THE OREGONIAN - APRIL 15, 2015
Interview: Peter Coyote
talks about his spiritual path from the Sixties to
'E.T.' and Zen Buddhism
Why a second memoir?
(Laughs) Well, the first book was really to square
up a long journey through the counterculture and
deliver me to normal civilian life. After moving
through the world, you know, there was something
missing in it for me. Even though I was very
successful, I became an actor, I became somewhat
famous, I was overpaid (laughs). All of those
But there was something missing. It turns out that
when I was reviewing my past, I saw an arc. The
world offered us two options: the world of love or
the world of power. I thought that the trick was to
get the mix right. A world without power was
flaccid, and a world without love was vicious.
I had various mentors. My home life was unstable and
kind of dangerous so I searched for other adults to
put together a self or an ego. I tell that story of
the people who taught me to navigate the worlds of
love and power, but about halfway through I got
introduced to the practice of Buddhism, and after
pursuing that practice for about 40 years - well, 35
by that time - I had an experience that made me
resolve to dedicate my life to staying in that
quadrant, staying as close to it as I could and
speaking from it as accurately as I could.
I realized that was a third option that was there
for everyone. Every religion, every tradition had it
as a wisdom tradition but we often don't listen to
it because it contradicts the pleasures of the world
that we're taught to covet. I wanted to tell about
that revelation as well and offer that inducement to
people to look into their own traditons and find it.
And what was that experience?
Well, it was an experience at the end of a seven-day
sesshin. We sometimes call it an enlightenment
experience. It's not a permanent condition at all
but it's an experience where you actually fully
realize without language, without concept, without
ideas, and you realize that it's a fundamental
inter-penetration of everything. And then of course
you come back to your normal self but you've had
this experience and you have to re-estimate your
daily reality based on this new information that you
I read what you wrote about the first part of the
sesshin, where they were serving the food very
deliberately and you were in extreme pain.
Oh yeah, it was awful (laughs)!
That's not something most people can tolerate, is
No, it's not, but most were not drug addicts, most
people had not made a lot of the indulgent mistakes
and stuff that I had made. I had a lot more to deal
with than most people. But
for some reason I stuck with it, and at the very end
I had a little magical experience that whetted my
curiosity enough to keep me going for the next 35
I'm sure you must have experienced some form of
enlightenment when you were taking drugs, but to
experience it naturally through meditation must seem
more like the real thing.
The problem with all drug trips is that they end.
Whatever experience you have, it's going to end. The
difference with a non-drug experience is you can't
hold on to it. A lot of Zen groups get in trouble
because they assume that enlightenment is a fence
that you climb over and once you're on the other
side you're this perfect person generating perfect
wisdom all the time. They forget that their teachers
are mortal and human and subject to every error they
are if the teacher is not paying attention.
So you have this experience and you can't hold on to
it. You go back to your life, but it's just like a
guy who's been through war or a guy who's been
through very, very love -- it changes you in some
way. It's not like it was more real, but I got there
at a real rate -- little by little, terrifying
little mistakes and building up my character and my
strength and eventually had this breakthrough and I
had earned it. You don't
earn it necessarily with drugs, which doesn't make
the insights false but it's very hard to hold on to
What's your current spiritual practice on a daily
I meditate every day for about 25 minutes. I'm in a
Zen Buddhist tradition. I practice and I'm an
ordained priest. But I practice mostly as a layman.
In other words, I have a few accoutrements of my
Japanese tradition that my teacher and his teacher
But there's sometimes a tendency in Zen practice to
think that our job is to slavishly imitate our
understanding of Japanese culture. I think that's a
mistake. I don't shave my head most of the time. I'm
just out in the world talking to cops and mechanics
and regular people, and if I can help them without
mentioning Zen Buddhism, I'll help them. And if I'm
called on to marry someone or bury someone or
something that's ceremonial I'll wear my robes and
do the whole nine yards.
I'm really interested in making Zen practice
vernacular to America, make it something you can
talk about easily with garage mechanics and cowboys
When you see Americans practicing Zen Buddhism,
it's often in a very ... I don't want to say slavish
Strict Japanese model.
Why do you think that is?
Well, because I think that's the way most of the
people, including myself, received it, and I don't
want to discredit it. There's a lot of wisdom in the
mindfulness and the schedule of a Zen monastery and
the way it works. There's a lot of value in it. But
when you get up off your cushion or when you leave
the monastery, you're out in the world. You have to
be with people and you can't walk around in satori
all the time. You'll get run over by a bus, you
know? If you look too goofy or too goony they're not
going to listen to you - they're going to call the
My feeling about it is if
you use a boat to cross a pond, when you get to the
other side you don't have to carry the boat anymore.
A Japanese tradition and forms are great for
settling Americans. They're great for breaking in
men. But in Japan people only live that way for a
couple of years, and then they go off and run
temples and they serve people. In America the
monastic model is very difficult because the priests
don't have anywhere to go so they wind up staying at
the Zen center and suddenly you have to house them
and feed them and you have a bigger and bigger
If you were an actor and you decided acting school
was great and you decided you just wanted to hang
out in acting school, you're not exactly an actor.
You have to get a job. You're exactly a priest until
you're out helping people.
What was it about Gary Snyder that helped you
along on your spiritual journey?
A lot of my time was spent looking for a nurturing
and reliable father figure, and Gary was not a
father figure so that made him different. He was
also the first person I met who modeled the
integration of his entire life, which he lived up to
the same high standard. I mean, his family was in
good order. His poetic work was in good order. His
political work was in good order. His scholarship
was in good order. He did everything with the kind
of care and attentiveness that he did anything.
I was sort of flabbergasted by that. I had never
seen anybody live that way before. When I came to
understand that it had something to do with Buddhist
practice it got me really interested in it.
Was it a model for you?
Without a doubt. I'm not saying that I've approached
Gary's level but it was definitely a model.
When you said love without power is flaccid, does
that describe communal living?
Oh, that's a really interesting question. No, it
doesn't, but it describes a kind of hippie, spacey
spirituality that Gary nicknamed sexless nirvana
(laughs). If you imagine a circle, the world is half
light and half dark, and if you take the dark away,
you don't have a full circle. Many people,
especially if you grow up in an Abrahamic religion -
Christianity, Judaism or Islam - those are dualistic
religions. The world's divided into good and bad.
Your task is always to pick the good and stay away
from the bad, and we have this idea that if we can
just get rid of the bad we can be perfect people.
But in fact we are perfect people. We're a
mixture of good and bad, and we have to be on guard
for the parts of us that aren't so good and are in
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