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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
spring 2006| 84 |buddhadharma In September 1973, the writer Peter Matthiessen, a student of Rinzai Zen, paid a visit to his teacher, Eido Shimano Roshi. A grieving widower and a father of four children, Matthiessen was about to leave on an expedition to northwestern Nepal in the hope of sighting the rare and elusive snow leopard. “Expect nothing,” Eido Roshi advised. And for the next three months, as he ventured into the Land of Dolpo in search of both the snow leopard and his own “true nature,” Matthiessen would bear that advice in mind, stepping lightly on a dangerous path, “with no thought of attainment.” Eido Roshi’s admonition and Matthiessen’s struggle to heed it lie close to the heart of The Snow Leopard, a book I first read some twenty-five years ago. At the time, my personal circumstances were less than stable or propitious. My father had died eight years earlier at the age of sixty-six, one year into a much antici- pated retirement. My mother’s condition, physical and emotional, was rapidly declining, and my first marriage was on the verge of dissolution. My son was four years old. In view of my experiences, Matthiessen’s effort to relinquish his ego and to cultivate a “calm acceptance of everything that comes” struck a deeply resonant chord. And though I did not fully comprehend the notion of expecting nothing, much less its Buddhist context, Matthiessen’s vision of pilgrimage, renun- ciation, and acceptance offered solace as well as encouragement. Beyond its therapeutic value, The Snow Leopard also offered an example of high literary achievement. Like many original works in the late-modernist mode, Matthiessen’s is a synthesis of mul- tiple genres, including the travelogue, the journal, the confession, and the medita- tive essay. A primer of Rinzai Zen, it is also a kind of extended koan. And though its structure is primarily linear, it works by collage and juxtaposition, moving freely from precise notations of flora and fauna to expositions of Buddhist doctrine to memories of the narrator’s crushing losses. Together these strategies create a richly textured, multi-layered narrative, in which an external adventure mirrors a momentous interior journey. At the purely literal level, Matthiessen’s tale makes engrossing reading. In the company of the field biologist George Schaller, who went to Nepal to study the Himalayan blue sheep, Matthiessen trekked from Pokhara to the site of the Shey Monastery on the Tibetan Plateau, keenly observing the plants, creatures, and people he encountered along the way. “When one pays attention to the pres- ent,” the author notes, “there is great pleasure in awareness of small things.” And for the reader of Matthiessen’s meticulous observations, there is a com- parable aesthetic pleasure, enhanced by the author’s lean and vibrant prose: Eventually the track arrives at the snowfields beneath the summit rim; I am exhausted. Across the whiteness sails a lammergeier, trailing its shadow on the snow, and the wing shadow draws me taut and sends me on. For two more hours I trudge and pant and climb and slip and gasp, dull as any brute, while high above, the prayer flags fly on the westering sun, which turns the cold rocks igneous and the hard sky to a white light. Direct, immediate, and exact, such writing seems to me timeless – as compel- ling today as it was two decades ago. Yet if The Snow Leopard had been only an example of modernist complexity and fine prose, it would not have impressed me so profoundly. What moved me then – and has stayed with me to this day – was Matthiessen’s candid depiction of his inner journey, untainted by senti- ment or self-exoneration. In Matthiessen’s colloquy with Eido Roshi, his teacher intuits that his student is on the brink of a “great death,” out of which a realization of his original nature will be born. And midway through the book, it becomes apparent that the narrator’s search for the snow leopard is merely a framework for his search for “ultimate reality” and his desire to experience his “own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that car- ries in itself all life, all sound.” Although Matthiessen’s search falls short of its objective, and its very legitimacy is called into question, he is left with an experience “far more beautiful than anything [he] had hoped for or imagined.” In his partial failure, as in his unanticipated exultation, he has confirmed the wisdom of expecting nothing. When The Snow Leopard first appeared, it won the National Book Award and wide critical acclaim. Naturally, elements of the book now seem dated, among them Mat- thiessen’s summary treatment of Thera- vada Buddhism, his rather facile conflation of Zen and Tibetan practices, and his sometimes romanticized view of Tibetan culture. Yet if my experience of teaching the book to undergraduates is any indica- tion, it has retained its power to stir, aston- ish, and inspire a new generation of readers. And, for this reader, it holds the honor of being the book that first – and irrevocably – introduced me to the dharma. Ben Howard Is a professor of englIsH at alfred UnIversIty In alfred, new york, and Is tHe aUtHor of several Books of poetry. He Is a longtIme stUdent of Zen and vIpassana. dharma classic expect NothiNg the sNow leopard by peter matthiessen the Viking press, 1978 reprinted by penguin books, 1987 reviewed by ben howard