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