Dharma Talk

Flashing in the Dark

July 29 2020

Hosho Peter Coyote


I want to read a couple little quotes this morning that are going to frame what I would like to talk about. These are all quotes from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki-roshi’s book. This is from a chapter called “Constancy”. 

The first thing he says is, “Cultivate your own spirit”—meaning not go searching for something outside of yourself. Cultivate your own spirit. Then a little farther on he says,

It is quite usual for us to gather pieces of information from various sources thinking in this way to increase our knowledge. Actually, following this way we end up not knowing anything at all. 

I plead guilty to this one. When I was a little kid and I would misbehave or something in kindergarten or first grade, and they would stand me in the corner. I would get interested in the wallpaper. I could stay in the corner until they took me out.

I love to read. I love to learn things. I love to collect things and match up various sorts of information in new ways. But that is not necessarily wisdom. I do that because it helps people learn things. Suzuki-roshi is trying to steer us in a different way. He says,

 Instead of gathering knowledge, you should clear your mind. If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours….

When you know every-thing, you are like a dark sky. Sometimes a flashing will come through the dark sky. After it passes, you forget all about it, and there is nothing let, but the dark sky. The sky is never surprised when all of a sudden, a thunderbolt breaks through… When we have emptiness we are always prepared for watching the flashing. 

Two more little quotes:

 If you want to appreciate something fully, you should forget yourself. Youshould accept it like lightning flashing in the utter darkness of the sky. It is not necessary to compare, to judge, to evaluate. To go through the list of what you think about this. That will sort itself out. Then it is over.People who know, even if only intuitively, the state of emptiness, always have open the possibility of accepting things as they are…Even though clouds and lightning come, the sky is not disturbed. Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it. Then it is ready for another enlightenment. 

The sky, in this metaphor, is the mind. If the mind is preoccupied with anxiety, desires, fantasies, daydreams, too much to do, it actually can’t be open to the moment it is in. You are actually missing or blocking off large parts of your life.

I want to talk a little bit about emptiness and how I think about it. How I have experienced it. Even a casual study of Buddhism will acquaint us with Buddha’s observation about Dependent Arising-- “If this exists, then that exists. If this doesn’t exist, that doesn’t exist. If a tree doesn’t exist, the apple doesn’t exist. If the soil doesn’t exist, the tree doesn’t exist. If microbes in the soil don’t exist, then the tree doesn’t exist, then the apple doesn’t exist. If pollinating insects don’t exist … If birds to control the insects don’t exist ... If the planet were in a different orbit, closer to the sun, water would burn off. We wouldn’t be here. If it were farther away, we would freeze. We wouldn’t be here.

When you look deeply, a blade of grass is the entire world. When you eat a bowl of rice, you are eating the entire world. You are eating the sound of the crickets and the frogs, you are eating the water, you are eating the snakes. You are eating the rain, you are eating the fog, the people who performed all the necessary tasks to bring that bowl into existence.

Because they’re interbeing, interdependent, we can see that they don’t have just an independent existence. It is also true for the self, which is the great revelation. There is no fixed entity inside us that corresponds to an organ. We are a cluster of awarenesses: form, feeling, sensation, impulses, consciousness. We have all these sensations that meet the outer world, and that contact generateds something, which the brain translates into the illusion of separate entities. We call it an illusion, not because you won’t die if you run your car into a brick wall, but because all those separate descriptions, those independent names make us believe they are independent entities. This is the great delusion of humankind.

We know that there is a fundamental energy in the universe. Advanced physics---string theory and modern understanding has reached this point -- 2500 years after the Buddha’s initial observation. There is a fundamental, underlying energy.  That energy is not separate from that which it manifests.

Emptiness is only directly accessible to us through all the forms it manifests. We know that this energy is formless because there’s nothing it can’t become. The myriad things of the world, our thoughts, our sensations, our impulses, our consciousness – all of these are generations of this formless energy. We should not make the mistake of considering the energy as the underlying reality and its formations as illusions. Form is Emptiness, it’s true, but Form is also Form and Emptiness also Emptiness. Without that understanding we would be guilty of creating another dualistic system.

When it says in the Heart Sutra “Form is Emptiness. Emptiness is Form. Form is not different from Emptiness.” That’s what it is indicating. Form is Form; Emptiness is Emptiness, and they are the same thing. They are interdependent. 

When we meditate, the mind will slow down and calm itself on its own. You can’t force it to stop, nor should you try.You may have of sitting where your interior devolve into something like the test patterns---fields of flickering grey that used to come on television late at night. That’s when my mind is most like the sky and when we say “sky” we are using it as a metaphor for our wide-open, receptive awareness

The sky is extraordinarily generous. It accepts everything. Trees growing up into it. Birds flying through it. Bats, contrails, mountains pushing up. It’s unbothered by it. That is kind of our model of “seeing things as it is”--beyond like and dislike. It doesn’t mean that you don’t honor what your heart and your intuitions urge you to stand up for. But it means you stand up differently when you know that you are a part of everything.

I am having a debate currently, with a friend, a guy I’m very fond of. Very, very smart guy, computer, IT stuff. He sent me a video that is running around the Internet of a bunch of doctors in white coats, with badges that said, “Frontline Doctors”. I had never heard of them. They were talking into a $25 microphone, and there was something very phony about it. There was a woman doctor speaking who was black and from another country who was claiming a cure for Covid-19. This is “” that the President is touting that no medical scientists can replicate with double-blind empirically verifiable testing.

This friend sent me this and said, “Here it is. You’ve been worried about this virus and wanted you to know there’s a cure.”

I researched on this woman and in 60 seconds you discover that she’s having a fight with Facebook, and she says that Jesus is going to take Facebook down for not putting her stuff online. She goes on to assert that the United States is run by lizard people, and they are vaccinating us with DNA from aliens.

So, just as a favor to my friend, I sent him posts from the BBC, the Guardian newspaper in England, the Washington Post, and the New York Times, exposing this this wacky woman who is being supported by the President.

And My friend wrote back, and said, “You send me the New York Times and the Washington Post? They are worse than she is. She at least believes what she says.” And I thought, “This man’s head is full of known quantities. He has no room for exploration and discovery. He lives in a universe where only the people he believes are credible. His feeling is that he knows something that I don’t, (it’s probably true in many areas), and that he is apprised of information that is special and priceless.

And I see such nonsense filtering around the Internet all day long. People are sending me videos to watch. I don’t where everyone gets the time to do this, but they are watching videos and clips and exposés proving this cure or that cure.. I posted one of these articles about this fake information which had come up over my Facebook [page]. Somebody was furious with me, saying, “Don’t you know this stuff is fake?” Well, the article I posted said explicitly “it’s fake”. The writer was in such a hurry to defend his orthodoxy, that he was not open to any alternative information.

This is the problem we have when we are walking around, and we are thinking all the time. We don’t have to think most of the time. We can think when there is something to think about. I don’t know how many of you know how to drive a stick shift car, but when I was teaching my daughter to drive, I just explained to her, “As long as the clutch is in, the engine can race as much as it wants, there’s no harm done.” Our minds are like that, I’m sure that when you begin to sit in meditation, the first thing that happens is that you’re so surprised at how busy your mind is. And people will say, “Oh my god, I need to slow it down! Oh my god, I can’t help it. Help!”

STOPAs long as the clutch is in, as long as you are sitting in zazen, as long as you have got part of your awareness sequestered in your posture and your breathing, let the mind do what it wants. It’s not hurting anything. And then when there’s something that you have to think about, let the clutch out. Put your engagement in the mind and follow it.

But to be paying attention to it all the time, it’s not necessary. It’s exhausting actually.

Be like the dark sky. The lightning bolts you need will appear. I find more and more, when I am looking for something, if I just stop looking and stand still for a minute, some image of where it is pops into my mind. Sometimes I open the refrigerator door, and I can’t remember why I opened the refrigerator door. I just stand there, and it comes to mind. Maybe I’m making a virtue out of being empty-headed, but I’m pretty relaxed and happy. This is one of the things I’ve learned from meditating.

So, that’s basically what I was going to say this morning. A friend of mine warned me not to give Dharma talks that last more than 20 minutes, because we wander.

I’m going to see if there are any questions. I’m going to look at my little screen on the side here, and if anyone wants to ask anything, that’s fine. Maybe no. Maybe I put everybody to sleep. Let me just read these quotes again.

            If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours.

When you know everything, you are like a dark sky. Something flashing will come through the dark sky. After it passes, you forget all about it. There is nothing left but the dark sky. The dark sky is never surprised when, all of a sudden, a thunderbolt breaks through. When the lightning does flash, a wonderful sight may be seen. When we have emptiness, we are always prepared for watching the flashing.

So, you should accept knowledge as if you are hearing something you already knew.

Because in a way, you did. If you are in emptiness, you’re just watching another formulation of emptiness.

Q1: I’d like to ask you about delusions, my friend Richard Trainor. Somebody said to talk a little longer. Messaging seems off (I don’t know what that means.)

A: Delusions are ideas, beliefs, concepts, things that we hold onto as if they are real, as if they are solid. This includes our idea of a self. We’ve lived with this “Me, I, Mine” our entire lives, because before we could speak, we were being told about ourselves: “Isn’t he cute. Look at those pudgy little cheeks. Oh, look, come to Daddy, come to Mommy.” We were being taught about the world.

What we were receiving was a description, and at the point at which we could reply that description, we were totally initiated into our culture. And then we run the movie on our own. Our description doesn’t have witches and spirits. But in cultures that do, people can actually die from witches and spirits.

Emptiness will include everything. Delusions are … well, the fundamental delusion is that we exist as a separate entity. That’s the fundamental problem. That’s what make the world a dualism. I’m here, and everything else is out there. That’s half right. The other half is that it’s all one great big thing. Everything is ticks on the body of a dog.

What meditation does is soften those delusions, and allow you to get back to emptiness, which will allow you to rest, and allow you to look at what the delusion is floating in. [You can] see other relationships and other connections that you are missing.

Q2: Someone is asking me: Some time ago you spoke about a sesshin during which you just shook and wept for 7 straight days. Is that what the planet and hitman psyche are doing right now?

A: Well, they are two different things. I actually shook in zazen for 28 years. I’d actually get tremors that were exhausting. The monks on either side of me were sitting like oil paintings. One day, when I was working with the man who eventually became my teacher, he said, “Hey, you ought to look at that.” That’s all he said. “Hey, you ought to look at that.” 

I did, and I found that it came from trying too hard. I was trying to be perfect. I was upright, and my posture was perfect. Everything, but I was locked in and my muscles were not relaxed, and they were toxifying. They were just…. So, all I did was relax. I never shook again. That was 20 years ago.

Let me see. “Is that what the planet and the hitman psyche are doing right now?” 

The planet is doing everything we can think of. We are able to concentrate on little bits of it. I’m not saying that if you change your mind and look at something else that the problem you are addressing will go away, like nuclear threat or global warming. But maybe you need a rest.

If you concentrate too much on the right hand, you are going to miss the left dagger in the left hand. Or you are going to miss the flower in the vase, or you are going to miss the bird, or you are going to miss the jillions of ecstatic, miraculous, beautiful things that are going on all around us.

Another aspect of delusion is concentrating too hard on different entities and things as if they are real. Especially when there is nothing much you can do about any of them.

One of the things you can do is that you can practice calmness, and you can practice tranquility, and you can practice kindness. I see that as a gift to offer other people when they are too upset about the “hitman psyche”.

(Someone said, “You could do 60 minutes. Your voice is helpful for meditation and yoga.” It’s sort of a backhanded compliment. It’s like saying that your voice is good for napping.)

Q3: Thank you for talking about the Buddhist practice of emptiness. A friend also shared his explanation: If you imagine the space between the notes in a song, or the space between letters in a sentence, it can be helpful in understanding this concept. Do you agree?

A: I agree as long as you don’t think that the note is different from the silence around it. The silence is vibrating. The note is vibrating. You can hear the vibration of the note. You can’t hear the vibration of the silence.

Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. But it is also true that form is form. So, there are notes. There are individuated bodies, and birds, and trees, and bushes. But in the larger sense, equally true, both/and, it’s all on great big thing. It’s not a dualism.

Q4: What is one thing you would advise protesters to keep in mind during their confrontations with police?

A: I actually think the protestors are being played. They are being played because they are being provoked into violence, (some of them). I think people should go home at night. I think they should not be out on the street. Leave the people who want to commit violence out on the street by themselves. I also think that when peaceful protestors are out, they should surround people who want to coopt what they are doin, or retranslate what they are doing.

Because there are people on the left, there are people on the right, there’s police, there’s all sorts of people who want to discredit what the protestors are doing. You can’t just do one thing all the time. Yes, it is your right to protest, but if you are being played, if you are being retranslated into something else, you have to be fluid. Maybe protest by sitting down, so that it is very clear who is sitting and who is not. Go home at night. You are not denying your civil liberties. You’ll be back the next day. It heightens the distinctions between the state and the forces of repression and the people.

That is what the early civil rights marchers did. They dressed up for church. They went out and they never raised their voices unless they were in song.

Right now, the President is campaigning on lawlessness, which he is provoking. For all we know, they are paying people to provoke it. So, the protestors need to be shrewd. This is why Buddhists protest by meditating. We sit down. No confusion there. If we are told to move, we move, and we sit again as soon as we are in a place where we can sit. That’s what I would think.

Q5: Someone said, “And Jesus Christ?”

A: A nice Jewish boy. I don’t know. I don’t know what to say about him. A prophet.

Q6: I have a question about counting breaths in zazen. Do you recommend it? It was suggested to me to use DEEP on the inhalation and SLOW on the exhalation. It seems to help get me out of the “counting” mode.

A: Well, I don’t like to talk to myself when I’m meditating. If you are counting, you are not committing everything to that one exhale. When we exhale on “one”, it’s the entire breath. You are not waiting to go to “two”. It’s just “one”. And when you get to “two”, it’s just “two”.

And after four or five minutes, you don’t have to count. Just keep the awareness of your breathing. Just remember that you are breathing. Remember your posture. Remember your mudra. Don’t put anybody else’s voice inside your head. You won’t see your own; you wont’s hear your own.

Do I see any more questions?

Q7: Could you talk more about “not knowing” or “Beginner’s Mind”, especially during these times when not knowing in the conventional sense is dangerous?

A: Well, the phrase comes from the same book [Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by] Suzuki-roshi, and the phrase is roughly paraphrased into “in the mind of an expert…” Let me see if I can actually find it. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.] Here it is. “In the mind of an expert there are very few possibilities.” It’s here in one of these lectures.

Anyway, the expert has learned to conserve his energy, to conserve her gestures, to express what they are trying to do. But a beginner has no idea. A beginner doesn’t know. When you watch kids playing with blocks, they pound them, they make noise with them, they pile them up, they knock them over. When they color in coloring books, they color on both sides of the line, and it’s just an expression of the creative play of the human mind.

So, beginner’s mind is a wild mind. The mind is wild. The mind is wilderness. “Wild” means self-organized. It’s not organized for human purposes or your personal purposes. The Port Orford cedar grows for itself, and so should you.

If you come into a room, not knowing, it means not having too many ideas about the people in the room. You’ll learn, in that room, most everything that you need.

Same thing when you talk to a policeman. Not to have too many ideas. Just be polite. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been let off tickets. I drive fast a lot. I pull over. I turn of the car. The cops come to window. I put my hands on the steering wheel and I turn the [interior] lights on, because I know that they are nervous when they come up. (They’ve told me.) Somehow, that rises to the surface and reminds me that they do that.

So, I talk to the guy, and he asks for my license. I tell him, “I have to reach in my back pocket.” “Okay.” “I have got to go in my glove compartment for my registration.” And I can’t tell you the number of times that the cop has thanked me and said, “You have really good manners. Thanks. Just slow down, will you?”

Not knowing. If I know that I am dealing with a fascist pig who is an extension of the state, I’m going to be frightened, I’m going to be nervous. I mean, it must be very difficult to be pulled over as an African-American or as a woman. You have a long history of relationships with the police that are not good. That is not exactly my experience, although in the 1960’s I was in a lot of confrontations with the police. But today, I find myself supporting the intelligence agencies that I fought in the 60’s, because they are the grownups in the room.

Beginner’s mind is always open. Not knowing – [from your question] “not knowing in the conventional sense is dangerous”. Well, I’m not sure, because you don’t know what you don’t know. And you don’t know if what you don’t know is really important or not. But if you trust Big Mind, if you trust calming down, your intuitions are far more sensitive, and your receptivity is far more sensitive than your intellect.

You’ll get very clear directives. “Oh, this guy is fibbing. Okay.” There’s not a mortal sin of fibbing, but [nodding] now you are on guard. That comes across the clarity. That’s a little lightning bolt in the dark sky.

Not knowing is not being naive or credulous or believing everything. It’s just going in with a blank and open and receptive mind. I always take a full exhale before I answer the phone, or before I have an important meeting. Just to engender that not knowing, to try to be in touch with emptiness.

Because that is the most reliable indicator for me. That’s where all the parameters are breached, and anything can reformulate in my mind, and I’ll get surprised. I’ll learn things in that moment that I didn’t know.

Someone is telling me my microphone is in the shot [of the video]. I’ll tell you why my microphone is because a friend who is an engineer called and told me that every time that I thumped my desk, you could hear it. So, I put this big shock mount on it, which insulates the mike from that, but it also keeps it far away from me. If you can’t hear, talk to me. I’ll try to make it work better.

Q8: Does nothingness exist?

A: Well, the word exists, but I don’t know exactly what the referent is, and I don’t know who’s watching and who’s listening. “Does nothingness exist?” I suppose nothingness exists as an idea. Is it helpful? How can you use it?

Emptiness is not nothingness. A lot of people misunderstand Buddhism and they think that it’s a nihilistic religion that is about extinction. [Shaking head] Ain’t that. We don’t believe in nothingness. We practice being in touch with emptiness to fully express our humanity. To be as wide open and receptive as we can be. I don’t know what you do with nothingness.

Oh, it’s Steven -- the man who said my microphone is in the shot is the engineer I work with very often when I do voice overs, and he’s the guy that told me to get shock mount. Okay, thanks Steven.

Oh, here’s Ruby Lee, who is helping me edit the videos of these talks. We’ve never met, but she is a wonderful artist.

Q9: There’s a line in a song by Melanie, “We bled inside each other’s wounds.” When our antennae are so receptive before and after meditation, we have to let whatever is in the morphogenic field pass through us?

A: “We have to let…” I don’t know who the “we” is in that sentence, and I don’t know what the imperative “have” is in that sentence. It’s whatever is in the morphogenic field will pass through us, and the divisions between the field and ourselves get much more “woo-woo”, much less defined. The “we” is extra in the sentence, the “I” is extra. “I’m going downtown” – the “I” is extra.

Q10: Protestors are begging others to stop violence. It defeats the purpose and message.

A: You are not saying that “begging” defeats the purpose and message? They are asking others to stop violating the purpose and message of the protest, right? That’s what I think you mean.

Yeah, at that point, every protestor should sit. Should get off their feet and put the maximum distinction between themselves and the people perpetrating the violence. And that could be on a cue. Or they back up to the sidewalk. Because, really – there’s no government that would let you burn down government buildings. There’s nobody who could break in and raid a store. This is not a protest about social inequity and economic imbalance, and you are hurting the livelihood of somebody who’s just trying to make a living.

The protestors have to be fluid. Protest is theater. When we lose the aspect of theater, we lose the protest.

Do you remember during the hearings of Justice Kavanaugh for the US Supreme Court? Three young women cornered a Senator in an elevator, and they berated him. They were really irate. They were really angry. They were victims of some kind of sexual violence at some point. But they were furious.

I looked at that and I got sad, because I thought, “These women have mistaken the audience.” They think the audience is these 5 white men in Washington. That’s not the audience. Those guys are already in the bag for somebody. The audience is vast population between the Alleghenies and the Rockies, who are looking at these young women and trying to decide, “Are they on my team or not?”

Most of those people have never had the temerity to yell at a Senator. That’s just beyond the pale.

I was actually invited to Harvard to teach this, the Theater of Protest, which I did.

If you look at the protests of the Civil Rights Era, the discipline that they followed, the calmness, the passivity, in the face of beatings that almost killed John Lewis. That’s what made the dividing line between the repressive forces of government and the civil rights marches so clear.

But if you go now, protests are cordoned off. People are chanting one thing or another. Black Lives Matter. Of course, they do, but nobody’s listening. It’s being co-opted by being tied-in in the same way that President Nixon linked black people to heroin and linked hippies to LSD and won the  Presidential reelection.

You can’t just repeat a protest in the same way every time, because the people who are trying to manipulate them, are very resourceful, and they are moving [their tactics], too.

Protestors need to get together and set up signals. My suggestion is: If everybody sat down at the same time, it would be very clear who the violators are. They’d be much easier to arrest. It would be much more difficult to blame the protestors in the eyes of America, which is the audience. It’s not Donald Trump. It’s not the Senate and the Congress, which are put there by money. It’s the people of American who are your audience. When you lose track of that, you’re in trouble.

Maybe I have time for one more. Veronica Napolis. Hi, how are you? Let’s just see.

Someone said I find myself following your dog’s snoring and breathing.

The little dog behind me licking himself is Chico, and Chico really snores. Pablo is back there on his little sheepskin, which he owns. But sometimes Chico will wake me up night because we all sleep together. Yeah, he’s a wheezer.

Q11: Lindley Hagerman says, “What’s a mutra?”

A: Mudra. I’m going to show you because maybe people don’t know.  A mudra is what you do with your hands. If you are right-handed you rest your left hand in your right palm. If you are left-handed, you do the reverse. You always put your active hand on your other hand. You take this interior joint [of your middle finger] and you put this knuckle [of your other middle finger] in it, and then you make a nice, soft fat circle, and that’s your attention “gauge”. If that collapses, you’re not paying attention, if your thumbs fall apart, that’s not paying attention. You rest your forearms on your sides so that you don’t put tension on your shoulders. That’s a mudra. It’s a hand gesture that helps focus your attention.

Q12: Perhaps in a different talk we can go further into appropriate speech and “no praise of self or debasing others”. This is intuitive and it’s hard to put into practice.

A: Yeah, it is. And it is made much harder by the anonymity of the internet, by the invisibility of people on the internet. People can be rude, they can be snarky, can be hostile, can be murderous, and we don’t know. And it has sort of debased public dialogue. Also, I think the loss of control that everyone begins to feel, as our system has become run more and more by money, the 1/10th of 1% of the wealthy basically put both parties in office.

Every day I get 15 – 20 fundraisers [in email]. Would you give $3 to Joe? Will you give $8 to Joe? Will you give $20? Will you do it every month?

Even if you give, there are still 15 others that have no record of what you’ve given, and if our task is to outspend the hedge funds and the corporate sector, it’s not going to happen. We need to have full Federal funding of US elections. We need to be paying the legislators, and they need to know it. And we need to prevent them from getting gifts and emoluments and easy jobs and speaking tours, so that they work for us.

Then, just like in a country like France, where they have socialized medicine, you attract a different kind of people to be doctors. You attract people who want to heal people, as opposed to who want to get rich. Our system is pretty much predicated on attracting people who want to get rich. Even those who really want to serve have terrible choices to make, because to get the money, to stay in office [to be able to] do the good things they want to do, they have to get it from the 1/10th of 1%, who are going to take their pound of flesh. We have some work to do.

Okay, you guys, I think that maybe that is enough for this week. Thank you all for coming in. I really appreciate it. I’m very touched to see people from many states and many places. It’s very heartening. I’m going to say this little Metta prayer. I invite you to join me.

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.

Thank you very much. I hope I see you next Wednesday.