Peter Matthiessen- The Snow Leopard

matthiessen“More often than I like, I feel that gaze of his, as if he were here to watch over me, as if it were he who had made me cut that stick: the gaze is open, calm, benign, without judgment of any kind, and yet, confronted with it, as with a mirror, I am aware of all that is hollow in myself, all that is greedy, angry, and unwise.”

“. . .after which, at my behest, GS crops my long hair to the skull.  For years, I have worn a wristband of heavy braided cord, first because it was a gift, and latterly as an affectation; this is cut off, too.  Finally, I remove my watch, as the time it tells is losing all significance.”

“Now those psychedelic years seem far away; I neither miss them nor regret them.  Drugs can clear away the past, enhance the present; toward the inner garden, they can only point the way.  Lacking the temper of ascetic discipline, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life.  Old mists may be banished, that is true, but the alien chemical agent forms another mist, maintaining the separation of the “I” from the experience of the One.”

“The prayer wheel [of silver and copper] is inscribed with the same mantra, and so is the tight-rolled scroll inside it, spinning out the invocation that calls the universe to attention:


“The sherpas are alert for ways in which to be of use, yet are never insistent, far less servile; since they are paid to perform a service, why not do it as well as possible?  “Here, sir!  I will wash the mud!”  “I carry that, sir!”  As GS says, “When the going gets rough, they take care of you first.”  Yet their dignity is unassailable, for the service is rendered for its own sake- it is the task, not the employer, that is served.  As Buddhists, they know that the doing matters more that the attainment or reward, that to serve in this selfless way is to be free.  Because of their belief in karma- the principle of cause and effect that permeates Buddhism and Hinduism (and Christianity, for the matter: as we sow, so shall we reap)- they are tolerant and unjudgmental, knowing that bad acts will receive their due without the intervention of the victim.”

“Such concepts as karma and circular time are taken for granted by almost all native American traditions; time as space and death as becoming as implicit in the earth view of the Hopi, who avoid all linear constructions, knowing as well as any Buddhist that Everything is Right Here Now.  As in the great religions of the East, the native American makes small distinction between religious activity and the acts of every day: the religious ceremony is life itself.”

“And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghastly life wandering the future and the past on his hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die.”

‘The cook’s happy-go-lucky ways can be exasperating, although GS has learned in eastern Nepal that his merry smile more than compensates for any failings.  And the sherpas accept his reprimands in good spirit, since GS is faithfully considerate of their feelings and concerned only for their welfare, and rarely permits their childlike natures to provoke him.”

“The river is sombre, with broken waterfalls and foaming rock, in a wasteland of sere stubble and spent stone, and wonder why, in this oppressive place, I feel so full of well-being, striding on through the rain, and the grateful on some unnameable way- to what?  On the path, the shadow of my close-cropped head is monkish, and the thump of my stave resounds in the still mountains: I feel inspired by Milapera as described by one of his disciples, walking “free as an unbridled lion in the snowy ranges.””

“GS is discoursing happily on the freedom of carrying one’s own pack, of being “independent of childish people who’ve lived all their lives in the mountains and won’t wear rag strips on their eyes in snow- do you realize we could travel for a week this way, and make good time, with just what we have here on our backs?”  I do realize this and am happy, too, watching him tramp off down the mountain; the sense of having one’s life needs at hand, of traveling light, brings with it intense energy and exhilaration.  Simplicity is the secret of well-being.”

“Liberation, freedom- unaccountably I think about a girl I talked to once in a marine-supplies store where she was buying rope, just a few years ago.  The next day, with her young husband and a British companion, she rose in a balloon from the Long Island farmland, waving good-bye to a cheering crowd, and headed eastward, bound for England over the Atlantic Ocean.  None of the three was ever seen again.  At this moment I feel moved, not by the disappearance of the girl (which was no tragedy, only a brave essay that was lost) but by the name of their adventure- The Free Life Balloon.  Perhaps the voyagers on the Free Life Balloon meant ‘free life’ as described by a mountaineer: “The mountains had been a natural field of activity where, playing on the frontiers of life and death, we had found the freedom for which we were blindly groping and which was necessary to us as breath.”  But the same mountaineer, after nearly losing his life, wrote of “freedom” in a quite different way: “I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. . . I was saved and I had won my freedom.  This freedom, which I shall never lose. . .has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise.  A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”  This is closer to my own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of “free life,” traveling light, without clinging or despising, in calm acceptance of everything that comes; free because without defenses, free not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense of the Tibetan Buddhist’s “crazy wisdom,” if Camus’s “leap into the absurd” that occurs within a life of limitations.”

“In the clearness of this Himalayan air, mountains draw near, and in such splendor, tears come quietly to my eyes and cool on my sunburned cheeks.  this is not mere soft-mindedness, nor am I all that silly with the altitude.  My head has cleared in these weeks free of intrusions- mail, telephones, people and their needs- and I respond to things spontaneously, without defensive or self-conscious screens.  Still, all this feeling is astonishing: not so long ago I could say truthfully that I had not shed a tear in twenty years.”

“But Takarot is the capital of Tichu-Rong, and from the police house comes flat tin music from a small radio with weak batteries, the first sound we have heard since last September.  “A note of the twentieth century in the seventeenth,” GS sighs, as sorry as myself that we have heard it.”

“The moon is up over Tibet, and in the southern mountains, over Jang, the planet Mars is disappearing.  How much dignity the moon has lost, now that man has left his disrespectful litter, his cute golf balls!  But the moon retains a mystery for the dogs of Tichu-Rong, which howl in awe at its first appearance, and set one another off the whole night through; while its fellows rest, the dog next door harangues the cosmos for an hour.  The mastifs sleep much of the day and are let loose at night to deal with wolves and robbers; in the absence of such, they will make due with strangers.  Not caring to venture out into the streets when such brutes are abroad, I follow the custom of the town, standing on the roof edge and urinating into the mud street, in daybreak light.”

“They are big handsome silver-brown creatures, one of the most beautiful of primates, with frosted faces and an expression so entirely detached as to seem disdainful- a very suitable expression…”

“The Nepal government takes yeti seriously, and there is a strict law against killing them.  But one of the Arun Valley scientists has a permit that would allow him to collect one of these creatures, and I asked him what he would do if, one fine morning, a yeti presented itself within fair range; it seemed to me that this decision should not wait for the event.  The biologist was unsettled by the question; he had made this hard decision, or if he had, was not at peace with it.”

“How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?”

“Though these journals remind of the date, I have long since lost track of the day of the week, and the great events that must be taking place in the world we left behind are as illusory as events from the future century.  It is not so much that we are going back in time as that time seems circular, and past and future have lost meaning.  I understand much better now Einstein’s remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space.  In these mountains, we have fallen behind history.”

“However, I am getting hardened: I walk lighter, stumble less, with more spring in leg and lung, keeping my center of gravity deep in the belly, and letting that center “see”.  At these times I am free of vertigo, even in the dangerous places; my feet move naturally to firm footholds, and I flow.  But sometimes for a day or more, I lose this feel of things, my breath is high up in my chest, and then I cling to the cliff edge as to life itself.  And of course it is this clinging, the tightness of panic, that gets people killed: “to clutch,” in ancient Egyptian, “to clutch the mountain,” in Assyrian, were euphemisms that signified “to die.”

“Wonderfully, Jang-bu laughed aloud, as did Dawa and Phu-Tsering although it meant wet clothes and a wet sleeping bag for the head sherpa.  That happy-go-lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.”

“Phu-Tsering’s awestruck face, so like a child’s, reminds me of GS’s story of the time in eastern Nepal when our cook received a letter saying that his wife had left him for another man.  Weeping,  Phu-Tsering had got to his feet and read the letter aloud to all the Sherpa villagers where they were camped, and the people had all stood there and wept with him.  As GS commented: “A Westerner would have slunk off and kicked stones; you have to admire the Sherpas for being so open about everything”- so open, so without defense, therefore so free, true Bodhisattvas, accepting like the variable airs the large and the small events of every day.”

“In the snow mountains- is it altitude?- I feel open, clear, and child-like once again.  I am bathed by feelings, and unexpectedly I find myself near tears, . . .”

“My anger is wasting energy I badly need, and realizing this, it is easy to put it aside.”

“The stones vary in weight from ten pounds to several hundred; some are recent, while on others, the inscriptions are worn to shadow by the elements, all of these conceal the masses more that lie beneath.”

“Although the male herds are still intact- this sociability of rams is a trait of Caprini- the males are mounting one another, as much to establish dominance as in sexuality; among many sheep and goats, the juvenile males and females are quite similar in appearance, and tend to imitate the behavior (heretofore unreported) that GS calls “rump-rubbing,” in which one male may rub his face against the hind end of another.  In the vicinity of females, the male “kicks”- a loose twitch of the leg in her direction that appears to be amounting preliminary and may also serve to display his handsome markings.  Also, he thrusts his muzzle into her urine stream, as if to learn whether or not she is in estrus, and licks in agitation his penis.  But the blue sheep stops short of certain practices developed by the markhor of Pakistan and the wild goat (the ancestor of the domestic goat, ranging from Pakistan to Greece), both of which take their penises into their mouths, urinate copiously, then spit on their own coats; the beard of the male goat is an adaptive character, a sort of urine sponge that perpetuates the fine funky smell for which the goats are known.”

“We have had no news of modern times since late September, and will have none until December, and gradually my mind has cleared itself, and wind and sun pour through my head, as through a bell.  Though we talk little here; I am never lonely; I am returned into myself.”

“My letters I put away unopened, in my pack; they will not be read until I get to Jumla or Kathmandu.  Today is the twelfth, and I leave on the eighteenth; even if the letters bring bad news, I could leave no earlier than the fifteenth, since Tukten and Gyaltsen have traveled hard, and must have rest.  And good news, too, would, be intrusive, spoiling this chance to live moment by moment in the present by stirring up the past, the future, and encouraging delusions of continuity and permanence just when I am trying to let go, to blow away, like the white down feather on the mountains.”

“On the sunny ledge, under the bright blue window of the gompa, we listen to the murmurs of the Lama and contemplate the prospect of the snows.  Soon the mountains stir, the shift and vibrate- how vital these rocks seem, against blue sky!  If only they would fly apart, consume us in a fire of white light.  But I am not ready, and resist, in fear of losing my death grip on the world, on all that provides the illusion of security.  The same fear- of loss of control- of “insanity,” far worse than the fear of death- can occur with the hallucinogenic drugs: familiar things, losing the form assigned to them, begin to spin, and the center does not hold, because we search for it outside instead of in.”

“Like Milapera and many other Kagyu-Karma-pas, he has chosen a hermit’s life of solitary meditation, which being the “Short Path” to true knowledge is therefore the supreme form of existence.  But to renounce the world in this way requires the ultimate discipline, as well as exceptional power and inner resources, and my admiration is mingled with regret that, by comparison, my own dedication is halfhearted and too late.”

“Rising painfully, the Lama hobbles out upon a stone platform that overhangs the cliff and squats to urinate through a neat triangular hole, into the ravine; as if to enjoy this small shift in his view, he gazes cheerfully about him, his tulku pee drop sparkling in the sun upon the stone.”

‘If all else fails, GS will send Jang-bu to Saldang to buy an old goat as leopard bait.  I long to see the snow leopard, yet to glimpse it by camera flash, at night, crouched on a bait, is not to see it.  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 perceive it, in the same way that I am not ready to resolve my koan; and in the not-seeing, I am content.  I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way.  I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed.  That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain- that is enough.”

“The snow leopard is a strong presence; its vertical pupils and small stilled breaths are no more than a snow cock’s glide away.  GS murmurs, “Unless it moves, we are not going to see it, not even on the snow- these creatures are really something”  With our binoculars, we study the barren ridge face, foot by foot.  Then he says, “You know something?  We’ve seen so much, maybe it’s better if there are some things that we don’t see.”  He seems startled by his own remark, and I wonder if he means this as I take it- that we have been spared the desolation of success, the doubt: is this really what we came so far to see?”

“Even that “gay and loveable fellow,” as GS once said of Phu-Tsering, “hasn’t the slightest curiosity about what I am doing; he’ll stand behind me for hours while I’m looking and taking notes and not ask a single question.””

“And as the wary dogs skirt past, we nod, grimace, and resume our paths to separate destinies and graves.”

“”No snowflake ever falls in the wrong place.””

“The flower fulfills its immanence, intelligence implicit in its unfolding.

There is discipline.

The flower grows without mistakes.

A man must grow himself, until he understands the intelligence of the flower.

To proceed as though you know nothing, not even your age, nor sex, nor how you look.  To proceed as though you were made of gossamer. . . a mist that passes through and is passed through and retains its form.  A mist that loses its form and still is.  A mist that finally dissolves, particles scattered in the sun.”

“”Of course I enjoy this life!  It’s wonderful!  Especially when I have no choice!””

“Presented with a receipt, Dawa takes special pleasure in drawing his own name for the fist time in his life; the whole idea convulses him with laughter.”

“And Tukten has known the answer all along, having only assented to my great plans to be polite, for he smiles as I come out- not to make light of things, far less to save face, but to console me.  “Plenty job, say,” Tukten says; he accepts his life, and will go on wandering until it ends.”

“Feeling silly and quite suddenly exhausted, I sit down on the bed and begin to laugh, but I might just as easily weep.  In the gaunt, brown face in the mirror- unseen since late September- the blue eyes in a monkish skull seem eerily clear, but this is the face of a man I do not know.”

“The Snow Leopard”- Peter Matthiessen