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 things.

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 have.

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 it?

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 years.

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 them.

What's your current spiritual practice on a daily basis?

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 came through.

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 and cops.

When you see Americans practicing Zen Buddhism, it's often in a very ... I don't want to say slavish but ....

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 cops.

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 monastic community.

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 the shadow.

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]