Zig Zag Zen

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Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics

by Allan Hunt Badiner

Publisher Comments:

Buddhism and psychedelic experimentation share a common
concern: the liberation of the mind. Zig Zag Zen launches
the first serious inquiry into the moral, ethical,
doctrinal, and transcendental considerations created by the
intersection of Buddhism and psychedelics. With a foreword
by renowned Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor and a preface
by historian of religion Huston Smith, along with numerous
essays and interviews, Zig Zag Zen is a provocative and
thoughtful exploration of altered states of consciousness
and the potential for transformation. Accompanying each
essay is a work of visionary art selected by artist Alex
Grey, such as a vividly graphic work by Robert Venosa, a
contemporary thangka painting by Robert Beer, and an
exercise in emptiness in the form of an enso by a
17th-century Zen abbot. Packed with enlightening entries and
art that lie outside the scope of mainstream anthologies,
Zig Zag Zen offers eye-opening insights into alternate
methods of inner exploration.

Section One: Intersection

The Plant Medicine Sutra by Robert Schrei

Mysticism: Contemplative and Chemical by Roger Walsh

Dissolving the Roots of Suffering by Dokush Villalba

A High History of Buddhism in America by Rick Fields

Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice: A Buddhist
Perspective – Interview with Jack Kornfield by Robert

Buddhism, Shamanism, and Thangka Paintings by Claudia
Müeller-Eberling and Christian Räetsch

A Buddhist-Psychedelic History of Esalen Institute –
Interview with Michael Murphy and George Leonard

Shadow Paths by Peter Matthiessen

A Survey of the Entheogens by Robert Jesse

Section Two: Concrescence?

Vajravision by Alex Grey

DMT Dharma by Rick J. Strassman, M.D.

Psychoactivism by David Chadwick

Leaning Into Rawness by Trudy Walter

Relative Truth by Brigid Meier

Yagé and the Yanas by Allan Hunt Badiner

A Trip Not Taken by China Galland

The Paisley Gate by Erik Davis

Section Three: Lessons

Psychedelics on the Path: Help or Hindrance? by Charles
T. Tart

Buddhism and the Psychedelic Society – An Interview with
Terence McKenna

Liberty and LSD by John Perry Barlow

The Zen Commandments by Lama Surya Das

On the Front Lines – Interview with Michele

Do We Still Need Psychedelics? by Myron Stolaroff

A Roundtable with Ram Dass, Robert Aitken Roshi, Richard
Baker Roshi, and Joan Halifax



by Stephen Batchelor


It is undeniable that a significant proportion of those
drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s
(including the present writer) were influenced in their
choice of religious orientation by experiences induced by
psychoactive substances such as marijuana and LSD. Despite
the fact that experimentation with such drugs was illegal,
potentially dangerous and unmonitored, the startling shift
in consciousness it occasionally provoked was considered to
be worth the risks involved. Now, thirty years later, many
of these Buddhists are priests, meditation teachers,
therapists, college professors, and writers: respected
members of the very society against which they rebelled in
their youth. Yet although they often eschew the use of
psychedelics themselves and warn others of the dangers of
abuse, few would deny the role of these substances in
opening their eyes to a life of spiritual and religious


The connection between drug use and spirituality is not,
however, limited to the experience of a few aging hippies.
The ritualized use of drugs is still practiced among sadhus
and shamans of traditional cultures from India to Peru. The
current use of drugs such as Ecstasy–originally popular at
clubs and raves, but now in numerous shared settings–is
likewise associated with heightened states of individual
consciousness as well as the forging of a deep ecstatic bond
between participants. Language and symbols borrowed from
Asian and indigenous American sacred traditions permeate the
literature, lyrics, and imagery of underground dance
culture, as much as–or even more than–they did in the
festivals and happenings of the 1960s.


It is all too easy either to dismiss claims of spiritual
significance for drugs as thinly veiled justifications for
hedonistic indulgence, or to invoke the tragic consequences
of heedless excess as grounds for denying the validity of
any drug-induced experience at all. In so doing, one fails
to recognize the spiritual aspirations of people who are
seeking expression and fulfillment in this way. One likewise
ignores the harsh fact that Western societies have lost the
ability to address the religious feelings of a considerable
segment of their youth.


In swinging between liberal tolerance one moment and
outraged repression the next, modern societies seem
chronically incapable of reaching consistent attitudes about
drugs. Consider, for example, the double standard applied to
the achievement of physical, as opposed to cultural,
excellence. While a sportsman will have his Olympic medals
revoked for using drugs that enhance his performance, a
musician would not be stripped of her Grammy awards if it
turned out that her songs were composed and played under the
influence of an illegal substance. Why are regulations
imposed on the behavior of one but not the other? Why should
the athlete be punished, but the artist not?


When the broad culture sends out such contradictory
messages about drugs, to whom can people turn for informed
and sympathetic guidance? If drug use can be linked to
spiritual issues, then surely such guidance would be
forthcoming from religious leaders. Yet the spokesmen and
women of the mainstream denominations seem to have little to
say on the subject beyond pious encouragement to abstinence.
Traditional schools of Buddhism are no exception. The five
lay precepts, which are considered the foundation of ethical
behavior–elements of the teachings given by the Buddha in
his first sermon after enlightenment–list the taking of
intoxicating drugs along with killing, sexual misconduct,
theft, and lying as something every good Buddhist is
expected to relinquish. Although certain ecstatic Zen
masters and Tantric yogins may be deemed sufficiently
awakened to be exempt from strict adherence to this precept,
there is no discussion about the role that drug use might
play in propelling someone onto the path in the first


As Buddhism comes of age in the West, it needs both to
honor its traditions and respond to the actual conditions of
the world in which people live today. Simply reiterating
answers to moral issues that have worked well in the past
may serve only to alienate those who otherwise would find
great value in the Dharma. Before Buddhists can even begin
to have a serious discussion about the use and abuse of
drugs in contemporary society, there needs to be an
acceptance of at least the possibility that certain
currently illegal drugs can produce life- and
performance-enhancing effects. Such a shift in attitude may
require considerably greater openness, understanding, and
tolerance from those in the Buddhist community entrusted
with offering moral and spiritual guidance.


Although we live in a world in which the widespread
consumption of legal, illegal, and prescribed drugs keeps
growing, we seem incapable of conducting an intelligent and
compassionate debate around their use and abuse. We might be
reaching a point where the contradiction between what
society doesn’t permit and what people actually do in terms
of ingesting psychoactive substances becomes intolerable.
This contradiction undermines the credibility of those in
positions of political and religious authority and fractures
the moral consensus needed to hold together an increasingly
pluralistic society. Unless the hysteria and repressive
blindness around drug use begin to diminish, a sane and
constructive response to an issue that threatens to spiral
dangerously out of control will elude us.


It is in this context that the voices collected in Zig
Zag Zen may offer a much needed wake-up call. The
contributors to this volume find themselves in the
privileged role of being intermediaries between one culture
and another. Because of their position at this moral and
spiritual crossroads, they are free to offer a perspective
that need not be tied to the dogmatic certainties of either
Buddhist or Western traditions. I very much hope that their
collective wisdom will not only illuminate the relation
between the use of psychedelics and the Buddhist path but,
more importantly, help our society as a whole see its way
more clearly through the deep confusion that surrounds its
attitude to drugs.


Stephen Batchelor


Aquitaine, December 2000



by Huston Smith


Zig. Buddhism stemmed from a vision, a vision that was
literally world-transforming, for when the Buddha came to
his senses (as we rightly say) after his enlightenment under
the Bo-tree, the world that greeted him was very different
from the one that he had left. During that night that was to
portend so much for the historical future–the Buddhist
sangha is the oldest humanly devised institution that is
still intact–the Buddha’s meditation had deepened until, as
the morning star glittered in the transparent sky, his mind
pierced the bubble of the universe and shattered it to
naught; only, wonder of wonders, to find it restored with
the effulgence of true being. “Wonder of wonders,” he is
reported to have exclaimed, speaking now from what his Third
Eye had disclosed to him, “all things intrinsically are
Buddha-nature. There is a Buddha in every grain of sand


Zag. Twenty-five hundred years later people are still
having their Third Eyes opened, only now often through
microscopic ingestions of a small class of entheogenic
plants and chemicals. This difference may not be quite as
different as it sounds, for medical anthropologists have
discovered that brain changes that result from taking
entheogens are very much like those that are produced by
physical exhaustion from prolonged fasting and other ordeals
of the sort the Buddha undertook before he assumed his seat
under the Bodhi Tree. This being the case, it may be one of
the great paradoxes of history that one of its greatest
religions was launched (chemically speaking) by a state of
mind that is virtually indistinguishable from ones that are
produced by fudging the fifth of the Five Precepts in the
Eightfold Path that the Buddha prescribed as leading to
enlightenment, the one that proscribes the taking of


Zen. Be that as it may, there is a saying that Zen is
slippery and slick, like picking up an egg with a pair of
silver chopsticks, and the saying certainly holds when it
comes to the presiding issue of this book, the relation
between Zen and entheogens. Aspects of this issue extend
back to the times when Zen took shape. There has been a long
standing debate as to whether enlightenment arrives suddenly
or gradually, and the issue split Zen into its two major
schools, with Rinzai Zen championing the former view, and
Soto Zen the later. Satori–a thumping foretaste of
Nirvana–is important in Rinzai, whereas Soto settles for
passing glimpses of it called kenshos. Both schools require
rigorous training, but in Rinzai the rigor reaches samarai
proportions, with sleep deprivation a major factor. This
fits in with the anthropologists’ discovery that ordeals
bring on chemical brain states that accompany major


The book in hand. A major virtue of this particular
collection of essays and art is that it rigorously abstains
from drawing conclusions regarding the never-never land it
leads the reader into. Readers will not find here any
attempt to turn the slippery Zen egg into putty that
chopsticks could handle with ease. Instead, the book lays
before the reader the major issues that must be taken into
account in any serious reflection on this problem.
Entheogens have entered Buddhism to stay; there can be no
turning back from the point that has been reached. Nor can
the issue any longer be swept under the rug. The facts that
bear on the matter are contained in these pages, as are the
leading theories that try to make sense of the facts.
Compelling visionary art and vivid accounts of personal
encounters lace the facts and theories together in ways that
make for a gripping experience. This book will be a landmark
for years to come.


Berkeley, 2001




by Allan Hunt Badiner


The circle was still for a few moments when it was the
next person’s turn to speak, and, as usual when it was quiet
in Thich Nhat Hanh’s meditation retreat center known as Plum
Village, I looked up to the beautiful parade of bright
bulbous clouds so characteristic of Southwestern France. I
reflected on what might be useful to share about drugs, the
subject of our Dharma discussion that morning. Of those who
had already spoken, each person had a different story to
tell . . . different substances, different circumstances,
different experiences, and different lessons drawn. It was
clear that no one was going to have a final word on this
subject, nor was there even such a thing as the final word.
For some it was a story about giving in to temptation, and
suffering a lack of clarity, or worse, lasting confusion and
addiction. For others, it was a brief glimpse into a
rarefied world of intense sense impressions accompanied by
fanciful but useless imagery. For a few others still, it was
the very threshold of their journey into the truth of
Buddha’s teachings, with unforgettable, if fleeting,
insights. What was striking was that almost everyone had a
significant story to tell, and that each person’s facet of
the truth of drugs and Dharma was riveting and revealing of
so much.


Ever since that morning in the mid-1990s, it was obvious
to me that a more truthful story needed to be told about
Buddhism and psychedelics. Equally clear to me was that the
‘truth’ on this subject, just as in all the subjects of our
Dharma discussions, would emerge only from hearing a wide
spectrum of experiences, investigations, observations, and
cherished opinions. Unlike a casual group conversation,
Dharma discussion follows a series of primary Buddhist
practices: a sustained period of meditation, and a Dharma
talk by an accomplished teacher. Meditation concentrates and
calms the mind, while Dharma discourses, such as the
legendary ones given by Thich Nhat Hanh, never fail to stir
the heart and touch the deepest current of truth within.
Buddhism in action is nothing if not psychedelic, or
mind-opening. So as we went around the circle and shared our
stories that morning, there was an almost palpable
psychedelic quality to the experience.


Ultimately, Buddhism and psychedelics share a concern
with the same problem: the attainment of liberation for the
mind. While psychedelics lurk in the personal histories of
most first-generation Buddhist teachers in Europe and
America, today we find many teachers advising against
pursuing a path they once traveled. Few Buddhists make the
claim that psychedelic use is a path itself–some maintain
that it is a legitimate gateway, and others feel Buddhism
and psychedelics don’t mix at all. But just as Buddhism
itself must be held to the test of personal experience and
to the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of the results, so
also must the question of how, or if, psychedelics can be
part of a Dharma practice. The place of critical examination
and analysis, and the freedom to make these discoveries for
oneself is an essential foundation of Buddhism and is found
as far back as the Kalama Sutra: “Do not go upon what has
been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor
upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon
surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor
upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over;
nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the
consideration that this monk is our teacher,” warned the
Buddha to the Kalamas. “Only when you yourselves know–these
things are good; these things are not blamable; these things
are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these
things lead to benefit and happiness,– should you abide in


Just as social prohibitions on what ideas to let in to
your consciousness are anathema to the Middle Path, so also
must be such restrictions on what plants to let in. Tibetan
Buddhists, for one, have developed over the centuries a wide
field of psychopharmacology and have an endless number of
psychiatric botanical medicines– none of which have ever
been previously identified or scientifically tested in the


Both the terms “psychedelic” and “entheogen” are used to
describe the substances referred to in this book. While many
Buddhists, being essentially agnostic, might have a problem
with the “theo” in enthogen, most would agree that it is the
enthogenic use of psychedelics, or using plant materials to
trigger primary spiritual experience, that is of interest
here. The problems caused by cocaine, heroin,
methamphetamine, and other consciousness-constricting drugs
are indisputable and nowhere defended in this book. The
notion that all “drugs” are fundamentally alike is at the
root of the confusion in our drug laws and the social debate
about them. Drugs differ. Uses and occasions differ.
Policies and practices also ought to differ appropriately.
Drug use will always be with us, and responsible
recreational drug users should be treated more or less the
same way recreational drinkers are. Abuse of dangerous drugs
is less of a legal issue than a medical one.


In the past, awareness about the deepest “occult” or
“hidden” parts of our spirit selves was considered the
private preserve of shamans, priests, or spiritual masters
who had earned their way to it. Religious experience was
mediated by these authorized few, and this is a tradition
still with us in the form, if not attitude, of many
religions. The democratization of psychedelics, however, and
of Buddhism to a similar extent, has been very much about
the breakdown of this restricted access to the divine. In
Buddhism, as in psychedelics, the individual takes
responsibility for their relationship to the source of their
being, and for access to the highest states of spirit


An awareness of the relatedness between separate objects
and opposites is one of the key insights that psychedelic
travelers often bring home from their chemical
“pilgrimages.” Perhaps the popularization of both Zen and
psychedelics has shifted the cultural mind from a dominantly
conceptual and linear view of reality to a mode of awareness
that is more ecological and holistic. While we will always
continue to think in linear ways, awareness is growing that
this mode of consciousness is relative, a human construct,
and not a reflection of “objective reality.”


This way of seeing is not something people necessarily
need psychedelics to experience. It is, in fact, one of the
central premises underlying Zen. This emerging worldview
brings us closer to a perspective that is perhaps equally
comfortable being called “dharmic” or “psychedelic.”


Putting aside the well-founded arguments for and against
psychedelic use, there is an essentially Buddhist response
to the long entrenched, ongoing, and devastating war on
drugs: great compassion. Draconian drug laws ensnare
millions of otherwise law-abiding people in an ever growing
spiral of wasteful and counterproductive strategies whose
foundation is punishment. It has resulted in an
incarceration rate so unimaginable that almost one in four
of every person behind bars in the entire world is locked up
in the United States. At this very moment, American jails
and prisons hold tens of thousands of people–vastly
disproportionate numbers of them black–whose only crime is
possession of the marijuana plant. Prisons become classrooms
for more advanced crime, drugs are readily available to
everyone from school children on up, criminals outspend and
outsmart police, and no one feels safer.


The drug war leads to cynicism and apathy and, of course,
blights thousands of lives. Profits from the illegal drug
trade fuel organized crime and enhance the power of the
cartels to corrupt police, judges, and government officials.
The newest casualties in the failed war on drugs are our
personal liberties. A society that actively banishes
personal exploration with all psychedelic plants will need
to closely monitor its citizens. All our communications,
transactions, and expressions are under increasing
surveillance by a growing and expensive bureaucracy of
control and repression. None of this is conducive to the
peaceful and free contemplation of strategies for our
personal liberation and fulfillment. In reality, this ceases
to be a war on drugs, but rather becomes a war on
consciousness, war on free exercise of that most precious of
gifts bestowed on a human being.


Human history can be seen as a series of relationships
with plants, relationships made and broken. Plants, drugs,
politics, and religions have harshly intermingled–from the
influence of sugar on mercantilism to the influence of
coffee on the modern office worker, from the British forcing
opium on the Taoist Chinese to credible reports that the CIA
used heroin in the ghetto to choke off dissent and
dissatisfaction. The lessons to be learned can be raised
into consciousness, integrated into social policy, and used
to create a more caring, meaningful world, or they can be
denied with the results now plainly seen.


The enhanced capacity for extraordinary cognitive
experience made possible by the use of plant psychedelics
may be as basic a part of our humanness as is our
spirituality or our sexuality. The question is how quickly
we develop into a mature community able to address these


While psychedelic use is all about altered states,
Buddhism is all about altered traits, and one does not
necessarily lead to the other. One Theravadin monk likened
the mind on psychedelics to an image of a tree whose
branches are overladen with low-hanging, very ripened, and
heavy fruit. The danger is that the heavy fruit–too full
and rich to be digested by the tree all at once–will weigh
down the branches and cause them to snap.


On the other hand, Alan Watts, one of the first prominent
westerners to follow the Buddhist path, considered Buddhism
and psychedelics to both be part of an individual
philosophical quest. He was not interested in Buddhism to be
studied and defined in such a way that one must avoid
“mixing up” one’s thinking about Buddhism with other
interests, such as in quantum theory, Gestalt psychology,
aesthetics, or psychedelics.


Freeing us from the binds of language, American visionary
artist Alex Grey has brought a graphical and colorful
component to this inquiry by sharing with us the creative
imaginings and yearnings of many artists from around the
world. Both in text, and in images, the vision bringing
forth this book (and the Fall 1996 issue of Tricycle
magazine on the same subject) is that Dharma discussion of
years ago, and a sheer delight in truthful self-discovery.
Zig Zag Zen is a celebration of where Buddhism and
psychedelics have informed each other, as well as
penetrating criticism of where such a confluence may lead us
astray. In the tradition of inquiry set in motion by the
Buddha, we let a thousand flowers blossom–even if some of
them are psychedelic. Only in the open-minded and courageous
effort to see the truth in every voice do we recognize the
deepest reflection of what is relatively real.






Buddhism and Psychedelics: “Zig Zag Zen”

— Reviewed by Geoffrey Redmond, MD —



Zig Zag Zen — by Allan Hunt Badiner and Alex Grey


The use of psychedelic drugs is that dark little secret
behind the popular origins of Eastern spirituality in
America, but if they really open the mind in the same ways
meditative experiences do, why shouldn’t they be legitimated
and brought out into the open? In Allan Hunt Badiner and
Alex Grey’s Zig Zag Zen authors, artists, priests, and
scientists are brought together to discuss this question.
Opinions fall on all sides. Ram Dass, for instance,
discusses the benefits as well as the limitations. Rick
Fields sets the historical scene. China Galland offers a
wrenching personal experience. Lama Surya Das tells of his
early drug years. And a roundtable discussion with Ram Dass,
Robert Aitken, Richard Baker, and Joan Halifax caps it




Journal of Buddhist Ethics – Volume 11 – 2004 — Zig Zag
Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics — Reviewed by Geoffrey
Redmond, MD – Center for Health Research, Inc. 303 East 83rd
St # 25C, New York, NY 10028. – GPRedmondaol.com


Buddhism and Psychedelics: “Zig Zag Zen” – A review by
Geoffrey Redmond, MD – (hereafter abbreviated as ZZZ ) is an
attractive book, coffee table in design though not in size.
The cover shows what at first appears to be a seated Buddha
but is actually Padmasambhava from a 1992 painting by Gana
Lama (73). Swirling colors radiate from the nose and the
solar plexus, giving a psychedelic effect. Within are
reproductions of attractive works by established modernists
such as Odilon Redon and Mark Rothko, as well as recent ones
by an emerging Buddhist avant garde represented by Mariko
Mori, Alex Grey (who is co-editor) and the virtuoso Robert
Beer. Lest we still fail to appreciate that this is a work
of advanced consciousness, the typography indulges in such
computer age quirks as upside-down headings. ZZZ ‘s
publisher, Chronicle Books, specializes in lavish
illustrated volumes, often on Asian subjects. Lest anyone be
offended by the conspicuous consumption implied by the books
lavish production, its editor, Allan Hunt Badiner, begins by
assuring the trees used to produce the book that they are
“wholeheartedly thanked, honored, and


The text of ZZZ is a collection of essays and interviews
concerning the relation of psychedelic drug use to Buddhist
practice. Many of the articles first appeared in the Fall,
1996 issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Most selections
are by Buddhist spiritual quasi-celebrities whom we
regularly see on the covers of Tricycle and other mass
market Buddhist periodicals. Contributors include Richard
Baker Roshi, Lama Surya Das, Stephen Batchelor, Rick Fields,
Peter Matthiessen, Huston Smith, and Michael Murphy of
Esalen fame. A few sections offer the reflections of
ordinary practitioners on their experiences. Given this cast
of characters, one might expect ZZZ to be an initial step
toward a documentary history of the role of psychedelics in
Western Buddhism. If so, the actual reading will disappoint.
Fresh insights are few; the views expressed are generally
familiar from many other sources. Regrettably, dates of
writing of the various chapters are not given. Since
attitudes toward both drugs and Buddhism have changed
considerably in the past five decades, this omission limits
the value of ZZZ as cultural history.


The opinions expressed fall easily into a few categories.
Though a few reflect on unfavorable outcomes of drug use,
most are economiums. Some simply recall nostalgically their
early adventures during the heyday of psychedelic tripping.
Other make grander claims that drug experiences awakened
them to the spiritual dimension of life. A few are pure
hype, making use of the breathless psycho-Blarney brought to
perfection by the late Dr. Timothy Leary and Terence
McKenna.1 The glorification of drugs in ZZZ is pervasive,
though sometimes qualified. Here is an example, from the
contribution by Myron Stolaroff:


Psychedelic agents, when properly understood, are
probably one of the most valuable, useful and powerful tools
available to humanity (201).


Brigid Meier manages to tie the plant origin of many
psychedelics to ecology:


I apprenticed to the realm of plant medicines to seek
teachings from a stratum of nonhuman consciousness in order
to open to the direct felt experience of Gaia, to the
interdependence of all beings.


It remains my belief that sacred plants, as a frequency
of planetary intelligence, have offered themselves as
emissaries from the increasingly ravaged natural world.
[They] do their subversive work of dismantling the
cancerous human ego that is destroying the planet (129)


The notion of a “cancerous human ego” includes
too many assumptions regarding the nature of humans and
society for me to attempt to fully unpack it here. Pop
psychology frequently attributes human problems to the
“ego” without any clear conception of what that
might be. This popular use is quite different from that of
Freud, for whom the ego regulated and controlled the libido.
Blaming ego, as in the above quotation is really moral
ranting, more akin to preaching than social analysis.
Meier’s environmental concerns are no doubt shared by
many psychotropic users — and non-users. Yet it is hard to
see how the availability of “sacred plants” for
human ingestion would further the cause of environmental
protection. To actually do something about the environment
requires mental clarity.


At the same time they extol drugs, most ZZZ contributors
stop short of explicitly advocating their use, whether
because they are wary of attracting the unwelcome attention
of the drug enforcement authorities, or because they have
come to see unqualified advocacy of psychedelics as


One barrier to serious consideration of the effects of
mind-altering drugs is the terminology perpetuated by their
advocates. The ubiquitous term “psychedelic,”
supposedly coined by Humphry Osmond, means “opening the
psyche” (79). Throughout ZZZ we encounter the newer
term “entheogen” meaning “god generated
within” (47). Terms like “psychedelic” and
“entheogen” are more akin to marketing than to
objective description. Do psychedelics really expand
awareness? Do entheogens really generate an experience of
God? These are critical questions, especially since it is
difficult to conceive how such effects might be verified.
This does not mean they could not be real, but it does mean
that we are entitled to some degree of skepticism about the
alleged benefits. Certainly, if we judge by the external
behavior of frequent psychedelic or entheogen users, most do
not seem to have expanded awareness, nor to be in contact
with God.


In contrast, scientific pharmacology classifies
neuroactive drugs by the sort of effect they have:
stimulant, sedative, antidepressant, anxiolytic, and so on.
When knowledge permits, they are classified based on the
chemical changes they engender in the brain, for example
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI), a class that
includes the familiar Prozac (fluoxitine). These terms
function to describe the effects of the drugs, not to entice
us to use them. (They are often, of course, marketed
aggressively by other means.)


Drugs and the Inconvenient Fifth Precept


In many places ZZZ does express a less ebullient
morning-after mood. Thus Rick Fields summarizes the initial
uncritical enthusiasm for psychedelics in this way:


“There were those who claimed that psychedelics had
changed the rules of the game, and that the mystic visions
once enjoyed only by saints could now be had by anyone”


He goes on to note that as Westerners learned more about
actual Buddhist practice, drugs no longer seemed to be the
easy way to enlightenment: “it turned out that practice
was not really about getting high at all” Some teachers
slotted drugs into the mind-intoxicant category of the
precepts” (44).


The Pali version of the fifth precept for lay Buddhists,
as translated by Peter Harvey is as follows:


I undertake the training-precept to abstain from
alcoholic drink or drugs that are an opportunity for
heedlessness. 2


This precept was not mentioned much, if at all, by early
counterculture Buddhists like Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac,
both of whom were alcoholics.3 Now that the ethical aspects
of Buddhism, including the five lay precepts have become
familiar to Western Buddhists, some popular teachers
rationalize use of psychedelics by declaring that they are
not intoxicants and hence not contrary to the precepts. Thus
Jack Kornfeld, in what is a generally balanced series of
comments, notes that there is little mention of psychedelics
in Buddhist tradition and, while conceding that they would
be included in the category of intoxicants, goes on to say,
“there is no traditional point of view about their
use” (51). This seems evasive to me. Psychedelics
impair awareness, as do most other mind-altering substances,
and would seem to be exactly the sort of substances
specified by the term “intoxicant”. Like religious
rules generally, this precept is as often ignored as
followed. Nor is this the only precept which modern
Buddhists tend to set aside. Few take seriously the many
admonitions in both sutra and sastra against sexual


Psychedelics: The Crisis of Faith


There is no doubt that enthusiasm for psychedelics has
waned. This raises the question of why, if they are such
valuable spiritual tools, only few continue to praise them
without reservation. Rick Fields, the historian of American
Buddhism, blames this on the decline of American culture:
“The young turn on now in a world in which the sacred
has been trivialized into the recreational” (33). He
does not mention that many of the contributors to ZZZ were
themselves major influences in the commoditization of
spiritual experience. If psychedelics were truly beneficial
forty years ago, they should be now. To explain why they
seem not to be, the blame is placed on changes in “set
and setting.” This phrase refers to the theory that the
effect of mind altering drugs is determined in great part by
the mental set of the user and his or her physical and
social milieu. Those advancing this argument do not
recognize that it weakens the case for psychedelics by
acknowledging that the critical factors that facilitate
religious experience may not be the actions of the drugs
themselves. Perhaps, with the proper set and setting, the
drugs are not necessary at all.


The PR-savvy early Buddhist exponents of psychedelics
could freely claim similarities between drug and meditative
states because many had little experience of the latter.
Thus Alan Watts as described by Michael Murphy: “
‘here we have Alan writing a book about mysticism and
sex and saying drugs are another way in.’ He was not a
celebrant of long-term contemplative practice, but he was a
glorious human being” (83).


Since it was the writings of Watts (without concomitant
drugs) which first “turned me on” to Buddhism, I
agree that he had his glorious side. Yet Watts privately
derided what he taught in his books and lectures, dismissed
meditation as “sitting on your ass,” and died of
alcoholism. Whatever his glories, he was certainly not a
reliable guide to Buddhist practice. The same can be said —
at the risk of offending some of his many admirers — of the
late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa was immensely popular
but was openly alcoholic — he drank conspicuously and
copiously during his late night harangues to his followers.
Fields notes with approval that Trungpa was one of the few
teachers with whom he could discuss drugs (44f). Thus
Trungpa rationalized LSD as samsara but a
“super-samsara” which could be useful. Trungpa
disapproved of marijuana use, however, which he considered
“self-deception” (45). This ignores the
self-deception on Trungpa’s part in refusing to
confront his own alcoholism, and that of his followers in
refusing to admit it. Trungpa’s criticism of use of
drugs other than alcohol is ironic but not surprising. Many
who are addicted to one sort of drug criticize those who use
others. I recall a former patient who was addicted to
barbiturates but criticized her boyfriend’s addiction
to speed. Her reasoning was that he eventually needed to
take sedatives to come down anyway so why not just use
downers. We tend to be more tolerant of vices we share than
those we do not.


Fields omits mention of Watts’s or Trungpa’s
alcoholism, which he certainly knew about. We may charitably
attribute this reticence to a sense of decorum in writing
about men he admired, a degree of taste rare in our era of
exposés. For this he may be respected. Yet in
speaking to several of Trungpa’s former followers I
have often noted what the jargon of alcoholism treatment
programs terms “co-dependence-behavior” that
enables the alcoholic to continue his or her addiction.
Trungpa’s open drinking while lecturing was
rationalized as a profound teaching method.4 One follower
explained to me in all seriousness that Trungpa was not an
alcoholic — because he was enlightened, his body handled
alcohol differently than ordinary people.


A similar belle indifferance regarding addiction issues
is apparent in many contributions to ZZZ. Thus Dokusho
Villalba Sensei asserts:


“Many native Americans have been able to overcome
addiction to alcohol and its underlying causes through use
of peyote within a ritual and traditional spiritual
context” (62).


No evidence is given for this claim. Whenever one sort of
drug is claimed to cure addiction to another, we should
remember that heroin was originally thought to be an
effective treatment for morphine addiction. (Morphine in
turn was tried as a cure for cocaine addiction.) The
distorted thinking associated with addiction affects even
those who are not themselves addicted. This should warn us
to be skeptical of the claims of the spiritual benefit and
safety of psychedelics.


To balance the preponderant drug apologetics, anyone who
takes up ZZZ should be careful not to overlook the chapter
by Trudy Walter entitled “Leaning Into Rawness.”
Walter poignantly and honestly describes her years of daily
marijuana use, clearly an addiction, and her rationalization
of it with Buddhist concepts. She acknowledges an
“underlying desire to feel only the good stuff”
and wanting “out of the violence of my anger,
confusion, helplessness, hunger, and fear. With just a puff
or two, anger simply got fuzzy and rounded off” (126).
She realized “The hypocrisy of living half of my life
trying to wake up by meditating and the other half trying to
anesthetize myself.” Yet, “Without fail, I would
rise every morning with the fervent vow that this would be
the day I would quit” She found her feelings of anger,
which Buddhism considers a mental poison, particularly
distressing. Finally, she recognizes that she needs help in
overcoming her addiction. There is also rather ambivalent
discussion of her teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in which
she seems to want to find a way to rationalize his
alcoholism as somehow different from her own marijuana


Walter’s article contains useful lesions. First, it
reminds us that addiction can be rationalized within any
system of belief, including Buddhism, despite the primary
goal of Buddhism being the abolition of tanha, craving.
Second, practice by itself does not invariably solve the
problems of dukkha, the distressing contents of the mind.
Preaching against anger and other mental defilements may
even make matters worse by engendering a sense of
unworthiness. Many left Christianity to escape feelings of
sinfulness, only to find them in another form. Like
Christian preachers and gurus of all persuasions, Buddhist
teachers can use people’s negative feelings to
manipulate and harm them. Telling people that they are
somehow defective and can only improve through the teachings
of the master can be extremely effective in retaining


Many contributors to ZZZ, while not completely abandoning
their belief that psychedelics can be spiritually
beneficial, have come to see their value as limited at


Ram Dass, who hints that he still uses them (215), offers
this assessment: I don’t see psychedelics as an
enlightening vehicle, but I do see it (sic) as an awakening
vehicle. I see them beginning a process that awakens you to
the possibility (215).


Joan Halifax, on the other hand, seems to feel that they
are not beneficial: I didnt find that it really worked, for
the kind of mind that I found emerging in meditation free of
psychedelics, to do both. I don’t know many people who
have managed to actually keep a psychedelic practice and a
mature Buddhist practice — except maybe Ram Dass (215).


Michael Murphy notes: Nondrug programs at Esalen have
survived because they are the fittest. What I think will
happen over time is that these drugs will have their place
as initiatory agents (82).


David Chadwick: In the Buddhist circles I’m familiar
with, psychedelics are mainly seen as something to forget
about and move on from (120).


Robert Aitken, notable among Western Zen teachers for his
emphasis on the ethical aspects of Buddhist practice, sees
little place for drugs: I dont think drugs have particularly
helped anybody arrive where they are. It’s just that by
the cultural circumstances of the time, in the sixties and
early seventies, it so happened that people came to Zen
through their experience with drugs (217).


Many Westerners were first drawn to Zen, and Buddhism
generally, through a misconception: that meditation would
induce a state similar to a drug high. There seems to be a
near-consensus now that this is not the case. However, we
should not imagine that this was the first time Buddhism
helped established itself in a new culture based on false
premises — though I am not suggesting that these
distortions were a deliberate subterfuge. Among the Chinese,
who made profound contributions to Buddhist art and
philosophy, much of the interest of the general populace and
even emperors was the expectation of magical powers
conferred by meditation. Even with Huayen, which some modern
scholars have considered the most profoundly philosophical
school, the reputation of many of its masters rested upon
their supposed magical attainments. Perhaps drugs are the
successor to magic in promoting the Dharma. Both involve
temporary release from ordinary reality. For better or
worse, such are part of Buddhist history. To put the best
light on them, they can be likened to the carts that are
used by the enlightened father in the Lotus Sutra to entice
his children from the burning house.


Along with abandoning of the misconception that Buddhist
practice as akin to psychedelic drug experience, we seem to
be leaving behind the anti-intellectualism of sixties Zen
and returning to Buddhism’s textual roots. Aitkin tells


“All you have to do is pick up a good Buddhist text,
and that’s reality. You don’t have to take drugs
to wake up to it. Most people that come to me now are
awakened by reading” (216).


If we take enlightenment by reading as a modern
equivalent of enlightenment by hearing, Western Buddhism
seems to be recovering the methods that have been central to
the tradition since its beginnings.


One senses that the time when psychedelics might be
justified as a useful first step in spiritual development is
past. Not to be overlooked as a reason for this change is
the very realistic fear of legal consequences, which is a
separate issue from the possible spiritual benefits and
biological hazards of psychotropic use. But this is surely
not the only reason. Buddhism is now practically mainstream
in the West and the possibility of spiritual experience,
even enlightenment is widely assumed. The patronizing view
of Sigmund Freud and others who dismissed religion as
illusion, to be left behind as humanity matures, is no
longer dominant. If psychedelics were needed in the sixties
to demonstrate that spiritual states of mind actually exist,
this is no longer the case.


Can There Be a Buddhist View of the Drug Issue?


If we grant that psychedelics were an episode in recent
Buddhist history but less pertinent today, the question
still remains as to what is a reasonable attitude toward
their use. Some of the claims of spiritual benefit might be
true, at least for some users, and they might even be
justified as a form of recreation, a break from one’s
ordinary routine not unlike visiting an art museum or seeing
a film. There are however, serious arguments against such
relaxed views that I shall advance shortly. Unfortunately,
dispassionate public debate on these issues has become all
but impossible.


All cultures seem to be afflicted with certain issues so
divisive they cannot be resolved by any process of
negotiation. Often the resulting conflicts cause damage that
later seems far out of proportion to any direct harm. An
example is the suppression of heresy by the Christian
Church. Hundreds of thousands were killed for their views on
doctrinal matters, yet now it is difficult even for scholars
to understand what the differences were, let along why they
seemed so important. While executions in the West for
ideological differences have mostly ceased, espousing
unpopular views can still be hazardous. Fraught issues for
our society include abortion, gay marriage, school prayer
and, of course, non-medical drug use. As the phrase
“zero tolerance” indicates, non-extreme views on
drugs are unacceptable to the majority and politicians
generally will not risk losing votes by taking moderate
positions on drugs. In jurisdictions where judges are
elected rather than appointed, a record of harsh sentencing
of drug offenders is a political asset. Nothing in our
political system encourages a temperate approach to the drug
problem. The level of sophistication of the general
population is apparent in the popularity of the recent
anti-drug slogan, “Just say no,” which entirely
ignores the problem of why so many say “yes.”


The mainstream regards drugs as a major cause of social
evil and tends to prefer punishment to a medical approach.
The medical establishment offers a therapeutic approach.
When discovered, whether drug users end up in prison or in
rehabilitation is to a large degree random. Close to one
half percent of the American population is in prison for
drug-related offenses, a high proportion of them
non-violent. It is said that the money spent on the war on
drugs is twice the entire biomedical research budget. Yet
despite the anathematization of drugs and the severe
penalties, tens of millions of Americans indulge at least
occasionally. Many escape both medical and legal
consequences, reducing the effects of the dire warnings of
the anti-drug advertising campaigns.


It is convenient for both politicians and law enforcement
agencies to blame drugs for most violent crime. Doing so
deflects blame from social conditions and also supports the
need for higher enforcement budgets. The drug treatment
establishment also encourages public paranoia about drugs
from similar economic interest. I am not here equating
therapeutic and punitive methods; compassion and the
principle of ahimsa, non-harming, clearly are most
consistent with a therapeutic approach. My point here is
that drug treatment is a lucrative industry and so its
commitment to finding a solution may be incomplete. At
present, the public and institutions are too attached to
drugs as a scapegoat for the unsatisfactoriness of American
life for a middle way to be found between the extremes of
unrestricted use and severe penalties.


Even a drug skeptic like myself has to admit that many
influential figures in the recent history of Western
Buddhism used them. There is an obvious paradox here in that
what most regard as a social disaster may also have
facilitated the establishment of Buddhism, by any assessment
a peaceful religion, on Western shores. Blanket condemnation
of drugs, then, oversimplifies. It would be hard to maintain
that society would be better off if those contributors to
ZZZ who acknowledge prior drug use — Ram Das, Jack Levine,
Joan Halifax, Stephen Batchelor, to give but a few
examples–had been incarcerated instead of spending their
time writing and teaching. Whether because of — or despite
— their drug use, they have clearly enriched our


The logic of imprisoning people for non-violent drug use
seems to be as follows: Drugs can ruin people’s lives
and so everything must be done to prevent people from using
them. Therefore, to frighten people away from using drugs,
we will make sure their lives are ruined if they are caught.
Thus if the drugs themselves do not injure the user, the
legal system will. Though this ethical reasoning lacks
cogency, it is rarely questioned. That the war on drugs is
misconceived does not however mean that drug use is
desirable.5 There are of course valid arguments for
stringent prevention of drug use by those who might endanger
others if impaired: doctors, pilots, truck drivers,
child-care workers and many others. However, protection of
the public does not usually require that non-violent drug
users be imprisoned, simply that they be kept from
activities in which they might harm others.


I am sure it is clear by now that I regard the choice to
use mind-altering drugs as an unskillful one. To the extent
we can invoke the historical Buddha, he seems to have held a
similar view in that the precepts for both lay and religious
counsel avoidance of intoxicants. I use the Buddhist ethical
term “unskillful” in preference to the more
Judeo-Christian “bad” or “evil” because
I regard the issue not so much as a moral one as a matter of
self-care. The legal system does not regard the matter in
this way however. It is muddled as to whether anti-drug laws
are to protect people from themselves or to prevent them
from harming others. This sort of confusion is prevalent in
social policy generally. We forbid riding without seat belts
but allow the sale of tobacco products. Any law for
protecting people from themselves is based on utilitarianism
and so must on the balance cause more benefit than harm.
Imprisoning people for simple drug use clearly fails to meet
this test. Forbidding the sale is another matter. The
problem here is that while such interdiction would be
desirable in the view of many, myself included, it has never
succeeded and often fosters crime rather than suppressing
it. No one has yet proposed a solution to drug problems that
would be both effective and politically acceptable. I do not
have the temerity to suggest a solution when no one else has
been able to. Instead, I will confine myself to two narrower
ethical issues: can drug use be a reasonable choice and is
it ethical to recommend, directly or indirectly, drug use to


Personal Revelations


Before exploring these issues in more detail, it is only
fair to make full disclosure of my own views. Though I came
of age in the sixties and seventies, I never used
mind-altering drugs. I did indulge in alcohol in college and
for some years after, but became a teetotaler many years
ago. My reasons for missing out on the psychedelic
experience were threefold. The primary reason, I must
confess, was simply fear. I depend on my mind to earn a
living and did not want to take any chances with it. Second,
I became aware of the disproportionate legal consequences
that befell acquaintances who were ingenuously
experimenting. Finally, my meditative practice of the past
twenty years has been in a direction that led me to give up
all consciousness altering substances, even alcohol and
caffeine. The reasons for this have nothing to do with
morality but were simply that I came to value greatly the
natural clarity of the mind.


This last point requires some elaboration. My practice
has at times been concentrative in the Zen tradition and at
others, insight-oriented based on Theravada teachings. The
former values mental lucidity while the latter is highly
analytic and intended to sharpen awareness. I cannot imagine
that drug experiences resemble either state. I have at times
practiced techniques that might conceivably be
“mind-expanding” — moving qi within my body and
the jhana of concentration on infinite space. I found these
valuable but not to the extent of giving them a central
place in my practice. On a few occasions I have experienced
states that might be termed “ecstatic.” While I
liked these, I have not felt any urgent need for them to
happen again. That my practice does not regularly lead to
such states may have disappointed me once, but it does not


I am not putting forth my own approach as an example to
be followed but simply to situate myself within a wide
variety of attitudes toward spiritual practice. To some it
may seem that I have settled for goals that are too limited.
I cannot refute this but would reply that one’s
individual temperament determines to a great degree what
forms of meditation are congenial. For myself, I prefer the
cognitive to the affective. In sixties terminology I might
be labeled as uptight. Perhaps I am, but as a physician, I
cannot afford the loss of mental control that might be
beneficial to the visionary artist or writer. Nor can
practitioners of other occupations in which the welfare of
others is at stake. Even the most ardent advocates of
turning on, tuning in, and dropping out would not want their
doctor, airplane pilot, or even accountant or child’s
baby sitter, to follow their advice.


Safety of Psychedelics


An additional factor in my attitude toward psychedelics
derives from my work as a biomedical researcher. It happens
that my particular area of specialization is adverse effects
of hormones and neuroactive drugs. Conducting studies to
detect harmful effects, as well as prescribing medications
for patients in my practice, keeps me constantly mindful of
the potential for injury of pharmacologically active
substances.6 Standards for assessing drug safety have become
increasingly rigorous in recent years. As we shall see, none
of the assertions about safety (or even benefits) of
psychedelics meet even the most minimal standards of
clinical evidence. Despite their authoritative sounding
assertions of safety, the advocates of psychedelics lack
even minimal background in the methodology of drug safety
testing and hardly display the equipoise that is the ideal
of the clinical researcher. They were — and are — biased
toward seeing psychedelics as both beneficial and safe and
so have been excessively selective in what data they
consider. Were a pharmacologist to be as casual in studying
any drug, he or she would be quickly discredited. Within
science, anecdotes, that is, single events often known only
through hearsay, do not constitute evidence. They may
suggest a beneficial or adverse effect but cannot prove
such. The reasons are multiple but two are important here.
First, we all tend to perceive what we want to perceive and
so objective studies require use of methods to control the
effects of subject and observer bias. Second, most adverse
effects occur in only a minority of those who take a
particular drug. As a salient example, the recently
withdrawn diabetes drug troglitazone gave excellent control
of the disease in many, but caused serious liver injury and
sometimes death in about one in 4,000. As a result, it was
withdrawn. Only by systematic reporting of adverse events
can infrequent ones such as these be discovered. A doctor
might treat hundreds of patients with such a drug without
ever seeing the serious side effect. To go solely by
one’s own limited observations is not an adequate way
to assess drug safety. Hence simple claims that one has
never seen anyone harmed by a particular drug are


The association of drug use, including psychedelics, with
cognitive dysfunction is beyond doubt. What is less clear is
the incidence of this and other adverse effects. Nor is
there any means to predict which individuals can use them
safely. Not least because they are illegal, no system exists
for tracking adverse events of psychedelics. I recall a
psychiatric nurse I met while I was in medical school who
held forth to my fellow students and myself about her use of
LSD. She was particularly eloquent about how drugs enhanced
lovemaking for her and her boyfriend. At the time, I was
envious of her apparent sophistication and her lifestyle,
which seemed much freer than mine. However, when by chance I
ran into her a few years later, I formed a much different
impression. She was working at a much lower level job,
avoided eye contact, had become sloppy in her appearance and
now gave off an aura of dissipation rather than
sophistication. I was saddened to observe how a few more
years of the drug lifestyle had rendered this bright young
woman pitiable. A single instance does not establish that
drugs will cause similar deterioration in all who try them.
It is within the realm of possibility that the contributors
to ZZZ who commend drug use were not harmed by them. Even if
this is so — which is far from clear — a momentous problem
remains, namely, how does one know in advance which outcome
one will have: enlightenment, or personal deterioration.


The critical issues of drug-induced mental disturbance
and addiction tend to be passed over in ZZZ . Myron
Stolaroff observes, “Widespread unfavorable public bias
toward psychedelics has been created by very selective
reporting by the media” (201). The media certainly are
selectively negative about drugs, as they are about many
other things, but the psychedelic advocates such as Timothy
Leary and Myron Stolaroff himself have been at least as


It seems self-evident to me that if claims are made for
benefits of any substance, including psychedelics, they
should be substantiated by systematic observation rather
than mere anecdotes and opinion. Stolaroff makes a valid
point that “the illegal status of psychedelics has
prevented the publication and sharing of results and
effective practices” (203). Yet he goes on to enumerate
his own theories about effective use, despite his admission
that supporting evidence is lacking. That legal restrictions
have prevented adequate research is hardly a valid reason
for venturing forth into psychedelic use.


Spiritual Illumination as a Drug Effect


A decision to take a drug generally assumes that the
potential benefit outweighs the risks. As an example, let us
suppose a person has advanced cancer and is considering
trying an experimental drug. He or she is told that without
it, death is almost certain within six months. With the drug
there is a 5% chance of death within a month but a 50%
chance of extending survival for another year. (Real life
decisions are usually even more complex, in part because the
probabilities are often incompletely known.) Most of us
would probably take the 5% chance of earlier death in the
hope of gaining a year. Suppose however that the drug is for
headache. It has a 100% chance of curing the headache but
still a 5% chance of being fatal. No one would opt for it.
The difference is not in the degree of risk but in whether
the value of the benefit is sufficient to justify this

Applying such an analysis to psychedelics is problematic.
The risks are clear enough: legal penalties, debilitating
addiction and brain damage manifesting as cognitive
impairment. We do not, of course, know the probabilities of
the latter two, but they are at least the 5% of the previous
example, and likely more. What about the benefits? What is
the value of spiritual enrichment? Texts from Pali suttas to
Alan Watts insist that it is the most worthy goal of human
life. But do we actually live as if this is the case? Even
those of us who are committed lay Buddhists spend the
preponderance of our time working toward goals other than
attainment of enlightenment. Many of us could become monks
or nuns but choose not to. For some this is an ethical
decision based on responsibilities to spouse, children and
others. But of Western Buddhists without such obligations
only a small fraction enter the Sangha and many of these
eventually leave.7 Thus it can be inferred that, whatever
their rhetoric, as a practical matter most Western Buddhist
practitioners do not give attainment of enlightenment their
highest priority. I point this out in response to the
argument, sometimes implied, that the spiritual benefits of
drugs are so great as to be worth the risk of brain injury
or incarceration.

The most prevalent motivation for drug use, though one
only occasionally mentioned in ZZZ , is entertainment or
titillation. What is for most simply the pursuit of pleasure
is inflated into a quest for spiritual improvement. Such
conundrums are not unique to drugs. The back pages of many
free urban newspapers contain advertisements from attractive
women describing themselves as “escorts,” some of
who offer “tantric” services. I think we can
assume that the background of these enterprising ladies is
not philological and that the motivation of those who
presumably respond to such advertisements is more the relief
of biological drives than the hope of enlightenment. Given
the faddishness of spirituality in our culture, Buddhist
jargon can be a convenient camouflage for behavior which
otherwise would not be considered admirable. Both drug
taking and visits to escorts are risky behaviors and, while
many are willing to take the risks, few would recommend such
behaviors. It is notorious that the young often make poor
judgments on risk-benefit issues; the decision to smoke is
the most obvious example. Much of the sixties drug use can
be attributed to the fondness of youth for risk-taking.

Do Psychedelics Bring Spiritual Benefits?

The most obvious problem regarding spiritual effects of
drugs is barely addressed in ZZZ : why do the vast majority
of psychedelic drug users not derive any recognizable
spiritual benefit? My contact with regular users has not
convinced me that as a group they are particularly
spiritual. More common is an apparent impoverishment of
character (“spaciness”), a pervasive restlessness
(uddhacca in Abhidhammic terminology), and inability to
relax or find enjoyment with their own resources.8 These
traits are the opposite of the comfort with one’s own
mental content and patience which meditation develops. So,
even if we grant that drugs can have spiritual benefits for
a few, for the majority they appear to have the opposite

State Dependency and the Promotion of Psychedelic Use

Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion, for the most
part. Though it tries to attract adherents, it describes its
claimed benefits in a rather restrained fashion. The same
cannot be said for the drug culture which, particularly in
the sixties, marketed its products relentlessly. Why drug
users so often want to “turn on” others remains a
puzzle. Though many drug users engage in dealing, there is
no reason to think that the vocal advocates like Timothy
Leary praised psychedelics out of economic self-interest.9
The most likely explanation for the blandishments of the
psychedelic advocates is a curious but pervasive aspect of
mind-altering substance use: people in a drug state want
their companions to be in the same state. Everyone has
noticed how heavy drinkers usually press their companions to
keep up, round for round. No doubt this reassures the
drinker that his (usually; women are more likely to try to
conceal the extent of their alcohol consumption) intake is
appropriate. However there is probably something
neurological also. Our thoughts and behavior are different
in different mental states. Consider a couple when one is
sexually aroused and the other is not. The discordance
produces definite discomfort and often anger on both sides.
When in a particular state we want the others around us to
be in a similar state. For the drug advocates, a turned-on
companion was more congenial company than a straight one.
For the rest of us, being around those in a drug state is
hardly edifying.

Drugs, Culture and Art

A possible argument favoring drug use is that it has
inspired some remarkable art. ZZZ exemplifies this; many of
its illustrations seem to be of the genre of psychedelic
art. (Whether this art really has its source in drugs rather
than other art of the same genre is a relevant question.)
Many Tibetan mandalas resemble drug art — for which they
were a source of inspiration — but there is no evidence
that drug use influenced their creation. Though psychedelic
art is not admired by the fine-art establishment, it is
widely popular. It is easily found in book illustration and
in such locations as New Age CD liners and Tarot cards. I do
not mean this to be derogatory. Postmodern ideology has
driven most visually attractive art out of contemporary art
galleries and museums. We clearly do have drugs to thank for
this often striking art that perhaps even offers a taste of
the psychedelic experience without the risks of the drugs

Yet conceding that some meritorious art may have been
inspired by the drug experience does not by itself mean that
taking drugs is desirable. Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock
were alcoholics. We can be moved by their art without
wanting to live their self-destructive lifestyle. Nor does
admiration for Van Gogh makes us yearn to be schizophrenic.
Similarly, we can enjoy Gauguin’s paradisiacal settings
without therefore abandoning our wives and families.

Not only in the arts but also more broadly, the reports
of psychedelic explorers helped bring to American culture a
sense of the freedom and possibilities of the mind that was
lacking in the Eisenhower era. Yet, this was not entirely
new. Interest in altered states of consciousness was an
important element in the European avant-garde long before
the mid-twentieth century. The Beats and hippies did however
bring the transgressive values of the avant-garde into the
mainstream.10 Leary’s infamous formula, “Turn on,
tune in, and drop out” is simply a catchy phrasing of a
previously existing Bohemian stance. The dropping out was
always a delusion — where else is there to go?

In contemporary culture, what begins as transgressive
often becomes mainstream. Elvis Presley, once denounced as
dangerously lewd, is now on a U.S. postage stamp. Allen
Ginsberg, despite the obscenity-ridden rants of his early
poetry, also became an American icon. Buddhism, too, has
moved from Bohemian to respectable. The alcoholic and cool
Chogyam Trungpa seems to have paved the way for acceptance
of the sober and judicious Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai


Zig Zag Zen is appealing on several levels. Its trendy
layout, somewhat reminiscent of Wired magazine, together
with its well-chosen art make it a pleasure to browse. Yet
there is reason to be suspicious of its attractions. Though
ZZZ does not univocally commend drug use, in its lavish
design and production it clearly celebrates it. Those who,
like the present reviewer, lived through the sixties and
seventies will feel a sense of nostalgia for an era which
thought itself sophisticated but was, in retrospect,
perilously naíve.

Despite its attractions, ZZZ does not make much
contribution to our understanding of psychedelics. The views
expressed are not new and contributions are often
repetitive. Reading only the initial chapter by Rick Fields
and the final “Roundtable with Ram Das, Robert Aitken
Roshi, Richard Baker Roshi and Joan Halifax Roshi”
gives a sufficient idea of its entire contents. Too many
sections are reminiscences by well-known figures who have
said the same things in print many times before; these tend
to have the stale quality of celebrity interviews. Deeper
analysis of the social, psychological and medical issues
surrounding psychedelics is lacking. The ethical issues are
barely addressed. For those interested in the place of such
drugs in recent American life, a much more useful account is
available in Jay Stevens’ Storming Heaven.11 In short,
ZZZ exemplifies the superficiality of the era it

Can we reach any conclusions regarding the place of drugs
for Buddhist understanding and practice? I propose that we
can. First, even if we allow that many were helped along by
drugs, many, perhaps far more, were harmed either
biologically or legally. We must remind ourselves that
non-harming is central to Buddhist ethics. For this reason,
I think we should not encourage drug use, either on a
personal level or by the sort of media advocacy exemplified
by Timothy Leary. This does not mean on the other hand, that
drugs should not be discussed honestly. My suggestion is
that psychedelic use is an unskillful choice, not an
unethical one. Encouraging others to try psychedelics or
persist in their use is ethically questionable. I say
questionable rather than unequivocally wrong because drug
issues do not justify suppression of freedom of speech. The
ethical question is not whether adults should be permitted
to alter their consciousness; I see little justification for
suppression of mental freedom of any kind. Rather the issue
is whether the price paid for achieving altered states is
too high.

That drugs often harm those who use them does not justify
the repressive measures of the war on drugs. Like all other
wars, this one inflicts considerable collateral damage.
Americas prisons are filled with non-violent drug offenders,
a magnitude of oppression comparable to the Inquisition,
witch hunts and the Chinese “Cultural Revolution.”
In a century or two, the motivation for imprisoning so many
for use of mind-altering substances may seem as
incomprehensible as do trials for heresy. Those
incapacitated by drug use, especially those whose impairment
may affect the welfare of others should be pressed into
treatment and not allowed to work in their professions
unless drug free. This seems beyond argument. And those
whose drug use is associated with violence must be
accountable for the harm they inflict. For those whose drug
use does not harm others, however, criminal penalties have
only done further damage.

I have made my jaundiced view of psychedelics clear
throughout this review. ZZZ did nothing to alter these
views. Nor does it, unfortunately, contain anything likely
to moderate the views of the majority of Americans who seem
to support the atrocities of the war on drugs. Regrettably,
Zig Zag Zen leaves the drug issue where it began.



1- Here is an example of the latter’s style: “In my
confrontations with the personified Other that is resident
in the mushroom, part of its message was its
species-specific uniqueness and its desire for a symbiotic
relationship with humans” (Terence McKenna. The Archaic
Revival. New York: HarperCollins 1991, p. 117). This seems
to suggest that certain mushrooms produce mind-altering
chemicals as a way of having a relationship with humans.
Such verbiage is enjoyable to read, at least in limited
doses, but cannot be taken as a serious contribution to
understanding effects of psychedelics.

2- Peter Harvey. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000, p. 67.

3- These writers are now out of fashion among serious
Buddhists, even though many, like myself were first
attracted to Buddhism by their books. Recent scholarship has
been highly critical of them. Yet perhaps they merit some
indulgence from us. While hardly scholarly, they were not
always wrong. For example, Kerouac^^d5s notebooks on
Buddhism, Some of the Dharma (New York: Viking Penguin,
1997) demonstrate, at least to my reading, a serious effort
to understand Buddhist teachings. While sometimes describing
meditative states as if they were akin to drug highs, the
book also considers the more austere aspects of Buddhist
philosophy such as the Five Aggregates of Grasping and the
twelvefold Chain of Causation (p. 19). Significantly, this
book was turned down by publishers when some of Kerouac^^d5s
other works such as On the Road were best-sellers. They must
have judged that the relative asceticism of actual Buddhism
was not what Beats and flower children were hoping to find.

4- In San Francisco’s Chinatown is a grungy bar
named “Buddha.” Yet peeking at its denizens
through its murky windows does not suggest that it functions
as a center for propagation of Dharma. Misapplying Buddhist
terminology obscures, but does not change, the reality.

5- I am not referring to efforts to interdict drug supply
or to capture and prosecute large-scale drug dealers. These
law enforcement activities are clearly appropriate, though
their success is limited.

6- At least two drugs that I studied were discontinued
due to harmful effects shown by my research.

7- An important question regarding contemporary Buddhism
is why monkhood seems to be losing its attraction. It can
even be questioned whether monastic life is the best setting
in which to seek enlightenment. I set these interesting
questions aside and simply assume that if spiritual
development is the highest value for someone, Sangha entry
would be a serious consideration.

8- Television may have similar effects and has been at
least as damaging to our culture as drugs, but it is not the
subject of this review.

9- In our culture, the desire for media coverage seems to
be almost as strong as the desire for wealth. Advocates of
bad behavior make great copy because the media loves nothing
so much as provoking its readers ^^d0 anger stimulates them
to tune in the next day. Here Leary’s use of the term
“tune in” may be unintentionally revealing, as if
the drug experience is akin to “turning on” the

10- This making epatier le bourgeoisie into a bourgeois
activity in its own right is highly paradoxical. I will
leave this matter unaddressed except to say that psychedelic
use too is practiced by the establishment.

11- Jay Stevens: Storming Heaven: LSD and the American
Dream. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.