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“The Great Clod”: An Interview with Gary Snyder at Sakura Time

Interview by Trevor Carolan

Gary Snyder’s new book The Great Clod (Counterpoint Press) offers some of his most luminous prose on a lifelong passion for the cultures of China and Japan.Borrowing its title from Chuang-tzu’s subtle classic, and subtitled “Notes and Memoirs on Nature and History in East Asia”, this felicitous, late-career volume presents Snyder’s unique weave of dharma scholarship and ecological pensées that his readers have come to treasure. In it, he reminds us too of China’s ancient Daoists and of their moral traditions that originated within a frame of reference shaped by nature and the human condition. Veteran Kyoto Journal contributor Trevor Carolan spoke by telephone with the beloved poet and elder of the global environmental movement from northern California’s Sierra Nevadas.

* * *

Gary, the epigraph from Chuang-tzu about life and death suggests that, when it’s time, you’re comfortable with the idea of moving on from this present incarnation…

Yeah. It's not a big deal. That's not a big deal.

The epigraph reads,

“The Great Clod burdens me with form, labors me
with life, eases me in old age, and rests me in death.
So if I think well of my life, for the same reason I
must think well of my death.”

That's right. It is one of Chuang-tzu’s big statements on "The Great Clod." There is another later on in the book that I quote too, about hiding yourself in the world. The whole of the Chuang-tzu text is a good sized book and the complete text has been translated by Burton Watson. It's one of the classics of Chinese literature. For one thing, it's very early, a remarkable piece of writing. Much more playful and much more vivid than Lao-tzu’s Dao De Jing. Much longer.

It has a different flavour.

Well, it constitutes the continuation and the other side of Daoism, and for people to judge Daoism entirely by the Dao De Jing and not to know the Chuang-tzu text – there are a couple of other texts too – means that you really haven't done your study, you haven't done your home-work. The Chinese government official line is to ignore all of Daoism and to concentrate entirely on Neo-Confucianism.

That suits their administrative purposes surely.

Surely. But it also just happens to be what the whole society is tuned into anyway, really.

In your new book’s introduction you note that as a boy you were “radicalized” by seeing the Pacific Northwest’s heritage cedar stumps—their ghosts; that they spoke to you about what had been going on here. Is this when you began seeing “non-human beings were worthy of moral regard”?

I always felt that. I just felt it.

A lovely phrase you offer is how “the Mahayana drama” includes all the sentient beings— animals, plants—the lot. Can you pick up on that a little bit for us, the Mahayana drama?

The Mahayana literature and the Mahayana philosophy is on a huge scale. The cosmology of India is on a huge scale and is willing to look at numerous universes and galaxies and the possibility of all sorts of different beings that we have no idea of now. All you have to do is read the big Mahayana sutras, for example The Lotus Sutra, and see the scale that they propose to talk about the world and the cosmos in it. They have a cosmic view of the universe, not just a single, planetary view. So that underwrites the Mahayana tradition, so to speak; it lies behind the Mahayana tradition as it is found in China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Mongolia, Tibet, and so forth. They have this big-scale drama going on behind the scenes. The Zen people have said, ‘Well, we don't need to talk like that. Let's just pretend to bring it down to the earth.’ So, that's how you understand it.

In the essay "The Wolf-Hair Brush" you reflect on the fu/prose-poet, Sun Ch’o and what he says about the primal mystery of Ch’i – “When the Dao dissolves, it becomes rivers; when it coagulates, it becomes mountains.” You also suggest that with too much human impact, it gets harder to observe the rise of ch’i…

That’s an obvious observation. But that's a funny way of talking about the Dao because I actually understand the Dao better as process. The idea that it can ‘become’ mountains and ‘become’ rivers is a kind of cute way of talking about it.

I've always thought of Dao as noun and verb, an idea and a process.

I think the key term there probably is process.

In discussing China’s traditions of the brush and calligraphy, you comment that the term for civilization in China is wên ming—“understanding writing”. In our time, writing skills among young people are in alarming decline. Do you think that with digital technology we may need a new understanding of the role of writing in communication?

The word ‘civilization’ in Chinese and Japanese simply means literacy. Unfortunately, I don't really believe that's true. I mean, I don't believe that civilization is measured by literacy. I think you have very civilized cultures that were not ‘literate’, but that's a more sophisticated discussion and I don't get into that when I'm talking about China.

About the declining writing skills among young people, partly this seems to be the result of iPhone technology where they text each other using very few characters.

Well, I don't know how this is all going to shape up. It has a history of its own and it has several possible futures. The plus-side of what's been happening in the world lately with young people is a revival of orality—more reliance on extemporizing songs, extemporizing talks, drama. Drama is live orality. A play is not experienced until you see it on the stage. Reading the text of a play does not give you what the play is really doing. So that’s the other side of things. There's a wonderful book on this topic by Professor Walter Ong called Orality and Literacy [Routledge] It's a paperback too, and it really goes into the details of what the pluses and minuses of both are. It's wonderful. Everybody has a kneejerk response to literacy— ‘Oh, literacy is good. We need it.’ But they don't understand what's lost when you lose orality.

Robert Bringhurst has much to say about that whole tradition as well.

Yeah, Bringhurst is really into that.

You’ve observed that the grinding of an ink-stick on stone is itself a form of meditation. Chuang-tzu and Confucius both talk about “the Fasting of the Mind”—making it unified, One. Can you suggest some contemporary parallels for this kind of fully-attentive practice?

Paying attention and being observant in the world and calming your mind is not necessarily of itself being spiritual or religious. It is just simply the practice of being alive. If you want to talk about calligraphy, my original teacher of calligraphy, Lloyd Reynolds, taught people how to trim a quill, how to make their own ink—what it was like to make ink and have a quill that was just right, and had to dip just right. That takes time and attention. It's just like Chinese calligraphy.

Two of your new essays especially stand out—"All He Sees is Blue, Basic Far East" and "China and Nature.” These are very scholarly essays on natural geography. What inspired you to work with such carefully detailed research writing and scholarly tone?

Well, I'm a scholarly person and I do a lot of writing that is not creative writing but is scholarly writing. So, I just let a little of it peek out there. Also, I was already interested in all those things for the Western hemisphere. There are a few of us who get together from time to time and talk about the last 12,000 or 13,000 years and how the ice age gradually dissipated in various ways as we got to the current situation.

You write that after reading translations by Waley and Pound, and some classical East Asian religious-philosophical texts, you had a rosy idea that China and Japan had made peace with nature. How soon into your Asian sojourn did you see how things really were? That despite the beauty of their cultural ideas “large civilized societies inevitably have a harsh effect on the natural environment”?

It didn't take long. You can see that right away when you go to Japan. You can see it on the first day that you're there, or your first day in Taiwan, or your first day in mainland China. There is very little original vegetation. If you have the eye trained for it, you realize that none of [what you see] is original vegetation. That's all subsequent vegetation that has come in, in various ways and in various layers. And that's true of [Britain] too. You know where they have all these pine trees in Scotland? That's not the original vegetation of Scotland. The pine trees come in after it has been clear cut. That's true all over the world regarding the vegetation. If you know what you're looking at, you can tell what it was before. China is very hard though. It took a lot of research on my part and on everybody's part to figure out what the forest cover of the basin of the Yellow River in North China was 2,000 years ago. It’s very hard to figure that out. You have to dig down into the soil and see what the layers are.

In the essay “Summer in Hokkaido” you mentioned that you were drawn to worship at natural shrines, at numinous places in Japan. Did this make you feel more at home?

Oh yeah, sure. I recommend it highly, the local shrine.

Ironically, even as you drew near the gods of earths and water, Japan was already devouring itself ecologically.

At the same time the Shinto shrines are flourishing right in the heart of Tokyo and they have Shinto ceremonies for the groundbreaking before putting up the big sky-scraper. So, it's a pretty interesting culture.

Ken Rodgers, an old colleague from Kyoto, prompts this next question. He asks, ‘In the development of your personal frame of reference, how pivotal was your time spent in Kyoto in the 1950s and 60s?’

It was immeasurable! You can't substitute short trips somewhere for actually living there for a number of years.

What in particular did Kyoto represent or reveal to you, would you say?

On which level? It's not just a city. It's a watershed. It's an environment. It's a habitat. It is not just occupied by you and me. It's occupied by insects, and birds, and mice and so that's what I mean by asking on what level. You want to know my sense of the whole landscape and the watershed, or do you want to know my sense about the human society?

Kyoto’s human society.

Well, human society in Kyoto has really good manners and so I learned. One of the first things I learned in Kyoto was that my manners weren't very good. And so I tried to correct that gradually by paying attention to what other people did and how they did it. I also learned that my clothing really wasn't very good and that Americans are very sloppy and careless about their clothes, but the Japanese, the Chinese and the Koreans are not. I tried to learn how to put away my ideas about bourgeoisie and just sit in and be more parallel to the way the society as a whole went. I learned a whole lot about what to ask for and how to ask for it, how to say thank you and so forth. And I married a Japanese woman. I learned a whole lot from her and from her parents.

You mentioned earlier another excerpt in the new book from Chuang-tzu. It occurs in your title essay, “The Great Clod”. Chuang-tzu says, “if you were to hide the world in the world…nothing would get away…[here’s] the final reality of the constancy of things”. It’s a leading question, but is this constancy of things congruent with the impermanence of things ?

That's part of it, impermanence. Impermanence moves at various speeds. You’ll find many years of history behind something, and quite a bit of history ahead of it before it has completely changed into something else.

In The Great Clod you mention that civilization came to China roughly 1,500 years later than the Near East, and that as a result China would stay much longer in Neolithic village culture with its deeper grounding in organic processes and cycles of the natural Sphere. This makes its development of the concept of Dao more clear...

I think that might be true. That might be one of the ways to understand how it is that China developed. It wasn't as heavy and hierarchical as early as, say, the Mesopotamian basin or the basin of the Nile River were.

You add that, historically, during the Shang period [ approx.1700-1000 BC] the warrior elite structures fostered their own religious rituals that were different from the old nature-based practices based on Gratitude and Trust. Rulers became alienated from the ruled, from nature. Politically, are we that different now?

No. What are the religions of the 21st century in the developed world? They have very little to do even when they are examining nature as in the various varieties of biology and chemistry and so forth. They are doing so in a very mechanical and materialistic way. It isn’t too many people that are able to put themselves in the frame of mind that sees the world in all of its various complexities and life.

In “Wild in China,” you note that during the Six Dynasties period [220–589 AD] it was not uncommon for officials to turn away from administrative life for reclusion at their rural homesteads, and you mention the poet Tao Yuan Ming being notable. We don't see much evidence nowadays of this honorable idea of consciously ‘being a nobody in the world.’ Do you have any thoughts of governance as a practice?

Chinese government officials and capitalist leaders, many of them, will still give out lip service to those values and will still hope to live that way after they retire from their life of power and money. They may return to doing calligraphy practice. Especially in Japan they may return to tea, making tea. They may return to playing some musical instrument or studying Noh drama. That's very much true in Japan and the same is true in its own way in large parts of China. It is considered very refined and very high class to simplify your life and return to the arts after you’ve had a successful career. And that's true even if you've been a highly placed person in the Communist Party, for some of them.

In “The Way”, you write that “Daoists sought a base of value in the observable order of nature and its intuitable analogs in human nature—that this still crackles in the world today.” How would you say we originally lose the Way? How did we lose the Dao?

The Chinese have more or less lost the Dao if you want to talk about it that way. Simple-minded ambitions and excessive material desires, etcetera, will do it every time. It's pretty straightforward.

In “Beyond Cathay” you write that Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch was probably part hill-tribe in origin. What’s in that mix of Buddo-Daoist wisdom of his?

That's a long-time theory about him. Not everybody agrees, but there's a very strong theory that he was part minority person, a mountain person and maybe part-Chinese or maybe entirely a minority person like a Zhuang, or a Miao, Lisu, the tribal people that are still there today.

He seems to cut through intellection. Or comes at it from a different angle—the famous story of him and the mirror.

Maybe it's because he wasn’t literate. He was illiterate. This is one of the same questions about ‘what do we lose when we lose orality?’ He had what we call a dharma eye, an eye for the dharma truth. Some people have it better than others.

In "Walls Within Walls" you discuss China's genius for constructing walled cities and point to the beauty of Hangzhou for instance. There’s also the Mencian/Confucian idea of establishing clear boundaries to avoid property disputes or conflicts. Geopolitically, these days China looks to be expanding its property markers in the South China Sea. Do you have any thoughts about that? Is there something we should be mindful of there?

Oh, that's just part of the chessboard. You make moves, governments makes moves, cultures make moves. You make a move and then you see if somebody responds to it and doesn't like it, or if they don't notice it. It's just part of the political game.

You note that increased social mobility among China’s educated official class led to a disassociation with a sense of place and that during the Tang Dynasty this results in “a poetic obsession with impermanence as a sentimental response to the commonly perceived stress of Mahayana on transience and evanescence.” Then you speculate that Sung poets were more dyed with the true spirit of Chan, of Zen, than those in the Tang Dynasty. Do you think some of us have idealized the Tang?

Maybe. We don't know. It's very difficult to know what was going on in those days but the flavor of Sung Chan is not quite the same as Tang Chan. And the truth is, of course, Zen or Chan is a very elite religion and is a very upper-class religion and that's true in modern Japan too. We're talking about just one part of what the religious life is. Chan does not give us much insight into the religious life of minority people or working people.

You introduced many of us to Master Dōgen from Japan. In talking about Sung painting you remind us of Kuo Hsi, who says that “the mountains change appearance with every step.” Is this akin to Dogen’s “Blue Mountains constantly walking”?

Well, Dōgen was Japanese, but he went to China for several years. The Japanese elite of that time was thoroughly versed in Chinese literature, particularly poetry. So, it's not surprising, and Zen has always had a really close relationship with Chinese poetry.

Again, about the Sung: despite its artistic and literary glory you report that rapid population growth, declining natural resources lead to calamitous social despair to cheap labor, virtual wage slavery, reliance on coal, overworked soil. It sounds like the industrial England of Charles Dickens.

It wasn't quite that bad but it was getting bad. The Sung Dynasty begins to have a real rise in population. By the time you get another couple of hundred years down the Yuan and the Ming Dynasties we have modern China. Modern China is not the same as the Sung Dynasty. Modern China went through a Mongol dynasty and a Manchu dynasty in which the leadership of the whole culture was non-Chinese. The aesthetics changed.

Your poetry and essays have always cogently presented a long and deep view of human culture’s engagement with the natural world. Can you extrapolate one consistent message from over the long term of your writing career?


That was easy! A last question: As one of our beloved poets and environmental elders what advice would you pass on to young people these days?

Get a job. Yes, get a job because that helps. It helps you understand what you have to do in the world. It also teaches you that you will have to get along with society one way or another. You'll have to be able to be more flexible.

Is there anything that you'd like to say or add?

I just would like to say that The Great Clod is not the work of scholarship that I had thought I might be able to do. It's what I was left with after I realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew. But I am happy to be able to actually bring it out. I had thought that I'd never see it again, and if I live a little longer and am able to do it, I'm going to bring out a second volume which will be more about 20th and 21st century Japan. I've already written some of the papers that will be in it and several of them have already been published in Kyoto Journal.

Also, there's a new book on “Cold Mountain”, Han Shan, a whole book out from the University of Washington Press [On Cold Mountain: A Buddhist Reading of the Hanshan Poems, 2015]. It's an essay about his poetry as poetry. It's by Professor Paul Rouzer. It’s really good.

And you’ll know that Jim Harrison passed away. The film we did together was The Etiquette of Freedom. I’ve been in touch with Will Hearst about that and we're going to write a kind of response to the media who tend to routinely characterize Jim Harrison as being a big womanizer and drinker and kind of a crazy writer. You want to read his writing. He is actually a Zen writer. That's how you can represent him best.

You can be sure I will. Many thanks for sparing us your time, Gary. Here’s hoping all’s going smoothly down your way.

It’s okay. Everything's okay.

Deep Cove, British Columbia – Sierra Nevadas, California
Originally published online in Kyoto Journal

Trevor Carolan’s current work is New World Dharma: Interviews and Encounters with Buddhist Teachers, Writers and Leaders (SUNY Press, 2016). He writes from British Columbia, Canada.

This interview appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #21