Dharma Talk

When Nothing Works

June 10, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote


A deeper dive into Emptiness, it's importance, utility, and consequences.

Good morning everyone. [Gassho]

Thanks for showing up. We’ll chat for five minutes and give stragglers the chance to join us in zazen.

I hope everyone is holding up well with shelter in place. I hope if you have been going to protest, you’ve been being careful, taking care of yourself with social distancing, so you don’t come back and spread Covid-19. If you did go, good on you!

Well, do I need to review how to sit or is everybody “up to speed”? I’m going to look at my messages for just a minuteWell, people seem comfortable with meditating. They seem to know how to do it. So, if that is the case, we’ll just start.

It’s only 10:01, we’ll wait a few minutes.

Again, I want to repeat that all these dharma talks are on my Youtube channel,  and if you go there and search for “Hosho” “Hosho Peter Coyote” you can see any of these dharma talks, and if you go to my website to http://www.petercoyote.com/buddhism.html these talks have been transcribed and posted.

Also, on my website, there’s a contact for the bookstore at San Francisco Zen Center, and for anybody who is interested: they sell “zafus”, which are the cushions that we sit on, and “zabutons”, which are the mats that the cushion sits on, that keeps your ankles off the floor, and little support cushions that you can stick under your knees if they don’t quite lay flat. They sell really good incense and they sell every Suzuki-roshi book, and many others. They are trustworthy, reliable folks.

They are not my sponsor – I don’t get anything for the sale. But if you want to know a place to get “accoutrements of Zen practice” that would be a good place.as are other places online. Some people don’t like basic black. But if you think about it, black is the color that accepts all other colors, so you can get something nice. I’m used to that aesthetic. I like the Japanese aesthetic of tatami mats and black mats and black cushions and all the same. But I know some people, in their home – they might like “puce” or purple. It’s okay. It doesn’t matter….

I’ve met so many of you through correspondence. Oh, which reminds me: SF for San Francisco, SFZenCoyote@gmail.com is a place that some of you have been writing to me. If you have questions about Buddhism and you want to discuss things. My computer says it’s 10:05 am. 

Let’s get started with sitting. Posture. Mudra. Sit up straight. Get ready to disappear. [3 Bells]

[3 bells]

Good morning. You know, if it would interest people, I would come 15 minutes earlier, so that we could sit a longer period of meditation. If people would like to do that, let me know afterwards. I’ll show up.

I want to read a quote from my favorite book. Can you see it? Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I may have even read this quote before, since it’s so critical. It’s so basic for what we do. The little chapter is called “Believing in Nothing”.

Suzuki-roshi says:

I discovered that it is necessary, absolutely necessary, to believe in nothing. That is, we have to believe in something which has no form and no color.

Something which exists before all forms and colors appear.

This is a very important point.

Not matter what God or doctrine you believe in, if you become attached to it, your belief, more or less, will be based on a self-centered idea.

You strive for a perfect faith in order to save yourself, but it will take time to attain such faith, so you will be involved in an idealistic practice, constantly seeking to actualize the ideal.

You won’t have time for composure.

But if you are always prepared for accepting everything we see as something appearing from nothing, knowing there is some reason a phenomenal existence of such and such a form and color appears, then at that moment, you will have perfect composure.

So, he says,

It’s absolutely necessary for everyone to believe in nothing. But I don’t mean “void-ness” – there IS something.

There is something. But that “something” is always prepared for taking some particular form. It has some rules or theory or truth in its activity. We call that “Buddha Nature”.

That pregnant energy always on the verge of crystallizing into some form or another.

When the existence is personified, we think of it as a person and we call it “Buddha”. When we think of it as the ultimate truth   in our phenomenal universe, we call it the “Dharma”.

That’s why we call these talks “Dharma talks”.

And when we accept the truth and act as part of Buddha, or the people who follow that or believe in it, we call ourselves a “Sangha”. This group would be a Sangha. We’re listening to and following this this.

Even though there are three Buddha forms: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, it’s all one thing. It’s always ready to take form and color. This is not just theory, and this is not just the teaching of Buddha. This is like an absolute fact.

Without this understanding, our religion won’t help us. It’s fine to have religion, but if you understand that this religion comes from this primordial, pregnant, energy – something, we’re less absolute about what we believe. We’re less dogmatic about what we believe. We don’t believe it’s the only truth.

It’s like discovering a frame of reference that’s enormous enough to contain the entire universe.

This frame of reference is important.

When we look at all the protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, we can actually see two huge strains of American history being played out.

There was one strain that was all about freedom, all men [and women] are created equal. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But there was another equal and  countervailing force – which was the force of property. The rights of property … and the rights of property were evinced by slavers. We can see that, there’s no time, despite the Civil War, despite the Civil Rights Act, despite the centuries of Jim Crow – these rights are still co-existent.

So, what does it do for us to remember that they both come from the same source?

George Floyd and the man that killed him both come from the same source?

They’re both Buddha Nature. The flowers we love and the weeds that we don’t love, all come from emptiness.

Suzuki-roshi says if we accept, we keep saying, “Yes.” If we accept, we accept what comes up. But to accept doesn’t mean to condone. To accept that weeds are Buddha Nature and have an equal right to existence doesn’t mean we leave them in our garden, or we let them choke out something else.

We can weed our thoughts, even though we know that malignant, jealous, envious thoughts – they are Buddha Nature. We don’t have to judge ourselves as bad people. We don’t have to feel we are awful to have such a thought.

This morning, waking up, in my half-sleep, just before you get up, I had this vision that made me laugh. I was wearing a yellow T-shirt with black letters that said “Batshit Crazy”. I thought, “Maybe I should print that up!” It takes the heaviness and seriousness out of – you just let the mind be the mind.

The mind is a gland for generating thoughts and images. It doesn’t mean you have to believe them all.

It does mean they have a common source, but it doesn’t mean that you and your personal identity need to condone  them. From a very strict point of view, we can say this Officer Chauvin, who murdered George Floyd on video actually excited a kind of universal “bodhicitta” in people – awakened a sensibility about the preciousness of life that we’ve seen played out all over the world for the last two weeks.

It goes without saying that that officer has to be weeded out of the police department. He’s not following the law. He’s mandated to enforce the law, and to follow it himself. And all such people who think they are above the law, they need to be weeded out.

But we don’t have to pretend that they are evil, and something uncharacteristically different from what we are. They’re misbehaving. They’re behaving badly, malevolently. Just pull them out. Surround them. Take them out. Contain them if you have to.

I said in an earlier dharma talk that it’s hard for me to accept that I’m made of the same stuff. I come from the same stuff as Donald Trump. I can hardly look in the mirror when I feel that, but it’s true.

One thing that that does as a Buddhist, that you remind yourself that there is some cause for this phenomenon. Even though my small mind doesn’t like it – I, Peter Coyote, am extremely judgmental, extremely opinionated, extremely stubborn, difficult to know off my thoughts in my track.

Even though I don’t it, it has equal standing in the universe. It comes from some causes and conditions.

What that means is that I can behave appropriately toward it without disordering me own state of mind.

Someone once asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Don’t you hate the Chinese?”

Remember the Dalai Lama gets up at 3 o’clock every morning and he meditates for 3 hours before he meets people. When he meets people, many of the people he’s meeting have escaped from Tibet and come to Dharamsala, India, and many have prostrated their way there. I’ve seen them in Tibet: walking, bowing, doing a full prostration, getting up, walking a few steps, bowing again. They had been going to see the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Tibet originally. Now they come to him, and they all have tales of being abused, being tortured, having lost family.

The Dalai Lama hears that day in and day out. He’s exposed to the pernicious behavior of the Chinese.

When a reporter asked him, “Aren’t you angry? Don’t you get mad?” His response was really illuminating.

His response was, “The Chinese have taken everything from me. I’m not going to let them take my state of mind.”

That state of mind will be ballasted; will be served by continually remembering and believing in this “something” that is nothing. Which has no form, no color. Which underwrites the entire physical universe. Underpins it.

When we sit zazen, we sink into that place. Maybe not at first. Maybe you’re distracted by how much chatter there is in your mind and how busy. But, when you are still, you are not sending any impulses to the mind. When your breathing calms down, and when your stomach relaxes, your face relaxes.

This is, by the way, why people … Thich Nhat Hanh used to suggest we keep a half-smile when we sit. My face never looks like it is smiling, but I am. And that half-smile relaxes 85 muscles in the face. Deep relaxation.

The mind slows down, and sooner or later you start to sink into the formless.

It’s not that you are expecting some experience on your cushion. It’s when you get off your cushion, you carry that with you. The changes that occur will change and occur in your everyday life.

For Zen people, we don’t privilege – I should say Buddhists -- because even Suzuki-roshi said, “all the schools, all the types of Buddhis are … they all come from Buddha.” So, it doesn’t matter what they are. It’s like for Christians, all sects come from Jesus. (Who came from Jewish parents. That made me laugh, thinking of Mary as a Jewish mother, so it just threw me off my game.)

This practice of believing in nothing and immersing yourself in emptiness, has a deeply restorative effect, that travels over into our everyday life. Buddhists don’t privilege anything.

It’s not like having a headache is bad, and not having a headache is good.

Suzuki-roshi said, “If you have a headache, you are healthy enough to have a headache, to feel it.” If you are too sick, your head stops hurting and then you are really in trouble.

People tend to want to come to Zen practice or Buddhist practice or meditating for some kind of heightened event. They want something outside of their normal existence.

But normal existence – everyday, quotidian reality – that’s the miracle! That’s where it is, and the enlightenment of understanding emptiness and viewing every single thing that you see as a miraculous, unrepeatable expression of emptiness. It’s everyday life.

Enlightenment is not “climbing a fence” and suddenly you are on the other side, and you are cranking out goodness, wisdom, and humility. Enlightenment is being reminded moment after moment after moment of the suchness of the apparitions of formlessness.

The “just this”. Housefly. Just this. Hummingbird.

You are made by what made sunsets. How can you be insecure?

You are made by what made orchids. Irises. Wolves.

In some way, you can say that Buddha Nature is wilderness.

“Wild” actually means “self-organized”. It doesn’t mean organized for the purposes of [man humankind]. Wilderness. Wild.

Our inner state is wild. The mind is organized for itself. Formlessness is wild. It’s not orderly, domestic, kind. It’s everything. It’s all of it.

We generate love. We generate hate. We generate kindness. We generate cruelty.

The interesting thing about humans is that when they have an experience, a deep experience of emptiness, it spontaneously generates something called “bodhicitta”, which is the desire to help. The appreciation of things as they are. The beauty of just being alive.

Life trumps everything.

I have another little quote. Suzuki-roshi, I’ve been reading him for 45 years, and I never get tired. Dogen is one of the great Zen teachers from the 1200s. From the Leaving Nothing [chapter of Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind]:

“Dogen said, that although everything has Buddha Nature, we love flowers, and we don’t care for weeds. This is true of human nature. But that we are attached to some beauty, that’s also Buddha’s activity. That we don’t care for weeds. That’s also Buddha’s activity. We should know that.

We should know it’s okay to attach to something. We should know it’s okay to reject something. We don’t like Officer Chauvin’s behavior [in stranging George Floyd]. We don’t like it. And that expression and the feelings that come up within us, that’s Buddha Nature.

You don’t have to reject it because it makes you angry, or it makes you bitter, or because it makes you sad. Just leave it alone, it will pass. Just acknowledge it. It’s coming over the “spinal telephone”.

The spinal telephone receives every frequency in the human spectrum.

So, you’ll never have less than what is available to all humanity, which spans the bookends between cannibalism and self-sacrifice. It’s all going to come up. But what will remind you and give you humility and compassion is realizing that you and Chauvin came from emptiness. Together. In that capacity, you are equal. What experiences did he have that so shut him down? What so killed compassion, empathy, softness, tenderness, the impulse to care for some one?

I mean, if you come on somebody who has fallen on the street, your immediate impulse is to go to help them. That’s a human impulse. So, just think what the interior state of a man is, who can kneel on the neck of another man while calling him “Sir” and choke the life out of him for 8 minutes 46 seconds.

I’m not saying we have to pity him, and we have to give him some special [telling? This word is hard to decode – jg] No, he has to be weeded out. But we should not be ashamed of the impulse to want to do that.

We should not be ashamed of whatever emotions course through us. We have the choice on whether or not we’re going to act on those emotions. I can wait until my anger passes before I speak. I can wait until my outrage passes before I speak.

Because, remember, Thinking is like mental activity. It’s a mental action, and if we put it into physical action, it generates karma. And we can’t control that karma. We can’t control the cause and effect.

When I express anger or violence publicly, I’m setting wheels in motion. It’s like turning a ferret loose in the chicken house – I can’t control it after it is loose.

I’ve found it very useful … when I worked for the Governor of California, and I worked in Sacramento at the State Arts Council … I began as a very cranky, angry, judgmental, political leftist activist, who was suddenly in a position of authority, And in a perfect position to take revenge on a whole host of imagined enemies who had failed to recognize the excellence of the theater that I was in, or the community that I was a part of, and had never given us any money.

Within about seven months I had paralyzed the state. I had turned all the people with money and power against me, and I had all the communities behind me, and it was a stalemate.

The Governor Jerry Brown, who was very kind, by the way, called me in and he said, “Listen. I see what’s going on, but you know, in a democracy, all boats rise, and all boats sink. You can’t play favorites. All these people are taxpayers. They have a right to have their culture represented.”

Really jerked me up short. I’d been sitting zazen for a few years by then, and you know, hard head, but it kind of permeated. I changed my strategy, and I began meeting my enemies. I began meeting the conservative Republicans from Fresno and Modesto that wanted to close the Arts Council.

Little by little we established relationships and respect, and they saved the Arts Council. They helped me raise the budget from 1 to 18 million dollars a year. They helped my programs and I helped their programs, and everybody did better.

So, there is something about addressing people without judgment, without implying your own superiority. Without implying that all the evil is “out there” and all the goodness is “in here”. It’s a common foible. We all do it. Believe me.

I had a bad, nasty mouth when I was in Sacramento. I took no prisoners. And I never had to look at myself, at all. And then one day, my friend on the Council, a man named Karney Hodge, who was the only non-artist on the Council, Republican, wealthy guy who owned an elegant clothing store in Fresno, called Hodge & Sons … but he was a really decent guy, and we became close friends …. I had been very proud of always wearing my blue jeans and my cowboy boots and my long hair and my earrings. Going into Sacramento as a “man of the people”.

One day Karney said to me, “You know, I think you are not aware that you are a leader now, and that there’s a game that you’ve been invited to. Late, but you’ve been invited to the game, and the game has certain standards. The people have certain rules and mores and things.”

He said, “And you’re just peeing all over them. You’re just telling them every time you walk into the room that you don’t care about their suits and their dignity and their manners.” He said, “Well if you really don’t care, why should you expect them to care about you.”

I was a little shocked. I mean, it seemed simplistic, but I thought about it. I thought it was true, and I was the chairman of the State Arts Council, a big agency. I thought about it for a while. I went out. I got a haircut. I got a jacket, slacks, and a shirt.

 When I showed up at the next meeting, my friend Karney looked at me, [nodded] and went, “Nifty.”

And from that point on, all the people in the legislature treated me differently. I didn’t change my standards. I didn’t change my policies. I just acknowledged that other people had standards and mores, and I wasn’t going to put myself at odds with them. It didn’t signify anything.

The black community has different customs than many white communities, and not better or worse. If we approach them, southerners have different mores than northerners. If we approach them with justice and distance, and holding ourselves in abeyance, we’re denying emptiness. We’re denying our common source, and people always feel it. They always know when you are not with them.

The thing that people say about Suzuki-roshi – I never met him. I came to San Francisco late. I was too busy taking a lot of heroin, and I could have met him.

Everyone said that when you met him, he was just completely there with you. People had never met anyone like that. Who was just completely there with them – it didn’t matter if you were a Rockefeller or if you were a gay transvestite. We had both at [SF] Zen Center. He was just completely with you.

He was with you because he knew in his bone marrow, that we were all temporary manifestations of Buddha Nature.

I guess I’m here today encouraging this simple practice of soaking in emptiness through zazen. Letting your mind go. Letting your mind be the mind. You’re not trying to turn it off. It has a job to do. But just letting it be.

If a thought comes up that you don’t like, leave it alone. It won’t hang around.

There’s no “you” to tarnish. You’re an empty pipe and this stuff is coming through you.

You have absolute freedom available to you. Immersing yourself in emptiness, day after day, is an extraordinary tonic that you will discover in your daily life.

That’s what you will discover. You’ll discover a spaciousness, an increase of patience, a softening of your self-judgments, a softening of your shyness, a softening of your double-thinking and double checking.

Because you’ll have a daily experience of all boundaries disappearing and realizing that you are bathing in a common source.

So, it’s my hope that these little dharma talks will encourage that.

Because the more difficult things get out there, the more important it is that we have people who see things clearly and are fearless and are kind and are not preoccupied with self-centered thinking.

It’s going to become more and more important.

We haven’t seen the counterthrust yet to the demonstrations. That won’t be pretty.

It will be necessary for us to keep our balance. Keep our heads and to help other people who may be frightened or angry or precipitate rage, precipitate harm on others.

I think that’s maybe enough for today. If you’d like me to come 15 minutes just send me some notices. If five people will be there, I’ll show up early. I’ll announce it on Facebook.

In the meantime, until next time,

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace.

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace. [gassho]

Thank you all very much. I hope I see you again.