For nearly twenty years, Gary Snyder has lived near Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where he and a group of friends have established the Ring of Bone Zendo. As poet, dharma teacher, social critic and conservationist, Gary has forged a unique vision of how to live on this planet for both individuals and society, and as near as possible, he seems to live that vision. When former California Governor Jerry Brown once asked him why he was always going against the grain of things, Gary replied, “It’s only a temporary turbulence I’m setting myself against. I’m in line with the big flow.”
Gary Snyder combines a vast knowledge of anthropology and history with the wisdom of a Zen meditation practice, all grounded by his deep love and understanding of the natural world. Author of many books and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Gary has been one of the most important interpreters of Eastern wisdom for the West.
When we asked him to talk with us for the Inquiring Mind, he accepted our invitation with his usual generosity of spirit. Catherine Ingram, Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker participated in the following conversation, which took place in Oakland, California, in October, 1987.
Inquiring Mind: We want to explore the emerging nature of American Buddhism with you, talk about what it might look like, what elements of the East it might contain and what will be uniquely Western about it. As a starting place, perhaps you could describe your own experience in establishing a Zendo and Buddhist community here in California.
Gary Snyder: When I moved back to the Western hemisphere in 1969 after living in Japan for most of ten years, I knew that I was going to move up to the Sierra Nevada mountains. We started building up there in 1970 and have been there since. Some of the neighbors and young people who volunteered to help us work on the house were interested in joining my wife, Masa, and me in our meditation practice. We did zazen every morning in a little clump of pine trees on the edge of the meadow. So the Zendo evolved from that nucleus of people who sat together. It has grown over the years as an open and very democratic lay Buddhist group.
I knew from the beginning that I didn’t want to replicate a priestly or hierarchical kind of Zen organization, and when we finally became formally organized, it was with a Board of Directors elected from the group at large. I’ve been on the Board of Directors all along but I have avoided trying to play an overarching role; rather I’ve been an advisor, counselor and often Zendo leader. Other people lead in the Zendo, including Masa and many other women. We view ourselves not as a “Zen center,” but as a sort of mountain peasant Buddhist temple, actually with a community approach. Some of the participants are not “Zen,” but are drawn more to other kinds of practice, and that never poses a problem.
I’m one of the resident meditation teachers at Ring of Bone, and Aitken Roshi is the occasional and fully qualified koan Zen teacher. Sometimes in the wintertime I give a little series of talks on the broader spectrum of Buddhism, different approaches that I find interesting or valuable. I am particularly interested in working one-to-one with people on mythologies, their personal psychological insights and narratives. When you do that you move back and forth between several kinds of Buddhist practices, Abhidhamma categories, Vajrayana and Zen approaches; they are all part of Buddhist exploration.
IM: To what extent does the Ring of Bone Zendo have a “Japanese” flavor? What elements of the Japanese Buddhist culture and style of practice have you transplanted there in the Sierra foothills?
GS: The essence is certainly zazen. We run the hall like you run a Zendo anywhere. My background is Lin-ji (Rinzai) with a little bit of Soto influence. So we walk the stick in the hall, and we chant the traditional chants. We translate as much as we can into English and learn it in English. We try to maintain those all-important things like the tone, the rigor, the clarity, the freshness, the timeliness (everybody on time!) that’s very much a part of what Zen is all about. Serving the meals and cleaning up and everybody contributing when it’s time to work, everybody working silently. Then when the silence is over, everybody having a good time together. Our tone, or as they say in Japanese, the kafu, “the wind of the house” or the “style of the house,” is very much the style of a Zen house, and people enjoy that.
IM: What about wearing robes? Weren’t you a monk at one time in Japan?
GS: I was shaved and robed as a Zen monk, but I have quit wearing robes. I have mixed feelings about the way Japanese Zen has been coming to this country. I feel that the situation in Japan with married priests is problematic, and that they have not yet resolved the questions and contradictions of that custom. The wives aren’t comfortable, the children aren’t comfortable, and the face that the priest presents to the world is essentially that of a celibate traditional bonze, but they are not celibate traditional priests.
So I think it was a mistake to bring something that was already in trouble in Japan and reproduce it here. I made this decision a long time ago. I realized that I did not wish to be celibate and that sooner or later I wanted to have a family, and I did not wish to do that wearing the robes of a priest. I feel that the Buddhist priesthood should be either traditionally celibate or should embark on being as wholeheartedly and joyously a part of the lay Buddhist community as possible. Don’t try to play in between. So I’ve taken the latter course, which is to affirm the lay life. And even if priests or monks pass through Ring of Bone, as they do from time to time, we don’t treat them as any different from anybody else.
IM: In the area of ethics, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has proposed that Westerners might accept the fourteen precepts of the Order of Interbeing, a form of engaged Buddhism which he helped to develop in Vietnam. He feels this could be a new code of behavior for Buddhists in modem society.
GS: I see no difficulty with the traditional Buddhist precepts, especially the Five Precepts commonly understood as the lay precepts. All of those to my notion are perfectly workable, practicable and comprehensible for lay practice. However, Westerners tend to approach the whole idea of precepts in a Judeo-Christian way. My sense of it from many years of living in Asia is that Far Easterners do not look on the precepts as some kind of black-and-white, win-or-lose code, a set of rules against which you must always harshly measure yourself, but instead as a set of creative challenges which you try to live up to in different ways and on different occasions.
In Japan the most commonly broken precept is the one about not drinking, not becoming intoxicated. Monks and priests don’t fret themselves a whole lot about that precept. They look at it as a question of how do you move in the world convivially and make your Buddhism work under all conditions. So when the local village is having a harvest festival and you do take part, then the question becomes, “What is the nature of being a slightly drunk good Zen Buddhist?” (Laughs) They treat all of the precepts in a creative and open way that always drove the early Christians crazy. They said, “These Orientals aren’t serious.”
IM: The Christians didn’t think they took their own moral code seriously?
GS: The missionaries thought they forgave themselves far too easily. That’s what it came down to. They didn’t carry a burden of guilt around when they didn’t necessarily live up to the letter of the law. It’s always been very difficult for strictly ethically oriented Westerners, whether Christian or liberal, to be comfortable with the apparently relativistic sliding scales of morality and behavior that are universal in the Far East.
Living in Japan over a number of years and watching monks and priests around me, I came to realize that they were not being light with their practice, but they were understanding it in a much larger way, and understanding it partly in terms of the whole of society. The culture that you are in is one extension of the sangha, and one aspect of the Buddhist teacher’s role is to lead and be a model and sometimes a critic of that social sangha. However, another aspect of your function is not to leave the sangha behind but to keep on playing with it, keep on being part of it. When the old peasants have their annual agricultural fertility-goddess festival and they’re all going to get drunk, you don’t just stand outside of that and say, “We’re serious Buddhists and they’re peasants.”
So the Japanese example is an example of Buddhism becoming creatively comfortable with folk culture and folk religion.
IM: What could that mean here in America? It is difficult to even identify a folk culture or religion in the West today.
GS: That is very true. The condition of Buddhism in this country right now is the condition, say, of Buddhism very early in China when it was studied as an exotic new topic by a small highly privileged aristocratic elite. In the third and fourth century A.D., when it first started coming in to China, there were aristocratic circles that were completely captivated by Buddhism and formed Buddhist study circles and read and translated and started little early monastic or meditation groups like the White Horse Monastery. But it was way above the level of what was going on with the people. So it took some centuries to begin to work its way down and out. And even at the very beginning, those aristocratic people were Confucianists basically, so they were measuring Buddhism against their Confucianism and their Taoism. It was the Taoism that softened Buddhism and began to make it distinctly Chinese.
Now, theoretically, you could say the folk religion of the United States would be a kind of combination of Native American spiritual vision and seeing our national parks and wilderness areas as temples. That would be part of what North America is. The other part of it would be the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the folk philosophy of all of America. There’s almost nothing Americans agree on except for the Constitution.
IM: They may agree on it but they will certainly interpret it differently.
GS: But essentially, I think that the appreciation of nature in America and that willingness to borrow some of the imagery and metaphor and myth from Native Americans is probably the direction of our future folk religion in this country. So it’s a kind of emergent “Turtle Island Shinto.”
IM: Recently you said that after many years of being in nature you were just now learning how to be in nature.
GS: There are many ways to be in nature, and it’s fascinating to me to see how many levels there are. The most common way that people approach it is to become to some degree “nature literate,” which is to say, to become amateur naturalists. So you begin to try to learn some plant names and some bird names. There are some wonderful areas of information that take you into more and more refined levels of understanding of the actual ecological processes that are going on, better and better seeing.
IM: It sounds like a meditation practice.
GS: Yes. But so far we are still all on the level of an assumed distinction between the see-er and the seen. We have some understanding, but nature is still being seen as an object. But there’s a very interesting shift that takes place when you understand yourself, and feel yourself, as an animal. People know from high school texts or teachers that theoretically, in Darwinian organic evolution, we are animals, but most people don’t really feel it as an actual fact in themselves. And if they do, they feel it’s kind of a transitory thing. “Well, that was the animal in me.” I think the next layer of feeling for me at some point was when it just hit me that I really was an animal and that all of the things that we call “human” are simply part of that, including our spiritual capacities. It’s just another thing that animals can do.
When I began to feel myself in that way, I saw many new things. I saw my mammalness, my mammality, and I saw that reflected throughout all mammals. I started looking at little mice that I live-trapped, and I saw them as mammals. I could see their teats, I could see their genitals, and I could understand this was a female and that she nursed her infants.
And then when you butcher animals, you see the absolute parallel of anatomy in the vertebrae. We all have the same parts, arranged in almost an identical way. You watch animals mate and you understand that they are experiencing an ecstatic state of release in their relationship with each other too, and that their fear and pain is as intense as human fear and pain.
So I’ve begun to feel more connected to mammals and vertebrates, and that sense of connection can spread into broader and broader appreciations of cellular life, all the energies that are at work.
IM: So it’s not a matter of learning how to be in nature, but understanding that you are nature.
GS: Yes. And all of what I said is theoretically comprehendible by a biology class, but internalizing it, feeling it as your reality, is another step.
IM: It sounds like you are describing a Taoist perspective, not only being in harmony with nature, but feeling the interconnectedness, the nonduality.
GS: It’s the Taoist view of organic process and the understanding that we can never be in a struggle with it, because we are too much a part of it. You might be able to do an extraordinary amount of damage, but the damage would heal itself eventually and it would just be another thing that happened. Taoism is a kind of folk religion. What we just described is actually post-science, post-biology Taoism, internalizing the complete sense and actual fact of interrelatedness and interconnectedness of the universe and certainly of our planet. That’s Taoism.
IM: Maybe your analogy about Buddhism in fourth-century China continues to work here, if we think of the American folk religion as being a kind of Native American Taoism, manifesting once again in the ecological-spiritual movements of the last twenty years.
GS: There’s a wonderful new book out called The American Conservation Movement and the Legacy of John Muir, written by Steve Fox. It’s a chronicle of the rise of conservation and ecological thought and practice in the United States, with John Muir as the symbolic figure that runs through it. Fox says that the ecological movement in the United States is far more than a pragmatic self-interest movement—”If we don’t do this, we endanger ourselves.” Instead of being a human survivalist mentality, it’s a mentality that embraces nature, and in that sense it is not practical and not immediately rational. It draws on a deeper place. He says in that sense it is an unacknowledged religion which is amazingly free of any of the Judeo-Christian traditions that surround it. Consequently, it seems to come out of nowhere. And the immediate progenitors are people like Muir and Thoreau and Emerson and American Transcendentalism.
I’ve been reading and teaching a lot of Muir and Thoreau in the last couple of years, and right there in our American tradition is a very interesting spiritual ecological line that is entirely ours, and it will probably come to be understood more and more so as ours. It’s truly American. You would never find an Emerson or a Thoreau on the European Continent. They would never have evolved on the Continent. Even though the transcendentalists were educated initially in the European Occidental tradition, they made another step, and I think the step they made in part was a deep psychic response to the vast wilderness of this continent. That’s their response. There’s a big space opening up.
I’m just thinking this stuff out. It hadn’t really occurred to me that this really is our American folk religion. Even though they didn’t call it a religion. Shinto didn’t even call it a religion. It’s called “the way normal people see things.” Everybody normal, all the way through human prehistory assumes that everything is alive. It’s not a theory.
IM: So it is a sort of native ecological American Taoism. And now that the Bodhidharmas have come and Buddhism has come, we’ll see what happens to the mixture.
GS: When I was up in Alaska the lnupiaq Eskimos asked us about Buddhism. They are still somewhat tied to their native religions but also have a strong Christian influence. They’d never really heard of Buddhism so they would ask, “What do you do?” When we explained a little bit about meditation, they said, “Oh, that’s what our people did before the Christians came. That’s what they did.”
IM: Aside from the experience of Native peoples, the practice of meditation or even contemplation does not seem to have found a place in Western cultures. Meditation seems especially alien to American society.
GS: It’s definitely not a strong part of our tradition, not a strong part of Protestantism. Both the Reformation and the Enlightenment are really oriented toward action and activism.
IM: So perhaps what will emerge in America is some form of socially active, engaged Buddhism.
GS: It’s clearly a small but vital part of the Buddhist tradition to be engaged. In times of plague or famine in China the local Buddhist monasteries dropped their meditation schedules and went to work helping the people. There’s a famous case of one Zen master who had a big monastery and sold everything to buy food and supplies for the surrounding population and had it transported in to feed them.
The large scale view of things that often comes with Buddhist practice doesn’t take us off the hook from the responsibility to respond to events. To use that larger perspective as an excuse for not being concerned in the moment is cheating. That would be the exercise of wisdom without compassion. I try to always make this clear whenever I can, that these larger scale views do not excuse us from the necessity of acting in our lives, in our moment, taking pain, taking oppression, taking confusion, taking destruction as it presents itself to us and seriously working on it, if only because we are very small, conditioned beings and that is our responsibility and our territory.
It’s a perfectly natural response that actually grows out of dharma practice. Practice leads you to the point where you don’t hesitate in the matter of right action when presented with an immediate choice.
IM: Right action in the modem world seems very difficult and requires vast amounts of information and very meticulous and constant attention to detail. Living in this so-called global village, with very complicated technology, it’s hard to know how your choice of food or next automobile trip is going to affect some people on the other side of the planet. Do you have any guidelines?
GS: It’s the same exercise as becoming “nature-literate,” basically. It’s becoming “cause-and-effect-literate,” understanding interconnections on many levels, industrial and political as well as natural. You know that bioregional quiz? The two fundamental questions are “Where does your water come from?” and “Where does your garbage go?”
IM: In an interview a few years back in East West Journal you said that of the three Buddhist treasures of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, here in the West we pay least attention to and have least understanding of sangha. Could you elaborate on that part of the Triple Gem and how we find it, or how we go about creating it?
GS: Okay. First, let’s consider the American approaching Buddhism. When hearing of the Three Treasures, the American is going to have an immediate intellectual and intuitive appreciation for the idea of the Buddha, a teacher, and the idea of the dharma, the teaching, with much greater immediacy and clarity than the appreciation of the idea of the sangha. Our social and cultural experience just does not prepare us to have appreciation for the community. That’s the first problem. We’re out looking for teachers. We’re out looking for teachings. Many people would just as soon skip the sangha part of it. “I want the teachers and the teachings. I don’t want to have to hang out with these other turkeys.” (Laughs)
That translates into an unconscious resistance, on many levels, to appreciating the history, the sociology, the humanity, the responsibility, the dishwashing and the floor wiping that must, from the Buddhist side, be considered every bit as important. The Triple Gem is not hierarchical. These Three Treasures are presented as equal. The sangha is every bit as important as the Buddha, every bit as important as the dharma. This is something again that I learned in Japan by just being there long enough to begin to feel it and to realize that this was the way it really was for all the monks and practicers.
IM: Perhaps in a traditional village culture, sangha is easier to define and feel a part of. In urban America, is our sangha the other people who practice meditation, even if they live across town, or is it our neighbors, or is it the population of North America?
GS: There is a difference between the Theravadan and the Mahayana approach to this question. The Mahayana has been quite explicit for many centuries now that the sangha is “all beings.” But there are many levels of sangha. The sangha in one sense is fellow practicers and the priesthood. In another sense, it’s the whole community, it’s the watershed, it’s the farmers over there and it’s the merchants over there. And then, in a larger sense, it’s all of humanity, and then, in a larger sense, it’s all of nature.
So Nhat Hanh’s meditation on “Where does this wheat come from” is really a sangha meditation. And nature-literacy and the Taoist view of nature’s organic process is a sangha meditation. It’s a meditation on interdependence and interrelationship and interconnection and how we serve each other.
IM: And it applies on a local level as well as on the cosmic level.
GS: Yes, of course. The local cultural-political approach is expressed in something like bioregionalism which deliberately says, “Let’s look around and see what forces and processes are at work here, and see if we can tune ourselves in to them. Who are the other human beings here? Where does the water come from? Are the fish getting better water upstream? When do the ducks come back? We ought to learn Spanish because there are a lot of Chicanos joining us in this watershed.” That’s also the bioregional way of saying, “Let’s ground ourselves.” Or even the more fundamental bioregional perspective is, “Let’s not move around anymore. Let’s not be mobile.” What does that mean? How does that change our lives? That means we take responsibility for where we are and for the people that are there, and the community comes to include the blue jays and the raccoons. So that’s a necessary American way of beginning to build a sense of place, a sense of culture that is already deeply established if you live in a village in Asia.
IM: Right. We know where we are, only if we can remember where we parked our car.
GS: Another thing that works against the idea of sangha in America is the current world view that we’re all individuals seeking individual liberation, and liberation means freedom from restraints. This is all mythology.
IM: That world view may be reflected in the fact that it is very difficult for American Buddhist meditators to experience or comprehend the concept of annata or no self. Several vipassana teachers have commented on that difficulty.
GS: In the West, the idea of liberation often runs directly counter to the idea of no self. What people are aiming at is what they take to be a higher actualization of their individual unique ego.
IM: “I am realized.”
GS: (Laughs) Right.
IM: One final question, Gary. As a Buddhist meditator, activist and poet, how do you understand your role in this difficult, late twentieth-century, apocalyptic time?
GS: I see part of my role as trying to present some alternatives and tell people what the normal world was or could be like.
IM: In other words you see our current “civilization” as abnormal?
GS: Yes. What is normal, which is to say what is the experience of humanity over the last 35,000 years? We lived in small communities. We didn’t move around a whole lot. Each one of us had a lot of skills because we had to fix a lot of meals and tools. And we were responsible for our own births and deaths and the ceremonies that attended them. We always thought of ourselves as part of a family and as part of the community. We always knew that we were part of other things and that we had responsibilities to other things. We also always knew that we had totally unpredictable and surprising and strange dreams, and that we learned a whole lot by telling stories and hearing stories. And we knew that there were lots of animals, birds, fish, and that it was some distance through the woods between here and the next village. That’s the main real world. I’m not saying it’s ideal, but we can’t depart from that without first remembering that this is what we grew up in, this is what we are, this is what has shaped us.
In modem American education, going back to William Dewey or John Dewey and before, there is a prejudice against the past. There’s an unspoken prejudice against antiquity. I’ve seen it in the textbooks. There you read that China was full of feudalism and famine, the Middle Ages was full of plagues, and there is no suggestion that people were fully human or that there were people of great character, of great thought, that there were high levels of art.
So I’m playing that sort of role. As Stanley Diamond puts it in his book In Search of the Primitive, the intention is not to go back to being primitive, but to make sure that we’ve learned the lessons of our fundamental humanity before we think we can go on to something else and leave our ancestors and their planet behind.
Our current population is uprooted and disembedded in many ways. Human beings need community and that’s part of what it means to respect the sangha. Our mistreatment of ecological systems is, in a sense, a function of our lack of understanding that we belong to a sangha.
So I’m trying to distance myself from utopian interpretations of these ideas and go ahead and say that part of the challenge that faces us as human beings and as Buddhists is reknitting our connections with each other and our connections with the natural world, and that these ancient models, which aren’t really that old, help provide some models. But we also have to find how to do it in terms of the enormous speed of travel and communication that we have now, and see what needs to be done.
For example, take the issue of population. When do you suppose the population of the world was 50 percent of what it is right now?
IM: Not long ago.
GS: It was in the 1950s. So there’s nothing utopian when you talk about having less population on Earth. However, I’ve gotten a lot of heat because somewhere I said that maybe an ideal population would be 10 percent of what it is now. People got very emotional. But it simply was a suggestion, a guideline, an optimum possibility that could be arrived at over some generations by reduced birth rate, not by increased death rate. Reduced birth rate could bring that about. There is certainly nothing evil in trying to think about how to manage our own presence on Earth so that it is of more benefit to other beings.
IM: In writing and teaching about the past history of the species and the planet, you are also offering a perspective on our own life and times that can bring about a certain detachment and ease. We can start to see our personal dramas in context.
GS: l appreciate what you’re saying because I think that larger perspective should provide serenity. However, at the same time I would like to raise a sense of urgency. It is a paradoxical undertaking. For me, the most effective way of being in the world is to move in the direction of the stream of the dharma. But one is not automatically “in the stream of the dharma.” That’s where practice comes in. Meditation, devotion, dharma studies, cause-and-effect studies, chopping wood and carrying water, and more meditation yet, are the ancient and modern and future paths of entrance into the timeless truths of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. My role in part is to try to marry (like in marrying big hawser lines from ship to shore, a language of making knots) the strengths of American openness, nature-love, humor and vigor, independence and energy, egalitarian spirit and commitment to democratic values, to the traditional forms of Asian Buddhism with their refinement, diffidence, precision, and nonjudgmental, humorous firmness.
In my own field of endeavor, what I look forward to is not “Zen in America,” which to me means the replication of robes and temple procedures, married priests with station wagons, Japanese business contributions, expensive downtown centers and some sort of hybrid Japanese-Protestant etiquette with its own kind of dourness. I’m working toward a “Ch’an on Turtle Island” which for me means an earlier and more open and more T’ang Chinese sort of spirit, old women trading insults and teacakes with wandering monks, really chopping literal wood and carrying actual water, a Ch’an for ordinary people and a few ghosts and spirits thrown in, on a real continent of mountains and streams on which we ask how to include the sagebrush and the rabbits or the farmworkers and the growers of Manteca and Turlock in our Zendos as well as the highly educated slightly troubled professionals. That’s more fun, but it will take awhile.