The debate over whether Buddhism and psychedelics complement or obstruct each other has always been a vibrant one. Is drinking ayahuasca a short cut past meditation to Enlightenment? Or, if you’re a practicing Buddhist, is it a nice idea to occasionally run away to a forest with some friends and a bag of Psilocybe semilanceata? Well, now there is a new generation of spiritual seekers who want to know the answer. I want to know the answer.
An instant classic when it first appeared in 2002, Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics is an anthology of thoughts from some of the most brilliant minds on the subject. It was re-published a few years ago and its author, Allan Badiner, is a fellow writer and friend of mine (Zig Zag Zen came out around the same time as my own book, Breaking Open the Head – A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Modern Shamanism).
I called Allan one afternoon as I hurried in light rain toward New York’s Grand Central station to pick up my daughter. He picked up the phone in Big Sur.
Daniel Pinchbeck: Allan, what is the essential connection between Buddhism and psychedelic use?
Allan Badiner: Both share an interest in the primacy of mind, and present moment awareness, but they are very different in character, and do not have much shared history – until quite recently. The Beat Generation, hippies and the 1960s cultural revolution were all products of both Eastern wisdom traditions—of which Buddhism is very much a part—and the sacraments; LSD, mushrooms and peyote. Teachers of that era like Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Ram Dass and others, all talked about Buddhism and psychedelics and I think the relationship between them manifests in the context of the human pursuit of evolution. Many people seek the compassionate wisdom of the dharma (the Buddhist community and philosophy), as well as the psychic re-set that certain plant substances offer because of their power to transform. A kind of practical magic results when the ‘Zig’ zags into Zen; when a time-tested ethical system meets plant-assisted changes in consciousness.
How did you first get interested in this area?
At 30, I quit my job as a Hollywood agent and traveled in India and Sri Lanka for a year. Before re-entering to America, I was advised to do a two-week Buddhist meditation retreat in Sri Lanka. It was awful. Dirty, bugs everywhere, painful sitting for hours a day, stewed greens at 6AM for breakfast and the same greens for lunch. No dinner. Two days before it was over, everything changed. I experienced a tidal wave of quiet ecstasy, filled with profuse gratitude for being alive, simultaneously living as though each moment could clearly be the last – but grateful that it wasn’t. I felt a fierce sense of total connection with everyone; with trees, animals, even bugs, and the Earth herself.
When did psychedelics enter your life?
After I returned from India, still in the meditative glow, I went to a party where a dear friend asked me to close my eyes and stick out my tongue. Knowing of my aversion to drugs, she told me not to worry and just enjoy. Later on, I was admiring the broad view of LA and began talking to someone I knew, but did not like. My internal voice was trying to tell me to get away! But I saw qualities in her I’d never noticed and was enjoying her company immensely. That feeling of powerful connection returned – I felt rooted in the Earth, aware of my breathing and the exchange of gases that entails.
Sounds like Ecstasy!
Yes, but while some would argue MDMA is not a psychedelic, it certainly felt like one. I was writing a column called ‘Mind and Spirit’ for LA Weekly at the time, and the journalist in me had to know more about this stuff. This led me to a meeting with the legendary psychedelic chemist Sasha Shulgin. Sasha discovered 2CB, and thousands of other chemicals, and was also responsible for rediscovering MDMA in the 70s. His shock of white hair and unreserved, toothy smile reminded me of gurus in India. I interviewed other visionary thinkers, like Terence McKenna, and from there I experimented sporadically with psilocybin mushrooms and had my one and only encounter with ayahuasca in 1987.
Many critics argue that Buddhism and psychedelics are incompatible. The Buddhist writer Ken Wilber talks about the distinction between “states and traits.” With psychedelics, it might be easy to change the former, but much harder to change the latter. The idea being that sudden access to altered states of consciousness through substances does not lead to long-term changes in character.
Yes, religion scholar Huston Smith who wrote the foreword for Zig Zag Zen noted that, “while psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits, and one does not necessarily lead to the other.” Despite the fact that Zig Zag Zen also represents these opposing views, I was hoping there would be a hailstorm of criticism, with Buddhist demonstrations in the streets of Boulder, San Francisco, and the Upper West Side – all helping to drive sales higher. But the Buddhists—even those with a capital ‘B’—said, “Buddhism, drugs… ok, yes. Next?”
“It’s interesting that even among those who criticise psychedelic use, if you can get them to talk about their own personal experience with consciousness expanding drugs, it is amazing how good their journeys sound.”
At a recent talk, Ken Wilber observed that “people that use psychedelics with some form of spiritual practice or meditation get an enormous benefit from it – more than with just one or the other.”
One often hears about drug prohibition in Buddhism. Isn’t there a Buddhist precept that forbids the use of substances that change consciousness?
The precepts are not hard rules or commandments but guiding principles in order to facilitate progress on the path. Buddhists refrain from killing, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct and incorrect speech. According to Robert Thurman, chair of Buddhism at Columbia University, the fifth precept specifically refers to alcohol, which was a problem even in the Buddha’s day as it’s likely to lead to carelessness, and the user breaking the other four precepts.
Do you think the Buddha used psychedelics?
That is a very interesting question. We know psychoactive plants, particularly cannabis, were used widely as part of spiritual practice at the time of the Buddha, and no pejorative or unfavorable attitudes about the use of cannabis are known to have existed at the time. We also know that the Shaivite tradition of Hinduism, in particular, has a field of cannabis growing behind temples throughout India for use by the holy men or sadhus.
We know that the Buddha tried all the available strategies along the path to enlightenment, including extreme asceticism – fasting long periods, remaining on the bare ground without shelter, staying alongside the ghats in Varanasi where the bodies of the dead were cremated. The rules for aspiring monks and nuns were incredibly specific and detailed about what not to do, and nowhere is any reference to psychoactive plants found among them. So it would seem unlikely that he singled out this element to pass over during his many years of searching.
Why is there such a renewed interest in psychedelics today? Why do people seem increasingly fascinated by meditation and other esoteric practices, and combining these practices with psychedelics?
Because we are teetering on the brink of total destruction of the life support systems of the planet. As LSD inventor Albert Hoffman said, the year before he passed away at 102: “Alienation from nature and the loss of the experience of being part of the living creation is the causative reason for ecological devastation and climate change. I attribute the absolute highest importance to consciousness change, and I regard psychedelics as catalyzers for this.” The Anthropocene, the age of human-driven change in the Earth’s natural systems, has ushered in a new enthusiasm for shamanic and psychedelic tools for evolution.
“It’s a legitimate question to ask: could psychedelics be an imperative for our survival?”
What else can offer the kind of potential for mental evolution and change with the rapidity required by the worsening health of the ecosystem? Simultaneously, we are experiencing a veritable psychedelic revolution in medicine. Substances earlier held to be without medical usefulness and made illegal, are now being studied as potentially valuable therapeutics. As the psychologist Ralph Metzner—a contributor to Zig Zag Zen—points out: “Two of the most beneficent potential areas of application of psychedelic technologies are in the treatment of addictions and in the psycho-spiritual preparation for the final transition.”
Assuming someone wanted to experience psychedelics in a way that is compatible with their Buddhist practice, are some substances more suitable than others?
I think the Buddhist test for the suitability of a substance is this: can it be reasonably expected to produce more compassion, and a greater degree of conscious awareness? Examples of such materials might include cannabis, hashish, psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, MDMA, ayahuasca, or peyote. A Buddhist approach would be to employ known strategies of experienced users, such as paying careful attention to set and setting.
Set refers to the state of mind going into the experience and the intention of the user in terms of what kind of results are intended. Preparing oneself spiritually for a psychedelic experience might include reading from the words of the Buddha, meditating, yoga or fasting. Making the effort to articulate an intention is also very helpful. Here is one example: “My intention is to have an inspiring and meaningful journey that helps me experience the love of giving, not receiving; helps me bring forth courage and let go of fear; and helps me to live in the awareness that all things are connected in the vast organism we call life.”
Are some venues or situations more conducive than others?
Setting refers to the physical environment within which we choose to have the experience, including other people. If one is inexperienced with the use of psychedelics, it may be a good idea to have what is called a sitter – someone you trust, who cares about you, to tend to any needs you may have. Some people may appreciate being in a festival setting with music they enjoy and a multitude of friends. Hydration is always critically important.
Well, this has been very informative. Thanks Allan, I’ve reached the station. See you soon.
Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics by Allan Badiner is available from Synergetic Press.