One mind, dear reader? Or two?
A Dalai Lama's Cat story
There are some beings who make their presence felt the moment they step into a room, are there not, dear reader? On account of their eye-widening good looks perhaps, or mesmerising authority, or whisker-tingling serenity, there are those among us who have a certain sway, a charisma, that draws us to them.
Such a person was occupying a table at The Himalaya Book Café during one of my afternoon visits. I became aware of him before I even saw him. As I strolled through the swing doors towards my usual spot, pausing briefly to touch damp noses with Marcel curled in his basket under the reception desk, I became aware of a deep burble of laughter erupting from one of the banquettes. A sound that seemed drawn like rich, warm lava from the subterranean depths, burbling and coalescing until it gathered to such an unstoppable force that detonation became inevitable.
On the few occasions that we had disruptive diners, other patrons would soon be frowning in censure. Head Waiter Kusali, the supreme diplomat, would swoop to the offending table to deploy his unique combination of sternness and emollience. In short order, the aberrant visitor would fall into line. Or, on one occasion I had witnessed, seen off the premises.
Today’s unruly guest, however, had the opposite effect. Climbing to my usual place on the top shelf of the magazine rack, I soon identified the source of the laughter. A large, round, bald man in a yellow and green check shirt was sitting opposite Marianne Ponter, manager of the nearby nursing home. Always a neatly-dressed, professional, the very last person who would want to cause a scene, across the table, Marianne not only showed no signs of discomfort. She seemed quite in thrall to her lunchtime companion.
As did others around him. Fellow diners evidently found his laughter infectious. There were many chuckles and twinkling faces. He was a man who invited positive attention. He would respond to glances towards him directly, meeting others’ eyes with a quip here or a rejoinder there, so that he was soon at the centre of a whirl of good humour. His laughter was by no means constant, but had the effect of dissolving invisible barriers and the usual reserve, so that fellow diners on their way out, were stopping at his table for a brief exchange. The waiting staff were drawn towards his table with an apparently magnetic pull. Even Head Water Kusali, hovering on the fringes, seemed strangely disarmed and indulgent in his presence.
Just who this visitor was, and what he was doing here, became more apparent when Franc, owner of the establishment, inevitably found his way to the table. As Marianne gestured towards him, her companion was on his feet, shaking Franc amiably by the hand. “Blake Ballantyne,” his voice carried across the lunchtime buzz from the nearby banquette. Along with a sentence including the words ‘Director’ and ‘Bohemians.’
At this point, dear reader, a quiver of fascination passed through me.
On the other side of the road from the small garden next to Namgyal, the one overlooked by the nursing home with the flowerbeds and catnip, a steep driveway led to the grounds of what had once been a sanatorium early in the last century. It had been decommissioned after the second world war, and at various stages had been used as a hostel, an admin centre, and a storage facility, before being boarded up and not used for anything at all. It was a building with a certain presence, its elevation overlooking much of McLeod Ganj, while at the same time enjoying an uninterrupted view of the Himalayas behind it – towering waves of ice-capped ranges as far as the eye could see.
In all the time I’d lived here, I had only ever visited the old sanatorium once, when Heidi had taken an open-air class on its lawn one evening. In general it was a place of little interest to a cat, especially a senior one like me who needed a strong reason to climb up any vertiginous slope. In recent months, however, I had noticed builders’ trucks and tradespeople’s vans turning into the driveway in unprecedented numbers. From the bench beneath the cedar tree, I had observed the arrival of construction materials and those who knew how to use them: I had guessed that Christopher’s dream was coming true.
A former resident of Marianne Ponter’s nursing home, my dear friend Christopher Ackland had been an artist who, in material terms at least, had lived in both poverty and obscurity throughout his life. Re-discovered as one of the creative trailblazers of his generation soon after his death, the assortment of canvases left behind in the nursing home garage had been dramatically revalued. With help from Sid, Marianne had sold his paintings through a London gallery, and directed the millions of dollars they fetched to the cause Christopher had once whimsically suggested he would support if he ever came into money – a Sanctuary for Broke Old Bohemians. Which is to say, people like himself.
I had overheard Serena and Mrs. Trinci talking about how the old sanatorium was being remodelled. More recently, how the foundation overseeing the work was recruiting someone to run the enterprise. Now, it seemed, that person had appeared in our midst and one broke old bohemian’s windfall was about to be used to support others in a way he would never have imagined.
Marianne Ponter was excusing herself to return to her desk at the nursing home. Franc was now sitting at Blake Ballantyne’s banquette, the two of them deep in conversation. It seemed they had good friends in common in San Francisco. Then, in a vortex of conviviality, Blake Ballantyne was on the move, up the few steps to the bookstore, where he began perusing the shelves, not far from where I was sitting. Sam gave him time alone before approaching to ask if he could help.
“Are you the manager?” The visitor demanded, fixing an intense expression on Sam as he gestured the shop with an expansive sweep.
Sam nodded, somewhat nervously.
“In all my travels,” Blake Ballantyne regarded him closely. “I have never encountered such a brilliantly curated collection of books.”
“Thank you!” Sam was relieved.
“Blake Ballantyne,” the other extended his hand.
“Only a most evolved person could have brought together such an inspired list,” Blake was still shaking his hand, while holding Sam’s eyes. His accent was British, but with a softly Californian inflection.
“You’re very kind.”
“The very best of the Tibetan lamas, which one might expect to find in a Dharamshala bookstore,” Blake had turned so that they were surveying the shelves together. “But the Western explorers too. You’ve got them all here – Blavatsky, Humphreys, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky. Paul Brunton. Bede Griffiths. The Christian mystics – Meister Eckhart, Saint Thomas, Saint Teresa of Avila. The Californian crew – Huxley, Isherwood, Heard. And, of course, the Beats.”
From the way he spoke, Blake sounded familiar with the authors – and not simply from their books.
“Sounds like you know some of them personally,” observed Sam.
“As a boy I meditated among the loquat trees of Santa Monica with Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood.”
“My Pappa was good friends with Allan Ginsberg. A fortunate upbringing.” A low rumble started somewhere within his ample form. “I know I may seem old to you,” the burbling grew in volume. “But Saint Teresa was a bit before even my time.”
It was a subdued chortle compared with the more volcanic explosions from earlier in the cafe. His laughter filled the bookstore nonetheless, along with Sam’s, and a gleeful connection was made.
Blake asked Sam about where he came from in California, and the two of them soon established that their mutually favourite store in Los Angeles was Book Soup in West Hollywood. Sam wanted to know more about the famous spiritual teachers he had known. Blake required little prompting to describe his encounters with Krishnamurti, who he declared to be one of the most elegantly-dressed men he had ever met, in his tailored suits and Italian sports cars and living palatially in Ojai, California. “He always made the same points, in his teachings,” said Blake. “I know I can share these with you because you’d understand,” he flourished his hand in the direction of the philosophy section. “Why do you bother with questions like is there a God, or life after death, or some way to reach nirvana? Why do you identify yourself with some ego, some self, that can’t be found? Don’t you realize that there is no feeler, but only feelings, no thinker, but only thoughts? Wake up to the only thing there is – this moment, here and now. Focus on the eternal present. Don’t get caught up in creeds which only strengthen the ego by teaching that there is an ‘I’ to save, or to become enlightened.”
In just a few sentences it was evident that Blake Ballantyne hadn’t simply met a variety of gurus, he had also integrated their teachings.
Sam was following him, rivetted. “This is something I keep returning to,” he nodded, indicating what Blake had just been saying. “This idea we have in Buddhism that the self is an illusion. And at the same time, all these elaborate practices to free ourselves from that illusion. But do the practices themselves, in some way, reinforce the idea of my self as a Seeker?” For a while his eyes were fixed to Blake’s, before he glanced away. “Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to treat you like a therapist.”
Blake was nodding thoughtfully. “It’s a valid question,” he replied. “And as it happens, I am a therapist. Or, used to be. What you’re talking about isn’t only a concern for Buddhists. It has parallels across all traditions. In Christianity the Augustinians believe that salvation isn’t something that can be earned, but the Pelagians never doubted that for salvation to happen, your words must be backed up by your deeds. Do you choose a therapist to work on yourself, or one to help you accept yourself the way you are? All of us encounter this same tension on our inner journey.”
Sam was staring at him, as though a hundred other questions were forming in his mind. But the assistant manager, Filomena was coming over, asking his help with a phone inquiry. Blake made his own request for a book, which Sam assured him was in stock, before lumbering back to his banquette, pausing to make light banter with another table of diners on the way.
It was fascinating to observe a man who seemed to connect so effortlessly with others. A larger-than-life being, so completely open to those around him that when his booming laughter sounded without restraint, he filled the room with an infectious lightness of being. At the same time, his was no shallow presence. His conversation with Sam had revealed a level of insight that made him all the more intriguing.