Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Snow Leopard

In 1973, author Peter Matthiessen and biologist George Schaller set out for Nepal, hiking hundreds of miles through mountain passes with a varying team of Sherpas and porters.

The MacGuffin (as the Hollywood folks like to say) or the thing that sets the story in motion is the pair’s quest to study the rare Himalayan blue sheep found at the upper altitudes of Nepal.

The duo also hopes to see an even rarer creature that inhabits those mountainsides and is often found near the blue sheep – the elusive snow leopard, said to be so stealthy, you could be mere yards from it and not see or hear it.

But the book of the journey, The Snow Leopard, also is something of a spiritual quest for the author. Matthiessen hopes to visit the revered Lama of Shey, who resides at Crystal Mountain.

So, with all these elements, we have our premise and the quest begins. There are all kinds of adventures and hardships along the way. The journey is perilous – Matthiessen, at times, is forced to cross narrow ridges on his hands and knees, facing drop-offs of hundreds of feet down sheer mountain cliffs, should he stumble. The adventurers must tackle with all the elements that have beset travelers in this part of the world since the beginning of time – high altitudes, extreme cold, tricky weather, a hardscrabble landscape and much more. Nepal is one of those places where you can get frostbit and sunburn on the same day.

But the quest really simply gets the story going. The real story is the personal journey of its author. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, is an introspective writer and makes all manner of wise philosophical observations along the way. This is where the absurd comes in. (Zen and the absurd, we’ve noticed, have various things in common, like brothers.)

There is the idea of acceptance, of taking the world as it is. He finds and admires this trait in his Sherpas. “So open, so without defense, therefore so free,” he writes “accepting like the variable airs the large and small events of every day.”

And in other passages, he makes these observations again and again. (“That happy go lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.”)

But he, too, finds acceptance... and in this acceptance, happiness. “I feel calm, and ready to accept whatever comes, and therefore happy.”

The struggles on the mountain slopes are interesting, too… The mountains test him in every way and he struggles with various emotions. On such a perilous trek, the travelers often seem to have death perched on their shoulders.

Faced with certain death if he makes a wrong move on the mountain slopes, Matthiessen finds peace in the absurd, in the idea that what happens doesn’t matter, that it’s not really important. He even quotes Camus at one point, in talking about his own leap into the absurd. This, he writes, “means not recklessness but acceptance, not passivity but nonattachment.”

There is also a focus on the here and now, which goes hand in hand with absurdity…

“Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is. And surely this is the paradise of children, that they are at rest in the present, like frogs or rabbits.”

Focusing on the here and now also opens up new possibilities and pleasures. As Matthiessen writes: “When one pays attention to the present, there is great pleasure in awareness of small things.”

Time also loses meaning on the long trek through the mountains, leading to more absurd conclusions:

“I have long since lost track of the day of the week, and the great events that must be taking place in the world we left behind are as illusory as events from a future century. It is not so much that we are going back in time as that time seems circular, and past and future have lost meaning. I understand much better now Einstein’s remark that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space.”

He is quite alert to the screens we use to hide the absurdity of our existence. And that seeing this means being open to “the experience that individual existence, ego, the ‘reality’ of matter and phenomena are no more than fleeting and illusory arrangements of molecules. The weary self of masks and screens, defenses, preconceptions, and opinions that, propped up by ideas and words, imagines itself to be some sort of entity (in a society of like entities) may suddenly fall away, dissolve into formless flux where concepts such as “death” and “life,” “time” and “space,” “past” and “future” have no meaning.”

It’s a merry, meditative sort of book and a much-loved classic full of worthy wisdom. We thought we’d share these snippets with you, to give you a taste of the book.

And what of the quest? What of the snow leopard? We won’t give it away…


  1. Today I was thinking about which book I should bring to read on my trip to India/Nepal. This looks like a winner. Thanks

  2. Today I was thinking how I would travel to Nepal in my mind, since I'm a working class stiff. It's nice to know that--since it's absurd--my experience traveling in my mind will be as exotic and relevant as the individual who literally travels over there.

  3. Anonymous-

    Well said! We are currently reading a book by Pico Iyer (The Open Road - about his travels with the 14th Dalai Lama) and came across this quote last night:

    "Why run around the world, to Lourdes or Tuscany or Tibet, when in truth the source of all your power, your answers, lies right here, inside yourself? Why give yourself a hard time and proclaim your own worthlessness when in fact the keys for transformation are within? Why despair, indeed, when you can change the world at any moment by choosing to see that the person who gave your last book a bad review is as intrinsic to your well being as your thumb is?"

    Needless to say, we would recommend this book as well...

  4. I agree there is no need to run around the world. There is also no need to make love, listen to music, play with children or to do anything enjoyable. People should do these things if they are able and if they find it enjoyable and not out of some need to find themself or transform themself.

    There is no reason to despair becasue there is no need for some spiritual transformation. All that is needed is to take it easy and to take your self lightly

  5. Thomas, agreed. We were just going back and forth about this.

    Anyway, well said.


  6. I found this quote on the actual freedom website that a commentator linked to on this blog. It's a quote from the person who runs the site named Richard:

    "I do not need the stimulation of frenetic ‘busyness’ to enhance my day with a self-induced sense of importance. I no longer have to justify my existence here on earth by doing and achieving something that is considered ‘worthwhile’ by the denizens of the real world. Being here now – which is being fully alive – is the summation of all existence; nobody is going anywhere, anyway, for one is already always here. This universe is simply being here now in all its splendour and magnificence and I am the universe experiencing itself as a sensate and reflective human being. The perfection endowed by the infinitude of all space and time is such a remarkable occurrence that nothing more needs to be done other than to enjoy it through-and-through each moment again. This experience of being here now is the experiential apperception of the much sought-after ‘Meaning of Life’."

  7. Thomas-

    Great quote - thanks for the link. Enjoy your trip!

  8. Thank you.

    Have you guys seen the movie Fearless starring Jeff Bridges? It's about a guy who loses all his anxiety due to surviving a plane crash

  9. Ah, "Fearless," I haven't thought of that one for awhile. Great movie, and very relevant to the absurd. I really enjoyed the direction it went - what could've easily turned into a schmaltzy Lifetime movie (given the subject matter), it ended up as a powerful, unflinching character study.

  10. I, too, have often thought about the similarities between Zen and the absurd. I've been practicing zazen on a daily basis for some time and even though I never expected to gain anything from it when I began my practice (and I still don't), I must say that it has aided me in accepting the way things are, and thus also in embracing the absurd - for are they not the very same thing?

    Regarding the nonnecessity of travel, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the following of his friend and fellow transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau: "I think [Thoreau's] fancy for referring everything to the meridian of Concord did not grow out of any ignorance or depreciation of other longitudes or latitudes, but was rather a playful expression of his conviction of the indifferency of all places, and that the best place for each is where he stands. He expressed it once in this wise: 'I think nothing is to be hoped from you, if this bit of mould under your feet is not sweeter to you to eat than any other in this world, or in any world.'"

  11. Well... now we have to see "Fearless..."

    Jen, thanks for the Emerson quote. Very absurd. We think there is much that is absurd in Thoreau, a topic we'll tackle at some point.


  12. ALso, check out Xavier de Maistre's "Journeys Around My Room" for a wonderfully delicious absurd commentary on the nonnecessity of travel. The protagonist's ability to create a "world" within his room is appealing.

  13. Rick, Inigo, et. al.--

    Are all of you familiar with Alain de Botton? I've really appreciated his writing over the past decade, and he had a *wonderful* 15-minute talk recently on TED, musing over the absurdity of "success". Here's the URL: