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This Introduction explains the characteristics of Western Buddhist travel narratives as a genre and their value as a source of religious insight. These stories are autobiographical accounts of a journey to a Buddhist culture. They often describe a transformative religious experience, “unselfing,” when a person’s sense of self is radically altered. The Buddhist concept of no-self helps authors interpret this kind of experience, and it also provokes and enables such events. No-self is a challenging idea for Westerners trying to understand and reconcile it with their culture’s understanding of the self. Autobiographical accounts, in particular travel narratives, disclose crucial features of self-transformation and interpret the meaning of no-self in diverse ways and in contrast to theoretical and philosophical forms of discourse. The structure and topics of the book’s chapters are outlined.
Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978) is the best-known Western Buddhist travel narrative and the classic text that for most readers defines the genre. This chapter explores Matthiessen’s account of his two-month trip to Nepal to search for Himalayan blue sheep and the rare snow leopard, mourn his wife’s death, search for a spiritual guide, and practice Buddhist mindfulness and compassion. He describes several incidents of unselfing as well as his frustration in persisting in this longed-for state of being. Matthiessen’s later Nine-Headed Dragon River describes his shift from Rinzai to Soto Zen and culminates in a pilgrimage to Zen monasteries in Japan. He examines how the student–teacher relationship calls for submission of the ego. He presents transformation as an aspect of individual experience as well as the process by which Zen changed as it moved from China to Japan to America. In Nine-Headed Dragon River, the meaning of no-self is no longer a state to be achieved in a dramatic moment but rather offers a crucial perspective from which to understand his relationship to his Zen master and Zen’s journey through various cultures.
“The Entheogenic Landscape” examines the development of the idea that dissolving one’s ego provides access to a primary sense of identity with one’s ecosystem. This notion formed the backbone of two experiments in “consciousness expansion” that dominated the American counterculture of the 1960s: psychedelic drug tests and neoprimitivism. These fads dovetailed in ecological meditations such as Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard (1978), which foregrounds the extent to which both traditions drew on the same psychoanalytic source material. A number of predominantly white gurus employed a shaky psychoanalytic vocabulary to claim that, like infants, Indigenous peoples lack advanced symbol systems, and that by evaporating linguistic faculties, psychedelic substances might serve as a threshold into an expansive psychic condition that Indigenous communities ostensibly enjoyed. Native American writers such as Simon Ortiz have long argued that such narratives obscure native peoples’ lived sociopolitical and environmental conditions. Ortiz’s Woven Stone (1992) argues instead that language and narrative construct and enrich ecological affiliations rather than obscure them.
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