By John Author
This article is just a meandering, something to think about. I’m not actually going to go off the deep end and start flagellating, sacrificing apples, and praying to Samantabhadra or anything.
It’s just a different slant on Buddhism based on historical context and the anthropological evidence related to shamanism.
It’s also a jab at the clinging pragmatism we’re so fond of here in the West and the tendency we have of rationalizing ancient texts through contemporary views. There was no such thing as pragmatism, skepticism, empiricism, postmodernism or nihilism in the Buddha’s day, so attributing any of those labels to him is kind of like re-writing history. Anywho, let’s get started.
The Suttas detail some pretty far out encounters. These include the B-Man visiting gods, demons, hungry ghosts, celestial realms and even Brahma, the God of Gods in Indian lore. These fantastic encounters are more common in Mahayana Buddhism, but they’re in Theravada as well.
The Pali Canon says that, right after becoming enlightened, Brahma descended from the heavens in order to convince Siddhartha to teach. Also, while sitting under the Bodhi Tree, Buddha resisted Mara and his hordes. It’s also claimed that he recounted all of his past lives and was once shielded by a giant cobra during a thunderstorm.
That’s all in Theravada Buddhism, which is usually considered the “straight dope” school of Buddhadharma.
Secular Buddhists of all shapes and sizes, including myself, have rationalized the hell out of these passages. The current consensus is that most of these tales were snuck in after the Buddha’s death. Another popular theory is that Buddha was using skillful means in order to connect with his audience. Then there’s the tired, “It’s all a metaphor,” view as well.
Those are some nice theories, but let’s take out Occam’s rusty razor for a second. There’s a much simpler explanation behind all of this: Buddha believed everything he said.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, John! Settle down! Such a pragmatic dude couldn’t possibly believe in all that hoodoo.” Maybe he, a practical man indeed, believed in mystical beings and psychedelic landscapes because he interacted with said beings and traveled to said lands.
Why would a practical, 5th century BCE dude doubt what seemed like genuine encounters? Free of modern skepticism, doubting such encounters would’ve been considered impractical.
“Hogwash! Balderdash! Utter drivel!” That’s what I thought too. So, let’s slam on the brakes for a second and take a trek through the woods.
Long before nomadic bands began to hunker down in long-term settlements, they had an egalitarian relationship with spirituality. Hunter-gatherers didn’t have medicine men or shamans because each of them knew how to practice medicine and appreciate the animistic world around them. Rituals weren’t systematic, they were dynamic and could be started by anyone. Doesn’t that sound freaking awesome?
This all changed when we started to transition from hunter-gatherers to hunter-collectors and, eventually, into farmers and traders. As people settled down, the stresses of civilized life overpowered their natural spirituality.
Shamans came about after we, as a species, abandoned our roots. They were specialists who healed members of the community and mediated with “The Other Side.” In the early days, psychoactive herbs were thought of as medicine rather than doorways to another world. They were used in small doses for specific purposes.
Yet as the everyday stressors built up a sense of community was replaced by a nagging isolation, drug use slowly crept into the rituals. Instead of coming about it honestly, shamans began to use hallucinogens to commune with the world beyond the senses.
Drugs and alcohol eventually made their way into all classes of society. People began to forget the shamans because they could just get wasted or trip in the comfort of their own homes. The shamans were replaced by priests who relied on fear-mongering and systematic spirituality to stay in power.
It’s at this point, in this hierarchical, mercantile, drug-addicted world, that Siddhartha was born. It’s this world that he strove to escape from.
It’s doubtful that Buddha never partook in mind altering substances. Wandering mendicants were, in essence, trying to get back to the shamanic way of life. They were the first primitivists, striving to recover what sedentary civilization stole from them.
Yet if Buddha did dabble with drugs, he clearly didn’t find them useful in the long run. Siddhartha found a new way to trip that didn’t require fasting, mortification, drugs, or alcohol—he found mindfulness and the jhanas.
If you take a gander at the jhanas, they’re nothing short of psychedelic experiences. Bliss, joy, silence, perfect equanimity, boundless space, and boundless consciousness.
Every dedicated meditator has tripped a few times while sitting, why would Siddhartha be an exception? Though he was practical, he also lived in a time and place devoid of contemporary Western skepticism. With that in mind, why wouldn’t he take these hallucinations at face value?
There’s no reason to think that, without a Western empiricist background, Siddhartha would attribute seeing Brahma to a meditation-induced hallucination. No, he would have taken it as an actual encounter with an actual being. So it’s possible that all of these mythical beings and mystical lands detailed in the Suttas were actually Siddhartha’s jhanic hallucinations.
Buddha, like those who came before him, was interacting with a realm invisible to the material world: he was a shaman.
Like the early shamans and the nomadic animists that preceded them, he did it without intoxicants. Then, like Timothy Leary, he encouraged people to, “Tune in, turn on, and drop out,” and join the Sangha.
In light of this, I might’ve been doing a disservice to Buddhism by ignoring or shunning all the mystical or mythical elements in it. Whether there actually are celestial beings or not is a moot point. The point is that Buddha, and the early Sangha, clearly had a lot more fun than I do.
Once, while meditating, I felt like I was surrounded by Bodhisattvas who were helping me along. What’s funner, attributing that to a hallucination or taking it at face value? Of even more importance, which view is more skillful and beneficial?
It’s possible that, even though they’re hallucinatory, engaging with those Bodhisattvas could strengthen my practice and increase a sense of well-being and wonder. If I could choose to live in a world of bland facts and figures or a world of hidden lands and celestial beings, why wouldn’t I choose the latter? It makes no difference if they’re real or not, either way they could still convey messages and insights that I might not stumble on without them.
The mind is a funny thing, and by funny I mean weird.
Study after study shows that we know more than we think we know, that there’s a literal stream of data constantly flowing beneath the veil of subconsciousness. It’s possible that by shunning the spectacular side of Buddhism, I’m neutering my entire practice. It’s possible that meditation is really a natural trip that takes us into deeper and deeper states of mind. That runs counter to Modernist movements, but it’s clearly what the Buddha had in mind.
We hear a lot about everyday mindfulness, but how often do we hear about the jhana of neither perception nor non-perception? How often do we hear about the jhana of the infinitude of nothingness? These psychedelic aspects of Buddhism have been, more or less, completely castrated by Western Buddhism. They’re also largely dismissed in Zen.
But they sure do sound like lots of fun.
Editor: Dana Gornall
John is a Caodong Ch'an student in the Empty Cloud Lineage of Hsu Yun. His Dharma name is Feng Dao which means "Wild Way" or "Windy Way." He originally wanted to become a social worker, focusing on preventative mental health care, but writing is his passion. “Above all else, I’m just a writer. Words come, I write them, I drink coffee.”
Oppression and marginalization are key issues for John. “I was forced out of mainstream society at a young age by my peers. So I will always stand up for the underdog and criticize bullying, coercion, and any institution that relies on those tactics.” Asked about what the most pressing issue of our time is, he replied, “The environment. We’ve bullied the earth so much that it could almost be called marginalized.”