Actor Peter Coyote explores Zen wisdom and self-criticism in new book
When actor and activist Peter Coyote was a young man, he joined the San Francisco Mime Troupe and donned the mask of Pantalone, a character dating to Italy’s commedia dell’arte era.
“When I looked in the mirror, something happened,” Coyote said during an interview at his Sebastopol home last week.
Wearing a mask, “I didn’t see Peter Cohon (Coyote’s given name), little middle-class Jewish kid. I saw this guy. Peter went on hold. It was like somebody had just punched a hole in my id and let it leak out.”
As his ego receded and the wild appetites of the id took over, “everything that came to mind I could express, because with the absence of my personality went my shyness, my second-guessing myself, my self-criticism.”
When Coyote was Pantalone on stage, he was “completely free and fearless. I could say things that were just inconceivable, and I knew the audience would love it.”
Looking back on that time, Coyote realized he had valuable lessons to share.
So, years ago, he launched mask workshops that enabled anyone to experience the liberation of freeing oneself from one’s ego.
In December, to bring the benefits of this work to a larger audience, Coyote published “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Meet Buddha: Masks, Meditation & Improvised Play to Induce Liberated States.”
A slender 176 pages, the book packs in the wisdom of Buddhism, examples of how masks open people to hidden selves, and exercises to counter one’s inner critic.
Freedom of the moment
In the book, Coyote quotes Keith Johnstone of Britain’s Royal Court Theatre: “A mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and allowing a spirit to take possession of it.”
Coyote tells the story of a large, buxom woman who joined his mask workshop at the Houston Zen Center.
“She hunched her shoulders forward as if trying to diminish the prominence of her bosom and seemed to be attempting something similar with her personality, speaking softly and hesitantly,” Coyote writes.
After putting on a mask, “Her posture appeared solid as a standing boulder; her voice dropped into a lower, more commanding pitch and tone. The entire class was galvanized by her transfiguration and the indisputable power she radiated.”
In the recent interview at his home, Coyote said that woman returned a year later. He asked her if she got anything out of the class, if anything stuck.
“She said, ‘Oh, yeah, I quit my job.’ I got really frightened. I thought, ‘I’ve liberated her into poverty.’
“She said, ‘Well, I didn’t actually quit. I told my boss I was bored to death, and if he wanted to keep me, he had to give me something interesting to do and a raise. And he did both.’”
Coyote said the goal is for people “to enjoy their life, not to be restrained by their history and ideas about themselves, but to live up to the freedom of the moment.”
The book is leavened with a parable about the Lone Ranger and Tonto coming upon Buddha in the Wild West.
It’s a fascinating dynamic that shows how the Lone Ranger, who is deeply attached to his fixed identity, can shed his mask and free himself of preconceptions.
Meditation and liberation
Though the mask work led people to experience exultant moments of liberation, the feeling was temporary, Coyote said.
The way to more enduring equanimity, he said, is through meditation, a practice he took up at the San Francisco Zen Center shortly after his father died when Coyote was about 30 years old. Coyote still meditates daily.
Now an ordained Buddhist priest, he is a modern renaissance man with more than 140 acting credits, including in “Erin Brockovich” and playing the scientist Keys in “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.”
He’s a guitarist, singer and songwriter and the author of two memoirs, “Sleeping Where I Fall,” about the counterculture figures he knew in his youth, and “The Rainman’s Third Cure,” about his mentors.
Yet he may be best known, or most heard, as the authoritative narrator of Ken Burns’ documentaries, including “The Vietnam War,” “The Roosevelts” (for which he won an Emmy) and “Country Music.”
Vulture, an online culture magazine, called him “God’s stenographer” and said, “His calm, cowboy-around-a-campfire timbre is basically the voice of America.”
At the Zen center, Coyote began teaching acting and “started to realize there were certain parallels between meditative states and the freedom of improvised states,” he said.
He began experimenting with masks, and “learned that if I worked with you by giving you exercises that would push you against the edges of yourself, I’m going to change your feelings.”