Featured Teacher - Featured Teacher: Gary Snyder


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“I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures.” – Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder began his career in the 1950s as a noted member of the “Beat Generation,” and a poet who brings together ecology and spiritualitythough he has since explored a wide range of social and spiritual matters in both poetry and prose. Snyder’s work blends physical reality and precise observations of nature with inner insight received primarily through the practice of Zen Buddhism. While Snyder has gained attention as a spokesman for the preservation of the natural world and its earth-conscious cultures, he is not simply a “back-to-nature” poet with a facile message. In American Poetry in the Twentieth Century, Kenneth Rexroth observed that although Snyder proposes “a new ethic, a new esthetic, [and] a new life style,” he is also “an accomplished technician who has learned from the poetry of several languages and who has developed a sure and flexible style capable of handling any material he wishes.” According to Charles Altieri in Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry during the 1960s, Snyder’s achievement “is a considerable one. Judged simply in aesthetic terms, according to norms of precision, intelligence, imaginative play, and moments of deep resonance, he easily ranks among the best poets of his generation. Moreover, he manages to provide a fresh perspective on metaphysical themes, which he makes relevant and compelling.”

After spending the better part of six years in a Japanese Zen monastery, Snyder returned to the US. Since then, he has attempted to bring his meditation practice into everyday life. For Snyder, what we need to do “is to take the great intellectual achievement of the Mahayana Buddhists and bring it back to a community style of life which is not necessarily monastic.” For Snyder, Zen is “a way of using your mind and practicing your life and doing it with other people. It has a style that involves others. It brings a particular kind of focus and attention to work. It values work…At the same time it has no external law for doing it. So you must go very deep into yourself to find the foundation of it. In other words it turns you inward rather than giving you a rulebook to live by. Zen is practice that is concerned with liberation, not with giving people some easy certainty.”

Thus for Snyder, the ‘real work’ is to achieve liberation for all sentient beings, working alongside others to make the world a better place: “The poet is right there … in the area that says ‘Let the shit fly,’ which is different from the religious person in civilized times, who is operating in the realm of control, self-discipline, purity, training, self-knowledge.” This position may reflect Snyder’s decision to leave the Japanese monastery, and rejoin the world, with all its troubles and difficulties. It also represents an attempt to live up to the Bodhisattva ideal, to work alongside others to help everyone end suffering together. As Snyder notes, “the mercy of the West has been social revolution; the mercy of the East has been individual insight into the basic self/void.”

Buddhists have an expansive concept of the self. It is an anti-essentialist philosophy, rejecting both the idea of a ‘soul’ and of God. A central principle in Mahayana is that of ‘emptiness,’ which is a dialectical concept. Emptiness, or Sunyata, posits that nothing has an essential nature, and can only be understood only in relationship to its context. As Huntington explains, “As components of worldly experience all elements of conceptualization and perception come into being through an unstable conjunction of the requisite circumstances, and cease to be through disjunction of these same circumstances: Their intrinsic nature is like a bundle of hollow reeds.”

This insight leads Snyder to quote Dogen, in saying, “in his funny cryptic way … ’whoever told people that ‘Mind’ means thoughts, opinions, ideas, and concepts? Mind means trees, fence posts, tiles, and grasses.’” Buddhism allows Snyder to see human mind in nature, and nature in the human mind. And it provides an alternative philosophical framework for deep ecologists disillusioned with the West.

(source: The Anarchist Library)

Watch Below: Gary Snyder On Ecology & Poetry


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