Discover more from The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie
Arrogant or discerning? How do you seek refuge, dear reader?
Mouse-size musings from the Dalai Lama's Cat
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There is a word some people use to describe cats which I find insufferable. An idea certain humans have about us that’s not only untrue - but that might say more about the person voicing it than about the feline being so critically described. That word is: “arrogant.” There are other terms along similar lines: “haughty.” “Stand-offish.” “Smug.”
It’s true that your typical household puss is unlikely to greet her owner, arriving home from work, by rushing to the front door in a frenzy of joyous meowing. Should you pick up a ball or a soft toy, it is equally implausible that she will leap to attention, quivering with excitement, and eager to retrieve the item from wherever you choose to throw it.
But there are explanations for a cat’s behaviour in such circumstances that have nothing to do with arrogance. Could it not be that your attendant puss understands how, having been exposed to the crazy discombobulations of the outside world, you may wish to return to hearth and home free from further emotional effusions? Or that, should you decide to throw a tennis ball into a far distant shrubbery, you may have your own good reasons for so doing? Reasons which are to be respected and which, quite frankly, have nothing at all to do with us?
There’s an alternative word which better describes the attitude of a cat in these and similar circumstances. Not a word I conjured up on my own, dear reader, but one that was bestowed on cats by no less an authority than Namgyal Monastery’s high lama, Geshe Wangpo himself!
Allow me to share with you how this auspicious redefinition came about.
I was enjoying my usual siesta at The Himalaya Book Café one afternoon when I opened my eyes briefly to see two women sitting at the table nearest me.
“Look, Jenny, a cat!” exclaimed one of the women in an English accent, becoming aware of me as I blinked.
“The blue eyes” enthused her friend. “There you are, Lynn! Something beautiful for you to admire in India at last!”
“Hmm,” Lynn was non-comital.
When two Western friends visit India, I have discovered that it’s not unusual for one of them to be very much more enthusiastic about their adventures than the other. And for the enthusiast to try, against sometimes insurmountable odds, to share their zeal.
Reaching out my front paws, I yawned widely.
“Look at that,” observed Lynn disapprovingly. “There’s something so … smug about cats.”
“We all yawn,” countered Jenny with irrefutable logic.
“Anyway,” Lynn was not to be dissuaded. “A restaurant is no place for a cat.”
On the contrary, I thought, closing my eyes again sleepily. I couldn’t think of a more congenial venue for a feline to enjoy a delectable treat followed by forty winks.
It wasn’t much later when I was aware of a very different presence. Geshe Wangpo was one of Namgyal Monastery’s most revered teachers, a lama who combined old-school rigour with heart-warming compassion in equal measure. His visits to places like The Himalaya Book Café were rare, and always with a particular purpose.
He was striding directly from the café entrance towards the bookstore. Seeing him arrive, Sam, the manager, descended the few steps from the book section, a volume wrapped and ready for him. The two exchanged a few words and Sam returned to the shop. Which was when English visitor Jenny got up from her table and approached the lama.
“Excuse me, are you at the monastery here?” she gestured in the general direction of Namgyal.
Geshe Wangpo nodded, making no mention of the fact that not only was he ‘at the monastery’ but one of its most senior lamas.
“I wonder if you can help me?” she asked. In her fifties with a certain quiet poise, there was something beseeching about Jenny’s expression.
“Of course, my dear,” he regarded her kindly.
“I have always been drawn to Buddhism. To the practice of loving kindness. To meditation and mind training. These are things I really admire,” she placed a hand on her heart. “But there’s something I find hard to understand. To reconcile, really.”
Geshe-la was following her closely.
“Perhaps it’s my English upbringing,” she paused, looking awkward.
He nodded, his focus unwavering.
“It’s why I came all the way here, to Dharamshala,” she said, thereby confirming her role as initiator of the overseas adventure with Lynn. “But I can’t seem to …” she trailed off.
The lama reached out, clasping her hand briefly. “You can tell me,” he encouraged.
“Well, it’s … it’s just that it’s a bit … maybe not embarrassing, exactly. I don’t want to cause offense. It’s something I see all the time and I find it …”
Geshe Wangpo’s expression turned more commanding. “Just say it,” he said.
“Okay,” she swallowed. Before taking a deep breath. “It’s all the bowing and scraping,” she finally blurted out.
“At temples, in front of the Buddha statues,” once started, there was no holding her back. “And I’ve read about people walking all the way to Lhasa from remote parts of Tibet, and every three steps, they’re getting down on the ground and – I can’t think of the word …”
“Prostrating?” A gleam had appeared in the lama’s eyes.
“That’s it,” she nodded.
“Bowing down before graven images?” he probed the cause of her unease.
“Oh, that side of things doesn’t worry me,” she said. “I’m not at all religious.” She seemed relieved that the subject was out in the open. “It’s just that I can’t see the point of any of it.”
“The point of bowing down in front of a statue, however beautiful it may be. You’re not helping the statue. All you’re doing is getting your hands dirty. And for no particular reason that I can see.”
Geshe Wangpo wasn’t a man who chuckled very much, but hearing her say this, he burst out laughing. “You’re too funny!” he told her after a while.
Jenny looked bemused.
“Hands dirty for no particular reason,” he repeated, chortling, before saying breathlessly. “Excellent! This is a very good question.”
When the lama had recovered his composure he tilted his head on one side for a moment. “I think you are right – this is a little bit cultural. In the West, you shake hands. In the East,” he brought his palms to his heart, “more like this.”
“When we prostrate, we are taking refuge. This is a big subject. There are different levels of understanding.”
“I’ve heard of taking refuge,” she said. “But why the need to bow down in front of a statue to take refuge?”
“No need,” he told her. “True refuge we take here,” he raised a hand to his heart.
“There are many reasons why we might choose to bow. Not to the statue, but to what the statue represents to us.”
“The historical Buddha?”
“Yes. And not only to him. To any and all beings who have attained enlightenment since the beginning of time. Of which there are countless numbers. And they are still with us,” he gestured with an open hand facing upwards. “Just because we can’t see them with our limited perception, doesn’t mean they are not there.”
“Oh, I accept that,” replied Jenny.
“What we can see is the statue,” he noted. “So we use it to represent not only Shakyamuni Buddha, but all Buddhas and bodhisattvas, any enlightened beings in the three times and ten directions. Sometimes we call these our ‘field of merit’.”
It was evident from the furrows forming on Jenny’s forehead that this was not a term she’d heard before.
“In Tibet, the traditional way to become self-sufficient was through farming. In fields. You grew barley and other foods to feed yourselves and grow food for yaks. If you worked hard and cultivated a lot of crops, you could gain wealth. In the same way, the field we need to cultivate if we are to attain self-sufficiency, to gain riches of the mind, is the field of higher consciousness.”
“So,” Jenny paused while she considered her question carefully. “You’re not actually worshipping Buddhas?”
Geshe Wangpo shook his head definitively. “There is no worship of any kind. Some spiritual traditions put their leaders on a pedestal. They see them as separate. Superhuman. Beyond anything we can even try to become. Our approach in Buddhism is quite different. We say ‘such and such was an exceptional being – how can I be more like him or her? How can I attain the same transcendence?’ The simple act of aspiring to be more like them, of wishing to become like them - which we do when we prostrate - this can help move us closer to our goal.”
Jenny’s changing expression revealed a new understanding.
“You mentioned mind-training. Cultivating a good heart” continued Geshe-la. “When we take refuge in the Buddha this is what we’re saying. Refuge means ‘taking clear direction.’ When we prostrate we are saying ‘this is the direction I am taking. In the Buddha as a model of who I wish to become. In his teachings, the Dharma, as his explanation on how to do it. And with my teachers and fellow students, the Sangha, to help me on the way. So you see,” he wagged a finger playfully towards her. “Not worshipping of statues.”
“No,” Jenny’s expression had brightened considerably. “It sounds more like a form of affirmation. A physical affirmation we do with our body.”
The lama regarded her carefully before continuing, “I mentioned that taking refuge has different levels. Taking refuge in the historical Buddha, and other enlightened beings, this is one level. One form of ‘affirmation’,” he said. “We call it ‘cause refuge’ because we are taking refuge in Buddhas as the ones who show us the causes for enlightenment. But there is another level,” his eyes were shining. “You might say an even more auspicious reason why we prostrate.”
Completely absorbed, Jenny stepped closer to him.
“It’s called ‘result refuge,’ he told her. “Because we remind ourselves that right now we have Buddha nature. We already possess it. We don’t need to create it or go in search for it, or pay someone to help us find it. My true nature, your true nature-” he rested his hand on her wrist for a moment, “-is boundless. Radiant. Pristine. And once awakened to that fact, there is no reason why we can’t fully realise our Buddha potential.
“So you see,” he continued after a pause. “When we prostrate, we are celebrating this. Not only do we have the perfect teachers and teachings, but even though we are currently human beings, we are reminding ourselves that our true nature is very different. The potential for a reality that is panoramic, imbued with loving kindness and ever-increasing bliss is already here, now.”
Completely awake, having been listening to the intriguing exchange, I roused myself on the top shelf of the magazine rack, hopped to the floor and, feeling the need for a good stretch, performed a lengthy and tremulous sun salutation in front of Geshe Wangpo. After I finished, I approached him, sliding my fluffy form against his legs, doing my best to ensure that I left a souvenir of our encounter in the form of a swatch of white fur on his red robe.
“Like this,” the lama bent to stroke me as I pressed against him.
Beside him, Jenny was chuckling.
“This cat also has Buddha nature,” Geshe-la reminded her. “Like all sentient beings.”
“Did you hear that Lynn?” Jenny looked back over her shoulder. But Lynn was staring at her phone, scrolling down a news feed, oblivious. “My friend,” she murmured to the lama, “thinks that cats are arrogant.”
Geshe Wangpo raised his eyebrows as he contemplated this idea. “Better, I think, to say that they are ‘choosey’.”
“Particular,” he elaborated. “Discerning. Which is exactly what we should be when deciding what to take refuge in.”
“And who to prostrate to,” said Jenny.
“True.” The two of them shared a smile.
So there you have it, dear reader. When it comes to taking refuge, defer to your inner feline. Be very choosey about who you take refuge in – don’t settle for anyone less than a fully enlightened being. And don’t be afraid of getting your paws dirty when you prostrate to the cause of your future transcendence, as well as to its result: for as the possessor of Buddha nature, transcendence may be much closer to your heart than you ever dared imagine.
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