The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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.