The Snow Leopard Book Review

When Peter Matthiessen embarks on his journey to Crystal Monestary in The Snow Leopard, he is unsure of his own intentions and expectations for the trip.  In the Prologue of the book, he states, “Where did I imagine I was going, where and why?” (p. 3).  It is assumed that he is traveling in pursuit of the allusive snow leopard, yet with his establishment of death and suffering from the start of his journaling, Matthiessen makes it clear that, in the simplest of terms, the destination of his journey is into the self, into the true nature of suffering.

“We are subdued by this reminder of mortality… I see the ancient dying man outside Pokhara; I hear again my own wife’s final breath.  Such sights caused Sakyamuni to forsake Lumbini and go in the search of the secret of existence that would free men from the pain of this sensory world, known as samsara” (p. 19).  Matthiessen suggests early on in the book that he has a fatalistic approach to life, but underlying his thought tied deeply to pain, death and dying, Matthiessen clearly yearns to break free from his own experience of Samsara.  Although it appears to the reader that he has embarked on a quest to see a snow leopard, he says, “I would like to reach the Crystal Monastery, I would like to see a snow leopard, but if I do not, that is all right, too” (p. 88).  Thus Matthiessen makes it clear that the trip he is making will not rely on achieving its denotative goals to be considered a success.

Yet if he is not in search of a snow leopard sighting, or intent on reaching Crystal Monastery, how can Matthiessen measure the success of his journey?  In light of the fact that he has abandoned a young child grieving over the recent loss of his mother, Matthiessen seems especially ignorant in his aims to justify his journey.  In one conversation with a scientist, Matthiessen is forced to face the purpose of his quest:

After a moment, looking up, he asked me a hard question of his own.  He could understand why GS, as a biologist, would walk hundreds of miles over high mountains to collect wildlife data on the Tibetan Plateau.  By why was I going?  What did I hope to find?  I shrugged, uncomfortable.  To say that I was interested in blue sheep or snow leopards, or even in remote lamaseries, was no answer to his question, though all of that was true, to say I was making a pilgrimage seemed fatuous and vague, though in some sense that was true as well.  And so I admitted that I did not know.  Ho 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? (p. 120-121)

In reflection, Matthiessen recognizes the ironies of his trip; he acknowledges the folly of saying that he is in search of something concrete and qualitative.  He understands that he is searching for something that cannot be named, or perhaps he will only succeed in naming it after it has been found.  Matthiessen admits that the snow leopard doesn’t really figure into his personal journey, but instead acts as a metaphor for his allusive search.  Thus the book has nothing to do with a measurable success or failure, and the snow leopard becomes an arbitrary finding.  Instead of focusing on the snow leopard, Matthiessen turns his attention to achieving moment-to-moment awareness of his own self.  Instead of focusing his efforts on an external goal, he attenuates to his own personal journey and addresses the unknown that is residing, unsettled, within himself.  The purpose of his journey becomes an exploration of the self.

With a shift of focus from the snow leopard to the self comes a shift in Mattheissen’s writing.  In the first part of the book, he focuses on external, material descriptions of the world and people around him.  He talks of nature and his own ambitions, without spending much time on the reflection of his recently deceased wife or children he has left behind.  In the second portion of the book, as he becomes fully immersed in his life at Crystal Mountain, he becomes more aware of himself; his writing focuses on the present emotion, task or thought.  His trip takes on new meaning; he begins question himself, his motives and his expectations.  Through meditation, self-reflection and communion with the natural world, he recognizes what is and finds his true nature.  In the final section of the book, “The Way Home,” Mattheissen reflects on the notion of “homegoing.”  He is able to apply his Buddhist values to himself, and begins to understand is own existence.  He writes:

I grow into these mountains like a moss.  I am bewitched…I am never lonely; I am returned into myself…To glimpse one’s own true nature is a kind of homegoming, to a place East of the Sun, West of the Moon—the homegoing that needs no home, like that waterfall on the upper Suli Gad that turns to mist before touching the earth and rises once again into the sky. (p. 228-229)

This passage reflects the success in his acceptance of self, and demonstrates how he feels he has finally “returned to himself,” which was become the purpose of the quest.  His experiences of “returning home,” “oneness” and “enlightenment,” however fleeting, ultimately have enough of an impact on him that he is able to view his journey as a success.  Even while recognizing the success of his trip, he admits that, like failure, both are impermanent states of life.  He writes, “I know that this transcendence will be fleeting, but while it lasts, I spring along the path as if set free; so light do I feel that I might be back in the celestial snows” (p. 296). By accepting the truth of the moment at hand, Mattheissen is better able to understand himself.

Throughout his journey, Mattheissen comes across many unexpected teachers: Tukten the Sherpa, the Lama of Crystal Monastery, the traveling couple Karma and Tende, the allusive snow leopard, the mysterious Yeti, and the unwavering mountains.  Each entity has something unique to offer to Matthiessen, but ultimately he is his own greatest teacher.  By settling into his own self, he is able to make more sense of the suffering in the world; he becomes aware, at peace.  He has accepted the death of his wife, as well as the constant moment-to-moment death and rebirth of the consciousness within himself.  The success of his journey cannot be measured by linear, Western standards; it cannot be plotted on a story line, nor can it be validated by any quantitative evidence.  His success is something that transcends ordinary ideals, for Mattheissen has found the key to his own inner garden.

“Nor has anything changed; I am still beset by the same old lusts and ego and emotions, and 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.  For all the exhilaration, splendor and “success” of the journey to the Crystal Mountain, a great chance has been missed and I have failed… I look forward to nothing. (p. 293)”

Yet even in his despair, Mattheissen has finally achieved success.  For the first time in the book, he has attained his Roshi’s advice to “expect nothing.”  He finally has reached a state, not of change, success or failure, but of transformation.  It is a fluid state that embraces the fullness of every moment and does not question the suchness of suffering and struggle.  By accepting himself and the world around him, Mattheissen has achieved the ultimate success.  He has succeeded in seeing the snow leopard, if not in its natural environment then at least the one that resides within Mattheissen himself.

One Response to “The Snow Leopard Book Review”
  1. Thomas says:

    okay, okay I’ll go back and finish it, you’ve convinced me with words so eloquent.

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