Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Peter Matthiessen

American Novelist, Non-Fiction Writer, Environmental Activist and CIA-agent, Co-Founder of The Paris Review, 3-time National Book Award Winner

"The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at un-extraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each even of ordinary life."

"When we are mired in the relative world, never lifting our gaze to the mystery, our life is stunted, incomplete; we are filled with yearning for that paradise that is lost when, as young children, we replace it with words and ideas and abstractions - such as merit, such as past, present, and future - our direct, spontaneous experience of the thing itself, in the beauty and precision of this present moment."

"Soon the child’s clear eye is clouded over by ideas and opinions, preconceptions, and abstractions. Simple free being becomes encrusted with the burdensome armor of the ego. Not until years later does an instinct come that a vital sense of mystery has been withdrawn. The sun glints through the pines and the heart is pierced in a moment of beauty and strange pain, like a memory of paradise. After that day, we become seekers."

"The concept of conservation is a far truer sign of civilization than that spoilation of a continent which we once confused with progress."

"There's an elegiac quality in watching [American wilderness] go, because it's our own myth, the American frontier, that's deteriorating before our eyes. I feel a deep sorrow that my kids will never get to see what I've seen, and their kids will see nothing; there's a deep sadness whenever I look at nature now."

"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."

" The variety of life in nature can be compared to a vast library of unread books, and the plundering of nature is comparable to the random discarding of whole volumes without having opened them, and learned from them. Our critical dependence on the great variety of nature for the progress we have already made has been amply documented. Indifference to the loss of species is, in effect, indifference to the future, and therefore a shameful carelessness about our children."

"Where to begin? Do we measure the relaxing of the feet? The moment when the eye glimpses the hawk, when instinct functions? For in this pure action, this pure moving of the bird, there is no time, no space, but only the free doing-being of this very moment -now!"

"And only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped, like the passage of that silver bird on Dhaulagiri."

"All worldly pursuits have but the one unavoidable and inevitable end, which is sorrow: acquisitions end in dispersion; buildings, in destruction; meetings, in separation; births, in death. Knowing this, one should from the very first renounce acquisition and heaping-up, and building and meeting, and ? set about realizing the Truth ? Life is short, and the time of death is uncertain; so apply yourselves to meditation?"

"After midday, the rain eased, and the Land Rover rode into Pokhara on a shaft of storm light. Next day there was humid sun and shifting southern skies, but to the north a deep tumult of swirling grays was all that could be seen of the Himalaya. At dusk, white egrets flapped across the sunken clouds, now black with rain; on earth, the dark had come. Then four miles above these mud streets of the lowlands, at a point so high as to seem overhead, a luminous whiteness shone- the light of snows. Glaciers loomed and vanished in the grays, and the sky parted, and the snow cone of Machhapuchare glistened like a spire of a higher kingdom. In the night, the stars convened, and the vast ghost of Machhapuchare radiated light, although there was no moon."

"A man must grow himself, until he understands the intelligence of the flower."

"After which, at my behest, GS crops my long hair to the skull. For years, I have worn a wristband of heavy braided cord, first because it was a gift, and latterly as an affectation; this is cut off, too. Finally, I remove my watch, as the time it tells is losing all significance."

"Although the male herds are still intact- this sociability of rams is a trait of Caprini- the males are mounting one another, as much to establish dominance as in sexuality; among many sheep and goats, the juvenile males and females are quite similar in appearance, and tend to imitate the behavior (heretofore unreported) that GS calls rump-rubbing, in which one male may rub his face against the hind end of another. In the vicinity of females, the male kicks- a loose twitch of the leg in her direction that appears to be amounting preliminary and may also serve to display his handsome markings. Also, he thrusts his muzzle into her urine stream, as if to learn whether or not she is in estrus, and licks in agitation his penis. But the blue sheep stops short of certain practices developed by the markhor of Pakistan and the wild goat (the ancestor of the domestic goat, ranging from Pakistan to Greece), both of which take their penises into their mouths, urinate copiously, then spit on their own coats; the beard of the male goat is an adaptive character, a sort of urine sponge that perpetuates the fine funky smell for which the goats are known."

"And as the wary dogs skirt past, we nod, grimace, and resume our paths to separate destinies and graves."

"And it is a profound consolation, perhaps the only one, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghastly life wandering the future and the past on his hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die."

"As in fiction, the nonfiction writer is telling a story, and when that story is well-made, the placement of details and events is never random. The parts are not strung out in a line but come around full circle, like a necklace, to set off the others. They resonate, rekindle one another, stirring the reader with a cumulative effect. A good essay or article can and should have all the attributes of a good short story, including structure and design, pacing and effective placement of its parts?almost all the attributes of fiction except the creative imagination, which can never be permitted to enliven fact. The writer of nonfiction is stuck with objective reality, or should be; how his facts are arranged and presented is where his craft appears, and it can be dazzling when the writer is a good one. The best nonfiction has many, many virtues, among which simple truthfulness is perhaps foremost, yet its fidelity to the known facts is its fatal constraint."

"Around about now, young John Owen comes out of the shack lugging my old musket from the War. At six years of age, our youngest boy already knew his business. Not a word, just brings the shooting iron somewhat closer so he don't waste powder, then hoists her up, set to haul back on the trigger. I believe his plan was to shoot this feller, get the story later."

"And Tukten has known the answer all along, having only assented to my great plans to be polite, for he smiles as I come out- not to make light of things, far less to save face, but to console me. Plenty job, say, Tukten says; he accepts his life, and will go on wandering until it ends."

"As in the great religions of the East, the native American makes small distinction between religious activity and the acts of everyday: the religious ceremony is life itself. Like the Atman of the Vedas, like the Buddhist Mind, like Tao, the Great Spirit of the American Indian is everywhere and in all things, unchanging, Even the Australian aborigines ? considered to be the most ancient race on earth ? distinguished between linear time and a ?Great Time? of dreams, myths, and heroes, in which all is present in this moment. It stirs me that this primordial intuition has been perpetuated by voice and act across countless horizons and for centuries on end, illuminating the dream-life of primitives, the early Indo-European civilizations of the Sumerians and Hittites, the ancient Greeks and the Egyptians, guarded hidden cults in the Dark Ages, emerging in Christian, Hasidic, and Muslim mysticism (Sufism) as well as in all the splendorous religions of the East. And it is a profound consolidation, perhaps the only on, to this haunted animal that wastes most of a long and ghostly life wandering the future and the past on its hind legs, looking for meanings, only to see in the eyes of others of its kind that it must die."

"But it is also true that in recent years, Western scientists have turned with new respect toward the intuitive sciences of the East. Einstein repeatedly expressed suspicion of the restrictions of linear thought, concluding that 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.)"

"By midafternoon soft snow is falling, muffling four voices that rise from the cardinal points around the circle, north, south, east, and west, intoning names from registration lists obtained by Rainer from museum archives in Berlin--long lists that represent but tiny fractions of that fraction of new prisoners who survived, however briefly, the first selections on this platform and were tattooed with small blue numbers. The impeccable lists include city and country of origin, arrival date, and date of death, not infrequently on that same day or the next."

"Asian traditions refer to a hidden kingdom ? Shambala, the Center ? in an unknown part of Inner Asia. (The Gobi Desert, formerly fertile, now a repository of old bones, is often cited; the desiccation of Central Asia, as broad lakes vanished in dry pans and grasslands turned into shifting sands, might have turned an ancient city into a legend. The death of a civilization can come quickly: the change in climate that dried up rivers and destroyed the savannas of the central Sahara scattered civilizations of Fessan and Tassili in just a few centuries after 2500 BC.) More likely, Shambala is a symbol for the Aryan cultures that emerged in that vast region between 6000 and 5000 BC ? the apparent source of esoteric mystery ? cults throughout Eurasia, which have echoes to this day in the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet. According to one Tibetan lama, these mysteries ?are the faint echoes of teaching that existed from time immemorial in Central and North Asia.? Another believes that ?no people since the beginning ? has ever been without some fragment of this secret lore.? This view is supported by ethnologists, who find the same pattern of shamanistic practice not only in Asia and the Americas but in Africa, Australia, Oceania, and Europe. The historical diffusion of such teachings ? and perhaps the prehistorical as well ? is supported by striking consistencies in the practice of what Westerners, having lost the secrets, refer to with mixed fascination and contempt as ?mysticism? or ?the occult? but which for the less alienated cultures, past and present, is only another aspect reality."

"But Takarot is the capital of Tichu-Rong, and from the police house comes flat tin music from a small radio with weak batteries, the first sound we have heard since last September. A note of the twentieth century in the seventeenth, GS sighs, as sorry as myself that we have heard it."

"Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders."

"Feeling silly and quite suddenly exhausted, I sit down on the bed and begin to laugh, but I might just as easily weep. In the gaunt, brown face in the mirror- unseen since late September- the blue eyes in a monkish skull seem eerily clear, but this is the face of a man I do not know."

"From the first day I met his daughter, all I could think about was snuffling up under that sweet dimity like some bad old bear, just crawling up into that honeycomb, nose twitching, and never come out of there till early spring. Think that?s disgusting? Dammit, I do, too, but that?s the way male animals are made. Those peculiar delights were created to entrap us, and anybody who disapproves can take it up with God."

"Even that gay and loveable fellow, as GS once said of Phu-Tsering, hasn?t the slightest curiosity about what I am doing; he?ll stand behind me for hours while I?m looking and taking notes and not ask a single question."

"Column after column, page after page, of the more common family names ascend softly from the circle of still figures to be borne away on gusts of wind-whirled snow. Schwartz, Herschel; Schwartz, Isaac A.; Schwartz, Isaac D.; Schwartz, Isidor--Who? Isidor? You too? The voices are all but inaudible as befits snuffed-out identities that exist only on lists, with no more reality than forgotten faces in old photo albums--Who's this bald guy in the back? Stray faces of no more significance than wind fragments of these names of long ago, of no more substance than this snowflake poised one moment on his pen before dissolving into voids beyond all Knowing. In Paradise 87-88"

"GS refuses to believe that the Western mind can truly absorb nonlinear Eastern perceptions; he shares the view of many in the West that Eastern thought evades ?reality? and therefore lacks the courage of existence."

"Holding his breath, swaying drunkenly beneath a bulb which illumined little more than grime and moisture, Moon stared awhile at the cement wall; it took just such a hopeless international latrine in the early hours of a morning, when a man was weak in the knees, short in the breath, numb in the forehead and rotten in the gut, to make him wonder where he was, how he got there, where he was going; he realized that he did not know and never would. He had confronted this same latrine on every continent and not once had it come up with an answer; or rather, it always came up with the same answer, a suck and gurgle of unspeakable vileness, a sort of self-satisfied low chuckling: Go to it, man, you?re pissing your life away."

"How could I say that I wished to penetrate the secrets of the mountains in search of something still unknown that, like the yeti, might well be missed for the very fact of searching?"

"GS is discoursing happily on the freedom of carrying one?s own pack, of being independent of childish people who?ve lived all their lives in the mountains and won?t wear rag strips on their eyes in snow- do you realize we could travel for a week this way, and make good time, with just what we have here on our backs? I do realize this and am happy, too, watching him tramp off down the mountain; the sense of having one?s life needs at hand, of traveling light, brings with it intense energy and exhilaration. Simplicity is the secret of well-being."

"Here I am, safely returned over those peaks from a journey far more beautiful and strange than anything I had hoped for or imagined - how is it that this safe return brings such regret?"

"I am everywhere and in everything: I am the sun and stars. I am time and space and I am He. When I am everywhere, where can I move? When there is no past and no future, and I am eternal existence, then where is time?"

"However, I am getting hardened: I walk lighter, stumble less, with more spring in leg and lung, keeping my center of gravity deep in the belly, and letting that center see. At these times I am free of vertigo, even in the dangerous places; my feet move naturally to firm footholds, and I flow. But sometimes for a day or more, I lose this 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."

"I am a writer. A fiction writer who also writes nonfiction on behalf of social and environmental causes or journals about expeditions to wild places. I have written more books of nonfiction because my fiction is an exploratory process?not laborious, merely long and slow and getting slower. In reverse order, Far Tortuga took eight years, At Play in the Fields of the Lord perhaps four, and the early novels no doubt longer than they deserved. Anyway, I have been a fiction writer from the start. For many years I wrote nothing but fiction. My first published story appeared in The Atlantic the year I graduated from college and won the Atlantic firsts prize that year; and on the wings of a second story sale to the same magazine, I acquired a noted literary agent, Bernice Baumgarten, wife of James Gould Cozzens, the author of a best-selling blockbuster called By Love Possessed, whose considerable repute went to the grave with him."

"I have never figured out how women work but I do know that their skin color has no significance. Black or white, every last one is pretty pink on the inside and they are all impossible."

"I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong? This is closer to my own idea of freedom, the possibility and prospect of ?free life?, traveling light, without clinging or despising, in calm acceptance of everything that comes; free because without defenses, free not in an adolescent way, with no restraints, but in the sense of the Tibetan Buddhist?s ?crazy wisdom?, of Camus? ?leap into the absurd? that occurs within a life of limitations. The absurdity of a life that may well end before one understands it does not relieve one of the duty (to the self which is inseparable from others) to live it through as bravely and generously as possible."

"I used to distinguish between my fiction and nonfiction in terms of superiority or inferiority."

"I think in any writing you're paying attention to detail."

"I walk lighter, stumble less, with more spring in leg and lung, keeping my center of gravity deep in the belly, and letting that center 'see.' At these times, I am free of vertigo, even in dangerous places; my feet move naturally to firm footholds, and I flow. But sometimes for a day or more, I lose this 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' (125)."

"I was just very interested in the American frontier and the growth of capitalism - those enormous fortunes that were being made, more often than not, on the blood of poor people, black people, Indian people. They were the ones who paid very dearly for those great fortunes."

"I?m surprised you holy people talk to me, Wolfie said suddenly, after what I done. He swayed there a moment, frowning. As a Catholic priest, I must accept men?s frailty. And as a European I am too old and tired to expend emotion upon matters I can do nothing about."

"In a copse below Rohagaon, maple, sumac, locust, and wild grape evoke the woods of home, but the trees differ just enough from the familiar ones to make the wood seem dreamlike, a wildwood of children?s tales, found again in a soft autumn haze. The wildwood brings on wild 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, like frogs or rabbits."

"Ignoring that body of peculiar lore based on vanished continents and cosmic Masters ? and putting aside the current speculation about ocean travel by such atypical Indians as the Inca, the many cultural similarities between the pre-Aryan Dravidians and the Maya, and accounts seeming to indicate that Buddhist missionaries reached the Aleutians and traveled as far south as California by the fourteenth century ? one remains faced with an uneasy choice between eerily precise archetypal symbols and the perpetuation of a body of profound intuitive knowledge that antedates all known religions of man?s history."

"If all else fails, GS will send Jang-bu to Saldang to buy an old goat as leopard bait. I long to see the snow leopard, yet to glimpse it by camera flash, at night, crouched on a bait, is not to see it. If the snow leopard should manifest itself, then I am ready to see the snow leopard. If not, then somehow (and I don?t understand this instinct, even now) I am not ready to perceive it, in the same way that I am not ready to resolve my koan; and in the not-seeing, I am content. I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed. That the snow leopard is, that it is here, that its frosty eyes watch us from the mountain- that is enough."

"In Tantra, the pessimistic fear of desire and pleasure that characterized early Buddhism was seen as but another form of bondage, and emphasis was placed on being ? in ? life without suppression of life forces but also without clinging or craving, Tantra concerned itself with the totality of existence, the apprehension of the whole universe within man?s being. All thoughts and acts, including the sex energies, were channeled into spiritual growth, with the transcendence of all opposites the goal; in the communion of sex, wine, and feasting, the illusion of separate identity might be lost, so long as a detached perspective was retained. All things and acts were equal, interwoven, from the ?lowliest? physical functions to the ?highest? spiritual yearning ? an ultimate embrace of all existence. Thus, Tantra might be interpreted as the practice of mankind?s earliest religious intuition: that body, mind, and nature are all one."

"In nonfiction, you have that limitation, that constraint, of telling the truth."

"In fiction, you have a rough idea what's coming up next - sometimes you even make a little outline - but in fact you don't know. Each day is a whole new - and for me, a very invigorating - experience."