Gary Snyder’s New Beginner Enlightenment

Patrick James Dunagan

A key part of this practice for Snyder is the conception of bioregional living and the basic principle reminder that, “every region has its wildness.” And a region may be defined by any (or more) of the following “facets”: “biota, watersheds, landforms, and elevations.” Snyder is consistently girding his work on awareness of effects historical shifts of human habitation around the world have upon the land itself. Human society does learn and unlearn as it goes on.
Throughout the world the original inhabitants of desert, jungle, and forest are facing relentless waves  of incursions into their remotest territories. These lands, whether by treaty or by default, were left in their use because the dominant society thought the arctic tundra or arid desert or jungle forest “no good.” Native people everywhere are now conducting an underpriveliged and underfunded fight against unimaginably wealthy corporations to resist logging or oil exploration or uranium mining on their own land. They persist in these struggles not just because it has always been their home, but also because some places in it are sacred to them.
As Snyder indicates, the shifts in consciousness as different human societies become dominant in a region, whether over the course of centuries, decades, or mere years, may be extreme. Understanding these shifts and how the definitions of terms, such as “sacred,” vary from one society to the next plays a central role in determining whether any changing developments of relationship to the land are positive or negative in years to come.

There are lessons in every region. Snyder’s own, the Sierra Nevada mountain range of Northern California, is an example of the forest’s survival of fire by adaptation, a process human habitation has been at times on both sides of, inadvertently contributing to further weakening the forest’s natural resistance.
The forest was fire-adapted over the millennia and is extremely resistant to wildfire once the larger underbrush has burnt or died away. The early emigrants described driving their wagons through park-like forests of great trees as they descended the west slope of the range. The early logging was followed by devastating fires. Then came the suppression of fires by the forest agencies, and that led to the brushy understory that is so common to the Sierra now.
It is only by so reading the record going back for centuries (which at times pre-dates the arrival and documentation of the current society) that any society might strive to understand and implement long range possibilities of its own going forward for multiple generations to come.

It is in his now decades old personal practice of Zen Buddhist belief that Snyder locates his understanding for the need of such perspective which envisions a sustainable future founded upon present daily sustainable practices. In a section of dialogue between Harrison and Snyder, “Zen and Poetry,” which is transcribed in the book but not included in the film, the easy going comfort and the conversational format allows Snyder to express his thoughts in looser fashion than the essay form allows.
Gary Snyder: […] Zen just means meditation. It should go back to that.
 Jim Harrison: Yeah, to the simplest form.
GS: Sitting on a stump.
JH: Yeah, maybe. Or under a stump. Under the stump is quite wonderful.
GS: On a stump in good weather and under it in bad weather. It’s the idea that the mountains and rivers are your landscape for practice; that you don’t need a special architecture.
JH: The natural world was a foundation of Buddhism, of course.
GS: It was part of Buddhism. There’s some wonderful natural imagery in the very early poetry of the nuns and monks in Pali, the Theavadins, almost vernacular poetry; it’s actually full of nature imagery. But the Tibetan Buddhist style is rather formal: all of their followers and helpers and defenders, set in elaborate and formalized mandala-style presentations.
But then in East Asia, starting around the ninth and tenth centuries, you get these wonderful landscape paintings, many of them painted by Zen priests. And I suspect this to be the case, although it just may be my own fancy, that the landscapes in Chinese paintings are the functional equivalent of the mandalas in Tibetan painting. They are nature mandalas of mountains and rivers, as done by Zen priests.

It should come of no surprise that Snyder’s writing goes hand in hand with his spiritual practice. That his own book-length poem written over four decades is titled Mountains and Rivers Without End is no accident. While Snyder is not an official Zen priest he has spent years living and studying in Zen temples in Japan and deeply undertaken his study thereof. It’s an avid interest he’s shared in the course of his life with many poet friends such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen.

Although not commonly listed among such poet friends of Snyder’s, Harrison serves as the perfect counterpoint to Snyder. Without Harrison this film would lose much of its light-heartedness, his “uh-huhs” and “yeahs” arrive naturally timed, interrupting yet also encouraging Snyder at points where he veers too close to pontification. Harrison provides the gruel that binds together and backs up Snyder’s rhetoric. He’s the troll who’s come out from under the bridge but rather than gobble small children he’s discussing nature, spirituality, history, and the writing of poetry. The one-off humor is rampant.
GS: You know, I got interested in Asia for the wrong reasons.
JH: Were you attracted to the women?

While such exchanges are frequent occurrences, rarely does Snyder take the bait. In this case, rather than respond directly to Harrison’s suggestion regarding any possible penchant of Snyder’s for Asian women, he instead sticks with his original train of thought, smoothly leaving the sparks of friendly jest merely as evidence of the rapport the two share. Snyder picks back up the conversation without missing a beat and friends associated with production of the film join in, as this scene takes place around a table after an evening meal.
GS: Yeah, so in Sunday school, I just had to raise the question, “Will I meet my heifer in heaven?”
John J. Healey: That’s so adorable.
Jim Harrison; Yeah.
Lisa Neinchel: Yeah.
Gary Snyder: And the Sunday school teacher, you know, could have finessed the answer—
Will Hearst: Yeah, right.
GS: —if he had been a more sophisticated theologian—but what he said was, “NO, animals don’t go to heaven.”
JH: Well, then I don’t want to go there!

Harrison is ever generous as he rarely does he push or prod far into Snyder’s privacy, but rather allows for Snyder to lead the way. The mood throughout is kept at being one of serious levity. With the joking at times including more literary matters that verge on being a Zen koan in their own regard.
JH: What Charles Olson said, that a poet should traffic only in his own sign—I asked you about that, and you weren’t sure what Olson meant.
GS: Maybe he meant astrologically.

Zen masters, when asked to parse the riddling practice of koans, as Snyder tells Harrison, will say, “The answers are not the answers. The answers are where you’re at.”
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