Inquiring Mind recently held a conversation with Gary Snyder, early American dharma master, consummate naturalist, and Pulitzer Prize winning poet. Snyder was talking to us about the need for developing a “culture of nature,” in which we become familiar with the other species of life in our neighborhoods, learning their names and ways, and in general, paying attention to the natural world in which we live. We asked him how the practice of meditation might speak to, or be part of, this culture of nature.
Gary Snyder: Our most intimate and immediate access to the natural world is ourselves. Our closest wilderness area is our own body. We are animal organisms, carrying around within us a huge flora of microbes, as well as a gigantic space of imagination, which, like a wilderness area, includes all kinds of territories we’ve never visited before. This wilderness is bringing up ideas, images, and memories that we didn’t consciously call forth. So in some sense, we live in a natural world of the mind itself.
Now it’s true—if I can carry this metaphor a little further—that the natural world of the self does have a little territory of civilization. It has a little urban zone, which is that territory where we plan our daily schedule, use proper, standard English, manage to make money from day to day, and keep on track with our responsibilities to family and society. But a very small territory of the mind is used for that.
Beyond this urban zone we find a vast territory of subjective consciousness and emotions, all of which we might spend a little more time visiting so that we get to know the wildlife that is inside us—the wildlife meaning other aspects of ourself. So I look on meditation as a kind of white-water raft trip where you go down the flow of the mind watching what passes by. Sometimes you have to go over some rapids, and sometimes it’s a merry float downstream. You can play that metaphor out and enjoy it.
Indeed, the sense that Buddhism brought to the world is that the mind, and the self, are natural territories of observation which we ignore at our own risk. Furthermore, and fundamental to the practice, is that on coming to understand the self, you also understand the phenomenal world. To quote Zen Master Dogen, “We study the self to forget the self.” When you forget the self, you become one with the whole phenomenal world.
I would like to add to that—and maybe this is my occidental mind kicking in—let us not think then that by practicing meditation and observing our interior selves that we have automatically learned those trees and song birds. As a matter of proper respect, we must have an exterior meditation which is walking through the landscape, as well as an interior meditation which is to examine the wilderness areas within. Meditation must go both out and in. In Buddhism our concern for examining the self and our concern for the health and integrity of all of creation come together.