In November, 1972, I accompanied Dan and Lillyan Rhodes to the University of Rochester to hear a reading by the poet Gary Snyder. A native of Fort Dodge, Iowa, Daniel Rhodes was an internationally known potter, sculptor, and professor of ceramic art at the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He was also a longtime friend of Gary Snyder.
Of the poems I heard that evening, one in particular made a lasting impression:
PINE TREE TOPS
In the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight,
the creak of boots.
Rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.*
As he read the last line of his poem, Snyder stressed the word “we.” What can we presume to know, he seemed to be asking, in the presence of the natural world’s nocturnal beauty? His tone was one of awe, tempered by disdain for human presumption.
Gary Snyder’s poem owes something to Ezra Pound, one of Snyder’s poetic mentors, who admonished us to “pull down [our] vanity” and to “learn of the green world what can be [our] place.” Snyder’s lines also reflect his practical experience as logger and forest ranger, his empathic study of indigenous cultures, and his lifelong practice of Zen meditation.
In one well-known story from the lore of Zen, a monk sets out on a pilgrimage in his straw hat, robe, and sandals. Along the way he encounters a Zen master, who asks him where he’s going. “Around on pilgrimage,” the monk replies.
“What is the purpose of pilgrimage?”asks the master.
“I don’t know,” the monk confesses.
“Not knowing is the most intimate,” replies the master.
That story is conventionally interpreted as an illustration of “beginner’s mind.” By not presuming to know where he is going, the monk is opening himself to whatever he encounters. Void of expectations and preconceptions, he can meet the world directly.
That interpretation is plausible enough, but Gudo Nishijima, a contemporary Zen master, has a different take on the story. In Nishijima’s view, the monk’s response acknowledges the limitations of his perceptions. To be sure, we usually know our immediate destinations. In relative terms, we know where we are going. In ultimate terms, however, we really have no idea where we’re headed. By admitting as much, the monk remains in touch with ultimate reality, even as he lives in the relative world.
Thirty-six years ago, as I listened to Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,” I did not know that Dan Rhodes would retire and leave Alfred the next year—or that he would die of a heart attack in Nevada in 1989, at the age of seventy-eight. Nor did I know that Gary Snyder, Beat poet and author of rugged lyric verse, would become an icon of the environmental movement, or that his progressive views on ecology, derived from the ancient principle of ahimsa (“non-harming”), would become moral imperatives in the early 21st century.
Gary Snyder is a man of wide erudition, with a deep respect for the natural and social sciences. In offering the teaching of not-knowing, he is not sanctioning an aggressive ignorance. Rather, he is urging an attitude of humility and reverence, lest we do further harm. Resonant at the time, his lines are even more urgent now.
*Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974). To hear Gary Snyder read “Pine Tree Tops,” go to http://cdn3.libsyn.com/bubba/Gary_Snyder_Spiritual_Spice_14.mp3?nvb=20091124134834&nva=200911251.
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