Discover more from The Dalai Lama's Cat & Other Intrigues by David Michie
Yogi Tarchin and the cheetah
Although I spent the first 26 years of my life in Africa, it is not a place I have ever written about. Heartfelt though my connection is to the land, people, and especially the animals of my homeland, because my focus as a writer is on inner growth and especially Tibetan Buddhism, I didn’t see how these two very different parts of my experience might be drawn together.
Then last year I spent a few months back home. Many of you accompanied me, via my articles, when I went to meditate with the elephants, and spent time visiting the extraordinary Wild is Life/Zimbabwe Elephant Orphanage and also the Twala Trust Animal Sanctuary.
That is when it occurred to me – how magical would it be to have a Buddhist sanctuary for endangered wildlife in Africa? How might such a place come into existence? What sort of people would we meet there?
Today I am happy to be offering a first chapter-length portion of just such a story.
Paying subscribers can read the whole story. Free subscribers - I hope you enjoy the preview.
On Ruwa Rock, the gigantic, granite boulder that balanced dramatically at the bottom of the garden, three villagers were waving their arms exuberantly. From the top of the kopje you could see the whole district below – a sun-baked sprawl of brown scrub and brittle trees. On a clear November morning, any vehicle turning off the main road would send up a trail of fine, red dust, the moment it hit the dirt track.
At the car park, the band struck up. Diva Derembwe, the formidable orchestrator of today’s events, had persuaded two marimba players and three drummers to accompany the welcoming committee, who burst into a Shona chorus. The sudden outbreak sent a troop of vervet monkeys scrambling and grunting through the musasa trees. The monkeys, in turn, set off Sony and Cher, the peacock and peahen, occupying their usual perches at either end of the thatched roof above us. As they brayed loudly, Mampara the wildebeest glanced up from the lush-green lawn before shaking his mighty head with a dismissive snort.
Along with others lining the hallway, I took the white scarf out of my pocket to prepare for our visitor. Yogi Tarchin was the very first Tibetan teacher to visit the Ruwa Buddhist Society - and one of only a handful of lamas ever to visit Africa. Standing beside the large, snowy-haired Harris Gould who, along with Diva was the other half of the Ruwa Buddhist Society, I felt that I was here under false pretences. Not only was my understanding of Buddhism shaky. I wasn’t even a local. Not really.
Catching a glimpse of my reflection in a clouded, gilt-framed mirror, I brushed a greying lock off my forehead and straightened my jacket. I’d probably been invited to make up numbers. To help give substance to an organisation that seemed little more than an idea – if an intriguing one.
The singing and clapping rose to a crescendo as a battered Landrover pulled up under the musasas. All of us in the hall turned to peer as the passenger door of the vehicle was opened and a slight figure in a yellow shirt and ochre pants emerged. He was greeted by Diva with a deep bow and a proffered white scarf. Accepting the scarf, he raised it in his hands, and placed it around her neck with a blessing, in the traditional Tibetan custom. Several more such offerings were being made and reciprocated with other greeters. As Himalayan etiquette was observed with all due formality, yards away the band was whooping and jiving with unrestrained vigour.
Diva was ushering the lama towards the house. But Yogi Tarchin had other ideas. There was a lightness about him apparent even from here. An irrepressible spontaneity. Turning to the musicians, he smiled broadly, clapping in rhythm. They responded with an appreciative lurch in volume. Several greeters needed no further encouragement and were soon dancing next to their VIP visitor. Village children materialised from nowhere, stamping their feet joyfully in the dust. The rising music level sparked a new frenzy of indignation among the monkeys, who were swooping dangerously low through the canopy, barking like rogues. For a moment it looked like Yogi Tarchin’s welcome might go horribly off-course.
But he was turning away, to where Diva was waiting. In a fawn-coloured dress and high heels, she was poised and perfectly tailored. Dark hair falling in elaborately coiled braids, embroidered for the occasion in threads of red and gold, she guided the lama through the trees and onto the emerald-green lawn which, in contrast to the surrounding parched veld, formed a luxuriant green runner all the way up to the homestead.
Forty-something, Diva was a force of nature, compelling your attention with a combination of girlish frivolity and commanding power that could be quite mesmerising. Her large, emotion-filled eyes and heartfelt expressions could turn from deeply imploring to ecstatically grateful in an instant. Within moments of meeting her, you’d feel connected by a sense of her boundless generosity. It was only because of Diva that I was here.
My Aunt Carrie had been Diva’s mentor at the time she’d been starting out, all those years ago, making organic skin care products in her kitchen. Since then, ‘Treasure Tree Apothecary’ had become a national brand, and Diva something of a local business celebrity. Fervent about the power of Zimbabwe’s indigenous trees as a source of healing, wellbeing and beauty, Diva was on a mission to take her unique range of Baobab, Moringa and other unique products to the world.
When I’d travelled out from London, four months ago, to help Aunt Carrie through cancer treatment, I’d soon met Diva – pronounced ‘Deeva’ - who was a regular visitor. Not long after, when Carrie’s health had taken a grave turn for the worse, it had been Diva who’d helped arrange hospital admission at short notice. Diva who knew exactly how to access the country’s best medical specialists. Diva who had helped Carrie and me as we approached the abruptly precipitous end.
I had been tidying things away at Carrie’s house early one afternoon, still feeling adrift, when I’d heard a car coming up the dust driveway. Thor and Tickey, Carrie’s wolfhound and Jack Russel respectively, had launched into a frenzy of barking. But they’d settled when they recognised the car.
“It’s not a social visit, I’m afraid,” Diva had explained after we’d hugged. Her eyes were searching mine, and mine hers, with the intimacy that comes from shared grief.
“We have a Tibetan lama visiting to take a meditation session on Saturday morning,” she’d said. “I thought you may like to come.”
“Next door?” I gestured.
I knew about Ruwa Buddhist Society. How John Elliott, Aunt Carrie’s neighbour of over 30 years, had set up the charity, more than anything, to make sure that someone would take care of his beloved animals after he died. Two giraffes, a wildebeest, a small herd of kudu, a troop of bush babies, and an ephemera of impalas, guinea fowl and vervet monkeys were the core menagerie. But his main concern was his cheetah. Bodhi had been found as an abandoned cub just weeks old, and in the absence of any alternatives at the time, John had reluctantly found himself raising her - with the unexpected support of his domestic tabby, Football. Bodhi had grown very quickly from mewing cub to lithe and muscular big cat. All efforts to rewild her had ended in failure. Such was her attachment to John, Football and her home that she always returned, until he came to accept her as his constant if unlikely companion.
When people went to visit John, they’d find Bodhi sprawled on a sofa beside him, or lying in a patch of sunshine nearby, perhaps in the company of Football. John had begun to become known locally as ‘the cheetah guy,’ the two of them even finding fame in a small way. There had been a few magazine articles and an appearance on a National Geographic documentary.
What neither John nor anyone else predicted was how Bodhi would respond when John’s own time came to pass. He had died in his sleep one night at home three years ago. By the following afternoon, Bodhi had vanished. She had never been seen again. “When Bodhi disappeared, it was like the whole purpose of Ruwa Buddhist Society walked out the door,” Diva had told me, eyes brimming with emotion. “Just like that,” she had snapped her fingers.
Diva and Yogi Tarchin were halfway up lawn, approaching the homestead. John’s old home comprised three, large rondavels linked by broad passages in a sprawling, crescent-shaped structure, all of it protected by a magnificent sweep of silver-grey thatch. Beneath the thatch, a string of Tibetan prayer flags fluttered in the breeze.
I wondered what the lama made of this oasis in the veldt. Shielding his eyes from the sun, he took in the immensity of Ruwa Rock, and somewhat closer, the long necks of Debbie and Kim, the giraffes, who were standing, motionless in the distance, taking in the ruckus up at the house. The lama chuckled on catching sight of a family of warthogs, affronted by the continuing din in the car park, who sprinted across the lawn, tails aloft like radio aerials – Mum, Dad and three piglets. An elegant pair or crowned cranes paused hesitantly in the shade of a gigantic flamboyant tree, observing the arrivals, their fine, golden plumes raised on full alert. Bulbuls squabbled and fluttered in the ivy-creeper that grew around the house.
Suddenly they were out of the blazing sunshine and inside with us. A mist of dust motes shimmered in the mid-morning glow, the faint tang of creosote from the tarred poles curling like a ribbon through the ethereal atmosphere. One by one, we indoor greeters were presenting Yogi Tarchin with white scarves.
Besides bringing along a scarf, this wasn’t an encounter I had prepared for, not expecting to experience anything in particular. But now that it was happening, I felt the strangest sensation. Not on account of Yogi Tarchin’s appearance. His warm brown eyes, ageless face, grey moustache and goatee gave him the appearance of an archetypal eastern sage. Rather, it was a radiant sense of lightness, of joy, that seemed to emanate from within him. The ineffable sensation that even though you could see and touch him, his presence was more subtly energetic than physical. It was almost as if he was hardly there at all.
As I bent in offering, our eyes met. And in that instant, it was as if Yogi Tarchin had looked beyond the person I usually took myself to be and saw instead an entirely more panoramic reality. Not a 50-something businessman who had returned to the country of his birth to take care of an ailing aunt and now found himself in unexpected limbo. Instead, the lama penetrated the boundless reality beneath - one from which I had been for so long disconnected that, incredibly, I had almost forgotten it was there. Yet so benevolent was his expression, so wholehearted his acceptance, that I felt an up-welling of the most powerful emotion. In his gaze was all the reassurance I could hope for that, however things appeared to be, beneath the surface, all was well.
All this happened in a moment – then he was moving on. And I could tell it was the same for the others who encountered him. The briefest pause. The meeting of eyes and hearts. The upwelling of emotion. Next to me, Harris Gould brushed at his eye.
We followed Diva and Yogi Tarchin from the hall into the silent shadows of the sitting room, where mats and cushions had been laid out in rows. The lama glanced about the room before looking to the window and the radiance outside.
“I think out is better,” he said, indicating to where the massive umbrella of the flamboyant tree, ablaze with orange flowers, cast the lawn in shade. “Prana,” he explained, breathing in while touching his chest.
Diva was showing him through the house to where the nearby guest rondavel had been prepared for him. Harris and I began carrying meditation cushions onto the lawn.
“Prana,” Harris repeated, his expression bright with significance. “You see?”
When I’d met Harris earlier that week, he couldn’t have been more fervent on the subject. It did seem an interesting coincidence that ‘prana’ was one of the first words I heard Yogi Tarchin say.
At Diva’s request, three afternoons before I had brought over the hot water urn and tea service that Carrie had loaned Ruwa Buddhist Society on the handful of previous occasions they’d had gatherings. In the homestead kitchen a large man with snowy hair, ruddy cheeks and crystal blue eyes, who looked for all the world like an Old Testament prophet, if not God himself, had been bent over the sink, replacing a tap washer.
“Rob Forbes,” I’d introduced myself when he’d helped me lift the urn onto the bench.
“Diva said you’d be coming,” he’d nodded. “It’s good of you to continue your aunt’s tradition-”
“You grew up near here?”
“Marondera,” I confirmed. “My Dad taught at Peterhouse.”
“Where I went to school,” he studied me closely. Before eyes gleaming in recognition. “Euan Forbes? Head of Art?”
I nodded, reproaching myself – and not for the first time – for over-sharing.
“I can see the resemblance, now. Nice guy, your old man. One of the more benevolent ones.”
I watched him carefully as he remembered my father, searching his eyes for the subtlest shift in expression, the smallest clue that he had come upon a less than creditable memory. But if he did recall something he wasn’t showing it. It had all been a very long time ago, I supposed, and not many people would have found out what happened even if, as an 18-year-old at the time it had felt as if the sky was falling in. Within months of the hurt and shame we had moved ‘Home,’ as my mother had always referred to Scotland. Neither of my parents had ever returned to Africa.
In the kitchen, Harris Gould had nodded towards the hot water urn. “You’re here for the big day,” he noted. Before I could respond he continued, “And not by coincidence, you know.”
‘My being here?” I was surprised.
“Any of it,” he said meaningfully. “The fact that we have one of the most realised masters of consciousness visiting us at this time. Not only to Zimbabwe, but to this specific place. You know, Rob, I’ve been a geologist my whole life. I’ve spent a lot of time investigating sites out there in the bush where hardly any human has ever stood. There are things about this country, energetic things, that have been hidden from the world for a long time. But it won’t always be that way. And I have a feeling that this could be the start.” The conviction in Harris’s dazzling blue gaze was quite mesmerising.
“You think that Yogi Tarchin’s visit will-”
“Change everything” he needed no further prompting, a beneficent glow on his face. “Everything! That’s why you’re here.”
Now, Harris and I were ferrying cushions outside. It didn’t take long because we were soon joined by several others. More people were arriving, parking their cars under the musasas and walking over to sit under in the shade. Diva had been anxious of an embarrassingly low turnout – a lama’s visit of this kind was unprecedented and she had no idea if people would be interested.
She needn’t have worried. It seemed like plenty of people were curious about the visit of a Tibetan yogi. My niece, Riley, and her yoga class were among them. We waved to one another as a dozen or so thirty-somethings, women and a few men, arranged themselves before the slightly raised wooden platform which had been brought out to serve as a teaching throne for our visitor. During my childhood years, social attitudes in this country had been defined by race, and I found it heartening to see the next generation mixing freely, friends since infancy, genuinely uninterested in skin colour. Prosperous-looking couples emerged from sleek SUVs, alongside plenty of others from the battered Toyotas and Honda Fits which shared the ragged roads of nearby Harare.
Not only were all the meditation cushions soon occupied. The yoga class had to double up on their mats to make room for bolsters, towels, pillows and other improvisations as people kept arriving. It wasn’t long before the entire area under shade was occupied, including two semi-circle rows of camping chairs at the back.
There was an informal, even quite festive atmosphere as we settled. Below a buzz of chatting and laughter was also an undercurrent of expectation as we reached the start time - and still, people were drifting across the lawn to join us.
Surveying the gathering under the tree, I wondered what on earth Yogi Tarchin could say that would resonate with such a diverse group. For so many, life was a daily struggle just for the basics - food, water, electricity. But there were those further up the hierarchy of needs with other hungers – personal validation. A sense of meaning. This in a country where Christianity rubs along uneasily with traditional beliefs in ancestral spirits. In the midst of these conflicting notions, what might a Tibetan Buddhist have to say that could be in any way helpful?
From time to time I glanced over to the guest rondavel, where sheer fabric billowed hazily in the morning through the open French doors. It was only after the last comers had arrived and settled that the curtains were drawn aside. A hush descended. Diva Derembwe was stepping into view and, moments later, Yogi Tarchin appeared.
There was a lightness about him as he walked. A humility. Looking towards the group, he brought palms to his heart, eyes bright with welcome. As they drew closer, everyone rose to their feet. Diva was ushering the lama to the cushion on the teaching dais, and Yogi Tarchin was gesturing for us all to sit.
For the longest while after we settled, he remained in silence. Relaxed on his meditation cushion he was looking from person to person in the group, his expression benevolent, even playful, with the same inexpressible but profound sense of knowing I’d felt earlier. That heartfelt and extraordinarily moving connection that caught you completely unawares. People were melting in his presence.
After some time, he looked further out to the lawn and homestead and bush beyond, taking in the light, the vibrancy of birds and insects, the movement of a breeze. He was inviting the background to become the foreground and, without a word being said, encouraging us to do the same.
It’s a most unusual person who can appear in front of a group of complete strangers and feel comfortable saying absolutely nothing. In Yogi Tarchin’s case, he wasn’t only comfortable, but radiant as the morning. Even in the short time he had been with us, it was as if we were no longer strangers. The dynamics had enigmatically but palpably shifted so that we were now a group who, through some unspoken agreement, were bound together on the same inner journey, our hearts and minds entrained with his.
Sitting on the edge of the group on the left-hand side, I looked across the short stretch of lawn to the flowerbeds teeming with shrubs, and to the openness beyond. Several kudu were browsing in the shade on the other side of the tree, their distinctive horns spiralling elegantly from their heads. There was a captivating grace about the presence of a kudu. Looking through those large, liquid-brown eyes, ears turned towards you, they remained so perfectly still that they seemed to be gazing from a different dimension – but one that felt somehow closer at this moment.
In the perfectly warm morning came the sound of an inelegant thud as Sony the peacock fluttered from the roof the house to the ground, before unfolding his tail to its full, iridescent glory. There was a ripple of laughter as he shimmied towards the group, swaying his plumage. From inside Football, the plush tabby came out to investigate – and sent Sony backtracking. Taking in the morning, Football made her way across the grass to a patch of dappled sunshine in the flowerbed, where she found a leafy spot to settle.
“This moment, here and now, is the only time that exists.” When Yogi Tarchin spoke, his voice was smooth as acacia honey and seemed not so much an observation coming from the teaching throne as one that was resonating from within.
“The past is gone. We will never again experience it,” he paused. “The future has yet to arise, and who knows how it may unfold?”
Taking in his tranquil features, there was nothing to do but to rest in the self-evident truth.
“If we are to find happiness -” he continued after a while, “- and it is happiness that each one of us seeks, then we can’t find it in the past or the future. Neither of those times ever exist - except as mere thoughts. There is only one time when we can be happy, and that is this moment, here and now.”
There was fresh power in each word that he spoke. Even though he said nothing I hadn’t heard before, in this state of arcadian wonder I was experiencing the meaning of his words more profoundly than I could remember.
“Wishing for happiness in this moment, where do we find it?” he continued. “Somewhere outside us? In the material world, perhaps? If so, what is the experience? Who is the person? Where is the object out there that is a source of unfailing pleasure to everyone no matter what their circumstances?”
The questions were hypothetical, but being guided through the possibilities led to the conclusion that was self-revealing.
“Such a thing or person cannot be found,” he confirmed, allowing time for the truth to settle. “Whatever joy we find in the world arises not outside us, but within. In our own hearts and minds. This is the only place that happiness can be found.
“The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. And so we come to the delightful paradox, that the way to be happy is to make others so.”
He was raising himself up on his cushion to sit upright, rolling his shoulders back and tilting his head gently, assuming a meditation posture. Without the need to be asked, everyone followed. ‘Sit like a mountain!’ was how I’d heard the pose described.
“Let’s begin,” he proposed, “by cultivating gratitude. Gratitude for being together on a perfect morning in this pristine pure land. Gratitude to John Elliott for creating the Ruwa Buddhist Society, which enables us to be here. Gratitude,” there was a special warmth in his voice, “to a cheetah called Bodhi, who was the cause for him to create it.”
From a state of gratitude, he invited us to visualize, at our hearts, the radiant, golden bud of a lotus flower, its petals closed. The gold light filling the bud, he told us, was an energy that flowed up naturally from our hearts. It symbolised our own loving kindness, an energy not to be underestimated.
He told us to imagine the lotus bud unfolding with delicate deliberation. Light flooding from between the unfurling petals, suffusing our bodies and minds with the power of loving kindness. Had it been someone other than Yogi Tarchin guiding us through this visualisation, someone without the power to have us suspend our disbelief, who knows how this may have evolved. But such was the lama’s effortless authority, we did exactly as he said. And just as he described, I felt waves of energy pass through my body, touching my crown, throat, and heart. Like pleasant shivers, subtle but tangible, they indicated the presence of some ethereal but quite palpable qualities I hadn’t even known that I possessed.
He described light intensifying. The continued, ever-increasing wellspring at our heart being too great to be contained within our body. Gold light bursting from within us to include every other being sitting on the lawn that day – we were now aglow in the focus of one another’s compassionate attention. Allow ourselves to feel it, he told us, as vividly as possible.
The gold light was spilling further, from our group under the tree, out into the bush, north, south, west and east, as far as our imaginations could take it. There being no limits to consciousness, nowhere that mind cannot travel, Yogi Tarchin told us we were to include friends, family and especially those who may be suffering, wherever in the world they may be. We were to imagine the transformative power of light radiating through them too, freeing them from pain, removing all suffering, healing. Not only that, but also imbuing them with energy, hope, purpose, and an infinite abundance of love and compassion.
As his directions surged through me I was aware that the here and now was somehow subtly changing gears. In a way that was quite novel, each moment felt simultaneously more intense and yet more evanescent than before. Reality shifting slowly and quickly simultaneously. It was the most curious double-time, experienced with the fleeting hyper-reality of a dream.
After a while, he was leading us back out of the meditation, the gold light withdrawing to our hearts, leaving behind only love and light, healing and coherence, in more dimensions than we may hitherto have imagined. And having guided us through the most extraordinary evocation of happiness on behalf of others, he ended with the wish: “May love, compassion, joy and equanimity pervade the hearts and minds of all limitless beings throughout universal space.”
I can’t remember what struck me first as I opened my eyes – the recognition that the sun had shifted by quite some way since I had closed them, or the presence, only a few yards away. Lying on the lawn, gazing directly towards Yogi Tarchin, the embodiment of his heartfelt invocation: Bodhi!
Power and grace personified, conjured as if out of the air, she lay on the lush green, her sleek gold fur marked with exquisite black spots. The dark tear streaks on her face drew my gaze to those piercing, amber eyes, currently focused on the lama. I sensed shifting around me as others came around to what was happening. Yogi Tarchin acknowledging Bodhi without looking at her directly. A sideways glance, a bowing of his upper body, his understanding was intuitive.
“Don’t look at her directly!” someone whispered in an imperative whisper.
“Relax!” Someone else countered immediately. “She knows people.”
Finding ourselves in an unbelievable situation, it was hard not to focus on Bodhi, whether directly or indirectly. So untamed, and yet so elegant. Such poise, such delicacy about her whiskers, her muzzle, her face. Had the lama envisioned that this was going to happen? Had he designed the meditation for this purpose? He had mentioned her before we started the session: did he possess the power to summon, at will, living beings – even those who had been missing in the bush for years?
We sat in wordless, exultant silence, knowing that we were experiencing an unprecedented marvel, soaking in the silent rapture. There was movement in the flowerbed, and on the other side of Yogi Tarchin, Football was rousing herself. Getting to her feet, she performed a luxuriant sun salutation, before ambling across the grass behind the lama’s teaching throne. She was in no great hurry, pausing momentarily on the way to stretch first her left, hind leg, then her right.
Several meditators had taken their phones out to record Football’s progress. The deliberate, steady progress of her round, fluffy form. She took not the least notice of the lama nor the assembled group as she headed towards Bodhi. Bodhi lowered her own head as Football neared, the two of them gently head-butting one another. For a while I caught the sounds of deep-throated purring emerge from Bodhi. Football was licking the cheetah’s forehead as she would have when Bodhi was only a tiny cub. Lavishing her daughter with a mother’s love in a way that was no less demonstrative than if Bodhi had been only a fraction of her size. After some while Bodhi reciprocated with several long, strokes of her tongue around Football’s face and neck. Then she was rising and, in a few flowing motions, had hopped off the lawn, through the flowerbed and had vanished into the bush. Football followed after her.
Spellbound and together, it was hard to believe what we had just seen. Hard not to wish that things didn’t have to come to an end. Was it really possible? On the teaching throne, Yogi Tarchin remained as unassuming and curiously tenuous as a dappled patch of sunlight.
From inside the homestead came a roar of indignation. Moments later, a three-legged vervet monkey scampered out the front door, a strawberry tart in its only front paw, leaping onto the roof and to a nearby tree. Moses emerged in his freshly-starched white apron and chef’s hat.
“Skellum is stealing your lunch!” he announced portentously across the lawn.
The lama dissolved into laughter, before bringing his palms together at his heart.
“May Skellum, and all living beings, quickly attain enlightenment!” he declared, before getting up from his seat, still chuckling.
About half the money you help me raise through your subscription goes to the following four charities. Feel free to click on the underlined links to read more about them:
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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