“If the snow leopard should leap from the rock…”

As I noted in my introductory comments, I found Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard more of a spiritual quest than a wildlife safari. I think Matthiessen made the concepts of Zen Buddhism accessible to his reader by comparing it to other forms of religion and by describing his own experiences while practicing it. Although this may have been more important 30 years ago when this book was first published and Buddhism was relatively unknown in America, it still provides insight into the nature and appeal of Zen Buddhism.

Those familiar with Taoism or the Tao Te Ching may find this early introduction helpful:

The traditional founder of Ch’an Buddhism (in Japan, Zen) was Bodhidharma, a great teacher in the apostolic line of Sakyamuni, who carried the teaching from India to China in A.D. 527. Perhaps influenced by the simplicity of the Chinese philosophy called Tao (the Way), the fierce “blue-eyed monk,” or “wall-gazer,” exhorted his followers to ignore the sectarian disputes, ponderous scriptures, proliferating icons, and priestly trappings of organized religion and return to the intense meditation that had opened the Buddha’s Path. Led by a succession of great masters, Zen Buddhism (of which Bodhidharma was First Patriarch in China) infused all of Oriental art and culture with the spare clarity of its vision. In Zen thought, even attachment to the Buddha’s “golden words” may get in the way of ultimate perception; hence the Zen expression “Kill the Buddha!” The Universe itself is the scripture of Zen, for which religion is no more and no less than the apprehension of the infinite in every moment.

How wondrous, how mysterious!
I carry fuel, I draw water.7

This paragraph reminded me of how my own interest in Taoism and Buddhism has evolved. I was first drawn by Chinese and Japanese art, particularly Sumi paintings and Japanese block prints, and, later, by Japanese furniture when I was doing woodworking. It was only later that I discovered the Tao Te Ching and was hooked by the similarity to many of my own beliefs about nature. From there it wasn’t too far to Cha’n Buddhism.

Though I’m personally unconvinced by Matthiessen’s attempts to link enlightenment to science,

What the Buddha perceived was his identity with the Universe; to experience existence in this way is to be the Buddha. Even the brilliant “white light” that may accompany mystical experience (the “inner light” attested to by Eskimo shamans) might be perceived as a primordial memory of Creation. “Man is the matter of the cosmos, contemplating itself,” a modern astronomer has said;27 another points out that each breath we take contains hundreds of thousands of the inert, pervasive argon atoms that were actually breathed in his lifetime by the Buddha, and indeed contain parts of the “snorts, sighs, bellows, shrieks” of all creatures that ever existed, or will ever exist. These atoms flow backward and forward in such useful but artificial constructs as time and space, in the same universal rhythms, universal breath as the tides and stars, joining both the living and the dead in that energy which animates the universe. What is changeless and immortal is not individual body-mind but, rather, that Mind which is shared with all of existence, that stillness, that incipience which never ceases because it never becomes but simply IS. This teaching, still manifest in the Hindu and Buddhist religions, goes back at least as far as the doctrine of Maya that emerges in the Vedic civilizations and may well derive from much more ancient cultures; Maya is Time, the illusion of the ego, the stuff of individual existence, the dream that separates us from a true perception of the whole. It is often likened to a sealed glass vessel that separates the air within from the clear and unconfined air all around, or water from the all-encompassing sea. Yet the vessel itself is not different from the sea, and to shatter or dissolve it brings about the reunion with all universal life that mystics seek, the homegoing, the return to the lost paradise of our “true nature.”

I did like his metaphor of “a sealed glass vessel,” probably because I trust my intuitive side more than my rational side when it comes to spiritual matters. I concede the opposite might well be true for many readers, though.

I don’t know a lot about Tantra, and what little I did know didn’t strike me as particularly “spiritual,” but this quotation

In Tantra, the pessimistic fear of desire and pleasure that characterized early Buddhism was seen as but another form of bondage, and emphasis was placed on being-in-life without suppression of life forces but also without clinging or craving. Tantra concerned itself with the totality of existence, the apprehension of the whole universe within man’s being. All thoughts and acts, including the sex energies, were channeled into spiritual growth, with the transcendence of all opposites the goal; in the communion of sex, wine, and feasting, the illusion of separate identity might be lost, so long as a detached perspective was retained. All things and acts were equal, Interwoven, from the “lowliest” physical functions to the “highest” spiritual yearning, and even consumption of dead human flesh and filth was recommended as an ultimate embrace of all existence. Thus, Tantra might be interpreted” as the practice of mankind’s earliest religious intuition: that body, mind, and nature are all one.

reminded me a lot of Walt Whitman, another favorite I need to re-read soon. Whitman’s version of Transcendentalism often struck me as the most powerful interpretation. Emerson and Thoreau’s single-minded focus on Nature generally seemed too limited for my taste.

I think most of us can identify with Matthiessen’s dream of being immersed in light,

In a dream I am walking joyfully up the mountain. Something breaks and falls away, and all is light. Nothing has changed, yet all is amazing, luminescent, free. Released at last, I rise into the sky …. This dream comes often. Sometimes I run, then lift up like a kite, high above earth, and always I sail transcendent for a time before awaking. I choose to awake, for fear of falling, yet such dreams tell me that I am a part of things, if only I would let go, and keep on going. “Do not be heavy,” Soen Roshi says. “Be light, light, light-full of light!”

In recent dreams, I have twice seen light so brilliant, so intense, that it “woke me up,” but the light did not continue into wakefulness. Which was more real, the waking or the dream? The last Japanese character written in this life by Soen Roshi’s venerable teacher, and the last word spoken, was the word for “dream.”

because light is, after all, the root of the word “Enlightenment.” It’s certainly no coincidence that Jesus is often shown illuminated by a ray of light that has just broken through storm clouds.

I think the true significance of the title can be found in this passage:

In the longing that starts one on the path is a kind of homesickness and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homegoing is the purpose of my practice, of my mountain meditation and my day-break chanting, of my koan: All the peaks are covered with snow why is this one bare? To resolve that illogical question would mean to burst apart, let fall all preconceptions and supports. But I am not ready to let go, and so I shall not resolve my koan, or see the snow leopard, that is to say, perceive it. I shall not see it because I am not ready.

I meditate for the last time on this mountain that is bare, though others all around are white with snow. Like the bare peak of the koan, this one is not different from myself. I know this mountain because I am this mountain, I can feel it breathing at this moment, as its grass tops stray against the snows. If the snow leopard should leap from the rock above and manifest itself before me-S-A-A-O!-then in that moment of pure fright, out of my wits, I might truly perceive it, and be free.

Matthiessen learns much about the snow leopard and about himself on this journey, but he never sees the snow leopard and doesn’t solve the koan he was given or attain enlightenment. In that sense he’s like most of us, though he’s probably much farther on the way “home” than we are because he’s been homesick longer.

If you have a half hour to spend, you might enjoy discovering how much further he is down the road in this interview given during the 30th anniversary of his work.

The Home of the Gods

Matthiessen so tightly links his experience of the mountains with meditation and/or Buddhism that I found it difficult to extract passages that focus on the kinds of Nature experiences I actually share with him, though, as I noted, that’s probably the greatest appeal of The Snow Leopard for me. As I’ve also noted many times, hiking in the mountains has always seemed like a semi-religious experience to me, at least in an Emersonian sense. Considering how often “The Gods” are identified with the sky and mountains, I wonder if it isn’t “hard-wired” into our very nature.

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, it’s impossible not to identify Mt. Rainier with Nature,

Mt. Rainier In the Distance

whether you’re looking up at it from Puget Sound or looking down on Puget Sound as you circle it. There’s something magical about the way it stands over the city on a sunny day. Easy to see, then, why I identify with this passage:

I go down along the canyon rim and sit still against a rock. Northward, a snow cone rises on the sky, and snowfields roll over the high horizon into the deepening blue. Where the Saure plunges into its ravine, a sheer and awesome wall writhes with weird patterns snow and shadow. The emptiness and silence of snow mountains quickly bring about those states of consciousness that occur in the mind-emptying of meditation, and no doubt high altitude has an effect, for my eye perceives the world as fixed or fluid, as it wishes. The earth twitches, and the mountains shimmer, as if all molecules had been set free: the blue sky rings. Perhaps what I hear is the “music of the spheres,” what Hindus call the breathing of the Creator and astrophysicists the “sighing” of the sun.

I’ve had a very similar experience sitting on Yocum Ridge Trail on Mt Hood, watching the light reflect off glaciers only to be absorbed by steep cliffs, the silence punctuated by the occasional crash of glacial fragments, plunging into the canyons below.

I also strongly identify with this passage,

GS is discoursing happily on the freedom of carrying one’s own Pack, of being “independent of childish people who’ve lived all their lives in the mountains and won’t wear rag strips on their eyes in snow.You realize we could travel for a week this way, and make good time, with just what we have here on our backs?” I do realize this, and am happy, too, watching him tramp off down the mountain; the sense of having one’s life needs at hand, of traveling light brings with it intense energy and exhilaration. Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being. (“I could not simplify myself”-the explanation of the suicide Nezhdanov.12) Jang La is behind us, my lungs are holding up in this thin air, my dour boots show some signs of relenting. And starting a relaxed descent, I enjoy the view of distant shadows that mark the deep gorge of the Bheri River. Beyond the Bheri the steep mountains rise toward the snow peaks of the Kanjiroba Himal; on the far side of those distant peaks lies Crystal Mountain.

though there’s something ironic about it appearing in this context since much of the novel is spent complaining about porters who refuse to go on or demand more money to risk their lives. One of my few regrets about growing older is that I no longer feel comfortable backpacking alone for a week in the mountains. Being able to live a week on what you carry on your back was always a liberating experience to me, knowing that I’ve actually been happiness when I had nothing but what I could carry on my back.

And, although I’ve never had the privilege of seeing a wolf pack in the wild, I remember feeling exactly like this when a mother bear and her cub crossed our path while hiking the North Cascades for a week with the Sierra Club:

Unable to hold the scope on the restless animals, GS calls out to me to shift the binoculars from the band of fourteen to the group of 5X Sheep, directly across the river from our lookout. “Why are those Sheep running?” he demands, and a moment later hollers, “Wolves!”

Six sheep are springing for the cliffs, but a pair of wolves coming straight downhill are cutting off the rear most animal as it bounds across a stretch of snow toward the ledges. In the hard light, the blue-gray creature seems far too swift to catch, yet the streaming wolves gain ground on the hard snow. Then they are whisking through the matted juniper and down over steepening rocks, and it appears that the bharal will be cut off and bowled over, down the mountain, but at the last moment it scoots free and gains a narrow ledge where no wolf can follow.

In the frozen air, the whole mountain is taut; the silence rings. The sheep’s flanks quake, and the wolves are panting; otherwise, all is still as if the arrangement of pale shapes held the world together. Then I breathe, and the mountain breathes, setting the world in motion once again.

I’m drawn to the mountains by nature’s beauty, but Nature never seems quite as special as when you observe wild animals there, whether it be a bear, a moose, or a river otter. Sometimes just the awareness that it’s possible that an animal may be nearby, like a Grizzly Bear, can transform your whole experience of an environment.

Perhaps my favorite quote about the meaning of the mountains is this one, found late in the book:

Near my lookout, I find a place to meditate, out of the wind, a hollow on the ridge where snow has melted. My brain soon clears in the cold mountain air, and I feel better. Wind, blowing grasses, sun: the dying grass, the notes of southbound birds in the mountain sky are no more fleeting than the rock itself, no more so and no less-all is the same. The mountain withdraws into its stillness, my body dissolves into the sunlight, tears fall that have nothing to do with “I.” What it is that brings them on, I do not know.

In other days, I understood mountains differently, seeing in them something that abides. Even when approached respectfully (to challenge peaks as mountaineers do is another matter) they appalled me with their “permanence,” with that awful and irrefutable rock-ness that seemed to intensify my sense of my own transience. Perhaps this dread of transience explains our greed for the few gobbets of raw experience in modern life, why violence is libidinous, why lust devours us, why soldiers choose not to forget their days of horror: we cling to such extreme moments, in which we seem to die, yet are reborn. In sexual abandon as in danger we are impelled, however briefly, into that vital present in which we do not stand apart from life, we are life, our being tills us; in ecstasy with another being, loneliness falls away into eternity. But in other days, such union was attainable through simple awe.

My foot slips on a narrow ledge: in that split second, as needles of fear pierce heart and temples, eternity intersects with present time. Thought and action are not different, and stone, air, ice, sun, fear, and self are one. What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the wolf, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being. In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us, what one lama refers to as “the precision and openness and intelligence of the present.”

I’ve had so many experiences while hiking the mountains and felt so many different feelings, from absolute fear to sheer exultation. that I don’t think I could ever be through exploring the their meaning.

Matthiessen’s Guide

I’ll have to admit that I had some major reservations about Peter Matthiessen’s character as I read The Snow Leopard. While I gave him credit for not trying to gloss over his faults, I had a particularly hard time identifying with his actions in the beginning of the book. My greatest criticism is perhaps a personal one, but I found it particularly cold-hearted to leave his eight year old son alone shortly after his mother’s death. Of course, as narrator he could have simply left out this fact, but he seems determined to portray his actions honestly. He quotes a letter from his “sun’s” letter just as the journey begins, followed by this recollection:

I think of the parting with my sun on the day that school had opened, just a month before, a clear morning of September, of monarch butterflies and goldenrod, late roses, shining pine needles, of flights of cormorant headed south along the coast in a dry east wind. Alex asked how long I would be gone, and when I told him, blurted out, “Too long!” I had driven him to school, and he was upset that he might be seen in tears. “That’s much too long,” he wept, and this was true. Hugging him, I promised to be home before Thanksgiving.

As a teacher and as one who made considerable personal sacrifice for my kids after my divorce, I could never imagine doing this to a child, not that soon after his mother’s death.

My opinion of Matthiessen didn’t improve with his revelation of his and his wife’s use of LSD when they had three kids to raise:

And yet, and yet . . . an “I” remained, aware that something-was happening, aware even that something-was-happening because of drugs. At no time did the “I” dissolve into the miracle.

Mostly D went on long, gray journeys, plagued by fear of death. I had bad trips, too, but they were rare; most were magic shows, mysterious, enthralling. After each-even the bad ones-I seemed to go more lightly on my way, leaving behind old residues of rage and pain. Whether joyful or dark, the drug vision can be astonishing, but eventually this vision will repeat itself, until even the magic show grows boring; for me, this occurred in the late 1960’s, by which time D had already turned toward Zen.

Now those psychedelic years seem far away; I neither miss them nor regret them. Drugs can clear away the past, enhance the present; toward the inner garden, they can only point the way. Lacking the temper of ascetic discipline, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life. Old mists may be banished, that is true, but the alien chemical agent forms another mist, maintaining the separation of the “I” from true experience of the One.

Though I’ll admit that LSD actually seemed the most appealing of drugs because it was widely used by some very famous artists who claimed that it opened up new horizons to them, I had the questionable privilege of watching military films showing the effects of LSD on troops, and I would never have taken the chance of using LSD after I had a family. Of course, I’m am pretty conservative when it comes to drugs, limiting myself to legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes, perhaps because I found them both too enjoyable for my own good. I was never really tempted to try illegal drugs.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this work is that despite Matthiessen’s willingness to reveal his faults I could identify with him by the end of the book. One of the ways he manages to do this is through his identification with Tukten, one of the party’s guides that he seems to have a special link with:

Tukten has elf’s ears and a thin neck, a yellow face, and the wild wise eyes of a naljorpa, or Tibetan yogi. He radiates that inner quiet which is often associated with spiritual attainment, but perhaps his attainment is a dark one. The other Sherpas are uneasy with him; they mutter that he drinks too much, uses foul language, is not to be trusted. Apparently he has demeaned himself by taking this job as a porter. Yet they defer to him as if he possessed some sort of magic, and sometimes I think I feel his power, too.

This disreputable fellow is somehow known to me, like a dim figure from another life. Tukten himself seems aware that we are in some sort of relation, which he accepts in a way that I cannot; that he is not here by accident is, for me, a restless instinct, whereas he takes our peculiar bond for granted. More often than I like, I feel that gaze of his, as if he were here to watch over me, as if it were he who had made me cut that stick: the gaze is open, calm, benign, without judgment of any kind, and yet, confronted with it, as with a mirror, I am aware of all that is hollow in myself, all that is greedy, angry, and unwise.

Matthiessen’s identification with this “disreputable fellow” is a critical element of The Snow Leopard, though I certainly didn’t realize it until much later in the work. Tukten seems to serve as a “mirror” for Matthiessen.

Later Matthiessen says he sees a “crazy wisdom” in Tukten:

“Dolpo village many smelly, sah,” says Tukten, the only man among us who has been there: one senses that, in one life or another, he has been everywhere on earth. Of his wide experience, Tukten tells tales in that soft voice, and so the other Sherpas listen, but he is not one of them. Ordinarily Tukten would remain among the porters who have taken shelter in a cave down in the canyon, but he is helpful and ingenious, and his mesmerizing voice, coming and going on the wind and rain, seems to fascinate the younger Sherpas, although they are wary of him, and keep their distance. One feels they are afraid of him-not of his violence, though they say he fights when drunk, but of his power. Whatever this man is-wanderer or evil monk, or saint or sorcerer-he seems touched by what Tibetans call the “crazy wisdom”: he is free.

Though Matthiessen never truly explains this “crazy wisdom,” he seems to equate it with belonging to the natural world and with being free of civilization’s artificial restraint on our true nature. Although this identification with Tukten largely remains in the background, it becomes more and more prominent as the work comes to a close.

By the end Matthiessen has come to se Tukten as his guide to this world:

In the rear window of the cab, Tukten is ghostly; I stare after him as he withdraws into the dusk. It is not so much that this man and I are friends. Rather, there is a thread between us, like the black thread of a live nerve; there is something unfinished, and he knows it, too. Without ever attempting to speak about it, we perceive life in the same way, or rather, I perceive it in the way that Tukten lives it. In his life in the moment, in his freedom from attachments, in the simplicity of his everyday example, Tukten has taught me over and over, he is the teacher that I hoped to find: I used to say this to myself as a kind of instinctive joke, but now I wonder if it is not true. “When you are ready,” Buddhists say, “the teacher will appear.” In the way he watched me, in the way he smiled, he was awaiting me; had I been ready, he might have led me far enough along the path “to see the snow leopard.”

Out of respect, I stand in the same place until Tukten is out of sight. The Hindus dart off with my backpack, sleeping bag, and rucksack, and for a moment I am all alone on the hotel steps. Off to the north, black clouds are shrouding the black mountains; it is snowing. I wonder if GS has left the Crystal Mountain. Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined – how is it that this safe return brings such regret?

In the end of the book, Matthiessen goes for one final meeting with Tukten before returning to the States and finds that Tukten has disappeared and no one has ever heard of him, an ending which reminded me a little too much of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, a work Matthiessen refers to at one point in The Snow Leopard.

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.