Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics hosted this year's Lenz lecture and related events on November 16 and 17. Gary Snyder, a renowned poet, author, cultural critic, and professor emeritus of the University of California at Davis, delivered the Frederick P. Lenz Foundation Distinguished Lecture in Buddhist Studies and American Culture and Values in the Nalanda Events Center on Wednesday, November 16. In that same location, he gave a reading on Thursday, November 17. Both events were open to the public. Additionally, Snyder was a guest speaker in a Kerouac School class.
"Gary had a deep relationship with [Kerouac School co-founder] Allen Ginsberg going back to Beat, early U.S. Buddhist, and San Francisco Renaissance mutual poetic associations and friendships, including that of Jack Kerouac," says Reed Bye, associate professor in Writing & Poetics.
Snyder's work, which includes eighteen books of poetry and prose, reflects his immersion in Buddhist spirituality and nature. Among them are No Nature: New and Selected Poems (Pantheon, c. 1992), a finalist for the National Book Award; Axe Handles: Poems by Gary Snyder (North Point Press, 1983), an American Book Award winner; and Turtle Island (New Directions, 1974), which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. His honors include an American Academy of Arts and Letters award, a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, the Bess Hokin Prize, and the Robert Kirsch Lifetime Achievement Award.
Snyder was born in San Francisco, graduated from Reed College in Portland, and studied linguistics at Indiana University and East Asian languages at the University of California Berkeley. In 1956, he moved to Kyoto, Japan, to study Zen and East Asian culture. Since 1969, he's lived in the northern Sierra Nevadas.
When Michelle Naka Pierce, director of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, was asked to select the Lenz lecturer, she says Snyder immediately came to mind. "Gary Snyder's visit to Naropa creates a space for the kind of 'shaping' that is explored in his poem, 'Axe Handles,' which discusses the pedagogical process of constructing knowledge between parent and child, as well as between generations of writers. Snyder is an 'axe' in a long tradition of poetic and Buddhist studies. This opportunity for the Naropa community—to be influenced by his knowledge and tradition—presents itself as a promising moment. The model is indeed close at hand, and Snyder's tools and craft provide a meditative path in 'How we go on,'" says Naka Pierce.
Snyder last visited Naropa for the Allen Ginsberg Library dedication and ten-day literary conference in tribute to Ginsberg during Naropa's twentieth anniversary celebrations in 1994.
Naropa's Office of Academic Affairs co-sponsored the Lenz events, with support from The Frederick P. Lenz Foundation for American Buddhism, an organization committed to the establishment of unique American forms of Buddhist understanding and practice.
My connection with Naropa goes back to the early 60s when Joanne Kyger, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and I all traveled together in India. During that time I became much more aware of Tibetan and Mahayana-Vajrayana Buddhism, and found myself reading about the great scholar-siddha Naropa. Later, back in Japan continuing in my Zen Buddhist practice, I picked up "The Life and Teaching of Naropa"—the translation by Herbert Guenther and read it through to my great advantage. It is a wonderful text, and of course Naropa as the teacher of Marpa gave me his connection to Mila Repa, whose "100,000 Poems" I was already acquainted with.
Also while in India our group visited Freda Bedi's "Young Lamas Home School" in Dharamshala and met some of the young lamas there. I took a picture of Allen Ginsberg in front of the altar together with a young lama who later we realized had been the person who became Trungpa. That photograph has, finally, been published.
That was in 1962. To jump ahead fifteen years or so to Boulder, Colorado, Naropa seemed like a fine name to give the study center that Chogyam Trungpa launched there. Allen, who had learned to sit and also to do some chanting, was very much drawn to the Rimpoche and soon became a regular supporter, visitor, and practicioner in Boulder.
We did a little fundraising; one time Robert Bly, Allen, Trungpa, and I all sat together—on the floor on cushions—on the stage of a big hall and did a sizeable scale of poetry reading. A few years later Allen and Anne (I guess it was) launched the "Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics." I've always felt dubious about the use of the word "disembodied" and so—as it turned out—was Allen; but I guess nobody had the nerve to change it. I was invited to come and teach on one occasion for two or three weeks, putting up at an apartment that belonged to David Padwa. That was a rich two weeks, I concentrated on poetics; my wife Masa Uehara did some Baharat-natyam teaching (the dance discipline in which she became quite proficient) and my two sons Kai and Gen enjoyed the freedom to walk around on sidewalks. We lived, and I still do, in a very remote place in the middle Sierra mountains in which there's no opportunity to hang out on the street (though you can hang out on the trails).
One or two other times I also was in Boulder for Naropa events, the last I guess was the one for Allen when he was still alive at which I met Geshe Rinpoche briefly.
Through the years I've had some friends and connections at Naropa, though I was never a regular visitor there and I stayed away by choice from several large events that Allen invited me to.
I have great respect for all the schools of Tibetan Vajrayana, and was able to be an active participant in some Yamabushi hikes and climbs in Japan which is a distant relative. Japanese Shingon (with its headquarters at Mt. Koya) is a remarkable school that continues similar and sometimes identical Dharma teachings to a small number in Japan since the 12th century.
My own focus over the years has been traditional Linji Chan (Rinzai Zen) in the Daitoku-ji line. I just recently came to a better understanding of the role that Hakuin Ekaku Zenji played in the Rinzai school. He lived in the 18th Century. I was looking at a huge presentation of his unique sketches and calligraphies which touch on many of the figures in Japanese spiritual life and mythology — always with unremitting and enlightened humor. This show happened to be in Manhattan. I thought how the Siddha Naropa and the Zen Master Hakuin would have enjoyed each other.
Gary Snyder 23. X. 2011