Poet and American Zen pioneer Gary Snyder turns Ninety-Four

Poet and American Zen pioneer Gary Snyder turns Ninety-Four May 8, 2024

Gary Snyder

Happy birthday, Gary!

He once sang to us:

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 is an American original, teacher, translator, Pulitzer prize-winning poet, environmental activist and American Zen pioneer.

As nearly everyone, at least in my circles knows, Jack Kerouac celebrated him as Japhy Ryder in his classic Dharma Bums. I read the book in the late 1960s and thought of it as something of a field guide to Zen. Later, as I recalled it, I didn’t think it was all that important. Then a few years ago I listened to it while driving to a Zen conference several days away. I was shocked at the sexism of the novel. And, impressed that there was quite a bit more dharma in it than I’d recalled, or, probably when I read it, knew. Of course that’s more about Kerouac than Snyder.

Snyder did the whole thing. Back before it was as common as it is today he went to Japan and studied Zen. Seriously. Specifically within the Rinzai tradition. He returned to the States and continued with Robert Aitken. My understanding is he made a few tentative steps toward teaching. But quickly both he and Aitken Roshi felt it really wasn’t his dharma. Rather, he is an exemplar for most of us. He is and he continues as an authentic person of Zen.

Even though we share lineage connections (that’s Zen talk for meaning we practice in the same schools of Zen), I’ve only met him once. And the “met” really deserves those scare quotes, as what it was was I was working at Moe’s Books in Berkeley and he bought a bunch of books and I rang them up. It didn’t seem the time to bring up our Zen relations, so all we exchanged were the pleasantries of book buyer & seller. Still, I’m glad for the connection however slight and passing.

Here’s a little something about Gary.

And, some more by the master…

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford is a Zen teacher and Unitarian Universalist minister. His spiritual newsletter is available at jamesiford.substack.com You can read more about the author here.
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