Books & Audio
The Magician of Lhasa
> Click to order
> Read the first Chapter
Buddhism for Busy People
Finding happiness in an uncertain world
> Click to order
> Read the first Chapter
Hurry Up and Meditate
Your starter kit for inner peace and better health
> Click to order
> Read the first Chapter
Enlightenment to Go
Shantideva and the power of compassion to transform your life
> Click to order
> Read the first Chapter
Hurry Up and Meditate – Guided Meditations
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 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.
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 Friend
What 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 Alternative
Having 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 internals
What, 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 psychology
How 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 Happiness
Where 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
I 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
‘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 Shantideva
But 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 program
One 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 realisation
To 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.
On 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 kingdom
You 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 backfired
Once 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 reality
You 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
By 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 Peasant
Once 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
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.