David Michie, The Dalaï Lama’s Cat: A Novel. Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, South Africa, United Kingdom, United States: Hay House, 2012.
For Elizabeth, who introduced me to HHC
A cat’s-eye view of the bodhisattva (bodhicatva) path, this wise and witty novel follows the progress of a Himalayan kitten, snatched from the jaws of death in a New Delhi slum where, as the runt of the litter, she is about to be consigned to the rubbish-heap. She is rescued by two young attendants of the Dalai Lama, stuck in a traffic jam while returning to his Indian home from a trip to the United States. The ensuing tale is one ‘not so much of rags to riches as trash to temple’.
We have the usual disclaimer on the book’s copyright page, about any resemblance to persons living or deceased being ‘strictly coincidental’. But the interest of the novel is precisely such a resemblance, which comes to be seen as the kitten’s good karma. Stunningly beautiful with her long, luscious white fur and her sapphire eyes – Mrs Trinci, the Dalai Lama’s favourite cook (she of the ‘operatic temperament’), calls her simply ‘The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived’) – she is adopted by His Holiness, in whose beneficent presence the whole novel bathes.
The first-person narrative from the perspective of the kitten allows us to chart her spiritual progress from the inside, her gradual recognition of her spiritual limitations (gluttony, which nearly gets the better of her, being the chief one, as well as a certain understandable vanity) and her efforts to overcome them.
The question of what to call the cat looms large early on, and is never resolved in any hard-and-fast way. Her karmic link with the Dalai Lama makes ‘His Holiness’s Cat’ (abbreviated to ‘HHC’) an obvious and lasting one. But she is also ‘Rinpoche’ by association with His Holiness, while he himself favours ‘Snow Lion’. Mrs Trinci adds ‘Tesorino’ and ‘cara Mia’ to ‘The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived’. The only name rejected by HHC herself as being thoroughly undignified is ‘Mousie-Tung’, bestowed on her by one of His Holiness’s attendants.
The Dharma teachings which are the essence of the novel are conveyed in the main informally, through His Holiness’s conversation with his many visitors, mostly distinguished in worldly terms (although Thich Nhat Hanh makes a brief appearance), seeking enlightenment at the feet of one of the world’s greatest spiritual leaders. In the earlier pages these tend to be brief and unelaborated, with the narrative taking precedence, but as the kitten becomes a cat and her understanding of such matters develops, they become teachings of some range and complexity. They are thus an important structuring device to the novel. As befits the central concept of the equal potential for enlightenment of all beings, we feel no surprise or artificiality at the idea of a cat having access to these fundamental teachings.
In spite of the deep seriousness of this subject-matter, the narrative never becomes solemn, the cat’s perspective ensures that other characters are introduced with a fitting sense of irony. One of the chief of these is Franc, of Café Franc, a ‘Tibetan Buddhist theme-park’, according to our feline observer, Franc himself being where ‘Metropolitan chic meets Buddhist mystique’. Franc, with his Om (single) earring, blessing-strings, his tight black clothing, his shaven head and his French bulldog, is a cat-hater, until he discovers HHC’s link with the Dalai Lama, which he turns into a selling-point for patrons of the café. HHC, for her part, is only too happy to adopt the vantage-point of the magazine-rack ‘between Vanity Fair and Vogue’, as she awaits the copious meals Franc bestows on her.
Franc himself is brought round to some degree of understanding by the Dalai Lama himself, in a contact over Franc’s dog and Kyi Kyi, a Lhassa Apso rescued by His Holiness. The latter immediately penetrates Franc’s façade, and sends him off for teachings to Geshe Wangpo of Namgyal Monastery. Little by little, the Buddhist trappings fall away, the self-cherishing is muted, and a more genuine, happier Franc materialises, but not before the reader has been treated to some basic Buddhist teachings.
HHC herself grows in understanding, gaining insight into her inadequacies, evoking her ‘poor meditation skills, [her] habitual negative mental thoughts’, her fretting at the fact that her ‘impeccable breeding’ as a pedigree Himalayan cat remains undocumented. This new understanding does not prevent ordinary feline passions being satisfied, and an encounter with a large male tabby from the slums of Dharamsala leads inevitably, towards the end of the novel, to the announcement of a forthcoming litter, to the delight of His Holiness.
Thus, the happiness of all beings is fully recognised, and the lightness of touch with which the teaching is conveyed is maintained throughout.
An engaging and thought-provoking read.
About the Author: Pat Little is a member of Bodhicharya Ireland and the Dublin Kagyu Samye Dzong. She has a keen interest in ecological matters, notably the Sowa Rigpa Medicine Garden which Ringu Tulku Rinpoche is developing in his Sikkim Retreat Centre, where she worked for a brief spell in 2009