High History of Buddhism

Tricycle: The Buddhist


& Buddhism

A High History of

by Rick Fields

Rick Field’s books include How
the Swans Came to the Lake
(Shambhala Publications),
The Code of the Warrior (Harper Collins),
Instructions to the Cook, and mostly recently before
his death, Fuck You Cancer. He was the editor of Yoga
Journal for many years. He died in 1999 in Fairfax,
California and is survived by his wife Marsha Cohen, who
gave me this article first published in Tricycle

This issue of Tricycle can be
ordered by going to:

THE WAR on at least one drug, the psychedelic variety, has
been won. In place of the alchemicals that reigned supreme
for a momentarily eternal moment, young would be mind
explorers now take their way through a fractioned
marketplace of pot, coke, weak acid, heroin, cocaine,
‘ludes, Ecstasy, speed, crack Set and setting? The set is
the fresh curious wary jumpy insecure brain of a bright
young kid, fourteen, twelve, ten, the age keeps dropping,
and the setting is the school yard, the street corner, the
stall in the boys’ or girls’ room before homeroom. Or maybe
(at best?) it’s a tribal merge at a thumping, flashing rave
or a Grateful Dead concert. Always a buzzing swarm. But
still hardly the contemplative gardens or paisley candlelit
retreats of the first psychedelic illuminati. The heady
halcyon days and nights of psychedelia, which once led so
many to Buddhist practice, have been efficiently eliminated,
reduced to retrofashion. The young now turn on in a world in
which the sacred has been trivialized into the recreational.
No wonder so many are relieved to see Buddhism as a recovery
program: in the morning a half hour of meditation in a
halfway house.

That practice can be helpful. even
lifesaving, to the strung out is of course good news. But
there is another sort of good news, for some unreformed
heads at least. There is something of a psychedelic revival
going on these days – and more than a few Buddhists are
taking part in it. The sacramentals are partly the old
familiar (LSD),the new (Ecstasy and other designer drugs),
and the ancient (plant entheogens such as mushrooms, peyote
cactus, and the Amazonian ayahuasca). Interestingly, it is
the last category; the ancient plants used by the oldest
indigenous peoples on the earth, that seems to hold the most
promise for the future.

There are a number of reasons for
this psychedelic revival. For one thing, psychedelics have
proven to have a certain staying power. Stamped down
countless times, abandoned for various reasons, they
nevertheless somehow manage to pop up like mushrooms from
one generation to the next. Timing is also a part of it. A
dynamic back and forth relationship between psychedelics and
Eastern spirituality has existed since the nineteenth
century. In the fifties Buddhists and Hindu texts inspired
aristocratic British exiles like the writers Gerald Heard
and Aldous Huxley to seek an experiential illumination
through psychedelics. In the sixties the same psychedelic
experience inspired American academicians like Timothy Leary
and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) to investigate Eastern texts
and practices.

During the eighties the use of MDMA
(Adam, Ecstasy) became fashionable, both among
psychotherapists and in the new youth culture in the rave
and dance club scene. Ecstasy is not a hallucinogen or
entheogen, but has best been described as an empathogen: it
seems to relax the stranglehold of the individual ego and
open the way to an unusually high level of intimacy and
communication (hence its popularity with marriage
counselors). The general calmness, serenity and spaciousness
of the experience has led, in some circles, to its being
called the “Buddha-drug.” If psychedelics correspond (for
some at least) with Tibetan or tantric Buddhism, then
Ecstasy could be seen as the Mahayana or bodhisattva drug of
choice. In fact, at least one rumor tells of a serious
circle of practitioners who use Ecstasy as a support for
their metta (loving-kindness) practice.

During the seventies and eighties,
psychedelic drug use seems to have been largely discounted
in Buddhist communities, as it was in the larger culture,
though it was not entirely absent from either arena. It
simply went underground. Buddhist groups quite
understandably were anxious to stay on the right side of the
law and seemed as anxious as most organizations to separate
themselves from the sixties’ drug and antiwar
countercultures. And individual students were growing older,
taking on the responsibilities of families and careers. For
most students psychedelics were remembered as a boat that
had gotten them to the other shore of real practice but was
now a distraction to be abandoned.

But just as in the larger culture, a
small number of students continued to experiment with
psychedelics when they were off duty, in the “post
meditation state.” Most of these, perhaps, fell into the
post sixties fashion of using psychedelics for largely
recreational reasons. A loosely floating post hippie tribe
of Buddhist Deadheads, the Dead Buddhists of America, kept
some thing of the old spirit alive. When Jerry Garcia died
in 1995, the editor of their ‘zine, The Conch Us
, led a meditation of Chenrezi, the bodhisattva of
compassion. In the middle of the meditation, he instructed
everyone to see Jerry as the bodhisattva, ‘merging with the
lights of Buddha-mind in the journey through the

Now, in the pre-millennium nineties,
we may be seeing a generation who have steeped themselves in
practice become inspired to take another, more mature, and
more penetrating, look at psychedelics.

to both psychedelics and Buddhism was limited to a small but
influential elite. A British psychiatrist working in Canada,
Dr. Humphrey Osmond. enlisted Aldous Huxley as a subject for
his experiments with mescaline in Los Angeles one afternoon
in the middle of May 1953. Huxley was well prepared. He and
his fellow expatriate, the writer Gerald Heard, had studied
Vedanta and practiced disciplined meditation for so me
years, and Huxley had ransacked the world’s mystical
writings for his anthology The Perennial Philosophy Sitting
in his garden with Dr. Osmond, he experienced the grace and
transfiguration he had read about. Remembering a koan from
one of D. T. Suzuki’s essays, ‘What is the Dharma Body of
the Buddha?” he found the answer: ‘The hedge at the bottom
of the garden.” What had previously seemed “only a vaguely
pregnant piece of nonsense” was now clear as day “Of course,
the Dharma Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of
the garden,” he reported in The Doors of Perception. ‘At the
same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it
was anything that I, or rather the blessed Not I, released
for a moment from my throttling embrace, cared to look at.”
Of course Huxley still had his famous wits about him. ‘I am
not so foolish as to equate what happens under the influence
of mescaline . . . with the realization of the end and
ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment.” he reassured
his reader. “All I am suggesting is that the mescaline
experience is what Catholic theologians call a gratuitous
grace.’ not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful
and to be accepted thankfully, if made available.” When
Maria. Huxley’s wife of more than thirty years, lay dying of
cancer he read to her the reminders from The Tibetan Book of
the Dead, reducing them to their simplest form and repeating
them close to her ear: ‘Let go, let go. Go forward into the
light. Let yourself be carried into the light.” He continued
after she had stopped breathing, “tears streaming down his
face, with his quiet voice not breaking,” his son Matthew

A few years earlier, in July 1953,
the ex banker ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson and his wife,
Valentina, had reached the Mazatec village of Huautla de
Jimenez, where they discovered the magic psilocybin
mushrooms (teonanacatl, the ‘flesh of the gods”) and managed
to take part in an all night velada. Wasson’s even handed
and respectful article on his adventures was published by
Life in 1957. The article was read by a Berkeley
psychologist, Frank Barron, who had tried some of the
mushrooms, and passed on his enthusiasm to another academic
psychologist and old friend, Timothy Leary Before taking up
his new job at Harvard’s Center for the Study of Personality
Leary spent the summer in Cuemavaca. Naturally, he tried the
mushrooms. “The journey lasted little over four hours,” he
wrote. “Like almost everyone who had the veil drawn. I came
back a changed man.”

Leary was now more interested in
transcendence than personality assessment. As head of the
Harvard Psychedelic Drug Research Project, he ran a session
for MIT Professor Huston Smith, who made the experience
available as a laboratory experiment for his seminars in
mysticism. Next, in a now famous double blind experiment. On
Good Friday in a chapel of the Boston University Cathedral.
divinity students were given either psilocybin or a placebo.
To no one’s surprise only those who had taken the
psychedelic sacrament reported what appeared to be bona fide
mystical experiences. Time published a favorable report,
with reassuring quotes from Professor Walter Clark of
Andover Smith, and other leading theologians. “We expected
that every priest, minister, rabbi, theologian, philosopher,
scholar and just plain God seeking man, woman and child in
the country would follow up the implications of the study,”
wrote Leary. Instead, “a tide of disapproval greeted the
good news.” What followed was much worse. As use spread and
the less expensive and much more powerful LSD became the
drug of choice, all heaven and hell broke loose. Huxley,
guest lecturing at MIT, advised discretion, keeping the
drugs inside a small, charmed circle, a kind of aristocratic
mystery school. Leary put forth a plan for training and
certifying guides. But it was all too much, too fast, and
too late. A generation gap had been blown open. The old were
appalled, the young enthralled. “Some students quit school
and pilgrimage eastward to study yoga on the Ganges,” Leary
wrote in Flashbacks, “not necessarily a bad development from
our point of view but understandably upsetting to parents.
who did not send their kids to Harvard to become

Leary and Alpert left Harvard in
1963. Now they were but one wave, albeit a very visible and
noisy one, in a counterculture transformation that had swept
across America and crested in San Francisco. The center of
activity was Haight Ashbury, which was just a short stroll
from a Soto Zen mission, Sokoji, and its American offshoot,
the San Francisco Zen Center But the spiritual atmosphere
was more than Zen, it was eclectic, visionary, polytheistic,
ecstatic and defiantly devotional. The newspaper of the new
vision, The San Francisco Oracle, exploded in a vast rainbow
that encompassed everything in one great Whitmanesque blaze
of light and camaraderie. North American Indians, Shiva,
Kali, Buddha, tarot, astrology, Saint Francis, Zen, and
tantra all combined to sell fifty thousand copies on streets
that were suddenly teeming with people. When the Oracle
printed the Heart Sutra, it presented a double spread of the
Zen Center version complete with Chinese characters, but
also with a naked goddess, drawn in the best Avalon Ballroom
psychedelic. While the beats had dressed in existential
black and blue, this new generation wore plumage and beads
and feathers worthy of the most flaming tropical birds. If
the previous generation had been gloomy atheists attracted
to Zen by iconoclastic directives, i.e., If you meet the
Buddha, kill him, these new kids were, as Gary Snyder told
Dom Aelred Graham in an interview in Kyoto, ‘unabashedly
religious. They love to talk about God or Christ or Vishnu
or Shiva.”

Snyder himself had gotten a
firsthand look at the counterculture when he retimed from
Japan for a short visit in 1966. He was just in time for the
first Be In at Golden Gate Park, where he was joined by a
number of friends from the early days. Allen Ginsberg was
there, as were Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Michael McClure.
Kerouac was conspicuous by his brooding absence. He wanted
nothing to do with it all. (When Leary had offered him LSD
back in Ginsberg’s apartment in New York he had objected:
“Walking on water wasn’t built in a day.”) These new hippies
horrified him. When a bunch of kids showed up at his
mother’s house in Northampton, Long Island, with jackets
that said “Dharma Bums” across the back, he slammed the door
in their faces.

But now, at the Be In, with the sun
shining through a deep blue sky and thousands of people at
ease in all their finery on the meadow, Snyder read his
poems and Ginsberg chanted the Heart Sutra to clear the
meadows of lurking demons. Even Shunryu Suzuki Roshi of the
burgeoning San Francisco Zen Center appeared briefly,
holding a single flower.

Also present on the stage that
afternoon were Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, the two ex
Harvard psychology professors. who by now were prophetic
psychedelic pied pipers. Whatever else LSD became in time,
at that moment it was the messenger that led a fair number
of people into the dazzling land of their own mind. What had
begun as the private discovery of a few intellectuals and
experimenters had spread in a flash. and for a split second
of history it was as if the veil had been rent and all the
archetypes of the unconscious now sprang forth.

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. In any case, it was obvious to the university
researchers at Harvard, who had searched the scientific
literature in vain, that the scriptures of Buddhism (and
Hinduism) contained descriptions that matched what they had
seen and felt. So Timothy Leary recast the verses of the Tao
Te Ching in a book called Psychedelic Provers, and in 1962
Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert adapted the
Bardo Thodol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead retranslated from
Evans-Wentz’s Anglo-Buddhist to American Psychedelic” in The
Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book
of the Dead. Because the book was apparently meant to
acquaint a dying person with the liberation of the Clear
Light of Reality and then guide him or her through the
peaceful and wrathful deities of the bardo it was fairly
easy to recast it as a guide in which physical death was
reconfigured as the death of the ego during a psychedelic
trip. The Psychedelic Experience went through sixteen
editions and was translated into seven languages.

One of the books most interested
readers was Aldous Huxley, who called Leary from Los
Angeles, where Huxley was now dying of cancer. When Leary
flew our to see him. Huxley asked him to guide him through
the bardos. Leary suggested that it would be better if
Huxley’s second wife, Laura, guided the sessions. “No, I
don’t want to put any more emotional pressure on her.’
Huxley replied. I plan to die during the trip, after all.’
In the end. Laura did give him the sacrament (LSD) and read
him the instructions from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. And
so Aldous Huxley passed peacefully into the Clear Light of

Before long, a number of the
psychedelic luminaries made their way to India. In 1966.
Ralph Metzner introduced Timothy Leary to the German born
Lama Anagarika Govinda, who lived in Evans-Wentz’s old
cottage in the Himalayan village of Nanital. “The lama had
been most impressed to learn that The Psychedelic Experience
contained a dedication to him.” Leary wrote in Flashbacks.
Govinda had requested an LSD session which Metzner provided.
For the first time, after thirty years of meditation, the
lama had experienced the Bardo Thodal in its living sweating
reality. According to Leary, Govinda told him that “many of
the guardians of the old philosophic traditions had realized
that the evolution of the human race had depended upon
restoration of unity between the outer science advanced by
the West and the inner yoga advanced by the East.” The
teachings of Theosophy, Gurdjieff, Ramakrishna,
Krishnamurti, and Evans-Wentz’s translation of the Tibetan
Book of the Dead had all been part of this plan. “You,” the
lama told Leary, “are the predictable result of a strategy
that has been unfolding for over fifty years. You have done
exactly what the philosophers wanted done.” Presumably
referring to Gerald Heard and Huxley, he said, “You were
prepared discreetly by several Englishmen who were
themselves agents of this process. You have been an
unwitting tool of the great transformation of our

Ginsberg arrived in India that same
year. Lately his psychedelic visions had become frightening,
and he was wondering if he ought to continue. In Kalimpong
he visited Dudjom Rinpoche, the great yogi scholar who was
head of the Nyingma (Ancient Ones) lineage. “I have these
terrible visions, what should I do?” he asked. Dudjom
Rinpoche sucked air through his mouth, a traditional Tibetan
sign of sympathy, and said, “If you see anything horrible,
don’t cling to it; if you see anything beautiful, don’t
cling to it.”

Leary’s partner, Richard Alpert (now
known as Ram Dass), reached India in 1967, “hoping to find
someone who might understand more about these substances
than we did in the West.” When he met his guru, Neem Karoli
Baba, Ram Dass gave him a hefty dose of nine hundred
micrograms. “My reaction was one of shock mixed with the
fascination of a social scientist, eager to see what would
happen,” Ram Dass wrote.

“He allowed me to stay for an hour,
and nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever He just laughed at

Another time the old man swallowed a
mind boggling twelve hundred micrograms. “And then he asked,
‘Have you got anything stronger?’ I didn’t. Then he said,
‘These medicines were used in Kulu Valley long ago. But
yogis have lost that knowledge. They were used with fasting.
Nobody knows how to take them now To take them with no
effect, your mind must be firmly fixed on God. Others would
be afraid to take. Many saints would not take this ‘And he
left it at that ” (From Miracle of Love, Stories about Neem
Keroli Baba, by Ram Dass.)

Of course, the voyage was not always
necessary In his essay “Passage to More than India,” Gary
Snyder wrote, “Those who do not have the time or money to go
to India Japan, but who think a great deal about the wisdom
traditions, have remarkable results when they take LSD. The
Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu Mythologies, the Serpent Power, the
Lankavatara Sutra, the Upanishads, the Hevajra Tantra, the
Mahanirvana Tantra, to name a few texts, become, they say,
finally clear to them. They often feel that they must
radically reorganize their lives to harmonize with such
insights.” At times, as Snyder noted, the psychedelic
experience led straight to meditation. “In several American
cities,” he wrote, “traditional meditation halls of both
Rinzai and Soto are flourishing. Many of the newcomers tuned
to traditional meditation after initial acid experience. The
two types of experience seem to inform each

It was impossible for any Roshi to
ignore the question of LSD and its relationship to Buddhism.
Koun Yamada Roshi, Yasutani Roshi’s chief disciple in Japan,
was said to have tried it only to report, “This isn’t form
is the same as emptiness; this is emptiness is the same as
form.” If Suzuki Roshi said (as Gary Snyder told Dom Aelred
Graham) that “people who have started to come to the zendo
from LSD experiences have shown an ability to get into good
zazen very rapidly,” he also said in New York (as Harold
Talbort, Graham’s secretary, told Snyder) “that the LSD
experience was entirely distinct from Zen.” In any case, it
seemed that in practice Suzuki Roshi mostly ignored it. When
Mary Farkas of the First Zen Institute asked him what he
thought of the “Zen drug tie up we kept hearing so much of”
she gathered from his reply “that students who had been on
drugs gradually gave them up and that highly structured and
supervised activities left little opportunity and lessened

But not everyone was so tolerant. In
New York a student walked into the zendo on acid, sat on his
zafu until he felt enlightened enough to get up off his
cushion in the middle of zazen, then knelt in front of the
teacher, Eido Roshi, rang the bell, and walked off non
chalantly into the small rock garden in back of the zendo.
Eldo Roshi followed, and the two stood locked eyeball to
eyeball, until the teacher asked, ‘Yes, but is it real?” and
the student, who seemed to have held his own till then,
fled. After that, there was a rule that no one could sit
zazen who used LSD in or out of the zendo.

Others in the Zen world were equally
concerned. 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.

If Dr. Suzuki sounded the alarm, the
Americans were more moderate in their reactions. Ray Jordan,
a former student of Nyogen Senzaki’s and then an assistant
professor of psychology, had written in Psychologia that
“LSD might be a useful aid both to the realization of prajna
[wisdom], and to the development of meditational
practice.” but a sesshin with Yasutani-roshi had since
convinced him that he had been mistaken. The sesshin had
“included a moment which the Roshi identified as kensho,”
and Jordan was now able to testify that even the deepest and
most powerful realizations associated with LSD were weak and
dim compared to the reality and clarity of sesshin events.”
Jordan admitted that “in a small number of cases psychedelic
experiences may have revealed to persons the everyday
presentness of the Pure Buddha Land [but] from that
point on the psychedelics are of no value whatsoever insofar
as the Way is concerned. Without relying on anything one
must walk step by step, moment by moment in the daily
reality of the Pure Land.”

Alan Watts was more sympathetic. 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

But if one were not trained in yoga
or Zen, warned Watts, this insight might lead one to believe
either that “you are the helpless victim of everything that
happens to you,” or that, like God, you are ‘personally
responsible for everything that happened.” To go beyond this
impasse, one needed either “an attitude of profound faith or
letting-go to you-know-not-what.” In that case, “the rest of
the experience is total delight … what, in Buddhist terms,
would be called an experience of world as dhamadhatu, of all
things and events, however splendid or deplorable from
relative points of view, as aspects of symphonic harmony)
which, in its totality, is gorgeous beyond

And yet, the most interesting part
of the experience for Watts was nor 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-sanryak-sambodhi.” But this realization, remembered
clearly enough, soon faded. “It is thus,” concluded “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.

It was left to Robert Aitken to
describe the new psychedelic influenced generation in
detail. The early members of Koko-an Zendo, Aitken
remembers, were former Theosophists. The turning point had
come in 1963 or 1964 when utter strangers would come into
the dojo. how at the entrance, seat themselves and sir like
stones through the first period, and then at kinhin
[walking meditation] time they would get up and fall

Aitken couldn’t figure it out, until
he later discovered that word had gone out that the Koko-an
Zendo was a good place for tripping.

In 1967 the Aitken bought a house on
the island of Maui in anticipation of Robert’s retirement
from the East-West Center at the University of Hawaii. The
long-haired young had begun to flock to Maui by then, and
many of them had rented rooms in the Aitken house. Those
from “the tragic end of the counterculture,” he wrote in The
Eastern Buddhist, “had a consuming interest in illuminative
religion, a sense of wholeness and essence, a love of
nature. a devotion to poverty and asceticism, a sensitivity
to one an another and a desire to ‘get it on,’ that is, to
practice rather than simply to talk.”

Many of these were interested in
zazen, and the Aitken decided to establish a branch of
Koko-an on Maui. In its first stages, Maui Zendo served “as
a kind of mission to the psychedelic Bohemia.” “Virtually
all the young people who knock on our front door have tried
LSD, mescaline, or psilocybin,” he wrote, a situation that
he thought true for the San Francisco Zen Center as well as
other groups across the country.

The Maui Zendo soon became known as
“a place where you could get your head together.” and a
regular zazen schedule was begun. But the turnover was
enormous. “The thing that created this marvelous spirit also
destroyed it.” Aitken says now and that was the dope.” The
regular use of marijuana, Aitken had observed, “destroyed
the sense of proportion,” while LSD, as he had written in
his essay, seemed to “shatter much of the personality
structure, and the impulse of the moment assumed paramount

It was, finally, the “human problem
of distraction” that Aitken found most crucial. “The new
gypsies,” he found, “blow like leaves in the wind, now in
Mendocino, now at San Francisco, then all the way to Maui,
then back to the mainland. always with a convincing reason
that may be no more than a faint interior or exterior
impulse.” Zazen as a natural corrective to this, and the
Maui Zendo began to develop more and more in the direction
of a training center.

If the sixties was a high point of
the Zen generation, the seventies belonged to the Tibetans.
The proximate cause, of course, was the Tibetan diaspora.
But the hallucinogenic aspect of the psychedelic experience
itself was certainly a contributing factor. The visual
pyrotechnics of psychedelia made a close fit with the
colorful flamboyance of the radiant gods and goddesses and
fiery deities of Tibetan art. The putative correspondence
was further strengthened by seeming similarities between the
visionary experience of the most popular Tibetan text of the
sixties, the Bardo Thodal or Tibetan Book of the Dead, and
the psychedelic experience. These elements of psychedelia
had their part to play in the increasing popularity of
Tibetan Buddhism. But as most would-be practitioners soon
discovered, the first wave of lamas were more interested in
students who were willing and able to engage in a series of
demanding practices. The point was not to have visions, but
to visualize.

Another point of divergence was that
many people had hoped that meditation and yoga would provide
the permanent high” lacking in psychedelics. But as more
people actually threw themselves into the practice, it tuned
out that practice was not really about getting high at all.
In Buddhism, at least, the instructions seemed to be to not
cling to any experience, high or low. A fragment from a Gary
Snyder poem springs to mind: “Experience that

With the advent of actual practice
came Buddhist critique of the psychedelic experience. Some
teachers slotted drugs into the mind intoxicant category of
the precepts. This was not really convincing for many,
however, because whatever psychedelics might be, anyone who
had taken them knew that “intoxicating” was a limited,
reductionistic description, at best. And more often than
nor, the Asian teachers making such pronouncements had no
actual experience of psychedelics.

The few teachers who did have such
experience, however, were in a uniquely privileged position
to compare the two experiences. The most sympathetic of
these was Trungpa Rinpoche, who had tested and tasted the
splendors of Western civilization in England. He was one of
the few Buddhist teachers one could talk to about such
things, which many of his students, myself included, asked
him about. Officially, of course, all illegal drugs were
prohibited. But privately Trungpa Rinpoche had, as he told
me (and here I paraphrase loosely from faulty memory), a lot
of sympathy for students who had taken LSD. He even
volunteered that we might take it together some time in the
future, an opportunity or challenge that I never got to take
him up on, to both my regret and relief. The suggestion was
both exhilarating and scary. His style and skill, after all,
was in cutting through trips of spiritual materialism rather
than guiding them.

This is hardly surprising. More than
most spiritual paths, Buddhism tends not to be very
impressed by “experiences,” be they spiritual or
psychedelic. And Trungpa Rinpoche, for all his outwardly
wild non conventional behavior, was a Tibetan mastiff when
it came to practice: your ass was on the line, which meant
on the cushion. Still, at least in the “early days” of the
seventies, his sangha was wilder and more open than many.
The point, it seemed, was not to avoid samsara but to get
into it directly, as long as you returned to the cushion
next morning, hungover or fried. As he said in one of his
few public statements about it, LSD was a kind of “super
samsara,” and in as much as it heightened certain samsaric
tendencies it could be a useful method.

About marijuana he was less
tolerant. The main problem, he once told me, was that
marijuana tended to “mimic meditation.” This take led to a
dramatic confrontation with a group of his earliest
students. In the early seventies a tribe of hippies, known
as the Pygmies, became students and were the first to
colonize the undeveloped land that has since become known as
Rocky Mountain Dharma Center. They cobbled together an odd
assortment of living quarters, yurts, one rooms, A frames, a
six sided cabin. “At night the main entertainment tended to
be kicking back, pouring a beer, smoking a joint,” reported
Barbara Stewart about that time in The Vajradhatu Sun
(August/September 1991), “but a meeting ensued, a powerful
and violent clash that would eventually mean the beginning
of the end of the Pygmies private

Smoking marijuana, Rinpoche said,
was lying to themselves, indulging in self deception. They
should bum both, marijuana and self deception… The Pygmies
were taken aback, angry and confused. But only one person,
call him Mike, fought back Jim Lowry remembers this scene. .
‘Mike hit Rinpoche and Rinpoche hit Mike. It was violent, it
was a huge eruption. Rinpoche threw a flower pot he missed
Mike. Maggie screamed, ‘Stop!’ Rinpoche built a fire in the
fireplace. ‘Destroy self deception,’ he was saying. It was
tense but calm…. Everyone went and got dope and threw it
in the fire. We were kind of chanting: ‘Destroy
self-deception, destroy self-deception.’ . . The first
dathun month long group meditation) was a turning point,
confirming the obvious, that this land was to be a
meditation center and not an Eden like Pygmy crafts


Such was the powerful antidrug drift
As always, however there were counter currents. During the
seventies, the eighties, and up to the present, a small
number of committed Buddhist practitioners have used the
sacrament in the context of formal practice. This was
necessarily a secret use, harking back to the earliest
tantric circles in India, where unlawful and taboo
substances such as meat and wine were transformed into
sacraments. This group was naturally self selecting,
composed mostly of practitioners experienced in both
modalities, who found that, handled properly, psychedelics
can be a useful skillful means. If the practitioner has the
balance and moves to surf the psychedelic waves, the
argument went, then the experience can be useful in one’s
sadhana (formal practice) Myton J. Stolaroff, active in
psychedelic research since 1960, is one of these Buddhist
practitioners. “For myself” he writes in a recent issue of
Gnosis, “I found training in Tibetan Buddhist meditation a
potent adjunct to psychedelic exploration. In leaning to
hold my mind empty, I became aware that other levels of
reality would more readily manifest. It was only in absolute
stillness that many subtle but extremely valuable nuances of
reality appeared. While I achieved this to some extent in
ordinary practice, I found this effect to be greatly
amplified while under the influence of a psychedelic
substance. This in turn intensified my daily

Such a claim will be outrageous to
many, probably most, Buddhist practitioners. After all, the
use of any intoxicants is proscribed by the precepts. And
while Saivite Hindu sadhus smoke ganja, and Christians drink
wine, and Sufis (some at least) have been known to smoke
hashish, Buddhists seem to have been a decidedly sober if
not straight, square group. It’s true that green tea, a
powerful stimulant, is connected with Bodhidharma, and is
used by Zen monks as a stimulant to ward off sleep during
meditation. And alcohol also has a small hut enduring place
in Buddhist practice, Zen masters have exhibited a fondness
for sake, and liquor is used ceremonially in tantric feasts,
while chang, a potent Tibetan barley-beer is consumed by
monks and lay practitioners in tantric ceremonies (as well
as for fun) throughout the Himalayas.

But what about psychedelics? Is it
really the case that Buddhism, the one “major world
religion” without a personal creator God, is lacking in a
mind-altering or mind-opening sacrament? And even if it
lacks such a sacrament today, has it always been so? Certain
images in Buddhist texts suggest that this has not always
been the case. The most glaring example is the existence of
amrita, a drink or substance that is said to confer
death-lessness or liberation. If this amtita is not an
actual mind-altering substance or plant, what we would so
crudely call a “drug”, is it “merely” a symbol? But even if
it’s a symbol, that still leaves the question: a symbol of

This question leads back to one of
the greatest explorer researcher theorists of psychedelic
lore: amateur ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson, who introduced
the world to the magic psilocybin mushrooms of indigenous
Mexico. When Wasson extended his exploration to other
cultures, most notably India, he found compelling evidence
that the mysterious soma of the Vedic hymns was, in fact, an
infusion made from the psychedelic mushroom amanita
muscaria, or fly-agaric the sacramental basis for a
shamanistic un-religion which he traced back to the late Ice
Age in Siberia. Wasson had an antipathy to hippies and
“Timothy Leary’ and his ilk,” and so was uncomfortable with
the term “psychedelic.” He suggested, instead, entheogenic
“god generated within,” for the sacred plants that he felt
lay behind the mysteries of the ancients.

Wasson’s line of research
exemplifies an ethno botanical school of psychedelic
research that was contemporaneous with, and obscured by, the
sensationalistic and hysterical LSD furor of the sixties.
But during the nineties this lineage of ethnobotany has
continued to be enriched by gifted academic botanists, such
as Schultes at Harvard, and gifted amateurs like Wasson. The
most interesting of these post-Wassonites, for our purpose
at least, is one Scott Hajicek-Dobberstein, who recently
published a fascinating paper. “Soma siddhas and alchemical
enlightenment psychedelic mushrooms in Buddhist tradition.”
in the Journal of Ethno pharmacology. Hajicek-Dobberstein
argues that the Vedic soma cult, or something very similar
to it, survived among the tantric Buddhist siddhas who lived
in India from the eighth to the tenth century C.E.. and
whose biographies are recounted in a twelfth-century Tibetan
text, The Legends of the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas.

The most compelling evidence is
found in the story of the siddha Kanaripa. His guru.
Nagarjuna instructed him to demonstrate his austerity by
collecting only as much food for alms as he could balance on
the head of a needle. Kanaripa returned with a large pancake
balanced on the tip of a needle, a symbol, suggests
Hajicek-Dobberstein, of the amanita muscaria. More symbols
are suggested. but the most convincing evidence is an
exchange in which Nagarjuna says. “We need to eat the
alchemical medicine.” Kanaripa does so, and then spreads his
spittle on a dead tree, which bursts in blossom, and then
urinates in a pot. This behavior is taken as a sign of
realization by Kamaripa’s teacher For Hajicek-Dobberstein,
it is a “marker” of the presence of amanita soma because
drinking the urine of a shaman who has consumed amanita
intensifies the potency of the mushroom and is a well-known
practice among Siberians.

The possible use of amanita (or
other mushrooms or plants) by siddhas also offers a possible
solution to two thorny Tibetan etymological puzzles. The
Tibetan name for cannabis, So.Ma.Ra.Dza. from the Sanskrit
soma-raja, or “king of soma” can now be read as a linguistic
trace of a long forgotten tradition. The second puzzle
involves the Tibetan translation of amrita (deathless) as
bDud.rTsi. The word rTsi is “drink, juice,” but bDud means
“demon.” How did the deathless drink of amrita become “demon
juice” in Tibetan? In an unpublished paper, another amateur
ethnobotanist, one K. Tendzin Dorje, retells the story of
Vajrapani, who recovers the amrita that had been stolen by
the demon Rahu. “Demon juice” may therefore refer to the
amrita stolen by the demon Rahu. (I am indebted to Dr.
Richard Kohn for this suggestion.)

Such speculative ethno botanical
Tibetan scholarship does not occur in a vacuum. It reflects
the ethno botanical bent of the current psychedelic revival.
In place of the “chemical” intensities of acid, contemporary
psychedelic explorers prefer the “organic” psychedelics or,
to use Wasson’s preferred word, “entheogens.” These include
the psilocybin mushrooms first rediscovered by Wasson, the
peyote used by the Huichols of Mexico and the Native
American Church, and the ayahuasca used by Amazonian shamans
and ayahuasca circles and churches. All of these plants have
coexisted for millennia with human beings, who have
developed intricate rituals and beautiful ceremonies to use
sacred plants safely and wisely.

The all-night Native American Church
ceremony for example, combines the discipline and
mindfulness of a Zen ritual, the spontaneous song-prayer of
the tantric doha tradition, and the compassion of the
bodhisattva. I remember one night in a teepee in northern
Montana, the clear mind of peyote glowing in the fire before
the crescent moon sand altar, the thump-thump-thump of water
drum and gourd rattles keeping time with the ancient peyote
songs, and it was clear as the dawning light that something
close to this went on way back, possibly to the dawn of our
human consciousness.

And why not into the future as well?
We have much to learn from our native shamans. Both the
Native American Church and the Brazilian ayahuasca churches
have successfully grafted an ancient entheogenic practice
onto Christianity There is nothing to prevent this from
happening with Buddhism as well. Indeed, Buddhism has
demonstrated a genius for adapting, or mutating, in
Professor Robert Thurman’s phrase, to a wide range of
cultures. In Tibet, this included a shamanistic culture.
Whether or not the ancient siddhas used mushrooms or other
alchemical substances, there is no reason why an
ecologically informed American Buddhism cannot likewise draw
from its own shamanistic earth wisdom. Sacred plant
sacraments could be offered as amrita in the context of a
tantric feast, for the development of compassion and wisdom
in our ravaged world. At least for the tantric lineages of
Buddhism there is no limit to the skillful means available
to a bodhisattva, which includes many teachings on
transforming poison into nectar. As unlikely as it may seem,
this devil juice may be just the antidote for the
out-of-control materialism that is ravaging our

One thing at least seems certain.
Wherever the ancient or recent past history of psychedelic
entheogens and Buddhism may be, the story is hardly over As
Hajicek-Dobberstein says, “Some contemporary non orthodox
Buddhist ‘alchemists’ find precedents in Mahasiddhas
Nagarjuna and Aryadeva, who agreed, We need to eat the
alchemical medicine. . . Orthodox scholars may object but
they can no longer ‘Just say No.”

This issue of Tricycle can be
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Adi Da and a Tale about
Ramakrishna smoking a ‘Hookie Pookie Pipe’

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