Zen Ecopoet, Gary Snyder

Draft of unpublished chapter.

“Eastern sources [of deep ecology] include both Taoist and Buddhist writings…. Emerson and Thoreau were touched by the Eastern traditions and through them these traditions were transferred to Muir. The Eastern influence has been perpetuated in twentieth-century America in the works of F.C.S. Northrop, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Goodman, Gary Snyder, and many others” (Devall and Sessions 1985:100). (On Daoism see http://www.daoiststudies.org/begin.php).

In our times, Gary Snyder is probably the closest personage to a pioneering spiritual ecologist like Henry David Thoreau or John Muir. Snyder is the prominent mountaineer, poet, deep ecologist, and Zen Buddhist in recent decades. He is an exemplar of the influence of Asian Buddhism on the views of nature and environment held by some environmentalists in the West. [For the relationship between Buddhism and deep ecology see Barnhill and Gottlieb 2001, Curtin 1994, 1996, Halifax 1990, Henning 2002, Kraft 1994, and Lopez 2002. On the historical context of naturalists and environmentalists in America see Dorman 1998, Ehrlich 2000, Tweed 1992, and Worster 1979. For his autobiography see Back on Fire; Essays, 2007].

Snyder was born in 1930 in San Francisco, California. However, he grew up on a small farm near Puget Sound north of Seattle, Washington. By 15 years of age Snyder had climbed Mount St. Helens and by 17 most of the major peaks of the northwest. In 1951, he was awarded a B.A. degree in Literature and Anthropology from Reed College in Oregon. He was especially interested in Native American cultures and also in Asian religions and languages (see Barnhill 2002). Snyder continued his studies on his own while working as a fire lookout and trail crew member in Washington State and in Yosemite National Park. Subsequently he studied Asian languages in the University of California at Berkeley.

Snyder was part of the San Francisco poetry renaissance and eventually became one of the leaders of the 1950’s West Coast Beat Generation writers, as described in Jack Kerouac’s (1922-1969) novel The Dharma Bumbs (1958) in the character Japhy Ryder (see http://www.beatmuseum.org, and http://www.poets.org). Snyder and other poets and writers of the Beat Generation, like the Transcendentalists before them (e.g., Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau), helped draw the attention of many Americans to Buddhism (Seager 1999:34, 42, Tonkinson 1995), and, in some cases, to what may be called Buddhist ecology and environmentalism. In turn, one of the most important influences on the Beat Generation and other Westerners in the 1950’s and 1960’s were the university lectures and published writings of the Japanese proponent of Zen Buddhism in America, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki (1870-1966)(Barrett 1996, Coleman 2001:59, 62). [See Barash 1973, Bloom 1972, Habito 1993, Hayden 1996, James 2004, Loori 1999, and Seager 1999:210-213. On the beat generation see Beat Museum, Burner 1996, Kerouac 1958, Knight and Knight 1987, Tonkinson 1995].

In 1956, Snyder visited Japan on a scholarship from the First Zen Institute of America. In 1958, he returned to Japan, and at the Daitokuji Rinzai monastery in Kyoto he studied meditation for several years. During this period he wrote poetry that was eventually published in Mountains and Rivers without End (1965/1970) and other books. (See Loori 2000). Also, he translated classical Chinese and Japanese poems. Furthermore, for six months Snyder traveled through other Asian countries, including India where he met His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet at Dharamsala. Eventually Snyder married Masa Uehara, and, after the birth of their son Kai in 1968, they moved to a family farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains in northern California.

From his residence Synder cultivated an ecological and mystical sense of place and community, including bioregionalism. In this and other ways he became a major figure in deep ecology, an environmental philosophy and ethics celebrating the intrinsic value of all life. (See Des Jardins 2001, Devall and Sessions 1985, Naess 1973, 1984, 1989, 1993, Sale 1985, Sessions 1995). For example, as one of the founders of the Ring of Bone Zendo in northern California, Snyder integrated Zen practice with wilderness pilgrimage through walking meditations twice a year in the Sierra Nevada mountains. This practice has spread to other Zen groups on the West Coast and beyond (see http://www.english.ucdavis.edu/spark/v1n1/mttam/mttam.htm).

Non-duality, interdependence of all beings, and related Buddhist concepts are embedded in Snyder’s personal study, practice, and action. Through his poetry and critical essays Snyder helped to popularize environmentalist concepts such as reinhabitation, stewardship, watershed, and bioregion. His “Four Changes” essay on population, pollution, consumption, and transformation provides the most concise diagnosis and prognosis of the environmental crisis (Snyder 1975:91-102). The essay, originally published in 1969, is Snyder’s manifesto of deep ecology, according to Devall and Sessions (1985:264). Also Snyder was an early proponent of the back to the land movement in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, Snyder has been active in the environmental movement internationally as well as locally, in the latter case, with the Yuba Watershed Institute in Nevada County, California. In 1978, together with Robert Aitken, Joanna Macy, and others, Snyder founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (Seager 1999:95. 206, http://www.bpf.org). Since 1985, Snyder has taught at the University of California at Davis in the Department of English and the Creative Writing Program. Also at Davis he helped to establish the interdisciplinary undergraduate major called Program in Nature and Culture and the annual conference devoted to creative writing about the wilderness called “The Art of the Wild” (http://wwwenglish.ucdavis.edu, cf. Oelschlaeger 1991).

Among Snyder’s numerous books are Earth House Hold (1969), Mountains and Rivers without End (1970), the Pulitzer Prize winning Turtle Island (1975), The Practice of the Wild (1990), and The Gary Snyder Reader (1999). His 1970 book was inspired by Dogen’s Mountains and Rivers sutra and Chinese landscape painting. His books have been variously translated into at least 18 languages, thereby extending his influence far beyond America. In 2003, Snyder was elected Chancellor of The American Academy of Poets.

In 1998, Snyder became the first literary figure in the United States to receive the prestigious Buddhist Transmission Award of the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation (Buddhist Awareness Foundation). BDK makes an annual award to publicly acknowledge distinguished individuals who have made outstanding contributions to the theory and practice of Buddhism. The award to Snyder recognized his role in helping to disseminate Buddhism in America, and in particular, in linking Zen thought and respect for nature through his life of writing poetry and prose. [On the spread of Buddhism to America and the West see Batchelor 1994, Coleman 2001, Fields 1992, Prebish 1999, Seager 1999, Tweed 1992, Williams and Queen 1999].

As an example of Snyder’s influence, his “Smokey the Bear Sutra” was widely published in the alternative press in the United States and Canada, and later reprinted in his book A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (1995:25-31) and elsewhere, including in the anthology called Dharma Rain: Sources of Buddhist Environmentalism (Kaza and Kraft 2000:474-476). As one of the pioneers in deep ecology Snyder has had a significant influence on aspects of environmentalism, and his Buddhism was an important part of this. [For more on Snyder see Becher 2000, Dean 1991, Halper 1991, Kraus 1986, Martin 1990, McClintock 1994, McLean 1980, Molesworth 1983, Murphy 1991, 1992, Nielsen 1993, Strain 1999, and White 1975].

The book Deep Ecology by Devall and Sessions (1985) is dedicated to Gary Snyder as well as founder Arne Naess. Deep ecology was launched in Norway by University of Oslo philosopher Arne Naess (1973, 1984, 1989, 1993, 2002). (On Naess see Cooper 2001, and Witoszek and Brennan 1999). Shallow ecology only treats the superficial symptoms of the ecocrisis, like controlling a point source of pollution such as a factory smokestack. It is an anthropocentric and utilitarian environmental ethic pursuing mostly bureaucratic and technological solutions to environmental problems. In contrast, deep ecology is an ecocentric philosophy, ethic, lifestyle, and movement. Deep ecology exposes the underlying fundamental causes of the ecocrisis and the radical steps required for a genuine solution, namely a profound change in thinking, lifestyle, and society. Deep ecology pursues the values that all beings and biodiversity have intrinsic worth; humans only have the right to satisfy their basic biological needs and they should limit their desires through voluntary simplicity and restrict population and economic growth; and, accordingly, there must be fundamental ideological changes in society, economy, and technology to focus on the quality of life rather than indefinite materialism, consumerism, and growth. [A very useful survey of the historical roots of deep ecology can be found in Chapter 6 in Devall and Session 1985:79-108. For more on deep ecology see Aitken 1988, Barnhill and Gottlieb 2001, Des Jardins 2001, Devall 1988, Devall and Sessions 1985, Dobson 1991, Drengston and Inoue 1995, Fox 1984, Hardin 2003, Hayden 1996, Macy 1998, Matthews 1991, McLaughlin 1992, Merchant 1992, Metzner 1999, Sessions 1995, and Tobias 1988. Also see the periodicals Resurgence and The Trumpeter, and Schumacher College].

In various ways and degrees, many prominent environmental thinkers, activists, and authors beyond Arne Naess and Gary Snyder share some ideas of deep ecology, including Robert Aitken, Rudolf Bahro, David Bower, Fritjof Capra, Rachel Carson, Bill Devall, Alan Dregson, Paul Ehrlich, Dave Foreman, Warwick Fox, Edward Goldsmith, Dolores LaChapelle, Jeremy Haywood, Daniel H. Henning, Julia Butterfly Hill, Robinson Jeffers, Stephanie Kaza, Kenneth Kraft, Aldo Leopold, Joanna Macy, Ralph Metzner, E.F. Schumacher, John Seed, George Sessions, Michael Soule, and Michael Zimmerman. Many of these deep ecologists are influenced to some extent by Buddhism, and some are Buddhist practitioners themselves. (Stark 1995 provides one critique of deep ecology).

Elements of deep ecology are also found in the political platform of the Green Party in Germany and many other countries of the world including more than a dozen in Asia (Kelly 1994, Paige and Gilliatt 1992, The Green Fuse, The Green Party). Thus, the impact of Buddhism on environmentalism has come full circle. Snyder is an extremely important influence in Western Buddhism, environmentalism, deep ecology, ecopoetry, and much more. He is the contemporary analog of Thoreau!


More Resources


There is a chronology for Snyder in The Gary Snyder Reader, New York, NY: Counterpoint, 1999, on pp. 611-614.

This book includes a DVD, transcript, photos, and other material: Paul Ebenkamp, ed., 2010, The Etiquette of Freedom: Gary Snyder, Jim Harrison, and the Practice of the Wild, Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.