(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When asked why he has undertaken such a hard and treacherous journey, Matthiessen is clearly abashed. His curvilinear rationale goes like this: He has set out to observe sheep goats in Nepal because near Shey Gompa, “Crystal Monastery,” the bharal are plentiful as they enjoy there the protection of the Buddhist Lama. Also, because the Lama of Shey is the most revered of all that region’s religious leaders, and because Tibetan Buddhism is a final citadel of humanity’s longed-for wisdom, and since, anyway, simply to glimpse the Snow Leopard would make the trip worthwhile, he has come to traverse the way step-by-step on foot. As this rugged “way” is clearly an image of the religious path, so the glimpsing of the Snow Leopard (rarely seen by anyone, especially Westerners) gradually emerges as an analogue of kensho, the first comprehended breakthrough to enlightenment.

It was Karma (or his personal destiny) that brought this invitation from “GS” to visit the holy place of Tibetan Buddhism shortly after Matthiessen had been introduced to Zen Buddhism by his wife, Deborah Love; her death by cancer soon thereafter interrupted their Zen practice together but spurred his quest to a greater intensity. The book’s first epigraph, to “Westward,” by Lama Govinda, clearly establishes the connection between the travel and religious dimensions of the author’s pilgrimage:Just as a white summer cloud, in harmony with heaven and earth freely floats in the blue sky from horizon to horizon following the breath of the atmosphere—in the same way the pilgrim abandons himself to the breath of the greater life that . . . leads him beyond the farthest horizons to an aim which is already present in him, though yet hidden from his sight.

It gradually becomes clear that Matthiessen means to walk his readers, and himself, through the origins of Hinduism in India, through the Buddha’s life and refinement of Hinduism from its more speculative philosophy to the more concrete experience of personal enlightenment, and then through all the major stages of Buddhism’s later development in Tibet as well as China and Japan, where it became Zen.

Along the way, the author offers the genesis and history of Nepal itself, legends and traditions of various Tibetan tribes, insightful comparisons and parallels (if not historical influences) between the myths cherished by Asian and American indigenous villagers, and a host of fascinating details about the plant, animal, mythic, and geographical life of these Himalayan ranges. Steadily the focus narrows in on Matthiessen’s central theme:...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)