The motivation behind presenting this series first occurred while doing research on Lama Anagarika Govinda and Dr.Timothy Francis Leary, contrasting their views on the potential of psychedelic drugs and whether or not they are beneficial or a direct hindrance to one’s meditation and general growth in the Buddhadharma. At the outset, some readers will most likely state that’s a ridiculous statement as most assuredly any incursions into the realm of psychedelia clouds the mind rather than dissipating the mists of ignorance from a true and devoted Mind adept. After doing heavy research on this matter I can state categorically that they are both right and wrong. This assertion will be ascertained as our series progresses. However, I will state unequivocally up front that these mind-altering excursions are no vehicle of escape from the human predicament—yea, they usually open the door to “Super-Samsara”, but its samsara just the same. The Govinda Vs Leary angle will commence in an upcoming blog, but firstly it behooves us to critically examine psychedelia and how it flavors the tea of Psychedelic Buddhism.
In coming across various resources, it amazed me how I had amassed a hefty bag of them over the years on this subject but only recently they chose to reveal themselves to me again at this proper junction, offering more serious study. The main resources are as follows:
An Article by Govinda entitled, Drugs and Meditation: Consciousness Expansion and Disintegration versus Concentration and Spiritual Regeneration.
A book of writings from Leary: Timothy Leary, High Priest, 1995
A High History of Buddhism, from a 1996 Tricycle Magazine Article.
A book entitled, Zig Zag Zen, Buddhism and Psychedelics, by Allan Badiner and Alex Grey, 2015
Altered States: Buddhism and psychedelic Spirituality in America, a book by Douglas Osto., 2016
Certainly the Psychedelic Sixties was the prelude behind the explosion of psychedelia, although there were some earlier antecedent ones from the 1950’s revolving around people like Aldous Huxley (1894–1963). Our subsequent blog will be devoted to him in particular. D. T. Suzuki’s concern figured prominently as well:
In Japan, D. T. Suzuki wrote an essay as part of a symposium on “Buddhism and Drugs” for The Eastern Buddhist, in which he warned that the popularity of LSD “has reached a point where university professors organize groups of mystical drug takers with the intention of forming an intentional society of those who seek ‘internal freedom.’ . . . All this sounds dreamy indeed,” wrote D. T. Suzuki, “yet they are so serious in their intention, that Zen people cannot simply ignore their movements.” (Tricycle)
Alan Watts was more appreciative of the times:
He pointed out, to begin with, that everybody must speak for himself since so much depended on the “mental state of the person taking the chemical and circumstances under which the experiment is conducted.” In Watts’s case, these had been benign, and LSD had given him “an experience both like and unlike what I understood as the flavor of Zen.” His mind had slowed, there were subtle changes in sense perception, and most importantly, “the thinker” had become confounded so that it realized “that all so-called opposites go together in somewhat the same way as the two sides of a single coin.” This in turn had led to an experience of what the Japanese Buddhists called ji ji-mu-ge, the principle of universal interpenetration.
The most interesting part of the experience for Watts was not this ecstatic and sublime state, but the moment of return to the ordinary state of mind. There “in the twinkling of an eye” lay the realization “that so-called everyday or ordinary consciousness is the supreme form of awakening, of Buddha’s anuttara-samyak-sambodhi.” But this realization, remembered clearly enough, soon faded. “It is thus,” concluded Watts, “that many of us who have experimented with psychedelic chemicals have left them behind, like the raft which you used to cross a river, and have found growing interest and even pleasure in the simplest practice of zazen, which we perform like idiots, without any special purpose.” (Tricycle)
Concerning anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, Lama Surya Das writes:
One problem with glimpses from drug trips is that it’s easier to get enlightened than to stay enlightened. What you experience is not ultimate, final, unshakable, and irreversible. It’s not anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, perfect complete awakened enlightenment. It’s just a breakthrough, a satori, a single enlightenment experience. People may have glimpsed the completeness, but they don’t continue to feel complete. It’s like glimpsing the golden sun when it momentarily breaks through the clouds. Forever after, you know what “sun” means. You’ve seen it, yet you don’t see it all the time because it’s hidden behind the clouds of your own karmic obscurations. One downside of psychedelic experiences is that you may think you’re there when you’re not really there. I diagnose this as “premature immaculation,” a condition that can paralyze the further impetus of your spiritual journey. We have to keep going on the path, not just stop at the first beautiful view. Drug use generally decreases with the deepening of spiritual practice; moreover, chemically induced experiences produce more personal change and inner growth if done in the context of some form of spiritual practice. (Zig Zag Zen, Buddhism and Psychedelics)
Lama Surya Das, however, says not to throw-out the beneficial uses of psychedelia with the bathwater:
[While on LSD] one fine spring day, I had my first glimpse of God, of what Meister Eckhart calls “the Great Emptiness,” the via negativa. I knew what the Christian mystic had meant when he said: “The eye through which I see God is the eye with which He sees me.” This epiphany, this spiritual breakthrough, was overwhelmingly moving. For a few hours I felt totally connected and loved, and at the same time as if dissolved. I disappeared, and yet I was connected to everything and everyone, graciously blessed with a profound sense of meaning, belonging, acceptance, and unconditional compassion for all living things. There was nothing more to do or undo, and all of reality seemed perfectly radiant, stainless, whole, and complete, just as it was. (ibid)
He also discovered that “the organic psychedelics, such as organic mescaline, peyote, and mushrooms, were softer and smoother than LSD, and thus more conducive to exploring the spiritual domain.” We will be exploring the value of these more “organic” substances in future blogs. Hopefully, so far one can see that this subject matter needs to be a “balanced affair.” Let’s not forget the majestic wonders of sutras like the Avataṃsaka, wherein is depicted infinitely jeweled Buddha-fields and a million-fold host of countless Buddha-beings and Bodhisattvas that inhabit them; many have likened these visions unto psychedelic episodes, such as the renowned Mahayana scholar Paul Williams who has described the visionary imagery of the Gaṇḍavyūha as “hallucinogenic.” Then, too, one must consider the Mystic Shamans throughout the millennia and numerous cultures, who have made copious use of mind-altering substances, like Amrita, the elixir of deathlessness which is considered as the very nectar of the gods. They utilize them for traversing vast celestial astral planes as well as conferring healing-balm for their people. Who’s to say that likewise visiting such interdimensional planes (catalyzed through the door of psychedelics) would not somehow incur new spiritual revelations, those that will actually enhance and broaden one’s own journey in mind and spirit? On that note, let us now conclude our introductory blog. Hope you continue to join us on this little trip together.