Following the Red Thread: A Visit with Hosho Peter Coyote
On his Zen life, poetry, and teaching.
Why can’t the clear-eyed person cut the red thread?
Songyuan Chongyue’s Three Turning Words
~ Entangling Vines, Case 142
The red thread in the above koan is an expression of the passion, sorrow and vulnerability of our human existence. And how do we awaken in the midst of this mortal life? Not by avoiding the vivre of who and what we are, but instead, by plunging deeper into the crazy tumble of human-ness. Intimacy is a word we sometimes use to describe that experience.
Hosho Peter Coyote has his whole life followed the red thread. Raised in privilege, art and domestic trauma, as a young man in the 1960s he moved West and joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe. He helped found the community-activist group The Diggers in Haight-Ashbury. Later, Peter worked in the first Governor Jerry Brown administration, and became a successful screen actor, voice-over narrator, and writer, including his book of poems, Tongue of a Crow.
The dogs of Bucharest are dusted
with crumbled mansions, ash
of red flags. They doze
in ruined dreams abandoned
by their masters. They bark
whelp and die without
plan or permission. Occasionally,
like thinkers, like poets,
they are rounded up
…It’s cheap to film in ruined lands…
~ The Dogs of Bucharest; Tongue of a Crow
It was in the late 1960s when Peter first met poet Gary Snyder, a meeting that forever changed his life. Emulating Snyder, he began a regular Zen meditation practice, later joining the San Francisco Zen Center.
By 2001, on reaching his sixties, Peter felt he had “mastered the worlds of Love and Power to the degree I maintained interest in them, but…” he was still restless and vaguely dissatisfied. Of all he had accomplished: “It was not enough!” he writes.
It was the year 2009, Peter was 68. An ancient case of hepatitis C was taking its toll: “My youth had left, snatching as it exited, the firm outlines of my body…”, liver spots, lost stamina, a static career in film. “Sickness, old age and death had become tangible to me in ways that had only been romantic posturing in my twenties,” he writes.
He decided to enter a week-long sesshin at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. On the first day, a question spontaneously arose in his mind: “What is it I am missing or searching for?”, which shortened to just “What is it?” For days he was absorbed in the question, and on the sixth day, as the group passed outside in walking meditation, a scrub-jay, which sounded as it it had perched on his shoulder, screamed: ‘Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! Eeek!’ — strident, insistent, obliterating all thought. Suddenly, in that momentary emptiness, its cries were understood as ‘It! It! It! It! It!’—the indisputable answer to my question. I took one more step, and the world as I had always experienced it ended.”
bug-jar and lid
hissing summer lawns
Years of daybreak sitting
jar and lid gone
only the winking
“Letters from emptiness…”
~ No Jar, No Lid; Tongue of a Crow
With his practice maturing further, in 2011 Peter took the vows of a Zen Buddhist priest and in 2015 became a formal successor to his teacher, Chikudo Lewis Richmond. He now lives with his two dogs and cat on his rural property in Sonoma County, where he built the Wild Dog Zendo. He also loves to make fruit jam.
Peter’s next book project is titled “Vernacular Zen”, which draws heavily from the teachings of Shunryu Suzuki, his grandfather in the dharma. Peter is concerned about shadows in American culture which confuse the exoticism of Japanese Zen with the Buddha’s teaching itself, and “too readily drink up” Japanese cultural authoritarianism and hierarchy. These shadows “have infected a lot of Zen culture in America, and often relegated human feelings to the scrap heap, as evidence of lack of spiritual development.” he says. His answer: Loosen the Japanese “wrapping” around the Buddha’s gift, and find the Buddha’s teaching in ‘vernacular practice’: everyday American life, which, from deep study, he believes Suzuki Roshi would have encouraged had he lived long enough.