Smokey the Bear Sutra

by Gary Snyder
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 364

Gary Snyder’s “Smokey the Bear Sutra” instructs readers about how humankind may live harmoniously in the natural environment with fellow living things. The characteristics of the ancient Buddha are attributed to Smokey the Bear, a character created by the United States Forest Service, as Snyder playfully explains that Smokey the Bear will enlighten those dedicated to protection of woodlands and waterways and punish those who mock Smokey or oppose his efforts to preserve the environment.

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The poem begins 150 million years ago as the Great Sun Buddha addresses all life forms on the subject of bringing enlightenment to earth. This Buddha prophesies that the American continent will one day exist and will be blessed with numerous wondrous natural phenomena, but will also be endangered (though not irretrievably) by humankind. The Buddha announces that this dangerous situation will occasion the Buddha’s return in the form of Smokey the Bear so that nature’s harmony may endure.

The poem proceeds to a description of Buddha’s manifestation as Smokey the Bear, with each characteristic of the Forest Service figure aligned to the purposes of Buddhist enlightenment. Smokey is “standing on his hind legs” because he is “aroused and watchful.” He bears a shovel because he “digs to the truth.” His left paw makes a gesture—the “Mudra of Comradely Display.” Smokey wears “blue work overalls” to denote his affiliation with “slaves and laborers”; his “broad-brimmed hat of the West” connects him to the “forces that guard the Wilderness.” Because his belly is round and full, one easily associates him with kindness and plenitude.

The concluding section certifies that those who recite the Smokey the Bear Sutra and enact its ideas will save the planet, promote harmony, and achieve “HIGHEST PERFECT ENLIGHTENMENT.” In a parenthetical note, Snyder adds that the poem “may be reproduced free forever,” demonstrating that the intent of the poem is not to garner notoriety or profit for the author, but to create an endless chain of free communication, which will assist in the creation of world enlightenment and the protection of the environment. In the same spirit, Snyder leaves the poem unsigned, leaving the focus on the message rather than the author.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771

At first inspection, “Smokey the Bear Sutra” seems to embody few characteristics associated with poetry. The work is set in paragraphs, not stanzas with line breaks. No rhyme or metrical pattern is evident. Although Smokey the Bear is a representative figure for the Buddha, the work does not exploit figurative language, such as metaphors or similes. One might declare that the work is written in the free-verse form made popular by Walt Whitman, but “Smokey the Bear Sutra” does not incorporate Whitman’s extensive catalogs or the rush and exuberance of his language. One might declare that “Smokey the Bear Sutra” is a prose poem because of its compressed expression, its natural cadences, and its sonority, but the distinction from conventional prose remains unconvincing.

A key factor lifting Snyder’s work above ordinary language is that Snyder views himself not as the author of “Smokey the Bear Sutra” but as a channel through which the Buddha delivers his message. Snyder said that one day in February, 1969, he became aware that the Sierra Club, which is dedicated to preserving the environment, was to meet the following day, and he sat down to write. According to Snyder, “the sutra seemed to write itself”; that is, the spirit of the Buddha governed the writing experience, and the resulting sutra was the work of the Buddha, not the human who set down the words. With this spontaneous and inspired composition in mind, one may view the language as a divine creation, just as one may take the language of the Bible to be divine. Snyder went to the meeting of the Sierra Club the next day to distribute copies of the Buddha’s sutra.

The intensity of the message is created through the joining of opposing forces. The poem begins in seriousness and solemnity, with the Great Sun Buddha delivering “a great Discourse to all the assembled elements and energies,” proclaiming the majesty of geographical features such as Mount Rainier, Big Sur, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon. However, the poem makes a dramatic leap as Smokey the Bear, a cartoon character from a publicity campaign of the Forest Service, is designated as the next manifestation of the Buddha. The effect of the connection between the Buddha and Smokey is charming humor, especially as the connection is cleverly sustained through each component of Smokey’s image.

In addition to this pleasingly unexpected connection, the poem embodies other opposing ideas. The Great Sun Buddha reveals his complexity by referring to his “obstinate compassion.” Humankind pursues “loveless knowledge.” These oxymorons are enhanced by the contradictory ideas applied to characters. Smokey is capable of rage and power, but he is also compassionate. Humankind has “its own strong intelligent Buddha-nature” but is also destructive.

The language of the poem is also heightened through the use of aphorisms. A sutra is a collection of aphorisms, and these pithy expressions of truth recur in “Smokey the Bear Sutra.” The poem declares that “all creatures have the full right to live to their limits” and “all true paths lead through mountains.” Although some humans may believe that wealth can be taken from others and selfishly accumulated, the truth is that “all is contained vast and free in the Blue Sky and Green Earth of One Mind.” Happy in its abundance, “the great Earth has food enough for everyone who loves her and trusts her.”

Humor sweetens the lessons of the poem, and as stated above, the connection between Buddha and Smokey combines playfulness with the serious message. This playful spirit is made evident also in wordplay, in which the meaning of the words of the Forest Service’s Smokey is altered to suit the poem’s purposes. Concerned about forest fires caused by careless smokers, the Forest Service calls for smokers to “put out” their cigarettes, or “butts,” by drowning them with water or by crushing them underfoot. The poem converts the meaning of “to put out” to “to cast into exile,” declaring that Smokey will “put out” people who “hinder or slander him.” If force is necessary to control those who threaten the world’s harmony, then Smokey can be summoned with his “WAR SPELL,” which converts “butts” (cigarettes) to “butts” (the rear ends of destructive humans): “DROWN THEIR BUTTS/ CRUSH THEIR BUTTS/ DROWN THEIR BUTTS/ CRUSH THEIR BUTTS.”

The rewards that follow from Smokey’s enlightened enforcement are also humorously idyllic: Those dedicated to Smokey’s cause are guaranteed “ripe blackberries to eat and a sunny spot under a pine tree to sit at.” Indeed, Smokey’s allies will enjoy “tender love and caresses of men, women, and beasts.”


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 86

Almon, Bert. Gary Snyder. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1979.

Altieri, Charles. Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Dean, Tim. Gary Snyder and the American Unconscious. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.

Halper, Jon. Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1991.

Molesworth, Charles. Gary Snyder’s Vision: Poetry and the Real Work. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1983.

Steubing, Bob. Gary Snyder. Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Suiter, John. Poets on the Peaks. New York: Counterpoint, 2002.

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