Gary Snyder’s exquisite poetry has won him numerous honors, including the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his book Turtle Island (New Directions Publishing, 1969) and the 1997 Bollingen Prize for the book-length epic poem Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint Press, 1996). For many of us, Snyder is especially important for his seminal role in introducing Buddhism to the West, which he continues to promote with unsurpassed lyricism, clarity and common sense. His books of essays, including Earth House Hold (New Directions Publishing, 1957) and The Practice of the Wild (North Point Press, 1990), weave together the wisdom of indigenous cultures and the lessons of nature with Asian spiritual traditions. Snyder has also been a primary voice in defining deep ecology, the philosophical and spiritual ground of the modern environmental movement. Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Wes Nisker conducted the following conversation with Snyder, and started by asking for his advice on how to live in the midst of our current environmental upheavals.
Gary Snyder: I like to go back to the most basic Buddhist precept, which is ahimsa, or non-harming. It is my understanding that this precept is applied to all beings. Some would say that this includes even insentient beings. Why not? It makes for a good meditation, a searching kind of examination.
Inquiring Mind: Maybe if we became more friendly with our material possessions we wouldn’t need so many of them.
GS: Precisely. So how to practice ahimsa is a profound and wonderful question. There are also matters of non-stealing and non-lying, and the basic truth of impermanence. I’ll be working on these things until I die. In the meantime, I’m hoping that the human world might settle for a simpler and quieter life that engages the whole mind and body. I’m also hoping that we put the toys aside for a while.
IM: Our techno-toys and the way we live our lives in the modern world are certainly causing great harm to other species of life. How do we extricate ourselves from this often unconscious violence?
GS: Well, first of all—don’t feel guilty. There’s no point in feeling guilty about our harm in regard to the world. On the most basic level, every living organism lives by eating other organisms. This is what ecology is all about—an energy transfer. We know that we are all impermanent, but we can take solace in the fact that whatever it is that we’re made of will not go to waste. It goes on in different forms. That becomes our final act of generosity to the universe.
What I’m getting at here is that the injunction not to do any harm can’t be seen as an absolute as in the Ten Commandments, those black-and-white ethical laws of the Abrahamic religions. In old Sanskrit, ahimsa means “do no harm” or “cause the least harm.” The precepts in Buddhism are meant as challenges, like koans, in which you keep asking, “Well, how did I deal with that today?” And you don’t beat yourself up because you didn’t do so well. Instead you say, “Well, I’ll do better next time.” This is an important difference between the East Asian approach to ethics and the more absolutist, dualistic rules of the Occidental religions.
IM: So we try to do better, but how do we live with the magnitude of the crisis without slipping into fear and blame?
GS: Okay, second rule: remember the teaching of impermanence. There is no final resolution to anything, ultimately, except the resolution that each of us makes in our own way. You have to have a clear eye and the ability to look at the actual condition of the physical universe and not run away from it.
An Occidental approach is to say that it is a fallen universe. Some of the fundamentalist sects say, “Satan is controlling the place, so let’s get out of here.” Some of the Hindu schools, too, seek liberation from birth and death, becoming totally free of the meat wheel of samsara. Kerouac called it “the quivering meat-wheel.”
But I like the Buddhist approach that advises us to live openly, without blame, and to be willing to fight where you feel it is necessary, to give in where there is no choice, and to keep your own balance in the midst of the fray.
IM: You attended the first UN conference on the environment in Stockholm back in 1971. How has the environmental movement changed since then?
GS: Endangered species were a big topic at that time. Large charismatic mammals got people’s attention at first—especially the whales, who became the poster children of the environmental movement. Some of the international agreements to curtail whaling worked for a few years, but then the Japanese and the Icelandic people started whittling away at the regulations. Now we have to fight for the whaling restrictions every year and go through all the same arguments again and again.
IM: What are the issues that are most important to you right now?
GS: Aside from my long-term concern for biodiversity, I find myself wrestling with the linked issues of energy and population. Energy is a major conundrum because we’re caught between fossil fuels and nuclear power on one side, and inadequate green choices on the other side. Renewable energy would only be adequate if we had 10 percent of the world’s present population. Ten percent. Actually, that’s not such a big deal when you consider that the world was at 10 percent of the present population in about the year 1700, when international shipping was thriving and Shakespeare had written his plays. So 10 percent of our current population can produce plenty of science and culture. However, at this point an intentional reduction of population to that level is impossible and to consider it is repugnant. Nor can we expect that people will voluntarily simplify the way they live.
It would be great if our Buddhist practices and values could bring about simpler living. We have succeeded to some small extent, and we can be proud of that, but it’s not nearly enough to change the dynamics of the present world system. It’s great to live in a place where you can bicycle everywhere, have solar panels on your roof and eat organically grown food. But most people can’t afford that kind of life. I also don’t think we will see a great change until there is more of a sense of crisis than exists now, more of a collapse of the current system. The best we can do is live our lives as a model for what’s to come, making good arguments for voluntary simplicity and a sustainable society.
IM: The Dharma is certainly a good argument for simplicity. If you can find your satisfaction and your joy by developing a peaceful mind, you won’t need more material goods.
GS: I would add that we can find our satisfaction in community, and in bioregional connection, like knowing the other living beings around us and understanding our watershed. That is also sangha.
IM: In a number of your writings you ask people whether they know what birds are in their yard, or what time is high tide. You ask people to become “nature literate” about where they live.
GS: I consider it a form of good manners. It’s a kind of etiquette. It’s not just that you should get to know your human neighbors, but you should get to know all your other neighbors as well. Etiquette involves being able to say hello in an intelligent way to a tree, to greet a bird. And that means you ought to at least know its name.
Another way to expand sangha is to hold ceremonies that pay tribute to the earth, other creatures, ancestors. There are seasonal ceremonies, like equinoxes and the solstices. In Chinese and Japanese Buddhism they do ceremonies that welcome the spirits of the dead, with everybody putting out lanterns, or maybe a little candy or a little sake. It’s like the Mexican Day of the Dead, a combination of Halloween and honoring the ancestors. Instead of inventing new things with our twenty-first-century educated minds, we probably want to check out what’s been going on in the pagan world and in the Buddhist world all through the last 5,000 years.
IM: Many of these ancient rituals seem somewhat incongruent with our contemporary Western Buddhist practices.
GS: Well, those ceremonies certainly exist in traditional Buddhist history. Actually, the entire world has always been suffused with animism, allowing for the possibility that there is lots of spirit life out there. Buddhists in Asia always seem willing to have a little ceremony for the spirit world and include the ancestors and gods in their chanting and offerings. American Buddhism doesn’t allow for that because it is so narrowly educated in its outlook, striving to appear rational.
IM: Scientific materialism doesn’t think much of the spirit world, and that’s the perspective that’s held in most of Western Buddhism.
GS: But not in Asia. I have asked Buddhist priests and monks, in India, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, what they thought about the spirit world, the gods. I got a lot of answers. The Japanese used to believe that the emperor was a god, and I always thought that was awful, some kind of crazy arrogance. But it turns out that horses and donkeys can also be considered gods. And bears are gods, especially in the north of Japan. The idea is that a god is a spirit being who is still within the wheel of nature, is in a slightly different realm, maybe has a different life span, a different sort of metabolism, or maybe doesn’t have any metabolism. These beings are included in the wheel of birth and death, the “six roads.”
In India, I remember talking to this Tibetan about the gods, and he said to me, “Oh, the gods. They have big egos. They will benefit from learning meditation and working on their egos.”
IM: The Buddha once remarked that the god Brahma was very confused because he actually thought he created everything.
GS: This is a funny situation. Charming, actually. And yes, I’ve heard it said, “We Buddhists are human and we have very short lifetimes. We are not nearly as big and powerful as the gods are, but we can teach them something. Because we have been able to understand a truth that lies beyond having a million years of life.”
That idea gives some power and verisimilitude to the human realm. I have nothing against the human realm. As I said in The Practice of the Wild, we should not blame ourselves for being human. And there is nothing wrong with thinking human beings are great. But you must remember, raccoons think they are great too.
IM: One of the great gifts of dharma practice is that it keeps you intimate with the mystery of being alive and human on this fertile water planet. And we still don’t know what this incarnation is all about.
GS: There is a certain element of intellectual and spiritual modesty that is created by your willingness to be impermanent and also not to understand everything perfectly. My first teacher, Miura Isshu, said to me as he ordained me, “Even the Buddha is working on himself somewhere.” That’s a common point of view in the Buddhist world.
IM: So as you’re aging here in this world as a human, do you feel complete with the work that you’ve done in the world and what you’ve created?
GS: I don’t have time to think about that.
IM: Joanna Macy said something very similar actually. She said, “No great assessments.”
GS: Yeah, you know, you take every day as it comes. You try to respond to people, to events, to situations with whatever you know—and everybody does the same thing with what they’ve got. I will probably write a few more poems. I would like to finish up a couple of essays that I started. And I would like to clean up the yard and write a letter to my granddaughter and grandson. Ultimately it’s not success or failure in the human realm that matters, it’s that you’re at peace with what the work is and who the people are and what you’re doing.
IM: You’ve talked a lot about keeping alive a sense of impermanence. How can the truth of impermanence inspire our work in the world?
GS: A certain modesty is created by our recognition that we are impermanent and that we do not understand everything perfectly. Impermanence inspires us to do good work, to make things well. This may sound contradictory, but impermanence does not mean that it’s a throwaway universe. Instead, because everything is impermanent I am going to build my house so that it will last awhile. That’s etiquette too. Etiquette is acknowledging impermanence and bringing dignity to everything in the process!