Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A poem for a birthday

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.

For All
Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
northern rockies.
Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
singing inside
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.
I pledge allegiance
I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.
-Gary Snyder-
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.)


  1. You chose a lovely picture and a wonderful poem, to bring one right into that space with him. He is a great teacher, and I have only had the taster you so kindly sent my way. I found it full of courage and shining strength like the mountains. The courage one can find, when breathing in that mountain air, drinking its waters and dropping the shoulders of tension with the world. To practice living in that space needs inspiration, and attention, to mind us and kindly return us to the streams and trees and sunny clearings, he does that beautifully.
    I go to Rumi and Hafiz ( I love Hafiz's humor), and then to John O Donohue( an irish poet and writer) to haiku and other zen poets.... I Particularly love a book called Love Poems from God.. I stumbled quite literally into a silent zen retreat on the Apalachians three years ago, and maybe for the first time in a long time I really.......stopped and found the most wonderful feeling in my heart. I love silence, and go now to a woman's retreat once a month( well not religiously; ) at a Theravadean centre in the hills not far from home. I love it, its a tonic for the month. I love the writings of Ajahn Samedho too, the recent retired leader of Theravadean Buddhism and also Thich naht hahn. Happy Birthday Gary Snyder, and Happy Day to you Milla

  2. i like gary. kerouac gets on my nerves pretty fast, but gary i like. i love that picture. wrinkles are awesome.

  3. love him sooooo much. i bet you will meet him one day, in one way or another. it seems that often happens with our heroes.

    i actually did not know that you are a practicing buddhist; we'll have to talk more about that sometime. i have been re-reading some of kerouac's haikus and it brings me back to me of my discovery of buddhism through the beats way back in the day and that joy of knowing that a practice like this exists. i still enjoy and respect it somewhat peripherally, but with great admiration and a tentative approach of my own to meditation and devotion to a few of the key elements. it's that detachment from desire i have trouble with ;) being such a hedonist!

    love you dearheart. love how you share your wild heart with this holy soul.

  4. gary snyder for sure. barbara kingsolver...rumi...barry lopez...pablo neruda...oh so many writers that come to mind- that help me quiet myself and expand my thinking at the same time!

  5. Thank you Milla, what a wonderful picture and an inspiring tribute... It brings to my mind the poem of Zen Master Ikkyu, from "Crow with no mouth":

    nobody knows I'm a storm I'm
    dawn on the moutain twilight on the town

    Which is exactly my feeling so many, so many times, to the point of hurting me inside.

  6. I meant mountain of course...

    And my spiritual master is Christiane Singer, a passionate, generous and subtle woman whom you would love, but her books don't appear to have been translated into English, unfortunaltely - in Finnish maybe ?

  7. so beautiful! i've had the practice of the wild on my amazon wish list for quite a while now...well not anymore! i just ordered it thanks to this post. can't wait to read it.

    i hope you are well sweet milla!


  8. milla, have you read when things fall apart by pema chodron? that book made me really consider allowing some actual buddhist thought into my life for the first time and really understand something much beyond the silly yoga-mat crowd that i am surrounded by in my northern ca neighborhood. (i'm totally jaded after living in the bay area my whole life.) her book really changed my thinking and expanded it.

  9. I love this: "singing inside, creek music, heart music, smell of sun on gravel." I haven't read any of his work, but am glad you shared, and as always, I so enjoy reading your thoughts! They are so beautifully articulated :D Happy Friday Milla!!

  10. I came to Gary Snyder through you, Milla, and am so glad I did. I think I'm still at a point in my life where a lot of the BIG discoveries are happening, and he has opened my eyes... he's a figure I admire for all the reasons you mention. How many people as amazing as he grace this Earth?

    For school, I had to listen to some author interviews logged on this database... I immediately hunted his out and spent the following 45-minutes in a giddy state of joy and reallyreallyreally, total wonder. I'll always remember the first time I read the Dharma Bums -- it was last spring, with my baby turkeys running around my knees in the grass. I was completely captivated by Japhy. Since then, I've been reading the Practice of the Wild slowly, savoring each essay, as it's all I have of his writing. I've got his stuff on my list for my trip back to the US next month.

    All throughout this comment, I've been contemplating who my heros are... and I have a few. Sir Snyder is certainly one, but mine are more "regular" people. I admire you greatly, for example. I admire Renee Askins (author of Shadow Mountain), who was my very first experience with the concept of the wild and human separation. I admire my grandmother, whose knowledge of making things is vast.

    I often wonder what people my thirty year old self will call upon when she considers her inspirations...

    So much love.


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  12. i love poetry, too. Rilke, especially, sings an ancient familiarity to my heart.

  13. Dharma Bums is the second love of my life. i buy it as presents for lovers and friends, and i read it at least once a year. i can't put my finger on why i love it. i think it may be the simplicity of it all. when it fell into my life, i felt swirly and in chaos. now it is my touchstone to restore some inner peace.

    my spiritual teacher is also an author, although i'm not sure she ever meant to be one. Francesca Lia Block wrote Weetzie Bat, the first love of my life, and a score of other young adult novels that i started devouring when i was 13. her way of capturing the world, all of it—nature, man, cities, canyons—made me believe that there was more to the world than what i saw in front of me. more importantly, it made me realize that there was a life after middle and high school. i needed to know that at the time. i now give that book to the young women in my life, and i try to practice seeing the beauty in everything.

    thank you for this post. i needed that word respite.

  14. *sigh*... I need to become better acquainted with this man. I'm finishing up my latest book club book today and then The Practice of the Wild is finally coming down off the shelf.

    From the time that I was a little girl, my Dad has been my biggest spiritual teacher. Spiritual endeavors were an important part of his life and he loved sharing what he knew to be truth with his girls. He definitely shaped the way I take in and integrate anything and everything that falls within that realm.

  15. If I haven't yet, remind me to tell you my meeting Gary Snyder story. You know he lives here, maybe we'll see him next week at Ike's :-)