Interview with Gary Snyder
by Matt J (Jenske I think - dc)
I think this is an interview for a college paper of Matt's and that I have a hard copy of that at home. Will get to that and try to contact Matt later. I fixed some stuff I was pretty sure about but there are spots with question marks ??? for unclear places and some unclear places without them. But overall it's a great interview I've sat on for about sixteen years.. - dc
Gary Snyder Interview December 23, 1994
Matt: My first question is could you talk a little about the cultural landscape of the 1950's and 1960's and its specific relationship to Zen Buddhism? I'm specifically curious about how Americans became interested in Zen when there were hardly any practice centers at that time.
Gary: Well, I can't speak for the whole American cultural climate, but I can describe a little of what I felt. There was, even in the 50's, a broad interest, at least here among certain people on the west coast, and on the east coast too, in Asian thought, particularly in Daoist thought, and also a profound appreciation for Confucianism. You would have to go back even farther, and you'll find that information in Rick Hillis' book about the intellectual climate in the whole 20th century. Ezra Pound introduced many of us to Confucianism for the first time. (Witter Bitter)? translated the Dao De Jing back in the 20's. There were other translations available too. And Arthur Waley's Chinese poems were widely available, so, in my own case, there were two things that first brought me to an interest in East Asia. One was reading translations of Chinese poetry, and the other was seeing Chinese landscape paintings in the art museums. This was when I still was a teenager, a high school student. Specifically, for someone in the Pacific Northwest (I grew up in Seattle), the work of Morris Graves. Morris Graves was reading D.T. Suzuki, studying Chinese art, studying Zen, and doing paintings before World War II. Morris Graves is still alive. And so, by the early 50's we heard that D.T. Suzuki was lecturing at Columbia University. Later I heard John Cage was taking his classes. For many connections, many little threads were already out, but, the main cultural thing, I think, for me was that I was interested in the possibilities of a culture and a philosophy that could incorporate the natural world into a territory that was nonetheless civilized and had a long history. I knew that Native American and other pre‑modern subsistence cultures were in very close touch and had an interesting and very sensitive relationship with nature, but based on poetry and painting alone I got the sense of the Far East. It had what seemed liked it might be the unique condition of being highly civilized and at the same time in touch with nature. That was one of my specific interests. And, there was also something simply in the very flavor of Buddhist Literature and Buddhist practice with its rigor. I was a mountain climber, I appreciated rigor, I appreciated the pleasures that come from running risks. I did a lot of mountaineering. So all of these things made Ch'an and Zen Buddhism in particular attractive to us. I know Phil Whalen and others talked about it a lot. But I was also interested in Hinduism, the Hindu puranas, their great mythologies, and I wasn't limited in my interest in Buddhism to Zen. I started reading, from 22‑23 on, widely. Theravadin and Mahayana literature, and all the Mahayana sutras and all the commentaries that I could get my hands on. So in addition to Zen as a practice I found the philosophical breadth and depth of Mahayana just wonderfully stimulating. And worthy of profound respect. To sum it up, I think an interest in a secular, non‑theistic, non‑ideological, pragmatic, nature‑ encompassing, philosophy and practice was very attractive. Those possibilities were very much called for. In the intellectual climate of the time. access to a spiritual practice that was neither ideological nor mythological, and which did not exclude nature, I think that's part of it. The part was just that we were discovering the beauties of Chinese and Japanese poetry and painting. And that's the way it was then, it goes through changes after that.
Matt: Could you talk a little about your personal experience with Zen Center? When you first came into contact with Suzuki Roshi, for example? Some of your first impressions of him?
Gary: Well I went to Japan in 1956, May of 1956. I was studying at Daitokuji. First I was studying at Shokokuji and then Daitokuji. I had many friends in San Francisco who wrote me and I remember sometime during that year, probably, oh spring of '57 maybe, I think that's what it was, I got a letter saying that a new Zen priest has arrived at the Pine [sic: Bush] Street Soto Buddhist Church, who is opening it up to Caucasians. There had been a Zen church there before and they were going to go over and sit with him. Some of my friends were the very first people to ever sit with Suzuki Roshi ‑ Joanne Kyger and Bob Breckenridge were two of them. And Claude Dalenberg. So I got news of this, and I kept hearing about it. I got news from this evolving Zen practice center up in San Francisco as it was happening, and it was very lovely to hear about. I didn't actually get to meet Suzuki Roshi until I came back from Japan to live in California in 1969. Actually it was the winter of '68 but in the spring of '69 I had an apartment over near the old Bush Street Zen Center. I was on Pine Street after that, I had an apartment on Pine Street, and we had Suzuki Roshi over for lunch several times and chatted away in Japanese and in English. I used to go over and sit in the morning when I was living there with Suzuki and that group. And I knew Dick Baker already at that time, and I knew some of the other people who were around the Zen Center at that time as friends from before, as well as some new friends. So I was not right up on top of it, but, I was aware of it in talking to people who were involved with in it from the very beginning. And step by step, , I heard the news about each of the monks, all of the monks, as I still keep in touch with it, via Norman Fischer and David Schneider.
Matt: It seems to me that some of the social unrest of the 60's had a lot to do with a lot of young people's interest in Zen. Do you think the word spread about Zen this way in the counterculture, what do you think that Suzuki Roshi and other Zen teachers had to offer people in the United States? And do you think this has changed or that the reasons that people choose to practice Zen are still similar?
Gary: Well, there was already a strong interest in Zen in the late 50's and early 60's. And the establishment of a solid group of people practicing at Zen Center in San Francisco took place before the full‑blown emergence of the whole hippie movement. It was already going. It should be said then that the general cultural alienation that young people are feeling doesn't start with the hippie movement but goes back to the early fifties, mid‑fifties and then, the emergence of the Beat generation is the first larger public symptom of that. And the hippie emergence is actually a continuum of that, with certain changes in style. The broader perspective is that people need a spiritual practice. Well, not everybody does but a lot of people do. What is meant by spiritual practice had a very narrow and somewhat restricted definition prior to 1955. Defined in terms of monotheistic world religions. As people discovered that their spiritual needs and thirsts might have access to practice and fulfillment in ways other than the formalities of Judaism, Christianity or Islam, it was a very hopeful discovery. And, of course, there were a lot of people who were alienated from the conditions of the cold war and other cultural phenomena. So their interests turned to all kinds of Asian thought, yogic, Hindu, Buddhism of all varieties, and many other spheres of religious phenomena. As it happens, some of the Indian traditions and the Zen traditions and the Tibetan tradition of Buddhism had the clearest offering of a path of training and discipline. And so people went into all of these. Some went in looking for a guru, some went in looking for a practice. Those who went looking for a practice came to Buddhism; those who went in for a guru went to Hinduism. The fact that so many people did, of course, was a function of sociological issues of the times. But there would be in any time, under any conditions, some people who would go to these sources. As there always has been ‑ it's perennial. And just the fact that they become more and more accessible in the United States would bring more people to them. But what happens is very clear. For example, take the large percentage of people from Jewish backgrounds who go into Buddhism. Why? Because there is a non‑patriarchal, non‑theistic, not culturally loaded, apparently rational, non‑ideological territory of spiritual practice that is available to you without prejudice, from whatever background you come from, and you can still stay a Jew and you can still do all the Jewish things, and you can still be a Buddhist. Now the Jews won't let the Buddhists do that.
Gary: You see, it's a very easy thing to do, for whatever background you come from. You don't have to throw away what you had, or your cultural or family background. And yet you still are given a place to go and work out. So it's really wonderful and that's part of the quality of the marvelous tolerance of the Buddhist tradition.
Matt: There are many priests apparently who are incorporating some sort of zazen into their practice now.
Gary: Yes it's going in that direction too, particularly in Yamada Koun Roshi's lineage, which is the Sambokyodan, which is Bob Aitken's line. Yamada taught a number of Catholic priests, at his center in Kamakura. [dc corrected assumed mistakes here] That's a really good question. Are they using Zen meditation to forward their Catholic practice, what is going on there? But one's feeling, my feeling as a Buddhist says, well, it can't do any harm, that may be appropriating some aspects of Buddhism but, to sit and to meditate is always liberating. It's just that it shows you what's really there. You can't program meditation, or say you must think only about this. The truth about meditation is it shows you what's in your mind.
Matt: Well, that issue of appropriation, I think it is an interesting one, because I've been studying what came to be called Beat Zen. It's sometimes charged with appropriating parts of Buddhist practice in ways that weren't formal, but appropriating it in a way that was in line with its own goals and interests, overlooking the formal discipline of Zen. I'm curious what you think about that. Is there some sort of definable entity that could be called Beat Zen. and what do you think it was up to?
Gary: Oh, well, like everything else, what you might call Beat Zen was a passing window of interpretation, which is long gone. And it would come as no surprise to anybody who knows about history and anthropology and the history of religions to know that various people at different times interpreted according to their own cultural and social condition of the moment. Buddhism certainly is aware of that. There's no judge or court, or police who are bringing people in, charging them with appropriation in the Buddhist world. It's just a source of amusement, that things are picked up and talked about in various ways. All of Japanese culture can be charged with appropriating Buddhism in certain ways. Or Chinese culture. Or Tibetan culture. If you want to say there's a pure Buddhism, which was the Buddhism of Shakyamuni that was taught in the second century B.C., then every culture that has become a Buddhist culture has altered that. On the other hand, the Buddha himself said, these teachings can go into all languages. Different people will interpret them according to their own needs, and that's okay. Buddhism is not paranoid about being appropriated any more than they'd get paranoid about the Catholics taking it on. But there are some cautions in traditional Buddhism. You'll find it in the Tibetan literature for example, as to what are non‑acceptable views. Non‑acceptable views, I mean, it's very basic, very simple, are if whoever is talking about this stuff begins to declare that there is a permanent self, if somebody talking about these things begins to declare there is a permanent universe, or that the Universe is an entity with substance, with eternal substance. Eternalism and the permanent soul or self are not Buddhism. Buddhism is grounded in the principals of no self and impermanence. Aside from that, they'll let you say about anything. Just about anything. And that there is no deity, that's also in no self.
Matt: My feeling is that in the west we needed both the creative interpretation that people were providing, such as Kerouac, in The Dharma Bums, and also perhaps a little later, more formal information about Zen, such as you writing about sesshin in Earth Household. I think that the combination of a creative attempt to grapple with the teachings and see their relevance in our own culture and then more formal information has been very fruitful. How do you feel?
Gary: Oh yes. I mean that actually has been what the process has been. Jack actually wrote a whole little book called The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, which is more his own feelings about Buddhism than The Dharma Bums, in which he largely acts as kind of mirror for the main character. But The Scripture of the Golden Eternity,, you look at that and you know what he's been reading. He's been reading the great Mahayana sutras, he's been reading the Lotus Sutra. I mean, he becomes a Mahayana Buddhist, a full bore Mahayana Buddhist. I think that is charming.
Matt: What kind of relationship do you think existed between Beat Zen and Zen teachers, such as Suzuki Roshi? How do you think that a formal teacher dealt with some of the creative interpretations?
Gary: Well, that window is very brief. I mean, who was Beat Zen? Alan Watts writes about it, but he himself distances himself from it. As the model for the character in The Dharma Bums, I could be taken as a model of Beat Zen, but, I'm also the first person to write about a formal sesshin. The period of time that I could be said to be doing Beat Zen is rather brief and then I'm off to Japan where I'm doing formal Zen.
Matt: In fact, I saw an article in The Chicago Review, and the footnote said something like Mr. Snyder seems to have gone square in his essay.
Gary: Right, right. So, I think that in a sense Beat Zen is kind of a red herring. It wasn't really around in the society much. There were a lot of people reading the newly available paperbacks. Reading D.T. Suzuki, reading Herrigel's Zen and the Art of Archery, reading Paul Reps, reading Watts. A lot of people, it's true, from all walks of life, were very comfortable with the idea of Zen, were not intimidated by it, did not think that it necessarily involved a lot of discipline or a lot of formalities and were saying, well, Zen is just being open, creative and playful and seeing directly. And let's have fun with it. That wasn't a bad thing. Some people came along a little later and said, that's all so superficial. But , to give it its due, that kind of light‑hearted approach to Zen that Watts had, and that Watts stimulated in a lot of people, in many ways, is better than the intimidating, heavy kind of, "oh this is hard work, oh this is real discipline," sort of a Zen practice. Because the truth is if you do Zen practice long enough, what you'll learn is that it's really kind of fun. And that it is light‑hearted. And that doing koan practice is just pure play. Pure play, it's just the most delightful play that there is, if you do koan practice. And so Watts in a sense is not far off. It's just that. [brief part too low to hear]
Matt: Could you talk a little more about Alan Watts' role in interpreting Zen for people?
Gary: Sure. I knew Alan from 1952 or '53. First met him at the Friday evening study group meeting at the Berkeley Buddhist Church. Then [dc change] met him by going to a talk he gave at the American Academy for Asian Studies. I met Alan when we was still a young kid, middle or late 30's is all he was. Then he wrote these series of books. Alan was a unique man; he had such an articulate, fluid way of thinking. He made everything look effortless and blameless. And in being that way, he imparted confidence to everybody. He was later faulted for various things, like never having done Zen practice himself, and so forth. But just take the phenomenon of his writings, and I think that one has to agree that they do no harm, and that they often do good. That they help people understand themselves and their lives. It's a kind of a pop psychology, it's kind of pop Zen, but it is on a higher level if you want to go back and read them, by far, then a lot of the pop psychology, pop Zen stuff that's being written now. A lot deeper, a lot more learned. A lot more subtle, but we've just thrown up our hands and sort of given up about pop psychology, pop Zen. Now we don't even bother to critique it, it's just out there. So, , you might say that Alan paved the way for that, but you might also say that Alan did it right, and culturally speaking, he made a real contribution to the United States, particularly in his presence in the Bay Area. He made life in the Bay Area that much better. He was a really interesting guy, and I really enjoyed meeting him, and liked him, loved him a lot.
Matt: I think your poem about him is a wonderful tribute.
It's been said by others, I don't think it's been said by Suzuki himself, that he came to the U.S. because he felt that the true spirit of Zen was lacking in Japan. Do you think that Zen practice in Japan has become stultified, and does the transmission of Zen to the West represent in any way a reviving of the practice?
Gary: Well, I used to think that myself. I don't think it's true now at all. I think that Suzuki saying that was sort of half‑joking, or he said that for the benefit for the guys in Japan more than our benefit. He, usually never did (too low to hear) Suzuki in perspective. The most cosmopolitan Japanese thinker of the 20th century. Can you think of any Japanese person who has done as much as he has to affect the rest of the world? Nobody can. But, it's gone so far, you don't even think of Suzuki as Japanese, we almost think of him as one of ours.
[DC comment. I'm not sure which Suzuki is asking about but Snyder is answering about DT Suzuki. Shunryu Suzuki, however, did say critical things about Zen in Japan, like that moss had grown on its branches etc and has been quoted by his students as saying such in ways that indicate that they think we've got good fresh Zen and the Japanese have bad old stale Zen. Like Snyder though he was thinking of DT, I'd say that it's not to be taken too literally, one has to be careful about how on understands what Shunryu Suzuki meant. For one thing Japanese Zen teachers tend to always say things like that, for another, it would apply to us now. It's encouragement to keep things fresh.]
Gary: So we don't think, "this is a Japanese guy who's influenced the world." It's amazing. he was brilliant, he was just a genius. He got the point about the primary principles of Buddhism in his '20's. He passed his primary koans and did his Zen practice in his early '20's. Then he came to the United States and he mastered English, he got as good at English as anybody can. And spent long enough here to understand and become totally at home in American culture. Then he goes back to Japan, and proceeds to write profound books on Japanese Buddhism, and Buddhism in general in English, as well as writing books in Japanese on those topics. He weaves circles around everybody else.
DC reconstructing question: Have any Zen doctrines been changed in the West?
Gary: Let's take the practice side first because that's simple. Adaptations in Zen practice ‑ they vary from place to place, but the first one that you see is that men and women sit together. Another is sometimes they'll have chairs, they're flexible about the seating arrangements. Another is that in some place a certain number of the formalities that go with the sesshin have been abbreviated. Some places don't chant, some places do. Minor differences here. I don't think any of them are very serious or significant. I don't think any of them abbreviate real Zen practice. Well, there are some things that you can talk about. Some places have made it so mild and so user‑friendly, heating the rooms, making everything comfortable, that I think they lose some of the flavor and maybe some of the necessary essence that comes with Zen's austerity. That troubles me. Because I studied in Japan, because I did monastic practice, I may be perhaps prejudiced by that, but I think there is value in it. I think there is value in rigor and value in austerity and I don't think Zen functions at its best when it is too user‑friendly. Zen practice should make you continually ask yourself, "Do I really want to do this?" That's a really good question to be challenged with all the time. So you have to say to yourself, "Yes, I want to do this."
Matt: It's a difficult question, though. I spent the summer practicing at Green Gulch Farm, and that question certainly came up for me. It is the most difficult question. To keep wanting to walk away from the practice.
Gary: Right, but that is the practice right there. That's part of the practice right there, is your wanting to walk away from it, and in dealing with that, that becomes part of your meditation. It's very fruitful.
Matt: You mentioned monasticism and some of the things that you've done suggest that you're finding new ways for lay practice in the west.
Gary: I'm still working on it. Go ahead.
Matt: Well, so I suppose one half of my question is asking about the possibilities for a new kind of lay practice in the west and the other half is do you think there is a place for monastic training in the west? What do you think of the role of Tassajara?
Gary: Well those are two questions. A new kind of lay practice and is there a place for monastic practice. And, then let's go back and let me touch on that question you asked that I didn't finish up which is, have any Zen doctrines been changed? , it's really too early to make many generalizations about these things. Rather, there are no answers. All we have is different things we've tried. And questions that we've looked at. How do you make Zen practice not only user‑friendly but family‑ friendly? Or not necessarily user‑friendly but family‑friendly nonetheless. Well, we've made it more and more friendly to women. Women have more and more roles and share leadership in various zendos. That's excellent, that really works. We have Zen teachers who are women now, my wife studies with Joko Beck, down in San Diego. Children are really the problem of the question. And you hear different views on that, in Japan as well as in this country. Basically you hear Zen people say or priests or teachers say, don't even tell your children that they can do zazen; they shouldn't mess with it. They can wait 'till they discover it on their own. There are other people who say well, yes, let the children have a little zazen period once in a while, a children's zazen ceremony. And there are the questions of whether or not you have a Buddhist Sunday school for your kids. There are some really deep questions here as to the nature of Zen. Is Zen a personal sort of psychological and spiritual practice for highly motivated adults, individual by individual? Or is it a cultural practice that encourages community, functions as religions usually function in strengthening the web of social relationships, adds to family life, gives you something to do in the family? Two possibilities. If you want to see how that latter possibility really can work you look at Jodo Shin. That's the way Jodo Shin is. They have Buddhist Sunday school, where they tell the stories of the Buddha's birth and upbringing. They have Sunday school activities just like Christian Sunday school. And they teach the little children how to offer incense, and how to bow, and they always teach everybody to bow before eating and so forth. They have a series of festivals and festivities through the year which children are involved in as well as adults. Especially, of course, Buddha's birthday. But with people who are in the Japanese culture the ??? dances. The summer dances of the spirits of the dead, which my wife grew up in, she's Japanese‑American. I think that there is a middle way there between how thoroughly family oriented Jodo Shin is and the rather austere sort of totally adult world that is generally created by Zen in America. And in Japan, in the country Zen temples in Japan, in village and neighborhood Zen temples, the Zen temple does serve as a place for activities that the family can do. Now in our zendo right here we have Buddha's birthday, and that's for kids, all the kids come. And there are stories told for kids, story telling, Jataka tales, told for kids. We have family practice on Saturdays, which are not much practice, but more like getting together with the kids and the families at the zendo and the kids play around inside and outside. And there's a meal or two, and there might be half an hour of mindfulness, but the kids can run around if they don't want to be quiet. I think that those are tentative experiments in the direction of how you do all this. And let's see what was another part of that, oh, monasticism. Oh, I certainly hope there will always be a place for monastic practice. I think that is a really valuable and quality necessary option. There is no doubt that the Tibetans are going to keep it going, with nuns and monks. A young women and daughter of mine, ??? just finished her three year three month three day retreat. ??? After I left the Daitokuji monastery when I was back in this country I got a letter from a American that entered the Daitokuji monastery as a monk ‑ named Ray Kauffman. Ray said to me in the letter, he said, well, what do you do about the celibacy? So the best thing I could think of writing back was, enjoy it while you can.
Matt: What about Tassajara, do you think there is a ongoing role for Tassajara here as well?
Gary: Oh course. You can't just do it in the city. places like Green Gulch and Tassajara are valuable centers for practice. Every place and every regular Zen center is going to have a place like that. Katagiri Roshi had a place like that started. And, yes, why not, it's a good idea.
Matt: Maybe we could get back to the question of Zen doctrine in the west?
Gary: Yes, has Zen doctrine been changed by coming to the west? I don't think so, I don't see any indication of anything being changed here. There are abbreviations of practice and that happens in the lay Zen circles in Japan too. You can become a lay Zen roshi or a non‑priest roshi in a lay group like Yamada Roshi's group. With less trouble than if you were in a monastery. The curriculum has been shortened. It's not as long and as tedious a curriculum as it is in the monastery. That's in Japan, not here. But, that, of course, has been transferred here, with schools in that lineage, or schools in similar lineages. Is that a good thing? I don't know. In some senses the whole spiel, koan, Rinzai koan forms, is a little decadent. It has more hoops to jump through than they ultimately need because they keep adding things on. But on the other hand there are some things that they've done in the lay traditions that are probably not so good. Like in monastic Zen, after you become empowered by your teacher, to be a teacher yourself you take a ten year leave of the monastery and then you teach, if you have to. For ten years you're not in the monastery nor do you teach. You usually use that time to travel, to catch up on your reading, to catch up on society, and public life. And on people, ordinary daily life people. For ten years you just take things in. They call that ripening. Then after ten years you can teach. Now the short cut in lay Zen, people get their permission to teach, they teach immediately. A week later, they're having students come in. I don't like that. Again, I end up being conservative with this. I studied Zen in monasteries in Japan and already twenty five years have passed. Now I am an orthodox person looking at these changes in America and saying, oh, too many new things. Too soft. Too easy. And there is this student, a woman who is a student of Kapleau's.
Matt: Toni Packer.
Gary: Who has taken the religion out of it, secularized it, taken the sutra chanting out. I don't think that's right. I think those are part of the practice. I think sutra chanting is part of the practice. And I think that Zen is part of Buddhism and is a religion, not some kind of new psychology. It should have, should and does have, a shamanistic, magical, archetypal side. It's not Buddhist Quakerism either. I had some Quaker people come here once when we had sesshin, the Quaker people from john ??? school And they have always thought Zen was sort of like Quakerism; a plain, uncluttered, simple, kind of practice. At the end of the teisho when everybody stood up and made three bows to the floor and stood up again and chanted those things and then bowed again, they just couldn't stand it. Zen is not the Society of Friends. It's got all kinds of magic and archetypes and lore and goofiness that it carries along with it. And either you appreciate that religion, or you don't.
There's an argument in religion for the pure plain teachings, like the original teachings of Christ. That argument says everything else is extraneous. You can call that the ultimate Protestant argument. Then there's the other argument, which is the ultimate Catholic argument, which is that religion is more than just pure teachings. The archetypal and ceremonial and sacramental and ritual elements are equally important. This is not a question that can be resolved. It's a matter of personalities and taste. But I think that it's to Buddhism's credit that it has never allowed itself to become totally Protestant or totally Catholic. It's always been in the middle ground there, and had elements of both. From the stand point of archetypal psychology, the Jungians and such, they would argue all the trappings are really what you need; that's what's important about religion and the teachings. It's what it stimulates archetypally and unconsciously.
Matt: I didn't think that I would enjoy the bowing and chanting at Green Gulch this summer and was surprised to find that I found it to be a very powerful part of the practice.
Gary: It is powerful. It is and chanting the dharanis which are unknown magical languages, at one time I suddenly had a funny little moment where I said, maybe this is the most important thing in Buddhism. Is chanting these weird little magical dharanis. I had no idea what it was doing, but I felt it was doing something.
Matt: You suggested that work as Buddhist practice is a healthy practice for Americans. You talk a little about San Francisco Zen Center in that context in The Real Work. I was wondering if you could speak a little more about ways in which we might create forms of Buddhist practice that address specifically American needs.
Gary: Well, what I'm suggesting about work is limited in attention. Work as a continuation of zazen, as a extension of the meditative focus. And that is the tradition called samu in Rinzai, I don't know what they call it in Soto [same]. It comes in the context of the full sesshin. There are morning or afternoon periods when you change clothes into work clothes and then go out and work for several hours, physically work in silence, with no talking. And then come back, wash up, and change back into your robes and go back into the zendo. I always found that really helpful, very important. The head monk spoke very beautifully about the importance of that, carrying the mind of zazen out of the zendo, out to work. Then I traveled in India, in '62 and stayed on ashrams where they had the practice of communal work in the village, working on projects for a few hours every day. My thought was that there could be a Zen practice that took the idea of samu and carried it out in brief periods, not in terribly long periods. to do beneficial work for the community. Not just working behind the walls of the monastery, as we usually do. But to go out and do a community project and be involved in a community project over time. Monks going out and doing that. That has happened off and on through the history of Buddhism in China. The Chinese Buddhist monks often did that, especially through periods of social turbulence and turmoil, like during periods of famine, whole monasteries turned out to help people. They donated all their stores, whatever they had, as well. Then monks in the next province loaded up a batch of rice and packed it all the way back to the home village, the home community, to help the people there. So it's not a new idea, although you haven't seen much of that in recent Japanese history. It's an idea of combining some of those ideas that we're acquainted with and Americanizing them. Like the Quakers, [dc edit] combining a Buddhist practice with exercises that benefit people. Benefiting the community, or a kind of a peace corps. A dharma corps. Dick Baker and I led the very first zazen sit‑in.
Matt: I've seen pictures of it.
Gary: It was during the Vietnam war, at the Oakland Army terminal. We were sitting along the fence, all doing zazen.
Matt: I think that's a great idea.
Gary: We took kinhin breaks, long kinhin breaks, twenty‑five minutes, and gave everybody a sack and we went out and cleaned up litter all up and down, along the fence and around the parking lot. There was junk all over the place, little bits of trash that nobody ever picked up. So we not only did a little demonstration, (too low to hear) Workers from inside the army terminal, from the warehouses, came out and looked at us, so they knew what we were doing. And then we left it all cleaned. That was great, that was a perfectly fine practice, I think. Some people criticized us, some of the other Buddhists said that Buddhist meditation should never be used in a political contest. I can understand them saying that. And I can imagine that it could be misused. But those few times that we did it during the Vietnam War, I think were just fine. It suggests possibilities.
Matt: Is that how you see what's come to be called engaged Buddhism? Trying to take that zazen mind and take it out to work with you?
Gary: Yes, but then , engaged Buddhism is not just zazen mind, but it's also the mind of the precepts. And the Bodhisattva spirit, and it's a western idea, not an eastern idea ‑ that one should bear witness, that one should speak up to injustice, and that one should actively engage with real suffering in the real world. And, naturally enough, Turning Wheel has taken on a direction which is largely peace and justice oriented. I and a couple of other people who are on the advisory board have to keep reminding them actually that there is also an ecological portion to Buddhism. I thought they were really neglecting the non‑human entities that are also a part of Buddhist concern. A couple of years ago, I wrote the editor a long letter saying, do not forget that Buddhism is the only international religion going that argues an ethical stance in regard not to just human beings, but to non‑human creatures, and if you guys do not have a word to say for the spotted owl, issues like those, no one else is going to. And they took that to heart. [cut unclear sentence] So the first precept applies to all beings, not just human beings. I think that's an important part of what the religion is.
Matt: What kind of questions do you think that American Zen teachers need to face right now, in our particular time and our particular place? What do you think are some of most pressing questions for the development of Zen in the West?
Gary: Pressing questions for Zen teachers and I'm sure none of them would argue with me about this, are questions about how to deal with power and authority. The biggest problems that Zen has had in this country have been so called abuses by teachers, abuses of power in various ways. A great proportion of those would not have been considered abuses in Asia, because Asia is composed of hierarchical cultures and teachers are given a lot of leeway. American culture with its egalitarianism and its very strong questioning of authority and any form of "victimization" today, kind of caught the traditional teacher‑student relationship, teacher‑student role that came from Asia, by surprise. That was with a lot of other kinds of teachers as well as Zen teachers. Teachers came from Asia expecting students not to raise too many questions. And then teachers came from Asia that were completely caught by surprise by the liberated sexuality of Americans and they misread it. They misread it and thought it was more liberated than it was. And so they were caught by surprise again, when young women who had more or less apparently willingly gone to bed with them turned around and complained later. That was a double surprise, there was a double whammy. That's happened to some of the Japanese teachers who came here. It's been very confusing for everybody. When some of the Japanese teachers got here it was the sexual revolution. Ten years later it was the women's movement so they got it back.
That happened to a lot of people. So this is an ongoing question here ‑ how does a teacher of young Americans now play a role as a teacher, and exercise the kind of decisive authority that in a sense you have to make as a Zen teacher. Like whether or not a person has grasped the point of the koan is not up for negotiation. Obviously there have to be territories where you take the teacher's word for it. Or if you don't take his word for it, then you quietly leave, you quietly say, I don't agree with my teacher, I'm moving on. But you don't make it into a major sort of community issue where you all get together and vote. Zen is going to have to work that out, and so is Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism is afflicted with stronger authoritarian and hierarchical histories even than Zen. So, I don't know, it's in transition.
Matt: Yes, it certainly is. I'm wondering if you could talk a little about the specific situation of Richard Baker at Zen Center and the ways that they have grappled with some of these issues.
Gary: I was never really too close to that because I was living here. Dick did call me up almost as soon as all that broke and told me about it. He was very troubled. Then I heard from other people down there who are on the board. It was a traumatic event for everybody. I don't think the fact that Richard was having an affair or two with some of the women was really what was bothering people. I think that that was just the straw that broke the camel's back and what was the real problem was the authoritarian style that Dick had taken, an imperial style which I witnessed with my own eyes on several occasions down there. I think that the Zen Center people committed themselves more and more to a kind of authoritarian and imperial style to a point where it went beyond even how that would be in Japan. It's so interesting ‑ the Japanese Buddhist world has a hierarchical and an authoritarian way of being, but it also has a lot of looseness inside of that that you wouldn't know if you weren't inside it. It looks like you cannot talk back to the roshi. Behind the monastery walls, the monks can sit down and really chat with him. He's not as intimidating as he seems, nor is he closed off to any suggestions from outside, by any means. There's a lot of forgiveness behind closed walls, just as in the family and on the street a Japanese family looks like the man's in charge and the women keeps her mouth shut and the kids stay neat. Inside the family, the man may be totally browbeaten, and the woman may really be running things. But in society they play the role. This is far more complicated ‑‑
Matt: We were talking about Richard Baker. I'm not sure if we finished that or not. You were last saying that Zen Center had actually gone beyond Japan in its authoritarianism and that there was a sudden reaction in the community.
Gary: Yes, that's the sense I had of it. Now they've been maybe going a little bit in the opposite direction, trying to be overly democratic.
Matt: I think that's the exactly the question it brings out. I think Helen Tworkov's look at Richard Baker in her book Zen in America raises some of those issues. Whether it's a process of becoming overly democratic or whether it's really a positive step for western Buddhism in helping redefine the student‑teacher role in the west.
Gary: Well, it's probably necessary. The course is necessary. And we don't know where it's all going to balance out. There may be people, groups, that will try to have a completely non‑authoritarian Amish style Zen. In the sense that some of the extreme branches of the Amish who also became who they were because of a profound repugnance with European authoritarianism, had no priests, had no church. The Sunday meetings were held in rotation in different farm houses. The person at who's house it was hosted was nominally the host, nominally, maybe, the master of ceremonies, but because they were so wary of hierarchy, they never had and they don't have today, that particular branch of the Amish, anybody who's a designated priest or pastor or minister. It is a completely non‑hierarchical Christian sect. So you can imagine an anarchist Buddhist sect that would do something like that maybe. We'll see, everything's possible.
Matt: Zen Center itself seems to be talking about the possibilities of having become too democratic.
Gary: Is that right?
Matt: I was speaking with Paul Haller, who's the head of practice at City Center, and he said they are now searching for ways to give authority back to the teachers.
Gary: It would be a terrible place to have to try to be a teacher right now. And there is some truth in what Chogyam Trungpa virtually said right out to his students when they criticized him for authoritarianism. He said, you need to have to think about it. If there isn't somebody who's pushing you so that you can choose for yourself whether or not you're going to be a follower of this person, how are you going to know how you feel about it? So there are some profound mind games involved here, and the mind games can be misused or the mind games can be illuminating, and that's always the problem. A place where the authoritarian and hierarchical mind games are used to great effect is in Gurdjieffian groups. They have a real power trip, but in doing so, apparently they manage to teach people a lot.
Matt: I don't really know that much about them.
Gary: Yes, they're around and you don't even see them. They're very quiet about their actual presence.
Matt: I think they have a Portland center. There are a couple of interesting things happening with the relationship between Zen Center and Richard Baker right now. There was an interview with him in the latest issue of Tricycle. It's a very interesting interview. I think it's probably the furthest statements that I've seen of his that have acknowledged some of his errors. And he's really forthright in saying, 'I made a lot of mistakes and I see that now and for a long time I didn't see that,' which I thought was really interesting. Apparently he's been invited to Norman's Mountain Seat ceremony. I guess that's in the very early stages but I imagine it was a difficult decision for Zen Center to make.
Gary: Oh, I'm sure. And I'm sure very much resisted by some people too.
Matt: It will be interesting to see what happens.
Gary: Dick is very seductive. I'm sure there are people who are afraid that if he even gets near them, he will seduce them again.
Matt: I've heard some things said along those lines, that there is still a kind of feud.
Gary: Yes, he's a very powerful person. He has real power in a magical sense. He's very seductive. People very easily give themselves up to being (gone anyway)???. He's also a very fine person. I like Dick a lot, but I never did like the way he ran Zen Center, so I stayed away from there.
Matt: He had some land up here, didn't he?
Gary: He and I bought this land together with Allen Ginsberg. And because Dick and Allen really weren't using it, we finally gradually bought them out, so that my wife and I now own it all, except the portion that is owned by the Ring of Bone Zendo.
Matt: I think I only have two last questions. One is a question about what you think the greatest obstacles to practice are for Americans? Do they stem primarily from cultural barriers or are they other than that?
Gary: Honestly I don't think there are any greater barriers to practice for Americans than for anybody else. And I don't think that barriers are any different than they are for anybody else basically. With small variations, when it comes down to practice everybody is very similar. Asian people have big egos just as much as American people do ‑ it's just that the culture makes them hide their egos. But the personal self, ego, agenda and the spinning out of a story about the world and about yourself that you become attached to ‑‑ are the obstacles to practice everywhere. And that's what practice is all about. The rest is just how you do it.
Matt: I suppose my last question is that I'm curious about what kind of practice you have here at the Ring of Bone Zendo?
Gary: I'm on a sabbatical from Ring of Bone Zendo while I'm writing and so I haven't been involved in any of the teaching or practice down there at the zendo. In the meantime, it's in excellent hands. Nelson Foster, who's a junior roshi, a dharma heir of Robert Aitken Roshi's, has been doing wonderful things with the sangha. He's carrying it on in the spirit that I started it in, which is to view this zendo as not so much a center of Zen practice, but as a country Zen temple that is grounding the community ‑ not providing housing, or anything like that ‑ but serving the community foremost, like a country temple does. Finding more ways to serve, open to anybody who comes for sesshin, or actually for any time, but not able to provide them with facilities. Except during sesshin, of course, when everybody lives in the zendo. We draw on a circle that is larger than just ??? People that come here regularly to sit come from as far away as Truckee and Sacramento. We were talking about that just the other day. I was down in the zendo for a morning discussion on history and it was a lot of fun. We agreed that basically the community extends out for two hours, a two‑hour travel time. In earlier times the two hours were from way down the ridge, or way up the ridge, or just across the other side, with two hours to walk in. Now two hours will bring you from Sacramento or Truckee, but it's still two hours. People don't want to walk more than two hours or drive more than two hours to feel that someplace is within their sphere. And so that two hour limit still sort of holds. We draw on people who can get here within two hours. But most of it's Nevada county, a lot of it is ??? itself. But a lot of people drive in from Nevada City as well to practice. If I had thought about it, you could have talked to Nelson, he's really interesting, he doesn't live far from here. His training was in Hawaii. Nelson has always been a peace and ecology activist like me. So is Robert Aitken. Aitken and I are both on the original board of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. Nelson was active in the Pacific and in Hawaii. Our little circle constitutes one of the groups that ??? culture(?) We have also been very conscious of the larger national (wildlife?) My contribution to Zen practice is a small but interesting contribution, and that is the mountains and rivers sesshins. Walking sesshins, outdoors. I started that.
Matt: At Green Gulch I saw a notice for one that I believe was going on somewhere in the vicinity of Big Sur.
Gary: There are a lot of places that are beginning to do it. On the East Coast too. What's that guy's name up at Mt. Trempor? John Daido Loori. Daido has been doing it too. The very first ones were all here. Starting about 1978, I started holding a mountains and rivers sesshin every summer. It's really quite a wonderful practice. Sitting outdoors, under the stars, rising at dawn, sitting under pine trees and on the rocks. Eating in silence communally. And then walking up the trail pretty much in silence, I don't remember how many miles a day, then camping. Doing dokusan too, dokusan somewhere around back of a rock. It's wonderful. So Nelson has carried that on without me, and has branched out so that they went out and did a mountains and rivers sesshin in March in the desert in Nevada, in the snow. They were walking everyday in snowy, blowy, cold weather, freezing at night, doing zazen. It's great. We went down to Death Valley a number of times. And over in the Trinity Alps, we just get out there and do it. I got the idea of doing that partly from. . . first, I've always been a backpacker, and then I also worked season‑long, summer‑long forest service work. Then in Japan, I also practiced with the Yamabushi as well as Zen people. The Yamabushi are the people who say that the whole world is our zendo, the mountains are our hondo [main hall]. You don't need a roof. We sit in the mountains, we walk, we sit, wherever we are. It was a very easy step to say, why not have a sort of semi‑Yamabushi style, semi‑Zen style walking sesshin right here in America where the mountains and the trails are so good? It's a really lovely practice. We always read a few sections from Dogen's Mountains and Waters Sutra, which is like a manual for Zen practice for people who are walking. That's been our contribution, the Ring of Bone Zendo's contribution, to Zen practice. And the fact that it refuses to advertise itself, to present itself as a center, is committed to the long‑range life of the community and the people in the community. The real sangha spirit. And is committed to the sense that the deer and wild turkeys are also part of the sangha as much as anything else. We've always held a really nice Buddha's birthday celebration. Oh, and another holiday that we've added to Zen is a Valentine's Day dance. We have a Valentine's dance in the Zendo. We hang decorations all over the zendo. For Valentine's Day dance affirms that people have lovers and ceremonializes it in the zendo. Come with your sweetie! Another thing about this sangha here is the people raise the money and do the work themselves. The building was not built by property owners; it was built by the sangha. Everything like that, I've worked days, (too low to hear). So our little group here is making a Zen practice that is a practice for people rather than for itinerant professionals passing from one city to another.
Matt: Is there anything that I haven't asked you about that you'd like to mention?
Gary: Oh, there is one thing that you didn't touch on in this matter of Zen in the West, and that is the question ‑ when you adapt to a new place, to what do you adapt? Did you ever see my interview that was in Inquiring Mind, called Ch'an in Turtle Island? (Too low to hear). This is my own but it has something in it. When people think of Buddhism adapting into an American culture, they think of adapting to a Christian culture or a semi‑Christian culture, to a individualistic capitalist mercantile material culture. That's what they think, right? And at the mention that they ??? is your coming home at a new place is making connection with the earth spirits, making connection with the spirits of a place, becoming accepted and welcomed by the animals and trees. Now this is what Buddhism did do when it went to China and went to Japan. When Buddhism went to Japan, and in China too, it paid its respects to the spirits of the place and embraced Shinto as not an opponent or not as an alternative religion, but as the religion that spoke to the place. That's all, it just speaks for the place. So Shinto and Buddhism were never separated in Japan. Right in the yard of the zendo in the Daitokuji monastery where I practiced, right outside the gate, outside the main door that went into the zendo, inside the wall that separated the monastery from the city outside, was a little shrine about this big, in a corner on the ground, on the earth, in the yard, and I found out that was to the earth goddess. Then, later, I learned that one morning very early every month, at 4:00 a.m., all of the monks, all of us, get up and instead of doing the sutras just in the Buddha hall, we'd go on a little walk through the whole monastery and we'd bow and say something at each of the shrines. There is a shrine in the bathhouse, there is a shrine in the kitchen, three or four other shrines as well, and we'd go and we'd bow and we'd chant sutras at the shrine to the earth goddess. The earth goddess is brought in. So what interests me is how to bring the balancing element of respect and acknowledgment of the place into American Buddhism. What is the equivalent of Shinto in America? Well, if were going to learn, we're going to have to find out from Native Americans, and not just in a vague way, but in a literally local level. I see on a magical but also very real level that Buddhists all over the country are in charge of learning something about their place and learning what stories their own local Americans had to tell about it. About hummingbird, about snake, about rabbit, about porcupine ‑ and pay their respects to that. I consider that really serious, spiritual, political magic that has to be done. In other words becoming at home in Turtle Island, not just America, but Turtle Island. I said in this interview, in Inquiring Mind, it's two kinds: Zen in America, and then there's Ch'an in Turtle island. Ch'an in Turtle island is a shorthand way of saying more farmer like, more rowdy, more in touch with the people, more out in the countryside, more superstitious, more in touch with local spirits. Willing to go to the festivals, and hang out with the local people when they get drunk, just like Japanese country zendos. Not always being impeccably urban and dealing entirely with very educated people. But something else, something more down to earth. So that's one more point.
Matt: You said there are two kinds ‑ Zen in America and Ch'an in Turtle Island.
Gary: Well, that's kind of the rough way of talking about two possible directions, and I think a lot of people are aware of that. (Too low to hear) There are some little Zen groups around the country that are in that spirit. Like a friend of mine up at Puget Sound. Curt Holten. Curt has been practicing down here at this zendo for some time and he lives, he used to live in Alaska, and he's a commercial fisherman by trade. Before that, in another incarnation, he was the Episcopalian chaplain at the University of Oregon. But Curt is going to hold his first Tides and Islands sesshin. That is, sea kayaking and then camping and doing zazen on the islands at night. Isn't that fantastic?
Matt: That is. Gary: So instead of mountains and waters or mountains and rivers he's going to call it Tides and Islands.
Matt: That's great.
Gary: I just love that idea.
Matt: Well, it will be interesting to see if there is more development of what you call Ch'an in Turtle Island.
Gary: Yes, there's bound to be and that will connect with the quietly growing stream of bioregionalism which calls for this kind of thing. That's a whole additional topic there.
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