Safari

Terry Hagan

I first met Namgyal Rinpoche in my early twenties and was immediately struck by his presence and naturalness. There seemed to be nothing that escaped his awareness and he was completely at home with all that occurred around him. This casual relaxed attitude was combined with an imposing stature arrayed in a wool shirt and a sweat-soaked Australian hat. Could this be a recognized incarnation of a Tibetan lama? I was completely sold and spent the next 27 years as his attendant following him and his teaching around the world

My most inspired memories of him were not dramatic events, but rather the quiet moments when he would reveal things with the twinkle of an eye or gesture or perhaps a few words. These moments alas do not transcribe well into words so instead I offer a small story which has stuck with me through the years.

In the early predawn light of East Africa we scrambled out of bed, downed a cup of morning tea, and jumped into our waiting Land Rovers. We were about to descend over 600 meters into one of the wonders of the world, Ngorongoro Crater.

We cruised the switchback roads down the inside of the crater, our headlights shining as we rounded the hairpin turns while dawn brought a red glow to the horizon. Just as we reached the base of the crater the sun rose, revealing the incredible scene that opened up before us. We were entering a vast plain of almost 250 square kilometers filled with wildlife. Up to 25,000 animals live in the crater with thin brush and trees. The early light cast long dark shadows in the trees and we watched with amazement, as suddenly what appeared to be shadows started moving and became a herd of zebras. Their amazing bold stripes, so obvious when you see a zebra in the open, were perfect camouflage in the dawn light.

As we progressed through the crater we began to see many other animals: gazelles, bat-eared fox, wildebeest, impala, a flock of ostriches, all bathed in that glorious golden morning light. Suddenly we were faced with a young rhino. Irritated by the sound of our engine and our unfamiliar smell he threw caution to the wind and charged at our vehicle, sending us roaring off past a family of wart-hog piglets running behind their mother with her uplifted tail.

Meanwhile, during our safari I had been studying wildlife books and had gotten fairly good at identification. I was standing up through the open top of the Land Cruiser scanning the horizon with my binoculars and proudly telling Rinpoche what was around. As we were seeing things I was calling out names and Rinpoche would point to things and ask me what it was. I would say “That is a Thompson’s gazelle, or that’s a hartebeest and so on. This went on and on and then, in the distance Rinpoche spotted something sticking up from the long golden grass and asked, “What’s that?”

I looked with my binoculars and saw what appeared to be a curved branch attached to part of a fallen tree. “Oh it’s just a dead log, Sir,” I said assuredly. He looked at it some more and the driver looked at it, and finally Rinpoche said, “No, I don’t think it is.”

I said “No Sir, I’m very sure that is just a log”, thinking ‘I’m spotting up here and I've got the binoculars’.

He said, “We-ll let’s go check it out anyway,” and to my chagrin we drove over to have a look.

As we got near, the shape was transformed into a wildebeest lying on its side with one curved horn sticking up in the air. Lying in front of it, holding on with her teeth was a lioness still panting from the exertion of the chase. On the other side of her, we saw three young lion cubs sitting there as well. Rather than feed herself, the panting lioness chewed open the belly of the wildebeest. The guts spewed out and the young cubs went in there with their faces as deep as they could go. As we pulled up, the three cubs turned to look at us like cute little kids with chocolate pudding all over their faces. They were enjoying busily lapping up the hot blood coming from the belly of the wildebeest. We were awestruck by the scene in front of us less than ten feet away.

In the back seat was Chorpel, an older student of Rinpoche, who was mesmerized by the scene. Intrigued but at the same time repulsed, she had splayed her fingers across her face repeating, “I can't look, I can't look”. She was however indeed looking with staring eyes through the spaces between her fingers. (Why are we so afraid to look at things that we find shocking or disturbing yet find an overwhelming compulsion to stare at them anyway?)

Rinpoche turned and began to chuckle at this humorous situation in the back seat, then caught my eye and seemed to say, “So what is your view.” My mind reeled with the enormity of all the views shifting through my mind. First of all I had had a view that I could express as “I know where it’s at, I know where we're going, I know what that curved shape is.” But when we got there, the reality was completely different. Witnessing this event there was a juxtaposition between the unfortunate death of the wildebeest and the care taken by the panting lioness as she cared lovingly for her offspring. Without food those young cubs would not survive. Where is the higher view? Is it compassion for the poor wildebeest or compassion for the young cubs or both?

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