In the last weeks of his three-month trek from the lowlands of Nepal to the Tibetan Plateau, Peter Matthiessen reports a moment when he and field biologist George Schaller study the ridge opposite them, hoping for a view of the legendary snow leopard that has eluded them all this time. The prospects of seeing it at this moment are promising. Schaller had found paw prints earlier that morning, and through binoculars Schaller and Matthiessen observe a herd of wild sheep charging nervously this way and that, indicating the presence of a predator. But no white cat shows against the snow. “You know something?” Schaller comments, lowering his binoculars, “We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things we don’t see.”
Matthiessen can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. They’ve suffered much to get this far: caught in delays with winter coming on, maddened by the undependability of their porters, numbed by the drudgery of a relentless upward climb. As a single parent, Matthiessen has suffered the heartache at having left his eight-year old son home in the care of friends. To return without at least a glimpse of the leopard—not the sole goal of the journey, but symbolic of all that the great heights have to offer—would seem to be a cruel disappointment. And yet, once Schaller has voiced the virtues of letting the mystery be, Matthiessen turns about and considers the virtues of no sighting. “Have you seen the snow leopard?” he asks himself. “No! Isn’t that wonderful!” If there’s any achievement to be found in The Snow Leopard, it might be summed up in that moment. Not finding what one is seeking but rather finding what was not sought is considered part of the Buddhist path. Matthiessen’s challenge in this moment for himself as seeker is to simply get out of his own way in order to see what’s there without the screen of fears and wants. That is, to find wisdom. But wisdom might not be what he wants it to be—a view through a glass darkly, perhaps, when what was hoped for was a clear window.
In 1978, when The Snow Leopard was first published, the Western sangha was ripe for Matthiessen’s anticlimactic message. The book joined a host of icons of Western Buddhist literature that had given us a dharma flavored with the exotic. In 1956, Gary Snyder first published the Cold Mountain poems of Han Shan, crazy wisdom hermit of 9th Century Ch’an Buddhism. In 1964, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass) came out with The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In 1965, Philip Kapleau’s Three Pillars of Zen first saw print, sensationalizing encounters with extraordinary students and teachers. Matthiessen’s twin quest to find a Vajrayana teacher, in the person of the Lama of the Crystal Mountain monastery, and essential nature in the form of the leopard, seemed to promise yet another Buddhist page-turner.
Instead, what Matthiessen documented was a path less intent on peaks and more accessible to practitioners at any elevation. He was perfectly positioned to trick us out of our obsession with spiritual achievement. As a world traveler, naturalist and Zen practitioner in a Rinzai lineage particularly keen on enlightenment, he seemed to exemplify the type-A, full-lotus, samurai-style spiritual adventurer, bent on kensho, hell or high water. Instead, he used that persona to undo himself, revealing a character making one slip on the mountain path after another, as if putting on trial the foolishness of goal seeking, himself the greatest fool.
As more antihero than hero, telling a tale more anticlimactic than climactic, Matthiessen introduced to us a new kind of Buddhist icon: new, but at the same time ancient. He kicked the Dharma gate off its hinges, stumbling into the territory of the world epics, especially those whose trajectory was downward: Ulysses descending to Hades and Dante to the Inferno; Jonah swallowed up by Leviathan; Captain Ahab diving to the bottom of the sea on the back of Moby Dick, snagged on his own harpoon. (Is the great white whale the prototype of the great white cat?) The hallmark of these tales is that the protagonist returns from the wilderness bearing a gift to the community. Matthiessen’s book is one such gift—a jewel, brilliant and black, hard enough to cut through sunny surfaces into the recesses of nature, and in particular, human nature.
The gift is welcome, whether one is following the Buddha Way in the Himalayas or on the streets of town and city. It reiterates the warning that our teachers, past and present, have impressed on us: that the way has no end, that no sooner is one vista reached than a further opens, with no apparent progress: “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” as Japanese Zen master Eihei Dogen put it; “No path and no attainment,” as the Heart Sutra, the fundamental text of Mahayana Buddhism, has it. Climbing from the samsaric lowlands to the height of Mt. Sumeru, fabled apex of the Buddhist cosmos, expecting that effort will result in reward, is an adventure bound for disappointment. Not that there isn’t a payoff, just that it’s not necessarily what one might have expected. Matthiessen charts another kind of progress: less goal seeking, more open to the path itself—a path that perhaps reverts to what one was running away from.
He does so with the accuracy of a novelist and naturalist with many years and pages of practice, locating in language the place where inner and outer landscapes meet, attempting in prose what the haiku poets, many of them Zen adepts and teachers in their own right, so succinctly achieved. “In the autumn trees, the flicker-like cry of a woodpecker, the chickadee voices of the tits seem wistful, and bring back my uneasiness about my children.” One has the impression of standing in the boots of the author, hearing with his ears, feeling what’s in his heart. But it’s not solely the precision of indicating, through precisely observed detail, where nature and humanity intersect. Matthiessen’s is also the precision that expresses the nearly inexpressible, a world not strictly natural nor strictly human, the landscape of dream and myth.
He does so memorably, when, climbing toward the morning sun and arriving at a ridge, he gazes back down into a ravine.
Behind and below, among swirls made by snow gleam and the ice-broken black brook, a surreal figure very like my own pursues me across the vast floor of the mountains. It crosses the shining boulders, coming on with slow, portentous step. The sight of this figure brings a small foreboding, as if it were the self of dreams who seeks me out with the coming of the day at the black labyrinthine river, in dead whiteness.
Pausing in the upward track toward the light, only to be forced back to crevasses where no sun ever reaches, is a 180-degree right about turn, as suddenly he looks around for what is tracking him. A figure very much like his own and at the same time not? He doesn’t name the portent, letting a question stand: what is it that seeks him out and will catch him at the black river? With no answer in sight, the reader is drawn into the quest as his or her own, dreading and anticipating what happens when the real and surreal meet.
It’s a moment of endarkenment, shadow of enlightenment: meeting not what one sought, meeting precisely what one was attempting to escape from. On the trail, meditating on foot, Matthiessen, undistracted by the busyness of ordinary life, is forced to come to terms with the recent death of his wife. He hears echoing among the peaks the remembered wail of his son protesting being left “until Thanksgiving,” as he had promised (a promise he, Matthiessen, would break). “Too long! That’s much too long.” Setting out for a glimpse of a beautiful creature with frosty eyes, at 15,000 feet he meets instead a striped and shiny lizard, in its cold reptilian eye reflected a cosmos indifferent to all human aspirations and wellbeing.
Black Canyon writhes and twists, and the Crystal Mountain looms as a castle of dread, and all the universe reverberates with horror. My head is the sorcerer’s skull cup full of blood, and were I to turn, my eyes would see straight to the heart of chaos, the mutilation, bloody gore, and pain that is seen darkly in the bright eye of this lizard.
The passage reads a shade purple, his typical precision of language flushed with hyperbole. As a reader, I realize that my own line of sight is more that of a lowlander, the eye of my ailing canine companion reflecting quite sufficient evidence of the universe’s indifference to my designs and desires. But low or high, the vision Matthiessen’s misadventures point to is one in which neither horror nor joy, exuberance nor depression, lovingkindness nor malice are excluded. Here we find ourselves in the terrain of Shakyamuni Buddha, when seeing the morning star after a night of horrors, he exclaims, “Marvelous! Marvelous! All beings are no different than the Buddhas!”
“All beings” really does mean all beings. We come upon a number of them in the course of the trek: the pretty little girl, legs broken by parents who were outfitting her to be a beggar, turning her face up to him as he passes, and without self-pity or beggarliness blesses him with a cheerful “Namaste”; the saint living in a rough hut on a stone outcropping facing on a world of peaks, also crippled, legs twisted from arthritis, isolated for the last eight years and possibly for the remainder of his life; the saint’s shadow, Tukten, “our evil monk,” capable of looking upon “rape or resurrection” with sinister equanimity.
As a Dharma Jewel, Snow Leopard is bright as the snowy peaks but it’s also dark, dark as a ravine, and darkest when it descends into the human character and the shadow that pursues it. Not that there isn’t light in that moral darkness: the sinner may have as much to teach as the saint, especially when he lays himself as open as Matthiessen does. As one who has had his fair share of endarkenments, I identify. When he comes down from the peaks to a dirty, lowland village to vindictively piss on a dog that attacked him a month before, don’t I know that nastiness! It’s the same sort of nastiness I inflict while browbeating my partner in some pointless, ancient argument, or indulge when getting back at a friend for a remembered slight. Seeing the perversities of my nature, of human nature, of Buddhanature, is especially unwelcome following upon moments of clarity and kindness. However, Matthiessen’s example assures me that I am still on the path when most strayed, illuminated when most blinded, found when most lost, connected when most alienated, inspired when most depressed. If I am not consoled at finding myself in the mixed bag of being human, I can count myself in company: good company, bad company, but in any case, company. And when the shadow closes in on me at the black river, with any luck I’ll remember that, in the eyes of the lizard, it didn’t matter whether I had glimpsed the snow leopard or not—didn’t matter in the least.
Travel writer and journalist Pico Iyer first suggested The Snow Leopard as a candidate for the Dharma Jewel. I borrowed liberally from his introduction to the 1988 Penguin Classics edition of the book, and benefited from his generous correspondence in the writing of this article.