Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Peter Matthiessen's "The Snow Leopard" & "Nine-Headed Dragon River": Book Review

These overlapping works blend memoir with history, travel with insight. They present Zen Buddhism filtered through a keen eye and a sympathetic voice. While Matthiessen's familiar to many readers, these are his only works I've read, and as for "Snow" re-read, if after twenty years.

I remembered "Snow" as sharing with another narrative back enjoyed back then which I've returned to, Andrew Harvey's "A Journey in Ladakh" [reviewed here in the previous entry] a "drop-off" scene where all the noise vanished, as if a silent passage in a film, and a mystical experience unfolded on the page, floating into my mind. But, in "Snow," this time I failed to find it. It may be that my intervening reading, especially the past few years, in Buddhist studies has eased me into other accounts, so "Snow"'s impact was muffled, but in following Matthiessen through the Himalayas again, I enjoyed his trek, forty-five days at the end of 1973. He and a naturalist companion with their porters and guides trudged over the Nepal plain, up the river trails over into Inner Dolpo's enclave of a widely demolished (by the Chinese) or eroding (as Colin Thubron's companionable "To a Mountain in Tibet" documents recently; see my review) native culture where it perches on the edge of the Land of B'od, that land's vast plateau.

The spiritual side contends with the physical rigor. Matthiessen deftly balances his personal story with his wife's recent death from cancer serving as a poignant counterweight to his own adventure. The title seems to imply an adventure into the animal world, but as you will find, this symbolizes more than represents an actual encounter, which makes the quest to see the leopard even more engaging. Meanwhile, the mountains abide, as his Zen koan "why do the mountains have snow, but this peak is bare" appropriately accompanies his journey into his soul as he wrestles with the needs of the body and of the spirit equally.

He struggles to an understanding of the unity of all existence, he faces despair and disgust at his impatience and irritability, and he seeks hope. In a way, a very simple story, imaginatively told and magnificently rendered. While I wish photographs were included (all I had with the hardcover was one image I imagine of Shey Gompa, the monastery at the foot of the Crystal Mountain, their long-sought destination where the blue sheep gather near the snow leopard's haunts), their lack may push the reader into an inner imagining of the scenes captured so well in Matthiessen's sinewy, self-aware, disciplined prose. Like his mystical musings, the mountains and ravines, the terrible cold and isolating snow, the intense sun and the eerie atmosphere all combine into a memorable presentation of a man's search in the most remote and severe of habitations, where people live three miles high.

For "Nine," this title refers to the river where Eihei-ji, the sprawling monastery founded by Dogon, the iconoclastic, brilliant monk who started the Soto school of Zen, climbs up its Japanese slopes. This book places the core of the journals from his Himalayan trek in 1973 that also appeared in "The Snow Leopard." These are prefaced by his account of how Zen came to America, and how he helped build the upstate New York community he served at, becoming there a lay-monk. Interspersed nimbly are excellent summaries of Zen teaching. After the "Snow" passages, Matthiessen includes a travelogue-journal during his 1970s travels to Buddhist sites.

I felt this book provided some of the best insights into Zen I've ever found. Matthiessen's American commonsense fits well with Zen's practical, clear-eyed, boldly existentialist attitudes, and it's easy to see why Dogen becomes the most cited personage, with dazzling reflections prefacing each chapter. (See also my review of Brad Warner's "hardcore Zen" commentary on Dogen's "Treasure of the Great Dharma Eye" rendered as "Sit Down and Shut Up"!) Dogen's role as reconciling practice and everyday realities with ultimate truths and enlightenment, simply summed up but elusive and difficult to grasp in words, emerges through Matthiessen's interpretations vividly.

But often his chapters skip about, the "Snow" ones being drawn from his journals kept with frozen hands.  He never shies away from his own delusions and his passions, as the intellectual heft and idealistic mission within Matthiessen's countercultural ambitions contend. He blends autobiography and anthropology, if from a post- Carlos Casteneda tone at times, given this work's shamanistic genesis and hallucinogenic sympathies.

While the "Snow" material (I read this right after re-reading all of the original "The Snow Leopard") skillfully excises the best of that book's contemplative moments, I wondered why it had to be repeated, as it tends to throw off the Japanese sections before and after these two chapters. The latter portion, as Matthiessen goes from site to site, piling up names and dates, loses the power of the introductory sections, where the pain of his wife's death (she brought him to practice Buddhism, overcoming his reluctance) from cancer overwhelms you alongside him. Pain also tends to madden the author, as he pushes himself in the strident Japanese manner to fight his own physical limitations and sit in "zazen" at punishing length at marathon "sesshins." He never shies away from his own delusions and his passions, as the intellectual heft and idealistic mission within Matthiessen's countercultural ambitions contend.

Both books sum up famously challenging Zen Buddhist philosophies and regimens. They combine a love for the natural world with a respect for the lonely path of those who share his need for beauty and clarity within some of the most rugged landscapes, as well as the most tamed, that Asia offers. Matthiessen's discipline nourishes his writing, which keeps sinewy and supple, while it also helps readers come closer to his own rather formidable commitment to master mountaineering and Zen, both short paths up steep slopes to vistas of wonder.  (Posted and edited as separate reviews to Amazon 3-27-11 & 4-21. See "Snow" here; compare his companion George Schaller's search at Shey for the snow leopard in "Stones of Silence" 3-2012.)

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