Of Mountains and Mantras

It seems I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist-themed literature lately. Not quite an hour ago, I finished Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. In terms of genre, the book falls within travel literature– an account of a trip to the Himalayas, the author accompanying a friend/colleague on a research expedition. But Matthiessen was a Zen practitioner by the time he was offered the chance to go, and his descriptions of the nature and the people he encounters is frequently interspersed with musings on teachers, teachings, and personal journeys, as well as with memories of his wife, who’d passed away a year before he left for Nepal.

It was a good book, but I’ll probably never go into the raptures in which I’ve heard others engage when speaking about it. I have to wonder if those other readers (admittedly only a handful) were prone to fall into such ecstasies because it was their first encounter with something like Buddhist thought-in-action (although I’m hesitant to go even that far), as opposed to either a uniquely confusing selection of koans or dialogues, or a dry summary, found as a chapter in an instructive volume on world religions, of what the belief system entails.

I’m not sure, really. Maybe it has nothing to do with a particular religious outlook, but rather with the fact that Matthiessen’s narrative frequently incorporates the spiritual, or at least an acknowledgment of or viewpoint imbued with it. And far from being one more sappy treatise on the beauty of letting go, written from the privileged safety of a warm room furnished with kale smoothies and high-end yoga mats, the author recorded all his musings while on a dirty, harrowing, cold– and OK, still privileged– trek through regions that would cow most blithe self-help gurus.

Do I want to make my own trek through crotch-deep snow while subsisting on buckwheat cakes and a month of no showers? Absolutely not. But if there are other accounts about such things that are as good as Matthiessen’s, I’m at least ready and willing to read about them, and maybe even draw out some wisdom from them– reminders of change and impermanence and mortality, of imperfection and sparks of occasional virtue– as well.


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