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The albatross, all sixteen species of them, are companions with us on earth, sailing on their own way, of no use to us humans, and we should be of no use to them. They can be friends at a distance, fellow creatures in the stream of evolution. This is fundamental etiquette. Legislation from the governments regarding fisheries in the sea or deforestation in the mountains would help enormously.
So, back to those key questions, what would it take? We know that science and the arts can be allies. We need far more women in politics. We need a religious view that embraces nature and does not fear science; business leaders who know and accept ecological and spiritual limits; political leaders who have spent time working in schools, factories, or farms and who still write poems. We need intellectual and academic leaders who have studied both history and ecology, and like to dance and cook. We need poets and novelists who pay no attention to literary critics. But what we ultimately need most is human beings who love the world.
One time in Alaska a young Koyukon Indian college student asked me, “If we humans have made such good use of animals, eating them, singing about them, drawing them, riding them, and dreaming about them, what do they get back from us?” I thought it an excellent question, directly on the point of etiquette and propriety, and putting it from the animals’ side. I told her, “The Ainu say that the deer, salmon, and bear like our music and are fascinated by our languages. So we sing to the fish or the game, speak words to them, say grace. We do ceremonies and rituals. Performance is currency in the deep world’s gift economy.” The “deep world” is of course the thousand million-year-old world of rock, soil, water, air, and all living beings, all acting through their roles. “Currency” is what you pay your debt with. We all receive, every day, the gifts of the Deep World, from the air we breathe to the food we eat. How do we repay that gift? Performance. “A song for your supper.”
I went on to tell her that I felt that non-human nature is basically well-inclined toward humanity and only wishes modern people were more reciprocal, not so bloody. The animals are drawn to us, they see us as good musicians, and they think we have cute ears. The human contribution to the planetary ecology might be our entertaining eccentricity, our skills as musicians and performers, our awe-inspiring dignity as ritualists and solemn ceremonialists—because that is what seems to delight the watching wild world.
Gift economy, what’s that? That might be another perspective on the meaning of ecology. We are living, so to speak, in the midst of a great potluck feast to which we are all the invited guests, and we also are eventually the meal. The Ainu of Hokkaido, when they had venison for dinner, sang songs aloud to the deer spirits who were hanging about waiting for the performance. The deer visit human beings so that they might hear some songs. In Buddhist spiritual ecology, the first thing to give up is your ego. The ancient Vedic philosophers said that the gods like sacrifices, but of all sacrifices, that which they most appreciate is your ego. This critical little point is the foundation of yogic and Buddhist askesis. Zen philosopher Dogen famously said, “We study the self to forget the self. When you forget the self, you become one with the ten thousand things.” (There is only one offering that is greater than the ego, and that is “enlightenment” itself.)
The being who is willing to give away her enlightenment is called a bodhisattva. In some of the Polynesian societies the Big Person, the most respected and powerful figure in the village, was the one who had nothing—whatever gift came to him or her was promptly given away again. This is the real heart of a gift economy, the economy that would save, not devour, the world. (Gandhi once said, “For greed, all of nature is insufficient.”) Art takes nothing from the world; it is a gift and an exchange. It leaves the world nourished.
Poems, novels, and plays, with their great deep minds of story, awaken the Heart of Compassion. And so they confound the economic markets, rattle the empires, and open us up to the actually existing human and non-human world. Performance is art in motion; in the moment; both enactment and embodiment. This is exactly what nature herself is.
Soaring just over the sea-foam
riding the wind of the endless waves
albatross, out there, way
away, a far cry
down from the sky
This essay was originally presented at the Daesan Foundation’s International Literary Festival conference entitled “Writers Working for Peace” and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2006. Click here for more articles on Art and Buddhism
Gary Snyder is a longtime practitioner of Zen Buddhism, a key member of the Beat generation of poets and writers, and a powerful voice in defense of the environment. He teaches at the University of California, Davis.