You’ll find links for where to get the book at the end.
Monsoon. Not my favorite season, dear reader. For a feline with a coat as sumptuously absorbent as mine, and being somewhat wonky of gait, venturing out in wild weather is an exercise fraught with danger. Which is why interminable rains and fog keep me trapped inside, with little choice but to spend day after day on the first-floor windowsill of His Holiness’s room, deprived even of my special view. No longer is the courtyard of Namgyal Monastery bustling with maroon robes and enchanted tourists, hoping that His Holiness might appear in their midst at any moment. It is, instead, as grey and unappealing as a saucer of last night’s dinner.
So on that particular morning, when a familiar knock on the door was followed by the appearance of Tenzin, I looked up with special interest. His Holiness’s adviser on diplomatic matters, Tenzin was suave and suited as always as he conferred with the Dalai Lama, the two of them glancing at a clock. Novice monks were slipping into the room to dust flowerpots and plump up cushions – all a well-rehearsed prelude to the arrival of a visitor. Reaching out first my two front legs, then my back two, I stretched tremulously, pleased that the tedium was about to be broken.
But by whom?
One of the many intrigues of being His Holiness’s Cat is the steady stream of celebrities who beat a path to the Himalayas, and indeed to this particular room. Presidents and pop stars, sages and scientists, all find their way to our door. The stated reasons for their visits are many and varied, but you and I know the real reasons, do we not?
First and foremost, visitors come to experience the feeling of being in the presence of the Dalai Lama. That benevolent, energetic field in which he envelops all who perceive him. The understanding he conveys, spontaneously and without apparent effort, that whatever may be going on in our lives and the world around us, all is well beneath the surface.
In recent years there has been an additional reason why discerning visitors do their utmost to secure an audience. It may seem brazen for me to suggest it – but false modesty is such a deeply unattractive quality, is it not, dear reader? It’s certainly not one I would wish to be accused of. You see, the other compelling reason why people come from all around the world to this room is to discover, for themselves, if it really is true. Does the Dalai Lama really “have a cat”, to use that common if misleading expression? Is His Holiness’s Cat – HHC in official circles – simply a beguiling myth or a dazzling, blue-eyed reality? Was that shimmer of grey glimpsed on a Zoom teaching the end of a bushy tail belonging to his much-fabled feline, or was it simply a play of light, a chimera, the source of which must remain shrouded in mystery?
On that particularly bleak morning, as headlights appeared at the gates of Namgyal Monastery, I looked into the fog, but could perceive very little beyond the slow approach of a vehicle. The low drone of an engine increasing in volume before coming to a standstill. Silence, followed by the opening and shutting of car doors. It was some minutes before Tenzin showed a woman into the room.
As you will have correctly assumed, I am a cat of the utmost discretion and can’t possibly divulge the identity of His Holiness’s VIP guests. In this particular case, however, it’s probably important for you to know that she is a very well-known pop star. You know, the one whose stage name isn’t her real name? In fact, it’s more of a title – as if she were married to a British lord.
Those are the only discreet and subtle hints I am willing to offer, except perhaps to mention that her fans are known to be Little Monsters. And she would make a very good poker player.
From across the room I watched closely as the Dalai Lama and his visitor brought their hands to their hearts and bowed in greeting, before sitting down to face each other on separate sofas across a coffee table. At the head of the table, Tenzin oversaw the pouring of cups of coffee and offering of cookies from a tray in front of him. Then he settled into an armchair, with that particular manner of seasoned diplomats, so discreet a presence that it was almost as if he disappeared completely into the background.
Outside, the swirling gloom of fog darkened, cloaking my windowsill seat in deep shadow. Just as I preferred it. Like most cats, I like to observe without being observed. To make up my own mind about visitors, before they so much as suspect I am even there.
This particular visitor was to share the stage with the Dalai Lama at a conference on mental wellbeing. Her visit was to help prepare for the event. At His Holiness’s prompting, she explained that while she had started out on her career wanting to succeed as a singer, along the way her purpose had broadened. She no longer sought only to entertain: she wanted to touch people’s lives. To make an impact. In particular, having been abused when she was young, her aim was to help others who had endured the same trauma. She described how memories of her own abuse had been so distressing that they had continued to rack her with physical pain for a long time afterwards.
Listening attentively to her story, the Dalai Lama’s face was filled with compassion. “Mind and body are one,” he responded after a while. “Harm to one is harm to both.”
His visitor paused, regarding him closely. “It took me a long time to work that out,” she admitted. “I didn’t understand what was happening, not for years. I thought I was going mad!”
His Holiness leaned over, taking both her hands reassuringly in his own. Gazing deep into her eyes he asked, “How did you find your way through?”
She mused for a while before saying, “With the help of doctors. Therapists. I have learned a lot.” Then after a further pause, “Perhaps the biggest thing for me was the invention of an ideal version of me.”
The Dalai Lama spoke her stage name out loud.
“Exactly. I thought of all the qualities I most wanted, and decided that she would have them. Then I tried to imagine being her. When my fans responded to her, they were responding to my ideal self. Over time, it became easier and easier to accept that I was becoming who I most wanted to be.”
“The imagined became real?”
His Holiness was nodding slowly. “Good psychology. We use it, very much, in Tibetan Buddhism.”
“You do?” His visitor seemed surprised.
“You might say, it is one of the foundation teachings of the Buddha,” he confirmed. “Thoughts lead to words. Words lead to actions. It all begins here,” the Dalai Lama was tapping his head. “And here,” he touched his heart. “As we think, so we become. In any situation, wherever we find ourselves, we are still free to think what we wish. Most of all, free to choose how we think of ourselves. When you decide to live according to the best version of yourself that you can imagine …” He smiled, “How wise!”
“Thank you!” Even from the gloom of the windowsill, it seemed to me that His Holiness’s compliment brought color to the cheeks of his visitor, before she said, “So much easier to say than to do, of course. Sometimes I fail.”
“Changing mental habits …” the Dalai Lama sat forward in his chair, “Difficult. Sometimes not always possible. So,” he shrugged, “we accept. We accept, but keep trying.”
“Self-acceptance,” she responded.
“Most important.” Leaning back in his chair, His Holiness chuckled. “We cannot help others fully, if we ourselves are suffering. Therefore, we must have compassion for ourselves first.”
She nodded, her expression earnest.
“Show ourselves …” a twinkle appeared in his eyes, “the same kindness that we would to a very dear friend.”
No matter who came into this room, whatever their background, it was never long before they discovered their most benevolent instincts reflected by His Holiness. In his all‑encompassing presence they felt understood, appreciated, wholly accepted. Could there be a greater gift?
Continuing to follow the conversation, after a while I decided that it was high time I took His Holiness’s advice to heart. Hopping off my cushion on the sill, I made my way unobserved across the room and around the furniture, before launching myself onto the sofa next to the famous pop star.
Initially startled, her expression quickly changed to one of delight. “Oh, how gorgeous!” she exclaimed, reaching out to stroke me. “So she is real!”
I angled my head upwards, the better to feel the scratch of her long fingernails on my chin. Female humans have their uses.
“I’ve always wondered if she really existed,” she explained. “Or was she just an idea that someone had come up with.”
“Well, now you know,” said Tenzin. He had surfaced from the depths of his armchair ready, I knew from past experience, to swoop me away at the first sign of an allergic reaction.
But His Holiness’s visitor showed none. Instead, while continuing to massage my neck, she murmured, “Seeing is believing.”
From the sofa opposite, the Dalai Lama observed, “Yes, yes. And it works the other way too. Believing is seeing.”
The visitor’s forehead wrinkled. “If you don’t see, how can you believe?” she asked. “Don’t you have to see first?”
His Holiness gestured towards her and, once again, used her stage name. “Did you always see her, or did you first have to believe she may be possible?”
“Oh, I get it,” she wagged a finger playfully. “The idea comes first. Then the reality.”
“As we think, so we become,” she quoted back what he’d said earlier.
Enough of the chitchat and neck rub, I thought, stepping onto the coffee table and heading towards my ultimate destination – the milk jug.
I observed the questioning glances exchanged between Tenzin and the Dalai Lama. Between the Dalai Lama and his guest. At which point the pop star herself picked up the jug, placed her empty cup on the tray and poured milk into her saucer. They all watched in silence as I bent to lap with noisy gusto.
“Some beings,” Tenzin observed, “are very skillful at manifesting the reality they wish.”
They all burst out laughing.
That morning’s guest left a short while later, but not before posing for an official photograph with His Holiness and an unofficial selfie with His Holiness’s Cat. After watching the retreating figure of his visitor, hands folded at his heart, the Dalai Lama crossed the room, lifted me up and walked to the window. From downstairs, there came once again the sound of car doors. Then the growl of an engine as the vehicle started.
“I know you don’t like the monsoon, and having to stay indoors,” His Holiness said. “But it will be over very soon. You will enjoy the weather then, my little Snow Lion. The best of the year.”
While I am a cat of many names, my very favorite is His Holiness’s own special one for me: in Tibet, the mythical Snow Lion is a being of great courage and joy.
Red tail-lights disappeared into the mist, as the visitor’s vehicle chugged cautiously across the courtyard.
And at that moment it didn’t matter that the weather was bleak or that I couldn’t go outside. As always, when being held by the Dalai Lama I was enveloped in the profound wellbeing that emerged from the presence of his oceanic benevolence. My purr rose in appreciation, and within a short while I had lost all sense of where my body and mind ended and His Holiness’s began. There was only the glow of loving kindness, gentle and pervading far beyond the two of us, an energy to bring joy to all who had the hearts to feel it.
After His Holiness had returned to his desk I was sitting on the sill once again, paws tucked under me. Through a break in the mist, I observed another visitor making his way slowly across the Namgyal courtyard. Someone with whom I’d struck up the warmest of friendships in recent months, but who I knew for a fact had never met the Dalai Lama. From the way he kept looking over at our building, he was evidently on his way to visit now.
What was the purpose of his unexpected call? And was the orderly behind him really carrying what I thought he was?
One week earlier
As kittens, we feel it often. All it takes is a windblown feather, an unexpected delicacy, or the alluring rush of water and instantly we are caught up in it. Wonderment. Enchantment. Being fully absorbed in the here and now.
By the time we reach senior status, way beyond the point of being impressed by such trivia, we have become knowing and indifferent. If we have been deeply hurt, and the scar tissue of our wounds has grown thick, we may be especially impervious to life’s simple joys.
But we have lost something, have we not? The ability to be enraptured by the world around us. To give ourselves totally to the moment, without reserve. To see things as if for the first time.
All of which begs the answer to some intriguing questions. Is it possible to recover the unaffected zest for life which once came so naturally? To become un-blasé? Can you and I, dear reader, awaken the kitten within?
Although I had no idea at the time, one tranquil morning as I dozed on top of the filing cabinet in the office of His Holiness’s two Executive Assistants, the day was about to bring an unexpected answer to this question. And it was delivered with a drama I would have done my utmost to avoid.
Tenzin, the consummate diplomat, was sitting at his computer, tapping out an email to the Chancellor of Germany. In jacket and tie, with a slight tang of carbolic about him from the soap with which he always washed his perfectly manicured hands, he always looked as though he had just stepped out of a meeting with a world leader, Secretary of State or some other VIP – which, in the age of online meetings, he often had.
At the desk opposite sat His Holiness’s Translator, Oliver. A large, jolly Englishman, with the clearest blue eyes sparkling behind his spectacles. Although Oliver is a Buddhist monk, he is also the son of a Church of England vicar, and possesses a radiant intelligence and goodness of heart that make him spiritually multilingual. With Tenzin, an irredeemable Anglophile, he shares a love of English breakfast tea, the BBC World Service – and an ardent enthusiasm for cricket.
Currently working on the foreword to a new book about the bardo realms, Oliver was unusually preoccupied that morning. As was Tenzin. There was none of the usual joking and chitchat. No time that day to analyze the Indian cricket team’s latest win over the home team in Perth, Australia. It was all screen staring and keyboard clicking, with barely a word to each other and none at all to me.
Bored and incurious about their activity, human behavior being inexplicable to rational felines, I must have dozed off for a while. Next thing I knew, as the time approached 11 am, Oliver left the office. He returned a short while later, holding under his arm the most alarming object in the whole of Namgyal Monastery: the cat carrier.
Where it was kept and precisely how it manifested, I neither knew nor cared. But I was shaken by the way it had made such a sudden and utterly unexpected appearance. The casual, almost jaunty way that Oliver was swinging it from under his arm onto his desk. How Tenzin was simultaneously standing and turning to where I lay, unsuspectingly. With ruthless efficiency, he had me in his carbolic-fingered grip. Oliver was holding the carrier door open.
In a trice, I was securely locked inside the infernal apparatus.
“Just your annual check-up, HHC.” Oliver leaned in to glimpse me through the cruel bars, as if their ambush was of little consequence.
I yowled miserably.
I continued to complain all the way to the vet clinic, but there are none so deaf as those who do not wish to hear. Once inside the chamber of horrors that is the consulting room, a new vet who described himself as a locum was pulling open my jaws and tugging at my eyelids, prodding my abdomen and subjecting me to that most grievous of all indignities – lifting my luxurious fluffy tail and inserting a cold thermometer.
“These need a trim,” he observed dispassionately, splaying my claws wide.
Oliver gave his immediate assent.
As the locum systematically cut every one of my talons – a liberty which Oliver well knew I would most certainly not have tolerated at home, but which I was helpless to avoid while pinned down on the butcher’s block – he continued with his clinical observations. “Their nails tend to wear less as they age. Has she become more sedentary these days?”
“HHC?” Oliver held his head to one side as he considered the question.
“How old is she?” he persisted, before Oliver had even answered.
“At least six.” Oliver was calculating from the time that he’d started working with His Holiness. “Eight, maybe?” he hazarded.
When he finally ended the wretched clipping, the vet stepped over to a computer screen. “First presented for vaccinations here ten years ago,” he announced.
“Ten?” Oliver was surprised.
“She’s getting on,” said the locum. “And with older cats, you need to watch out for their kidneys. If you’re not doing this already, I’d recommend cat biscuits for seniors. They have a good dose of protein and vitamin E. Also lower phosphorous to reduce kidney strain.”
Older cats? Getting on?! In mere minutes, I had been reduced from a perfectly content global celebrity to some frail geriatric with likely medical conditions. Who was this monstrous sadist in the white coat?
“Is she drinking more than in the past, would you say?” he persisted.
“Keep an eye on it. Kidney issues are common as cats age. I think we’d better run some blood tests.” He had inserted a needle into my leg before I’d even registered. “Not a bad idea when monitoring elderly cats.”
“Seems that you’ve become quite middle-aged, HHC.” Oliver tried making light of things as the locum retreated to his screen. Oliver was lifting the open cat carrier and guiding me back into it. On this occasion, I required no encouragement.
“Hmm,” the vet was updating his records. It was while tapping on the keyboard, face reflected in the ghostly white of the screen, that he almost absently uttered the sentence that would haunt me for a long time to come. Responding to what Oliver had just said, the words were so shocking, yet they were uttered so casually as though just commonplace. “You know, thirteen is a good age for a cat to reach. For a cat with her hip problems, she’s already had a good life.”
I didn’t hear anything after that. I paid no attention on the journey back to Namgyal. I didn’t meow once. Oliver may have thought that I was simply relieved to be going home. In truth, I was shaken to the core by what the vet had said.
Evidently, most of my life was already behind me and my best years on earth had already played out. Was there really nothing to look forward to, apart from kidney failure and cat biscuits for seniors? Was the only thing ahead of me inexorable decline, sickness and death?
As soon as we were home and I was set free from the accursed carrier, I stormed from the building in high dudgeon. I didn’t care how damp and foggy it was – I had to get out. Somewhere. Anywhere. After crossing Namgyal courtyard I was soon out the gates and heading along the road, tugged intuitively in a direction that had become habitual in recent months.
Next door to where we lived was a well-established garden, and at the center of its lawn a large and ancient cedar tree, beneath which was an inviting bench seat. I had passed many a happy hour in this garden – specifically, in the generous thicket of catnip which grew in one of the borders.
My destination that day was not the catnip, which was a sodden mess being the monsoon season. Nor the nursing home overlooking the garden, where I had become that most sought after of beings – the Therapy Cat. No, it was behind the nursing home verandah that I headed, across a kitchen garden profuse with vegetables, towards what had formerly been a large garden shed.
Even before I reached the shed, I could hear the soothing cadences of baroque music, despite the grey weather. I paused at the door for a while grooming myself, licking away the antiseptic scent of vet, my tongue sensing the strangely sharp edges of my freshly cut nails.
The man standing in the center of the room glanced over, observing my arrival but not allowing himself to be distracted by it, returning his attention to his easel. Which was exactly what I needed. Venturing inside, I soon reached my wicker chair, the one with the cushion, and made myself comfortable, before turning to study the artist at work.
The first time I’d visited, months earlier, had been a most unexpected experience – just the kind to delight a cat as curious as I. There he had stood, with a canvas in front of him, adding bold sweeps of color, moving between easel and the bench behind him loaded with paints, palettes and brushes. A Bach divertimento issued from an ancient, paint-smeared sound system in the corner.
A large man with a shock of white hair and a subversive glint about his large, brown eyes, I knew exactly who he was – just as he knew me. We were, in fact, already good friends. On previous visits to the nursing home, in a room full of dozing residents, Christopher had always been the most eager to coax me over, declaring me to be “an angel”. I reminded him of a cat he’d lived with for many years in the distant past.
He may have had blotchy skin and frayed cuffs, but he also seemed to have more life in him than most of the other residents. And something about him in particular intrigued me: brightly colored spots on his corduroy trousers, possessing a curious aroma.
It had been quite by chance the day when I had seen him walking along the path near the vegetable garden. Watching him undo the padlock on a shed door, then open it to reveal a place filled with light and color. Naturally, I had investigated.
What had struck me most, on that first visit to Christopher’s studio, was finding myself in a veritable treasure-trove of sensorial delights – and being given tacit approval to explore the place to my heart’s content. Then, just like today, Christopher glanced over and noted my presence, while continuing to work. I understood no unfriendliness in the absence of a greeting. He was not being unwelcoming. He was simply focused on other things, allowing me complete freedom to inspect the studio’s every nook and cranny.
Stepping inside, I had taken my time to investigate every unfamiliar object and pungent scent in this intriguing place. Evidently, it had once been a rambling garden shed before having extra windows and a skylight installed, sisal carpeting laid wall-to-wall, and furnished with an assortment of unmatched items – two wicker chairs, a high table and a corner counter with a small fridge and kettle. Without question, the most enthralling aspect at ground level was the lengthy tunnel created by painted boards and canvases leaning against the three walls facing Christopher. An extended cavern into which a cat might vanish without trace.
I was immediately drawn to the scent of oil paint on canvas, that earthy, distinctive but not unpleasant aroma. Opening my mouth in full vomeronasal mode, I stood for a long while, nose to canvas, taking it in. Then I explored the tunnel of mysteries, dark panels interspersed with slits of light. The multitude of odors – paint, sisal, glue and the ancient imprints of soil enhancers and composting mulch. It was an Aladdin’s cave of intrigue in which I immersed myself fully, coming out quite some time later.
Christopher was still painting, so I hopped onto one of the wicker chairs, soon to become my wicker chair, and followed his actions. I had never seen an artist in full flight before and he seemed engaged in a dance of sorts, moving to a dynamic that had nothing to do with the background Bach. Inspired by an energy to which I was oblivious; as I sat watching, he was utterly absorbed in his actions. The feeling I experienced reminded me of someone, but the vibrant novelty of this artist’s studio with its colors and light and medley of aromas meant that I couldn’t place who.
His frayed tweed jacket, the one he always wore in the residents’ lounge, was thrown over the back of the other wicker chair. In one pocket, I noted a well-thumbed paperback. From my vantage point, as I surveyed the many canvases leaning against the walls, I saw one that was separate from all the rest. It was framed in gold and stood alone on the only shelf on the whitewashed wall opposite – a portrait of a vivacious, dark-haired woman.
After a long while, Christopher broke away abruptly, doubling over in a fit of coughing. Once he’d recovered, he carefully placed his brush on the bench and turned to me, opening his arms with an extravagant flourish:
“The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
‘O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are, you are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!’”
“The Owl and the Pussycat, my dear Minou!” he continued, the words tumbling from his mouth. “Written by Edward Lear. But you know that, I’m sure. How I’ve longed to recite those words to my own feline. Just a dream, Miss Puss. At least, that’s what I thought. But here you are, so unexpectedly. From out of the ether. And not just any cat, but the most beautiful of beings with those gorgeous sapphire orbs.”
He reached to stroke my neck, just as he did in the residents’ lounge. I purred obligingly, wondering what to make of his extravagant words – not to mention, puzzled by the references to his dear Minou. A cat with whom he used to share his life, perhaps?
As a Mozart piano concerto rose to its grand finale, he was pottering in the corner, making himself a mug of tea. Once made, he settled into the wicker chair opposite the one I occupied, staring at the canvas on which he’d been working. He took a sip, before flashing me a glance.
“Oh, apologies, my dearest puss! Unaccustomed as I am to visitors, I’ve quite forgotten my manners.” Putting his mug down, he heaved himself from his chair with some effort and broke into another paroxysm of coughing, before going to the counter and returning with an offering of milk inside a jam jar lid. He placed it before me, reverentially, before watching with deep fascination as I lowered my head to drink.
I continued until I’d lapped up every last drop.
“It’s the simplest thing that gives joy, isn’t it?” his eyes glistened with affection as he spoke. “Offering a treat to a passing puss.” A mischievous glint appeared in his eyes as he said, “I do hope this may be sufficient inducement to persuade you to visit again.”
So intriguing was his artist’s studio and my freedom within it that no such inducement was needed. That cup of tea and lid of milk were to be the first of many, in what soon became a cherished routine.
When the Dalai Lama had to leave Dharamshala for several weeks, to oversee monastic exams in South India, I found myself spending many happy hours on the wicker chair, absorbed in this delightful new world of oil paints, Vivaldi, space and color, with Christopher the visual conjuror bringing forth sweeping landscapes and towering peaks, verdant arcadia and cascading waterfalls – or so he said. Because when I looked at the artworks he had finished, it was hard to guess.
“Abstraction,” he once explained. “Not for the ignorant nor the faint-hearted. But we don’t mind, do we? Nay, we thrive on it. All the world is a projection of mind, is it not, Mistress Babou?”
By now I had become used to the delightful if bewildering flow of words that he spoke, and the arcane terms of endearment he lavished on me. Unlike any other human I had encountered, I had come to learn that Christopher gave voice less to a sequence of thoughts than a general impression. A carnival of vibrant images and ideas, as hard for a cat to keep up with as the paint he so prolifically applied to canvases.
There was nothing abstract about the portrait of the woman, however. From time to time he’d break from what was on his easel, approach the framed image and pause, staring at it for the longest time. He might tilt his head to a different angle. Take a step or two one way or another, then review his work with a critical eye. Sometimes, very rarely, he might even reach with his brush and apply the tiniest speck of color, before standing back to survey the difference.
When we sat having tea in companionable silence, he was in the habit of leaning to where his jacket lay over the back of his chair, reaching inside the breast pocket and retrieving an envelope containing a handwritten letter, several pages long. I’d watch his eyes moving across every line, from beginning to end, with an intensity as though he were reading it for the very first time even though, from the depth of the page creases, it was evident that this was a letter which had been opened and closed countless times before.
He’d refold the letter with the greatest care, placing it back in the envelope and his jacket pocket, before leaning back in his chair and gazing contemplatively into the middle distance.
On one such occasion, I saw tears welling in his eyes. From the other chair, I reached out a front paw. The movement lifted him from his thoughts.
“Oh!” he leaned over to caress my neck. “What a sweet thing you are, my dearest ocelot. All those years spent burdened by failure. And guilt. Such a waste!” He broke off for a prolonged spasm of coughing. “Still, we made it in the end, didn’t we? Perhaps it was my karma to descend into Hades, for my own night sea journey. But here I am at the end of it all, at peace in the Himalayas with my very own Babou.”
One special dawn, when the first light silhouetted the mountains with an irresistible clarity and promise, I left my first-floor windowsill very early and ventured outside to breathe the clean fragrances of pine and Himalayan oak. His Holiness was still away, the apartment empty, and I found myself walking in the direction of the garden, then Christopher’s studio. Not that he would be there yet, would he?
But the door to his studio was open. And as I appeared, he turned to see me.
“Oh, Exsultate Jubilate! Pussy my love! You feel it too?”
“Of course you do. You are a creature of nature. Just as I seek an exemplar of pristine clarity and bliss, who should appear but the Sapphire Princess herself! We must make the most of this primordial dawn. Such a precious moment may never come again.”
He was fixing a fresh canvas to his easel and loading a palette with paints – blues and yellows and white. Working rapidly, with a burst of ebullience he was dancing again, completely focused, absorbed, at one with the moment.
Watching closely, I realized for the first time since I’d started visiting where the strongly reminiscent feeling came from. A connection perhaps so obvious that it had eluded me until now. For when he painted, what I sensed felt to me like His Holiness in meditation. He was experiencing no distinction between self and other, subject and object. There was only what was happening here and now, a flow of joy.
Of course Christopher’s mind was quite different from the Dalai Lama’s – and who was I to guess at the inner experiences of the two? What I could discern, however, was the parallel shift that had occurred. A sense of sublime oneness, in both cases, so powerful that it seemed to radiate beyond their physical forms and permeate the very space around them – in which I happened to be sitting.
That dawn as he painted, Christopher paid me much more attention than usual, frequently glancing to where I sat. It was a different kind of attention than when he was being conversational. More as if I were his source, his inspiration. He looked at me as though in thrall to his muse.
He worked solidly for several hours before putting down his brush. The moment he did, he broke into the most prolonged bout of deep coughing I’d ever witnessed, having to steady himself by holding onto the bench as his whole body was racked with convulsions.
When he finally recovered, he had turned quite pale.
The day that I sought refuge, following my most confronting of visits to the vet, I sat listening to Haydn and observing Christopher in his state of absorption. The same thing happened again – after the lengthiest period of concentration, Christopher suddenly buckled under the force of painful, heaving coughs.
On this occasion, there came the sound of footsteps hurrying on the path outside. Then the appearance of Marianne Ponter, nursing home manager, herself. A 50-something woman in formal jacket and elegantly coiffed dark hair, Marianne was soon hurrying to his side and helping him into an upright chair that Christopher had recently brought from the dining room.
As soon as he was seated and over the worst of the attack, she filled a glass of water and handed it to him. He thanked her, breathlessly. She rested a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Goes with the territory,” he told her, after a while.
“You’re doing very well,” she reassured him.
He gestured round the studio with the glass of water. “This has made all the difference,” he said. “For which the only thing I have to offer you is my heartfelt gratitude. I wish it could be more. I wish that I hadn’t completely run out of money. I’m painfully aware that I owe you 3 lakh …” He gestured behind him.
On the small shelf next to the kettle was a stack of brown envelopes. Every two weeks, a fresh one was delivered. I’d been there when it happened, one of Mr. Naidoo’s assistants from Accounts knocking on the shed door, envelope in hand. Christopher nodding in acknowledgement. The assistant walking wordlessly across the room and adding the envelope to the pile already there.
Unlike the envelope in his jacket pocket, I had never seen Christopher open a single brown one. They remained, untouched, where they were.
“You’re not to worry about that,” Marianne was decisive. “The Board has agreed for you to stay on compassionate grounds. That’s settled.”
“And I am enormously grateful to you for persuading them.” Christopher contained an outburst of coughing, “I shouldn’t be imposing for too much longer.”
Compassionate grounds? I was disconcerted. Not much longer?
“All these years you’ve been a resident,” Marianne moved the conversation on. “And only now you tell us you were an artist. We all thought you were a house painter!”
“I was,” he nodded. “For many years. But before that, as a young man in England, I studied with some of the greats. There were exhibitions in Cork Street. Serious collectors. A couple of paintings shown at the Royal Academy.”
“I still sometimes have a fantasy about that early promise developing to full and glorious flower. About my work becoming wildly sought after.”
Marianne glanced about at all the paintings. “If that were to happen, all these would fetch you a fortune!”
“I know!” he glowed.
“More money than one would know what to do with!”
“Oh, I would know what to do with it!” he was ebullient. “A benevolent fund for elderly artists. A place of sanctuary, just like the sanctuary you have given me.”
“What a generous vision. The Christopher Ackland Benevolent Fund?”
He shook his head. “Oh, that’s far too stuffy. More like The Sanctuary for Broke Old Bohemians.”
Christopher pondered this with a smile, before his expression changed. “Truth is, sometimes it’s not much fun being an artist. After my early success, it all became too much and I lost my nerve. Critics didn’t like the direction I was taking, but I didn’t know what else I could possibly do. Suddenly I was overwhelmed by the fear of failure. So I fled the country. It was cowardly, I know. At the time, I felt I had no choice but to disappear.” His expression was strangely haunted. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he was shaking his head. “Haven’t spoken about it for years. Anyway, I lived in Europe for a while, before finding my way to India. Eventually painting the homes of the New Delhi nouveau riche.”
“Before arriving in the mountains?” Marianne prompted a happy resolution.
“When I heard about your place here, I had to come. Fancy being able to retire right next door to the Dalai Lama!”
She nodded, “Why the return to fine art?”
“Emphysema,” Christopher smiled ruefully. Before adding after a pause, “There’s nothing like a terminal diagnosis to make you realize the value of every single day.”
There it was, beyond all doubt. Plainly stated. The coughing spasms weren’t simply a temporary vexation, or the indignity of old age. They had a much more sinister significance.
“For the first time since I was a child, I’ve done what I love, without caring what anyone thinks.” Christopher gestured towards his canvases, “Without worrying about buyers or critics or gallery owners. I’ve painted for joy.”
She was nodding.
“Have a look around.”
Marianne was hesitant, stepping towards the canvases ranged around the walls. “I’m no art expert,” she confessed, looking from one to another.
“Don’t have to be,” he shrugged. “It’s what you like that matters. This is my most recent,” he gestured to three paintings laid out on the high bench. “It’s a triptych of the Himalayas. I’m calling it Blue Shadows.”
Marianne walked to the bench and took in the paintings. From where she was standing, they were upside down, the sky at the bottom of the canvases and the mountains at the top. Christopher flashed me a knowing look. Marianne didn’t seem to realize.
Abstraction, dear reader.
“Very nice,” she said, glancing about before spotting the portrait of the woman in the giltwood frame. “And who is this?” she asked, relieved to find something she recognized.
“Caroline. Love of my life. I left her behind too, more fool me. But I never forgot her. And after the doctor told me, you know, how long I’ve got, I decided that I mustn’t die with regrets. So I managed to get hold of her address and wrote to apologize. She sent me back the most beautiful letter. And a small photograph,” he tilted his chin towards the painting, “which I used to paint her.”
Marianne was nodding. “Free spirit?”
“You can see that?” Christopher’s face lit up.
“Right away. First thing that struck me.” She turned, meeting his eyes with an appreciative smile. Before she caught sight of me, observing them both from my wicker chair.
“Ah yes,” Christopher followed her gaze. “Every artist must have a studio cat. You know Kandinsky had his Vaske, and Picasso his Minou. Salvador Dali had an ocelot called Babou.”
“Species of wild cat. From the Americas.”
Marianne raised her eyebrows. “I didn’t know about that. Or about artists having a feline affinity.”
“Established tradition, my dear. No sooner had you so kindly arranged for me to move in here than this little one appeared. She has the most amazing presence. Very tuned in. And the most extraordinary sense of timing.”
Marianne looked at his indulgent expression for a while before saying quietly, “You do know who she is, don’t you?”
“We’ve been introduced,” he nodded. “On her rounds as our most esteemed Therapy Cat.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “She does that very nicely, in her voluntary capacity. But as well as being our Therapy Cat, do you know where she comes from?”
When he didn’t answer, she took a step closer. “We don’t want this generally known for reasons of her own safety,” she said, looking at me. “She visits us from next door.”
Then, as it took him a while to catch up with her, “This is the Dalai Lama’s Cat.”
“Good heavens!” Christopher was euphoric. “My sainted aunt!”
“I’m finding this hard …”
“Such a privilege!”
“I’ll say,” agreed Marianne.
Christopher’s rapture was complete. Staring at me, incredulously, it was a while before he could speak. “It’s almost like receiving the blessing of His Holiness himself!”
As a cat who prefers playing the part of the observer rather than the observed, and finding myself the subject of sudden and enthusiastic attention, I felt that I had little alternative, dear reader. Hopping off the chair, I headed out the studio door at speed.
The two of them burst out laughing.
I had continued to visit and Christopher had continued to paint and talk and even sing very briefly. But the coughing bouts became more frequent and prolonged, and afterwards he’d remain bent over, clinging to the bench or chair for support, and it was the longest time before he could stand upright again.
My arrival always had a pleasing electrifying effect on him. If anything, more so with time. He waxed lyrical about the inspiring impact of my presence. Once he knew my identity, he wondered aloud if what he was experiencing was some kind of energy transfer; he was at the lowest physical ebb of his life but, paradoxically, he felt he was only now realising his artistic heights. He declared that the painting he had started on that dawn visit was his most accomplished ever. It was work he would have loved to have created all those years ago, in his darkest moments. But he’d had to complete his night sea journey to find his way here, so far from his place of departure. Was that, perhaps, the point?
He mused at some length about whether he should offer this, his greatest work, to the Dalai Lama, given how greatly he had been inspired by him, one way or another.
The tea breaks grew longer, always accompanied by treats for me. On one occasion, he’d pulled out the well-worn paperback from his jacket. It had a photograph of the Dalai Lama on the front, speaking into a yellow microphone, and the title Mahamudra.
“Your man has wise things to say about our minds – and our reality,” he glanced over. “This book, more than any other, gave me back my sanity. If only I was capable of meditating.”
My last visit to Christopher had been the most disconcerting. The studio had been empty. When he had appeared down the path from the nursing home, he was walking with a strange contraption on wheels, and had tubes running into his nostrils.
“Oxygen, Miss Pussy. O Pussy, my love.” He sat down heavily, as soon as he reached the studio. “Such is the sharpness of my descent. You know, one of the few fears I have ever felt in life is the terror of drowning. But alas, that’s almost certainly how I will go.”
The present moment
Through a gap in the mist, I watched Christopher make his way to our building, progress slow and posture bowed. The orderly, a few steps behind him, was carrying what looked like the painting, now completed.
He wasn’t using the oxygen tank, but between car and building he had to stop to rest. And it was the longest time after he disappeared from view before there was a knock on the door and an announcement, this time by Oliver, who ushered the visitor in before stepping into the background.
Christopher brought his hands together and bowed deeply to His Holiness. “I am so deeply grateful that you agreed to see me,” his breathing was labored and he struggled to contain a cough. He was gazing at the Dalai Lama, as so many visitors do, with a strange mix of incredulity that he really was standing in the presence of one of the most famous people in the world, and at the same time succumbing to the irresistible tide of benevolent wellbeing in which he felt embraced.
I knew that he had also noticed me. He flashed a glance towards the windowsill on which I sat, whiskers tingling at this new situation in which we found ourselves. One in which I knew formality would prevent him from bursting out with O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love or other florid endearments. But he had seen me, and I had seen him, and he had seen me seeing him, and our connection resumed.
“I would like to make you an offering, Your Holiness.”
The Dalai Lama nodded. The usual protocol was for a visitor to present a white scarf or khata to His Holiness, which he would then place back over the neck of the guest, thereby returning their gift, augmented immeasurably by his whispered blessing.
Christopher had brought no white khata today, but from the corridor stepped the orderly I recognized from the nursing home. He was carrying the painting.
The Dalai Lama indicated that the orderly should place it on a table, in good light. It was quite unlike any art ever presented before in this room. The ultimate expression of abstraction, you might say, because it didn’t seem to be of anything at all. At least, nothing specific. There were no mountains, forests or waterfalls. In yellows and whites and the faintest blues it was, rather, a panoramic impression of radiant light. Boundless space.
“It’s called Primordial Dawn and I would like to give it to you, Your Holiness. Not least of all because you inspired me to paint it.”
The Dalai Lama had been standing, palms together at his heart, studying the painting. With childlike wonder he stepped closer, staring at the thick lashings of paint on canvas. Leaning into it, he breathed the scent of the oils – just as I had, on my first visit to the studio. His was a multisensory appreciation. An awed discovery and concentration which filled filling the room with joy.
“This is magnificent!” he turned to Christopher eventually. “Quite extraordinary!”
Tears welled up in Christopher’s eyes. Could there be any greater acclaim?
“Pristine consciousness,” His Holiness confirmed.
Swallowing, Christopher nodded.
“I have never seen it done like this before. Visually. It is wonderful!” he said chuckling. Christopher couldn’t help chuckling too.
“Why did you say that I am the inspiration?” he inquired.
“Well,” Christopher shot a glance to where I was sitting on the sill. “A lot because of your book.” He retrieved the paperback from his pocket.
With a curious expression, the Dalai Lama held his hand out in request, his mala beads dangling from his arm.
It was Christopher’s turn to be surprised, as he handed it over. His Holiness flicked through its pages, taking in how extremely well-worn it was, inspecting the highlighting and margin notes, evidence that this was the most studied of books.
As he paused on one page, taking in a particular sentence, Christopher couldn’t resist quoting it: “If you wish to realize the meaning that is beyond intellect, with nothing to be done, root out your limited awareness and settle starkly into pure awareness. Plunge into the waters of this pristine lucidity, unsullied by any stain of conceptual thinking.”
“Good, good,” smiled the Dalai Lama. “You have memorized these quotes, yes?”
His Holiness fanned through pages, allowing them to fall open on another highlighted sentence. “Page 288?” he queried, eyes twinkling.
“Without holding the mind either too tightly or too loosely, we have it soar off into its clear light state with clarity and sharpness and then let it glide in a relaxed manner without exercising mindfulness or alertness in any extensive, frenetic way,” he recited.
“Excellent! This is like examination, yes? Like you are taking your monastic qualifications.” Mischievously, the Dalai Lama let the book fall open again. “Page 121?”
“A favorite,” replied Christopher. “Just as any mass of clouds that appears in the sky both originates from and dissolves back into the sky, likewise all appearances of anything that exists both originate from and dissolve back into subtlest clear light mind.”
Expression turning serious, the Dalai Lama closed the book and respectfully returned it to Christopher. Then he gestured towards the painting, “I can understand how you came to do this.”
“I hope you will accept it,” confirmed Christopher.
His Holiness paused. “Namgyal Monastery is not a gallery, a museum with elaborate security” he said, concerned about what he evidently perceived to be the very great financial value of the painting. “But on behalf of us all, I accept with our heartfelt thanks. It will make, I think, a good welcome for our visitors.” He brought his palms together.
“I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. You see, Your Holiness, I am a dying man. I don’t have long to live. Knowing that you are willing to receive my painting is very meaningful to me.”
For a long while, as the Dalai Lama held his gaze, it felt as though we were all caught in a vortex of overwhelming compassion. An experience of the radiant clarity Christopher had already expressed, in this moment being imbued with transcendental bliss.
His Holiness was gesturing towards the pocket in which Christopher had returned the book. “You already know the true nature of reality. When your time comes, meditate on this. You can look forward with confidence to the dawning of the clear light of death.”
Following his words intently, Christopher’s expression turned to one of disquiet. After a pause, he could no longer contain his anguish. “But I can’t meditate!” he exclaimed, as if the Dalai Lama had just ordered him to do the impossible. “I know the concepts, the theory,” he was apologetic. “It’s just that I can’t experience them.”
The Dalai Lama looked thoughtful for a long while, before turning back to the painting and studying it. “When you painted this,” he asked Christopher, “what were you thinking?”
Christopher was unprepared for the question. “I … I don’t really … It’s not like … How to put this …” He struggled for expression, before eventually saying, “When I’m painting, it’s not like I’m thinking. Not in the normal way. I’m only focused on what I am painting.”
“You focus on the object?” asked His Holiness.
“You are not wondering what color? Which brush?”
“That becomes instinctive,” said Christopher. “It’s hard to put into words. I … I just … I lose myself to it.”
“You lose your … self?” The Dalai Lama smiled quietly.
Emotion tugged at Christopher’s lips, as his understanding began to dawn.
“You become non-dual with the object?” queried His Holiness.
Christopher swallowed heavily as he nodded.
His Holiness was describing a state of deep, meditative concentration, in which one’s focus is so complete that there is no longer any sense of a meditator perceiving an object of meditation. There is instead only a singular experience of the object. A non-dualistic absorption in which self and time fall away.
It was a while before the Dalai Lama added, “I would like to request a commission. Only I can’t pay for it,” he chuckled.
“Of course, Your Holiness.”
“Amitabha Buddha. You know him?”
Christopher was nodding. “The red-colored Buddha?’”
“The Buddha of Infinite Light and Life,” the Dalai Lama confirmed, before turning to murmur something to Oliver, who was still standing at the door. Oliver left the room on some kind of errand.
“I would like you to paint his portrait. Full size,” His Holiness gestured towards Christopher’s canvas, Primordial Dawn.
“It would be the honor of my life,” Christopher was both surprised and, at the same time, strangely exalted.
When Oliver reappeared with a sandalwood wrist mala, the Dalai Lama held it between his clasped hands and blew a breath of blessing on it, before offering it to his visitor. “My gift to you,” he said. “To recite the mantra of Amitabha. Let me give you the mantra.”
Three times, His Holiness recited the mantra: “Om Amitabha hrih.”
Three times, Christopher repeated it after him.
This is the sacred transmission by which mantras are offered from guru to disciple and by which a bond is made which will always connect the two – not only to one another, but to all the practitioners who have come before and will arise in the future. An energetic portal is opened, not only to Buddha Amitabha, but to the entire lineage of Amitabha practitioners.
“Now you have the mantra,” the Dalai Lama confirmed. “One of our Geshes here at Namgyal, Geshe Wangpo, has a class every Tuesday night. Next Tuesday he is teaching a special class. I highly recommend that you go.”
From the sidelines, Oliver approached the two, signaling that the audience must come to an end. Christopher bowed in prostration, hands at his heart. “Thank you, thank you, Your Holiness. I don’t feel so afraid.”
The Dalai Lama reached out, taking Christopher’s large, blotchy hands between his own and gazing directly at him. “You have nothing to fear from death,” he said with conviction. “A pure land awaits you.”
Leaning forward so that the Dalai Lama’s forehead was touching his visitor’s, the two of them were held together in silent communion for the longest time.
Christopher stifled a sob as he stepped back. As he turned to leave, His Holiness asked, “When you paint, you are not always alone?”
Christopher couldn’t help once again glancing in my direction, as he shook his head.
“Sometimes, this one is with you?” His Holiness gestured towards me.
“You are clairvoyant,” said Christopher, somewhat tearfully.
“Just a simple monk,” the Dalai Lama chuckled. “When she comes home, I have noticed the smell of oil paint,” he said. “Now I have discovered where the smell comes from.”
It was Christopher’s turn to chortle. “She is an inspiration,” he said.
A short while later they left the room, Oliver closing the door on the way out. Christopher broke into a fit of severe coughing.
That night I lay at the end of His Holiness’s blanket, purring gently while he sat up in bed reading. It was always one of my favorite moments of the day, just the two of us in the soft glow of his bedroom, a place of safety, warmth and reflection.
Eventually, the Dalai Lama stopped reading, placed the book carefully on his bedside table and looked down at me, as he always did before turning out the light.
“I hear your check-up at the vet last week was useful,” he spoke softly.
It was the first time he’d referred to the visit – not, I was certain, because it had slipped his mind, but because he knew that I needed time to absorb what had happened. And, as so often with His Holiness, although the words he used were simple, the idea he expressed was profound. And almost the opposite of what you might expect. But I had already found for myself that it was startlingly true.
At the time, I most certainly hadn’t thought of the vet’s pronouncements as “useful”. Who wants to be told by a man in a white coat that you have far fewer days ahead of you than behind? That the quality of your life is in irreversible decline? That the life you take for granted dangles from the most tenuous of threads?
But as I had discovered through Christopher, the value of life depends far less on its length than by what you do with it. On whether you value each precious day which it is your privilege to witness, or take it for granted. On your capacity to make the very most of whatever abilities you have to give joy to others, without fear or discouragement. That is what makes the difference between a meaningful life and one which passes by in an unexamined blur.
“It is a precious gift to realize life’s impermanence,” continued His Holiness. “Not to avoid or pretend otherwise, but to truly value it. Every single day, even the foggy ones. Then we can live with zest. Like little kittens,” he reached down to tickle my neck.
Grabbing his fingers with a paw, I bit them playfully.
“And when we die,” he murmured, lying back, hand reaching for the light switch. “It is like this.” In an instant, we were in complete darkness. “If we have had a happy and useful life, well then, tomorrow when we wake up, we will find happiness and purpose too.”
END OF CHAPTER ONE
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