on December 27, 2004
I read this book the first time back in the 70s, shortly after it was published. I've re-read it every two years or so since then. As in reading any number of times lines from Shakespeare, I never tire of their inherent beauty; my heart soars again and again re-reading Mattheissen's lines of ice-like clarity.
The book on one level is a extraordinary travel documentary, describing brilliantly one man's experiences during a trip into a recently opened area in Himilayan Nepal. On a profoundly different level, the book also is a diary of his journey into his own heart and soul, one, perhaps, calling for more true bravery than any mere physical experience.
There are many moments of exquisite beauty and intimacy that have left me sobbing, longing to be on the journey with Matthiessen and his travel companions.
Matthiessen is an Everyman, seeking he really knows not what, searching for what may only be the quest itself. Perhaps he and his fellow Buddhists have the answer: their goal is ultimate acceptance of what each moment brings us, not wanting or desiring anything but what is now.
In closing, if one is looking for some answers to how to live a good life, without being told what to do and not to do, I find that this book is a far more useful guide to being a human being than any religious text that I know.
By all means, even if you think you have all the answers, buy this book.
on February 7, 2007
The Snow Leopard is not just a book, rather a marvelous mental holiday one can return to as often as one needs, like a literary hitchhiker, to get away from the modernity and electronic technology that swamps us. Matthiessen illuminates the mystery and silence of the Himalayas, and the human need for nature and it's transformational powers.
I read this book every year, and for two years taught it on a college level to over 500 freshman. Yes, freshmen, at 7:00 a.m., who have never even seen snow.
Being a public college and teaching a book with overtly religious themes, I suggested they skip over the "Buddhist bits" if it did not interest them, and stick to the journey, paying attention to PM, George Schaller and the mixed bag of porters and Sherpas who guided them. Funny thing when you tell students not to read something, they go right for it.
To my amazement, they got it. They understood Matthiessen's flaws: the drug use, failed marriages, parental doubts about leaving family once again to pursue "nothing" in one of the remotest places on earth--the Land of Dolpo, where lamas rule and people obey. Students are intimate with the concept of to work for the sake of work; be it one foot in front of the other on a trail in Nepal, or their own path of study; these young people easily saw how humans transforms themselves through their work and passions. They were also quite politically savy, impressed by the results of this remarkable and timeless journey into the heart of the wilderness where it's okay to get lost, make mistakes and fail.
Readers should not ignore the after affects, literal shock waves, both literary and political which came out of this simple journey between a writer and field biologist, who submitted his report on the wildlife numbers to Kathmandu who ten years later created the Shey-Phoksumdo National Park, the largest preserve in Nepal. The snow leopard still lives and is protected because PM and GS walked that path, and more importantly freely shared their observations, not just writing within their fields, but about themselves as human beings and the role human beings play in protecting or destroying what's left of our environment.
Matthiessen much deserved the National Book Award for Contemporary Thought in 1980, and many people do not know The Snow Leopard was to be the cover story for the New York Times Book Review the Sunday the pressmen went on strike for the first and only time in it's history. The review was never run. It did not become the best seller it seemed destined to be, given the glowing reviews of the time.
It has become a cult classic instead, with a karma all its own. It's okay not to "get it" all the first time you read it. It unfolds, like a lotus blossom.
on September 10, 1999
Spare, lyrical and honest, the Snow Leopard lifts the reader's mind to the high deserts of Nepal. Reading it is almost like spending an afternoon in quiet contemplation. I've read several books that deal with Zen and what makes this book work is that the author is unflinchingly honest about the internal journey that is at the heart of the book. He shares with the reader the mental baggage he brings with him, and that makes the external journey -- described in vivid detail -- seem all the more real. I can understand why other reviewers say they went to Nepal after reading it.
on May 13, 2002
At first glance, the novel appears to be a travel diary, or an exotic safari journal. Perhaps Matthiessen thought the same when he began the journey. But this is a novel that is penned from the heart and not by any distance travelled. The journey that the author relates is as intangible as the snow leopard itself.
As you can see above, the editors of Amazon deftly describe the beauty and storyline of "The Snow Leopard". But no amount of praise can empart to the reader what truly lays waiting inside the pages of this novel.
Matthiessen expertly transports the reader into his shoes. The author ceases to exist less and less with each chapter. The reader becomes the first person. Halfway through the story, it is ~we~ who are the ones making this journey deep into the wilds of the Himilayas. And by the end of the book, it is ~you~ who just may have found something you did not know you were searching for. Enlightenment.
The snow leopard Matthiessen speaks can be found by the reader, if you let it find you. Read this book with an open heart and open mind, and it just may change your life forever.
One reviewer bluntly summarised his opinion of this novel as "THE SNOW LEOPARD is the best book I've ever read. Period." I agree.
on February 25, 2002
THE SNOW LEOPARD is the best book I've ever read. Period. Read this book.
In sum, it is Peter Matthiessen's recounting of his trek in the Himalayas with the naturalist George Schaller to establish a new national park on behalf of the Nepali government.In substance, it is a luminescent prose poem of a spiritual journey through a universe in which the mundane is holy, the sacred is the commonplace and the profane is touched with glory.
My copy has traveled throughout the world with me, the one indispensable item I take with me when leaving home. No review can do such a magnificent book justice. Read this book.
A naturalist & Buddhist and adventurer extraordinaire Matthiessen met his traveling companion in 1969 on the Serengeti plain in East Africa. This newfound friend, George Schaller, later asks him if he wants to join him on his next trip to Nepal to study the bharal or Himalayan blue sheep. So late in 1973 the two set out on a journey to the Crystal Mountain that takes them west under Annapurna and north around the Dhaulagiri peaks and across the Kanjiroba to the land of Dolpo, on the Tibetan Plateau.
This is a very literate and philosophic quest ripe with quotes from Lamas and Rilke and Ovid:
Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere-in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that...leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present within him, though yet hidden from his sight.-Lama Govinda
Spiritual but in an earthy way, an approprate response to Nepal. The Tibetan culture is fascinating to seeker and secular journeyman alike. The country itself comes to life in this book and that is to be expected from Matthiessen who is a world renowned naturalist. What makes the book stand apart form all others like it is Matthiessen who is a much more nuanced character than your average adventurer and the resulting narrative is a many layered and often exalted one. I suppose as a writer he reminds me of that other great American naturalist Henry David Thoreau whose work also operates on many planes at once not the least of which is the earthen one. Matthiessen comes alive once he is beyond the reach of his own temporal civilization and among the timeless elements of the earth under skies where no planes ever appear and no rescue is forthcoming should anything go wrong. A book that continues to enthrall with its stunning imagery and insight and it shines even more on repeat readings, a shrine to the mountainous east.
on December 8, 1999
Simply one of the best books I've ever read. Matthiessen manages to capture the length and breadth of his journey in every sense of those words. A book this helpful on the spiritual aspects of the journey would be excellent; a book this fascinating about a trek like his would be great; put 'em together and you win a national book award. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to think, learn, and grow. If you want simple entertainment enter John Grisham in the search box.
on November 28, 1999
I have lost count of the number of times I have re-read parts of this book. I have read it from cover to cover at least 4 times over ten years and it speaks new words each time. It is a spiritual journey just reading it; to say nothing of the description of Peter's own inner odyssey. Please read this book.
on November 1, 2005
Readers beware. For those looking for an adrenaline-pumping adventure story, read "Into Thin Air" or "Touching the Void" instead. This is NOT an adventure story, but an advanced literary form of a sutra for serious students of Zen Buddhism. The Zen Master Yasutani Roshi described Shikan-taza (state of Zen meditation) as "a heightened sense of concentrated awareness wherein one is neither tense nor hurried, and certainly never slack. It is the mind of somebody facing death..." ("Tao of Physics" by Capra) Matthiessen was warned in advance by his Zen teachers not to expect much from his journey to the Himalayas. But by focusing his mind on finding Snow Leopard (which is a symbol of the elusive Enlightenment), his journey was one of a long extended meditation.
Matthiessen applies his extraordinary literary gift to describe Zen Buddhism, which of course doesn't render itself well (if at all) to verbal description. He achieves this by not preaching or romanticizing his journey, but remaining mercilessly clear and objective about himself and his observations. A remarkable haunting achievement that will nourish you for a long time to come.
A true MUST READ for anyone who's more than idly interested in Zen Buddhism, along with Matthiessen's earlier "Nine-Headed Dragon River" and Hesse's "Siddhartha". I also recommend Capra's "Tao of Physics" as a great comparative study of Western and Eastern philosophies.
After the death of his wife, Matthiesen joins a friend (George Schaller) on a fall expedition to Nepal to study the rut of a rare sheep/goat (the classification of the species is one of the subjects of the research). Matthiesen has been studying Zen Buddhism for several years, and is interested in the area both for its wildlife and for its Buddhism. This book consists of (heavily edited and revised) journal entries that tell the story of his journey. He gives us both a travel story and meditations on Buddhism. The interplay between the two work very well.
Several of Matthiesen's own Quests are revealed as the book goes on, and many end up having Zen lessons. Many of these have the kind of resolution that you might expect if the book were fictional, in that some are Too Perfect for a Zen novice. Yet they are entirely believable, and I suspect that the degree of poetic license here is not too great.
If those two paragraphs have convinced you to read the book, stop right here. If not, I'll summarize some of the Zen lessons - - but be advised that several spoilers follow.
Matthiesen wants to see a snow leopard but never does. However, when he splits up from his partner, his partner sees the leopard.
Matthiesen wants to visit a particular "monastery" to visit a particular lama. He ultimately visits the monastery and later learns than he has already met the lama.
He wants to learn Buddhism from the Buddhists who serve as the expedition porters, but not too surprisingly they aren't very Buddhist at all. Also not too surprisingly, he learns the most from the least likely candidate, who is not trying to teach him anything at all. (I actually think that Matthiessen is wrong about this porter, but the literary point is what Matthiesen thinks he learned from him.)
And again, not surprisingly, in the end Matthiesen does find what he is not looking for.
If you're part of a reading group, you might try this one alongside Catherine Reid's "Coyote: Seeking the Hunter in Our Midst." Both books interweave a story about the natural world with an intensely personal journey. As I discussed in my review of "Coyote," I think Reid fails, while Matthiesen succeeds. In part, this reflects the fact that Matthiesen has a strong spiritual core, though a seemingly weak, Zen core. He has no chip on his shoulder. Matthiesen is also traveling more interesting terrain than Reid (Nepal versus western Massachusetts). His recurring stories of goals not reached are also more interesting than Reid's more linear narrative.
Despite its strengths, Matthiessen can be an exasperating companion at time. He has Great White Hunter attitudes toward the porters. He has abandoned his son shortly after his wife's death, and does not keep promises to his son about his return. He can be self-indulgent, as is true of many people on a spiritual quest. He's not as self-critical as he might be, but honest enough to give us the rope with which to hang him if we want to do so.
Finally, if you're interested in the Himalayan region, this is one of the best travel narratives that I've read. It has richer characterization and a stronger sense of setting than the more spartan account in, say, "Seven Years in Tibet." It's a page turner and worth reading more than once.