Bodhicatva

The Dalai Lamas CatThe Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, was published in 2012. It is a work of fiction.

Visitors are often surprised to find that the Dalai Lama has a cat. But why should His Holiness not have a cat, asks the cat.

The cat, who has many names, was among a litter of kittens found in a New Delhi alley by two young boys. The boys sold off the kittens, one by one. The smallest kitten was too weak to sell, so they decided to suffocate it. This was witnessed by the Dalai Lama, who was stuck in traffic. He sent his attendant to buy the kitten for two American dollars. (His Holiness was returning from a trip to America, and had no rupees with him.)

The cat moves in with the Dalai Lama. Having been born in an alley, she doesn’t know how unusual her situation is. To her, His Holiness is just someone who gets the temperature of her milk just right.

Seeing how much care and thought His Holiness puts into writing his books, the cat decides to write a book of her own.

At first, the cat thinks that every human wakes up at 3 a.m. and spends five hours meditating. Then, with the help of the Dalai Lama’s assistants, the cat begins to understand that not everyone spends their days meeting with world leaders and celebrities.

In her book, the cat is discrete enough to not reveal the names of celebrity guests. She does drop the occasional hint, however. For instance, one guest is referred to as an absolutely fabulous actress who has appeared on British television.

Sometimes, the cat will name names, like when the teacher Thich Nhat Hanh or the Queen of Bhutan pay a visit.

The assistants, Chogyal and Tenzin, call the cat HHC – His Holiness’ Cat. One day, HHC finds her way to a space under the building, where she finds, and tries to kill, a mouse. She wants to bring the mouse to the Dalai Lama, but he is busy in the temple, so she presents her gift to the assistants. To her surprise, the assistants care for the mouse and do their best to treat its wounds. Then the cat remembers His Holiness’ teaching, and understands that all sentient life is sacred – even the life of a mouse.

Chogyal and Tenzin decide it’s time for the cat to have a new name, but “His Holiness’ Mouser” doesn’t sound right. The Dalai Lama’s driver suggests simply, “Mouser”, but with his strong accent, it sounds like “Mousie”. No, say the assistants, it has to be something more – either something Mousie or Mousie something. The driver suggests “Mousie-Tung”.

All three men laugh. Then Tenzin says, “Compassion is all very well. But do you think His Holiness should be sharing his quarters with Mousie-Tung?” They continue laughing.

For the cat, her new name is a grim reminder of a folly of her youth, when she let instincts take over, when she forgot to see life from the mouse’s point of view. Fortunately, the mouse survived. The Dalai Lama urged the cat to learn from her mistake, and to move on.

Mousie loves life at Jokhang, as the temple complex is called. Although cats spend their days dozing, she writes, they like their humans to be busy, and Jokhang is very busy. The cat provides us with a tour of the complex. She provides an eyewitness account of events and activities in and around Jokhang.

The Dalai Lama names the cat “little Snow Lion”. Mrs. Trinci, the flamboyant cook, names the cat “The Most Beautiful Creature That Ever Lived”. To Franc, owner of Café Franc, she is “Rinpoche”.

The Snow Lion of Jokhang finds that fame brings some benefits among the shops and restaurants in the area. At Café Franc, she is a celebrity. Having a celebrity in the café brings in customers, so Rinpoche is always fed well there. She is also fed well by Mrs. Trinci at Jokhang. She is well fed at a lot of places. The cat admits to being a glutton.

HHC, the cat of many names, continues to live, love, and learn at Jokhang as she grows from kitten to cat.

The Dalai Lama’s Cat is an introduction to the principles of Tibetan Buddhism. Through observations and personal experience, the cat learns of karma, mindfulness, Dharma, and the Sutras. Like the story of the gift of the mouse, the various stories are often told with a touch of humor, and always contain a lesson. Franc, who wears the symbols of Buddhism, learns what it means to actually be a Buddhist. Mrs. Trinci, a Catholic, learns why the Buddhists she works for have never tried to convert her. Chogyal’s teenage daughter, who believes in a vegetarian lifestyle but has an iron deficiency, learns that vegetarianism is not a binary principle. There are many such stories in this book.

As with any book written from a nonhuman perspective, the cat seemed a little too human at times. For instance, would a cat recognize that a car is a Fiat Punto? Would it even care? But that’s really the only nit I have to pick with The Dalai Lama’s Cat. Hey, I read a novel written by a cat, so what do I know?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Dalai Lama’s Cat. It’s a quick read, and I had fun reading it. It’s a wonderful book.

  • A book from a nonhuman perspective