Someone once said that God offers man the choice between repose and truth: he can not have both. PETER MATTHIESSEN The Snow Leopard
|Image from Wikimedia Commons.|
I devoured quite a few Buddhist-flavoured classics in the 1970s — Hesse's Siddhartha, Kerouac's The Dharma Bums, Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Way of Zen by Alan Watts — but somehow I'd neglected Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard. Having now just finished it, I realise what a treasure I missed: Zen and trekking in one book — just my kind of thing. I agree with John Hillaby who writes on the front cover of my Vintage edition that it's a masterpiece; and also with Jim Harrison's summary on the back cover: A magical book: a kind of lunar paradigm and map of the sacred . . . The book has transcended the usual limits of language. Just so.
The book, taking the form of diary entries from 28 September to 1 December 1973, relates Matthiessen's trip, in the company of biologist George Schaller, to the Dolpo region of Nepal, in search of the Himalayan blue sheep and the secretive snow leopard. They find the sheep, but the snow leopard eludes them (Schaller does have one brief sighting when Matthiessen's not there). Yet it doesn't matter. As Mathiessen's Zen teacher sagely advised him before setting out: expect nothing. And we, as readers, must do the same, for then we will be greatly rewarded. This is no tale of conquering the wilderness and accomplishing arduous feats of mountaineering — though there is austerity and hardship in abundance. This is a story of a man's search for himself and his place within wild nature, a search for immanence in the here and now.
Matthiessen writes gloriously. How easy it would have been to fall into pretentiousness and cliché when describing, say, a sitting meditation on a mountainside; but he manages to blend the mystical and the mundane in such a way that both absorb each other, become one whole. The ineffable is not 'out there' in some transcendent realm — it is right here, among the roguish yet innocent sherpas, the ferocious mastiffs straining at their chains, the filthy-poor Nepali villagers, the meagre buckwheat chapatis, the yak dung. And also, equally, among the Buddhist shrines and relics, the stupas, the prayer flags and prayer walls, the hovels and the monasteries, the high blinding snowfields, the narrow mountain ledges, the stunning Himalayan panoramas. Matthiessen recounts everything no matter how exalted or how lowly, experiences it all as part of the eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth — as natural and meaningful (and meaningless) as the endless rotation of a prayer wheel.
I love Matthiessen's mix of Buddhism, nature writing and walking adventure, and I leave you with an extract from this enlightening, earthy-yet-spiritual book:
I lower my gaze from the snow peaks to the glistening thorns, the snow patches, the lichens. Though I am blind to it, the Truth is near, in the reality of what I sit on — rocks. These hard rocks instruct my bones in what my brain could never grasp in the Heart Sutra, that 'form is emptiness, and emptiness is form' — the Void, the emptiness of blue-black space, contained in everything. Sometimes when I meditate, the big rocks dance.
The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no 'meaning', they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we can share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
Look how Matthiessen, beautifully and, I think, poetically, and successfully, uses his 'mere words' in order to express the inexpressible! Examples like this abound throughout the book.
The Universe itself is the scripture of Zen, for which religion is no more and no less the apprehension of the infinite in every moment. How wondrous, how mysterious! / I carry fuel, I draw water. PETER MATTHIESSEN The Snow Leopard
Regard as one, this life, the next life, and the life between. JETSUN MILAREPA