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Blue Sheep Zen

The Snow Leopard

by Peter Matthiessen
Viking, 352 pp., $12.95

Mountain Monarchs: Wild Sheep and Goats of the Himalaya

by George B. Schaller
University of Chicago Press, 425 pp., $25.00

During the fall of 1973 Peter Matthiessen accompanied George Schaller on a two-month expedition into the high mountain country of Nepal and Tibet. The land is forbidding as well as legendary for its wild beauty. The expedition was made during the onset of winter storms, in the months of October and November, because Schaller’s aim was to study the mating behavior of certain wild sheep native to the district. Blue sheep, or bharal, undergo a concentrated period of rut in late fall; their behavior at this time is not only curious in itself, but may (it seems) provide clues to a somewhat vexed question among biologists whether they are more akin to sheep or goats. A matter of secondary interest for the expedition was investigation of the snow leopard, an elusive high-altitude predator, whose diet in these parts commonly includes a certain number of blue sheep.

To go on the trip at all, let alone to complete it, obviously required an extraordinary measure of dedication. There are no roads in these areas beyond the north wall of the Himalayas, where Nepal verges on Tibet. Villages are few, vegetation scant, trails are dangerous, and blizzards regularly choke the passes, some of which are over 17,000 feet high. All supplies must be carried in by animal or human porters; both are unreliable, but the human porters more so, if possible, than the beasts. Mechanical assistance from the outside, as by airplane or helicopter, is out of the question; no medical attention is to be had for hundreds of miles in any direction. A severe frostbite, a major fracture, or an attack of appendicitis would almost certainly be fatal; sanitary conditions being what they are, dysentery is a constant possibility. Bandits are also a possibility, but policemen who can’t read official passports, or don’t believe them if they can, are on the whole a worse danger.

The book Peter Matthiessen has written about this expedition is of a kind with which we are becoming familiar lately; it is part travelogue, part autobiography, part historical discourse, and predominantly lay sermon, in the shape of a quest narrative. As with Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which included some of the same ingredients, the bias of the lay sermon is toward Zen Buddhism; and to the eye of a layman, the exposition of Buddhism seems straightforward, nicely written, but not very new. One certainly need not have slogged through the snows of Nepal to discover it. There is of course no reason to anticipate novelty in the explanation of an essentially quietist philosophy which is, by now, at least a thousand years old; but the curious reader might understandably ask whether, if he’d been in full possession of his own philosophical premises, Mr. Matthiessen would have embarked in the first place on such a strenuous and dangerous expedition. For one who is in ecstatic possession of the present, a mere change of scenery isn’t worth a passing glance. There was a Zen saint, known to literature if not to history, who so lost himself in meditation that he never even noticed the vulture which took him for dead, settled on his shoulder, and pecked out his eye.

The portion of Matthiessen’s book describing the expedition itself, it should be said at once, is brilliantly and vividly written. The author has dealt frequently and knowingly with natural scenery and wild life; he can sketch a landscape in a few vivid, unsentimental words, capture the sensations of entering a wild, windy Nepalese mountain village, and convey richly the strange, whinnying behavior of a herd of wild sheep. His prose is crisp, yet strongly appealing to the senses; it combines instinct with the feeling of adventure.

The lead female comes up out of the hollow not ten yards up the hill, moving a little way eastward. Suddenly, she gets my scent and turns quickly to stare at my still form in the dust below. She does not move but simply stands, eyes round. In her tension, the black marks on her legs are fairly shivering; she is superb. Then the first ram comes to her, and he, too, scents me. In a jump, he whirls in my directon, and his tail shoots straight up in the air, and he stamps his right forefoot, venting a weird harsh high-pitched whinny—chirr-r-rit—more like a squirrel than any ungulate…. Boldly this ram steps forward to investigate, and the rest follow, until the mountain blue is full of horned heads and sheep faces, sheep vibrations—I hold my breath as best I can. In nervousness, a few pretend to browse, and one male nips edgily at a yearling’s rump, coming away with a silver tuft that shimmers in the sun. Unhurriedly, they move away, rounding the slope toward the east. Soon the heads of two females reappear, as if to make sure nothing is following. Then all are gone.

The Zen reflections and discourses on the history of the philosophy are more watery; they often seem to resolve themselves into Sanskrit abstractions like samadhi, sunvata, kensho, satori, and prajna—terms for which evidently no adequate English equivalents exist, though what precisely their special meaning and intensity amount to, the reader must try to guess. The combination of these elements leaves all the more mysterious the explanation of why Matthiessen was present on this expedition at all. People asked him this question, it seems: he always had trouble telling them. He writes of personal problems connected with the recent death of his wife, of having had intuitions of grace after they both attended a Buddhist retreat before she died. He hints at a kind of self-testing motivation, a desire for austerity for its own sake.

My own experience had been premature, and a power seeped away, month after month. This saddened me, although I understood that I had scarcely started on the path; that but for D’s crisis, which had cut through forty years of encrustations, I might never have had such an experience at all; that great enlightenment was only born out of deep samadhi. In this period the invitation came to go on a journey to the Himalayas.

He sought, evidently, some sort of illumination or purification, and seems to have got it momentarily, though it is hard to express. Something came clear during his dialogue with the remote Lama of Schey, though he had to communicate through an interpreter whose English was halting and primitive in the extreme; in any case, Matthiessen’s need for illumination was great, and illumination he got.

In worldly, practical terms, the expedition was something of a bust for him; he was never admitted to the Crystal Monastery which was one major goal of his pilgrimage; he never laid eyes on a snow leopard. Once he thought he might have glimpsed something that might have been a yeti (an abominable snowman, or something of the sort), but of course he was never able to verify it. He did see a good number of blue sheep, and along with Mr. Schaller observed their rut-behavior; but whether they are sheep or goats remains inconclusive—evidently they stand at an evolutionary crossroad, never having (so to speak) made up their minds. And in any case, Matthiessen wasn’t professionally interested in blue sheep, or sheep of any sort.

From a Zen point of view, however, the expedition, as it exhausted Matthiessen’s body and emptied his mind of its burden of worldly Western complexities and anxieties, was a triumph. Rather like the Ancient Mariner, he indicates to us that he has returned from his adventure a wiser and in some respects a gladder man—having laid down the burden of outside intrusions (mail, telephones, people and their needs) along with the heavier burden of selfhood or a good part of it, and thus achieved a pure and perfect freedom to rest in the “Now.”

I paraphrase Mr. Matthiessen’s account of his spiritual adventure as well as I can, leaving aside the ironies of preaching distraction from worldly cares in a treatise first published serially in The New Yorker magazine and now selling for over twelve dollars and a half. There’s no question of his sincerity as a preacher: indeed he seems remarkably liberated from the impulse to question himself or anybody else. As one of the new breed of credulous Americans he is as ready to accept the possibility of the Sasquatch as of the Abominable Snowman, with the works of Carlos Castaneda thrown in, and he suggests a fanciful theory of prehistoric Buddhist influence on American Indians for good measure. He is, to be sure, a bit of a tease, and one can’t tell exactly how seriously he takes the story he tells of Saint Joseph of Cupertino, who in ecstasies of piety levitated himself into trees and about the church, but skepticism isn’t in his vein; and when one opens the door to karmic emanations it is hard to keep out the banshee, the ectoplasmic table-rapper, and the common miracle-monger.

Because he was seeking, and apparently found, some satisfying spiritual illumination which can best be expressed as ecstatic delight in the rightness of the Now—even, or perhaps especially, when that rightness doesn’t correspond with what one thought were one’s wishes—Matthiessen takes the snow leopard, which he never saw, as the title of his book and the emblem of his experience. The “crazy wisdom” he has discovered in himself he summarizes in an imaginary dialogue:

Have you seen the snow leopard?”

No! Isn’t that wonderful?”

But this is far from the whole of it. One can’t really describe Matthiessen’s moral state after his journey without oversimplifying it, because, as a skilled craftsman, he doesn’t try to represent himself as permanently enlightened beyond the limits of everyday humanity. The final phase of his journey included some perfectly understandable surliness and even more understandable nostalgia for the departure of a trusted sherpa companion. But the more an authentically ordinary life asserts its ordinary values (concern over distant kids, desire to be home for Christmas), the more one is puzzled by the status of that Zen philosophy which ought to render one oblivious—or at least eager to achieve oblivion—of such entangling involvements.

An interesting contrast with Matthiessen’s book is provided by George Schaller’s Mountain Monarchs, which appeared last year in the Wildlife Behavior and Ecology Series of the University of Chicago. As a study of wild sheep and goats of the Himalayas, it is based on thirty-seven months of research abroad, including the two months described in Matthiessen’s book. It deals not only with the bharal but with other ovines and caprids of the Himalayas, such as the urial, hangul, markhor, tahr, and wild goats; and it deals with the snow leopard too, about which Schaller has much to tell us. One of the first things to strike the reader is the extreme caution and wariness with which Schaller approaches his topic. Since very little was previously known about the wild sheep and goats of the Himalaya (though he cites the literature constantly, and it amounts to nineteen closely printed pages of references), he protests that his resources were all too limited for the task. Much time and effort had to be devoted simply to surveying the distribution of the various species, and coverage of individual types was inevitably superficial. Political and practical difficulties prevented more careful, more intensive, and more comprehensive studies.

Of course Schaller’s reports are closely focused on the animals he is studying. He describes their habitat, their physical attributes, their behavior patterns as far as food, aggression, courtship, and social relations are concerned. In discussing their vulnerability to predators, he deals naturally with the snow leopard along with foxes, wolves, and bears. As he makes clear, the ecology of these high Himalayan regions, remote as they are from centers of human civilization, is changing rapidly; because many of the animal populations are sparse, generalizations must be based on limited samplings and observations; at best, what they record is a momentary phase in a rapidly shifting process.

But though Schaller’s reports are full of specific details, measurements, graphs, and charts, it’s also apparent that this man is no less a poet in his feeling for the high hills and their animal populations than his Zen companion. Almost shyly, he confesses in his preface that

to convey the impression that my research in the Himalaya was motivated solely by science would not be honest. Most men enjoy adventure, they want to conquer something, and in the mountains a biologist can become an explorer in the physical realm as well as the intellectual one. Mountains are symbols of the unknown, of the mysterious force that beckons us to discover what lies beyond, that tests our will and strength against the sublime indifference of the natural world. Research among the ranges affords the purest pleasure I know, one which goes beyond the collecting of facts to one that becomes a quest to appraise our values and look for our place in eternity. When at dusk the radiant peaks are deprived of the sun’s fire, leaving them gloomy and desolate with cold prowling their slopes, one feels imprisoned by rock, but when later, white in the moon, the glaciers glow like veils of frozen light all difficulties vanish in the presence of such primordial beauty.

But Schaller wants to know things, not wonder about them, and he makes no mention of Buddhism, Zen or otherwise, says nothing whatever of monasteries, luminous lamas, abominable snowmen, or crazy wisdom. His book has little to say about the human populations of these remote lands, except as they impinge on the lives of sheep and goats—and on the whole he thinks they impinge too much, and in a manner to threaten the most interesting wildlife in the area with imminent extinction. His work has had as a strong secondary purpose establishing game preserves for some of the great sheep, though in such wild and lawless parts of the world, where human populations live on the thin edge of starvation, it’s hard to make and even harder to enforce rules.

As for the snow leopard, which Schaller has observed several times and once glimpsed on this very expedition after Matthiessen had left it, his report is very interesting. It is a beautiful, restless, and extraordinarily elusive cat, weighing when full-grown between 70 and 100 pounds, capable of killing prey up to three times its weight. Rare everywhere, it is getting rapidly rarer. On the record, it is not particularly dangerous to humans; Schaller once slept alone and in the open (he does not say how easily) within fifty yards of one. The snow leopard seems to have adapted to life in captivity, where it frequently breeds, and generally enjoys a longer life span than in the wild. In fact, to learn about its spasmodic, ferocious, and altogether amazing sex life, one would do better to visit the Bronx Zoo than to struggle over the snowy passes of Nepal.

If Socrates leave his house today,” says Maeterlinck, “he will find the sage seated on his doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight, it is to Judas his steps will tred.” We travel like Ulysses to learn about the particolored world and its motley ways, but what we see is mostly controlled by patterns formed in our minds long before we took the first step. Matthiessen and Schaller were very different fellows to go on such a strenuous, intimate trip together, and while they evidently became good friends, it’s Matthiessen’s observation that they didn’t, after all, communicate very much, at least not in words. Both of course were busy keeping diaries in preparation for their very different books. Reading those books now, in conjunction if not in counterpoint, gives one the agreeable third sense of ironic dialogue, overheard though not pronounced.

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