Dec 082018

I stumbled across a reference to The Snow Leopard a year and a half ago reading something somewhere about Buddhism. I bought a copy, read it, read it again, and have continued to read it, a bit here a bit there, right up to the present day. That is a long time to spend with a book, and yet it remains as fresh to me, as extraordinarily beautiful, and as deeply moving as it did when I first picked it up.

The story it tells is simple enough. Matthiessen and his friend GS, a wildlife biologist renowned for his field research, hike from Katmandu in Nepal up (and up and up) into a remote region of the Tibetan Himalayas to observe the rut of a little understood mountain goat. If they are fortunate, they also hope to see one of the elusive snow leopards known to live in the mountains. Matthiessen, a student of Zen Buddhism, would like to visit the aging Llama of the Crystal Monastery as well. Weather threatens them continually on the ascent and both supplies and the porters to carry them are limited, but the men eventually make it to Inner Dolpo on the Tibetan plateau, much later than planned but in time for the rut. GS studies the goats; Matthiessen visits the monastery. The men then descend back down into the world of the lower altitudes.

Within the frame of this simple story, Matthiessen experiences something that feels like the entirety of a life and his writing evokes that experience anew each time I read it. In this the book echoes Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps.

The foundation here is a spare taut prose with breadth and sweep enough to capture an immense natural world while also remaining grounded enough to read as the language of a particular man and of his mind’s workings. The writing is always stunningly concrete even as he moves within deeply philosophical considerations of love, death, family, friendship, the nature of reality, and the existence of the self. His mind is strong, energetic, even stubborn yet also (amazingly) open, pliable, and generous.

I’ve spent eighteen months with Matthiessen’s book, and I’m certain he was a difficult and imperfect person, but as strange as it is to say, I suspect that many of the people who knew him fell in love with him and that, if I had, I would have as well.

Jul 082018

I stare about me, trying to etch into this journal the sense of Shey that is so precious, aware that all such effort is in vain; the beauty of this place must be cheerfully abandoned, like the wild rocks in the bright water of its streams. Frustration at the paltriness of words drives me to write, but there is more of Shey in a single sheep hair, in one withered sprig of everlasting, than in all these notes; to strive for permanence in what I think I have perceived is to miss the point.

—Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard

Jul 032018

The Buddhist notion of Karma isn’t about payback. It’s about the awful reality of being tied up in contingency. We choose. We act. There are consequences for us and for others and these have consequences in turn. So bit by bit moving through our days we build a life and as it takes shape we have to live it out. This is karma. The cage of good and bad consequences from our past that becomes our horizons.

The tragedy—the awful terrifying tragedy of it all—becomes clear when someone builds an unlivable life for themselves over the course of years and then are stuck with it and have to live it and there’s nothing anyone can do to get them out of it.

Aug 212011

Sadhana by Rabindranath TagoreSadhana by Rabindranath Tagore

A collection of lectures about Indian spirituality by India’s first Nobel Laureate. They are interesting but also vague and non-historical. This is one man preaching his personal religion.

While I was in India, The New Yorker did a profile on Tagore. Apparently, Bertrand Russell saw him speak and said he was spouting standard “we are all the Buddha” mumbo-jumbo. If he heard something like this, he’s not far off.

Interesting thing is that Tagore is a Hindu not a Buddhist. How’s that work? Well, he keeps refering to the Upanishads, which Wendy Doniger describes as Hinduism’s response to the Buddhist and Jainist renunciation of Brahmanic ritual, which to me suggests that, if Buddhism is a kind of Hindu Reformation, then the Upanishads are the Brahmins’ counter-reformation. The Buddhist rejection of court religion and ritual in favour of personal quests for enlightenment are rejected but also remake Hinduism expressed in these texts as more personal (though not yet devotional). Tagore is speaking in that vein.

June, 2011. Chennai/Mamallapuram India

Aug 212011

Buddhism- A Short History by Edward ConzeBuddhism: A Short History by Edward Conze

A useful, concise history of Buddhism. Divides the history into three waves that helped make sense of odd comments I’d read in other books. The first wave is largely monastic, a renunciation of early Vedic Hinduism. The second moves outside the monasteries and invents a lay Buddhism. The third incorporates Tantric and mystical thought into Buddhist philosophy (seriously or not, I’m not sure). The book also places the various branches of Buddhism historically: regional differences are historical traces.

The second-wave notion of a Bodhisattva with “skill in means”–a teacher who speaks in terms a lay person can understand in order to help them increase their understanding bit-by-bit–feeds my sense that Buddhism is not a religion but is instead a philosophy and phenomenology of the mind crusted over with religious trappings. (I mean, a Buddhist god makes absolutely no sense to me. None at all.) “Skill in means” offers a reason for taking those religious trappings as translations of Buddhist insights into metaphorical terms non-monks can understand. (I think of Kierkegaard telling the story of Abraham in various ways or inventing stories to frame the stories that play out his thinking as drama.)

This a book-along-the-way that I imagine I will remember as being important.

June 2011. Mamallapuram, India