Wild Nature and the Dusty World

Wild Nature and the Dusty World

Gary Snyder on Dogen’s Mountains and Waters ‘Sutra’


As T. S. Eliot proposed, the end is where we start from. In “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking,” a chapter in his book Practice of the Wild, Gary Snyder borrows from Dogen Kigen’s “Mountains and Waters Sutra” a dharma talk from the year 1240. Snyder ends the chapter with:

“Dogen finishes his meditation on mountains and waters with this: ‘When you investigate mountains thoroughly….such mountains and waters of themselves become wise persons and sages’—become sidewalk vendors and noodle-cooks, become marmots, ravens, graylings, carp, rattlesnakes, mosquitoes. All beings are ‘said’ by the mountains and waters—even the clanking tread of a Caterpillar tractor, the gleam of the keys of a clarinet.”

Snyder proposes a change in perception to erase the illusory boundaries the mind establishes between nature and humans and everything else. Snyder’s extension of Dogen’s imagery follows two paths. First, he proposes that mountains and waters – in China and Japan literally “landscape,” and the whole of wild nature – become all beings (human and non-human). This first proposition seems a fair extension of Dogen’s metaphor, but Snyder also proposes that everything in the world (alive and not) comes from wild nature. And since humans come from wild nature, everything that humans create, such as tractors and clarinets, and I presume also pollution, computers, robots, plastic, weapons of mass destruction, and unmanned flying machines, come from wild nature. Even if we accept all living things and everything that exists in the world to be a part of the whole we call nature, it still seems a large leap to conclude that what humans make comes from nature; that wild nature becomes plastic and GMOs and submarines and nuclear warheads.

If I imagine life 750 years ago, I can see how people living then could accept that all that there is comes from wild nature. But I wonder if humans today are manipulating nature and creating man-made non-natural things. Perhaps we need to hold on to some discernible distinctions. And maybe this is something that Snyder had not concerned himself with when he wrote Practice of the Wild (published in 1990).

That said, the clear artistic beauty of Snyder’s essay makes it an engaging read as well as intellectually stimulating. He questions philosophical assumptions prevalent in modern civilization, not by way of argument but by integrating poetry from East and West and then and now; lyrical prose and anecdote; literatures, mythology, and legend. Snyder’s technique is like that of a Zen master giving a dharma talk on the subject of nature. He invokes ancient masters and their storytelling style, spicing it all up with sometimes cryptic language that stirs the rational mind. He knows you can lead the rational mind to the well of insight, but also that rational words alone cannot convince the rational mind to drink from the well.

Snyder takes us on a journey that begins with the notion of travel. In the ancient East, all travel was done by walking. And one could only know the land by walking, by experiencing it with the whole body. And the land was mountains and waters, and the whole of wild nature. And the mountains and waters made humans, and mountains are constantly walking, as humans are constantly walking. “We learn a place on foot and with imagination.” Landscape refers to the “totality of the process of nature… the whole, with its rivers and valleys, obviously includes farms, fields, villages, cities, and the dusty world of human affairs.” The “dusty world” must be left behind if one wants “realization or at least a long healthy life.”

Snyder elevates the notion of “homeless” to mean the person who has left the obligations of the secular world behind, “leaving the world to get away from the imperfections of human behavior, especially urban life. Some of these people live as mountain hermits or members of religious communities.” Snyder refers to fifth century Chinese poet Zhiang-yan, who said the hermit leaves the “house” and should “take the purple heavens to be his hut, the encircling sea to be his pond, roaring with laughter in his nakedness.” And Snyder also invokes Han-shan, an early Japanese poet who wrote his “spacious home reaches to the end of the universe….freely drifting, I prowl the woods and streams and linger watching things themselves.…thin grass does for a mattress, the blue sky makes a good quilt.” For Snyder, “homeless” means “being at home in the whole universe.”

The ancient Chinese and Japanese Taoists and Buddhists saw themselves as part of nature, or at least living in harmony with nature. It was how they were in the world. Dogen said “if you doubt mountains walking you do not know your own walking.” The language is Zen: cryptic, mysterious, puzzling, paradoxical. Like a Zen koan, Dogen perhaps intends to break the mind’s habitual way of thinking. For Dogen, mountains and streams – wild nature – do not have any special sacred or spiritual quality. Ancient East Asians’ perception of their place in the world was bound up with their life in wild nature, so different from Descartes and Bacon’s philosophy of nature, and also different from Emerson’s reverence for nature. “The idea of the sacred is a delusion and an obstruction; it diverts us from seeing what is before our eyes: plain thusness.”

The leap from ancient East Asia hundreds of years ago to today is a leap Snyder makes with his many digressions into literatures, stories, and myths. All peoples rely on their literatures to tell them who they are and how to live. Snyder is perhaps pointing to modern Western society’s neglect of the mythic tradition, unlike the experience of many indigenous peoples. On one page single he uses three different terms to refer to indigenous peoples: “vernacular,” “wilderness,” and “primary,” highlighting modernity’s loss of collective mythic consciousness through neglect.

This brings us closer to Snyder’s main message. The city and all human creations come from wild nature. Dogen’s “mountains and streams are the processes of this Earth, all of existence… they roll being and nonbeing together. They are what we are, we are what they are.” In other words, Snyder invites reconsideration of that habitual attitude of dualistic thinking. “No wild and tame, no bound or free, no natural and artificial. Each totally its own frail self. Even though connected all which ways; even because connected all which ways.” And more: “This, thusness, is the nature of the nature of nature. The wild in wild.”

This is difficult for a modern Westerner like me to grasp. Even accepting the notion that rational Western perception (ala Descartes) skips over and ignores an important part of reality, to say that “thusness is the nature of the nature of nature… [t]he wild in wild,” does not logically lead to the next statement: “So the blue mountains walk to the kitchen and back to the shop, to the desk, to the stove… the blue mountains walk out to put another coin in the parking meter.” As if to say: We are the blue mountains; the blue mountains are us. This is what Snyder is pointing to. Puzzling and mysterious.

Snyder sprinkles his essay with anecdotes that tell readers he knows of what he speaks. He tells of attending a ceremony at a shrine on an island in the East China Sea, a ceremony with offerings and ritual. And he notes the parallel with each household: “Photos of ancestors, offerings of rice and alcohol, a vase with a few twigs….the house itself… becomes a little shrine….then the literal house… is just another part of the world… itself impermanent… a poor homeless thing in its own right. Houses are made up of pine boards, clay tiles, cedar battens… – made up of the same world as you and me and mice.”

The aim is to throw doubt on habitual Western dualistic thinking. Quoting Dogen again: ‘Blue mountains are neither sentient nor insentient. At this moment, you cannot doubt the blue mountains walking.’ But can the words of an ancient master from the East impress the Western mind? I wonder if perhaps Dogen was here using language metaphorically to point out a paradox; the way a Zen koan is used as a device to stun the rational mind into a different way of seeing. Either way, the metaphor is all the more pleasing for its ambiguous paradoxical quality.

Snyder extends and extrapolates: “Not only plum blossoms and clouds, or Lecturers and Roshis, but chisels, bent nails, wheelbarrows, and squeaky doors are all teaching the truth of the way things are. The condition of true ‘homelessness’ is the maturity of relying on nothing and responding to whatever turns up on the doorstep. Dogen encourages us with ‘a mountain always practices in every place’.” The aim here is to inspire a new way of looking at the world. But what is this “practice” Dogen speaks of? Is he speaking about practice as living life? Or is he speaking of Zen practice? And is there not a difference between what was possible and encouraged in religious circles in East Asia hundreds of years ago, when Dogen was in the mountains practicing, compared with the “dusty” world of today? “I wonder what Dogen would have said about city walking,” reflects Snyder. For Snyder, Dogen is as relevant today as he was eight centuries before.

Gary Snyder proclaims he has lived all his life “in and around wild nature, working, exploring, studying, even while living in cities.” He claims to not see a boundary between wild nature, humans, and cities. After years of walking and practicing in Japan, he has opened a door to a world of non-dualistic thinking. He has absorbed the ancient East Asian spiritual attitude of “blue mountains constantly walking” – the mountains are humans and the humans are mountains. But, he has taken an extra step, a leap perhaps, with the perception that since humans made the cities from nature and things in nature, that the cities are also mountains! This, then, is the nub of Snyder’s modern Zen extension of Dogen’s ancient metaphor.

For Snyder, science, technology, and the economic uses of nature need not be opposed. “The line between use and misuse… is fine indeed…is in the details.” Snyder tells of being at the dedication of a Japanese temple that had been reassembled on the West Coast of the United States. The dedication had been made with an offering of plants from Japan. But “the ritualists had the forms right but clearly didn’t grasp the substance.” The plants would not thrive in the climate of their new home, and the wood of the temple needed more humid conditions. “People… have elaborate notions of separateness and difference and dozens of ways to declare themselves ‘out of nature.’” This separateness, asserts Snyder, leads to a “call to a special destiny on the part of human beings… and to human [abuse] of the rest of nature [with] “pernicious” results.

Invoking Dogen again: “When dragons and fish see water as a palace, it is just like human beings seeing a palace. They do not think it flows. If an outsider tells them, “what you see as a palace is running water,” the dragons and fish will be astonished, just as we are when we hear the words, “mountains flow.” Now Snyder proposes: “We can…imagine… the nested hierarchies and webs of the actual non-dualistic world.” Snyder borrows from Dogen’s vivid imagistic language:

It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is a world of sentient beings in clouds… in the air… in fire… There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass.”

What Snyder invites is this fresh shift in perspective: “We can see multitudes of interactions through hundreds of other eyes. We could say a food brings a form into existence. Salmon call for bears… plankton for salmon… salmon call for seals and orcas.” The condition of one being in an ecosystem is an indicator of the condition of the whole ecosystem: “Old conifer forests can be measured by Spotted Owl… The Great Plains would say ‘bison.’ What says humans? What sucks our lineage into form? It is surely the ‘mountains and rivers without end’ – the whole of this earth… [where] we find ourselves more or less competently at home.” This lyrical return to the notion of home brings us back to the notion of “homeless” and elicits nostalgia for a forgotten past when humans lived in harmony with mountains and waters; when they were at home in the whole universe.

And that large leap from wild nature to the “dusty world” now means fording a narrower river. “As for towns and cities – they are old tree trunks, riverbed gravels, oil seeps, landslide scrapes… leavings after floods… rotting logs, watercourses… feeding frenzies… lookout rocks, and ground-squirrel apartments.”

Snyder suggests ancient China sent two great gifts to Japan, and then from there to the rest of the world. The first was landscape painting, calligraphy, and Zen; the second was a vision of a great city. “Both are brimming with energy and life. Because most of the cities of the world are now mired in poverty, overpopulation, and pollution we have all the more reason to recover the dream. To neglect the city (in our hearts and minds for starters) is deadly…”

Perhaps the Gateless Gate, the Classic Book of Zen Koans places another perspective – or a mirror image – on the matter. The verse from case 16 reads:

With realization, all things are of one family,

Without realization, everything is separate and different;

Without realization, all things are of one family,

With realization, everything is separate and different.


This verse describes two different aspects of realization; two different ways of perceiving reality; both merging into one vision. Perceiving absolute sameness is the first. Perceiving absolute difference is the second. This paradox of perception attacks the attack on the illusory boundaries of perception that concern Snyder in “Blue Mountains Constantly Walking.” But here, of course, we are speaking of “realization” perception.

How do we get there from where we are? That is Snyder’s objective. To nudge; to invite like the white waves on a yellow shore under an azure sky made orange by a sinking sun. Perhaps the invitation is for the heart, not the mind.