One morning in 1984, a letter posted on the other side of the world clacked through the flap of my door in Cape Town. It was from the poet, environmental activist, and longtime Buddhist Gary Snyder, a warm response to questions about his writing. I was a graduate student at the time and had been reading his work after a friend gave me a copy of his 1967 collection A Range of Poems. That first letter was the beginning of a long long-distance friendship and an ongoing conversation.
It started as an intellectual exchange and became an exploration of practice. As a young person living in a society demarcated by the paranoid logic of apartheid, I found it refreshing to meet the spaciousness of Gary’s way of seeing. His delight in wildness. Poems that opened up the idea of social justice to include nonhuman beings and the living world. The truly radical realization that things are not things but process, nodes in the jeweled net. And in all this a tendency simply to walk out of the narrow prison of dualistic thought.
Over the years, what has kept on bringing me back to Gary’s writing and to our conversation is his steady articulation of this vision in practice: Buddhist practice, the practice of writing, of being a householder, of living in places.
Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places puts together three interviews and a selection of letters from around 30 years. We recorded the first interview, an adaptation from which follows, in 1988 at Kitkitdizze, Gary’s home on the San Juan Ridge in the Sierra Nevada, where he is also a member of the Ring of Bone Zendo. It was a hot day in late August, and Carole Koda, his new partner, sat listening throughout.
Returning to that dialogue now, I see how often I missed a chance to look deeper because of an attachment to my prepared questions. But Gary responded cheerfully to whatever came up, and the result is quite a far-reaching discussion. Decades later, his position from that time remains prescient and lively. As he put it to me then, in his writing the political involves a “poetic politics” in which “what you launch are challenges and suggestions that don’t make sense, or don’t begin to add up, for a long, long time.”
I’d like to start by talking about origins and influences. You’ve spoken about your childhood before, but what I’m interested in is your experience of growing up in a politically conscious environment: your family was involved in Industrial Workers of the World (IWW [an early 20th-century international labor union]) politics. Can you say something about that? Well, it was a Washington State 1930s Depression household, as many households were, in the rural territory just north of Seattle, predominantly settled by Scandinavians with a few Japanese-American households doing truck farming. Our family tradition was radical politics on both sides, particularly on my father’s side because my grandfather was an active IWW and socialist speaker and thinker. Then my father was active during the ’30s with the League of Unemployed Voters and other left-wing, labor-oriented groups of the time. My mother was sympathetic to those ideas, had essentially the same politics, and was for her time very much a feminist.
The effect of that was for there to be a certain kind of political conversation around the house, certain opinions about the Depression and the economy that I grew up with, a high degree of critical attitude toward some of the more unthinking aspects of the society, and a very critical attitude toward Christianity and the Church. My mother is a militant atheist, my father was a nonmilitant atheist. That, combined with the fact of our poverty and the fact that we worked very hard to keep things going, gave me what you might call a kind of working-class left-wing outlook from an early age. It involved a certain literary outlook too, because my mother was a student in writing at the University of Washington, and when she was younger she read quite a bit. She wasn’t reading during the Depression—I don’t think we had any books. So we started going to the public libraries.
Does that background have a significant influence on the way you’ve constructed your life here at Kitkitdizze, which seems to be a political choice of a kind? In some sense it certainly feeds into it. Growing up in a rural situation where we kept chickens and cows, cut a little firewood, and had an outhouse makes this kind of life very comfortable for me. That is to say, I had many of the skills and attitudes already. I don’t think this is an exceptional life, in other words. This is just another way that people live. I like living in the city, and I like living this way too. I don’t do it for ideological reasons, or because I think the world is going to come to an end or civilization is going to collapse and we ought to be self-sufficient.
So you do it because . . . ? I do it because I like to live this way! I’d live this way even if civilization were going to last. But there is a little difference in attitude that I and my present neighbors bring to it from my father’s generation, I think. This generation of back-to-the-land people is very clear on wanting to establish a long-range relationship to a place and not take it as such an easy thing to move on to another place; to slow down that traditional white-American mobility, which is also rural mobility in many cases, and to take the idea of commitment to a place more seriously. So there’s a difference in attitude there. That could be said to be somewhat political.
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And as I understand it, the version of Buddhist practice that you’re developing at the Ring of Bone Zendo emphasizes this place, this experience. You don’t want it to be an Asian import. Yes, North American. The other thing we’re trying to do is to keep ourselves, so to speak, local. In that sense we’re more orthodox, more Asian, than many of the Zen centers that have been established, in the usual modern mode of establishing a center that caters to rootless and alienated people that come and go and bring their problems, who are sampling the smorgasbord of therapies and possibilities for themselves in modern urban life. Most Zen centers draw on the alienated educated members of the upper middle class. They also tend to carry on traditional Japanese Buddhist forms without any critical thought. That is the way that new cults worked in Rome.
In Rome? That’s the way that new religions functioned in Rome in the second and third centuries, as symptomatic of the breakdown of the fabric of society; contending alien cults in a collapsing society. That’s not a very interesting place to be. What’s more interesting to me is something that is quite a bit deeper. First of all, what happens when you begin to have something a little more like a real community, and you can look at the possibilities of a sort of postrevolutionary socialism, or what Paul Goodman calls “a natural society.”
What does that mean in particular? Can you give some examples? It means a society in which people live in one place for a good number of years; it means that they know each other personally on a first-name basis; it means that they know a considerable amount of the personal history of the individuals concerned; it means that they know their own family history and that they keep in touch with their parents; it means that they are engaged in their community in one or another ways by serving on committees, formal and informal committees; it means that they do not expect everybody to do what they do—a community in its own nature cannot be homogeneous.
As would be the case in an intentional community. We’re talking about a natural community.
And you’d see an intentional community as being artificial. An intentional community can enforce a point of view. A natural community is a culture. Consequently, points of view are formed almost subliminally, over the long run, by the totality of the experiences that people go through and by the songs and the stories that they tell each other. So on many levels such a place is, so to speak, self-motivating. So that’s a natural community, a symptom of a natural society.
I don’t think Buddhism can function in a way that’s truly beautiful, truly interesting, until it has a natural society as its ground. Then the truly existential problems become the problems you’re dealing with. You get the politics out of the way by having a sane society. Then you can begin to work on the really refined study of the mind. This is what I’ve understood from working in Asia, that that is what Buddhism was doing at its best. We are in an era of tremendous social and political breakdown. Buddhism is not the cure for that, although it may be of help. But it can only be one of the kinds of measures.
So that’s why I divide my time between what you may call culture building, or community building, and Buddhist teaching. It would be really easy to live in the city and teach at a Zen center and do nothing but Buddhist teaching. I wouldn’t want to do it that way. I’d rather go out and start working in the neighborhoods as much as I could, because I think you have to work the ground for a Buddhist society first. You can’t just leave your society the way it is and say “We offer this as one of the teachings.” You’ve got to help the society get its feet on the ground before those teachings can begin to flourish.
You made a comment in Turtle Island  that has stuck with me as a puzzle: “Knowing that nothing need be done, is where we begin to move from.” What did you mean, exactly? Yes, that’s a Buddhist point. Lots of people have asked me about that. In the larger scale, things will take care of themselves. It’s obviously human hubris to think we can destroy the planet, can destroy life. It’s just another exaggeration of ourselves. Actually we can’t. We’re far too small.
Really? The time scale is far too large, and the resistance of cellular life is far too great. [James] Lovelock [the British environmentalist] is very interesting on this, on the extraordinary resilience of cells. But that’s no excuse. That would be no excuse for doing things poorly. A kind of bottom line is that all human activity is as trivial as anything else. We can humbly acknowledge that and excuse ourselves from exaggerating our importance, even as a threat, and also recognize the scale and the beauty of things. And then go to work. Don’t imagine that we’re doing ecological politics to save the world. We’re doing ecological politics to save ourselves, to save our souls. It’s a personal exercise in character and in manners. It’s a matter of etiquette. It’s a matter of living right. It’s not that the planet requires us to be good to it. It’s that we must do it because it’s an aesthetic and ethical choice.
Would you say, then, that there’s a lot of hysteria out there? What about the ozone hole? Those issues are all real. Those issues are all real, but they’re not total. And the power of the universe far surpasses any damage we can do to it.
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You mentioned earlier that your upbringing led you to be critical toward Christianity, and you’ve often written about the connection you see between Western metaphysics and the current ecological crisis. Can you see any ways that the work you’re involved in, in Buddhism particularly, might benefit from Christian or Occidental religious traditions? That’s an interesting question. Of course Western Buddhists, coming out of Western culture and being probably from Christian or Jewish backgrounds, are already bringing those things into Buddhism, by virtue of their personalities and their background. So there’s already some kind of exchange there, I’m sure.
My own view is that Buddhism can profit from, but wouldn’t necessarily want to emulate, an understanding of the Christian concern for history—and the historical fact of the Christian concern for personality—as a kind of leavening factor in the evolution of Buddhist thought. I think that the Buddhists also have to admire the commitment of certain Christian sects, such as Quakers, to peace, and the Christian idea of witness and bearing witness as a matter of conscience. It has pitfalls from a Buddhist standpoint, pitfalls of over-ego-stimulation. But that side of Christian engagement is admirable. It certainly can be learned from. Buddhists can learn from, or at least take note of, the section of the Church that is doing liberation theology. Buddhism has been quiescent, socially, for much of its history, and what and how it becomes more active in the social sphere is going to be very interesting. I’m sure it will, because in the West everybody gets more social. And also the power makes a difference: political action, political involvement, makes a difference in a pluralistic democracy, whereas in a traditional Asian culture there’s very little direct political action possible.
Would you see your work as a counter to that traditional quiescence? Yes, well, what I see is . . . an interesting vision proposed by Mahayana Buddhism that hasn’t been acted out much, hasn’t been actualized much. I think that it may be the destiny for Western Buddhists to try to make the effort of actualizing what Buddhists say they can do in terms of actual life in society.
Can you be more specific? Part of the actualization of Buddhist ethics is, in a sense, to be a deep ecologist. The actualization of Buddhist insights gives us a Buddhist economics not based on greed but on need, an ethic of adequacy but simplicity, a valuation of personal insight and personal experience over possessions. What I like most about Buddhism really is its fearlessness. So much of what warps people is fear of death and fear of impermanence. So much of what we do is simply strategies to try and hold back death, trying to buy time with material things. So at its best Buddhism provides people with a way of seeing their own frailty: you need less in the way of material objects and fortresses around yourself.
Adapted from Nobody Home: Writing, Buddhism, and Living in Places, by Julia Martin and Gary Snyder, published by Trinity University Press, 2014. Reprinted courtesy of the publisher.