“The Practice of the Wild”

Paulson: In the new preface you wrote for your book, "The Practice of the Wild", you described your own spiritual path as old time Buddhism and you say this is connected to the ancient traditions of animism and shamanism. So I guess it raises the question what does it mean to be a Buddhist animist?

Snyder: Well, all of the Buddhist up until the nineties after the twentieth century were animists, as well as Buddhists. Because the whole world is animist. That is to say, feels that there is a special kind of life in all of phenomena. That there are possibly, but this is never ideological that there are possibly spiritual forces and spiritual powers and that the world only asks good manners of us. So we might as well have good manners and make a little bow here, offer a little rice or alcohol there, say thank you whenever there is any reason t say thank you, say grace for food and pay attention to those places in the landscape that are awesome and then we might say, oh there is some special spiritual presence there and acknowledge that. That's what the ancient world did. And Buddhism comes in as practice and the study and philosophy that feels no necessity dispatch that whole world, incorporates it very nicely, through all of India, Tibetan, Chinese and Japanese history up until the 20th century and Occidental Rationalism at which point a lot of academic and westernized, somewhat westernized occidental Asian Buddhists even said well, I guess we don't need that old fashioned peasant Shamanism.

Paulson: So what I'm curious about is that clearly that ancient tradition has spoken to you very powerfully over the years. I mean it's clearly had an enormous influence on your life and why you've gravitated to that way of thinking, sort of this animist way of thinking you know, seeing nature alive, spirits out there as opposed to say Christianity the dominant religion in America.

Snyder: Well, dominant doesn't mean anything. My parents as it happened were atheists and working class atheists up in the state of Washington. And socialists. And union people. And so they allowed me to go to Sunday school for cultural reasons and thought I had to check it out, and went to a Lutheran Sunday school for a while. But I left when; this is a story I have to tell. We had a heifer on our little dairy farm, a chicken farm and a dairy farm that died and I asked the Sunday school teacher, will my heifer go to heaven?

Paulson: What did your teacher say?

Snyder: Well the poor guy you know, if he was a real theologian, he could've gotten over that but he said no. So I quit. If my heifer doesn't go to heaven I'm not going either.

Paulson: So the animist goes way back in your own life?

Snyder: It does indeed, ya. I grew up in the woods actually and it was a natural thing to feel what was going on. But you know Buddhism has a very nice way of dealing with God and the Gods. Which is to say, oh yeah they are very powerful beings, we don't know much about them. We hardly ever see them. They seem to be there. And none of them are perfect. Buddhism offers them a way to learn to meditate and become wiser.

Paulson: I thought Buddhism didn't have any Gods.

Snyder: Well, old fashioned orthodox Buddhists are also animists. But they don't believe in them. They take a enlightened kind of funny skepticism saying that we better have good manners towards them but maybe they are not really there.

Paulson: Now I'm guessing that your Buddhism goes especially back to the time you lived in Japan. I know you lived there for many years from the 1950s to the late sixties studying Zen.

Snyder: That's right.

Paulson: That must have been a very unusual thing for an American to do, back in the fifties.

Snyder: At that time, there were not many other Americans. I knew of 3 or 4 maybe other scattered over Japan in different Zen practice situations. And some of them were really good people. And they were all really good people but it was hard then. Right after the war, 1956 when I first went to Kyoto and Japan was still recovering from World War II. There was a lot of poverty, nobody had a refrigerator. Nobody had heat in the house much except of burning charcoal or little kerosene. And it was a hard time for people and so the monastery was particularly a severe. It still is, actually.

Paulson: So why did Zen have such an appeal to you I mean of the various trends of Buddhism, why did you gravitate to Zen?

Snyder: Because it's so much fun. And it is, it has already made a step as to requiring lots of reading and lots of philosophy things. After you've done all of that now let's try to see what your own personal experience is about. And they have the training methods to help you do that. And in particular which the word Zen means is meditation. Insisting that one becomes acquainted with one's own consciousness, which unlike philosophy you just take your brain for granted and start thinking a way on philosophical questions whereas the Buddhist world will say, well, let's look at how your mind works at first and then see what you want to work on in the way of questions.

Paulson: There is one thing I have to ask you about your Zen apprenticeship in Japan all those years ago. There's a story about how some monks dangled you over a cliff with a rope tied to your ankles. Did this really happen?

Snyder: Well, it wasn't Zen. That was another school of Buddhism.

Paulson: Ok. The Zen monks don't do that but some other Buddhists do.

Snyder: It'd be good for them to get out more on the mountains actually. But that was the Shukendo or the Yamabushi. I went out with them. I was already a climber you know. Before I went over there I had done a lot of mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest. As a teenager and into my early twenties, climbed most of those big snow peaks along the West Coast. So you know people, the word got out that I'd done mountaineering, and so one of the Zen, elder Zen monks at the monastery I was connected with, the Daitokuji Sodo said would you want to go out with the Yamabushi? And I said ya I've read a little bit about them. I'd love to go out with them. And he connected me up with somebody. I contacted. They took me up in the mountains. So the Omine mountain range and part of their way of inducting people into their particular society is actually, no rope, hold your feet with their hands and hanging over a cliff. And then ask you questions and they say they'll drop you if you don't tell the truth.

Paulson: So they did this with you?

Snyder: Yes they did.

Paulson: Were you scared?

Snyder: Ya, sure. But you know, I trusted them. And I was sure they couldn't tell if I was telling the truth or not.

Paulson: What kinds of questions did they ask you?

Snyder: Oh I shouldn't talk about  that. I wanted to say one thing about animism, go back just a step. In the Zen monasteries and in the Buddhist temples they have a number of little shrines around the place. They have the main Buddha halls with the Buddhist figures, images, statues and paintings represented in a central way. But in little corners here and there they have shrines that are to the earth goddess for example. The lord of the North Star for example. And once a month at the monastery, the monks, we would tour all around the grounds and stop and do little services at each of those small shrines, like the earth goddess shrine and go back into the main Buddha hall. That's what I mean by etiquette. By good manners. By taking a count of all the possibilities.

Paulson: Do you still some of these practices in your life?

Snyder: Oh sure, I chant sutras every morning. And I meditate every morning. Once you start doing  that you don't quit.

Paulson: What about these kinds of daily thanks. Do you do that kind of thing as well?

Snyder: I say grace at every meal. Which I talk about in the very last paragraph of my book, "The Practice of the Wild".

Paulson: Tell me about that. What does grace mean to you?

Snyder: First of all it simply means gracias or in Chinese xie xie, meaning saying thank you. To say thank you to your food. To people who helped making it available and to the living beings, both vegetable and animal that are now on your plate. And wishing them all well and showing appreciation for what they've done. That's what grace always is, everywhere. Its saying thanks for the food and acknowledging that other beings are feeding us. That we live on the lives of other beings.

Paulson: Well so interesting you say that because I mean you are really getting at the how complicated nature is. I mean because you hear about animism and oh you know, all life has spirit in some sense but there is a death going on there to eat, we kill. And you're saying that's all part of it?

Snyder: That's all part of it but also we're animals and you'll be eaten too. So it's some part of a huge kind of potluck.

Paulson: Do you sometimes feel that you communicate with, I don't know, other species out there. I know you live out in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. I mean do you sense the presence, the beingness of other creatures?

Snyder: Well first of all I try to be a good observer. First and foremost. And many of my neighbors also, I don't have a whole lot of neighbors but in that area of a house here and a house there scattered through the forest, there are many people who are each on their own way keeping track of what's going on. It's fascinating. Like some people know the birds a lot better than I do. Being an observer is in itself an act of good manners. Knowing the name of a bird is only the beginning. That doesn't mean you know who the bird is. Next thing you do is, you know, after several years you watched it through the air and know where it goes and when it comes back and have a sense of where it nests and you can find out about those things too. So you don't have to get mystical about that. But, and I would not venture to say I am trying to establish connection with deer. That would be presumptuous in a way. If they wanted to make a connection with me they can do it but I realize that I'm just a visitor there. I'm still new. The person that I have really got to know well however is my dog. Who is now 7 years old. And we have, I've learnt how to pay attention to non verbal communication from her. And I realize it's probably going on all the time. You just have to be a whole lot more sensitive to different things than you are looking for as a rule. There's all kinds of language. Not all languages are verbal. There's all kinds of ways of communicating. And so a domestic animal like a dog or a cat can be a great teacher too if you want to pay attention.

Paulson: I'm struck by the language you used. You described this as the person you've gotten to know very well, your dog.

Snyder:  Oh yeah. My wife Carol who's now gone, she would also always, when somebody had a dog or cat or anything, she'd say who's that person?

Paulson: Is that important to you? The whole idea of person who is a philosophical idea and you know there are legal consequences to go with that and it sounds like that's kind of a deliberate choice for you to use that language.

Snyder: Well I'm not thinking legalistically. I'm just thinking respectfully. Because every individual is an animal as well as an identifiable member of a species. Just like every human being is an individual. And it's really true. I've learnt that from watching squirrels. Some squirrels are really nutty and they end up eating the wrong things. And other squirrels, ya, they're all different.

Paulson: Well, it seems that there's a larger philosophical point here and it sounds like you are reacting against the idea that human consciousness in the gold standard, the measuring stick by which we judge all other creatures.

Snyder: Yeah, I left that idea behind a while ago. As I came to realize and this isn't necessarily, well its sort of in Buddhist teaching too that I just don't know that we just don't know what the nature of animal intelligence is. How deep it is. Where it goes. How it goes. And how and where and when they communicate with each other. But there are things that are remarkable, just as any naturalist will tell you about what different animals do and how they perceive things and how they organize their lives. So I have to be sort of agnostic about that and decline to argue that the human consciousness is the best and certainly not the only.

Paulson: You've also written a lot about the idea of wildness and maybe we need to start with the definition here because wildness is not exactly the same thing as wilderness, is it?

Snyder: Wild means process. It is a description of the self organizing process of the phenomenal world when human agency is not involved. That's all. It's quite simple. So how is a wild dog different from a domesticated dog? Wild dog feeds itself, is self managing, is independent and free and has another set of problems and necessities that it has to deal with. But it's not getting its food from human beings.

Paulson: Whereas wilderness is a place I mean where there is a certain degree of wild.

Snyder: Wilderness is a place where the process of wildness is not uniquely entire perhaps but is dominant. It is so dominant that you have to really look around to realize that there may be some human agency there from sometime in the past or even in the present.

Paulson: There's that famous saying from Thoreau, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." Do you agree with that?

Snyder: Oh the wildness is the world. And human agency is only a small part of that. Human beings will hopefully eventually learn you know how to have a civilization that respects wildness.

Paulson: You have a wonderful phrase in one of your essays. You talk about entering into the wild areas of the mind. What are those wild areas?

Snyder: Let's take it as parallel to the physical wildness in nature. There is the territory in your house and around your house and your neighborhood and the paths and roads by which you go to work and come back every day or go to school and come back every day, that are familiar to you. And that is your domestic world. There's a larger human environment that you're also more or less in touch with. But then beyond that is the territory of where a wild process is dominating and that requires different skills. And you often go in there on your own and by yourself, although you can sometimes do it with a group. So the wild areas of the mind are less visited places, the less obvious places. The one's that challenge you, the ones that you can't figure out why it went that way and to bring it right up close is to remind us that we don't even know what our next thought is going to be. You know our ability to manage our mind is very limited. And this is one of the things that you learn when you meditate, that meditation is like cutting off all the outside stimuli. No music, no painting, no conversation, and seems like your mind does when it's really there as quality time and subject to your full attention. And there are parts of it that you will find yourself going into that you've never been to before. Which is like the wild.

Paulson: Is this partly, are you partly talking about art here? I mean is that the part of the wild areas of the mind? Creating art?

Snyder: Part of art is partly wild, I'm sure. Now the French anthropologist, Levi Strauss had a nice way of putting it. He said in the modern, he's talking about Europe, in the modern civilized world, he said, art is like a little national park of wild mind.

Paulson: Wow! Had to think about that one.

Snyder: Well, you know, anybody who works as an artist knows, it's like you can train a dog or a horse to do certain things. You cannot train a poem or a penny to do certain things. You have to leave a lot of openness to what it tells you to do. And listen to that. Go along with it. You can control language when you want to be a scientific or a highly organized prose writer. When you're writing poetry that's getting seriously good, you can't control what's being said. You have to listen for it. So there's one of the difference that the human ego, will, rational mind, has its limits. And art is beyond those limits.

Paulson: In your book "The Etiquette of Freedom' you quote the poet Robert Duncan who said to be poetry is to have both music and magic.

Snyder: Right. I quote that to my students when I was teaching poetry. I said if it doesn't have magic and music, each in some degree, then its prose. That's one. You know there are other ways of doing that. Music is very important of course. Music means that there is music in language and that you know how to hear it and you know how to present it. And what makes music in language? Consonants and vowels do. In other features of your individual language.

Paulson: So where does the magic fit in?

Snyder: Magic is in the mind. And magic is the manifestation of the unpredictability and depth of something sometime seen or heard.

Paulson: Is this connected to wildness, what we were talking about earlier?

Snyder: Yeah, it definitely connects. Take a haiku by Kobayashi Issa he says this dew drop world is just a dew drop world. And yet, that's the whole point, and yet dew drop world means this impermanent world of suffering. It's just an impermanent world of suffering.  But, and he just leaves that hanging.

Paulson: Wow! Well maybe we could turn back to your own poetry here. Is there a poem? I know you've brought one of your collections of poem here that would fit in some way with what we're talking about.

Snyder: Ok. Here's a little one called "They are listening'. I'll read it and then I'll tell you the story behind it. Because it's so short.

As the crickets' soft autumn hum is to us, so are we to the trees. As are they to the rocks and the hills.

Somebody gave this the title "They are listening." I didn't title it initially. So the poet who disappeared and committed suicide, I mean probably disappeared, Lou Welch and I were sitting by a campfire one night in summer up in my place in the mountains. Back in the early 70s. And taking our time, chatting with each other and not saying much. And then he said to me Gary do you think the trees pay any attention to the human beings? And I said gee, Lou, I'm not sure. What are you driving at? And he said us human beings we're just passing through. So I took that little thing which I loved and made a little poem of 3 stages. As the crickets' soft autumn hum is to us, so are we to the trees. As are they to the rocks and the hills. That's 3 stages of time scale.

Paulson: And we forget that. I mean we so often think that we are somehow central story of this world, and maybe we're just a blimp.

Snyder: On NPR this morning driving in, I'm listening to Terry Gross and the atomic scientist just reported from the New York Times. And he is reminding her and he said atomic waste has to have safe storage for a million years. And she says we don't know how to think about a million years. Which is really true.

Paulson: I want to bring in another word that seems central to this conversation and that the sacred. I'm sort of curious about what that word means. Do you, part of the reason why I've raised that is I've noticed that there are more and more scientists out there, often secular scientists. These are people who'd say they don't believe in God, at least in any traditional sense. But who also want some sense of spirituality. They want the sacred in their own lives. And I'm wondering if, well first of all does that word the sacred have resonance for you?

Snyder: I know what people are trying to say when they say that. I also know what the sacred has meant traditionally, over the last 4-5000 years. And what it means when you actually apply it to, on the ground, religions. Ancient Greek religion, earlier East Asian religion, all of the religions prior to the rise of the so called world religions or even you know what is within the practices of Islam and Christianity and Judaism, where they have identified certain special things, certain special places as sacred. And that's how it has to be understood. The word sacred is not meant to mean everything, and people who use it, some of the scientists who are reacting against Christopher Hitchens, right now are saying the sacred. But they don't know what it is because they haven't thought about it.

Paulson: Well I think what some of them say is that if you really understand what science tells us about the world, the evolution,  the cosmos and then you know how life came to evolve on earth, there's something sacred about that understanding.

Snyder: Well, they're just speaking metaphorically. They still don't know what they mean by that. It's a good story. That's true. It's also just a story. And as the case in the science is hundred years from now it'll be a different story. So that's, you don't have to take that too seriously. The sacred has to be a personal experience. Of awe, and danger and scariness and specialness. That's the way it's always been used. And that will come to you if you undertake practice. Which is to say a religious disciplined practice, not necessarily Buddhist but any of them that force you to put your mind and body on the line and not just sit comfortably in your academic office. Theorize it. So there's a big difference. Also the word sacred as sometimes used in terms of the landscape, I specifically am suspicious of, because when people say this is sacred land, that means that land that is not sacred can be sacrificed. We can do some industrial mayhem  on unsacred land. Sacred land we have to leave alone. That's not the way to look at it. Some of the best and most important ecological sites are in messy, swampy, smelly wetlands that don't look sacred at all. But they are of huge value ecologically to other forms of life etc. You could just take it from there.

Paulson: I want to come back to one piece of what you said. You said that there's an element that's dangerous, that's scary about sacred. Can you play that out a little bit?

Snyder: Ya. Religion is about both good and bad. About both enlightenment and both ignorant stupidity. About total personal psychological stability and safety and about the risk of the abyss. And this is not to validate dualism but to just remind us that we all live on the edge of our own impermanence and that death visits us or our neighbors, or our friends or our family irrespective of wealth or status any moment, any time without warning. That is one of the things that make death sacred. Anyone who  has examined their own mind finds territories in  their own mind that they need to know about but they don't necessarily want to go there. Insanity leads us towards the dangerous side of the sacred. And in social and political life, people like Savanna Rolla or the Calvinists of Switzerland who burned Michael Servetus at the stake are people who have taken the sacred too far and have become dangerous in their own right. So those are some of t he dangers and I'm not even mentioning some of the contemporary stuff, but we know now that the Spanish Inquisition was somehow evil, although presented in the language of the sacred.

Paulson: It's so interesting what you've said because I'm struck by a lot of the atheists we hear from these days who will say we don't just need God anymore, that's an outdated idea. But it seems like there is an older understanding of atheism that may be touches more and more of we're talking, I mean the notion of the abyss that I mean once you take away that I mean it can be scary. You know sort of really contemplating the deepest existential questions, maybe we've kind of lost that in our culture today.

Snyder: Oh I'm sure we have, but atheists are not complete people. Atheists are ideologues in their own way. And the better term, the better position is probably the agnostic, which is to say as I say about a lot of these things as the Buddhist say about a lot of things, we don't know. You know, to confess your ignorance at a certain point. However, for myself, I find monotheism an unnecessary hypothesis. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the universe doesn't have spirit in it.  

Paulson: Why a necessary hypothesis? Cause I've read in various essays that you seem to have sort of a gut reaction against monotheism.

Snyder: Oh yeah. I think it's overvalued. But that's only the Abrhamic religions is all that is. That's recent and only in one part of the world. It's its own kind of ideology.

Paulson: What do you mean by an ideology?

Snyder: I mean adopted as a belief system without really examining it.

Paulson: And you've actually, you've made some parallels between the rise of monotheism and the rise of the scientific revolution, suggesting that there may be some common way of thinking here.

Snyder: There is but it's not essential. Let's see. Carolyn Merchant did a really interesting study on the rise of renaissance science and she said there was a period where there were several people of investigating what leads into modern science in a, she uses the term, organic way. And there are others who have to do it in a excessively rationalistic materialistic way. So in a sense it's a reaction against the ideology of the Church and the potential punishments of the Church that cause science to become more sort of hardcore limited in its perspective than it has to be. What's going to be interesting now actually is Japanese and Chinese scientists coming into the world in a big way and how their psychology, their background which is non monotheistic will considerable soften. Chinese and Japanese people believe in good manners, whether they are scientists or not. So that'll be really an interesting change to see coming about.

Paulson: Do you think there's room in science, in modern science for this animist spirit that you've been talking about? Or are they two entirely different things?

Snyder: Hey Look. There are some Christian scientists who will argue a more or less orthodox Christian ideology. The Catholics approve of the idea of evolution and they reject the angelical dismissal of Darwin. There's all kinds of things going on.

Paulson: But again, I'm trying to take this s step further. Animism is seeing intelligence in nature, in the creatures out there, more than just intelligence, I mean sort of being, spirit as well. Can science embrace that at all? Should that be part of scientific discourse?

Snyder: This is being argued out right now and there are scientists who say well of course. There are a bunch of books about it and you know. Again I'm an agnostic about this because I think that a lot of the times when scientists say these good things they still haven't put them on the line to actually involve their own bodies in it. And that is, it's not an ideological line. It's a line between theory and practice. Religion is a practice, not theory or a belief system. The belief system aspect of religion dominates our conscious because that is what Christianity, Judaism and Islam are. They are belief systems. But that's not the only kind of religion out there in the world.

Paulson: Earlier you mentioned mysticism and you sort of suggested that that's not necessarily where you go or are you drawn to mysticism to sort of more of a mystical relationship with the world?

Snyder: I try not to say that.

Paulson: Why?

Snyder: Well, because that implicitly tends to validate an idea of a world spirit, a divine spirit as in Hinduism, or could actually serve as it often has in the Abrahamic religions. They've had plenty of mystics in the Abrahamic  religions. And oddly enough in Buddhism and particularly in Zen, we don't claim to be mystiques. We claim to get down and dirty with the world.

Paulson: Certainly a lot of other people talk about Buddhist mystics. I mean that they would say they want to talk about enlightenment.

Snyder: A lot of people don't know what the world mystique means. There's a lot of confusion about terminology here. In modern thought, modern writing by people who haven't carefully studied what was going on and don't have a sense of history and anthropology to back up what they say.

Paulson: What are we getting wrong about mysticism then? You're saying it sort of it has become a cheap word that gets thrown around today?

Snyder: Ya, I do say that. And I'd say Ok. To anybody. You're anybody else. How do you define mysticism? What is a mystic? Ya, related to the word mystery.

Paulson: But then that's another word that gets perhaps overused these days as well, mystery.

Snyder: Ya, I agree.

Paulson: I'm curious about whether you're deep back on your study of Buddhism is connected in any sort of important way to your friendship with the Beat writers. Of course you knew intimately Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac and the rest and a lot of people also have tried to lump you in with that group which I know you've often resisted. Is there a connection between that literary sensibility and these more spiritual ideas we've been talking about?

Snyder: Well, both Allen and Jack had and this is where you can actually use the term, very strong spiritual propensities. And they represented in a very sincere way some of those great potentials that exist in traditional religions, if someone pursues them, goes into them. And Jack found Buddhism, especially the Buddhism of some of the big Mahayana sutras which are cosmic scale storytelling on a huge time scale and a huge scale of galaxies of Buddhists and Gods and Devas and Nagas out there in the larger universe with a process of people, beings of all sorts, striving to go on into enlightenment everywhere. He loved that. That is not what actually Zen allows you to get involved in. But it is part of Mahayana Buddhism and he loved that part of it. Because it was a lot like the elaborate inventiveness of t he Catholic Church I think. And even more inventive and even more outrageous than the Catholic Church. But also you know they never confused it. They always knew it was a story.

Paulson: As part of your message here, you know there's a lot to glean from, a lot that's thrilling about these religious traditions but keep it as a story. Don't take it literally.

Snyder: Well that's the difference between the high Church, and the Anglican Church and the Low Church. If you want to know the truth. High Church says the Bible is a story. Low Church, really Low Church, says it's all true.

Paulson: Now I read somewhere that you plan to write a personal dharma memoir at some point. Is that true?

Snyder: I'm working on it.

Paulson: You are.

Snyder: Ya but a dharma memoir it's just a working title. That's not...I don't know what I'll call it when I get to it. When I get it all wrapped up.


Transcript of 2011 Radio Interview, Wisconsin Public Radio



Title “The Practice of the Wild” Type of Content Interview
Criticism Author Steve Paulson Criticism Target Gary Snyder
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jul 2014
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags Buddhism

Rate this Content

No Data
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media