By John Lee Pendall
Drugs and Buddhism, it’s the flavor of the week.
A recent article in Lion’s Roar details how several American Buddhist teachers aren’t only endorsing psychedelics, but incorporating them into retreats. This has some Buddhist teachers foaming at the mouth. I read several angry rants on Facebook.
Everyone’s throwing the Fifth Precept around like it’s some kinda magic sword, and in the meantime, they’re practicing unskillful speech—part of the Fourth Precept.
I smoked a lot of pot when I was younger. I mean a lot of pot.
I also dabbled with other psychedelics. The most potent one was salvia divinorum, a ritual herb that’s now illegal in most states. I’m pretty boring these days. I might drink an IPA now and then, and I sometimes get light-headed when I stand up too fast, but that’s about it.
I used psychedelics for the same reason some Buddhists are using them: insight and exploration. I wanted to expand my mind and see beyond myself to some kind of deeper meaning.
Of course I wanted to leave myself behind because I hated myself. Transcendence isn’t usually a huge priority for happy people. Why would someone who likes him or herself want to go beyond that self?
This applies to Buddhism as well. There’s absolutely no reason for a moderately content and reasonably well-adjusted person to practice Buddhism.
It makes sense why someone would want to double up. If Buddhism and psychedelics both work well separately, you’d think they’d work well together, right? Maybe, maybe not. The thing is, the B-Man instituted the Fifth Precept because intoxicants tend to cloud the mind. Ya can’t trust the insights of a cloudy mind because those clouds prevent us from seeing whether something is genuine and in accord with reality or not.
When we’re intoxicated, we’re also more likely to break the other Precepts.
That said, he mainly had alcohol in mind. Nowhere in any Sutta does it say, “Don’t eat those wacky mushrooms that make you see stuff.” We can’t argue against psychedelics by relying on doctrine.
Without that, we only have conjecture and personal experience. Salvia is unlike other psychedelics in that instead of manipulating this world, it makes you forget this world entirely and takes you to another one. After smoking it, I closed my eyes and—without even a transition—I was in an apartment, sitting on a couch. I knew it was my apartment, even though I’d never been there before.
After a few seconds, I forgot that I’d never been there before; I forgot that I’d even smoked salvia.
I was watching football (I don’t even like football), but I needed another beer. I walked to the fridge, opened it, and I was immediately sucked into a wormhole. This was all from a first-person perspective; it seemed just as real as any ordinary experience. I felt like I was trapped in a glass coffin, rocketing through space-time. Outside, blue lights zipped by faster, and faster, I could feel the G-force on my face as I picked up speed
Just when it became too much to bear, I was rocketed out the bottom into… nothing. Total, infinite, nothingness. I was terrified, but then a warmth settled in on me and a voice said, “It’s okay. You’re on salvia. You can go back anytime you like.” Then I snapped out of it—only five minutes had passed. My friend looked at me expectantly. And no, he wasn’t the voice.
Suffice it to say, there’s no way in hell I could’ve possibly been mindful during that experience. Psychedelics can strip us of discipline because they plunge us into a realm of beautiful chaos. It’s so easy to lose your bearings. But, with a seasoned sitter guiding someone along, it could work.
That brings us to the retreat thing. We’re talking about formal tripping here.
It’s still East meets West, but the Old West, the Native West. Psychedelics were once a huge part of Native American culture, and they still are for some tribes—especially in South America.
I think that’s kind of a neat mixture myself, but there’s no way of telling what might happen when we bring herbal shamanism into a Buddhist atmosphere. Things could get wild. Even without hallucinogens, several people have reported experiencing disturbing thoughts, visions, and overwhelming emotions while on retreats. One girl committed suicide after a 10-day Vipassana retreat. It can be some intense shit.
If we add psychedelics to that, well, the results are gonna be unpredictable, and they’re not going to end with the retreat. After tripping and meditating for three, five or seven days, people are going to be forced back out into the noisy, confusing, oblivious world.
That’s a jarring experience for a lot of sober practitioners.
After repeatedly diving into the heart of eternity for several days in a secluded place, I’m not sure if I could ever live a secular life again without feeling totally out of place.
But, I don’t know. If someone said, “Hey, Jack Kornfield’s hosting a retreat where we all eat shrooms and meditate for three days, ya wanna come?” I’d probably say, “Sure,” just for the experience. I’m very stupid.
Besides that, the only major problem I have with Dharmadelics can be summed up in this quote from the article: “She said the substance helps remove her habitual deluded way of seeing herself and the world.”
That sounds great, but it isn’t. Because in Buddhism, we untangle our delusions by seeing them as they are. We can’t break free from them if we zoom past them into a chemical nirvana. That trip offers a checked baggage service; your luggage will be waiting for you.
I know someone who’s used ayahuasca, another ancient, ritualistic psychedelic. He was on cloud nine for days after his experience He saw Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and experienced naked awareness. Three weeks later, he was viciously swearing at a FedEx driver, angrier than ever.
Dependent arising. If your awakening arises from using a substance, then it can’t survive without that substance.
So, if a Buddhist does use psychedelics as part of their practice, I’d recommend only doing it on the rarest occasion. Don’t rely on it or take it too seriously. Also, the Buddha warned about clinging to rites and rituals, so keep that in mind as well.
I’m not as up in arms about this issue as some other Buddhists are. I’m more concerned about which teacher is gonna sexually assault someone next.
And I think that this issue is getting played up a little. Writers are framing it like everyone’s doing it, like it’s the next big thing. No, it isn’t. We’re talking about small pockets of practitioners. You don’t have to worry about your Roshi rolling a blunt with pages torn from the Shobogenzo or door-to-door stonersattvas stealing your students from you. Chill out.
If this is gonna catch on in any school, it’ll be Vajrayana, but Tantric Buddhists have always just done whatever the fuck they want anyway, so it’s not like this would be a huge about-face. Have you ever tried a Tibetan visualization meditation? Trippy stuff.
I was once dismembered by the Bodhisattva Manjusri. Then he gave me a flower and it floated in empty space. The only difference between that and tripping is that I didn’t feel out of control and I was still aware of the ordinary room around me.
To sum it up: the issue with using psychedelics as a practice aid is that they’re an impermanent condition; they can hinder clarity and discipline; they could potentially break your brain. Really, I’m troubled by all the sober Buddhists raging out over this.
Someone might let their practice slip after dropping a few tabs of acid, but letting anger flap our tongues for us is a slip as well.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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He has a B.S. in psychology and lives between two cornfields in rural Illinois. His errant knowledge base covers Buddhism, philosophy, psychology, astronomy, theology, music theory, and quoting lines from movies.
Feel free to check out his Facebook page, and his blog "Salty Dharma".