The Snow Leopard is a book more quoted than read these days. It should be celebrated not just for its spiritual honesty, but for the courage with which it fails. Imagine a TV channel or even publisher today prepared to put up with a book that does not even glimpse its subject.
“Zen is really just a reminder to stay alive and to be awake,” Peter Matthiessen told the Guardian in 2002. “We tend to daydream all the time, speculating about the future and dwelling on the past. Zen practice is about appreciating your life in this moment. If you are truly aware of five minutes a day, then you are doing pretty well. We are beset by both the future and the past, and there is no reality apart from the here and now.”
I recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a Buddhist Centre retreat in the idyllic setting of the Somerset Hills. Like many people, I have long been interested in Zen Buddhism without knowing that much about its practice – but I did know that meditation (or za-zen, from which it derives its name) is absolutely central to it.
The actual meditation proved very difficult. The idea of ‘mindfulness’, where you not so much empty your thoughts as become very focused on the here and now, is not one that comes easily to me.
I found myself being continually distracted by the soft smoky runs of the boiler igniting its regular puffs of disbelief in the background, and by the distant catcalls of children playing in the garden, while we sat inside, in postures of graduated discomfort and in complete silence. Hard to avoid the ticking clock in one’s head that counts down the days, the hours and the minutes, both in the past and the future, but never quite reaches the present tense.
We are used to tales of disaffected teenagers leaving Europe to join ashrams and communes in India. Now precisely the reverse has occurred.
It is an extraordinary story. The young man formerly known as Lama Tenzin Osel Rinpoche and venerated by Buddhist monks in India almost as a living god has renounced his status and told of the ‘unbearable’ conditions that he endured. At present he lives in Madrid.
Singled out as the reincarnation of a previous lama at just 18 months, the young Osel originally came from a Spanish family of Western Buddhists who had taken the boy to Dharamsala, where he was chosen by the Dalai Lama. After being enthroned aged six, he then spent his youth within the walls of a monastery in Southern India. From his previous incarnation, a guru called Yeshe who had died in 1984, he inherited the spiritual leadership not just of that monastery but of 130 other Buddhist centres worldwide.
Yet shortly before his eighteenth birthday, he cast off the saffron robes and fled to the West, where he has lived in anonymity for the last five years before deciding to speak of his ordeal: ‘I was put in a medieval situation in which I suffered enormously. It was like living a lie,’ he told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo. Read more…