BOOK REVIEW: The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (1978) winner of the National Book Award
by Ven. David Astor
Sitting on my desk is a dark green book cover I have been using for over 30 years. On the front is printed in white letters “Kroch’s & Brentano’s bookstore”. It was my favorite book store in Chicago that could not withstand the onslaught of the big box bookstores. But it lives in my memory now in this cover, and in that cover I keep a cherished book. One that often travels with me, like a friend. The cover is now the home of my new friend, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. It will be read and referenced many times. My addition is the one published by Penguin Classics in 1987 – as you see this is considered by many to be a classic. And I now know why.
I am ashamed to admit that I can not remember what first brought my attention to this beautiful book, but it was recent. Ven. Wayne has read the book many years ago as he told me when I mentioned it to him. The Snow Leopard evolves from an exquisite book of natural history and travel into a grand, Buddhist parable of the search for meaning. It’s spare, honest and lyrical style awakens the reader’s mind to the high deserts of Nepal and beyond. On almost every page is found beautiful prose that may serve to introduce spiritual thought in an earthy way, moments of contemplation, and act as the basis for further reflection. This book reminds me that another form of engaging the Dharma is through our writing. A good and well written book can influence many more people than the author can do in person. And I believe this book is a good example of this. It will become a “must read” for my students.
Peter Matthiessen set out in the company of zoologist George Schaller in the autumn of 1973 on a hike of 250 miles into the heart of the Himalayan region of Dolpo. Their purpose was in search of the rare Himalayan blue sheep, as well as the hope of seeing a snow leopard in its natural habitat in the high Asia region. Dolpo is consider by many to be the last enclave of pure Tibetan culture on earth. Matthiessen leads us through canyons of steep walls and over tall mountains, and offers a narrative that consistently makes reference to metaphor and the spiritual, in his arduous search for the snow leopard which becomes a vehicle for reflections on all manner of matters associated with understanding the Dharma. On a different level, the book also is a profoundly intimate exploration into his own heart and mind requiring more true bravery than any mere physical experience could be. Their goal was to reach the Crystal Mountain that takes them west under Annapurna and north around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba to the land of Dolpo on the Tibetan Plateau. The country itself comes to life and is enriched through his descriptions of the lives and characters of the Sherpa’s and porters that accompany them. You can see Peter come alive once he is beyond the reach of his own temporal civilization and among the timeless elements of the earth under skies where no planes ever appear and no rescue is possible.
Mr. Matthiessen is a practicing Buddhist committed to engaging others, but more importantly engaging his own conscience. One reviewer states, “In his beloved boots, a hoopoe feather in his hat, and leaning on his faithful stave, near spiritual rebirth, near death along the giddy canyon trails, he takes his omens from the fate of copper-colored grasshoppers and blue and golden dragonflies”. On each trail they find themselves on there are prayer cairns and altars, prayer mills and flags, as they stalk their sheep and leopard. In order to encourage himself along the dangerous ledges, Peter says “There shall none learn to live who hath not learned to die”. Consider this quote for a moment. It has so many meanings. Learned to die to what? And learn to live for what purpose? The author also tells us that warm tears freeze to his face as easily as he shouts with unexpected laughter. “All the way to Heaven is heaven”. A shard of rose quartz, the spores of a cinnamon fern, a companionable mound of pony dung, a dog barking at this pale tent in the moonlight, all may excite him as if this were his first day on earth. Peter also talks about Buddhist philosophy and history in a way that those of us on the path will understand, but may be a little deep for those not a student of Buddhism. As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism and Zen worldview, the author has managed to intertwine philosophical ruminations with the factual descriptions of the journey.
While there are many whole pages of Buddhist teaching, almost any paragraph has wonderful meaning. For example, “The old man has been ravened from within. That blind and greedy stare of his, that caved-in look, and the mouth working, reveal who now inhabits him, who now stares out. I nod to death in passing, aware of the sound of my own feet upon my path.” And, “Green village compounds, set about with giant banyans and old stone pools and walls, are cropped to lawn by water buffalo and cattle; the fresh water and soft shade give them the harmony of parks.” And another, “These simple and uneducated men comport themselves with the wise calm of monks, and their well being is in no way inseparable from their religion.” All this highlights the simplicity of life that can be found in our happiness. Expect nothing and take each day as it comes is a theme running throughout the book. The porters accompanying the expedition are sketched out in remarkable detail with a loving pen. And wait until you experience the time spent at the Shey monastery beyond the Kanjiroba Himal and the lama of Shey.
If you are looking for answers on how to live a good life without romancing the subject, this book is more useful than most spiritual texts. The Snow Leopard is thought provoking, and can be used to ignite a new passion in your own practice.