The secret world of the lama
The Safari Lama
I am really happy to be sharing this third chapter-length portion of what is evolving into a book set in Africa. Appropriately, I am posting it from Harare in Zimbabwe, where I was born and brought up - it’s wonderful to be home.
In the next few weeks I will share some observations of life on the ground in this vibrant, crazy place, inhabited by so many exceptional people - and even more exceptional animals.
By way of a brief recap of where we are so far with the story:
Rob Forbes, our narrator, has returned from London to Ruwa, Zimbabwe, the land of his birth, while on ‘gardening leave’ from work, to take care of his Aunt Carrie through her cancer treatment. Sadly, she died, leaving him to clear things up as executor and beneficiary of her estate.
By ‘chance’ he is invited to the homestead next door, now the home of the Ruwa Buddhist Society to welcome a visiting teacher, Yogi Tarchin. He is immediately drawn to the extraordinary lama and caught up with a small group of people, who Yogi Tarchin has suggested should build a temple near the base of the district’s dominant feature – the magnificent Ruwa Rock.
It is a few days after Rinpoche’s suggestion and Diva Derembwe, a director of the Ruwa Buddhist Society along with Harris Gould, has called a meeting to talk about things …
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Treasure Trees Café was abuzz with activity that Saturday morning. Diva Derembwe had converted the suburban home in Chisipite into a chic café - along with a retail outlet for her Treasure Trees Apothecary products and a whole wing of aromatherapy treatment rooms. In Harare it was a trend to turn former colonial-era bungalows and their gardens into verdant oases of restaurants, boutiques or gymnasia. Diva’s own emporium was on point. Turning off Shortheath Road into a driveway bordered by birds of paradise in extravagant bloom, even before stepping into the reception area, I was enveloped in a bouquet of fragrances. The calming lavender and citrusy lemongrass I recognised, but along with them were other, more intriguing, indigenous scents. The sweet, fruitiness of marula, or ‘marriage tree’ as it was known among the Shona people, which grew in both male and female genders. The fresh zing of the anti-ageing moringa. Earthy, healing wafts of the legendary baobab – some of the ‘treasure trees’ after which Diva had named her business.
It was my first visit to the café and the tone was contemporary and stylish without being showy. Walking through a shop lined with shelves of beautifully merchandised creams, oils, sprays and diffusers, I stepped into an expansive café with ochre-coloured walls lit by warm lamps with clay bases and wicker lampshades. Stylish sofas and armchairs were scattered with cushions in zebra, giraffe and leopard prints. Moody black-and-white photographs of wildlife decorated the walls, Shona sculptures occupying soft-lit alcoves. Further out was a veranda and lawn with dining tables and mbira music playing gently in the background. It was an inside-outside African arcadia.
Diva waved from across the room. Harris and Tinashe were already sitting at a coffee table, Harris and she on a sofa. I drew up a tub chair next to Tinashe. Diva was mid-way through a story about a client’s miraculous response to baobab treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. Bead earrings and necklace glinting as she gestured effusively, I guessed that from this corner table she’d miss nothing that wa os going on. Next to her, Harris Gould, with his swept back silver hair and indigo shirt regarded her with benign affection. Tinashe, smooth and somewhat formal in a cream linen jacket, was very, very still as he listened to her tale.
After we’d ordered coffees, Diva came directly to the reason why she’d invited us.
“We’ve had a few days to think about Yogi Tarchin’s suggestion,” she said, looking around. “What do you think?”
Harris shot her a droll look before turning to Tinashe and me. “As Diva knows, I’ve always felt that Ruwa Buddhist Society could be much more than a retirement home for John Elliot’s orphaned animals.”
I remembered how, on our very first-time meeting, Harris had seemed almost oracular in his expectations of Yogi Tarchin’s visit.
“Rinpoche asked you to help with the siting of the temple,” Tinashe asked him. “Is that something you want to do?”
“It would be the commission of a lifetime,” he replied. “A privilege rarely accorded.”
“A Buddhist temple in Africa?” I mused. There couldn’t be many of those.
Harris regarded us with a momentous expression. “31 degrees East,” he said. “Have you heard of it?”
We shook our heads.
“It’s the centre of the earth’s landmasses - the opposite side of the planet is mostly ocean. A line of longitude which touches more land than any other. It’s a very special meridian – you might say a sacred one. Thousands of years ago the pyramid of Giza was constructed on 31 East. And most people are aware of the extraordinary significance of the Great pyramid’s location.”
Absorbed as I was by what he said, I was wondering where he was going with this when he asked, “What would you say is the most important ancient monument in Africa south of the Equator?”
“Great Zimbabwe,” Tinashe and I chimed. The mysterious fortress with its looming conical tower had been the capital of a medieval kingdom in Zimbabwe’s Southeast. ‘House of stone’ was the literal translation of what the word ‘Zimbabwe’ meant. And along with the ancient, patterned stone walls, archaeologists had also discovered at Great Zimbabwe the repository of other arcane artefacts, including the country’s best-known emblem, the enigmatic Zimbabwe bird.
Leaning towards us he told us, “Great Zimbabwe is also built on 31 degrees East.”
“First I’ve heard of it,” I was startled.
“Most Zimbabweans don’t know,” he said. “Let alone anyone else. The meridian has been critical to earlier civilizations, but somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten its significance.”
“Isn’t the meridian aligned with Orion’s belt in some way?” I asked.
“There are said to be all kinds of correlations between 31 East and the stars,” he nodded. “And there’s a reason, much closer to home, that makes it special.” As he looked from one to the other of us, his clear, blue eyes were bright with significance. “31 degrees East,” he intoned, “runs straight through Ruwa.”
Tinashe and I shared a look of amazement – with each other and with Diva, who evidently already had heard Harris speak of this before.
“Ruwa Rock is slap, bang in the middle of it.”
“So when we were on Ruwa Rock a few nights ago, we were sitting in the same line as the pyramid of Giza and Great Zimbabwe?” confirmed Tinashe.
“Exactly,” confirmed Harris with a smile, before leaning back into the sofa. “Why would I not want to bring out my GPS unit to help align a temple in the right place? How few other people have ever had that honour?”
During the awe-struck lull that followed, a waiter arrived with our coffee order.
Diva fixed her attention on Tinashe, “What about you, Tina?” She evidently didn’t want to get side-tracked with talk of ancient symbols and mystical meridians. “Is a temple project something you’d be willing to take on?”
“I’ve got a vehicle I could use,” he confirmed. “But I’d need help fuelling it.”
“I return to Ruwa from Harare every day with nothing on the back of it.”
Riley had told me that Tinashe was a science teacher with two university degrees. In Zimbabwe, where most people didn’t have formal jobs, the monthly wages received even by those who did seldom covered more than a few day’s living expenses. So they had second or third jobs to scrape by. I was wondering where Tinashe worked that involved driving a truck when he turned to tell me, “I collect garbage every morning. 4.30 am.”
“Okay.” Privatised garbage collectors had sprung up in the wealthier, northern suburbs after waste collection by local municipalities had collapsed.
“Tinashe is a man of many parts,” Diva spoke approvingly. “He’s very mechanically minded. He can bring an old car back to life like no one I’ve seen.”
“Useful skill in a place like Zim,” I said. “Tell me, Tinashe, how did you come to Buddhism?”
“Because of a girl called Pema,” his face suddenly lit up. “From Bhutan. I met her when working for a cruise company in the Mediterranean.”
In moments I’d had to reframe my idea of Tinashe from teacher to garbage collector to cruise liner employee with a Bhutanese girlfriend. A man of many parts, Diva had said. I glanced over at her, “I see what you mean!”
“Pema is finishing her studies in Britain,” said Tinashe. “I am hoping that after that she’ll want to be with me.”
Diva reached over, squeezing his hand supportively. “I am quite sure she will.” She turned to focus on me. “And you, Rob? Are you in on the temple project?”
“I’m only here temporarily,” I replied, appreciating her directness. “I’m happy to help if there’s something I can do. It seems to me that you personally would have the main burden of managing contractors.”
“A time burden,” she nodded. “If we use suppliers who I already know, that’s something I can manage. But the loan isn’t something I’d want to ask Herbert for.”
Herbert Derembwe, Diva’s husband, was a well-regarded Harare lawyer and general fixer.
“I can do the loan,” I said.
I hadn’t expected any money from Aunt Carrie, nor did I need it. I was happy to let them have it, but I held back from saying it was a donation just yet.
Diva looked relieved. ‘That would be more than wonderful!”
Talk turned to next steps. Diva had thoughts on suppliers and contractors, and said she’d set up a meeting with Rinpoche and his right-hand man for the project, Mr. Nzou. There was discussion about Mr. Nzou who had been present the day the lama had arrived, sitting in the front row of the meditation cushions, dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and tie. Diva explained how, ahead of his visit, Yogi Tarchin had requested to meet the local chief. Elderly and bedridden, the chief had nominated Mr. Nzou as his representative – hence the unusual formality of his attire.
As for Rinpoche himself, Diva would confirm that he was willing to stay on until the build was complete.
“Perhaps,” Tinashe suggested. “We could ask him to be our Spiritual Director? That is what some other Buddhist centres do, so there can be continuity. Not only for the next few months, but far beyond.”
“Good idea!’ agreed Diva.
As we nodded, I had the sense that beneath Tinashe’s youthful and unruffled exterior were concealed depths.
“So, Rob,” Diva was looking at me. “You may be staying long enough to see the temple built?”
All three of them were studying me intently. I looked around at their expectant faces. “I’ve never met anyone like Yogi Tarchin,” I said simply.
From their expressions it was clear that I needn’t say more.
“When I’m with him,” Diva nodded. “It’s like he can read my mind. I have this feeling of peace. Like everything makes sense.”
“He’s a catalyst,” Harris’s blue eyes were glistening. “The way that Bodhi just appeared from the bush! The way he got us all together on top of the rock-”
“Glad I wasn’t the only one who noticed!” I chuckled.
“How often-” continued Harris, “-does that happen?”
“From the first time I saw him,” agreed Tinashe. “I felt this connection. I was so excited I couldn’t wait to tell Pema. You know the Bhutanese understand more about these things. It’s their culture.”
“And what did she say?” asked Diva.
“She wrote me the most … beautiful email,” he replied, seeming to bow slightly as he touched the jacket pocket carrying his phone. “She said that I had met my guru.”
As he spoke the words I felt a surprisingly powerful and contradictory response - part of me resonating powerfully with what he said, at the same time that some other force held me back.
Harris looked at the young man, fascinated. “Would you be willing to share what she said?”
Tinashe nodded in that smooth, somehow removed manner, taking out his phone and searching for the email. He took in our expectant faces before he began to read:
“‘When you meet your guru, dear Tinashe, you have met a very precious being who can be your lifelong companion. He is no ordinary friend, and is even closer than family, because-” he looked up at us, “-he is the companion of your heart.”
Moved by the power of the sentiment, Diva raised a hand to her throat.
“‘Your guru,’” continued Tinashe, “‘opens the door to a secret world you never knew existed but has always been as available as the one that you imagine to be real. You will find it so beautiful, such a joyful place to visit that, once seen, you will yearn to stay.’”
I remembered how I’d felt during the meditation sessions with Yogi Tarchin, first on the lawn, then later on Ruwa Rock. Unlike anyone else I spent time with, when I was sitting with him the world felt like an immaculate place. Was this Pema’s secret world?
“You will want to make this divine mandala your own. And you will! For there’s a blessing a guru can give you that cannot be found in books or by watching videos. A blessing that comes only from being by his side and learning from him, just as a devoted singer learns from the greatest performers of her time, or a potter gazes at the hands of his master not wishing to miss out on a single moment as he transforms a lump of clay into an exquisite vase. It doesn’t matter so much what the master teaches as how he is when you are with him. This is transmission as it has passed down from great masters to students since the time of the Buddha.”
Pema expressed a learning that went beyond words. An apprenticeship deeper than the simple transfer of information. She was pointing to embodiment of a more subtle, energetic kind.
“You will need to be humble, dear Tinashe. We all have failings, sometimes flaws that the whole world sees except for ourselves. It is our guru’s job to reveal them to us. To act as a mirror. We may not always like what he shows us. We may have to endure painful corrections. It is challenging when our master pushes us beyond the limits we would accept if we were trying to find the way on our own.
“But with our guru’s help we go beyond. We can settle the mind and attain special insight. If we can sit downwind of divinity and experience the clear light directly for ourselves, not just as an idea or a teaching but as a vivid reality, if we are able to do this even for a few precious moments-’” Tinashe swallowed, before concluding somewhat shakily, “‘-it will eclipse anything else we can do in our whole life.’”
For a while he sat, staring at his phone as we all absorbed the enormity of Pema’s message.