I’ve just finished my slow journey through Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Over these past two months or so I’ve paused to put the book down so that I could savor for a while the imagery and the voice; I’ve gone back to re-read many different passages; reluctantly, reluctantly I came to the end just yesterday. Today, even as I get started with my day, scanning emails, fidgeting with my “to-do” list, really I want to just sit with all that this book has evoked in me.
It is a cliché, but I suppose that is because it is true: great works of art or literature help you grasp what is so obvious but also so difficult to comprehend: in this case, it is through our own individual journeys and longings-for that we are made, that we define ourselves. It is the path rather than some imagined end that matters.
Some passages from The Snow Leopard:
“The search may begin with a restless feeling, as if one were being watched. One turns in all directions and sees nothing. Yet one senses that there is a source for this deep restlessness; and the path that leads there is not a path to a strange place, but the path home….The journey is hard, for the secret place where we have always been is overgrown with thorns and thickets of “ideas,” of fears and defenses, prejudices and repressions. The holy grail is what Zen Buddhists call our own “true nature”; each man is his own savior after all.” (p. 42)
“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 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.” (p.208)
“No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place” (p.281)
“There is no way back, nor has anything changed; I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, the endless nagging details and irritations — that aching gap between what I know and what I am. I have lost the flow of things and gone awry, sticking out from the unwinding spiral of my life like a bent spring.” (p.293)
“‘You are in Paradise right now’ — how much more vital! There is no hope anywhere but in this moment, in the karmic terms laid down by one’s own life. This very day is an aspect of nirvana, which is not different from samsara but, rather, a subtle alchemy, the transformation of dark mud into the pure, white blossom of the lotus.” (p.295)
“Do not be amazed by the true dragon.” – Dogen Zenji (p.256)
Photographs by George Schaller, whom Mattheissen accompanied in 1973 to Nepal.