BARRY GRAHAM, Scottish author, journalist, Zen monk in U.S. Books include THE BOOK OF MAN (an American Library Association best book of the year), THE WRONG THING (finalist for SPINETINGLER MAGAZINE best novel of the year), WHEN IT ALL COMES DOWN TO DUST (a MYSTERY PEOPLE best book of the year) and KILL YOUR SELF: LIFE AFTER EGO, an Amazon Kindle bestseller in the Zen category.

I didn’t miss Gary Snyder even though I couldn’t attend his talk yesterday

Snowstorms have turned Portland into a ghost town this weekend.  This foiled my plan to attend Gary Snyder’s talk at Reed yesterday.

I wanted to go because Snyder’s work has had a massive effect on my life and the decisions I’ve made (though I disagree with him as often as I agree with him, which makes his work all the more valuable to me), and also because, this being his 84th year, I don’t know how many more chances I’ll have to hear him speak. 

But I wasn’t all that bothered when the snow mostly shut the city down and made it impossible for me to get to Reed, because going to the event wouldn’t have gotten me any closer to Snyder. I would have gotten to watch a man who happens to be Gary Snyder while I listened to him speak, which would have been fun but not important. In this ad hominem culture, we too often confuse the public and private selves. Snyder’s thought, in his poems and essays, was as available to me as I sat in my snowbound apartment as it would have been had I been sitting in the front row at Reed. 

Twitter Encourages Good Writing

I’ve heard and read much commentary about the impending demise of good writing (which has been predicted for as long as words have been written down), now supposedly because of Twitter and text messaging. The poet Gary Snyder has said that texting is “abhorrent.”

I not only disagree, I think the opposite is true. I think writing in a limited space is a perfect practice for anyone who wants to write clearly, essentially, and without flab or self-indulgence. Some of the best-written, most powerful narrative journalism is being Tweeted rather than published in old media. For a fine example, see the live-Tweeting from a murder trial by Michael Kiefer, novelist and crime reporter for The Arizona Republic.

Revolt or Revolution?

In his latest column, Jon Talton writes:

Friends keep telling me of the coming working-class revolt (Mark Thoma writes about such here). I’ll believe it when I see it. Civil insurrection is certainly likely as America continues its downward course, but it will play out with minorities burning their own neighborhoods and the whites and other better-offs retreating even deeper into suburban apartheid. The Revolution in a nation of dolts could only be caused by taking away television, video games, smart phones and cheap gasoline. Then, to the barricades!

I agree with Talton, but things are worse, or better, than he seems to realize. Cheap gasoline is over. What are our rulers going to do when the peasants they enslave have no way of getting to work? Gary Snyder once wrote that real revolution would only come through people refusing to buy things they don’t need. That, as Talton, Aldous Huxley and Neil Postman all point out, is not going to happen - but it doesn’t have to. When the resources are not there to produce the toys, and the consumers don’t have the means to buy them, then producers and consumers have to give up these roles and return to being people.

Brian Victoria Grossly Misrepresents Sawaki and Suzuki

D.T. Suzuki
When Brian Victoria’s book Zen at War was published in 1997, it was regarded by many - including me - as a well-reported and long-overdue expose of how the Japanese Zen Buddhist clergy had supported their nation’s atrocities during the Second World War. Since then, the book has been shown to be a gross blend of exaggeration and outright fabrication.

Brad Warner has already debunked Victoria’s claims about Sawaki Kodo’s statements of support for war and killing. Now, in this article, Nelson Foster and Gary Snyder set the record straight in regard to Victoria’s equally scurrilous claims about D.T. Suzuki.

Koan Commentary: The Book of Serenity, Case 20

Jizô asked Hôgen, “Where are you going, senior monk?”    
Hôgen said, “I am on pilgrimage, following the wind.” 
Jizô said, “What are you on pilgrimage for?”
Hôgen said, “I don’t know.” 
Jizô said, “Not knowing is most intimate.” 
Hôgen suddenly attained great enlightenment.

My commentary:

About 20 years ago, I helped Kevin Williamson choose poems for publication in Rebel Inc. One day, when we met up to discuss some submissions, he handed me a poem that didn’t have the author’s name on it. “What do you think of this?” he said.

"Who wrote it?" I said.

"I’ll tell you after you tell me what you think of it," he said.

Was this a poem by someone I knew and liked? Someone I knew and disliked? He wouldn’t tell me. I read the poem, and, wondering if it was written by my worst enemy, I recommended that it be published.

Afterward, I realized that it was the first time in years that I had intimately read a poem. Usually, when I read a poem, I had a story about it. In a poem I read by Gary Snyder - one of my favorite poets - the first line seemed like a cringe-worthy cliche, and had it been written by someone else I would have laughed at it. But because I knew it was by Snyder, and I knew that I liked Snyder’s poetry, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I wasn’t reading the poem intimately, but through the filter of my “knowing.”

I have a Zen student who’s a talented photographer. Sometimes he uses an editing program to enhance his photos. I prefer the ones he leaves unenhanced. Recently, I was looking at some new photos of his, and I saw one of an airplane that was glowing with a colorful painting of a cardinal. Assuming it had been enhanced, I decided it was an okay picture, but that I didn’t like it as much as I liked the others. Then I realized that it hadn’t been enhanced - the airplane was actually painted with that design. I then felt that it was one of my favorite pictures he had taken. The picture hadn’t changed, but my story, my “knowing,” had. I wasn’t viewing the picture intimately.

We do this not just with the books we read and the pictures we view, but with all of our lives. We think we know what’s going on, but it’s that very knowing that keeps us separate from our lives and our hearts. Not knowing is most intimate.

Only the City Can Save the Forest

As much as I love and value the writing of Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry, their example - living and farming in relative isolation - isn’t a viable one in a world of seven billion people.

What will protect the environment is not going back to the land, but going farther away from it. Urban environments are the greenest. Cities like New York and Paris are more sustainable and less damaging to the environment than any other way of living. Derrick Jensen is wrong in saying that civilization must be destroyed for the sake of the earth; it is only civilization that can save it.

No More Jaunts, But Journeys

Gary Snyder has written about how, in the U.S. in the 1950s, friends would hitchhike thousands of miles to visit one another, just to have a conversation.

Those days are gone, but they’ll be back before much longer.

I have a friend from the other side of the country staying with me right now. We have never lived in the same state. When we met, I lived in Tennessee and she in Missouri. She drove to Chattanooga to visit me, and then I flew to Columbia to visit her. She moved to Providence, Rhode Island, and we flew to visit each other. In the six years of our friendship, time together has been preceded by a few hours on a plane. This has been the way of it for so many people in the U.S. in recent history - planes became Greyhound buses with wings, and traveling across the nation on a plane has been as easy as taking a bus across town.

It was never sustainable. And, with peak oil and the collapse of the economy from fantasy back into reality, we will soon be returned to a sense of place. Electronic communications will continue to take the place of letters carried by plane, train or truck, but actual visits will once again become journeys.

Cool Dark Of Morning Somewhere In The Cosmos

The temperature has dropped into the eighties, and there has been thunder, lightning and rain the last few days. The cool nights feel delicious.

Last night’s service at the Zen Center was attended by a nice mix of new students and experienced ones. Afterward, I lay in bed reading a book that has just been published, The Etiquette of Freedom, a wonderful dialogue between Gary Snyder and Jim Harrison. It’s a companion book to the film The Practice of the Wild, which I saw a few months ago. A DVD of it is included with the book; I’m looking forward to watching it again.

I fell asleep with two cats snuggling close. When I woke, they both began purring, and then they went back to sleep. I got up, made tea, then went back to bed and drank a cup of it. I thought about how there are vegetables in the fridge that need to be used soon, and decided to spend part of the day making a pot of soup. I remembered Basho’s advice to poets:

Just watch children playing.
Eat vegetable soup instead of duck stew.

"What is to be done"

Along with Eliot, Gary Snyder has impacted my life more than any other English-language poet. I’ve been rereading his work for more than twenty years, and it has never ceased to nourish me. So I’m looking forward to this movie.