I first visited Green Gulch Farm on a sunny Sunday in the fall of 1995. A group of students were sitting beneath the alien rows o’ eucalyptus trees, talking casually with Tenshin Reb Anderson, then abbot of the San Francisco Zen Cen-ter. Jerry Garcia had recently died, and at one point in the conversation, a blond, fortysomething woman asked Anderson, in all seriousness, whether Garcia was a bodhisattva.
I would have failed this particular Marin County koan. But not Anderson, who answered the question promptly and without condescension. He first described the Buddhist idea of protectors: beings who encircle and guard the Dharma without being entirely within the fold. Presumably, Anderson was taking inspiration from the dharmapalas of Tibetan Buddhism, especially the lokapalas: ferocious local spirits who swore allegiance to the Buddha-way only after being magically subjugated by the tantric missionary and wizard Padmasambhava. Some of these shamanic entities are even said to not fully accept the Buddha’s teaching, though integrated within Tibetan Buddhism, they retain an intense liminality, or “in-betweenness.” And as the recent controversy over the protector spirit Dorje Shugden makes clear, one monk’s manifestation of the bodhisattva Manjushri can he another monk’s bloodthirsty demon.
In any case, Anderson’s response was brilliant. Without castigating what-ever visionary and communal ecstasy some Deadheads managed to extract from their loopy scene, Anderson established an open border between Garcia and the Dharma, at once separating the two while acknowledging their connection—a connection which, in the San Francisco Bay Area anyway, is as local as a lokapala. But while American Zen and the Grateful Dead have both served as major attractions in Northern California’s spiritual carnival, the abbot also needed to draw the line. On the far side of this line lay drugs, because drugs, Anderson made clear, were definitely not the Buddha way.
Anderson did not name the drugs, which was just as well, as the day was growing short and the Dead’s curriculum vitae is long. Garcia’s appetite for heroin and freebase was at times prodigious, and few would make an argument for the enlightening nature of these substances. But in the larger context of the Grateful Dead experience, “drugs” means psychedelics—the LSD, mescaline, peyote, mushrooms, and other compounds that transformed the Dead’s cowboy jazz into the occasion for Dionysian romps in the electric bardo. In Anderson’s analogy, then, psychedelics correspond to the unassimilable shamanic elements of Tibetan folk magic, to those pre-Buddhist beliefs and practices, Bonpo or not, that remain outside the circle of Dharma they nonetheless helped shape.
Leaving the Grateful Dead aside, I’d like to suggest that the overlap between American psychedelic culture and American Buddhism is roughly anal-ogous to the liminal zone inhabited by the dharmapalas. The analogy works both historically and, if you will, institutionally. On top of providing an imaginative slant on the significant historical links between American Buddhism and psychedelics in the sixties and seventies, the tantric tension between local demons and Dharma protectors also helps us understand how some contemporary American Buddhists grapple with the controversial, even heretical specter of psychedelic spirituality. When Tibetan Buddhists engaged the fierce and sorcerous entities of the pre-Buddhist mindscape, they faced the same sort of problem that greets American Buddhists attempting to account for the convulsively magic molecules in their midst: how to simultaneously honor and vanquish, integrate and control.
The grizzled bearded visage of “Mahajerry” tells us something right off the bat: the question of psychedelics and American Buddhism remains intimately bound up with the collective spiritual narrative of one particular generation of Americans. Though American Buddhism sprouted from seeds planted long before the emergence of “the sixties,” the Dharma rode to relative prominence on the same countercultural wave of mind-expansion that thrust Timothy Leary into the limelight. Indeed, if there had been no Pranksters, no acid tests, no “instant nirvana,” it is hard to imagine that places like Green Gulch would exist at all. Buddhism in America first hit its stride in the context of countercultural spirituality, and it is simply impossible to understand countercultural spirituality without taking psychedelics into account. Indeed, such understanding is probably impossible without taking psychedelics, period.
The legitimacy of psychedelic spirituality is a vexed question, especially given the tricky ideas of authenticity and illusion that play such a pivotal role in the spiritual assessment of altered states of consciousness. Anthropologically speaking, though, it’s hard not to see the question of legitimacy as anything other than a mechanism of cultural power through which religious institutions and lineages define and police their borders. (In this sense, religious discourse surrounding drugs is similar to that surrounding food and sex.) As we now know, psychedelic substances, not to mention other psychoactive drugs, have played a profound role in the history of the human spirit. We may never know what materials composed the soma praised in the Vedas or the punch that gave the Eleusinian Mysteries their mystical zap, but it’s a pretty safe bet that something more than watery oatmeal was being quaffed. Psychoactive plants are even more fundamentally linked to those ancient indigenous practices we rather loosely describe as “shamanism.” The religious culture of pre-Buddhist Tibet, for example, was part of a huge shamanic complex that stretched throughout Eurasia and included, in its more northern stretches at least, the ritual use of the psychedelic mushroom Amanita muscaria.
In any case, psychoactive drugs must be featured prominently in any catalog of what Mircea Eliade called humanity’s “technologies of ecstasy”—a tool kit of altered states-production that includes dancing, drumming, fasting, fucking, and physical ordeal. But in the 1960s, in a culture that had swept its mystical and ecstatic traditions under the moldering carpet of mainline Christianity, there was little to no context for the experiences such technologies helped produce. While one can certainly explore psychedelic space as a “modernist,” looking to art and science for models, many people found that only mystical language and occult images could frame their chemical illuminations. Many Westerners turned, in particular, to Eastern religion, partly because the Orient has long been an imaginal zone that beckons to Westerners who want to escape the prison of scientific materialism. The “Eastern turn” also makes phenomenological sense. LSD can send serpentine energy shooting up your spine, or thrust you into apocalyptic mandalas, or vibrate the world into an energetic void. At the same time, drugs can also unveil the simple, immanent “Zen” of the ordinary world: a leaf, a breeze, or, as in Huxley’s famous mescaline tale in Doors of Perception, a fold in one’s trousers.
Drugs and Dharma were themselves only a few of the ingredients in a heretical countercultural stew that included marijuana, free love, tarot cards, street protests, long hair, anarchism, the I Ching, electric guitars, the under-ground press, Carlos Castaneda, and Hindu iconography. From the perspective of serious Western Buddhists with Eastern teachers, not to mention the roshis and lamas who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s in order to found institutions, the freak scene must have seemed, in its eclectic mania, almost as wild and fierce as Tibet seemed to the Indian missionaries of the eighth century. In a sense, the counterculture was America’s own fractured shamanism, seething with untamed energies and magical phantasms. By taking root within this intensely vibrant culture, the Dharma was able to make the transition from a marginal pursuit of intellectuals and cultural mavericks to the influential if constrained mass phenomenon it is today. While those roots may have been intoxicant-free, the soil they found was psychedelic, and its peculiar nutrients fundamentally shaped the blooms to come.
For one thing, Buddhism owed many of its recruits to the widespread fascination with altered states of consciousness—a fascination that was largely sparked, if not fueled, by drugs. Simply put, psychedelics gave people a taste for the excitement, power, anxiety, insight, and joy of altered states of consciousness. On an even more basic level, drugs also encouraged people to explore their own immediate experience, and to recognize that heaven and hell, like every other power structure, were functions of their own minds. Many Westerners were drawn to Buddhism because it too offered a “hands-on” dimension lacking in Christianity, one which also loosely accorded with the modern “scientific” temperament that drugs, in their molecular way, subtly reinforced. This democratic turn toward direct experience became one of the hallmarks of countercultural spirituality, just as it became a hallmark of American Buddhism. The notion that samadhi was available to all, that everyone possessed something like the Buddha-mind, was emphasized by the universal action of the Sandoz molecule. “Have you ever been experienced?” Hendrix asked. If not, why not?
Once blown, many Western minds were also far more likely to put up with alien rituals and grueling disciplines that promised even deeper and more subtle experiences. The notion of practice—perhaps the richest and most multivalent term in American Buddhism—is crucial here. One basic meaning of practice is technique: one does not believe, one acts (or, perhaps more accurately, “action happens”). In other words, one adopts a technique, an internalized technology or a psycho-behavioral recipe, and explores the results. Though the act of swallowing a sugar cube is a pretty rinky-dink operation compared to the rigor and depth of zazen or hatha yoga, psychedelics did teach people that altered states, even refined ones, could be accessed through technologies of perception.
Indeed, LSD was only one device in the counterculture’s ever-expanding occult tool kit, which included divination systems like tarot cards and the I Ching, biofeedback devices and flotation tanks, as well as a variety of internal and physical disciplines: breathwork, tai chi, massage, pranayama, veganism, Kriya yoga. Given the unprecedented technological experience of the baby boom generation, it’s not surprising that they developed the conviction that technique, in some form, was integral to the process of transformation and insight. Whether the technology was external or internal was less important—was an acid test, with its feedback systems, light shows, and communal chemistry, inside or out? LSD helped ensure that the Eliadean metaphor of spiritual practices as “inner technologies” would find its way into the lexicon of countercultural spirituality, so much so that today it appears in the writings of a serious Buddhist scholar like Robert Thurman.
The problem with the metaphor of technology is that technologies generally encourage a dualistic viewpoint, while mature practice erodes the perception that there is a doer using a tool to pursue a goal. This was an important lesson for American Buddhists during the freak years, when the goals were cosmic. In those idealistic times, there was a veritable obsession with the achievement of enlightenment experiences—an obsession that may have owed much of its ferocity to expectations first laid down by drugs. Over the decades, the emphasis has shifted away from such fierce pursuits, and many teachers go out of their way to deflate the excitement surrounding powerful meditation experiences. Indeed, I suspect that the hostility that some contemporary Buddhists express toward psychedelics conceals an anxiety that their practice remains tainted, on some level, with the desire to merely get high. But this is an understandable desire—it’s hard to say how many people would continue to practice over the years if they didn’t occasionally “get the goods,” whether on the pillow or on drugs.
But psychedelics don’t just get people high. Like literal acid, they work to erode, on both individual and social levels, the apparently solid substance of conventional reality—so-called common sense. Regardless of the otherworldly visions drugs can bestow, the deeper psychedelic message concerned the relativity of thought and perception—a “philosophical” insight that drugs reveal directly through the operation of your own nervous system. Unfortunately, as Nietzsche saw with a prophet’s eye, relativity is only a stone’s throw away from nihilism. Strong psychedelics gave people a glimpse of emptiness, but while the void could be glittering at its peak, it could feel like a bottomless pit the morning after. The ease with which so many psychedelic users sank into cynicism, mental instability, and addiction to more insidious drugs shows that psychedelics themselves do nothing to build the contexts of meaning and spiritual aspiration necessary to prevent such ecstatic technologies from becoming hollow and even destructive mechanisms. Some of the new religious movements of the 1970s—like the Jesus Freaks—reacted against the druggy void with a new fundamentalism. But the Dharma—whose full-frontal embrace of sunyata is coupled with a compassionate rejection of nihilism—seemed unusually poised to answer the problems posed by a stark psychedelic confrontation with the ultimate relativity and provisional nature of all phenomenal experience.
So how do we express and characterize the relationship between psychedelics and Dharma practice? The conventional answer, offered by many once-tripping Buddhists, is that drugs can “open the door.” Without much work or knowledge on the part of the user, psychedelics can crack open consensus reality, expand identity beyond the confines of the conventional self, induce ego-death, and unveil the connection between mind and the totality of the real. However “unauthentic” these experiences may be judged to be, many people respond to them by turning to Eastern practice in order to extend, comprehend, and deepen their insights. Once their practice has stabilized and opened up, many of these people abandon drugs as needless or even harmful distractions. In this view, spiritual practice becomes something like the liftoff of Apollo 11. Drugs point you toward the moon of enlightenment, and somewhat violently thrust you away from the gravity of consensus reality. Having done so, they can then be abandoned like the early stages of a rocket. Or as Alan Watts quipped, “Once you get the message, hang up the phone.”
Here psychedelics, once again, play the role of a liminal technology. That is, like a doorway or a telephone, they stand in-betwixt and in-between, shuttling mind over a threshold. However, while the image of door-opener certainly jibes with many people’s life experiences, it also serves to cordon off and subtly under-mine the full force of psychedelic experiences—not to mention their ongoing potential for insight. In other words, once drugs become nothing but expendable tools, the experiences they help provide (with more than a little help from the mind) can be ignored without being wholeheartedly denied. In Zen terms, they can be dispensed with as nothing more than makyo.
But what happens when serious Dharma practitioners continue to follow what poet Dale Pendell calls “the poison path?” What happens when you open the door and don’t shut it tightly behind you? Here is where the real controversy begins. No one’s logging any numbers, but I suspect that a healthy chunk of self-identified practicing American Buddhists keep at least occasional dates with the writhing, world-rending void lurking in the heart of psychedelic hyperspace. But I also suspect that, if asked to render judgment on such activities, most Dharma teachers would deliver a fat thumbs down. Indeed, psychedelic spirituality may well be the only real heresy in American Buddhism (except for maybe voting Republican). Heresy, though, is a Western concept, the stuff of witch burnings and gnostic cults. And though serious psychedelic culture certainly has its gnostic aspects, in the context of American Buddhism, it is perhaps best described as a kind of tantra—a coarse and scan-dalous one perhaps, but homegrown at least, arising from our “native” tradition of countercultural craziness.
Given the generally cheesy spectacle of American neo-tantric sexology, I want to emphasize that I am not claiming that psychedelics have much of anything to do with authentic Asian tantra, an immensely rich and complex tradition about which I have only a scattering of book learning. Nonetheless, in the spirit of productive analogies rather than proclamations of meta-physical truth, I’d like to suggest a number of intriguing parallels. The most obvious one is secrecy. Despite their crucial role in the propagation of American Buddhism, psychedelics are basically not the stuff of Dharma talks, or Shambhala books, or Tricycle articles. Discussions can occur within the context of sangha and teacher-student relationships, but only selectively and probably not very frequently. One reason for this secrecy derives from another similarity: as with the pañca-tattva practices of “left-handed” tantric adepts, who, among other things, ritually consume booze, fish, and meat, the materials of psychedelic Buddhism are socially unsanctioned—literally, “against the law.” In fact, the condemnation that surrounds psychedelics may actually lend them some of their esoteric power, just as the negative social mores surrounding meat, alcohol, and sexual congress in traditional India contributed a certain antinomian buzz to the feistier tantric practices.
The connection between psychedelics and tantra goes beyond social practices, into the heart of esoteric perception. This material is difficult to describe, but one could say for starters that psychedelics usher the bodymind into a magical, liminal realm that unfolds between the consensual sensory world and the transcendental worlds depicted in dream, art, and high-octane metaphysics. Within this “bardo zone,” memories, ideas, and images multiply and pulse like hieroglyphic sigils, suggesting patterns of association and hidden resonances that voyagers often take—or mistake—for revelations. But the real object of revelation is the mind itself—not simply as a source of meaning, or linguistic categories, but as an organic machine of perception, a machine that can be tweaked. Simply put, psychedelics present the imagination. And by “imagination” I don’t simply mean the source of our daydreams or visionary flights, but the synthetic power that Kant posited as the generally unconscious mechanism through which our basic conceptual faculties construct the world of space-time.
The status of the imagination in Buddhism is, to put it mildly, ambivalent. On the one hand, the imagination is often treated as a synonym for avidya—it is the imagination that mistakes the rope of reality for the frightening (or seductive) serpent. The very literary form of the earliest Buddhist texts—their dryness, repetition, and lack of flavor—argues that the desiccation of the imagination was a goal of practice. On the other hand, many Mahayana sutras are brimming with the materials of “fantasy:” galaxies of bodhisattvas, infinite garlands of wish-fulfilling gems, “clouds of spheres of light the color of the curl of hair between the Buddha’s eyebrows.” All this can sound very familiar to a seasoned tripper. Indeed, I have not come across a canonical religious text that can approach the psychedelic majesty of the Avatamsaka Sutra, whose infinite details and ceaseless lists capture both the adamantine excess and fractal multiplicity of deep psychedelia.
The literary function of such apparently “imaginative” materials is debatable. Are they glimpses of Sambhogakaya, crude folk material, depictions of literal powers, allegories of wisdom? Whatever its function in sutra, however, the work of the esoteric imagination in tantra is central, even on the most literal level of visualization. For the generation stages of tantra, during which deities and their associated mandalas are constructed with the inner eye, the merely individual imagination is used as a gateway, an engine to tame and train for the powerful perceptions of tantric reality. Through diligence, conduct, and ritual, the imagination itself is alchemically transformed, and the completion stages actualize, according to traditional accounts, what had only previously been imagined. Psychedelics are generally too chaotic and willful for this kind of controlled work; nonetheless, serious psychonauts will often encounter feelings, images, and pocket universes with an intensely tantric flavor. And why not? If one buys into tantric accounts of the subtle body, with its nadis and chakras and winds, then it is not too tough to imagine that, just as physical practices like hatha yoga, mantra, and tummo can stir up the energies of transformed perception, so might swarms of molecules swimming in the neural bath of the nervous system. Psychonauts who also practice yoga, tai chi, and visualization work regularly find these practices reshaping the phenomenology of their trips, sometimes in insightful ways.
Of course, even if drugs trigger actual changes in the esoteric bodymind, they may still be quite harmful, even demonic—a fear immortalized in the notorious claim that drugs somehow put “holes in your astral body.” As the scholar and historian David Gordon White makes clear, however, medieval Indian tantrics were not above ingesting alchemical elixirs, even as renegade sadhus ingest hashish and even jimsonweed today (White, 1996). It is hard to imagine that if LSD, peyote, or DMT existed in ancient India, these substances would not have been used by at least some folks who conceived of their path as tantra. Despite the thoroughly integrated example of Vajrayana in Tibet, the religious temperament of tantra suggests that some of its practitioners will almost inevitably stray toward heterodoxy; its extreme wings will adapt extreme technologies, dangerous or not. Representatives of orthodoxy may argue that such activities represent degenerate tantra, and they may well be right. But technology is about nothing if it is not about speed, and tantra is the lightning path, appropriate for a time of waning Dharma. Perhaps psychedelics are the greased lightning appropriate for an even more degenerate West, when even the Vajrayana seems like a laborious grind.
One red herring in the psychedelic debate is the rejoinder that drugs are artificial and cannot provide “authentic” spiritual experiences. Leaving aside the reverse spiritual materialism of this argument (i.e., that there are some productions of mind that we can legitimately embrace as authentic spiritual experiences), there is the evident fact that psychedelics can produce something like spiritual or visionary experience. In other words, instead of worrying about authenticity, we can look at them as simulators of the mind. The use of the individual’s imagination in the generation stages of tantra, during which images, colors, and processes are constructed which only later become actualized, alerts us to the productive work that can be done by staging “run-throughs” of later, more profound experiences.
The most profound experience that lies ahead for most of us, practitioners or not, is death. Given the scandalous liberties I’ve already taken, I don’t want to draw too tight an analogy here, but the ultimate object of tantric simulation is the dying process: the loss of the elements, the experience of the clear light, and the bardo. Similarly, the most ferociously meaningful psychedelic experiences tend to be those in which something like dying seems to occur. These experiences can be so powerful that, even if some kernel of us knows that we are on drugs, they rip “us” down to the bones. (The nature of the witnessing consciousness that undergoes intense psychedelic experiences is one of the koans of drugs.) Even if psychedelic ego-death itself does not resemble the actual dying process—and given the dizzying range of psychedelic experiences across both substances and minds, I suspect it may often lie rather far from the mark—it may be the closest most of us come to having the world snatched away and replaced with an exhila-rating, terrifying, and blissful realm of deep cosmic mind. From this perspective, drugs can be seen as flight simulators for the bardo; certain substances, including ketamine, ayahuasca, and 5MEO-DMT, seem to lend themselves particularly well to this kind of work.
And it is work. Psychedelics can be as grueling, frightening, and anxious as any sesshin. Moreover, they offer any number of yawning traps for the spiritually inclined experimenter, and part of the kind and grizzled wisdom radiated by some longtime heads arises from the deep work required to avoid those traps. One of these dangers is the temptation to cling to the visions, to interpret the images or narratives or self-models that arise as being messages from some being or deeper plane of reality. Besides literalizing the imagination—the sin of idolatry, if you will—this grasping overlooks the site of much of the real work. The visions are not the point. The point is how “you” change in relationship to your experience, both inside it and out—phenomenologically, ethically, aesthetically. There is no revelation but your own experience. And what is this experience? Submission to change, and the absolute truth of impermanence. After all, the altered states pass, obvious products of changing causes and conditions—in this case, eminently material ones.
Recognizing impermanence is a crucial ingredient for any spiritual path that involves altered states of consciousness, since the temptation to reify and cling to feelings, visions, and realizations is so overwhelming. This temptation leads to “religion” in the bad sense of the term, and it is one that Buddhism, at least some of the time, goes out of its way to undermine. One of the lessons dealt by psychedelics, at least for mature aficionados, is that they disenchant the very exalted states they introduce to the psyche. Not only do drugs demonstrate that such states can be generated by swallowing a pill or insufflating some noxious powder, but they invariably snatch those states away as they are metabolized and flushed from the body. Drugs are always and evidently upaya, or “means.” In contrast, the material or contingent aspect of purely “spiritual” altered states of consciousness, such as those that, arise naturally in meditation, are not always so obvious, making the temptation to hold onto those states and experiences all the greater. Indeed, drugs may also have something to say to these apparently nontechnological states of consciousness that play such a profound role in deep meditation, reminding us that they too arise from causes and conditions that are material as well as karmic. In fact, drugs may encourage us to sap the illusion of “essence” from all states of consciousness—not only from this serotonin trance we take for ordinary reality, but from even the most “classic” mystical experiences. And yet the powerful phenomenology of drugs simultaneously argues that we would be foolish to take these material causes as the only reality. Their illuminations are paradoxical, not simply profane.
The dark side of drugs goes without saying (if only because it is said so much). One does not need to be a genius, or even a psychologist, to understand how easily drugs can amplify delusion, dissociation, and spiritual materialism, let alone feed into patterns of behavior and consumption that lead ever further away from the Dharma. Even if the real horrors are avoided, I suspect that any-thing more than occasional use of all but the most sacred medicines does not help much in the long run. From the perspective of an established meditation practice, with which even a mild drug like marijuana can interfere, drugs can come to seem quite crude, even ridiculous, their once awe-inspiring dynamics revealing ever more mechanical, repetitive, and confusing effects. Nonetheless, at this point in the history of the spirit, spiritual practice and the psychedelic path are perhaps most fruitfully considered as distinct paths. Just as therapy is perhaps best seen as a complement of Dharma, sharing elements but also diverging in both goals and results, so might psychedelics be seen as a kind of shadow practice, with its own peaks and pitfalls. For most of us, it will seem, like the Bonpo side of Tibetan Buddhism, always a little dodgy, a bit too earthy and intense for comfort.
And it is this discomfort that makes psychedelic Buddhism a marginal subject, buried beneath the far more established narrative of psychedelics as an historical door-opener. This latter narrative is simpler to accept, not only because it takes the heat off the present moment, but because it accords so well with the larger American Buddhist boomer narrative, a narrative that still dominates the American Dharma.
You know the basic tale: the sixties were a crazy time of collective and individual experiments, including the copious consumption of mind-bending drugs. The fascination with altered states of consciousness led some to the deeper rewards of Eastern practice, which many embraced with radical, even revolutionary, intensity. But the 1970s and 1980s brought various forms of disillusionment: cult-like scenes, sex, power, and money scandals, the erosion of naive expectations surrounding spiritual attainment. While continuing to refine their commitment to the Dharma, many practitioners embraced more conventional careers, married and spawned, and became increasingly integrated and identified with mainstream society. Meanwhile, previously uninterested, largely liberal boomers began to turn to pop Dharma as a path of healing rather than a means of probing the fringes of the mind. Today, as the gray hair thickens and bodies start to creak, American Buddhism has become a rather conventional affair, especially when compared to the days of Trungpa, early Tassajara, and Be Here Now. The popular focus has shifted from the great doubt to the gentle heart, from fierce aspiration to everyday integration. Jack Kornfield says it all in the title of his recent book: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry.