An interview with writer and activist Allan Badiner on the relationship between Buddhism and psychadelics in America.
Readers may know Allan Badiner, a writer, activist, and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, as the editor of the outstanding anthologies Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology and Mindfulness in the Marketplace: Compassionate Responses to Consumerism. One of Allan’s other research interests has been the relationship between Buddhism and psychedelics in America.
His work in this area has produced not just the book, Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, but also an online CIIS course, “Buddhism and Psychedelics.” I caught up with Allan to discuss the course, and the various ways Buddhists have understood the psychedelic experience.
Why teach a class about Buddhism and psychedelics? Why is this an important subject?
Ever since psychedelics first came into use in the West, Buddhism has had to deal with it. Most of the researchers and key characters in the psychedelic movement are also experienced in the philosophy and practices of Buddhism, and almost all first-generation Buddhist teachers in Europe and America have psychedelics lurking in their past. Twenty-five years ago, the zendo gates and meditation halls were all but flooded by young people who had experimented significantly with psychedelics, and were now seeking a more sustainable way to continue their spiritual development.
Given the shared purpose of both pursuits, the alleviation of suffering, and liberation of the mind, a person on a path of self-discovery will likely look closely at both Buddhism and psychedelics, and try come to some understanding about each.
In the field of medicine there is renewed interest in the healing powers of psychoactive plant medicines. Even in the current political climate, the Government is sanctioning a multitude of studies on the benefits of psychedelics. If you suffer from intractable depression, for example, would you want to take pharmaceuticals for the rest of your life when there is a possibility that by eating a mushroom, you can liberate yourself permanently from this condition?
While medicinal use has played, and will continue to play a large role, it is evident that the urge to alter one’s consciousness is primary—just as the drive to satiate thirst, hunger or sexual desire. This drive to alter one’s state of mind is inarguably universal. Buddhism is fundamentally interested in the desires of human beings, and offers a great deal of wisdom and practices for contending with them.
Is it your sense that there is still significant use of psychedelics among Buddhists today?
In September of 2009, Shambhala Sun ran a poll on their blog called: “Here’s my stance on drugs and alcohol.” Readers were asked to make a selection for what was true for them among the following choices: non-Buddhists that don’t use, use a little, or use more than a little, and Buddhists that don’t use, use a little, or use more than a little.
Predictably, the non-Buddhist numbers were just 18% of respondents and among them there were more than twice as many people who used than not. Among Buddhists 16% said they did not use, while 52% said they use a little, and another 14% of Buddhists said they use more than a little.
Evidence is ample that in practice there is much more overlap than what is formally acknowledged.
In any event, do we care about just Buddhists, or are we not also interested in young people who could potentially use Buddhist practice to enhance their lives? A young person in America or Western Europe will be an exception to the rule if they have not experienced psychedelics before they graduate high school. My daughter tells me that she may be the only student at her high school that has not experimented with psychedelics.
I think it’s important for us to look at these materials with a Buddhist perspective and offer some guidance to users.
Would you walk us through some of the various approaches to and ideas about Buddhism and psychedelics? What have Buddhist teachers and others said about the mixing of drugs and Dharma?
Ironically, it was many of the early figures in American Buddhism, such as Alan Watts, Allen Ginsberg, and Ram Dass, who were also keenly interested in the potential of psychedelics. In the 70’s and 80’s psychedelics were not only suppressed legally but also culturally. Now again, the psychedelic experience is regarded as having significant value in the personal transformation process.
Veterans of psychedelically induced spiritual experiences who have moved on to the study and practice of the Buddha Dharma are often grateful for the beneficial role these materials have played in their lives. Given their potential for harm and lasting confusion, and the fact that one could hardly make the case that drugs are a pre-requisite for the spiritual path, it is not hard to understand why so many current teachers of Buddhism will not recommend psychedelics even though they had their own powerfully useful experiences with them.
Opinions on how, or if, Buddhism and psychedelics mix are as diverse as can be imagined, from the idea that Buddhists who don’t use are purely “armchair” Buddhists (Terence McKenna), to support for the compassionate use of psychedelics with the dying (Joan Halifax) to the notion that any use is a distraction and that “nothing-added Buddhism” is the only way (Richard Baker). There are many teachers in the middle ground who tend to look at each situation and all the factors before drawing conclusions. I would say Jack Kornfield is a good example. While Jack took LSD — and he is happy he did — he does not compare that journey with the cumulative power of regular meditation.
How is the Fifth Precept against the use of intoxicants being negotiated here?
I think the fifth precept is about trying to preserve our ability to maintain integrity around the first four. When we lose our mindfulness via substance abuse, we could end up breaking all four precepts. Of course, it’s inaccurate and misleading to refer to every psychoactive substance in aggregate as an “intoxicant” as if there is no difference between beer, heroin, or psilocybin. We have also been trying to make a distinction in this course between substances that expand consciousness, such as MDMA, ayahuasca and psilocybin, and those that constrict consciousness, such as uppers and downers, and alcohol.
Still, The Buddha was very careful to advise practitioners to abstain from things that intoxicate. Contemporary teachers are quick to point to drugs as well as alcohol. While drugs may indeed cause intoxication (particularly those not known to have a history of spiritual use), they are not specifically what the Buddha was referring to. And while alcohol may have been his sole specific example of an intoxicant, it is reasonable to infer that he was really advising practitioners to refrain from anything that causes them to loose control and wander from the middle way. Intoxicants, whether it is a drug, alcohol, television, websites, sex, violence, or politics, can challenge one to stay centered and see life as it really is.
While Buddhism encourages moderation, or perhaps abstention, it is more clearly about self-control. The teachings create a context for looking at oneself not in a judgmental way based upon having desires, but upon the self-fulfillment and self-respect that comes from making skillful choices. True self-respect comes from doing no harm to oneself or others, and the fruits of this are love, compassion and equanimity.
Even prescription medicines, like everything else, can help you or hurt you. In the end, It is about you and your practice, and that is what decides which way it goes.
In an article you wrote for Reality Sandwich, you spoke a bit about the democratization of both Buddhism and psychedelics in recent history. This seems to me an important point. Would you please say a bit more about this?
One of the most treasured elements found in the Dharma is the suggestion to “come and see!” (ehipassiko) if the teachings work for you personally. Ehipassiko constitutes an open invitation to investigate, to scrutinize and if need be, even to criticize the Dhamma before accepting it. The practice of Buddha Dharma is a first person endeavor. You are called to use your own life as a lens, a light, and a laboratory. The beauty of this principle is that it dignifies and empowers each individual, and honors a person’s own ability to discern clearly whether the practice works or not.
This understanding is expounded in the Kalama Sutta, which enshrines personal and religious freedom as part of the Dharma. “Don’t follow something just because you hear it frequently, nor because you read it in a book,” said the Buddha to the Kalamas,” call upon the direct knowledge grounded in your own experience.”
I think we can apply the principle of ehipassiko to the question of psychedelics. If Buddhism itself must pass the test of personal experience to have clarity and be of value, so it then follows that the issue of whether psychedelics can be part of the one’s Buddhist practice must also be open to personal experimentation and experience.
An important reason why psychedelics are of interest to Buddhism is the requisite compassion for the great suffering of those persecuted for un-prescribed drug use. The war on drugs is really a war on consciousness, a war on the free exercise of that most precious of gifts bestowed on a human being. In this way, the use of psychedelics, and the social problems created by both their use and the legal responses to it, are of primary interest to students of Buddha’s teachings.
Can you say something about the place of the subject of drugs and Dharma in the larger context of Buddhist Studies? Is this an issue that has relevancy beyond understanding aspects of the convert Buddhist experience in the United States in the last forty or fifty years?
The cat is out of the bag and it isn’t going back in. Psychedelics in relation to Dharma will be of increasing relevance and interest in the larger context of Buddhist Studies for the duration. Just as therapy has become increasingly medicalized, we live in a culture that rewards fast transitions, and not just in the U.S. Robert Thurman says that the issue of psychedelics must be understood by anyone concerned about the future of Buddhist practice.
The New York Times published a widely circulated article in April of this year called: “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” Recent studies have indicated that beneficially reframing death anxiety can occur with psilocybin, and that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy can reduce post-traumatic stress disorder. Other clinical trials suggest psychedelics can be very helpful with obsessive-compulsive disorder, neuroses and psychoses, depression, alcoholism and addiction.
MAPS (The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) is working on a protocol that would investigate the use of psychedelics in the midst of a 7-10 day Zen meditation retreat. This study would be conducted with Dr. Franz Vollenweider, Professor of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine, University of Zürich, and a director at the Heffter Institute.
While the question of how Buddhism and psychedelics relate is not easily answered, science may prove to be the mediating field within which they meet with clarity and transparency going into the future.
Lastly, would you say something about your take on all of this? What for you are the pros and cons of the meeting of Buddhism and psychedelics?
I’m actually quite conservative on the subject, or at least in the middle. I’m not a fan of being on a chemically dependent spiritual path. Early experiences I had with psychedelics led to an intense interest in Buddhism and enlightenment. As time went on, my interest in Buddhism became less about reaching a goal, as it was about fully enjoying the present moment, making some contribution to others, and not expecting more.
Underemphasized and left unmentioned by many teachers (Thich Nhat Hanh being a notable exception) is that, even short of full enlightenment, the state of being relaxed, present, and aware concurrently with following an ethical path of harmlessness, produces a very pleasurable feeling and a durable contentment. While it is occasionally punctuated with the inevitable pains of life, it is not transient, nor is it reliant or dependent on substances.
While psychedelics and Buddhist practice have a significant relationship, no hallucinatory experience can replace the daily discipline of meditation and ethical practice. It is also important to recognize that even as psychedelics have been known to facilitate very profound experiences, and have led, in some cases, to steady and disciplined meditative practice, this does not equate to the idea that psychedelics are necessarily a valid part of Buddhist practice.
Again, using my own experience as an example, I have been perplexed for a long time as to how I could have had such a powerful and beneficial experience with ayahuasca—one that continues to serve me even presently—and yet I clearly remember a strong voice that spoke to me during the journey advising me to make it my last. I was directed to more fully experience the magic that hides in plain site: sunsets, the eyes of a child, or a chilled fresh tangerine.
Mature, serious spiritual seekers are wise to study the whole issue of psychedelics and the spiritual path in depth before beginning any experimentation. It is always preferable that psychedelics be used carefully, as a sacrament, and in a controlled and serious manner, with the specific intent of producing an experience of enduring spiritual significance.
Most importantly, all people must be free to take full responsibility for their own relationship to the source of their being, and for access to the highest states of spirit mind. This honoring of our human dignity is generally maintained within and safest in systems such as democracies. This is not a one-size fits-all domain.
Bravo! A thoroughly well written article!
As a psychologist, I must admit that the gap between the FDA approved mind-altering drugs my colleagues prescribe and the drugs being referred to in this article, is much smaller than people often recognize.
Underneath both is a “seeking” for some other state than what is present in the moment. I can already hear the inner zen master in me yelling “seeking enlightenment is a big mistake.” 🙂
What is the goal of drugs? To alter states right? And what is the goal of that goal? To be peaceful? To be enlightened? To escape the ordinary? To be somewhere else other than where you are? To me, this certainly points to “right intention” and the second noble truth of the origin of suffering in craving.
I think the author nailed it when he said: “As time went on, my interest in Buddhism became less about reaching a goal, as it was about fully enjoying the present moment, making some contribution to others, and not expecting more.” I couldn’t agree more.
If we are going to indulge in seeking, then let’s seek the above mentioned state of embracing the ordinary. The only “drug” that will get you there is breathing, settling the mind, and opening your eyes to see that you’re already in the heaven that you seek.
readers via facebook says
Judy WF: I say everything within moderation 😉
Deborah P: Why not?
Doug M: Think I'll pass. Back in the 60's I was convinced I knew exactly where the line was between drug "use" and drug "abuse." I was wrong. Think I'll keep my mind pure this time around.
Denese RD: I'm with Doug. One of my gifts through Buddhist teachings has been my desire, goal and ability to purify my mind. It comes through meditation, not chemicals. This life is too precious for that.
Michal G-P: Drugs are dangerous – it's really not easy to distinguish between their use and abuse. Still, I have used marihuana for some meditations which allowed me to have deep and intensive meditation experiences that I didn't succeed to have without it. Though I don't use it anymore, I don't regret it not even a little.
readers via facebook says
Marc HM: Psychedelics were responsible for significant individual breakthroughs which in turn led to major cultural shifts for the better. "Drugs", on the other hand, whether illegal or pharmaceutical, have damaged individuals and thereby shredded t…he social fabric. Let's be clear: the reductionist-nihilistic-materialist mindset epitomized by the American "lifestyle" is a sickness, a virus upon the planet. Change begins with the individual, not from legislation or moral codes, and we must avail ourselves of every available tool – traditional and contemporary – to free the human creativity in order to redress the damage done.
Jon D: A deluded mind is a deluded mind, drugs or no drugs.
"While Buddhism encourages moderation, or perhaps abstention, it is more clearly about self-control. The teachings create a context for looking at oneself not in a judgmental way based upon having desires, but upon the self-fulfillment and self-respect that comes from making skillful choices. "
Exactly. I think the fifth precept is less about "don't do this or you're a bad person" and more about moderation. Moderation blends well with the teaching of the middle path; avoid extremes. I do think it does depend on the drug though. For example, I don't think smoking a little marijuana is going to destroy your life like heroin would. I use marijuana for medical purposes but also for a relaxation now and then. I don't see it as "disobeying" the 5th (as if that's the point behind the precept–to obey or not to obey) because I use it in moderation.
It's interesting to me that we'll allow people to take heroin pills (oxycontin, vicodin, percocet) but you're not allowed to ingest marijuana? Marijuana is like heroin in the same way a sling shot is a tank. The point of the fifth precept in my mind is that ANYTHING can be abused and to therefore use moderation when taking in stimuli be that a drug or a movie.
It's interesting that MDMA (ecstasy) was brought up because it really changed my mind like nothing else could, and was ironically what got me to think outside the box enough to study Buddhism. So, in my life–drugs led to Buddhism!! It's hard for me to see that as bad. That's not to say drugs are for everyone and it depends, again, on what drug we're talking about but the prescription drugs I take for my bipolar are much worse for my body than marijuana for example ever will. If I miss a daily dose of my morning anti-depressant I vomit until I can calm my stomach down enough to keep the medicine down. You know what ironically helps me keep the meds down once I remember to take them? Ingesting some marijuana because it is great for nausea. I also use it when I'm dangerously depressed to pull myself out of a suicidal spiral. My psychologist knows about it and not only approves but is glad I have something to pull me back from suicide, so I don't have to go to a mental ward.
It's interesting you wrote on this because I was just about to write a post about it myself and will probably use my comment as a foundation. Great post and interview.
John Freeman says
The notion of persisting with psychedelics after experiencing deeper meditative states is like persisting with high school after finishing a post graduate degree. Nobody would want to.
HOLY HEAD says
we need more people like you to speak for everyone else.. that would make everything so much better, even better than the best of the best
John Freeman says
Also, I so still have the occasional psychedelic experience. Psychedelics are still interesting and do deepen my commitment to Shamatha practice as a far more profound and refined "primary practice"
I haven't been satisfied with what I have found in print, as an overview, of this topic ….. the overlapping territory between psychedelic experiences and buddhist practice, so I will get it done myself. All my views are based on first hand personal experience. Other views are those from the one truly qualified teacher of buddhist practice I have met, he was taught personally by the Dalai Lama over decades, and other senior Tibetans he was connected to by the DL. Mine I acquired over four decades of sustained, plodding stepwise effort to master the emotional experiences that have bedeviled and blessed with from quite early in life.
What I say about my experiences will infuriate some folks who will experience it as the rug being yanked on cherished ideas they hold or teachers they have been around … a few will grin in agreement. I've seen people with impressive sounding higher degrees go temporarily insane, instantly, at the mere suggestion of what I've experienced in a totally unequivocal matter of fact way. That was really shocking to see someone with all the book learning so kookoo.
Surveying the information found online its easy to find lengthy essays quoting personal experience, this historic scholar, that popular well known teacher. I"m always skeptical of lengthy treatments since it does not require a lengthy convoluted explanation, ie deeper meditative states are not a head trip in reality though lots of folks tend to try to turn them into a head trip. Quite the opposite.. And the most interesting and perhaps essential parts is the ineffable, beyond words, and attempts to capture the experience completely automatically reduces it. One can allude to those parts only.
It is well known among people with lots of experience with deeper meditative states, samadhi, vipassana etc that psychedelics, well used, can provide a temporary coarse approximation of a a samadhi like experience. Its also clear one must be very completely clean, clear and free of all substances to get into the real McCoy.
One must also have more up front emotional stability, freedom from agitation and unstable mental emotional states than most westerners have. Psychedelics, well used, can provide an avenue to help acquire the up front mental health in these ways that can put you right at the threshold of moving very quickly into deeper meditative states.
The direct route to Samadhi, in the Tibetan tradition, is a practice called Shamatha. They actually refer to Shamatha not as meditation but as a form of mental training that will make your mind capable of meditation, or Vipassana. When engaged in effective Shamatha practice you will know its working when you have periods that you think you are going insane due to a flow of intense experiences "coming at you" out of the back of your own mind. Prior experiences with psychedelic drugs where you have challenging and similar experiences can be of great help in getting thru it.
It is possible to have these deeper meditative experiences and complete transformation of ones life thru insight or vipassana very quickly with good preparation, great instruction and good motivation. You must learn it from someone who is up to the eyeballs in samadhi ….. that does something profound to your conviction about the process of getting there and the result.
The Tibetans are the only strong direct route I am aware of. Some Zen priests are on to it. American Theravada is in my considerable experiences co-opted, watered down, re packaged to be palatable for and sold to American mainstream. I've never seen anyone go anywhere to speak of in that setting.
losing streak says
John Freeman says
Reading through parts of this book, I do not have a copy, just caught snippets published on websites ….. one can tell which comments come from folks who have been into deeper meditative states and which have not. There is a conviction, a finality, in the tone of those who have referring to psychedelics as a phase that was useful, but clearly an earlier phase. Like college as compared to post graduate research fellowship.
Among those who seem to have been to deeper meditative states:
Joan Halifax Roshi, Myron Stolaroff (both affiliated with Alan Wallace), Richard Baker , Robert Aitken . Those who have not have this wordy head trip, exposition of ideas. Samadhi is a radical simplification making "head trips" seem quaint, quite uninteresting.
Experiencing deeper meditative states is a life changing experience of its own and is one that is quite beyond, far more refined than, the psychedelic experience. Still psychedelics can under good circumstance furnish a temporary, coarse facsimile of a samadhi like experience. Used responsibly they can also "lubricate" the motivated to acquire the up front mental health, ie freedom from mental and emotional agitation and instability necessary to enter into deeper meditative states. Most of us Westerners are a little too kookoo in this way and cannot get into Samadhi efficiently because of it.
Your Sensei says
"There is another question that interests me very much," I said. "There are substances which yogis take to induce certain states. Might these not be, in certain cases, narcotics? I have myself carried out a number of experiments in this direction and everything I have read about magic proves to me quite clearly that all schools at all times and in all countries have made a very wide use of narcotics for the creation of those states which make 'magic' possible."
"Yes," said Gurdjieff. "In many cases these substances are those which you call 'narcotics' But they can be used in entirely different ways. There are schools which make use of narcotics in the right way. People in these schools take them for self-study; in order to take a look ahead, to know their possibilities better, to see beforehand, 'in advance,' what can be attained later on as the result of prolonged work. When a man sees this and is convinced that what he has learned theoretically really exists, he then works consciously, he knows where he is going. Sometimes this is the easiest way of being convinced of the real existence of those possibilities which man often suspects in himself. There is a special chemistry relating to this. There are particular substances for each function. Each function can either be strengthened or weakened, awakened or put to sleep. But to do this a great knowledge of the human machine and of this special chemistry is necessary. In all those schools which make use of this method experiments are carried out only when they are really necessary and only under the direction of experienced and competent men who can foresee all results and adopt measures against possible undesirable consequences. The substances used in these schools are not merely 'narcotics' as you call them, although many of them are prepared from such drugs as opium, hashish, and so on. Besides schools in which such experiments are carried out, there are other schools which use these or similar substances, not for experiment or study but to attain definite desired results, if only for a short time. Through a skillful use of such substances a man can be made very clever or very strong, for a certain time. Afterwards, of course, he dies or goes mad, but this is not taken into consideration. Such schools also exist. So you see that we must speak very cautiously about schools. They may do practically the same things but the results will be totally different."
Do Your Homework says
That is a transcription of a conversation which took place around 1917-1920. The word "psychedelics" was not invented until 1956. Also, it is specifically stated that "The substances used in these schools are not merely 'narcotics' as you call them".
Seems that your reading comprehension skills may need some work. Or perhaps you may wish to curb your tendency to see only what you wish to see, in a way which glorifies yourself and your particular preferences, at the expense of accurate information. Traditionally this behavior tends to fall under the buddhist buzzword "ignorance".
John Freeman says
Hey Do your ….
You sound, well actually, you are… angry, defensive, and do not specify which post you refer to.
Since equanimity is a hallmark of someone who has gotten somewhere with deeper experiences in Buddhist practice. Man I bet you're pissed now.
Since the post is embedded in a conversation about psychedelics….. the distinction seems perfectly appropriate.
If you are having trouble getting to deeper states in your practice an intrepid attitude toward dealing with "high amplitude" emotional afflictions with psychedelics is much more effective than sitting practice for the really big ones …. like anger etc.
Practice is the capstone, the final polish only availible to those who become capable… Few westerners get there because of emotional issues that are obstacles to becoming deeply relaxed and rock solid stable focus of attention. Most of us are too kookoo and go nowhere even with great training which is rare too.
Have a good one….
John Freeman says
Way back, thirty five years ago now, when some of us began a journey that ended up in deeper meditative experiences we used to have a padded room, and a pillow and a plastic bat to assist in digging up those old emotional issues like embedded anger, The process wasn't fun per se but the result is a bonanza …. no longer controlled by ones negative emotions … to resolve them enough that we actually became capable of the necessary up front mental health to later, IF we find a great teacher who is in samadhi, experience samadhi, vipassana. Sounds like it might be an idea for you too. Not fun but better than a lifetime of smoldering anger and bitterness and trying to parley a head trip into an appearance of knowledge and wisdom. Even if you manage to pull off and appearance in absence of authenticity, one is left with the same old afflicted emotional states.
Last Word says
nanny nanny boo boo
John Freeman says
very scholarly, very impressive, it's always nice when folks show such ability to bring intelligence …
Dr. Adarsa says
at your service, good sir.
John Freeman says
OK, go for it…
Miss Missed says
John Freeman says
this context has a definite paucity of thoughtful experience based scholarly comment. Weak,
Sarcastic, nothing to say, angry …. about as distant from interesting as one could imagine.
If you guys don't like what I'm saying say something intelligent to rebut … problem is …. got nothing cogent to say? Sure looks that way.
ooh ooh ahh ahh says
still trying to get that candy out?