LSD and Psychedelic Buddhism

GREEN BUDDHA Ed Paschke, 2000

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.

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3 Responses to LSD and Psychedelic Buddhism

  1. Tozen says:

    These basic training rules are observed by all practicing lay Buddhists. The precepts are often recited after reciting the formula for taking refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha.

    The Five Precepts:

    1. Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

    2. Adinnadana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

    3. Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

    4. Musavada veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.

    5. Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
    I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

    “Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fifth gift, the fifth great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & brahmans.”

    — AN 8.39

    Bodhidharma says of number five: “The ten dharma worlds are the body and mind. In the sphere of the originally pure dharma, not being ignorant is called the precept of refraining from using intoxicants.”

    I could say so much more sources about the need to abstain from any and all intoxicants while exploring the true nature of the Mind, but I would be at a remiss considering the self-evident evil being present as an alluring and most seductive force to excuse the use of the aforementioned, especially considering the massive negative karma it causes not only its propagator, but the victims of said persuasion, or discussion, alike.

    Trust me, there is no way around the fifth precept, however much you might believe a closer view on the subject might gain the reader the slightest spiritual advantage towards his, or hers, first enlightenment and right liberation from any and all forms of ignorance and suffering.

    The adept should perhaps contemplate this simple axiom in his, or hers, daily meditations, and find THAT within, which is not subject to the axiom and hence not rooted and present in the very same, as something – about to become, begotten and finally gone;


    • Vajragoni says:

      You’ve jumped the gun on me concerning the five-precepts–they will be presented in a later blog in this series.

      We are an eclectic endeavor on this site and will continue to present subject matter that is relational to Buddhist Meditation/Mysticism. But thank-you for relaying the other side of the equation.

  2. Tozen says:

    I understand your position. But I have to add this as something worth a certain measure of consideration by those reading your article;

    Any way of covering intoxicants, be it the more “mind-altering” Psychopharma like Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD), Ayahuasca, MDMA, Peyote, Psilocybin, and similar cerebral drugs of the samsaric mind, as means that can offer their users a potential spiritual clarity into the sphere of Nirvana is dangerous. I deem them dangerous because all they offer are layers of distorted visions of the true rendering confusion, upon confusion (read Samsara) and the most damageable of all – the impurities of the Heart-Mind, now enhanced, and dominant overshadowing the spiritual clarity found in the absolute purity and clarity that is required as to SEE and PASS through the gateless gate into the nirvanic sphere of the deathless.

    This is why Mara manages to so easily deceive sentients to squander one life, after another, in endless rebirths, remaining ignorant of their true nature. Sometimes a very small misstep is sufficient at a certain point of one’s life is sufficient to wreck an entire and very rare existence in a realm favorable for awakening from a dark beginningless chain of dreams.
     Standing on the threshold of the gateless gate, with a right view of the dharmakaya, is one thing where degrees of karmic impurity is still present, but passing through it and standing on the shore of Nirvana, firmly, demands absolute spiritual purity. 
    There is no way around this and the artificial laws of men have no dominion over the latter that can change that fact.
    Even the best shamans (frequent users of mind-altering drugs) were never any bodhisattvas, or Samhyaksambuddhas, or even arhats for that matter, while doing what they did, often as a spiritual service to their local community.
     They were, of course, healers (with a few exceptions of those going rogue to the other side), but this did not mean they held any right knowledge that was even at par with a mere Pratyekabuddha.
    As I wrote in my previous comment. Whats is of samsara, stays in samsara. Impurity, even the slightest, can never give the good disciple, of the way, an enlightening glimpse (right view) of the deathless, or even better, induce the mind of a buddha-to-be to fully bloom and encompass the nirvanic sphere of the true samhyaksambuddhas and bodhisattvas – the very goal of any good Buddhist.
    The very notion of intoxicants being any path to the previous is anathema to what the true meaning of the Buddhadharma presents to anyone approaching it with a Pure Heart and a Clear Mind, hence the ancient Chinese description of this invaluable jewel of jewels, XIN (Heart-Mind).

    If covered by layers of confusion, the light within XIN does not come through (and en-lightens), but once the impurities are gone, the light flows in all ten directions freely and abundantly, affecting all good creatures in its proximity; even attracting devas sensible to its singular radiance with a power that is needed for the final release from Samsara, once and for all.

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