If you like cats, as I do, and if you adore the Dalai Lama, as I do, then you might perhaps like reading The Dalai Lama’s Cat. It’s a novel with a difference, where the chief character, variously known as Rinpoche, Bodhicatva, Snow Lion, Mousie-Tung, but chiefly as His Holiness’s Cat, or HHC, provides us with a view up close and personal of the Dalai Lama. In doing so, this very intelligent cat also articulates some key Buddhist truths, as she learns them the hard way.
Fate, or her good karma, ensures that a defenseless traumatised kitten is rescued by the Dalai Lama, thereby giving her access to both his lap and his residence at Dharamshala. As a literary devise, it works very well to breach the distance we automatically confer on the Dalai Lama out of respect, allowing us the liberty of proximity with him via the cat.
What is it like to be in the presence of the Dalai Lama?
“It is as much a feeling as a thought — a deeply heart-warming and profound understanding that all is well... you become aware that your own true nature is one of boundless love and compassion... the Dalai Lama sees it and reflects it back to you.”
HHC is not in awe of the Dalai Lama, so even while recognising in him an oceanic kindness, she has no compunction in demanding his attention, rubbing her “furry body against his legs. If this doesn’t get his attention, I sink my teeth politely but precisely into the tender flesh of his ankles. That always does it.”
Observing the Dalai Lama’s interactions with many visitors, receiving choice tidbits from him, HHC realises that both animals and humans, sentient beings alike, share the wish to enjoy happiness and the wish to avoid suffering. Soon, meditating alongside the Dalai Lama, HHC progresses to the point of learning how to avoid suffering, encapsulated by the Buddha in his Four Noble Truths.
Practising mindfulness, an ability to be in the here and the now, helps HHC immensely. She learns from the example of Mrs Trinci, expert chef with a flammable temper, how to overcome anger. Encountering Franc, the owner of an upmarket café, she observes how, over time, he discovers that to be Buddhist is not a question of outer accoutrements, but attention to the inner journey. It is this inner change that allows one to accept all the sudden reverses in life with equanimity. From the Dalai Lama’s counsel to a famous self-help expert, “the danger is that self-development can lead us to more self-cherishing, self-absorption, self-infatuation,” HHC understands the causes that lead to happiness are “the wish to give happiness to others” or love, and “the wish to help free others from suffering” or compassion.
Both aid in the core practise of bodhichitta or “the wish to attain enlightenment in order to lead all living beings to the same state”.
Lest you think HHC is a boring pedant, let me tell you that she is a gourmet, an afficionado of classical music, and has her own share of thrills and adventures, including falling in love with a magnificent tabby cat. Is her love reciprocated? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
The Dalai Lama’s Cat is a pleasant and quick read, where great truths are presented by a fluffy ball of fur in a simple manner. This tips the book more into the mind/body/spirit space rather than that of a literary novel, because it is clear that the various episodes described by HHC all lead to an underlying Buddhist principle or truth. As an appetiser, it just might tempt you into exploring the heavier, more weighty works of Buddhist philosophy.
The dalai lama’s cat
2012, pp 220