The Power of the Tao Te Ching
The Power of the Tao Te Ching
Perhaps the most valuable message the Tao Te Ching offers is that when something positive occurs, it contains within it the seeds of the negative and vice versa.
It has been decades since the Tao Te Ching swept college campuses and its mythic (and perhaps entirely mythical) author, Lao Tzu, became the poster boy for the mystical East. In the intervening time, tao has entered the English lexicon, along with yin and yang. Feng shui, acupuncture and Tai Chi, disciplines based on taoist principles, are popular and well known. The tao and the yin-yang symbol have long been cliches, but how broadly understood are the fundamental messages in the Tao Te Ching, and in what way are they valuable?
The Tao Te Ching was originally known as the Lao Tzu, after the contemporary of Confucius who is supposed to have composed the text in the sixth century BCE, although it is probably several hundred years younger. Eventually it acquired the status of a ching—a canonical text on a par with the great Confucian texts and The Book of Changes, the I Ching. Although it is sometimes called The Book of the Way or The Way of Virtue, its title is simply meant to indicate that it is the classic text of tao and te.
Tao and te are not easy to pin down, which is why the text exists in the first place. Tao, an expression of that which is ultimate, is many-faceted and elusive in its meaning. Its various translations—the way, supreme reality, primordial simplicity, transcendence and many others—emerge from glimpsing the tao from different angles. Te, which has been translated variously as power, virtue, manifestation, immanent reality et al, refers broadly to the experience of tao in the forms and virtues of people and things in the world. The tao is nameless and formless. Its power, te, is manifested in the "ten thousand things" that make up our experience.
Classical Chinese literature is a slippery fish. The lines of the old texts exist almost as a simple listing of ideas free of syntax or even context. Each of the concepts themselves can contain half a dozen possible meanings and some of them are so rich, like tao itself, as to be untranslatable. This results in translations that appear to be based on completely different works.
The ancient texts also arise within the context of intricate spiritual and philosophical traditions. Lao Tzu stands in opposition to the Confucian emphasis on hierarchy and social order. Whereas Confucius (who is known in China as K’ung Tzu) is primarily concerned with social order, the Tao Te Ching concerns itself with cosmic order, implying that social order is only a subset of that. Both of these, in turn, influenced the form of Buddhism that developed in northern and eastern Asia. Encountering all these streams of possible meanings and interrelated isms can be paralyzing. The only choice becomes to jump in, with the understanding that no one will ever have the last word on what the Tao Te Ching means. It can only be tested by experience.
Although the Tao Te Ching can be read in one sitting, it is the sort of book that one can return to many times, taking the merest snippet and letting it roll around in one’s mind, not necessarily resolving its meaning but allowing it to shed light nevertheless, such as one can do with the passage below (taken, as are all examples here, from John C.H. Wu's translation):
We make doors and windows for a room;
But it is these empty spaces that make the room livable.
Thus, while the tangible has advantages,
It is the intangible that makes it useful.
At the same time that one can find delight in certain passages and glean an overall attitude from reading the entire work, certain parts of the text can come across as merely sententious, in the manner of the great sage in the Kung Fu television series:
To be great is to go on
To go on is to be far
To be far is to return
There is clearly meaning there, and quite likely profundity, but some of it may be hidden in the translation and the result can be something that just sounds cool. While this passage is fuzzy, it gives way to one that is actually obscure:
Hence, "Tao is great,
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
King is great."
Thus, the king is one of the great four in the Universe.
To get at the meaning of this passage one clearly requires extensive commentary and background, but the passage that follows packs the kind of wallop that leaves a direct mark, and one feels that little is lost in translation:
Man follows the ways of the Earth.
The Earth follows the ways of Heaven.
Heaven follows the ways of Tao,
Tao follows its own ways.
This passage gets at the power of the Tao Te Ching: it does not put human beings—or any beings for that matter—at the center of the cosmos. It enlarges the petty view that pits man against evil, man against nature, man against man. It's not about being against. As one reads the Tao Te Ching, it is impossible to be self-absorbed. One is absorbed into a greater order, but that order is not knowable or graspable. You cannot enslave it and make it work for your ends. Tao follows its own ways.
In just about every field of endeavor, from energy to architecture to medicine, city planning and military affairs, we regularly violate the basic understanding of tao. We believe that we can dominate the world and bend it to our will, whereas in fact we can bend the world so far, but eventually it bends back. The tao is not punishing or rewarding us. It merely does what it does, or doesn’t do as the case may be.
In our own everyday affairs, we have a tendency to think in a linear way, and the evening news, self-help books and new and improved technologies are there to reinforce that. We would like a better life, a more comfortable life, a life secure from vicissitudes. We want to move in a straight line from bad to good, less to more, down to up, but for some strange reason fortunes seem to go up and down. Every gain brings some kind of loss; every coming involves some kind of going:
Bad fortune is what good fortune leans on,
Good fortune is what bad fortune hides in.
Who knows the ultimate end of this process?
Although the Tao Te Ching is replete with messages from the stark to the fuzzy to the opaque, this one is perhaps the most valuable to let sink in. When something positive occurs, it contains within it the seeds of the negative, and vice versa. When you buy your most prized possession, it is already beginning to decay. Conversely, when you lose a job or a friendship ends, you may think of it as a failure, something purely unfortunate, and not notice the beginning of something altogether new. This is what the yin-yang symbol is all about. It takes the global view.
To forswear the idea that life should move in an ever-better direction might seem a pessimistic view, the very end of life. In fact, the Tao Te Ching suggests that only when we fully understand the interdependency of dark and light does life begin at all. Before that, we are so busy bouncing between Point A and Point B that we have no opportunity to live at all.
Barry Boyce is senior editor and staff writer for the Shambhala Sun
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InheritanceBy: "When my father said, ‘You descend from kings,’ he was reminding us that though we did not have the money of the powerful, we were powerful nonetheless."
When I was born, my dad, at age fifty, had already lived many lives. In his early years, he traveled to every one of the continental United States and had more than fifty different jobs, including running the fireworks show at the 1939 World’s Fair. He met my mother in an office there and married her when he was thirty five. He went on to have seven children, of whom I am the youngest. My friends’ dads were fifteen to twenty years his junior. My dad did not play ball with me; he waxed philosophical. He didn’t move at an ambitious pace, but rather with the slightly melancholic grace of an older man.
My father came as a baby to New York from Scotland, which his father had left in order to avoid fighting for the British in South Africa. Dad was raised on Long Island when it was still frontier, when houses there had outhouses and were heated with wood. They kept a pig, who ate all their scraps and was offered up annually to feed the family. Paper packaging was used to start the fire along with "the morning sticks," which my father and his siblings would collect from their yard. The concept of garbage barely existed. You used everything you had. Growing up in this time and through the depression gave my father the conservative streak that was a hallmark of his generation. You conserved not out of ideology, but because there was no other way to live.
Craftsmanship was what people would call today a "core value" for my father. My grandfather, whom I knew only briefly, was a molding carpenter who worked on buildings like the Waldorf Astoria during the construction boom at the early part of the century. Moldings today are usually much simpler: a few grooves are cut from a piece of wood with an electric router. My grandfather’s molding planes were ornately shaped and scrupulously sharpened knives that he used to carve an elegant shape in a raw piece of timber with fine-tuned brute strength. In my family, therefore, tools are regarded with awe and care. When my father handled a saw or a hammer or a wrench, there was something more than expedience at work. He didn’t use it. He wielded it.
That’s among the great things I learned from him, in the arena where he was most comfortable, his vast shop in the basement, a repository of more tools and hardware than a country store. It was there that he took most solace and it was there that he was king. I am not handy, like most of the rest of my family, but I absorbed the deeper meaning of what he had to say to me about how to work. With a hammer he showed me how to use a loose and flexible grip and let the head of the hammer do the work, propelled forward by the releasing action in your wrist, rather than stiffly pushed toward the object you’re striking. With a handsaw, he showed me how to cut with vigor on the down stroke and rest on the backstroke. I learned how a larger wrench provided a larger leverage. I now appreciate that these lessons—somewhat tedious at the time for a teenager with parties to go to—were about conserving energy and learning to enjoy your work rather than struggling.
Outside of his shop, though, my father struggled. Through pluck and ambition he worked his way up from being a parking field attendant at Jones Beach to being a business executive, but he always hid the fact that he had no more than an eighth grade education. His upbringing dictated that he begin to support himself early, but his lack of formal education weighed him down like a hidden millstone. It needn’t have. He was a brilliantly educated and erudite man who read voraciously. But he was an immigrant existing among people who knew several generations of college degrees, and it made him feel lesser. When the last company he worked for forced him to retire at sixty-five, while I was still in high school, he felt discarded and useless. He became sadder and sadder in later years. The aspirations of his youth—to invent things and build his own business—had slipped through his fingers. Work for yourself, he would always say to me.
Although there was a sadness about my dad, he was never gloomy. He had a great infectious laugh and smile and a sense of humor that was always at the ready. When I was young, he still had a volcanic temper. He rarely erupted, but when he did, it was like the roar of Zeus. He could be sentimental and proud of his highland heritage, declaring as he did many times to us, "You descend from kings." It was his way of reminding us that although our parents did not have the education or money of the powerful, we were powerful nonetheless. It was a joy to be hugged by my father, who was never reserved about his love. His power also held great gentleness. A few years before he died, my mother found a mouse in the basement and she asked him to get rid of it. Surreptitiously, he began to feed the mouse, whom he named Herman. It kept him company in his shop. When my mother found out, she couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t kill it, so he put it outside. One day, I saw him crying at the window. He’d found Herman’s frozen body.
I lament that my children never had him as a grandfather, because I know what that would have been like. He was a bit of a grandfather to me. Right now, my girl’s are laughing at me, because—as my father would have—I am taking delight in reading a history of the screwdriver and the screw. But secretly they admire it a bit, the curiosity about simple things. At times like these, a little of my dad is there for them, and together we are father and grandfather all at once.
Barry Boyce is senior editor and staff writer for the Shambhala Sun
Constant ConsciousnessBy: "That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real." -Ramana Maharshi
Sitting here on the porch, watching the sun go down. Except there is no watcher, just the sun, setting, setting. From purest Emptiness, brilliant clarity shines forth. The sound of the birds, over there. Clouds, a few, right up there. But there is no "up," no "down," no "over," and no "there"-because there is no "me" or "I" for which these directions make sense. There is just this. Simple, clear, easy, effortless, ever-present this.
I became extremely serious about meditation practice when I read the following line from the illustrious Sri Ramana Maharshi: "That which is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not real."
That is a shocking statement, because basically there is nothing-literally nothing-in the deep dreamless state. That was his point. Ultimate reality (or Spirit), Ramana said, cannot be something that pops into consciousness and then pops out. It must be something that is constant, permanent, or, more technically, something that, being timeless, is fully present at every point in time. Therefore, ultimate reality must also be fully present in deep dreamless sleep, and anything that is not present in deep dreamless sleep is not ultimate reality.
This profoundly disturbed me, because I had had several kensho or satori-like experiences (glimpses of One Taste), but they were all confined to the waking state. Moreover, most of the things I cared for existed in the waking state. And yet clearly the waking state is not permanent. It comes and goes every twenty-four hours. And yet, according to the great sages, there is something in us that is always conscious-that is, literally conscious or aware at all times and through all states, waking, dreaming, sleeping. And that ever-present awareness is Spirit in us. That underlying current of constant consciousness (or nondual awareness) is a direct and unbroken ray of pure Spirit itself. It is our connection with the Goddess, our pipeline straight to God.
Thus, if we want to realize our supreme identity with Spirit, we will have to plug ourselves into this current of constant consciousness, and follow it through all changes of state-waking, dreaming, sleeping. This will: 1) strip us of an exclusive identification with any of those states (such as the body, the mind, the ego, or the soul); and 2) allow us to recognize and identify with that which is constant-or timeless-through all of those states, namely, Consciousness as Such, by any other name, timeless Spirit.
I had been meditating fairly intensely for around twenty years when I came across that line from Ramana. I had studied Zen with Katigiri and Maezumi; Vajrayana with Kalu and Trungpa; Dzogchen with Pema Norbu and Chagdud; plus Vedanta, TM, Kashmir Shaivism, Christian mysticism, Kabbalah, Daism, Sufism... well, it's a long list. When I ran across Ramana's statement, I was on an intensive Dzogchen retreat with my primary Dzogchen teacher, Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. Rinpoche also stressed the importance of carrying the mirror-mind into the dream and deep sleep states. I began having flashes of this constant nondual awareness, through all states, which Rinpoche confirmed. But it wasn't until a few years later, during a very intense eleven-day period-in which the separate-self seemed to radically, deeply, thoroughly die-that it all seemed to come to fruition. I slept not at all during those eleven days; or rather, I was conscious for eleven days; or rather, I was conscious for eleven days and nights, even as the body and mind went through waking, dreaming and sleeping. I was unmoved in the midst of changes; there was no I to be moved; there was only unwavering empty consciousness, the luminous mirror-mind, the witness that was one with everything witnessed. I simply reverted to what I am, and it has been so, more or less, ever since.
The moment this constant nondual consciousness is obvious in your case, a new destiny will awaken in the midst of the manifest world. You will have discovered your own Buddha Mind, you own Godhead, your own formless, spaceless, timeless, infinite Emptiness, your own Atman that is Brahman, your Keter, Christ consciousness, radiant shekinah-in so many words, One Taste. It is unmistakably so. And just that is your true identity-pure Emptiness or pure unqualifiable Consciousness as Such-and thus you are released from the terror and the torment that necessarily arise when you identify with a little subject in a world of little objects.
Once you find your formless identity as Buddha-mind, as Atman, as pure Spirit or Godhead, you will take that constant, non-dual, ever present consciousness and re-enter the lesser states, subtle mind and gross body, and re-animate them with radiance. You will not remain merely Formless and Empty. You will empty yourself of Emptiness: you will pour yourself out into the mind and world, and create them in the process, and enter them all equally, but especially and particularly that specific mind and body that is called you (that is called, in my case, Ken Wilber): this lesser self will become the vehicle of the Spirit that you are.
And then all things, including your own little mind and body and feelings and thoughts, will arise in the vast Emptiness that you are, and they will self-liberate into their own true nature just as they arise, precisely because you no longer identify with any of them, but rather let them play, let them all arise, in the Emptiness and Openness that you now are. You then will awaken as radical Freedom, and sing those songs of radiant release, beam an infinity too obvious to see, and drink an ocean of delight. You will look at the moon as part of your body and bow to the sun as part of your heart, and all of it is just so. For eternally and always, eternally and always, there is only this.
Material in this column appears in One Taste: The Journals of Ken Wilber, from Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston. Copyright Ken Wilber, 1998.
The Llama and the Shmuck
The Llama and the ShmuckBy: I confide my feelings to Bubo as if he were a therapist. It's important he get to know me so transference can begin. Occasionally his head nods encouragingly; he doesn't comment because he's a Freudian llama.
Three days into a mountain retreat, the worst has happened: I've become a shmuck. In Yiddish, shmuck is literally a penis, but it's commonly used to mean a sad sack or a fool. The realization comes as I run barefoot downhill toward Bubba. Bubba is the llama who carries my gear. The gear which I'm bringing him overflows from a canvas pannier that defies being packed correctly. I am barefoot because I've misplaced my shoes, and running because I'm late, yet again. for the group's morning meditation.
"Hey Arnie, you dropped a sock," someone calls. I run back up the hill, and pick it up. "You left your towel hanging on a tree," rings another voice. As I return to the tree, I think, "No, not just a shmuck, I'm the Mayor, the Mayor of Shmuck City."
The retreat is led by Joan Halifax, who has explored the world's mountains for the past three decades. We have traveled from Santa Fe to hike at 13,000 feet in the San Juan wilderness of Colorado. I've been warned by friends that the journey will be too strenuous but I've dreamed of such a camping trip all my life.
After depositing the pannier beside Bubba, I arrive at the waiting circle of silent participants. They are holding hands and looking at me quizzically, wondering "Why can't he get it together?" Joan singles me out in a kind, patient voice, like a tutor talking to a child with a learning disorder: "Arnie, this is the first time you've camped, so it's all very new to you. But when you lose your gear, and ask others where it is, you drain the energy of everyone, the whole group. Everyone becomes involved in taking care of you. And we need our energy for today's climb."
I lower my eyes and feel my face flush hot. "Please," she implores, "please, you've got to learn to keep track of your things."
"Today," the Mayor of Shmuck City promises, "I don't know how, but I'll learn to do it today." But learning itself is the issue. I suffer from a disorder that has plagued me all of my life. In unfamiliar situations, I sometimes freeze at performing new tasks. If I don't know how to do them, then I don't know how to learn them. I begin making clownish mistakes, like Woody Allen lost in the wilderness. I'd lost my water bottle, although I'd doubled back and found it again. And a sheet of Hebrew prayers that I needed to pray in the morning when I wear my tallis (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries). My morning prayers now begin by apologizing to God for my doing-the-best-I-can devotion.
In the midst of the meditation, my watch alarm begins to chime because my heart monitor has set it off. I use the monitor because of a heart murmur. It warns me when my heartbeat exceeds 130 beats, the equivalent of jogging too fast. My wrist watch shows that standing perfectly still, breathing calmly, my heart is racing. It's my anxiety at the thought of the day's continuing humiliation: my weak right knee will buckle and I'll begin to walk with a limp; my leaky heart will siphon off my stamina and I'll fall far behind the others; finally the group will pause at a mountain top and look back at my straggling approach, frowning as I mark the pristine path with lost socks, underwear and towels.
I shut off the alarm as Joan makes her usual request-that we commit to taking care of our own selves and each other. "We are here to gain strength from the mountains," she concludes. "They are our teachers."
Then we walk to our respective llamas, as I remember the lines from a psalm of King David, "I lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence comest my strength." I take Bubba's reins and get into line, wondering again about the connection between Judaism and Buddhism. I don't know what it is, I can't put it into words. I just feel a connection to each path.
In my backpack, my tefillin and tallis are like a holy shield. Unfortunately, next to the holy shield there is also a plastic bag full of shitty toilet paper. The used toilet paper is a testament to my ability to follow directions. We've been directed not to bury our toilet paper because animals will dig it up. Instead, we are to carry it with us and wait for the time and place when the group will burn it. No one else seems particularly concerned with this. When I mention it I'm told, "Don't worry about it." Perhaps they've surreptitiously buried their paper. But not The Mayor. No-I have integrity!
Since this is a silent retreat, conversation is highly discouraged. And because I'm a salesman, born to talk & talk & talk, there's an overwhelming need to communicate. Bubba provides a sympathetic ear. I begin confiding my feelings as if he were a therapist. My feelings, my anxieties, my fears, my problems-it's important that he get to know me so that transference can begin. Occasionally his head nods encouragingly; he doesn't comment because he's a Freudian llama.
Along the Continental Divide, we are separated from the group. The view is so spectacular. I open my pack, and beneath the toilet paper and tefillin I'm pleased to find that I haven't yet lost my camera. After a series of pictures, we move on in an ocean of silence. Then the day rips open with a nearby bolt of lightning. It explodes with a cannon shot of thunder. Bubba snaps his head back and locks his front legs. He faces me for the first time with panicky eyes. "Come on, Bubba," I say. "Let's go." But he won't budge. Then small beads of white hail begin to fall and blanket us. The hail grows heavier, but he resists my pull on the reins.
I put my arm around his neck and my face close to his. I nudge him gently, and speak in a voice that's totally new to me. It is a calm voice, soothing, the voice of the man I wish to be. "It's nothing, Bubba, just lightning and thunder, and if we move on into the woods, we'll be safe." Then I step in front of him, and lightly tug the reins. We move into the forest where the others are protected beneath the trees. Waiting the storm out, I remember the words of Kate Doyle, the llamas' trainer.
"How do you train a llama to be a leader?" I'd asked her.
"You can't train them," she said. "The leaders are born. Llamas are herd animals, and only comfortable when they're following each other. When they're young, the leaders just naturally move out in front."
When the hail storm stops we load our packs again and move on. Eventually Alfie, the llama in front of us, stops because the road in front of him is empty. Bubba won't move either, and can't be persuaded. He will not move forward because it means taking the lead. Suddenly I realize that Bubba's fear is akin to my own. Because he needs the safety of moving in a herd, he freezes before the open vista of the unknown. And I freeze when it comes to entering the unknown too.
As if he hears my thoughts, Bubba steps around me and takes the lead. It is a major step for him, although perhaps no one knows it but me. Walking beside him, it makes me feel that I too can step into my own fear. When we arrive at base camp, I follow Bubba's example. For the first time in the trip, I step into the presence of the group. I don't pitch my tent away from everyone to hide my inexperience. Instead, I camp near the others so that I can watch them and learn what to do.
Later, I volunteer to help our guides prepare the group's dinner. In helping to tie the tarpaulin strings to the tree branches, I feel a beginning sense of exhilaration: I can learn. I untie and retie the knots several times, showing myself that I can master this simple art. And no one is laughing at The Mayor because he is doing something so childish-because I'm not The Mayor after all. Being a shmuck was never their judgement-it was my own. Each of us in the group, I come to realize, struggles in some way with the sense of not belonging, of not fitting in, of being too different.
In learning to take care of Bubba, I had learned to take care of myself. This was the essence of what Joan had asked of us-that being mindful meant learning to take care of ourselves and each other. By the last night, I no longer used a tent. I lay awake under a luminous black sky, staring at the shining stars. The sight of them filled me with awe, and I recalled the second line of the morning Hebrew prayer: "The beginning of wisdom is awe of Lord." Recently Joan had said that traveling with me was a joy because my enthusiasm revealed a true "beginner's mind"-a mind that sees the world as constantly new.
Waiting for the dawn, I repeated the phrase, "Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind." If the world is constantly revealed as new, then such a mind would certainly be awestruck. "Perhaps the link between Judaism and Buddhism might simply be awe." I think, "the beginning of wisdom for one, the beginning of practice for the other." Either way, when the dawn rises on another new day, it's a miracle that is both commonplace and unbelievable.
Arnold Meyer is a writer and salesman living in New York.
Days of the Diggers
Peter Coyote: Days of the Diggers
An interview with Peter Coyote by Melvin McLeod.
The Diggers were a group of sixties radicals and performers whose formula for building a new society was equal parts utopianism and indulgence. In Sleeping Where I Fall, Peter Coyote remembers his life as a Digger.
Shambhala Sun: After reading your book, I found myself haunted by this dedicated, talented, crazy group of people. You don't romanticize anyone, least of all yourself, and the hard drugs and the violence and the foolishness almost overshadow the ideals you wanted to bring out. So, what were the Diggers trying to achieve?
Peter Coyote: I think the core value was to create a culture in which it was possible to be something more than either an employee or a consumer. We wanted to create a culture in which it was possible to live a life predicated on the more human impulses and values, with room for one's personal eccentricity.
We were part of a huge wave in the sixties that called in the nation's markers and promises. We were the products of high school civics classes and the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and we were smacked in the face by the civil rights movement. Remember, this was a culture that had just gone through the paroxysms of the McCarthy period.
So we were a generation of kids looking for something authentic and real, a generation that I think produced a great deal of substance that still exists today in our culture. When you think of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, the gay movement, the alternative health movement, the alternative spirituality movement, the environmental movement, the organic food movement-all these have permeated the culture and changed the way people live.
These are manifestations of the intentions of the sixties. I don't care at all about the institutions of the sixties-I don't care if I never see another peace symbol or bad psychedelic poster or pair of bell bottom pants-but the important thing is that the intentions of the sixties have been manifested.
Shambhala Sun: The key term for the Diggers was "authenticity." Yet you were performers who treated their own lives as art, and you say that as you look back now, you see what you achieved then as essentially a work of art. What is the relationship between authenticity and life as performance?
Peter Coyote: To me, authenticity means being responsive to your true feelings, thoughts and impulses. That's what authenticity is. One of the things the Diggers had in common was that we were actors, and when we were performing we were trying to invent vehicles to talk about the subject of authenticity. For instance, if we wanted to give people the opportunity to explore the issues that come up around profit and ownership and the roles of manager and shop person, we would invent a theater in which we would be ourselves, but the setting was made highly theatrical. For instance, we had a free store, where not only the goods were free but the roles were free. When someone came in and said "Who's the boss?" and we said, "You are." We could deliver the lines as ourselves; it was the setting itself which was startling.
We felt we could undermine the culture. People will not cross the street to see Bill Clinton, but if you put Tom Cruise in the parking lot of a mall, you'll need police to keep people away. If the people have an image of something they want, they will organize their aspirations and activities to get it. What we realized early on was that a vision was much more compelling than a foot in the back.
We were trying to create compelling visions of the kind of society that people would want. So our challenge as performers was how to invent situations and contexts that would expose people to their own conditioning and the expectations held out for them by the culture, and offer them the opportunity to respond in a fresh and authentic way.
Shambhala Sun: This reminds me of the vajrayana concept translated as "crazy wisdom," in which a highly accomplished teacher may manifest a true sanity that transcends or even violates convention in order to wake people up.
Peter Coyote: Like the Zen master who kills the cat: "If someone can show me their true self this cat will live." The only thing was, we were not highly evolved wisdom people.
Shambhala Sun: Yes, the key element in such a risky endeavor is a great deal of internal discipline, which was outstandingly missing in your cases.
Peter Coyote: That's right. Part of the arc of my book is the precise stages and mechanisms through which a lack of internal discipline and a submission to indulgence erodes high personal callings and intentions.
Shambhala Sun: Unless you're coming from a point of view of genuine selflessness and discipline, how do you draw the line between a political choice to free oneself from social conventions and plain personal indulgence? In practice, are they really separable?
Peter Coyote: Well, we didn't know. If you believe the culture is your enemy, and that you're going to imagine your way out of it, and you're going to make your imaginings real by acting them out, one of the dilemmas you have to face is the possibility that your imagination has been co-opted by the culture. One of the reasons we took drugs, aside from just curiosity and peer pressure, was to consciously try to bust out of the envelope, to make sure we scrambled the mix so thoroughly that the ideas that emerged would be authentic by-products of our own imagination.
Shambhala Sun: But we're talking about a lot of heroin and amphetamines, not drugs known for their consciousness-expanding qualities.
Peter Coyote: Except that when you look at the great artists of our time who were our mentors and heroes-Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday and all the great be-bop musicians and the Viet Nam vets coming back-basically we joined that chorus of people singing through the flames after setting themselves on fire. I'm now talking from hindsight, having been a Zen student for twenty-five years, but at the time we thought that this was selfless behavior. We felt that we were giving up concern with health, with identity, with fame, with wealth, so we could achieve this kind of compassionate reworking of the culture to liberate other people.
Shambhala Sun: Much of your book is devoted to life in various rural communes, in which people attempted to eliminate any manifestation of the personal or the private, often to the point of obsession.
Peter Coyote: Well, I think it was an adolescent misunderstanding-going to the opposite end of the spectrum without discrimination. In point of fact, there's no such thing as freedom, but you learn that late. You learn that freedom, if it's anything, has to do with accepting absolute and unalterable interdependence. Certainly part of authenticity would have been admitting that we all had possessions that we liked, and that we had certain senses of order that we liked in our private living spaces.
I think you have to look at it as a kind of experiment which found the edges of the envelope. I think that if we had tried to create a village instead of a commune, for instance, it might still be going. But it was too radical a leap to try to put thirty souls into a one-family house and rethink everything. It was too exhausting.
Shambhala Sun: Which is to say that the revolutionary approach, which is to go back and redo everything in life, failed where a more moderate approach might have worked.
Peter Coyote: I think the middle ground is the most effective, although that's not necessarily the way that young men and women think. For instance, I think the extremes of the sixties may have led the country into the hands of Reagan. I don't think the American public embraced his conservatism. Rather, I think they embraced his avuncular old fashionedness, because the sixties raised so many questions that people couldn't answer, that they looked for a kind of holding action, a place to rest. They didn't know they would be opening the door to a kind of home grown fascism.
I take a certain amount of responsibility for that. One of the things you learn is that being in a counter-culture condemns you to marginality: if people don't like your style, they're not going to go for your ideas. Had we not been so insistent on our own style, with our own vocabulary and our own everything, we might have frightened people a little less and kept the debate going a little longer.
Shambhala Sun: On the other hand, the sixties had a significant positive impact on the culture, which it might not have had without the extreme element which you represented.
Peter Coyote: Well, Malcolm X used to say that Martin Luther King ought to thank the Lord that I'm around, because every time I go out there and frighten everybody, all those white people go running to him and write him checks. So there is a way in which radical forces push the edge of the envelope, and I do think we have moved the cultural ground in a progressive direction.
Shambhala Sun: One of the most fascinating-and frightening-parts of the story is your deep involvement with the Hell's Angels, who in that period were close to radical elements in San Francisco. The Angels were nothing if not authentic.
Peter Coyote: Well, it's a complicated bag. First of all, I don't know anything about the Angels now; they may be just another organized criminal class. But at the time, we had to come to terms with these guys who lived on our streets. And my experience was that by approaching them as men capable of intellection and decent people-until I knew better-they would respond, and they did. I had unprecedented access to the Angels for a number of years and met some of the most intelligent and lucid men I've ever met in my life, and also some of the scariest and most psychopathic men I've ever met.
Shambhala Sun: Tell me about your transition from drug-addicted radical to serious Zen student.
Peter Coyote: That was in a period where I suddenly was forced to think about a lot of things that I'd never thought about before. Suddenly I was alone; I did not have this nurturing community supporting me, and I realized that a lot of my predilections and impulses had been unhealthy. I realized that I'd damaged my health, and I began to get curious about what constituted good health. I put myself in a course of psychotherapy, I began Zen practice, and I met this woman who seemed like a very healthy person. I wanted to live a life that included good health and respect and reverence for my body and other people's bodies, which had been an enduring criticism of mine of the Diggers. There were a lot of things I couldn't go along with-a lot of our events were so chaotic and unbeautiful that I felt estranged from them. That wasn't the way that I perceived the universe.
Shambhala Sun: And ironically, beginning with a desire for simple good health, you ended up involved in something that may be fundamentally far more radical than anything the Diggers ever did.
Peter Coyote: Without a doubt. Buddhism is far more radical, by far the most radical thing that I have ever been involved in. Healthiness was just the path I took getting there. A lot of people didn't have to do that; a lot of people at the monastery where I lived were just innately intuitive and healthy people, who got there by a much gentler and less dramatic path. And god bless 'em. I did a lot of damage along the way, karmically and physically, to myself and other people.
Shambhala Sun: Why do you think that young people today have turned back past the sixties to the Beats in their search for cultural heroes? Is it because it's hard to see one's own parents as rebels, or is it deeper than that?
Peter Coyote: I think there's something deeper than that. First of all, you have to remember that from the sixties to the present there's been twenty- five years of aggressive disinformation and re-estimation of the sixties. The Reagan/Bush people did not want another generation of committed activists stirring things up. They've spent millions of dollars paying pundits to dismiss the sixties as a failure, to dismiss committed social activism as somehow unhip. They have created icons like David Letterman, whose attitude of cynicism about everything is the supreme goal of adolescence.
So one way in which they can co-opt the counter culture is to go back to the Beats, who were primarily interested in self-exploration. Certainly the most radical elements, like Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg, were political, but the effect of the movement was not specifically political.
Shambhala Sun: So cynically, you could say that the mainstream can promote cultural rebels like the Beats, but not political rebels like the Diggers.
Peter Coyote: David Foster Wallace has an essay in which he tracks down the strategy of television ads. What they do is create a sense of irony that kind of washes over everything. Like, yes, of course you're being pitched as a stupid consumer, and we know that you're smart enough to know that, and we know that you're not going to take it seriously because you're so hip you don't take anything seriously. Wallace's essay is a brilliant examination of the kind of convoluted argument that TV has to make to keep a sense of cultural rebellion alive at the same time that it makes you part of a herd of consumers and television watchers.
Shambhala Sun: The mainstream culture is far more pervasive and sophisticated than it was when you were young-capable of instantly co-opting whatever it wants to. How much chance does a young person today have to genuinely rebel?
Peter Coyote: Well, I think young people are telling us that they don't have a lot of hope they can change things. When I see a kid walking around with pins through his nipples and twelve rings through his eyebrows, what it makes me think is that he's in a great deal of pain; that's what he's showing me. They've come up against a culture so monolithic that all they can do anymore is reflect how it feels. It makes me feel really bad, because I think there are ways in which they can contribute, if they can get outside of their own pain and they can link up with other people who are in pain. There are things they can do which may not look flashy but which are conscientious. You can start buying less, using less, wasting less-any place your life touches the culture you can make a difference.
Shambhala Sun: As you look back at the Diggers, what beyond the basic impulse do you think still has validity today?
Peter Coyote: Well, I think the notion of doing what you do without thinking about fame and fortune is pretty valid. I think the notion of doing things for free is pretty valid. It doesn't work in all contexts, but it certainly works in some. I really trust that compassionate intentions will find the appropriate ways to make themselves manifest and that each generation will think up their own ways to do it. Just as we related to the Beats, kids will be relating to what we did and correcting it and altering it to be more appropriate to their time.
I think it's a new game because we have exhausted the idea of having a pure place to stand outside the culture. I think this is now the time of mahayana culture-this is the big vessel, the big boat, and we're all in it. Things are going to be played out not as outsiders, but as insiders, and I trust that young people will work out their own ways of doing it. You know, things are coming around. It looks like capitalism has won but it's not over 'til the fat lady sings. They're creating a global proletariat, they're creating global oppression, and people are not going to dry up and blow away. I don't know what's going to happen, but it's going to change.
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