PACIFIC SUN - April 23, 2015


Peter Coyote reckons with his life as actor, author, activist, priest, and soon-to-be Marin expatriate

So, why another book from you? You covered a lot of ground in your previous one …

Yeah, and especially why another memoir in particular, right? Well, when I looked back at my early life more recently, I realized I had been operating under a world view that was not exactly accurate—I thought there were just two options—a world of love or a world of power—and the trick was to somehow get the mix right. Love without power is flaccid; power without love is brutal. I had all these mentors who have taught me about the world, taught me about navigating the realms of love and power, and from a conventional point of view I’d say I did alright—it’s not an exaggeration to say that for a time I was an international movie star, maybe not of the first magnitude, but my film "A Man in Love" did open the 40th anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival. But it was wanting.

Luckily, I had grown up in the household of a very rich man, in which I don’t remember anybody being happy. So that liberated me from being attached to the idea that true wealth was going to be material in nature. At about age 29, I met Gary Snyder, and he was such an exemplar of an integrated life that I was floored. I couldn’t figure out at first what the trick was, how he linked his family life, his political life, his artistic life, his fame, his family life—all of it, until I realized that Buddhism and Buddhist practice was at the core.

Did you start involvement with Buddhism soon after meeting Snyder?

Not immediately, but maybe five years after I met Gary I began courting a woman who was living at Zen Center, whom I subsequently married, and I began formal Buddhist practice. And I didn’t really stick to it diligently for a long time, you know. I was building a career—I didn’t get my Screen Actors Guild union card until I was 39—and I had a daughter to get through school, and we had to save for college, then we had a son. Also, I had chosen a wife who did not want to live in the back of a truck, so I put a lot of energy into earning a living even though it didn’t engage me all that much.

Do you mean that you really weren’t that into acting?

It was never my greatest gift. I’m a much better writer than I am an actor. I might have been a better actor had I had time to really study, but I started late and couldn’t take a year off to go to England, which I would have liked to do. So in some ways, when I was performing, I always felt a little naked and exposed. I came to understand that because of my childhood I had been really traumatized when I was little and that the way I learned to survive was by cutting off my feelings, and learning to see things in a clear observational, unemotional way. It helped me then, but it’s an impediment to being an actor because it often took me a long time to figure out exactly what I was feeling—and knowing what you are feeling is a prerequisite for a great actor. You don’t actually have to be smart, but you can’t act unless you have ready access to your feelings. And I don’t. It’s not easy for me. Even today when I see a script where somebody breaks down in tears, more than half the time I’ll just turn it down. It’s too much work.

But you must have enjoyed some of it, even though you stayed in Marin instead of moving south.

I love the camaraderie of acting, the rehearsing, the problem-solving, but the business of making films is so noxious and fraught with horseshit and ignorance. In fairness, either through lack of talent or age, I could never get to the level I wanted to get—I was 40 when I began, and it’s a kid’s game. I could never quite get access to the great scripts and roles, so by the time I was about 50 my opportunity to be a star with access to them had run out. I was getting the leavings, and I think because I wouldn’t live in Hollywood and didn’t have a publicist and didn’t go to film openings and all that, I was just not in the central corridor of the industry. It did bother me sometimes, as I couldn’t get access to the best stuff, but it didn’t bother me enough to move to Los Angeles, and live a ‘film’ life. I figured that I really lived much more time offstage than on and that that was the life I ought to take the best care of.

Your new book is very much a frank reckoning with your difficult childhood and youth. Not to be too therapist-like here, but do you think you were afraid of really accessing and showing your feelings in acting because that was just too frightening for you?

I don’t know if it was threatening, but I didn’t have any technique to do it. If I couldn’t intuitively grasp what was being asked of me in a role, I was in trouble. So I didn’t seek the challenges as an actor, and every role made me feel as if I’d just gotten away with it. I was very lucky they came to me a lot. I’ve done over 140 films for the screen and TV, but I just never felt fully engaged as an actor.

But you did achieve fame. What was that like for you?

You know, I’m vain enough to want to be famous for something. I wouldn’t mind being famous for being a good writer. When I won a Pushcart Prize, for Carla’s Story, I thought, ‘Holy shit, Raymond Carver, John Updike and Saul Bellow won Pushcarts! Wow!’ That’s good company, so yes I’m proud of that. But just because somebody’s seen you on television, and they elevate you to the pantheon of the cheeseball celebrities on the cover of tabloids in the supermarkets? Gag me. Once I was in Spago with my first wife and we were having a really tough time and she was openly weeping, and here comes a woman with a pad and pencil and a big grin, hanging expectantly over my shoulder indicating she wants an autograph, and I said to her, ‘Are you f—g crazy? Can’t you see my wife is in tears? That this is not a good time?’ Well, that’s no recipe for good manners or stardom, but people will approach you at any time and you’re expected to be charming. I had kids at home and some guy published my home address in a fan magazine without a thought about the risk it might cause. So I don’t care about the fame other than being able to meet who I want to and getting into a restaurant I want to try, and occasionally shining a light on an important issue. Other than that, you can have it.

I recall when you and I were having lunch in Tiburon years ago, a kid followed us out to our cars, and asked if he could take your photo, and then asked, “So, who are you again? I know you are famous but I don’t know just who you are.” It seemed a perfect illustration of the emptiness of fame.

There you have it!

You have also had a good career using your voice for many things, too—that seems a great way to not be visibly recognized.

Yes, that worked for a long time, but Ken Burns sorta took that anonymity away and now everybody recognizes my voice—I joke that he killed my career as a bank robber. But once Christopher Reeves, rest his soul, asked me, ‘Peter, how do I break into this voiceover market?’ And I had to say, ‘Well I’ll tell ya, Chris, as soon as you tell me how to break into the multi-million dollar salary racket!’ I mean, how much does anybody need? Why not leave something for all the guys like me who are not making big money as an actor and have tuition, mortgages and bills to pay?

“How much do you need?” seems a crucial question nowadays.

Indeed. For me, I am actively lowering my lifestyle right now. I make about 20 percent of what I used to make. I got rid of my fancy car and drive a Chevy Volt; I’m buying a house with half the proceeds of what I sold my Mill Valley house for. The new place will need some work on it and I will have to work myself for that, but I don’t mind working for something specific. I just don’t want to work when I don’t have to anymore. My kids graduated debt free and are doing well. I’m 73 years old. It goes by very fast, let me tell you.

I already agree. Back to your book—your father was a powerful but distant guy, your mom seems to have been fragile, and it reads like you were looking for other parents, other family for a long time—and that your childhood had a big impact on your marriages and relationships with women.

When I was a little kid, my mom had a nervous breakdown and she was a ghost for a couple of years, and I think it triggered this little ‘make the mommy feel better’ gland. And it’s so convenient, to always be helping others. It makes you feel needed, powerful even, and you don’t have to worry about your own problems. I’ve given that up. It only took 50 years. There was nothing truly wrong with the women in my life; it was more my feeling that I was somehow responsible for their suffering or helping them.

You also wrote that your need for lots of solitude also made relationships hard for you.

I think my wives could never really grasp what a hermetic person I am. When I was working on this book, one day my wife said, ‘You’re just hiding out from life.’ True, I’d go to my office all day every day, and swim around in my thoughts and memories to write. But getting this book out was like crapping a porcupine.

You wrote that reading—a solitary pursuit— has always been crucial to you.

Yes, when I was in 4th grade, I went to a lovely little school called the Elizabeth Morrow School in Englewood, New Jersey, and my desk was back in the far left corner next to a bookshelf of little orange books that must have run 15 feet—biographies of famous people mostly—and I resolved to read them all. Then there was a series called the Landmark Books, and I read them all. Then the Oz books and I read all those, too. Then Lad of Sunnybrook Farm, and the Black Beauty series, and I never stopped. I think what I found in books was a freedom in my imagination that I could not find in my physical life. My parents were hyper-vigilant, always worried about me. My mom worshiped Sigmund Freud and got everybody in the family but herself into analysis. She was always scanning me for potential problems or telling me what I was really thinking and feeling and it made me very angry. She sent me to therapy when I was 11 and one day the therapist asked me, ‘Why are you here?’ and I said, ‘Well, I do this, and this, and this,’ and ran down a litany of complaints that my parents complained about. And he said, ‘Yeah? And who is that a problem for?’ and I said, ‘Well, it’s a problem for my parents,’ and he said, ‘OK, you go home and send your parents in to see me!’

Sometimes it takes many years to get some perspective on those childhood family influences …

Just last fall, I was visiting a wonderful therapist I check in with once in awhile just to touch base and he said to me, ‘You do know your parents were crazy, don’t you?’ And I said, ‘Oh sure, yeah …’ And he said, ‘No—your parents were crazy, certifiable. It was as if God asked himself, ‘How can I give this boy the toughest adolescence possible?’—because that’s what you had.’ And I felt this strange sense of relief, as if my life had been seen.

You really do lay yourself bare in this book.

Why write otherwise? I think that as long as you don’t take cheap shots, especially against those who can’t answer back, you should tell the truth. And, like in acting, if you are really specific and honest, some elements become universal in a funny way.

You write movingly of your mother’s death, in a hospital, and how a nurse offered in a crudely timed manner to “help” her die sooner. It’s a striking story, as this issue of “assisted dying” is in the news right now, with possible legalization in California coming. Any thoughts on that?

I think you have to begin with the observation that everything has a ‘shadow’—so while I agree with the concept, there will be people who may take advantage of this in certain ways—let’s save the estate by getting mommy gone a little earlier, and so forth. But it comes down to the question of whether or not a person has the right to control their manner and time of their death. If you ask me as a Buddhist teacher, I am categorically against suicide. But the world is not my student and that is just my opinion. So if somebody is wracked by pain and there is no way out, they are not going to get better, and they choose to start over or—as the Dalai Lama once said, ‘Change their clothes,’ I don’t think it’s my business. It’s like abortion—I don’t have a womb, and so I stay out of the debate, except to support the right of women to make their own choices. Some women would think nothing of sacrificing a son to the military in a fruitless war, but would never consider an abortion for any reason. That’s curious to me. Of course there would need to be safeguards in place and all that, but nothing will ever be foolproof and we have to accept the errors along with the choice. Which is why I’m against the death penalty.

You were close to Robin Williams. Any thoughts on his dying?

I wrote a piece online that went viral, about Robin’s great gift. Likening it to a thoroughbred horse of near magical ability. The problem was that it was never adequately trained. Sometimes he would get on it and it would take him (and us) into magical dimensions, but at other times it took Robin where it wanted to go. That was the great tragedy for me, that his greatest gift actually killed him. Had he had some sort of spiritual training, he might have been able to wait out the bad period he was going through, but he was always in the saddle, and this trip took him over a wall with nothing on the other side.

In your first book you wrote at length about your role in the Diggers, prototypes for the whole Haight-Ashbury ’60s scene. Are you still in touch with any of them?

Certainly. In fact, just last year I called all the surviving Diggers and Free Family folks together—108 of them. I wanted to organize a relief effort to help some of our members who were old and poor—about six of them. I tried first on the Digger website, asking people to why not list their skills—if I need a lawyer or plumber, why not a Digger lawyer or plumber? And people got really indignant and angry with me for dealing with money. Even old and very dear friends I really respect. I tried to point out that if we were candid, the Diggers were like an art project—we were never the model of a viable alternative economy. We were living off welfare payments to mothers with children, selling dope, bartering, doing all sort of things including thievery.

So I decided that I was not going to fight my oldest friends, and I apologized, saying that I understood that this had become sort of a religion and apologized for being insensitive. I started a new site called the Free Family Union, and virtually everyone came over. So one thing I learned is that everybody has their own reasons for joining a group, and they may not see it the way you do even if you started it. Most everyone in this group now lived in the world, made money, paid taxes, but they had this idealized memory of the Diggers as a place of purity. It’s a common delusion that there’s some other world other than this one with all its warts and angels where we can live. Well, my Buddhist practice has informed me that there is no pure place outside of the world to stand—the world is exactly what it is, and if you can’t find your happiness and joy in this world, with ISIS, with Hitler, with Mother Teresa all mixed up in it, you’ll never find it. What a shame, to pass up the opportunity for joy because it feels trivial or inadequate next to the suffering of others—who are searching for joy, by the way. So once the new group got rolling, I backed out a little—and this goes back to another downside of “fame”—that you become a touchstone for people’s projections and ideas of you. They still come to me either overly deferential, or as if they perceive me thinking that I am a big deal and it is their job to take me down. It smothers you in thoughts and can get tiresome. So I find things work really well without me, and I just participate like anybody else when I feel like it. And we are supporting six people, giving them each about $200 a month. It’s a big bump of grace to people living solely on Social Security, and I wish we could do more.

On a broader level, how about the whole ’60s idealism, what it all might have meant in the longer term? I mean, the “revolution” did not happen, but some lasting impacts seem to have occurred …

That’s right. In the ’60s, you could say we lost every political battle. We didn’t end capitalism, racism, war, violence, we didn’t create a world of love and peace, and we just have to accept that. But, it’s also true that we won every cultural battle. There’s no place in the U.S. today where there is not a women’s movement, an environmental movement, civil rights, and so on. Paul Hawken, in his book Blessed Unrest, pointed out that if you aggregate all these little or big individual struggles, it’s the largest mass movement in the history of the planet. There’s also no place you can go where there are not alternative spiritual practices—yoga, Buddhism, organic or slow or local food are spreading—these things exist in the realm of culture and that realm is much deeper than politics. And when people have lives that are meaningful to them they will hold and defend them. Back then, the Diggers couldn’t believe people would throw themselves onto the barricades to become part of Marx’s lumpen proletariat, but today I’m watching farmers in Nebraska fighting for their water, watching people fighting to keep big-box stores out of their towns, to stop fracking, all over the country. So we were cultural warriors, and I take a lot of pride in the changes we started. It’s not the end of the battle by far—this generation and others will have their own struggles, but we played for keeps, gambled everything, and we moved the marker an appreciable amount.

Perhaps the most visible mark of that is a black president, something unimaginable not so long ago.

Yes, and yet there is still a huge population who cannot stand the thought of a ‘N—r in the White House.’ He gets a huge number of threats every day. People with guns stalked around his early speeches. What do you imagine might have happened if the Black Panthers had shown up armed to a Reagan speech? It would have been a bloodbath. Anyway, he might not be the black president I might have wanted, but I admire him, and I’m not in the hot seat with him and so I temper my judgments a bit because I remember my days on the Arts Council and some of the flak you get for anything you do. That’s not a pass by any means, but … that’s a whole other subject.

Drugs were a big part of the ’60s, and of your own life. Any lessons there?

I was addicted to just about everything. We made a lot of mistakes there. But I can remember superficially how and why so many of us got into hard drugs. If you’ve taken on the charge of imagining a new world and acting it all out, one thing you have to demand of yourself is, ‘Suppose my imagination has actually already been tamed, colonized, and all my grand visions and plans are simply permitted within the parameter of a bigger field that just appears to be liberated, but is still inside the fence of the majority culture’s values?’ That was a very scary thought. So one of the ways you could test yourself was to take substances—speed, heroin, cocaine, acid, DMT and STP—substances the establishment was terrified of. And of course when you do that in your 20s you have no idea of the toll it will take on your body and health. Acid was different, though. Everybody I knew who took acid took it as a kind of spiritual pilgrimage. What we never anticipated was that the next generation would take it to trip at the mall and that it would become a spreading, indulgent, sensual party, stripped of spiritual dimensions.

There has never been a drug law in this country, since the Civil War morphine laws, that has not been based on bullshit. Every one of these ‘expert panels’ convened to study the subject, from LaGuardia through Nixon and Kennedy have said, ‘Forget the drug war,’ decriminalize it, help people kick or give them maintenance doses so they can contribute to society. Even the drug pushers want the ‘risk premium’ that raises the prices of drugs due to their illegality.

Music was another huge part of those times, and you write about being very into playing and listening from a very early age. Years back I heard you do a whole set of what you called “country death rock” at the old Sweetwater. Are you still playing?

Music is a huge part of my life. I’d probably believe in God if I’d only been given the talent to be a professional musician. I was playing guitar for two hours today before I came to meet you! But it’s not my gift. We had a six-bed bunkhouse in the Olema commune and musicians would come out and stay, like Paul Butterfield and Michael Bloomfield, and we’d stay high and play music for days. And in the book I recall hearing sax greats Al Cohn and Zoot Sims playing in my house, and it was the first time I’d seen grown-up people having so much fun.

Your book starts and ends with you in Zen sesshins—extended, intense meditation retreats—some 40 years apart, at Green Gulch. In the latter, the more recent one, you relate a profound experience, a sort of breakthrough as it seems. But you don’t name it.

Yeah, the Japanese call it a ‘kensho’ experience, but right, I didn’t want to name it. When I started out in Zen, that was the thing to strive for, and if I could get that, I thought I’d never be uncomfortable, awkward —I’d be enlightened, the coolest guy in the room. Somewhere along the line that notion falls away, and you realize that if you have an idea of yourself over here and enlightenment over there and they are separate, they are never going to come together. The truth according to the Buddha, is that we are all enlightened, that it is our basic nature, but we don’t or can’t pay attention to it, or even believe in it. So the second thing that happens when you have an experience like that is that you understand that it is not so important after all. Nobody really cares about my personal experience. What they might care about is how I live my life—am I kind, compassionate, helpful, vigorous, wise? And if I’m not, what difference does my personal enlightenment really make? I wondered if I might get some blowback or distort the meaning of the experience by describing it, but I discussed it with my Zen teacher, and he said, ‘Sure, include it.’ But more important is what he first said when I reported it to him, which was, ‘Don’t try to hold onto it!’

What did the actual process of taking vows and becoming a priest entail for you?

First, I would never put myself forth as a teacher of any kind, because I could never think of how to do it without my stepping forward becoming an expression of ego. One of the reasons I became a Zen Buddhist was because of the custom of ‘transmission’—that you don’t teach independently until you are given permission to teach by your teacher and by the students you have been practicing with. And that saves you from being one of the guys who just show up and announce that they are gurus, set out their shingle. A lot of abuses stem from that. So at a certain point my teacher told me it was time to start teaching, and when I demurred that I was not ready, he said, ‘There are people behind you who you can help, and others you can learn from.’ And he and four other teachers had established a three-year priest’s training program, kind of like a divinity school, to try to train priests to be alert to some of the hazards that arise when you are in a position of authority—transference, countertransference, women being attracted to you, financial improprieties and so on. I told him I didn’t want to be a priest but would take the class since he asked me to. And I was so impressed by the caliber of the other 40 or so people in it, I followed through.

Being ordained is kind of like having a Ph.D.—you don’t have to use it, but it is a kind of accreditation. I wanted to step up my game, so I ordained as a priest, and now I’m studying to receive transmission from my teacher. I’m not sure I’ll even use the term ‘teacher.’ My old friend Dan Welch, one of the first students of Suzuki Roshi [founder of the San Francisco Zen Center] uses the term ‘Dharma Friend’ and I probably will too, to sidestep these traps and props of hierarchy and status, all of which are very Asian, and Japanese, and not all of which are helpful. I’m not overly enamored of classical Japanese Buddhism, which is what Suzuki Roshi was seeking to escape by coming to America. My intention is to help make Zen vernacular here, eventually less exotic, something that would make sense to garage mechanics and ranch hands. My teacher and I refer to it as the ‘thousand year project.’ So, I only wear my robes for very formal ceremonies like weddings and funerals, and haven’t shaved my head, as most Buddhists in the world do.

Speaking of time, you’ve lived in Marin for many years. But now you are moving. Why?

Yes, I am moving to Sonoma County. I’ve had it with Mill Valley. It’s become so crowded, so much traffic, and so little responsibility has been devoted to the carrying capacity of the area. We are seriously overpopulated just with respect to water. As far as I’m concerned, every successive group of supervisors and commissioners have been bought off by developers. I saw some of that with my own eyes. I first came here in 1965, and loved it, and then moved to Zen Center in the city. I returned in 1983, as my daughter was getting mugged for her lunch money in the Fillmore.

Twenty-five years ago I participated in a series of meetings called ‘Take Back Our Town.’ Over 700 people showed up, and we wanted to use water as the basis of determining population. Wanted to cut down traffic. We even ran people for office, but the developers outspent us six to one, and have been building ever since.

Now traffic has reached critical mass, IT money is coming in and bidding houses for hundreds of thousands over asking price, all cash. It feels like the town is filling with people who ruined and fled the last place they lived. I walk on the marsh path with a plastic bag picking up organic yogurt cups and Kleenex and all sorts of trash our newly enlightened denizens fling away at will. I’ve seen people in Whole Foods yelling at a young mother for being too slow to move her cart due to trying to corral two children, and so many times people honking and screaming at one another in their cars for no reason—IN MILL VALLEY! Well, they’re all stressed because it takes so much money and so much work to live here. Couple that with the entitlement that dictates that we are entitled to the best of everything and you have a toxic broth in a paradisiacal setting. I have friends here who are not that, but we are like the proverbial frogs in the water that is being heated slowly. Meanwhile I am spending too much time in traffic, and it’s maddening. The water issues will only get worse.

I feel I’ve spent 40 years fighting for this great place, trying to preserve it, and I’m going to spend what is likely my last vigorous decade not fighting anymore, perhaps helping others, and leave before I get cooked.


[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]