Monday, December 24, 2012

Mousie Tung and a Bodhi-catva guide to life

Being an old cynic who reckons that the best route to (irregular bursts of qualified) Happiness is to strive to be as discontented and stressed as possible, and to keep expectations at ocean-bed level, you may guess that I am not an enthusiastic reader of Inspirational or Self-Help books. This isn't to sweepingly judge the whole category, just to observe that too much of the literature in it offers quick-fix solutions or standardises the many possible human responses to a range of experiences. The sort of motivational book that might just stir my interest would be one that avoids a preachy, smug, all-knowing tone and offers its “wisdom” tentatively rather than burning it onto stone tablets. An even more effective method, though, would be to have it narrated by a cat.

This is what David Michie does in The Dalai Lama’s Cat, which I read in a single, pleasant sitting yesterday. The premise is a straightforward one. A frail kitten is bought – rescued, really – by the Dalai Lama at a traffic signal on the outskirts of Delhi and taken to Mcleodganj, where she soon settles into the temple complex and becomes known as HHC (His Holiness’s Cat). Much of her time is spent in the company of the Buddhist leader himself, soaking in his presence (“had he recognised in me a kindred spirit – a sentient being on the same spiritual wavelength as he?”) – she listens as the Dalai Lama and his associates and helpers discuss various conundrums of existence. But she also explores the world, finding a second home in a cafe in the little marketplace outside the monastery, as well as romance with a local tabby.

Through all this, no real attempt is made to convincingly flesh out the feline world (as in The Wildings, for example) – The Dalai Lama's Cat is not that kind of animal book. HHC – alternately known as Rinpoche, Snow Lion and, much to her dismay, “Mousie-Tung” – is our medium for a range of life-lessons: each chapter follows a broad format where a human character deals with a realisation about his life and attitude, and the cat then tries to apply some of these teachings to her own experiences, with varying degrees of success. (“You may have imagined that we cats never get caught up in such cognitive complexity ... nothing could be further from the truth.”) Thus, an insight about how self-absorption can make one sick and unhappy is linked to our narrator coughing up unpleasant fur balls after spending an inordinate amount of time grooming herself. She realises
that a period of self-pity combined with fear of exploring a new setting cost her precious time that she might have spent getting to know a new friend; she reflects on the importance of mindfulness – paying full attention to whatever one is doing in the present moment, rather than allowing a disconnect between action and thought; and she is even inspired to deal with her gluttony, a by-product of being pampered silly both inside and outside the temple complex.

I’m still undecided about this book’s “inspiration quotient" – some of the ideas are nicely expressed, others come close to sounding like platitudes – but one thing The Dalai Lama’s Cat manages to do (given the assumptions of its genre) is to not get over-sentimental. Cat nature ensures the retention of dignity, and a certain aloofness, even in life-changing moments. At one point HHC overcomes her feelings of envy for a new arrival, a dog named Kyi Kyi, when she learns about his sad back-story. “We reached an understanding of sorts,” she says, but quickly adds: “I did not, however, climb into his basket and let him lick my face. I’m not that kind of cat. And this is not that kind of book.”

P.S. Tangentially relevant to this post is the marvellous YouTube video below. Do watch. These three minutes represent the most convincing argument for religion that I’ve yet come across.


  1. Since we're on cats and life-lessons...

  2. Really enjoyed this post. Your ability to laugh at your own approach to happiness is refreshing. And the video was very funny too!

  3. This was a goooood video Jai but "most convincing argument for religion"?...

  4. Anon: yup. Why, you have a better one?

  5. Oh no no..What I meant was I couldn't see it such even though this is a choir piece. Hence asking you, what you meant..

  6. Okay, will try to spell it out: that sentence was a JOKE - not intended to be taken at face value or analysed for deep meaning. But in that jokey way, what I meant was that as someone who doesn't care for religion, this funny video seemed as good a justification for its existence as anything else.

    Also, for future comments, please choose a moniker and stick with it. Am disabling the "Anonymous" facility soon.

  7. I am not a very religious person… nor am I the types to subscribe to any spiritual beliefs. My only contact with god is when I feel thankful or when I need something very badly… spirituality is something I have always avoided. I don’t like hearing/reading or learning about it.

    When I picked up this book, it was only cause the title intrigued me. If I had known it would contain spiritual or philosophical learnings, I would have never ever bought this book ( yeah.. I am weird in this sense). But I am glad I did buy it and read it. Finished it in a single day. It gave me comfort through my sniffles and sore throat while I lay bundled up in a blanket sipping green tea.

    The narrator, as most of you would have guessed from the title, is a cat. Now I abhor cats… or dogs… for a simple reason that… I don’t know what they are thinking and I hate that! But, even I wanted to pet and cuddle the cat while I was reading the book. It is a beautiful amalgamation of Buddha’s teachings and the feline characteristics which make it a loved pet of… some people.

    It made sense… even if you hate the thought of spiritual or philosophical non-sense (no offence to believers), you would love this book. It doesn’t delve too much into Buddhism or try to give too many lectures. It subtly merges some of the enlightening thoughts of the religion with everyday life events… Makes it more believable and adaptable to non believers like me.

    I loved reading it and maybe someday would want to pick up the other titles from the author.