The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen is a masterful depiction of the landscapes, peoples, and systems of belief encountered by the author while accompanying his friend GS to the Crystal Mountain (which to Buddhists is the center of the world) on a field study of the Himalayan blue sheep, or the bharal.  GS hopes to gain some insight into the relationship between the bharal and the more common sheep of the United States by examining them during “the rut,” or mating season.  Matthiessen, however, accepts his invitation in hopes of allowing his oneness with the universe, as prescribed by his doctrine of Buddhism, to grow.  What GS sees as a job, Matthiessen sees as a opportunity to expand his religious experiences and clear his mind of the worries and stresses of everyday life.  The journey is described in full from the first day, when the two friends met in Kathmandu to the last, when they begin their return home from the Crystal Mountain and everything in between, without the omission of a single detail, exactly as Matthiessen penned in his beloved daily journal.

On the surface, The Snow Leopard  seems to be simply a description of one man’s thoughts and views throughout his journey through Tibet, but underneath lies Matthiessen’s morals and beliefs intertwined with his struggles and hardships throughout the trip and throughout his life.  He meticulously describes events from his past as they relate to his present, and the details from his present as they unfold according to his faith.  Constantly flashing back to the son he left at home and to the wife, Deborah, that he lost to cancer a few years prior to the adventure, Matthiessen longs to return to his distant family in the United States and to the days when he and his wife were young and, sometimes, in love and happy together.  Deborah was the only person with whom the author has ever felt the oneness that he has sought ever since he became a follower of the teachings of the Buddha.


Perpetually throughout the novel, the author describes the influence of outsiders upon the mostly isolated, solitary regions of Tibet, hidden deeply in the shelter of mountains upon mountains, estranged from the rest of the world by harsh climates and even harsher terrain.  The few who made it into this detached region brought with them the religions of the outside world, but did not, however, leave behind the influences of modern technology.  The farther into the mountains Matthiessen and GS travel, the more technologically disadvantaged, but more pious the inhabitants become.  This religious veneration is what Matthiessen, the sentimental Buddhist, hopes to achieve in a world in which he permit himself to become the only person alive.

In almost every few pages throughout The Snow Leopard the author describes different aspects, convictions, and traditions of the cultures with which they are interacting, often telling of the folklore of the people and the historical backgrounds of their religions.  These creeds are very important to Matthiessen, as he himself is still in many ways searching for his true niche in the religious world, and this journey is a once in a lifetime chance for him to actually see all of the positive and negative aspects of each sect not only on the surface, but also below.


The opportunity for him to finally see inside the belief structures of these various eastern religions, especially the different denominations of Buddhism such as the Tantric sect, which he seems particularly interested in, collimate Matthiessen’s need to ruminate over himself throughout his lonesome adventure and discover his true self and his oneness with his universe.  His setting and solitude provide the ideal setting for doing so for, according to Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, “As the hand held before the eye conceals the greatest mountain, so the little earthly life hides from the glance the enormous lights and mysteries of which the world is full, and he who can draw it away from before his eyes...beholds the great shining of the inner worlds.”  In the Buddhist faith it is believed by many that the only way to do this is to give up all material possessions and to seek a simple life to ease the clearing of the mind that allows for “removing the hand from before the eye,” and this is exactly what Matthiessen is hoping to do.

            Just like the bharal, the blue sheep, for which GS is searching the inhabitants of the mountains remain true to their lineages.  Both the sheep and the citizens in this remote land are believed to be the origins or near to the origins of the entire populations of sheep and people throughout the world, who centuries before spread out and diversified, leaving the remaining as their only links to the past.  In accordance with their conflicting personalities, GS, who, unlike Matthiessen is only interested in his work and figures, has come here to bring these sheep out of hiding and link the rest of the world’s sheep to them, while Matthiessen has trekked so far from home to hide himself and to link his soul with the rest of the world.

During his quest, Matthiessen comes upon numerous trials that test his faith and cause him to contemplate the reason for its happening.  With Buddhism, as with many other religions, it is believed in many circumstances that the events that unfold, such as good or bad weather, take place not simply by coincidence but because some higher power recognizes impure motives, or simply because the individual experiencing such troubles did not render enough devotion and respect the particular deity, and is being punished for his insolence.  Matthiessen believes that this could be true at certain points throughout the pilgrimage, such as when the weather at Jang Pass turns foul shortly after the party fails to leave an offering at the crude altar built to the god of the locals at the opening of the pass.

Brad:
It seems like one of the main ideas was the difference between Eastern 
culture and Western culture.  A lot of time was devoted to describing the behavior 
of the sherpas who accompanied George Sands on his expedition.  They were much 
more familiar with the environment of the Dhaulaghiri mountains than the 
American leaders of the climb.  Since they were from Tibet and the surrounding 
area, the sherpas all followed Hinduism and lived as nomadic herders.  They had an 
appreciation and understanding of nature that very few Westerners could have. 
 As a result, they were sometimes hesitant to continue through the more 
dangerous parts of the trek and several quit along the way.  The Americans, who 
knew less about the mountain than the sherpas, refused to quit and often put 
their lives in danger by disregarding the warnings of the native people.  There 
were many detailed descriptions of the mountain scenery.  The imagery made it 
easy to picture the land as the characters saw it.  The fact that the book was 
written in a daily diary format helped to emphasize the length and magnitude of 
the expedition.  In the end, the fact that they never saw a snow leopard made 
the expedition seem pointless, but they did see many other things along the 
way.

 

 

Cohrtney:

It's a good nature writing. Matthiessen describes his journey through the Himalayas
well. The way he describes the mountains and all the wonders it khkolds puts a vivid
image into my mind. The imagery he presents makes it easy to feel as though you are
there with him.  Even though he is on a journey with nature, I think his main
purpose of the trip is much more spiritual. Matthiessen was a student of Zen
Buddhism, so he provided a lot of information about the religion.  On page 34, he
told of the Zen origin.  On page 91, he explains the concept of yoga: clearing the
mind.  He also tells of his experiences with halucinogens as a religious aid.  He
felt that the vivid images were spiritual (pages 43-47).  He also explains, on page
106, the enlightenment he recieved during the Japanese chanting.  When asked why he
made the trip, Matthiessen wrote, "I shrugged, uncomfortable.  To say I was
interested in blue sheep or snow leopards, or even in remote lamaseries, was no
answer to hes question, though all of that was true; to say I was making a
pilgrimage seemed fatuous and vague, though in some sense that was true as well. 
And so I admitted that I did not know.  How could I say that I wished to penetrate
the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the
yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching? (page 125-6)."  He was
interested in the mountain's possessions, but I think he was much more interested in
what the mountains had to say (what kinds of spiritual and religious findings he
would experience).