The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen



These edges of Pokhara might be tropical outskirts anywhere - vacant children, listless adults, bent dogs and thin chickens in a litter of sagging shacks and rubble, mud, weeds, stagnant ditches, bad sweet smells, vivid bright broken plastic bits, and dirty fruit peelings awaiting the carrion pig; for want of better faire, both pigs and dogs consume the human excrement that lies everywhere along the paths. In fair weather all this flux is tolerable, but now at the dreg end of the rainy season, the mire of life seems leached in to the sallow skins of these thin beings, who squat and soap themselves and wring their clothes each morning in the rain puddles.

The whole dismal cycle of events that accompanies over crowding by human beings.

Flower/bird names

Hibiscus, frangipani, bourgainvillaea
Drongos, rollers, barbets
Broad leafed evergreen sal forest
Himalaya - the alaya (abode or home) of hima (snow)
Two figs of different species: banyan (fiscus indica) and pipal (fiscus religiosa). Male Female?
Pine, rhododendron, barberry


'Wherever you go the crow shows up sooner or later' GS remarks, 'and of all the crows, I like the raven best.'

Village life

These village folk own even less than those of Pokhara, yet they are spared by their own economies from modern poverty: one understands why 'village life' has been celebrated as the natural, happy domain of man by many thinkers from Lao-tzu to Gandhi.

Children friendly and playful; though they beg a little, they are not serious about it, as are the grim Hindu children of the towns.

The heinous din of the dogfights.

Dolpo Yamarkhar: Observing the inhabitants of this strange place is like watching people from a place of hiding, for they make a point of pretending we are not there.

Kali Gandaki

All afternoon the trail continues up the Kali Gandaki, which rushes down from Mustang and Tibet onto the Ganges plain. Because it flows between the soaring massifs of Annapurna and Dhalageri, both more than 26,000 feet in altitude, the Kalie Gandaki has the deepest canyon of any river in the world. Fierce Kali the Black, the female aspect of Time and Death, and the Devourer of All Things, is the consort of the Hindu god of the Himalaya, the Great Shiva, the re-creator and destroyer. Her black image with its necklace of human skulls is the emblem of this dark river that rumbling down out of hidden peaks and vast clouds of unknowing, has filled the traveller with dread since the first human tried to cross and was borne away.


Then, in a great hush, the clouds draw apart, revealing the vast Dhaulageri snowfields.


It relieves me that GS is mortal ('That chap was out of shape')

He dislikes these small villages, we are still too close to civilisation to suit him 'The fewer people the better.'

'Perhaps you can teach me how to write about people. I don't know how to go about it.'

GS refuses to believe that the western mind can truly absorb non-linear eastern perceptions; he shares the view of many in the west that eastern thought evades 'reality' and therefore lacks the courage of existence.

Einstein repeatedly expressed suspicion of the restrictions of linear thought, concluding that propositions arrived at by purely logical means were completely empty of reality even if one could properly explain what 'reality' means; it was intuition, he declared, that had been crucial to his thinking. There are close parallels in the theory of relativity to the Buddhist concept of the identity of time and space, which like Hindu cosmology, derives from the ancient teachings of the Vedas.

The physicist seeks to understand reality, while the mystic is trained to experience it directly.

GS moves ahead steadily until his blue parka turns to black against the snow.

GS is discoursing happily on the freedom of carrying one's own pack, of being 'independent of childish people who've lived all their lives in the mountains and won't wear rage strips on their eyes in the snow'.

GS seems casual on ledges.

An unexpected radio 'A note of the C20th in the C17th', GS sighs, as sorry as myself that we have heard it.


Siddartha Gautama born into rich clan of Sakya tribe
Sakyamuni (Sage of Sakyas)
Buddha (the Awakened one)

Sakyamuni and the Hindu tradition

Vedes, epic preachments on the nature of the Universe and man useless as a cure for human suffering. His creed less a rejection of Vedic philosophy than an effort to apply it.


China: Ch'an Bought by Bodhidharma from India to China 527

Japan: Zen 'Kill the Buddha!' famous Zen expression.

Bodhisattvas, Buddha aspects, celestial Buddhas. Given separate names and attributes. In these Himalayan lands, the chaotic nature of Buddhist iconography is compounded by the fact that everywhere, and almost from the start Buddhists have adapted and adopted local deities rather than eradicate the old religions, so that even the most pernicious demon night by sanctified as a 'protector of the Dhama'.

Buddha of past ages (Dipankara)
Historical Buddha (Sakyamuni)
Buddha to come (Maitreya)

C1st Vedic yogis became 'systematized in esoteric treatises called Tantras. From these came creation of female wisdom principles, or prajnas. Avalokita was given a female counterpart called Tara.

By C6th Tantric worship of female energies was dominant in both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, and it was the Tantric form of Buddhism that was carried north into Tibet.

C8th Padma Sambhava, or Lotus Born, established Buddhism in Tibet, by discrediting the B'on religion. (Buddhism was there before but he established it on firm basis).

PS also credited with compiling the Bardo Thodol, or Book of the Dead.

Absorbed much B'on into Buddhism, including chod.


Naropa famous teacher of
Lama Marpa the Translator, formed the KAGYU sect, returning to Tibet transmitted the Dhama to

C13th Disciples split into


C11th KARGYU sect broke C11th from NYINGMA

KAGYU and KARMA-PA (taken east to China, Japan)

C16th Reforms created


ZEN: Karma-pa practice is almost identical to that of Zen, which also emphasizes intuitive experience over priestly ritual and doctrine. Both have been called the Short Path to liberation, although this direct path is difficult and steep


Tantra concerned itself with the totality of existence the apprehension of the whole universe within man's being. All thoughts and acts, including the sex energies, were channeled into spiritual growth with the transcendence of all opposites the goal; the communion of sex, wine and feasting, the illusion of spearate identity might e lost, so long as a detached perspective was retained. All things and acts were equal, interwoven, from the lowliest physical functions to the highest spiritual yearning. Body mind and nature are all one.

But decadence weakened all the Tantric sects, especially the Old sect, or NYINGMA, and in the C16th a reformation was begun by the new GELUG_PA sect led by the Dalai Lamas.

Milarepa and chod

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. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping-up, and building and meeting, and set about realising the Truth. Life is short, and the time of death is uncertain; so apply yourself to meditation.'

WY Evans 'Tibet's great Yogi, Milarepa.

Returning to his village after many years, Milarepa discovers the decayed corpse of his mother, no more than a mound of dirty and rags from her fallen hut. Shaken by grief and horror, he remembers the instruction of his guru, the Lama Marpa, to embrace all that he most fears or finds repugnant, the better to realise that everything in the Universe, being inseparably related, is therefore holy. And so he makes a headrest of the sad remains of the erstwhile White Garland of the Nyang, and lies upon them for seven days, in a deep clear state of samadhi.

This Tantric discipline to overcome ideas of 'horror' often performed while sitting on a corpse or in the graveyard in the dark of night, is known as chod. Since trusting to life must finally mean making peace with death, I perform some mild chod of my own, forcing myself to look over the precipice whenever I can manage it. It helps to pay minute attention to details - a shard of rose quartz, a cinnamon fern with spores, a companionable mound of pony dung.


Monument, shrine and reliquary that traditionally derives from the Buddha tomb, come to symbolise existence. On a square red base (earth) sits a large white dome (water) and a sort of spire (fire) crowned with a lunar crescent (air) and a solar disc (space)

Istafahan bowl

To live with a saint is not difficult, for the saint makes no comparisons, but saintlike aspiration presents problems. I found her goodness maddening, and behaved badly.

The Istafahan 13th bowl found in back street of old Geneva.
'But it was too expensive and I bought her something else. Next morning, carried away by the drama of our parting, I telephoned the antique shop, arranged to buy it, and it was sent to Italy. The delicate thing was a symbol of a new beginning and I meant to surprise D with it on her birthday, but when that day came we quarrelled and the bowl, put away for a better occasion, was forgotten altogether as the marriage came apart.
I proper her up in bed, coaxing her to concentrate, then opened up the box and placed the bowl in her hands, my heart pounding. I could scarcely bear to watch how D stared at the bowl, grimacing in the effort to fight off the pain, the drugs, the consuming cancer in her brain. But when I prepared to take it back, she pressed it to her heart, lay back like a child, eyes shining, and in a whisper got one word out:
Far ahead the great lammergeier turns and turns.

Hum, mani padme hum

Om! The jewel in the Heart of the Lotus

Reverse swastika.

A sign of the B'on religion. Since it reverses time it is thought to be destructive to the universe, and is often associated with black magic.

Dolpo and the Kham-pa

Before the Gorkha wars in the late eighteenth century, Dolpo and Mustang were kingdoms of Tibet. Both regions are hideouts of the fierce Tibetan nomads known as Kham-pa, who still actively resist the Chinese occupation and retreat to Dolpo and Mustang after their raids. Even in Marco Polo's time the Kham-pa were renown bandits.

In 1974 the Kham-pas were finally subdued and resettled, following a major skirmish with the Nepali troops that caused Dolpo to be closed once more to all outsiders.

Shey and the Crystal Mountain

Shey Gompa is a monastery of the KARGYU sect (NYINGMA or KALACHAKRA)

Lama of Shey. Until 10 years ago he liked to walk the mountains, but has become crippled with arthritis and moves painfully on twisted legs and on two crutch canes.

In Kalachakra, Avalokita, the Great Compassionate One, is also perceived as Mahakala, or Great Time, the Lord of Death - the Tantric personification of the disintegrating forces of the Cosmos.

Old pantheon of peaceful and wrathful deities retained by the reformed sects,

When I ask Jang-bu why Sonam lives alone all winter in the upper village when she might use an empty house near Namu, he seems astonised 'She has the habit of that place,' he says.

We have no news of modern times since last September, and will have none until December, and gradually my mind has cleared itself, and the wind and sun pour though my head, as through a bell. Though we talk little here, I am never lonely.

My letters I put away unopened in my pack. The news good or bad will wait, I can do nothing, and do not want the intrusion, stirring a past.

To waste time in worry that the snow will trap us makes me feel ashamed, all the more so since GS shows no concern.


Blue Sheep, bharal, part of Caprini family of sheep and goats, interesting for key to where sheep and goats branch off. GS considers more goat than sheep.

The itch of the rutting season has begun, and even the young animals play at butting and sparring, as if anxious not to miss the only lively time in the blue sheep's year.

I am but a harmless hung-seeker.

The rut is near, activity is constant, and GS scribbles in his notebook, 'Oh, there's a penis-lick', he cries.

Snow Leopard

I long to see the snow leopard.
That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountains - that is enough.
Not a thousand feet above our tents at Shey, on the path that I walked yesterday, a leopard has made its scrape right in my boot print.
'But the leopard is right here watching us.' GS's words are borne out by the sheep which break into short skittish runs as the wind makes its mid morning shift.
'You know something? We've seen so much, may be it's better if there are some things that we don't see'. GS seems startled by his own remark.

Have you seen the snow leopard?
No! Isn't that wonderful!



Sherpa porter. A wiry small man with Mongol eyes and outsized ears and a disconcerting smile. I wonder why Tukten is a porter.

During their frequent rests, sly Tulten infiltrates their ranks, smoking and grumbling with them, winking at us and confusing them altogether.

Usually this means listening to Tukten, who holds the others rapt for hours at a time with that soft voice of his, his guru's hands extended in a hypnotising way over the flames. I love to watch our evil monk with his yellow Mongol eyes and feral ears. One day I will ask him if in some other incarnation, he has not been a snow leopard.

Jang-bu plays his harmonica, but the only one of the Shey party who will dance is Tukten, Tukten Sherpa, cook and porter, alleged thief, bad drunk, old gurkha is a dancer too, and dancing he smiles and smiles.

In the rear view of the cab, Tukten is ghostly. Tukten has taught me over and over, he is the teacher that I hoped to find. In the way he watched me, in the way he smiled, he was awaiting me.

On the appointed day to meet Tukten, I pedal across to Bodhinath. But there is no answer, no one knows a Tukten sherpa.


Tulku (reincarnation of his predecessor)
Belief in the tulku principle is a relatively recent tradition, made retrospective; thus the Dalai Lamas, who did not exist until the C16th are considered to be tulkus of Marpa.
Mani stones






Posted December 2003