The Snow Leopard

By: Peter Matthiessen

The true account of a biological excursion into the Himalayas, outwardly searching for the illusive snow leopard, which becomes an overarching metaphor for the author's inward search for enlightenment. It's an adventure in the high mountains of philosophy—the outer and inner journey of a curious spirit interspersed with explanations of the most profound perceptions of the eastern religions.

The Snow Leopard deepened my awe for life, stoked my love of wandering through wilderness for both the external and internal experience, and reinforced my understanding of how little we need to be perfectly content.

My 10 Favorite Index Cards:

Compare the wild, free paintings of the child with the stiff, pinched “pictures” these become as the painter notices the painting and tries to portray “reality” as others see it; self-conscious now, he steps out of his own painting and, finding himself apart from things, notices the silence all around and becomes alarmed by the vast significations of Creation. The armor of the “I” begins to form, the construction and desperate assertion of separate identity, the loneliness: “Man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.”
— Peter Matthiessen
The fact that many a man who goes his own way ends in ruin means nothing… He must obey his own law, as if it were a daemon whispering to him of new wonderful paths… There are not a few who are called awake by the summons of the voice, whereupon they are at once set apart from the others, feeling themselves confronted with a problem about which the others know nothing. In most cases it is impossible to explain to the others what has happened, for any understanding is walled off by impenetrable prejudices. “You are no different from anybody else,” they will chorus, or “there’s no such thing,” and even if there is such a thing, it is immediately branded as “morbid.” … He is at once set apart and isolated, as he has resolved to obey the law that commands him from within. “His own law!” everybody will cry. But he knows better: it is the law… The only meaningful life is a life that strives for the individual realization—absolute and unconditional—of its own particular law… To the extent that a man is untrue to the law of his being… he has failed to realize his life’s meaning.
The undiscovered vein within us is a living part of the psyche; classical Chinese philosophy names this interior way “Tao,” and likens it to the flow of water that moves irresistibly to one’s goal. To rest in Tao means fulfillment, wholeness, one’s destination reached, one’s mission done; the beginning, end, and perfect realization of the meaning of existence innate in all things.
— Carl Jung
Do note imagine that the journey is short; and one must have the heart of a lion to follow this unusual road, for it is very long… One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.
— Sufi Fable
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.
— Peter Matthiessen
And it is true that everywhere dangers and difficulties are exaggerated by the local people, if only as a good excuse for extortion or malingering: one must go oneself to know the truth.
— Peter Matthiessen
Amazingly, we take for granted that instinct for survival, fear of death, must separate us from the happiness of pure interpreted experience, in which body, mind, and nature are the same. And this debasement of our vision, the retreat from wonder, the backing away like lobsters from free swimming life into safe crannies, the desperate instinct that our life passes unlived, is reflected in proliferation without joy, corrosive money rot, the gross befouling of the earth and air and water from which we come.
— Peter Matthiessen
But the courage-to-be, right here and now and nowhere else, is precisely what Zen, at least, demands: eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep! Zen has no patience with “mysticism,” far less the occult although its emphasis on the enlightenment experience (called kensho or satori) is what sets it apart from other regions and philosophies.
— Peter Matthiessen
You never enjoy the world alright, till the Sea itself flows in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.
— Thomas Traherne
The secret of the mountains is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.
— Peter Mathiessen
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 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? When I say, “That was the haiku—writer speaking,” he knows just what I mean, and we both laugh. GS strikes me as much less dogmatic, more open to the unexplained then he was two months ago. In Kathmandu, he might have been suspicious of this haiku, written on our journey by himself:

Cloud-men beneath loads.
A dark line of tracks in the snow.
Suddenly nothing.
— Peter Matthiessen

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