Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Snow Leopard may have left Peter Matthiessen wandering between two worlds (one dead, the other struggling to be born), but when eight years later he brought out his second spiritual quest book, written in the same journal format (The Nine-Headed Dragon River: Zen Journals 1969-1982, 1986), its subtitle’s frank disclosure indicated that his ever-sharpening focus had finally narrowed to the most seminal aspects of his inner pilgrimage. Indeed, since his first encounter with Zen was the Rinzai sect’s Spartan and driving asceticism (the teachers to whom his wife had introduced him had pushed the intellect to the brink, and then beyond into the pure mind itself, by means of the koan and sudden-illumination method), and since the maturation of his Zen practice came with his emersion in Japan into the Soto sect’s more patient and subtler method of sitting quietly to bring about a mellow but deep self-awareness, Matthiessen believed that some transition was needed in the complete record of his Zen journals. Therefore, in between part 1, “America: Rinzai Journals” and part 3, “Japan: Soto Journals,” The Nine-Headed Dragon River reproduces at its center forty-five pages of The Snow Leopard and titles it “Nepal: Himalayan Journals.” From this alone, one can readily see how organically holistic are his writing and his spiritual pilgrimage; one can also see the pivotal and climactic place The Snow Leopard occupies...

(The entire section is 550 words.)