Discover more from The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie
Moonlit meditation & the Dharma of 'ubuntu'
Africa draws us in. That is her magic. We arrive believing ourselves to be visitors from a different world, but so open are her people, so enchanting her animals, so heartfelt – if unexpected - our sense of connection, that soon we feel that we belong.
Far from coming as a surprise to locals, our kinship is assumed. We are spontaneously included in group invitations, asked favours, given things we never wished for but that turn out to be curiously gratifying. We become aware that we are the possessor of awe-inspiring powers, derived from our access to even quite modest amounts of hard currency. The same cost of a bottle of wine in a mid-market restaurant in London is enough, in Africa, to remove someone’s cataracts and restore their sight. For the cost of the whole meal, a fistula can be repaired, enabling a lame person to walk out from the darkness of their hut.
At the same time, we discover an unsuspected poverty about ourselves. Living on the edge of adversity for many Africans intensifies their gratitude for those things that many of us take for granted. Every nourishing meal truly is a blessing. Each act of kindness is genuinely cherished. Free of any idea of being separate from one another, the highest value is placed on the wider community. Joy is to be shared each day in the simple act of reconnection.
The very first morning after I’d arrived, before I got out of bed or even opened my eyes, all this came flooding back. Outside my bedroom window, Aunt Carrie’s gardener, the auspiciously-named Marvellous was watering pot plants while, at the same, calling to a friend walking along the nearby road. Yelling effusive Shona above the spray of the garden hose, utterly unconcerned by the presence of his employer’s house guest behind drawn curtain just yards away, there was much joking and laughing that summer morning.
I caught the cadences of words I hadn’t heard for decades. The theatrical astonishment of maiwe (my-weh)! The indignant refusal of aikona (I-con-uh)! There was much talk of a bhasikoro (bicycle), and even a snatch of song before the conversation ended as randomly as it had begun. Marvellous edged further away. Eyes still closed, I became aware of the contented clucking of bantam hens scrabbling in the flowerbed outside my window. The rhythmic cooing of Cape turtle doves in the lucky bean tree. A scent of wood smoke from the hot water boiler round the back of the house. Those few reminders were all that it took for me to feel the unexpectedly emotional tug of homecoming. The warm reassurance of a place I had known and loved deeply – and to feel that I was back in the womb of the Motherland.
It was a feeling that returned as I sat on Aunt Carrie’s veranda waiting for Riley, my niece. The two of us were going up Ruwa Rock to admire the sunset – something I’d wanted to do for a while. Carrie’s home overlooked the strip of veld that stretched from John Elliott’s old homestead down to the lake. On the other side of the bush, the rock towered like an ancient sentinel from among a cluster of granite boulders, musasa and candelabra trees.
Directly ahead, Debbie and Kim, sister giraffes, sauntered towards the acacias on the other side of Carrie’s garden. I picked up binoculars from the veranda table. It fascinated me how they were able to strip leaves from branches studded with long, sharp thorns. Using those 18-inch, prehensile tongues, the two of them would navigate their way to the most delicate of leaves without difficulty.
I had watched them before, sitting on this front row seat to the bush, with a growing feeling that they were as curious about me as I was about them. They would pause after a period of browsing and regurgitate cuds that travelled, golf-ball size, from their stomachs all the way up their very long necks, before chewing ruminatively and staring at me for the longest time, blinking sultrily with their extraordinarily long and beautiful eyelashes.
Tempted by some comestible delight in Aunt Carrie’s garden they would saunter over in that peculiar gait of theirs, moving both legs on one side of their body simultaneously, before reaching up to tear a few leaves off the jacaranda tree, or blossoms from the floribunda roses.
A car approached down the driveway. Thor and Tickey, Aunt Carrie’s two dogs, looked up from where they were dozing. It was the sound of Aunt Carrie’s car, but they knew that Carrie was no longer with us. Bewildered, they got to their feet and trotted around the side of the house, returning with Riley.
“Debbie and Kim?” she confirmed, following my gaze as she stepped onto the veranda.
She bent for a quick hug.
“Something’s bothering me about Kim. You know, the taller one?” I handed her the binoculars. “I’m worried she may have hurt her back legs.”
Riley stared through the lenses.
She was an attractive girl, my niece. 25 years old with a strong, yoga teacher’s body, long blonde hair and hazel eyes. She was also very Zimbabwean; straightforward and, without being bitter, unwaveringly free of illusions about other people’s motives. Resilient and willing to turn her hand to whatever needed doing. Open. Curious.
After a while she lowered the binoculars. “Can’t see much.”
“It shows up when she’s walking,” I said.
Six years ago Riley had come to stay with me in London for a gap year at the end of school. I had a spacious and comfortable apartment which had suited her, just as home-cooked meals or a congenial dining companion to visit local restaurants suited me when I got home from my job in funds management. We’d shared a few adventures and a lot of laughter. Both of us new to the roles of uncle and niece, we’d enjoyed the closeness of being family without the burden of any expectations.
“You’ve been busy,” she observed, glancing about.
When Aunt Carrie was alive, the veranda table had been stacked with orderly piles of illustrated African bird and animal guides, gardening books, notepads and stationery, a couple of soap stone carvings and invariably a tea tray. It was now empty, the sweeping teak surface highlighting the breadth and length of this outdoor room.
“I’m heading back to London in a month’s time.”
“With no Aunt Carrie,” I shrugged.
Riley glanced out at the bush pensively. “I know.”
When Aunt Carrie had told me of her cancer diagnosis, it just so happened that Landers had put me on gardening leave – I’d told the firm that I was leaving to set up my own fund management business. But as per my employment deal with Landers, I couldn’t be in contact with any of my clients or colleagues or work in the industry for six months. From being time-starved for the whole of my adult life, I suddenly found myself with an empty calendar – and an ailing aunt in my childhood homeland.
Aunt Carrie had been expected to bounce back from surgery and lead a normal life. I’d offered to be around to help during her convalescence. But she’d died of complications soon after surgery. Six weeks later, it was time to move on. Although there were a few places from my childhood that I still wanted to revisit. Like Ruwa Rock.
“These are for you.” As I stood, I pointed to a box of Treasure Tree Apothecary products I’d gathered when tidying the house.
“Lobster!” she protested, taking in the sizeable collection. “You mustn’t give me everything!”
My family nickname had come about when my only sibling Kate, aged three, had failed to imitate a friend of my father’s who used to call me ‘Robbie Robster.’ ‘Lobster’ was so delightfully daft that the moniker had stuck.
“I can give you whatever I like,” I reminded her. “I am Aunt Carrie’s executor, and she gave me a lot of freedom on disposing of her estate.”
It was in this capacity that, a week after Carrie died, I gave Riley her car – Riley’s own banger having long lost its suspension, and its tyres being practically bald. On a yoga teacher’s earnings there was little likelihood she could afford to replace it.
Fortunately for me in death, as in life, Carrie had been neat and tidy. Apart from this property and all that was on it, Carrie’s only remaining asset after I’d settled all her bills was a bank account with a balance of $7,450.
We walked to Riley’s car - the two of us sitting up front in our sunglasses, Thor and Tickey on their familiar backseat. I’d packed a cooler bag with drinks and snacks which I placed in the footwell. As we headed up the dirt road behind Aunt Carrie’s property, we lowered our windows, late afternoon warmth rushing against our faces, bringing with it the camphor-like tang of eucalyptus trees growing in the distance. It felt so free! So invigorating, gunning down an open road through the bush with nothing but blue sky above.
Both rear windows were lowered and in the side mirror I could see that behind me Thor, an Irish wolfhound had his whole, woolly head out of the car and was relishing the wind in his face. On the other side, Tickey, a Jack Russell, had both her front paws on the arm rest and was thrusting her snout outside appreciatively.
Riley and I exchanged a smile.
We pulled up in the Ruwa Buddhist Society car park. As soon as we had stepped out the vehicle and opened the back doors, the dogs were out, racing through the undergrowth in search of fresh scents, their paws flicking up pocks of dry dust. Riley and I headed down the side of the property to the rock. It was a gentle walk, late afternoon sunshine slanting across the scorched scrub and crackling trees.
The land sloped up, forming a hill about the size of a football pitch studded with granite boulders. Ruwa Rock itself was a gigantic eggplant lolling on its side. Stretching upwards around it were trees, denuded of foliage, gasping for rain. Others proffered umbrellas of unexpectedly green leaves, their roots having grown deep, through the ages, to an invisible water source. There were more shrubs on the hillside, and with them an ecosystem of insects and birds quite different from the surrounding bush.
I couldn’t help but stop to take in what was both observable, along with a feeling that I was in a place that was somehow set apart. It was a tangible sensation. The same you have standing on the limestone slabs in the cool sanctuary of an ancient abbey or pausing at a mountain shrine in the Himalayas. An inescapable sense of the sacred.
A short distance ahead, Riley paused, turning to face me.
“Suddenly I know what to do with Carrie’s ashes,” I said.
“Now that we’re here,” I gestured. “It’s so obvious.”
She was nodding. “She helped scatter John Elliott’s ashes around the rock.”
“Like he did his parents before him.”
As the dogs snuffled nearby, disturbing a flock of cackling guineafowl, she looked about appreciatively. “It’s the place,” she said simply.
“It is the place,” I agreed. Then after a pause, “In some ways, I wish I’d brought my folks’ ashes out. Well, Dad’s at least. Not that some of the locals might have thanked me.”
“They wouldn’t need to know,” she replied. “Anyway, you worry way too much about that.”
When Riley stayed with me in London, we had the conversation about my parents’ sudden departure for Scotland. Riley already knew about it all from her Mum, my sister Kate. I was interested in her perspective as someone living in the community where it had all happened. She was quick to emphasise, as she reminded me now, that what occurred was in the very distant past, and followed by many more recent dramas.
“It’s irrelevant,” she reminded me firmly. “Put it out of your mind.”
“Right,” I nodded, with a wry smile.
Where Ruwa Rock faced the Buddhist Society homestead and Aunt Carrie’s place it would have been impossible to scale without specialist rock-climbing skills, but the other end was much lower. A zig-zag path and ascending boulders offered a natural staircase most of the way. I let Riley take the lead, given her familiarity. She sometimes brought her yoga group to practice here. She’d sent me photos of them in warrior pose on top of the rock, silhouetted against a dazzling red sunset.
As always in the African bush, there came constant reminders that you were never alone. Reaching to lean against a boulder, there’d be a sudden skirmish and you’d realise that a lizard had been sunning itself just inches away from your hand, perfectly camouflaged with the green-grey lichen. When there was a louder crash, we looked up to see the inquiring face of a dassie - rock hyrax. They loved living in kopjes, and rabbit-size droppings revealed their presence, but they were the shyest of creatures and it was rare to catch more than a glimpse.
There was a place where you had to lie on an ascending slope of granite, with a boulder just half an arm’s length in front of you. Using elbows and heels, for a few yards you must clamber upwards through a primeval fracture, before the rock above fell away and you were able first to sit, then to stand. Thor and Tickey had to be helped up the first part, treating the exercise as an exciting adventure. As we came out I paused, scrutinising the granite face.
“Rock art,” confirmed Riley.
“I remember the first time I saw these,” I pointed at the same rust-coloured images I’d noticed as a young boy. I could remember the thrill - it had felt, to me, like my own personal discovery.
Zimbabwe’s rock art had, for the most part, been painted by the San people, the country’s original inhabitants, who’d lived here for at least 20,000 years. Looking at the depictions of buffalo, giraffe and other animals, I was tugged back to the excited ten-year-old version of myself and, more intriguingly to the man or woman who had stood at this exact spot, perhaps before the last Ice Age, applying to the granite surface specially prepared tinctures capable of withstanding heat and hail and frost. Someone so connected to the natural world, to the spirit entities of the animals, that they felt moved to deepen this connection through art.
What if the creation of icons began here? As I paused, studying the images, they seemed no less an authentic expression of the divine than any I’d encountered in Indian temples or Byzantine churches that had come into being thousands of years later. I couldn’t help wondering if whoever had painted these had imagined that one day, in a far-off millennium, others might find their way to this special place and understand what they were trying to communicate. It felt like a personal miracle just to be here.
After the upside-down clamber, the rest of the way was easy. Only a few boulders to be climbed and we had reached the lower end of the rock and were walking up a curve to the high point. Halfway along, from a massive umbrella tree growing up the side, a limb stretched above the rock. Parallel to the boulder, the branch was long and straight as a ceiling joist beneath the tree’s soaring canopy.
The very top of Ruwa Rock was surprisingly flat, and spacious as a farmhouse veranda. Climbing those last few steps up to it I felt as heady as the very first time. Suddenly, I was at the top and could survey everything from horizon to horizon, not so much king of the castle as a more exalted observer. It was impossible not to be enthralled. Every other kopje in the district was so much smaller. All signs of human habitation seemed of little consequence - in the far northwest, Ruwa town was nothing more than a grey smudge on the horizon.
I sensed a sudden jolt of insignificance - all the more powerful because that was exactly my experience as a ten-year-old boy venturing onto this rock for the first time and looking out to the far yonder. How tiny and ineffectual I had felt! Of what small consequence! However important my life and my work usually seemed, up here, on top of Ruwa Rock, without a word having been said, I was emphatically reminded of my place.
This close to the equator, it doesn’t take long for day to turn into night. The sun was already dipping to the horizon, and the sky deepening to a golden glow. I put the cooler bag down. Riley shrugged off a small rucksack and was taking out a blanket. Thor and Tickey watched with interest, tongues lolling and still panting from their exertions.
We hadn’t even settled when I noticed movement from beneath the carpark musasas.
“Is that Harris?” I asked, looking over from where I was pouring water into a bowl for the dogs. The tall, white-maned figure seemed familiar.
“With Tinashe,” confirmed Riley.
The two were heading directly towards us. Followed by two others. “Luke and Bruno,” said Riley.
“Did you know they were coming?”
“No idea,” Riley was surprised as I was. “I mean, Luke said he might swing by on his way back. He had a meeting at Marondera. That was supposed to be much later.”
Riley’s boyfriend, Luke was a game ranger who looked like he’d been sent by casting central, with his darkly rugged good looks, khaki hiking vests and sunglasses. I’d met him a few times and had been struck by his global connections – the level of international funding for conservation in Zimbabwe was amazing.
We exchanged waves with the approaching group.
Riley shot me a questioning glance. This wasn’t quite the sunset we had planned.
“More the merrier,” I shrugged.
Turning back for the big moment, we watched the sun first touch the horizon, before starting to sink below it. Slow to begin with, then sliding away much faster, leaving behind a burnt orange sky turning to red. A vivid, impossibly scarlet sweep where the sun had descended from view began deepening in tone, moment by mesmerising moment.
“That image you sent me of your yoga class up here,” I told Riley. “I used it as a screensaver.”
“Did you really?” she smiled.
“For months and months. So I could come here in my imagination.”
She put her arm around my shoulders and squeezed me briefly.
“Your ears must have been burning earlier,” she told me. “Lakshmi Kumar was asking about you.”
“One of the girls in the screensaver photo. It’s quite the coincidence - she noticed you at Rinpoche’s meditation session and thought you seemed familiar. We talked for a bit and it turns out that she worked at Landers in London for two months.”
“Two years ago. July and August. Ring any bells?”
I shook my head. “Landers has so many staff.”
“That’s what I said. But you’re one of the big cheeses, so she would have noticed you.”
I pulled a droll expression.
“Still. A small world, hey?”
I nodded. Right at this moment, Landers and London had never seemed so far away.
We could hear the others scrambling between the boulders. Thor and Tickey growled half-heartedly. We shushed them as Harris appeared. Then Tinashe.
“Hurry or you’ll miss the best bit!” called Riley.
“A highlight, my dear,” Harris countered her. “Not the highlight.”
I had met Tinashe briefly at the weekend after the meditation session – a tall, young, Shona man with perceptive features and a quality of stillness about him.
“I don’t know what tops this,” I turned back to where the afterglow was deepening. A band of deep crimson, stretching improbably across the horizon, blurred upwards into sienna, which in turn faded to yellow, and that too lightened to the pale clarity of twilight.
“It is very special,” Harris murmured behind us after a while. “To be followed by another wonder from the opposite direction.”
“Oh!” Riley turned, suddenly remembering. “Are you the full moon club?”
Harris was nodding.
“And we thought you were the gate crashers!” She exclaimed.
Luke and Bruno were emerging at the bottom of the rock.
“Every 28 nights,” confirmed Harris, turning towards them. “Best seats in the whole district.”
Luke and I were already friends, but I had only heard of Bruno from the others. As we exchanged greetings, I took in the tall, craggy faced Italian who was pioneering organic teas in the country’s Eastern Highlands. Entrepreneurial and enigmatic, he was said to come from aristocratic stock.
“I see our VIP guest is on his way,” observed Harris.
We followed his gaze. Yogi Tarchin was walking down the lawn from the Ruwa Buddhist Society homestead accompanied by Diva.
“And is that ..?” asked Riley prodding Luke with excitement.
Grinning, he nodded.
“Incredible!” Bruno exclaimed with his Italian accent, on behalf of us all.
Following, just a short distance behind the lama and Diva, was Bodhi the cheetah.
“I had no idea she was still around,” said Riley.
“She’s been sleeping on the veranda of the guest bungalow,” reported Harris. “Diva tells me she has really taken to Yogi Tarchin.”
“There can be no higher compliment,” Luke was admiring. “Although I’m kind of surprised, given he’s Tibetan, that he’s comfortable having a big cat at close quarters.”
There was a pause while we considered this, watching the three of them in procession through the bush.
Tinashe spoke for the first time. “The lama is no ordinary person.”
I glanced over, meeting his eyes. “That’s for sure.”
Thor was scratching himself, his hind leg rasping his side vigorously, when I was struck by a horrifying thought.
“The dogs! With Bodhi-”
Luke glanced from the two of them to Riley. “Have they met?” he gestured towards the cheetah.
“Carrie used to visit John with them often,” she told him. “Bodhi was always there.”
“Then they’ll be fine,” Luke turned to me. “Old friends.” He looked down again to where Bodhi’s prowling form merged into the bush as they got closer to the kopje. “All the same,” he said dryly. “I hope they’re feeding her.”
“Only the best,” confirmed Harris. “Yogi Tarchin insists on it.”
A short while later the sunset display ended, the vivid spectrum of colours draining away, leaving only deep blue. There was a sound from the other end of the rock: Yogi Tarchin and Diva were approaching us. The lama led the way, ethereal as ever, like a lamp in the falling darkness. He closed his palms at his heart in greeting and we did the same. It wasn’t a gesture I had made before, but as I reciprocated it felt entirely natural. A few footsteps behind him, Diva was glowing.
“Thank you for letting me join your full moon club,” the lama said to Harris, chuckling.
“If I may let you into a secret, Rinpoche,” replied Harris. “I am the full moon club. It’s just me and whoever I can persuade to join me.”
“On that subject,” Riley was looking behind Diva. “Did Bodhi follow you?”
“Not the last part,” Diva was shaking her head.
There was a pause as we all stared into the darkness. Before Luke said, “She’ll follow if she wants to - in her own time and on her own terms.”
Our guest of honour having arrived, we settled on the rock amid a patchwork of throws, Yogi Tarchin sitting nearest the face of the rock, the rest of us forming a circle – Thor and Tickey sprawling on the still-warm boulder behind Riley and me.
“It is starting,” observed the lama.
Looking to the horizon opposite where the sun had descended, we took in a pearly haze where the sky was beginning to lighten.
The rising of the moon was as swift as the sun’s setting. First, a large and lustrous rim appeared, and over a period of only a few minutes, the horizon birthed a huge orb of silver. On this night it appeared not only so much bigger than usual, but its rays were immeasurably brighter. Moonlight poured across the veld, washing the arid landscape with luminosity, transforming barren soil and desiccated scrub into an ocean of serenity. Grey boulders were burnished to gleaming silver. Stark trees and their leafless branches rose like mysterious silhouettes in the surreal moonscape.
“So tranquil!” said Diva, reflecting what we all felt.
Next to her, Yogi Tarchin was nodding. “Calming rays of the moon. The symbol of bodhichitta - infinite altruism. When we have this motivation,” he raised a hand to his heart. “We know peace.”
Communicating with not only words alone, as he spoke, more than knowing what he meant, I felt it. And as the moon tugged free of the horizon, I knew that no matter where I could be in the world right now, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. Here, with Yogi Tarchin on Ruwa Rock suddenly felt like the most extraordinary place to be.
Evidently, the others were sensing the same thing. Tinashe began to speak with particular intensity. “I can feel this peace, lama.”
The others were nodding.
“With you, here. But for most people we know, this contentment isn’t possible. In Africa, especially, there is suffering. There are no jobs, no money. The schools and hospitals are broken. Nothing works. With such hardship-” his expression was anguished, “-is it possible to have Buddhist practices? Even to hope for a peaceful heart?”
“Tinashe,” said Yogi Tarchin, infusing the three syllables of his name with deep compassion, the mere fact of his recognition visibly moving the young man. “This is an important question. And I understand what you are saying,” he was nodding.
Tinashe’s gaze was fixed to his as Yogi Tarchin leaned towards him.
“The suffering you speak of makes Africa a better place to practise Buddhism.”
Tinashe was startled.
“There is no power greater than suffering to put us on a journey of inner growth. It is when we suffer that we most urgently seek an escape. That’s when we are motivated to turn away from the true causes of torment.”
We were all fully absorbed in what the lama was saying. Africa as a seedbed for Buddhism was a most unexpected notion.
He paused for a few moments, looking around the group.
“I have many students in developed countries. Compared to people in Africa, materially speaking they have better lifestyles. Fewer of the adversities,” he nodded to Tinashe, “like here. But having money doesn’t make a person more mindful or benevolent or wise. A beautiful home and lifestyle offers no meaning or purpose. These things may even be a hindrance if we become comfortably numb. How can we wish, with all our hearts, to be free from pain if we rarely feel such a thing?”
“This is so true, Rinpoche,” Diva had been following him intently. “I hear what you are saying. But for Africans, ‘Buddhism’ is so foreign.”
He was nodding.
“How we can make Buddhist beliefs more approachable?”
The lama delivered a warm smile. “Buddhism,” he shrugged. “Just a word. A mere label. We mustn’t worry too much about Buddhist beliefs. Or whether people call themselves Buddhist.
“This is not important. Much more important,” he nodded significantly. “Is serving others. Practicing kindness. And I know people here understand this because I see so much of it already. More than in many other places I’ve visited,” he was nodding. “There is a feeling of the collective. Of community.”
In an instant I was taken back to my first morning here – Marvellous outside my window, shouting to a friend. Later that day, that same friend wobbling along the dirt track on Marvellous’s bhasikoro. How Aunt Carrie’s circle of friends had included me in invitations and put me on their WhatsApp group alerting members where they could get fuel and groceries in short supply. How Diva had called in personal favours to get Aunt Carrie a hospital bed.
“In Africa,” said Tinashe, “we call this ubuntu.”
“Ubuntu?” confirmed the lama.
“It means, “I am because we are.’”
Yogi Tarchin’s face lit up. “You see! This is the same as Buddhist teachings on interdependence.
The idea is understood everywhere – but here in Africa you already practice it.”
“Because we have to!” joked Diva.
Everyone laughed, knowing how difficult it would be trying to get the simplest things done without the advice, connections or support of family and friends.
We sat with the intriguing recognition that here, in this remote, African wilderness, one of the core understandings of Buddhism was already assumed as the norm.
The moon was rising further, and although somewhat smaller than the huge globe that had first loomed on the horizon, its light seemed even more dazzling. The bush was almost bright as day but bestowed with a lunar enchantment that rendered everything somehow magical. The line of green trees that wended its way past the rock into the far distance, evidently following the course of a dried-out river, seemed like the pathway to some mysterious destination. The surface of the distant lake glinted like a mirror. Golden lights from the Ruwa Buddhist Society homestead and its guest bungalow held a special enchantment. Not far from us came the sound of Debbie and Kim tugging at tree branches.
Harris heard the movement too, because he was saying, “John Elliott always used to say that Buddhism is one of the few traditions to recognise that animals have consciousness.”
“Yes,” agreed Yogi Tarchin. “The Tibetan words are sem-chen. Mind-havers. All beings with consciousness have Buddha nature, the capacity to become fully enlightened. You might say this is our most precious possession.”
“Which is why John wanted us to take care of his animals,” continued Harris, before pausing. “You’ve been here for a few days, Rinpoche. Is there anything else you think we should be doing?”
The moment he asked the question, I knew it was a shrewd one. If you have the good fortune to be in the presence of a person with such self-evident insight, why would you not seek whatever advice he cared to offer? The approving expression with which Yogi Tarchin regarded him was followed by an answer that none of us could possibly have predicted. He looked at each one of us with a gentle smile before saying, “This is only my suggestion, which you are free to accept or not. But perhaps as well as the animal refuge you can have a temple?”
His proposal was met with astonished silence. Nobody on the rock had ever contemplated such a thing! Keeping John Elliott’s animals fed and happy was the priority - and there had been a few weekend teachings and meditations. While a Buddhist organisation with a temple wasn’t, in itself, such a strange notion, Yogi Tarchin was proposing a level of purpose and commitment that was daunting, going by the everyone’s expressions. Being only a visitor, I didn’t take the lama’s suggestion to include me.
Yogi Tarchin was explaining that a temple need not replicate a Himalayan gompa built for mountainous conditions, but have a thatched African roof, made from local materials. Having discussed ideas with Mr. Nzou, the groundsman who was a former builder, the lama had an approximate idea of the costs and build time that could be a matter of only weeks. As for Buddha statues and thangkas, or wall-hangings, these were items that he could arrange through his contacts in Nepal.
Someone would be needed to supervise the builder and expedite the orders of construction materials, he said, glancing at Diva. Transport to bring materials from Harare, he nodded towards Tinashe. The precise location of the temple, and its orientation would have to be meticulously calculated he observed, meeting Harris’s gleaming eyes. As he ran through different aspects of the project, it became increasingly obvious that it wasn’t by chance we had all found our way to the top of Ruwa Rock. We had been summoned. We may have believed that we were climbing our way to a nostalgic red sunset, or to admire the soaring full moon, but in reality, the same inexplicable magnetism that had conjured Bodhi out of the bush after three years had also drawn us to this place.
Yogi Tarchin was saying that they’d need a Bobcat machine to prepare the ground. Bruno murmured, “I have one.” Social media was important to get the word out, he looked at Riley. And the animal enclosures may need to be reviewed, he told Luke. As for money, he said – I was the only one yet to been given a job – a loan would be needed, although only for a short time. I was relieved when he didn’t fix on me. He wasn’t looking at anyone in particular.
“Rinpoche, we have no income,” Diva reminded him.
“Yes, yes. It will be a private loan which we pay off quickly.”
“But how, if we have no funds-?”
“I can offer empowerments once the temple is built. People will come from all over.”
“Empowerments?” Diva looked excited. “Which ones?”
“Green Tara,” the lama nodded. “Perhaps the most needed here in Africa,” he looked at Tinashe, in acknowledgement of his earlier question. “Green Tara is the Buddha of compassion and action.”
Tinashe smiled appreciatively.
“And you think there’ll be interest from people in Harare?” pressed Riley.
“Not just Harare. Not just Zimbabwe. All of Southern Africa,” Yogi Tarchin was nonchalant. “Maybe even from Europe too.”
We followed him with astonishment.
“People attending can offer a small amount to receive the empowerments. And this can be used to pay the loan.”
“Do you have a budget estimate?” I heard myself asking, perhaps out of professional habit.
He met my eyes directly. “$7,450,” he said.
We sat, each one of us dumbfounded.
“If you don’t want to build a temple, that’s okay,” he spoke with his ineffable lightness. “Take time to consider. But if you want to go ahead, I am here to serve you. I am happy to help. And-” he chuckled, “-there is a semchen who, I think, would like me to stay for a while.”
He glanced up in a way that made us turn to follow his gaze. Sprawled out on the long, straight branch of the umbrella tree, watching over us all, was Bodhi. She had evidently climbed the tree soundlessly, heading to her paramount vantage point. From behind me, I heard the thump of Thor’s tail against the rock. He was also looking at the cheetah and I was relieved by his friendly response.
Moonlight filtered through the canopy of the umbrella tree creating a spectral haze around Bodhi, at supreme ease where she rested. By the time we had turned back to Yogi Tarchin, he was sitting more upright, in meditation posture, and as we followed suit, he directed us to turn around so that we were sitting looking out from the rock into the moonlit night. Ahead of us was a vast, clear expanse of light beneath the astral sweep of the Milky Way. The night was serene but not silent, the sound of crickets in high-pitched descant, the breeze snagging stray lines of song from a distant village. In the warm night, the lama had us focus simply on breathing for a while to settle our minds. Before inviting us, simply but unusually, to focus on mind itself.
“Mind is not something to be seen visually,” he said. “Allow your gaze to rest unfocussed or close your eyes if you prefer. When a thought arises, don’t engage with it. See it merely as cognitive chatter. Acknowledge. Accept. Let go of the thought and return your attention to mind itself. Seek merely to observe mind when it is free of agitation or dullness. To abide with the mind at rest.”
I had tried this exercise before briefly, during a seminar in London. Back then I had decided that my mind was much too busy – it was too much of a struggle even to try. But here on the rock it was quite different. Was it the extraordinary vista of moonlit clarity stretching from one horizon to the other? Or the benefit of being able to bathe in the expansive serenity of the lama? Somehow, here and now, it felt so much easier to let go of thinking and just be present.
“From high up it is easy to think of yourself as small. Insignificant,” Yogi Tarchin seemed to be responding to exactly how I’d felt earlier, and as a boy. To be addressing me directly. I felt the same unexpected recognition as the first time he had looked me in the eyes, as if everything about me was open and self-evident to him - and all I wanted was to soak in the meaning of his words. Of his whole being.
“If we think of ourselves as bags of bones, as bodies containing minds, then yes, we are of little consequence. We are born, we live, we die and whatever impact we make in the material world will soon be forgotten.
“But this view does not accord with reality. Mind is not matter. It is not form. Its natural state is pure clarity, enabling any thought or sensation to arise. And mind has no size. It is certainly not as tiny as our heads. It is boundless, without beginning or end.”
“Look out from here as if you are gazing into your own mind for yourself, except that your mind is perfectly clear – like crystal. Imagine that it extends behind you as far as it does in front. And below you as much as above. Where are you, the observer, in all this, you may ask?”
After a pause he confirmed emphatically, “You are all of it! Not observing it but being it. Consciousness without limits. Most of all, consciousness with the quality of profound peace. A tranquillity that deepens, the more you rest, until it becomes a state of abiding bliss. If you can do this - even if for only a few moments - you may catch a glimpse of your own Buddha nature.”
I can’t say how long we sat there. Like the first time Yogi Tarchin guided us in meditation, I had the strangest sensation of double time. Up until that night I had always considered my mind to be all that I thought about - my collective thoughts, feelings, convictions and personal history. But the lama had revealed that mind, instead, was merely spacious awareness, the boundless sphere in which all cognitive activity would arise, abide and pass. So utterly absorbing was this revelation that by the time he dedicated the session, the moon was high and the stars had shifted. The scent of night-jasmine from the Ruwa Buddhist Society garden rippled with exotic transcendence above the musky dryness of the bush.
We rose to our feet in the velvet night, too wonder-struck to speak. Even the dogs were becalmed. Bodhi was still with us, poised and watchful as a sentinel, and for a while we gazed across the starscape, to the monochrome veld below. During our meditation session the giraffes had drawn closer – they were browsing from a thorn tree not far away. Riley sidled up to Luke, murmuring something. He lifted the binoculars fastened to his belt and studied the two of them. Then he was turning with a smile. “You were right,” he nodded towards me. “Kim is moving differently. Not because she’s hurt herself. I think she’s pregnant.”
“Our first baby at the Ruwa Buddhist Society!” Diva clapped her hands together.
“From the vast, spaciousness of mind itself-” Yogi Tarchin opened his arms wide, “-all arises.”
“Including baby giraffes?” confirmed Bruno.
“And thatched temples?” queried Diva.
“Sky-like wisdom is called ‘the mother’ because it gives birth to all things!” Yogi Tarchin’s eyes were bright. “And with ubuntu-” he turned back to Diva, “-’I am because we are’ - everything becomes possible!”
Later that night I sat for a while with Thor and Tickey on Aunt Carrie’s moonlit veranda, grateful for the time to absorb all that was happening. I had come home to Zimbabwe for a particular purpose. That purpose had changed, sadly, from carer to executor – a job almost done. Logically, I should be scheduling my flight back to London.
What I hadn’t counted on was Yogi Tarchin. I had never met anyone like him and the way he seemed effortlessly to make things happen. The appearance of Bodhi, the cheetah, from the bush last weekend after an absence of three years. The gathering of us all to the top of Ruwa Rock on a full moon night, as if commanded to a meeting. The way that, in his presence, I had the sense that nothing about me was hidden to him – and yet I felt so comfortable that all I wanted to soak in his presence. Something extraordinary seemed to be happening here in Ruwa amid a flux of unexpected possibilities. The lama’s mention of a $7,450 was almost comical in reflecting the precise amount in Aunt Carrie’s bank account.
If he was staying on for weeks, perhaps a couple of months, to oversee the building of an African temple, where did that leave me? After tonight’s meditation and epiphanies, might there be other revelations before it was time to go?
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Wild is Life - home to endangered wildlife and the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery; Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary - supporting indigenous animals as well as pets in extremely disadvantaged communities; Dongyu Gyatsal Ling Nunnery - supporting Buddhist nuns from the Himalaya regions; Gaden Relief - supporting Buddhist communities in Mongolia, Tibet, Nepal and India.
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