Matteo Pistono takes a close look at how some Buddhist teachers are not only turning toward psychedelics in their practice, but also making it a part of their teaching. From the Fall 2018 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly.
On the first evening of her Lotus Vine Journeys meditation retreats, Spring Washam explains the five ethical precepts: to refrain from the taking of life, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and intoxicants. Over the next two weeks, Washam, a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, offers guided meditation sessions, compassion and loving-kindness practices, and other foundational Buddhist teachings. And on eight of the fourteen evenings, under her care and the direction of a Peruvian healer (curandero), a group of twenty retreatants drinks ayahuasca, the psychoactive brew made from a vine that grows in the heart of the Amazon rain forest. The group then meditates under the influence of ayahuasca for the next five to eight hours.
From Colorado to California, North Carolina to New York, and beyond, Buddhist practitioners are gathering to experiment with, and discuss the merits of, consciousness-altering substances in the context of their dharma practice. In May, InsightLA and Buddhist Geeks co-hosted “Waking up with Psychedelics” for a sold-out crowd at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Trudy Goodman, founder of InsightLA, Buddhist Geek’s Vincent Horn, Washam, and Dr. Charles Grob, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at the UCLA Medical School, discussed the current confluence of psychedelics and Buddhist practice on American soil. Ram Dass joined them via livestream.
“We know that psychedelics are a valid doorway to dharma practice. It was in the 1960s and still is today. And now, there is a renaissance of use,” says Mark Koberg, Executive Director of InsightLA.
This emergent interest in psychedelics coincides with growing recognition in the wider public sphere of their potential benefits, due in part to a wave of medical research beginning in 2002. In Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, he highlights a number of researchers, doctors, and therapists who believe psychedelic therapy will soon be “routine and widely available in the form of a novel hybrid of pharmacology and psychotherapy.”
Today’s practitioners insist their forays into psychedelics are not a replay of the merry prankster, tripping counterculture scene of the 1960s.
Indeed, the medical community has long recognized the therapeutic potential in psychedelics, but only recently has it been legally allowed to resume clinical trials after they were banned in 1971. Today, multi-discipline teams at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, New York University, the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the University of New Mexico, Imperial College in London, and the University of Zurich have all have demonstrated that psilocybin (found in magic mushrooms), MDMA (ecstasy), and LSD can have positive results in treating alcohol and nicotine addiction, obsessive–compulsive behaviors, cancer distress, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, including among military veterans. In 2016, the US Federal Drug Administration approved Phase 3 trials of MDMA and psilocybin. Both substances could be taken off the Schedule 1 list of illegal drugs in the near future according to Pollan, and if that happens, doctors will be able to prescribe them. Dozens of medical schools across the US have asked to participate in future trials.
Those pushing the boundaries of dharma and psychedelics are, for the most part, Generation X teachers and millennials. Erik Davis, who writes frequently on the intersection of Buddhism, psychedelics, and Americana, said, “We are witnessing a youthquake within Buddhism, a changing of the guard of teachers following the decline of the hippie baby boomers. This new generation of teachers is comfortable with being both Buddhists and consciousness hackers using non-Buddhist means.”
One of those teachers, Vincent Horn, a mindfulness teacher in Asheville, North Carolina, and founder of the Buddhist Geeks website and podcast, recently wrote a short guidebook, Meditating on Psychedelics—A Simple Ceremony, for students and friends who had been asking for guidance in combining their meditation practice with the use of psychedelic substances such as ayahuasca, psilocybin, peyote/mescaline, and large dosing of cannabis. For the last two years, Horn’s popular podcast series, “Meditating on Psychedelics,” has explored the merits and dangers of weaving Buddhist contemplative practice with ritualized psychedelic use, with guests such as Roshi Joan Halifax, Dr. Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins, Washam, and Goodman, among others.
Horn isn’t alone among his generation in creating new modalities and manuals for navigating the consciousness-altering journeys from a Buddhist perspective. Lama Karma (Justin Wall), who completed two traditional three-year Tibetan Buddhist meditation retreats, has written an account of his experiences with ayahuasca in the Amazon and how it might be understood from the perspective of a Vajrayana initiation. And last year, a prominent Vajrayana teacher convened a gathering in Portland called “Dzogchen and Psychedelics” to explore whether psychotropics could play a role in sadhana practice, with particular value as either an “initiator” (abhiseka), expanding one’s consciousness to see beyond conventional reality, or as an “obstacle destroyer” along the path.
Even the old guard is taking note of this development, recognizing the new generation’s skill in working with psychedelics and the advances in their therapeutic use. Insight Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield, speaking last year at a Sprit Rock conference titled “At the Intersection: Psychedelics and the Buddhist Path,” opined that the new generation of Western Buddhist teachers is “on the cusp of something revolutionary.”
“But,” Kornfield cautioned, “it has to be done carefully and with the boundaries that the Buddha offered regarding ethics—not to harm yourself and not to harm others.”
“Set” and Setting
Today’s practitioners insist their forays into psychedelics are not a replay of the merry prankster, tripping counterculture scene of the 1960s. Nor is it a continuation of the psychedelic use in the 1980s and 1990s, which Davis described in Zig Zag Zen as “American tantric adepts in their solitariness working with these substances by themselves.” Rather, Buddhist teachers and practitioners are reviewing, reassessing, and experimenting with psychedelics in small sanghas across the country.
‘Ayahuasca is a powerful medicine — it heals — it should be honored and respected.’ —Spring Washam
Intention and caution are two hallmarks of the contemporary flowering of psychedelic use among Buddhists. Recreationally tripping on mushrooms or LSD at a Phish show is not to be confused with dharma practice. Instead, as one Zen teacher from Washington said, “We take these substances, which we consider medicine, as a kind of sacrament, with aspirations of healing ourselves so that we can more effectively be of service throughout the world.”
Washam continually emphasizes to those who ask her about ayahuasca, “It is not a recreational drug. Ayahuasca is a powerful medicine—it heals—it should be honored and respected.”
Intention has long been stressed as a principal driving force behind how one experiences one’s mind on psychedelics, beginning with Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) and their research group at Harvard in the 1960s. They referred to intention as the “mind-set,” or simply “set,” one creates going into a psychedelic experience. Equally important to the set is the setting, or the social and physical surroundings in which the experience takes place.
“Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key—it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting,” Leary wrote in his 1964 guide, The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The setting for Washam’s Buddhist ayahuasca retreat is a traditional shamanic ceremony in the Peruvian jungle. This is not only because ayahuasca is legal in Peru and understood as a medicine to heal the body and mind, including trauma, but also because she sees this as the safest and most supportive environment.
“When we take these plant medicines in the proper setting,” says Washam, “time and again, I myself and others experience a sense of interconnectedness that is beyond words. I’m not talking intellectual understandings but rather a kind of body-based wisdom and love that arises from within. You are connected to others and to nature so deeply you will never forget. It is such a powerful shift in the way we view ourselves in the world. Is it going to enlighten us? No, that is not the job of ayahuasca. Its job is to help us wake up. We still have to do the work of being ethical, working with our heart and mind, and serving others.” Washam’s preliminary talks on set, or intention, encourage retreatants to adopt the bodhisattva ideal of serving all beings, even while on their powerful, and often frightening, ayahuasca journey.
Inside the Temple Walls
Increasingly, practitioners are inserting the “set and setting” into traditional Buddhist ceremonies and rituals. Vanja Palmers lived and trained for over a decade at Tassajara and Green Gulch and was authorized as a teacher by Kobun Chino Otogawa before returning to his home in Switzerland. He regularly conducts five-day Zen sesshins at Felsentor, his zendo near Lake Lucerne, which include long periods of sitting meditation, mindful walking, and work practice in the mountainside temple. During five recent retreats, he and a group of up to forty meditators also ingested the psychotropic substance psilocybin. Milos Savic’s forthcoming documentary about Palmers includes footage of students approaching their teacher at the shrine, receiving a bag of mushrooms to eat, and then bowing before the Buddha before returning to their zafus.
In Vajrayana sanghas in Oregon, Colorado, and Washington, D.C., practitioners are using psychedelic substances during tantric feast offerings, including mixing psilocybin into the torma, the sacrificial cake that is ritually offered to the deities and later eaten by the practitioners. Some practitioners ingest mushrooms or LSD before the liturgy begins so the full effects of the substances can be felt throughout the entirety of the practice. One Vajrayana practitioner in Boulder described placing one drop of LSD from a tincture into the kapala (ritual skull container) on the shrine as an offering and another in her mouth. She said the substance helps remove her habitual deluded way of seeing herself and the world. Another practitioner in Virginia said mushrooms help him in the generation stage of visualizing deities in the form of light, as well as in the dissolution stage of resting in the spacious clarity of mind.
Are Psychedelics Dangerous?
In spite of the increased use of psychedelics in association with dharma practice over the past decade, taking psychedelics is not without risks. Most psychedelic substances are illegal in the United States and have been since the Nixon administration categorized LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelic substances as Schedule 1 drugs, more restricted than cocaine, opium, and methamphetamine. But apart from running afoul of the law, might taking psychedelics cause harm to one’s body or mind?
The more common risks include the often-reported “bad trip” in which one experiences panic attacks or intense terror, albeit temporary. However, several fatalities have also occurred during ayahuasca retreats in South America, including the unexplained death of an eighteen-year-old American in Peru and a nineteen-year-old British student in Colombia who reportedly had a toxic allergic reaction.
Using psychedelics may also pose particular dangers for those recovering from substance addictions, according to Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John, president of the Buddhist Recovery Network and coauthor of Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addictions. “There is a part of me that is curious about ayahuasca. But then I have to remember, ‘I’m an addict.’ It is a risk. I don’t know what will happen. It may be brilliant—I may get to glimpse enlightenment for a few minutes. But I’m not prepared to take that risk because I have that addictive mind.”
Mason-John stresses that if a dharma practitioner wants to work with psychedelics, it should be done in a therapeutic setting. “Things can be revealed [on psychedelics] from your subconscious,” she says. “You are thrown all over the place in that journey and people don’t know what to do with all that.”
“Psychedelics are definitely not for everyone,” warns one California Zen teacher. “People with latent psychosis or schizophrenia, or those who have ever had suicidal thoughts, should not take these substances outside of a clinical setting. Psychedelics seem to open the valve on our storehouse consciousness, and all of our deepest habits and patterns of thinking and behaving come rushing out. The vastness and clarity of pure awareness is there, but it’s sometimes hard to recognize in the chaos, and even terror, of the psychedelic experience.”
In Douglas Osto’s Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America, he argues seeking altered states of consciousness has always been at the core of Buddhist meditation practice—but there are dangers. He reveals his own and others’ experimentation with psychedelics that led to bouts of psychosis and paranoia. “It took several months of hard work and professional help to completely regain my physical and psychological equilibrium,” Osto writes, describing what happened after he ingested hallucination-inducing amounts of cannabis.
Washam screens out nearly 20 percent of applicants for her retreats, either because they are taking contraindicated medications or because she believes the ayahuasca experience will be too intense for them. Horn and Katherine MacLean, a psychologist who worked as one of the lead psychedelic researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine, are planning to host a “Mushrooms for Meditators” retreat next winter in Jamaica. They too are cautious about accepting people to their retreat, preferring to work with those who already have retreat experience.
“It is hard enough to just do a meditation retreat, and quite another to combine it with psychedelics,” Horn noted. “We want to make sure people are safe and able to navigate their psychedelic experience with some mental agility that comes with previous meditation training.”
Even those who express enthusiasm for psychedelics in Buddhist practice regularly raise cautionary flags. The Dzogchen teacher Keith Dowman recently wrote in Everything is Light that psychedelics can “provide an opportunity for synchronicitous moments of full recognition of the nature of mind,” but he went on to note that even though the clarity and unbound spaciousness of the nature of mind may unfold while on psychedelics, the challenge is that it is almost always accompanied by an onslaught of visionary, hallucinogenic, and otherwise psychedelic phenomena.
There are other reasons to approach psychedelics with caution. Lama Karma, while expressing deep gratitude for what his work with ayahuasca has allowed him to access and heal, warns that psychedelics can greatly enhance the ego. “Experiences on these plant medicines can definitely supercharge your personal samsara in ways that you can believe are deeply liberating,” he explains. “Some people go from one so-called liberating experience to another, effectively running in circles while constantly telling all their friends how profoundly life-changing it all is.”
Lama Urgyen, an American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, has a more existential concern. “Don’t get involved in psychedelics unless you are willing to have your most deeply held beliefs—about you and your world—not only questioned but also shown to have no basis,” he cautions. “Your belief systems are constructed by thoughts. Psychedelics are like a solvent poured on your beliefs. You may watch all of that dissolve. And although dissolving belief structures is the ultimate point of the dharma, doing so with psychedelics is not for every practitioner.”
Those who champion the use of psychedelics do not view them as intoxicants.
Some Buddhist teachers express skepticism that psychedelics can bring about any true awakening. Ajahn Sucitto, former abbot of Cittaviveka Monastery, experimented with psychedelics in his early twenties and concluded that they don’t offer a path to liberation. “Psychedelics don’t get the mind to bring forth its strengths, virtues, warmth, or discernment,” says Sucitto. “Instead the mind is rendered passive. They do indicate that the reality constructed by the senses is just that, a kind of spell that we’re born under, but they don’t reveal how that spell is cast, nor how to come out of it. In fact, they cast another spell, the spell of a shift of perception.”
Moreover, many Buddhists believe the use of psychedelics contravenes the fifth Buddhist precept of abstaining from intoxicants. The Buddhist texts (in Pali and Sanskrit) enjoin the practitioner “to abstain from liquor, wine, and [other] intoxicants, which are a basis for heedlessness.”
Those who champion the use of psychedelics, however, do not view them as intoxicants. As the Zen teacher in Washington expressed, “It’s not that the mind [on psychedelics] is intoxicated and experience is distorted. Rather, what happens on psychedelics is everyday conceptual intoxication is stripped away.”
But not everyone is swayed by this kind of argument. Some Buddhist teachers, including those with firsthand experience of psychedelics, have concluded that what one experiences on psychedelics is indeed a form of intoxication and that their use, therefore, violates both the letter and spirit of the fifth precept.
“I reckon psychedelics to be less harmful than alcohol, but essentially they made my mind lazy,” Ajahn Sucitto continues. “It took about five years of training in attention, patience, and emotional resilience to clear the major effects of a comparable period of drug use. And it took longer still to come out of the notion that what counts is what the mind ‘sees’—its content—rather than what it ‘does,’ its hanging on to or relinquishment of perception and consciousness. For that relinquishment one needs a basis in the reality that consciousness and perception (and the rest of the aggregates) naturally arise from, because this is where the mind’s innate strengths and virtues lie. So rather than changing the balls, we learn how to juggle them, in the school of our kamma.”
Burning Down the House
With so much caution and concern regarding their use, why are some Buddhist teachers offering suggestions on how to use psychedelics in formal dharma practice and in some cases hosting retreats in which psychedelics are used? The short answer is that they are convinced of the benefit of these substances for practitioners’ mental health and of their power to accelerate profound insights into Buddhist teachings.
“We read about Big Mind, as the Zen teachers say, or resting in the spacious clarity of the nature of mind, as the Tibetan teachers call it—those were all just concepts to me, even after twenty years of meditation practice,” said one Bay Area Zen teacher, who also studies with Tibetan lamas. “When I took psychedelics, I actually experienced what before was only a philosophical concept. My psychedelics experiences have given me so much devotion toward the dharma.”
Another Zen teacher on the West Coast reported that while on a psychedelics journey, she saw how she had mentally constructed the self through the different roles she inhabited—daughter, partner, student, teacher, and administrator at the dharma center—and then “all of them were stripped away, totally and completely, and all that remained was a kind of innocence, a fresh knowing, a childlike knowing free from the residue of role conditioning.”
But, she said, the most meaningful part of the experience came when the effects of the psychedelics wore off. Though she ultimately returned from that place of innocence to her roles as a dharma student and teacher, she said those roles never reassembled as concretely as they had existed before. The experience gave her a visceral understanding of what she had read years before in the Dhammapada:
Through the round of many births I roamed
seeking the house-builder.
Painful is birth again
House-builder, you’re seen!
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
the ridge pole dismantled,
immersed in dismantling, the mind
has attained to the end of craving.
—Dhammapada 152, translation by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
After thousands of hours of meditation, contemplation, and intense retreat over the last twenty years, she had concluded, “The traditional Buddhist practices are not getting at the relational role identities all of us get stuck in.”
The recognition that psychedelics can accelerate insight is a common acknowledgement among the newer generation of Buddhist teachers who use them. Despite the profundity of methods and reverence for their respective practices in Theravada, Insight, Zen, or Vajrayana, their psychedelic journeys are precipitating insights and understanding that had been previously unknown to them.
Shugen Arnold, abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery and the Zen Center of New York City, is wary. “I wonder about the influence of our culture in terms of seeking very powerful experiences, hoping that those experiences are going to save us,” Arnold explains. “People are looking for shortcuts, even in Buddhism—they want to ‘expedite the path’ and some are hoping psychedelics will do that. But those influences are so pervasive in our culture that it merits being cautious.”
Washam, for one, is not deterred. “We see longtime students not growing anymore after their initial opening to the dharma many years ago. When they fill out their retreat history, it’s like a who’s who of babas and lamas and teachers who they have meditated with. But they have plateaued, and often there is a kind of stuckness in the heart. These substances offer a jolt to shift them.”
The California Zen teacher agrees. “Our dharma practice must continually point us to the deeper levels of the mind so we can inquire, ‘What is this life, really?’ and ‘Who am I?’” He contends that psychedelics help the mind understand that “This life is not what we think it is. This world is not what we think it is. This mind is not what we think. Psychedelics don’t necessarily say, ‘This is what it is’ either, but at least they point out that it is not what we think it is. Psychedelics open the gates of curiosity for those who have become complacent in a nice, neatly packaged practice.”
Lama Urgyen echoes the thoughts of other dharma teachers in suggesting there are no answers in psychedelics, but rather they offer a possibility of opening to the mysterious. “The path of the Buddha leads us to an unnamable place. Psychedelics have the capacity to do that as well,” he says, “albeit in a more forceful way. In both cases, we may arrive at an indescribable place where we realize we cannot say anything definite about anything. That in itself is a type of freedom.”
Shugen Arnold recalls a recent conversation with a dharma student who had decided to use psychedelics. “My response was, that’s your decision,” says Arnold. “I said my hope is that if anything good comes out of this, you will be able to turn that into your practice so that you move toward not needing to do this anymore. In other words, if it serves some purpose, then so be it, but its purpose is finite. The goal is to let go of that and be able to rely entirely on your own resources.”