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Local poet set to bring his view of nature, Zen to Paris

John HartGary Snyder will participate in a symposium on Buddhism and Western civilization next month in Paris.
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Gary Snyder has waited four years to be featured in the one-time-only “Western Civilization, Buddhism and Zen” symposium sponsored by several Japanese and French organizations.

Postponed twice before because of speakers’ and performers’ scheduling conflicts, the symposium is set for Dec. 6 and Dec. 7 at the Maison de la Culture du Japon (cultural institute of Japan) in Paris.

Snyder will soon find out how his creative version of the wilderness and Buddhism fares with the French intelligentsia. The symposium examines the roles Buddhism and Zen can play in today’s world. Living on the San Juan Ridge for 32 years, Snyder has had strong ties to Japan and Buddhism.



Since the 1950s, Snyder has linked Zen thought and respect for the natural world in his poetry and prose. He was a Zen student and scholar in Japan from 1956 to 1968.

Three decades later, he became the first American literary figure to receive the Buddhism Transmission Award from the Japan-based Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai Foundation (Buddhist Awareness Foundation), which recognizes outstanding contributions to the religion.




At the Dec. 6 symposium, Snyder will join three Japanese Noh musicians he worked with in 1997 at the Arion-Edo Foundation’s Tokyo Summer Festival. He and the Japanese flutist and two drummers will perform the same selections from Snyder’s epic poem in 39 chapters, “Mountains and Rivers Without End.”

This time the reading will be trilingual, with Snyder reciting in English while French translations are projected on a screen and audience members read Japanese-translated sections of the poem.

Many audience members will be familiar with Snyder’s epic poem; it was printed in French and Japanese last February by different publishers.

Snyder also read different selections of his “Mountains and Rivers Without End” at the 18th Tokyo Summer Festival last July, that time with Ridge musicians Ludi Hinrichs and Daniel Flanigan.

On Dec. 7, Snyder will lecture along with American literature professor Katsunori Yamazato from University of Ryukyus in southern Japan; Eric Rommeluere, vice president of the European Bouddhique University in France; and moderator Augustin Berque, director of studies at the School of the High Studies in Social Sciences in France.

The speakers will then conduct a panel discussion, followed by questions from the audience. Since the lecturers don’t fluently speak the same language, interpreters will simultaneously translate all conversation.

The Western Civilization, Buddhism and Zen Paris committee and Maison de la Culture du Japon a Paris are the symposium organizers. Arion-Edo foundation, the Japanese arts foundation that has featured Snyder twice before in its Tokyo Summer Festival, is planning the event.

Supporting organizations include the Kao Foundation for Arts and Sciences, Tokyo Club, Japan Foundation, Sasakawa France-Japan Foundation, Asahi Shimbun (a prominent Japanese newspaper) Foundation and the Japanese Embassy in France.

“Buddhism, especially Zen, seems to have been focused and attracted a lot of attention in France. This is why we are holding this symposium in France,” noted Junko Kondo of the Arion-Edo Foundation in Tokyo. “This project will take place in Paris, where more people have knowledge and interest in Zen, as well as art and culture.”

Japan has a comfortable relationship with Europe, Snyder said.

“There’s lessons they can learn that we can’t help them. European history goes way back,” Snyder said. “Americans don’t share a history. Europe has walked a tightrope between traditions and modernization. Japan and Europe share a strong sense of family.”

Similarly, Japanese and French artists have exchanged ideas. As examples, Snyder points to French impressionism influenced by Japanese wood block prints and modern Japanese poetry influenced by French symbolism.

Olivier Delbard, who translated Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild” and “Mountains and Rivers Without End” into French, agrees with Snyder about the close relationship between Japan and France.

“There was a big Japanese influence in the late 20th Century in France, for instance,” Delbard said. “I think the French tend to be fascinated by Japanese culture; conversely, a lot of French artists, singers, for instance, are very popular in Japan.”

Many Japanese will be at the symposium “since the Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris has a very loyal Japanese audience,” added Delbard, who will be the symposium’s presenter on Dec. 7.

Among symposium attendees will be Snyder’s supporters from several countries.

“Some of my friends from Europe will be in the audience. We’ll have a chance to get together,” Snyder said. “There will be my Spanish and Italian translators; a guy in Greece writing a book on me; from Poland, a young woman writing a dissertation on me; my Czech translator….Those are the ones I know. Others will show up. It will seriously be a big congenial get-together.”

Kondo sees the symposium as a way to increase awareness of the Nevada County poet to French audiences.

“This project features Gary Snyder, who played the dominant role in the Beat Generation/San Francisco movements of the late 1950s and is a leading poet of our time. Since the 1950s, he has been resonating the thoughts of Native Americans’ and the Oriental philosophy…,” Kondo stated. “Now, he lives in the Sierra Nevada and his practical lifestyle in nature always attracts attention in the U.S. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1975, the Bollingen Poetry Prize in 1997 and the Buddhism Transmission Award in 1998.”

New From Snyder

Although Gary Snyder retired this summer from teaching in the creative writing program at the University of California at Davis, he still doesn’t have a moment to spare.

Snyder is working on two books, one of poetry and the other a collection of essays. In addition, he continues to help UC-Davis graduate students and frequently lecture at conferences around the world.

Arriving in bookstores last week is “Look Out: A Selection of Writings,” a compilation of poems and essays by Snyder from New Directions Publishing Corp. He will give readings from “Look Out” at Odyssey Books in Grass Valley on Dec. 12.


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