Gary Snyder and‘Eco-Zen’

Gary Snyder and Eco-Zen


This is the opening section of Chapter 5 of my book BEAT SOUND, BEAT VISION (MUP, 2007): “ ‘Eco-Zen’, or ‘a heaven in a wild flower’: from Gary Snyder to Nick Drake”.


In his celebrated critique of the Beats, made in the days before his canonisation by the counterculture, Alan Watts exempted one writer in particular from the charge of misappropriating Buddhism. That was the poet Gary Snyder:

Whatever may be said of Kerouac himself and of a few other characters in the story, it would be difficult indeed to fit Snyder into any stereotype of the Bohemian underworld. He has spent a year of Zen study in Kyoto, and has recently (1959) returned for another session, perhaps for two years this time.[i]

Snyder, that is, represented Zen proper, not what Watts then saw as the affectation – or ‘fuss’ – of the Beat cult of Zen. Certainly, Snyder has ever since had the reputation of being a serious, committed Buddhist who has managed to infuse his poetry with religious knowledge and spiritual insight. Kerouac, as we know, became early on disillusioned with Zen, and finally moved away from Buddhism and back to Christianity. Ginsberg, having flirted with both Hinduism and Zen throughout the sixties, finally became a Tibetan Buddhist in the early seventies. But Snyder has stayed true to Zen for over half a century.

This dedication has resulted in some beautifully precise evocations of nature, very much in the spirit of Zen haiku, though not confined to that particular format. For example: ‘Down valley a smoke haze / Three days heat, after five days rain / Pitch glows on the fir-cones / Across rocks and meadows / Swarms of new flies.’[ii] What is particularly interesting about Snyder’s dedication to Zen, however, is that it has gone hand in hand with ecological activism. More than any other Beat, he has demonstrated that spirituality does really go with political engagement – though not of the conventional, philosophically materialist kind. Where a Marxist, say, would want to refer all political issues to the conflict which takes place in a purely human context, Snyder has always seen the defence of nature itself as crucial to the maintenance of our human integrity and dignity.

Thus, in ‘Front Lines’ he speaks for the land — with which both the Native Americans and the creatures who inhabit it have existed in harmony — against the rapacious logic of ‘development’: ‘A bulldozer grinding and slobbering/ Sideslipping and belching on top of/ The skinned-up bodies of still-live bushes/ In the pay of a man/ From town.’ This outrage against the environment is seen for what it is in the context of the earth’s beauty and intrinsic value: ‘Behind is a forest that goes to the Arctic/ And a desert that still belongs to the Piute/ And here we must draw/ Our line.[iii] Such a stance might accurately be described, to adopt a  used by Alan Watts in another context, as ‘Eco-Zen’. This was the title of one of a series which Watts gave in the late Sixties, entitled The Philosophies of Asia, in which he explained to his North American audience the necessity of breaking out of the illusion of being an isolated individual set over against a hostile nature. To find out who you are you have to wake up to your identity with the environment, with the whole. That is what Zen is all about. Ecological awareness is the same as mystical awareness: all is One. The most obvious, practical consequence of this awareness for Americans would be the realization that ‘using technology as a method of fighting the world will succeed only in destroying the world, as we are doing.’ They would then stop ‘turning everything into a junk heap’.[iv]

As Snyder says, then: ‘here we must draw / Our line.’ Patrick D. Murphy, one of his most astute commentators, has read this poem as an intervention rather than simply an indictment. It is a call to action:

In ‘Front Lines’ the individual working the bulldozer is not treated as the ‘enemy.’ Here, rather, Snyder’s wrath is reserved for the man from the city, who is engineering this destruction without having any direct contact with the environment that he is having razed for financial gain. Snyder demands of himself and readers that they take a stand, here and now, against further devastation of the natural world. For Snyder, defense of the forests is both a planetary issue, in relation to the decimation of the rain forests and their potential impact on the greenhouse effect, and a local one. His area of California borders the Tahoe National Forest, and that part of the country has been badly damaged in the past by both hydraulic gold mining and clear-cutting of forests. The poem, then, reflects not only a general political stance but also a specific one speaking to the local defense of nature in which he and his neighbors have been engaged.[v]

Snyder’s Buddhism is emphatically not a form of quietism; it is not a rationale for passivity.

Another commentator on his work has inferred from his fusion of Zen and ecology that Snyder’s concern is to extend the implications of the vow which all Buddhists take: ‘I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.’ We know the first two of those terms, but might not be familiar with the third. ‘Sangha’ refers to the community of those engaged in practising the dharma and seeking to follow the path of the Buddha, with a view to waking up to their Buddha-nature.  Snyder’s whole endeavour – as poet, as essayist, as activist — effectively interprets ‘sangha’ in the widest possible sense. For example, in the poem ‘O Waters’ Snyder invokes ‘great/ earth/ sangha’.  ‘Sangha’ is the Buddhist term for the community of those committed to the practice of the dharma. So what is the exact significance of Snyder’s implicit usage?

Traditionally, ‘sangha’ refers to the community of monks, people who have devoted their lives to spiritual practice separated from normal society. Snyder has clearly departed from that notion here: the ‘sangha’ is the ecosphere of the planet. In this one image is suggested two fundamental characteristics of his thought: a creative extension of both Buddhism and ecology by seeing each in terms of the other, and an overriding concern with community.[vi]

For every Buddhist, this recognition of the interconnectedness of all beings is a suitable subject for contemplation. For Snyder, it becomes also a suitable inspiration for intervention on behalf of all other beings.

We have just quoted from Snyder’s ecologically polemical poetry; but we have also previously indicated, in relation to Watts, his willingness to challenge institutional Buddhism itself, where he suspects it may collude with corrupt, environmentally irresponsible regimes. We referred in particular to his poem ‘Mother Earth: Her Whales’ and to his essay, ‘Buddhism and the Possibilities of a Planetary Culture’. Perhaps here it might be appropriate to state explicitly that, in advocating a ‘planetary culture’ — one in which humanity would know and love its place in the great web of interbeing — against the assaults of an irresponsible, destructive, soulless ‘civilisation’, Snyder represents the ‘counterculture’ at its most principled and uncompromising.[vii]   

Snyder’s dedication to the cause of ecology goes hand in hand not only with his Buddhism but also with his absorption in the legacy of mythology. An early volume of poetry is entitled Myths and Texts (1960). According to Murphy, Snyder’s dual premiss is that espoused in his undergraduate thesis, written nearly ten years earlier: that myth is a ‘reality lived’ and that reality is ‘a myth lived’. As Murphy explains: ‘Myth, then, places people in a cultural and physical matrix, providing them with a coherent sense of presence in place and time.’[viii] For Snyder, the mythopoeic poet – constantly revitalising that body of stories which tell us where we are and who we are — has a crucial function: ‘The poet would not only be creating private mythologies for his readers, but moving toward the formation of a new social mythology.’[ix] 

There is, of course, the body of Judaeo-Christian mythology to draw upon; but Snyder sees this as something to be corrected, even countered, so that the pre-Biblical mythology of the ancient world and also the native mythology of North America, might be given its due. The epigraph to Myths and Texts is a passage from the Christian New Testament, which gives us an indication of the kind of high-handed attitude to pagan myth and ritual which he  opposes: ‘the temple of the Goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and all the world worshippeth’ (Acts 19: 27). Again, in the course of the sequence which opens the volume, entitled ‘Logging’, we are reminded of the aggressive stance taken by the Hebrews against the supposed idolatry of the fertility myths and rituals which were flourishing at the time they were seeking their own promised land: ‘But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves’ (Exodus 34:13).[x]

‘Logging 1’ might be taken as representative. Here Snyder invokes the goddess worship which was suppressed by Judaeo-Christianity: he refers to the origin of the ‘May Queen’ in fertility ritual, and he mentions by name Venus (the Roman version of Aphrodite, a deity associated with fertility) and Io (mother of Dionysus, a god associated both with fertility and ecstasy). Not only that: he simultaneously invokes Native American mythology: ‘The year spins/ Pleiades sing to their rest/ at San Francisco/ dream dream…’[xi] Patrick Murphy surmises: ‘the myth pertaining to the setting of the Pleiades has to do with beliefs of Native peoples who lived in what is now the San Francisco area, while the invocation to “dream / dream” places the dreamer in that city as well. The invocation suggests the sensory realm of the collective unconscious, the locus for mythic vision.’[xii]

The myths and rituals of the American Indians are frequent referents in this volume, and in Snyder’s work generally. For him they make perfect sense in the context of ecology and also in the context of Buddhist thinking.  ‘Logging 12’ refers to the Sioux chief, Crazy Horse, who was a leading figure in the resistance to white settlement on American Indian land – tragically being defeated and murdered by General Custer in 1877.[xiii] Quoting from the poem, Patrick D. Murphy surmises:

[I]t becomes clear that the mythic vision of native and ancient peoples is not merely of historical interest or a dream time psychic salve, but an opening into an alternative culture by which humans, in league with ‘the four-legged people, the creeping people, / The standing people and the flying people,’ could live in this world at this time.[xiv]

If we are alert to what is being described in the lines quoted by Murphy, we recognise that this alternative culture includes shamanism. In Native American lore, the shaman is the tribal ‘medicine man’, at the very least; at the height of his powers, he is the visionary who mediates between the tribe and the gods. He has the capacity to enter sacred time and sacred place on behalf of his community, ensuring that it does not lose touch with the realm of spirit. From American Indian shamanism to Zen is not such a large step for Snyder. Each is a standing refutation of the values of western civilisation.

As we have had a good deal to say about Zen in this book, and as we will be returning to the subject shortly, it might be appropriate to end our account of Snyder by stressing that, of all the Beats, it is Snyder who has most consistently realized Kerouac’s intimation in On the Road that ‘the earth is an Indian thing.’ An important strain in a genuinely North American counterculture must be an identity with, and defence of, the Native American way of life – intimately connected as it has been to the environment. Snyder’s interest in that way of life has been as consistent as his adherence to Zen. The poem we quoted earlier, Front Lines’, comes from a volume entitled Turtle Island(1974). If we absorb the full weight of this title, we can only confirm that Snyder’s interest in ecology is simultaneously an interest in mythology. He offers the following definition in the introduction to the volume – a statement sufficiently important for him to merit repetition a later volume of polemical prose:

Turtle Island – the old-new name for the continent, based on many creation myths of the people who have been living here for millennia, and reapplied by some of them to ‘North America’ in recent years. Also, an idea found worldwide, of the earth, of cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity. … The poems speak of place, and the energy pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a ‘song’. The land, the planet itself, is also a living being – at another pace. Anglos, black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island.[xv]

From Zen to ecology via mythology and shamanism: Snyder’s work extends the possibilities of ‘Beat’. Essentially, he makes us realise how deeply the beatific vision is concerned with nature, and with the relationship between spirituality and nature. Blake had declared that one could see ‘a heaven in a wild flower’; the Beats concurred with this. But, as with Blake himself, they were capable of constantly shifting emphasis: between the idea that the natural world is sacred in itself and the idea that its sacredness is something human beings discover once they have cleansed the ‘doors of perception’. Snyder would seem to adhere more or less constantly to the former emphasis; Kerouac and Ginsberg would seem to veer towards the latter (though neither of them are notable for consistency, it has to be admitted).

In what follows, we shall be exploring the beatific vision, as exemplified by a small group of songwriters who are clearly indebted to the Beat movement. Given that we have previously discussed Dylan in connection with Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the Beatles in connection with Ginsberg, it might be illuminating now to situate these songwriters in the context which Snyder has provided. The intention is not to provide a taxonomy of parallel themes, but simply to take our cue from his ‘green’ Buddhism – or what we are calling ‘Eco-Zen’ – and see where it leads us. One songwriter might seem to tend largely to the ‘Zen’ side of the equation, another to the ‘Eco’. It is just as likely that one or two will seem to veer in neither direction, but draw on the natural environment for the appropriate imagery with which to express their vision – perhaps offering the outline of what we might call ‘nature mysticism’.

Please read the rest of this chapter, and a wider discussion of ‘The Beat Spirit and Popular Song’, in my book BEAT SOUND, BEAT VISION (MUP, 2007). Details are on the ‘Books’ page.


[i] Alan Watts, ‘Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen’, This is IT and other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience (London: Rider & Co Ltd, 1960; 1978), p. 100.

[ii] Gary Snyder, ‘Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout’, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (NY: Pantheon Books, 1992), p 4.

[iii] Snyder, ‘Front Lines’, No Nature, p 218.

[iv] Alan Watts, The Philosophies of Asia (Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1995), pp. 41, 57.

[v] Patrick D. Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring: The Poetry and Prose of Gary Snyder (Corvalis: Oregon State UP, 2000), p. 108.

[vi] David Landis Barnhill, ‘Great Earth Sangha: Gary Snyder’s View of Nature as Community’, in Mary Evelyn Tucker and Duncan Ryuken Williams (eds), Buddhism and Ecology: The Interconnection of Dharma and Deeds (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 1997), p. 187.

[vii] For the context of Snyder’s ecological activism, see Laurence Coupe (ed.), The Green Studies Reader: From Romanticism to Ecocriticism (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 1-8, 119-22.

[viii]  Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 21.

[ix]  Snyder quoted in Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 21.

[x] Snyder, ‘Logging 2’, Myths and Texts, in No Nature, p. 35.

[xi] Snyder, ‘Logging 1’, Myths and Texts, p. 34.

[xii] Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 23.

[xiii]  Snyder, ‘Logging 12’, Myths and Texts, pp. 41-2.                

[xiv] Murphy, A Place for Wayfaring, p. 28.

[xv] Gary Snyder, ‘The Rediscovery of Turtle Island’, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 1995), pp. 243-4.