A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 30 January 2015

The Apprehension Of The Infinite In Every Moment

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    


Amanda Summer said...

Thank you for this reminder of a wonderful book. I read it many years ago, but would like to pull it out again after reading your review. I love the big rocks dancing. So sad that he passed away just last year.

Vagabonde said...

I am pleased that I read your post about the Snow Leopard so that I could find it in my shelves. I am still half way through the book – quite a wonderful book as you say. I’d love to visit Tibet but would have loved to see it before all the monasteries were destroyed by the Chinese. And to follow my earlier comment, after more questions to my husband, yes it was in the 1960s and it was LSD.

George said...

So glad you liked this fine book, Robert. It was written for you perhaps more than anyone other than Matthiessen himself. When I read it last year, it occurred to me that I should be reread over and over again, at least once a year. Matthiessen never lost what he found (or reinforced) in Nepal.

Susan Scheid said...

Robert: I don't generally think of myself as a very "Zennie" person, but in reading this post (and going back through others that I see I'd missed, I find myself readily drawn in to its ethos. I'm reminded by this beautiful post of two things (well several, but two I'll note). The first is a wonderful book of poetry by Peter Cole called "The Invention of Influence." The lines that come to mind, from his poem "Actual Angels," are these, and particularly the last two:

Gone is the griffin, the phoenix, the faun.
Only angels in the poem live on

as characters catching the light between things,
as carriers of currents from the wings

of thinking we know where we’re going and then
getting somewhere, despite our intention.

The other poem that comes to mind is Wallace Stevens' The Snow Man. Now, I certainly don't think of Stevens as a Zennie kind of guy, but I learned from an online event Kelly Writers House puts on each January, "Mind of Winter," included in which is a collaborative close reading of that poem, that someone wrote an entire article (maybe even a book) about the Zen-ness of that poem. And indeed, when one thinks in that frame, it's readily perceptible. The poem is a single sentence, the last stanza of which is this:

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The Solitary Walker said...

I'm pleased so many of you already knew this wonderful book and enjoyed it.

I agree, George — it's one of those books worth reading bits from every year.

Susan — thanks ever so much for such an exciting comment. I know nothing about Peter Cole, but your quoted lines prick my interest. And yes, I think Stevens is very Zen indeed (perhaps unconsciously so?) in his meditative, philosophical, ego-dissolving poems.

The spirit of Zen is present in many writings, whether consciously (Snyder, for example) or not.

am said...

Blue sheep and snow leopards.

Love the photo you chose to accompany this post.
I'm seeing the snow leopard's presence in the cold bright snowy landscape under the the wild blue sky of day as a daytime persona for William Blake's "Tyger! Tyger!" that burned in the night. Still getting over a cold. Perhaps reading The Snow Leopard before I attempt to work again on my job retraining course is in order. It was by chance that I read The Snow Leopard a few years ago. A second-hand copy appeared at the give-away table in the mailroom of the condominium complex where I live. After I read it and jotting down notes, I put it back on the shelf for someone else to read. Our public library has a copy. I'll put it on hold today. Thank you!

Oh, and I remembered Dylan Thomas and his blue sheep grazing!

"... and a painting book in which I could make the grass, the trees, the sea and the animals any colour I pleased, and still the dazzling sky-blue sheep are grazing in the red field under the rainbow-billed and pea-green birds..."

The Solitary Walker said...

What a sublimely connective comment on my post, Amanda... Well, no more than I expect from you :-)

I know you've been a little under the weather lately — so hope things keep improving.

Those sheep (kind of half-goat, really):

Anonymous said...

Sounds a good book. I'm reminded of a quote from DT Suzuki which you probably know:


Anonymous said...

That link was from


It's an interesting read (do you know it?) You click on "Stories>>"
If you then click on the asterisks you come across they take you to more stories. They're all from a lecture Cage gave ("Indeterminacy") which consisted of randomly selected anecdotes. I find them compulsive reading.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Sorry to lower the tone re the above article, but did you mention steak and kidney pudding? Don't think I have had one since I left home!! If I had it would definitely be my comfort food.

Nick said...

This book has passed me by as well. But it won't now. Thank for pointing me in its direction.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Dominic. I'll check that out.

Pat — I haven't had one either for years! It's attained the status of a mythic paradigm of puddings in our house.

Hi Nick. What happened to your website? You seem to have removed it.

Danish dog said...

Did you also miss A Journey in Ladakh by Andrew Harvey?

Nick said...

Yes Robert, you're right, I removed my website; I got tired of hearing my own voice.

The Solitary Walker said...

Don't know Harvey, or this book, DD. Worth investigation?