"I was thinking in terms of a person who is going to be engaged with the dharma, engaged with the art and with community. You have to de- educate yourself and descend from the pinnacle of elite, centralized, occidental education and its information and power to realize the importance of community and place, personal vulnerability and impermanence, and personal practice. It leads toward a life of practice, toward a certain amount of modesty and humility, which is hard to come by if you end up in any sort of contemporary elite."
Snyder's first four years out of Reed were largely experiments in learning how to put his ideas into action. The central themes of his first book of poetry, Myths and Texts, written during this period and considered by many his most complete and unified, draw heavily on areas explored in his senior thesis and given form by his work as a logger and fire lookout.
"I'm one of those people in whom the experiential and the intellectual is not clearly divided," Snyder says. So when I first heard about Native American sweat lodges--without even thinking twice about it, I went out and built a sweat lodge and tried it. Then I understood with my body how deep that practice is."
He approached Zen Buddhism in much the same manner, teaching himself to sit zazen, Zen-style meditation, from a book. Snyder first became exposed to Buddhism through the influence of two of his advisers--anthropologist David French, who taught a course on the Far East, and art history and English professor Lloyd Reynolds, an amateur orientalist--as well as Charles Leong, an older American Chinese student at Reed. But while Eastern religion was a hot topic of discussion among Snyder's close circle of friends, it was not as popular among the prevailing secular humanists on campus.
"Everybody was trying to be secular," Snyder recalls with a laugh. "But if you had to be secular, being a Buddhist Animist was probably one of the most acceptable ways of being secular if you were going to be a spiritual person."
Snyder was among the students who attended informal gatherings on the houseboat of philosophy professor Stanley Moore, whom he considered a mentor and good friend. He recalls an exchange with some of Moore's philosophy students that illustrates the sort of unorthodox thinking Snyder was engaged in at the time.
"I think I quoted Basho in kind of a Taoist context," he remembers, "where Basho says 'to learn of the pine tree, go to the pine tree.' And I said, 'All of the kind of learning that we're talking about here excludes going to the pine tree.'
"And then somebody said something like, 'Well, no, you can go to the pine tree--you learn what the construction of the trunk is, what the cell levels are, what the metabolic processes are that bring the sap up, and what role the bark plays--we go to the pine tree.'
"I said, 'That's not what Basho means when he says go to the pine tree. That's science. That's another way, truly. But he means something else.'
"So the discussion was what does Basho mean by that. I said, 'It's a Taoist thing where you see if you can feel, experience in yourself by spending enough time with a pine tree, what's going on with being a pine tree.'
"And Stanley, overhearing the conversation, laughed and said, 'Not impossible. Probably possible. But that's not our kind of philosophy.' And he was right," Snyder says, chuckling. "He used to joke every once in a while about me and say, 'Leitswics here is going to learn about the world by going and looking at it.'"
"Leitswics" (light switch) was Snyder's nickname at Reed. He says it started off among friends as a whimsical variation on a vision quest, and then stuck.