#CBR6 Review #3 – The Dalai Lama’s Cat
Profile: Religion, Self-help, Cats
After Action Report:
I don’t really like self-help books. I find the concept to be disingenuous at best. Something about ‘self-help’ originating from someone else’s mind is counterintuitive to me. Still, The Dalai Lama’s Cat has an adorable kitty on the cover and it while it definitely feels like a self-help book, it’s really closer to being Vajrayana Buddhism for Dummies.
On the surface, The Dalai Lama’s Cat is the story of an abandoned kitten who is plucked from the streets by the Dalai Lama. The cat, called a variety of names including His Holiness’s Cat and Mousie-Tung, grows up at the feet of one of the most renowned spiritual leaders of our time and decides to tell her story so that some of the wisdom she has gained will not be kept all to herself. The book adopts a rambling narrative, relating little vignettes from HHC’s life that inevitably end in a lesson from the Dalai Lama or one of his close associates.
Reading the book isn’t unlike reading a book of Bible stories. Much of the literal content is there, but the lessons have been rendered into narrative rather than obtuse religious language. The stories tend to have two components: HHC’s observations of someone receiving a lesson or a blessing from the Dalai Lama, and a parable of how HHC applied those same lessons to her own life. The formula gets stale after the first few chapters, and Michie tries to break up the pattern with a few unrelated adventures, such as HHC’s dalliances with a local tomcat. But there’s a bigger problem that undermines his efforts: HHC doesn’t sound like a cat.
I may be being overly picky here, but HHC comes off more like a chatty housewife than a tremendously wise cat who has spent her life on the lap of the Dalai Lama. She seems to be obsessed with American and British pop culture and while she ‘refuses’ to name any of the Dalai Lama’s visitors, she describes them in enough weird cultural detail to make her discretion pointless. Some of this is affect, used to keep the readers interested in the day to day activities of Dharamsala, but it still doesn’t do justice to the complex personality of other literary cats. Maybe I was spoiled by Tad Williams’ Tailchaser’s Song, but HHC just seems incredibly shallow. Yes, cats can be prideful and spiteful but shallow doesn’t feel right to me.
The shallowness actually gets in way of some of the lessons Michie is trying to convey. His portrayal of the Dalai Lama is very effective; a combination of a sweet man and a source of profound goodness. But his relatable persona actually undermines HHC’s vacuous storytelling. The retelling of the His Holiness’ lessons are much more effective than the catty versions. So the question becomes, is the use of HHC as a narrator and teacher any more effective than reading one of the Dalai Lama’s own books? I think the answer will depend on your appreciation of the gimmick.
There is a persistent message imbedded in a lot Buddhist teachings: take these lessons with a grain of salt. What worked for the Buddha, and those who followed after him is not necessarily the path for everyone. It’s one of the thing I really enjoy about Buddhism. The search for enlightenment or even the somewhat simpler goal of personal contentment, is a deeply personal one. It is guided as much by you as it is by your teachers. To his credit, Michie does include a variant of this teaching, but the tone and style of his book doesn’t seem to honor this basic tenant. Ultimately, how much you enjoy and make use of The Dalai Lama’s Cat will depend on how applicable its lessons are to you, but for your money, I think there are better options, not the least of which are the Dalai Lama’s own works. Still… that’s a really cute cat on the cover.