Dharma Talk

September 30, 2020


Hosho Peter Coyote


Weíll see whoís there. Do you hear me, Ruby? Okay, very good. I just want people to see my cell phone, lest you think my complaints about technology are just whining. Let me also tell you that, insurance or not, itís taken me so far, eight days to get my second cell phone, which was supposed to be delivered 7 days ago. And my printer is refusing to print out the paper that I wanted to quote from this morning. Itís another day in Technologyville. Laura, Iím so sorry that you have been evacuated, the third fire that theyíve been through. Itís ash-land here. Everything is covered with ash Ė the tree leaves, my garden, the plants, the driveway, the sidewalk. There are blackened, charred leaves everywhere that are blowing in from these fires from the north and east.

It's not going to get better. I heard a podcast of the New York Times yesterday on The Daily by a guy whoís researching migrations of Americans because of climate. It turns out that there are millions and millions of people, leaving, moving north to places that are becoming more temperate. Speculators are calling him, trying to find out where the next big city is. In 20 years, most of the southern states will become unlivable, too hot, too humid to work outside. Itís a grim prognosis. Food crops being cut in half. Fresh water being very, very scarce. Here we are in paradise in the midst of hell.

The fires are something. Iím packed and ready to go at a momentís notice. I was evacuated last year for five days. Iím trying to buy a little trailer so I can just go down to the beach. Everyone I know is affected or thinking about the [fire]. Somebody is asking about his photo, and the photo I see of you is two eyes and a mask.

Anyway, the best thing to do is meditate when all else fails. Letís see if we have enough people. Maybe so. A lot of stragglers today. Ash and water are a toxic combo, yeah. Okay, letís meditate. Itís always the best thing to do. Iíll see you on the other side. Wait for the chimes. [3 bells, bow]

[3 bells, bow]

Good morning everyone. Thanks for coming. While we were sitting, I saw a comment. ďGood morningÖ tying to find equilibrium after last nightís [Presidential] Ďdebateí.Ē I want to just touch on that for a minute, because the debate was like trying to wash and wax a cat. Most notable for its absolute lack of respect for norms, grace. The overt threat of telling the Proud Boys to ďStand Back and Stand ByĒ. But if you go for it, if you lose track of what is right in front of you. You are in your own living room. Iíve got my dogs on either side of me, I made a little dinner. I loved my dinner. I loved my dogs. I watched about 20 minutes and I turned it off. It was an affront.

Watching it was not going to make it any better. It was only going to destabilize my state of mind, lead me to write cranky letters to the editor which no one publishes. Or fret and talk about it on Facebook [or Twitter et al] which would just help the Russians weaponize Facebook.

I encourage you to be careful with your state of mind. Thatís the one thing you donít want to let people take away from you. Just remember where you are. You are watching television, a little puppet show. You could be watching [cartoons or] ďHowdy DoodyĒ. And yes, there are consequences, but they are not here now. Theyíre coming.

Very often, I imagine that I am living in the Middle Ages. In the Middle Ages, the leading cause of death was murder, people got up, they took care of the animals, they farmed. There was no radio. There was no TV. Everything was quiet. It was not until some breathless neighbor came racing over the hill on a sweating horse and said, ďTheyíre here!Ē that the idea of an invading enemy or a threat really permeated. Sometimes I think it is pretty good to remind ourselves of that. Take a minute. The crows are still crapping on my fence. The little gnatcatchers are still eating out of my seeds. My dogs are sound asleep. You can see Chico down in the lower left corner of the screen and Pablo behind him. And Iím talking to my friends.

And, you know, this is life. All this stuff has always existed. Itís always going on. I think what is unsettling is that for many years, we lived in a kind of myth of American exceptionalism where we thought we were somehow immune. We could do what we wanted anywhere in the world and nothing could come back and bite us. We were on a continent, far away, and we stood by. We stood by for a lot of stuff. We stood by for 250 years of slavery. We stood by for Jim Crow laws. We stood by for the colonization of Latin America with the sending of American troops in to fight the hungry, to favor the fat.

 Basically, what has been happening to the Third World is now starting to happen here. We can imagine what the trend may be. ďTheyĒ are going to frack in your backyard whether you want to or not. They are going to place Facebook unregulated into your computer, whether you want it or not. Itís hard not to use because all your friends and peers are using it. And itís harder even to consider that it has actually been weaponized. Itís been weaponized very skillfully, to cause discord in the American people. Even when we venture  an opinion that is consonant with our opinion, itís being thrown up against other opinions, to create disharmony and division.

The place where we have to start settling is into ourselves. We have to settle ourselves onto ourselves. We do this by meditating.

This leads me to the idea of karma, which is what I wanted to talk about. One of our group, Eric Clark, actually, sent me this question:

My family is close with a young woman who was just killed along with another young woman, a college friend of hers - both 22 years old and recent college graduates, by what has been reported to be a ďmedically compromisedĒ driver, or possibly a drunk driver who ran a red light, hit their car and pushed it into oncoming traffic. Both of these young women suffered severe burns from the resulting fire, and both didnít die right away but within 24 hours of the accident. She was a sweet young woman with great promise (and from what I hear, her friend was as well). When things like this happen, it brings up all of the big questions. I know the first noble truth addresses this, but what about Karma?

The First Noble Truth is that suffering exists. Itís not a fake. Itís not fake news.

You spoke in a previous talk about ďdependent originationĒ, I might not have that right, but is that Karma? Right now so many things are happening that donít seem fair, arenít fair actually, Iím old enough to know not to expect things to be ďfairĒ in life, nevertheless when something like this happens it is disturbing and the issue of ďnot fairĒ comes up. How does Zen Buddhism address this?

Quick quiz: Who is the American that uses the phrase ďnot fairĒ more often than anyone else?

Itís Donald Trump. If I feed one of my dogs and donít feed the other, one of my dogs looks hurt. There is some natural impulse toward balance. But there Is nothing in the universe that is actually personal, and itís hard to remember that.

What karma actually means is consequences. And it began to be used under Hinduism, and it was attached early on to the idea of rebirth. You know that you are going to have lifetime after lifetime after lifetime, and whatever happens in this lifetime, will determine the rebirth that you have.

Poor people are poor because they behaved badly in a former life. Noble, rich people, I suppose like our President, are elevated in power because they live nobly and selflessly in another life. You donít have to live very long on earth to realize that that is a ďcrockĒ.

Thereís also an ethical construct to karma, which is good actions will produce good life. Bad actions will produce a bad life.  I think that is pretty demonstrable, on some level. An action can be a thought that is engaged and acted on. It can be an action. It can be an intention. It can be a completed action.

If we look at the universe from a personal point of view, if we forget that despite our self-awareness as an individuated being, that weíve also never been separated from the rest of it. If we forget that part of it, we fall prey to the kind of human delusion that we are a separate, graspable entity. Hinduism, Christianity, Atman, Spirit, Soul Ė all of these things are extensions in a kind of belief in a permanent self. Itís comforting. But, if nothing else is permanent, why should we be permanent? You can destroy anything, but [you cannot destroy] all of it.

One way I look at karma is the way I look at heaven and hell. It was used to control peopleís actions, and say that if youíre good, youíll go to heaven, and if youíre bad, youíll go to hell. Angels: lots of good food and music, all the people are beautiful. Or you go to hell. But if you think about it for five minutes, you will see that heaven and hell are right here on earth. There are scenes on earth that surpass hell in their grotesqueness and their suffering and their pain.

The earth itself is so sublimely beautiful. The creatures that inhabit it are so sublimely beautiful. What more do you need of heaven?

The first thing that Iíd like to suggest is that if you look at karma from the standpoint of the little kernel of self, a little acorn with your name on it, tucked under your spleen, nothing is going to work. Iíve met Tibetan Rinpoches who are reincarnated people. Thatís what Rinpoche means. Iíve met several, and talked to them, and they all smile and shrug and say, ďI have no idea. They told me this. They told me I was reincarnated 4th century CE monk.Ē Who knows?

Zen people donít pay much attention to reincarnation because nobody knows. None of it is provable. So, we concentrate on whatís right here, whatís right now. In that focus of attention, you can actually affect karma.

So, letís look for a second at ďfairĒ and ďunfairĒ. When a fox eats a rabbit, is it fair or unfair? Both are involved in a dance, and both understand their role in it. The rabbit doesnít begrudge the fox for killing it. It will do its best to live. The fox doesnít begrudge the rabbit for running away. Nor does it begrudge the eagle who takes it away.

We are all on this earth. We are all playing roles, all interacting with one another. And there is every kind of intention imaginable from Mother Teresa to Hitler thatís being danced out. Every possibility of the human mind.

Thereís no argument about consequence. Letís look at a guy like Donald Trump. We think, ďMy god, here is a guy who stolen, swindled people, abused women, settled suits multiple times, accused of rape. You find out that heís in $300 million of debt personally that are due to come. He pays no income tax. That he is vulgar. That he is inconsiderate. That he is brutal. That heís a bully, and yet, he is the President of the United States. How far is that?Ē

I think you have to look with a finer microscope. Try for a moment to imagine what Donald Trumpís moment-to-moment existence is. In Buddhism, itís often represented as a circle, with various states of being.

Letís start at midnight. Itís called the heaven realm. Think of Richard Gere. Think of movie stars. Claire Danes. People who live with wealth, fame, and the best of everything. Everything is clean, sweet. People are coming to them, making obeisance. But from a Buddhist point of view, you canít be enlightened from that realm, because there is always the fear of losing it, which is inherent. It is always a kind of grasping. From my years in Hollywood, I can attest to how fixating people are on their standing, on their status, on their comparison to other people. And how superstitious in many cases of being with people who are ďlessĒ than them, as if it might taint them.

Then the next realm is called Asuras. Asuras are very, very powerful beings. They are very jealous. They are full of competition, back-stabbing, scheming. Trump would be an Asura. Henry Kissinger would be an Asura, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. These guys are like very, very powerful forces. Again, not a realm in which you can be enlightened.

Then there is the human realm. The human realm is where enlightenment is possible. Itís a realm of struggle. Itís a realm of hard work. Itís a realm of multiplicities, complications, the sweat of your brow. But it is also the realm where we are permeable to wisdom. Where we can look at it. Where we can see it. Where we can catch our attachments, and we can see examples of other people who have liberated themselves from being stuck by its flypaper.

Then, thereís a realm called the hungry ghosts. Hungry ghosts are people who are so afflicted by greed that they are people defined as having mouths the size of suitcases and throats the size of needles. Everything they touch turns to pus. They canít be satisfied. Weíve all known people like that.

Then there is the animal realm. The realm of kill or be killed, hunt or be hunted. Always on the alert. Always watchful. Powerful beings. Many skills and talents that we donít have., but no concept of enlightenment. No way for them to get off the wheel of life and death, birth and death.

Then there is a realm called the hell realm, which suffering is so acute, suffering is so consuming that people never have leisure time, or the free moments to consider enlightenment or spiritual growth.

So, thatís a really early Buddhist description of the various states of people. Itís pretty descriptive. Hindus and early Buddhists, and certainly a lot of Christians, like to make it a cautionary tale: if you do badly in this life, you will have another life as ďyouĒ and you will be punished for then. And I think that one of the reasons that they do that is to try to work against the apparent nihilism of emptiness. If nothing is real, why not rape, kill and pillage? If everything is transitory and illusory, why all this stress on compassion? Because if your insight is really deep, you will perceive it all as precious as you, as part of you. And the idea of harm or destruction or wanton cruelty, it doesnít arise. Itís only in kind of superficial states of insight that you find people who are without empathy, or without kindness.

S0, for us to expect the universe to correspond to our ideas of fairness, itís really kind of a delusion. Yesterday I heard a podcast on the NY Times Daily. Itís about the only kind I can get in my kind of terrible car radio. So, I listened to a podcast by a fellow who was charting migrations due to climate change, and it turns out, there are tens of millions of people preparing to move, because they can see the writing on the wall. They are either going to be under water or without water, or in a place where they canít grow crops, or in a place where itís too hot to work outside. Theyíre not going to be able to live.

This pressure of climate change is only going to be exacerbating economic and racial tensions, because itís the wealthy people who can pick up and go to Michigan, go someplace where it is cooler and balmier. Not yet overcrowded.  Itís poorer people who are going to be stuck in these unlivable places with less of a tax base, and an eroding infrastructure. You could call that a global karmic result, but I donít think it is exactly global. There are a lot of people in the world who are not burning a lot of carbon. They are living on a dollar a day.

Itís the developed nations who are warming the atmosphere and acidifying the seas. Itís the industrialized nations who are going to have to give up stuff. And if we donít give up stuff, we are going to have to suffer the universal climate change that is going to hurt everyone. There may be short-term escapes until your kids are grown, perhaps. My granddaughter is going to live in a world with 35% less oxygen. Itís going to be living at [the equivalent of] 12,000 feet [above sea level], because the plankton in the ocean is disappearing due to its warming and acidity. Plankton is the greatest generator of oxygen on the planet.

Weíre in it, whether we want to be or not. Weíre in it whether we change all our light bulbs to LED and put up solar panels and drive electric cars. Weíre in it. Itís just the karma of our ďmeĒ culture, of our indulgence culture. Iím not exempting myself from this, by the way. I mean, I live in a 1700 square foot house. I could probably bring more people in here to live. But this is the culture we grew up with, this is our normal.

During the 1960s we were creating communes. We were trying to learn how to live together. We were trying to learn to live on less. In some way, predicting in some way that this day was coming. We were laughed at, and we were derided. Meanwhile, everybody has started to eat organic food. Everybody has started to follow alternate medical procedures: homeopathy, naturopathy, acupuncture. People are following alternative spiritual paths: yoga, various kinds of Buddhism. Wicca. People are doing everything except giving stuff up. Except consuming less.

Itís consumption that keeps plastic being generated, that keeps hundreds of millions of cows burping and farting and throwing carbon gases up into the universe. I think nobody knows how to stop, without being kind of a kook. Without being some kind of an eccentric.

The whole train just keeps running on until people actively begin to consider what to do. I mean Iíve done all those. I have solar panels. I charge my car electrically. Iíve got battery backups on my house. You do all the things that you think you can do, you know. Iím pretty much a vegetarian, but it is not enough. I donít have air conditioning, but it is not enough. You try to imagine, ďWhat could I do? What could we do to create enough pressure on policy makers, and on the wealthy and powerful who call the shots? What could we do?Ē Because you can see that a whole class of people of a certain age have decided to die with their toys, with their power intact. They figure they wonít live until the real climate change costs come due.

Everybody is getting a wake up. I mean we have thousands and thousands, and thousands of homes burned in California. We have people who are refuges who were upper-middle-class citizens yesterday. Burned out. Nobody in Northern California doesnít know people who are homeless, hasnít opened their home for a shower, or people needing a place to stay.

And yet, because we never know how things are going to turn out Ė I call this Radical Optimism Ė you can say incontrovertibly that we never know the way that things are going to turn out. Given that, I can remain optimistic because itís a more powerful option than depression. Since I donít know how things are going to turn out, I might as well keep my shoulder to the wheel, because itís like buying a lottery ticket. If I donít buy a lottery ticket, thereís no chance that Iíd ever win. If I do buy a lottery ticket, I might win.

So, I keep coming back to one thing, and Iím sort of interested in feedback about this, the only thing I can think of to get the attention of all the people that we need to get the attention of Ė not Congress. Congressional representatives are employees of the 1/10th of 1%. That who pays for them to go to Washington DC. We give them the votes, which are like high school hall passes. They do focus groups and they learn the buzz words and the issues that we are interested in, and we vote for them.

Then they go to Washington and they begin their real work, which is to pay back their donors. They do it through tax legislation, and through legislation loopholes. In the tax law. In renewing patents. Things we canít even comprehend. If someone gives $50,000 to a legislator, and that guy helps them renew a patent for 17 years, which is worth multiple billions of dollars, the rate of return on that investment is enormous.

None of us can match that. The only thing that I can think of that is both Buddhist and ethical and compassionate is something like a general strike, where people make a general commitment to stop shopping. To get by on as little as they possibly can. Itís a challenge.

Can I buy two gallons of gasoline? Can I buy just enough groceries? Can I not buy any new clothes, any new toys, any new bangles? Can I trade for novelty?

My thinking is that in about two weeks, you would have the attention of everybody that depends on consumers, which is all of us, stop buying new stuff. Because, when I think about it, it seems to me that a consumer society, which Iím told is what we have, is a perfect one-way valve to deliver all income to the people who own the means of making stuff.

Our money is always going one way. We get a little bit in salary, but then the money all goes back to buy toys and tools and things we need from the people who make sure that we never actually get enough to not work for them. If we stopped buying, it would be like we were saying, ďWe see this game. We see whatís happening.Ē

I think about that little Swedish girl, Greta Thunberg. I mean, itís easy at 15 to take a stand like that. I donít say ďeasyĒ. I donít mean to disparage it. But she doesnít have tuition. She doesnít have a mortgage. She doesnít have a lot of the responsibilities of an adult. But those adults with responsibility also have children and grandchildren. When you realize that your grandchild is going to be breathing 35 to 40% less oxygen before she is 40 years old, that really builds a kind of incentive to do something Ė to change the karma of the culture.

To think about it in terms of karma is that every little act of self-sacrifice is actually an act of liberation. Every little act of not going along with the dominant paradigm of doing stuff that we donít like to do and then rewarding us by buying toys, every time, every little way that we can cut back from that is an act of liberation to the planet, is an act of generosity to our children and grandchildren.

It may not seem like much. Iím sure a grain of sand doesnít seem like much, but if you get enough grains of sand you get a beach. Democracy is about getting more grains of sand in your bucket than theyíve go in their bucket. The problem is that when you donít look with really fine attention, with a really quiet mind, while you are going out in the street to protect Black Lives Matter, or other citizens Ė Transgendered people, gay people, you may be buying a jet ski or a truck or a new game boy or something.

Thatís human. We all do it. Itís an act of discipline and will. To cut those impulses off in your mind is where meditation comes in. When you meditate, what you are actually doing is letting the karma of those thoughts work on emptiness, and they are completely harmless. They canít do any damage.

If it comes up that I see myself riding in a gold Cadillac, whee! I donít have to buy it. I just let that impulse dissolve into emptiness. Itís when those impulses work on us, on our desires and then our actions, that karma is generated. Actually, meditation is a very valuable tool for undercutting the whole basis of a greedy, industrialized society, where we all use far more of everything while most of the people of the world are living on less than $2 a day.

Weíre going to have to make big changes. All of the industrialized countries. We have a lot of social inequity. Poor people are already going to feel that in comparison to their rich, they shouldnít have to give anything up. Maybe they shouldnít. One way that we can make things more equitable is tax law. Take a little from everybody. Everybody. Donald Trump Ė not $750 but proportionately. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates. And that money is generated to make good schools, medical care, day care so that people can work without objection.

I canít say that I have a plan. But what I can do is that I can meditate, and I can let my karmic impulses work on emptiness and, at least, theyíre not doing any harm. While that is going on, I get to examine what it is that Iím doing, and what it is that I want and consider it from how does this play out for other generations? How does this play out for my children and grandchildren? How does this play out for my neighbors?

Because until we make this transition from ďmeĒ to ďweĒ Ö weíve overdone the ďmeĒ. Weíve overdone the half of reality that is a single serving of ice cream which is ďlittle petey coyoteĒ or ďlittle eric clarkĒ.

We need to work on the ďweĒ. We need to work on how we come together and what we can do. There are many, many cultures on earth that do that. In which the pursuits of states of mind, transcendental states of mind are for the good of the entire culture. In which wealthy industrialists understand a strong union actually keeps contented workers on the job and doesnít waste the training that they have levied on them.

Iím just a Buddhist. I just teach people meditation and to get out of their own way. How to think about ďweĒ a little bit, and how to create a quiet space where you can let induced desires of the culture bubble through you harmlessly. Because we are under constant assault of advertisements. We see billions of them by the time we are 12 years old. They play on us. They play on our ideas of body image. They play on our fears of body odors or toe fungus or whatever it is. They are in the ads to make you buy something.

I think we have to come up with some alternatives, and Iím not smart enough to come up with them. But Iím open enough to join others. It has to be more than just the giving of money. I remember when Al Gore was running for President, he didnít have solar panels on his house. He was running as he was an environmentalist, but he didnít have solar panels on his house.

We have to be consistent. We have to work out ways of living that are sustainable. And I think that they will look quite different. I think we will look a lot less rich and fancy and polished than we do now, but the plus will be that we will join the mass of humanity. And weíll give up some of our exceptionalism, and weíll give up some of our ideas of being special and make common cause with other humans.

Trying to save the only planet we have. Thatís probably enough for today. If you want to join me in this Metta prayer:

May all beings be filled with lovingkindness.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings be happy and at peace. [3 times} {Bow]

Thank you all very much, guys and gals. Hopefully, I have not burned you out. Iíll see you next week. Thanks a lot.