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.
I 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?’
- * *
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