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The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
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's review
Nov 08, 2011

bookshelves: travel, religion
Read in November, 2011

In his first summers, forsaking all his toys, my son would stand rapt for near an hour in his sandbox in the orchard, as doves and redwings came and went on the warm wind, the leaves dancing, the clouds flying, birdsong and sweet smell of privet and rose. The child was not observing; he was at rest in the very center of the universe, a part of things, unaware of endings and beginnings, still in unison with the primordial nature of creation, letting all light and phenomena pour through. Ecstasy is identity with all existence, and ecstasy showed in his bright paintings; like the Aurignacian hunter, who became the deer he drew on the cave wall, there was no “self” to separate him from the bird or flower. The same spontaneous identity with the object is achieved in the bold sumi painting of Japan—a strong expression of Zen culture, since to become one with whatever one does is a true realization of the Way.
(p41-2, Oct 5)

Einstein repeatedly expressed suspicion of the restrictions of linear thought, concluding the 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. And 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. Somewhere, Einstein remarks that his theory could be readily explained to Indians of the Uto-Aztecan languages, which include the Pueblo and the Hopi. (“The Hopi does not say ‘the light flashed’ but merely ‘flash,’ without subject or time element; time cannot move because it is also space. The two are never separated; there are no words or expressions referring to time or space as separate from each other. This is close to the ‘field’ concept of modern physics. Furthermore, there is no temporal future; it is already with us, eventuating or ‘manifesting.’ What are in English differences of time are in Hopi differences of validity.”)
(p62, Oct 9, quote from Benjamin Whorf, “An American Indian Model of the Universe,” International Journal of American Linguistics 16, 1950)

But a kensho, or satori, is no measure of enlightenment, since an insight into “one’s True Nature” may vary widely in its depth and permanence: some may overturn existence, while others are mere tantalizing glimpses that “like a mist will surely disappear.” To poke a finger through the wall is not enough—the whole wall must be brought down with a crash! My own experience had been premature, and a power seeped away, month after month.
(p109, Oct 16)

Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being. (“I could not simplify myself”—the explanation of the suicide Nezhdanov. [Turgenev’s Virgin Soil])
(p112, Oct 17)

But sometimes for a day or more, I lose the feel of things, my breath is high up in my chest, and then I cling to the cliff edge as to life itself. And of course it is this clinging, the tightness of panic, that gets people killed: “to clutch,” in ancient Egyptian, “to clutch the mountain,” in Assyrian, were euphemisms that signified “to die.” [note from Mircea Eliade’s Images and Symbols]
(p129-30, Oct 20)

The wildwood brings on mild nostalgia, not for home or place, but for lost innocence—the paradise lost that, as Proust said, is the only paradise. Childhood is full of mystery and promise, and perhaps the life fear comes when all the mysteries are laid open, when what we thought we wanted is attained. It is just at the moment of seeming fulfillment that we sense irrevocable betrayal, like a great wave rising silently behind us, and know most poignantly what Milarepa meant: “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. . . .” Confronted by the uncouth specter of old age, disease, and death, we are thrown back upon the present, on this moment, here, right now, for that is all there is. And surely this is the paradise of children, that they are at rest in the present, like frogs or rabbits.
(p132-3, Oct 20)

Wonderfully, Jang-bu laughed aloud, as did Dawa and Phu-Tsering, although it meant wet clothes and a wet sleeping bag for the head sherpa. That happy-go-lucky spirit, that acceptance which is not fatalism but a deep trust in life, made me ashamed.
(p158, Oct 26)

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