Customer Reviews: Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982 (Shambhala Dragon Editions)
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on August 3, 1998
I read this book four years ago on the path back to zen after 16 years away from serious practice. Three facets of this jewel of a book stand out in memory. Firstly, Matthiesson's story of his wife's illness and death was truly affecting. At the same time, his own openings and softenings in zen practice were a call to me from something very deep. You could call it a three-hanky beginning to the reading of Mathiesson's tale of zen, zen journeys and the world he sees around him. Secondly, the birds are everywhere. PM's observation and description of those creatures which punctuate our lives with their song and flight sharpened my looking and hearing at the time and still do. Thirdly, the journal of the Japanese pilgrimage and stories of his Japanese roshi were full of flavour and feeling. Many thanks to Mr. Mathiesson for this book. Read it if you love zen, birds, Japan, a true true story.
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on August 8, 2001
This is core reading. It may even be the equivalent, for American Zen Buddhism, of Thomas Merton's SEVEN STORY MOUNTAIN - although there are no signs Matthiessen will later distance himself from his autobiography, as Merton did.
As a spiritual autobiography, it is magnificently compelling. It is some of Matthiessen's finest prose, and he writes with complete openness about the cruel death of his wife, Deborah Love (who became a Zen student while he looked on skeptically, only later trying zazen for himself), his own demons, and his practice without imposing on the reader. It is a fine model of autobiographical writing.
It is also a valuable document of the planting of the Zen seed in America. Matthiessen begins as a student of Eido Shimano Roshi in New York, and provides a truthful and valuable portrait of that sangha as they built the Dai Bosatsu monastery and established one of the major places of Zen training in the United States. Later, Matthiessen becomes a student of Bernard Glassman and the portrait of their friendship as well as the beginning of their student/teacher rapport is such a gift.
Finally, this provides maybe the best portrait in print of what it was to sit retreat with Soen Roshi, the Japanese roshi and renowned haiku artist who defies brief descriptions. (Other accounts do exist: to some extent in ENDLESS VOW, a collection of Soen's haiku; and in the New York Zen Studies Society's SOEN ROKU.)
This is highly suited for people already practicing, but Matthiessen provides plenty of background material on Zen Buddhism as well as his own introduction to the practice, such that any general reader can appreciate and enjoy this marvelous work.
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on January 31, 2003
I believe this work by Matthiessen is simply the best written, most accessible and enlightening work on Zen Buddhism out there. For those who disagree, please post your own recommendation. It's a huge challenge (if not a Mission Impossible) to write a powerful, poetic and insightful autobiography on Zen Buddhism. We are very fortunate to have someone of Matthiessen's genius to introduce Zen to the Western world in a such powerful way. I am very grateful to the author for this treasure of a book.
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on September 12, 2006
Peter Muryo Matthiessen is an eclectic man. Best known for his lyrical prose classic THE SNOW LEOPARD (excerpts from which make up the central portion of this book), Matthiessen has founded a well-known magazine ("The Paris Review") written fiction (AT PLAY IN THE FIELDS OF THE LORD, FAR TORTUGA), and on such varied non-fiction subjects as Great White Sharks (BLUE MERIDIAN, the inspiration for JAWS), Native American issues (IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE), East African conservation (THE TREE WHERE MAN WAS BORN), Long Island fishermen (MEN'S LIVES), and on the art of authorship itself in ZEN AND THE WRITING LIFE.

NINE-HEADED DRAGON RIVER (the title comes from the eponymous river in Japan, the site of a major Zen monastery) is the record of Matthiessen's exploration of, and inner journey toward, Zen Buddhism, a journey which began in earnest after the death of his wife Deborah Love, from cancer in the early 1970s.

Divided chronologically into three sections, "Rinzai Journals," "Excerpts from THE SNOW LEOPARD," and "Soto Journals" (Rinzai and Soto being the preeminent sects of Zen), NINE-HEADED DRAGON RIVER is an intensely personal document which also reflects the variegated mind of it's creator.

In "Rinzai Journals," Matthiessen discusses both his emotional travail at the lingering death of his wife and the increasing role that Zen played in his life at this time under the tutelage of Eido-roshi, and other teachers. Although Matthiessen and Eido-roshi eventually parted ways, Matthiessen refuses to indulge the muddy mundane, and intelligently avoids demeaning either his teacher or his spiritual experience by discussing the reasons why. By neither treating anybody like holy men or dismissing them as charlatans, thankfully Matthiessen leaves the reader with an unprejudiced and untainted view of Zen.

Matthiessen spends much time discussing the evolution of American Zen, from its roots in the early twentieth century, through 1950s Beat Zen, and beyond. This reviewer found it interesting that although Matthiessen had direct contact with many of the major figures of American Zen, he never mentions Alan Watts, a major writer on Zen subjects, by name---though he does mildly but pointedly deride self-seeking popularizers, an accusation often flung at Watts in his lifetime.

"Excerpts from THE SNOW LEOPARD" are diary entries from the time of Matthiessen's walking trek to a remote Buddhist lamasery on the far side of the Himalayas. The writing here is simply luminescent. The reader is referred to THE SNOW LEOPARD in its unabridged version for a fuller experience.

"Soto Journals" is ostensibly about Matthiessen's travels to Japan, his energetic pupilage under Taizan Maezumi-roshi (where again, Matthiessen focuses his attention on the positive, eschewing a discussion of the details of Maezumi's sadly untimely death) and Bernard Tetsugen Glassman-roshi, as well as his meetings with various other Zen roshis at numerous monasteries. "Soto Journals" is also a recounting of the history of Zen as a school of thought and a discussion of its exponents, particularly Eihei Dogen (c. 13th century) who developed zazen (sitting meditation) into the art form that is so central to Zen practice.

Both the dedicated practitioner and the Zen-curious need to read NINE-HEADED DRAGON RIVER, which has been called the best book available on American Zen, and comes highly recommended by this reviewer.

Peter Matthiessen is presently roshi at the Ocean Zendo in Sagaponack, New York, and Senior teacher at the Southern Palm Zendo in Boca Raton, Florida, both Zendos of the White Plum Lineage under Maezumi (1931-1995), Matthiessen having become a major exponent of Zen himself.
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on June 4, 2002
Matthiessen's prose is clear and his story compelling. His Zen journals, from 1969 to 1982, tell the story of his Zen journey, without any of what the author might describe as, the breathless prose of the sincere seeker, but with great humility, depth, simplicity and beauty. Whether you like biograpy, travel books, or are interested in Zen or Buddhism, do yourself a favour and buy this book.
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on March 14, 2004
While the book is organized for the most part chronologically, I have enlisted three major themes
-Matthiesen's personal spiritual quest
-Matthiesen's first-hand experience of formal Zen teachings
-A brief historical biography of past Zen masters
Matthiensen's long road to being a Buddhist monk takes him through many trials and tribulations and sometimes mixed with a sense of relief and surprise. In summary, it delves into the greater purpose of spiritualism for humanity: the particularity of the quest, coupled with universality of the discipline, notwithstanding the appreciation of the ordinary.
In the beginning days of his interest in Zen culture, Matthiesen sought to question the western ways of knowing i.e. knowledge as an accumulation of thought and analysis. Instead he was impressed with the Zen way of knowing (or rather `not-knowing'). From these humble beginnings, Matthiesens's immersion into Zen culture did not occur fully until a personal tragedy (the death of his wife) made him see things differently. During these times Zen provided a vehicle for his personal spiritual journey.
At times Matthiesen aligns his personal quest with literal Zen teaching and in some parts of the chapter he alludes to a much broader connotation of spirituality -- that goes beyond personal search to include collective consciousness. During his days at the dragon river, Matthiensen gets to know first-hand experience of Zen studentship. Such experiences are not always pleasant. In the act of attaining concentration and bliss he seems to be constantly battling with selfish thoughts and the prejudices of the ego.
The last two or three chapters provide a brief historical biography of various Zen teachers starting from 12th century. The purpose is perhaps to enlighten the western reader about the roots and depth of Zen culture. Being a Buddhist monk, this could also be seen as a way to trace his own genealogy in the myriads of Buddhist teachers and a way to assure the perpetuality of Zen culture.
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He mixes autobiography with history, travel with insight. He presents Zen Buddhism filtered through a keen eye and a sympathetic voice.

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.

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. 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, not only 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"; this review overlaps with that one) 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.
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on May 21, 2009
I read this book after reading many of Mattheissen's other works. Yet it still spoke to me with deep, original and abiding resonance. It is the account of one man's journey to come to know that, in the end, there is really nothing to know. Fascinating historical account of the history of Zen Buddhism, combined with journal details of his visits to and with Zen masters in Japan and elsewhere, told with quiet and erudite passion.
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on January 10, 2007
I read Nine-Headed Dragon River maybe 17 years ago. At the time I had no Zen experience, in fact I had almost no familiarity with Zen at all. But I'd loved every other Matthiessen book I'd read, and there were at least half a dozen of them. After scanning the reviews here, I'm tempted to return and reread it. In my initial encounter, however, the book seemed incomprehensible and uncontrolled. It felt random, scattered, almost as if pages and paragraphs had been torn at random from notebooks and assembled using some incomprhensible John Cage algorithm. Even today, recalling the unsettling and disturbing feelings it generated, I remember fearing that perhaps PM had lost his grip. Nine-Headed Dragon River is certainly not for everybody.
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on January 10, 2015
This is not as enjoyable a read as Matthiessen's other work, and best suited for those who want a more personal insight into the author. However, I am not a Buddhist; those who are will probably like it more.
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