The Snow Leopard
By Peter Matthiessen
London: Vintage, 1998
[01/06/2006 ~ 10/07/2006]
In the two hours before my yoga class last night, I finally finished re-reading The Snow Leopard. It took a while - more than a month. Perhaps I did not wish to rush it. I also know that this is a book I will re-read in the near future.
In 1973, Peter Matthiessen and George Schaller (a field biologist) travelled to the Crystal Mountain in the Himalayas. Schaller was there to study the blue bharal sheep, while Matthiessen had hoped to see the legendary snow leopard. The elusiveness of the snow leopard lent it a mystical quality. The great Tibetan yogi, Milarepa was said to have taken the form of the snow leopard.
Back then, Peter Matthiessen was also a student of Zen Buddhism. Before he left, his roshi (his Zen teacher) warned him to "Expect nothing." The roshi also issued him a koan:
All the peaks are covered with snow – why is this one bare?
Thus journey is pilgrimage, is meditation.
"I long to let go, drift free of things, to accumulate less, depend on less, to move more simply," he writes. One of the fundamentals of Buddhism – the religion of the land they tread - to simplify, to let go and thus liberate yourself from suffering.
In between the narrative of his journey and the exposition on Buddhism – Matthiessen writes about his wife, Deborah, who died a year before. He reveals his love for her, and his regrets. He also writes about the enigmatic Sherpa guide, Tukten – a dubious figure who is also a tulku – a reincarnate of a learned lama.
Matthiessen never saw the snow leopard. In the acceptance of his non-encounter is the triumph. The paradox in spiritual quest that I have only begun to sense but not yet comprehend.
If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard. If not, then somehow (and I don’t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to resolve my koan; and in the not-seeing, I am content. … That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain – that is enough.
I am still looking. Matthiessen tells me, that is enough.