Dharma Talk

Question and Answers

June 17, 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote

Good morning.

Thank you all for coming. [gassho]

I thought what I might do today is take questions. I’ve been doing these dharma talks for about 10 weeks. There might be questions. A number of people have written to me privately, and I’ve answered those, but very often, your question is actually everybody’s question. I would encourage anybody to query anything that’s on your mind or anything you’re having difficulty with.

I’ll read the question. I won’t attach your name to it. Unless, of course you can all see it. Cheri Head texted me this morning that Facebook is a dharma gate. I concur. I’ve never managed to get online without some difficulty and next week, I have to send my computer in and a friend in setting up another computer for me to use.'

Q1: “Do you have a favorite guided meditation?”

A: You know, in Zen practice, we don’t do guided meditations very much. We have an expression that says, “Put no head above your own.” The point is to understand what is going on in your own mind and body. In Zen, we’re not aiming at any particular state of mind, or a particular way of being. The idea that Enlightenment is somehow outside of your daily reality is a mistake. To me, guided meditations are like people who only go outside on sunny days. In Zen we want to experience all kinds of weather I don’t mean it to sound judgmental. but they want a certain state of mind. They want to be taken to some imagined place where perhaps they’ll feel better all the time. But that state of mind will pass, and then you’ll be looking for an umbrella again. Suzuki Roshi used to say that ‘you’ don’t sit zazen, that “zazen sits zazen.” This is not an exercise for your small mind, choosing and comparing, honoring your likes and dislikes. Zen is wildness and we don’t dictate to it. We go where Zen takes us. There’s no idealized state. I once spent an entire sesshin [7-day meditation retreat] – weeping for seven days. I hated it, but it was very valuable.

On the other hand, I don’t know much about guided meditation. You could look at my daughter’s Facebook —Ariel Coyote Ford. She comes from a Yogic tradition and tends to work toward meditations aiming at particular states of mind. In fairness, she’s also a much cheerier person than I am, so you might enjoy it.

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Q2: I just read something this morning about this being a “pinecone moment”. Many pinecones rely on the disruptive/destructive force of fire to unlock their potential for growing new life, scattered patiently across the forest floor. The world, as they knew it, unrecognizably charred. They open with the rains and welcome the winds that carry forth their seeds. The blackened cones instead of wanting the past back, seem to yearn for the future to come sooner.

I credit this anthropomorphized metaphor to technologist Alistair Crowell, who makes a powerful case in his recent piece that operating from this “future facing” mindset as individuals and industries is critical is critical for surviving any moment of disruptive change, including this one. You need to take the part of yourself that craves the past, that treasures it, that mourns what’s lost – you need to bundle it up gently, you need to set it aside, and then replace it with a desire for the future.

A: Well, I suppose that’s a question. I don’t see the harm in mimicking natural functions and natural systems, but I’m afraid that if you concentrate on the future, you’re apt to miss the present that you’re actually in. The place where the future is actually seeded. I think it’s a good metaphor, but it’s a question as to whether or not people en masse actually learn. I don’t think the final word on that is in.

If we look at history, if we look at World War I, millions [of people] dead. If we look at the Holocaust, if we look at the repetitions in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, our own streets … I think learning happens one person at a time.

I would like to think that nations mature and learn. I was once told by a mentor, who is a European Count, a very successful, global businessman. He taught me a lot about navigating through Europe/ We were at lunch one day and he was comparing the European system to the American system.

He was explaining why It was so important to him that the European Union continued, because he said that if the European Union fails, then America would be the only model of democratic capitalism. In his mind that would be a disaster. I think he was forecasting a President Trump.

He said that after the war Europeans saw so many people dragged out in the street and shot. Shot by the Communists, shot by the partisans, shot by the Fascists. Paris is full of little signs, on the buildings, memorializing someone’s death.

He said that that changed Europe, that the “elites” of Europe got together, after the war and realized that by putting a modest cap on how wealthy they could be,(in other words raising their taxes) they would put a floor under how poor you could be. They agreed to do that in the interest of solidarity – of making the society work better. I think generally, they do work better for ordinary people. There’s universal health care in every European country. There’s clean, safe mass transit. Higher education is free in many countries, and the social climate is different. Look at it this way, when I walk through Paris or London, I know that everyone I see as I pass, has voted to take care of me if I should become ill. That’s a fundamental solidarity in the culture that is baked in. In America, the people I pass might look after me if I passed out on the sidewalk. Someone might also rifle my wallet while I was unconcscious. The simple existence of doubt produces some degree of estrangement.

In my friend’s example the wealthiest people of France put aside their “me” thinking for “we” thinking to some degree.

One hopes that societies learn, but the only way we arrive at change is through each individual, correctly cognizing the present moment. Neglecting the present for either the future or past can be equally destructive and distracting. We sit zazen to remain anchored in the present because the present is where the seeds of the future are planted and actually germinate. It is where the pine seeds sprout.

We can see, if we are attentive, the kind of trees, people, beings they are going to be. We can see the kind of person we’re going to be by observing the seeds sprouting in us in the present and how we nourish or abandon them.

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Q4: I feel self-grasping comes up the most when I feel my self is threatened via loss of housing or income. Any suggestions for how to navigate that?

A: Well, those are serious concerns. But, how do you know you’re grasping a self. What part of you is aware of another part, which feels separate, but now you are reaching out to? That’s a mental trick. Both of those perspectives are your ‘self.’ What would ‘letting go’ feel like to you? Are you judging your practice as insufficient because you experience anxiety or fear? Selflessness is not an antidote to human emotions and feelings.

When we’re threatened, or when we’re frightened, or when we’re grieving, we accept those [emotions] and we feel them. There’s no antidote to feeling them. Richard Baker-roshi once said in a lecture: “Feeling anything is not crazy. What’s crazy is feeling something and not wanting to.” Zazen affords us the confidence in our posture and concentration to experience whatever might arise.It may not be that the threat will pass. You might lose your home. You might lose your job. Any of us might but the actual experience will be different than your imagination about it. If it’s actual suffering, that’s all right, you can practice with it, but you are previewing the suffering and that is dukkha—Buddha’s First Noble Truth is that Sufferring Exists. It’s not neurotic, but trying to pretend that you’re not feeling what you are, is spiritual bypassing, it is not growth. Or maturity.

Usually when the worst occurs to us we discover skills , abilities, and endurance that we never considered.

Remember, one of the examples I gave of dukkha in the very first lecture. Suffering is trying to hold onto something pleasurable. I have my house here. My dogs. Everything is pretty much the way I like it. When I was evacuated in the fires last year, it was stressful. I thought, “I might just return to charcoal. All my guitars could be burned up. My paintings burned up. My photographs. All my possessions.

There was nothing I could do about it except take what I could flee with, pack the rest in my truck and leave it in a broad open space and hope the fire missed it. I had to accept those feelings and understand that we can’t get through this life without attachment. That’s the human realm. Buddhists don’t lose a child and simply write it off to karma. They may arrive at that philosophical comfort, but first they will grieve their loss and hopefully burn it to ash.

If we have practiced a kind of “deep bath” in emptiness every day in meditation, then we also know that grasping itself is empty. It’s as empty as our life is empty. It’s as empty as everything. It’s just a soap bubble.

All these things might happen. But, if they are not happening now, and you are worried overmuch about them, I’d say that you’re not living in the present moment. Meditation will help you.

Maybe there are plans you can make in the present moment but worrying is not going to save your house or your job. Or mine or my life. An old Persian proverb states:

That the birds of worry and care
Fly around your head
This you cannot prevent.
That they nest there.
This you can prevent.

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Q5: Peter, can you talk a little about the idea of loving all beings when some of those beings are truly unlovable?

A: Loving all beings. On one level, it is an ideal and idea. It is the ‘self’ which compares, which likes, dislikes, and is neutral. No such distinctions occur in Big Mind. The fact that we have self-awareness is akin to saying that we have boundaries. If we have self, we also identify conceive not-self in those with whom we don’t feel in harmony, and with things of the world with which we don’t identify. If “kindness” is an important value to me, and I see someone being unkind it’s difficult to love that person. Normally, my response would be to protect the person being hurt, which is always appropriate, but it is “extra” to judge one of two ‘good’ and one ‘bad’. From Big Mind perspective, both are expressions of emptiness. They are also product of long chains of karma---human thoughts and actions, or they would not exist. If you free yourself from the necessity to judge, you will be more skillful in intervening. They ( offender and victim) are both you. Just do what is required and try not to burden yourself with judging or liking one and disliking the other, they’re all “extra” to the task and confuse the issues.

We are not asserting that what the oppressive person is doing is fine with us. We don’t pretend that it’s fine with us. But, simultaneously, we understand that we are both people, and if we are candid, there are probably circumstances where we have or might behave in such a manner.

We don’t judge ourselves as severely as we judge others, and that’s a kind of proof of our attachment to self-centered thinking.. The thing I appreciate about Buddhists when they protest is that they simply show up and sit. They say, “We’re here in the middle of it, with you. We consider such behavior contrary to our vows and are here to call your attention to this. Such a process is implicitly respectful of others. It may discredit the ‘action’ but never the actor, who is, as we all are, a floating decimal point, an instant away from Enightenment.

The demand on yourself that you love everyone is a tall order. IT’s like trying to photograph a river and hold it frozen. I can’t do it. I don’t know how to do it. But I can certainly remind myself that I’m made of the same stuff as Donald Trump. My spinal telephone is tuned into the human wavelength that he’s a part of and over it travels every human thought and impuldse spanning the spectrum from Mother Teresa to Idi Amin.

I didn’t have a father who was in the Ku Klux Klan. I didn’t have a father that taught me dishonesty and to always seek the advantage. TO always crush adversaries. To win or be nothing. I don’t know what the experiences of Donald Trump’sd childhood was like. I’m not “forgiving” him. I’m not doing anything except trying to express that everything that exists in the present moment came from previous conditions. His being President, his being supported by perhaps 60 million people, is not an accident. Were he not supported by those people he could be a barroom bully that no one paid any attention to.

We say that everything is perfect because everything has perfectly fulfilled its previous conditions.
If I understand that it’s my small mind that’s hating you or hating what you are doing, I can step back and I can remind myself that, oh yeah, there’s another perspective that’s much bigger, more inclusive, and less self-centered than my small mind. It’s tlike we are all ticks on the body of a dog … the dog being the visibler, nameable universe.

I once had a therapist when I was dealing with tough stuff about my dad who was a very violent, disparaging guy. My therapist taught me something extremely useful which I’ve passed on over the years.

He said, “You know, you don’t have to forgive your father for acts that were unconscionable. You never have to say, that was okay. But it’s your decision as to whether or not you remain angry at him.”

Maybe I should unpack your actual question to me. You asked me my response when people are unlovable?

Well, I know that I am triggered by bullies. My imagination goes directly murderous fantasies. Then, my response may seem so overblown that the fantasy will turn comedic---staking them over a red-ant’s nest in the desert and offering them the choice of pouring honey or maple syrup over them. “Your call!” They’re old and familiar and I just let them come and go like clouds.

I struggle more in political realms-- with ideas, issues, and causes that I want to support. I try to do it without anger, and I try to do it as much as I can, without judgment. Because judgment cements me to comparisons. And suddenly I’m trapped in a dualistic universe. These are old and familiar scenarios, and I’ve learned that if I don’t resist them, they have a very short shelf-life.

If an unlovable person is creating a problem, there’s the problem to be dealt with. We don’t have to compound the problem by disordering our state of mind.

There was a time in my life where I studied knife fighting for a year, for a part in a film. I really got into it—flipping the knife from stab-to-thrust, in either hand, slicing, knowing where all the arteries were, and places you could stick where someone would bleed out in 10 seconds. I worked with really skilled Japanese, Filipino, and Australian teachers and became pretty skilled. One of the earliest lessons I learned is that it’s really dangerous to concentrate on the other guy’s knife all the time. Because, if you watch the knife in his right hand too closely, you miss may the dagger in his left. At a certain point, when things are fast and furious, and you’re blocking, slicing and dicing there’s no thought at all. Your training kicks in and you become a single undivided organism.

Well, zazen is our comparable training. Zazen is our training to bathe in emptiness. When we sit with our eyes out of focus, we see everything..

* * * * *

Q6: What recommendations might you have for folk like me who are returning to our formal practice after a long hiatus?

A: That’s really interesting to me, because I hear your question in the context of trying to distinguish our Western practice of Buddhism from its Japanese cousin [we are] trying to learn how to express the differences between the gift-wrappings that every culture puts around Buddhism – the Tibetans, the Japanese, the Indonesians, the Thai …. from the gift itself. I’m particularly interested in loosening the gift wrapping so that those of us who are Americans can see the gift underneath. It is not that I want to get rid of all the inheritance from our Japanese teachers. I love the formal zen aesthetic. I love the rigor of zazen form and many of the practices I learned in 47 years in and around Zen communities. But I fear that as Americans we have been slow to recognize some of the inheritances of Japanese practice like hierarchy, male supremacy, and authoritarianism, which Americans seem too ready to duplicate, grafting these normally critiqued behaviors and perceptions, onto the spiritually ‘clean’ body of zen.

When you say, “our formal practice after a long hiatus”, I’m not exactly sure what you mean. But to me, the most formal thing that I do is sitting zazen. Formal in the sense of “strict” and formal in the sense of “being of and pertaining to form”.

I’m a big believer in form.

I think that if you sit strictly, good posture, good mudra, no pressure … I think if you sit with that question in the background, it will guide you. Maybe you’re one of those people that loves formal Japanese kind of practice or Tibetan practice. If so, do that.

If you don’t have a sangha, if you don’t have people to practice with, then you need to kind of “invent” your own practice for the time being. I would say, pick a time, once or twice a day; make a quiet corner with a candle and a place to light some incense, and a chair or a pillow in front of the wall. And sit for 20 minutes. Sit for 30 minutes.

I think your practice will answer that question for you. If you are here, you obviously have some intuition about the world that you are acting out of, and that you want to stabilize with consistency and practice.

Zazen will help you be your own teacher, and then when you get in trouble, there are lots of teachers around and you can ask them. I don’t have formal students, but I have Dharma relationships with people interested in Buddhism, and do this as a peer, horizontally, not vertically. A Dharma friend or a Dharma uncle.

So, you are welcome to write me at sfzencoyote@gmail.com if you want to pursue it in depth. I have a great belief in zazen itself teaching you. So, I would suggest that.

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Q7: I like this when you said, “Zen wants you to go where Zen takes you.” Aitken-roshi liked to say, “When sleepy, have sleepy zazen. When angry, have angry zazen. Just sit there in that blaze of feeling.”

A: Yeah, that’s exactly [right]. Aitken-roshi was one of my teachers for several years. It wasn’t exactly a question, but I appreciate it. It’s right. “When sleepy, have sleepy zazen. When angry, have angry zazen. Just sit there in that blaze of feeling.” Guided meditations are pushing you towards some feeling, or some state that you might think is better than your own state. The miracle is life itself. The miracle is here, that we are alive and feeling in the midst of all this. All this. Don’t be afraid of any of it. Don’t be afraid of stormy weather in your “interior”. It’s never always sunny anywhere.

Gary Snyder used to make fun of new-age” advocates countenancing eternal peace and bliss. He used to describe their state of mind as “sexless nirvana”.

These examples are all essentially saying the same thing. You are trying to reduce the universe to manageable proportions, which is like trying to contain the contents of a five gallon bucket in a pint jar. Reality overflows all the dimensions and boundaries that we can append to it.The only thing you can control is your intention. As Buddhists, we try to fix our intention on compassion.

We try to make it operate with the force of habit. So that when we say something off the cuff, or respond without thinking we’ve trained ourselves to be compassionate. Now maybe the Buddha was perfect in his practice, I don’t know. Many years ago an early teacher suggested that somewhere Buddha was still working on himself. That’s why we call it a practice. Don’t let your pride get you discouraged.

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Q8: I know you spoke of counting the outward breaths in meditation, but do you not find that a distraction? Numbers seem [like] clutter or a way to quantify, but in sitting, how useful are they to count? As a filmmaker/drummer, counting in editing or in meter gets obsessive.

A: Great question. Thank you. When I was describing counting, I said at one point, “When you exhale, it’s just ‘one’.” The entire exhale is “one”. There is no expectation of “two.” Ray Charles can play more slowly than anyone I’ve every heard, but to try to make a rhythm of exhales, seems impossible if you give all your awareness to each, because they do vary subtly.

When we attend out exhale, we’re not stepping in line to get to “two”. We are undivided in the moment of “one”.

You are covering your entire mind, covering your body, your posture, your mudra, and your breath. This is why it’s no longer a mind-body dualism. It’s all mind-body. Not one. Not two.

Counting is obsessive … I happen to be a counter. And I studied drums and played in a band for five years. I hear rhythms in turn signals, in the washer-dryer. It’s funny. It’s like a slightly obsessive crazy little kid hold-over. When I’m watering my garden, I’m counting to 25 in a rhythm of a beat—a second, because I know that that is two gallons of water. The rhythms are a playful way of passing the time. But that’s not what we’re doing in zazen. In zazen, there’s only “one”. And then there’s only two. They’re bookmarks to help you keep your place.

As a beginner, it’s a great way to stay on track. Suzuki-roshi had an experience where he was crossing the creek at Tassajara, and he almost drowned. He got sucked down in the creek, pulled under by the weight of his robes, and he was pulled way down. He was trying to join some “kids” on the other side.

What he said was interesting. He said, “If I really thought I was dying, I could have taken the time to compose myself, and just die composed. But I must have felt that there was some hope or something because I struggled.” And he struggled diligently. Some people came in and they helped him out of the creek.

He said that he went back to counting his breaths after that. He said, “I thought there was more work I had to do.”I would add that counting is not inherently obsessive. If you are just at “one”. If you are not thinking of “two”, there’s no obsession. There’s no distinction. You just do it.

Rhythm, numbers – I get it. But it’s different when you sit zazen. Or, at least it is for me.

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Q9: How do you deal with ego to serve others?

A: Well, one of the first things that we should clarify is that Zen is not about “destroying the ego.” The ego would have never survived the crucible of evolution if it didn’t have important functions. The notion of an individuated self-awareness is not false. It’s just not complete enough to serve as a reliable tool for all circumstances.

The ego helps us brush our teeth, wash our face, bathe so we don’t smell, put on our masks, use some hand wipe, take care of ourselves. The problem is not that we have this organizing principle of awareness. The problem is that we reify it. We make of it a “thing”, an object. And by habituating to it, and accepting descriptions of ourselves we’ve received from others, and definitions of ourselves we’ve arrived at by implication, we afford the ego a prominence and permanence that doesn’t actually exist. Our indulgence of self-importance will be continually refuted by the impersonality of the Universe.

Buddha never said that the ego was false or that it existed or didn’t exist. What he said was that it’s not fixed.

The ego is not a problem unless you consider it a permanent part of your body, corresponding to an organ. If you have an idea of yourself, (and we all do), this is one of the things that zazen helps us soften. You have been told your whole life, “You always do this. You’re just this kind of kid. I hate it when you…” And, after a while, we begin to see ourselves judge that way and introject those judgments..

We all do. “I’m this kind of person. I’m that kind of person. I do this, I wish I didn’t.” Right?

We get this idea of some kind of little guy behind our forehead doing our hearing, seeing, thinking. Or a little walnut with our name on it tucked under our liver. It’s that fixing of the self that makes so difficult to change because it’s just an awareness. It does not have permanent characteristics imposed on its form. It’s not even uncommon for humans to slip the ego temporarily. It happens to lots of people all the time.

Women have told me that when they knit or crochet, sometimes they are just “gone”.

I have a friend who is a brain surgeon. He says that when he is in somebody else’s head, there’s no “him”. His awareness is watching his hands, reviewing what he knows, and staying as present as he possibly can.

One of the things that makes zazen so effective is that there are certain instances – like as a warrior, as a hunter, as a lover, as a compassionate person – where you don’t want to be in the way. You don’t want to be asking yourself, “How am I doing? God, do I look like a surgeon now? Oops, I just put my thumb through the guy’s brain.” You want to disappear into what you’re doing. You want to get out of your own way.

That takes practice. It takes practice to learn how to either let the self alone, or let it get so exhausted that it gives up, but it’s not your enemy. It’s just awareness.

That’s the good news, because if there’s nothing other than your habits to change it means you are not cast in a certain way. You don’t have an armature, like a sculpture, inside all that clay forcing you to be a certain way. You are just awareness.

When you get into zazen, and you get into Big Mind, and you get out, really outside your ego, you’ll see that. And then it will become more and more available to you. You’ll carry the feeling of zazen longer and longer in your everyday life, and your ego won’t be a problem.

But we do have to train it. We have a human, karmic heritage to unwrap. Buddha observed that human beings arrive on earth as a bundle of karmic properties. Central to them are the three afflictions of greed, hate, and delusion.

Greed. We all understand what that is. Hate is a word that has gone out of fashion, but we can call it aversion---our response to things we read as “not us,” That which we reject. Finally there are our delusions—not just the wacky stuff that if we shoot ourselves up with Clorox we’ll kill the Corona virus, but all the differentiating high-and-low status perceptions of others; seeing ourselves as independent of the rest of the universe, being willing to die for greed. There are lots of wacky ideas. The domino theory. Capitalism as the idea form of human economic interaction.

Human do engage in greed, aversion, and wacky ideas—from wacked out conspiracy theories to ideas that women are inferior to men. One of the reasons that we sit zazen is that we slow down enough to observe the craziness rising out of emptiness and then sinking back. When we do this enough we see how insubstantial it is and it releases its grip on us.

We have to train ourselves. We have to train ourselves that when we get a little spiteful impulse, it doesn’t get past our teeth. We have to recognize it for what it is and not fool ourselves that we’re trying to be helpful, or “point something out.” When we are jealous, competitive, angry, it’s our job to clean those impulses and feeling up and see that they don’t get past our teeth. [We don’t say it.] We look at it. We feel it. We understand it.

I have two dogs, you know, and it takes work to train them - and the most work involves intimacy, learning how they think so that I can communicate with them simply and effectively. I’ve never punished them, but consistently have to teach them things they need for their own safety: “Stop. Stay. Come. Sit.”

Not much. For the rest of it, I just let them be dogs. Humans are more complicated to train .There’s a lot of stuff we need to do to “tame” our egos, but the ego is not our enemy. It’s not. It is just the focal point of our awareness. The coordinator of all our senses. Try to be kind to it. Try to be as nice to yourself as you would be to people that you really like.

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Q10: How does a Buddhist engage in social justice without becoming angry?

A: I’d say, anger is not the problem. It’s expressing the anger that’s the problem. First of all, if you can shift out of your self-centered projections into Big Mind, you’ll discover an extra-personal perception where your anger is unnecessary. Your idea of yourself is not being threatened or attacked.

Next, when you understand that anger is ineffective – when you look at protests – protestors and counter-protestors screaming at each other, no one is listening— I think that our political system has “ritualized” protest, so that we cordon off an area of the street, and confine protestors in it. And let them scream. And wave signs. Nobody’s listening to them.

Seeing this clearly offers an incentive to discover the theater of protests, how they actually communicate, and this will encourage strategies to galvanize people’s attention.Nobody’s listening right now because they don’t pay to put the legislators in Congress. The Congress knows they don’t work for them, and anger, destruction of property is turned against them on social media as propaganda. Consider the difference between many of today’s protests and the Civil Rights struggle of the lare 50s and 60s. African American protestors show up dressed for church! They never raised their voices, except in song. Their discipline and behavior was so exemplary that it revealed the white mobs as bestial. Who wanted to be them? So the distinction between the two sides lent moral clarity to the proceedings.

The question [of how to engage in social justice] is to analyze the problem you want to solve, and then just do it. When anger arises, just feel it. But I can’t think of an instance where expressing anger is useful. I would go so far as to guess that it is the number of people of many races simply being in the street that has the most powerful impact. The violence of anarchists and extreme leftists is indistinguishable in the public mind from that of provacateurs and extreme rightists, so the events can always be purloined by a violent few. That’s the point at which everyone should just sit down.

In my case, when I first was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the new California State Arts Council, and then elected Chairman, I was extremely angry over the way that the excellent work of my friends and peers had been ignored, punished by law, and refused access to public arts funding. I was mentally quick and verbally acute and took no prisoners, feeling that now my friends and I were in power, and it was time to even the score. I succeeded only in concentrating and armoring all my enemies into a monolithic wall against me personally and the Council. The Governor brought the flaws of behavior to my attention, forcing me to look at myself clearly. I realized that I was acting like the people that I didn’t like. I was in power. I was going to “call the shots”. It was “payback time!” Only, it didn’t work … any more than it works in our government.Watch what occurs if the Democrats take power in December---how many scores will they settle, initiating another round of resentments. Once I could let go of the anger, then I could see the problem clearly.

In the 1960’s, when the Vietnam War was going on, and there was a military draft, culling young men my age, there was a lot of moral outrage. Our forces were committing mass murder in our names. The United States killed 3 million human beings, each with a network of families, friends, lovers and kin. Three million people who hadn’t attacked our country. It was a delusionary idea … I was told that I shouldn’t refer to these guys as the “prep school boys” because there are lots of fine men and women who received superlative educations at prep schools. But I use it as a short-hand for entitled, privileged people, over-fed on the idea that they represented “the best and brightest” of our country and their affection for their own ideas and theories cost all these Asian lives, 50,000 American lives and hundreds of thousands more on both sounds, bearing terrible wounds.

But I think of these policymakers as people who have had the best of everything, who believe that intelligence is the paramount skill to possess and furthermore, who believe everything they think.
You’ll remember some of the pronouncements--- the Iraq War would pay for itself. It would be over in 10 days. We’ll introduce democracy to the Middle East (or substitute any number of Latin American countries.)

What serves us best is our intention. It is the only thing in the universe we can control. Even when you are talking to somebody with whom you fervently disagree, if you can listen to them without judgment, question them without judgment, you will remain in relationship with them and they will change to some degree.

I can’t count the number of times that arch-conservative legislators from the California Central Valley, who were initially fervently opposed to the Council’s policies and me personally, “saved my bacon” in Sacramento, after I apologized for my intemperance and began to foster policies good for all Californians. I had gotten to know them and they me, not just ideas of one another. Often they had to voted against me on the record to protect themselves, after they had insured that my budget passed through the legislature.

Lurking behind much of our anger and judgment is a disguised self-righteousness which implies-- “I would never do that.”

A dedicated meditator does not don’t have that luxury of such thinking. We know that we could do anything if we didn’t have a close watch on ourselves.

But most people comfort themselves by reflexively believing that they are good people. After you realize that a human being can be anything, you can realize how dangerous you could be, and knowing that, it makes me very careful about what I let out, past my teeth or into action. You know, “flipping somebody the bird” when they cut you off in traffic is very close to pulling the trigger of a gun.

Zazen is the way we practice taming anger. Allowing it. Feeling it. Making a conscious decision to let it go.

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Q11: I was introduced to circular breathing recently. I've been trying it out in my practice, and it's been helping me focus during meditation. What do you think of this technique?

A: I don’t know anything about it. I would offer that anything that you are doing consciously is possibly an egocentric imposition on your meditation. Perhaps you’re part of a community where that is the form their practice assumes, in which case, it’s probably ok. The nice thing about received forms is that they are extra-personal. It’s not something you thought up, or that you even have to have any ideas about.A teacher once said, “You don’t sit zazen. Zazen sits zazen.”

When you are orchestrating something, when you are making something happen, the question arises as to whether or not you are just recertifying the importance of your “self”—your small mind.I mean, you might respond--, “Well, you are telling me to sit in an erect posture and do this mudra.” And it’s true that I am. I am – But I I didn’t think these things up. These were the forms that were worked out over hundreds of years that were passed down to me. I received them and found utility in them. So, I have continued them.

And that is probably what you should do.

If you find the [circular] breathing helps you, do it. If it stops being helpful, let it go.

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Q12: If a “transmitted” teacher consistently engages in unethical behavior that harms others, does that “negate” the transmission? I’m a former student of such a teacher.

A: And so am I. It’s useful to remember that intelligence has no built-in moral valence. It does not point reliably to the true North of good behavior. A teacher can have real insight but also be unevenly developed, using that insight for the power it delivers to satisfy their egocentric desires. A zen master who is not paying attention is just like any other jerk who is not paying attention.

Sometimes, it is a very tough lesson to learn. Bob Dylan has a verse in Like A Rolling Stone speaks to this:

You used to ride on your chrome horse with your diplomat
Who carried on his shoulder, a Siamese Cat.
Ain’t it hard when you discover that.
He wasn’t really where it’s at
After he took from you, everything he could steal.
How does it feel?

My feeling is that such people have had only a partial insight. Deep insight usually awakens “bodhicitta”, --the desire to “save” all beings. It comes from realizing that we are not “artificial” flowers with their unfading permance, but real flowers in the process of passing away in the moment we observe them. We are dying. Everything is dying. In front of us, everything is passing, and that generates a very, sweet, melancholy feeling. The Brazilians have a word -- “saudade”—which describes a feeling of great longing and sorrow – simultaneously.

There’s nothing that stops a sociopath from achieving a real insight, but their selfishness will reveal who they are to the careful observer.

Some people are different when they are with their teacher. The teacher that I mentioned earlier, who was quite often unethical, was a different man when he was with his teacher, which is why he received transmission. So, behavior doesn’t negate the transmission, which certifies the bond between teacher and student--but it should certainly negate your trust and adherence to that person.

Just like, Donald Trump. He will always be a President. A bad President. A destructive President, but he received the title. So, the title is what you make of it. I feel badly for people who are blinded by it.

In Zen communities or Buddhist communities, very often it is assumed that the teacher is enlightened and everyone else isn’t. People will justify their difficulties with the teacher’s behavior as evidence as their own limitations.

You know, while people are working for $5/hour, serving the institution, the teacher’s driving a gold Rolls-Royce. And the student may say, “Oh well, that’s my hang-up. The Guru doesn’t have any trouble driving a Rolls-Royce, why should I have a problem with it?”

I wouldn’t have any trouble driving a Rolls-Royce, either. But I would have trouble if you were earning $5/hour to pay for my car.

When the zen aphorism declares, “Place no head above your own”, it also means “Don’t elevate your teacher to some exalted human realm that’s untouchable” by common sense, by logic, by intuition and common standards of decency.. Yes, he or she may be transmitted. It doesn’t mean you have to follow them.

That’s a very difficult situation to deal with.

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Q13: Hi, Peter. What sparked your interest to practice Zen, and what advice would you give someone thinking changing religions? I’m currently Catholic and losing faith.

A: In a very strict sense, Buddhism is not a “religion”. There are people who practice Buddhism like a religion, and they have forms and ceremonies and all sorts of ‘faith’ practices, but there is nothing miraculous about the Buddha.He was a human being. He “cracked” this problem of mutual dependence … interpenetration of things, and saw the emptiness of form, feelings, impulses, sensation, and consciousness.

He worked out a way to share that wisdom with other people, and to teach us a way to live which would alleviate unnecessary suffering. Nothing about Buddhism stops an earthquake. However, we don’t compound it by mental agitation.

There is really no reason to change your religion. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, “My religion is simple. It is kindness.”

I’ve practiced with Christian monks. I’ve practiced with rabbis. I’ve practiced yoga instructors. All sorts of people.

In its strictest sense, Buddhism is a practice of living in an intentional, compassionate, kind way.

The only thing you have to take on faith, as a Buddhist, is that once, 3000 years ago, in a corner of Nepal – there was a young man named Gautama who was a prince in a [tribal] kingdom and he left it because he was upset. By sneaking out of the palace and seeing old age, sickness and death and he resolved to understand and come to terms with it.

These are the kind of questions that you put on the back burner and by that,? I mean, you just say, “Oh, I don’t have an answer to this question yet. I don’t know.” Am I going to change my religion? I don’t know.” You just put it on the back burner. Then every time you have a decision to make, you just sort of “visit”. It’s there. “Do I still feel the same about it? Has something new come in?”

And, usually at some point, you get a “pop”, and you will know what to do.

Thank you all very much.