Friday, October 24, 2008

The Snow Leopard

There is a very telling anecdote in page 158 of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard. The author and a group of Sherpas and porters are wading through a stream on their trek to Crystal Mountain in the Tibetan Plateau. They are tossing packs over the stream to get them across and one Sherpa, Dawa, drops a pack into the stream. That pack contains the head Sherpa Jang-bu’s bedding. Jang-bu sees this and spontaneously bursts out laughing even though it means great inconvenience for him. The others join in the laughter. Peter mentions this as but one example of the trust and acceptance of life of these Sherpas.

Because I know how upset I would become if I had to spend a night in such a cold place in a soggy sleeping bag, this anecdote resonated with me. It was a reminder of how much growing up I still had to do.

In my recent trip to Malaysia and Singapore, I finished reading this travel classic, which I had been meaning to get to for years.

The Snow Leopard justifiably occupies its position in numerous all-time Top Travel books lists. Peter Matthiessen traveled in the Dolpo region in the Himalayas for 2 months back in 1973, and this book is his record of that journey. He writes authoritatively about many topics: his trip but also about his practice of Buddhism, about monasteries and lamas, about the Sherpas and the porters, about the people they meet who spend all their lives above 16,000 feet, about botany, so knowledgeably about the birds they get to observe and about the blue sheep, wolves and snow leopards.

His prose is sparse and in many instances it sparkles. It often reminded me of James Salter’s writing. For those who take the time, the reading of The Snow Leopard itself will be a great reward.

Below are three paragraphs that I copied down from the book so that I would remember Peter’s ideas when I reread these excerpts.

This is the paragraph that made a deep impression on me.
[On Trusting life]
Yet I feel calm, and ready to accept whatever comes, and therefore happy. The turn in my mood occurred this morning, when the brave Dawa, attempting to catch Jang-bu’s (the head sherpa’s) pack, hurled across a stream, dropped it ineptly into the water. Wonderfully, Jang-bu laughed aloud, as did Dawa and Phu-Tsering, although it meant wet clothes and a wet sleeping bag for the head Sherpa. That happy-go-lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.

[On the betrayal in fulfillment]
[…]Perhaps the life fear comes when all the mysteries are laid open, when what we thought we wanted is attained. It is just at the moment of seeming fulfillment that we sense irrevocable betrayal, like a great wave rising silently behind us, and know most poignantly what Milarepa meant: All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings, in destruction; meetings in separation; births, in death…” 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.

[On Miracles]
One of the four cardinal sins in the monastic order of the Buddha -- after unchastity, theft, and killing – was laying claim to miraculous powers. It is related that Sakyamuni once dismissed as of small consequence a feat of levitation on the part of a disciple, and cried out in pity for a yogin by the river who had wasted twenty years of his human existence in learning how to walk on water, when the ferryman might have taken him across for a small coin.

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