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Exemplars of bodhisattva Vimalakirti

Gary Snyder

Gary Snyder has inspired a generation of American Zen students (as well as poets, backpackers, and environmentalists). His early translations of the Chinese Zen poet Hanshan (Cold Mountain) and his role as model for the main character of Jack Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums were highly influential. Snyder is a serious student of Zen, having trained for years at Rinzai Zen monasteries in Kyoto and continuing his meditation practice since then in his home in the Sierra foothills of California. But like Vimalakirti, Snyder is much more than a meditation adept.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning poet with many published volumes, Snyder shares Vimalakirti's eloquence. With working-class roots, Snyder has labored as a forest ranger, fire lookout, translator of ancient Chinese and Japanese texts, environmentalist, community organizer, amateur automobile mechanic, state government adviser and official, and now as a tenured university professor. His wide interests encompass history, politics, biology, and anthropology, including a study of native cultures and mythic lore ranging across western North America to much of Asia and Australia.

Snyder could have received priest ordination from his Japanese teacher, but he has remained committed to lay practice, having suggested that the old Japanese forms of ordination may not be appropriate to the current American context. The Zen community he established in the Sierra foothills models an amalgamated assembly of householder fellow practitioners, that includes manual laborers, professionals, dropouts, scholars, children, naturalists, and truck drivers, as if to encompass all of Vimalakirti's worldly realms.

Become one with the knot itself, til it dissolves away. sweep the garden. any size.

Gary Snyder illuminates some of Vimalakirti's wizardly qualities as a trickster. Snyder frequently refers to the Native American trickster figure Old Man Coyote, and many of Snyder's friends have pointed out his own coyote-like guise, often upsetting and playing with ordinary human conceptions, while also bringing primeval knowledge, assistance, and dignity. In one example, Snyder has upset some traditional Buddhists who are devoted to principles of strict vegetarianism. While supportive of kindness to animals and of eating low on the food chain, Snyder has written of the integrity of native hunter folk, who summon their game with prayers and respectfully venerate the offerings of life from animal spirits (and flesh). Snyder's call for responsible recognition of our place in the chain of critters, each of us yet another fruitful morsel in the great web of biological life and death, echoes Mahayana teachings of interrelatedness but also unmasks the attachment to purity of some vegetarians.

Practically speaking, a life that is vowed to simplicity, appropriate boldness, good humor, gratitude, unstinting work and play, and lots of walking brings us close to the actual existing world and its wholeness.

Further blowing away preconceptions of virtue and compassion, and playing trickster to those with fixed views of not killing, Snyder the environmentalist has let it be known that he shoots the frogs that have invaded ponds and upset the ecosystem in his northern Sierra home terrain. He thereby poses a startling example of the complexity of the first precept, in which not killing the frogs might amount to killing other lives in the fragile ecological balance. Snyder seems to relish upsetting any smugness among his American fellow Buddhists. He warns against co-opting Buddhist teaching into a comfortable, merely therapeutic, and hopelessly dualistic liberalism or humanism that fails to plumb the depths of true self and fundamental being, as taught by Vimalakirti.

In one of his masterpieces, the 1990 collection of essays called The Practice of the Wild, Snyder describes the natural world of mountains and rivers as a wilderness system. Snyder plays with the significance of the wild and wilderness as a vast metaphor encompassing senses of the open, energetic, free, spontaneous, unconditional, impermanent, exuberant, and dynamic, all as qualities of an independence that remains intimately mutual. He explores wildness as it pertains to society, psychology, land, and culture. This wilderness expounded by Snyder might be seen as a gloss on Vimalakirti's inconceivability and its depths and relevance for our world. Snyder's way of meeting our lives as a robust wilderness beyond our attempts at management gives us a postmodern view of Vimalakirti's inconceivable liberation.