“Cascadian Zen” is an event at Seattle University on February 14 and 15, 2020 that’s organized loosely around exploring the relationship between the Cascadian bioregion as it intersects with Zen ideas, practices, and aesthetics. A group of writers will gather to broadly explore the question, “What is Cascadian Zen?” through their poetic and/or philosophical writing. Jason Wirth is one of the core organizers. Paul Nelson spoke with him recently:
What first gave you the impression or the idea to do something like this?
It’s a passion of mine. I think it’s really got its finger on the pulse of an emerging idea. And I can look at some of its historic predecessors. One might be the work of Gary Snyder, who draws together deep ecology, indigenous influences, and his own Zen practice. He did ten years of Zen practice in Japan, and then started the Ring of Bone, which is a beautiful zendo. Just a couple minute walk from his house in the San Juan Ridge in California.
Bringing together these sources… Zen not as: “I have some trauma. I just start paying attention to my coffee, so I don’t have to think about reality.” Not Zen in that sense. And by Zen, I would say you don’t even have to have a Zen practice to hear this word. But just some sense of the site-specific spiritual resources to get turned on to what it is to think from the place that comprises you.
And you are involved in Zen very deeply, both in Rainier Beach and at Seattle University. Tell us about those two projects.
Yeah. I’m an ordained Soto Zen priest. There is a Eishoji, a Zen training facility in upper Rainier Beach. I also run a Zen group at Seattle University called the EcoSangha. My notion behind the Eco Sangha is very Cascadian Zen. Sangha is the group of those who practice together, but that’s only trivially those who you happen to be sitting with in a given evening of practice. To practice Zen is to realize that you are, in the final analysis, all sentient beings—to find your being interrelated with the furthest extents of the universe. So, the Sangha, the great earth Sangha … that’s also I think a deep ecological opening that comes out of a certain way of understanding Zen.
That was the subject of your last book, on Gary Snyder, Dōgen, and the environmental situation we find ourselves in, the destruction of the biosphere?
Yes. Not my last book, but the book before my last book. So, Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis. It tries to begin to articulate what I might need to have a practice of place. For me, by Zen I mean… for myself personally, actually practicing Zen. At our Cascadian Zen event at Seattle University, there’ll be some with Zen practice. There’ll be some who are just kind of Zen- friendly. There’ll be others who have different Buddhist practices. There may well be some who don’t have an Asian practice, but really have a spiritual path by which one tries to overcome the ego-driven, hyper-capitalistic, greedy ways in which we block any access to our deeper sense of our own being, and the being that we share with all sentient beings.
You and I took a walk today from Kubota Garden here to my house on the edge of Lake Washington. And I’m wondering how you would make bioregionalism — that stance toward sustainability, you might say— how would you make that relevant to a typical person we might pass outside the KFC, or in front of the new place they’re building where the Chinese restaurant was?
I’d say, “Let’s have a cup of tea or a cup of coffee.” Start with kindness. Start with the fact that the space in which we were speaking and would be speaking is going to be a space in which we’re working together, not against each other. I don’t think Cascadian Zen thought. Really, I think a deep practice of being Cascadian is a spiritual stance and practice. I don’t think it begins or is effectively pursued by beating someone down and saying, “You have to think this way.”
It just begins with community. And already in sharing a cup of tea together are already the seeds of a deeper community. Then we’ll just start talking about the fact that we’re not just in Rainier Beach as if we’ve been plopped down there from outer space. All the people who live in Rainier Beach, all the institutions were near Rainier Beach… the fact that there is air, that there’s water to drink, that it’s more or less safe to walk around… all these things are operating conditions that make possible us sitting here and having this cup of tea.
Not only that. If they’re not there at all, we’re not there having that cup of tea. So, what are these underlying tacitly operating relations in which we’re already in community before we imagined that it’s just me and you? Well, we can find those together. People find them in their own way, and we can also begin to appreciate what the rational ones remaining in our species are realizing. If we don’t find each our own way, a way to this stance, it’ll be among our last failures as a species, because it will be the failure of our species to be viable on this earth.
Peter Berg founded the Planet Drum Foundation. And Peter Berg, more than any other person who ever lived, is responsible for promulgating the notion of what bioregionalism is. He talked about reinhabitation. How do you explain reinhabitation to the average person?
Peter Berg, I think, [was] a major thinker on the West coast. I would encourage everyone to read him. It’s deep and provocative, but also somewhat accessible if you keep at it. Reinhabitation … the word itself almost sounds misleading. If you think of our colonial history in this country, we came and we inhabited it. You’re not doing it to us a second time? But that’s not Berg’s argument.
When you say “do it to us a second time,” you’re taking the voice of an Indigenous person.
Exactly. Oh, absolutely. It’s a tricky word. You have to use it very carefully and say exactly what you mean by it. But it begins politically and ecologically by taking into account not only the bioregion that gives us a life that we have, but thinking deeply about the history we’ve had in failing to see this, and in silencing those who have had some sense of this. So, re-inhabitation… to live here as if you meant it. To live here because this is who you are.
Not to be the bird that comes by, and poops in the nest, and says, “Okay, I can’t live here anymore.” And then flies to the next nest, and poops in that nest, and goes boom. It’s gone away leaving a horrible wreckage of poop nests. That’s been our inheritance. Save a few nice national parks, save nice neighborhoods for the rich, and poop-ness for everyone else. I think a strong argument can be made that if we keep this up, future generations—if indeed there are future generations—are going to look back at this time and say, “These are crimes against humanity. You left us only poop nest to live in.” So, what is it to live here? Not simply as our home. Not simply to tidy up. But to understand that we are constituted and made by the place in which we find ourselves. We need to practice those relations.
Having some sense of how we as individuals engage this place as the seasons progress is one example. Getting to know the plant and the animal life is one example. As we were leaving your house today, we had tea at your house and we went to Kubota Garden, and we came here, and I gave you a DVD to watch. There were the sound of Steller’s jays, and you say they love your backyard. So, one small act of a bioregionalist might be creating a backyard in which Steller’s jays could prosper, or would be attracted to.
Yeah. I mean, these extremely playful and tricky birds … they are a possible candidate for one of the great spirit, regional animals. I think a little bit north of here, of course, it’s the raven. South of here is the coyote. That also a belongs to this region, and it’s not simply for us to name spiritual animals. But playfully I can say, “Well, this Steller’s blue jay, it’s got to be a contender because he is one of our tricksters.”
But in a way, we just find blue jays that happen to be here. We approach them with really idiotic ideas as in, I may not want any wildlife in my backyard, because it’s for my barbecues. Or “Well, no. I can’t feed birds at all, because they’re totally wild.” We’ve totally devastated their habitats, that we imagine that we should never even feed them once because they’re on their own. No.
I mean, to have a less alienated relationship to our land. That begins by learning the plants, worrying about the air, understanding your water table, getting to know your neighbors, learn to say thank you in one of the many languages, and several of the many languages spoken in this neighborhood. That’s also like making sure there’s a space for birds, making sure there’s a place for insects, making sure that you plant your garden in such a way that there’s blossoms throughout the summer, so that the bees can have food … not just for the Hollywood star flowers, but blossoms all summer long so that there’ll be bees next year.
Talk to us about the event at Seattle University on February 14th and 15th.
First of all, I want to say it’s free and open to the public. It’s our way, so all the people working on it … the organizers, the participants, Seattle University, EcoSangha, SPLAB, all these organizations … it’s our opening, and gift, and gesture to the community to begin this conversation. You don’t need to RSVP or anything. Just show up. Come for what you can. But it starts Friday afternoon, Valentine’s Day. What a perfect Valentine’s Day, right? Fall in love with the land that loves you. Fall in love with it. Ask it to be your Valentine.
But we’ll have poets and philosophers. Bad poets hate philosophy. Philosophers, of course, have generally been awful and horrible poets. Worst ever. Probably not even deal with any form of language, but we’re going to try to overcome the terrible legacy. And it’s going to be a two day experimental seminar and gathering to continue to experiment with new modes of speaking, new modes of communicating… in a way to find a language for the people to come.
The people that come will include human beings. But it will be the people-hood of all the sentient beings that share the bioregion. And we will try to sing for two days. Poets will find their way. Philosophers will find their way. I told them they can’t be pedantic. No, they’re going to have to learn to have the mellifluous song-like qualities of their poet peers. But it’s going to be 13 different ways to try to give voice to this land. A voice translated it so that it can speak for itself.
There’s a sister event in the Bay Area before this?
Yes. Seattle University is in a Jesuit institution. Our sister school, the school most like Seattle University in the whole country is the University of San Francisco. Similar student body, similar sort of a location. They’re in the California coastal bioregion. So, we’ll meet this weekend. Our big guest is Okumura. Okumura is probably the most admired and consequential Soto Zen priest alive today in certainly this country and Turtle Island. He’ll be there. He’s going to talk about Zen and the mountains. And it’ll be philosophers and poets speaking from the central coast bioregion. A couple of their emissaries will then come and join us with all of our Cascadian singers, poets, and philosophers to continue the song.
And also, I think one of the dangers of bioregionalism is that it can become like a bioregional club. Like, we’re in Cascadia as if when we get to the edge of Cascadia, we’re in a whole another world… then transitions to another bioregion, which are extremely subtle. You have to even train the eye to see them at first. But we are one earth, one great bioregion where we are that bioregion by bioregion. Not only do we have to sing the song of our own bioregion, we have to sing songs that are the solidarity of all bioregions. That’s also important. It’s a little experiment in doing that.
Cascadia and friends … as in if you love Cascadia, you love bioregional life, and you’re for it. And you try to think economically, politically, poetically, philosophically, sociologically from it. Not toward it. From it.
Saving the planet one bioregion at a time.
Well, saving life as we know it on the planet. I think the planet’s already got a backup plan to save itself with the death of us. Well, I don’t think it’s going to look at us and say, “As I survive you, as I jettison you, you’ve saved me.” It’ll take care of itself. And by the planet, we mean bioregions as we’ll sing them in the many languages that we sing them, and the many ways that we sing them, and the many kinds of people, human and nonhuman, that sing them. If this is worth loving, we have to find a language for this love and this cherishment.
Jason Wirth, I’m inspired by your work, and I wish you continued success.
Well, I’m inspired by your work also. Paul Nelson will also be a part of the Cascadian Zen Festival at Seattle University, February 14th and 15th. He is our inaugural speaker. I asked him for good reason to be, so it’ll be a very powerful way to begin our work together. I hope you all come.
Jason Wirth is professor of philosophy at Seattle University. His recent books include Nietzsche and Other Buddhas (Indiana, spring 2019), Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis (SUNY 2017), a monograph on Milan Kundera (Commiserating with Devastated Things, Fordham 2015), and Schelling’s Practice of the Wild (SUNY 2015). He is currently completing a manuscript on the cinema of Terrence Malick. He was ordained in 2010 in Japan as a priest in the Soto Zen lineage and is the founder and co-director of the Seattle University EcoSangha.