Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The devotional impulse

I was looking up something to do with Buddhism and somehow ended up reading a "web presentation" of a poem by Gary Snyder called The Circumambulation of Mt. Tamalpais, where a group of superannuated hippies and some younger people led by Snyder were photographed in 1996 as they stopped at various places on a trail that apparently had been made all the way around the mountain, pausing, as if at stations of the cross, to chant things like the Heart Sutra and the Dharani of Good Fortune to Turn away Calamity, in the process of a day-long trek. The photos accompanied the text of the poem.

Walking around a stupa or sacred mountain or some other holy place is a common devotional and meditational practice in Buddhist Asia.

I like Snyder's poetry well enough, and for whatever reason seeing these pictures of Snyder jogged my memory of a time long ago, maybe 1977, when Gary Snyder stood in our kitchen in El Paso waving a wineglass in one hand and a tortilla chip in the other singing "the workers' flag is deepest red, it shrouded oft our martyred dead...though cowards flinch and traitors sneer, (fortissimo) we'll keep the red flag flying here," to the tune of Tannenbaum.

He had been invited to El Paso to give some sort of talk, and ended up in our house for a reception that had been arranged there--perhaps because it was thought he would like the photos of Native American rock art that decorated our walls. Kay was an anthropologist and taught courses on Indians. I can't think of any other connection. (We had lots of Mexican masks and and a huge ornate canvas rubbing of a northwest coast petroglyph. "He'll like your house," the arranger of things said to Kay, or something like that. After all these years I am unclear on such details.)

Snyder turned out to be a very personable and outgoing guy, enjoyable to have over for wine, tortilla chips, and conversation, and did not recite any poetry or talk about Turtle Island or Buddhism or Japan; instead after he arrived, looking as we expected with a beard and wearing a red hippie bandana tied around his head, and gasshoing reflexively to a Buddha statue on the mantle of the fireplace, immediately went off into our kitchen looking for food and drink and found several hard-left individuals pouring themselves the inexpensive house wine and disparaging the operation of the free market.

Snyder seemed to like such company and soon surprised everyone by breaking into song and leading everyone in singing The Red Flag, a fine old socialist anthem, from memory, more or less correctly and possibly all the way through, with several of us joining in, all loudly.

This was not what the people who invited Snyder had imagined as a get-together. I had a Wobbly songbook which somehow got into the kitchen, and many songs of a class-warfare nature got sung that evening, which may have caused despair for the several aspiring poets who had come with folded sheets of their own verse in their pockets, hoping for an opportune moment to show them to the guest of honor.

No Buddhism whatsoever was discussed--though now that I think about it, it woulda been kinda cool to have chanted, at the end of that night, the Dharani of Good Fortune that Averts Calamities, which is spoken an incomprehensible Sino-Japanese-Sanskrit pidgin that sounds like a bunch of people vigorously reciting, rapidly and not quite in unison, and with equal weight on every syllable, all the numbers from one to fifty in an invented language that no one understands.

It grows on you. And God knows good fortune is hard to come by.

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