Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

Despite a nagging back that made it difficult to sit for longer than 15 minutes and an allergic reactions to an aging paperback, I’ve finished Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. It wasn’t quite the book I anticipated it would be, but in this case that turned out to be a good thing.

Simply put, I loved the book. It reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a long-time favorite. Unlike ZAMM, though, this one really focuses on Zen Buddhism. In the Prologue Matthiessen states that his trip to the Crystal Mountain Monastery was “a true pilgrimage, a journey of the heart.” In retrospect, I would have to say that this “pilgrimage,” and not the pursuit of the Snow Leopard, is the center of the book.

Matthiessen’s historical knowledge of Buddhism and its origins is extensive and this knowledge is imparted gradually as the journey progresses beginning with as concise of history of the Buddha as I’ve read, as suggested in these passages:

In the clean air and absence of all sound, of even the simplest machinery-for the track is often tortuous and steep, and fords too many streams, to permit bicycles-in the warmth and harmony and seeming plenty, come whispers of a paradisal age. Apparently the grove of sal trees called Lumbini, only thirty miles south of this same tree, in fertile lands north of the Rapti River, has changed little since the sixth century B.C., when Siddhartha Gautama was born there to a rich clan of the Sakya tribe in a kingdom of elephants and tigers.

Gautama forsook a life of ease to become a holy mendicant, or “wanderer”-a common practice in northern India even today. Later he was known as Sakyamuni (Sage of the Sakyas), and afterward, the Buddha — the Awakened One. Fig trees and the smoke of peasant fires, the greensward and gaunt cattle, white egrets and jungle crows are still seen on the Ganges Plain where Sakyamuni passed his life, from Lumbini south and east to Varanasi (an ancient city even when Gautama came there) and Rajgir and Gaya. Tradition says that he traveled as far north as Kathmandu (even then a prosperous city of the Newars) and preached on the hill of Swayambhunath, among the monkeys and the pines.

In Sakyamuni’s time, the disciplines called yogas were already well evolved. Perhaps a thousand years before, the dark-skinned Dravidians lowland India had been overcome by nomad Aryans from the Asian steppes who were bearing their creed of sky gods, wind, and light across Eurasia. Aryan concepts were contained in their Sanskrit Vedas, or knowledge-ancient texts of unknown origin which include the Rig Veda and the Upanishads and were to become the base of the Hindu religion. To the wandering ascetic named Sakyamuni, such epic reachments on the nature of the Universe and Man were useless as cure for human suffering. In what became known as the Four Noble truths, Sakyamuni perceived that man’s existence is inseparable from sorrow; that the cause of suffering is craving; that peace is attained by extinguishing craving; that this liberation may be brought about following the Eight-fold Path: right attention to one’s understanding, intentions, speech, and actions; right livelihood, effort, mindfulness; right concentration, by which is meant the unification of the self through sitting yoga.

In this short passage Matthiessen not only manages to reveal facts about the Buddha that I’ve never read before but also provides as good a summary as I’ve read of the Buddha’s philosophy I’ve ever read.

As interesting as this history is, and I found it quite interesting, the greatest appeal of the book for me was simply the feelings engendered by his trek through the mountains. While I’ve never hiked anything nearly as strenuous or frightening as his trek through the Himalayas, his descriptions brought back many fond memories to me.

I’ve spent much of my adult life backpacking and hiking the Cascades of Oregon and Washington. Right after I retired, a fellow teacher and I spent five magical summers hiking around Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams, and Indian Heaven. Oftentimes the pace was exhausting, and it wasn’t unusual to end the day limping down a steep trail, wondering what had possessed us to drive ourselves so hard. Occasionally, these hikes would even become terrifying while trying to cross a snowfield, a raging creek fed by snowmelt, or simply crossing a pass so narrow that a single misstep meant certain death.

Despite those hardships, or perhaps because of them, I’ve never felt closer to a supernatural power than I did in the time I’ve spent on those mountains. Matthiessen captures that feeling better than I’ve ever been able to do and better than any writer I’ve ever read before. It was a magical read, and I’m sure I’ll find it impossible to capture that feeling in anything I write about the book.

I’ve marked so many passages that it will take me awhile to sort all my ideas out, but hopefully I’ll be able to start making sense of them shortly. It’s a challenging book, but seems well worth the challenge.

8 thoughts on “Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard

  1. When I read this from your excerpt from The Snow Leopard:

    “…right concentration, by which is meant the unification of the self through SITTING yoga.”

    I thought of this story from Haiti that I heard from a friend early this morning, documented at http://www.army.mil/-news/2010/01/19/33088-troops-set-up-front-lines-for-survival-in-haiti/:

    “Yesterday, when the crowd became rowdy and tried to push forward, the captain in charge told his troops simply to SIT DOWN in the grass and stop passing out the meals. This quieted the crowd, which quickly realized that if they did not calm down, they would not receive any rations.”

    Simply to sit down. What I heard from my friend is that after the soldiers sat down, the people in the crowd began to sit down, too. That’s an astonishing image. I wonder what moved the captain to choose that nonviolent strategy.

  2. loren – i’m so glad to read this review. as i mentioned to you recently, this book is two from the top of my bedside bookpile and i’m really curious to read it – moreso since reading your review. steven

  3. I read this book a while ago and loved it as well. I love mountains and I originally encountered this book through an excerpt from it in an anthology of writings about mountains (Where the Silence Rings – edited by Wayne Grady). The Snow Leopard is an excellent book to read slowly, savouring every page and paragraph.

  4. Your comments are helpful..and I already read the book. Snow Leopard offers the same insights even for someone who never took the trouble to try the Cascades with a hefty pack. Put in the context of a serious quest for a near-mythical animal, and framed by Matthiessen’s candor about the dying (ex)wife he left behind, the trek teeters between mere mere travelogue and personal journal His various meetings with monks of that region, the auterity of their lifes, and his refusal to offer easy answers, all seem consistent with the practice of Buddhism. Matthiessen
    remains a Buddhist to this day.
    I think he earned his way to it on this journey.

  5. The Snow Leopard was the one book I can point to that changed my life. I became a professional writer because of it. Although I don’t know him, Matthiessen was both mentor and muse and I am eternally grateful. A Long Island neighbor, I understand his love of the few tracts of unspoiled natural beauty still left in the Hamptons. Now transplanted, I try and get back home (and to a more simple life) as often as I can.

What do you think?