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The Snow Leopard (An Excerpt)

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The Snow Leopard

An excerpt from Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, A National Book Award winner. In this excerpt, Peter Matthiessen writes about his Zen enlightenment experience and the death of his wife, Deborah Love, whom he affectionately calls D in the book. A year after her death, upon the invitation of the famous naturalist George Schaller, he travels to the Himalayas to  seek for the snow leopard, which also becomes a metaphor for his spiritual journey as he searches for his True Self. The book, The Snow Leopard, is based on his five-week journey to the Himalayas.

In November 1971, I attended a weekend retreat at the New York Zendo. All-day meditation in the lotus postures can be arduous, and D, who had been suffering for two months with mysterious pains, decided to limit herself to the Sunday sittings. On Saturday evening, when I returned to where we were staying, she opened the door for me; she was smiling, and looked extremely pretty in a new brown dress. But perhaps because I had been in meditation since before daybreak and my mind was clear, I saw at once that she was dying, and the certainty of this clairvoyance was so shocking that I had to feign emergency and push rudely into the bathroom, to get hold of myself so that I could speak.

Before dawn on Sunday, during morning service, D chanced to sit directly opposite my own place in the two long facing lines of Buddha figures — an unlikely event that I now see as no coincidence. Upset by what I had perceived the night before, by pity and concern that this day might be too much for her, I chanted the Kannon Sutra with such fury that I “lost” myself, forgot the self — a purpose of the sutra, which is chanted in Japanese, over and over, with mounting intensity. At the end, the Sangha gives a mighty shout that corresponds to OM! — this followed instantly by sudden silence, as if the universe had stopped to listen. And on that morning, in the near darkness — the altar candle was the only light in the long room — in the dead hush, like the hush in these snow mountains, the silence swelled with the intake of my breath into a Presence of vast benevolence of which I was a part: in my journal for that day, seeking in vain to find words for what had happened, I called it the “Smile.” The Smile seemed to grow out of me, filling all space above and behind like a huge shadow of my own Buddha form, which was minuscule now and without weight, borne up on the upraised palm of this Buddha-Being, this eternal amplification of myself. For it was I who smiled; the Smile was Me. I did not breathe, I did not need to look; for It was Everywhere. Nor was there terror in my awe: I felt “good,” like a “good child,” entirely safe. Wounds, ragged edges, hollow places were all gone, all had been healed; my heart lay at the heart of all Creation. Then I let my breath go, and gave myself up to delighted immersion in this Presence, to a peaceful belonging so overwhelming that tears of relief poured from my eyes so overwhelming that even now, struggling to find a better term than “Smile” or “Presence,” the memory affects me as I write. For the first time since unremembered childhood, I was not alone; there was no separate “I.”

Already the Buddha-Being was dissolving, and I tried to convey gratitude, to inform It about D, but gave this up after a moment in the happy realization that nothing was needed, nothing missing, all was already, always, and forever known, that D’s dying, even that, was as it should be. Two weeks later, describing to Eido Roshi what had happened, I astonished myself (though not the Roshi, who merely nodded, making a small bow) by a spontaneous burst of tears and laughter, the tears falling light and free as rain in sunlight.

One intuits truth in the Zen teachings, even those that are scarcely understood; and now intuition had become knowing, not through merit but — it seemed — through grace. The state of grace that began that early morning in the Zendo prevailed throughout the winter of D’s dying, an inner calm in which I knew just how and where to act, wasting no energy in indecision or regrets: and seemingly, this certainty gave no offense, perhaps because no ego was involved, the one who acted in this manner was not “I.” When I told the Roshi that I felt this readiness and strength, even a kind of crazy exaltation, he said quietly, “You have transcended.” I think he meant “transcended your ego,” and with it grief, horror, and remorse. As if awakened from a bad dream of the past, I found myself forgiven, not just by D but by myself, and this forgiveness strikes me still as the greatest blessing of my life.

In those last months, it seemed that love had always been there, shining through the turbulence of waves, like the reflection of the moon in the Zen teachings; and love transformed the cruel and horrid face that cancer gives to death. One day, knowing she was dying, D remarked, “Isn’t it queer? This is one of the happiest times in all my life.” And another day, she asked me shyly what would happen if she should have a miraculous recovery — would we love each other still, and stay together, or would the old problems rise again to spoil things as before? I didn’t know, and that is what I said. We had tried to be honest, and anyway, D would not have been fooled. I shrugged unhappily, she winced, then we both laughed. In that moment, at least, we really understood that it didn’t matter, not because she was going to die but because all truth that mattered was here now.

After D’s death, I wondered if the specter of remorse might overtake me. It never did. In the grayest part of the empty months that followed, my heart was calm and clear, as if all that bad karma of the past had been dissolved on that early morning of November.

Toward that Presence who prepared me for D’s death I was filled with gratitude, quite different from the thankfulness I felt toward Eido Roshi and toward D, toward kind family and friends and children. It was not that I felt grateful to myself, yet the question seemed inescapable: where could that vast Smile reside if not in my own being? In chanting the Kannon Sutra in such desperation, I had invoked Avalokita, but I had been paying no attention to the words, only to D, who sat in the line of Buddha forms across the way. And so it was hard to identify Avalokita with that Presence unless He was also D, also myself — in short, what Meister Eckhardt meant: “The Eye with which I see God is the Eye with which God sees me.” Or Jesus Christ: “I and my Father are One.” Surely those Christian mystics spoke of the Lord-Who-is-Seen-Within.

That year I was a new student of Zen, expecting nothing, and almost another year had passed before something said by an older student made me realize what had happened. I went to Eido Roshi, who confirmed it. But a kensho, or satori, is no measure of enlightenment, since an insight into “one’s True Nature” may vary widely in its depth and permanence: some may overturn existence, while others are mere tantalizing glimpses that “like a mist will surely disappear.” To poke a finger through the wall is not enough — the whole wall must be brought down with a crash! My own experience had been premature, and a power seeped away, month after month. This saddened me, although I understood that I had scarcely started on the path; that, but for D’s crisis, which had cut through forty years of encrustations, I might never have had such an experience at all; that great enlightenment was only born out of deep samadhi. In this period the invitation came to go on a journey to the Himalaya.

— Peter Matthiessen

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Written by MattAndJojang

April 13, 2014 at 11:17 am

2 Responses

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  1. I really enjoyed this. Powerful. Thanks for sharing it.

    Bill

    April 20, 2014 at 8:42 am

  2. Bill, Peter Matthiessen is one of my favorite contemporary authors. Adventurer, naturalist, author, and Zen Buddhist teacher he lived a colorful life. He wrote 30 books, most of which are based on his outer and inner journeys. The Snow Leopard is a personal account of his search in the early 70’s for the snow leopard, a rare and beautiful animal, whose natural habitat is the Himalayas. To my mind, his trek to the Himalayas was a metaphor for his spiritual search for his True Self. He masterfully weaves his life story and spiritual search in the main narrative of the book.

    The excerpt from the book about his Zen enlightenment experience as it relates to the illness and eventually the death of his wife is indeed moving. A powerful account, indeed.

    His spiritual search started when he had to extend his watch on a navy ship on a stormy night. He writes in the book:

    One night in 1945, on a Navy vessel in Pacific storm, my relief on bow watch, seasick, failed to appear, and I was alone for eight hours in a maelstrom of wind and water, noise and iron; again and again, waves crashed across the deck, until water, air, and iron became one. Overwhelmed, exhausted, all thought and emotion beaten out of me, I lost my sense of self, the heartbeat I heard was the heart of the world, I breathed with the mighty risings and declines of earth, and this evanescence seemed less frightening than exalting.

    Without a spiritual mentor to guide him, he tried to recreate what happened to him on that stormy night by ingesting drugs for many years. He even introduced his second wife, Deborah, to hallucinogens. But Deborah had usually bad experiences (“bad trips” to use the parlance in the drug scene), which eventually led her to give up drugs and turn to Zen. It was Deborah, in turn, who introduced him to Zen.

    Mostly D went on long, gray journeys, plagued by fear of death. I had bad trips, too, but they were rare; most were magic shows, mysterious, enthralling. After each — even the bad ones — I seemed to go more lightly on my way, leaving behind old residues of rage and pain. Whether joyful or dark, the drug vision can be astonishing, but eventually this vision will repeat itself, until even the magic show grows boring; for me, this occurred in the late 1960s, by which time D had already turned toward Zen.

    Now those psychedelic years seem far away; I neither miss them nor regret them. Drugs can clear away the past, enhance the present; toward the inner garden, they can only point the way. Lacking the temper of ascetic discipline, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life. Old mists may be banished, that is true, but the alien chemical agent forms another mist, maintaining the separation of the ‘I’ from true experience of the One.

    Glad you liked it…

    — Matt

    MattAndJojang

    April 20, 2014 at 6:14 pm


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