The Snow Leopard

A dreamy, spiritual journey into Nepal’s outer regions near Tibet. Matthiessen searches for enlightenment, release from the pain of losing his wife to cancer that winter. He journeys with George Schaller, a zoologist studying the Himalayan blue sheep, bharal, a combination sheep/goat. Along the way they hope to see a snow leopard, hunting the bharal. It is September 1973, they walk for 250 miles to Shey Gompa near Crystal Mountain, hidden in the land of Dolpo on the Tibetan Plateau.
PM has extensive notes of the wildlife, birds, fauna. Lammergeier are bearded vultures with 9 foot wingspans. They see yak, wolves, dogs, sheep. He walks ahead with a rucksack while Sherpas and porters carry the tents and food. Frequently runs into others on the path and they greet with a simple bow and “Namaste.” He meditates and watches the sheep, reminisces about D (his wife Deborah Love). He gushes forth about Zen Buddhism, trusts Sherpa Tutken when all others mistrust him (Tutken turns into PM’s teacher, vanishes in the back of a taxi and when PM goes to seek him out finds that he never existed). He finds the Lama of Shey holed up in Tsakang, happy and wise.

There is also a custom called “air burial,” in which the body of the deceased is set out on a wild crag… to be rended and devoured by the wild beasts; when only the bones are left, these are broken and ground down to powder, then are mixed into lumps of dough, to be set out again for passing birds. Thus all is returned into the elements, death into life.

I grow into these mountains like a moss. I am bewitched. The blinding snow peaks and the clarion air, the sound of earth and heaven in the silence, the requiem birds, the mythic beasts, the flags, great horns, and old carved stones, the rough-hewn Tartars in their braids and homespun boots, the silver ice in the black river, the Kang, the Crystal Mountain. Also, I love the common miracles – the murmur of my friends at evening, the clay fires of smudgy juniper, the coarse dull food, the hardship and simplicity, the contentment of doing one thing at a time: when I take my blue tin cup into my hand, that is all I do. We have had no news of modern times since late September, and will have none until December, and gradually my mind has cleared itself, and wind and sun pour through my head, as through a bell. Though we talk little here, I am never lonely; I am returned into myself.

In its wholehearted acceptance of what is, this is just what Soen Roshi might have said: I feel as if he had struck me in the chest. I thank him, bow, go softly down the mountain: under my parka, the folded prayer flag glows. Butter tea and wind pictures, the Crystal Mountain, and blue sheep dancing on the snow – it’s quite enough!
Have you seen the snow leopard?
No! Isn’t that wonderful?