In June, please join us at CIIS online in a course entitled, “Buddhism and Psychedelics.” We will explore the ideas of many Buddhist and psychedelicpioneers, including Robert Aitken, Richard Baker, John Perry Barlow, Stephen Batchelor, David Chadwick, Lama Surya Das, Ram Dass, Erik Davis, Rick Fields, Joan Halifax, Jack Kornfield, and Terence McKenna. Although this is a for-credit course, you do not have to be a full time student at CIIS to join us. For more info email [email protected]. The following article introduces some of the strands of our upcoming explorations…
Two great directions in human thought and activity have recently beencoming into sharper focus. Interest in Buddhism has not been greater since it was first introduced to China where it proceeded to grow steadily for 500 years, and the serious and thoughtful use of psychedelics is making a resurgence, perhaps more profoundly than in the Sixties.
Buddhism and psychedelics share a concern with the same problem: the attainment of liberation for the mind. The word psychedelic was first used in a letter from British psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond to the philosopher, Aldous Huxley in 1957. Taking the Greek root psykhe, or “mind” and adding deloun or delos “to make visible or clear,” psychedelic becomes ‘mind manifesting.’ Completing the process is purification of the mind — the essence of the Buddha’s Way.
Recently Ram Dass and Ralph Metzner have released a book about the birth of a psychedelic culture. There can be no doubt that Buddhism, and the world view that makes an understanding of this path possible, has contributed fundamentally to the conditions for such a birth. Most of the teachers and researchers who have become well known in the psychedelic movement are also experienced in the philosophy and practices of Buddhism. Meanwhile, psychedelics lurk in the personal histories of almost all first-generation Buddhist teachers in Europe and America, although today we find many teachers advising against pursuing a path they once traveled. Few Buddhists make the claim that psychedelic use is a path itself — some maintain that it is a legitimate gateway, and others feel Buddhism and psychedelics don’t mix at all.
Just as Buddhism itself must be held to the test of personal experience and to the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of the results, so also must the question of how, or if, psychedelics can be part of a Dharma practice. Psychedelics can be used in a great variety of ways for an enormous array of purposes. The results depend greatly on the experience, intentions, knowledge, skill, and spiritual maturity of the practitioner. The place of critical examination and analysis, and the freedom to make these discoveries for oneself is an essential foundation of Buddhism and is found as far back as the Kalama Sutra wherein Buddha warned people to practice for themselves and not to take his word for it about the benefits. Religious historian Huston Smith also had a warning: that while psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits, and one does not necessarily lead to the other.
Alan Watts, one of the first prominent westerners to follow the Buddhist path, considered Buddhism and psychedelics to both be part of the same individual philosophical quest. He was not interested in Buddhism to be studied and defined in such a way that one must avoid “mixing up” one’s thinking about Buddhism with other interests, such as in quantum theory, Gestalt psychology, aesthetics, or psychedelics. Any useful investigation into human potential will explore the differing views on the intersection of Buddhist practice and psychedelic use.
An awareness of the relatedness between separate objects and opposites is one of the key insights that psychedelic travelers often bring home from their chemical “pilgrimages.” Perhaps the popularization of both Zen and psychedelics has shifted the cultural mind from a dominantly conceptual and linear view of reality to a mode of awareness that is more ecological and holistic. While we will always continue to think in linear ways, awareness is growing that this mode of consciousness is relative, a human construct, and not a reflection of “objective reality.” This way of seeing is not something people necessarily need psychedelics to experience. It is, in fact, one of the central premises underlying Zen and brings us closer to a perspective that is perhaps equally comfortable being called “dharmic” or “psychedelic.”
Putting aside the well-founded arguments for and against psychedelic use, there is an essentially Buddhist response to the long entrenched, ongoing, and devastating war on drugs: great compassion. Draconian drug laws ensnare millions of otherwise law-abiding people in an ever growing spiral of wasteful and counterproductive strategies whose foundation is punishment. It has resulted in an incarceration rate so unimaginable that almost one in four of every person behind bars in the entire world is locked upin the United States. At this very moment, American jails and prisons hold tens of thousands of people — vastly disproportionate numbers of them black — whose only crime is possession of the marijuana plant. Prisons become classrooms for more advanced crime, drugs are readily available to everyone from schoolchildren on up, criminals outspend and outsmart police, and no one feels safer.
The drug war leads to cynicism and apathy and, of course, blights thousands of lives. Profits from the illegal drug trade fuel organized crime and enhance the power of the cartels to corrupt police, judges, and government officials. The newest casualties in the failed war on drugs are our personal liberties. A society that actively banishes personal exploration withall psychedelic plants will need to closely monitor its citizens. All ourcommunications, transactions, and expressions are under increasing surveillance by a growing and expensive bureaucracy of control and repression. None of thisis conducive to the peaceful and free contemplation of strategies for our personal liberation and fulfillment. In reality, this ceases to be a war on drugs, but rather becomes a war on consciousness, war on free exercise of that most precious of gifts bestowed on a human being.
Human history can be seen as a series of relationships with plants, relationships made and broken. Plants, drugs, politics, and religions have harshly intermingled — from the influence of sugar on mercantilism to the influence of coffee on the modern office worker, from the British forcing opium on the Taoist Chinese to credible reports that the CIA used heroin in the ghetto to choke off dissent and dissatisfaction. The lessons to be learned can be raised into consciousness, integrated into social policy, and used to create a more caring, meaningful world, or they can be denied with the results now plainly seen.
The enhanced capacity for extraordinary cognitive experience made possible by the use of plant psychedelics may be as basic a part of our humanness as is our spirituality or our sexuality. The question is how quickly we can develop into a mature community that is able to address these issues with openness and candor. In the past, awareness about the deepest “occult” or “hidden” parts of our spirit selves was considered the private preserve of shamans, priests, or spiritual masters who had earned their way to it. Religious experience was mediated by the seauthorized few, and this is a tradition still with us in the form, if not attitude, of many religions. The democratization of psychedelics, however, and of Buddhism to a similar extent, has been very much about the breakdown of this restricted access to the divine. In Buddhism, as in psychedelics, the individual takes responsibility for their relationship to the source of their being, and for access to the highest states of spirit mind.
Image by fdecomite, courtesy of Creative Commons license.