Book of the Month
~by Michele Gregoire
September 2014 Review: The Dalai Lama’s Cat, a novel by David Michie
I took the opportunity with some time off from writing reviews this summer to catch up on my reading. While most books covered for this column are nonfiction, I have reviewed a number of novels with main characters that are animals. Because we can find truths, and indeed on occasion divine truth, within works of fiction I find many writers provide entertaining reading while incorporating solid moral and ethical ‘teaching’ through their story telling. One would normally expect a work with the title of The Dalai Lama’s Cat to be such a story, and it is. Readers will not be disappointed in this lovely little book.
The author, David Michie, is a Buddhist, and the story focuses much of its message around a group of monks and their religious beliefs. The protagonist is the cat that was rescued from further harm, though having been quite injured at the hands of some young boys. By grace it was the Dalai Lama who gave the boys a couple of dollars for the kitten and saved her life, though her back legs were injured and resulted in a life-long weakness and near-disability. His Holiness’s Cat (or HHC) as she is referred to by everyone except the Dalai Lama, whose name for her is Snow Lion, is a Himalayan (long haired white cat with points, as in the Siamese breed) and she is the story-teller. Michie has written at least three nonfiction books on Buddhism and meditation for the general reader so presumably his representation of the religion in this book is accurate. He presents quite a bit about the practice in the context of the story. So it is as much a teaching vehicle woven into a story as a delightful tale that reads more like a biography or memoir than fiction. He has also completed a second novel entitled The Art of Purring that promises to offer similar experiences as the story continues to follow little Snow Lion in this sequel.
The Dalai Lama’s Cat intersperses events in Snow Lion’s daily life with Buddhist spirituality and practice, illustrating by example how the tenets of this religious philosophy are lived. Examples abound and many stand out as memorable and thought provoking. For example, in the Prologue, she relates, “In the warm embrace of the Dalai Lama, all distinctions dissolve completely – between observer and observed, between cat and lama, between the stillness of twilight and my deep-throated purr. It is in these moments that I feel profoundly grateful to be the Dalai Lama’s cat.” Snow Lion adds in the first chapter that being in the presence of His Holiness is “as much a feeling as a thought – a deeply heartwarming and profound understanding that all is well. As I came to realize later, it is as though for the first time you become aware that your own true nature is one of boundless love and compassion. It has been there all along, but the Dalai Lama sees it and reflects it back to you. He perceives your Buddha nature, and this extraordinary revelation often moves people to tears. In my own case…I was aware of another fact – one of greatest importance to all cats: I was in the home of a cat lover.”Again in the first chapter there are many incidences of Buddhist belief shared, such as in the Dalai Lama’s discussion about his cat with a professor from England. He tells the professor that he and the stray kitten have one very important thing in common. His Holiness says, “Your life is the most important thing in the world to you…Same for this kitten.” The professor questions him, “Surely you’re not saying that the life of a human and the life of an animal are of the same value?” His Holiness replies that humans have much greater potential of course, “But the way we all want very much to stay alive, the way we cling to our particular experience of consciousness – in this way human and animal are equal.” Later in the discussion he expounds, “For all of us with consciousness … our life is very precious. Therefore, we need to protect all sentient beings very much. Also, we must recognize that we share the same two basic wishes: the wish to enjoy happiness and the wish to avoid suffering…We all share these wishes. But also the way we look for happiness and try to avoid discomfort is the same. Who among us does not enjoy a delicious meal? Who does not wish to sleep in a safe, comfortable bed? Author, monk – or stray kitten – we are all equal in that.” Finally, in closing this impromptu teaching, our main character relates, “Most of all,” the Dalai Lama said, leaning over and stroking me with his index finger, “all of us just want to be loved.” These elements of Buddhist philosophy that echo Franciscan theology are woven throughout the book as Snow Lion relates many experiences of her life.
A particularly interesting explanation occurs in the second chapter as Snow Lion describes an interaction between the cook at the monastery, an Italian woman named Mrs. Trinci, and the Dalai Lama. She asks him why, since she has been cooking for them for over twenty years, he has never tried to convert her. He burst out laughing, took her hand gently in his, and told her, “The purpose of Buddhism is not to convert people. It is to give them tools so they can create greater happiness. So they can be happier Catholics, happier atheists, happier Buddhists. There are many practices, and I know you are already very familiar with one of them…It is the wonderful paradox that the best way to achieve happiness for oneself is to give happiness to others.” This was an interesting revelation about Buddhism that seems to reinforce it as a philosophy rather than a religion in the strictest sense. That it is a world view and approach to life not in conflict with other religious practices may not be widely accepted or understood by followers of other faiths. However, regardless of the belief system, the rules for moral and ethical human behavior are largely the same across most religions and religious philosophies. Michie has provided the reader a brief but basic introduction to Buddhism’s primary beliefs through the story, which relates how the monks live out their way of life as they move forward to enlightenment.
The Dalai Lama’s Cat is a sweet tale and will be a welcome book for cat lovers and anyone interested in Buddhism. Readers of this review on the CSC website will appreciate the reverence for all life that is articulated throughout the book and the great respect shown for all species, even to the monks’ saving of a mouse caught by Snow Lion, and the admonition that even cockroaches should not be killed. Parallels between the most basic and fundamental Buddhist concepts and many of our scriptural teachings, such as the ten commandments and the great commandment to love one another, will be evident (even though there is a complete absence of mention of God, perhaps because Buddhism is considered a nontheistic religion). As Buddhists strive to see the Buddha nature in everyone, we are to see Jesus in one another. The book is a quick read and can be completed in a couple of hours, but can also be savored little by little over several days. However you choose to enjoy it, I very much recommend this novel by David Michie, and I look forward to reading his newest one, The Art of Purr.
Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.
Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.
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