SUN MAGAZINE - JUNE 2011

 "Against the Grain"

Peter Coyote on Buddhism, Capitalism, and the enduring legacy of the Sixties
with David Kuppfer

Tell me about the Diggers.

Peter: The Diggers were a group of friends who met in San Francisco in the 1960s largely through the San Francisco Mime Troupe. We imagined the world we wanted to live in and then tried to make it real by acting it out, inventing a style of invisible public theater that no one knew was theater. For example, we ran a Free Store, to make people consider the roles of consumer, employee, and shop owner. We were trying to create a place for those who didnít like capitalism, private property, or being compelled to have a piece of paper with someone elseís picture on it to buy what you needed. The Diggers represented the cutting edge of sixties counterculture. We did everything anonymously and for free.

The Diggers predated the height of the Haight-Ashbury scene, didnít they?

Yes, when I moved to the corner of Haight and Clayton Streets in 1964, it was a working-class neighborhood. There were no hippies yet, no psychedelic shops. We were in the right place at the right time.

We tried to create a culture in which we could be authentic. We were on the Left, but we didnít want to do socialist plays about heroic tractor drivers and streetcar conductors. We wanted to make people reexamine the premises of profit and private property, and we offered what we thought were more beautiful and imaginative alternatives. We werenít just calling for political change; we were trying to change the culture, which operates at a far deeper level than politics.

But your generation did transform the U.S. political agenda.

No, I donít think we did. We lost every one of our political battles: We did not stop capitalism. We did not end the war. We did not stop imperialism. I canít point to real political victory.

Culturally, however, weíve changed the landscape dramatically. There is no city in the United States today where there is not a womenís movement, an environmental movement, alternative medical practices, alternative spirituality, organic-food stores. That is a huge and powerful development that I think will eventually change the political system.

So the political system is the tail on the dog, the last thing to change in the culture?

Politicians are not leaders; they are followers. They think that, because they can plunder the public treasury, they are leading. In fact they are terrified of the people. The people are a problem for them to manage, and when they can no longer manage them, they must follow them, or oppress them.

Where do you find the counterculture today?

I guess with the punks and the kids with rings through their eyebrows and noses and lips. But when I look at those kids, I get the sense that they are suffering. All the kids I have met who look like punks have been, without exception, sweet people, but they are not hopeful. I think they are trying to keep a part of themselves sacrosanct from the culture by violating norms of fashion and behavior, making music that is so angry and unbeautiful. But the genius of capitalism is the rapidity with which it can co-opt social movements and, via Madison Avenue, sell them back. All my t-shirts are either plain or have pictures of musicians and artists on them. I would never wear a brand and turn myself into a billboard. But now people identify themselves with brands of food, clothes, everything. Itís a triumph of corporate culture.

What is lost when the counterculture is embraced by the larger culture?

Nothing. Gary Snyder wrote a poem that says, in essence, when you eat a deer, the spirit of that deer is inside of you, lying in wait for a takeover from within. I did not surrender my values. I may have short hair; I may work for wages; but I am still meditating every single day. Every single decision I make, I ask myself: Is this going to hurt people? Is this going to help? Is this going to move us all forward? The only difference is that now I am on the inside of the culture. I look just like everyone else. You canít tell the hippies from the bankers. I actually think thatís a good thing.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe has been around for more than fifty years now. How has it evolved since you were a member?

I think it is a little less zany than it was, but the playersí skills are more refined, and they have demonstrated that you can continue to survive as an artistic company by making people laugh, bringing your shows to where the people are, and not treating yourself too preciously as artists. The Mime Troupe makes much of what passes as theater elsewhere look thin and self-absorbed.

Do you think theater can be an agent of social change?

No, and thatís one of the reasons I quit acting on the stage. A play I cowrote and performed in and directed in New York won an Obie. Here we had done this play attacking the middle-class lifestyle, and instead of stirring something up, weíd been given an award. I realized then that theater was not a vehicle for radical change; it reflected change, perhaps, expressed it for an audience that already ďgot it.Ē (Otherwise why would they laugh and clap?) That was when I threw my lot in with the Diggers.

I donít think theater has ever been a vehicle for radical change. Theater is a vehicle for deepening knowledge about the human species. I am not even sure that the system has to change. People have to change. If people behaved with self-restraint, generosity, and compassion, even capitalism could work. We are never going to create a system that generates fairness, equity, goodwill, and justice. I became a Buddhist in part because I believe that change like that has to start internally and be expressed one person at a time. It is true that a system can advance or repress certain attributes of human behavior, but no set of rules is going to make us perfect.

About the Diggers you write, ďMy commitment to pursue social change wholeheartedly demanded that I . . live consistently with my beliefs, not just during performances.Ē Did this sort of authenticity get you into trouble?

It has gotten me into trouble more recently, but not then. We were living so close to the bone then that we did not have to worry too much. Our philosophy was: Why not just do what you believe? It is much more difficult for me today. When I came back to California after the last commune Iíd lived in had broken up, I was a single father with a young daughter, and I had to earn a living. I began acting professionally as a source of income. The good news is I was able to save toward my retirement and send both my kids to good schools and colleges, to graduate debt-free. The bad news is that once I took the money, I was a bought boy. I was dependent on other people for a living. I put my familyís needs before my own authentic desires. I donít mind, and acting has been good to me, but itís not where I live, and whenever you violate whatís most important to you, you pay a price.

I did many, many projects that I did not like. They werenít against my principles, but they violated my standards of intelligence and excellence and were often beneath me as an artist. Still, I wasnít going to take my kids out of private school because I didnít want to do a Disney movie. There are people who would have done that, though, and I respect them.

One reason that I am shifting back to writing is that itís a medium in which I donít have to bend away from my center as much. I write the book the way I want, because I donít make my living at it. I care less about the movies. At my age there are fewer good roles anyway.

How did you come to Zen Buddhism, and how has it changed you?

I started reading about Zen Buddhism when I was fourteen or fifteen, probably influenced by Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and the Beats. My interest picked up when my Digger family and I went to visit Snyder. I was impressed with his gravitas and elegance, his care and deliberation. His community had taken it upon itself to protect where they lived. I found my own community wanting in that regard. As our friendship deepened, I could see traces of his Zen practice in everything he did. Around 1975 I began actual meditation practice, and Iíve been doing it ever since. Itís become a deep and rich vein in my life. Iím being trained as a teacher myself, and Iím currently sewing my robes for my ordination as a priest later this year.

The deeper I go into meditation, the less different from other people I am. Maybe I have some talents or abilities that set me apart on the surface, but I am not all that different from a whole host of people who set out to change the world in the sixties. Some of them did it by organic farming; some of them did it by weaving; some of them did it by working for nonprofits; some of them did it by becoming doctors and nurses; and a number died trying just to protect themselves from the ravages of our political and economic system. I think all of those people were driven by compassion and a desire to make a positive change, and I continue to admire them and identify with them today.

Did practicing Zen Buddhism take you inward and away from your outward activism? How do you reconcile the desire to change society with the Buddhist philosophy of accepting reality?

The practice of Buddhism in no way changed my commitment to political work. I did take about ten years off while I learned to pursue politics with less anger and attachment to specific outcomes. There is no exact line between inside and outside, or between self and other, so either-or dichotomies like ďinward versus outwardĒ are not really descriptive. Show me where the world ends and you begin. Buddha did not urge people to ďacceptĒ everything. Thatís a colloquial, Western misunderstanding. He preached a radical transformation based on what worked. He was the ultimate social activist who introduced concepts and practices that have revolutionized humankind. He was not a navel-gazer.

How did drugs influence your life?

One of the problems for the Diggers, as we tried to invent a world and act it out and make it real, was the fear that maybe the old world had already irrevocably altered you. Maybe it had trained your imagination, turned it into a mental pet. Maybe what you thought of as new and exciting was just a recycling of the possibilities youíd been given through your schooling. Drugs became a way to break that up, to move beyond the permissible and pursue authentic beliefs and feelings.

Acid was a huge and cataclysmic change. Taking lsd was an awesome experience the first time I did it. It overwhelmed my ego and gave me a sensation of free and boundless unity with the world. The problem was it wore off. And I could see that in the acid culture, a lot of old social forms were simply being replicated. It was as if people believed the experience of acid was somehow a fail-safe fence you had climbed over, and now, on the other side, everything was Enlightened. That was a seductive fraud. You had the Haight merchants turning the hip experience into a product: selling hash pipes and velvet clothes and hiring runaways to work at starvation wages. I did not like that at all. So I foolishly pursued the drugs that my heroes, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker, had used. That led me to heroin and speed.

Unfortunately when you are young, you do not realize that there is going to be a cost to your body, that whatever insights you gain are going to be paid for in heartbeats and flesh. At a certain point I saw that, if I didnít stop using drugs, I was going to die young and unfulfilled, without having made an impact and without having been a responsible father. So I cleaned up and went into a Zen monastery. I began dating a woman there, whom I subsequently married. I also undertook a serious course of psychoanalysis, and I pursued that diligently for ten years, in tandem with Zen meditation. I changed my life.

Did you find it difficult to clean up from hard drugs?

Not particularly. You have a bad week or so. The trouble is staying clean, taming the pit bull thatís been chewing on your innards your entire life, the one youíve been bribing to stay out of your consciousness. After I had cleaned up physically, I needed to change my life, and Zen practice and psychotherapy and working as the chair of the California State Arts Council became the bedrock of that change. I tried to understand as exhaustively as I could how and why I had been haunted, and I ended the haunting.

What did your use of hard drugs teach you?

It taught me not to do them. It taught me how corruptible we all are; if we are not paying scrupulous attention, we can use the posture of integrity and the importance of our political ideas to cover up a host of unsavory and self-destructive practices. It doesnít have to be hard drugs. You could be treating women badly. You could be oppressing people in your organization. You could be intolerant and dogmatic. Without what Alcoholics Anonymous calls a ďfearless moral inventory,Ē and without a community to keep you straight, itís almost impossible to stay out of trouble.

Hard drugs also teach you that there is no escaping your life: no matter how high you get, the drug wears off. It was partially my pursuit of a high that wouldnít wear off that led me to Zen Buddhism.

[ The Official Peter Coyote Web Site ]