Nine Headed Dragon River is Peter Matthiessen’s account of his life with Zen from his first experience in the practice. In the book, he shares sections of his notebooks and diaries to illustrate his Zen trajectory and travels. This section is from the second part of the book and set in Shey, Nepal, from where he produced the material for his most successful work, The Snow Leopard. Here, he talks about the longing that sets one on the way, and how it can be likened to a kind of a homesickness or a yearning for childhood, as well as the prospect of letting go and resolving the deepest and most inscrutable koan of all.
I climb to my old lookout, happy and sad in the dim instinct that these mountains are my home. But “only the Awakened Ones remember their many births and deaths,” and I can hear no whisperings of other lives. Doubtless I have “home” confused with childhood, and Shey with its flags and beasts and snowy fastnesses with some Dark Ages place of forgotten fairy tales, where the atmosphere of myth made life heroic.
In the longing that starts one on the way of Zen is a kind of homesickness, and some way, on this journey, I have started home. Homegoing is the purpose of my practice, of my mountain meditation and my daybreak chanting, of my koan: All the peaks are covered with snow—why is this one bare? To resolve that illogical question would mean to burst apart, let fall all preconceptions and supports. But I am not ready to let go, and so I shall not resolve my koan, or see the snow leopard, that is to say, Perceive it. I shall not see it because I am not ready.
I meditate for the last time on this mountain that is bare, though others all around are white with snow. Like the bare peak of the koan, this one is not different from myself. I know this mountain because I am this mountain, I can feel it breathing at this moment, as its grass tops stray against the snows. If the snow leopard should leap from the rock above and manifest itself before me—S-A-A-O!—then in that moment of pure fright, out of my wits, I might truly perceive it, and be free.
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