We each in our lives have a host of spiritual teachers, not necessarily in the religious context but rather people; either friends, loved ones, family members, mentors, or sometimes, perfect strangers who's work, faith, love, words move us enough to change us, to reconsider the world and our place in it.
It is almost an understatement for me to say that Gary Snyder has been such a teacher to me, for he is not just simply a poet, a writer I admire, but he crystallized the concept Zen Buddhist practice for me, my budding interest in it. His words pushed me into the action I needed to take and decisions I needed make.
This was an unlikely, serendipitous event, of course. The first poems of his I ever read, were Four Poems For Robin and Looking At Pictures To Be Put Away, love poems of all things, and yet they moved me in an unexpected way: not just emotionally, but spiritually. There was such conviction in them, such determination and kindness. They moved me in ways that love poems most often do not, translating desire and longing into something more universal, tangible outside those fleeting emotions.
From that moment on, I began to devour Snyder's work. I discovered he was the blueprint of Japhy Rider for Kerouac's Dharma Bums, a book I already cared deeply for, because its association with someone I loved. In his work, particularly his essays, his translation of Han Shan's ancient Cold Mountain Poems, I found a spiritual path for myself and I suspect that I'm not the only one he has opened those doors for. Snyder's writing made me a Buddhist, made me work harder to integrate my beliefs, both spiritual and physical, into my everyday life. It was through his work I learned to try to live my values, manifest them in the real living breathing world. He moved me from a non-practicing environmentalist to a practicing one, from a non-practicing activist to a practicing one, from a religious seeker to a practicing worshiper. He moved me. And I will follow in the footsteps of this rucksack-carrying short, leathery Bikkhu of a man for the rest of his days and mine.
It is his birthday today. He is 82. And though I've long since given up any hope of ever meeting him in person (and what would be the point of such a meeting anyway? I fleeting encounter, quickly erased from the memory of a man who must meet so many people, a chance to speak the adoring words, flat in comparison to those of his that changed my life?) it makes me happy to know that he is somewhere out there in the mountains.
The number of Snyder's poems I could choose for the occasion is endless, but as a pilgrim's progress too begins with the first step, if you haven't read him before this is a good a first poems as any to start a journey on.
If you don't believe me yet, read Smokey The Bear Sutra, something Snyder wrote off-the-cuff to impress upon fellow Sierra Club Conference goers the values we humans need to inhale, exhale and embody. It is free to be disseminated forever-no copyright required. If you're interested in further reading I recommend The Practice Of The Wild, Earth Household, The Cold Mountain Poems, Mountains And Rivers Without End and, of course, in the non-Snyder written realm The Dharma Bums and Poets On The Peaks.
And how about you? Who are your spiritual teachers?
(Sanctimony disclaimer: I don't claim to be a great activist, environmentalist, or for that matter a particularly disciplined Buddhist, but I try. That's all.)