One sunny Saturday morning when I called, Matthiessen picked up the phone in the midst of saying goodbye to his students after their session at the Zendo. "Hang on one second; I'm kicking them all out, all these beautiful people," he said, sounding like a happy host showing out the last guests from a successful party. Matthiessen was an enthusiastic roshi in private and gladly spoke about Zen's positive effects on his life. The anger that drove him as a young man had largely subsided. "Zen has been a big help to me," he told me. "I haven't been in trouble with the authorities since, well, the FBI and my big lawsuit. I'm much calmer. I'm calmer with my kids, more easygoing and reflective. I'm sure it's helped me through this illness. I've been really pretty cheerful."
Beyond that, he preferred not to talk about Zen much, "because if you're going to talk about it, you really want to talk." Even at a moment when mindfulness was on the cover of Time and meditation was taking its turn in the cultural spotlight, people's attention spans were limited. "And so you cut it short and you make it shallow and superficial, and afterward you feel like you've dirtied yourself," he said.
Matthiessen's new novel, In Paradise, is his most overtly Zen work of fiction, an ambitious attempt to explore the limits of human understanding when confronted with unspeakable horror and suffering. The book began as a nonfiction chronicle of three retreats to Auschwitz organized by Zen Peacemakers, a group dedicated to adding social engagement to Buddhism's traditional practice of meditation. The Peacemakers' leader is Matthiessen's own roshi, Bernie Glassman. (Matthiessen was Glassman's dharma successor, meaning he had attained the same level of enlightenment as his teacher.) The title In Paradise comes from a variant of the famous conversation Jesus had with a thief while dying on the cross. In the alternate version, Jesus instructs his fellow crucifee that he need not beg to be taken to paradise, for they are already there. "Much more truthful from a Zen point of view" than the New Testament telling, Matthiessen told me.
After my visit with Matthiessen, I phoned Glassman to ask how a Zen Buddhist would prepare for his own impending end. Glassman explained that the Buddha's emphasis on accepting things as they are shouldn't be interpreted as resigning oneself to fate. Rather, the lesson is "not wasting time saying, 'Oh, things should be different,' but accepting things as they are and then dealing with them," he said. "In a way, none of us knows when we're going to die, so we should be living our lives to the fullest at every moment. You make the best meal you can with the ingredients you have."
While Matthiessen and I were discussing his memoir-in-progress, I had wondered aloud how it was possible to balance the complete selflessness necessary for enlightenment with the ferocious self-regard needed to be a great writer – especially a great autobiographer working with such rich material. Matthiessen agreed that ego and Zen tended to collide, and we talked a little more and somehow detoured into the sort of awkward conversational pause in which it seemed possible to hear snow melting and one hand clapping. I got the sense that Matthiessen knew that the details of his extraordinary life would end up in the hands of some lucky future biographer anyway, neatly organized and annotated by their creator. He seemed at peace with it.
The man who spoke so eloquently for the world's endangered species and shrinking forests was himself one of the last of a vanishing breed. Hemingway inspired a generation of writers who followed his example of living life to the fullest – what was called gusto before beer commercials rendered the word ridiculous – while wrestling with the Great American Novel. Norman Mailer, captain of the team, died in 2007. Jim Harrison is 76. James Salter is 88. The sort of novelist who devotes as much passion to fishing or skiing or drinking (or all three, in Hemingway's case) as he does to writing will soon have gone the way of the dodo and the manual typewriter.
In the final chapter of his final book, the cerebral protagonist Clements Olin, whom Matthiessen readily admitted was based on himself, reflects on the futility of words: "The Zen poet Ryokan wrote of a glad willingness to exchange the most magnificent metaphor about the sea for the immediacy, the pure reality, of one splash of cold surf full in the face."
Peter Matthiessen's great genius was that he never saw the need to choose between the two.
The Essential Peter Matthiessen
In his six-decade career, the author wrote more than two dozen books in various genres. Here are six classics that will be read for years to come.
Shadow Country (2008)
Three decades to write, two inches thick, one incredible story of moral and natural decay. The literary equivalent of Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46.
The Snow Leopard (1978)
Matthiessen's masterpiece, a raw, introspective autobiographical work about a man simultaneously looking for a little-seen cat while seeking the meaning of life.
Far Tortuga (1975)
A spare, experimental tale about Caribbean fishermen that resonates long after reading it, like a Zen koan. This is a novel beloved by fellow novelists.
The Tree Where Man Was Born (1972)
Only a writer with Matthiessen's immense ambition would try to capture the essence of Africa in a single volume, and only one with his talent could succeed.
Wildlife in America (1959)
What could have been a dry catalog of vanishing American species reads instead as a prophecy about the fragility of nature and humanity's responsibility to protect it.
At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1965)
A disturbing – and prescient – psychological tale of two outside cultures clashing in Peru over the right to end an Amazon tribe's ancient way of life.