Issue 12: Winter

Book Review

The Snow Leopard By Peter Matthiessen

‘Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere-in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life........ that leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from sight.’
‘The Way of the White Clouds,’ by Lama Govinda quoted in the prologue to ‘The Snow Leopard,’ by Peter Matthiessen

I have always loved travel writing, those books and writers that take me out of my armchair and transport me to other cultures, places, peoples, mountains, oceans, deserts, mysterious cities or the desolate ruins of lost empires. The very best of this type of writing is ‘layered,’ with the author’s acute observations and inner reflection that take the reader beneath the surface of the lands and peoples through which he/she is travelling. An outstanding example of this is Peter Matthiessen’s book ‘The Snow Leopard’ which won the American National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1980.
By the time this was written in 1974 Matthiessen was already a major figure in the fields of biology and literature. His seminal book ‘Wildlife in America,’ and being co-founder of the highly influential Paris Review of Literature during the 1950’s in Paris ensured this.
In 1972 he was invited by the renowned field biologist George Schaller to make a 250-mile journey through the remote Himalaya from Kathmandu to the ‘Crystal Mountain,’ in the Land of Dolpo trekking below the towering peaks of Annapurna and Dhauligiri. This Crystal Mountain is an ancient holy place much revered in Tibetan Buddhism whilst the Lama in the monastery of Shey Gompa was reputed to be a reincarnation of the 12th century Lama Marpa.
Matthiessen was studying buddhism and much later became a priest of the White Plum Asanga. However before coming to the practice he along with his wife Deborah Love were early pioneers of LSD and he has said his Buddhism evolved fairly naturally from these drug experiences.
Deborah died in 1972 from cancer and one night during a weekend retreat the author describes how he had a premonition of her death and during the following morning service:
‘I chanted the Kannon Sutra with such fury that I ‘lost’ myself forgot the self-a purpose of the sutra, which is chanted in Japanese over and over, with mounting intensity. At the end the sangha gives a mighty shout that corresponds to OM, this followed instantly by sudden silence, as if the universe had stopped to listen. And on that morning, in the near darkness-the altar candle was the only light in the long room- in the dead hush, like the hush in these snow mountains, the silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was part:’
The Snow Leopard then is a journey, not one journey, but the many journeys on which the author embarks as he leaves his young sons behind to observe the rut of the Himalayan blue sheep and perhaps to see the almost mythical snow leopard of these remote regions. However his teacher reminds him before his departure ‘expect nothing.’
Almost anywhere as the reader turns the pages there are beautiful succinct descriptions of places;
‘The village creaks to the soft rhythm of an ancient treadle, and under the windows babies sway in their wicker baskets. In the serene and indiscriminate domesticity of these sunny village, sow and piglet,cow and calf, mother and infant,hen and chicks, nanny and kid commingle in a common pulse of being.’
With the eye of a trained observer he watches the fauna of the region;
‘Higher where the the snow has melted, a hill fox jumps from the tussock grass and runs to a group of rocks, then turns to watch. Its black points and rich red coat are set off by the frosty face and chest and an extraordinary long thick tail, dark brown and black with a white fluffy tip. The tip remains visible long after the creature’s glowing colours sink among the stones.’
Magical landscapes are spread out before us;
‘After two hours of hard climbing I am higher than Black Pond and the whole canyon of the Black river ascending towards the Kang Pass lies exposed to view. Beyond the Kang soars a resplendent wall of white that dominates the sky to the south west; it is the great ice wall of Kanjiroba, a rampart of crystalline escarpments and white-winged cornices well over 22,000 feet in height. Here there is only a light air from the east, but the high wind on Kanjiroba is blowing clouds of a fine snow from points and pinnacles that turn into transparency against the blue.’
All this and deep inner reflection as well;
‘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 exhilirating 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 centre of things have no need for any secret of true being.’
Another thread woven into this vivid tapestry is the history of Buddhism in Dolpo:
‘Shey Gompa,’ in Tibetan Shel dgon-pa is a monastery of the Kagyu sect, which was established in the eleventh century as a departure from the Kalacahkra Tantrism of the Old Sect or Nyingma. Kalachakra (Circle of Time) came to Tibet in the same century; it traditionally derives from a tantra or treatise known as Journey to Shambala, which teaches the adept how to transcend time (death) and is supposed to be the ‘Book of Wisdom,’ that appears in the portarits of the Bodhisattva called Manjushri.’
There are many wonderful descriptions of the people Matthiessen and Schaller meet along the way as well as the porters who trek along with them:
‘Laughing the baby’s mother dances holding hands with cat faced laughing Chirjing. The lute player, a dashing handsome fellow in short smock and boots, smiles at me wholeheartedly in welcome, as if I were his dearest friend on earth. Soon others come, including a man wh appears to be Chirjing’s suitor. Jang bu is playing his harmonica and Dawa and Gyaltsen laugh indiscriminately at all they see, but the only one of the Shey party who will dance is Tukten -Tukten Sherpa, cook and porter, alleged thief, bad drunk, old Gurkha is a dancer too, and dancing, he smiles and smiles.’
Throughout the journey they search for the hidden mystery that lies deep within this isolated region which the modern world has barely touched whilst the Snow Leopard tantalises, always watchful, a chimaera, almost mythical.
I have read this book many times since I first came across it in the eighties. Like a great picture every time I return to it it reveals hidden depths, new colours emerge. If you only read one book this year read ‘The Snow Leopard,’ I am certain you will not regret it!
Ko Gan Mu Ju
Radiant Light Vow No Abode Dwelling

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