May 8, 2010
And when we were eight, or nine,
our father took us back into the Alabama woods,
found a rotten log, and with his hunting knife
pried off a slab of bark
to show the hundred kinds of bugs and grubs
that we would have to eat in a time of war.
"The ones who will survive," he told us,
looking at us hard,
"are the ones who are willing to do anything."
Then he popped one of those pale slugs
into his mouth and started chewing.
And that was Lesson Number 4
in The Green Beret Book of Childrearing.
I looked at my pale, scrawny, knock-kneed, bug-eyed brother,
who was identical to me,
and saw that, in a world that ate the weak,
we didn't have a prayer,
and next thing I remember, I'm working for a living
at a boring job
that I'm afraid of losing,
with a wife whose lack of love for me
is like a lack of oxygen,
and this dead thing in my chest
that used to be my heart.
Oh, if he were alive, I would tell him, "Dad,
you were right! I ate a lot of stuff
far worse than bugs."
And I was eaten, I was eaten,
I was picked up
down into the belly of the world.
It's the birthday of poet and Zen practitioner Gary Snyder, (books by this author) born in San Francisco (1930). He grew up in a remote part of Washington state, helping out on the small family dairy farm. From the time he was a kid, eight or nine, he would go off on his own in the woods for a night or two. When he was 15, he started climbing mountains, including Mt. St. Helens.
He went off to Reed College in Portland, studied literature and anthropology, then worked as a timber scaler for a summer before heading out to do graduate study in anthropology at Indiana University. On the drive out there, he had his first experience with Zen Buddhism, which he has continued to study and practice ever since. He said: "In the middle of Nevada, on old Interstate 40, there was a period of about five hours where nobody would give me a ride. As I stood there in the middle of the sagebrush flats, I was reading through a chapter of Suzuki's Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series, and I hit on some phrases that turned my mind totally around. I knew that I wouldn't last at Indiana, and that I would soon be heading in the other direction back toward Asia." He studied Chinese and Japanese at Berkeley, and then he went to Japan. For most of the period between 1955 and 1968, he lived and studied there. He worked translating Japanese texts at a temple just outside Kyoto, and he practiced Zen. He studied deeply enough that he received the Zen precepts, but he decided not to become a monk, and went back to California to spread the teachings as a lay-person, someone who is not a monastic.
When he was asked how he felt about Western Buddhism, he said: " Suzuki Hiroshi, who founded the Zen Center in San Francisco, said to me when I first came back from Japan in 1969, 'Do you know what's wrong with Americans? They're too serious. They don't have enough sense of humor.' I knew just what he was saying, because the Japanese Buddhist world has this knack for seeming very formal and very strict on the surface, and then just having a freewheeling, very tolerant time behind the surface. That's a trick. A lot of American Buddhism is still crypto-Protestantism."
Whether or not American Buddhism has a ways to go, Gary Snyder has done a lot to bring it into the public eye here, and especially to integrate it into poetry. For one thing, he has tied Buddhism to activism, especially environmental activism, and distilled Buddhist ideas into easy-to-understand language. He says things like: "Care for the environment is like noblesse oblige. You don't do it because it has to be done. You do it because it's beautiful." And he draws on a Buddhist reverence for "all sentient beings," all forms of life, when he talks about "the etiquette of freedom" and "practice of the wild" as ways to address environmental issues — he said that when he teaches classes, "I'll remind them that good manners requires you to get to know the names of the plants and flowers and birds. That's etiquette."
And Snyder was at the forefront of popularizing Buddhist practice among American poets. He certainly wasn't the first to be interested in Buddhism — in fact both Emerson and Thoreau were interested in Buddhism and Hinduism, which they read about widely, but neither actively practiced Buddhism. For the next 100 years, there were occasional interests in Buddhism in the literary world, but it was really with the Beats that it gained a more widespread audience in literature. Many of Snyder's Beat contemporaries studied Buddhism, especially Allen Ginsberg — he and Snyder traveled together in India and met the Dalai Lama. Jack Kerouac was also interested in Buddhism, as he documented in his fictionalized account of learning about Buddhism from Snyder, The Dharma Bums, (1958). In it, Kerouac refers to Snyder as "Japhy Ryder" and himself as "Ray Smith."
Since those days, many prominent American writers have studied Buddhism and written about their experience with it. Poet Jane Hirshfield has been practicing Zen for more than 30 years. Peter Matthiessen is an ordained Zen priest. Poet and writer Natalie Goldberg writes popular writing guides, always with a Zen focus, including her most famous, Writing Down the Bones (1986), which was a surprise best-seller.
And that is just the beginning of the influence of Buddhism, particularly Zen, on American poetry. The year 2005 saw the release of The Wisdom Anthology of North American Buddhist Poetry, featuring work by Hirshfield, Snyder, Arthur Sze, Philip Whalen, Leslie Scalapino, Hoa Nguyen, Michael McClure, and many more poets, and poems with titles like "Three 'Dharma Poems,'" "Bodhidharma Never Came to Hatboro," "'Replacement Buddhas,'" and "Zen Acorn."
Gary Snyder's poem "What You Should Know to be a Poet" begins:
all you can know about animals as persons.
the names of trees and flowers and weeds.
the names of stars and the movements of planets
and the moon.
your own six senses, with a watchful elegant mind.
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®