Pico Iyer Journeys

The Snow Leopard

Matthiessen, by contrast–and this is part of the honesty and unflinchingness that I take the book and the climb to be about–tells us whom he’s letting down. He notes, unsentimentally, that he and his late wife had come close to divorce only five months before her death. And as the climb goes on, he thinks back to Alex and Deborah more and more, sees his boy dressing up (as a skeleton) for Halloween, is suddenly taken back to him even when he hears a woodpecker. Part of the tension of the book, at least for me, comes not in wondering if the team’s provisions will run out, if the passes will be shut off by snow, if the porters will return–though all are real and vivid dangers–but in seeing what it is Matthiessen will find to bring back to compensate for his desertion. The sweet letter, included where a less forthright author would omit it, ensures that this will not be a tale of ordinary heroism.

The Snow Leopard is a liberating book, I am tempted to say, in part because it is not about conventional goodness. It features some of the most transcendent, crystalline moments in modern prose, and yet it is, in the same breath, and at every turn, about anger and pain and fear, and its protagonist is as impatient and far from Buddhist tolerance on his way down from his transcendent moments as on his way up. In that sense, it’s a journey into humanity, which Matthiessen is wise enough to see as lying on the other side of the mountains from sainthood (courage, as they say, refers not to the man who’s never scared, but to the one who’s scared and yet braves the challenge nevertheless). In all these regards, and as part of the doctrine of hard realism, it is only right that the door to the Crystal Monastery is locked, that the lama that Matthiessen has been longing to meet for so long turns out to be “the crippled monk who was curing the goat skin in yak butter and brains” that he walked past, and that it is after the mists clear and his soul is cleansed by the Crystal Mountain that he writes, “I feel mutilated, murderous; I am in a fury of dark energies, with no control at all on my short temper.”

It is in that context that the most powerful character in the book is the stealthy, unassimilable presence among the party known as Tukten. A Sherpa among the porters, a spirit that no one is entirely comfortable with, a man who has the feel of a sorcerer and is accused of being a thief, Tukten is the most slippery and unsettling presence in the mountains, whose air of threat sometimes seems more charged and intense than that of the elements themselves. And yet, for all of that, he is the author’s shadow, and, you could say, familiar. He is “somehow known to me, like a dim figure from another life,” and the two of them seem linked, always aware of where the other is. Milarepa, the great poet-saint of Tibet, was said once to have converted himself into a snow leopard to confound his enemies; reading Peter Matthiessen, we begin to suspect that a snow leopard has chosen to turn himself into Tukten, who always remains solitary and unknowable, “the most mysterious of the great cats.” What moves me on rereading the book is that Matthiessen calls Tukten–twice–“our evil monk,” the “our” perhaps the most unnerving word of all (“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” as Prospero says of Caliban).

Tukten appeals to Matthiessen, even perhaps teaches him (more than does the obviously wise but matter-of-fact lama of Shey) by taking everything in his stride, as the way things are; he will look unmoved, Matthiessen says, on “rape or resurrection.” Not the least of the charms of the book is how the author, who never gives himself the last word and who shows himself in all his foolishness and unfairness, is constantly learning from the people around him–noting how GS happily devours his last ration of chocolate, even as the author is protectively holding on to his, registering how a Sherpa, when his pack falls into a river, greets the catastrophe by laughing aloud. The lessons of the journey into the Himalaya, again, come not just from the famously uplifting mountains, but from the fallen but steadfast, practical, down-to-earth people who walk among them.

The central feature of the practice of meditation and hard work known as Zen is that, as Matthiessen says, it “has no patience with `mysticism,’ far less the occult.” Nor does it have any time for moralism, the prescriptions or distortions we would impose upon the world, obscuring it from our view. It asks, it insists rather that we take this moment for what it is, undistracted, and not cloud it with needless worries of what might have been, or fantasies of what might come to be. It is, essentially, a training in the real, what lies beyond our ideas (and they are only ideas) of good and bad. “The Universe itself is the scripture of Zen,” as Matthiessen puts it, and the discipline initiates its practitioners in the clear, unambiguous realization that what is, is; the world (enlightenment, happiness) is just that lammergeier in the sky, this piece of dung, that churning river, all of which have life and blood as our perceptions or ideas of them do not.

In that regard, The Snow Leopard records the story of a journey into precision, and all that lies on the far side of our thoughts, our ceaseless chatter. Up near the Crystal Mountain, creating a home-made meditation shelter for himself and (as he has said earlier, sometimes pushed to do Zen practice just because it is so cold), Matthiessen enters at last a moment that seems to open up unendingly. “The hard rocks instruct my bones in what my brain could never grasp.” This involves, as he writes of the Buddha, a deeply unsentimental embrace of all existence: prayer flags are “worn to wisps by wind,” the lama is dressed in “ancient laceless shoes” and a jacket “patched with burlap,” feasts in this barrenness consist of “sun-dried green yak cheese.” And yet, one feels, for those few days, in a “world above the clouds”–not having seen a mirror for weeks–the author enters a world that can’t be argued away.

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