In the Bag is a series of posts that look to famous travelers and adventurers and the items they chose to pack along with them.
Few travel books have been as highly praised as Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. His spiritual journey set with the backdrop of the mythical Tibetan Plateau is captivating from the first page. I encountered Matthiessen as I suspect many travelers have – traveling through Himalayan India and Nepal. My dad loved the introduction to the new Penguin Edition written by Pico Iyer and tossed me his paperback for the trip. After having made it just a couple-hundred pages into Rushdie’s Satanic Verses before having to put it down, The Snow Leopard was a welcome diversion. Like Eric Newby’s earlier epic, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Matthiessen writes with a kind of humble awe that you don’t get from Paul Thoreaux (too narcissistic) or Bill Bryson (not in good enough shape to get out there). He and his naturalist travel partner have truly taken their lives into their own hands (and the hands of their Sherpas) and you can feel it. Think of it like John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air but without the mind-numbing snark and cynicism.
At the heart of this book was this traditional Tibetan Buddhist mantra that Mathiesesen’s Zen master, Soen Roshi, had taught him prior to the trek. As their situation becomes more tenuous, Matthiessen and his Tibetan compatriots can be found leaning harder and more frequently on this ten-word Sanskrit mantra: Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ
Pronounced in Tibet Aum—Ma-ni—Pay-may—Hung, this mantra may be translated: Om! The jewel in the Heart of the Lotus! Hum! The deep, resonant Om is all sound and silence throughout time, the roar of eternity and also the great stillness of pure being; when intoned with the prescribed vibrations, it invokes the All that is otherwise inexpressible. The mani is the “adamantine diamond” of the Void—the primordial, pure, and indestructible essence of existence beyond all matter or even antimatter, all phenomena, all change, and all becoming. Padme—in the lotus —is the world of phenomena, samsara, unfolding with spiritual progress to reveal beneath the leaves of delusion the mani-jewel of nirvana, that lies not apart from daily life but at its heart. Hum has no literal meaning, and is variously interpreted (as is all of this great mantra, about which whole volumes have been written). Perhaps it is simply a rhythmic exhortation, completing the mantra and inspiring the chanter, a declaration of being, of Is-ness, symbolized by the Buddha’s gesture of touching the earth at the moment of Enlightenment. It is! It exists! All that is or was or will ever be is right here in this moment! Now!” (Matthiessen, 104)
Since reading Matthiessen’s words, I haver begun to see the mantra everywhere – from prayer wheels and necklaces in Dharamsala to tattoos on American expats in Honduras. The mantra has enduring comfort and its numerous high-profile proponents have certainly helped – from Matthiessen to Jack Kerouac to Robert A Heinlein.
Beyond his spiritual sustenance, Matthiessen and his partner, GS, took a Buddhist-simple ration of physical sustenance as well for this arduous journey after the allusive snow leopard.
Here’s what Matthiessen took with him:*
- coffee (all gone)
- tinned cheese
- peanut butter
- sardines (nearly gone)
- bitter rice
- coarse flour
- potatoes, without butter
*Source: Journeys of Simplicity
While Thoreau or John Muir revealed something of their tastes by the books that they took with them (Muir took Burns’ poems and Paradise Lost), the true Zen spirit of this trip may be better characterized by the complete lack of frivolities that Matthiessen chose to port along on his back. Per his account, he was wearing every stitch of clothing he brought and his bag and those of his companion and sherpas were only weighed down by such provisions as they needed for the trip. The plum pit bearing his mantra may be the only literature to be found on Mathiessen’s journey.
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby