Zen and the art of following in your father’s footsteps

Zen and the art of following in your father’s footsteps

Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard, his famous book about a spiritual quest to a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, is 40 years old. His son, Alex, has recreated the trek

Is it possible to be an armchair Zen Buddhist? That’s one of the questions that Peter Matthiessen’s great quest The Snow Leopard seems to present. No book I’ve read, certainly among those written in my lifetime, gives a more authentic account of a “journey of the heart” than Matthiessen’s celebrated trek to the Dolpo, the high, ancient Tibetan plateau of the Himalayas. I am not alone in that belief. Since it was first published in 1978, The Snow Leopard has no doubt been the inspiration for more hippy trails and backpacker expeditions to Kathmandu and beyond than any other volume (it is unmovable at the top of Amazon’s “Himalayas” chart). I’ve read the book a few times over the years, though never yet visited the places it describes. Returning to its opening pages now, in a beautiful new Folio Society edition marking both the 40th anniversary of its initial publication and four years since Matthiessen’s death, nevertheless feels like an uncanny invitation to breathe a little more deeply and see a little more clearly.

Matthiessen embarked on his journey in the autumn of 1973 at the invitation of the celebrated field biologist George Schaller, (whose photographs of the people and places of that trail we publish for the first time). The purpose of Schaller’s trip was to study the rutting habits of the bharal, the Himalayan blue sheep that inhabits the high plateau and which Schaller hoped to prove was the genetic forebear of all sheep and goats. Matthiessen, who remains the only writer to have won America’s National Book award both for fiction and for nonfiction, was drawn to the expedition for other reasons, however.

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