By Sensei Alex Kakuyo
You meet all kinds of people on the road.
Some of them are clearly running from something; a past trauma or an action they regret.
Others are clearly looking for something; a tribe of like-minded people or a safe place to call home.
This results in a strange mix of people ending up in strange places and sharing their lives for any where from a few weeks to a few months. You part ways knowing that you’ll never see each other again despite your endless promises to keep in touch, but you always remember the people you meet on the road, and your life is usually better for having met them.
Case in point, I met a guy named “Fred” when I was farming in Indiana who’d lived an insanely cool life. He did corporate America for a while, and decided it wasn’t for him. So, he high-tailed it to Vietnam and taught English for several years before deciding that he wanted to become a shaman.
After that, he made his way to Brazil where he wandered for several weeks until the locals pointed him to a Shaman who was willing to train him, and help him study Ayahuasca. Unfortunately, he ran out of money before he could complete the course of study, and he was forced to return to the United States.
Fred and I met in an intentional community in Indiana.
We were both building apprentices, and in addition to general maintenance around the farm we were tasked with building a tiny house on the property using reclaimed materials.
It was rough going at first, but by the end of our apprenticeship we’d built a 350 square foot structure complete with a wood stove, solar panel hookup, and cedar siding. The walls were made from a combination of earth bags and clay slip, the floor was built from wood pallets, and the roof was insulated with fiberglass insulation that we scavenged from a condemned house.
Naturally, when you spend 10 hours a day doing hard, manual labor with someone you spend a lot of time chatting about random things. During the time we spent building the tiny house Fred and I discussed our childhoods, plans for the future, and our spiritual practice. When he described some of his experiences with Ayahuasca they sounded similar to some of the things that I had experienced while meditating (e.g. peace, a feeling of interconnection, a release of old grudges, etc.)
Eventually, he invited me to take part in a ceremony that he was planning for the spring that would involve magic mushrooms.
Yet, as I studied the sutras, I couldn’t find a single passage where the Buddha instructed his students to use psychedelics. I couldn’t justify abstaining from alcohol in order to keep the fifth precept if I was going to break it through the use of magic mushrooms.
In the end, I decided that I was either going to drink alcohol and do mushrooms, or I was going to abstain from both.
I chose the latter. But it didn’t affect things between Fred and me. He was training to be a Shaman and I was training to be a Buddhist teacher; our paths were different, and that was okay.
That being the case, I was surprised by how strongly I reacted when I read articles in Tricycle and Lion’s Roar that advocated for the mixing of psychedelics and Buddhism. The gist of both articles was that the use of psychedelics is an effective way to practice Dharma.
Of course, both articles used all the required qualifiers about how psychedelics are good for some people in some situations, and certainly not for everyone, but they are perfectly safe if used in the proper “set” and setting.
As a result, my initial response was anger.
It sounded way too much like the drug dealers I used to deal with at raves who said bath salts were perfectly safe as long as you took them on a full stomach, drank plenty of water, and maintained a good mental attitude; in other words, if you had the right “set” and setting.
In the Lion’s Roar article, Mark Koberg, the executive director of InsightLA states the following:
“We know that psychedelics are a valid doorway to dharma practice. It was in the 1960s and still is today. And now, there is a renaissance of use,” says Mark Koberg, Executive Director of InsightLA.
My anger switched to confusion when I read that line because there is no place in the Buddhist scriptures where Buddha, Dogen, Shantideva, or any of the great Dharma teachers of old suggest that psychedelics will help us on the path. It never happened.
What we have here is a group of people who enjoy getting high, and they are using Buddhist practice as a means to justify it. But if we accept psychedelics as being part of Dharma practice, is there any real reason why we can’t have marijuana-themed retreats? Is alcohol a valid gateway into Dharma practice?
My confusion grew as I pondered the ramifications of these articles.
It means something when publications like Lion’s Roar and Tricycle write about psychedelics beings a “valid doorway” to the Dharma.
It means something when organizations like InsightLA and Buddhist Geeks openly discuss blending psychedelics and Buddhism.
It means something when the rest of the American Buddhist establishment is largely silent on this issue. It means the debate is over.
Psychedelics are an accepted part of practice in American Buddhism.
I literally got a headache at one point when I tried to comprehend how this came about, but then I realized something. For all of its benefits, meditation isn’t sexy. There’s nothing fun about ethical training, and it takes a lot of self-discipline to sit through a sesshin.
Drugs on the other hand are a lot of fun, sexy even, and people will pay a lot of money to have spiritual teachers feed them drugs.
It’s not a coincidence that Spring Washam, a teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, describes mixing psychedelics with Buddhism in the same article that she plugs her two-week Buddhist ayahuasca retreats. It’s not a coincidence that Vince Horn did an entire podcast series on blending psychedelics and meditation before using a Lion’s Roar article to announce his “Mushrooms for Meditators” retreat.
Drugs plus Buddhism equals a whole lot of money, and the American Buddhist establishment is cashing in.
At this point, my confusion changed to disgust. As westerners, we were given an incredible gift in the form of Buddhist practice—a 2,600 year old tradition that empowered us to end suffering for ourselves and others.
But in our rush to make it palatable to American tastes we corrupted it until awakening and getting high turned into the same thing. This is why we can’t have anything nice. We value peak experiences more than real insights. We value profits and packed auditoriums more than truth.
It’s disgusting. Psychedelic Buddhism is disgusting.
But it’s here, and there’s nothing that I can do about it. Truthfully, I shouldn’t be surprised that something like this could happen. After all, life is suffering, why would Buddhism be any different?
In the end, my disgust changed to acceptance. Raging against the Buddhist Industrial Complex does nothing outside of causing suffering for myself. So, I’m going to channel these feelings of hurt and disappointment into walking the path.
It’s clear now that my path, my way of the Buddha, is different than the mainstream. It focuses on daily life as spiritual practice; elevating mundane tasks (cleaning, walking, meditating, etc.) to enlightenment itself.
My path is not fun. It’s not sexy. But it’s real, and I’ll take reality over drug-fueled hallucinations any day.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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