Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

Entering the "Gate of Nondualism": Gary Snyder's "On Vulture Peak" and Mahayana Shunyata

Academic journal article Journal of Beat Studies

Entering the "Gate of Nondualism": Gary Snyder's "On Vulture Peak" and Mahayana Shunyata

Article excerpt

In 1956, soon after Gary Snyder left the United States to study Zen Buddhism in Japan, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and Snyder himself each composed three important multi-section, mid-length American poetic explorations of Mahäyäna Buddhist philosophy: "Desolation Blues," "The Slop Barrel: Slices of the Paideuma for All Sentient Beings," and "On Vulture Peak," respectively. At the time, these poets were deeply engaged in reading and discussing texts such as Dwight Goddard's A Buddhist Bible, D. T. Suzuki's essays on Zen, and Lin Yutang's The Wisdom of China and India, as well Kenneth Rexroth's Japanese and Chinese translations that were published in 1955 and 1956, not to mention his own unique Buddhist-American explorations in The Signature of All Things. Buddhism provided them with a new way of thinking about issues of identity, being, and interconnectedness in a postwar world of gray flannel suits, McCarthyism, sprawling Levittowns, and thermonuclear detonations.

One of the most striking aspects of the poetry and philosophy these poets were exploring is the ways in which the intersections of these disciplines clarify and cut through to the present moment of experience. What Whalen said of Zen in a 1972 interview holds true for the poetry itself: "Zen seemed to cut away many extravagances and get down to the point of emancipation and energy and cutting loose from all your emotional problems. . . . There is also the problem of right now: what are you doing right this minute and how do you get through that and how can you make it alive, vivid, solid?" (Off the Wall 59). In turning away from some Western poetic and philosophical traditions, Snyder, his friends, and other Beat-associated writers such as Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, and Lew Welch worked to create a poetic discourse enabling them to move past the historical moment to arrive at a deeper, ever-present immediacy, much like the poetry of ancient China and Japan, something that even Rexroth's poetry seldom achieved because of its politico-anarchist undergirding.

Though lighter in tone than Kerouac's soul-searching struggle with identity and impermanence in "Desolation Blues" and Whalen's exploration in "The Slop Barrel" of the aggregates of attachment that collectively make up one's personality, "On Vulture Peak," which has received no critical attention by scholars to date, explores some of the most complex and allusive concepts of Mahäyäna Buddhism in Snyder's poetry. Snyder scholars focus on either book-length works such as Myths & Texts and Mountains and Rivers Without End (MRWE) or approach his work conceptually by exploring several poems dealing with larger topics such as Buddhism, shamanism, or ecocriticism. Both of these approaches have led to a growing body of serious, engaging, and insightful interdisciplinary criticism, opening the way for lesser-studied writers such as Whalen and Kyger. However, the lack of attention given to "On Vulture Peak" might have more to do with the fact that, as Timothy Gray points out, Snyder "gave little attention to his own writing during his stay in Japan. The poems Snyder did write in late 1956 and early 1957 are few in number, modest in scope, and uneven in quality" (129-130). Gray's assertion is backed up by Snyder himself in the March 8, 1957, letter he sent Whalen from Kyoto, which included "On Vulture Peak" along with the "Dullness in February: Japan." Neither poem, he claimed, was intended "to be considered final statements on anything, just ways of passing time."' Likewise, Snyder stated that "'On Vulture Peak' is a light-hearted poem and [should not be taken] too seriously."2 Whatever the reason for its lack of attention-lightness of content or "uneven quality"-the poem merits inclusion in the critical discussion for two reasons: 1) "On Vulture Peak" is unlike any poem written by Snyder at this important juncture in his practice and poetics-it is the longest, most experimental, humorous, and philosophically challenging; it is also the only one written as a dialogue; and 2) if we take Snyder at his word that the poem is in fact not a "final statement," we can think of it as a dry mn for what was to become his magnum opus nearly forty years later, Mountains and Rivers Without End, which he began one month before composing "On Vulture Peak. …

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