Desert Solitaire – Edward Abbey

Desert Solitaire

I do not recall if Abbey studied zen. It appears to me that inherent in his craft is the idea that what he does not say is as important as what he does. Each sentence zigs and zags around, over and under so many norms of American society, and he does so with nary a collision. However, it is his intent to speak his mind and cause the collisions at his place and time: ( “Aside from the modest prevention the book is fairly plain and straight. Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem course, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, constructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangles from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.)

“It will be objected that the book deals too much with mere appearances, with the surface of things, and fails to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships which form the true underlying reality of existence. Here I must confess that I know nothing whatever about true underlying reality, having never met any. There are many people who say they have, I know, but they’ve been luckier than I.

For my own part I am pleased enough with surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance. Such things for example as the grasp of a child’s hand in your own, the flavor of an apple, the embrace of a friend or a lover, the wild of a girls thigh, the sunlight on rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear watering a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there?. What else do we need?”

22151002_28767 Edward-Abbey-TerraSight_A152

Morris Graves – Northwest Art

Morris Graves (August 28, 1910 – May 5, 2001) is a rare Northwest native, who was, by and large, a self-taught artist. His early experience with Japan and zen buddhism contributed to the development of his mystic paintings, some of which are shown below. Much of his adult life was spent in and around Seattle and La Conner, WA. He connected with many artists here, three who makeup the Northwest School: Kenneth Callahan, Mark Tobey and Guy Anderson. Graves influence is broad, an example is Robert Davidson’s noted resurgence in Haida art. Graves choose animals and birds to represent symbols where the presence of spiritual essence may be witnessed.

Howard Zinn – Be Hopeful


“To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we dont have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”

Howard Zinn

A Power Governments Cannot Suppress, p. 270

Shunryū Suzuki-rōshi THE WAY-SEEKING MIND

DSC_0119-2Saturday, March 26, 1966

Listen to this talk: Suzuki-roshi 66-03-26 (Note – noise problems in audio)

When we feel the evanescence of life, or when we have problems for ourselves, and direct feeling of the problems—of the fact you have to face—is how you arise the way-seeking mind.

Usually when we set ourselves to studying something, we put our everyday problems aside, concentrating our attention for a time on something of particular interest.  That is how we study generally.  On Sunday you may go to church, but to you going to church and your everyday life are two completely different activities.  Eventually, however, you will feel some contradiction in your everyday life, and some uneasiness, feeling you have nothing to rely on.  It is this feeling which gives rise to the way-seeking mind.


When you are young, young enough to act as you want, you can choose something good, ignoring something bad, and by working on something good, you may feel good enough to spend your early life.  But some uneasiness, some dark feeling will follow in your life.  Even though you try to appease your conscience by working hard and exhausting yourself on what you are doing, this kind of effort will not give you any conviction.  Jumping around in this world without conviction may be the pitiful life.  You will be pitied by someone who has strong conviction and deep wisdom concerning our life.  Thus we should be ashamed of doing something proudly, vigorously, with some ecstasy even, ignoring the other side of the world, the dark side of our life.

By nature human beings have good and bad sides, half and half.  When you want to do something good, at the same time you don’t want to do something good.  [Laughing.]  If you want to get up early, at the same time you say, “I will stay in bed five more minutes.  It is too early!”  At the same time you want to get up, you will say to yourself, “No, yes, no!”  “Yes” is fifty percent; “no” is fifty percent … or more!  Bad things sixty percent; good, forty percent.”

The more you reflect on yourself, however, the more conscientious you become.  Because you become more and more conscientious, you feel as if you are doing ninety-nine percent bad things!  That is actually human nature.  It is not a matter of what is good and what is bad.  It is a matter of our human nature.  When you realize this fact in your everyday life, you have to wonder what we should do.  If you realize this fact, you will not be fooled by anyone.  You may take some pleasure in entertainments, but you cannot fool yourself completely.  You cannot deceive yourself when you realize the true state of our human nature.

Some people say, “If we have a perfect social construction, we will not have these difficulties.”  But as long as there is human nature, nothing will help us.  On the contrary, the more human culture advances, the more difficulties we will have in our life.  The advancement of civilization will accelerate this contradiction in our nature.  When we realize the absolute presence of our contradictory nature, the way-seeking mind arises, and we begin to work on ourselves instead of the material world.  Most people who are interested in Buddhism are more or less critical of our social condition, expecting a better social framework.  Some people have become disgusted with our human life.  We cannot approve of these criticisms fully, however, because they do not rest on the full understanding of our human nature.

Human nature is always the same.  Some people may say our spiritual culture will progress when our material civilization progresses.  Strictly speaking, however, as long as we have human nature, it is impossible to obtain a perfect idealistic spiritual culture in our human world.  We should fully realized this point.  Because of our uneasiness, we are too anxious to achieve something perfect in our spiritual life.  Here we have some danger.  Our spiritual life cannot be regarded as we have come to regard our material life.  You cannot work on your spiritual life as you do your materialistic life.  Even though you talk about our spiritual life thousands of times, it will not help you.  It is necessary to know actually what is our human world, or what is our human nature.  This is a very important point.  If you fail to observe our human nature fully, even though you study Buddhism, what you acquire is not what Buddha meant.

For many years we have been practicing zazen here at Zen Center.  And we think it is time we made some progress.  I think so.  You think so as well.  But when we feel in this way, we should be careful not to mistake our way.  We should know what is the way-seeking mind, what is human nature.

Some people may say, if human nature is always the same, then it is useless [laughing] to practice zazen, to study Buddhism.  But our study is based on this fact.  Our study is not to improve upon the actual fact that we have good and bad, half and half, as our human nature.  We should not try to improve upon this actual fact.  Even Buddha accepted this truth … he started Buddhism based on this fact.  He accepted this truth.  If you try to change this truth, you are no longer a Buddhist.

Buddha said our human life is a life of suffering.  This is a fundamental truth.  Knowing this fact, having this deep understanding of human nature, we may continue our life step by step helping each other.  Because we have good and bad, half and half, we can help.  If all of us (laughing) were good, it would be impossible to help one another.  It is a good thing that we have good nature and bad nature … we are able to feel the improvement, however slightly we may change.  It would be wonderful if we could help another even by a hair’s breadth.  It makes no difference what sort of problems or situation in life we have.  If we have something to work on, it is enough.  Because we have good and bad, half and half, because we can find some way to help others, if only by the width of a sheet of paper, by a few words, we can enjoy our life.

The way-seeking mind should be realized in our actual world, which includes flowers and stones, and stars and moon.  The true way-seeking mind can only be actualized in full scale.  Where there are human beings, there is the sun and stars, land and ocean, fish and grass and birds.  Without this vast area to live in, where we can have our various problems, we cannot survive in this world.  But forgetting this vast realm where we have absolute freedom, we seek for something merely for the sake of ourselves, just for human beings.  Thus we have to suffer our nature, which has good and bad, fifty-fifty.  When we become aware of this big realm, which includes everything, then we have big, big mind and big, big trust.  We have perfect eternal freedom within this big realm.

Actually the way-seeking mind is the conviction to fly as a bird that flies in the air, to enjoy our being in this vast world of freedom.  Enjoying our nature as a part of this vast world, we have no uncertainty because we don’t know there is nowhere to go.  Life and death is not our problem anymore.  We attain enlightenment in this big realm.  We suffer in this big realm.  We are ignorant of the limit of the world.  Here we don’t have even the problem of attaining enlightenment.  Ignorance is good, enlightenment is good; zazen is good, to stay at home is good.  Every activity will take place in this big realm.  Our human effort, our human culture should be based on this kind of imperturbable conviction.  Our effort should not be limited to ourselves.  That is what I mean by the way-seeking mind.

When Dōgen-zenji attained enlightenment, he said he forgot all about his body and mind.  This means he found himself in this big world.  So our activity should be limitlessly small and at the same time should be limitlessly great.  There is no difference in the greatness of our activity, and what may seem a trivial small activity.  They have the same value.  Our pleasure and conscience will be fully supported by this big, big realm.  In this way we practice zazen.  We should strive for enlightenment, of course.  We should try to calm down our mind.  But it is impossible to obtain enlightenment or to calm down your mind without realizing the fact of this big realm which supports us.  If you don’t realize this fact, trying to calm your mind is the same as arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg.  The moment you say the hen came first, the egg is already there as her mother.  There is no end to the argument.

That we appear in this world means we should disappear from this world [laughing].  If you were not born in this world, there would be no need to die.  To be born in this world is to die, to disappear.  That we can do something good means that we can do something bad.  It is true.  Do not be fooled by this kind of contradiction, home-made contradiction!  You made some contradiction in your life.

Our study, our effort or practice, should be firmly supported by Buddha’s wisdom.  You may come to realize how true Buddha’s teaching is to the circumstances under which we suffer.  When you realize how this teaching is true to us, you will begin your practice.  But when you are jumping from one place to another, it is difficult to teach you how to practice Buddhism.  Anyway, for the beginner, it is difficult to sit.  However, if you continue your practice you will discover your own posture, good or bad.  Then you can say it may be better to put some more strength in your abdomen, make your posture straighter; or you may find that you are leaning forward or backward.  That you have some posture, your own posture, is at the same time to have some bad habits.  Without bad habits you cannot improve your posture!  [Laughing.]  It is good for us to have bad habits!

But you ask me what is right posture.  That is also a mistake.  Whatever you do is right.  Nothing is wrong with what you do.  But some improvement is necessary.  Something should be done with what you have attained.  Even though you attain enlightenment like Buddha, something should be done with it.  That is his enlightenment.  So the point is not whether your posture is right or wrong.  The point is constant effort or way-seeking mind.

I think I should not talk too much.  The more you practice zazen, the more you find out the true, deeper meaning of our practice.  Anyway, we should be more friendly and frank and straightforward, and we should be more free, and we should accept the instruction.  This is our way.


This transcript is a retyping of the existing City Center transcript.  It is not verbatim.  The City Center transcript was entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997.  It was reformatted by Bill Redican (10/30/01).

– See more at:

Towards a More Altruistic Society – Matthieu Ricard

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Towards a more altruistic society

At the end of last week, Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme (The Case for Altruism), a 920 page-book on which I have been intensely working for 5 years, came out in French (the English publication is scheduled for January 2015).

Cooperation, wrote Martin Nowak, is “the architect of creativity throughout evolution, from cells to multicellular creatures to anthills to villages to cities. Without cooperation there can be neither construction nor complexity in evolution”(1).

It seems that, today, we need to move to the next level of cooperation to face the many challenges that our times are confronted with. Each of these challenges has its temporality and priority. A major difficulty consists in reconciling three different time scales and three different types of preoccupations: the economy in the short term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and environment in the long term.

The economy and finance are evolving at an ever-faster pace. Life satisfaction is measured on the scale of a life project, a career, a family, a generation and a life time. The evolution of the environment used to be measured in terms of millennia and era, but the pace of environmental changes has now considerably accelerated.

We should not however give up the idea of reconciling these three time scales. Altruism is the vital thread that can link them together and harmonize their requirements. Altruism is not merely a noble, somewhat naive ideal; today, more than ever, it is a necessity.

If we have more consideration for others, we will not indulge in wild, self-oriented speculations with the savings of those who have placed their trust in us.

If we have more consideration for others, we will care for the quality of life of those around us, we will make sure that their situation improves.

Finally, if we have more consideration for future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice the world that we hand down to them in favor of our short-term wants and desires.

Altruism is thus the key to our survival and the determining factor of the quality of our current and future existence. We must have the insight to recognize it and the audacity to say so.

In its essence, altruism is a benevolent state of mind, consisting of feeling concerned for the fate of all those around us, and wishing them well, strengthened by our determination to act for their benefit. Valuing others is the most fundamental state of mind that leads to altruism. When it is our “default mode”, it expresses itself as benevolence towards anyone who might come into the field of one’s attention and translates itself as goodwill, readiness and willingness to care. As shown by psychologist Daniel Batson, when there is a need that is perceived in others, we readily develop empathic concern, bringing about the urge to fulfill that need. When the need is related to a yearning for happiness, valuing others and benevolence will foster the realization of that aspiration. When the need is related to suffering, valuing others and compassion will induce us to remedy the suffering and its causes.

On the individual level, collaboration between neuroscientists and contemplatives has shown that altruism and compassion are skills that can be cultivated with training. These studies have also distinguished the differences between empathy (the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others), loving-kindness (the wish that others may be happy) and compassion (the wish that they might be free from suffering).

At the society level, research in the field of cultural evolution has also shown that human cultural values can change faster than our genes, and bring about significant transformations in societies. How can we bring about a shift towards a more altruistic, compassionate culture? First of all we need to recognize the importance of altruism. We then need to cultivate it at an individual level and, from there, bring about cultural changes. Cultures and individuals mutually shape each other, just as two knife blades can be used to sharpen the other.

Ricard, M. (2013). Plaidoyer pour l’altruisme. Nil Editions.

Buy the book in French

(1) Nowak, M., & Highfield, R. (2011). SuperCooperators (Reprint.). Free Press

Matthieu Ricard

Born in France in 1946 as the son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin, Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author, translator, and photographer. He first visited India in 1967 where he met great spiritual masters from Tibet. After completing his Ph.D. degree in cell genetics in 1972, he moved to the Himalayan region where he has been living for the past 40 years.

Written works
Matthieu Ricard is the author of several books, such as Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Why Meditate? (The Art of Meditation in the UK), The Quantum and the Lotus (a dialogue with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan), and The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father. His books have been translated into over twenty languages.Translations of Buddhist texts
Matthieu Ricard has dedicated his life to the study and practice of Buddhism following the teachings of the greatest Tibetan spiritual masters of our time. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. He is the author of several volumes of Buddhist texts translated from the Tibetan, such as The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, and The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva (teachings by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche).

For many years Matthieu Ricard has been photographing the landscapes, spiritual masters, and people of the magnificent Himalayan region. His work is exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the world. He is the author and photographer of a number of photography books including Bhutan: The Land of Serenity, Motionless Journey: From a Hermitage in the Himalayas, and Tibet: An Inner Journey.

Scientific Contributions
Matthieu Ricard is an active member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to broadening the understanding of how the mind works by exploring the intersection between contemplative traditions and contemporary scientific inquiry.
He contributes to the research on the effect of meditation on the brain at various universities in the USA and Europe and is the co-author of several scientific publications.Humanitarian commitment
All proceeds from Matthieu Ricard’s books, photographs, and events are donated to Karuna-Shechen (, the humanitarian association he created. Based on the ideal of “compassion in action”, Karuna-Shechen develops education, medical, and social projects for the most destitute populations of the Himalayan region.

For more information on Karuna-Shechen :

Special Human Powers – The Lotus Sutra – Fragments

This is a talk about special powers that people have without knowing it nor using them. This discussion is a transcript of a talk given by Shunryu Suzuki and the transcript  lacks fluidity but reflects the actual presentation style of Suzuki. The sutra story shows that through paying attention to what is in front of you many powers open up to use. The vehicle of the story is through Master and disciple and learning through practice. Following Susuki’s talk is a piece by Sarah Fraser that tells the story of her time illustrating the Lotus Sutra and what she learned in doing so.

Shunryū Suzuki-rōshi



Friday Evening, July 11, 1970


Listen to this talk: Suzuki-roshi 70-07-11

[This is the third in a series of six lectures by Suzuki-rōshi on

the four ekōs chanted at the conclusion of morning services at

San Francisco Zen Center and other Sōtō Zen temples and monasteries.

The Second Morning Ekō:

Chōka ōgu fugin

Line 1.  Aogi koi negawakuwa shōkan, fushite kannō o taretamae.

Line 2.  Jōrai, Maka Hannyaharamita Shingyō o fujusu, atsumuru

                  tokoro no kudoku wa,

Line 3.  jippō jōjū no sambō, kakai muryō no kenshō,

Line 4.  jūroku dai arakan, issai no ōgu burui kenzoku ni ekō su.

Line 5.  Koinegō tokoro wa,

Line 6.  sanmyō rokutsū, mappō o shōbō ni kaeshi goriki hachige,

                  gunjō o mushō ni michibiki.

Line 7.  Sammon no nirin tsuneni tenji, kokudo no sansai nagaku shō

                  sen koto o. 

Dedication for the Morning Service Arhat’s Sūtra

Line 1.  May Buddha observe [see?] us and respond.

Line 2.  Thus, as we chant the Maha Prajñā Pāramitā Hridaya Sūtra,

we dedicate the collected merit to

Line 3.  the all-pervading, ever-present Triple Treasure,

the innumerable wise men in the ocean of enlightenment,

Line 4.  the sixteen great arhats and all other arhats.

Line 5.  May it be that

Line 6.  with the Three Insights and the Six Universal Powers,

the true teaching be restored in the age of decline.

With the Five Powers and Eight Ways of Liberation,

may all sentient beings be led to nirvāna.

Line 7.  May the two wheels of this temple forever turn

and this country always avert the Three Calamities.]

Last night I—I explained—oh, excuse me—already about arhat.  The second sūtra—second sūtra reciting of Prajñā Pāramitā Sūtra is for arhats.  And in ekō it says:

[Line 1.]  Jō—Aogi koi negawakuwa shōkan, fushite kannō o


[Line 2.]  Jōrai, Hannya Shingyō o fujusu, atsumuru tokoro no

                           kudoku wa,


Some people say, Jōrai, Maka Hanyaharamita Shingyō o fujusu, but some other people say, Jōrai, Hanya Shingyō—don’t—without saying Maka.  That is more usual.  Jōrai, Hanya Shingyō o fujusu.

When we, you know, when kokyō start sūtra, we say Maka Hanyaharamita Shingyō, and when we—in—in sūtra—in ekō we say, Jōrai, Hanya Shingyō o fujusu.  That is more usual.  But you can say:

[Line 2.]  Jōrai, Maka Hannyaharamita Shingyō o fujusu, atsumuru

                  tokoro no kudoku wa,

[Line 3.]  jippō jōjū no sambō, kakai muryō no kenjō,[1]

[Line 4.]  jūroku dai arakan, ōgu issai burui[2]  kenzoku ni ekō su.

We already—I explained already so far, and tonight I have to explain about arhats’ so-called-it “supernatural power.”

Sanmyō[3]  rokutsū.  Sanmyō rokutsū is—sanmyō is the—the power of—of clair- [partial word]—clairvoyant, you know, to see things through various obstacles.  He—he can see his past life, even.

And next one is to hear everything from a distant.  That is a[n] arhat’s power.  And the last one is the power to put an end to the kar- [partial word]—karmic life.  So arhat—for arhats there is no karma because he extinguished all the desires, and he has no—he doesn’t cause any karma.  That is the third one.  Sanmyō.  San is “three.”  Myō is “clear—clear powerful power.”  That is sanmyō.

The rokutsū.[4]  Rokutsū is—in rokutsū is those three [sanmyō] is included.  And when we say rokutsū, to—the power to read someone’s mind is the—one of them.  And to know, you know—  The first one in rokutsū—the first one is the—to see everything—clairvoyant—ears to—capable of hearing everything.  So—and to read someone’s mind, to have insight into others.  And he is able to observe or—observe the cause of the various suffering.  And—shuku-shuku-shukumyōtsū[5]—and he has power of to see people’s past life, including his past life.  And he has a kind of supernatural power to fly, you know, or to cross the river without boat—that kind of supernatural perfect freedom from everything.  This is more, you know, subjective, you know, power.  But you—you cannot say this kind of power is something objective power.  [It is] more subjective, but for him, you know, that ki- [partial word:  kind?]—he [an arhat] has that kind of power.  Or he thinks, you know, he—he has some conviction, you know, like this.

And how he attained this kind of power is power of practice.  And this kind of practice is called, in Chinese, shūzen.  Shūzen means practice to attain some supernatural power is shū- [partial word]—a kind of practice which is called shūzen.

But the last one—the—to know, to extinguish all the cause of the karma, is the more Buddhistic practice and only Buddhist—the power only Buddhist have.  The Buddhist, you know—purpose of Buddhist practice is to be free from karma is the—why Buddhist practice Buddhist way.

And the last one is the most important one.  So there is some kōan about this.  Some, you know, arhat—some sage or hermit called [on] the Buddha and said, “We have five supernatural powers, but I heard that you have six, you know, supernatural power.  What is the last one?”  [Laughs.]  And the gedō, or, you know, the hermit or sage asked Buddha.  Buddha didn’t say anything, but he said—the hermit said in this way:  “What is that—what is that power which we do not have?”—he asked—sage asked—hermit asked.

Buddha said, without answering to his question—yeah—he said, “What will be that,” you know, “what will be that last super-” [partial word]—not supernatural power, but—”that last power?  What do you think it is?”—Buddha asked.

Buddha knows that even—even though he explain, he [the sage] will not understand what is the last one, the power to be completely free from karma.  Usually, you know, people, even Buddhist, thinks after attaining arhatship they will have that sixth powers, including the power to be free from karma.  But that last, you know, the power to be free from karma, is not any special [laughs] power.  It is quite, you know, usual power we have.

But we do not care for that power so much, and we ignore that power always.  Although we have it, we ignore it, and we think we have no such power.  But actually we have.  So the sage thought, “Buddha must have some special power,” you know.  Five powers he—he has is already supernatural, special power, but “Buddha has more special power,” he thought.  But Buddha, you know, didn’t have any special power.  But he knows what kind of power he himself has.

Usually, because we don’t know what is that power, we are involved in karmic practice.  If we know that, you know, we have—originally have that kind of power, we will not, you know, create any karma.  Just because we are ignorant of it, we create karma for ourselves.  So even to, you know, practice to attain some special power is, you know, actually to create karma for himself.  So even though—because of those practice—to fly to the heaven or to—to go to the heavenly body without any trouble, but if he—if he goes to the—some heavenly body, he has to come back to this world.  If you die, you know, in the heavenly body—if he appeared in—if he take a bath in the heavenly body, he should die in the heavenly body.  That is—that kind of, you know, supernatural power do not possess any power to be free from karma.  But last power, which Buddhist has, [is] the power to be free from karma, and for that purpose we practice our way.

Dōgen-zenji, you know, in his Shōbōgenzō, [in] the fascicle of supernatural power, “Jinzū.”[6]   Jinzū—rokujinzū,[7]  we say.  “Six.”  Jin is, you know, usually translated, maybe, [as] “supernatural power,” but jin is “true”—something which is true is jin.  True power.  Tsū is, you know, to—the power which is—maybe you can use the word “omnipresent,” or “wherever you go, there is that power”—the power which everyone has.  That is tsū in its true sense.

But, you know, when we say five power or six power, that power is power to work for some purpose.  But true power which we have or fundamental original power which we have is the power to work everywhere under various circumstances.  That is tsū.  Rokujinzū:  six true universal powers—you cannot say “universal”—or effective power or—mmm—it doesn’t come, that word—very useful words—English words.  You can—something you can—power you can apply to every circumstances.

There is also—in Shōbōgenzō [“Jinzū”], he [Dōgen] referred to the story, you know, Zen story between Isan[8]  and his disciple, Kyōzan.[9]  Isan [and] Kyōzan are the founder of Igyō-shu.  I-kyō-shū.  “Isan’s/Kyōzan’s school.”  Isan, you know, one day was taking nap [laughing] in his cabin, maybe.  He was sleeping.  And his disciple, you know, Kyōzan, opened the door and see the—his teacher Kyōzan [Isan] was sleeping.  So his—Isan, you know, the teacher [thought] “Oh, someone—someone came.  Oh my!”  So he turned to the wall, you know.  He was sleeping this way.  But because someone came, he turned to the—faced to the wall—turned, you know, his body.

And—and his disciple Kyōzan [said], “Oh, I am sorry,” he said, “but don’t be disturbed.  I am your disciple.  Don’t worry.  [Laughs.]  Don’t be so formal,” you know, he said.

And he [Isan] was going out [got up to leave], you know, and the teacher said, “Hey, Kyōzan.”  [Laughs, laughter.]

And Kyōzan, you know, came back.  And sha- [partial word] “May I help you?” he said.

“Yes.  I had a good dream,” you know, “so I want to tell you about my dream.”

The disciple said—disciple, you know, sit down [and asked], “What was the dream?”—[laughs, laughter] his disciple said.

And Kyōzan [Isan] said, “What do you think that was?”—the teacher said.

That was the story, you know.  [Laughs, laughter.]  And, you know, what is, then, supernatural power?  What is a supernatural power?  Supernatural power is already there, you know [laughing], and moreover, you know, his disciple, because he was asked, “What do you think my dream was?”—so he went out to the kitchen and brought a—a b- [partial word:  basin?]—brought some water in the basin with towel.  And put the water, you know—offered the water to Kyōzan—Isan.

Isan [said or thought], “Oh, this is very good!”  And he washed his face and wiped his face with the towel.  And, you know, as soon as he wiped—finished wiping his face, Kyōgen,[10] another disciple, came in.  And, you know, Isan again [said]:  “We are talking about good—my good dream.  What do you think it was?”[laughs]—Isan asked Kyōzan [Kyōgen].[11]   Kyōzan [Kyōgen], you know, went to the kitchen again and brought a cup of tea [laughs].

“Please have a cup of tea because you washed your face already.  How about cup of tea?”  That was, you know, Isan—Kyōzan’s [Kyōgen’s?] supernatural power [laughs].  That was the kōan [laughs].

This kind of, you know, power could be extended everywhere, you know.  There is no end, you know, [to] this kind of good relationship between teacher and disciple.  There is no end in the relationship.  Even though he is teacher, he has no idea of being their teacher.  Even though they are disciple, they—they feel as if his [their] teacher is their friend.  But they know exactly, you know, what [laughs] their teacher need and what they—what his—what he means.  That is—Dōgen-zenji says, that is real, you know, power who—which really well-trained teachers and disciple—disciples have.

This kind of power, you know, or this kind of—way of practice, for us, it is, you know, we ignore this kind of practice.  You may, you know, rigidly practice zazen [laughs], but you will ignore this kind of practice.  Sometime your rigid idea of practice will—will be hindrance of the real practice, which was going [on] between Isan and Kyōzan.  Dōgen-zenji—Dōgen admired their practice very much.  “That is real practice,” he said.

When you continue this kind of practice without any idea of teacher or disciple or practice, even, then there is no way to create karma.  Even though you see things, you know, things does not create any problem for you because you don’t feel you saw something, you know.  Even though you see it, you don’t even remember what you have seen.  If it is necessary it will be in your mind, but when it is not necessary that object—that object you saw will vanish.  So no karma, or no trace of practice, or no trace of activity remain.  That is—that kind of practice looks like very easy and common [laughs], but actually this kind of practice will ap- [partial word:  appear?]—will go [on] between, you know, good teacher and good disciple.  This is, you know, actually the last power of sanmyō, and last power of six supernatural power.

[Line 6.]  sanmyō rokutsū, mappō o shōbō ni kaeshi goriki hachige,

                  gunjō o mushō ni michibiki.


Sanmyō rokutsū.  Sanmyō rokutsū.  And—and in ekō it says, Sanmyō rokutsū, mappō o shōbō ni kaeshi.  Mappōmappō is, you know, last stage in Buddhist history, where there is no more Buddhism [laughs, laughter].[12]  Last period.  According to. you know, scripture, last—first 1,000 year after Buddha’s death is the shōbō, “the age of right law—right dharma.”  There they practice our way very hard, and there there is teacher and teaching, and—and so they can attain enlightenment in the first 1,000 years after Buddha passed away.

And next stage, next—after 1,000 year, the zōbō—period of zōbō will start.  There there is teaching, but—and there is, you know, teachers, but teachers who has no enlightenment.  So [laughs] knows—teachers knows what is Buddhism, but actually they do not practice so hard.  But they know what is Buddhism intellectually.  So there is no student who attain enlightenment.  That is, you know, the time of zōbō, which will continue for 1,000 years more.

And the last period is after 2,000 year from Buddha’s death, and there there is no Buddhism.  There may be some, you know, relics of Buddhism [laughs], but there is no Buddhism at all.  Even [if] there is teaching, no one read it.  No one knows what is Buddhism.  According to some scriptures, you know, it is so.

And that period in Ja- [partial word]—history of Japanese Buddhism, that mappō, the last period, started from Kamakura period, when Nichiren[13] or Shinran[14]  appear.  Dōgen, you know, appeared in that—in the same age.  It is—it may be about 1200 [C.E.], yeah.  And so Shinran or Dōgen—Shinran or Nichiren thought because this is, you know, a time of the last period of Buddhism where—when Buddhism will be banished [vanished?], so the teaching should be changed.  The teaching should be some teaching which is—which could be applied in the last period of Buddhism.

That is why Nichiren and—and by Nichiren and Shinran, a kind of reformation of Buddhism was done.  But it is not actually reformation, you know.  It is more, we can say, restoration of [Buddhism].  He—they tried to restore the Buddhism—the Buddhism in the time of Buddha.

But way, you know—Shinran, for an instance, thought, because it is—it is not possible to attain enlightenment any more for the people in this period, so the only way is to, you know, to ask the help of Buddha, and by means of Buddha’s help will—will be saved, reciting, you know, Namu Amida butsu.  And with strong faith, believing in Amida Buddha’s power, they will be saved.  That was, in short, Shinran’s way.

And Nichiren, you know, thought it is, you know, the time of mappō now, but according to Lotus Sūtra, if we recite Lotus Sūtra, or if we recite it for—for others, or if we obtain Lotus Sūtra, even, the merit of obtaining the Lotus Sūtra, or merit of reciting Lotus Sūtra will save us even in the period—period of mappō.  So … [Sentence not finished.  Tape turned over.]

… maybe his good means of, you know, maybe so.  But he actually believed in that—believed in that way.  Even though people may read Lotus Sūtra, if they do not actually observe things as it is described in Lotus Sūtra, he cannot be a true teacher.  So he wanted to prove the power of Lotus Sūtra.  So he—so that he can prove the power of the Lotus Sūtra, he did many things—he tried many things.  Once he was almost killed by the people which was sent by government at Kamakura, but their sword break—broke when they wanted to kill Nichiren.  That was actually appeared in that way as you read it in Lotus Sūtra.

So he said, “This is the power of,” you know, “Lotus Sūtra.”  And he said, you know, “If—because we—no one believe in Lotus Sūtra, which is the only sūtra for the period of mappō, so something terrible will happen to Japan.”  And several years later, you know, the Mongolians, you know, came, you know, to conquer Japan with many ships.  But Nichiren thought, “If—if I am believe in this sūtra, the Japan will not be conquered.”  And as he said so, the Mongolian ships were destroyed by the hurricane [laughs] before they arrived to Hakata in Kyūshū.[15]   So people, you know, were terrified [by] the power of the Lotus Sūtra.  In that way, you know, Nichiren School was established.

Shinran, you know—after the many years of war period, when people did not know what to do, Shinran said, “If you say—just say Namu Amida butsu, you will be saved.[16]   Amida Buddha will save you.  So why don’t you recite the name of Amida Buddha?”  Without traveling [to] various countries, sometime he was sent to some lonely island, [like] Sado, but he did not stop his practice.  He was strongly believe in Amida Buddha and his power of faith.

In this way, you know, in Kamakura period, even [if] it was already the last period of Buddhism, a new Buddhism, you know, arise.  Dōgen was one of them.  But Dōgen’s attitude is quite different, you know.  He did not believe in, you know, mappō.  That is just skillful means of Buddha.  Actually, there is no such thing [as the] last period or the first period or second period.  That is just Buddha—to encourage people to believe in Buddhism.  Buddha said so to encourage people.  So that is just skillful means.

So even [if] it is the time of mappō, if we practice hard we will attain enlightenment.  The Buddha—Buddhism will not die.  He believed in—Dōgen believed in his practice, the practice of, you know, practice of non-practice.  That is [laughs] Dōgen’s practice.  There is nothing to practice, especially.  Whatever we do, that is practice.  If so, there is no special practice.

By shikantaza you will not gain anything, but you will be you yourself.  So by shikantaza you will establish yourself on yourself.  You will be you.  Tile will be a tile.  Mirror will be a mirror.  And that is, you know, our practice.  There is no secret in our practice.  If that is practice, there is no special teaching like Buddhism.  The Buddhism is already there when Buddha appeared in this world.  It is not because Buddha appeared in this world [that] Buddhism was established.  That is, you know, Dōgen-zenji’s understanding of Buddhism.

So the last power of practice is without being involved in karmic practice.  How we should practice our way was Buddhist practice.  So Buddhist practice start from nothing—nothingness, not from somethingness.  We start our practice from nothing to attain nothing [laughs].  That is Buddhist practice.  You may think that is very strange, but that is, in short, Buddha’s—Buddhist practice.

[Line 6.]  sanmyō rokutsū, mappō o shōbō ni kaeshi goriki hachige,

                  gunjō o mushō ni michibiki.

Sanmyō rokutsū, mappō o shobō ni kaeshi goriki hachige.  Goriki—goriki is—here it says:  faith, and exertion—exertion, mindfulness, contemplation—contemplation—zazen, you know—dhyāna—and wisdom.  This—those are five powers.

And hachige.  Hachige is rather complicated.  It is related to Theravādan practice.  I explained last night about primitive Buddhist practice:  four stage for zazen, for Zen—four stages of Zen, of form world, [and] four practice of non-form world.  That makes eight.  And in each stage there is attainment—renunciation.  Eight—eight meditation power, or eight kinds of renunciation to free one from attachment—our attachment—to free from everything.

The first—as I explained last night, the—in the first stage you have no anger, or you have no drowsiness.  Because you are not angry, and you—your mind is very calm, so you can think clearly.  And you have physical joy, and spiritual joy, and concentration.  So in the first stage you have clear thinking which can be, you know, contemplation of shāstra[17]  of teaching—dharma, or you can observe things clearly.  That is thinking mind.  And physical joy, and mental joy, and concentration.  So you have four.  One-two-three-four-five.

And in the second stage, you—you—you don’t think in the second stage.  So your mind is more clear, you know, because you don’t think even.  There is no waves of mind—thinking mind—so you are, you know, physically and mentally or emotionally or mentally, you will be more—you have a kind of joy of [being] free from emotional disturbance or thinking faculties.  And you have concentration—good concentration.

So you have there inner purity of mind—inner purity of mind free from thinking, and you have physical joy, and physical or emotional, you may say, or emotional joy and spiritual joy, or mental joy and concentration.  By this—in this stage, what you will have—the power you will have is to see all things.  How you get, you know, how you get this kind of power, you know—they practice, you know, various practice, you know, [for example] to see a skeleton [laughs]—to put skeleton in front of you and you sit [concentrate] on it.  So even [if a] beautiful lady appears in front of you, we may say, “Oh, that is skeleton!”  [Laughs.]  “In that way you will be free from, you know, objective world.” [Laughs, laughter.]

You may laugh, but actually they did it—sometime in front of fire they sit; in front of water they sit.  Or they contemplated on our physical being, observing physical body is a bag of nasty things [laughs].  It is [laughs, laughter]—it looks—looks like beautiful.  It is mostly practice for men, maybe [laughs].  “So a woman, maybe, looks like very beautiful, but inside of the woman is nasty, you know [laughs, laughter]—[containing] five organs and many things” [laughs, laughter].  They practiced, you know, in that way.  That is more, you know [laughs]—  And in that way they wanted to be free from objective world.

But in the second stage, they, you know, changed their way—not to—to contemplate on objective being, but to contemplate in- [partial word]—inward, you know.  Directed their concentration inward.  And inwardly they could make ourselves sure that we are not permanent any more.  So it is foolish to attach to ourselves.  If so, it may be more foolish to attach to something outside [laughs].  If, you know, each one—each [something like a light bulb pops loudly; laughs, laughter]—    If he is, you know, not worthy to attach to, then the people may, you know—outside people could be more worth- [partial word]—worthless to attach to.  In that way, they wanted to be free from outward object.  So their practice was the power of practice to see all things as impure, and thereby removed their lust—lust or desires.

Second one is to remove attachment to external phenomenon.  Those, you know, power will be gained by—in the first and second stage of practice.  And third one is the power of not to give arise [a rise?] to the desires even [if] phenomenon looks like beautiful, you know.  Now, you know, after attaining the attach- [partial word]—detachment from themselves and from outside world, you know, they are quite sure—he will be quite sure that he has power of detachment.

So to make their power sure [sure of their power?], they tried to see some beautiful flowers, you know.  If they, you know, attach to it—if they become attached to it or not.  They tried, you know [laughs].  They opened their eyes and saw some beautiful lady.  [They saw] if he attached to her again or not.  That—and if he doesn’t attach to someone, that is—it means that he has really, you know, the power of detachment [laughs].  In that way they test themselves.  That is two [to?], you know, that is the third one.  And it will—in this way, the—each—in each stage, they obtained more power of detachment and until they attain arhatship.

It is described in this way, but if you literally take this description, it is—it doesn’t make much sense.  But later, you know, in the formless world, when they attained the world of formlessness, their practice—their power obtained by their practice is to contemplate boundless space—boundless space of form, you know.

And they contemplate on the limitless consciousness of ourselves.  That is more inward practice.  So their practice became wider and wider and until their practice come to the area of void.  That is the fifth one.  And fourth one was to contemplate on boundless space.  And the fifth one is to contemplate limitless world of consciousness inwardly.  That is fifth one.  Sixth one is to contemplate non-substantiality—non-substantiality.  There is nothing, nothingness, complete voidness—not voidness—but nothingness.

And seventh one [is] to contemplate the state of beyond thought.  The seventh one is to contemplate on substantial- [partial word]—non-substantiality in term of, you know, substance.  The seventh one is to contemplate on beyond thought, you know.  To contemplate on non-substantiality, you know.  Non-substantiality is a kind of idea, isn’t it?  Non-substantiality.  So to go beyond the idea of no- —non-substantiality is the seventh one.

And last one is metsujin-jō,[18]  which is same as the third one of the three—sanmyō.  To attain metsujin-jōmetsujin-jō is, you know—metsujin-jō:  to—to have no karmic activity—a cessation of all the activity.

So for a long time, you know, they practiced zazen literally in this way—attached to this kind of psychological analysis, but actual practice cannot be like this actually.  You can, you know, analyze your practice in that way—four or eight [stages of practice] or practice of form world, or practice of no- —no-form world.  But actual practice, you know, cannot be like that.

So more and more Buddhists started to put more emphasis on actual practice, without analyzing our practice, without being involved in this kinds of, you know, stages.  But if you carefully, you know, understand this kind of, you know, stages and interpretation of the stages, as I explained last night, there is very important key to the actual practice.  But if you miss that kind of point, you will be easily caught by it.

Step by step:  stepladder practice.  We call it “stepladder practice.”  There is no end in stepladder practice.  At first, you know, you may say there is three steps, but in each three steps—in each step there is three steps [laughs], and in each of the three steps there is three steps, if you carefully analyze it.  So at least we have eighty-one steps or more [laughs].  Eighty-one, you know, eighty-one—two hundred [laughs, laughter] and forty-one stages.  No end.  So we shouldn’t be caught by this kind of interpretation, you know.  But we should have eyes to see what [it] actually means.  And the people who set up this kind of teaching, you know, has—carefully they set up this kind of teaching, and commentary is—we have a great amount of commentary to those stepladder-like practice, so that it cannot be stepladder practice.  We should, you know, understand this point.

So Dōgen-zenji did not ignore this kind of practice and this kind of commentary and this kind of stepladder practice.  But he more put emphasis on the everyday practice like to serve tea or to give their teacher water and towel or a cup of tea.

Hmm.  Oh!  [Probably discovers the late hour.]  Excuse me [laughs].  No time for question tonight.


Sources:  Contemporaneous transcript and Ekō Study Book by David Chadwick; transcript entered onto disk by Jose Escobar, 1997; transcript checked and corrected against tape by Bill Redican 11/17/99.

 [1]  Not kenshō, as in version at start of transcript.  They may be two different ways of saying the same word in Japanese.

 [2]  Not issai no ōgu burui, as in version at start of transcript.

 [3]  (Suzuki-rōshi clearly says sanmyō, not sammyō.  But both spellings are common.)  Sanmyō refers to the three transcendental types of knowledge attained by an arhat, bodhisattva, or buddha.  They are a subset of the six rokutsū (see below):  (1) pubbenivāsānussati (Pali):  knowledge of former lives; (2) dibbacakkhu (Pali):  divine eye; knowledge of the future destiny of oneself and others; (3) āsavakkhaya (Pali):  knowledge of the sufferings of the present life and the ways to remove their root cause, mental intoxicants.

[4]  rokutsū or rokujinzū (Jap.); ṣaḍ abhijñāḥ (San.);  chaḷ-abhiññā (Pali):  The six kinds of supernatural powers attributed to an arhat, bodhisattva, or buddha.  The traditional six are:

(1)  iddhividhā (Pali):  magical powers

(2)  dibbasota (Pali):  divine ear

(3)  ceto-pariya-ñāṇa (Pali):  knowledge of the minds of others

(4) dibbacakkhu (Pali): divine eye

(5) pubbenivāsānussati (Pali):  knowledge of former lives

(6) āsavakkhaya (Pali):  extinction of mental intoxicants or passions.

[See, e.g., G. P. Malalasekera (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Buddhism,

1965, Vol. I, p. 98.]

[5]  shukumyōtsū (Jap.):  Japanese term for No. 5, pubbenivāsānussati.  (See H. Inagaki, A Dictionary of Japanese Buddhist Terms, 1992, p. 252.)

 [6]  jinzū (Jap.):  abhijñā (San.) or abhiññā (Pali).  The five powers of sages or the six powers or arhats.

 [7]  rokujinzū or rokutsū (Jap.):  ṣaḍ abhijñāḥ (San.) or chaḷabhiññā (Pali).  The six kinds of supernatural powers.  Roku (Jap.) = “six.”

 [8]  Isan Reiyū or Zen Master Daii (Jap. for Guishan Lingyu):  771-853.  Chan master of southern China; student and dharma heir of Hyakujō Ekai (Baizhang Huaihai).

 [9]  Kyōzan (Gyōzan) Ejaku (Jap. for Yangshan Huiji):  807-883.  He and his master Isan co-founded the Igyō School of Chan (Igyō-shū in Japanese).

[10]  Kyōgen Chikan (Jap. for Xiangyan Zhixian):  d. 898.  Chan master; student and dharma heir of Isan.

[11]  In the fascicle “Jinzū,” Isan asks the question of Kyōgen (not Kyōzan), who then goes to get Isan a cup of tea.

[12]  See also SR-70-06-01, pp. 11 and 13 (the third Sandōkai lecture), for another discussion of these three time periods (the shōzōmatsu).  The length of the time periods (e.g., 500 vs. 1000 years) differs from lecture to lecture, just as there are at least four views on the length of shōbō and zōbō in Zen literature (see, e.g., Japanese-English Buddhist Dictionary, p. 299).

[13]  Nichiren (1222-1282):  founder of Nichiren or New Lotus school of Buddhism in Japan, which places great emphasis on the Lotus Sūtra.

[14]  Shōnin Shinran (1173-1262):  founder of Jōdo-shin-shū school of Buddhism in Japan, a community of lay followers who believe that liberation is attained by the help and grace of Amida Buddha.

[15]  The first Mongol invasion fleet was damaged by a storm in November of 1274.  The second Mongol invasion fleet was similarly afflicted in 1281.

[16]  Namu Amida butsu:  “Veneration to Buddha Amitābha.”  This nembutsu, recitation of the name of Amida (Amitābha) Buddha, is the meditation practice of the Jodo-shin-shū.  If nembutsu is done with complete devotion, the practitioner may be reborn in the Pure Land of Amitābha.

[17]  shāstra (śāstra, Sanskrit):  instruction or textbook.

[18]  metsujin-jō (Jap.) or nirodha-samāpatti (Pali):  “extinction of feeling and perception”; a state resembling death except for a sense of warmth, life, and consciousness.

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Copying the Lotus Sutra, One Letter at a Time

Written by Ninzan Kyosho Valorie Beer

painting by Sarah Fraser

Two years.  Nine large sketchbooks, one hundred pages in each.  One hundred forty- seven calligraphy pens.   Uncounted hours of peace and quiet joy.

April 2004.  I had just finished a difficult practice period at Green Gulch.  Difficult not because of the practice itself, but because I was trying to participate in the practice period while managing from afar the restoration of my house, which had been partially destroyed by a flood from a broken hot water pipe.

The study text for the practice period had been the Lotus Sutra.  I bought the Burton Watson translation because I liked the colors on the cover.   It wasn’t the translation that everyone else had.   Abbess Linda Ruth Cutts suggested that we try copying the sutra.  I looked at the 324-page book and shook my head at the absurdity of her suggestion.  It’s too much, I thought, and what would be the good of such an effort, anyway?

But when I left Green Gulch at the end of the practice period and stepped, hesitantly, into my half-restored house, I was overwhelmed with how much work remained and how much of my mold-encrusted possessions I was going to have to throw away.  I was desperate to do something positive, to create, to see progress.  And the Abbess’s suggestion came back to me, now seeming not quite so absurd.

I went to an art store that afternoon.  I hadn’t planned to buy the largest sketchbook –14”x17”– but it was the only thing that felt big enough to counteract the destruction I had been dealing with for the past five months.   I bought black calligraphy pens, but wanted some color, too.  Black for the text.  Alternating blue and teal for the verses.  Blue and teal, like the colors of the lotus pond on the cover of the translation I had bought.

I found my calligraphy notes from a class 20 years ago and started to carefully practice the letters, just to warm up.  But I didn’t finish.  The sutra was calling, not with urgency, but with a gentle, insistent tug at my heart.  So I opened the first page, and wondered for a moment about where all of this was going to lead, where it would end.  I was grateful that the first words were familiar from other sutras, “This is what I have heard.”

All through the summer of 2004 I copied the text, then took it to the fall practice period at Tassajara.  Then to the next two practice periods at Green Gulch.  Then back to Tassajara this year for the winter 2006 ango.  There was never a moment when I didn’t want to work on it, never a time when I wanted it to be done.  We just kept going, the sutra and I, one letter at a time.  Page after page, chapter after chapter.

Occasionally, the sutra would reach out and take my hand, stopping my motion.  “Pay attention,” it would say, “this passage is important.”  And there were times when I would stop myself as I struggled with a particular section, or with the whole of Chapter 23.  Could I sanction with my hand the self-immolation of Medicine King?  Why not just leave out this whole repugnant chapter?  I had made other, small alternations to the text as I was copying it, changing the ubiquitous “he” to “they,” changing “sons” to “children.”  Gently updating the text so that I could feel included.  But to skip a whole chapter?
I sat with the dilemma for a week.  And then the real question arose: What part of myself was I unwilling to take a match to?   The answer was predictable, human – and left me gasping at the power of this sutra.  The answer was that I would rather burn up my body than torch the delusions and fantasies and stories that I use to define me.  And then I remembered the passage, ‘way back in Chapter 2, that had stopped my hand more thoroughly than any other section:  “[they] enter deeply into erroneous views, hoping to shed suffering through greater suffering.”  It was those erroneous views that I didn’t want to incinerate, else who would I be?  I continued copying, and cried when Medicine King ignited himself, crying for the strength he had that I do not.

And then one evening, just before the last sesshin, it was done.  The Abbess and I faced each other in dokusan, spring rain pattering on the roof of her cabin at Tassajara, the sutra spread out before us, my last black pen poised in my hand.  She read, slowly, the final sentence of the sutra as I made the letters one by one.  “Accepting and upholding the words of the Buddha, they bowed in obeisance and departed.”

Three weeks later, I stood at the altar of the Empty Nest Zendo in North Fork.  One by one, I handed the finished copybooks to Myoan Grace Schierson.  She incensed them, welcoming them to a new home in the library of Central Valley Zen.  Earlier that morning, I had given the Sunday dharma talk to the sangha.  The theme, of course, was erroneous views, and the myriad ways we cause our own suffering with our tightly-held stories.

So much has changed in the two years I spent with the letters of the Lotus Sutra.  When I started the project, my daughter was a teenager, my mother was alive, and I had hair on my head.  And so much has not changed.  The power of a sutra to speak across millennia astounds me.  The power of a spiritual text to change me astounds me even more.  It’s true that I copied the whole Lotus Sutra, and that I changed it in small ways as I went along.  But it changed me, too, and I wonder.  Did it copy me?

Ninzan Kyosho Valorie Beer was ordained in January 2005 by Ed Brown.  Valorie lives at Green Gulch Farm.

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 15 August 2006 )


Zen Master – Gary Snyder and the Art of Life.


Zen Master

Gary Snyder and the Art of Life.
The New Yorker
October 20, 2008
By Dana Goodyear

Gary Snyder, the Zen poet, lives on a hundred backcountry acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, meditates mornings, and thanks his food before he eats it, clapping his hands together and saying “Itadakimasu,” which is Japanese for “Thank you very much.” He likes a boilermaker at dinnertime (a shot of bourbon and a tall glass of beer) and, on occasion, the bullfrogs from his pond. “I follow the ‘Joy of Cooking,’ ” he says. “You’ve got to skin them and brine them overnight. She recommends rolling them in bread crumbs and frying them.” He finds that vulture feathers make the best pens for calligraphy, and collects them when he hikes. Some nights, he takes a blanket and a thermos of sake and a star map, walks along a gravel riverbed not far from his house to a spot among the mounded diggings left by the gold-mining ventures of the past two centuries, and, by the light of a red torch, works on the constellations.

Snyder, who is seventy-eight, has written nineteen books of poems and essays that are engaged with watersheds, geology, logging, backpacking, ethno-poetics, Native American oral storytelling, communal living, sex, coyotes, bears, Tibetan deities, Chinese landscape painting, Japanese Noh drama, and the intimacies of family life. His reach extends far beyond the usual small audience for poetry; “Turtle Island,” a collection of poems that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, has sold a hundred thousand copies. (“Turtle Island swims / in the ocean-sky swirl-void / biting its tail while the worlds go / on-and-off / winking.”) He is, notably, a poet of the Pacific Rim. He told me, “I think of my territory as that which I have walked in person and know the weather at a given time of year, know a lot of the critters, and know a lot of the people. That would be from around Baja up to Alaska, through the Aleutian Islands, then pick up again in Hokkaido, down Japan and into Taiwan and the south coast of China, and the Pacific, which I know pretty well, having sailed it half a dozen times by a nice slow boat going fourteen knots, day and night.” But if you met him in a bar in Japan or China or Korea, and asked him what he did, he’d probably say, “I do my best as a teacher and I’m kind of a clumsy farmer.” (He taught in the English department at the University of California at Davis from 1986 until 2001, and has a small orchard.) The last book he wants to write, he says, is a “personal dharma memoir,” a chronicle of Buddhism in the late twentieth century. “Like the rock climbers say, having fun doesn’t mean you have to have fun,” he says. “Being a Buddhist doesn’t necessarily mean you have to be a good Buddhist.”

A few months ago, looking over the wine list in a fine restaurant in nearby Nevada City, Snyder said, “I’ve got a twenty-five-year-old Cab I’m saving for venison-for when we get a deer again, on the road. In the winter season, I always drive with a giant black garbage bag in the car and a hunting knife or two.” He pulled out a thick-bladed knife and laid it on the table. An appetizer of goat-cheese cakes, dotted with arugula pesto, kalamata tapenade, and roasted red peppers and truffle oil, arrived. Snyder lifted the knife and cut the cakes precisely in two. Later, when he got up from the table for a moment, a young, heavily lipsticked waitress came over and said excitedly, “He’s one of my absolute heroes.”

Snyder is shortish and solid and exudes physical confidence. A boy of the Pacific Northwest-born in San Francisco, brought up outside Seattle-he climbed Mt. St. Helens at fifteen; as a young man, he worked in Indian logging camps and fire-lookout cabins in the wilderness and on a trail crew in the Sierra Nevada, where he wrote the first poems that he wanted to keep. He wears a beard and has a turquoise stud in his left ear-it’s been pierced since 1950-and has gray-green eyes that disappear into the planes of his face, like puddles in a dry season. One of his incisors is capped in gold, which gives him the rascally look of an old mountain man when he smiles. When I repeated the waitress’s remark, he said, “You shouldn’t have told me that.”

Masa Uehara, Snyder’s wife, sits on a rock-pretty, pregnant, her hair covered with a bandanna, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and jeans. The green Yuba River swirls around her. Snyder is in the water, naked, hoisting a naked baby boy (their first son, Kai) over his shoulder. The photograph ran as a centerfold in Look in 1969, with a caption that read, “Author Gary Snyder and family, in the Sierras, look forward to a new Neolithic age that will combine the love of nature, sex and life based on mythical truths.”

Snyder was just back from Japan, having spent much of the late fifties and the sixties in Kyoto, undergoing formal training as a Zen monk. He had left the West Coast in the spring of 1956, several months after participating in what to many remains the defining poetic event of the previous half century: the Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, at which Allen Ginsberg first read “Howl” in public, while Jack Kerouac shouted, “Go! Go! Go!” Snyder read “A Berry Feast,” an ode in praise of Coyote, a trickster figure from Native American myth: “Coyote the Nasty, the fat / Puppy that abused himself, the ugly gambler, / Bringer of goodies.” The poem, which traces the destruction of forests to the building of the suburban house-“a box to catch the biped in”-is infused with the Buddhist idea of impermanence. It forecasts a time of “People gone, death no disaster,” and ends with Coyote surveying a depopulated city where resilient nature still thrives-“Dead city in dry summer, / Where berries grow.”

Kenneth Rexroth-the m.c. of the Six Gallery reading and a renowned poet, critic, and translator-was the presiding elder of the city’s poetry scene, gathering young disciples around him for Friday-night instruction. Snyder had studied Native American oral traditions in the anthropology department at Reed College, and when he arrived in Berkeley to pursue graduate work in East Asian studies a friend took him to Rexroth’s house. They hit it off right away. Snyder was translating the poems of the T’ang-dynasty mountain hermit Han Shan-an exquisitely terse and funny suite later published as “Cold Mountain Poems”-and studying sumi painting with the artist Chiura Obata. The conversations at Rexroth’s ranged from discussions of Pound and Williams, both of whom he knew, to “The Tale of Genji” and the perfidies of Trotsky. “Rexroth was a great mentor,” Snyder told me. “He was a polymath, universalist, critical thinker, and he declared himself an anarcho-pacifist.”

Snyder’s politics were similarly radical. He had grown up poor in Stumpland-logged-out country that backed up onto second-growth woods, in what is now a suburb of Seattle. His grandfather was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies); his father, a sometime dairy farmer, was a union organizer on the Grand Coulee Dam project, and hosted meetings for a local league of unemployed workers, which was labelled a Communist front. At eighteen, Snyder joined the far-left Marine Cooks and Stewards union, and shipped out to the Caribbean for a summer.

Snyder dressed in thrift-store clothing and was proud of his working-class sympathies and his wilderness experience. Jack Spicer, another poet in Rexroth’s circle, called him the Boy Scout. The day after meeting Snyder, Ginsberg described him in a letter as a “laconist, but warmhearted, nice looking with a little beard, thin, blond, rides a bicycle in Berkeley in red corduroy & levis & hungup on indians (ex-anthropologist student from some indian hometown) and writes well, his sideline besides zen which is apparently calm scholarly & serious with him.” Kerouac-whose manuscript “On the Road,” about his travels with the feckless Neal Cassady, had just been accepted by Viking when he met Snyder, in 1955-was sufficiently smitten to write a novel based on their friendship.

In “The Dharma Bums,” Japhy Ryder, a sprightly, cocksure poet with a background and a set of interests striking similar to Snyder’s, introduces the narrator, Ray Smith, to Zen Buddhism and mountaineering. The story revolves around an expedition led by Ryder to the peak of Yosemite’s Matterhorn, a trip that Snyder and Kerouac made together in the fall of 1955. Kerouac’s exposure to Snyder’s self-discipline and know-how inspired more than literary productivity: he decided to become a fire lookout himself, and spent a summer on Desolation Peak, in the North Cascades, near where Snyder had worked several years before. Describing Snyder’s deep effect on the Beats, the poet and playwright Michael McClure said, “Just look at Kerouac. He didn’t go back on Route 66, hugging Neal and weeping big sad tears. He climbed a mountain.”

In the novel, Alvah Goldbook (a character based on Allen Ginsberg) says of Ryder, “He’s really the wildest craziest sharpest cat we’ve ever met. And what I love about him is he’s the big hero of the West Coast. . . . Besides all the background he has, in Oriental scholarship, Pound, taking peyote and seeing visions, his mountainclimbing and bhikkuing, wow, Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture.” Ryder was also something of a satyr, and, in a memorable scene, demonstrates with a limber, gray-eyed woman named Princess the Tibetan cross-legged sexual position yabyum. (Princess is obliging, and everyone has a go.) Later, Kerouac wrote to Snyder about signing a release form. “As you see, I’ve got you down pretty accurate but I made some changes in your personal life, girlfriends, etc. . . . to throw off the scent.”

“The Dharma Bums,” which was published in 1958, incited a “Rucksack Revolution” and fed a craze for Zen. It made Snyder famous, but he was not particularly grateful. “Since Dharma Bums came out I feel that you’ve been silent and disappointed about me,” Kerouac wrote to him. “I dont think the book was as bad as you think; when you look at it again in future years, when the world will’ve gotten worster, you’ll look back and appreciate the job I did on ‘you’ and on Dharma Bumism.” Snyder says now that although Kerouac’s description of the climbing trip was essentially accurate, the rest grew out of his friend’s imagination. “The sex scene in ‘The Dharma Bums’ was the result of me describing for Jack Kerouac Tantric sex in Tibetan Buddhism,” he told me. “Jack was fascinated by that. I always say, ‘Give the guy credit!’ He could write a novel. He wasn’t just always a journalist.” That point was a shade too subtle for the rest of the world. In 1960, when Snyder got married in Kyoto to Joanne Kyger, an American poet whom he had met in North Beach, the display type in one newspaper notice read, “Zen Poet Wed / Kerouac Character / SF’s Gary Snyder Married in Japan.” (They broke up a few years later, though they remain friends, and in 1967 he married Uehara, a Japanese graduate student.)

Snyder’s years in Japan were consumed with koan study. For his first, which took him a year and a half to answer, he was instructed to show what his face looked like before his parents met. He took the Buddhist name Chofu and early on fell in with some yamabushi-followers of an ancient folk religion that centers on mountaineering-who took him climbing. Snyder says, “They said, ‘O.K., we’re going to see if you are one of us.’ They told me to climb up a five-hundred-foot vertical rock pitch while chanting the Heart Sutra. Luckily, I knew the Heart Sutra, so that was O.K. Then they said, ‘Now we’re going to initiate you.’ They tied a rope around my ankles and hung me over a cliff and said, ‘We’ll drop you if you don’t tell the truth,’ and they started asking me questions. After that was over, they took me to a mountain temple with a dirt floor-it was small and dark and all smoky with incense-and we blew the conch for hours. I have some very wonderful overalls from them.”

As a student of Zen, Snyder lived an existence that was austere, and sometimes humorless. Once, after he had finished a week of intensive meditation, Kyger wrote in her journal, “Gary came home last Tuesday after the sesshin and said he had passed his koan plus 3 auxilliary ones. He refused to contract verbs-saying I will do it, instead of I’ll do it etc.” When they went to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Kyger told me recently, she coveted a “beggar’s necklace” made of dozens of semiprecious stones-red, orange, green, creamy, amber-colored. Snyder let her buy it only after she had memorized the name of each one.

In 1959, Snyder published “Riprap,” a group of short, tough poems composed, he wrote, to the rhythms of physical labor, and informed by his work laying cobblestones on the granite slab of the Sierra as part of a trail crew. The language itself is stony, a monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon workingman’s vocabulary that reverberates when struck: “Lay down these words / Before your mind like rocks. / placed solid, by hands / In choice of place, set / Before the body of the mind / in space and time: / Solidity of bark, leaf, or wall / riprap of things.”

“I felt absolutely at home with the colloquial voice and the honest-to-god, honest-to-earth elemental content-the things of the poems,” Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, said about his initial encounter with Snyder’s poems. “There is something unleavened about that first book. The elements of the poems are trustworthy, and you feel there’s a real coherence in the sensibility that’s transmitting them to you. And, in the primal, mythic-poetry sense, he’s back on the Hill of Parnassus.”

In the middle of June, Snyder visited New York for a long weekend. With his younger son, Gen, who is thirty-eight, he went twice to the Met. They looked at rare pre-Columbian feather-working, Himalayan art, and samurai gear, and visited an exhibit on Chinese painting and calligraphy. “For one who knows the nature of the East Asian brush and what’s possible, it was somewhat elementary, but very useful for the usual viewer,” he wrote to me later.

On the Saturday of the trip, wearing jeans, a vest, and a long skull-and-bead necklace-a symbol of impermanence that he picked up at a Buddhist supply shop in Kyoto-Snyder reported to the Asia Society, on the Upper East Side, for a symposium devoted to his travels through India with Kyger, Ginsberg, and Orlovsky. “One of the most significant and transformative things for me was discovering the depth of time in the mythologies of India,” Snyder told the audience. “That we live in a universe of millions of universes that has gone through millions and millions of years, kalpa after kalpa, aeon after aeon.” Then he told a story about how he once blew the mind of Francis Crick, over lunch, when he explained to him that the Indian belief in reincarnation demonstrated an understanding of deep space and the history of the universe.

Performance is an essential part of Snyder’s poetry; it was the Six Gallery reading, he says, that first awakened him to the possibility of an oral poetry in America. “It made us realize that poetry was a social experience, more like storytelling,” he says. Reading aloud is crucial to his process; he improvises, makes substitutions, supplies glosses on difficult words. Sometimes he sings a poem, or gestures with his hands, like a conductor before an orchestra. In India, he attended an all-night poetry reading, and several years ago he tried one himself, with dancers, musicians, and costumes. At the Asia Society, he was brief, reading one ten-minute poem: “An Offering for Tara”-the Buddhist goddess of compassion. The poem is one of his more esoteric works, a multivoiced, choral setting, but he didn’t worry about comprehensibility. He says, “When people tell me they don’t understand a poem, I say, ‘Fine, just listen to it. The exposure to it is part of its power. Don’t vex yourself with an intellectual understanding of it.’ We don’t expect to understand graphic art that way.” Snyder read with his heels clicked together in back, a dancer in first position. He leaned into the stresses as if boosted by an updraft, making of each word a surprising curiosity. When he got to a Sanskrit prayer, “Om tare tuttare ture swaha tare tare tare,” he chanted it-resonant, rapid, low. The audience was suffused with happy, baffled pleasure and good vibes.

Snyder sat down in the audience. Ed Sanders, of the Fugs, sang a reedy song to Ginsberg, “He was one of me hee-eeee-roes.” There was talk of “Omic laryngitis” and the Human Be-In, which Snyder opened by blowing on a conch. Ginsberg’s old harmonium was trotted out. Meanwhile, Snyder got to work. He put on a pair of glasses, and took a small notebook from the front pocket of his shirt. He paged through it, periodically jotting something down. Every once in a while, at the end of a number, he’d look up, remove his glasses and rub his eyes, and then resume note-taking.

“I live in the present. That’s why I get things done in the present,” Snyder told me later, explaining his impatience at being called a Beat writer. “I’m not a Beat in a literary sense,” he said. “I’m a historical part of that circle of friends, and I was part of the early sociological and cultural effect of it. My work did not fit with the critics’ and the media’s idea of Beat writing, ever. We were all so different from each other, all these unique cases. That makes it really kind of untidy.” Another time, he said, “Why I distanced myself from the Beats? Allen and I had that out even when we were in our twenties. We had mutual respect, and mutual disagreement. I am very symptomatic of the West Coast, and the West Coast is a slightly different culture from the rest of the country.”

Kitkitdizze, named for a local plant, is Snyder’s place. It is on the San Juan Ridge, in the Yuba River watershed. “My pond runs right past San Francisco,” he says. “It goes into the creek downhill, from there into the South Yuba, then to the Feather, the Sacramento, through the delta to San Francisco Bay, and on out to the Pacific.”

Snyder bought the land in the mid-sixties, with Allen Ginsberg and Richard Baker, then the president of the San Francisco Zen Center. (Snyder bought them out, and Gen now lives in Bedrock Mortar, the twenty-by-twenty cabin that Ginsberg built, inscribing “HARE KRISHNA HARE KRISHNA JAI GURU RAMA OM HUM” on its foundation.) Snyder’s house is low-browed, and roofed in red tiles; the stain is grayish to match the woods around it, and the trim is the orange-red of manzanita bark. (He took a branch to a paint store and had the supplier mix the shade accordingly.) The floor in the kitchen is made from sandstone that Snyder harvested from California’s White Mountains, at nine thousand feet. “The job is very amateurish, not as smooth as it could be,” he said when I visited him there in late June. “It’s the first stone floor I ever laid.” The center of the house, now occupied by a dining-room table stacked with books and periodicals, was once an open fire pit, over which a huge kettle would hang, suspended from a hook that Snyder had carved out of an oak crotch that he found. A gable covers the old smoke hole.

In 1969, Snyder sought ten volunteers to help him build a home that was to be part Japanese farmhouse, part Indian lodge. They came-some from Berkeley, some from Antioch College-in the summer of 1970, and, with Snyder and Uehara, built the house in a few months, using ponderosa pines from within three hundred feet of the site to frame, and local incense cedar for siding. The foundation stones came from the middle fork of the Yuba River. There was no electricity (Kitkitdizze is still off the grid, and nowadays runs on solar and generators), so they felled the trees with a two-man handsaw. Days were hot and nakedness prevailed.

Many of Snyder’s poems come straight from his life. The topless women carpenters inspired “Alabaster,” published in a mid-eighties collection, “Left Out in the Rain”:


Tanya’s bosom like a drawn bow
Holly like a load of flowers
Ann’s gracious fruits
Masa brown and slimming down
from milky dark-veined weight
and, slighter than the rest,

But strongly dappled in the
sweltering-shady mind,
Edie’s alabaster breasts.



Many of the volunteers-Holly and Tanya among them-decided to stay on San Juan Ridge. Some pooled their resources and bought the adjacent property, and this community became Snyder’s testing ground for the ideas he was beginning to explore in print. In “Four Changes,” a widely circulated environmental treatise he published in 1969 and made available for free, he warned of the dangers of overpopulation, pollution, and consumption-particularly of fossil fuels. Some of his ideas seem implausible now-polyandrous marriages as a remedy for overpopulation, walking the Coast Range as a way to get from San Francisco to L.A.-while others are straight out of the post-Gore environmental consciousness: bring your own bags to the grocery store, use natural fertilizer, recycle, carpool. He says, “It is not particularly gratifying to have been right.”

“Gary was in the thick of Bay Area green activism at a time when it was being invented,” Stewart Brand, the publisher of the “Whole Earth Catalogue” and one of many people who published “Four Changes,” told me. According to Snyder’s old friend Jack Shoemaker, of Counterpoint, his publisher since the early eighties, ” ‘Four Changes’ really elevated him to be an environmental leader of the counterculture. It wasn’t a hippie-dippy, feather-wearing poem. It was a manifesto, and the national environmental movement had to take it seriously.” Snyder began to be recognized as a public intellectual, lecturing at universities and appearing at environmental conferences, including the historic United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, in 1972. Shoemaker said, “The environmental movement needed a celebrity-like person, someone charismatic. The others were dull as paste. They needed someone attractive, and Gary understood something about his own attractiveness. He had a sense of his life as style, long before we had that term ‘life style.’ ”

Informed by the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, or non-harming, and also by Native American religious thought, Snyder argues that humans must take the nonhuman elements of the planet into account, not for our sakes but for theirs. Using Kitkitdizze as a prototype, he encourages others to inhabit more fully the places they live-settle down, get to know the neighbors (including, in his conception, the plants and animals), join the school board and the watershed council, and defend the local resources and way of life. Place, he writes, should be defined by natural indicators, like rivers and the flora and fauna they support. “The watershed is the first and last nation whose boundaries, though subtly shifting, are unarguable,” he wrote in an essay in the early nineties. “If public lands come under greater pressure to be opened for exploitation and use in the twenty-first century, it will be the local people, the watershed people, who will prove to be the last and possibly most effective line of defense.” Bill McKibben, writing in The New York Review of Books in 1991, asserted that “Snyder has emerged as perhaps the most eloquent American champion of what is called ‘bioregionalism,’ the idea that political boundaries should reflect the land we live on, and that decisions within those boundaries should respect that land.” He went on, “The long-held aesthetic arguments for a simpler life are suddenly being seen to coincide neatly with the hard-headed calculations of the atmospheric chemists. Snyder is among the first to sense this conjunction.” Snyder’s take on climate change is, however, typically independent. Humans may be in for some difficult times, but nature will take care of itself, he says. Accept impermanence.

In the early days, Snyder and his family hand-pumped their water, and lived by kerosene and firelight. In summer, they cooked outside and ate in an open-sided dining room. Uehara made her first birthday cake, for Kai, in a Dutch oven, over campfire coals. And, readers of “Turtle Island” know, they all bathed together in a sauna, an everyday experience that, in “The Bath,” Snyder transforms into a meditation on the sexual interconnectedness of father, mother, and child. (When the boys were old enough to care, they banned him from reading the poem on the West Coast.)


Sweating and panting in the stove-steam hot-stone
cedar-planking wooden bucket water-splashing
kerosene lantern-flicker wind-in-the-pines out
sierra forest ridges night—
Masa comes in, letting fresh cool air
sweep down from the door
a deep sweet breath
And she tips him over gripping neatly, one knee down
her hair falling hiding one whole side of
shoulder, breast, and belly,
Washes deftly Kai’s head-hair
as he gets mad and yells—
The body of my lady, the winding valley spine,
the space between the thighs I reach through,
cup her curving vulva arch and hold it from behind,
a soapy tickle             a hand of grail
The gates of Awe
That open back a turning double-mirror world of
wombs in wombs, in rings,
that start in music,
is this our body?

The sauna still stands. Snyder told me that it can fit five or six comfortably, though it has sometimes held many more. Inside is a shelf of special objects-a piece of white brain coral, a perfectly round stone, and a little brass figurine of a man and a woman in yabyum. “But it’s much too hot in here to do anything like that,” he said. “You’d have a heart attack!”

Uehara and Snyder divorced in 1990; she is remarried, and lives on a piece of land next door. “Gary was so social-still is,” she told me. “Out of seven days, maybe five of them we had someone for dinner. A natural, organic poetry salon was constantly happening in our living room. Ferlinghetti came, Ginsberg came, McClure, Lew Welch”-a poet Snyder had known since Reed. “They were in and out all the time. Gary would invite the neighbors who were interested in their ideas. I was doing all the cooking, with two little kids in diapers.” Snyder, she said, did the dishes.

In addition to the welcome guests, there was a stream of uninvited and, according to Uehara, ill-mannered hippies, who would arrive expecting to be edified and fed. Joanne Kyger told me, “There were an awful lot of Gary Snyder wannabes. His style of writing was very appealing in the seventies to young men looking for a poetic identity. He was a good example of a greened-out, dropout way to live.” The world of Kitkitdizze also attracted a more sophisticated type of seeker and scenester. “Gary became one of those figures, one of those cultural touchstones,” Shoemaker said. Robert Crumb, the cartoonist, visited with his band, and played a gig at the North San Juan Volunteer Fire Department Hall. The actor and writer Peter Coyote, who was living on a commune in West Marin with some of the Diggers, an anarchist group from Haight-Ashbury, met Snyder through Lew Welch and became a regular. “I began to study Gary,” Coyote told me. “I looked carefully at his house, at the level of thought that went into it. It’s so elegant, and has everything he needs without being expensive.” Following Snyder’s example, Coyote took up the practice of Zen. The only person I heard about who did not relish going to Kitkitdizze was James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions, who published Snyder from the sixties through the eighties. Laughlin, Lawrence Ferlinghetti told me, was “a total Ivy League gentleman,” afraid to sit cross-legged on the floor in his wingtip cordovan shoes, much less take the shoes off, in compliance with the household’s Japanese rules.

In the early eighties, when Snyder built Ring of Bone, a beautiful zendo in the meadow behind his house, Jerry Brown, then the governor of California, came to meditate, and one time brought Snyder a sculpture of Fudo-the ferocious, sword-bearing, lariat-swinging deity. (“He’s a mountain figure,” Snyder says. “A kind of tattered, workingman’s Buddha. He’s always been one of my allies.”)

Brown visited Kitkitdizze occasionally in the seventies and eighties-it was just two hours from Sacramento-and appointed Snyder the first chairman of a new artist-run state arts commission. Brown liked the literary conversation-Snyder’s easy, learned references to Chinese and Japanese poetry-and valued their discussions of Zen and ecology. He even bought a parcel of land near the ridge. “What I really appreciated particularly about Gary was his knowledge of the land-the flora and fauna and what it could be,” Brown told me. “It was a perspective outside the hustle of political and business life. I like what he does. It’s very concrete. He knows how to sharpen an axe, and all those things you don’t learn in the city, or in school.” Snyder’s relationship with Brown represents the most classically Chinese moment in his career, and one that is extremely rare in America: the poet as a servant of the state. He got a few poems out of it, including one, collected in “Axe Handles” (1983), that describes how, after he and the Governor “spoke of farming, / of oil, and what would happen to the cars,” he took out a bow and arrow, and they started shooting at straw bales near the barn.

One day, visiting Snyder at Kitkitdizze, I met a young man who was working in the garden, Matthew O’Malley, from Sandwich, Massachusetts. He had moved to the ridge two years before, drawn to the community that has grown up around Snyder. “There’s a kind of lore about the reinhabitory culture there,” he told me a few weeks later, off the ridge. “I wanted to see if I could become part of it.” In college, at Villanova, he and his friends had a kind of philosophers’ circle where they read Snyder’s poems-“No one’s teaching that stuff in the Northeast!”-sat in meditation, drank red wine, wrote, pondered the idea of blue-collar poetry, and went backpacking together. When he graduated, he went to work on a trail crew. “Gary’s kind of an exemplar,” he said. “It’s not just the poems. A lot of it is how he’s lived his life.”

O’Malley has reddish-brown hair and a beard, wears little glasses, and keeps a notebook and a pencil tucked into the front pocket of a button-down shirt. His manner is serious; he is an elderly twenty-six. He said he was studying at Ring of Bone and living in a school bus on China Flats, just below Uehara’s house. He had got solar panels but hadn’t hooked them up. “I have kerosene and candles,” he said-enough light to read and write poems by. “It works. So many people up there were on kerosene for years.”

Driving, Snyder dictates poems into a little tape recorder, along with their punctuation-double indent, space, comma, point. To him, the written texts of poems are musical scores; on the page their forms are fluid, loose, irregular. Blocks of indented lines indicate a shift in voice, and often a slight conceptual change, as when, Snyder says, “You’re telling two closely related stories.” White space in the middle of the line is for a caesura more substantial than a comma or a semicolon; white space between stanzas allows time to elapse. “His reasons are never visual, but arranging the line as he does is a way of announcing, ‘This is less regimented, more dance-like,’ ” Robert Hass, who won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for poetry, said. “Letting the poem breathe is another way of putting it.”

Snyder’s rhythms are accentual; like Pound, he hears stresses rather than stresses and syllables, as metrical poets do. To describe his mode as lyric does not quite capture it. Even Snyder’s most intimate poems can have an impersonal quality: the “I,” sometimes suppressed, is unobtrusive-a vehicle for exploring the world, not a world in itself. Snyder sees his poems as “mytho-poetic, magical-lyrical-oral, in a line from Blake.” Seamus Heaney said, “Snyder is a poet of mind. The bare-handed encounter with the actual does not preclude a clearheaded vision of what’s called for.” The poems do feel instructional; the poet Brenda Hillman thinks of Snyder’s body of work as a “Georgics.” Reading him, you encounter a massive, assimilating intelligence, with a startling command of natural and human history. He possesses a scholar’s exactitude, and occasionally a scholar’s pedantry and attraction to the arcane fact-providing the Japanese translation of “boar meat” or positing the Finno-Ugric origins of the word “hemp.” “It’s a professorial thing to do,” he says. “I realize that it’s not going to be of use to a great number of people. However, it’s part of the history of language, and it enriches how we understand language.”

The poet Thom Gunn, in an admiring review of Snyder for the BBC’s The Listener, remarked that the poems were “deceptively simple.” Even an apparently obvious, diaristic poem like “Burning the Small Dead,” from “The Back Country”-a volume, published in 1968, that prompted the Partisan Review to call Snyder’s work “monotonous, flat and superficial”-is rich in information. The entire poem reads:


Burning the small dead
broke from beneath
thick spreading
whitebark pine.

a hundred summers
snowmelt             rock            and air

hiss in a twisted bough.

sierra granite;
Mt. Ritter-
black rock twice as old.

Deneb, Altair

windy fire



The poem is an evocation of the expanse of geological time, and an exploration of the forces that shape the landscape. Its observations, so lightly offered, are accurate. Hass said, “Whitebark pine is a little scrubby pine that only appears at the tree line. If you know mountains, you know you’re probably at ten thousand feet. He’s picked off the dead branches and is making a fire, and he thinks about its life span. Then, thinking about things that burn, he says ‘sierra granite’-granite is twice-burned rock, forged out of fire. Looking south from the gray granite of Yosemite, you see a chocolate-colored rock-‘Mt. Ritter / black rock twice as old’-and it is twice as old. In summertime, you locate yourself by the summer triangle, two points of which are the stars Deneb and Altair. He goes from looking at the little fire he’s made to thinking about fire that forged the granite, to the stars, and says what Buddhists say: everything is burning.” I’d add that Vega, the third point in the summer triangle, is a star that, in Yosemite, appears to be directly overhead, making the “windy fire” its imaginative as well as its syntactic stand-in.

Although in recent years Snyder’s prose has been discovered by the emerging discipline of eco-literature-Lawrence Buell, a professor at Harvard, is one prominent critic in the field who teaches him-Snyder says that there has been, about his poetry, “a lot of silence from some quarters” of the literary establishment. “There are people who just don’t want to deal with it,” he says. “More in the East than in the West. A certain percentage of my poetry requires for a scholar to become more acquainted with Native American and East Asian thinking. It is considered somewhat marginal to mainstream America. Fair enough. The poetics itself is a little marginal, too, in that I have consciously been more aware of the oral tradition than other poets.” Another problem is that he is sometimes categorized as a nature poet-“the kiss of death, actually.” He says, “Being called a nature poet is like being called a woman poet, as if it were a lower grade of writing, and one based in romanticism. I am a poet who has preferred not to distinguish in poetry between nature and humanity. Just like I would argue as a bioregionalist that all of these beings are part of my community, and I would like to be able to say hello to each of them.” But Snyder does not stand completely outside the mainstream poetry world: he is a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and this year won the Ruth Lilly prize from the Poetry Foundation, one of several prestigious awards he has received.

Snyder’s most complex and difficult work is “Mountains and Rivers Without End,” a poem cycle that absorbed him from 1956 until 1996, and whose title is taken from a category of Chinese landscape painting. “I’ve done a lot of short lyric poems and those are widely read, but my real challenge and what really interests me is the long narrative poem,” he told me. “The burden of information and story it can carry is huge. These poems can be about a whole tribe or clan or world.” The poem-which was published in 1997 and moves through terrains as varied as the Northwestern highway 99, New York City, and Kathmandu, invoking Buddhas, telling old folk stories, explaining geo-history, tracing rivers, meeting talking animals-is structured, to some extent, like a Noh play. “It follows jo-ha-kyu,” Snyder said. “Jo means ‘serene introduction.’ Ha means ‘extended and detailed narrative information.’ Kyu means ‘an ending which is surprisingly sudden.’ It’s much more interesting than the Aristotelian model of a beginning, middle, and end. The Japanese say, ‘Listen to the birdsong, it has a jo, a ha, and a kyu.’ To them it’s completely natural.”

“Mountains and Rivers” is Snyder’s most sustained effort at representing a bioregional world view. In an accompanying “making of” essay, he writes that the poem began to take shape when he arrived in Japan for the first time. “In Kyoto I lived in the Rinzai Zen temple compound of Shokoku-ji. I immediately entered the local hilly forests, found the trails and shrines, and paid my respects to the local kami. In my small spare time I read geology and geomorphology. I came to see the yogic implications of ‘mountains’ and ‘rivers’ as the play between the tough spirit of willed self-discipline and the generous and loving spirit of concern for all beings.” He continues, “I could imagine this dyad as paralleled in the dynamics of mountain uplift, subduction, erosion, and the planetary water cycle.” The poem’s journey ends in the Black Rock desert of northwestern Nevada, a place beyond the project’s terms: “no waters, no mountains, no / bush no grass and / because no grass / no shade but your shadow. / No flatness because no not-flatness. / No loss, no gain. So- / nothing in the way! / -the ground is the sky / the sky is the ground, / no place between.” The final image is of a sumi paintbrush, lifting off the page.

The first weekend in August, Snyder was in the High Sierra of Yosemite, giving readings at Parsons Lodge, a one-room structure of granite porphyry and lodgepole beams designed by the Arts and Crafts architects Bernard Maybeck and Mark White for the Sierra Club, in 1915. The lodge was half a mile from the road, across a bright meadow studded with glacial erratics and tall lodgepole pines and pale-green sagebrush, through which the Tuolumne River ran. Snyder, in a crisp white shirt and hiking boots, and wearing a red backpack, set out across the meadow in the evening, as the light was growing cold and golden and the lodgepoles were beginning to cast long shadows. He knew the terrain well. Tuolumne Meadows, as the area is known, was the point from which his trail crew set out, in 1955, and he has been back, camping and hiking and climbing-researching-many times. “This is another sort of home, this country is,” he said.

More than three hundred people crowded in the large arched doorway of the lodge and leaned through the open French windows-the young and scruffy, the rangers in their uniforms, the old-timers in Tevas with braided hair. Two Park Service poets-Guy McClellan, just graduated from Lewis and Clark, and Nick Ross-Rhudy, still at Reed-sat on a ledge under a window, elbows on knees. They were both aficionados of “Riprap.” Ross-Rhudy-tall and gangly with soft blue eyes and a conch pierce in his ear-was on a trail crew for the summer. “Something I really appreciate is that the language is our everyday language,” he said later. “He talks about things like the singlejack and pack strings-as a poet, those words just sound good. Doing trail-crew work, you love those words and what they represent.”

Snyder opened by reading “Off the Trail,” an easygoing love poem celebrating spontaneity, independence, and companionability. He dedicated it to his late wife, Carole Koda, a Japanese-American woman he married in the early nineties and who died two years ago. After the poem, he offered a short lesson on its moral, drawn from anthropology. “Throughout human history and prehistory, the trail was only to get you somewhere,” he said. “What was important was what was off the trail. Food, roots, berries, dye plants, glue plants, poisonous plants, recreational-drug plants, squirrel nests, bird nests, everything you might think you’d need. What’s way off the trail are the places you go to be alone and have a vision and your own spiritual trip, maybe with some of those recreational plants”-knowing snickers from the kids-“and then you come back.” For the rest of the night, he read from “Mountains and Rivers.” In response to a comment from the audience about the Heart Sutra, he recited it. Afterward, he retraced his steps across the meadow in the dark, stopping every few minutes to look up: Scorpio, with Antares, the fire star, burning orange; the polestar, which in ancient China was a symbol of the emperor; Vega, in the center of the sky.