Q&A with Peter Coyote at Grinnell College

October 2015

The actor, writer, and countercultural icon talks about life, learning, and Zen.

by Elise Hadden

When Peter Cohon Coyote and I met for our interview in Bucksbaum Center for the Arts, I was recovering from a weeklong illness. As he introduced himself and reached out his hand, I clasped my hands behind me and said ďIíd shake your hand, but Iím a little sick today and I donít want to infect you.Ē He said, ďOk, well how about a hug?Ē then embraced me like I was an old friend.

This casual charm, along with a healthy dose of thoughtfulness and clarity, pervaded the rest of our conversation. As we sat outside in the Bucksbaum courtyard, occasionally ruffled by the fall breeze, Coyote spoke candidly with me about his Grinnell experience, love of learning, and the value of Zen Buddhist practice.

You came to Grinnell at a time when the College was starting to admit more students from the East Coast. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like for you here?

PC: Itís hard to describe, because it was all new, and I didnít have anything to compare it to. I had a train ride out here, and I had two suitcases, one of which was filled with records with a record player strapped to it. I had my guitar and one suitcase of clothes. And I met one of my best friends on the train, Ken Schiff [í64], whoís a novelist. I met Terry Bisson [í64] the first day of school. He was whistling a John Coltrane tune while walking across the Quad, and I called out the title. Fifty-five years later, weíre still friends!

It was very exciting, particularly because I wasnít a sports guy in high school, and I wasnít necessarily one of the cool guys. I was interested in a lot of political, Beatnik, and counterculture stuff. And I came to Grinnell and had the same experience I had when I went to Marthaís Vineyard, which is that I met a lot of kids who were interested in the same things. They had read the same books, they were thinking about the same ideas. I had that heady experience of sitting down and talking to people for six hours and finding out there were other people seeing the world the way I was.

That experience carried over to faculty as well. I made a lot of friends on the faculty that I stayed friends with until they died. And because I was older than a lot of the kids, the faculty really took me under their wing, and I used to bartend their parties because they knew I would keep my mouth shut [chuckles]. I got a sense of the humanized faculty with their hair down, not from the other side of the desk. I really came of age here. I was supported, it was a safe environment to experiment, and I had every tool that I needed to mature.

EH: Iíve read both of your books, and what strikes me about you is that youíve had such a huge variety of experiences in your life. It almost seems like itís too much for one person! Looking back, what inspired you to move through all those phases? Were you looking for something?

PC: Because Iím the Zelig of the counterculture [laughs]. You know, when I look back on it, itís kind of mysterious. All I was doing was following what interested me. When I was a kid and I misbehaved and they stood me in the corner, Iíd get interested in the wallpaper. Kind of like an idiot savant [chuckles]. When I was 10, I went to stay at someoneís house who had a huge folk music collection. And I started recording the records into a tape recorder, because their names were curious ó Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Pinetop Smith. Well, four years later folk music was the rage and I was something of an expert. And the people that I met turned out to be stars in that world. Tom Rush was dating my sister; Bill Keith, a great banjo player, was my friend. I donít know how that happened.

I donít know how it was that I went to California to be a writer and I dropped out of graduate school because I thought I was too stupid, and then wound up living with all the poets that I had read here at Grinnell. Our ďBibleĒ had been Donald Allenís book Modern American Poetry 1945Ė61. I met so many of those people and actually my life became entwined with theirs. It was not a plan; it was never a plan.

And then at about 45, I stopped being hip. I just dropped off the edge. And I donít know why that happened either. From 14 to 45 it just seemed that everything I was interested in, the country got interested in. And everybody I met that I liked was somebody who was achieving something. And then around 45, I looked back one day and I thought, ďI donít know the people on the covers of the magazines. I donít know the music. Iím off the cutting edge of the moment.Ē But it didnít bother me. So thatís when I started to write, to look back and try to make sense of it.

EH: From the sound of it, youíve had a lot of really important mentors in your life. Can you speak to how you found those mentors and how you were able to truly learn from them?

PC: There is something about me that my fundamental intention is to learn and to share, to learn, and to teach. And, again, I donít know why that is. But thatís the way I am, so that when I meet people, Iím always looking for what they know that I donít, whether theyíre sincere, what their intentions are ó because once I can figure out their intention, I donít have to think about them again. It may take a long time, but then Iíll know.

We say in Zen practice, ďPut your cow in a big field, and youíll always know where it is.Ē If you chain it up on a short chain, itís going to get tangled and youíre going to have to fuss with it. So instead of trying to correct people, you just watch them and you see who they are, and then you know what theyíll do. You donít have to worry about it. So that was an abiding preoccupation.

EH: Has that innate desire to learn and share influenced your life in Zen?

PC: Yes. It certainly has something to do with my decision to ordain as a priest and my willingness to visit various dharma groups and teach and talk. I joke that I started Zen practice 40 years ago, and Iím still looking to discover the bullshit in it [laughs]. Itís just a part of learning. I donít know what it is; it could be a Jewish gene.

If you think about it, thatís all the Jews had. This is the year fifty-seven hundred and seventy-something in the Judaic calendar. 57, not 2000! And with 5,000 years of being kicked out of one country or another, the Jews who survived carried knowledge and wisdom with them, because their money and their liberty was taken away and it was all they had left. So I grew up in a family that respected knowledge. My father would never answer a question. Heíd say, ďGo to the encyclopedia.Ē Heíd make me look it up. And I hated it! But you get in the encyclopedia and soon youíd have a whole field of knowledge.

EH: Do you have any advice on how to keep a mind open to learning new things and sharing that learning?

PC: Meditating is the most effective way to go back to ground zero every day and to become intimate with your mind and practice detachment from it so that youíre not afraid of it. Youíre not running away from fear of failure or toward grandiose fantasies. To be open is the same thing as to be receptive. So to take some time every day and kind of Windex your eyeballs and your ears and your brain and just let the static run out ó that allows you to step outside into a new kind of world. And I think that when the world feels new, it feels engaging and interesting, and the learning is more effortless. I think that what cuts off a lot of learning is fear. I tell my kids that I never really got my first job until I was 35. I just had faith that somehow I was smart enough to be OK. And I didnít steal Ö often. [laughs]

I think the biggest thing, and another thing that meditation helps you with, is seeing through the endless realms of propaganda and bullshit that culture [bombards] you with. You get lost in it, until you take a quiet moment and realize that youíre made by the same thing that made hummingbirds, that made the Horse Nebula. It makes you a little bit of an outsider, but it gives you a center of gravity that you can control and rely on. When you realize that the Earth itself is whatís supporting you Ö what are you going to be lonely for? What else do you need? Meditating allows you to revisit that every day and live in the spacious interior.

EH: A lot of people think of Zen Buddhism as a very disciplined and removed practice. Would you say that meditation is an element of Zen that is more accessible to people in their everyday lives?

PC: I understand why you say that, and I actually harbor some of those criticisms. Thereís a cult in Zen practice in some places that I call ďJapanismo,Ē which is a kind of slavish imitation of what we imagine Japanese people are doing. And the people who do that forget that our founder and teacher came here from Japan because he thought that Zen had become moribund, strangled in rituals. So on the one hand Iím critical of that.

On the other hand, thereís a part of the ceremonial and the formal that I really love, because it takes you out of yourself. You are stepping into a 2,500-year-long line of people and doing things the way they did, putting yourself in conscious continuity with them. Youíre devaluing your own value system for a moment. My teacher and my lineage are trying to find the fine line that doesnít throw away the contributions of our forebears, but doesnít become so alien to Americans that it feels like a cult.

Iím a lay practitioner. I donít shave my head. Most Buddhists donít. Most Buddhists donít even meditate. When I identify myself to people, I say that Iím a meditating Buddhist. Because if ďZenĒ is going to sound weird or cultish, I donít want to use it. I grew up with ranchers and garage mechanics, and if I canít talk to them in a way thatís useful for them, Zen is not going to flourish in America. So my project is to make Zen practice vernacular to America, to find ways to talk about it that donít seem strange, because these are human truths, and they ought to be accessible to any human being.

In Zen Buddhism, we also encourage people to try other teachers and traditions, to try to find something that fits. I encourage people to try a religion because you can find your spirituality, which is the free-floating sense of the sacred. If you can find it within a religion, it actually shapes you up and it holds you down to earth. Because if youíre just going across the surface of life like a water strider, youíre not going deep. Once you find a tradition, stop looking and dive down. When people say they donít like organized religion, thatís their ego talking. Try it, and criticize it from the inside, but donít criticize it with a cheap shot from the outside. The millions of adherents are not all idiots!


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]