The Zen of Peter Coyote

Actor, writer, narrator, and one-time radical — Jennifer Keishin Armstrong on the many roles of Zen priest Peter Coyote.

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
23 November 2020
Photo by A. Jesse Jiryu Davis.

Peter Coyote doesn’t read the scripts in advance.

He has narrated eight of Ken Burns’ famously epic documentaries, including The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, The Vietnam War, and Country Music. This adds up to dozens of hours of words to impart. But Coyote shows up fresh every time, ready to read the words like he’s never read them before—because he hasn’t.

This approach didn’t go over well when Coyote, an actor, writer, and Zen teacher, first met with Burns, the filmmaker behind PBS’s signature documentaries. The occasion was the 2009 series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. The two had both worked on another project, the 1996 series The West, which Burns had executive produced, but Stephen Ives had directed. This was Burns’ and Coyote’s first direct experience with each other.

Burns came with a pile of ten scripts, six yellow legal pads, a stack of DVDs, highlighters, and pencils.

“What is all that?” Coyote said in his distinctive, gravelly voice.

“So you can read and make your notes,” Burns countered in his own nasal twang.

“No,” Coyote said. “No, I just read it when I get in the studio.”

A pause.

“That will never work,” Burns said. “You don’t know how impeccable I am.”

“Well,” Coyote said, “you don’t know how good I am.”

Burns soon learned that was true. “We’re interested in one thing: our narrator’s ability to inhabit the words,” he explains to me. “And nobody does it better.” Often, Burns says, he ends up using Coyote’s very first, cold take.

It isn’t your imagination: The guy who has been narrating Burns’ works for the past decade-plus is as Zen as his voice sounds. Actor Peter Coyote has been studying Buddhism for forty-five years and became a Zen priest in 2016. He received transmission from Lew Richmond, who at the time had been his teacher for twelve years and was leading the Vimala Zen Center Sangha in Mill Valley, California.

Now, Coyote considers his sangha to be “wherever I’m sitting.” When he was ordained, he promised himself he wouldn’t teach formally for five years. Instead, he has a small zendo on his farm in Sebastopol, California, where he occasionally visits with a handful of fellow students from time to time as what he calls a “dharma friend,” eschewing the title of teacher.

You’re not an actor until you get a job. And you’re not a Zen priest until you’re taking care of people.

Coyote’s real mission is to shake off the formalities and hierarchies of traditional Zen and use acting and improv techniques to help students let go of attachments to the self. After publishing two well received, Zen-inflected memoirs—1998’s Sleeping Where I Fall and 2015’s The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education—he’s written a so far unpublished book about his workshops on Zen and acting, which he’s been teaching for about thirty years.

“These acting exercises force you to move in ways that you’re not used to, and those discomforts show you the edge of yourself,” Coyote explains. “Each time, you say, ‘Well, that’s not me.’ Then when I put a mask on you and hold up a mirror, you disappear. The self that is left behind is the one that had your doubts and insecurities and second-guessing.”

That initial experience, Coyote says, is “a loss leader,” a gateway to his real pitch: “I call it ‘enlightenment lite.’ You’re cold sober, but it’s like taking psychedelics. It’s temporary.” Then, the real work begins, he says. “If you want to fix this problem, you have to learn to meditate.”

It seems his real gift is inhabiting all of his roles all of the time: actor, Zen priest, narrator. Or perhaps a better way of saying this is that he does not separate them or distinguish among them. Every moment, he is just Peter Coyote, and Peter Coyote’s true expression often involves these elements: the grounding voice, the grounding to channel a character, the grounded presence.

Being with the seventy-eight-year-old in the living space of his Manhattan hotel suite during a recording trip for Burns’ next film, a documentary about Hemingway, brings me gently into the moment with him. Coyote wears a Yamabushi Buddhist mala with a skull as its guru bead, a reminder, he says, of impermanence. He wears a blue, button-down shirt. His thick, gray hair is slicked back, his kind blue eyes steady. He does something that shouldn’t be extraordinary in an interview, but is: When he gets particularly philosophical about his path—or lack of a clear path—as a teacher, he catches a twinge of confusion on my face even as I say, “That makes sense.” He stops and asks, “Does it? Which part of it doesn’t?” He actually wants to know, wants to explain, wants to react to the moment.

Burns sometimes likes to call Coyote “roshi” at their recording sessions. “I mean that with respect, and I also mean it with a wink,” Burns says. “Peter is a very serious man and he is on a very interesting path. He’s had extraordinary experiences in his life. I’m in kindergarten compared to all the things he’s experienced at all levels. So there’s that experience and a kind of playfulness about him that commends him to the universe and makes him irresistible.”

A black and white photo of a man on a motorcycle.
Coyote was a founding member of the Diggers, a radical sixties group that did street theater in San Francisco and provided food, housing, and medical care to runaways. He wrote about his counterculture days in the award-winning memoir “Sleeping Where I Fall.” Photo courtesy of Peter Coyote.

Born Robert Peter Cohon in 1941 in New York City, Coyote was raised in New Jersey by an overbearing, successful investment banker father, Morris, and a deferent mother, Ruth. Coyote started acting as a teenager, taking classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. He also began reading about Beat poets “because they were rebellious adults and they were a kind of justification for a lot of my feelings.” In particular, he was interested in the poet Gary Snyder.

He adopted his new name in college when, after taking the psychoactive drug peyote, he saw what looked like coyote tracks in the snow, and felt drawn to coyotes as his spirit animal. The new name also allowed him to form an identity that had nothing to do with his father, whose intense masculinity clashed with Coyote’s artsy tendencies.

Coyote graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa with a bachelor’s degree in English literature, then headed to San Francisco State University to pursue a master’s in creative writing. There, he fell in with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, known for its radical political street theater.

During his time with the Mime Troupe, Coyote acted, wrote, and directed. A directing triumph came with the cross-country tour of a piece called The Minstrel Show, Civil Rights in a Cracker Barrel, a sendup of both liberals and racists alike that was so controversial it was routinely shut down by the cities it visited. The cast was arrested several times.

Coyote spent the late 1960s and early 1970s as a founding member of the counterculture group the Diggers, who provided food, housing, and medical care to runaways in addition to performing street theater in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The Diggers eventually begat the Free Family, a group of communes throughout the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest. He also began taking more drugs, first LSD and then heroin and speed—the drugs of choice for his musical heroes, Charlie Parker and Billie Holiday.

It was around 1969, when Coyote was living on one of the group’s communes, that his friend Lew Welch, a Beat poet, brought his stepson, Hugh Anthony Cregg III, by to perform. The kid was about fourteen and could sing jazz riffs like you wouldn’t believe. He’d grow up to be the pop star Huey Lewis. Welch also idolized Gary Snyder, and insisted Coyote should meet him. Eventually, Welch brought Snyder out to the commune.

Snyder arrived in a brand-new Volkswagen van. Coyote thought, “How bougie.” At the commune, he recalls, “We were dirt poor, hardscrabble, end-of-the-world hippies. Way out on the anarchist fringes. And Gary was together.”

On the other hand, Snyder had recently published the Smokey the Bear Sutra, an environmentalist manifesto written in the form of a Buddhist sutra, which was pretty cool. His Zen-inflected poems were already legendary. Snyder had studied Zen in Japan and inspired Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums.

“So I met him and I was shocked that he didn’t recognize me immediately as an enlightened Zen peer,” Coyote jokes. As the two sat eating peanut butter and crackers together, Coyote says, “he just kept looking at me in this unsettling way, like, Who is this guy? It really unnerved me.” Nonetheless, the two eventually developed a friendship, and Snyder became Coyote’s Zen mentor.

Coyote realized that his drug habits would kill him before he could live up to his potential. He quit, started going to therapy, and, in 1974 at the age of thirty-three, moved into San Francisco Zen Center. There, his life began to turn around. He recognized that the high of any drug wears off, and he began the difficult work of staying clean, day by day, and pursuing meaning through Zen instead of drugs.

Snyder remained an important guide in his Zen practice. Snyder’s nature-based take on Buddhism resonated with Coyote, who had spent a lot of time while he was growing up on a farm in New Jersey that his father ran as part of his business empire. “I would say, ‘buddha, dharma, and sangha,’ and he might say, ‘wilderness, teachers, and friends,’” Coyote says of Snyder.

Snyder’s incorporation of nature into his approach to Zen has long inspired Coyote to question the difference between genuine practice and superficial form.

“In every country that Buddhism entered, it married the indigenous religion there,” Coyote explains. “It grew out of a Hindu culture, and that’s where we get a lot of stuff about past lives and multiple lifetimes. And then it went to China and merged with Daoism and Confucianism and became Chan. So in each culture you could say that its expression is the gift-wrapping around Buddha’s gift. I’m interested in loosening the gift-wrapping for Americans to find the actual gift and then express it in its own idioms. Because as long as it’s expressed in total fealty to the Japanese, it’s going to feel foreign.”

The problem with the American Zen center model, Coyote asserts, is that “people come, they say, ‘What a great place to be,’ and they don’t leave. To me that’s a little like acting students going to acting school and they love it and they stay. You’re not an actor until you get a job. And you’re not a priest until you’re taking care of people.”

When Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his poetry collection Turtle Island, California’s then governor, Jerry Brown, asked Snyder to organize a state arts council. Snyder asked Coyote to help with the project, and by the second year, Coyote was elected chair, a title he held for four years. The budget ballooned from one million dollars to eighteen million dollars under his guidance. Coyote had been acting onstage this whole time, but his move from counterculture hipster to square arts fundraiser made him consider, for the first time, the bougiest of professions: movie actor.

Coyote now had a daughter, Ariel, to support, and a wife, Marilyn. He surveyed his two principal passions and talents, writing and acting, and decided to give acting a shot as his main career—in part because he was more protective of his writing than his acting. “I became an actor to support myself as a writer because I didn’t want to write for money,” he says. “Writing is sacred for me.” He is, in fact, an accomplished writer, having won the 1993–94 Pushcart Prize for a piece from his first book, Sleeping Where I Fall.

At age thirty-nine, Coyote decided to give himself five years to build a sustainable film career, “and if it didn’t work,” he says, “I wouldn’t die with the what-ifs.” He made his movie debut with a supporting role in the 1980 dramedy Die Laughing. But he pledged to prioritize his Zen practice and family over the movie-star life. (He and Marilyn had a son in 1985.) He remained in San Francisco, traveling to Los Angeles only for auditions and shoots.

Three people in a plastic tube. A man and woman are crouched and looking at each other and there is a young boy behind them.
Coyote played Keys in “E.T.” and had roles in “Jagged Edge,” “Erin Brockovich,” and “Commander in Chief.” In the recent miniseries “The Comey Rule” he played special counsel Robert Mueller. Photo by Allstar Picture Library Ltd. / Alamy Stock Photo

“I didn’t have a publicist,” Coyote says. “I didn’t go to L.A. any more than I could possibly help it. I didn’t ensure that my name would be before the public eye. My feeling was that I was going to spend a lot more time offstage than onstage, and I ought to take care of my offstage life the most carefully. So if I had a month’s money in the bank, I would just turn down crap if I didn’t like it. If I had less than a month’s money, I would take whatever came along.”

Extraordinarily enough, it worked. Coyote’s dozens of film and TV acting roles since include E.T., Jagged Edge, Outrageous Fortune, Bitter Moon, A Walk to Remember, Erin Brockovich, The 4400, Commander in Chief, and Brothers & Sisters. (He does, incidentally, read his movie scripts in advance, unlike his narration scripts.) He never became a household name, though he had one shot at it: he auditioned for the lead in Raiders of the Lost Ark that ended up going to Harrison Ford. But he has made a steady living as an actor and narrator for forty years now, an uncommon feat.

The result has been a unique life that has taken in more than its share of people, places, and experiences. “I don’t know a film we’ve worked on where he hasn’t been in some way connected to the project,” Burns says. “I call him Zelig. It’s always, ‘I knew this person,’ or ‘I hiked that trail,’ or ‘I knew his daughter.’”

Just one example from the in-progress Hemingway documentary: Coyote’s father once dismissively turned down a boxing match with the famously hyper-masculine author at their shared gym. Morris, who had no respect for Hemingway’s boxing skill, called him “a fucking pansy” and refused to read his books.

By the late 1990s, Coyote was, as he puts it, getting more and more shithead-in-a-suit roles: corrupt politician, corrupt CEO, corrupt president, corrupt scientist. “It got boring,” Coyote says, “and I thought, ‘Well, my kids are out of school, I don’t need to do this.’” He’d continue to act when he thought a role was worth the effort, but he dropped it as his main focus. A steady stream of narration gigs picked up the slack.

Coyote’s Zen practice, meanwhile, intensified. In December 2009, at age sixty-eight, he had an enlightenment experience during a Rohatsu sesshin, a seven-day period of intensive zazen practice. He was grappling more literally than usual with the realities of sickness, old age, and death, confronting knee pain that was forcing him to start sitting some periods in a chair. And he was contemplating a question: “What is it I’m still missing or still searching for?” What is it? On the sixth day, during walking meditation in the late afternoon, he was on the second or third lap around the zendo, asking himself that question over and over, when he heard a Gray Jay crying, “Eeek! Eeek! Eeek! Eeek!” He heard this as: It! It! It! It! He understood this was his answer.

“The boundaries between ‘in here’ and ‘out there’ disappeared,” Coyote later wrote in his memoir The Rainman’s Third Cure. “The world remained recognizable, as it had always been, but completely stripped of descriptive language and concepts. Everything appeared to be a phantom of itself, luminous but without weight or substance. ‘I’ had been replaced. The closest I can come to describing what I felt was as a part of an awareness with no physical location, inseparable from the entire universe.” That said, he writes: “In the next instant, I understood that it was not all that important.”

Coyote was by then studying with Lew Richmond, a dharma heir to Japan-born Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center. In 2013, Richmond asked Coyote to take a three-year priest training class, which met for one weekend every other month. Coyote agreed to the class to deepen his practice, but said he had no interest in becoming a priest. As it turned out, he was so impressed by the quality of the people in his class that he asked if he could be ordained.

Since his 2016 ordination, Coyote has been waiting for a teaching path to emerge that makes sense to him, that feels like an authentic expression of Zen in America. “When I was transmitted, I made a promise to myself that I would not teach formally for five years,” Coyote says. “I’m coming into the fifth year now.”

A man smiles and stands in black robes.
As a Zen priest, Coyote wants to shake off the formalities and hierarchies of traditional Zen. He uses acting and improv techniques to help students let go of attachments to the self. Photo by Andrea Roth.

There is a glut of Zen teachers near his home north of San Francisco, with Stone Creek Zen Center, Santa Rosa Zen Center, and Sonoma Zen Center all within thirty miles, and Green Gulch Zen Center another twenty miles away. “You can swing a cat in Sebastopol, where I live, and hit a Zen teacher,” Coyote says. “When the word got out that I was going to come up there, it created a lot of anxiety. ‘This movie actor Zen teacher’s gonna come up. Is he gonna filch our students?’ So as soon as I got there I put up an announcement: happy to be a guest teacher. I’ve done that, took over somebody else’s students, Sunday morning lectures and things.”

Coyote also ran a Rohatsu sesshin at Hokyoji Zen Practice Community., though he isn’t sure if he’s going to continue in that capacity. “I do think that being able to sit sesshin is a wonderful gift, to have a community that’s organized to do your cooking and make it possible for other people to sit,” he says. “I was dropping into other people’s sanghas as a guest teacher, and doing dharma talks, which I enjoy, too. But I didn’t want to support that kind of formal Japanese practice until I had a clearer idea of how it would work with my own ideas, which are unformed.” He adds, “I realize the importance of form and I’m strict about it. But I’m still looking for a way to express it as an American.”

To work out those ideas, Coyote has been focusing on his book-in-progress. It has been rejected by five publishers, likely because it’s both unlike his previous work and hard to categorize into a genre. He’s now revising it to include exercises readers can do at home on their own, and plans to include with it a thirty-minute video version of one of his classes. He may self-publish it to sell to those who take his classes in person.

Coyote has continued to act occasionally when the right project comes along. Last fall, he shot The Comey Rule, a miniseries adaptation of former FBI director James Comey’s memoir A Higher Loyalty that was rushed out for broadcast before the election. He plays Robert Mueller, Comey’s predecessor at the FBI and later the special counsel who investigated Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The part met his requirements for an acting job worth taking: the series was important, his character crucial, and the cast stellar, including Jeff Daniels as Comey, Holly Hunter as U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, and Irish actor Brendan Gleeson as President Donald Trump. “I just couldn’t turn this down,” Coyote says.

And, of course, he will likely continue being the voice of Ken Burns’ documentaries as long as he can. That’s where the real magic of Peter Coyote comes through, the acting and the voice and the Beat poetry and the Zen all working as one.

“If I’m really in that moment, my emotions automatically adjust,” he says, describing the instant when his eyes meet the words on the page as he’s in front of the microphone. “There’s nothing I have to falsify. People tell me, ‘I really believe you.’ It’s because I’m always staying on the front edge of what I’m learning in my feelings. The other way I do it is by being conscious of breath. I let my stomach completely relax and start with a full set of air. Allen Ginsburg used to talk about ‘bop prosody.’ He used to talk about poems being floated on the breath. Every sentence, every phrase, everything is coming off the breath.”

This is how you get it right, without having read the script. This is how you get it right on the first take. This is how you get It! It! It! It!

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is a New York Times bestselling author specializing in culture and entertainment. Her new book is When Women Invented Television. She is the author of Seinfeldia: How the Show About Nothing Changed Everything and a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. Her new book is When Women Invented Television.