Allan Badiner talks American Buddhism and Psychedelics

An interview with writer and activist Allan Badiner on the relationship between Buddhism and psychadelics in America.

Danny Fisher
8 September 2010
Psychology, drugs, Allan Badiner, Shambhala Sun, Zen, Meditation, Precepts, Lion's Roar, Buddhism
Photo by Ali Harrison.

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.

Danny Fisher

Danny Fisher

Rev. Danny Fisher, M.Div., D.B.S. (Cand.), is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. He was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. A member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, he serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program.