I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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The following interview with Gary Snyder is from a new book by Catherine Ingram called In the Footsteps of Gandhi: Conversations with Spiritual Activists.
It’s an important collection of talks with some of the real heroes and heroines of our time — such as Cesar Chavez, who successfully organized the first union for farm workers; folk singer and activist Joan Baez; the Dalai Lama; the spiritual teacher Ram Dass; Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa; and others who have devoted their lives to compassionate action.
Respectful of her subjects without being intimidated by them, Ingram is a genuine seeker who isn’t afraid to acknowledge her own doubts and fears. Reprinted here is her introduction to the book (available for $17 postpaid from Parallax Press, P.O. Box 7355, Berkeley, CA 94707), in which she eloquently describes a painful yet illuminating experience that was the inspiration for these interviews.
One vivid night in India more than seven years ago, I was on my way to Bodh Gaya, the village where it is believed Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. Traveling by rail, my friends Jack and Liana Kornfield and I arrived in Gaya, the closest train stop to Bodh Gaya, located in one of the poorest states in India. Gaya is a medium-sized industrial city no tourists visit except to pass through on their way to Bodh Gaya. We emerged from the train in the middle of the night, exhausted from a long journey.
Thick, choking smoke from cooking fires filled the station and mixed with the smell of open sewage. Begging hands stretched out of the haze toward us, some of them missing fingers because of leprosy. Small dirty children, many of them carrying naked babies in the midnight cold, pulled at our clothes. “Baksheesh, memsahib,” they pleaded. Give to me, white lady. It was a typical train station scene in India, but although I had spent more than six months there on previous trips, I began to feel claustrophobic from the horror of it. I’m just tired, I told myself. This will all seem different once we’re on our way to Bodh Gaya.
I was wrong. We pushed our way through the crowd and outside to the rickshaw stand, prepared to be assailed by several dozen drivers competing for our fare. However, when they heard our destination was Bodh Gaya, the rickshaw drivers refused to take us, despite our offers of great sums of money for the forty-five-minute ride. Shaking their heads “no,” they repeated one mysterious word: “Dacoits.” We did not know at the time that in the six years since we had last been there, the road from Gaya to Bodh Gaya had become a dangerous night haunt of robbers and murderers, or dacoits, as they are known in India.
Suddenly out of the crowd an old man came forward and accepted our now ridiculously inflated offer. We piled aboard his dilapidated wooden rickshaw with our luggage, anxious to be on our way, not noticing that the horse which was to pull us this long distance was extremely sick. The old man took out a whip and clipped the horse several times. Slowly the horse took a few steps. Jack, Liana, and I exchanged apprehensive looks. This was going to be a long ride.
Every few steps required another lashing. As if in a dream, we watched as the beating went on. The horse grew more listless, the lashings more severe. We begged the driver to stop hitting him so much, but he waved his hand in dismissal as if to say there was no choice. By the time we were halfway there, watching the beating had become unbearable, and there was no point in turning back. We all fell into a stunned silence, each of us retracing the decisions that had led us into this situation where we were so directly the cause of a creature’s agony, and one of us giving words to the unfortunate truth: “We should have stayed in Gaya overnight.”
I suddenly had a flood of images. With each lash of the whip I saw pictures of suffering — faces of people in India, desperate with hunger and disease, and animals even more desperate. Next came a kaleidoscopic montage, visions of worldwide suffering — torture, fear, loneliness, the degradation of the planet and what it portends for the future. On and on it went. I realized that my feelings of compassion had always occurred at a safe distance from the actual suffering. Now my heart was being ripped apart, and I was dead center in the pain. A rising panic set in as the very belief system by which I had lived began to dissolve.
I had been reading Eastern philosophies since I was in my teens and I had practiced Buddhist meditation since 1974. I therefore felt steeped in the belief in karma, confident that there was a lawful order to life, that cause-and-effect was a logical explanation for why some suffer more than others. This belief had always served me, particularly in India. How could it be that so few of us could have such incredible abundance while so many had so little? And elsewhere, why were innocent people, sometimes children, tortured? Why were babies born with terrible diseases? Why did tragedies occur seemingly at random? Why did some people have a genetic propensity for depression? The law of karma explained everything. But now, the conceptual framework that had made life logical and lawful was no longer accessible to me. The meditation practice I had done had only served to make me more sensitive, had removed the psychic callouses one needs to endure it all.
The horrible ride ended, but the crack in my consciousness remained. I had entered some new level of awareness, and I couldn’t seem to get back to my old way of seeing, a view that was tolerable and made sense. A veil had lifted and blown away.
As it happened, the Dalai Lama was giving teachings in Bodh Gaya the following day at the spot where the Buddha is thought to have been enlightened. Although I had met him before, I now looked at the Dalai Lama in complete wonder. Here was an extremely intelligent man who was privy to extraordinary suffering, and who, as the leader of an entire nation of people enduring persecutions of the worst sort, worked constantly for their well-being. Yet there he sat, relaxed, alert, and happy, even jovial. How was this possible?
I knew of “liberation theology” priests and nuns in Central and South America who worked nonviolently against human rights abuses; of Cambodians in Rhode Island working for a peaceful solution for Cambodia, led by a senior monk who happened to be out of the country when Pol Pot’s genocide began; of “tree huggers” in India — the Chipco Movement — dedicating their lives to preserving what is left of Himalayan forests, often at great risk to themselves. Not only the Dalai Lama, but perhaps hundreds or thousands of people nonviolently opposed injustice, oppression, and ecological destruction, and yet maintained inner happiness.
Over the next years I sought out and interviewed spiritual teachers, activists, and practitioners who embodied both a state of wakefulness and a commitment to relieving suffering in the world. Thus began a career in journalism with spirituality and social activism as its focus.
The interviews and meetings, combined with my own growing awareness, have led me to see that averting our eyes from suffering will never lead to happiness. It is only through a courageous “sustaining the gaze,” as Joanna Macy puts it, that we peer through to the other side, that we blend with others in a recognition of our interdependence. And this blending serves to give us a sense of belonging, which is a root cause for happiness. As writer Rick Fields said in a two-line poem:
My heart is broken
My heart is broken
What I have discovered from the people I have spoken with is that doing for others heals the wounded heart and deepens joy amidst the pain. It has also become clear that the issues of spirituality and compassionate action are not separable. Wisdom cannot exist independently of compassion, and compassion requires extending oneself to others.
Throughout the years of my work, the name of Mohandas K. Gandhi has come up again and again. Gandhi blazed a trail of victory for truth, his lifework marking, for the first time in modern history, a nonviolent revolution as large as India’s independence movement. This one man’s clarity in motivation and vision has been a beacon to many who have followed, regardless of whether or not their efforts were “successful.”
The power of truth and nonviolence is compelling. We are now witnessing rapid and remarkable changes on the world stage — superpowers, once enemies, now cooperating in peaceful solutions and weapons reductions; the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa; a growing worldwide effort to save the rain forests; the opening of the Berlin Wall. The unsuccessful attempt for democracy in May 1989 of the Beijing students, who had secretly educated themselves in Gandhian strategy, and the awarding of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize to the Dalai Lama have thrown a global spotlight on China’s disregard for human rights and truth for the first time in several decades.
Despite these great changes, as we all know, we are living in perilous times. Our ignorance and greed, probably no worse than at any other time in history, has now been unfortunately combined with our technological capacity to destroy not only ourselves but the environmental support system for most of life on the planet. What will change our course? We need to wake up, and quickly. We can no longer afford decades of indulging in our affluence and development at the expense of the poor and of the earth. We need a deepening of our hearts and spirits, an understanding of ourselves that will allow for greater love, generosity, and wisdom. We also need a global perspective that takes into account how our lives affect others. It is a tall order, but it is possible.
That old Zen lunatic Han Shan, whose Cold Mountain poems tell of his hermit life in ancient China, asked, “Who can leap the world’s ties/And sit with me among the white clouds?” Some 1,300 years later, in the mid-1950s, Gary Snyder translated Han Shan’s words from the Chinese and inspired comparisons to the old hermit himself. Jack Kerouac portrayed Snyder as Japhy Rider in his classic book, The Dharma Bums, in which the Kerouac character (Ray Smith) and the one based on Allen Ginsberg (Alvah Goldbook) discussed their friend Japhy:
[Goldbook:] “I wonder what will happen to him in the end.”
[Smith:] “I think he’ll end up like Han Shan living alone in the mountains and writing poems on the walls of cliffs, or chanting them to crowds outside his cave.”
It is more than thirty years since Kerouac wrote those words. So far Gary Snyder has ended up in his homestead in the high Sierras in California, living on a parcel of land with a community of family and friends and fulfilling his dedication to “a sense of place.” Since 1971 he has worked this land, built his home there, raised a family, and, along with friends, constructed a Zen retreat center. He has also managed to write Pulitzer Prize-winning poetry, give lectures around the world, and continue his work as an eco-warrior protecting the “wild.”
Snyder has a sophisticated understanding of what he calls “the wisdom of the wild,” the fundamental intelligence of the ecosystem in its natural state and the way it balances itself over time. He is respectful of its mysteries, although he has vast knowledge and keen perception of living organisms and their interactions with each other. There are few who can articulate this interconnectedness better than Gary Snyder. Even when he writes of being in New York City, as in his poem, “Walking the New York Bedrock, Alive in the Sea of Information,” we can visualize sprigs of maple and oak stirring beneath the cement.
Gary Snyder is also a student of the mind. His interest in philosophy goes back to his childhood; by the time he was in his twenties he was learning Chinese and translating texts. He began formally studying Zen in 1956 and to this day continues a regular meditation practice with periodic sesshin throughout the year.
It is this wide-ranging combination of interests that makes it difficult to describe Gary Snyder and that makes him one of the great Renaissance men of our time. Here is a backwoodsman who is familiar with everything that runs in the streams and creeks of his “bio-region”; a man who is comfortable hiking and camping alone in the mountains for months on end; a man who chops wood, plants trees, changes diapers, dances, and sings; and here is a scholar and poet bent over centuries-old Chinese texts, pondering the words, “One the Way and one its Power.” Here also is a man trained for more than thirty years in zazen. As the “10,000 things” come and go, he is able to sit quietly and do nothing. A lot like old Han Shan.
Gary Snyder was born on May 8, 1930, in San Francisco and grew up in the Pacific Northwest in Washington and Oregon among stands of Douglas fir and western red cedar. According to Snyder, growing up in the woods “made me what I am.” Even as a child he was aware of the destruction of the forests by massive logging — an awareness that would intensify in years to come. The son of socialist parents, Snyder helped his family homestead their land, where they kept cows and planted orchards and gardens. He learned carpentry and raised his own chickens; in summers, he worked in logging camps and forests. Although the depression years were rough on his family, Snyder has fond memories of his mother reading poetry to him at night. She had wanted to be a writer herself and always encouraged her son in that direction.
When he was nine, Snyder discovered Chinese landscape paintings in the Seattle Art Museum and felt an immediate affinity with the images on the scrolls, thinking that they looked just like the mountains he knew in the Northwest. This began a deep respect for Oriental culture. By the time Snyder was in his teens he had also fallen in love with mountaineering and had climbed the great peaks of the Northwest — Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Adams, Mount Baker, and Mount Rainier. Snyder considers his mountain experiences “an initiation by all the great gods of the land here.” He began writing poetry at the age of fifteen in order to express his feelings about these experiences.
After high school in Portland, Oregon, Snyder became a sort of handyman, working odd jobs in galleys on ships and writing poetry in his spare time. He was offered a scholarship at Reed College in 1947 when a professor at the school read some of his poems. At Reed, Snyder quickly developed a reputation for brilliance in poetry and anthropology, particularly in his studies of northwest-coast Indian myths and folk tales. After graduating from Reed in 1951, he went on to Indiana University for further study in linguistics and primitive oral traditions but left after one semester. Snyder then moved to San Francisco where, through his friendship with Philip Whalen, he became interested in Zen meditation. Along with friends Allen Ginsberg, Kenneth Rexroth, and Jack Kerouac, he became part of the Beat poets scene in the city’s famous North Beach. Spending summers working as a fire lookout in California and Washington and winters studying Oriental languages at the University of California in Berkeley, Snyder was intellectually and perhaps spiritually preparing himself for the next major phase of his life, his study of Zen in Japan. He would later describe studying Zen as “a continuation of mountaineering on another plane.”
In 1956 Snyder left for Kyoto to study at the First Zen Institute of America. He spent most of the next six years practicing Zen in Kyoto until the death of his teacher, Oda Sesso Roshi. Shortly afterward, Snyder met his wife-to-be, Masa Uehara. They were married on the rim of an active volcano on an island off the coast of Japan, the ceremony conducted by the renowned wandering Japanese poet, Nanao Sakaki. The couple had their first child, Kai, while still in Japan, but returned to America in 1968. After several years in San Francisco, during which time Masa gave birth to their second son, Gen, the Snyders left the city for rural life on the San Juan Ridge in the Sierra Nevadas in California. It has been home ever since.
Since then Snyder has become one of the most listened-to poets of our time. His collection Turtle Island won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1974. (Turtle Island is the American Indian name for the North American continent, based on the myth that man rides on the great turtle’s back.) Snyder’s poems tug at our memories of times when we were in harmony with the wild, when there was no separation between who we were and where we lived. This was the way of life through most of history. For example, until recently, the Athabaskan Indians of Alaska had no concepts or word for the “wild” in their language, so integrated were their lives with nature.
Snyder is determined to “write about a pine tree as a pine tree would want to be written about, from inside.” As a “spokesman for the nonhuman,” Snyder uses meditation to open his mind “to the point that it’s empty enough that other things can walk into it, so that a rabbit can walk in your mind, so that trees or rocks become part of your mind.”
Being a voice that calls on us to remember where we come from, where we live, where our water comes from, who our human and nonhuman neighbors are, and what the local history has been, demands the art of storytelling. On a six-week visit to China in 1984-85, Snyder and Allen Ginsberg often spoke to the Chinese of the plight of the American Indians and the loss of their lands in the takeover by the Europeans who colonized North America. When they saw the Chinese audience nodding their heads in sympathy, they would then compare the American Indians’ situation to that of the Tibetans facing the loss of their homeland to the Chinese.
Whether exploring new wilderness regions with native peoples in Alaska or sacred “dreaming spots” with Aborigines in Australia, whether reading at a benefit to save the Okinawan coral reefs off Japan, or mediating the local land use disputes in Grass Valley, Snyder nonviolently champions what is “good, wild, and sacred.”
His sons are now grown. After twenty years of marriage, Gary and Masa Snyder have divorced. Snyder is engaged to marry Carole Koda. His next work is a collection of prose pieces on love, wilderness, and Zen community called The Practice of the Wild.
This is my third interview with Gary Snyder since 1984. On a hot day in July 1988, I drove up to his place in Grass Valley, California, a pilgrimage I had wanted to make for years. Gary’s son Gen served me a cold drink while we talked and waited for his father to return from chores in town. Soon Gary arrived and took me on a tour of his rustic homestead known as Kitkitdizze, the Wintun Indian word for a local aromatic plant. The land, which according to Snyder was “barely good,” has over the years “showed us a little of its power.” Next he showed me the beautiful Ring of Bone Zendo which serves the community’s meditation and meeting needs.
Snyder was working in Allen Ginsberg’s little cabin at the end of a meadow (Ginsberg is part owner of the property although he seldom resides there), and it was here that we had lunch and talked for the next couple of hours, stopping only once to silently observe a wild turkey that Snyder had spotted through the window.
— Catherine Ingram
INGRAM: You are considered an advocate for nature, for the wilderness. What is your ongoing activism in this field?
SNYDER: I haven’t been much of an activist for a few years because I’m working on a book right now, and I’m staying here at Kitkitdizze to do that, but it is a book about these very issues — reinhabitation, bioregionalism, deep ecology, the nature of the wild, what human consciousness and human culture bear in relationship to the wild, and the balance between discipline and freedom with regard to the wild. Those issues have been keeping me pretty close to home.
But even here I do keep involved to a certain extent with local forestry work — the locally based Forest Issues Task Force — and a larger ongoing effort to understand and critique the logging industry and U.S. Forest Service’s management of public lands, particularly forests, in the United States. It involves a huge area of land that belongs to all of us, although most people don’t think of it as their own land. But it is.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, which is worldwide deforestation. So through my involvement on the local level, I’m involved in issues that go all the way to the tropical rain forests. That’s the way ecological activism works, since everything is connected. What you learn from working on, say, a soil or water or forest or wildlife or pollution issue in any one spot on the globe is very informative about what’s going on everywhere.
INGRAM: In many cases today, we are seeing irreversible ecological damage. What do you think should be our top ecological priorities?
SNYDER: On a planetary scale, I think there are two or three top priority issues. One is, as I just mentioned, worldwide deforestation. An area of land roughly the size of Indiana is being clear-cut annually in the tropics. This affects not just the wild forest systems but the people who live where a logging cut is scheduled, and who are treated as though they don’t even live there. So human rights issues are very much involved also.
The planetary scale of the concern has to do with things like the contribution of the tropical forests, and all forests, to the world’s oxygen supply. Another concern is the irreversible soil loss and soil fertility deterioration that follows massive clear-cutting. Destruction of forest habitat, especially in certain parts of the world, results in a kind of erosion or baking away of the soil that means it’s going to be very difficult to ever get the same kind of forest back again. A third concern is loss of species through destruction of habitat. As you said, this is irreversible ecological damage.
Every one of these habitats and species is literally a community — a certain group of trees and creatures that all travel together through time. When that community is broken up, you can’t easily reestablish it.
INGRAM: Do you tie this in with the pollution of the air, the greenhouse effect, the pollution of our water supplies, and so on?
SNYDER: It definitely connects with water; to what degree it connects with air, I’m not sure. You see, algae are also oxygen providers to the atmosphere. But then we have to look at the pollution of the ocean and atmosphere problems going all the way up to the ozone layer and the ozone hole. There’s nothing that’s not connected anymore. That’s proposing it on the simple level of human self-interest. You might think practical people would take that seriously, let alone those of us who would be as concerned even if human beings were OK and it was simply in the interest of other forms of life. But human beings aren’t even OK in this.
I see a lifelong set of issues and problems that won’t go away. What can we do about it? At one end are dear friends in Earth First! who actually do nonviolent direct-action protest by climbing up trees, blocking bulldozers and, rightly or wrongly, sometimes spiking trees. Who would have thought a bunch of young people would risk their lives for the sake of old trees? It’s beautiful. Old growth stands of Douglas fir or redwood or spruce or cedar. A number of people are out there in the field doing that. That’s the direct-action level.
All the way to the other extreme, in a sense, are people who are lobbying the World Bank to rethink its investment policies and to become conscious of the need to include ecological health in its predictions or strategies when it starts underwriting projects in Third World countries. Actually the World Bank has recently been showing a change of heart. They’ve asked Herman Daly, who wrote a book called Steady State Economics, to come in as an advisor and to bring long-range sustainable economic policy concerns into what they’re doing.
INGRAM: Is this the result of public pressure?
SNYDER: I don’t think so. The World Bank is pretty well insulated from direct pressure. I think it’s based on common sense. I think they’re smart enough to be the World Bank, so maybe they’re also smart enough to realize that human self-interest is involved. But I wouldn’t say that they’re a bunch of deep ecologists or anything.
INGRAM: You know, we are so dependent on trees for so many things — such as paper, to name one of our favorites. In our modern society we waste so much paper, even the most conscious of us. This is just one example. It seems that there will have to be a gigantic change of our entire way of life — to stop using fossil fuels, to stop cutting down the trees — quite radical and touching every aspect of how we live. Does any part of your work, or work that you know of, offer viable alternatives, a whole different way of life?
SNYDER: Well, you know, for some years now, people have been playing around with the idea of alternative ways of life. That’s what gave us socialism. That’s what gave us the Communist revolution. That’s what gives us a number of other social experiments: people deliberately — intellectually, almost — trying to come up with alternatives that look or feel better than this way or that way. I’m one of the people who has considered what a saner society would look like, and what models we might draw upon, looking back in history or sidewise into other kinds of cultures — agrarian, preagrarian, primitive, prehistoric. I don’t think that those are wasted exercises. We have to remind ourselves that no society is ever totally free of domination, exploitation, and injustice, in one form or another. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn a little bit here and a little bit there. By studying history and anthropology, I think that we are made aware that there is not just one irreducible, hopeless human nature that makes us automatically warlike, automatically greedy, automatically competitive. It’s not quite as simple as saying that human nature is bound to end up with something like K-Mart.
INGRAM: It’s not genetic, in other words.
SNYDER: Some of it is. It’s interesting to see that there’s a certain amount of human drive that works in certain ways, but different societies have different ways of softening it or encouraging it. One society encourages people to be greedy and competitive and says, “Go for it. You owe yourself everything you can get.” Another society may also have people with that tendency, but they soften it and say, “Have good manners, be generous, share, don’t be stingy.”
INGRAM: Such as some of the more enlightened Oriental societies.
SNYDER: God knows if they’re more enlightened or not.
INGRAM: I mean in times of history when there was peace and a flourishing of Dharma and of poetry, such as Emperor Ashoka’s time in India about 2,000 years ago. . . .
SNYDER: You know, the more I look into that, the more every one of those cases has its dark side. Still, it’s true, Japan had almost 400 years of relative peace in the Heian Period. They didn’t even have capital punishment for about 350 years. There have also been some fairly long, stable periods in China. But the Chinese have always had a gruesome penal code and, as they say, “Internal contradictions were grinding away.” That brought the end of the peaceful dynasties. China was finally ruined by the taxation and interest rates, and the inequalities resulting from the steadily widening gap between the rich and the poor, which put the peasants in worse and worse conditions. Ultimately, they didn’t have good economic and social policies. But they could never get their hands on what it was. So there are no enlightened societies, ultimately, but some were more fun than others.
INGRAM: Should we try to live like those “more fun” societies?
SNYDER: We can’t really live like them. We have to work with what we’ve got. And the potentiality of what we’ve got isn’t bad. Rationalism, participatory democracy, a tradition of egalitarianism, a concern for human rights — much of the inheritance of the European Enlightenment is our working base.
INGRAM: Isn’t that a very mechanistic way of approaching it?
SNYDER: Yes, but that’s what we’ve got.
INGRAM: But it seems that, well, white folks have been particularly destructive and particularly at odds with nature. Do you see from a historical point of view how we evolved this way? Is it simply that we were in the colder climates and had to conquer nature to exist, or what?
SNYDER: It is true, Western European metropolitan culture launched itself out into worldwide exploration and exploitation with an energy unlike that of anyone else in history. I don’t think it’s because Western culture is inherently more destructive. I think it’s just a combination of factors that let it loose. And some of it would have been quite unpredictable.
You can’t make a blanket statement about all of Western culture, because it’s actually very diverse. “There’s an enormous gulf between Denmark and Sweden,” people laughingly say, for instance. Not to mention between Finland and Italy. There are subcultures of all sorts in Europe that have never been interested in going out and traveling around the world. The line of development is the upper-class, metropolitan trading economy, which evolves into mercantilism. Then proto-capitalism and capitalism evolve, launching high-risk, high-profit ventures which become a game that some people can engage in. The royal families of England, for example, were some of the first investors in traveling corporations, such as the Hudson Bay Company. So it’s institutions, if you really wanted to pinpoint it. Certain institutions in Western culture allowed certain groups of people to start doing those things. The rest of the people couldn’t afford it, and they didn’t really want to go on long trips anyway.
INGRAM: What about the great dynasties of China, Japan, and India? They didn’t get into the exploration/exploitation frenzy quite as much.
SNYDER: No, they just ruined their own landscapes. India became deforested over the centuries. Most of the people became impoverished. The Indian economy has gone downhill for the last 2,000 years. The quality of life for the average Indian peasant was much higher 2,000 years ago than it is now.
INGRAM: Maybe it was kind of clever of us to go other places and muck up their areas.
SNYDER: Yes, that was our discovery. Yet I wouldn’t say “our” really, because I don’t consider that my membership. My place is on this continent.
The same thing happened in China as in India. China and India gradually reduced forests and habitat and wildlife species, and the human population went up. They ground themselves down to a point of being really miserable by the nineteenth century, and, being vulnerable because of their misery, they were taken over by imperialist powers. And yet the dynamics were their own. If you want to look at the nature of the problem, you probably would look at the nature of civilization itself, East and West.
INGRAM: We’re talking about the nature of the mind.
SNYDER: Right at this moment we’re talking about the nature of civilization, which includes hierarchies of class, of power, and of money. Specialization. With civilization comes the oppression of women; slave-owning classes; accumulation of wealth and power in certain hands in certain places, like in big cities; and the building of pyramids. Is that what we want? We are told that this is so great that we should suffer just to have these monuments. But for the average person who had to put in the time so that somebody could have a palace, it probably wasn’t worth it.
Another way of seeing the world would be to say our monuments would be our wild areas. Leaving behind wilderness for the future would be the monument of our civilization. Richard Nelson [author of The Island Within], talks about this in relation to the Athabaskan people, the indigenous people of central Alaska. He says that if you travel over central Alaska, there is virtually no trace of human habitation. Yet there have been people living there for 8,000 years. He says one way to look at it — the way nineteenth-century people would have looked at it — was to say these people had absolutely nothing going for themselves. They haven’t even left a trace. From another standpoint, which we might call a spiritual standpoint, the fact that they could live there for 8,000 years and have a very complex and rich intellectual and spiritual culture and yet leave not a trace is a considerable monument.
INGRAM: Do you know that Chuang Tzu poem called “When Life Was Full There Was No History”?
SNYDER: Exactly, yes. Same kind of thing. So Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu are talking about the way primitive people have lived here on the planet. They’ve lived here actually tens of thousands of years, leaving very little trace. We have to rethink what that means. Does that mean they were dummies, or does that mean they had a way of living that was quite interesting and that we should have regard for?
You asked if we can learn anything from other societies. Yes, we can learn a lot. We can learn that there are other ways to do things, and that human nature is not an absolute given as some people think, that there’s a lot of flexibility in it. Then, the other side of it, asking why things like this happen, is just asking fundamental questions about the human ego — taking human nature on as a question.
I feel the correctness of the fundamental assessment by Shakyamuni Buddha that most of our problems are caused by the human reluctance to accept death, impermanence, ephemerality, and by the efforts that people make to build an illusion of permanence around themselves, which also becomes an illusion of separateness. If people can acknowledge their membership in the fabric of the whole, acknowledge that they are part of the habitat, part of the network, part of the web, and feel that the welfare of the web is their welfare, and their welfare is the welfare of the web — in other words, to be mindfully one with the whole — that is an extraordinary spiritual and political step right there, and it dumps the cartridges out of the weapons. It makes people approach things in a different way. So that’s why we practice meditation — to get at those kinds of things in ourselves.
INGRAM: I struggle every day with how gently or heavily I am stepping on the planet. I’m sure you’re familiar with Jerry Mander’s feelings about technologies and the question of whether or not they are “neutral.” [Jerry Mander is the author of Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.] We love our computers and yet they represent a society hellbent on speeding up and exploiting as fast as possible, because computers are used in satellites and airplanes to track down natural resources, for example. Of course, we all fly in airplanes, drive cars, and do many things that contribute to the costliness of this way of life. Sometimes I feel I’m not really walking my talk. What are your own internal contradictions on these questions?
SNYDER: There are several different strategies by which to live in the world. One is to withdraw from the world and to choose purity. To do that you could live in an ashram or a monastery or a nunnery or a utopian community. Or you need your own household, and you can rigorously try to eliminate from your life and from your economy all of the things that you think share in or contribute to what you identify as wicked in the world. I know a number of people who do that in different ways: pure, hearty Quakers who make their children eat nothing but oatmeal; Hindu vegetarians who won’t let their kids eat cheese unless it is rennet-free. Although I’m sort of making fun of them, I admire people who choose that way. It’s essentially the monastic choice. And it had been a choice that people have had available to them for thousands of years. Does the monastic choice make any difference or not? It’s a question I wouldn’t even try arguing. Are you simply escaping from the world and being irresponsible, or are you in some magical way making the world better? You hear both arguments.
I have made what you might call from the Buddhist standpoint the lay choice, the bodhisattva choice, the choice of engaging in it as it is — living in it as other people have to live in it, eating the same poisons and running the same karmic risks. By running the same kannic risks, if I have a good idea, at least I have it in the context of what other people have to do. Also by running the same karmic risks and by living the same life, I am committed to using the same tools they use. If I lived in a monastery, I wouldn’t need a car and I wouldn’t need a computer. Since I’ve decided to be an activist, so to speak, and a layperson, I need to drive my children to school and I need to do my shopping and pick up materials, and I have no apologies for that.
In the same way, if “our sacred enemy” is using computers to guide missiles and to manage unimaginably fast heaps of information, am I going to puritanically keep myself at a disadvantage and write with paper and pencil or not use the telephone while they’re running messages by satellite all over the globe? I would not be much of an enemy. [Laughs.] Actually I don’t buy the point of view that says if you use your enemy’s tools and if you live your enemy’s life in some way, you inevitably become like your enemy. I don’t think that’s true. I think that I can pick up the same tool and use it in a different way. It makes a huge difference who’s handling the tool. As the Chinese saying has it, “Two men are running down the street. They look identical, but one is a thief and one is a policeman.”
So, at any rate, I have — and many of my comrades have — opted to use our own sense of selectivity about it. And if it gives more clout to our work to use a CB radio or a telephone, and if it puts us in a better position to talk back, we’ll do it.
You know what you can do with a computer? This is what some friends of mine did in the Forest Issues Task Force. Because the law requires that certain information be available to the public, they were able to take a computer down to the county courthouse and download from the county computer the names and addresses of every registered voter in the county. In twenty minutes they had the complete address file of the county in their little twenty-megabyte hard disk. They can now program that to selectively print address labels by any demographic set of criteria they choose. They are doing that to fight back on the Forest Issues Task Force front.
INGRAM: Critics would say that the dangers in having these technologies used in the wrong hands outweigh the benefits used in the right hands.
SNYDER: I don’t think the answer is that simple. It’s like drinking and smoking; it’s like sex; it’s like driving. You go into it with your eyes wide open. You know it’s dangerous. But if you choose to do it, there’s a way to do it. If you choose not to do it, fine. Actually I like living dangerously. And I like living in this century at this point right now.
INGRAM: You said something once about how contradictions really don’t bother you.
SNYDER: I really do think that this is part of what engaged Buddhism means, what the bodhisattva spirit means. It means that you don’t back off from taking things on, or getting your hands a little dirty, or quaffing a little poison, or running risks. And it’s not the only way to go. I have great admiration for my Quaker and Amish and monastic Buddhist friends, but I wouldn’t say that the way that I and some of my comrades have chosen is necessarily inferior. I’d say there are two paths that we shall allow to be equal, and we’ll see what happens. We need both.
INGRAM: You spoke at one time in your essay, “Buddhist Anarchism,” about gentle violence being an acceptable response to stopping what is wrong. Then you modified that in a later interview to, “You set yourself against something rather than flow with it,” and you spoke at that time about having to “karmically dirty” our hands to live in this world. How might people today say no to a wrong in a contemporary issue? How would you “set yourself against it”?
SNYDER: It depends on the nature of the wrong and it also depends on how close it is to you. Things that are dumped in your lap, things that come up to your front door, you are really karmically obligated to deal with, I do believe. Poverty, oppression, rank injustice right in front of you is yours. It’s been given to you to take care of. The old Quaker concept of bearing witness and putting yourself out in front by civil and disobedient means is probably the best you can do. Although, politically speaking, if you really want it to work, call the newspapers too. In other words, civil disobedience or bearing witness is personally and morally satisfying if you simply do it, and it may do some good. But to make it really effective, we involve the rest of the society and let them know what we’re doing, what’s happening, and make it into an issue. If we go beyond that, we’re into terrorism.
On the other side of that, you move into all the many ways you can work within the system of a participatory democracy, some of which are pretty good. It involves being there fast and having the equipment, like getting 10,000 letters off instead of just 500. And sometimes some of those things work.
Underneath it all is the essential requirement — at least for a few people — to be constantly involved in understanding what the structural causes are. These might be said to be of two sorts — the structural causes as they are in history and the structural causes as they are in the spirit.
The structural causes as they are in history are class structure, institutions, the nature of civilization itself — the concerns that Western Marxists, the Frankfurt school, post-Glasnost theoreticians, enlightened post-capitalist theoreticians are still wrestling with. How do we understand history? How do we get control of our institutions? Is it possible to have sane governments? Is it possible to restructure our society on a deep level and make it work? Those are what I mean by structural analyses. As the Marxists say, if you correct things only on an electoral level, you are constantly applying bandaids, but you haven’t stopped the disease. And so we are still engaged in trying to understand the nature of the illness on a social and historical level.
And then, on the other level, there’s the concern we know from the world of spiritual philosophy and practice — the question of how we drop the ego, how we get out of our own way. How do we as individuals liberate ourselves from greed and hatred and ignorance, and is there any way that can be done on a larger scale than just by the individual? Is it possible that three or four of us might do it together?
So if you talk about amelioration to environmental or political questions, there’s always going to be some uppity Marxist who says, “Well, it’s really the fault of capitalism,” or somebody else who says, “It’s really the fault of patriarchy.” Well, yes, those things are true, but we still have to take care of things in the here and now, and we still have to get at the deeper level of things.
INGRAM: Do you see some progress on any fronts?
SNYDER: Yes. Two of the greatest changes of heart underway right now in Western culture are the relationships of men and women and the relationship of humans to the natural world. The women’s movement is profoundly unsettling to the institutions of the past, and the ecological movement is profoundly unsettling as well.
INGRAM: Do you feel these two areas are connected?
SNYDER: Oh, I’ve got baskets full of material that people are sending me from all over on women and feminism and the ecological issues, with arguments flying back and forth. It’s a very hot set of interesting questions. I think that there are really deep cultural issues involved there, spiritual issues. Wisdom — whether social, political, or cultural — is wherever you find it.
INGRAM: Do you think nonviolence is always the way?
SNYDER: Yes. Nonviolence is always the way, but you can’t always do it. This is the compassionate and practical paradox of the first precept, the precept of nonviolence. In an ultimate sense, there is no evasion of the precept.
INGRAM: What do you mean by that?
SNYDER: That there are no excuses, there are no justifying circumstances for violence. However, in our contingent and organic being in this karmic realm, the very law of impermanence is a law that is often enacted by violent processes. And we sometimes have clear choices before us that are of a very paradoxical nature because they throw us between responding with violence or choosing that violence be done to ourselves or to someone else. So with no further ado, we respond. The response of the being who chooses not to be a victim is a fair response, and in some of these contexts it’s hard to know who is being violent to whom.
Furthermore, the whole question of eating and the dynamics of the food chain stand in a scary and sensitive territory that is beyond the reach of any literal application of the precept of non-harming, because each being acts out its own ultimate, essential nature. The hawk cannot but be a hawk, the rabbit cannot but be a rabbit. However, when we look at it in the human realm, perhaps our range of choices is broader. When I make the choice to kill a chicken and eat it, I don’t excuse myself for doing that. And I don’t apologize. It’s the choice I make.
INGRAM: How do you hold it in your mind, this act of violence?
SNYDER: I hold it in my mind by acknowledging it, by not making any excuses or any justifications, by not saying, “I had to do this,” but by saying “I chose to do this.” It’s the acknowledgment and the gesture of acknowledgment. Actually, it’s the moment of stopping to say, “Thank you,” that makes a huge difference.
INGRAM: Do you feel that through meditation practice you become more sensitive to certain choices you used to make that you can no longer bear to live with? Do you find a lessening of violence in your life?
SNYDER: Oh, to the contrary. I came into this as a young man with an extreme nonviolent sensibility, a real revulsion against the nature of a universe that required suffering and death. Through practice, and this is true of many of us, I came to understand how it’s possible to accept the universe as it is, to understand the play of the process, to know that I can make my own choices without self-justification and without apology, and to accept the karma that comes with that. This is exactly what you have to do in every case. You’re not an adult until you accept the karma that you make. Then you can choose to make karma.
INGRAM: But, if you’re aware that you’re making karma, by say, being violent or causing harm in some way, it seems the mere knowing that you’re going to have to pay for this somewhere along the line, now or later, would make one disinclined to continue to do those things.
SNYDER: Well, one of the things that you learn from practice is that you don’t mind paying. As they say in prison, “Don’t mess with crime if you can’t do time.”
But what I’ve just said is kind of tough-sounding. In actual fact, I almost never kill anything. When I eat venison it’s because I find a road-kill on the highway, and I’ve learned how to salvage road-kills. When I used to keep chickens we did eat our surplus roosters sometimes, but with a kind of sadness, not with pleasure. The people I have known who hunt, the serious hunters and the subsistence hunters like the Athabaskan Indians in Alaska, go about their hunting and fishing in a very low-key way, very modest, with a trace of sadness. They sense that quality of tragedy, because they understand that they are taking life. It’s not with a victorious and conquering spirit at all, but with a very modest spirit that they approach killing.
INGRAM: How did Gandhi influence you?
SNYDER: I was very influenced by Gandhi in my early twenties. I read The Story of My Experiments with Truth, and I was deeply moved by that. Like so many people of my generation, I wanted to, in some way, make Gandhi my role model, both in a commitment to absolute nonviolence and in a simple way of life. And I’ve honored that commitment, but I remember reading that Gandhi’s great supporter, the Indian industrialist Tata, once said, “It cost me a fortune to keep Gandhi simple.” Tata was the one who underwrote the ashrams, you know.
So I came to understand that simplicity and nonattachment are truly a matter of attitude and not necessarily a matter of externals. I’ve known people who have lived simply but who are attached to their simplicity and desperately engaged with their little pair of sandals and their little pair of eyeglasses, whereas other people who have more are sometimes freer, more liberated.
Practice to me has been liberating in the direction of understanding complexity and tolerating what, when I was younger, might have appeared to be the failings of others. But as you grow older you understand how difficult it is for everybody to be pure, or for anybody to be pure. And you also realize that the truth of things lies in the appreciation of complexity and of paradox . . . and in a whole lot of forgiveness.