Originally published in 1966, ‘Psychedelic Prayers after the Tao Te Ching’ by Timothy Leary is a work of textual interpretation, an exercise in creativity and an attempt to illuminate and guide the psychedelic experience through the lens of an ancient text. The cover drawing, a psychedelic, red horse motif, is illustrated by Michael Bowen.
Having already published ‘The Psychedelic Experience: A manual based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead’ as an LSD guide book, Timothy Leary decided to look further East for his next inspiration. A fresh framework for exploring the “awareness-of-energy” and the “patterns of neurological signals which are usually censored from mental life.”
The Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese text, containing 81 verses. It is thought to date from about the 6th century B.C.E, and tradition has it that it was written by Lao Tse, which means “old master”, although the authenticity of authorship and actual dates are still hotly debated.
The style of the text is poetic and philosophical (in the broadest sense) and has been used as an inspiration for religions, artisans and in other systems of thought. There are numerous translations of the title, however its two root words are usually translated as “way” and “virtue”. It first became popularized in the West during the 19th century.
Leary believed that the text must be reinterpreted for every new situation and this, for Leary, was especially true for the psychedelic experience. He took nine English translations of the text, read them all thoroughly and allowed the meaning to “slowly bubble up.” In his forward he wrote:
“These translations from English to psychedelese were made while sitting under a bamboo tree on a grassy slope of the Kumaon Hills overlooking the snow peaks of the Himilayas.” In geography and text, he is overcoding the psychedelic space and reaching beyond Western culture for the substance but inevitably there is a merging of territories.
For Leary, ‘Tao’ meant energy. His reading of the text, and its translation, tie into his 8-circuit (at the time 7-circuit) model of consciousness; specifically the cellular and molecular tiers, which, in his framework, LSD pertains to. It embeds the idea of consciousness being a Heraclitean flux, constantly in flow and in a permanent state of becoming.
“Psychedelic poetry, like all psychedelic art, is crucially concerned with flow. Each psychedelic poem is carefully tailored for a certain time in the sequence of the session. Simplicity and diamond purity are important. Intellectual flourishes and verbal pyrotechnics are painfully obvious to the ‘turned on’ nervous system.”
The book is structured into six parts; for preparation, the invoking of pure energy flow and different consciousness levels and the final section, which is the “Re-imprinting prayers”. The prayers, or poems, or hymns (as they are variously referred to) are a mixture of language; some poetic, some mystical and also some nods toward science. The use of innovative spacing and alignments create a rhythmic feel throughout and which lends itself very well to the spoken word.
As a physical object, the book is a fascinating work in itself. The textured cover and the thick pages make it a delight to hold in your hands. The cover illustrations are beautiful, delicate and absorbing. The very ‘otherness’ of the psychedelic experience is invoked in the making of the prayer book. It contains the curiosity and the sensual multitude.
There is a tradition of reinterpreting ancient texts, in the light of the psychedelic experience and it constitutes a major research area in psychedelic literature. Psychedelic Prayers is one of the finest examples of this and still makes for a wonderful read in itself; as a curiosity, as a work of poetry and as an insight into the growth patterns of the psychedelic movement. Well worth a read if you can find a copy.