the main street, I spotted a pair of the largest and most ferocious looking dogs I had ever seen. Strangers to the district, they were a menacing presence as they stood with nostrils flared and long fur rippling in the late afternoon breeze.
Worst of all, they were unleashed.
With the wisdom of hindsight, what I should have done at that point was retreat back into the alley and exit through the café’s rear gate, where I would have been completely secure behind bars wide enough for me to slip through but much too narrow for these monsters.
In the exact moment I was wondering if they had seen me, they saw me and instantly gave chase. Instinct kicking in, I made a sharp right and scrambled as fast as my uncertain limbs would take me. Heart pounding and hair standing on end, I raced desperately in search of refuge. For those few adrenaline-charged moments I felt capable of going anywhere and doing anything, be it scrambling up the tallest tree or squeezing through the narrowest gap.
But there was no escape route, no safe ground. The dogs’ vicious baying was getting louder as they closed in behind me. In an absolute panic, with nowhere else to turn, I darted into a spice shop, thinking that I might find some place to climb to safety or at least be able to throw the dogs off my scent.
The tiny shop was lined with wooden chests on which brass bowls of spices were carefully laid out. Several matronly women, who were grinding powder in pestles on their laps, let out cries of shock as I ran past their ankles, followed by bellows of outrage as the dogs, high on bloodlust, bounded after me.
I heard a crash of metal on concrete as bowls tumbled. Clouds of spices exploded into the air. Racing to the back of the store, I looked for a shelf to jump up on but found only a firmly closed door. However, there was a gap between two chests that was just wide enough for me to claw my way through. Behind it, in place of a wall, there was only a torn plastic sheet, and beyond that, a deserted lane.
Shoving their great heads into the gap between the chests, the dogs launched into a frenzy of yapping. Terrified, I quickly scanned the gutter: it came to a dead end. The only way out would be to go back to the road.
From inside the spice store came plaintive yelping as the angry women apprehended the two thugs. With my usually lustrous white coat dusted with spices of every color, I scampered along the gutter to the road and ran as fast as my frail legs would take me. But the road was on an incline, slight but punishing. Even though I was straining every sinew of my being, my efforts were to little avail. Struggling to get as far away from the dogs as I could, I searched for somewhere, anywhere, that offered protection. But I saw only shop windows, concrete walls, and impenetrable steel gates.
Behind me the commotion of barking continued, now accompanied by the angry yelling of the women from the spice shop. I turned to see them shoving the dogs out of the shop, slapping them on the flanks. Wild-eyed and with tongues hanging out, the two slavering beasts pawed the pavement outside, while I continued struggling uphill, hoping the steady stream of pedestrians and cars would conceal my whereabouts.
But there was to be no escape.
Within moments the two beasts had caught my scent and resumed the chase. Their ferocious growling filled me with pure fear.
I had gained some ground, but it wasn’t enough. It would take hardly any time for the two beasts to catch up. Reaching a property surrounded by high white walls, I spotted a wooden trellis climbing one wall, next to a black iron gate. Never before would I have even considered what I did next, but what choice did I have? With only seconds before the dogs would be upon me, I leapt onto the trellis and began scrambling up it as fast as my fluffy gray legs would let me. With great lurches I dragged myself up, paw by paw.
I had just reached the top when the beasts closed in. Amid a frenzy of barking, they hurled themselves against the trellis. There was a crash of wood as the lattice cracked, and the top half swung away from the wall. Had I still been scaling it, I would have found myself dangling over the dogs’ gaping maws.
Standing on top of the wall, I looked down at their bared teeth and trembled at their blood-curdling snarls. It was like looking directly into the faces of beings from the hell realms.
The manic frenzy of noise continued until the dogs were distracted by a canine licking something off the pavement farther down the street. As they raced toward that dog, the beasts were stopped short by a tall man in a tweed jacket, who seized them by the collar and snapped on their leashes. As he was bending over them, I heard a passerby remark, “Beautiful Labradors!”
“Golden Retrievers,” corrected the man. “Young and high-spirited. But,” he added, patting them affectionately, “lovely animals.”
Lovely animals? Had the whole world gone completely mad?
It was ages before my heart rate returned to something approaching normal, and only then was the reality of my situation apparent. Looking around, I could find no branch or ledge or escape route of any kind. The wall on which I was standing had a gate at one end and a sheer drop at the other. I was about to raise paw to mouth to give my spice-smeared face a much-needed and reassuring wash when I caught a whiff of something so pungent that it made me stop instantly. Just one lick, I knew, would set my mouth on fire. That did it. There I was, trapped on a high and unfamiliar wall, and I couldn’t even groom myself!
I had no choice but to stay where I was and wait for something to happen. In stark contrast to all the turmoil I was feeling, the property inside the wall was the very picture of serenity, like the Pure Lands of the Buddhas that I had heard the monks talking about. Through the trees I could see a large, stately building surrounded by rolling lawns and flower-filled gardens. I longed to be down in those gardens or prowling along the veranda—it looked like just the kind of place where I would fit in. If someone inside that beautiful building spotted the snow lion stranded on top of their wall, surely they would have the compassion to come to my rescue!
But despite much activity at the main gate of the building, no one walked in or out of the pedestrian gate near me. And the wall was so high that passersby on the sidewalk could barely see me. The few who did glance my way seemed to take no notice. As time went by and the sun began to slide toward the horizon, I realized that I would be there all night if no one came to my aid. I let out a meow that was plaintive but restrained: I knew only too well that many people don’t like cats and coming to their attention would only put me in an even worse predicament.
I needn’t have worried about unwanted attention, however, because I received no attention at all. In the Himalaya Book Café I might be revered as HHC, the Dalai Lama’s Cat. But out here, spice-stained and unknown, I was completely ignored.
Dear reader, I will spare you a full account of the next few hours I spent on the wall and the indifferent glances and uncomprehending smiles I was forced to endure, along with the stones thrown by two bored scamps on their way home from school. It was after nightfall and I was weary with fatigue when I noticed a woman walking along across the street. At first I didn’t recognize her, but there was something about her that gave me a sense that she would be the one to save me.
I meowed imploringly. She crossed the road. As she drew closer I saw that it was Serena Trinci, the daughter of Mrs. Trinci, His Holiness’s VIP chef and my most ardent admirer at Namgyal. Recently appointed caretaker-manager of the Himalaya Book Café, Serena was in her mid-30s. Looking svelte, her dark shoulder-length hair gathered in a ponytail, she was dressed in her yoga clothes.
“Rinpoche!” she exclaimed, looking aghast. “What are you doing up there?”
We had seen each other only twice at the café, so when she recognized me, my relief was beyond measure. Within moments she had dragged a nearby garbage can over to the wall and climbed up to where I was. Gathering me in her arms, she couldn’t help noticing the bedraggled state of my spice-flecked coat.
“What’s happened, poor little thing?” she asked, taking in the multicolored stains and pungent aromas as she held me close. “You must have been in some sort of trouble.”
Nuzzling my face into her chest, I felt enveloped by the warm fragrance of her skin and the reassuring beat of her heart. Step by step, as we made our way home, my relief deepened into something altogether stronger: a powerful sense of connection.
Having spent most of her adult life in Europe, Serena had arrived back in McLeod Ganj—the part of Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama lives—only a few weeks earlier. She had grown up there, in a household devoted to food. So after high school she had gone to catering college in Italy and then worked as a chef, rising through the ranks at some of Europe’s best restaurants. Recently she had left her post as head chef at Venice’s iconic Hotel Danieli for the top job at a fashionable restaurant in Mayfair, an upscale part of London.
I knew that Serena was ambitious, energetic, and extremely gifted, and I had heard her explain to Franc, owner of the Himalaya Book Café, how she had felt the need for a break from the 24-hour treadmill of restaurant life. She was burned out from the relentless stress, and it was time to rest and recharge: when she returned to London in six months, she would be taking on one of the most prestigious jobs in the city.
Little had she known that her arrival home would coincide with the exact moment that Franc needed someone to look after the café. He was returning to San Francisco to take care of his father, who was seriously ill. While managing any kind of food business hadn’t figured in Serena’s holiday plans, compared to what she was used to, taking care of the Himalaya Book Café would seem like a part-time job. The café was open for dinner only from Thursday through Saturday, and with the head waiter, Kusali, overseeing daytime service, the demands on Serena would not be great. It would be fun, Franc assured her, and give her something to do.
More importantly, he needed someone to take care of his two dogs. Marcel, the French bulldog, and Kyi Kyi, the Lhasa Apso, were the other two nonhuman habitués of the café, dozing through most of the day in their wicker basket under the reception counter.
Within two weeks Serena’s presence at the café had made its mark; on meeting her, people immediately fell under her spell. Patrons of the café couldn’t help but respond to her vivacity: she seemed to know just how to turn an evening out into a night to remember. As she breezed through the café, her warmth and upbeat personality soon had the waiters falling all over themselves to please her. Sam, the bookstore manager, was openly captivated by her, and Kusali, tall and shrewd—an Indian Jeeves—took her under his paternal wing.
I had been resting in my usual place—the top shelf of the magazine stand, between Vogue and Vanity Fair—when Franc introduced me to Serena as Rinpoche. Pronounced rin-po-shay, it means precious one in Tibetan and is an honorific given to learned Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Serena had responded to the introduction by reaching out and caressing my face. “How utterly adorable!” is all she said.
My lapis-blue eyes had met her gleaming dark ones, and there was a moment of recognition. I became aware of something that is of the utmost importance to cats, something we innately sense: I was in the presence of a Cat Lover.
Now, in the wake of my run-in with the dogs and the spice shop, Serena, with help from Kusali and some warm, wet cloths, was tenderly wiping away the spices that had become embedded in my thick coat. We were in the restaurant laundry, a small room behind the kitchen.
“Not so nice for Rinpoche,” remarked Serena as she removed a dark smudge from one of my gray boots with great delicacy. “But I just love the smell of all these spices. They take me back to our kitchen at home when I was growing up: cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, cloves—the wonderful flavors of garam masala, which we used in chicken curry and other dishes.”
“You prepared curries, Miss Serena?” Kusali was surprised.
“That’s how I started out in the kitchen,” she told him. “Those were the flavors of my childhood. Now Rinpoche is bringing them all back.”
“Our esteemed diners are often asking if we have Indian dishes on the menu, ma’am.”
“I know. I’ve had several requests already.”
There was no shortage of kiosks, street kitchens, and more formal restaurants in Dharamsala. But as Kusali observed, “People seek a trusted purveyor.”
“You’re right,” agreed Serena. Then, after a pause she added, “But Franc was pretty clear about sticking to the menu.”
“And we must respect his wishes”—Kusali was emphatic—“on the nights the café is customarily open.”
There was a pause while Serena removed several whole peppercorns that had lodged themselves in my bushy tail and Kusali dabbed tentatively at a garish splash of paprika on my chest.
When Serena spoke next there was a smile in her voice. “Kusali, are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Sorry, ma’am, I am not understanding.”
“Are you thinking we might open on a Wednesday, say, to try out a few curry dishes?”
Kusali met her eyes with an expression of wonderment and a broad smile. “A most excellent idea, ma’am!”
We cats have no fondness for water, and a damp cat is an unhappy one. Serena knew this, so as soon as she and Kusali had cleaned my coat to something approaching its usual pristine condition, she dried me with a towel chosen especially for its fluffiness, before asking Kusali to find a few morsels of chicken breast to tide me over until she took me home to Jokhang.
Being a Monday evening, the restaurant was closed, but Kusali found some delectable morsels in the fridge and warmed them briefly before placing them in the small china bowl kept exclusively for me. From force of habit, he took it to my usual spot at the back of the café, and Serena followed with me in her arms.
Although the café was in semidarkness, it so happened that Sam Goldberg, the bookstore manager, was hosting a book club meeting that night. Leaving me to my dinner, which I attacked with gusto, Serena and Kusali went to the bookstore section of the café, where 20 or so people were sitting on chairs set up in rows, watching a slide presentation.
“This is an illustration of the future from a book written in the late 1950s,” a male voice was saying. The speaker’s shaven head, wire-rimmed spectacles, and goatee gave him a cheeky look, adding to the aura of naughtiness about him. I recognized the face instantly. Sam had hung a poster of him in the store several weeks earlier, along with a quote from Psychology Today describing the man—a well-known psychologist—as “one of the foremost thought leaders of our time.”
It was then that I noticed Sam standing at the back to greet latecomers. Fresh-faced and handsome, Sam has a high forehead, curly, dark hair, and hazel eyes that behind his somewhat geeky glasses convey a luminous intelligence, along with a curious lack of self-confidence. Like Serena, Sam had been working at the Himalayan Book Café for only a short while, although his was a permanent job.
Sam had established himself as a regular patron at the café several months ago, and when Franc quizzed him about the books and downloads that seemed to hold his constant attention, Sam explained that he had worked in a major Los Angeles bookstore until it had recently closed down. This had instantly grabbed Franc’s attention. Franc had been thinking of converting the underused space in Café Franc, as it was known then, into a bookstore, but he needed someone with experience to make it happen. If ever there was a case of right person, right place, right time, this was it.
But it had taken some persuasion. Sam was still nursing his wounds from being laid off when the LA bookstore closed down and didn’t think he was up to the job. Franc had had to use all of his charm—aided by the considerable powers of persuasion of his lama, Geshe Wangpo—to get Sam to relent and set up the bookstore section of the Himalaya Book Café.
“Bearing in mind that from a 1950’s perspective, today is the future,” continued Sam’s guest speaker, “would anyone care to comment on the accuracy of the author’s vision?”
There were chuckles from the audience. The picture on the screen showed a housewife dusting the furniture, while outside her husband was docking his anti-gravity car, having descended from a sky filled with flying cars and people with jet packs on their backs
“The Lucille Ball hairdo isn’t very futuristic,” one of the women in the audience remarked, to even more laughter. “The clothes,” someone else said to more guffaws. The woman in her puffy skirt and her husband in his drainpipe pants clearly didn’t look like anyone we would see today.
“What about those jet packs?” contributed another.
“That’s right,” agreed the speaker. “We’re still waiting for them.” He flicked through several more images. “These show what people back in the 1950s thought the future would be like. And what makes these images so wonderfully, charmingly wrong isn’t just what’s in the pictures. It’s also what’s not in them. Tell me what’s missing from this one,” he said, pausing at an artist’s rendering of a streetscape in 2020, with conveyer-belts as sidewalks, whisking pedestrians along.
Absorbed as I was in my chicken dinner, even I found the image on the screen surreal for reasons I couldn’t quite place. There was a pause before someone observed, “No mobile phones.”
“No female executives,” offered another.
“No people of color,” said someone.
“No tattoos,” added somebody else, as the audience began to notice more and more.
The speaker allowed a few moments for the images to sink in. “You might say that the difference between the way things were in the 1950s and the way people imagined the future to be came down to what they focused on—anti-gravity cars, say, or conveyer-belted sidewalks. They imagined that everything else would stay the same.”
There was a pause while the audience digested what he had just said.
“That, my friends, is one reason why we are all so poor at guessing how we’ll feel about certain things in the future—in particular, about what is likely to make us happy. It’s because we imagine that everything in our lives will stay just the same except for the one thing that we’re focused on.
“Some call this presentism, the tendency to think that the future will be just like the present but with one particular difference. Our minds are very good at filling in everything else, apart from that difference, when we think about tomorrow. And the material we use to fill it in with is today as these images illustrate.”
Continuing, the speaker said, “Research shows that when we make predictions about how we’ll feel about future events, we don’t realize that our minds have played this ‘filling in’ trick. That’s part of why we think that getting the job with the corner office will deliver a feeling of success and achievement, or that driving an expensive car will be a source of undiluted joy. We think our lives will be just the same as they are now, with that one point of difference. But the reality, as we’ve seen”—the speaker gestured toward the screen—“is a lot more complicated. We don’t imagine, for example, the huge shift in work-life balance that comes with the corner-office job, or the anxiety we’ll feel about getting scratches and dents in the shiny new car, not to mention the pain of those monthly lease payments.”
I could have stayed longer to listen to the speaker, but Serena wanted to get home, and she was going to see me safely back to Jokhang. Carrying me in her arms, she slipped out the back door of the café and took the short walk up the road. At Namgyal we made our way across the courtyard to His Holiness’s residence, where Serena bent down and placed me, like a piece of delicate porcelain, on the steps to the main entrance..
“I hope you’re feeling more yourself, little Rinpoche,” she murmured, running her fingers through my coat, which was now almost dry. I loved the feel of her long fingernails massaging my skin. Reaching over, I licked her leg with my sandpaper tongue.
She laughed. “Oh, my little girl, I love you, too!”
Chogyal, one of His Holiness’s assistants, had left dinner for me upstairs in the usual place, but having already eaten at the café I wasn’t really hungry. After lapping up some lactose-free milk, I made my way into the private quarters I shared with His Holiness. The room where he spent most of each day was silent and lighted only by the moon. I headed to my favorite spot on the windowsill. Even though the Dalai Lama was many miles away in America, I felt his presence as if he was right beside me. Perhaps it was the spell of the moonlight, which cast everything in the room in an ethereal monochrome, but whatever the reason, I felt a profound sense of peace. It was the same feeling of well-being I experienced whenever I was with him. I think what he was telling me as he left on his trip was that this flow of serenity and benevolence is something any of us can connect with. We only need to sit quietly.
I began licking my paw and washing my face for the first time since the horrors of the afternoon. I could still see the dogs bearing down on me, but now it felt as though I was picturing events that had happened to some other cat. What had seemed so overwhelming and traumatic at the time, in the tranquility of Namgyal diminished to just a memory.
I remembered the psychologist down at the café describing how people often have little idea about what will make them happy. His illustrations were intriguing, and as he spoke, something else struck me about his message: it was quite familiar because the Dalai Lama often used to say the same thing. He didn’t use words like presentism, but his meaning was identical. His Holiness also observed how we tell ourselves that our happiness depends on certain situations, relationships, or accomplishments. How we think we’ll be unhappy if we don’t get what we want. Just as he pointed out the paradox that, even when we do get what we want, it often fails to deliver the happiness we expect.
Settling down on the sill, I gazed out into the night. Squares of light flickered through the darkness from the monks’ residences. Aromas wafted through the first floor window, hinting at the evening meals being prepared in the monastery kitchens. I listened to the bass-toned chants from the temple, as the senior monks brought their early evening meditation session to a close. Despite the trauma of the afternoon and coming back to an empty, unlighted home, as I sat on the sill with my paws tucked under me, I felt a contentment more profound than I would ever have predicted.
The next few days were a buzz of activity down at the Himalaya Book Café. Along with all the usual busyness, Serena was rapidly evolving her ideas for a curry night. She consulted with the café chefs, the Nepalese brothers Jigme and Ngawang Dragpa, who were only too happy to share their own family favorites. She also scoured the Internet for rare treasures to add to her already full recipe book of personal favorites.
One Monday night Serena invited a group of friends she had grown up with in McLeod Ganj to sample some of the curry dishes she had rediscovered or reinvented. From the kitchen came a mélange of enticing spices never before combined in such glorious profusion at the café—coriander and fresh ginger, sweet paprika and hot chili, garam masala, yellow mustard seeds, and nutmeg.
Working in the kitchen for the first time since returning from Europe, Serena was in her element as she prepared crunchy vegetarian samosas, removed generous helpings of naan—Indian flatbread—from the oven, and decorated brass bowls of Madras curry with spirals of yoghurt. She remembered the sheer joy of creation, the passion that had led her to train as a professional chef. Experimenting with a whole palette of flavors was something she hadn’t ventured in 15 years.
Her friends had been grateful but constructive critics. Such was their enthusiasm that by the time the last pistachio-and-cardamom kulfi had been eaten and the last glass of chai had been drunk, the idea of a curry night had expanded into something altogether more extravagant: it was to be an Indian banquet.
I was the top-shelf witness to the inaugural banquet less than two weeks later. As the Abiding Presence of the Himalaya Book Café, why would I not be? Besides, Serena had promised me a generous serving of her delectable Malabar fish curry.
Never had there been so many diners in the restaurant at one time. The event had proved so popular that extra tables had to be brought into the bookstore area and two additional wait staff hired for the night. Joining the local residents who were café regulars were Serena’s family and friends, many of whom had known Serena as a child. Serena’s mother was operatic and center stage in a multi-colored Indian shawl, her gold bracelets jangling at her wrists and her amber eyes flashing with pride as she watched her daughter choreograph the evening.
As if to compensate for the Italian brio, at the table next to Mrs. Trinci’s was a more sedate contingent from the Dalai Lama’s office, including His Holiness’s executive assistants, Chogyal and Tenzin, along with Tenzin’s wife, Susan, and His Holiness’s translator, Lobsang.
Chogyal, with his warm heart and soft hands, was my favorite monk after the Dalai Lama. With wisdom well beyond his years in dealing with often-tricky monastic matters, he was of great assistance to His Holiness. He was also responsible for feeding me when the Dalai Lama was away, a duty he performed punctiliously.
It had been Chogyal who, a year earlier, had volunteered to take me home with him while the Dalai Lama’s quarters were being redecorated. After lashing out at him for having the temerity to remove me from all that was familiar, I had spent three days sulking under the bed covers, only to discover that I had been missing out on an exciting new world, one inhabited by a magnificent tabby who was to become the father of my kittens. Through all these adventures Chogyal had remained my patient and devoted friend.
Across the desk from him in the executive assistants’ office sat Tenzin, a suave professional diplomat whose hands always had the tang of carbolic soap about them. He had been educated in Britain, and I had learned most of what I knew about European culture from lunchtimes in the first-aid room, listening to the BBC World Service with Tenzin.
I didn’t know Tenzin’s wife, Susan, but I was familiar with His Holiness’s translator, Lobsang, a deeply serene young monk. . Lobsang and Serena had known each other from way back, having both grown up together in McLeod Ganj. A relative of the royal family of Bhutan, Lobsang had been a novice monk studying at Namgyal when Mrs. Trinci needed extra sous-chefs in the kitchen. He and Serena had been conscripted, and a close and delightful friendship had ensued, which was why Lobsang was also present for the Indian banquet.
The night of the banquet, Serena had transformed the café into a sumptuous dining room with richly embroidered and sequined tablecloths on which she had placed exquisitely carved condiment pots. Clustered at every setting were flickering tea lights in brass lotus-flower holders.
Indian trance music swelled and ebbed hypnotically in the background as a parade of dishes appeared from the kitchen. From the vegetable pakoras to the mango chicken, each one of them received an ecstatic response. As for the Malabar fish curry, I could personally vouch for it. The fish was mild and succulent, the sauce deliciously creamy, with just enough coriander, ginger, and cumin to deliver a delightful zing. Within minutes I not only had eaten my serving but had licked the saucer clean.
At the center of everything, Serena was masterfully in command. She had dressed especially for the performance in a crimson sari, with kohl make-up, chandelier earrings, and a glittering jeweled collar. As the evening wore on, she went from table to table, and I couldn’t help but notice how touched people were by her warm heart. During the time she spent with them, she made them feel as if they were the center of her world. And she, in turn was moved by the outpouring of affection she received.
“It’s so wonderful that you’ve come back, my dear,” an elderly lady who was a family friend told her. “We love all your ideas and energy.”
“We’ve needed someone like you in Dharamsala,” a classmate from Serena’s school days had said. “All the most talented people seem to leave, so when someone comes back we treasure them more than you can imagine.”
Several times during the evening I watched her lip tremble with emotion as she raised a handkerchief to dab the corner of her eye. Something special was happening in the Himalaya Book Café, something that went beyond the Indian banquet, however sumptuous, and was of much greater personal significance.
The clue to it came several nights later.
Over the past few weeks, an intriguing working relationship had been unfolding between Serena and Sam. Serena’s vivacity was the perfect complement to Sam’s shyness. His cerebral wonderland was balanced by the here-and-now world of food and wine that she inhabited. And knowing that she was only a caretaker who would be returning to Europe in a few months gave their time together a bittersweet evanescent quality.
They had gotten into the habit of ending each evening that the café was open for dinner in a particular corner of the book store section. Two sofas arranged on either side of a coffee table made the perfect spot from which to survey the last of the restaurant’s diners and talk about whatever was on their minds.
Headwaiter Kusali no longer needed to be asked to bring their order. Shortly after they sat down, he would arrive bearing a tray with two Belgian hot chocolates, one with marshmallows for Serena, the other with biscotti for Sam. Also on the tray would be a saucer with four dog biscuits and, if I was still at the café, a small jug of lactose-free milk.
The soft “clink” of the saucer on the coffee table was the cue for Marcel and Kyi Kyi, who had obediently remained in their basket under the counter for the whole of dinner service. The two dogs would scramble from their basket, race across the restaurant and up the stairs, before sitting at the coffee table with heads cocked and pleading eyes. Their eagerness never failed to bring a smile to the faces of their two human companions, who would watch the dogs devour their biscuits, snuffling up any crumbs on the floor.
I would make my way over in more leisurely fashion, stretching myself for a few quivering moments before hopping down from the top shelf of the magazine rack to join the others.
After their biscuits, the dogs would jump up on the sofa, flanking Sam as they lay on their backs, in eager anticipation of a tummy rub. I would take my place in Serena’s lap, kneading whatever dress she happened to be wearing while giving her an appreciative purr.
“There’s already been a flurry of bookings for our next banquet,” Serena told Sam that particular evening after all five of us were settled.
“That’s great!” he said, sipping his hot chocolate contemplatively. “H-have you decided when you’re going to tell Franc?”
Serena hadn’t. Still in San Francisco, Franc knew nothing about last Wednesday’s Indian banquet experiment. Serena had been holding to the wisdom that it is sometimes better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission.
“I thought I’d let him have a pleasant surprise when he gets the month’s financials,” she said.
“He’ll get a surprise all right,” agreed Sam. “The biggest take for a single night since the café opened. And it has turbo-charged everything since. The whole place has become more vibrant. There’s more of a buzz.”
“I’ve thought that, too,” said Serena. “But I wondered if I was the only one.”
“No, the place has changed,” Sam insisted, holding her eyes for a full two seconds before breaking his gaze. “You’ve changed, too.”
“Oh?” she said, smiling. “How?”
“You’ve got this . . . energy. This j-joie de v-vivre.”
Serena nodded. “I do feel different. I’ve been thinking about how in all those years of managing some of the most upscale restaurants in Europe, I don’t think I ever had as much fun as I did last Wednesday night. I never would have believed it could be so wonderfully satisfying!”
Sam reflected for a moment before observing, “As that psychologist said the other day, sometimes it’s hard to predict what will make us happy.”
“Exactly. I’m beginning to wonder if being head chef at one of London’s top restaurants really is what I want to do next.”
I was looking at Sam as she said this and observed the change in his expression. A gleam came into his eyes.
“If I go back to doing the same thing,” continued Serena, “it will probably produce the same result.”
“More stress and b-burnout?”
She nodded. “There are rewards, too, of course. But they’re very different from the ones here.”
“Do you think it was cooking for family and friends that made the difference?” Sam suggested. Then, flashing a mischievous glance he added, “Or was it about awakening the vindaloo within?”
Serena chuckled. “Both. I’ve always adored curries. Even though they’ll never be haute cuisine, I love cooking them because of the many flavors, and they’re so nourishing. But as well as that, it felt as if last Wednesday was really special for people.”
“I agree,” said Sam. “The place had a great vibe.”
“There’s something very fulfilling when you can do what you really care about, and it’s appreciated by others.”
Sam looked pensive before putting down his mug, rising from the sofa, and going to a bookshelf. He returned with a paperback copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Austrian psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. “What you just said reminded me of something,” he said, opening the book at its preface. ‘“Don’t aim at success,’” he read. ‘“The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue . . . as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a course greater than oneself.’”
Serena nodded. “In a very small way, I think that’s what I’m discovering.” For a moment they held each other’s eyes. “And in the strangest of ways.”
Sam was curious. “How do you mean?”
“Well, the whole idea of an Indian banquet only happened because of a chance conversation I had with Kusali. And that only happened because I found little Rinpoche stranded.”
Sam knew about the afternoon I had been trapped on the wall. There had been much speculation about how I had ended up there, none of it correct.
“You might say that all of this only came about because of Rinpoche,” she said, gazing down adoringly and stroking me.
“Rinpoche, the catalyst,” observed Sam.
As the two of them chuckled, I thought how no one, least of all me, could ever have guessed at the chain of events that would be triggered by my decision that Monday afternoon to turn left instead of right when I left the café. Nor would any of us have believed what was still to come. For what had happened so far turned out to be only the beginning of a much bigger story—a story in which many dimensions of happiness were to emerge as unintended but most rewarding side effects.
Unpredictable? Most certainly. Enlightening? Indubitably!
The Dalai Lama’s Cat
The idea came about one sunny Himalaya morning. There I was, lying in my usual spot on the broad, first floor windowsill, the perfect vantage from which to maintain maximum surveillance with minimum effort, as His Holiness was bringing a private audience to a close.
I’m far too discreet to mention who the audience was with, except to say that she’s a very famous Hollywood actress … you know the one married to the equally famous actor, who played husband and wife undercover agents in that thriller a few years ago? The actress who does the refugee charity work – yes, her!
It was as she was turning to leave the room that she glanced out the window, with its magnificent view towards the snow-capped mountains, and noticed me for the first time.
‘Oh! How adorable!’ she stepped over to stroke my neck, which I acknowledged with a wide yawn and tremulous stretch of the front paws. ‘I didn’t know you had a cat!’ she exclaimed.
I am always surprised how many people make this observation – though not all are as bold as the American actress in giving voice to their astonishment. Why should His Holiness not have a cat – if, indeed, ‘having a cat’ is a correct understanding of the relationship, a subject to which we will return later. It is not as if people are required to tell everyone they meet about the companions with whom they share their lives. How many people do you pass in the street wearing the lapel badge ‘Cat haver?’
Besides, those with particularly acute observation would know of the feline presence in His Holiness’s life by the stray hairs and occasional whisker I make it my business to leave on his person. Should you ever have the privilege of getting very close to the Dalai Lama, and scrutinise his robes in detail, you will almost certainly discover the finest wisp of white fur, confirming that, far from living alone, he shares his inner sanctum with a feline of impeccable – if undocumented – breeding.
It was exactly this discovery to which the Queen’s corgis reacted with such vigour when he visited BuckinghamPalace – an incident to which the World Media were strangely oblivious.
But I digress.
Having stroked my neck, the American actress, asked, ‘Does she have a name?’
‘Oh yes! Many names,’ His Holiness smiled enigmatically.
What the Dalai Lama said was true. Like many domestic cats I have acquired a variety of names, some of them used frequently, others less so. One of them, in particular, is a name I don’t much care for. Known among His Holiness’s staff as my ordination name, it isn’t a name the Dalai Lama himself has ever used – not the full version, at least. Nor is it a name I will disclose so long as I live. Not in this book at least.
Well ... definitely not in this chapter.
‘If only she could speak,’ continued the actress, ‘I’m sure she’d have such wisdom to share.’
And so the seed was planted.
In the months that followed I watched His Holiness working on a new book, the many hours he spent making sure texts were correctly interpreted, the great time and care he took to ensure that every word he wrote conveyed the greatest possible meaning and benefit. More and more I began to think that perhaps the time had come for me to turn my paws to a book of my own – a book that would convey some of the wisdom I’ve learned sitting not at the feet, but even closer, on the very lap of the Dalai Lama. One that tells my own tale – not so much one of rags to riches as trash to temple. How I was rescued from a fate too grisly to contemplate, to become constant companion to a man who is not only one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but who is also a dab hand with the can opener.
Often in the late afternoon, after I feel His Holiness has already spent too many hours at his desk, I will hop off the wooden sill and pad over to where he is working, rubbing my furry body about his legs. If this doesn’t get his attention I sink my teeth, politely but precisely, into the tender flesh of his ankles. That always does it.
With a sigh, the Dalai Lama will push back his chair, scoop me up into his arms, and walk over to the window. Looking into my big, blue eyes, the expression in his own is one of such immense love that it never ceases to fill me with happiness.
‘My little bodhicattva,’ he will sometimes say playfully, calling me by one of my many names. In the Tibetan Buddhist path, ‘bodhisattva’ refers to an enlightened being.
Together we gaze out at the panoramic vista that sweeps as far as the eye can see down the KangraValley. Through the open windows a gentle breeze carries fragrances of pine, Himalayan oak and rhododendron, giving the air its pristine, almost magical quality. Held in the warm embrace of the Dalai Lama, it as though all distinctions dissolve away completely – between the observers and the observed, between cat and lama, between the stillness of twilight and the bountiful appreciation of my deep-throated purr.
It in those moments that I feel profoundly grateful to be the Dalai Lama’s cat.
Chapter OneI have a defecating bullock to thank for the event that was to change my very young life – and without which, dear reader, you would not be holding this book.
Picture a typical monsoonal afternoon in New Delhi. The Dalai Lama is on his way home from a teaching trip to the USA. Having recently arrived at IndiraGandhiAirport his car is making its way through the outskirts of the city when traffic is brought to a halt by a bullock that has ambled into the centre of the highway where it proceeds to dump copiously on the tarmac.
Several cars back from the fray and unable to see the cause of the traffic jam, unlike many of those in the vehicles around him, His Holiness did not join in the chorus of raised voices and angry gesticulations, but took the opportunity to abide calmly in the present moment. As he did, his attention was drawn to the drama being played out at the side of the road.
Among the usual seething clamour of pedestrians and bicyclers, of food-stall holders and beggars, two ragged street urchins were anxious to bring their day’s trading to an end. Earlier that morning, they had come across a litter of kittens, concealed behind a pile of hessian sacks in a back alley. Scrutinising their discovery closely, they soon realised that they had fallen upon something of value. For the kittens were no common or garden variety moggies, but a rather superior kind altogether. The young boys were unfamiliar with the Himalayan breed, but they recognised in the handsome colouring, the sapphire eyes and the lavish pelt, a tradeable commodity.
Rough handing us from the nest in which our mother had tended to us, they thrust my siblings and I into the terrifying commotion of the street. Within moments, my two eldest sisters, who were much the larger and most developed of us, had been exchanged for rupees – an event of such excitement that I was dropped, fell painfully onto the ground and only narrowly avoiding being killed by a deafening scooter.
The boys had had much more trouble selling us two younger kittens, our features being less developed, our eyes barely open. For several hours they trudged the streets, shoving us vigorously at the windows of passing cars. Much too young to be taken from our mother, my small body was simply unable to cope. Failing fast for lack of milk, and still in pain from tumbling to the ground, I was barely conscious when the boys sparked the interest of an elderly passer by, who had been thinking about a kitten for his grand-daughter.
Gesturing to put us two remaining kittens on the ground, he squatted on his haunches and inspected us closely. My older brother padded across the corrugated dirt at the side of the road, mewing imploringly for milk. When I was prodded from behind to induce some movement, I managed only a single, lurching step forward before collapsing painfully into a puddle of mud.
It was exactly this scene that His Holiness witnessed.
And the one that followed.
A sale price agreed, my brother was handed over to the toothless old man. I, meantime, was left mired in the filth while the two boys debated what to do with me, one of them shoving me roughly with his big toe. They decided I was unsaleable. Fate sealed, they grabbed a week old Sports page of the India Times that had blown into a nearby gutter, and wrapped me like a piece of rotten meat to be discarded in the nearest rubbish heap.
As I began to suffocate inside the newspaper, the light of life inside me flickered low. Every breath became a struggle. I was about to be snuffed out.
Except that His Holiness despatched his attendant first. Having just got off the plane from America, the Dalai Lama’s attendant happened to have two, single dollar notes secured within his robes. He handed these over to the boys who scampered away, speculating with great excitement about how much the dollar bills would fetch when converted into rupees.
Don’t lose sight of those two ragamuffins as they dance away through the puddles, for we will meet them later – in rather different circumstances.
Unwrapped from the ignominy of the Sports pages (‘Bangalore Crush Rajasthan By 9 Wickets’), a short while later I was resting in comfort in the back of the Dalai Lama’s car with milk being dripped into my mouth as His Holiness willed life back into my limp form.
I remember none of the details of my rescue, but the story has been recounted so many times that I know it by heart. What I do remember is waking up in a sanctuary of such infinite warmth that for the first time in my young life I wanted to see all that I could. As I did, I found myself looking directly into the eyes of the Dalai Lama.
How do I describe the first moment that you find yourself in the presence of His Holiness? It is as much a feeling, as a thought. An intuitive understanding, deeply heart-warming and profound, that all is well. It is as though for the first time you become aware that your own true nature is one of boundless love and compassion. It has been there all along, but the Dalai Lama sees it and reflects it back to you. He perceives your Buddha nature, and this extraordinary revelation often moves people to tears.
In my own case, swaddled in a piece of maroon-coloured fleece on a chair in his office, I was also aware of another important fact. A fact that is of the greatest importance to all cats and for which we all have an awareness that comes as a standard feature of our in-built cat nav; I was in the home of a Cat Lover.
As strongly as I sensed this, I was also aware of another, less sympathetic presence across the coffee table. Back in Dharamsala, His Holiness had resumed his schedule of audiences immediately, and was fulfilling a long standing commitment to be interviewed by a visiting history professor from Britain. I couldn’t possibly tell you who, exactly, just to say that he came from one of England’s two main ivy league universities, you know the ones that take part in that boat race every year, the team flying the dark blue colours. Yes – them.
The professor was penning a tome on Indo-Tibetan history and seemed irked to find he was not the exclusive focus of the Dalai Lama’s attention.
‘A stray?’ he exclaimed after His Holiness briefly explained the reason why I was occupying the seat between them.
‘Yes,’ confirmed the Dalai Lama, before responding not so much to what the visitor had said, as to the tone of voice in which he’d said it. Regarding the history professor with a kindly smile, he spoke in that rich, warm baritone with which I was to become so familiar,
‘You know, professor, this stray kitten and you have one very important thing in common.’
‘I can’t imagine,’ responded the other, coolly.
‘Your life is the most important thing in the world to you,’ said His Holiness. ‘Same for this kitten.’
From the pause that followed, it was evident that for all his erudition, it was the first time the professor had ever been presented with such a startling idea.
‘Surely you’re not saying that the life of a human and an animal are of the same value?’
‘As humans we have much greater potential for development, of course. But the way in which we all want so very much to stay alive, the way we cling to our particular experience of consciousness – in this respect human and animal are equal.’
‘Well, perhaps some of the more complex mammals …’ the professor was battling against this troubling thought, ‘but not all animals. I mean, for instance, not cockroaches.’
‘Including cockroaches,’ His Holiness was undeterred. ‘Any being that has consciousness-‘
‘But they carry filth and disease. We have to spray them.’
His Holiness rose and, walking over to his desk, lifted up a large match box. ‘Our cockroach carrier,’ he said. ‘Much better than spraying. I am sure,’ he delivered his trademark chuckle, ‘you wouldn’t want to be chased by a giant, who sprays you with toxic gas.’ The professor received the truth of this self-evident, but uncommon wisdom, in silence.
‘For all of us who have consciousness-’ the Dalai Lama returned to his seat, ‘-our life is very precious. For this reason we need to protect all sentient beings as much as possible. Also, we should recognise that we share the same two basic wishes: the wish to enjoy happiness, and the wish to avoid suffering.’
They were themes I have heard the Dalai Lama repeat often when he meets people, and in limitless ways. Yet every time he speaks with such vivid clarity and impact it is as though he is saying them for the first time.
‘We not only share these wishes. Even the way we seek out happiness and try to avoid discomfort is identical. Who among us does not enjoy a delicious meal? Who does not wish to sleep in a safe, comfortable bed? Stray kitten, author or monk – we are all equal in that regard.’
Across the coffee table, the history professor shifted in his seat.
‘Most of all,’ the Dalai Lama leaned over me and stroked me with his index finger, ‘all of us just want to be loved.’
By the time the professor left, later that afternoon, he had a lot more to think about than his tape-recording of the Dalai Lama’s views on Indo-Tibetan history. His Holiness’s message was challenging. Confronting, even. But it wasn’t one that could be easily dismissed … as we were to discover.
In the days that followed I became quickly familiar with my new surroundings. The cosy nest His Holiness created for me out of an old, fleece robe. The changing light in his rooms as the sun rose, passed over us, and set each day. The tenderness with which he fed me warm milk until I was strong enough to begin eating solid food.
I also began exploring. First, the Dalai Lama’s own suite. Then out beyond it, to an office shared by his two Executive Assistants. One of them, the young, roly-poly one closest the door with the smiling face and soft hands was a monk called Chogyal who helped His Holiness with all monastic affairs. The older, tall one, who sat opposite, always in a dapper suit, and whose hands always had the clean, tang of carbolic soap was a trained diplomat called Tenzin. He assisted on secular matters.
That first day I wobbled round the corner into their office, there was an abrupt halt in the conversation. ‘Who is this?’ Tenzin wanted to know.
Chogyal chuckled as he lifted me up and put me on his desk, where my eye was immediately caught by the bright blue top of a Bic. ‘The Dalai Lama rescued her while driving out of Delhi,’ Chogyal repeated the attendant’s story as I flicked the Bic top across his desk.
‘Why does she walk so strangely?’ the other wanted to know.
‘Apparently she was dropped on her back.’
‘Hmm,’ Tenzin sounded doubtful as he leaned forward, scrutinising me closely. ‘Perhaps she was malnourished, being the smallest kitten. Does she have a name?’
‘No.’ Then after a short period flicking the pastic pen top to and fro, ‘We’ll have to give her one!’ he was enthusiastic about the challenge. ‘An ordination name. What do you think – Tibetan or English?’
In Tibetan Buddhism, when someone becomes a monk or nun they are given an ordination name to mark their new identity.
Chogyal began suggesting different possibilities before Tenzin suggested, ‘It’s better not to force these things. I’m sure something will present itself as we get to know her better.’
As usual, Tenzin’s advice was both wise and prophetic – unfortunately for me, as things turned out. Chasing the biro top, I progressed from Chogyal’s desk half way across Tenzin’s before the older man seized my small, fluffy form and put me down on a runner.
‘You’d better go down,’ he said. ‘I have a letter here from His Holiness to The Pope and we don’t want paw prints all over it.’
Chogyal laughed, ‘Signed on his behalf by His Holiness’s Cat.’
‘HHC,’ Tenzin gave the abbreviated version. In official correspondence, His Holiness is frequently referred to as HHDL. ‘That can be her provisional title until we find a suitable name.’
Beyond the office of his personal assistants was a corridor that led past further offices towards a door that was carefully closed behind anyone who arrived or left. I knew that door led to many places including Downstairs, Outside, The Temple and even Overseas. It was the door through which all His Holiness’s visitors came and went. It led to a whole new world. But in those early days, as a very small kitten, I was perfectly content to remain on this side of it.
Having spent my first days on earth in a back alley, I had no understanding of human life – and to begin with, nor did I have any idea how unusual my new circumstances were. I watched the way that visitors always presented His Holiness with a white scarf or katag (pronounced ‘carter’) and how he returned it to them with a blessing. Was that not the way that humans usually behaved when they met?
When he got out of bed at 3 am every morning to meditate for five hours, I would follow him, curling in a tight knot beside him, glowing in his warmth and energy. Was this not the way that most people started each day? I was also aware that many people who visited him had travelled very long distances to do so – that all seemed perfectly normal to me too.
Until one day Chogyal picked me up in his arms and tickled my neck. ‘Who are all these people?’ he followed my gaze to the many framed photographs on the wall. ‘They are the past eight Presidents of the United States meeting His Holiness. He is a very special person, you know.’
I did know. He always made sure my milk was warm, but not too hot, before giving it to me.
‘He is one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders. We believe he is a living Buddha. You obviously have a very close karmic connection to him. It would be most interesting to know what that is.’
A few days afterwards, I found my way down the corridor to the small kitchen and sitting area, about half way down the corridor, where the Dalai Lama’s staff would relax, have their lunch and make tea. Several monks were sitting on a sofa, watching a recorded news item on his recent visit to USA. By now they all knew who I was – in fact I had become the office mascot. Hopping up on the lap of one of them, I allowed him to stroke me as I watched TV.
All I could see, initially, was a vast crowd of people with a tiny red dot in the centre, while His Holiness’s voice could be heard quite clearly. But as the news item progressed I realised that the red dot was His Holiness, in the centre of a vast, indoor sporting arena. It was a scene that was replayed in every city he visited from New York to San Francisco. The newsreader commented how the huge crowds of people that came out to see him in every city showed that he was more popular than many rock stars.
Little by little I began to realise just how extraordinary the Dalai Lama was, and how highly regarded he was by human beings. By extension, it seemed to me that I must be rather special too. It was me, after all, who he had rescued from the gutters of New Delhi. Had he recognised in me a kindred spirit – a sentient being on the same spiritual wave length as him?
When I heard him tell visitors about the importance of loving kindness, I would purr contentedly, certain in the knowledge that this was exactly what I thought too. When he opened my evening can of Snappy Tom’s, it seemed as obvious to me, as it was to him, that all sentient beings wanted to fulfil the same basic needs. And as he stroked by bulging tummy afterwards, it seemed equally clear that each of us just wanted to be loved.
There had been some talk around this time about what would happen when His Holiness left on a three week trip to Australia and New Zealand. With this, and many subsequent travels planned, should I remain in the Dalai Lama’s quarters or would it be better if I was found a new home.
New home? The very idea of it was crazy! I was HHC, with an established position in the establishment. You might say I had become part of the smooth running of the place. Had not Tenzin himself said that the Dalai Lama and I had a close karmic connection?
Then one day it happened. His Holiness was over at the temple, and The Door was left open. By then I had grown into an adventurous kitten, no longer content to spend all her time cosseted in fleece. Prowling along the corridor in search of excitement, the moment I saw the door ajar, I knew I had to go through it, to explore the many places to which it led.
Downstairs. Outside. Overseas.
Somehow I made my shaky way down two flights of stairs, grateful for the carpeting as my descent accelerated out of control and I landed in an undignified bundle. Picking myself up, I continued across a short hallway and outside.
It was the first time I’d been outdoors since being mired in the gutters of New Delhi – there was a bustle, an energy, with people walking in every direction. I hadn’t got very far before I heard a chorus of high pitched squealing and the commotion of many feet on the pavement. A tour group of Japanese school girls caught sight of me and took pursuit.
I panicked. Racing as fast as my unsteady hind legs would take me, I lurched away from the shrieking hoard. I could hear them gaining ground. There was no way I could out-run them. The leather of their shoes on the pavement became a thunder!
Then I spotted the small gap. It was between bricks that led under the building. A tight squeeze. And very little time. Plus I had no idea where it led.
But as I bolted inside, the pandemonium came to an end. I found myself in a large, low space between the ground and the wooden boards of a veranda floor. It was dark and dusty and there was a constant, dull drumming traffic of feet above. But at least I felt safe. I wondered how long I would need to stay there until the schoolgirls had gone away. Brushing a cobweb from my face, I didn’t want to risk another such ordeal.
As my eyes and ears adjusted to this new place, I became aware of a scratching noise. Sporadic, but insistent bursts of gnawing. I paused, nostrils flared as I searched the air.
Yes! The aroma was unmistakeable. Along with the sound of incisors came a pungent whiff that set my whiskers tingling. The reaction was instant, powerful, and instinctive: the scent of mouse!
I moved, stealthily, in the direction from which it was coming. Downwind of the creature, my approach was concealed beneath the constant sound of footfall.
Even though I had never seen a mouse in my life before, I recognised what it was immediately. Holding onto a vertical foundation strut, its head was half buried in a wooden beam which it was hollowing out with its large front teeth.
Instinct took over.
With a single swipe of my front paw I swept the rodent off balance and onto the ground where it lay stunned. Reaching down I sank my teeth into its neck. The body went limp.
I knew exactly what I must do next. Prey secured, I padded back to the gap in the wall, checked the pavement traffic outside. Finding no Japanese schoolchildren, I hurried back into the building. Across the hallway. Up the stairs. To The Door – which was firmly closed.
I had to remain there for quite some time until one of His Holiness’s staff arrived. Recognising me, but without noticing the trophy in my mouth, he let me in. I padded down the corridor and around the corner.
Because the Dalai Lama was still at the temple, I made my way directly into the office of his Executive Assistants, announcing my arrival with a meow of all due urgency and importance.
Responding to the unfamiliar tone, Chogyal and Tenzin both turned, looking at me in surprise as I strutted proudly into their office and deposited the mouse on the carpet.
Their reaction was nothing like I had expected. Exchanging a sharp glance, they both instantly moved from their chairs, Chogyal lifting me up and Tenzin kneeling down over the motionless mouse.
‘Still breathing,’ he said. ‘Probably in shock.’
The printer box,’ Chogyal directed him to an empty cardboard box from which he’d just removed a fresh cartridge.
Using an old envelope as a brush, Tenzin soon had the mouse in the empty container. He regarded it closely. ‘Where do you think-?’
‘This one has cobwebs on its whiskers,’ observed Chogyal.
At that moment, the Dalai Lama’s driver arrived in the office. Tenzin handed over the box with instructions that the mouse was to be observed and, if it recovered, released in the forest nearby.
‘HHC must have got out,’ observed the driver meeting my blue-eyed gaze.
Chogyal was still holding me, not in his usual affectionate embrace, but as though restraining a savage beast.
‘HHC. I’m not sure about that title anymore,’ he said.
‘It was only a provisional title,’ concurred Tenzin, returning to his desk. ‘But His Holiness’s Mouser doesn’t seem appropriate.’
Chogyal put me back on the carpet.
‘What about just ‘Mouser’ for an ordination name?’ suggested the driver – but because of his strong, Tibetan accent, it came out ‘Mousie.’
All three men were now looking at me intently. The conversation had taken a dangerous turn which I have come to regret ever since.
‘You can’t have just ‘Mousie,’ said Chogyal. ‘It has to be Something Mousie or Mousie Something.’
‘Mousie Monster?’ contributed Tenzin.
‘Mousie Slayer?’ suggested Chogyal.
It was a pause before the driver came out with it. What was to become my ordination name. The name that is my deepest regret. The name that dare not be spoken.
‘What about Mousie-Tung?’ he suggested.
All three men burst out laughing as they looked down at my small, fluffy form.
Tenzin turned mock-serious as he regarded me directly, ‘Compassion is all very well. But do you think His Holiness should be sharing his quarters with Mousie-Tung?’
‘Or leaving Mousie-Tung in charge for three weeks when he visits Australia?’ mused Chogyal.
Getting up, I stalked from the room, ears pressed back firmly and tail slashing.
In the hours that followed, as I sat in the tranquil sunlight of His Holiness’s window, I began to realise the full enormity of what I’d done. For almost all of my young life I had sat listening to the Dalai Lama talk about how the lives of all sentient beings are as important to them as our own life is to us.
But how much attention had I paid to that on the one and only occasion I was in the real world? His Holiness often repeated the truth that all beings wish for happiness and to avoid suffering. A thought that hadn’t crossed my mind when I’d stalked the mouse. Not for one moment had I considered my actions from the mouse’s point of view.
I was beginning to realise that just because an idea is very simple, doesn’t make it easy to follow. Also, that purring in agreement with high sounding principles actually means nothing if you don’t actually live by them.
I wondered if His Holiness would be told the new ‘ordination name’ – the grim reminder of the greatest failing of my young life. Even worse, would he be so horrified when he heard what had happened that he would banish me from this beautiful haven forever?
Fortunately for me, the mouse recovered and was released into the forest. And when His Holiness returned, he was immediately caught up in a series of meetings.
It wasn’t until late in the evening that he mentioned the subject. He had been sitting up in bed reading, before closing his book, removing his glasses, and placing both on a bedside table.
‘They told me about what happened,’ he murmured, reaching over to where I was dozing nearby. ‘Sometimes our instinct, our negative conditioning can be over-powering. Later we come to regret what we have done. But that is no reason to give up on yourself – the Buddhas haven’t given up on you. Instead, learn from your mistake and move on.’
He turned out the bedside light, and as we both lay there in the darkness, I purred gently in appreciation.
‘Tomorrow we start again,’ he said.
The next day, His Holiness was going through those fortunate few pieces of mail that his Executive Assistants selected for his attention from sackfuls that arrived every morning.
‘This is very nice,’ he turned to Chogyal, holding up a letter and accompanying book that had been sent as a gift by the professor of history from England.
‘Yes, Your Holiness,’ Chogyal studied the glossy cover of the book.
‘Not so much the book,’ said His Holiness, ‘as the letter.’
‘After thinking about our conversation, the professor says he has stopped using snail bait on his roses. Instead, he now releases the snails over the garden wall.’
‘Very good!’ smiled Chogyal.
‘We liked meeting him, didn’t we?’ he glanced up at me directly.
I remembered how, at the time, I’d thought how deeply unenlightened the professor had seemed. But after what had happened the day before, I could hardly judge.
‘Just shows that we all have the capacity to change,’ the Dalai Lama twinkled. ‘Doesn’t it, Mousie?’
Prologue and Chapter One of The Dalai Lama’s Cat by David Michie, Copyright @ 2012, Hay House, Inc., Carlsbad, CA, USA
Excerpt used with permission
The Magician of Lhasa
Tenzin Dorje (pronounced Ten-zin Door-jay)
I am alone in the sacred stillness of the temple, lighting butter lamps at the Buddha’s feet, when I first realize that something is very wrong.
“Tenzin Dorje!” Startled, I turn to glimpse the spare frame of my teacher, silhouetted briefly at the far door. “My room. Immediately!”
For a moment I am faced with a dilemma. Making offerings to the Buddha is considered a special privilege, and as a sixteen-year-old novice monk I take this duty seriously. Not only is there a particular order in which the candles must be lit, each new flame should be visualized as representing a precious gift—such as incense, music and flowers—to be offered for the sake of all living beings.
I know that nothing should prevent me from completing this important rite, but is obedience to my kind and holy teacher not more important? Besides, I can’t remember the last time that Lama Tsering used the word “immediately.” Nor can I remember a time when anyone shouted an order in the temple. Especially not Zheng-po’s highest-ranking lama.
Even though I am only half-way through lighting the candles, I quickly snuff out the taper. Bowing briefly to the Buddha, I hurry outside.
In the twilight, disruption is spreading through Zheng-po monastery like ripples from a stone thrown into a tranquil lake. Monks are knocking loudly on each other’s doors. People are rushing across the courtyard with unusual haste. Villagers have gathered outside the abbot’s office and are talking in alarmed voices and gesturing down the valley.
Slipping into my sandals, I gather my robe above my knees and, abandoning the usual monastic code, break into a run.
Lama Tsering’s room is at the furthermost end, across the courtyard and past almost all the monks’ rooms, in the very last building. Even though his status would accord him a spacious and comfortable room directly overlooking the courtyard, he insists on living next to his novices in a small cell on the edge of Zheng-po.
When I get to the room, his door is thrown open and his floor, usually swept clean, is scattered with ropes and packages I’ve never seen. His lamp is turned to full flame, making him look even taller and more disproportionate than ever as his shadow leaps about the walls and ceiling with unfamiliar urgency.
I’ve no sooner got there than I turn to find Paldon Wangpo hurrying towards me. The pair of us are Lama Tsering’s two novices but we have an even stronger karmic connection: Paldon Wangpo is my brother, two years older than I.
We knock on our teacher’s door.
Lama Tsering beckons us inside, telling us to close the door behind us. Although the whole of Zheng-po is in turmoil, his face shows no sign of panic. But there is no disguising the gravity of his expression.
“This is the day we have feared ever since the Year of the Metal Tiger,” he looks from one to the other of us with a seriousness we only usually see before an important examination. “Messengers have just arrived at the village with news that the Red Army has marched on Lhasa. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, has been forced into exile. A division of the Red Army is traveling here, to Jangtang province. At this moment they are only half a day’s travel from Zheng-po.”
Paldon Wangpo and I can’t resist exchanging glances. In just a few sentences, Lama Tsering has told us that everything about our world has been turned upside down. If His Holiness has been forced to flee from the Potala Palace, what hope is there for the rest of Tibet?
“We must assume that the Red Army is coming directly towards Zheng-po,” Lama Tsering continues quickly. From outside we hear one of the women villagers wailing. “If they travel through the night, they could arrive by tomorrow morning. Definitely, they could get here within a day. In other parts of our country, the army is destroying monasteries, looting their treasures, burning their sacred texts, torturing and murdering the monks. There’s little doubt they have the same intentions for Zheng-po. For this reason, the abbot is asking us to evacuate.”
“Evacuate?” I can’t contain myself. “Why don’t we stay and resist?”
“Tenzin Dorje, I have shown you the map of our neighbor China,” he explains. “For every soldier they have sent to Tibet, there are ten thousand more soldiers ready to take their place. Even if we wanted to, this is not a struggle we can win.”
Paldon Wangpo reaches out, putting his hand over my mouth.
“Fortunately, our abbot and the senior lamas have been preparing for this possibility. Each of the monks has a choice. You can return to your village and continue to practice the Dharma in secret. Or you can join the senior lamas in exile.”
He holds up his hand, gesturing we shouldn’t yet reply. “Before you say you want to join us in exile, you must realize this is not some great adventure. Traveling to the border will be dangerous—the Red Army will shoot dead any monks trying to leave. Then we must try to cross the mountains on foot. For three weeks we will have to travel very long distances, living only off the food we can carry. We will have to endure much hardship and pain. Even if we finally arrive in India, we don’t know if the government will allow us to stay, or send us back over the border.”
“But if we return to our villages and continue to wear our robes,” interjects Paldon Wangpo, “the Chinese will find us anyway, and punish our families for keeping us.”
Lama Tsering nods briefly.
“If we disrobe, we would be breaking our vows.” Paldon Wangpo has always been a sharp debater. “Either way, we would lose you as our teacher.”
“What you say is true,” Lama Tsering agrees. “This is a difficult decision even for a lama, and you are novice monks. But it is important that you choose, and do so quickly. Whatever decision you make,” he regards each of us in turn, “you will have my blessing.”
From outside comes the pounding of feet as people hurry past. There can be no doubting the crisis we’re facing.
“I am getting older,” Lama Tsering tells us, kneeling down to continue packing a leather bag, which is lying on the floor. “If I had only myself to think about, I might go into hiding and take my chances with the Chinese—”
“No, Lama!” I exclaim.
Next to me, Paldon Wangpo looks sheepish. He has always been embarrassed by my impetuousness.
“But the abbot has asked me to play an important part in the evacuation.”
“I want to come with you!” I can’t hold back any longer, no matter what Paldon Wangpo thinks.
“Perhaps you like me as a teacher,” Lama Tsering is cautioning. “But as a fellow traveler it will be very different. You are young and strong, but I may become a liability. What happens if I fall and hurt myself?”
“Then we will carry you across the mountains,” I declare.
Beside me Paldon Wangpo is nodding.
Lama Tsering looks up at us, an intensity in his dark eyes I have seen only on rare occasions.
“Very well,” he tells us finally. “You can come. But there is one very important condition I have to tell you about.”
Moments later we are leaving his room for our own, having promised to return very quickly. As I make my way through the turmoil in the corridor outside I can hardly believe the condition that Lama Tsering has just related. This is, without question, the worst day in the existence of Zheng-po, but paradoxically for me it is the day I have found my true purpose. My vocation. The reason I have been drawn to the Dharma.
Opening my door, I look around the small room that has been my world for the past ten years: the wooden meditation box, three feet square; the straw mattress on the baked-earth floor; my change of robes and toiletry bag, the two belongings monks are allowed at Zheng-po.
It is hard to believe that I will never again sit in this meditation box, never again sleep on this bed. It is even more incredible that I, Tenzin Dorje, a humble novice monk from the village of Ling, have been accorded one of the rarest privileges of Zheng-po and of our entire lineage. For together with Paldon Wangpo, and under the guidance of my kind and holy teacher, we are to undertake the highest and most sacred mission of the evacuation. It means that our flight from Tibet will be much more critical, and more dangerous.
But for the first time ever, at sixteen years of age, I feel in my heart that I have a special part to play.
My time has come.
Imperial Science Institute
I’m sitting in the cramped cubby-hole that passes for my office, late on an overcast Friday afternoon, when my whole world changes.
“Harry wants to see you in his office,” Pauline Drake, tall, angular and not-to-be-messed with, appears around the door frame two feet away. She looks pointedly at the telephone, which I’ve taken off its cradle, before meeting my eyes with a look of droll disapproval. “Right away.”
I glance over the paperwork strewn across my desk. It’s the last Friday of the month, which means that all timesheets have to be in by five. As research manager for Nanobot, it’s my job to collate team activities, and I take pride in the fact that I’ve never missed a deadline.
But it’s unusual for Harry to dispatch his formidable secretary down from the third floor. Something must be up.
A short while later I’m getting out from behind my desk. It’s not a straightforward maneuver. You have to rise from the chair at forty-five degrees to avoid hitting the shelves directly above, before squeezing, one leg at a time, through the narrow gap between desk and filing cabinet. Then there’s the walk through a rabbit’s warren of corridors and up four flights of a narrow, wooden staircase with its unyielding aroma of industrial disinfectant and wet dog hair.
As I make my way across the open plan section of the third floor, I’m aware of people staring and talking under their breath. When I make eye contact with a couple of the HR people they glance away, embarrassed.
Something’s definitely up.
To get to the corner office, I first have to pass through the anteroom where Pauline has returned to work noiselessly at her computer. She nods towards Harry’s door. Unusually, it is closed. Even more unusually, an unfamiliar hush has descended on his office, instead of the usual orchestral blast.
When I arrive, it’s to find Harry standing, staring out the window at his less-than-impressive view over the tangled gray sprawl of railway lines converging on King’s Cross station. Arms folded and strangely withdrawn, I get the impression he’s been waiting especially for me.
As I appear he gestures, silently, to a chair across from his desk.
Harry Saddler is the very model of the mad professor, with a few non-standard eccentricities thrown in for good measure. Mid-fifties, bespectacled, with a shock of spiky, gray hair, in his time he’s been an award-winning researcher. More recent circumstances have also forced him to become an expert in the area of public-private partnerships. It was he who saved the centuries-old institute, and all our jobs, by completing a deal with Acellerate, a Los Angeles-based biotech incubator, just over a year ago.
“A short while ago I had a call from L.A. with the news I’ve been half-expecting for the past twelve months,” he tells me, his expression unusually serious. “Acellerate has finished their review of our research projects. They like Nanobot,” he brushes fallen cigarette ash off his lapel. “They reallylike Nanobot. So much that they want to move the whole kit and caboodle to California. And as the program originator and research manager, they want you there, too.”
The news takes me completely by surprise. Sure, there’ve been visitors from the States during the past year and earnest talk of information exchange, but I never expected the deal with Acellerate to have such direct, personal impact. Or to be so sudden.
“They’re moving very quickly on this,” continues Harry. “They want you there in six weeks ideally. Definitely eight. Blakely is taking a personal interest in the program.”
“Eight weeks?” I’m finding this overwhelming. “Why do I have to move to California at all? Can’t they invest in what we’re doing over here?”
Harry shakes his head in weary resignation. “You’ve seen the new shareholder structure,” he says. “As much as Acellerate talks about respecting our independence, the reality is that they hold a controlling interest. They call the shots. They can strip what they like out of the institute and there’s really not a lot we can do to stop them.”
I’m not thinking about Acellerate. I’m thinking about my fiancée, Isabella.
Harry mistakes the cause of my concern. “If you look at what’s happened to the other research programs Acellerate has taken to L.A.,” he reassures me, “they’ve gone stratospheric.” Pausing, he regards me more closely for a long while before querying in a low voice, “Isabella?”
“She’ll go with you!”
“It’s not that simple. She’s only just been promoted. And you know how close she is to her family.” I glance away from him to the where a commuter train is chugging slowly into the station.
Harry and I go way back and he knows a lot about Isabella and me—he’s been there since the beginning. But the main problem with Isabella leaving London is something that’s only happened very recently. Something I haven’t told him about. The truth is, Isabella and I are still getting to grips with the enormity of the news ourselves.
“A girl like her,” Harry has met her at institute functions over the years, “she’ll get a job like that in Los Angeles,” he snaps his fingers. “And you’ll be giving her family a good excuse to visit Disneyland.”
As always, Harry is trying to focus on the positive. I understand, and I’m all the more appreciative because I know how hard this must be for him. Nanobot has always been one of his favorites. It was Harry who brought me into the institute when he discovered the subject of my master’s thesis. Harry nurtured the program through its early stages. He and I enjoy a close relationship—more than my boss, he’s also my mentor and confidant. Now, just as the program’s starting to get interesting, he’s having it taken off him. What’s more, who’s to say it will end with Nanobot? It seems that Acellerate can cherry-pick whatever they like from the institute and leave Harry with all the leftovers. Small wonder he’s in no mood for the Three Tenors.
“Try to see this as the opportunity that it is,” he tells me. “With Acellerate behind you, you can ramp up the program way beyond what we can afford here. You could get to prototype stage in two to three years instead of seven or eight. The sky really is the limit.”
I’m watching the fingers of his right hand rapping the desk.
“You’ll be working at the heart of nanotech development for one of the best-funded scientific institutes on earth. Plus you can catch a suntan.”
I look up, eyebrows raised. Tanning is not a subject in which I’ve ever had an interest. As Harry well knows.
“Think of it as a great adventure!”
His phone rings, and we hear Pauline answering it outside. Evidently Harry has told her we aren’t to be disturbed—something he’s never done before.
There’s another pause before I finally say, “I guess whatever way you package it, I don’t have much choice do I? I mean, Acellerate isn’t going to leave the program in London just because of Isabella and me.”
Harry regards me significantly, “Of all the programs we’re running, yours is the most likely to make the most revolutionary impact. You’re the first cab off the rank, Matt. It’s flattering that Acellerate is so keen to take you off us.”
“It’s a bit sudden, that’s all,” I’m nodding. “I mean, ten minutes ago, my main concern was getting the time sheets in.”
Harry regards me with a look of benevolent expectation.
“I’ll have to get used to the idea.”
“And speak to Isabella.”
“Of course.” Harry reaches into a desk drawer, takes out a large white envelope which he hands me across the desk.
“Before you make up your mind, you might like to study the terms and conditions,” he says.
A short while later I’m heading back to my office in a daze. Not only is Harry’s announcement life-changing, the conditions of my appointment are way beyond anything I could have imagined. Almost too much to believe.
As I return through HR, I’m so preoccupied I don’t notice anyone. Even the reek of the stairs passes me by. I’m trying to get my head around the paradox that this is terrible news for the Imperial Science Institute, but an amazing opportunity for me. It’s even more confounding that Isabella is about to be upset by what is an opportunity for me beyond my wildest dreams.
I have to speak to Isabella.
Buddhism for Pet Lovers
Partners on our journey through life
How do animals’ minds compare to our own? Do pets have any purpose besides offering us companionship, cute social media photos and, perhaps, the motivation to exercise more regularly? And what happens to animals’ consciousness when they die—does it continue in some way, and if so, how and where?
These are big questions for animal lovers because, for many of us, pets are among our most cherished family members. A constant presence in our homes, they are an important focus of our daily routine, active participants in our lives and silent witnesses to us in our most intimate and vulnerable moments. We share our valuable recreation time with them, our furniture, our belongings. Many of us even sleep in contorted postures so that they can share our beds!
We develop functioning, non-verbal communication with our animal companions covering not only domestic rules and rituals but extending well beyond that to include a wide range of feelings, including playfulness, fear, anger, and love. Over time, many of us bond very deeply with our pets, knowing that we share a mutual understanding and a profound connection on a level beyond words. It’s a connection with a quality we may not feel in relation to any other beings. What happens to our pets really matters.
For a growing number of people, it may matter even more than what happens to their fellow humans. One of the most pronounced demographic trends of the past quarter century has been the rise in single person households, which now comprise an astonishing 30 per cent of homes in the developed world. Missing from human-centric census figures are data for pets. If statistics were available, they may well reveal that, far from living alone, many of these 30 per centers share their lives with dogs, cats, birds, rabbits, fish and other beings who are their de-facto families. Loved ones who must be cared for in old age, sickness and death by humans traversing the same ground, albeit more slowly, themselves.
In this, as in so many important ways, pets can be among our greatest gifts. Because in asking questions about what happens to our animal companions, we are propelled to seek answers about our own futures. In exploring practices that may benefit them, we, ourselves, become the first beneficiaries.
This book is about the inner lives of pets, written from the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism. And because of this unique and extraordinary vintage, it is also about our own inner lives. For just as our pets are thinking, feeling beings with the capacity for transcendence, we are too.***
Among my earliest memories is the face of Pandy, a Siamese cat my parents gave my older brother when I was born, to help assuage any feelings of jealousy he might feel towards the new arrival. Pandy was a much-loved companion throughout my childhood and right up till the time I graduated from university; she lived to the grand old age of twenty-one. As well as cats, my parents were keen on corgis, which is how two of these also became my energetic playmates during my school years. I was quite young when I discovered a strong empathy for animals. I can still remember being reduced to tears in the back of the family car when a weekend excursion took us past a herd of cattle trapped in barren fields behind a barbed wire fence, so malnourished that their ribs and spines were clearly visible through their hides: how was it possible people could be so unfeeling that they would allow such a thing to happen, I wondered?
As a child, I was devoted to a white rabbit, a golden hamster, a guinea pig and several mice—though seldom concurrently. A cockatiel was perched on my shoulder through most of my teenage years, by which time Pandy’s hunting instincts had, fortunately, dimmed. Because I grew up in Zimbabwe, school holidays frequently meant a visit to a game reserve, and during one vacation I volunteered at the Lion and Cheetah Park, where my duties ran to bottle-feeding lion cubs and the showering of an orphaned baby elephant.
Doctor Dolittle wasn’t so much my childhood hero, as my role model! Why would anybody not wish to talk to the animals, parlay with the pachyderms or chat to a chimp in chimpanzee? I devoured every book written by Gerald Durrell and James Herriot, and fully intended to become a vet until the age of sixteen, when a short stint observing what went on behind the scenes at our local veterinary clinic made me realise that the clinical requirements of being a vet demanded very different skills from those I possessed. It was only much later that I worked out a way to use my compulsion for writing to be of benefit to those possessing fur, feathers, and fins.
Throughout my rich and diverse encounters with different creatures, it never occurred to me that any of them was fundamentally different from me. On a daily basis, we all sought food, drink and whatever creature comforts were on offer. Just as we did our best to avoid hardships of any kind. We all enjoyed giving and receiving affection. And we also had our quirks and rebellious streaks; in the case of Toto, the cockatiel, at the end of the afternoon he would sometimes remain stubbornly in the highest branches of the cherry tree, so that after all coaxing failed, only a well-aimed tennis ball—softly thrown, of course—would persuade him to fly back down again.Unanswered questions
The deaths of my pets were not only the cause of grief but also of unanswered questions. My parents were church-going Presbyterians, and when I asked our kindly minister about the fate of poor Bugs, the first to die, he gave me an answer that was intended to reassure but which didn’t. What I wanted to be told was that Bugs was hopping happily in heaven, cared for by rabbit-loving angels and enjoying shredded lettuce from the bottom tray of celestial tea trolleys—an indulgence she’d been allowed at home. Our reverend’s assertion that we could trust God to take care of all His creatures had a vagueness about it which perplexed me.
It was a perplexity that continued as I grew older and discovered that across Christian traditions there is no consensus about the inner lives of animals. What I found instead was ambiguity and contradiction about even the most basic of facts, such as whether or not animals have souls—a bewildering paradox given that the word ‘animal’ comes from the Latin animalis, meaning having soul, or having breath. Revolting, as a teenager, I used to question why, among the seemingly endless Old Testament litanies of who begat whom, the Good Lord hadn’t thought it useful to devote a chapter or two to outlining the spiritual prospects of the overwhelming majority of our world’s inhabitants.
If not religion, then what about science? What had the greatest thinkers in the Western world to say about this important subject? As it turned out, not very much. For most of its history, the focus of Western science has been on the external, measurable world, with inquiry extending to consciousness only recently. And during the past 200 years, the dominant ideology of science has been materialism—i.e. the view that matter is the only thing that exists. In the words of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA and Nobel Prize Laureate: ̔‘‘You,’̕ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules . . .’
Not all scientists would agree with these words. Those involved in the field of quantum physics would question whether the workings of the mind can be explained on the basis of classical mechanics. If the matter is also energy, then any explanation that ignores the non-material properties of the body cannot possibly tell the whole story.
In recent years, part of the groundswell towards greener, healthier and more mindful living has been the explosion of research studies, TV programs, and books focusing on animals and our relationships with them. Veterinarians, biologists, and conservationists have been joined by new breeds of animal experts, including behaviorists, communicators and complementary healers. Through their work, we have come to learn that the other species with whom we share our planet possess many of the qualities believed, until recently, to be uniquely human and that some possess powers that we’d consider to be superhuman if they were exercised by people. Pigs have IQ levels similar to chimpanzees, live in complex social communities and display high levels of self-awareness and empathy when witnessing the same emotion in other pigs. Elephants grieve and mourn the death of their family members and demonstrate very high levels of mutual support. Dolphins and other cetaceans can see in 3D. Dogs can be trained to detect dangerous falls in a diabetic’s blood sugar level, can know in advance if someone is about to have an epileptic seizure and can even detect bladder cancer with astounding reliability. Some cats, parrots, horses, and dogs have shown that they can accurately predict when their human companions are on their way home, as well as exhibit other startling examples of telepathy.
Increasingly, we are coming to realize that just because animals don’t communicate like we do, it doesn’t mean they are less sentient. They are thinking, feeling beings with the same capacity as ourselves for empathy and selfishness, rage, and compassion, fear, and altruism. In terms of sensory capacity, many of them possess capabilities well beyond our own.
We are all sentient beings
In my early thirties, I began meditating to help manage stress. I was living in London, working for a public relations agency, an environment that was stimulating but relentless. Within weeks of taking up a meditation practice, I began to experience its benefits in ways which went beyond stress management. Eager to know more about the theory behind the simple, morning ritual, I found myself increasingly drawn to books about Buddhism, having discovered that meditation lay at the heart of this tradition.
One thing led to another and I started attending Buddhist classes. This was when, while no longer looking, I found answers to the questions that I had long since given up on. Here, at last, was an approach to both animal and human consciousness that was straightforward and accorded with my own experience. For the thousands of years that Western scientists had been trying to make sense of external reality, their Eastern peers had been doing the same thing in relation to inner reality, using the very same methods of long-term, forensic observation, rigorous testing of hypotheses, peer review and debate. The end result was a coherent explanation which not only made sense as a theory but could also be used as a practical basis for our own explorations of the mind.
Yes, of course, animals have consciousness, is the Buddhist view. And yes, one mind moment is affected by previous mind moments in a casual way so that, whether we are aware of it or not, on an ongoing basis, we are shaping the way we experience reality. Yes, too, the mind, which may be defined as a continuum of clarity and cognition, is non-material, or energetic in nature, and continues beyond physical death in a subtle form.
Newcomers to Tibetan Buddhism frequently remark on how many of the teachings seem to them to be common sense, which makes for a reassuring foundation. But the teachings go well beyond an acknowledgement of the obvious. Of special interest to animal lovers is the concept of bodhichitta (pron. bode-ee-cheetah) which, more than any other term, distinguishes the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Derived from two Sanskrit words, bodhi, meaning awake or enlightened, and citta, meaning mind or heart, bodhichitta is the mind of enlightenment, and may be defined as the wish to attain enlightenment to be of ultimate benefit to all sentient beings. Based on compassion for the suffering we can see for ourselves among both humans and animals, the central objective of Buddhist practice is to cultivate our bodhichitta motivation until it becomes spontaneous and heartfelt.There is nothing human-centric about bodhichitta. It is explicitly all-inclusive. Even a goal as sweeping as helping every person on the planet attain a state of enlightenment would be flawed: it would fail to recognize that all living beings share the same essential nature. We are all sentient beings.
There is nothing human-centric about bodhichitta. It is explicitly all-inclusive. Even a goal as sweeping as helping every person on the planet attain a state of enlightenment would be flawed: it would fail to recognize that all living beings share the same essential nature. We are all sentient beings.
Partners on our journey through life
The title of this book refers specifically to pets. You may be wondering why I am not writing about Buddhism in relation to all animals?
The guiding principles I outline in Chapter 3 can be applied equally to your beloved animal companion as to a herd of giraffes you may watch moving gracefully into the sunset while on safari. What makes pets different is our connection to them. Of the countless billions of sentient beings on planet earth, the fact that we share our homes with a specific few is, from a Buddhist perspective, no accident. The principal of cause and effect, or karma, suggests that the beings closest to us in this life are those with whom we have a particularly strong connection.
Whatever our belief system, the interactions we have with our pets on an ongoing basis offer far greater scope for mutual engagement than the relatively few moments we may spend in the presence of, say, mountain gorillas in the mists of Central Africa, however precious those moments may be. Our pets are part of our world 24/7. Sometimes we spend more time with them than even our closest friends.
On the surface of things, it may seem that people provide food, shelter and walking services in exchange for affection, and perhaps, in the case of dogs, an element of security. But we don’t have to delve too deep to recognize that our relationship with pets is a lot more complex than this basic trade-off would suggest. What if, as psychologists tell us, our emotional well-being depends on our mindfulness, openness, generosity, resilience, and spontaneity? Do pets not offer us ample opportunity to cultivate these each and every day? Are they not, according to this view, among our most active supporters in providing countless opportunities to enhance our capacity for contentment?
The transformative presence of pets is now widely recognized in retirement homes, where lounges filled with sedentary, disengaged residents come alive with the appearance of a visiting golden retriever or a therapy cat. The simple presence of a pet can offer a lightness and a joy, a sense of connection, and an invitation to be uninhibitedly ourselves in a way that is both unique and priceless.
And from a Buddhist perspective, for those of us who wish to help others find not only mundane contentment but also to realize their ultimate potential, the pets in our lives represent a precious and awesome privilege. As I outline on the following pages, there are a great many practices that provide powerful imprints on our pets’ consciousness. These range from ongoing activities like being mindfully present for them every day and creating positive associations with powerful mantras, to the extraordinary opportunity presented by a pet’s death, when we have the chance to help them navigate through a time of transition for the best possible outcome.
I refer to dogs and cats a lot in this book, reflecting their popularity as pets, and the depth of our experience living closely with them. It’s important to know that exactly the same principles and practices apply to other animals. Mice, hamsters, rats and other rodents are very much a part of our broader, mammalian family. It is striking that the reason why rats are the animal of choice for laboratory testing is precise because their physiological functioning is so similar to our own. Pigs heart valves are routinely transplanted into humans. We are all of the same ilk.
Rabbits and guinea pigs can be affectionate pets. Pot-bellied pigs are adored by their owners. And the very close relationship some people enjoy with horses shows that what matters here is not shape or size but consciousness.
The complexity of birds’ brains is only now beginning to be understood—the old insult could not be more misleading. Our avian friends are certainly as sentient as we are. And while warm bonds of friendship are less frequently reported with fish and reptiles, the mere fact that they possess minds means that we can help them, if perhaps to a lesser extent than those beings with whom we have a more empathetic connection.
Do you need to believe there is some continuation of life after death to find the practices in this book useful? Must you accept karma—the principle that all actions create effects in the minds of those undertaking them, whether human or animal? Do you have to buy into the concept of rebirth or other aspects of Eastern mysticism that you may find, frankly, weird?
No. You don’t have to believe anything. What you do need is an open mind.
The materialist theory that consciousness arises from the brain can no more be proven than the idea that consciousness is shaped by cause and effect can be disproven. If you are new to some of these concepts, they may take a time to get your head around.
One of the most exciting aspects of Tibetan Buddhism is that it is a living tradition. Residing among us, here today, are lamas and spiritual masters such as my own precious teachers, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden, Venerable Acharya Zasep Tulku Rinpoche and Les Sheehy, who walk the talk. The more you spend time with them and observe their actions, the more self-evident the truth of their teachings becomes. They are, if you like, the living, breathing embodiment of this wisdom tradition. Texts and ancient scriptures are all very well, but what validates them and makes them real for Buddhists is the way we can see them transform the lives of others—as well as our own.
For many of us, pets are among the handful of beings who are our closest companions on our journey through life. We may already greatly value these relationships. What I hope to describe, in the pages that follow, is how they can become of inconceivably greater value. How we can work with the love and joy we already feel in these very special relationships to energize and enrich both our pets’ development as well as our own. How what starts out as the simple wish for the happiness of our beloved pet, when conjoined with bodhichitta, becomes the transcendental cause not only for our pets’ ultimate enlightenment but for ours too.***
What happened to Bugs? My biggest regret is that I didn’t know then what I know now, or I could have been of far greater help to her. What I am confident of is that her mind stream continues. Through our close connection there is the prospect that I can be of benefit, and the sooner I evolve in my own journey, the faster I will be of use to her.
Ultimately, we may one day be able to manifest as two beings at a celestial tea trolley, joking about the time that one of us was a rabbit and the other a human being—and perhaps contrast it with the time when it was the other way around.
Or maybe she is with me as I write these words, at this very minute, lying on the end of my desk, now in the guise of my tortoiseshell cat, purring . . .
- Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The scientific search for the soul, Scribner, New York, 1994, p. 3.
- See: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/8sx4s79c#page-8, accessed 10 February 2016.
- Carl Safina, Beyond Words: What animals think and feel, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2015, p. 69.
- Linda Bender, Animal Wisdom: Learning from the spiritual lives of animals, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, 2014, pp. 28–9.
- Rupert Sheldrake, The Sense of Being Stared At: and Other Aspects of the Extended Mind, Arrow Books, London, 2003, p. 85.
Why Mindfulness is better than Chocolate
Is mindfulness really better than chocolate?
All of human unhappiness is due to the inability to sit still in a room alone.Blaise Pascal
Is mindfulness really better than chocolate? Come to think of it, is anything better than chocolate? Or is the title of this book nothing more than a shameless ploy to grab your attention? As it happens, the idea that mindfulness is better than chocolate is based on compelling research. More than 2000 people in the United States took part in an innovative study using smartphone technology. Panel members were sent questions at different times of the day and night asking what they were doing, what they were thinking and how happy they felt.
The analysis, published by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert in Science magazine, revealed three important facts. First, people were not thinking about what they were doing 47 per cent of the time. Second, people were unhappier when their minds were wandering than when they were not. And third, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than what they were doing.
The researchers summarised: ‘A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.’
Long ago, Buddhists reached much the same conclusion. An ancient tale tells of a novice who asked an enlightened monk to reveal the secret of happiness. The monk told him, ‘I eat, and I walk and I sleep.’ When the novice replied that he also did these things, the monk replied, ‘When I eat, I eat. When I walk, I walk. When I sleep, I sleep.’
Buddha and the Harvard Psychology Department are most definitely on the same page when it comes to mindfulness. And the Harvard findings are rich with implications for human behaviour.
But what concerns us right now is chocolate.
The study shows we’re at our happiest when our mind is not wandering—that is, when we’re in a state of mindfulness. But ‘the nature of people’s activities had only a modest impact on whether their minds wandered’. It would seem that whether we’re washing the dishes or eating the most mouth-wateringly delicious Belgian praline, we’re just as likely to have a wandering mind. Eating chocolate is no guarantee that we’re thinking about what we’re doing.
Which is why mindfulness will always trump chocolate as a means of delivering happiness.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s one human activity where mindfulness is consistently high: sex. Only 10 per cent of people reported their minds wandering during this activity, so if I’d called this book ‘Why mindfulness is better than sex’, I would have found myself on much shakier ground.
Incidentally, one can’t help speculating on what those 10 per cent of people who reported wandering minds during sex were actually thinking about. Could the old cliché of grocery lists be true? More research, please!
I will admit, however, to being a little mischievous in creating a false dichotomy between mindfulness and choco-late. There’s no reason to choose between the two. On the contrary, the highlight of my mindfulness seminars is often an exercise I call ‘the Lindt technique’, where I invite participants to mindfully enjoy a Lindt chocolate. Their instructions are to focus exclusively on the sensation of eating a chocolate, every element in forensic detail, from opening the foil wrapper to the appearance and heft of the sphere, the explosion of delicious flavours, and savouring the smooth, liquid heart of the chocolate as it bursts in the mouth.
Are you salivating yet?
For two or three minutes a blissful silence ensues. Mind--fulness applied to the eating of chocolate—there’s something that can give even the proverbial grocery lists a run for their money!
Mindfulness in the mainstream
Both mindfulness and meditation have become very fashionable of late. Just as the cheesecloth and hashish brigade of the 1970s have long since matured to become pillars of the establishment, so too our understanding of meditation has evolved in recent decades from hippie-trippy mysticism to mainstream practice.
Although the difference between meditation and mindfulness will be described in more detail later, at the outset it’s important to note the distinction between the two words. When we’re being mindful, we’re paying attention to the present moment, deliberately and non-judgementally. When we’re meditating, we’re being mindful of a specific object—such as the sensation of the breath at the tip of our nostrils—for a sustained period of time. Meditation is, if you like, the training ground for mindfulness. Regular meditation enhances our ability to be mindful. We can all enjoy mindfully drinking a cup of coffee without the benefit of meditation practice, but our capacity for mindfulness is greatly enhanced if we meditate regularly.
Doctors these days are as likely to recommend meditation for stress management as they are to prescribe medication. Many of the world’s highest profile consumer companies, such as Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter, actively support meditation in their workplaces, as do some of the largest financial institutions, accounting firms, manufacturers and other corporations. No best practice management school is complete these days without a mindful leadership program. The world’s most elite athletes, sports stars and performing artists employ techniques borrowed from the mindfulness toolbox. Mindfulness is a foundation practice across the increasingly popular practices of yoga, tai chi and a variety of martial arts. Meditation programs are demonstrably among the most successful deployed in prisons to reduce re-offence rates. A wave of research since the turn of the century at laboratories in California, New England, Europe and Australia is focusing on the emerging discipline of contemplative neuroscience. Even the US Marines have got in on the act, coaching soldiers in meditation-based exercises before deploying them in the world’s most angerous war zones.
Mindfulness practices are millennia old, originating in eastern traditions, notably Buddhism, which has extensively practised, debated, documented and taught a range of techniques for a variety of purposes. Given that Buddhism has at its heart a reverence for all forms of life, the idea of teaching meditation to soldiers about to parachute into battle may well raise the eyebrows of some. But in describing the exercise as ‘like doing push-ups for the brain’, the US Army general respons-ible pithily summarised the way meditation has been reframed: just as a healthy body demands regular exercise, goes this paradigm, a healthy mind requires the same.
This move to the mainstream has inevitably been accompanied by a flurry of books. Without any particular plan to build a library on the subject, I have on my personal bookshelves alone a section of books on mindfulness and meditation about a metre long, picked up here and there in recent years. These books espouse a variety of approaches ranging from the determinedly practical to the quirkily esoteric.
Books I don’t have on my shelves include those by an ever-expanding group of self-styled teachers and mindfulness gurus who go to quite some lengths in the pursuit of mystification. A liberal sprinkling of ™ and © signs is usually warning enough. The requirement to spend large sums of money on weekend intensives should also cause the brow to wrinkle. For the truth is that mindfulness is a simple subject—difficult to practise, no question, but straight-forward to explain.
Given all this, does the world need yet another book on mindfulness?
The dumbing down of mindfulness
Some months ago I was delivering a mindfulness seminar to a group of engineers at a business school. The participants were an engaged bunch, and a meditation exercise was followed by a lively Q&A session, during which I was asked: ‘Why do Buddhist monks meditate? After all, they don’t have any stress. All they have to do is hang around for the next meal to arrive.’
On the surface of things, this is perhaps a reasonable question. And going by the smiles and nodding, it was clear that this observation chimed with quite a few others in the room. If we assume for a moment that the questioner was essentially correct, and that the life of a Buddhist monk is one long picnic waiting for the next course to be served, it may indeed seem mystifying why stress management would be called for.
But for me the question really summed up the tragically diminished idea many people have of what mindfulness and meditation are all about. Yes, they’re great for managing stress, but that isn’t why Buddhists do them. Stress Management isn’t the main reason, nor even a particularly important part of our motivation. To put things in a current, western perspective, it was as if my questioner was asking why people who aren’t on Facebook bother with internet access. Why else would you want to go online?
I felt the need to write this book because I to share the real treasure of mindfulness—its truly transformative power, the authentic reason Buddhist monks meditate. This explanation is left behind, overlooked, dumbed down or never even explored by some contemporary mindfulness teachers—and not necessarily with bad intentions. Mindfulness Lite is an easier sell to a wide audience, and can’t the world use as many mindful people as possible, albeit of the ‘push-ups for the brain’ variety? Besides, the benefits of meditation are so numerous and now so well established by researchers that you don’t need to take people too far along the journey for them to start noticing the favourable physical and psychological effects, so why go further?
At the heart of this reluctance to venture into the heartland of meditation, I’m guessing, is also a certain fear. When people are given the tools to observe the true nature of their own minds for themselves, the experience is a subtle but in-evitable game-changer. When the rug is well and truly pulled out from beneath the confection of the ‘self’ we have come to believe ourselves to be, we can never experience ourselves in quite the same way again. Like being able to see the alternative perspective in one in those famous optical illusions, we can never go back to our former innocence. Our view of our ‘self’ changes forever.
East and West
In writing this book, I’m doing so not as a Buddhist monk—tempting though the prospect of a lifetime’s free catering may be—nor as someone claiming any preternatural mental abilities. The prosaic truth is that I’m a regular middle-aged corporate consultant with many of the usual personal, business and financial responsibilities. In the midst of this typically busy 21st-century life, I have nevertheless found, in meditation and mindfulness, practices that have transformed my experience of reality dramatically for the better. And I know from talking to other meditators that it’s the same for them, too.
My own meditation journey has been informed by Tibetan Buddhism, in particular the lineage established in Australia by the pre-eminent Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden and, more directly, through the teachings I’ve received from my kind and precious teacher, Les Sheehy. While the knowledge and experience I have acquired has been guided by them, any failure in my attempt to pass on their profound wisdom is very much my own doing.
While I will refer to Buddhist sources and insights where relevant, it’s important to note that the study of our own minds isn’t about theory or belief. It’s about seeing what’s there for ourselves. I’ll also refer to research from scientific endeavours in fields as varied as psychology, neuroscience, medicine, genetics and quantum physics.
One of the joys of being alive in the early part of the 21st century is witnessing the convergence of so many different dynamics—ancient and contemporary, outer and inner, eastern and western—in arriving at a holistic understanding of consciousness.
For some people, the proliferation of empirical studies showing the benefits of mindfulness encourages personal exploration. Others have a more intuitive understanding of the value of this practice. I hope in this book to share ideas that will inspire both intuitive and analytical thinkers, both left-brain and right-brain thinkers.
I have also intentionally interwoven chapters on mindfulness theory with those explaining how to practise meditation. As fascinating as concepts of mindfulness are, the only way they can have a powerful personal impact is if we apply them. Ideas, theories and evidence only get us so far. Then we need to move beyond concept.In my previous non-fiction books, Buddhism for Busy People, Hurry Up and Meditate and Enlightenment to Go, I’ve shared some of the experiences of my own journey, and I do so in this book, too. This isn’t because I’m the repository of especially arcane insights, but because I hope you’ll find in this more personal account—rather than a straightforward exposition of the subject—themes and discoveries you can relate to, landmarks that may be useful in your own -exploration of the mind.
An outline of the mindfulness journey
We begin our exploration with the nuts and bolts of mindfulness—what it is, why it works and how we can benefit from it in basic but profound ways. Stress management? Certainly! Boosting our immune systems and pushing back our biological clocks? That too! The physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness, even if taken no further than this, are well worth getting out of bed ten minutes earlier for every morning.
We then move onto the possibilities offered by mindfulness in changing the content of your ongoing conversation with yourself. Chatter, chatter, chatter. We’re all up to it. But are there recurring themes in this constant stream of self-talk that don’t serve you well? For example, are you a worrier, constantly anticipating all the things that could possibly go wrong then convincing yourself that the worst outcome is almost certain? Or are you a victim, feeling you can never make any headway because of your circumstances, past events or the people in your life? Or are you someone who struggles to find any compelling purpose or happiness beyond filling your days with as many pleasurable distractions as possible?
The combination of mindfulness with what has become known as cognitive behaviour training is one of the most powerful transformation modalities. Creating space amid all the mental agitation, discovering that we can become the observers of our thoughts rather than their unwitting slaves—this is another extraordinary consequence of a more mindful life. It’s a consequence that allows us to get proactive about what goes on in our mind, take charge of our own mental trajectories and thereby exercise choice over the destinies to which our every thought propels us.
The main event—mind itself
And then we come to mind itself. What it is. What it is not. We’re no longer doing push-ups here—we’re onto something much more exciting! I’ll guide you through the practical steps by which you can experience your own mind for yourself, not as a concept or intellectual idea, but directly and firsthand. You’ll be empowered to experience the nature of your own consciousness, and if you’re anything like most people who’ve never tried this before, you’ll find, in those first glimpses of the pure nature of your own mind, an extraordinary truth. You’ll see for yourself how your mind is, quite literally, infinite. How it has no beginning and no end. How, far from being some existential void, it’s imbued with the most profound happiness-giving qualities.
You’ll experience the paradox that even though you set out to explore your mind, the result is as much a feeling as it is a perception. It’s an experience beyond concept and for which words are therefore wholly inadequate, but that may be hinted at using such terms as ‘oceanic tranquillity’ and ‘radiant love’.
Even the briefest encounter with this state is life-changing, because when we can free ourselves from the agitation or dullness that pervades our minds and encounter our own true natures, if only momentarily, we can never go back to believing ourselves to be nothing more than a bag of bones. We have experienced a dimension of being that transcends all our usual ideas of self.
We have come home.
When we begin to explore our own mind, we usually do so for reasons of self-discovery. But an interesting thing happens, because in experiencing our own true nature, we come to recognise that just as we are, others are too. Our everyday experience of people is one in which we habitually observe and judge based on what we see, at a conventional level, as their apparent characteristics.
Discovering that these characteristics are, ultimately, as temporary and insignificant as our own, a shift occurs. Others may continue the way they’ve always seemed to be, but now we know better. Aware of the more important way in which they exist, as well as the difficulties and challenges they must inevitably endure because of their profoundly self-limiting beliefs, our compassion quite naturally arises. Mindfulness is no longer just about ‘me’. It becomes panoramic.
I can think of nothing more enduringly fascinating or life-enhancing than the practice of mindfulness. No matter where you are on your own journey, I hope you find in this book fresh insights and inspiration to encourage your further exploration. In particular, it’s my heartfelt wish that you may abide, however fleetingly, in your own unobstructed mind. For there you’ll discover that your own true nature is one of timeless and transcendental bliss.
Chocolate, schmocolate. Show me the meditation cushion!
Buddhism For Busy People
Chapter One: What does it take to be happy
A poor man, Depa, once found an enormously valuable jewel.
Being a person of little desire, and content with his small income, Depa pondered to whom he should give the jewel. He tried to think who was most in need and suddenly was inspired to give the jewel to King Prasenajit. The king was astounded as there were many poor and needy people, but Depa said, 'O King, it is you who is the poorest, because you lack contentment!'
Nagarjuna's Letter to a FriendWhat does it take to be happy? Of every question in the world, this is the most universal. It is also the great leveler because all of us - comfortably off or financially struggling, single or in a relationship, awkwardly overweight or elegantly slim - are equal in our desire to achieve true happiness. Not the happiness we've all experienced which comes and goes depending on circumstance, but a happiness which endures, regardless of change. A happiness we feel deep down inside.
By any objective standard, our efforts to attain this simple goal have met with decidedly mixed results. As a society we now enjoy a level of affluence that would have left our grandparents breathless - but our medicine cabinets have never been so replete with sedatives, tranquillizers and antidepressants to cocoon us from our new, 'improved' reality. We have at our disposal an unprecedented range of labour-saving technology - but nor have we ever had to work such long hours. We are succeeding in the cosy notion of creating a global village - but never have we felt so under siege from international terrorism, volatile stock markets, viral infections and other threats. And so the list of paradoxes continues.
On an individual basis our striving for happy, purposeful lives often doesn't fare much better. Money, relationships and fulfilment in work are the core ingredients of most people's recipes of happiness, but if we were to send in the Happiness Auditors to check up on their effectiveness, could they really withstand close scrutiny?
Successive studies of lottery winners, for example, show that within months of multi-million dollar wins, happiness levels return pretty much to where they were before. Amazingly adaptable creatures that we are, we adjust to new conditions so quickly that what was once fabulous, soon becomes the norm, and we're back where we started in search of fresh excitement. Even when we do achieve that much sought-after promotion, that big-ticket deal, that amazing breakthrough, all too often we are mystified to discover that we fail to experience the wonderful feelings we'd always thought we would. 'Is this all?' we find ourselves wondering.
As for relationships we don't have to look very far to recognize just how swiftly that first, giddying rush of romantic intensity matures into something very much more complicated.
Yet somehow we manage to convince ourselves that it's not the recipe that's at fault - it's the ingredients we're working with. If only we were to land this particular job or contract, the difference would be life-changing. That man or woman is just so right that life with them would transport us to a state of great bliss. The fact that we once entertained similar thoughts about our now very-ex partner is not a subject we like to think about. Or if we do we have an outstanding ability to convince ourselves that this time it will all be completely different!
A Practical AlternativeHaving spent my adult life in corporate public relations, my own search for happiness has been a busy one. On the career treadmill working crazy hours, juggling a dozen balls, experiencing the full spectrum of emotions from the pumping adrenalin of triumph to the desperate wish that the world would stop, I am all too familiar with the relentless striving to succeed. The wearying knowledge that no matter how far you go, there is always so much further.
But it has also been my enormous good fortune to have encountered Tibetan Buddhism. To have discovered a practical alternative. This book explains how profound and lasting happiness can be achieved according to this ancient tradition. It is also an unashamedly personal account of how Buddhist teachings have helped me infuse my day-to-day life with greater meaning and how they are transforming my understanding about what really counts.
Personal though this particular account may be, it is written with the certain knowledge that there is nothing at all unique about my experience. Scratch out corporate public relations and replace it with any other form of busy-ness and the story for most of us is a variation on the same theme: too much to do, too little time to do it in, and an underlying recognition that despite our best endeavours, we don't appear to be living life to our full potential.
It is also true that by integrating various practices into my life, I have benefited from results which are by no means unique either. And still do, every single day.
If, like me, you have a tendency to take yourself altogether too seriously, beating yourself up when things don't go according to plan; if you feel your chances of happiness are undermined by circumstances beyond your control; if you would like to be a kinder, more generous person, but your heart has been cauterised by hurt and fear; if you would, quite simply, like to experience a sense of meaning beyond 'another day, another dollar,' you may well find in Buddhism, practices which are truly transforming.
Re-arranging not the externals, but the internalsWhat, you might ask, can a tradition developed in a remote oriental fiefdom two and a half thousand years ago possibly teach Western man in the twenty first century about happiness?
As it happens, one of the most amazing paradoxes of all is that the Tibetan Buddhist approach could have been developed with busy Westerners specifically in mind. In the finest empirical form, it represents an approach to the human condition based on an unflinching analysis of the facts. It provides tried and tested practices set out in clearly defined steps to lead us from our current mental state to greater happiness and, ultimately, enlightenment.
As far as Buddhism is concerned, our attempts to re-arrange the externals of our lives - money, relationships, careers - can only ever result in temporary satisfaction. The reason being that all such attempts don't take into account the only constant in life: change. Even if we do get things the way we want them, inevitably something will come along to upset our plans.
This doesn't mean we should give up on happiness. Instead, we should adopt a more effective strategy. Such a strategy was eloquently stated by the Buddhist sage Shantideva:
Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But wearing leather just on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.
Instead of the impossible task of trying to control our whole environment, the Buddhist philosophy is to take control of the way we experience that environment - in our mind. Our objective is to re-arrange not the externals, but the internals. To identify our habitual, negative patterns of thinking, and replace them with more positive alternatives. To change not the world, but the way we experience it.
'Which is all very well,' you may be thinking, 'but if you had to live/work/sleep with the children/boss/husband I do, no amount of mental gymnastics is going to change things.'
So it may seem. But even in the most difficult circumstances, change is possible. It is for this very reason that one of the best recognised symbols of Buddhism is the lotus, a plant which, though rooted in the filth of the swamps, rises to the surface as a flower of the most extraordinary beauty.
A practice-based psychologyHow is such transcendence achieved? Not through hoping, or wishing, but by engaging in well-established practices which, for thousands of years, have been shown to deliver successful results.
'What do Buddhists believe?' is a question often asked. Because belief lies at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the assumption is that Buddhism too is founded on belief and that Shakyamuni Buddha is the Buddhist equivalent of Jesus or Mohammed.
In fact, Buddhism works according to a completely different model. Buddhists do not worship Buddha, but regard him instead as an example of what we can all achieve if we quite literally put our minds to it. Buddhism suggests no ultimate divinity who will make things better, but instead provides us with the mental software we need to make things better for ourselves - and, of course, others.
The sub-title of this book 'Finding happiness in an uncertain world' refers to a deliberate process. If we wish to learn the piano or improve our golf game, we know it isn't good enough simply to own the right equipment. We have to learn how to use it, step by step, practicing relevant techniques until we achieve a level of mastery. So it is with our minds, where the effects of Buddhist practices are observable, repeatable and measurable.
A Path of HappinessWhere does one begin finding out about this path which is both ancient and advanced, practical and transcendent, radical and profoundly reassuring? Buddha Shakyamuni is said to have given 84,000 teachings during his lifetime, but it is our very good fortune that the essence of these were distilled by Atisha, one of the most important teachers who took Buddhism from India to Tibet. Atisha's instructions are known as Lam Rim, which translates approximately as 'the Path to Enlightenment.' Within Tibetan Buddhism there are a number of different schools, each with their own particular emphasis and terminology. While some attach greater importance to Lam Rim as a text than others, the teachings contained within it are precious to them all.
This book provides an introduction to these core teachings. It does not pretend to be a comprehensive explanation, which is already available in a number of different books, including the superlative volume by my own teacher, Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden. At this point it's also important to say that, as the author, I am in no way claiming to be a 'professional' - that is, a teacher, lama or monk. It is for that very reason that I hope this book may be useful to the busy people it is aimed at - because I am a busy person too.
In telling my own story as a very typical busy person, outlining the Lam Rim teachings and how they help me, it is my heartfelt wish that you will find in this book something you can relate to, something of value. Perhaps some concepts or techniques will strike you as useful, while others may seem less so. And that's fine. Buddhism is very much more 'À La Carte' than 'Set Menu'. Take those practices which work for you as an individual, where you are now, and leave the others to one side.
Because this is a personal account, it involves real people. For that reason, in order not to compromise their privacy, I have changed some names. But rest assured I have taken no fictional license with the Lam Rim.
Explaining Buddhist teachings, or the Dharma as they are collectively known, is rather like trying to describe a richly embroidered tapestry in terms of the separate threads from which it is woven. The inter-relations are such that it's difficult to unravel one thread without referring to others. My hope is that whether you are completely new to Buddhism, or are already familiar with Lam Rim, you may find in the teachings I quote fresh sources of illumination.
Enlightenment can seem a far way off - most of us can only guess at what it means. But Lam Rim is also the path to happiness, and that's something we can understand better. Not the short-lived, worldly happiness we have all felt, and lost, so many times throughout our lives, but an enduring and heart-felt serenity. A sense of meaning which goes beyond narrow self-interest to encompass the well-being of all those around us. An experience of our ultimate nature as pristine, boundless and beyond death.
For it is Buddha's promise that, like the lotus, our destiny is a future radiance beyond anything we might presently conceive, as we rise above the swamp to achieve the supreme bliss of transcendence.
Hurry Up and Meditate
INTRODUCTIONI know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestioned ability of a man to elevate his life by conscious endeavour.
Henry David Thoreau
Yes, it's a deliberately provocative title. After all, being in a hurry is the opposite of meditating, isn't it? If we have a lot going on in our lives, is it realistic trying to find even more time to meditate? The idea of infusing our daily schedule with newfound tranquillity may sound appealing-but not everyone is temperamentally suited to sitting around in the lotus position chanting 'Om'. Not to mention the fact that some of us just have very active minds. We'd like to meditate-but we're simply not capable of switching off.
Whoa! Back up a little! These are what I call the most common 'buts' of meditation-as in, 'I'd like to meditate, but...' And the amazing thing is that it's exactly the people who use the 'too busy', 'too hard' and 'too hyper' justifications who stand to gain the most from meditation.
How can I be so sure of this? Because I was one of them.
This book has been written for people in a hurry, and its message is quite simple: meditation is probably the best chance you've got to combat stress, cultivate happiness, enhance your performance, realise your goals and attain mastery of your mental, emotional and material destiny.
Big claims, you may think-but they're supported by compelling evidence.
The science of meditation
In recent years technology has made it possible to monitor the impacts of mental activity. Measurable, observable and repeatable studies, conducted by many credible researchers from a wide range of highly respected universities and medical centres, leave no room for doubt about the benefits of meditation. A summary of key studies is provided in Chapters 2 and 3 of this book, because they provide the motivation needed to begin and sustain this profoundly life-enhancing practice.
Once you've been meditating for a while, of course, you won't give two hoots about scientific studies because you'll have direct, first-hand experience of how good it feels to meditate- and how stressful it feels not to. Just as we don't need scientific research to persuade us that a long cool drink is wonderful on a hot summer's afternoon, once we've experienced the benefits of meditation on a personal level, the clinical whys and wherefores no longer seem so relevant. Though in the beginning, they have an important part to play in getting us motivated-and keeping us that way.
If I were to summarise the scientific evidence in just a couple of paragraphs, it's probably fair to say that if meditation was available in capsule form, it would be the biggest selling drug of all time. Where else can you find a treatment regime which lowers blood pressure and heart rate, providing highly effective anti-stress therapy, without any side effect whatsoever? Which, in addition, not only improves immune function, leading to less chance of catching a cold or flu bug, but which also significantly decreases our likelihood of being struck by a life-threatening illness like cancer or heart disease? Which improves neural coordination and, over time, actually changes the neuroplasticity of our brains, making us more efficient thinkers? Which boosts production of DHEA-the only hormone known to decrease directly with age-thereby slowing the ageing process? Which can form a powerful part of any complementary treatment regime for cancer and other illnesses-a function so important I have devoted a whole chapter to this subject. And these are just some of the physical benefits.
Turning to matters of the mind, scientists have shown that meditation heightens activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is associated with happiness and relaxation, helping minimise use of all those anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs which our society consumes in such terrifying quantities. Meditation improves concentration and activates gamma waves-the state of consciousness in which higher-level thinking and insight occurs. It improves our awareness of everything around us, including other people's moods and feelings. It enhances our sense of zest, vitality and joie de vivre.
It's worth mentioning at this early stage that the word 'meditation' covers a very wide range of practices and techniques, all of which have their own particular purpose and emphasis. This is explained more fully in Chapter 5, which provides a range of different meditation types to explore.
But all in all, any objective assessment of the effects of meditation, which are so powerful, so positive and so all-pervasive, can reach only one conclusion: if we're not doing so already, we should hurry up and meditate!
Interestingly, the counterpoint to this is also true. If we want to hurry up-if we want to lead productive, fulfilled, well-rounded and happy lives-meditation is the rocket fuel we need to propel us. Not only can we find the resources to turbo-charge our performance, by cultivating meditation practices we can also begin to discover a new richness and beauty even in the midst of a busy daily schedule. We have the capacity to create a sense of inner peace and objectivity which not only makes life a lot more pleasant, but also helps us work towards our goals more effectively.
A personal story
While the scientifically established benefits of meditation are important, this book isn't only about the empirical evidence emerging from laboratories. I'd also like to share my personal story, and if I come across as a tad evangelical, it's because meditation is a subject close to my heart.
I'm a person in a hurry and I've been meditating for over fourteen years. Starting out as someone who couldn't keep his bum on a cushion for more than a few minutes, I now usually end my one-hour morning meditation sessions wishing I didn't have to stop. My concentration has moved from almost non-existent to much improved. And when I think of my lifestyle now versus ten years ago, there's no comparison. Then I was a harassed mid-level executive, with very limited time or capacity to enjoy life. Now I find myself working less, earning more, and able to pursue the interests that fulfil me-such as writing books like this one.
Having said all that, I'm not making any grand claims about my meditation prowess. In many ways meditation is exactly like going to the gym or learning to play a musical instrument. No matter how good you get, there's always plenty of room for improvement. The measure for comparison is not other people, but your own personal baseline.
It's worth emphasising that to benefit from meditation it's not necessary to begin with hour-long daily sessions, to adopt an austere lifestyle or to take off to the mountains for monthlong retreats. Even a few minutes of spot meditation, practised regularly, makes an immediate and appreciable difference to our everyday wellbeing.
I should also add that while meditation has been embraced, in different ways, by all the major religious traditions, this book is intended for use by people in a hurry, whether or not you follow a particular religion. The focus of Hurry Up and Meditate is not so much on belief systems as on improving mental and physical health. That said, the opportunity to invoke religious symbols may be useful to some readers, and I'll be sure to refer to these opportunities.
For those readers who do follow a religious tradition, and may be anxious about how meditation fits in, I can think of no better advice than that given by Ian Gawler, the inspiring founder of The Gawler Foundation, who survived cancer against all medical expectations, and has gone on to help many thousands of cancer patients do the same: 'While some people are apprehensive that meditation may conflict with their beliefs, the usual experience is that it leads to a heightened appreciation of their particular religious leanings and a greater level of personal joy.'
As a Tibetan Buddhist, I will draw on the rich meditative heritage of my own tradition. While Hurry Up and Meditate is not about Buddhism, it is my heartfelt wish that readers of my previous work Buddhism for Busy People will find in this book all the detail and understanding they need to make meditation the same profoundly life-enhancing practice that it has become for me.
Just as golfers try to improve their handicaps and classical musicians work through their grades, meditators have a nine-level yardstick by which to measure their progress. It's important to mention this early on, to correct the mistaken impression some people have that meditation is some kind of undirected, touchyfeely, 'Hey man, you've just gotta, like, bliss out' activity.
On the contrary, meditation prescribes rigorous methodologies which have been practised for well over two and a half thousand years. It involves discipline and hard work-and there's a chance that at some point you may get so frustrated you'll consider throwing in the towel.
But if you've been meditating properly, even for only a few months, you won't be able to. At some point, perhaps with a sigh of resignation, you will once again resume your place on the meditation cushion because you'll have discovered that meditation is the best way you know of coming home. This has certainly been my experience. And I know there is nothing very unusual about my journey so far. Speaking to other meditators, as I frequently do, it's clear that while we all share the same challenges, we also experience the same life-changing benefits.
Ask a group of meditators why they started their practice and you'll get a variety of answers. These won't be expressed in scientific terms-I have never met anyone who said they meditated to improve their neuroplasticity. Instead you'll hear about the benefits of meditation from a more subjective perspective.
Some people begin with a very specific intention: to support a battle against cancer or some other serious medical condition. To help restore a sense of calm after having been through a stressful life event, such as relationship or career trauma. As an aid to learning, particularly in preparing for important exams. And there's no question that meditation can be an extremely powerful tool in all these cases.
But whatever the original starting point, it's often the case that people discover benefits way beyond what they originally signed up for. Yes, meditation helps us get a grip on problems where they originate-in our minds-but it offers us far more than merely removing the negatives from our lives.
What exactly is good mental health?
In the same way that someone free from any diagnosable illness is not necessarily brimming with good health, just because we don't suffer from depression or stress doesn't mean we're in especially good mental shape. Just as we need to apply some effort to keep physically fit, keeping mentally trim, taut and terrific is something we've got to work on. And arguably the best of all starting points is meditation.
What do I mean by being in good mental shape? A greater feeling of happiness is the most obvious benefit which keeps meditators coming back for more. A sense of deep-down inner peace and resilience, improving one's ability to weather the inevitable storms of life. Enhanced concentration, enabling rapid processing of work and other tasks. A more outward-looking, panoramic perspective, providing the basis for greater equanimity in our dealings with others.
Whatever we wish to achieve in life, whatever our chosen path to self-fulfilment, meditation provides us with an extremely powerful tool, because through its practice we become more coherent, integrated and purposeful at all levels of behaviour.
And if we still don't know what our path to self-fulfilment might be, meditation may help us find it.
Finding peace in the eye of the storm
Beneath the teasing title of this book is the suggestion of a much bigger question. As people in a hurry, is it also possible to lead a contemplative life? Can work deadlines, mortgage repayments, and complicated family and personal relationships combine with meditation and inner growth? Is it possible to find peace in the eye of the storm?
Of course, you already know what my response to those questions will be, so let me back it up with an explanation.
Among the most commonly prescribed, but still rapidly growing, drugs in the Western world are various classes of psychiatric drugs, be they anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, stress management, uppers or downers by whatever name.
In the UK, over 13 million prescriptions for anti-depressants are issued every year to an estimated 3.5 million patients. In the US over 8 million people are using anti-depressants, and even in Australia, which has an international reputation for sunny optimism, depression is now the fourth most common reason that people see the doctor.
So pervasive are psychiatric, not to mention non-prescribed, drugs, that most of us either have used them ourselves or know people who do. But the amazing thing is that when people take their daily anti-depressant or draw on their recreational joint, they do so without any expectation that it will result in a change to their external circumstances. Taking a Prozac is not a known cause for large and unexplained credits to appear in one's bank account, or for one's irksome boss to undergo a personality transplant. But users do expect to feel better about things. Implicit in the act of taking such medication is the acceptance that even if 'reality' doesn't change, we can still feel a whole lot better about it by changing our mood, our pharmacological make-up, our interpretation of what is going on around us.
Which is exactly what meditation does-except without the toxic side effects. No one is disputing that even the most mentally robust among us may at some point in our lives benefit from pharmacological support. But for most of us, most of the time, why pump our bodies with mind-altering chemicals if we can get the same result, and a whole lot more benefits besides, through natural means? The most powerful pharmaceutical manufacturer is to be found not in the industrial sites outside our capital cities, but between our ears. Why not take control of our own built-in pharmacy to relieve stress, elevate mood and help manage illness?
So, to answer the question about whether or not we can combine tranquil contemplation with a helter-skelter lifestyle, the answer is not so much 'we can' as 'we must'. If we're leading frenetic lives, burning the candle at both ends, this is exactly why we need to cultivate inner calm. If others around us are agitated and stressed out, that's precisely the reason we need to be more relaxed, positive and benevolent. We may not always be able to change the world around us, but we can definitely change our attitude towards it.
At a deeper level it is perhaps worth asking why, both collectively and individually, we feel the need to keep so busy, and why we so quickly become bored and lonely when we're stripped of all the busyness and distraction with which we fill our lives. Nineteenth-century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote amusingly about the wish to escape from one's self: 'I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the Stern Fact, the Sad Self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from.'
1 Some people experiencing mood swings and milder forms of depression may be able to use meditation in place of medication. However, for people with a serious mental illness it is strongly recommended that you consult your doctor before starting meditation. With some conditions it may not be possible to stop taking medication, but meditation can be a very helpful additional support.
Are the circumstances of our lives that keep us so busy created entirely by others, or should we take some responsibility for them? What is it that makes us want to avoid a more simple, unhurried life-and can meditation provide the key?
Imprisonment or freedom?
A Buddhist monk I know used to hold regular meditation classes for prisoners. Over the years he got to know some of them quite well. Once he was asked by a group of lifers to describe a typical day in the monastery. Belonging to the austere Theravadan tradition, he explained how everyone had to get up at four o'clock in the morning for the first meditation session of the day, followed by more study and meditation classes throughout the morning. Lunch, the main meal, was eaten out of a single bowl-main course and any donated dessert all off the same plate-before the afternoon was spent doing manual work on the monastery property. There was no supper, just a cup of tea, and in the evening there was more study and meditation, which only ended around 10 p.m.
There was, of course, a ban on sex, alcohol, drugs, TV, newspapers, magazines and similar distractions. No money or personal possessions were allowed. Compared to prison, the regime he described was so harsh that one of the prisoners couldn't contain himself. 'You could always come and live here with us!' he burst out in spontaneous sympathy, before realising what he was saying.
After the ensuing laughter had subsided, the monk couldn't help reflecting on the paradox. His monastery with its strongly ascetic regime had a long waiting list of people who wanted to join as novices. And yet everyone in the very much more comfortable jail couldn't wait to get out.
In other words, it's not our circumstances so much as our feelings, beliefs and attitudes about those circumstances that make us happy or otherwise.
Have we arrived at our current lifestyle through freedom of choice? Or do we feel imprisoned in jobs or relationships from which we long to escape? Is our daily life an authentic reflection of our interests and values? Or merely a series of burdens and responsibilities from which we wish we could break free?
You may be wondering how meditation can help in any of this. Well, to quote the well-worn business adage, you can't manage what you don't monitor. If we don't keep regular track of our income and expenditure, how can we possibly stay on top of our personal or company finances? If our goal is to lose weight and we don't monitor how much we eat and how much we exercise, how can we be sure that calories out exceed calories in?
In the same way, changing our interpretations of the world requires us to be aware of what our current interpretations are. Meditation provides a direct support by helping us develop improved levels of mindfulness of our thoughts. By identifying our current mental habits we can start to replace ingrained negative mental patterns with more positive ones. Even a small improvement in mindfulness can help create very important change. Little by little we can turn our prisons into monasteries.
Masters of our own reality
Understanding of process enables a person to gain control of that process or to gain freedom from being controlled by it.
The Dalai Lama
As technological advancements enable neurologists to study the workings of the mind in greater detail, we are seeing a wonderful convergence take place. Ancient meditation-based wisdom and contemporary science are drawing together. We are coming to understand that our sensory awareness-such as sight-has as much to do with mental functioning and the way we interpret stimuli as it has with our sense receptors. We are gaining new insights showing how pleasure or pain is as much a result of our conditioning as our circumstances. Very recent studies confirm that we have it in our power to cultivate positive states of mind, and even change our neural pathways to enjoy happiness on a more ongoing basis. In short, contemporary research is affirming the ancient wisdom that we are the creators of our own reality.
If we don't like the way we feel, we have the power to change it. We don't have to wait to be rescued by a shift in external circumstance. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are the shapers of everything we are experiencing today, the co-authors of our mental continuum way into the future.
Which presents us with a simple choice. We can focus all our efforts on trying to manage an external reality in the hope that our deepest wishes are realised, our lives fulfilled, and we will never have to face any serious hardship (yeah, right!).
Or we can take charge of our own mental destiny.
It's no simple choice because the meditative path is not an easy one. But how often are great things accomplished without effort?
More important is the knowledge that with perseverance, an open heart and clarity of purpose we can achieve profound inner transformation. If we choose, we can change our experience of reality so that our happiness is less conditional on the quirks of circumstance, and instead becomes an abiding presence. We can replace our short-term concerns with a more panoramic sense of destiny beyond anything we might currently imagine. We can celebrate a more transcendent understanding of who we are and why we're here.
To begin, all we need is a small cushion, a quiet room-and a strong sense of adventure!
Enlightment to Go
INTRODUCTION'If I have any understanding of compassion and the practice of the bodhisattva path, it is entirely on the basis of this text that I possess it.'
The Dalai Lama speaking about Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life
Often when the Dalai Lama ends a public speech, a member of the audience will ask: 'Can you recommend a book that explains how to put Buddhist ideas into practice?'
In all his years of teaching, the Dalai Lama has been remarkably consistent in the way he answers this question: 'Read Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life,' he has repeatedly told audiences for more than forty years. One of the great classics of Tibetan Buddhism, its pages contain all the advice and motivation you need to make Buddha's teachings part of your daily reality.
Shantideva's Guide is not only one of the most revered texts in Tibetan Buddhism, it is arguably one of the most remarkable books ever written. Composed by an eighth-century Buddhist monk around the same time as one of the earliest English-language compositions, the epic work of fiction Beowulf, Shantideva's Guide is a manual of advanced psychology. Writing to motivate his own practice, Shantideva authored what was probably the world's first self-help book, outlining how to develop specific psychological techniques and reframe our experience of reality to achieve greater happiness and inner peace.
More than this, the Guide outlines a structured approach to the whole Tibetan Buddhist path, beginning with simple but powerful analytical tools and leading us, step by step, to the most profound realisations about the true nature of reality—and of ourselves. The word 'bodhisattva' in the title of Shantideva's book describes a person who wishes to achieve enlightenment to help free all other beings from suffering. The bodhisattva way of life may therefore be regarded as the ultimate expression of compassion.
Shantideva's Guide is extraordinary for many reasons. One thing I find amazing is that even though he wrote it in the eighth century, the wisdom it contains still has a direct application for us, here and now, in the twenty-first. More than twelve hundred years separate us from Shantideva, scratching at his parchment, trying to ignore the flicker of his butter lamp; nowadays we sit tapping at our computers, trying to ignore the ping of our email inbox, but in a more important sense, nothing has changed. Human nature is the same. We still strive for the same things. And no one had a more profound understanding of human nature than Shantideva.
Not only this, but like all great spiritual teachers, Shantideva understood the power of metaphor to make explanations come alive. Like an embroidered tapestry his instructions are richly illuminated with images that tumble off the pages—vivid, earthy and often quite unexpected. Shantideva had a poet's understanding of language, and some of his stanzas are expressed with such poignancy and beauty that they rival the most lyrical passages of Shakespeare. It is said that there are some verses that still move the Dalai Lama to tears, despite his familiarity with them.
The best of ShantidevaBut the most astonishing thing of all about Shantideva's Guide is that it is still so little known in the West. Ask most people who Shantideva was and chances are you'll be met with a blank expression, or a hesitant guess—an Indian cricketer? A Bollywood actor? Before I became a regular Buddhist class attendee in my early thirties, I had never heard of him, even though I am an arts graduate with a supposedly well rounded education. Such is the parochial nature of Western culture that if you go into any reasonably well stocked bookstore you'll be sure to turn up a volume on Aristotle, Descartes or Freud. But Shantideva? We'll have to order that in for you, sir.
Even specialist Buddhist sections are likely to stock a variety of books by Buddhist lamas and other teachers, all of whom would readily acknowledge the pre-eminence of Shantideva, but not the great man himself.
This is perhaps understandable. Sitting down to read Shantideva unplugged can be daunting for a newcomer to Buddhism. In the same way that someone unfamiliar with classical music might be intimidated by the prospect of sitting through an entire Beethoven symphony, or a stranger to art might hesitate on the steps of a famous gallery, even though we may feel drawn to some new field of endeavour we face a simple problem: where on earth do we begin? Even the name of his Guide, sometimes published under its multi-syllabic Sanskrit title, the Bodhicharyavatara (or BCA to Buddhist insiders), is somewhat confronting. With out someone to give us the background, to explain the significance of this symbol or that reference, and to target the new material to our own experience and understanding, it's easy to put any such new interest in the 'too hard' basket.
But with a guide to point out features of importance, and above all, to bring the whole subject alive with their own enthusiasm and purpose, then our new interest can quite naturally develop as a source of fresh inspiration.
In writing this book, I hope to be just such a guide. Enlightenment to Go is not a scholarly discourse on Shantideva—there are plenty of those already. Nor does it provide a comprehensive analysis of every one of his 800 stanzas—rather, only 75 of them. I have not slavishly followed the sequence of the verses presented in his teachings because, like a composer of a grand classical piece of music, Shantideva returned to several of the same key themes in different parts of his discourse, often with a different emphasis or turn of phrase. To enhance the practical application of his teachings for readers today, I have presented them thematically, rather than in the order they appear in the Guide. Part I of this book discusses the compassionate mind of enlightenment from a Buddhist perspective. In Buddhism the word 'mind' is often used to mean 'state of mind', and we look at how such states of mind can be developed, what the benefits of developing them can be and how they may differ from the mind states we currently experience. Part II moves from theory to practice. Exactly how do we set about cultivating an enlightened way of being? What precisely does this entail? What are the nuts and bolts—the psychological tools, the meditation practices, the methods and techniques—we can apply to effect personal transformation at the most profound level?
Like my book Buddhism for Busy People, Enlightenment to Go also provides a very personal account of how I've come to terms with Buddhist teachings in my own life. I offer my story not because I think I'm something special but for the very opposite reason. I know that the challenges and the frustrations, the happiness and the inner peace I continue to experience on my personal journey are not particular to me. Sure, I may experience them in a particular way, but they are experiences common to all busy people who seek to put Buddha's teachings into practice.
Enlightenment to Go is not the book for readers preferring a rigorous textbook approach to Shantideva. However, I hope that those of you who join me on this highlight tour will find in the biographical passages something you can relate to: reassurance, perhaps, that you are far from alone as you make your way along this tried and tested path.
A structured meditation programOne way to use this book is simply to read it from start to finish like any other. And because most readers are busy people with precious little time to spare, I have written fairly short, manageable chapters that may be read during the course of a train commute, or perhaps in bed at night before turning out the light.
However, Enlightenment to Go has also been designed to provide a guided analytical meditation program. Each chapter is on a different theme and ends with suggested points for reflection or action. These meditations and exercises are based on traditional practices, some of which I have adapted a little to suit contemporary Western students. There are eighteen chapters in all, covering the full Tibetan Buddhist path. It is my heartfelt wish that many of you will find this book helpful not only as an introduction to Shantideva, but as a means to become acquainted with the most important Buddhist teachings in a truly lifeenhancing way.
What is the difference between analytical meditation and simply reading something? In brief, our depth of understanding. While the intellectual knowledge we gain from reading can be helpful, if the significance of what we read is to have real meaning for us—if there is to be any possibility of it changing our view of ourselves and the world around us—we need to understand it on a deeper basis. Ultimately we need to experience it at a direct or non-conceptual level.
The impact of realisationTo illustrate, not so long ago I saw a TV news item about workers on a cacao plantation in west Africa. Although they'd been harvesting cacao beans for many years, each season dispatching large sacks to chocolate factories in Europe, the majority of plantation workers had never actually seen chocolate, let alone tasted it. They had, of course, heard about it. They possessed a good intellectual knowledge of chocolate: they knew that it was sweet, that it contained condensed milk, that it had a firm texture but melted in the mouth. And they knew that Europeans loved eating it. But despite having this intellectual knowledge, they couldn't fully understand the ever-growing demand for the small bitter beans they harvested each year.
That is, until the day a TV crew arrived, bringing a variety of chocolate products. There was something compelling about watching the cacao workers undo the foil wrappers, scrutinise the mysterious brown tablets—and take their first bite. Seeing the expressions on their faces suddenly change as they realised: this is why people can't get enough cacao beans! Their understanding was no longer intellectual. It was first-hand and non-conceptual. They had experienced it directly.
When we meditate, we create the possibility of experiencing ideas directly. We take our first bite of reality. While most of us have no shortage of notions about who we are and the world around us, and many of the other subjects Shantideva writes about, like the plantation workers before the TV crew arrived, our understanding is mostly intellectual and therefore necessarily limited.
The word 'realisation' is sometimes used in Buddhism to describe the point when our understanding of a particular subject ripens to the extent that it changes our behaviour. The middle-aged executive may know he needs to work less and exercise more, but perhaps he will only fully realise this in the back of an ambulance on his way to hospital having suffered a heart attack. Realisations may also refer to changes in attitude. Like the crusty old homophobe I introduced to a gay friend—of whom, after a thoroughly enjoyable dinner, he couldn't speak highly enough. When I told him my friend was gay, there was a marked shift in his hitherto incorrigible prejudices: a realisation had been made!
Through meditation we can go beyond a surface or intellectual understanding of a subject towards achieving truly life-enhancing realisations. And the curriculum provided by Shantideva offers the most profound benefits of all. We all know that every day of our life could be our last and that we shouldn't take a single moment of it for granted— but do we really live like that? We are all aware that failure and misfortune offer incomparably better opportunity for personal growth than smooth sailing and success—but how many of us remember this in the midst of a crisis? Many of us have an inkling that our existence holds possibilities far more panoramic than the biographic summaries we're familiar with—but how much energy do we invest exploring these?
Analytical meditation holds the key. For readers who are unfamiliar with the process of meditation, I've provided a 'how to' in the appendix on page 311. Even those of you who already have a meditation practice may find it useful to quickly read over the suggestions provided in the appendix before you begin the analytical meditation exercises.
One positive side-effect of analytical meditation is that when we focus on a subject during meditation, it will often pop up in our thoughts later during the day. We'll find fresh relevance in a newspaper headline, or a snatch of conversation will return us to the subject again. And by focusing more and more of our thoughts on useful material, and steering them away from negative feedback loops that often dominate our inner self-talk, the balance of our preoccupations starts to shift—and with it, our behaviour. When you order your regular cappuccino or latte, your pizza, pad thai or any other consumables to go, you are essentially taking whatever you are buying to enjoy in an environment of your own choosing—to savour it in private, on your own terms. In just the same way, Enlightenment to Go provides a complete package of teachings and meditations for you to study and use at a time and in a way that suits you. Within it is contained all the main teachings of the Tibetan Buddhist path, as well as the means to help penetrate the true essence of these teachings.
Random readingOn a shelf in my office is a well-thumbed copy of Shantideva's Guide that I use in a way you may also find helpful with this book. During challenging moments, I will take the Guide off the shelf, flick it open, and read a few verses at random. The effect is almost always beneficial. However disturbing the subject previously occupying my thoughts, I am reminded of the much broader reality in which it is of little importance. Often, curiously, the page I open directly addresses my agitation, as though Shantideva himself was right beside me in his red and gold robes—usually, wagging a finger at me and telling me to get a grip! I hope you also find this book opens at just the right place for your needs at a particular moment. Whether you find yourself having to confront a difficult situation, or are simply looking for stimulation, I have no doubt that Shantideva can also offer you a fresh perspective on whatever challenges you may face.
The objective of Buddha's teachings, as illuminated by Shantideva, was not to convert people to a particular belief system but to offer access to a set of psychological tools which, at the very least, can improve our sense of inner peace and happiness. More than this, with patient application these tools transform our whole experience of reality. The Tibetan Buddhist view is that all beings with consciousness have the potential to achieve enlightenment. Whatever our background and cultural conditioning, whatever negative states of mind we may experience or wrongdoing we have committed, like clouds passing through the sky none of this can taint the natural state of our primordial mind, which is boundless, formless, blissful and unceasing.
In writing this book, I am assuming my readers have no prior knowledge of Buddhism, and I hope that whatever the background tradition you may come from, you will find in Enlightenment to Gosome useful insights and practices. My own formative years were in mainstream Presbyterianism, and I was a regular Sunday school attendee until my mid teens. My parents were devout in their own private way, and in retirement my father has become a lay preacher in northeast Scotland. When Buddhism for Busy People was first published some years ago, I think he felt a sense of paternal obligation to read it. I could picture him, the day that it arrived in the mail, sitting down in his favourite armchair, steeling himself to read the combustible contents that were likely to have steam coming out of his Calvinistic ears.
But, to his own surprise as much as mine, he actually quite enjoyed the experience—partly, I expect, because he discovered some useful observations and anecdotes. He is always on the lookout for fresh material for his next sermon, and Buddhism for Busy People became an unexpected source book: I suspect that in the following months a number of 'Buddhist' ideas were repackaged and found their way into a variety of pulpits around Scotland!
The point is that no tradition has a monopoly on compassion. The same ethical framework underpins all the world's major traditions, along with the yearning for the wholeness that comes from a direct experience of ultimate reality, whatever we choose to call it. Compassion— exemplified in the bodhisattva way of life—is the force which is supposed to motivate the followers of all the world's great traditions.
While Enlightenment to Go has not been written specifically for seasoned Buddhist practitioners, I also hope that fellow students who read this book may find in it a fresh source of stimulation. When trying to penetrate the meaning of a subject, particularly subtler concepts, I've often found that a slightly different presentation of even a well-explored theme can illuminate the idea in a more accessible way. The effect can sometimes be that our understanding 'clicks' into place.
It may seem audacious for a Western student to be offering even a highlight tour of Shantideva, but I would like to emphasise that I am not doing so from an assumed position of superior learning. Instead, I am offering ideas that may provide catalysts for your own inner development. It was, after all, one of the Buddha's most important teachings that enlightenment isn't something that can be given to us by others, but rather a state of being which it is our own personal responsibility to develop.
The prince who gave up his kingdomYou may well be wondering about Shantideva himself— where did he come from, and what kind of person was he? In some ways, Shantideva's life story reflects that of the Buddha himself: although born into a royal family, he chose to reject his comfortable lifestyle of wealth and status.
Born in Gujarat, western India, from an early age Shantideva showed a strong interest in practising the Dharma, as Buddha's teachings are collectively known. After the death of his father it was, dramatically, on the eve of his coronation that he decided to flee the palace, travelling to a highly regarded seat of learning, the great monastic University of Nalanda.
It's important to put this part of Shantideva's story into context, because to be a member of a royal family in pre-industrialised India was to occupy a position of immense privilege. Unlike these egalitarian times, when most of us in developed countries live in relative comfort even without the benefit of any particular social status or great wealth, in eighth-century India, if you were not part of a tiny elite, everyday life was usually nasty, brutish and short. The gulf between rich and poor was huge. And the lifestyle of a monk demanded austerities which Shantideva would have been completely unused to. For him to give up a life of ease and privilege in pursuit of inner development would equate, in modern times, to the youthful heir to a multi-billion-dollar business dynasty permanently forsaking the luxury homes, fast cars and glamorous lifestyle to become an aid worker in Africa.
On the surface of things, such a decision may strike us as eccentric at the very least. But for someone with firsthand experience of all the pleasures of wealth and status to shrug them off perhaps tells us as much about the value of such things as it does about the person. Our own experience of life in a consumerist age confirms that despite enjoying a level of affluence far greater than our forebears ever dreamed of, our life's central challenge remains essentially the same: how to live with a sense of enduring happiness and purpose.
The conspiracy that backfiredOnce at Nalanda Monastery Shantideva continued to be a non-conformist, but here it was monastic convention against which he rebelled. Instead of studying, meditating and debating with his fellow monks during the day, he used to sleep, carrying out his own meditation practices at night in the strictest privacy. This unconventional behaviour didn't endear him to his contemporaries, who used to refer to him sarcastically as the 'Three Realisations' because they believed the only things he knew about were eating, sleeping and defecating. Over time, some of them became determined to evict the monk they saw as a useless layabout who besmirched the fine name of Nalanda. In a scheming fashion you can't help feeling was decidedly un-Buddhist, they set up Shantideva for a very public humiliation. He was ordered to deliver a Dharma discourse to the entire monastery.
One can imagine the atmosphere in Nalanda's meditation hall, or gompa, when the appointed day finally arrived. How the monks would have awaited the speaker's appearance with unusual excitement. Did the plotters mask their glee behind poker faces, or were surreptitious smirks exchanged during prayers? Whatever the case, the anticipation in the gompa must have been electric when Shantideva finally made his way to the teaching throne, centre stage, and began to speak.
Within a few minutes, however, the schemers' plans began to unravel. Far from embarrassing himself in front of his assembled peers, Shantideva delivered teachings which immediately captured the attention of all present. His lecture was so incisive, so learned and so eloquently expressed that it was soon recognised—however grudgingly by some—for its brilliance. Even more ironically, when transcripts of the teachings were copied some time later, they become far better known than any of the other learned teachings to have emerged from Nalanda. They are sometimes referred to as the best practical guide to achieving enlightenment.
They are the teachings you now hold in your hands.
A number of English translations of the complete Guide exist, but my personal favourite has always been the work by teacher and writer Stephen Batchelor. A former monk who combines impressive scholarly credentials with an incisive understanding of the Western mind, his translation is outstanding because it captures both the poetry and the power of Shantideva's language. It has an immediacy and freshness that keeps the text alive.
As the author of the bestselling Buddhism without Beliefs, and more recently Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, Stephen's ability to capture the essential wisdom of Buddha's teachings is extraordinary, and he has applied this same ability in reviewing and, as required, revising the verses presented here specifically for this book. I am sincerely grateful to him for bringing Shantideva's voice to us down the ages with such wonderful clarity.
Going beyond ordinary realityYou will have already gathered from this introduction that while knowledge and intellect are admired in Buddhism, far greater value is placed on the practical application of learning. It is significant to understand this if we are to make sense of what happened when Shantideva got to what is now known as the ninth chapter of his Guide, because it was at this point in his lecture that, we are told, something strange and magical—even by Himalayan standards—began to occur. Instead of remaining on the teaching throne, Shantideva began to levitate. Up and up he floated in meditation posture, a mesmerising presence, carrying on his lecture as though nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Higher and higher he ascended until he'd disappeared from sight—but through an amazing and hitherto unsuspected power, he continued to speak, his disembodied voice carrying on quite clearly until he'd finished his teachings.
From a twenty-first-century Westerner's perspective, the idea of such a thing happening may seem altogether fanciful—another mystical tale from far, far away and long, long ago. But what Westerners would sceptically regard as claims of 'psychic powers' are in Tibetan Buddhism, even today, considered to be significant but by no means exceptional manifestations of a highly experienced meditator.
It is especially relevant that the ninth chapter of Shantideva's Guide concerns the nature of reality, a subject which goes to the very heart of Buddha's teachings. More than two millennia before quantum scientists and neuropsychologists made their startling discoveries about the illusory nature of reality, the inaccuracy of divisions between subject and object and the deception of dualism, Buddha and other teachers were saying exactly the same things. Eastern mysticism and Western science have arrived at the same conclusion—summarised by physicist Sir Arthur Eddington when he said: 'The concept of substance has disappeared from fundamental physics.'
What if, instead of only understanding such concepts at an intellectual level, Shantideva was able to apply them to reality? Perhaps the famous story of his levitation wouldn't then seem quite so fanciful—it would, instead, merely have been an appropriate illustration of the wisdom he was conveying. And if the practical application of this wisdom wasn't unique to Shantideva, what is to stop us from doing the same? Why should we not also strive to achieve an understanding which takes us beyond our usual conception of reality—an enlightenment to go?
It is with such a motivation that we should set out on our 'best of' tour of Shantideva's Guide, an exploration blessed by the Dalai Lama's repeated and emphatic endorsement. While grounded in the practical reality of daily life, Shantideva's teachings offer us truly awe-inspiring wisdom about a different way of being. Penetrating the meaning of this wisdom is exciting enough: experiencingthe wisdom we taste reality in an entirely different way.
For it is the ultimate purpose of Shantideva's Guide to help awaken the Buddha potential which dwells in each one of us: to provide step-by-step instructions on how to develop this potential; and, like Shantideva himself, to help us achieve a personal transcendence which goes beyond anything we might currently even begin to imagine.
The Astral Traveler's Handbook
FOREWORDBy the Dalai Lama’s Cat
The idea came about one gorgeous Himalayan morning. I was sitting in my favorite spot—the first-floor windowsill of the Dalai Lama’s meeting room. It is here that I like to spend my days basking in the sunshine, keeping an eye on the courtyard below, while eavesdropping on all the intriguing goings-on within.
That particular morning, His Holiness’s visitor was one of the most influential movie directors in Hollywood. Being a cat of great discretion, dear reader, I’m afraid I can’t possibly tell you who he was. But I am willing to give you a few tiny hints.
If you have ever felt your compassion aroused by an extra-terrestrial being, perhaps, or marveled at a theme park filled with dinosaurs, or been enthralled by adventures involving ancient civilizations, it is just possible that you may be able to guess the identity of this person. You know, the fellow with the beard and glasses. Yes, him!
For a while I’d been in that delightful semi-sleep state, dreaming and softly purring while the conversation inside wafted over me. The two men had been talking about the power of language to transport us to places we could never otherwise go, the visitor noting that certain words and phrases were especially evocative. Which was when I heard him say, "The four most magical words in the English language."
At once, my whiskers tingled. We Tibetan Buddhists are keen on magical words and the famous director was evidently about to reveal some special incantation. Four words which, in the mind of the listener, would change all that followed.
In the very next moment, however, I guessed exactly what he was about to say. The four words came to me, without even having to think. That was because I heard them night and day, chanted with great devotion by monks and Western visitors alike: Om mani padme hum.
The mantra was an evocation of love and compassion. When repeated, with deepening understanding and conviction, those four words could most certainly be said to have a magical effect, even if not an immediate one.
As I caught the scent of Himalayan pine, wafting on a pristine breeze from the ice-capped mountains, I thought how lucky I was to know such things, and to be a cat of such very deep wisdom.
The conversational pause inside the room seemed to go on forever. On the brink of revealing the invocation of magical power, the director evidently knew how to draw out the suspense. Even though I knew exactly what he was about to reveal, I still wanted him to reveal it!
Which was when he came out with something utterly unexpected. Four words, quite frankly, I would never have even guessed.
"Once upon a time," said he.
Lifting my head, I turned to look at him directly. Had the man taken leave of his senses?!
"Once upon a time?" repeated His Holiness.
It was only when the Dalai Lama said it, in that gentle, melodious voice of his, that I realized. Ah! Four words in the English language. I supposed that was different.
"There are equivalents in many other languages," continued the visitor, to my further disgruntlement. "The Germans have ‘es war einmal,’ and the French ‘Il était une fois.’ You find it in many cultures going back in time, like Chinese and even Sanskrit."
Oh really? This was the first I’d heard of it.
"And why are these words magical?" asked His Holiness. Exactly what I was wondering. Why indeed?
"Because we learn them as children at the beginning of magical tales. We associate them with opening our imagination to limitless possibilities. As adults, those four words give us permission to suspend our judgment, to let go of ordinary convention. To become child-like again."
His Holiness was sitting up in his chair. And I have to say, dear reader, that I, too, raised myself up from the windowsill and turned around, so intrigued was I by what the director was saying. "When we are child-like," the Dalai Lama observed, "we become more open."
His visitor was nodding. "We learn in different ways."
"Right brain," agreed the other. "The level of creativity and intuition."
"In Tibetan Buddhism—" His Holiness leaned forward in his chair "—this is considered most important."
"It’s also," ventured the visitor, "the reason I like to ask: why does it stop?"
"Stop?" queried the Dalai Lama.
"When we grow up. There are no more tales of enchantment. No more "Once upon a time" stories. But it seems to me that, as adults, we need these more than ever!"
I liked what the visitor was saying so much that I hopped off the sill, padded across a finely woven, ornate, Indian rug, and approached where he was sitting.
It seemed that the Dalai Lama liked it too. He was smiling in agreement. "Spiritual teachers in all traditions use stories to convey insights. Deeper wisdom. Stories can do things that debate and logic cannot. They can touch mind, and also—" he lifted his right hand to his chest "—heart."
"The power of parables," concurred his visitor.
His Holiness ventured further. "And the time of day we tell such stories is also important. They can have a big impact if we hear them just before going to sleep. By focusing the mind on positive things, we can transform sleep, which is a neutral activity, into something very useful."
"Making a virtue of a necessity?" suggested the director. "Exactly!" he beamed.
When he speaks, the Dalai Lama often uses just a few words to convey meaning that can be understood on many different levels. From other conversations I’d overhead in the past, I knew that the "something very useful", he mentioned, by which people could transform their sleep, was an important and fascinating subject.
His Holiness’s expression changed, lines appearing on his forehead. "These days, before people go to sleep, there’s too much of this." He mimicked someone keying words into a mobile device. "Great agitation. So I agree, there is a great need for bedtime stories." He gestured his visitor in acknowledgement. "Especially for grown-ups!" he added.
Both men laughed.
I chose this moment to hop up onto the visitor’s lap, taking him by surprise.
"How delightful!" He took in my charcoal face, big blue eyes and luxuriant, cream-colored coat—the markings of we, Himalayan cats.
"I didn’t know you had a cat?" The director was not the first visitor to have made such an observation. And as I’ve noted before, why should the Dalai Lama not have a cat—if "having a cat" is an accurate description of the relationship.
I circled on his lap, trying to decide exactly where I would position myself. As I did, His Holiness said, "As you can see, she is not a creature of fiction."
The visitor glanced in the direction from which I’d come, realizing that I must have been sitting nearby all along. As I settled onto his knees, he said, "I am sure she must hear many enchanting tales, sitting on the windowsill."
"Oh yes," agreed the Dalai Lama. "She could share some wonderful stories."
In the days that followed, whether dozing on the sill, or being pampered downstairs in the kitchen by the executive chef, Mrs. Trinci, I would sometimes recollect that conversation: Once upon a time. Transform sleep into something useful.
And it was true, I thought—I did hear many fascinating tales. Some were stories of mystical yogis and monks in the Himalayas. Others involved middle-aged women or inquiring young men in the West. The most precious of these stories, just like the fables of old, contained some transformative insight, some life-affirming wisdom, that touched not only the mind, but also the heart.
But where to start?
If I have learned anything living with His Holiness, dear reader, it is the simple truth that if you need help with something, anything, the first step is to ask. Whether it is a lip-smacking serving of Mrs. Trinci’s finest diced chicken liver, or the inspiration of the Buddhas when embarking on some new creative project, we are surrounded by beings whose only wish is to see us happy and fulfilled and, most especially, to help us offer happiness and fulfillment to others. Sometimes these beings may be seen. Sometimes unseen. In my own case, I only need to be in the same room as the Dalai Lama and I am touched by his benevolent inspiration.
Mulling over the matter of bedtime stories, for a period of quite some weeks after that visit by the Hollywood director, a curious thing happened. Perched on the end of His Holiness’s bed as he lifted a text to read before lights out, he would look down towards me, and perhaps reach out to deliver a reassuring stroke. And as he did, without any effort on my own part, a memory would surface of a visitor who had come to share a particular story, one that would occupy my imagination as I went to sleep that night, and would be perfect to include in a collection of tales for grown-ups.
Why those stories arose at that particular time, and whether or not they were a product of the Buddha’s inspiration is something I will leave to you to decide. Soon you will be as familiar with the people and their stories as I am, dear reader, because they are the stories you now hold in your hands.
So, if you will allow me a suggestion, instead of going to bed with your mobile device tonight, why not leave that source of agitation in another room, and take this book with you instead? Along, perhaps, with a throat-warming mug of cocoa or lemon tea? Summon your fur babies to join you, so they can tune in too, and leave yourself plenty of time—I feel sure that once you have embarked on one of the nugget-sized tales shared on the following pages, you will not want to leave it until you have read it all the way through.
At which point, without entirely leaving the world of each story behind you, bid goodnight to your loved ones, turn out the light, and allow your imagination to remain in the place and time evoked by the tale.
All that remains, dear reader, is for me to offer you the following Tibetan Buddhist blessing: may you have good sleep, auspicious dreams, and may you taste the true nature of reality.
Om mani padme hum!
The Tale of the Toothless Old PeasantOnce upon a time an old peasant man called Yonten lived alone in a remote valley of Ladakh, Northern India. No one knew much about Yonten. He wasn’t connected to any of the dozen families who had smallholdings in the Nala valley. Nor was he attached to the monastery at the top of the mountain. Yonten kept himself to himself, living in his two-roomed hut, tending to his small herd of yaks and goats, and growing barley and potatoes, as was the custom in that part of the world.
Yonten was rarely seen by the locals or the monks, and never invited to join them for a meal or social occasion. This wasn’t only because of his well-known self-sufficiency; it was also because his was not a face you wanted at your table.
An old man—just how old, nobody knew—he had long since lost all the teeth in his mouth, giving his face a caved-in look. His eyes were rheumy. Hair sprouted from his ears in unsightly profusion. Local families and monks kept their distance, their main form of contact being an arm wave from afar—usually towards the great, slanting boulder on the mountainside, beneath which Yonten often sat for protection from the elements, watching over his livestock.
The only thing that everyone knew about Yonten was that whenever they saw him, day or night, and no matter what else he was doing at the time, he was always spinning his prayer wheel while reciting the mantra of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion: Om mani padme hum. Om mani padme hum.
Yonten, like many who lived in the remote mountains, was illiterate. He knew nothing about the Buddha of Compassion apart from what he could remember learning at the feet of his guru, Lama Palden. And he didn’t remember much.
He did know that Chenrezig was the embodiment of the compassion of all the Buddhas. That his radiant white color symbolized purity and power. That, as a consequence, repeating his mantra purified one’s mind and accumulated limitless virtue, thereby awakening one’s own Buddha nature. Most especially, he remembered Lama Palden telling him that if he recited Chenrezig’s mantra enough, the merit created would be sufficient for him to perceive Chenrezig’s Pure Land directly for himself.
Lama Palden had been the last abbot of Nala Monastery. He had died thirty years ago, following which the monastery had gone into a gradual decline, its numbers dwindling to just nine remaining monks, none of whom felt qualified to offer teachings.
So inspiring had Lama Palden been as a teacher, and so unshakable was Yonten in his devotion as a student that, thirty years after his death, Yonten was still doing exactly as his lama had instructed him—reciting the mantra of the Buddha of Compassion at every opportunity.
In the three decades since Lama Palden’s demise, a handful of lamas had visited Nala Monastery to offer blessings and teachings for the benefit of both the monks as well as the local people. Yonten would always attend these occasions, sitting at the very back of the small gompa.
Every two years or so, when a high lama was visiting the nearest significant monastery, Hemis, a full day’s hike away, the monks would lead a small group of locals along the mountains. They would stay at Hemis overnight, attending teachings and ceremonies the following day.
Accommodation at Hemis was limited, which meant that so, too, was the size of the group that could travel there. Visits to Hemis were festive occasions, and because the monks at the local monastery came from families along the valley on whose support they depended, it was always family members who were chosen to accompany them.
On visit after visit, hearing that a trip to Hemis was in the offing, Yonten would present himself at the monastery door and request, with the utmost humility, to be allowed to join the group. On several such occasions, it had been the Dalai Lama himself who had visited Hemis. Like many Tibetan Buddhists, Yonten considered His Holiness to be an emanation of Chenrezig, the Buddha whose mantra he so constantly recited. He believed that the chance to catch even a glimpse of this holy being in the flesh represented the most precious experience to which he could aspire.
Well before these visits, when he went up to the monastery doors, requesting to join the group visiting Hemis, Yonten would undertake three, full-length prostrations to whoever he beseeched. "If you would kindly permit me to join you on this visit," Yonten would beg Kalsang, the only monk known to have read every book at Nala Monastery, "I could go to Chenrezig Pure Land a happy man."
Kalsang would tell Yonten that his request would be considered—alongside that of many other requests received from his neighbors along the valley.
"If you would kindly permit me to join you on this visit," Yonten would plead with Dawa, the only monk who was believed to have attained an accomplished level of meditation at Nala Monastery, "I could go to Chenrezig Pure Land a happy man."
Dawa would tell Yonten that his request would be considered— alongside that of many other requests received from his neighbors along the valley.
But Yonten was never chosen.
On the few occasions that Yonten came up in conversation at the monastery, the monks would mimic his request, always uttered in exactly the same words: "If you would kindly permit me to join you on this visit, I could go to Chenrezig Pure Land a happy man."
Kalsang would shake his head and say, "Poor, old Yonten. Fancy saying that. He can’t even read!"
Dawa would say with a sigh, "Strange toothless fellow. I don’t think he knows the first thing about how to meditate!"
One particular year, word got out that the Dalai Lama would be passing through Hemis imminently on his way to visit a gravely ill lama who was also a dear friend. Even though there was no planned teaching or blessing ceremony, this visit nevertheless presented an opportunity to catch a glimpse of His Holiness as he made his way along the road.
As in the past, Yonten presented himself at Nala monastery door, performed three full-length prostrations to both Kalsang and Dawa, individually, and beseeched them to let him join the traveling party.
As usual, both monks told him that his request would be considered, etcetera, etcetera.
As usual they didn’t have the slightest intention of letting him come.
But something happened to change things. The pregnant wife of one of the pilgrims gave birth unexpectedly early. This meant that her husband, father and father-in-law all decided to stay behind. As did her mother and sister. Although the monks quickly allocated four of the five newly available places, they were still left with one place to fill.
There was no great enthusiasm to invite Yonten, and have to put up with his caved-in face and rheumy eyes and habit of noisily mashing his gums at erratic intervals, a routine as displeasing to the ear as his countenance was to the eye.
But the fact of the matter was that an extra back was needed to help carry the food the party would be eating on its out-bound journey, and bring back supplies of texts and other items the monks typically couriered home from Hemis. Yonten might be old, but he was also wiry, with the stamina of a mountain goat.
It was also true that the local monks weren’t so completely unfeeling they didn’t recognize how much the visit would mean to the old fellow. Feeling the very epitome of munificence, they summoned him to the monastery, told him that he could join the group, and watched him break down in tears of silent joy.
Giving him some time to regain his composure, Kalsang asked, "Have you ever seen a picture of His Holiness?"
"I think once. When I was a child," he replied. Before saying after a pause. "That may have been the thirteenth Dalai Lama."
Kalsang had reached into a drawer and taken out a head and shoulders photograph of His Holiness. "You may keep this as a gift," he said.
Receiving the photograph in both hands, Yonten stared at the image with the most profound devotion. "Today I have received the Buddha’s blessings," said he.
Two days later, before daybreak, Yonten presented himself at the monastery and was loaded up like a pack horse. The canvas rucksack on his back was weighed down with so many metal food bowls and thermoses of butter tea, that he almost fell backwards. It was amazing he could stay upright, let alone move. But he was uncomplaining, and if he wondered why it was that several of the younger and more robust monks were far less encumbered, it was a thought that he kept to himself. All the way along the mountains, his silhouette was like a tortoise walking upright, somehow still able to whirl a prayer wheel, as he continued his practice of murmuring mantras wherever he went.
The party of twenty set off at the brisk pace required to get to Hemis before nightfall. There were occasional stops near mountain springs where they could drink fresh water. The only lengthier break was in the middle of the day when they stopped for lunch.
Relieved of his backpack, Yonten sat on the margins of the group, picking at the frugal meal he had brought to eat for the journey—a boiled potato, cheese and chili. For drink, he made do with water from a nearby stream.
The monks and villagers, meantime, feasted on the food he had helped carry on his back. The monastery kitchen and local families had gone to great lengths to ensure there was plenty of delicious food to nourish the pilgrims on their long journey. Sprawled on the grass, under the shade of a tree, they lounged beside plates loaded with tempting morsels, and took long draughts of butter tea.
While this was happening, one of the locals asked Venerable Kalsang if nirvana, the state of liberation was, like samsara, a physical place. This prompted the monk to offer the following explanation. "Samsara and nirvana are not physical places. They are states of mind. We may think that we live in samsara, because we experience dissatisfaction. But the dissatisfaction isn’t coming from the harshness of living in the mountains, or enduring the winter storms; it is coming from our minds when we perceive these things as causes of suffering. Someone else may experience the same phenomena that we do, but to them they are causes of delight.
"Take this butter tea." He held up his own mug. "To us, it is a nice, refreshing drink. To Westerners, it is a foul, disgusting liquid. To a hungry ghost it would be like pus. To a being from the deva realms, it is like nectar. What does that tell us?"
"That Westerners are like hungry ghosts?" offered one of the party.
They all had a good laugh before Kalsang shook his head. "What it tells us is that all comes from mind. Samsara or nirvana comes from mind. Whether a being is seen as ordinary or a Buddha tells us more about the mind of the perceiver than what is being perceived."
While the travelers discussed this subject amongst themselves, Yonten, who had been listening from a distance, nodded in agreement, smiling at the truth of what Kalsang had said and the clarity with which he had said it.
Looking over at him, it was only when a young boy, Tashi, suggested that the pilgrims might share some of their hearty meal and butter tea with their fellow traveler, that they agreed, spooning some of their leftovers onto a plate, which Tashi took over to the old man.
Yonten consumed the food and drink offered him with noisy appreciation, his table manners every bit as appalling as his fellow travelers had imagined they would be.
When they finally made it to Hemis that night, Dawa showed Yonten to his quarters: the corner of a storage shed round the back of the monastery washing block. The room had no door or window. Dawa handed Yonten two yak skins for a mattress.
It wasn’t until the middle of the next day that the convoy of cars including His Holiness’s approached Hemis Monastery. There was a wave of excitement as, first, a cloud of dust was seen in the distance, followed by the appearance of several four-wheel drive vehicles. The monks from Hemis surged to line the road, as did people from nearby mountains and valleys, all of them holding white scarves, or katags, as was the custom when preparing to meet eminent lamas. The group from Nala valley was among them. Being an outsider, and someone who didn’t push himself forward, Yonten didn’t secure a spot directly at the roadside. Instead, he had to make do standing in the second row, doing his best to catch a glimpse of the Dalai Lama from between the heads of his fellow countrymen.
The Dalai Lama, wishing to be as available to as many people as possible, sat alone in the center back seat of one of the vehicles, with both windows down. Reaching the group of well-wishers, his vehicle reduced speed to slower than walking pace, His Holiness waved and brought his palms together at his heart as he looked from one side to the other, with his famous, beatific smile.
As always, wherever the Dalai Lama goes, the people who flocked to see him were moved in a way for which there are no words. It was as if His Holiness was able not only to see their own Buddha nature, but was somehow also able to reflect back the love and compassion they felt in their hearts. As always there was the knowledge that something special had happened, that they had encountered not only a holy being but one who had revealed to them their own highest nature.
After his convoy had gone by, there was a mood of euphoria and awe, of lightness and wellbeing. Monks and villagers turned to one another in laughter and joy.
No one paid much attention to Yonten, except for Tashi who saw him standing by himself with moist eyes and a rapturous smile. "He is amazing, don’t you think?!" exclaimed Tashi in his piping voice.
Yonten shook his head from side to side as though scarcely able to believe what he had just witnessed. "I never realized that the Dalai Lama had four arms," he said.
Tashi thought this a strange thing to say. His Holiness had two arms—he had seen that for himself. And seeing is believing.
Perhaps the old man was going senile?
Because it was too late to set off home, the pilgrims from Nala were to stay another night at Hemis Monastery. On their way back there, Tashi was walking alongside Kalsang, when he mentioned what Yonten had said to him. Kalsang had given him a very strange look.
"Are you quite sure he said that?" he asked. "Of course."
"You’re not making up stories? "Why would I?"
Squeezing his shoulder, Kalsang took a few steps away from the path, where he could scan the whole group, before spotting Yonten, and making his way towards him.
As Kalsang was well aware, Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, had four arms symbolizing love, compassion, joy and equanimity. If Yonten had seen the Dalai Lama, said to be a living manifestation of Chenrezig, in his purest form, that would make him a practitioner of supreme accomplishment. Certainly more accomplished than any of the monks at Nala Monastery—quite probably any of those at Hemis too!
"So, Yonten—" he approached the old man "—was it good to see His Holiness?"
Yonten was still shaking his head. "I never realized that the Dalai Lama had four arms," he repeated the same words.
"You saw them yourself?" "Didn’t everyone?"
"We all saw His Holiness," replied Kalsang, beginning to recognize just how greatly he and his fellow monks had misjudged the toothless old peasant. And starting to regret, very deeply, their treatment of him.
Remembering how they’d loaded him up like a mule the day before, Kalsang said, "I am sorry we made you carry so much on your back when we came here yesterday."
"Were you not offering the gift of purification?" asked Yonten.
Kalsang remained silent as they continued on the path back to Hemis. When he spoke again he said, "I’m also sorry we didn’t share more of our picnic and butter tea."
"Oh!" Yonten seemed surprised. "I remember being presented with only the most delightful foods and nectars. More than I could possibly eat."
Finally, they reached the storage shed, round the back of the monastery washing block, where Yonten had slept the night before. Kalsang glanced around at the unprepossessing austerity—not so much as a window or even a door, and the feeling of being cast out from where everyone else was staying.
"And I’m sorry they made you sleep here last night. I’ll see to it that you are moved."
"But this is a wonderful place!" enthused Yonten. "I thought you had reserved the best spot for me! This is my celestial mansion. Now I can go to Chenrezig Pure Land a happy man."
So adamant was Yonten that Kalsang didn’t push things further. Except to say, "I will come and fetch you when our evening meal is served."
Returning to the Nala monks, Kalsang told them everything that Yonten had said, before concluding:
"I think the old man was being sincere in his speech. Which means he perceives the purest nature of everything around him."
"But how can an illiterate peasant do that?" asked one of the men. "What does he know of the Dharma?"
"He is not even a monk," objected another. "He has taken no vows or precepts."
"What does he understand about meditation?" asked someone else. "Is he even aware of how to train the mind?"
After much discussion, the nine monks decided they should all go to visit Yonten before supper. That would give them all the chance to question him first hand and listen carefully to his answers.
At twilight, the Nala monks made their way to the shed around the back of the monastery. The sun was setting and the sky was cloudless so that, from one horizon to the other, the sky was a sweep of boundless radiance and clarity, the purity of the mountain light revealing all with a pristine timelessness.
Their footsteps slowing as they approached the shed, a short distance before reaching the open doorway, the small group paused. Taking the lead, Kalsang walked the few remaining steps to the door, stopping just before he reached it.
"Yonten! We are here to collect you!" he called out. There was no response.
"Louder!" urged one of the monks behind him.
Kalsang repeated his greeting in a more commanding voice. To be met, once again, only with silence.
Stepping closer, Kalsang looked through the open door. The corner of the shed, where the yak skins had been placed, seemed empty at first. He glanced all around, and upwards, to check there wasn’t some other place in the shed where the old man might be waiting. But there wasn’t.
"He must have gone somewhere," Kalsang announced, half turning to the group.
As he did so, something caught his eye. On the yak skin were several items of clothing he recognized as belonging to Yonten. And as he looked closer, he could also see the prayer wheel from which Yonten was never separated.
"Wait!" he said, his voice conveying a rare urgency and importance.
The others joined him as he stepped into the shed, took a few steps to the yak skins, and bent over in inspection.
There could be no doubting it. These were the clothes Yonten had been wearing earlier that day. The shoes, pants and jacket. The prayer wheel he held at all times, and the mala—or rosary beads—he kept wound about his wrist. And were those his fingernails scattered on the floor too?
"He said he would go to the pure land of Chenrezig a happy man." It was Dawa, the yogi, who voiced what they all were thinking.
Kalsang brought his palms together at his heart in an act of spontaneous prostration. "It seems like he has done exactly that." That evening, the atmosphere in the dining hall at Hemis monastery was one of a heady exhilaration sensed by every single person in the room. The festive atmosphere that had accompanied His Holiness’s rare appearance that day had been followed by the electrifying news of what had happened to Yonten. Word of his miraculous dissolution had spread through the corridors and temples, the bedrooms and courtyards in an instant.
Nothing so exciting had happened at Hemis monastery—frankly, any monastery in the Himalayas—for years!
The ability of a practitioner to dissolve his gross, physical body into clear light was so rare as to be virtually unheard of. When it had happened in the past, the practitioner had already been a known yogi or highly experienced meditation practitioner.
Yonten didn’t fit that description. In fact, he had shown no sign of possessing any special attainments at all. Yet it seemed that, within the past few hours, he had transferred his consciousness to a very different realm of experience—his goal since the days of Lama Palden.
While it wasn’t customary for the Abbot of Hemis to address monks in the dining hall after they had eaten, there was nothing customary about what was happening today. And, given all the questions and confusion, the feverish speculation and theories about Yonten, which were already beginning to multiply rapidly, the abbot decided now was a time to offer an explanation.
After acknowledging the extraordinary events of the day, and the excitement felt by each one of them—resident monks as well as their visitors—he made his way quickly to the question that lay at the heart of all their conversations that evening.
"How was it possible?" he asked. The abbot, a stockily-built and jovial monk, well-known for his encyclopedic knowledge of the sutras, tantras and commentaries, was also well informed about what was being said in the passages of his own monastery.
"Our tradition places special emphasis on wisdom. Wisdom goes further than mere knowledge. It requires a practitioner to understand and embody that knowledge in their every action of body, speech and mind. Many people are saying today, ‘How could
Yonten make this extraordinary transition, when he couldn’t even read or write?’
"Our teachings also place great emphasis on meditation practice. Without it, how can we begin to understand the true nature of mind? How can we perceive our own gross consciousness, much less experience the nature of our most subtle states of mind? Again, people are saying, "Yonten had no training in any of this. He was a simple man, a peasant farmer. Whatever meditation he may have done was without the benefit of any formal instruction."
"What has happened at Hemis today is truly extraordinary. Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime event. What Yonten has just done is amazing!" His words rang out. "Remarkable!" Then lowering his voice for dramatic emphasis, he said, "We should all rejoice in what Yonten achieved—and what we can learn from him."
The abbot allowed time for his words to sink in, before continuing. "Yonten’s spiritual attainment was made possible because of one thing—his faith: faith not in a belief, or a wish or a dream, but in a process. Instead of ‘faith’ I prefer to call this quality ‘conviction’. "Yonten had complete conviction in the practice shown him by his teacher, Lama Palden. And why should he not? It is a practice that has led millions of beings to enlightenment since the time of the Buddha. A practice available to us all.
Yonten recited the sacred mantra of Chenrezig ceaselessly. He did so for decades repeating the mantra while turning his prayer wheel. In doing this, he engaged his body, speech and mind in a process that drew him closer and closer to Chenrezig.
"It didn’t matter that he couldn’t read—step by step his thoughts were purified by his practice until his whole experience of reality was one of transcendental bliss. He may not have been sitting on a meditation cushion, but what is the Buddhist definition of meditation? ‘The thorough familiarization of the mind with virtue.’ Was this not what Yonten was doing as he walked the mountains, reciting mantras?
"So you see, spiritual attainment does not necessarily depend on great learning or even meditative accomplishment. Whatever our Dharma practice, if we are diligent, with a good heart and strong conviction, we too can be like Yonten.
"Enlightenment is not just for accomplished yogis, or learned monks and nuns. Yonten may have been a simple man, but remember the words of the famous masters Geshe Chengawa and Geshe Acharya Thubten Loden: ‘In the summer observe which becomes greener, the high tops of the mountain or the moist valleys resting below! It is the humble mind that flourishes in the Dharma.’"
Next day, the group from Nala valley, monks and lay people, set off home.
There had been some discussion about what to do with Yonten’s clothes, prayer wheel and fingernails—now considered to be the relics of a holy man. The Nala monks had suggested the relics be left at Hemis Monastery, where Yonten had dissolved into clear light. But the abbot of Hemis instructed them differently. "Take them home and build a stupa, as a constant inspiration to the people of Nala," said he.
When asked where, exactly, the stupa should be built, he had told them, somewhat mysteriously, that the location would become obvious.
Trekking back across the mountains, the small band of pilgrims was still at least an hour away from home when they encountered a small group of fellow countrymen from the Nala Valley. The group began waving and calling out to them, as soon as they came into view. Pretty soon they were joined by others from along the valley.
All were in a similar state of excitement. All urged them to hurry back home as quickly as possible, to witness the most curious phenomenon.
Ever since the afternoon before, they told the returning pilgrims, the boulder where Yonten often used to sit had been shrouded in rainbow-colored lights.
The Nala pilgrims in turn shared their own story of what had happened at Hemis Monastery. At which point everything made special and wonderful sense!
The fatigue of the pilgrims, after a full day’s hike, was no barrier in their wish to return home to witness the rainbow lights for themselves. They strode as fast as their legs would carry them along the mountains, gathering more and more farmers along the way.
As the story of Yonten was told and re-told, and they recognized they were all witnesses to the most extraordinary spiritual attainment, their excitement grew.
Until they reached the place of Yonten’s boulder.
Sure enough, it was still bathed in the most dazzling array of rainbow lights, which emanated and returned into the great rock, seeming to transform the stone itself into the nature of rainbow-colored light. As Yonten’s fellow neighbors from Nala valley and the nearby monastery approached the boulder, something of the transcendent bliss that pervaded the place touched their hearts.
"We made a great error disrespecting Yonten and not being his friend because he couldn’t read or write," Kalsang was the first to confess.
"And because he couldn’t meditate," said Dawa. "And because he was so ugly," chimed a neighbor.
"But none of these is an obstacle to enlightenment," said Kalsang.
"Or to acquainting the mind with virtue," agreed Dawa.
"Or to manifesting a beautiful rainbow body," offered the neighbor.
At this moment, unable to resist the enchantment any longer, young Tashi ran across to the boulder and was caught up in the rainbow lights, dancing and laughing as he felt them ripple through his whole body.
"We build his stupa here?" he asked, jumping up and down on the spot where Yonten used to sit, watching his small herd of yaks and goats.
"A testament to the power of mantra," agreed Kalsang.
If you travel to the Nala Valley in Ladakh today, and ask the local farmers, you, too, can find your way to Yonten’s stupa at the foot of the great, slanting boulder. It is a modest, whitewashed structure that stands beside that very large rock. A memorial to the toothless old peasant who, through the power of mantra, so cultivated his mind that when he looked at the Dalai Lama, he saw not a monk, but the Buddha of Compassion himself. A reminder that sometimes behind the most forbidding of faces abides the purest of hearts.
The Queen's Corgi
This book is being written by royal decree.
Well, sort of.
It all began on my favourite day of the year – the first of the Queen’s annual summer visit to Balmoral Castle in Scotland. We three royal corgis were in a state of high excitement.
Having travelled up from Windsor with the household staff the previous day, we had arrived too late to see the Queen, who had already retired for the evening. Still closeted in a downstairs scullery when the family had left for church that morning, we were released just a few minutes before they were expected home.
The three of us romped through the ground floor, reacquainting ourselves with favourite suntraps and hidey-holes. We snuffled at the hearthrugs on which we had spent many a happy evening toasting ourselves before glowing log fires. We poked our snouts into half-forgotten corners, and raised them inquisitively towards the window, taking in the scents of gorse and heather, evocations of rambling country walks in summers past.
Winston, older than the Queen herself – albeit in dog years – headed with unusual haste towards the drawing room: the scene of his most tantalising discovery to date. It was behind a leather wing chair in the room, five years earlier, that he had come upon an overlooked and entirely uneaten plate of lobster vol-au-vents. He had devoured the snack in minutes. No matter how many unrewarded return visits he made to the room, whenever he turned in its direction the memory of that glorious find would light up his grizzled features.
Margaret, meantime, was trotting through the corridors, ears pointed and eyes alert. Her herding instincts stronger than most royal corgis, and her demand for service absolute, she was especially watchful of the staff. As every liveried helper in the royal household was painfully aware, the slightest infraction or delay could provoke a cautioning nip to the ankles.
I soon found my way to the large bay window in the dining room, and hopped up onto the broad, tartan-cushioned sill overlooking a corner of the garden. Twelve months before, that corner had been Football’s favourite spot. Over the years I had struck up a special friendship with the large, marmalade cat who was a permanent resident of Balmoral. But scanning the landscape I could see no sign of him at present.
The sound of footmen and security heading towards the main entrance had all three of us racing from different parts of the castle as fast as our short legs would carry us. The front door was opened and from it we watched as the familiar convoy of cars approached the castle before slowing to a gracious stop. We scrambled down the short flight of steps. No matter which of the cars the Queen occupied, our canine instincts always led us unerringly to it.
You may very well wonder what it is like to find yourself in the presence of the Queen. Having seen a million of images of her on TV and in the papers, encountering her profile daily on banknotes, coins and postage stamps, it is only natural that you’d be curious to know how it feels to encounter one of the world’s most famous people directly and in person.
Well, my fellow subject, let me enlighten you. When you meet the Queen, she is exactly as you would expect her to be – in appearance, at least. But she has another quality that catches most people by surprise. A quality which no television camera can capture and which few members of the media pack, corralled firmly behind ever-present railings, gets close enough to discover. You see, such is the Queen’s sense of calling that, wherever she goes, she carries with her an almost-tangible expectation that your own deepest wish, like hers, is to serve a greater purpose.
To say that most people are caught unawares by this sensation would be an understatement. Expecting restrained and aloof, when they encounter Her Majesty’s gentle but firm expectation of benevolence, they find themselves wishing – perhaps to their own surprise – to be the best that they can be. To act in accord with their highest ideals. I have witnessed many people who are so taken aback by this unspoken appeal to their own better natures that they’re quite overcome with emotion.
‘Hello, my little ones!’ the Queen greeted us that day as she emerged from the car. Winston and Margaret were red and white Pembrokes, while I had the distinction of a sable-coloured saddle on my back. All three of us rushed about her ankles, our tail stubs wagging frenziedly. We were as delighted to feel her gloved hands patting our necks as she seemed thrilled to see us after more than 24 hours apart.
Soon the whole family was heading inside.
‘Very nice service,’ the Queen remarked as they made their way to the drawing room.
‘Kenneth always has something sensible to say,’ agreed Camilla.
‘Outside the church was a bit worrying,’ observed Charles. ‘How many journalists?’ Tugging at his earlobe, he used much the same tone of voice as if querying a troubling aphid infestation at his rose garden at Highgrove.
‘Twice as many as last year,’ said William.
‘The numbers are growing.’ The Queen was apprehensive.
One of the reasons she so enjoyed these visits to Scotland was the opportunity to get away from the constant prying of telephoto lenses and long-range microphones.
As Her Majesty settled on a sofa, Philip eased himself down gingerly beside her. He looked over at her, with a fiercely protective expression, lips quivering.
‘Bloody journalists!’ he said.
‘One of them called out to Kate wanting an interview,’ announced William.
‘The nerve!’ harrumphed Charles. The church in nearby Crathie had traditionally been a photo opportunity-only venue, with journalists expected to keep their distance.
As the rest of the family sat down, the household staff brought in tea and scones.
‘Well, I shan’t let them spoil my holiday,’ declared Anne. ‘I shall simply ignore them.’
The expressions of the others suggested that this was advice they found difficult to follow.
‘They won’t go away, Gran.’ Unlike the other family members, Harry was sitting on the floor massaging Margaret’s ears as she gazed at him beatifically. ‘Unless,’ he continued, ‘you give them something.’
The Queen, like Margaret, had always had a soft spot for Harry, valuing him as a direct conduit to the younger generation. ‘What might that be?’ she asked.
He shrugged. ‘Not sure. We’d have to come up with something.’
Kate was nodding. ‘Something safe and light-hearted. Something summer-y.’
‘Like who designed your T-shirt?’ joked William.
‘And,’ she responded, ‘whether it was … Made in Britain?’ The last three words were chorused by all the younger royals, having learned, to their cost, the furore that would accompany their purchase of items that weren’t manufactured in the UK – or a Commonwealth country at least.
‘Such a pity the media insist on running page after page of drivel,’ Charles repeated his oft-made observation. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if newspapers did more to share stories and insights that were really meaningful? Things that might help people lead more purposeful lives.’
The Queen glanced over at him, uncertainly. ‘Tricky business, persuading the media to lift their sights from terror and trivia. Every one of us has tried.’
Pushing myself up so that I was balancing on my rear end, I fixed Kate with a pleading expression. She was a soft touch when it came to scones.
There was a pause while the family glanced in my direction. Before Kate said, ‘Well, not every family member.’
‘Genius!’ congratulated Harry. Then, responding to the bafflement of the older royals, ‘We offer the media a story about the royal corgis. Videos and photos. A few words about their personalities. Then they can skedaddle for the summer, leaving us in peace.’
William raised an eyebrow. ‘Worth a try.’
‘We might even get one of the corgis to say something meaningful,’ joked Harry, trying to win his father around.
‘I’m sure Winston would have a great deal to say if he didn’t get sidetracked,’ replied Charles drolly.
Harry pulled a face, and, in a stage whisper, said, ‘Vol-au-vents!’
The family laughed.
‘You can forget Margaret,’ said Anne. ‘Given half a chance she’d leave them all bleeding at the ankles.’
At this point Her Majesty, who had yet to comment on the idea, observed, ‘It would have to be Nelson. He has always been the most diplomatic of the corgis.’
Realising that my attempt to coax a scone out of Duchess Kate was futile – she was not going to do so in front of the Queen – I dropped to the floor and made my way over to Her Majesty.
‘Perhaps you could say something meaningful on our behalf? Something about purpose?’ the Queen enquired looking directly at me.
‘After the life he’s led,’ observed Kate, ‘he could write a whole book.’
‘Splendid idea,’ the Queen replied, smiling. ‘The Queen’s Corgi! One would be most interested to read it.’
And so, in a metaphorical sense, the ball was thrown.
Mulling over the conversation in the glorious days that followed, I began to realize just how true Kate’s observation was. It was a rare week when I didn’t come nose to ankle – if not snout to groin – with the most famous people in showbiz, arts, sports and spirituality. There were few of the world’s most pre-eminent politicians, pop stars or philosophers who weren’t, at some point, ushered into the royal presence. I had sniffed them all, even peed on a few, but let’s not spoil this first chapter by bringing dog-eating despots into it.
Not only had I met a richly varied and colourful range of human beings, along with a great many bores, I had also been witness to extraordinary encounters that most people will never see. I had eavesdropped on intriguing insights from the highest-level advisers, the best of the best, with whom Her Majesty consults.
What’s more, it struck me that the never-ending flow of TV and press coverage, films and books about the royal family had one singular thing in common – they were all from a human perspective. Where was the dog’s-eye view? The under-the-table account? What people discovered about the Queen, from the perspective of her most diplomatic of Pembroke Welsh Corgis would, I had no doubt at all, prove refreshingly different.
So here we are, you and me embarking on this journey together. One filled with intriguing aromas, wagging tail stumps and something else I am supposed to remember. What was it again? Ah, yes – purpose.
What’s the point of it all, people sometimes ask? The crowns and castles. The pomp and circumstance. Why bother? Who cares? How can the royal family possibly add to the sum of human happiness – and, let’s not forget, canine, feline and other -ine happiness too?
Perhaps the answers to some of those questions will be revealed in the pages that follow.
But one thing I am sure of, my fellow subject: it is not by chance that you hold this book in your hands.
From my earliest days I was aware of a place called ‘the shed’. To begin with I had no idea where it was. But on the very rare occasions that the Grimsleys paid me any attention, ‘the shed’ was invoked. And even as a puppy only a few weeks old, I knew instinctively that it was a place where terrible things happened.
I was born into the most humble of circumstances, under the kitchen sink in a cramped terraced house in Slough. The youngest in a litter of five pups, and very much smaller than the others, I soon found myself competing for space and attention not only with my immediate brothers and sisters, who shared a sack in the carcass of what used to be a kitchen cupboard, but also with two older and sturdier litters belonging to other mothers in the house. There were over twenty of us in all.
It was not an even competition. My size counted against me, as did my right ear which, instead of standing, flopped. Desperate for the same affection the Grimsleys bestowed on the other pups, it seemed that my dysfunctional ear rendered me unloveable.
In the rough and ready chaos of discarded pizza boxes and crushed cans of Fosters beer, dirty laundry and the ever-present, pungent aroma of kipper, the house was completely given over to corgis. We were everywhere: under the kitchen bench, where cupboard doors had been removed to create kennels; nesting behind sitting room sofas; suckling and scratching under the Grimsleys’ bed.
On the rare occasion I came to the attention of Mrs Grimsley, she’d jab her cigarette towards me in distaste. ‘Still not standing,’ she’d say with a sigh, exhaling a stream of acrid smoke.
Mr Grimsley, a very large man in worn, denim overalls with watery blue eyes, would stare at me in slack-jawed silence.
‘You’re going to have to take it down the shed,’ Mrs Grimsley would instruct.
‘Give it time,’ Mr Grimsley might say. ‘Perhaps he’s a late bloomer.’
‘That’s always been your problem, Reg.’ Mrs Grimsley’s voice was brittle. ‘Too soft. Waste of Kibbles, that one.’
None of the corgis knew exactly what happened in the shed. Other dogs were said to have been taken there in the past – all of them stunted in some way. The only thing known for certain was that once a corgi went to the shed, it was never seen again.
On Saturday mornings, the Grimsleys would be transformed, Mr Grimsley appearing downstairs first, having squeezed uncomfortably into a dark suit, followed by pencil-thin Mrs Grimsley, all blonde hair and red lipstick, talking in her Kennel Club voice.
‘Are Tarquin and Annabelle in the car?’ she’d want to know. ‘In their show collars? Where’s Tudor’s pedigree?’
A lengthy and restive day indoors for all the dogs would be followed by an even-lengthier evening waiting for the Grimsleys to get home from whichever home county they had visited, usually followed by a lock-in at the local pub, The Crown. Being small and vulnerable, I usually avoided the scamper and tumble of the other corgis, only venturing far from the kitchen cupboard in the reassuring presence of my eldest brother, Jasper.
‘Hurry up, Number Five.’ He’d cock his head playfully, trying to coax me out; I was the only corgi in the house that had no name. ‘There’s a whole week’s laundry to get our teeth into!’
In the early hours of a Sunday morning, Mrs Grimsley would lurch through the front door, Mr Grimsley stumbling after her in his great, dark, tent of a suit, and Tarquin and Annabelle plodding behind, exhausted by a day trapped in cage and car.
‘Don’t you just love corgis?!’ Mrs Grimsley would slump into a chair, grabbing banknotes out of her handbag and tossing them up in the air so that they fluttered, confetti-like, all around her. ‘Eight hundred pounds! And another seven pups as good as sold. Oh, Annabelle, my little darling!’ she’d croon in a way that she never did for me. ‘What a wonder you are!’
One by one, as the older pups reached a certain age, they were taken out to meet their new owners in the nearby park. The Grimsleys avoided having buyers to their home, the front door being hard to access on account of the two Morris Minors rusting on bricks in the driveway. They had been a decaying fixture for as long as anyone knew, awaiting the day that Mr Grimsley began to restore them to classic glory.
On the rare occasion that a visitor unavoidably came to the house, I was hastily shut in the upstairs box room. ‘Ruin our reputation, it would,’ Mrs Grimsley used to declare, ‘having this one seen with its ear. We can’t having people thinking we breed bitsas.’
There could be no harsher condemnation than for a dog than to be described as a ‘bitsa’, as the Grimsleys referred to dogs of uncertain breeding – a bit of this and a bit of that.
As the weeks passed, Mrs Grimsley took more and more of the older dogs to the park, returning alone, an unused lead wrapped around one hand, and bulging wallet in the other. Then my own immediate brothers and sisters began to be sold off. The once-cramped conditions under the kitchen sink became strangely spacious, the reassuring crush of bodies less dense.
As I became more and more visible, I was the focus of the same, sinister conversation. Mrs Grimsley’s demand that I be taken to the shed became increasingly shrill. Mr Grimsley dropped all talk of me being a late bloomer.
‘I’ll see to it,’ he’d promise her, darkly.
One day I turned to Jasper and asked what Mr Grimsley meant.
‘Hard to guess, Number Five, but I wouldn’t worry about it.’ He looked away. ‘According to our mother, he’s been saying he’ll see to the two Morris Minors since the time of our great-grandparents.’
I knew Jasper was trying to be reassuring. But I could sense his disquiet.
And Mrs Grimsley wasn’t letting go. Things reached an all-time low the afternoon that she returned alone from having taken Jasper himself to the park, with the rolled-up lead in one hand and an envelope in the other. I realised what had happened but still stared foolishly at the front door as though I could somehow will my big brother back to the house. Eventually I looked up. Mrs Grimsley was staring at me with an expression of cold determination.
‘It’s no good, Reg!’ She shouted to her husband, who was coming down the stairs. ‘You’re going to have to take it down the shed.’
‘Gone on long enough.’ She was insistent. ‘Today!’
‘I’m just on my way out –’
‘Alright.’ He flapped his heavy arms in surrender. ‘Alright. When I get back from The Crown.’
‘I’ll hold you do it.’
‘I’ll see to it then.’
Returning to the cupboard under the kitchen sink, I slumped down in a state of abject misery. Even though it was hard being a stunted, unloved corgi in a house filled with bright-eyed pedigrees who were lavished with affection, I preferred staying where I was than to having to face the unknown horror at the bottom of the garden.
Mrs Grimsley was watching Eastenders in the front room when the there was a knocking at the door.
‘Who is it?’ she called from the hallway.
‘I’ve come about a corgi!’ A woman’s voice sounded clear and authoritative.
‘Hang on a minute.’
Finding me in the kitchen, Mrs Grimsley closed the door firmly before going to greet her visitor.
‘I hear you may have a puppy for sale –’
‘All gone,’ interrupted Mrs Grimsley briskly. ‘I can put you on the waiting list. We’re expecting a litter next month.’
‘This particular puppy,’ said the other woman, ‘has a floppy ear.’
There was a pause while Mrs Grimsley inhaled.
‘Don’t know where you heard that,’ she pronounced smokily. ‘The pedigree of our corgis is impeccable.’
‘I’m quite sure it is.’ The other woman seemed altogether unruffled by her reaction.
‘We don’t breed duds,’ insisted Mrs Grimsley.
‘A floppy ear is only a problem if you plan to show. We have no such plans.’
‘Don’t know where this tittle tattle comes from.’
‘Mr Grimsley, actually. At The Crown.’
‘The bloody idiot!’ screeched Mrs Grimsley in a voice that was definitely not Kennel Club.
‘Look.’ The other woman’s voice was firm. ‘I’ll pay you a thousand pounds for him.’
The pause that followed didn’t last very long before I heard the sound of approaching footsteps. The kitchen door being opened. For the first time since I was a very new puppy, Mrs Grimsley picked me up. ‘He’s actually our little favourite,’ she crooned in a voice she’d never used before with me – the one she only adopted when cuddling her favourites. As she turned, I found myself looking into the kindly face of a very beautiful woman in her late thirties. I pricked up my ears – well, the left one, and half of the right.
‘Good.’ The woman reached into her handbag and retrieved a clip of crisp, new banknotes, which she held out.
Mrs Grimsley looked at the notes only briefly before taking them in her right hand, and thrusting me into the visitor’s arms.
‘Promise not to say where you got him,’ she demanded, in her smoker’s voice.
‘I never want to hear of him again.’
I immediately felt safe in the arms of the visitor. As she held me to her chest in a manner that suggested she was used to holding dogs, along with a faint scent of lavender I sensed a calm reassurance that couldn’t be more different to Mrs Grimsley.
‘If you mention me –’ Mrs Grimsley was following us out of the house ‘– I’ll deny all knowledge. I’ll say you’re a lying toerag.’
‘Oh, you needn’t trouble yourself on that score, Mrs Grimsley,’ said the woman, stepping across the short front yard and into the street. ‘I’m quite happy to forget that we ever met.’
The drive from the Grimsleys’ terrace house in Slough to Windsor Castle wasn’t a long one. Fewer than twenty minutes in the car separated what was to become my new life from my old. But even though I was in a dog carrier in the back of a car – both unfamiliar experiences – driven by a woman who was a complete stranger, I felt a powerful sense of relief; compared to being taken down to the shed, it couldn’t be as bad.
I won’t pretend to remember much of my first arrival at Windsor Castle. In the twilight it was all a confusion of gates and security checks and dark passages smelling of beeswax until, all of a sudden, I was in a spacious, red-carpeted hallway, hung with paintings and lit by chandeliers. My rescuer, who I discovered was called Lady Tara, the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, walked purposefully along the hallway, with me still in the carrier, before making her way up a staircase.
This was nothing like the stairs I was used to. Not only were they very much wider and more luxuriously carpeted, there was not a single pile of unwashed laundry, nor even a crushed beer can to be seen. Nor was there the faintest tang of kipper. My first impression of the castle was also how vast the rooms were. And how empty of corgis.
I was suddenly somewhat startled by a soldier, armoured in ancient chain mail, who was standing at attention on the staircase landing. And somewhat surprised that Tara completely ignored him, brushing past him as if he wasn’t there.
After walking along another broad corridor, similarly void of dogs, Tara took me into a suite of rooms before coming to a door that was slightly ajar. Reaching into the carrier, she lifted me out, before knocking gently.
We walked across a very large room, at the other side of which a short, silver-haired woman was working at her desk. The room had dark, wood-panelled walls, the only light coming from a desk lamp, which glowed warmly, illuminating the woman’s features. Even at first glance, my fellow subject, I knew there was something different about her. Something that set her apart. It didn’t have to do with her appearance so much as an invisible – but no less tangible – sense of presence.
As soon as she saw us approaching, she rose to her feet.
‘So, this is him?’ she asked, coming to meet us.
Him, I noted, not the it by which Mrs Grimsley had always referred to me.
Stepping closer, the lady I would soon learn was the Queen beamed as she reached out to stroke my head. ‘Handsome little chap. Beautiful markings.’
I responded to her attention by pricking up one and a half ears.
‘Oh, I see. Gives him such character, don’t you think?’
Too young to understand exactly what she meant, I knew from her tone of voice that the Queen seemed to be saying that my floppy ear was a good thing. What an utterly amazing and wonderful idea! I was immediately licking her hand.
She chuckled. ‘Friendly little fellow.’
‘Hard to believe what they were planning to do to him,’ observed Tara.
‘Yes, but we shouldn’t judge,’ replied the Queen. ‘Not everyone enjoys our circumstances.’
In the pause that followed I wondered what those plans had been, beyond my being taken to the shed. It would be months before I discovered the full story and how, the moment that Tara told Her Majesty about my impending fate at the hands of Mr Grimsley, she had been dispatched to rescue me.
‘I’m sure he’s going to settle in very well,’ said the Queen.
‘Would you like me to take him down to join the others?’
‘He’s probably had enough to deal with for one day. He can stay with me tonight,’ Her Majesty said with a nod, before turning back towards her desk.
It took me a while to realise that I had a new home. A permanent one. It seemed quite surreal that instead of the kitchen cupboard, I had been transported to this strange place with its empty rooms and not a whiff of cigarette smoke, much less stale beer.
Taking me to the private sitting room next door, Tara produced a bowl of food more delicious than even the finest the Grimsleys used to serve to their champion pedigrees. I wolfed it down in short order, and took a few laps of water. A very comfortable basket was brought for me to sleep in. I gathered that the sitting room was where I was to remain for the time being.
My feelings about this new place were strangely mixed. My initial relief was soon followed by acute loneliness – for the first time in my life I was without a very large and extended family, and, most especially, without Jasper. As a very small, underdeveloped pup, on my very first night away from home, I wished I could be back in familiar surroundings –without the threat of the shed, of course.
Tara looked in on me several times that evening, always dependably comforting, as did several men I came to know, both individually and collectively, as ‘security’.
Nevertheless, I was feeling quite bereft by the time I heard the Queen saying goodnight to a man called Philip. As soon as she came through the door, I jumped out of my basket and hurried over to her, tail stump wagging. She bent down and made a great fuss of me, before coming over to pick up the basket, which she took through to her bedroom, placing it near the side of her bed.
I watched her return later in her bedclothes. Sitting up against the pillows she closed her eyes, and for quite some time remained silent.
Her Majesty, I soon came to realise, is a deeply spiritual person. Not in a way that feels the need to be voiced, but one, rather, that is implicit in her actions. Not in a narrow, exclusive sense, but founded on personal experience of our own true nature, one that goes well beyond the limits of ordinary conception.
By the time she switched off the light, a peacefulness had descended not only on her, but on the whole room.
‘Welcome to Windsor, little one,’ she whispered in the dark, to reassure me. ‘And goodnight.’
The reassurance worked.
For a while.
Then the pitch blackness of the room, the unfamiliar sounds echoing through the castle corridors, the lack of half a dozen other corgis pressed close to me under the kitchen sink, and the absence of the pong of kipper, made me feel somehow alone and adrift.
The Queen shushed me.
I was quiet for a while. Before I whimpered again.
‘We can’t have this,’ said the Queen, getting out of bed, and lifting me up on top of it.
Back at the Grimsleys, only the champion pedigrees used to sleep with the humans. And even though at that point I had no idea who Her Majesty was, I still realised I was being accorded a very special privilege.
Snuggling close, I thought how it was through her doing that I had been rescued from the Grimsleys. How it was she who was giving me a new home. How she cared for me even though I had a floppy ear – perhaps even because of it. Gratitude surging through me, and I showed my love in the way that we dogs know best: I licked her face.
‘Oh, no!’ she chuckled, wriggling away.
Thinking she wanted to play, I wriggled after her.
‘If this carries on –’ her tone had changed ‘– I’ll have to take you downstairs.’
Downstairs was not a place I had any wish to be, so, instead, I settled halfway down the bed. Which was how, my fellow subject, on my first night away from under the Grimsleys’ kitchen sink, I slept with the Queen of the United Kingdom.
In the days that followed I learned more about the world than I could ever have imagined. I was fortunate to have as my mentor, the life-long and most faithful companion to the Queen, Winston. I met him and Margaret on my very first morning when we were all fed breakfast in the staff kitchen, where the royal corgis were traditionally fed, and from which we were allowed into the staff garden to answer the call of nature. As it happened, my naivety about royal protocol served me well. Coming from a house full of corgis, as soon as I saw them I wasted no time in introducing myself by sniffing their backsides, my tail stump wagging vigorously.
Margaret, who had no time for stand-offish blue-bloods who thought rather a lot of themselves, decided on that first meeting that I was a corgi she could do business with. Winston, at the advanced age of twelve, saw in me a younger version of himself and had soon adopted me as his protégé.
It was he who patiently explained the facts of my new life.
‘Strange name for a person, “The Queen”,’ I observed that first morning at Windsor Castle.
‘It’s not a name, it’s a title,’ he corrected me. Having started the day with a hearty breakfast of biscuits, the two of us were snuffling round our breakfast bowls in the hope of finding a displaced morsel.
‘Title.’ I pondered for a bit. ‘You mean like “Champion Pedigree”?’
‘Indeed.’ Discovering a fragment of biscuit near the skirting board, Winston had quickly licked it into his mouth and was crunching with immense satisfaction. ‘The Queen is the pre-eminent of all champion pedigrees. She is a direct descendent of William the Conqueror – 1066 and all that.’
I didn’t know what he meant exactly. Or, even, at all. And a pedigree of a thousand years was quite beyond my comprehension. Up till then I had no idea that pedigrees applied to humans, but Winston assured me that they did. My rescuer Tara was a blue blood, he explained, because she had ‘Lady’ in front of her name. Thinking about the Grimsleys, I came to realise how they were almost certainly ‘bitsas’ – an idea that made my head spin.
‘Does the Queen have a real name?’ I continued to parade my ignorance that first morning.
‘It’s “Elizabeth”,’ he said, ‘but no one outside the family has actually called her that since she became Queen. Well, there was one person.’
I looked at him enquiringly.
‘That African fellow. Margaret –’ he looked up to where she sat, ears alert, watching the sous chef whose job it was to feed us ‘– what’s the name of that African president, the one who was overly familiar.’
‘Who?’ She pretended not to have been listening. I could tell she was just being officious and knew exactly who he was talking about.
‘The one with the loud shirts,’ he continued.
‘That’s him. He called her Elizabeth. Don’t think she minded so much in his case.’
My mind was bursting with questions. ‘Apart from having a title is she just like other humans?’
Winston snorted. I came to know that this most Winstonian of characteristics – somewhere between a sigh and a cough – could mean any number of things: surprise, amusement, outrage or, as at the moment, a combination of world weariness with a sense of profound wisdom.
‘She is and she isn’t,’ he answered after a while.
I was to learn that Winston sometimes spoke in riddles. He was the kind of dog happy to point you in a particular direction, but who preferred you to work things out for yourself.
‘She has a human body, but she was born into extraordinary position and power. You don’t think that happened by chance, do you?’
The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t thought about it at all. The idea of being a Queen was an entirely new concept to me.
‘She is by far the best informed person in Britain.’ Margaret glanced across as the sous chef made his way out of the room. ‘For over sixty years she has been regularly briefed by intelligence agencies, the military, bankers, prime ministers … the most powerful people in the land.’
‘Since time immemorial her family have been the knowledge holders of all the esoteric traditions of Celtic culture –’ a far-away look came into Winston’s eye ‘– handed down through the generations. At the top end of a fishbowl, everyone knows all the concepts. Some embody the dark, and others the light.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘These things,’ he said mysteriously, ‘are better seen than explained. Keep your wits about you. Look sharp.’
There was a pause while I digested both my breakfast as well as the intriguing reality in which I had found myself.
There was another question I just had to ask. ‘Why all the red carpets?’
‘Why indeed,’ intoned Winston.
‘Red is the colour of royalty.’ Margaret was matter-of-fact. ‘Of strength and power.’
‘It is also the symbol of bloodlines and lineage,’ observed Winston.
‘Champion pedigrees?’ I confirmed.
‘Yes.’ He regarded me closely, scrutinising my features as though trying to make up his mind about something, before finally saying, ‘For those who embody the esoteric path, the same energies may return to the same bloodlines.’
This was a great deal for a corgi new to the household – and a pup at that – to try to understand.
‘Well,’ I mused after a while, ‘does all this mean that are we unlike other corgis?’
‘Of course!’ exclaimed Margaret. ‘We are Her Majesty’s representatives.’
‘Ours is not so much a position,’ intoned Winston, ‘as a sacred duty. World without end.’
‘Amen.’ Margaret, finished off, with a lick of the lips.
Winston and Margaret explained that even though we were the Queen’s corgis, I shouldn’t expect to spend much time with her every day. A relentless calendar of activity meant that for much of the year she had little time to herself. But she would try to include us in as many of her activities as possible.
As it happened, that very first morning we were with Her Majesty when she received a visitor – my first witness of a royal audience. I watched in fascination as Lord Cranleigh entered the room and approached where the Queen was standing, the three of us at her feet. Margaret bared her teeth ever so slightly as the large, tall, silvering man in the dark suit came closer, before bowing very deeply.
‘How do you do?’ The Queen extended her hand for the briefest handshake, before gesturing towards a chair.
The two of them sat, joined by the sovereign’s private secretary, a genial man called Julian. Tea was brought in, and a discussion followed about Her Majesty’s forthcoming visit to the Lake District.
Taking my cue from Winston and Margaret, I lay down on a nearby oriental carpet of great antiquity. While the two other corgis dozed through what, for them, was just another day at the office, I rested my face between my front paws and watched the Queen intently.
Something about the atmosphere of the room – of the whole castle – felt special and otherworldly. Later I was to discover that it was the oldest and longest-occupied castle in Europe. Its history was almost tangible, along with the design of this room with its very high ceilings, tall windows and sumptuous fittings. A very large chamber lit only by the light of the window, and picture lamps that blazed above large, gilt-framed oil paintings of the Queen’s ancestors, there was the sense of being in an inner sanctum, a place from which you could experience an unusually rarefied view of the world. In time I came to know that the feeling didn’t actually come from castle or its fittings – it came from the presence of Her Majesty. And it was a presence she encouraged others to share.
I discovered this for myself on that very first morning when conversation took a sudden turn in my direction. Arrangements for the Lake District having been duly discussed, the Queen rose to her feet, thus signalling to Lord Cranleigh that his audience was over. As the two men made their way to the door, the Queen stood. Winston and Margaret roused themselves and went to see them off. I followed.
‘Ah – a third corgi!’ observed Lord Cranleigh.
Julian glanced in my direction. ‘Joined us only last night.’
‘The ear,’ the Lord murmured under his breath as the two men reached the door.
‘What’s that?’ Her Majesty’s hearing was much more acute than many imagined.
‘I was just saying …’ Lord Cranleigh turned, struggling to find the right form of words ‘… your new corgi’s ear …’
‘Well, it’s not sort of … it isn’t entirely … the way it’s presenting …’
‘What of it?’
‘Well, it’s just that all your other dogs being normal, I’m a bit … surprised.’
‘His hearing is just as good as the others. He’s quite normal.’
‘Quite so, ma’am,’ Lord Cranleigh agreed very quickly.
‘Being young, he’s in need of reassurance.’ The Queen took a few steps towards where the men were standing. ‘If we want him to grow up happy and well adjusted, he needs our affection and support. That’s what really matters.’ She spoke deliberately. ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Lord Cranleigh?’
‘Of course, ma’am. Without question.’
‘It’s important not to get sidetracked by the superficial.’
‘When we make judgements about things based on appearance, instead of on what really matters, we get into trouble.’ She was holding Lord Cranleigh’s eyes firmly, but not without warmth. ‘Our own well-being and the well-being of those around us depends on being guided by the right priorities, wouldn’t you agree?’
‘Absolutely, ma’am. Quite so.’
Julian ushered Lord Cranleigh out of the room and we three corgis made our way back to the Queen.
Winston sidled up to me. ‘That wasn’t about you, by the way.’
‘Her Majesty is always well briefed about visitors.’
‘It sounded like it was about me.’ I was bewildered.
‘All in good time,’ he said, enigmatically. ‘Look sharp.’
Early that evening there was an award ceremony for The Prince’s Trust in the Waterloo Chamber – a room usually closed to the public, Margaret told me, as we accompanied Sophia from the Queen’s quarters to the chamber.
Sophia shared an office with the Queen’s lady-in-waiting, and helped arrange the charitable engagements of senior members of the royal family. While Tara, the epitome of English beauty, was always immaculately dressed with perfectly coiffed blonde hair and an aura of calm self-assurance, Sophia, a few years younger, was more vivacious and impulsive. Her dark good looks and high spirits livened up the atmosphere at the palace, and it was clear that the two women enjoyed a warm friendship.
There was something enigmatic about Tara, however, which Sophia saw as her job to resolve: the absence of a boyfriend. Despite being showered with invitations to social events every night of the week, apparently, for some reason, whenever Tara became involved with an eligible man, the relationship never lasted.
As soon as Sophia announced she was going to the Waterloo Chamber, Winston had sprung from where he’d been dozing beside her desk.
‘Winston is very keen on award ceremonies,’ I observed to Margaret as the two of us followed.
‘Not the ceremony. It’s what happens afterwards. Young ones always think they’re being very daring when they sneak canapés to the Queen’s corgis. Winston takes full advantage.’
The Waterloo Chamber was magnificent, a huge wood-panelled room with an ornate, vaulted ceiling, red-and-gold carpets and massive oil paintings in gilded frames. A steady stream of visitors were pouring in, young men awkward in suits and ties, and young women teetering on heels evidently bought especially for the occasion. Glancing about, they seemed overawed by the majesty of the place as they were guided towards rows of chairs.
For my own part, it was my first, public appearance as a Queen’s corgi – one for which I was entirely unprepared. From having been the very least important dog in a house of over twenty, and painfully aware of my inadequacies, suddenly I felt very special. There was a ripple of excitement as soon as people saw the three of us strutting across the carpet. Many smiled and pointed. Others tried to coax us to them. From being an outcast only the day before, about to be taken to the terrifying fate of whatever awaited me in the shed, suddenly I was a star! ‘We are Her Majesty’s representatives,’ Margaret had said. Now I understood exactly what she meant! The simple fact of our presence made people feel closer to the Queen herself, giving them the sense that she might step into the room at any moment.
I kept hard on the heels of Sophia and, along with Winston and Margaret, sat next to her in the front row of seats, near a small stage on which several council members of The Prince’s Trust faced the audience. They were, Margaret told me approvingly, all highly successful businessmen.
One of them, a bouncy looking man with a mane of silver hair, was soon opening proceedings by introducing, as a VIP guest, a leading expert on happiness.
‘Oh, spare us!’ snorted Winston. ‘A speaker.’
‘I’d like to congratulate every single one of you who is here this evening,’ began the visiting expert, a friendly-looking man with short, dark hair and glinting spectacles, who spoke with what I later discovered to be an Australian accent.
‘Each one of you has not only found your way out of unemployment, but you have completely turned your lives around. Tonight is a celebration of that achievement.’
Several Prince’s Trust committee members applauded enthusiastically.
‘What I’m here to talk about this evening is the more important question underlying what we all do. It’s a question each one of us has to answer in his or her own particular way. But there are some common threads. The question I am talking about is: how can we lead happy and purposeful lives?’
From the silence in the room, the speaker evidently had everyone’s attention.
‘The ancient Greeks didn’t have just one word for happiness, they had two: hedonia and eudemonia. It’s unfortunate that, in everyday English, we no longer make the same distinction because there’s an important difference. Hedonia is happiness we get when we take from the world. Chocolate. Parties. Stuff. It’s all coming from outside ourselves.
‘Eudemonia, on the other hand, is the happiness we get from what we give to the world. The concern we show for others when we offer our time, skills, support. It’s a different quality of happiness that comes from within.’
The VIP expert went on to talk about how the two kinds of happiness differ. How hedonia focuses on me and the pleasure I get. How the focus of eudemonia is on others, and the happiness we experience from helping them. How hedonia tends to be short-lived, and the more we experience it, the less it delivers. ‘The first slice of cake is one thing,’ he observed. ‘How about the second, the fifth, the tenth?’
At Sophia’s feet, Winston was fidgeting. ‘Amateur!’ he snuffled. ‘But I take his point.’
By contrast, the inner contentment of eudemonia is more enduring, the speaker noted. And that feeling is not diminished by repetition. If anything, the more we keep giving, the more profound our sense of well-being.
I found the visiting expert’s talk very interesting. Enlightening, even. I had never heard such ideas expressed in the time I’d been growing up in the Grimsley household. The lives of Mr and Mrs Grimsley, it was plain to see, were given over completely to hedonia. Hardly surprising, therefore, that they were often so miserable, and the only solace they seemed to find was an altered state of consciousness courtesy of the Crown.
‘Go for both!’ urged the speaker at his conclusion. ‘Enjoy the pleasures of this world, but don’t neglect your inner well-being. Don’t be seduced into believing that there’s some direct connection between the material world and your own feelings of contentment. If well-being is what you want – and it’s what we all want – paradoxically to achieve that you should try to focus on the well-being of others.’
Later that evening, we three corgis retired with the Queen and Philip to a private sitting room, where the royal couple were soon engrossed in books they had recently obtained from the City of Westminster’s traveling library. Our bellies were full – in Winston’s case, with a great many honey-and-mustard cocktail sausages. Coals glowed in the fireplace. A sense of peace pervaded the room. This was to become one of my favourite times in the circadian rhythm, with the activities of the day behind us and the Queen to ourselves.
Three baskets had been laid out to one side of the fireplace, two of them furnished with well-worn, tartan rugs, the third, newly installed for me. Following the example of the other corgis, I stepped into ‘my’ basket and lay down, trying to get comfortable. It was snug and protected, with just the right amount of cushioning. I could see both my fellow corgis and our human companions. The room was perfectly cosy. But something was lacking.
Getting out of my basket I made my way towards Winston’s. Watching me, I could tell he knew what I hoped for. As he showed no objection, I climbed in and curled up next to him.
The Queen and Phillip exchanged glances as I felt the warmth of his body next to mine. This was what I needed. The comfort of corgi.
‘Tell me, Winston, how did you get your name?’ I asked, sleepily.
‘Ah, dear boy, how we get our names.’ He sighed. ‘One single name can mean so many different things. There are outward meanings and inner, esoteric meanings …’
I thought he was going to leave me in a state of deep and continuing mystery but I really didn’t mind because he’d called me ‘dear boy’, and I was warm with the glow of acceptance. But from the basket next door, Margaret said, ‘We royal corgis are all named after national leaders. In Winston’s case, it was his courageous defence of Queen and country that gave him his name.’
‘Well,’ he said pensively, ‘that was part of it.’
‘Do tell!’ I urged him.
‘We were with Her Majesty on a beach near Balmoral,’ he told me, chest rising, ‘minding our own business and enjoying the weather. Suddenly two Rottweilers appeared from nowhere and raced towards us. I bared my teeth and went on the attack.’
‘Rottweilers?’ I couldn’t believe he’d take on two huge, powerful dogs with such fearsome reputations. ‘Did you see them off?’
‘Security stepped in,’ he said. ‘But I showed the Queen how far I’d go. I’d fight them on the beaches.’
In the basket next door, Margaret cleared her throat. ‘There’s that other story too,’ she said.
‘Another?’ I wondered if Winston had also pursued German Shepherds in the fields? Or bared his fangs at Dobermanns in the streets?
Margaret was quick to disillusion me. ‘He has a penchant for cigar stubs,’ she said.
‘A misunderstanding,’ insisted Winston. ‘I was trying to get to some pizza. One of the staff had dumped the contents of an ashtray on top of it.’
‘Uh-huh.’ Margaret sounded unconvinced.
‘And you, Margaret?’ I intervened, not wishing a pleasant moment to turn ugly. ‘How did you come to be named?’
‘For my constant vigilance in the service of the Queen,’ she replied snippily.
‘That’s one way of putting it,’ chortled Winston. ‘The real story is that she attacked a famous trade union leader at a garden party.’
‘Only a nip to the ankles.’
‘There was a lot of blood.’
‘Well, it was downright theft,’ she snapped. ‘He’d stuffed his overcoat pockets full of apple Danishes.’
There was a moment while I imagined the trade union leader, limping across the lawns of Buckingham Palace, his coat pockets filled with contraband pastries and socks drenched in blood. The Rottweilers halting in their tracks on the beach. Winston snuffling for pizza in the midst of burned-out cigars.
‘I wonder what I’ll end up being called,’ I mused.
It was a while before Winston answered. ‘These things aren’t usually rushed.’
‘Nor should they be,’ chimed Margaret.
Winston exhaled sleepily, while I closed my eyes, snuggling up closer.
‘Quite so,’ said he.
Dozing in our baskets, I reflected on all that had happened during that eventful day. The meeting with Lord Cranleigh that morning and what the Queen had told him. The psychologist that evening, and how he’d made the same distinction between outer and inner.
The more I mulled it over, the more it occurred to me how both of them seemed to be saying the same thing. The Queen used plain words, but I recognised now that when she’d said we shouldn’t confuse outward appearance with inner qualities because our well-being depended on it, she had been hinting at a much deeper truth. One with an importance going well beyond the floppy ear of a single corgi, but that most certainly included me too. Because it was thanks to the Queen’s understanding about the true cause of happiness that she had dispatched Tara to my rescue when she’d heard what I faced at the hands of Mr Grimsley. Tara’s neighbour’s daughter, having just been to The Crown, had repeated to Tara over the fence what she’d just heard Mr Grimsley saying. Tara, in turn, had told Her Majesty. Acting on her concern for others – in this case me – the Queen had been engaged in the pursuit of eudemonia.
Glancing up from the book she was reading, for a moment her eyes met mine – and she smiled. Curled next to Winston, I wagged my stump. It didn’t matter to the Queen that my ear was floppy, and so for the first time that I could ever remember, nor did it matter to me. Inner qualities, not outer appearances. If this was what well-being felt like, I pondered, I looked forward to enjoying more of it.
In the weeks that followed, I adjusted to my new life as a royal corgi. And my new homes. Palaces and castles with large rooms containing not a single corgi quickly began to seem the norm. I became familiar not only with the royal family, but with the household staff who attended them. It wasn’t long before I had been the Queen’s corgi for longer that I had been the Grimsleys’, and my unfortunate start in life began to recede to nothing more than an unhappy memory. Which, I thought, was where the Grimsleys would remain.
But, my fellow subject, I was mistaken.
One morning we three corgis were in the lady-in-waiting’s Buckingham Palace office, in a favourite sunspot on a sumptuous rug between the desks of Tara and Sophia. Tara was going through the day’s mail when she snorted in a most unladylike way.
‘Seriously?!’ she exclaimed, pushing back her chair, unable to resist stepping over to share a particular letter with Sophia. All three of us looked up as Sophia quickly scanned the letter.
‘Outrageous!’ she agreed, her gypsy eyes flashing.
Both ladies looked directly at me.
The letter was from Mrs Patricia Gwendolyn Grimsley. She had been watching TV news, and the coverage of a charity function, when she noticed that one of ‘her’ corgis had joined the royal household. She and her husband, loyal Kennel Club members, were pleased to see their dearest, all-time favourite puppy had been acquired by Her Majesty. How, they wished to know, should they apply for a Royal Warrant, now that they were established as purveyors of corgis to the Queen’s household?
‘Never wanted to hear from me again!’ Tara was indignant. ‘The nerve of the woman!’
‘Oh, you’ll have to reply,’ Sophia’s eyes sparkled mischievously. ‘Sign your letter “Lying Toerag, Her Majesty’s lady-in-waiting”.’
The two women burst out laughing.
‘Didn’t she make you promise never to say where you got him?’ asked Tara.
‘She did. Solemnly.’ Tara returned to her desk. ‘Which makes my decision easy.’
Leaning forward under her desk, she fed the letter into a shredder which whirred noisily.
‘The only royal treatment she deserves is a one-way trip to the Tower of London.’
‘The Queen can send people to the Tower?’ I turned to the other corgis, instantly sensing a reputation as sinister as the shed.
‘She can.’ Margaret’s eyes glowed with fervour.
‘But doesn’t,’ confirmed Winston.
Well, I thought, that’s what makes Her Majesty different from Mrs Grimsley.
It was not long after this that a very different item of correspondence arrived, one which Tara had no hesitation showing the Queen. It consisted of a single, but extraordinary photograph of an elephant silhouetted at sunset, and had been sent from Africa by Anthony Cranleigh, son of the lord. Along with the photograph was a short, handwritten note, which Tara read aloud as Her Majesty admired the photograph.
‘Your Majesty, I am quite sure this will never reach you, but I just wanted to write it anyway to express my heartfelt thanks. All through my teenage years I wanted to be a wildlife photographer, but my father kept insisting this wasn’t a ‘proper’ job, and that I should follow him into investment banking instead. Something you said to him recently made him change his mind. I don’t know what it was, but it has allowed me to follow my dream, for which I am truly grateful. I would like you to have this photograph from my first visit to Kenya.’
‘Very nice,’ said the Queen, gazing at the photograph.
Winston and I exchanged a glance.
‘So, that was what that whole thing was about? My floppy ear? Being guided by the right priorities?’
‘Look sharp,’ said he.
The Dalai Lama's Cat and the Four Paws of Spiritual Success
PrologueAre you curious, dear reader? If you were to find yourself padding past an alcove concealed by a curtain, would your every instinct be to tug back the fabric—or, indeed, push under it—to see what lay behind?
Making your way down a familiar street, if you came to a door which, for your entire existence, had been closed, but today was ajar, would you pause to take a good, long peek inside? Or at the very least, steal a sideways glance? And if that door led to a mysterious corridor which, in turn, opened onto a secret courtyard, or perhaps a lamplit room filled with intriguing artefacts, might you be tempted to venture inside?
Oh, there’s no need to reply. I already know your answer. That’s something we have in common, you and I. You are not the kind of reader—and I am most certainly not the kind of cat—satisfied by mundane routine. We have inquiring minds, do we not? We ask questions. Discover things. Leave a newly emptied cardboard box in the middle of a room, and we will be the first to jump inside it.
And I’m not merely being literal. As you will also have assumed. Which is another thing we have in common, you and I—the wish to have fun while exploring possibilities of the greatest profundity. Why communicate on a single level, pray tell, when you can do so on two levels simultaneously? Where’s the joy in that?
Of all the subjects about which we’re curious, the one that makes our tails tingle and whiskers positively quiver is, of course, the one that concerns our ultimate purpose, our deepest wellbeing. What are our destinies, dear reader, and how may we affect them in this lifetime and whatever follows? Is it true that the nature of our mind is radiant, boundless and serene? If so, how do we go about experiencing this extraordinary reality?
There are different places a cat might seek out answers to such questions. One such venue, a place teeming with great wisdom, is The Himalaya Book Café, one of my favorite places in the world. A short distance down the road from Namgyal Monastery, where I live with His Holiness, the bookshelves of this delightful emporium offer a treasure trove of spiritual and esoteric reading. Among the many titles, you will discover global bestsellers along the lines of: The Six Laws of This, The Seven Habits of That or The Eight Rules of The Other.
Just looking at them puts me in the mood for a nap. How much effort would it take to plough through all those earnest volumes, I sometimes wonder? To try to remember all that they contain? Then to apply the laws, habits and rules to one’s own life? Do people actually go through life constantly monitoring their activities against a checklist of items which grows in length every time a new such book is propelled onto the bookshelves?
It all seems very complicated. Unnecessarily so. Because day after day as I sit on the windowsill, listening to His Holiness offer wisdom to countless visitors, he is never complicated. Guests don’t leave his office clutching life prescriptions itemizing six of these plus seven of those, like a bubble pack of multi-colored capsules to be ingested daily. On the contrary, the Dalai Lama’s advice is usually very simple. And as a famous cat once said—it may even have been me—simplicity is the ultimate sophistication, is it not?
Rather than venturing down to The Himalaya Book Café and the latest batch of imports, if it’s enlightenment one is after, then it’s far better to stay at home. Sprawled in the dappled light of my delightful, first-floor sill, where I can keep an eye on the courtyard below and all the comings and goings at Namgyal Monastery. The perfect vantage point from which to maintain maximum surveillance with minimum effort. For years I have sat in this same spot following the change of seasons outside, while eavesdropping on His Holiness’ conversations within. For years I have been on the receiving end of compliments about the adorableness of my sapphire-blue eyes, my charcoal-colored face, the sumptuousness of my cream coat, and the delightful bushiness of my grey tail.
When the Dalai Lama rescued me from almost certain death, and I was a mere scrap of a kitten, everything in His Holiness’ apartment was fresh and exciting. In those very early days I was confined to the first floor, a space quite big enough for a tiny, if inquisitive, being. Seven years have passed, and I have long since become thoroughly acquainted not only with His Holiness’ apartment, but also with every nook and cranny of Namgyal Monastery, not to mention all the most interesting neighborhood haunts. They are all now familiar territory.
Recently I came to realize that, without setting out to do so, I have become equally familiar with the conversations that go on within. During my earlier days, intrigued by every passing prince, president or pop star, the questions they came with were as new and unfamiliar to me as the Dalai Lama’s apartment had been, when I was a tiny kitten.
Seven years on, I have come to realize that whatever questions they may ask His Holiness, the answers are always variations on the same themes.
However, instead of becoming bored with these teachings, the opposite is true: the more acquainted I become with them, the more deeply they touch me. Whenever I hear the Dalai Lama explain the value of loving kindness, in his distinctive bass voice, I find myself resonating with exactly those same qualities, as though by transmitting the idea, he makes them manifest. Whenever he throws back his head and laughs—which he does often—he simultaneously releases a joy within me, and whoever else is in the room, that is quite palpable. And whenever he explains the path to fulfilment and inner peace, I am struck with such a profound sense of wellbeing that I wish it could ripple out to every being possessing fur, feathers or fins—as well as those relative few on our planet who do not—so that we may all come to know our own true nature as a tangible, all-pervading truth.
And I have also come to understand another thing: the reason why so many people seek out the Dalai Lama isn’t necessarily because of what he might say. It’s because of the way he makes them feel. Words and insights may be important, because they suggest the reason for the way he is why he is. They point to how we, too, can cultivate those same qualities we find so attractive in him. Long after people have forgotten every last word that His Holiness has said, they still remember how he touched their heart. And they love him for it.
Often at the end of an audience with His Holiness, a visitor will ask if there’s a book they should read to understand the Tibetan Buddhist path. The Dalai Lama may give them a copy of a recommended title—such as Shantideva’s classic, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. Alternatively, he may recommend another book, or ask one of his Executive Assistants to provide more details to the visitor on the way out.
Whether or not his guests ever get around to actually reading these books is an interesting point. For it seems as if, in asking for a book suggestion, they are requesting a keepsake. A souvenir. Something to keep alive the extraordinary flame lit by his presence.
One evening around five o’clock, His Holiness’ two Executive Assistants came into his office for their daily review. As always, Oliver, the Englishman who worked as the Dalai Lama’s translator, had poured three cups of green tea which they were enjoying. Tenzin, His Holiness’ adviser on monastic matters and the quintessential diplomat, sat next to Oliver on the sofa facing their boss. I was sprawled out on my own armchair next to His Holiness.
‘We gave your American visitor the book you requested,’ reported Tenzin. A famous talk show host had visited us earlier that afternoon.
The Dalai Lama looked pensive for a few moments, before shrugging. ‘A useful book. Perhaps he will read it. But for him, maybe, not ideal.’
On the sofa, Oliver and Tenzin exchanged a significant glance. The matter of what book to offer visitors was one they had discussed many times over the years.
Oliver, being a Westerner, was often more forthright than the others in the Dalai Lama’s circle. He leaned forward on the sofa, ‘Your Holiness, what would an ideal book look like?’
The Dalai Lama nodded as he pondered, before saying, ‘It must cover the key elements of the path.’ He used both hands to sweep a circle in front of him. He listed the themes with which I had become long familiar. I counted them. There were four.
‘An introductory book?’ queried Oliver.
His Holiness held up his right hand in a cautioning way. ‘But not simplistic.’ His eyes met Oliver’s with a mischievous twinkle. ‘You Westerners are not quite the barbarians that we Tibetans thought you were back in the 1960s.’
They all chuckled. When lamas first emerged from behind the Himalayas to go to Europe, USA and Australia, they had imagined that Westerners, steeped in their materialist ways, would have little interest in the subtleties of mind training, let alone exploring the true nature of their own consciousness. What they’d found had astonished them.
‘High level, but not dumbed down?’ queried Oliver.
‘And ...’ His Holiness continued, ‘the book should include explanations about the mystical things,’ he chuckled again.
‘You mean like oracles?’ asked Oliver with a grin. ‘Telepathy?’
I turned my head to tune in more closely.
The Dalai Lama nodded as he laughed.
‘Astral travelling and the like?’ continued Oliver.
I noticed that Tenzin was taking no part in the conversation. Still seated beside his fellow Executive Assistant, it was as though he had dissolved into the background, removed himself from the conversation by his reticence.
At this point His Holiness looked directly at Oliver and said, ‘As my translator on so many books already, perhaps you would like to write this one?’
In an instant I realized why Tenzin had been keeping so quiet.
Oliver began coughing, his pale face turning pink. ‘Your Holiness!’ he spluttered.
‘You are familiar with the main themes.’
‘Yes, but ...’ Oliver was gripped by another paroxysm of wheezing. For this man—a translator, no less—who usually had no difficulty giving voice to the most nuanced and complex matters, to be rendered speechless was most unusual.
As he was doubled up, gasping for air, the Dalai Lama glanced over at Tenzin with a playful twinkle. ‘You could think of a title that is ...’ he tried to think of the word.
‘Catchy?’ prompted Tenzin.
‘Yes. Like in the airport bookshops.’
Given his constant travels, these were places with which His Holiness was familiar. Glancing over at me, the Dalai Lama seemed to be reading my mind—and not for the first time. ‘The Six Rules of something!’ he gripped the arm of his chair as he chortled.
Recovering from his coughing episode, Oliver realized he was being made fun of. Sort of. Though perhaps not entirely. He gave careful thought to what he was about to say. ‘The ideal book should explain the main themes of Tibetan Buddhism. And what people find magical—like rebirth and so forth. But that isn’t enough.’
The Dalai Lama raised his eyebrows.
‘What people want, more than anything, isn’t just your wisdom. It’s the way you make them feel. We need to somehow communicate your presence.’
In an instant I realized where clever Oliver was going with this. ‘I’m not sure I’m the right person to do that,’ he said.
His Holiness pondered for a moment before asking. ‘Then who is?’
Deciding we must be getting near dinnertime, I stirred on the armchair, stretching out all of my legs with a luxuriant quiver.
The timing of this maneuver, I have to confess, was as crass as Oliver’s point had been subtle. Around the table, all three men laughed. ‘I think we have a volunteer,’ chuckled the Dalai Lama.
‘And perhaps a catchy title?’ suggested Oliver, gesturing towards my outstretched limbs. ‘The Four Paws of Spiritual Success!’
They all chuckled before His Holiness observed, ‘That’s not such a bad title. After all, the Tibetan Buddhist path may be said to comprise four particular aspects. Four practices which are our challenge to embody.’ Gesturing towards a beautiful image of Shakyamuni Buddha hanging on his wall he murmured, ‘We are reminded of these four elements every time we see the representation of an enlightened being.’ Oliver and Tenzin nodded sagely.
I looked over at the wall-hanging. Reminded of four elements, I wondered? Were we?
Later that evening, I was perched on the bed, paws neatly tucked under me, while the Dalai Lama sat close by, meditating. This was one of my favorite times of the day, our room lit with the soft glow of a solitary lamp. His Holiness’ powerful, yet gentle compassion pervaded outwards beyond this room, and even Namgyal Monastery, to encompass lands and realms of existence far beyond. As the focus of his meditation turned to loving kindness, I began to purr softly, continuing all the while until he finished his session.
That was when he reached out to stroke me. ‘They are right, my little Snow Lion,’ he said, using the very special name which only he ever called me. In Tibet, snow lions are a symbol of fearlessness, power and joy. ‘You are tuned in.’
I purred even more loudly.
‘You have listened to me for thousands of hours,’ he continued to massage my face with his fingernails, just the way I liked it. ‘You know the wisdom to be shared. Most of all,’ he leaned over, briefly whispering in my ear, ‘you know how to communicate loving kindness.’
As my purr rose to a crescendo, I turned to meet his eyes directly—a privilege bestowed only rarely by we cats.
‘If you can help make others feel this way,’ he touched his heart. ‘Wonderful!’
Which is how, dear reader, you come to be holding this book in your hands. As much from a wish to convey an energetic presence, a feeling, as the profound wisdom of the Dalai Lama.
But if I may let you into a secret at this early stage, the sense of oceanic wellbeing people so frequently feel in His Holiness’ presence isn’t actually coming from him. He is an enabler, if you will, a facilitator. He is so pure of heart and so utterly free from ego, that what he does is reflect back to those he is with their own, ultimate nature. Their highest version of themselves.
If you’re wondering how the presence of an enlightened being, a bodhisattva, may be communicated on the pages of a book written by a flawed and complex—if extremely beautiful—cat, let me confess that my only job here is to offer you a mirror. A looking glass of a particular kind. One that reflects back not the contours of your nose or the arch of your brow, but which provides a much deeper reflection of who and what you are. One which penetrates beneath the surface persona with whom you are no doubt all too familiar, to the truth of the consciousness abiding within.
This is a reflection with which you may be unfamiliar. One which may even catch you unawares. Look closely—there’s no need to be afraid. What you will discover, if you ever doubted it, is that your own true nature is quite different from whatever blemishes and imperfections may temporarily obscure it. Self-criticism may drive you to focus on your own failings so much that you appear profoundly tainted; but the simple truth is that whatever abides in your mind is only ever temporary. Fleeting. Your consciousness can never be permanently contaminated, no more than water can be.
As we will explore in the pages that follow, the delightful truth is that the enduring qualities of your mind may be quite different from what you might suppose. Your consciousness is, in reality, both boundless and radiant, allowing any thought or sensation to arise, abide and pass. Once you penetrate beneath whatever surface turmoil may sometimes exist, your mind has the quality of tranquility that is, in fact, oceanic.
And if these statements seem as extravagant as my own sumptuous fur coat, let me add just one final observation, dear reader. At heart, you are a being whose pristine nature is nothing other than pure, great love and pure, great compassion. Mine too!
Chapter 1I could hardly believe my own eyes! Sitting beneath Mr Patel’s market stall at the gates to Namgyal Monastery, the same place I had once observed him from my first-floor windowsill, was the most magnificent, mackerel-striped tabby in Dharamshala.
Could it really be him? Mambo, the father of my kittens? The gorgeous, muscular beast who had appeared in my life when I was still an impressionable young feline-about-town—before, just as enigmatically, vanishing?
My paw steps quickened, which required no small effort. The street outside The Himalaya Book Café, where I had spent the afternoon, had quite a slope to it. I was no longer in the prime of youth. And my rear legs hurt more than ever.
From the time I was tiny when I had been dropped onto the pavement, I had suffered from wonky back legs. Legs which had always felt awkward, and lately had even begun to burn.
Pushing through the pain, I made my way towards the gates as quickly as I could. With monks coming and going through the entrance, and market stalls plying their trade directly outside, a cat could easily slip out of sight in the general tumult. Especially one as well camouflaged as a tabby.
I hurried ever faster, ducking behind the row of stalls. I headed towards Mr. Patel’s stall, the last in the row. Scanning through the moving legs and robes and saris, I tried to keep track of the unexpected visitor.
But he was no longer there. Nor on the nearby tree trunk, where he used to climb. I paused, surveying the area, wondering where to go next.
Suddenly, from behind a garbage bin, just a few feet to my right, I heard a low-pitched yowl. It was filled with menace. Instantly, my fur stood on end. Spinning round, almost losing balance, I was confronted by a ferocious tabby. Most definitely not Mambo. Savage of face and fur bristling, he was pure aggression.
I bared my fangs. He unleashed another, even louder, bloodcurdling warning before leaping forward. He was now only inches away. Well within striking range.
Instinct took over. I raised my right paw and snarled back. People were turning from Mr Patel’s stall, voices raised in alarm.
The interloper, demanding dominance, fixed me with a gaze of total hatred. Young and lithe, no doubt he believed he could beat me in any fight.
But I wasn’t giving way. I had been pursued in the past. I’d learnt not to run at the first sign of threat. My resistance only seemed to provoke him further. Incandescent with rage, he lashed at my head, huge claws extended.
People were screaming. And next thing there was a crash! A feeling of cold wetness. Human legs pushing between me and the tabby. Someone had thrown a pot of water at us. In the moments afterwards, I was scooped up and taken inside the gates of Namgyal before being set down in the courtyard. I glanced round, to see the tabby being shoved forcefully away.
There are some advantages to being recognized as the Dalai Lama’s Cat.
With as much dignity as I could muster, given my soaking coat and shaken state, I returned across the courtyard to our building. The pain in all four paws was now so acute that it felt like I was walking on hot coals.
I skirted the building to the ground-floor window that was left open as my private entrance. Once inside, I stopped to groom myself. The water that had been thrown at us had been used to boil somebody’s lunchtime rice. It was sticky and starchy, and tasted disgusting. Lifting a paw to my face, I felt a rawness where the intruder had clawed me—thankfully, my thick coat had protected me from worse damage.
Some minutes later, I made my way upstairs to the apartment I shared with His Holiness. On a normal day, it was bursting with warmth and kindness. But today the rooms were silent and in semi-darkness. The Dalai Lama was away travelling. It would be some days before he returned home.
I sat on the sill that evening, watching twilight fall over the Namgyal courtyard, looking across at the green light that burned at the end of Mr. Patel’s market stall, and I felt very, very sorry for myself indeed.
His Holiness arrived home several days later, and life instantly resumed its usual brisk pace. Arriving home late morning, the Dalai Lama barely had time to greet me before Oliver was in his office, ready to brief him on the guests who’d be arriving for lunch in less than an hour.
The subject of that day’s gathering was ‘Dharma in the Digital Age’, a topic of some fascination if you didn’t have more pressing things to worry about. Which I most certainly did.
For starters, that most unpleasant ambush by the tabby cat still had me badly rattled—I had never been threatened by another cat before. Namgyal Monastery had been largely feline-free, and therefore my private domain, for as long as I’d lived here. Having another cat show up and act like it was his territory was a most unwelcome development.
Of more immediate concern were the stabbing pains I felt whenever I walked. They had started, ominously, the day of the tabby ambush. And as each day passed, they seemed to get worse. Visits to The Himalaya Book Café had become so excruciating that I’d even begun to question whether a visit for my favorite sole meunière could be justified, given the torment inflicted every step of the way. Just going up and down the stairs to our apartment was a harrowing exercise.
But I never had a moment’s doubt that once His Holiness returned, things would get better. Exactly how, I had no idea. But I needed some quality time with the Dalai Lama. Just the two of us together.
The mood in the Dalai Lama’s dining room that lunchtime was the same as it always was when he entertained visitors, his guests instantly responding to his lightness and spontaneity, his capacity to inspire their own benevolence. Social media gurus, contemplative neuroscientists, lamas and psychologists exchanged ideas, while savoring a delicious meal prepared in the kitchen downstairs by the two women who had become institutions in His Holiness’ household—the voluble and larger-than-life VIP chef, Mrs. Trinci, and her beautiful daughter, Serena.
Apart from the Dalai Lama, my biggest fan at Namgyal from my earliest days had been Mrs Trinci. Italian, operatic, her arms clanking with gold bracelets, she had showered me with delectable culinary treats, pronouncing me to be The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived, a title to which many others would be added in due course—not all of them quite so delightful.
Following a heart attack, and on her specialist’s advice, Mrs. Trinci had come to the Dalai Lama for personal meditation lessons, over time becoming a mellower and less frenetic version of her former self—though no less a big-hearted one. When her daughter, Serena, had arrived back in Dharamshala after years working in some of Europe’s most famous restaurants, Mrs. Trinci had begun to share the burden of her work as His Holiness’ Executive Chef. Little did I know that, once drawn into Serena’s world, the most intriguing revelations of my life would be uncovered.
Elegant and graceful, long dark hair sweeping straight down her back, since the moment I first caught sight of Serena, I’d been captivated by her compassionate energy. As well as helping her mother take care of the Dalai Lama’s VIP guests, she had become co-manager of The Himalaya Book Café, along with its owner, Franc. We had instantly become firm friends and, from a variety of shelves, nooks and gateposts, I had witnessed the blossoming of her romance with the handsome and luminously intelligent Indian businessman she had met at yoga class—a man whose natural modesty concealed the fact that he just happened to be the Maharajah of Himachal Pradesh.
Serena had moved in with Sid—short for Siddhartha—once he had renovated a sprawling, colonial, mountainside home for them. Their home just happened to be a short walk away from my windowsill at Namgyal Monastery.
In time, I became aware of a strong connection to Sid; also to Zahra, his seventeen-year-old daughter—Sid’s first wife having died in a car accident many years before. Zahra lived away from home at boarding school, returning home for holidays. From the very first time I’d caught sight of Zahra I had adored her, and I loved spending time at their home.
As was the case at all lunchtime meetings with the Dalai Lama, my own needs were not overlooked. Head Waiter Kusali brought a ramekin to where I sat on the sill. Today’s meal was a casserole with the most deliciously thick gravy. As I lapped it up with noisy relish, several Silicon Valley executives glanced my way with expressions of amusement. During the meal, His Holiness looked at me several times too, but with a different expression. Even though we had spent almost no time together alone since his return, he seemed to sense that all was not well in my world.
Finishing my meal, I washed my face—even grooming had become difficult with such painful paws—and settled down, waiting for the gathering to come to an end. I felt a bit better with a tummy full of Mrs. Trinci’s delicious food.
But I still longed for the moment when I would have the Dalai Lama to myself.
Finally the guests were leaving, Tenzin and Oliver ushering them out of the room. His Holiness had already asked Dawa to pass on his compliments to the chefs, and to invite them upstairs so he could thank them personally, in what had become a delightful tradition. No sooner had the guests left than Dawa returned with a message.
‘Mrs. Trinci has already left, Your Holiness,’ he announced.
‘She says she was only helping her mother, so can’t claim any credit for the meal. And she knows you’ve been away for a long time so is sure you must be very busy.’
The Dalai Lama nodded. It was by no means the first time an invitation to say ‘thank you’ had been rebuffed, even if in the most diplomatic way. For some time His Holiness remained in his seat with a thoughtful expression—was he perceiving something that eluded me?—before looking directly at me. Getting up he said, ‘I think we should go to see her, don’t you Snow Lion?’
As he made his way to the door, I hopped down from where I’d been sitting, bracing myself for the inevitable pain of landing. We walked through the apartment and into the corridor that led past the Executive Assistants’ office. I tried my best to tread normally, even though each step was more painful than ever. Walking on my back paws, in particular, was pure torture.
We headed down the stairs and along a short passage to the VIP kitchen. His Holiness paused in the doorway, watching as Serena busied herself in the kitchen. Today’s meal may have been over, but another was planned for a private visit by the Aga Khan in three days hence, which was the cause of much activity. Serena was opening cupboards, checking their contents, referring to a list, writing down items that needed to be stocked and going through the deep shelves of the fridge. She was so preoccupied that it was a while before she looked up and discovered she was not alone.
‘Oh! Your Holiness!’ As she folded her palms together at her heart, she flushed.
‘My dear Serena!’ The Dalai Lama walked over and gave her a hug. Glancing down, she saw me at his feet.
‘And I see little Rinpoche came downstairs too,’ she observed as they broke apart.
‘The meal was wonderful!’ The Dalai Lama gazed at her closely.
‘Especially the main course.’
‘Vegetarian stroganoff. It’s the gravy that makes it.’
Long hair tucked under a chef’s hat and not wearing any make-up, this Serena looked very different from the one who worked front of house at The Himalaya Book Café, or who ran her spice pack business from the office above the café. But more than that, today there seemed to be a tension in her face, a concern clouding her eyes.
‘I am never too busy to see you,’ said the Dalai Lama. ‘But perhaps you are too busy to see me?’ There was humor in his expression, but also concern.
His Holiness had known Serena since she was a little girl. Mrs. Trinci, who had been widowed at an early age, had brought her in to do her homework at the kitchen bench, while she got on with meal preparation. In those early days, way before my time, I’d been told how Serena was drawn to the Dalai Lama, so that he’d become like a father figure to her.
She may have spent over ten years in Europe, making her own way in the world, but when she’d returned to Dharamshala, her bond with His Holiness had been as strong as ever. They were like family, and he knew her every expression, which was why she had to break away from his gaze.
‘I’m sorry, Your Holiness,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to cause offence.’
He shrugged indicating that this wasn’t the point.
Looking back at her list and to the cupboards she admitted, ‘I am pretty stressed at the moment.’
‘The Aga Khan lunch?’ queried the Dalai Lama.
Serena brushed away the suggestion. ‘No. Nothing to do with that.’ Swiveling away, she looked round the kitchen, everywhere except at him. Then chewing at her lip, she said somewhat reluctantly, ‘It’s the business.’
‘Very busy?’ His Holiness’ tone was sympathetic.
‘Not busy enough.’ She shot him a glance. ‘As you know, we did a roaring trade when we first started out. We doubled in size each year for the first three years. But we’ve hit a wall.’
The spice pack idea had come about when tourists asked about the delicious sauces, marinades and seasonings which made their meals at The Himalaya Book Café so utterly irresistible. Consulting with the café’s resident chefs, Nepalese brothers Jigme and Ngawang Dragpa, Serena had devised ways to package spice blends that could be delivered globally by mail order. When Sid had opened doors to local spice producers at wholesale prices, suddenly they were in business.
Beautiful branding and an efficient delivery service soon had The Himalaya Book Café Spice Packs heading out to the four corners of the world. And after Sid and Serena were married two years ago, they decided that all profits from the business should be used to support local youngsters get the training they needed to find work
‘You are worried for the children?’ the Dalai Lama queried.
‘There are so many of them!’ Serena’s voice rose. ‘And they’ve come to depend on us. We’re their last chance!’
In a moment she had become as impassioned as Mrs. Trinci herself—a resemblance I’d seldom witnessed before.
‘And the sales ...’
‘Nosedived!’ she was emphatic. ‘Back to where they were twelve months ago. Eighteen, even!’ Unable to stand still a moment longer, she strode to the other side of the kitchen to collect her handbag. Unnecessarily. Before bringing it back and dumping it beside her list with a thud.
‘It’s not just one thing that’s affecting our business, it’s so many,’ her dark eyes blazed. ‘It’s consumer fatigue. And massive competition. We’re being regulated out of business in some markets. Only last week this new biosecurity law came in and we lost all our customers in Australia.’ She flicked both hands open, palms facing upwards. ‘Overnight!’
I looked up at the Dalai Lama. This was not the Serena I thought I knew. I had never seen my friend—whose name had always seemed so appropriate—in such a state. As I observed His Holiness, I sensed that he understood much more about what was happening. And for the first time I had an inkling that perhaps there was a deeper cause for Serena’s frustration. That what she was talking about was only a proxy, a substitute for another cause of anguish.
‘All the while ...’ she was gesturing outside, ‘our waiting list for kids needing basic IT skills just keeps getting longer and longer!’
Jaw tense, with a vein standing out on her neck, she seemed at the end of her tether. ‘I look at their little faces and I know how much they need my help, but I just don’t seem able to turn things around!’ She raised her hands to her head. ‘We’ve tried everything that might make a difference! You think something’s going to work. Other people swear by doing this thing or that thing. You build up your hopes because you so desperately want it to come right ...’
Suddenly she seemed to crumple, her shoulders slumping. Her eyes welled with tears. She turned to face the Dalai Lama, her face a portrait of misery. ‘I just feel like I’m failing everyone,’ she said.
His Holiness didn’t say anything for a moment, simply stood and enveloped her in his benevolent attention.
‘Sid especially,’ she said softly, glancing towards me with the warm-eyed glow of maternal feeling, which I was more familiar with.
Suddenly I understood what I sensed His Holiness already had. And it was as if, in that moment, a shift occurred in the room, so that we all knew what was really being discussed without the need for it to be made explicit. The deeper cause of Serena’s torment.
When Serena had married Sid they’d made no secret of their wish to have a family together as soon as possible. Many of their friends had expected an announcement of that kind to follow within months. Two years later, none had been made.
‘You have spoken to Sid?’ asked the Dalai Lama softly.
‘We talk about it all the time.’
‘He doesn’t feel you’re ... letting him down?’
She shook her head miserably. ‘You know Sid. He’d never say that. He’s too much the gentleman.’
The Dalai Lama took one of her hands in his with the utmost gentleness. ‘Often, our greatest suffering is self-inflicted.’
‘Self-inflicted?’ Her eyes widened.
‘Perhaps because of attachment.’
Serena’s expression turned to one of hurt. ‘It’s not like I’m desperate for a Maserati!’
‘No, no,’ His Holiness shook his head. ‘Material things are only one source of attachment. A more frequent cause is attachment to outcomes.’
‘To having things the way we want them.’
‘What if it’s not just about me?’ she objected, pulling her hand quickly out of his. ‘What if it’s other people I’m concerned about?’
‘This is not a moral judgement ...’ he tried to reassure her.
‘Sounds like it to me!’ she snapped. ‘Sounds very much like a judgement!’
Striding over to the counter, she grabbed the list she’d been making and threw it in her handbag. Tugging off her chef’s hat, she tossed it towards the sink.
‘You know, this is exactly the kind of conversation I didn’t want to have ...’ she told him, eyes blazing. ‘It’s why I didn’t come upstairs. I don’t need to be told that it’s all in my mind. That if I change the way I think, then everything will be hunky-dory. Sometimes life is just shit—and that’s all there is to it!’
With that, she strode out of the kitchen, grabbing the door as she left and slamming it behind her.
I stared at the door, shaken by what I had just witnessed. In the seven years I’ve lived with the Dalai Lama, no-one had ever stormed out of his presence, much less banged the door as they left. And the very last person in the world I would have thought would do so was serene Serena.
His Holiness reached down to stroke my neck. ‘Such suffering,’ he observed, softly. ‘May she soon be free of anger and attachment.’
That afternoon, the Dalai Lama was officiating at the ordination of monks across the courtyard at the temple. I remained on my sill, dozing and waiting for the moment when I’d finally have some time alone with him. And as I waited, the kitchen scene replayed in my mind: Serena’s misery. His Holiness’ attempt to help. Her raised voice and the slammed door.
Anger and attachment, the two things he had wished her to be free of, were considered delusions in Tibetan Buddhism—a delusion being any mental factor that disturbs one’s peace of mind. Both were said to arise from the same underlying cause: the belief that things, people or situations possess inherent qualities which make them desirable—in which case we want them; or undesirable—in which case we do not. I had sat through countless hours of the Dalai Lama explaining these basic principles to people. And Serena was as familiar with them as anyone.
When it came to applying them to everyday life, however, things weren’t always so clear cut. Serena’s peace of mind was disturbed—of that, there was no dispute. But what if her unhappiness hadn’t been caused by thinking about herself? Instead of being self-inflicted, what about pain arising from concern for others? What did Buddhism have to say about that?
What’s more, wasn’t the wish to have a baby not an entirely natural, feminine instinct for many, something which flowed deeper than thought or concept? What if, on this occasion, His Holiness had got it wrong?
As it happened, I didn’t have long to wait to learn the answer. As dusk fell over the Namgyal courtyard, His Holiness returned home. Tenzin came to switch on the lamps in our apartment and had gone to fetch His Holiness a cup of green tea, when there was a familiar knock on the door. We both looked up.
‘I’m so, so sorry!’ It was Serena, ashen-faced and tearful. ‘I don’t know what came over me!’
Stepping over from the other side of the room, His Holiness gestured towards her and began to chuckle. ‘You!’ Then he pointed at his door and acted out slamming it. ‘Boom!’
Shaking her head, she looked bereft. ‘Can you ever forgive me?’
He opened his arms and she came towards him. As they embraced she began to say, ‘I just want you to know ...’
‘Yes, yes.’ He interrupted, patting her back. ‘Words are not necessary.’
A short while later, Tenzin had brought them both tea and they were seated, facing each other across a table. ‘I know you said it’s attachment that’s causing me pain,’ began Serena.
The Dalai Lama looked at her quite sternly. ‘No judgement,’ he said.
‘I’m just wanting to understand.’ She paused, trying to order her thoughts. ‘I really do want to help others—like these kids who need training. And I’m doing all I can to make the business work for them. So how is it possible not to be attached?’
His Holiness smiled before saying simply, ‘By understanding that your peace of mind, your wellbeing, does not depend on it.’
She absorbed this in silence, before tilting her head. ‘That just sounds a bit cold. Lacking in compassion.’
The Dalai Lama raised his eyebrows. ‘Compassion is the wish to relieve beings of suffering.’
‘Are we better able to help others when our minds are calm and ordered, or when there is great turmoil?’ His hand motioned the rising and falling of waves.
Serena inclined her head.
‘For the sake of self and others, if we wish to practise effective compassion, we need a calm mind,’ he said. ‘This is essential. What’s more, non-attachment is in accordance with the truth.’
Leaning forward in his seat, he studied her closely for a while. ‘I remember a time, you had just come back from Europe.’
‘You were home in Dharamshala. No job. No—what do you say—boyfriend?’ he chuckled.
‘One of the happiest times of my life!’ she volunteered.
‘Very happy, even though you weren’t helping any children get computer skills.’
She was shaking her head. ‘I hadn’t thought of any of that back then.’
‘You see. No outcome. But still, very happy. The two,’ he held his hands palms facing upwards, some distance from each other, ‘have no relationship. Only when we invent a relationship, there is a problem. When we say, “I can only be happy when this happens” or “I can only feel peaceful if that happens,” that’s when we make a problem for ourselves.
‘Attachment is when we believe that a person, a thing or an outcome is necessary for our happiness. At that moment, we turn the person, thing or outcome into a source of future suffering. We risk becoming enslaved to it. Much better to think: I am already the possessor of happiness and inner peace. To have this person, thing or outcome in my life—how wonderful! But it is not necessary for my fundamental wellbeing.’
Serena was nodding slowly.
‘And I will tell you the secret gift of non-attachment,’ the Dalai Lama’s eyes sparkled. ‘When we are able to hold an outcome in our heart with genuine non-attachment, then it is much more likely to happen. Clinging with attachment not only causes misery. It also makes us less successful.’
Following his every word closely, Serena asked him, ‘Even when it comes to falling pregnant?’
‘Of course!’ The Dalai Lama nodded, as though this was a statement of the obvious. ‘For you at the moment, too much stress.’
‘I have found myself worrying a lot lately. So many horrible things have happened, all in a short space of time.’
‘Then it is time for renunciation,’ announced His Holiness, ‘time to turn away from the true causes of your unhappiness.’
‘Which are not the spice pack problems. Or ... this’ she touched her abdomen. ‘But attachment to how I’d like things to be?’
‘Exactly. Renunciation is when you decide you’ve had enough. When you finally recognise that your unhappiness isn’t coming from out there, but from your own mind. From battling the way that things are, and wishing them to be different. Renunciation is when we turn away from the suffering we are experiencing because of our attachment to the way we think that things should be, or perhaps bitterness about the way they are. You could say that renunciation is the start of our inner journey. Instead of fixating on external circumstances, we look within.’
‘In my heart I think I’ve known that I needed to let go.’
‘Let go. Let go,’ agreed His Holiness. ‘The more we let go, the more peace here.’ He touched his heart.
Serena regarded the Dalai Lama with an expression of gratitude. Then she stood up. ‘Now, I should let go of you. I’ve already taken up too much of your time today.’ Glancing towards the sill, she saw me lying on my side, watching them. ‘I’m sure you’ll be wanting some quality time with little Rinpoche,’ she said.
As His Holiness rose from his chair, Serena stepped over to stroke me. Responding, I reached out both arms and legs, intending a full, tremulous, tummy stretch. But as I extended, my front, right claw caught on her wedding ring. Searing pain jolted through my whole side. I recoiled in agony.
‘Rinpoche!’ Serena was aghast, as I let out a yowl.
Bending, she studied my paw closely. At the same time, the Dalai Lama leaned over me too. Both caught sight of the same thing at the same time. His Holiness’ eyebrows shot up in alarm. Serena’s forehead furrowed in concern. ‘Oh, you poor little thing!’ she wailed. She turned to the Dalai Lama, ‘Look at the length of them.’
He was shaking his head. ‘I thought the way she was walking this afternoon was not quite right.’ ‘All these weeks you’ve been away, and nobody looking out for her.’
‘We must take action.’ His Holiness’ expression was serious. ‘Immediately.’
I, dear reader, am not a cat who takes kindly to being held fast while having her claws trimmed. Even when the person doing the holding is the Dalai Lama, and the person doing the trimming is the Maharani of Himachal Pradesh. But no matter how much I writhed and wriggled, there was no escaping His Holiness’ clutches. No evading the stainless steel blades of Serena’s trimmers. One by one they worked their way round each of my paws until every last nail had been pruned.
As soon as they put me down, I stormed towards the Dalai Lama’s desk as fast as my grey boots would take me, ears firmly pressed back. The desk was my place of safety. Under it, I was inaccessible to a human arm. Even as I made my way over, however, I became aware of something: the pain in my paws and legs had gone. Completely. There wasn’t so much as the merest twinge of discomfort.
I inspected my paws by licking them. As I did, I realized that, bit by bit, I must have become used to my nails protruding. They had grown a little, then a little more, and I had become so accustomed to them being the way they were that I’d ignored them.
Serena was returning the trimmers to her handbag and preparing to go. ‘The greatest suffering is self-inflicted. Isn’t that what you were saying this morning?’ her tone was wry. ‘And even when you try to help ...’
Peering up between the legs of the desk, I saw His Holiness pretending to be me, lashing out one of his arms, fingers outstretched. Before segueing to a door slam. ‘Bang!’ he laughed. ‘Same, same.’
Surely not! I was indignant. You couldn’t possibly equate the two. Could you?!
‘Is it possible to become attached to attachment?’ Serena asked, hitching her bag over her shoulder.
‘Oh yes,’ said the Dalai Lama. ‘Sometimes the things we cling to most tightly are those that hurt us more than anything. But we keep on clinging because we don’t believe there’s a different way.’ Turning pensive, he murmured, ‘This is the great sadness of samsara. A person can be starving in a room, even though just along the passage, there is a kitchen with all the food she could possibly eat. But she has to walk to the kitchen by herself. She has to believe that it’s there. There must come a time when she says, “Enough suffering, already! I must try something different.”’
There is a particular ritual with which His Holiness and I sometimes end the day. Before retiring to bed, he will go into his own small kitchen, furnished with just a few culinary essentials. There he will put a slice of bread into a toaster, before switching on the kettle to make himself a cup of tea.
If I haven’t already followed him, the aroma of toasting bread immediately summons me from wherever I am to sit at his feet, expectantly. Once toast is made—entirely for my delectation, as the Dalai Lama doesn’t eat in the evening—he will cut a small corner for me and coat it liberally with butter, before putting it on a saucer and placing it before me.
The two of us enjoy our time together, His Holiness sitting at a small table sipping tea, while I crunch my buttered toast with relish.
‘I am sorry I haven’t been here for you, my little one,’ he said tonight, once I’d finished my toast and looked up at him. ‘Your claws grew so long.’
He gazed at me thoughtfully, as I licked my right, front paw, relishing the way my tongue had free access to my velvet pads.
‘We humans also have to be vigilant, just like you,’ he observed, as I began washing my face. ‘Our thoughts are like claws. They can be very helpful when we turn our mind to things. Develop ideas. Set goals. Express emotions. But if we aren’t careful, these same thoughts can turn in on us and become the source of our greatest pain. They no longer help us take purposeful action, but instead are the cause of self-inflicted misery. Cat or human, we are the same.’
Reaching down, he lifted me onto his lap, took my front, left paw in his hand and turned it sideways, gazing closely at my newly trimmed nails. ‘When we’ve had enough suffering and want to make a new start, that’s renunciation,’ he said.
I fixed him with a sapphire-blue gaze of great devotion.
He leaned down to touch me with his cheek, murmuring softly, ‘You might say this is the first law—the first paw—of spiritual success. What do you think, little Snow Lion?’
When he put me back down on the floor I was struck by one of those bolts of energetic mania to which we cats are occasionally prone, especially after eating a scrumptious morsel. Even more so when feeling celebratory.
I hunched forwards. Shot a glance at him over my shoulder. Then bolted out of the kitchen, tearing down the corridor as fast as my fluffy grey boots would take me. It had been many weeks since I’d even thought of doing such a thing. And as I flew along the runner I was wonderfully liberated. Unburdened. Pain-free.
If this was how renunciation felt, how wonderful! I only wish I’d experienced the first paw of spiritual success a whole lot sooner!
At the door to the kitchen behind me, the Dalai Lama burst out laughing.
The Secret Mantra
Chapter OneApproach to Tiger's Nest Monastery
Bhutan, The Himalayas
Dusk was already falling—and the last part of our journey was still to come. I knew about the dangers of nightfall on the mountains. How it was better to stop and wait out the darkness than risk a single, false step on sheer cliff tracks. But I didn't want to stop—I'd been working towards this moment for too long.
'Return on the full moon in May,' Lama Tsering had told me, his expression bright with significance. 'Then it will be time.'
When we'd set out from the valley floor earlier, our objective had looked like nothing more than a white speck on a distant rock face. Following the goat track that picked its way through the foothills, jack-knifing around increasingly precipitous crevices, many hours later we approached a place where the mountain curved sharply away revealing an altogether different view of our destination.
A few steps ahead, my guide Sangay reached the bend. And despite his familiarity with the scene, even he felt compelled to stop, gazing directly ahead as I scrambled up beside him. For there, only a hundred yards away, was Tiger's Nest Monastery, magnificent and other-worldly, built on an impossibly narrow ledge jutting from a sheer rock face that plunged three miles to the valley floor. A series of high-towered buildings with elaborate wooden shutters, the monastery's gold pagoda roofs glowed in the long, slanting rays of the sun, like a vision from some other realm of consciousness.
Between the buildings and where we stood was a chasm, giving the monastery an even more illusory appearance, like a mirage that might, at any moment, evaporate into mist. All that connected us were ribbons of multi-colored prayer flags crossing the gulf to the most remote monastery in the Himalayas.
Despite my aching legs, I felt an involuntary welling up of emotion—the powerful tug of homecoming. I had first come here five years ago in my early thirties, a Londoner and research scientist who knew little about the mysteries of the Himalayas. Five years later I was in no doubt that the most transformative experiences of my life had occurred in this special place. It was also the home of one of the most revered masters in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition—my kind and much-loved teacher, Lama Tsering.
After the briefest pause, Sangay gestured that we should continue. Lengthening fingers of darkness were already stretching towards the final approach to Tiger's Nest, a narrow ledge cut into the dramatic zigzag cliff. Sangay was vigilant, directing me along the rock-strewn path. There was no margin for error. Legs shaking, I battled to place one foot in front of the other as the pathway tapered sharply and footholds were swallowed up in the deepening shadows.
Sangay pulled out a torch from his tunic and used it to point the way to safety. Concentrating so completely, step by step, when we reached the solid, stone walls of the fortified gatehouse it was almost by surprise. Suddenly the path widened to a much broader ledge, lush with grass.
I sank to the ground, stretching gratefully on the softness of the lawn. Sangay tugged on a brass chain hanging outside the massive, locked gates. Inside, a duty monk would alert Lama Tsering to our arrival.
'Just in time,' said Sangay, looking up at where the clear, May sky rapidly darkened.
I remembered my first visit, how I'd arrived bright with expectation and busyness. Excited about my purpose, I had expected Lama Tsering to be equally eager for me to fulfill my mission. Even though we had never met, I felt I had come to know him through Geshe-la, who was his student. I was in no doubt that my visit was significant. In his mid-nineties, I believed that Lama Tsering had been biding his time for much of the second half of his life to meet me.
Which only showed how much I had to learn! To begin with, it had been a full day before I was admitted to his presence. We might be in the most isolated monastery in the Himalayas but there were protocols. Finally ushered into his room at sunset on the day after I'd arrived, that first encounter had been unlike anything I had expected. I had already played out this scene in anticipation many, many times—Lama Tsering as the wizened, rheumy-eyed old monk greatly relieved at the appearance of me, the youthful Westerner, the Chosen One, to whom he could pass on the torch of some very specific wisdom.
Instead, the door opened onto a small room in which the monk, sitting in meditation, didn't seem to be of any particular age. Greeting me with a smile, he gestured I should sit in front of him, before lowering his gaze. Several minutes had passed before he spoke, leaving me plenty of time to observe him. He had a longer face than the traditional rounded features of Tibetans, with prominent cheekbones and a high forehead. His hair, shaven close to the head, was dark, with only traces of grey. There was a gentle suppleness about his features and his arms, which were folded in meditative posture in front of him. His face and neck barely lined, there was an astonishing agelessness about him.
This being the first time I'd ever been in his presence, after scrutinizing his appearance, I took in the low table in front of him on which were placed several books, the small window behind him to the left, and the incense burner from which a steady blue-grey ribbon of smoke curled elegantly upwards. It was only then that I became aware of my own mental agitation. Here I was, in the presence of one of the tradition's most revered masters, and where was my mind? Not settled in a state of ease—expansive, relaxed, and open to the wisdom of a guru. But instead looking around at his room, his books, the incense.
It was as if, without saying a word, Lama Tsering invited me into a different state of being. Lowering my gaze, I tried to meditate the way I had been shown by Geshe-la in recent months, focusing on being simply here and now, in the present moment. I felt my mind settle, to an extent that had eluded me in the past. Instead of constant thoughts and distracting chatter I felt myself slip into an awareness that was peaceful and benevolent. I had experienced some enjoyable meditation sessions in the past, but the sense of profound wellbeing I felt even that first time in Lama Tsering's presence was so absorbing, so oceanic that I didn't want it to end.
Eventually I sensed a movement and, looking up, I met his eyes.
'I am very happy to see you,' he folded his hands together at his heart and bowed towards me.
Unsure what to do, I reciprocated. Then feeling awkward in the unfamiliar stillness, I felt compelled to tell him how I'd met Geshe-la, and the sequence of events which had led to my coming here, as well as my eagerness to undertake the specific purpose for which I was visiting.
After I finished speaking, the silence that followed seemed to underline how unnecessary it had been. 'Before starting on our important work,' his expression was warm with compassion. 'It is necessary to cultivate some meditative concentration.'
'Knowledge is very good. But experience is better. A little practice and then we will be ready.'
I had guessed, from the way he said it, that his definition of 'a little' practice went beyond a couple of sessions.
I found myself engaged in an intensive study and meditation program that had started out at weeks, then stretched into months. More and more as I understood the magnitude of the truths I was being trained to reveal, my sense of purpose only grew stronger. Months had turned to years.
Lama Tsering had personally supervised my preparation, the culmination being the three-month solitary retreat which I had just completed.
“Return on the full moon in May. Then it will be time.” Time to pass on the very special knowledge of which he'd been custodian for the previous half-century but which, he had once told me, was much older than that. It had been kept secret for over a millennium, in exactly what form I could only guess, but secured in a hidden repository in the Himalayas for the time of its revelation—a time when it would be of maximum benefit to the world.
And I was the person chosen to reveal it.
Quite how it turned out to be me was something that still left me humbled. And tonight, in particular, filled with a sense of greater awe and anticipation than I had ever experienced. I could hardly believe that the time had finally come. The moment of transmission. The event, I realized now, to which my whole life had been leading me. And in accordance with the Buddhist view of rebirth, not only this lifetime, but many lives before it.
The monastery gates finally opened to reveal Kelsang, assistant to Abbot Lhamo. His usual cheerful features were drawn. 'Welcome back, Matt,' he inclined his head politely. Before saying, 'The abbot will see you now.'
'The abbot?' I raised my eyebrows.
'He has something to tell you,' he frowned.
Sangay followed us into the monastery and returned to his quarters as Kelsang set an unusually brisk pace through the maze of corridors. Why wasn't I being taken directly to Lama Tsering? Where was Dorje, Lama Tsering's attendant, who I had expected to greet us? Was the abbot also to be present for the revelation?
Abbot Lhamo was standing alone on the worn, embroidered carpet in the middle of his office, his gaze calm and unwavering when I was ushered in. Tall, ascetic, highly regarded for his scholarship, he was considered remote by some, but this evening his expression was full of compassion.
'Lama Tsering has been looking forward to your return today,' he told me after Kelsang left the room, closing the door behind him. 'Several times in the past few weeks he has spoken to me about it. A few minutes ago, when you arrived, Dorje went looking for him.' He stepped closer towards me. 'He found him in the main temple.'
The abbot took my left hand and held it between his. As he made that simple gesture, I felt my heart thundering. I suddenly knew exactly what he was going to tell me before he said it.
'Matt, I am very sorry to have to tell you this sad news. Lama Tsering is dead.'
Awaken the Kitten Within
PrologueMonsoon. Not my favorite season, dear reader. For a feline with a coat as sumptuously absorbent as mine, and being somewhat wonky of gait, venturing out in wild weather is an exercise fraught with danger. Which is why interminable rains and fog keep me trapped inside, with little choice but to spend day after day on the first-floor windowsill of His Holiness’s room, deprived even of my special view. No longer is the courtyard of Namgyal Monastery bustling with maroon robes and enchanted tourists, hoping that His Holiness might appear in their midst at any moment. It is, instead, as grey and unappealing as a saucer of last night’s dinner.
So on that particular morning, when a familiar knock on the door was followed by the appearance of Tenzin, I looked up with special interest. His Holiness’s adviser on diplomatic matters, Tenzin was suave and suited as always as he conferred with the Dalai Lama, the two of them glancing at a clock. Novice monks were slipping into the room to dust flowerpots and plump up cushions – all a well-rehearsed prelude to the arrival of a visitor. Reaching out first my two front legs, then my back two, I stretched tremulously, pleased that the tedium was about to be broken.
But by whom?
One of the many intrigues of being His Holiness’s Cat is the steady stream of celebrities who beat a path to the Himalayas, and indeed to this particular room. Presidents and pop stars, sages and scientists, all find their way to our door. The stated reasons for their visits are many and varied, but you and I know the real reasons, do we not?
First and foremost, visitors come to experience the feeling of being in the presence of the Dalai Lama. That benevolent, energetic field in which he envelops all who perceive him. The understanding he conveys, spontaneously and without apparent effort, that whatever may be going on in our lives and the world around us, all is well beneath the surface.
In recent years there has been an additional reason why discerning visitors do their utmost to secure an audience. It may seem brazen for me to suggest it – but false modesty is such a deeply unattractive quality, is it not, dear reader? It’s certainly not one I would wish to be accused of. You see, the other compelling reason why people come from all around the world to this room is to discover, for themselves, if it really is true. Does the Dalai Lama really “have a cat”, to use that common if misleading expression? Is His Holiness’s Cat – HHC in official circles – simply a beguiling myth or a dazzling, blue-eyed reality? Was that shimmer of grey glimpsed on a Zoom teaching the end of a bushy tail belonging to his much-fabled feline, or was it simply a play of light, a chimera, the source of which must remain shrouded in mystery?
On that particularly bleak morning, as headlights appeared at the gates of Namgyal Monastery, I looked into the fog, but could perceive very little beyond the slow approach of a vehicle. The low drone of an engine increasing in volume before coming to a standstill. Silence, followed by the opening and shutting of car doors. It was some minutes before Tenzin showed a woman into the room.
As you will have correctly assumed, I am a cat of the utmost discretion and can’t possibly divulge the identity of His Holiness’s VIP guests. In this particular case, however, it’s probably important for you to know that she is a very well-known pop star. You know, the one whose stage name isn’t her real name? In fact, it’s more of a title – as if she were married to a British lord.
Those are the only discreet and subtle hints I am willing to offer, except perhaps to mention that her fans are known to be Little Monsters. And she would make a very good poker player.
From across the room I watched closely as the Dalai Lama and his visitor brought their hands to their hearts and bowed in greeting, before sitting down to face each other on separate sofas across a coffee table. At the head of the table, Tenzin oversaw the pouring of cups of coffee and offering of cookies from a tray in front of him. Then he settled into an armchair, with that particular manner of seasoned diplomats, so discreet a presence that it was almost as if he disappeared completely into the background.
Outside, the swirling gloom of fog darkened, cloaking my windowsill seat in deep shadow. Just as I preferred it. Like most cats, I like to observe without being observed. To make up my own mind about visitors, before they so much as suspect I am even there.
This particular visitor was to share the stage with the Dalai Lama at a conference on mental wellbeing. Her visit was to help prepare for the event. At His Holiness’s prompting, she explained that while she had started out on her career wanting to succeed as a singer, along the way her purpose had broadened. She no longer sought only to entertain: she wanted to touch people’s lives. To make an impact. In particular, having been abused when she was young, her aim was to help others who had endured the same trauma. She described how memories of her own abuse had been so distressing that they had continued to rack her with physical pain for a long time afterwards.
Listening attentively to her story, the Dalai Lama’s face was filled with compassion. “Mind and body are one,” he responded after a while. “Harm to one is harm to both.”
His visitor paused, regarding him closely. “It took me a long time to work that out,” she admitted. “I didn’t understand what was happening, not for years. I thought I was going mad!”
His Holiness leaned over, taking both her hands reassuringly in his own. Gazing deep into her eyes he asked, “How did you find your way through?”
She mused for a while before saying, “With the help of doctors. Therapists. I have learned a lot.” Then after a further pause, “Perhaps the biggest thing for me was the invention of an ideal version of me.”
The Dalai Lama spoke her stage name out loud.
“Exactly. I thought of all the qualities I most wanted, and decided that she would have them. Then I tried to imagine being her. When my fans responded to her, they were responding to my ideal self. Over time, it became easier and easier to accept that I was becoming who I most wanted to be.”
“The imagined became real?”
His Holiness was nodding slowly. “Good psychology. We use it, very much, in Tibetan Buddhism.”
“You do?” His visitor seemed surprised.
“You might say, it is one of the foundation teachings of the Buddha,” he confirmed. “Thoughts lead to words. Words lead to actions. It all begins here,” the Dalai Lama was tapping his head. “And here,” he touched his heart. “As we think, so we become. In any situation, wherever we find ourselves, we are still free to think what we wish. Most of all, free to choose how we think of ourselves. When you decide to live according to the best version of yourself that you can imagine …” He smiled, “How wise!”
“Thank you!” Even from the gloom of the windowsill, it seemed to me that His Holiness’s compliment brought color to the cheeks of his visitor, before she said, “So much easier to say than to do, of course. Sometimes I fail.”
“Changing mental habits …” the Dalai Lama sat forward in his chair, “Difficult. Sometimes not always possible. So,” he shrugged, “we accept. We accept, but keep trying.”
“Self-acceptance,” she responded.
“Most important.” Leaning back in his chair, His Holiness chuckled. “We cannot help others fully, if we ourselves are suffering. Therefore, we must have compassion for ourselves first.”
She nodded, her expression earnest.
“Show ourselves …” a twinkle appeared in his eyes, “the same kindness that we would to a very dear friend.”
No matter who came into this room, whatever their background, it was never long before they discovered their most benevolent instincts reflected by His Holiness. In his allencompassing presence they felt understood, appreciated, wholly accepted. Could there be a greater gift?
Continuing to follow the conversation, after a while I decided that it was high time I took His Holiness’s advice to heart. Hopping off my cushion on the sill, I made my way unobserved across the room and around the furniture, before launching myself onto the sofa next to the famous pop star.
Initially startled, her expression quickly changed to one of delight. “Oh, how gorgeous!” she exclaimed, reaching out to stroke me. “So she is real!”
I angled my head upwards, the better to feel the scratch of her long fingernails on my chin. Female humans have their uses.
“I’ve always wondered if she really existed,” she explained. “Or was she just an idea that someone had come up with.”
“Well, now you know,” said Tenzin. He had surfaced from the depths of his armchair ready, I knew from past experience, to swoop me away at the first sign of an allergic reaction.
But His Holiness’s visitor showed none. Instead, while continuing to massage my neck, she murmured, “Seeing is believing.”
From the sofa opposite, the Dalai Lama observed, “Yes, yes. And it works the other way too. Believing is seeing.”
The visitor’s forehead wrinkled. “If you don’t see, how can you believe?” she asked. “Don’t you have to see first?”
His Holiness gestured towards her and, once again, used her stage name. “Did you always see her, or did you first have to believe she may be possible?”
“Oh, I get it,” she wagged a finger playfully. “The idea comes first. Then the reality.”
“As we think, so we become,” she quoted back what he’d said earlier.
Enough of the chitchat and neck rub, I thought, stepping onto the coffee table and heading towards my ultimate destination – the milk jug.
I observed the questioning glances exchanged between Tenzin and the Dalai Lama. Between the Dalai Lama and his guest. At which point the pop star herself picked up the jug, placed her empty cup on the tray and poured milk into her saucer. They all watched in silence as I bent to lap with noisy gusto.
“Some beings,” Tenzin observed, “are very skillful at manifesting the reality they wish.”
They all burst out laughing.
That morning’s guest left a short while later, but not before posing for an official photograph with His Holiness and an unofficial selfie with His Holiness’s Cat. After watching the retreating figure of his visitor, hands folded at his heart, the Dalai Lama crossed the room, lifted me up and walked to the window. From downstairs, there came once again the sound of car doors. Then the growl of an engine as the vehicle started.
“I know you don’t like the monsoon, and having to stay indoors,” His Holiness said. “But it will be over very soon. You will enjoy the weather then, my little Snow Lion. The best of the year.”
While I am a cat of many names, my very favorite is His Holiness’s own special one for me: in Tibet, the mythical Snow Lion is a being of great courage and joy.
Red tail-lights disappeared into the mist, as the visitor’s vehicle chugged cautiously across the courtyard.
And at that moment it didn’t matter that the weather was bleak or that I couldn’t go outside. As always, when being held by the Dalai Lama I was enveloped in the profound wellbeing that emerged from the presence of his oceanic benevolence. My purr rose in appreciation, and within a short while I had lost all sense of where my body and mind ended and His Holiness’s began. There was only the glow of loving kindness, gentle and pervading far beyond the two of us, an energy to bring joy to all who had the hearts to feel it.
After His Holiness had returned to his desk I was sitting on the sill once again, paws tucked under me. Through a break in the mist, I observed another visitor making his way slowly across the Namgyal courtyard. Someone with whom I’d struck up the warmest of friendships in recent months, but who I knew for a fact had never met the Dalai Lama. From the way he kept looking over at our building, he was evidently on his way to visit now.
What was the purpose of his unexpected call? And was the orderly behind him really carrying what I thought he was?
Chapter 1One week earlier
As kittens, we feel it often. All it takes is a windblown feather, an unexpected delicacy, or the alluring rush of water and instantly we are caught up in it. Wonderment. Enchantment. Being fully absorbed in the here and now.
By the time we reach senior status, way beyond the point of being impressed by such trivia, we have become knowing and indifferent. If we have been deeply hurt, and the scar tissue of our wounds has grown thick, we may be especially impervious to life’s simple joys.
But we have lost something, have we not? The ability to be enraptured by the world around us. To give ourselves totally to the moment, without reserve. To see things as if for the first time.
All of which begs the answer to some intriguing questions. Is it possible to recover the unaffected zest for life which once came so naturally? To become un-blasé? Can you and I, dear reader, awaken the kitten within?
Although I had no idea at the time, one tranquil morning as I dozed on top of the filing cabinet in the office of His Holiness’s two Executive Assistants, the day was about to bring an unexpected answer to this question. And it was delivered with a drama I would have done my utmost to avoid.
Tenzin, the consummate diplomat, was sitting at his computer, tapping out an email to the Chancellor of Germany. In jacket and tie, with a slight tang of carbolic about him from the soap with which he always washed his perfectly manicured hands, he always looked as though he had just stepped out of a meeting with a world leader, Secretary of State or some other VIP – which, in the age of online meetings, he often had.
At the desk opposite sat His Holiness’s Translator, Oliver. A large, jolly Englishman, with the clearest blue eyes sparkling behind his spectacles. Although Oliver is a Buddhist monk, he is also the son of a Church of England vicar, and possesses a radiant intelligence and goodness of heart that make him spiritually multilingual. With Tenzin, an irredeemable Anglophile, he shares a love of English breakfast tea, the BBC World Service – and an ardent enthusiasm for cricket.
Currently working on the foreword to a new book about the bardo realms, Oliver was unusually preoccupied that morning. As was Tenzin. There was none of the usual joking and chitchat. No time that day to analyze the Indian cricket team’s latest win over the home team in Perth, Australia. It was all screen staring and keyboard clicking, with barely a word to each other and none at all to me.
Bored and incurious about their activity, human behavior being inexplicable to rational felines, I must have dozed off for a while. Next thing I knew, as the time approached 11 am, Oliver left the office. He returned a short while later, holding under his arm the most alarming object in the whole of Namgyal Monastery: the cat carrier.
Where it was kept and precisely how it manifested, I neither knew nor cared. But I was shaken by the way it had made such a sudden and utterly unexpected appearance. The casual, almost jaunty way that Oliver was swinging it from under his arm onto his desk. How Tenzin was simultaneously standing and turning to where I lay, unsuspectingly. With ruthless efficiency, he had me in his carbolic-fingered grip. Oliver was holding the carrier door open.
In a trice, I was securely locked inside the infernal apparatus.
“Just your annual check-up, HHC.” Oliver leaned in to glimpse me through the cruel bars, as if their ambush was of little consequence.
I yowled miserably.
I continued to complain all the way to the vet clinic, but there are none so deaf as those who do not wish to hear. Once inside the chamber of horrors that is the consulting room, a new vet who described himself as a locum was pulling open my jaws and tugging at my eyelids, prodding my abdomen and subjecting me to that most grievous of all indignities – lifting my luxurious fluffy tail and inserting a cold thermometer.
“These need a trim,” he observed dispassionately, splaying my claws wide.
Oliver gave his immediate assent.
As the locum systematically cut every one of my talons – a liberty which Oliver well knew I would most certainly not have tolerated at home, but which I was helpless to avoid while pinned down on the butcher’s block – he continued with his clinical observations. “Their nails tend to wear less as they age. Has she become more sedentary these days?”
“HHC?” Oliver held his head to one side as he considered the question.
“How old is she?” he persisted, before Oliver had even answered.
“At least six.” Oliver was calculating from the time that he’d started working with His Holiness. “Eight, maybe?” he hazarded.
When he finally ended the wretched clipping, the vet stepped over to a computer screen. “First presented for vaccinations here ten years ago,” he announced.
“Ten?” Oliver was surprised.
“She’s getting on,” said the locum. “And with older cats, you need to watch out for their kidneys. If you’re not doing this already, I’d recommend cat biscuits for seniors. They have a good dose of protein and vitamin E. Also lower phosphorous to reduce kidney strain.”
Older cats? Getting on?! In mere minutes, I had been reduced from a perfectly content global celebrity to some frail geriatric with likely medical conditions. Who was this monstrous sadist in the white coat?
“Is she drinking more than in the past, would you say?” he persisted.
“Keep an eye on it. Kidney issues are common as cats age. I think we’d better run some blood tests.” He had inserted a needle into my leg before I’d even registered. “Not a bad idea when monitoring elderly cats.”
“Seems that you’ve become quite middle-aged, HHC.” Oliver tried making light of things as the locum retreated to his screen. Oliver was lifting the open cat carrier and guiding me back into it. On this occasion, I required no encouragement.
“Hmm,” the vet was updating his records. It was while tapping on the keyboard, face reflected in the ghostly white of the screen, that he almost absently uttered the sentence that would haunt me for a long time to come. Responding to what Oliver had just said, the words were so shocking, yet they were uttered so casually as though just commonplace. “You know, thirteen is a good age for a cat to reach. For a cat with her hip problems, she’s already had a good life.”
I didn’t hear anything after that. I paid no attention on the journey back to Namgyal. I didn’t meow once. Oliver may have thought that I was simply relieved to be going home. In truth, I was shaken to the core by what the vet had said.
Evidently, most of my life was already behind me and my best years on earth had already played out. Was there really nothing to look forward to, apart from kidney failure and cat biscuits for seniors? Was the only thing ahead of me inexorable decline, sickness and death?
As soon as we were home and I was set free from the accursed carrier, I stormed from the building in high dudgeon. I didn’t care how damp and foggy it was – I had to get out. Somewhere. Anywhere. After crossing Namgyal courtyard I was soon out the gates and heading along the road, tugged intuitively in a direction that had become habitual in recent months.
Next door to where we lived was a well-established garden, and at the center of its lawn a large and ancient cedar tree, beneath which was an inviting bench seat. I had passed many a happy hour in this garden – specifically, in the generous thicket of catnip which grew in one of the borders.
My destination that day was not the catnip, which was a sodden mess being the monsoon season. Nor the nursing home overlooking the garden, where I had become that most sought after of beings – the Therapy Cat. No, it was behind the nursing home verandah that I headed, across a kitchen garden profuse with vegetables, towards what had formerly been a large garden shed.
Even before I reached the shed, I could hear the soothing cadences of baroque music, despite the grey weather. I paused at the door for a while grooming myself, licking away the antiseptic scent of vet, my tongue sensing the strangely sharp edges of my freshly cut nails.
The man standing in the center of the room glanced over, observing my arrival but not allowing himself to be distracted by it, returning his attention to his easel. Which was exactly what I needed. Venturing inside, I soon reached my wicker chair, the one with the cushion, and made myself comfortable, before turning to study the artist at work.
The first time I’d visited, months earlier, had been a most unexpected experience – just the kind to delight a cat as curious as I. There he had stood, with a canvas in front of him, adding bold sweeps of color, moving between easel and the bench behind him loaded with paints, palettes and brushes. A Bach divertimento issued from an ancient, paint-smeared sound system in the corner.
A large man with a shock of white hair and a subversive glint about his large, brown eyes, I knew exactly who he was – just as he knew me. We were, in fact, already good friends. On previous visits to the nursing home, in a room full of dozing residents, Christopher had always been the most eager to coax me over, declaring me to be “an angel”. I reminded him of a cat he’d lived with for many years in the distant past.
He may have had blotchy skin and frayed cuffs, but he also seemed to have more life in him than most of the other residents. And something about him in particular intrigued me: brightly colored spots on his corduroy trousers, possessing a curious aroma.
It had been quite by chance the day when I had seen him walking along the path near the vegetable garden. Watching him undo the padlock on a shed door, then open it to reveal a place filled with light and color. Naturally, I had investigated.
What had struck me most, on that first visit to Christopher’s studio, was finding myself in a veritable treasure-trove of sensorial delights – and being given tacit approval to explore the place to my heart’s content. Then, just like today, Christopher glanced over and noted my presence, while continuing to work. I understood no unfriendliness in the absence of a greeting. He was not being unwelcoming. He was simply focused on other things, allowing me complete freedom to inspect the studio’s every nook and cranny.
Stepping inside, I had taken my time to investigate every unfamiliar object and pungent scent in this intriguing place. Evidently, it had once been a rambling garden shed before having extra windows and a skylight installed, sisal carpeting laid wall-to-wall, and furnished with an assortment of unmatched items – two wicker chairs, a high table and a corner counter with a small fridge and kettle. Without question, the most enthralling aspect at ground level was the lengthy tunnel created by painted boards and canvases leaning against the three walls facing Christopher. An extended cavern into which a cat might vanish without trace.
I was immediately drawn to the scent of oil paint on canvas, that earthy, distinctive but not unpleasant aroma. Opening my mouth in full vomeronasal mode, I stood for a long while, nose to canvas, taking it in. Then I explored the tunnel of mysteries, dark panels interspersed with slits of light. The multitude of odors – paint, sisal, glue and the ancient imprints of soil enhancers and composting mulch. It was an Aladdin’s cave of intrigue in which I immersed myself fully, coming out quite some time later.
Christopher was still painting, so I hopped onto one of the wicker chairs, soon to become my wicker chair, and followed his actions. I had never seen an artist in full flight before and he seemed engaged in a dance of sorts, moving to a dynamic that had nothing to do with the background Bach. Inspired by an energy to which I was oblivious; as I sat watching, he was utterly absorbed in his actions. The feeling I experienced reminded me of someone, but the vibrant novelty of this artist’s studio with its colors and light and medley of aromas meant that I couldn’t place who.
His frayed tweed jacket, the one he always wore in the residents’ lounge, was thrown over the back of the other wicker chair. In one pocket, I noted a well-thumbed paperback. From my vantage point, as I surveyed the many canvases leaning against the walls, I saw one that was separate from all the rest. It was framed in gold and stood alone on the only shelf on the whitewashed wall opposite – a portrait of a vivacious, dark-haired woman.
After a long while, Christopher broke away abruptly, doubling over in a fit of coughing. Once he’d recovered, he carefully placed his brush on the bench and turned to me, opening his arms with an extravagant flourish:
“The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are, you are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’”
“The Owl and the Pussycat, my dear Minou!” he continued, the words tumbling from his mouth. “Written by Edward Lear. But you know that, I’m sure. How I’ve longed to recite those words to my own feline. Just a dream, Miss Puss. At least, that’s what I thought. But here you are, so unexpectedly. From out of the ether. And not just any cat, but the most beautiful of beings with those gorgeous sapphire orbs.”
He reached to stroke my neck, just as he did in the residents’ lounge. I purred obligingly, wondering what to make of his extravagant words – not to mention, puzzled by the references to his dear Minou. A cat with whom he used to share his life, perhaps?
As a Mozart piano concerto rose to its grand finale, he was pottering in the corner, making himself a mug of tea. Once made, he settled into the wicker chair opposite the one I occupied, staring at the canvas on which he’d been working. He took a sip, before flashing me a glance.
“Oh, apologies, my dearest puss! Unaccustomed as I am to visitors, I’ve quite forgotten my manners.” Putting his mug down, he heaved himself from his chair with some effort and broke into another paroxysm of coughing, before going to the counter and returning with an offering of milk inside a jam jar lid. He placed it before me, reverentially, before watching with deep fascination as I lowered my head to drink.
I continued until I’d lapped up every last drop.
“It’s the simplest thing that gives joy, isn’t it?” his eyes glistened with affection as he spoke. “Offering a treat to a passing puss.” A mischievous glint appeared in his eyes as he said, “I do hope this may be sufficient inducement to persuade you to visit again.”
So intriguing was his artist’s studio and my freedom within it that no such inducement was needed. That cup of tea and lid of milk were to be the first of many, in what soon became a cherished routine.
When the Dalai Lama had to leave Dharamshala for several weeks, to oversee monastic exams in South India, I found myself spending many happy hours on the wicker chair, absorbed in this delightful new world of oil paints, Vivaldi, space and color, with Christopher the visual conjuror bringing forth sweeping landscapes and towering peaks, verdant arcadia and cascading waterfalls – or so he said. Because when I looked at the artworks he had finished, it was hard to guess.
“Abstraction,” he once explained. “Not for the ignorant nor the faint-hearted. But we don’t mind, do we? Nay, we thrive on it. All the world is a projection of mind, is it not, Mistress Babou?”
By now I had become used to the delightful if bewildering flow of words that he spoke, and the arcane terms of endearment he lavished on me. Unlike any other human I had encountered, I had come to learn that Christopher gave voice less to a sequence of thoughts than a general impression. A carnival of vibrant images and ideas, as hard for a cat to keep up with as the paint he so prolifically applied to canvases.
There was nothing abstract about the portrait of the woman, however. From time to time he’d break from what was on his easel, approach the framed image and pause, staring at it for the longest time. He might tilt his head to a different angle. Take a step or two one way or another, then review his work with a critical eye. Sometimes, very rarely, he might even reach with his brush and apply the tiniest speck of color, before standing back to survey the difference.
When we sat having tea in companionable silence, he was in the habit of leaning to where his jacket lay over the back of his chair, reaching inside the breast pocket and retrieving an envelope containing a handwritten letter, several pages long. I’d watch his eyes moving across every line, from beginning to end, with an intensity as though he were reading it for the very first time even though, from the depth of the page creases, it was evident that this was a letter which had been opened and closed countless times before.
He’d refold the letter with the greatest care, placing it back in the envelope and his jacket pocket, before leaning back in his chair and gazing contemplatively into the middle distance.
On one such occasion, I saw tears welling in his eyes. From the other chair, I reached out a front paw. The movement lifted him from his thoughts.
“Oh!” he leaned over to caress my neck. “What a sweet thing you are, my dearest ocelot. All those years spent burdened by failure. And guilt. Such a waste!” He broke off for a prolonged spasm of coughing. “Still, we made it in the end, didn’t we? Perhaps it was my karma to descend into Hades, for my own night sea journey. But here I am at the end of it all, at peace in the Himalayas with my very own Babou.”
One special dawn, when the first light silhouetted the mountains with an irresistible clarity and promise, I left my first-floor windowsill very early and ventured outside to breathe the clean fragrances of pine and Himalayan oak. His Holiness was still away, the apartment empty, and I found myself walking in the direction of the garden, then Christopher’s studio. Not that he would be there yet, would he?
But the door to his studio was open. And as I appeared, he turned to see me.
“Oh, Exsultate Jubilate! Pussy my love! You feel it too?”
“Of course you do. You are a creature of nature. Just as I seek an exemplar of pristine clarity and bliss, who should appear but the Sapphire Princess herself! We must make the most of this primordial dawn. Such a precious moment may never come again.”
He was fixing a fresh canvas to his easel and loading a palette with paints – blues and yellows and white. Working rapidly, with a burst of ebullience he was dancing again, completely focused, absorbed, at one with the moment.
Watching closely, I realized for the first time since I’d started visiting where the strongly reminiscent feeling came from. A connection perhaps so obvious that it had eluded me until now. For when he painted, what I sensed felt to me like His Holiness in meditation. He was experiencing no distinction between self and other, subject and object. There was only what was happening here and now, a flow of joy.
Of course Christopher’s mind was quite different from the Dalai Lama’s – and who was I to guess at the inner experiences of the two? What I could discern, however, was the parallel shift that had occurred. A sense of sublime oneness, in both cases, so powerful that it seemed to radiate beyond their physical forms and permeate the very space around them – in which I happened to be sitting.
That dawn as he painted, Christopher paid me much more attention than usual, frequently glancing to where I sat. It was a different kind of attention than when he was being conversational. More as if I were his source, his inspiration. He looked at me as though in thrall to his muse.
He worked solidly for several hours before putting down his brush. The moment he did, he broke into the most prolonged bout of deep coughing I’d ever witnessed, having to steady himself by holding onto the bench as his whole body was racked with convulsions.
When he finally recovered, he had turned quite pale.
The day that I sought refuge, following my most confronting of visits to the vet, I sat listening to Haydn and observing Christopher in his state of absorption. The same thing happened again – after the lengthiest period of concentration, Christopher suddenly buckled under the force of painful, heaving coughs.
On this occasion, there came the sound of footsteps hurrying on the path outside. Then the appearance of Marianne Ponter, nursing home manager, herself. A 50-something woman in formal jacket and elegantly coiffed dark hair, Marianne was soon hurrying to his side and helping him into an upright chair that Christopher had recently brought from the dining room.
As soon as he was seated and over the worst of the attack, she filled a glass of water and handed it to him. He thanked her, breathlessly. She rested a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Goes with the territory,” he told her, after a while.
“You’re doing very well,” she reassured him.
He gestured round the studio with the glass of water. “This has made all the difference,” he said. “For which the only thing I have to offer you is my heartfelt gratitude. I wish it could be more. I wish that I hadn’t completely run out of money. I’m painfully aware that I owe you 3 lakh …” He gestured behind him.
On the small shelf next to the kettle was a stack of brown envelopes. Every two weeks, a fresh one was delivered. I’d been there when it happened, one of Mr. Naidoo’s assistants from Accounts knocking on the shed door, envelope in hand. Christopher nodding in acknowledgement. The assistant walking wordlessly across the room and adding the envelope to the pile already there.
Unlike the envelope in his jacket pocket, I had never seen Christopher open a single brown one. They remained, untouched, where they were.
“You’re not to worry about that,” Marianne was decisive. “The Board has agreed for you to stay on compassionate grounds. That’s settled.”
“And I am enormously grateful to you for persuading them.” Christopher contained an outburst of coughing, “I shouldn’t be imposing for too much longer.”
Compassionate grounds? I was disconcerted. Not much longer?
“All these years you’ve been a resident,” Marianne moved the conversation on. “And only now you tell us you were an artist. We all thought you were a house painter!”
“I was,” he nodded. “For many years. But before that, as a young man in England, I studied with some of the greats. There were exhibitions in Cork Street. Serious collectors. A couple of paintings shown at the Royal Academy.”
“I still sometimes have a fantasy about that early promise developing to full and glorious flower. About my work becoming wildly sought after.”
Marianne glanced about at all the paintings. “If that were to happen, all these would fetch you a fortune!”
“I know!” he glowed.
“More money than one would know what to do with!”
“Oh, I would know what to do with it!” he was ebullient. “A benevolent fund for elderly artists. A place of sanctuary, just like the sanctuary you have given me.”
“What a generous vision. The Christopher Ackland Benevolent Fund?”
He shook his head. “Oh, that’s far too stuffy. More like The Sanctuary for Broke Old Bohemians.”
Christopher pondered this with a smile, before his expression changed. “Truth is, sometimes it’s not much fun being an artist. After my early success, it all became too much and I lost my nerve. Critics didn’t like the direction I was taking, but I didn’t know what else I could possibly do. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the fear of failure. So I fled the country. It was cowardly, I know. At the time, I felt I had no choice but to disappear.” His expression was strangely haunted. “I don’t know
why I’m telling you all this,” he was shaking his head. “Haven’t spoken about it for years. Anyway, I lived in Europe for a while, before finding my way to India. Eventually painting the homes of the New Delhi nouveau riche.” “Before arriving in the mountains?” Marianne prompted a happy resolution.
“When I heard about your place here, I had to come. Fancy being able to retire right next door to the Dalai Lama!”
She nodded, “Why the return to fine art?”
“Emphysema,” Christopher smiled ruefully. Before adding after a pause, “There’s nothing like a terminal diagnosis to make you realize the value of every single day.”
There it was, beyond all doubt. Plainly stated. The coughing spasms weren’t simply a temporary vexation, or the indignity of old age. They had a much more sinister significance.
“For the first time since I was a child, I’ve done what I love, without caring what anyone thinks.” Christopher gestured towards his canvases, “Without worrying about buyers or critics or gallery owners. I’ve painted for joy.”
She was nodding.
“Have a look around.”
Marianne was hesitant, stepping towards the canvases ranged around the walls. “I’m no art expert,” she confessed, looking from one to another.
“Don’t have to be,” he shrugged. “It’s what you like that matters. This is my most recent,” he gestured to three paintings laid out on the high bench. “It’s a triptych of the Himalayas. I’m calling it Blue Shadows.”
Marianne walked to the bench and took in the paintings. From where she was standing, they were upside down, the sky at the bottom of the canvases and the mountains at the top. Christopher flashed me a knowing look. Marianne didn’t seem to realize.
Abstraction, dear reader.
“Very nice,” she said, glancing about before spotting the portrait of the woman in the giltwood frame. “And who is this?” she asked, relieved to find something she recognized.
“Caroline. Love of my life. I left her behind too, more fool me. But I never forgot her. And after the doctor told me, you know, how long I’ve got, I decided that I mustn’t die with regrets. So I managed to get hold of her address and wrote to apologize. She sent me back the most beautiful letter. And a small photograph,” he tilted his chin towards the painting, “which I used to paint her.”
Marianne was nodding. “Free spirit?”
“You can see that?” Christopher’s face lit up.
“Right away. First thing that struck me.” She turned, meeting his eyes with an appreciative smile. Before she caught sight of me, observing them both from my wicker chair.
“Ah yes,” Christopher followed her gaze. “Every artist must have a studio cat. You know Kandinsky had his Vaske, and Picasso his Minou. Salvador Dali had an ocelot called Babou.”
“Species of wild cat. From the Americas.”
Marianne raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know about that. Or about artists having a feline affinity.”
“Established tradition, my dear. No sooner had you so kindly arranged for me to move in here than this little one appeared. She has the most amazing presence. Very tuned in. And the most extraordinary sense of timing.”
Marianne looked at his indulgent expression for a while before saying quietly, “You do know who she is, don’t you?”
“We’ve been introduced,” he nodded. “On her rounds as our most esteemed Therapy Cat.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “She does that very nicely, in her voluntary capacity. But as well as being our Therapy Cat, do you know where she comes from?”
When he didn’t answer, she took a step closer. “We don’t want this generally known for reasons of her own safety,” she said, looking at me. “She visits us from next door.”
Then, as it took him a while to catch up with her, “This is the Dalai Lama’s Cat.”
“Good heavens!” Christopher was euphoric. “My sainted aunt!”
“I’m finding this hard …”
“Such a privilege!”
“I’ll say,” agreed Marianne.
Christopher’s rapture was complete. Staring at me, incredulously, it was a while before he could speak. “It’s almost like receiving the blessing of His Holiness himself!”
As a cat who prefers playing the part of the observer rather than the observed, and finding myself the subject of sudden and enthusiastic attention, I felt that I had little alternative, dear reader. Hopping off the chair, I headed out the studio door at speed.
The two of them burst out laughing.
I had continued to visit and Christopher had continued to paint and talk and even sing very briefly. But the coughing bouts became more frequent and prolonged, and afterwards he’d remain bent over, clinging to the bench or chair for support, and it was the longest time before he could stand upright again.
My arrival always had a pleasing electrifying effect on him. If anything, more so with time. He waxed lyrical about the inspiring impact of my presence. Once he knew my identity, he wondered aloud if what he was experiencing was some kind of energy transfer; he was at the lowest physical ebb of his life but, paradoxically, he felt he was only now realising his artistic heights. He declared that the painting he had started on that dawn visit was his most accomplished ever. It was work he would have loved to have created all those years ago, in his darkest moments. But he’d had to complete his night sea journey to find his way here, so far from his place of departure. Was that, perhaps, the point?
He mused at some length about whether he should offer this, his greatest work, to the Dalai Lama, given how greatly he had been inspired by him, one way or another.
The tea breaks grew longer, always accompanied by treats for me. On one occasion, he’d pulled out the well-worn paperback from his jacket. It had a photograph of the Dalai Lama on the front, speaking into a yellow microphone, and the title Mahamudra.
“Your man has wise things to say about our minds – and our reality,” he glanced over. “This book, more than any other, gave me back my sanity. If only I was capable of meditating.”
My last visit to Christopher had been the most disconcerting. The studio had been empty. When he had appeared down the path from the nursing home, he was walking with a strange contraption on wheels, and had tubes running into his nostrils.
“Oxygen, Miss Pussy. O Pussy, my love.” He sat down heavily, as soon as he reached the studio. “Such is the sharpness of my descent. You know, one of the few fears I have ever felt in life is the terror of drowning. But alas, that’s almost certainly how I will go.”
The present moment
Through a gap in the mist, I watched Christopher make his way to our building, progress slow and posture bowed. The orderly, a few steps behind him, was carrying what looked like the painting, now completed.
He wasn’t using the oxygen tank, but between car and building he had to stop to rest. And it was the longest time after he disappeared from view before there was a knock on the door and an announcement, this time by Oliver, who ushered the visitor in before stepping into the background.
Christopher brought his hands together and bowed deeply to His Holiness. “I am so deeply grateful that you agreed to see me,” his breathing was labored and he struggled to contain a cough. He was gazing at the Dalai Lama, as so many visitors do, with a strange mix of incredulity that he really was standing in the presence of one of the most famous people in the world, and at the same time succumbing to the irresistible tide of benevolent wellbeing in which he felt embraced.
I knew that he had also noticed me. He flashed a glance towards the windowsill on which I sat, whiskers tingling at this new situation in which we found ourselves. One in which I knew formality would prevent him from bursting out with O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love or other florid endearments. But he had seen me, and I had seen him, and he had seen me seeing him, and our connection resumed.
“I would like to make you an offering, Your Holiness.”
The Dalai Lama nodded. The usual protocol was for a visitor to present a white scarf or khata to His Holiness, which he would then place back over the neck of the guest, thereby returning their gift, augmented immeasurably by his whispered blessing.
Christopher had brought no white khata today, but from the corridor stepped the orderly I recognized from the nursing home. He was carrying the painting.
The Dalai Lama indicated that the orderly should place it on a table, in good light. It was quite unlike any art ever presented before in this room. The ultimate expression of abstraction, you might say, because it didn’t seem to be of anything at all. At least, nothing specific. There were no mountains, forests or waterfalls. In yellows and whites and the faintest blues it was, rather, a panoramic impression of radiant light. Boundless space.
“It’s called Primordial Dawn and I would like to give it to you, Your Holiness. Not least of all because you inspired me to paint it.”
The Dalai Lama had been standing, palms together at his heart, studying the painting. With childlike wonder he stepped closer, staring at the thick lashings of paint on canvas. Leaning into it, he breathed the scent of the oils – just as I had, on my first visit to the studio. His was a multisensory appreciation. An awed discovery and concentration which filled filling the room with joy.
“This is magnificent!” he turned to Christopher eventually. “Quite extraordinary!”
Tears welled up in Christopher’s eyes. Could there be any greater acclaim?
“Pristine consciousness,” His Holiness confirmed.
Swallowing, Christopher nodded.
“I have never seen it done like this before. Visually. It is wonderful!” he said chuckling. Christopher couldn’t help chuckling too.
“Why did you say that I am the inspiration?” he inquired.
“Well,” Christopher shot a glance to where I was sitting on the sill. “A lot because of your book.” He retrieved the paperback from his pocket.
With a curious expression, the Dalai Lama held his hand out in request, his mala beads dangling from his arm.
It was Christopher’s turn to be surprised, as he handed it over. His Holiness flicked through its pages, taking in how extremely well-worn it was, inspecting the highlighting and margin notes, evidence that this was the most studied of books.
As he paused on one page, taking in a particular sentence, Christopher couldn’t resist quoting it: “If you wish to realize the meaning that is beyond intellect, with nothing to be done, root out your limited awareness and settle starkly into pure awareness. Plunge into the waters of this pristine lucidity, unsullied by any stain of conceptual thinking.”
“Good, good,” smiled the Dalai Lama. “You have memorized these quotes, yes?”
His Holiness fanned through pages, allowing them to fall open on another highlighted sentence. “Page 288?” he queried, eyes twinkling.
“Without holding the mind either too tightly or too loosely, we have it soar off into its clear light state with clarity and sharpness and then let it glide in a relaxed manner without exercising mindfulness or alertness in any extensive, frenetic way,” he recited.
“Excellent! This is like examination, yes? Like you are taking your monastic qualifications.” Mischievously, the Dalai Lama let the book fall open again. “Page 121?”
“A favorite,” replied Christopher. “Just as any mass of clouds that appears in the sky both originates from and dissolves back into the sky, likewise all appearances of anything that exists both originate from and dissolve back into subtlest clear light mind.”
Expression turning serious, the Dalai Lama closed the book and respectfully returned it to Christopher. Then he gestured towards the painting, “I can understand how you came to do this.”
“I hope you will accept it,” confirmed Christopher.
His Holiness paused. “Namgyal Monastery is not a gallery, a museum with elaborate security” he said, concerned about what he evidently perceived to be the very great financial value of the painting. “But on behalf of us all, I accept with our heartfelt thanks. It will make, I think, a good welcome for our visitors.” He brought his palms together.
“I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. You see, Your Holiness, I am a dying man. I don’t have long to live. Knowing that you are willing to receive my painting is very meaningful to me.”
For a long while, as the Dalai Lama held his gaze, it felt as though we were all caught in a vortex of overwhelming compassion. An experience of the radiant clarity Christopher had already expressed, in this moment being imbued with transcendental bliss.
His Holiness was gesturing towards the pocket in which Christopher had returned the book. “You already know the true nature of reality. When your time comes, meditate on this. You can look forward with confidence to the dawning of the clear light of death.”
Following his words intently, Christopher’s expression turned to one of disquiet. After a pause, he could no longer contain his anguish. “But I can’t meditate!” he exclaimed, as if the Dalai Lama had just ordered him to do the impossible. “I know the concepts, the theory,” he was apologetic. “It’s just that I can’t experience them.”
The Dalai Lama looked thoughtful for a long while, before turning back to the painting and studying it. “When you painted this,” he asked Christopher, “what were you thinking?”
Christopher was unprepared for the question. “I … I don’t really … It’s not like … How to put this …” He struggled for expression, before eventually saying, “When I’m painting, it’s not like I’m thinking. Not in the normal way. I’m only focused on what I am painting.”
“You focus on the object?” asked His Holiness.
“You are not wondering what color? Which brush?”
“That becomes instinctive,” said Christopher. “It’s hard to put into words. I … I just … I lose myself to it.”
“You lose your … self?” The Dalai Lama smiled quietly.
Emotion tugged at Christopher’s lips, as his understanding began to dawn.
“You become non-dual with the object?” queried His Holiness.
Christopher swallowed heavily as he nodded.
His Holiness was describing a state of deep, meditative concentration, in which one’s focus is so complete that there is no longer any sense of a meditator perceiving an object of meditation. There is instead only a singular experience of the object. A non-dualistic absorption in which self and time fall away.
It was a while before the Dalai Lama added, “I would like to request a commission. Only I can’t pay for it,” he chuckled.
“Of course, Your Holiness.”
“Amitabha Buddha. You know him?”
Christopher was nodding. “The red-colored Buddha?’”
“The Buddha of Infinite Light and Life,” the Dalai Lama confirmed, before turning to murmur something to Oliver, who was still standing at the door. Oliver left the room on some kind of errand.
“I would like you to paint his portrait. Full size,” His Holiness gestured towards Christopher’s canvas, Primordial Dawn.
“It would be the honor of my life,” Christopher was both surprised and, at the same time, strangely exalted.
When Oliver reappeared with a sandalwood wrist mala, the Dalai Lama held it between his clasped hands and blew a breath of blessing on it, before offering it to his visitor. “My gift to you,” he said. “To recite the mantra of Amitabha. Let me give you the mantra.”
Three times, His Holiness recited the mantra: “Om Amitabha hrih.”
Three times, Christopher repeated it after him.
This is the sacred transmission by which mantras are offered from guru to disciple and by which a bond is made which will always connect the two – not only to one another, but to all the practitioners who have come before and will arise in the future. An energetic portal is opened, not only to Buddha Amitabha, but to the entire lineage of Amitabha practitioners.
“Now you have the mantra,” the Dalai Lama confirmed. “One of our Geshes here at Namgyal, Geshe Wangpo, has a class every Tuesday night. Next Tuesday he is teaching a special class. I highly recommend that you go.”
From the sidelines, Oliver approached the two, signaling that the audience must come to an end. Christopher bowed in prostration, hands at his heart. “Thank you, thank you, Your Holiness. I don’t feel so afraid.”
The Dalai Lama reached out, taking Christopher’s large, blotchy hands between his own and gazing directly at him. “You have nothing to fear from death,” he said with conviction. “A pure land awaits you.”
Leaning forward so that the Dalai Lama’s forehead was touching his visitor’s, the two of them were held together in silent communion for the longest time.
Christopher stifled a sob as he stepped back. As he turned to leave, His Holiness asked, “When you paint, you are not always alone?”
Christopher couldn’t help once again glancing in my direction, as he shook his head.
“Sometimes, this one is with you?” His Holiness gestured towards me.
“You are clairvoyant,” said Christopher, somewhat tearfully.
“Just a simple monk,” the Dalai Lama chuckled. “When she comes home, I have noticed the smell of oil paint,” he said. “Now I have discovered where the smell comes from.”
It was Christopher’s turn to chortle. “She is an inspiration,” he said.
A short while later they left the room, Oliver closing the door on the way out. Christopher broke into a fit of severe coughing.
That night I lay at the end of His Holiness’s blanket, purring gently while he sat up in bed reading. It was always one of my favorite moments of the day, just the two of us in the soft glow of his bedroom, a place of safety, warmth and reflection.
Eventually, the Dalai Lama stopped reading, placed the book carefully on his bedside table and looked down at me, as he always did before turning out the light.
“I hear your check-up at the vet last week was useful,” he spoke softly.
It was the first time he’d referred to the visit – not, I was certain, because it had slipped his mind, but because he knew that I needed time to absorb what had happened. And, as so often with His Holiness, although the words he used were simple, the idea he expressed was profound. And almost the opposite of what you might expect. But I had already found for myself that it was startlingly true.
At the time, I most certainly hadn’t thought of the vet’s pronouncements as “useful”. Who wants to be told by a man in a white coat that you have far fewer days ahead of you than behind? That the quality of your life is in irreversible decline? That the life you take for granted dangles from the most tenuous of threads?
But as I had discovered through Christopher, the value of life depends far less on its length than by what you do with it. On whether you value each precious day which it is your privilege to witness, or take it for granted. On your capacity to make the very most of whatever abilities you have to give joy to others, without fear or discouragement. That is what makes the difference between a meaningful life and one which passes by in an unexamined blur.
“It is a precious gift to realize life’s impermanence,” continued His Holiness. “Not to avoid or pretend otherwise, but to truly value it. Every single day, even the foggy ones. Then we can live with zest. Like little kittens,” he reached down to tickle my neck.
Grabbing his fingers with a paw, I bit them playfully.
“And when we die,” he murmured, lying back, hand reaching for the light switch. “It is like this.” In an instant, we were in complete darkness. “If we have had a happy and useful life, well then, tomorrow when we wake up, we will find happiness and purpose too.”
First, it is ridiculed.
Second, it is violently opposed.
Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
—Arthur Schopenhauer (Philosopher, 1788—1860)
The Day Before
No one could remember when the guru came to live at the top of the mountain. Some distance out of the small but picturesque town of Omni, his home was little more than a summer shack. He had no phone, TV or radio. He subsisted on an austere diet of vegetables and who knows what, from the modest stipend he earned teaching meditation. He drank no alcohol, nor was he ever seen buying the kind of tasty indulgences that most people found necessary for a feeling of contentment. A man of indeterminate age who looked fifty-something but may well have been older, he was a being of few needs. But if asked who was the happiest person they knew, the good townsfolk of Omni—and even the not-so-good ones—would immediately and unanimously have answered: “Lama Tashi.”
Although his home was secluded, not far from Rocky Mountain National Park, the guru was no recluse. He held weekly classes at the Lone Pine Meditation Center. A few times a month he’d come into town to collect his frugal provisions. Guiding a shopping cart round the grocery store, when he encountered another person he always made eye contact, nodded in acknowledgement, and smiled. And at such moments, a remarkable thing happened. The person meeting his eyes would melt.
It didn’t matter what state of mind they were in. Whether they were hurrying or weary or diligently working their way through their shopping list. When they encountered Lama Tashi they experienced a sudden jolt. An unexpected and powerful reminder about who and what they truly were. It was hard to put this experience into words. How, with a single glance, they came to recognize an important truth about themselves. It was as if this man effortlessly saw beyond the appearance they usually took themselves to be, and reflected back a more panoramic reality. Whatever trials they may be facing, whatever the constraints that so preoccupied them became like mere froth on the ocean surface—ephemeral and inconsequential compared to the boundless reality below. And so benevolent was Lama Tashi’s expression, so wholehearted his acceptance that they’d feel an up-welling of joy. In his warm, brown eyes was all the reassurance they needed that, beneath the surface, all was well.
Such was the effect of Lama Tashi’s presence that, even in the early days, he was never on the receiving end of the apprehension which members of small communities often felt about outsiders. Lama Tashi had Asian features, wore red robes and never made any pretense that while living in their world he was self-evidently not of it. But he was never shunned for being different. On the contrary, he was actively sought out.
Pauline Taylor, who lived with a menagerie of rescue animals on the outskirts of town, kept an eye out for Lama Tashi’s ancient, lime-green Volvo on the road into town, leaving home at the most opportune moment to engineer an encounter with him. Tears welling in her eyes, she told anyone who cared to listen that she had never felt such unconditional love as the time she’d first bumped into Lama Tashi in the Household Detergents aisle.
Professor Hawke, retired from Princeton, who refused to slum it intellectually with just about everyone, used to collar Lama Tashi any time he saw him, insisting he join him for coffee at The Good Roast, and demand answers to arcane questions of quantum mechanics.
Even Margarita Moore, whose staunch views on anyone who wasn’t Born Again, heterosexual, and a vigorous supporter of the Second Amendment were well known, was once seen holding hands with Lama Tashi outside her church, ardently agreeing that there is only one ultimate reality, and if we wish to experience it, first we must let go of our tightly-held view of self. In that moment, what the guru said seemed—even to her—to be so overwhelmingly obvious that she couldn’t possibly disagree. Within hours, as the impact of his presence began to dissipate, she slid back into her habitual convictions. But at the time what an extraordinary vision it had been to behold!
So popular was Lama Tashi around town that people joked how an endorsement by the guru on the mountain would guarantee electoral success. When someone had questioned if he might himself consider running for office his face had crinkled, silvering goatee wobbled, and he had belly-laughed with appreciative gusto, as if the suggestion was deliberately and hilariously idiotic. Which in a kind of way it was. But in another kind of way, wasn’t.
The idea of having Lama Tashi as their representative in City Hall or Congress or even—why the heck not?—the Senate, was an idea that once suggested refused to go away. From time to time someone would ask him, “Would you consider being our Mayor, Lama Tashi?” Or “Would you run for Congress?” And he always replied in the same, cryptic manner. Meeting his questioner in the eye with a warmly encouraging expression he would say, “You are asking the wrong question, my friend. It is important to ask a useful question if we wish to receive a useful answer.”
While Lama Tashi was no hermit, he didn’t dawdle when he came to town, nor did he frequent the coffee shops or restaurants unless practically dragged there by the likes of Professor Hawke. As a result, no one had much idea about the practices that had given rise to his particular presence, that seemingly magical aura he emanated wherever he went. Over the years, on the few occasions he had been asked what he believed, he answered in a way designed to benefit the person asking, using words offering that most precious of all gifts: hope. To Kathy Branton, a young woman who concealed an abused childhood beneath a prickly exterior, he said simply that he believed in loving-kindness. Had anyone else mouthed such a saccharine sentiment, Kathy would have bristled. But so unfeigned was the guru’s presence, so unreserved the compassion in his eyes, that she came away feeling curiously uplifted.
Asked by Maria Flavio, a lapsed and very guilty Catholic, he had pointed upwards to where the spring sky was a vaulted sweep of pure blue from one horizon to the other. “We are like this,” he told her. “Perfectly clear. No matter what clouds pass through, or how long they remain, they have no power to taint our true nature. That always remains pristine and radiant.” As Maria had walked away from the encounter she felt a sublime lightness, as if a burden she had been unwittingly carrying around on her shoulders for her whole life had been suddenly and unexpectedly removed.
Sometimes, Lama Tashi didn’t use words at all. Beckoned by Darius Styles, Gwen and Angelo’s teenage son who suffered from cerebral palsy, Lama Tashi stepped over to where the boy was slumped in his wheelchair in dappled sunshine outside a convenience store, waiting for his mother. Physically, Darius’s body was misshapen but there was little wrong with his mind. He had seen Lama Tashi around town before, in his distinctive robes. As the guru approached, Darius asked a question in sounds the lama couldn’t possibly unravel—at least, not by way of hearing. But it didn’t matter. Lama Tashi reached out, taking him by his right hand, and looked into his eyes.
To begin with Darius was awkwardly self-conscious, and not simply on account of being in the presence of a stranger wearing strange clothes. Being more sensitive than most to non-verbal communication, there was something about the simple goodness of the guru he found, at first, almost too much to bear.
But after a while, Darius looked up to meet his gaze. And when he did, it wasn’t long before he was smiling also. Still holding onto the lama with his own right hand, he shifted himself in his chair so that with his left he was able to reach up and, with the tips of his fingers, touch his heart.
Lama Tashi nodded.
It had been one of the very few unchaperoned exchanges Darius had had in his life. And the most meaningful.
In such ways, Lama Tashi’s constant offering to the people among whom he lived, was his gift of hope. Hope to inspire insight and self-acceptance. Hope to create positive change. Just as he defied the usual conventions of belief, there was similar ambiguity about why he had chosen to be part of their particular community. To participants at the Lone Pine Meditation Center he would say that he was there to help them experience the true nature of their own minds. To Tom and Tina Jackson, his Vulture Peak Drive neighbors, he explained that his cabin was an ideal place to meditate.
The only being to whom he revealed more of the truth was his cabin companion, a Siamese cat named Shanti. Like so much else in Lama Tashi’s life, Shanti hadn’t arrived through any deliberate act on his part and instead had spontaneously appeared. One day she simply stepped through the open window when he was meditating and curled up next to him. She never chose to leave.
From time to time Lama Tashi reached out to where Shanti was basking in the summer sun on his windowsill. Or, in the evenings, to where she might be toasting herself in front of the fire. “Ah yes, this is the most beautiful place to wait, isn’t it, my dear Shanti?” he stroked her luxuriant tummy. “The most perfect place to bide our time.”
What, exactly, they were biding their time for was not a subject on which he elaborated. Nor did she much care, so long as he continued biding it with her. And stroking her tummy, of course.
The afternoon before that most extraordinary of days, Lama Tashi set off in the direction of his neighbor’s house. Living at the furthest end of Vulture Peak Drive, somewhat higher than the Jacksons’ residence, meant that when he’d first moved in he had become quite familiar with the Jacksons, from a distance, some weeks before they had actually met. Tom, tall, broad- shouldered and ramrod straight carried an air of invincibility about him, looking every inch the recently retired, high-ranking military man. Tina, trim, vivacious and plucky, was always on the
- When she wasn’t creating extravagant floral arrangements for weddings, baptisms or other
The Jacksons were the kind of people whom other friends from the forces constantly dropped in to see. Their home was Party Central. During those early years there had seldom been a weekend night when their balcony—overlooking the same panoramic vista as Lama Tashi’s modest porch—wasn’t filled with former comrades and their spouses, with much back-thumping, shoulder-pounding conviviality among the men.
Unflagging entertainment along the mountain didn’t disrupt the lama’s routine. The occasional few stray bars of music, or laughter that carried on the night breeze was never enough to keep him from sleeping—he was usually in bed by 9 pm. And when he woke for his first meditation session of the day at 3 am, surveying the pristine tranquility of the moonlit valley, it was as if he was the only person in the world.
Over the decades, the socializing next door had fallen away, Tom had begun to stoop and Tina slowed down. There was no escaping the aging process, not that ageing alone accounted for the changes that had come over Tom—and, as a consequence, Tina. There was a more troubling reason why the former Colonel would spend so many solitary hours on the balcony staring into the night, a tumbler of bourbon beside him.
Something he had been able to rationalize, suppress, or ignore through most of his working life was taking advantage of the stillness of his retirement to emerge from its basement trunk and slide into waking consciousness. Something that had only ever revealed itself before in his worst nightmares would creep out at unexpected moments—and once glimpsed, devour all of his attention. Horrific, sickening, misery-inducing, it was something he found hard enough to admit to himself let alone anyone else.
Lama Tashi had seen it clearly the very first time they’d met. That occasion had been a couple of months after his arrival, wheeling his trash can to the end of the road for the weekly collection. Tom had just transported the Jackson’s own can on the back of a macho-looking pick-up truck. Turning to find his new neighbor approaching, he had instinctively assumed his unassailable, military man pose. When Lama Tashi met Tom’s clear blue eyes, he immediately saw what was in his heart—and his expression was filled with compassion.
Abashed, Tom hadn’t known how to respond. Never had he found himself so completely transparent, especially with regards to that worst of all horrors. He was so successful at hiding it, he doubted that anyone even suspected it was there. Now, caught unawares by a man of self-evident virtue, he didn’t know how to react. He certainly wasn’t prepared for the rush of benevolence from Lama Tashi’s heart, which made him feel both awkwardly self-conscious and utterly unworthy. So he had retreated behind a veil of elaborate courtesy, insisting on giving Lama Tashi a ride back to his house, talking all the way about the city’s garbage collection policy.
From the next week on, Tom always stopped by to collect his neighbor’s trash can and return it to him, once emptied, later in the day. After the worst winter snowfalls, he’d clear away the snow on Vulture Peak Drive, not only to his own front door, but to the lama’s too.
Had he been asked to explain himself, Tom would have drawn himself up and spoken about the importance of being a good neighbor. But it went very much deeper than that. Once, when repairing his own stone fence Tom had, without prompting, spent a week repairing Lama Tashi’s. And when the lama had gone on a two month visit to the Himalayas, to reconnect with his elderly guru, his colleagues and family, he had returned to find his cabin newly and securely insulated, protecting him from the worst of the arctic winter freeze as well as the summer heat. Lama Tashi always expressed his heartfelt appreciation for his neighbor’s kindness, although both he and Tom knew that it wasn’t his gratitude that Tom yearned for. It was instead something he had so far been unable to bring himself to express.
Lama Tashi had tried to reach out to him over the months, then years. There had been exchanges when he’d as good as physically yanked Tom away from the mesmerizing specter. The irony didn’t escape the lama that it was the man who lived closest to him, who did more than most in practical ways to support him, and who was in the direst need of his guidance, who was also the most impervious to his efforts.
Enough! Understanding the unprecedented, seismic shift about to occur, Lama Tashi knew that Tom was about to have the best chance he ever would to be rid of the monster that was slowly crushing the life out of him. Past encouragement had failed. Time to change tack.
Lama Tashi knocked three times on the Jackson’s front door. It was a while before the lock turned and Tom was standing in the doorway. Once again, there was the same meeting of eyes. The same recognition in Lama Tashi’s expression as he reflected, with deep concern, how pervasive the darkness in Tom had become.
Tom showed him through the hallway, a light-filled room with a high, windowed ceiling, in the center of which stood a large table. In former times the table would have been dominated by one of Tina’s sweeping floral arrangements, a festival of vibrant blossoms and verdant greenery. Today, it stood bare, a great, empty, highly-polished slab. Tom led him to the lounge which opened onto the balcony, the room which had once been the epicenter of the Jackson’s social whirl. Its walls were bedecked with photographs of battleships, striker aircraft and, mounted in pride of place, a pair of Enfield muskets from the Civil War. In a far corner stood an upright piano, never played. The balcony outside was open and strangely stark, denuded of the once- lush hanging gardens of Babylon, as Tom had ironically referred to his wife’s creations.
“I’ve come to ask if you would do me a favor,” began Lama Tashi, once they were sitting. “I may be needed elsewhere from tomorrow, for a few days. I wonder if you could please visit the cabin, and if I’m not there, feed Shanti?”
Tom nodded. “Of course.”
For a few minutes they discussed details of timing, where Shanti’s food was stored, and her preference for variety. Her water, and the means by which she came and went from the cabin. Then talk turned to general chit chat about the early warmth of spring this year and its effect on the black bears who were coming out of hibernation earlier than usual.
The small talk ran its course. There was an awkward silence. It was now or never.
Lama Tashi turned, gazing toward the balcony where Tom sat alone, night after night. “I see you in the evenings,” he said. Tom followed his eyes as if joining him to study the diminished version of himself, slumped in his chair. “I like a bourbon,” he observed, tilting his head in the direction of his bar in the corner of the room, showcasing a row of spirit bottles lined up in regimental precision against a mirrored wall. Lama Tashi surveyed the many bottles. “Alcohol,” he nodded, sagely. “Sometimes, I think, the effect is like meditating.” Tom’s eyebrows twitched sharply upwards. “How d’you get that?” “It doesn’t change a thing,” he explained. “But it may change the way you feel about a thing. Temporarily.”
Tom knew exactly what Lama Tashi was up to, trying again to lever open that particular door. He made no reply, looking instead at the floor with an avoidance that had become reflexive. “It helps you sleep, yes?” the lama attempted.
Tom didn’t say anything for a long while before grunting, “Anesthetic.”
Lama Tashi nodded. “Pain relief.”
“You’re probably going to tell me I should meditate instead,” Tom flashed a look of open defiance. “But sitting still for hours isn’t my bag. I’m a man of action.”
They were on the same page now. The subject of Tom’s pain acknowledged along with his recalcitrance. And only because of his heartfelt compassion, Lama Tashi did the last thing Tom expected. While Tom studied him through blue eyes so light they were almost vacant of color, Lama Tashi reflected back an altogether different reality.
Gone was the benevolent acceptance with which Tom was familiar and instead was power in a gaze the likes of which he had never felt before. More intimidating than the most threatening he’d encountered in the military. More ominous because it confronted him with the reality he’d spent decades trying his utmost to avoid: the torment of his own mind. An unfathomable horror to which he’d been witness decades earlier and from which there was no escape. A to-the-bone dread which had become his all-consuming preoccupation. In his neighbor’s eyes, this was all reflected back to him with an objectivity that conveyed an urgent and powerful warning. No longer could he avoid the appalling recognition that however deeply troubled he felt right now, it was as nothing compared to what lay ahead if something didn’t change.
What would he do when there was no balcony to sit on, no bourbon to anesthetize? After he died when his mind, instinctively drawn to the horror, became completely absorbed in it? Unfettered from a body, without anchor to a place where he could return for even temporary relief, he was confronted not so much by some Hieronymus Bosch nightmare as by his own future. Was this not the very definition of hell—the relentless experience of intense pain without cessation? One he may have glimpsed and tried to discount before but which was reflected inescapably in the overwhelming wrathfulness of Lama Tashi’s gaze.
“I agree that action is needed,” Lama Tashi said after a while, in what felt like from a different lifetime.
Deeply disconcerted, Tom saw his neighbor’s expression segue back to its usual tranquil demeanor. Never had he guessed that the mild-mannered guru possessed such core-shaking power. With a shudder, he recognized why Lama Tashi had always shown him such compassion—not only because of what tormented him now, but because of what he understood lay ahead. It was going to get even worse.
Lama Tashi knew that he had Tom’s undivided attention. “Nothing in the future is decided,” he said, speaking directly to his thoughts. “It is up to you to create the causes for the effects that you wish to experience. You create your own reality.”
There was a lengthy pause while Tom absorbed what had just happened. Staring at him he asked, “What are you suggesting?”
Later, before going to bed, Lama Tashi stood outside his home looking into the darkness—the space which, for his neighbor, was a theatre of horror. The source of baleful specters that came to torment Tom, that held him transfixed by dread, yet somehow compelled to return night after night, bourbon in hand.
Lama Tashi’s own experience could hardly be more different. To him the hours of darkness were a time of wonder, when dazzling brightness and activity subsided to reveal more subtle realities which pointed to a wondrous purpose. The gurgling stream beyond the lip of the mountain, the source of the verdant pastures that surrounded them, became audible only when the noises of the day dissolved and the constant promise of life could be heard flowing sweet as a lullaby. Up above, the moon and stars hidden until after nightfall, spangling the sky in cosmic patterns miraculous with possibilities.
From this vast, interdependent spaciousness all things would arise, abide and pass. Ceaseless in motion, for him the ephemeral dance of the elements was an ever-present reminder of transience. For if nothing was permanent, then everything was possible. The only certainty was change.
Shanti appeared at the cottage window and meowed, rubbing the side of her head luxuriantly against the frame. Lama Tashi picked her up, gently holding her to him so that the two of them were sharing their warmth as they gazed into the bountiful night. “Yes, my dear, all must change,” he said. “The only question is: how?”
Wake up and smell the coffee!
8:00 am (Eastern Standard Time)
6:00 am (Mountain Standard Time)
5:00 am (Pacific Standard Time)
Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.
If one speaks or acts with a corrupt mind, suffering follows,
As the wheel follows the hoof of an ox pulling a cart.
Mind is the forerunner of all actions.
All deeds are led by mind, created by mind.
If one speaks or acts with a serene mind, happiness follows,
As surely as one’s shadow.
—The Buddha (5th century BCE)
Wall Street, New York City
Amy Robbins dropped a coin in the homeless man’s cap. As she did most Fridays. The same guy sat in the same shop entrance, wild and unkempt, cheeks raw from exposure.
“God bless!” he said today, as he always did when her coin clinked against others in the cap. “You too,” she murmured.
A short distance along the pavement was the coffee shop. On a Friday she’d come in early to buy a cappuccino as a reward for surviving another week in the city. A modest reward maybe, but on her junior analyst’s salary she had to be careful.
There were three people ahead of her in the line at Brew Ha. Behind the espresso machine, Jordan caught her eye with a grin and raised his eyebrows.
She nodded, smiling.
Over the months he’d got to know her order so that by the time she’d paid, her cappuccino was right there on the counter, complete with her name spelled out in the foam. The first time it had happened she’d been thrilled, and not only because tall, rangy Jordan had evidently remembered her name. It was also the first time she’d felt acknowledged as a regular. Someone from around here. A person with as much right to call herself a New Yorker as anyone else.
Up till then, she always felt like the proverbial country mouse. Her pretty face, bright-eyed perkiness and neat figure might have opened doors back home in Aubrey, Texas, but she’d felt like an imposter even trying to make a life for herself here. There had been times she wondered why she kept on at it—the grungy apartment, the daily commute, the low pay. Except that she was driven by a greater purpose. Like countless others before her, she’d hoped that by simply being here she would discover a way to bring her deepest wishes into reality.
Until then, Brew Ha was her sanctuary, her feel-good place. For as long as it took to drink her cappuccino, every Friday she would reflect nostalgically on the good things back home in Aubrey, like Mr. Deal and the horses she used to care for at Bluegrass Horse Sanctuary, especially her beloved Flash, who she’d ridden since childhood. She’d also remind herself why she was here.
Friends back home had always been complimentary about how she’d styled her bedroom in a way that was contemporary and chic, even if they didn’t have the language to describe what she’d done or how it made them feel. She had the right eye, they’d say. She knew how to put things together. Which was why she’d set her heart on getting into interior design someday, once she’d got to understand how things worked in New York City and found the confidence to bring her dreams to life.
On weekends Amy would walk round her new Brooklyn neighborhood and pause outside some of the buildings and wonder about what it might be like to live there. One in particular, the spectacular art-deco Woodrow Wilson building was her all-time favorite. She was so drawn to it she’d even walked into its gracious, marble lobby and marveled at its landscaped gardens. Apartments in the building started out at half a million plus, with two bedrooms costing at least double that. She’d have to be a trader at Sharma Funds before she could even think of earning enough.
Just one person away from the counter that particular morning, Amy felt a vibration in her coat pocket. Taking her phone out, she opened her messages. And was so astonished by what she found that she didn’t even realize she’d moved to the front of the line. Both Jordan and the girl on the register had to call out her name, in unison, to bring her back to the here and now. When she looked up, she was wearing an expression of bewildered exhilaration.
Margarita opened the passenger door and carefully placed the cardboard tray containing two, large Americanos on the seat. Single origin from Huila, Columbia, the coffee was Bob’s favorite. A bonus to accompany her early return.
She’d been scheduled to fly home from New York later today, but the week’s meetings had gone so well that she’d decided to return yesterday afternoon, spending last night at her sister’s in Denver before getting up early. She hadn’t told Bob, wanting to give him a surprise. Both of them had been working long hours of late. Being the end of the week, perhaps they could take this opportunity to push back? Go somewhere scenic for lunch and take the rest of the day off to do whatever—she had a few ideas.
Closing the passenger door, she stepped round the front of the SUV to the driver’s side, smiling as she recalled the last time she’d stopped for coffee. Just like now, she’d got home earlier in the day, arriving home with Bob’s favorite single origin coffee. Whether it was her recent absence, or the coffee, or a combination of the two she couldn’t say, but the effect on her husband had been unexpectedly arousing. Delightfully so.
Over twenty-five years of marriage the fire of their passion for one another had inevitably receded to something more like a muted glow. But that early-morning coffee run had had the same effect as throwing fuel on the embers, provoking an entirely unexpected blaze of desire that had seen them using several surfaces of their home in ways they hadn’t since they’d first dated. It was a good thing that Gabby had moved to college earlier this year!
Margarita couldn’t help wondering if her arrival home today would unleash the same vigorous exuberance. Flicking down the driver’s visor, she checked her appearance in the mirror, always at its most merciless this time in the morning. She ran her hands through her short cropped dark hair, her gaze resting briefly on her bronzed cheeks before inspecting the mascara which focused attention on what Bob had always told her were her most alluring feature—her vivacious Latina eyes. Her complexion may have faded and lines deepened through menopause, and she was sometimes despairing of the unstoppable changes that had come over her. But sexual attraction had turned out to be a most curious thing, the spark of desire was evidently capable of being re-ignited even given the reality of thinning skin and sagging breasts. Physicality, it seemed, was only part of it. Snapping the visor mirror shut, Margarita pondered for a while on how this particular life force, one she had imagined consigned to her past, was capable of making such a sudden and welcome late-life resurgence.
Not that she pondered for very long.
Opening the driver’s door to step inside, the most familiar figure caught her eye. He was quite some distance away—a couple of hundred yards down the street at the top of an outdoor staircase. But even if he had been twice the distance, even if he hadn’t been wearing the jungle green jacket they had bought in Costa Rica last year, she would have recognized him in an instant. What on earth was he doing stepping out the door of the apartment above Paige Turner Books? And so early in the morning?
The questions were still forming in her mind when a figure appeared behind him. As he turned back, Margarita could make out the pink of a bathrobe. A woman’s hands around his shoulders. He was kissing her—and not in the manner of a cordial farewell. The intimacy of their embrace was unmistakable. Moments later, he was stepping back inside, shutting the door quickly. Behind the steering wheel, Margarita was too shocked to move.
3Beverly Hills, Los Angeles
Dan Kavana, America’s most loved African American TV anchor, had been fast asleep when his phone rang. Grabbing it from the bedside table, through force of habit he tried switching off the alarm. Before realizing it wasn’t an alarm, but an incoming call. From the Head of News. And he should have been up an hour ago.
He sat in bed, clearing his throat.
“Where are you now?” His boss, Nick Nalder, never wasted time on pleasantries.
“About to leave.” Which usually he would have been. “What’s up?”.
Jolted, Dan tugged off the sheets and got out of bed. Nothing like the threat of a contagion to boost ratings. The more dire the better. “Where?” he asked, getting to the bathroom and switching on the light.
“New York. Times Square outlet of Golden Drumsticks.”
Golden Drumsticks was the biggest fast food chain in USA. And Times Square as close to the nation’s bullseye as you could get.
Nalder was already talking to someone else in the newsroom, as was his habit. Dan wondered if what he was saying was meant for him or being directed elsewhere.
“Just get here quick as you can,” Nalder told him. “There’s a lot of weird shit going down today.”
Dan had no idea how he’d disabled his alarm. But he’d have to rush through his ablutions in record time. His wife, Tammy, was away addressing an African American Women in Business conference. Which meant Maddie was his responsibility today. Their twenty-three-year-old daughter had had her neck broken in a car accident two years ago, rendering her quadriplegic. She had always been a slow starter in the mornings. Just getting her out of bed and to the bathroom could be a half hour job.
He quickly began shaving, pressing the dial button to Maddie’s lead care-giver, Jacinda. She didn’t pick up. Nor did care-givers two or three on the list. Dan left messages as he scrambled through his morning routine. He tip-toed into Maddie’s room which, at her own insistence, was the darkest and quietest in the house. He could barely make out her face against the pillow, but he heard her breathing, slow and regular. No indication that she even sensed his presence. “Little bird,” he mouthed his nickname for her, soundlessly, through force of habit.
Shutting her door behind him, hurrying down the passage, he grabbed his phone and keys and headed for where the chauffeured limo would be waiting for him in the driveway. He felt terrible leaving his own, disabled daughter alone in an empty house. He’d never done it before—and if he’d woken in time, or if there wasn’t a major, breaking news story, he wouldn’t be doing it now. Taking care of Maddie at home was a commitment Tammy and he had made after the accident and one they’d always kept.
Grace Arlingham closed the front door of her cottage and made her way gingerly across the tiled veranda. She gripped the railing tightly as she took the five steps down to the front path. Pausing at the bottom, with her right hand she adjusted the scarf covering her bald head. A gesture that had become habitual over the past six months.
In the early weeks after losing her hair she used to wonder when she’d be able to get rid of the scarf. At what point the wisps gathered about her scalp would grow back to her familiar lustrous mop. She had, after all, been through this before. The diagnosis. The treatment. The slow emergence from a time when she was, first and foremost, a cancer patient, back to the daily reality of life as a piano teacher in Montpelier. Even if it was a reality that, in some indefinable way, had shifted key.
Since the last two scans, however, Grace had been trying to let go of all expectations. About her hair. About anything. When thoughts about the future arose from habit—when to start her students on their exam pieces? Where the family would do Thanksgiving this year?—she’d quickly smudge them out. Chances were, she wouldn’t have any students in five months’ time. She would be lucky to make it to Thanksgiving.
Dr. Roberts had shown her the PET scan images. During her last appointment, at her request, he’d flipped the large screen on his desktop, come to sit next to her, and gently explained the significance of the black shadows blooming with such sinister fecundity in her abdomen. Already familiar with the jargon of cancer, she didn’t need him to define terms like “metastasize” and “Stage 4.” And when he’d talked about the option of palliative care, she knew that she had embarked on a journey from which there was no return. She’d fought the good fight the first time around. She’d had several clear years. At sixty-two, she’d hoped to witness the changing of many more seasons in her beautiful, Vermont forests, but she had already learned that longevity was not a privilege extended to everyone.
If it had only been about her she could have coped. But it wasn’t. There were others who relied on her completely. That, more than anything, made her unbearably sad. For their sake she tried to conceal her emotions. Not that she always succeeded. There were times when she would have to retreat to her bedroom, close the door and weep silent tears. She would lie there, heartsore at how their world was going to change when she was no longer at home to love them.
She could feel them watching her from the window at this moment. Turning, she waved. She didn’t need a stick, but she walked slowly. All the more so being apprehensive about what lay ahead.
Reaching the front gate of the white, picket fence running across the front of her property, she halted. Something in the birdbath, a couple of yards away, caught her eye. Stepping closer she saw that a bee had fallen in. Flailing desperately in the water, it was sending ripples across the surface as it fought for its life.
Bending to pick up a fallen leaf, Grace stepped closer. After a couple of tries, she managed to scoop the leaf under the tiny body of the frantic insect and lift it to a nearby stone where there was a broad surface on which it could rest and dry out. As she did this, she repeated the phrase she’d once read that seemed to sum up everything that really mattered in a few words. A saying which, over the years, she had made her own: “May all beings be free from suffering.”
Grace paused for a few moments to watch the bee, silently willing it to recover. She had learned to focus during such moments. The little things, she had come to learn, were actually the big things. For a while the tiny black and gold body remained motionless—there was no telling how long it had been struggling in the water. How exhausted it had become in its existential battle.
After what felt like quite some time, the bee flicked one wing, then another. Which was encouraging. Then it was hunching up, seeming to wipe its head with its front legs. Completely engrossed, Grace followed the bee’s movements with heartfelt relief. And happy anticipation. If past rescues were anything to go by, the bee’s movements were a prelude to what she most wanted to see happen. And sure enough, after a few further moments of head washing and leg twitching, the bee extended its wings a few times, before walking slowly in a circle—and taking off. Grace watched it curve upwards from the stone, gaining height, before disappearing from view as it zig-zagged round the side of the house. She returned to the front gate, with a contented smile. For a few moments she had been relieved of the burden of her self.
Now she was waiting at the medical center. She’d had the scan, as scheduled, early that morning. Then there had been the blood test. Before she’d gone to the cafeteria for a hot chocolate while the radiologist studied and transferred the results to her doctor. Her appointment with Dr. Roberts was supposed to have been half an hour ago.
He was usually punctual. Some oncologists, she knew, treated their patients as if they had all the time in the world, an irony which never escaped her. A cruelty too. The worst part of having a scan was the wait that followed. “Scanxiety” she’d heard it accurately described.
Sitting outside Dr. Robert’s consulting room, she was experiencing plenty of that. Her doctor’s previous patient had left more than half an hour earlier. Expecting his door to open at any moment and to be ushered in, instead, Dr. Roberts’ secretary had stood up behind her desk, crossed the waiting room towards her and perched on a nearby chair.
“Dr. Roberts will see you as soon as he can, Mrs. Arlingham,” she spoke in a sympathetic voice. “He got your scan. He just wanted to speak to the radiologist before he sees you.”
“Okay,” Grace swallowed.
“He’ll be as quick as he can.” The nurse smiled.
Dr. Roberts had never felt the need to consult the radiologist before, thought Grace, uneasily.
What could that possibly mean?