Part of The Dalai Lama’s Cat dedication reads:
In loving memory of our own little Rinpoche,
Princess Wussik of the Sapphire Throne.
She brought us joy; we loved her well.
Readers of the Dalai Lama’s Cat books will already have formed a good idea of His Holiness’s Cat’s distinctive, quirky and adorable personality – based entirely on our own little treasure. I’ve shared a few more insights into the cat who inspired the book on my website (see ’Meet the real Dalai Lama’s Cat’)
But what’s the story behind the line in the Dedication ‘She brought us joy; we loved her well.’
I was first introduced to Tibetan Buddhism by my dear friend Kay. I met Kay when I was in my teens and she was in her seventies. Kay was an extraordinary lady, extremely well-read, well-traveled, highly intuitive and way ahead of her time. The two of us enjoyed a close friendship for the next thirty years until she died at the magnificent age of 101.
After her funeral in England, I was sent her ashes. She hadn’t left any written instructions about what she wanted done with them, and I knew her well enough to realize that she would be quite unsentimental about what happened to them. Nevertheless, I asked a mutual friend if she had ever mentioned what she’d like done with them. He said he vaguely remembered her once saying that she would like to have them scattered on her husband’s grave. This is in the small cemetery of St Catherine’s-in- the-Downs, Nyanga, a sweepingly beautiful but remote place in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, Africa.
At that time, I had no plans to return to Zimbabwe, where I was born and brought up, but I kept Kay’s ashes safely in a cupboard at home. I knew that, at some stage I would return – and what is a couple of years in the context of eternity?
A few years after Kay died, I went home, taking her ashes with me. Helped by friends back in Zim, we made the trip thought the breathtaking mountains, carpeted in the distinctive red foliage of msasa trees. These mountains have a special place in my heart from times I spent there during childhood, and for Kay too – she had lived here for many years. In fact she and her husband had donated a bell to the chapel, which had originally came from a boat he’d owned that had been used during the famous Dunkirk evacuations of the Second World War.
After bumping and grinding over a rock-strewn dirt track in a four wheel drive, we eventually came to St Catherine’s. There was no one there except for a groundsman who let us in. I was both astounded and moved to discover, after all that Zimbabwe has been through over the past decades, that the bell still hangs over the entrance to the cemetery.
We found Kay’s husband’s grave easily, as there were so few. While reciting the lyrical and uplifting Tsong K’apa sadana, which you might describe as being like a Buddhist prayer, we scattered her ashes on the ground. It was a profoundly moving experience. I felt we were doing the right thing and also sensed that we were taking part in something which had a greater significance than may appear.
Afterwards, while walking through the small cemetery, I discovered the grave of Daniel Carney. He was also a Zimbabwean and a writer, whose most famous novel, The Wild Geese, became a major movie. It was an unexpected and intriguing discovery – I had hero worshipped him and that other Zimbabwean ‘boys own’ writer, Wilbur Smith, while growing up.
As I reflected on the verse on Daniel Carney’s grave ‘He brought us joy, we loved him well,’ it had a powerful resonance. When I looked it up later, I discovered that Karen Blixen had used it at the funeral of her lover, Denis Finch-Hatten – a story portrayed so evocatively in her book, also turned into a movie, Out of Africa.
When the time came to find words which would succinctly describe our relationship after the death of our own Princess Wussik, I remembered that day on the windswept mountain in Zimbabwe. I recalled the bittersweet combination of grief and gratitude. The blurring of appearance and ultimate reality, and of time standing still.
Karen Blixen had already summed it up – the words came easily.
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