Meditation Medicine: A Survey of Psychotropic Drug use in the Development of Western Buddhism
The following essay has been written by Kevin Murray and is published here with his kind permission. Please find his contact details at the bottom of this article.
Psychotropic drugs and their role in the history of Buddhist practice in the West is a contentious topic, but for many practitioners in the 1960s and 70s, these substances offered formative rites of passage which provided valuable insights into meditative states of consciousness. As these neophyte Buddhists developed commitment and ability in their practice, most abandoned these chemical catalysts, and “today many teachers advise against the path they travelled” (Badiner 17). In this essay, I will examine the influence of certain hallucinogenic and psychotropic substances on the expansion of Buddhism in the West. I contend that the current generation of Buddhist students are steeped in the spiritual myths of the 60s and cannot help but consider their teacher’s awakening via psychotropic substances with much interest. Once more, due to the persistence of cultural and historical interest in these substances, from their usage by ancient Vedic seers, through modern rock concerts, to the more recent renewal of scientific studies after a 40-year embargo, we are compelled to inquire again, as we did in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, as to their influence on the cultivation of meditation states. After all, many teachers, such as Lama Ole Nydahl and Lama Surya Das, have published gripping accounts of how their initial encounters with these substances helped open their minds to the true potential of Buddhist practice. In the light of these findings, I will argue that the sanctioned and skillful use of these substances is possible, and that they may help facilitate an initiation into the potential yet elusive condition of meditative consciousness.
For the purposes of this essay, I will use the term “psychotropic drugs” to define the class of substances in question. They are “those which cause psychological change or mental activity either by use of a plant or else by a chemical synthesis” (Dobkin de Rios 5). In 1967, the pharmacologist J. Delay was the first to subdivide these substances into three categories: Psychic sedatives, such as barbiturates and tranquilizers; psychic stimulants, such as amines; and psychic deviators, which include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and marijuana (Delay 1-6). It is this last category that generally refers to the anthropological usage of substances by non-Western societies for the attainment of altered states of consciousness in religious pursuits. Henceforth I will use the term ‘psychotropic’ in reference to this third category which will, for the purposes of this essay, only include the aforementioned substances due to their status as “classic psychedelics.” While other substances, such as MDMA or Ayahuasca, may have some religious usefulness, it is beyond the scope of this essay to account for their varied histories. Furthermore, I will assume general familiarity on the part of my reader as to the prevalence of these substances in religious history.
From the Hindu sadhus with their ganja practice, to the Graeco-Roman Rites of Eleusis, the mushroom and peyote use of the Aztecs, and the Vedantic Soma rituals of ancient India; each case displays psychotropic drugs in prominent religious roles. Once more, there is a historical precedent within the lineage of Buddhism itself.
In a summary article, R.C. Parker traced the instances of two psychotropic drugs, datura and cannabis, to rituals which have been reported in the Vajrayana tradition of Tibet and Nepal. His conclusions assert that the use of these substances has been in accordance with the syncretic shamanism that is most often associated with tantric practices, such as the Saivites of Sri Lanka and the Bön people of Tibet. Evidence of their use, in the form of magic pills, ointments, or salves, is recorded in songs, folk-tales, rituals, and several major tantras: “The Laghusamvara-tantra (aka Chakrasamvara-tantra), Samputa-tantra, Samvarodaya-tantra, Mahakala-tantra, Guhyasamaja-tantra, Vajramahabhairava-tantra, and the Krsnayamari-tantra” (Parker 2). His conclusion is that Vajrayana has had a well-documented tradition of making use of entheogenic plants . . . “for magico-religious and psychospiritual purposes” (1). Once more, there is some speculation among scholars as to the meaning of the Sanskrit term amrita as found in the tales of Nagarjuna, which normally translates as “nectar of immortality” and arises in the research of Gordon Wasson and Michel Strickman, who identified the Soma plant of ancient Vedic India as the psychoactive Amanita Muscaria mushroom (Fields 47). Daoist records are also permeated with references to the use of magic mushrooms, and Tibetan medicine, “Soba Rig-pa,” includes multiple references to the Amanita and other magical plants which may bestow powers and help in the recollection of past incarnations (Dannaway 69-70). “As modern scholars have demonstrated, there is a strong possibility that Amanita Muscaria mushrooms were used in the alchemical process in the Buddhist Tantric traditions of Tibet which may then be in line with the soma of India” (Dannaway 75-76).
The establishment of these precedents is an important progression in contextualizing the current use of psychotropic substances and offering suggestions for further research, as little is known about the secret ritual use of these substances beyond the contemporary culture of experience. This fact suggests an interesting point of departure: Throughout history, these drugs and their ritual container have been inextricably linked. The substances themselves faded from view as simply one aspect of a complex religious practice, yet their modern use in the West has been primarily profane. However, when LSD hit the secular streets of the Western nations in the 1960s and provoked a wave of Buddhist religiosity, the community of users quickly moved to provide a ritual context in which it could function.
As Roger Walsh reports, “with the advent of psychedelics in the West came a remarkable claim. Noncontemplatives who took these substances reported a vast range of experiences . . . some that seemed remarkably similar to those described by mystics across the centuries’” (26). In a canonical example, Aldous Huxley, author of The Perennial Philosophy, Brave New World, and Island, recounts a mescaline experience with Dr. Humphry Osmond which followed years of disciplined Vedanta study and meditation in his 1954 seminal work The Doors of Perception. He recalls a koan from the writings of D.T. Suzuki which asks: “What is the Dharma-Body of the Buddha?” (5). The textual reply – “the hedge at the bottom of the garden” (5) – was cryptic to Huxley upon his initial reading, but under the influence of mescaline
it was all as clear as day, as evident as Euclid. Of course the Dharma-Body of the Buddha was the hedge at the bottom of the garden. At the same time, and no less obviously, it was these flowers, it was anything that I – or rather the blessed Not-I, released for a moment from my throttling embrace – cared to look at. (5)
His record of instant ego-loss and the resulting vision of a unified and beatific reality would help provoke a generation of spiritual seekers to follow in his wake.
One such seeker was Lama Ole Nydahl, the head of Diamondway Buddhism and a member of the Tibetan Karma Kagyu lineage. He and his wife Hannah became the first Western students of the 16th Karmapa in 1968, but his initiation into Buddhism was heavily influenced by his experimentations with mind altering drugs. Nydahl states: “As I thought they markedly benefited sentient beings, I decided to write my doctorate on Aldous Huxley and his Doors of Perception” (3). His scholarly pursuits would be abandoned, however, upon his honeymoon visit to India and Pakistan. There, he explored Buddhist teachings while travelling the hippy trail to Katmandu, smuggling hash and religious artifacts. One of his earliest understandings of Buddhist compassion came while taking LSD and meditating on a mountain peak in Tibet. He instinctively swatted a horsefly and experienced a great swelling of dukkha in response, as he recognized that compassion must extend to all beings (90). That same experience also prompted him to take some of his earliest vows to “work for these precious teachings . . . and spread the methods that balance the unconditioned power . . . with the greatest of wisdom and love” (90). He continued using LSD, meditated on Buddha forms, and finally quit drugs altogether when the Karmapa performed a ritual to purify his negative mental states caused by a difficult hallucination. Nydahl’s story, while remarkable in its own light, shares a common theme with many other Western Buddhist teachers who also obtained initiatory experiences while experimenting with meditation and psychotropic substances like LSD. Once more, it offers a record of verification that some states of consciousness provoked by psychotropic drugs may inform meditative states of awareness. This contested point is verified in the writings of Lama Angarika Govinda, Jack Kornfield, Lama Surya Das, Alan Watts, Chogyam Trungpa, Joan Halifax, Vanja Palmers, and Nina Wise. According to Das: “Whenever Western Dharma teachers get together, there is a White Rabbit in the room, an unmentioned subject of which we are all aware. This is our generation’s unexpected gateway to Dharma, or Buddhist wisdom, through opening the doors of perception with consciousness-altering drugs” (179). While an essay of this scope cannot present a case study on each of the aforementioned teacher’s accounts, I suggest that Kornfield’s experience generally echoes the paradigmatic instance of psychotropic drugs and Buddhist spiritual awakenings in the 1960s and 70s:
I took LSD and other psychedelics at Dartmouth after I started studying Eastern religion. They came hand-in-hand as they did for many people. It is also true for the majority of Western Buddhist teachers, that they used psychedelics at the start of their spiritual practice. A number still do on occasion. But of the many hundreds of people I know who took psychedelics, only a few had radically transformative experiences. Many others were greatly inspired, and a few were damaged. It is like winning the lottery. A lot of people play, and not so many win big, but the potential is there. (53)
Kornfield’s last words are poignant. The cultural history of psychotropic drugs and Western Buddhism are inextricably linked, yet commonly disavowed in favour of the reliable, disciplined adherence to religious practice. Still, the profound role that these substances have played in the rapid manifestation of Buddhism in the West suggests that a more careful examination of these risks and potentials are in order. Beyond the subjective accounts of psychotropic substance users, which are often compelling but biased, there lies a truncated body of scientific research which suggests important provisions for the calculated use of these substances for spiritual purposes.
Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment of 1962, in which a double-blind group of twenty Harvard Divinity School students were administered psilocybin; it offered many scholars, scientists, and spiritual seekers compelling evidence on potential relationships between psychotropic substances and religious practice. Twenty-five years later, nearly all of those who participated and received the drug maintained that their experiences were genuinely mystical and valuable to their spiritual lives, though some admit negative psychological states arising during their exposures to the drug (Doblin 24). Moreover, similar results have been replicated in Switzerland and Germany and in the most current research being done at John Hopkins University School of Medicine, with hundreds of participants ranging from the naive and non-religious to experienced drug takers and religious devotees. The conclusions of this study state: “When administered under supportive conditions, psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences” (Griffiths et al. 268). A key phrase in the previous statement is “supportive conditions.” As evidenced in the 1962 Pahnke study and as repeated by the current John Hopkins research, the supportive container is crucial to achieving a positive result as psychological difficulties may arise.
The seminal Pahnke study was emblematic of a wave of research that emerged from Harvard in the late 1950s and 60s involving Dr. Timothy Leary and Dr. Ralph Metzner, whose original interest in synthetic psilocybin research, primarily for treatment of alcoholism and in prisoner reform (as in the Concord Prison Experiment), led to further and more risky experiments on LSD. Still, of the 300 or so Americans who participated in Leary’s “acid tests,” the majority reported positively, while some had genuine mystical experiences. These studies resulted in provisions on use and an increase in supportive psychological and medical practices with respect to the “set and setting” of patients and doctor alike (Griffiths et al. 268).
“Set and setting,” Leary’s supportive innovation, which took into account the contextual support needed to ensure greater occurrences of positive experiences, was a necessary step in the evolution of a modern psychotropic, religious ritual, though Leary would inevitably be cast out from Harvard for not attending his own classes while playing the role of psychotropic consciousness facilitator. As Leary abandoned traditional science and adopted the mantle of psychedelic guru, the resulting public outcry was so severe that it largely forced an embargo on scientific research involving psychotropic substances that would last until 2006. However, it is through Leary that the most important aspects of the 1960s psychotropic and spiritual history in America evolved with respect to Buddhism.
Leary’s “set and setting” refers to the fact that psychotropic drugs do not present transcendent meditative experiences per se. They act as catalysts and may amplify the intentional experiences of users based on their particular belief structures. Myron J. Stolaroff explains that “Most observers still lean toward the allopathic medical perception of drugs, in which the results are attributed to the particular action of the drug in the body. In the case of psychedelics, what transpires depends far more on the characteristics of the participant ingesting the drug and the circumstances of its use” (15). This illuminates the Good Friday experiment, which offered validating mystical insight to Christian subjects within their own paradigm of belief. As Leary, Metzner, and Alpert suggest:
The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical – the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social – feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural – prevailing views as to what is real. It is for this reason that manuals or guide – books are necessary. Their purpose is to enable a person to understand the new realities of the expanded consciousness, to serve as road maps for new interior territories.” (Introduction, “The Psychedelic Experience”)
For Leary and company, the road map was the Tibetan Book of the Dead, from which they extracted a model of consciousness that was suitable for his interpretation of the psychotropic experience.
In his ritualistic reworking of the esoteric tome, Leary identified three transition states or phases as bardos: “’bar’ meaning ‘between’ and ‘do,’ a numbering concept which designates the equality or equilibrium between two things” (Lauf, 33). Leary’s bardos are complete transcendence and pure awareness, or the Chikhai Bardo; Selfish reality, or the Chonyid Bardo, in which karmic apparitions arise; and Sidpa Bardo, or the return to regular waking consciousness (Introduction, “The Psychedelic Experience”).
This manual, which emphasizes the clear light of awareness, meditative non-attachment, ego-death, non-duality, mindfulness, emptiness, and the process of reincarnation, would guide many potential mystics through their experiences in the following years, and Leary and company’s early intentions concerning his research and writings were to train psychotropic guides. It is important to note that, largely as a result of this psychotropic manual, the traditional Buddhist paradigm of teacher and student was evoked, though one main problem was that Leary himself acted as guru and psychopomp, interpreting Buddhist concepts without the traditional qualifications associated with Zen monks or Tibetan lamas. However, this innovation in the experiential method of psychotropic, spiritual, and psychological exploration, which is in marked contrast to the anarchistic and chaotic methods employed before the manual’s publication in 1964, would help frame the next wave of exploration of these substances. Auspiciously, Aldous Huxley, whose initial writings on the psychotropic experience as distinctly relevant to Buddhist thought was so inspirational for the subsequent generation of seekers and Leary himself, would employ the Tibetan Book of the Dead and LSD on Leary’s advice during his own death in 1963 (Fields 39). However, psychotropic drugs like LSD were effectively outlawed in 1965 when the Food and Drug Administration revoked all research permits, a moratorium that would last 40 years before new permits were issued, though there have been some exceptions in the fields of psychiatry and psychotherapy (Stevens 291).
By 1966, the American party seemed to be over, at least for the scientists. A number of visionaries travelled to India, Nepal, Japan, and Tibet in pursuit of traditional teachers, partly in recognition of the need for qualified expertise. Leary sought out Lama Angarika Govinda, Alan Ginsberg found Dudjom Rinpoche, and Richard Alpert found Neem Karoli Baba (Fields 39). Meanwhile, many students were taking psychotropic substances and sitting zazen in American meditation halls. According to Gary Snyder in his 1967 essay “Passage to More than India”: “traditional meditation halls of both Rinzai and Soto are flourishing. Many of the newcomers turned to traditional meditation after initial acid [LSD] experience. The two types of experience seem to inform each other” (qtd. in Fields 40). Alan Watts, who published the Way of Zen in 1957, advised that Zen meditation was an integral point of preparation for the rigours of psychotropic substance experience, without which one might perceive themselves as “the helpless victim of everything that happens . . . [or] personally responsible for everything that happened” (qtd. in Fields 42). Proper preparation and instruction, on the other hand, could lead to an understanding of the world as pure Buddha nature. Robert Aitken of the Koko-an Zendo in Maui recalled that the situation seemed promising, for a while, as many students arrived for meditation practice after inspiration set in from psychotropic substance use. However, he cites human distraction as the fundamental issue which confounded the effort to practice. Without the tempered, disciplined mind that can resist conditioned, transient impulses, the “new gypsies blow like leaves in the wind” (qtd. in Fields 43). This insight should not be overlooked as it suggests that proper use of psychoactive substances should follow the establishment of basic discipline in a meditation practice, rather than the historically documented inverse.
By the 1970s, psychotropic drug use was rampant around the world but, due to prohibition, the research and cultural uses had been driven underground to isolated retreats, rock concerts, cult hangouts, and selected clubs. The predominance of Zen in 1950s and 60s America had shifted to include Tibetan Buddhist schools, largely due to the charismatic influence of Chogyam Trungpa (Paine 16). Still, some students of psychotropic substances and Buddhism, like psychological and psychotropic substance researcher Myron Stolaroff, found that LSD usage helped inspire a deeper devotion to practice, claiming that a trained practitioner could employ it as upaya, or skillful means. He writes:
I found training in Tibetan Buddhist meditation a potent adjunct to psychedelic exploration. In learning to hold my mind empty, I became aware that other levels of reality would more readily manifest. It was only in absolute stillness . . . that many subtle but extremely valuable nuances of reality appeared . . . I found this effect to be greatly amplified while under the influence . . . This in turn intensified my daily practice. (Stolaroff 26)
Stolaroff, who continued psychotropic substance research until 1986 when the precursors to LSD became illegal in the United States due to the Controlled Substance Analogue Enforcement Act, summarizes 40 years of research by saying that “one of the outstanding actions of psychedelics is permitting the dissolving of mind sets. One of the most powerful mind set humans employ is the hiding of undesirable material from consciousness. Thus, a very important function of psychedelic substances is to permit access to the unconscious mind” (2). In 1990, Charles Tart surveyed Sogyal Rinpoche’s Rigpa Sangha, asking how many felt their practices were influenced by psychotropic substances and in what manner. 64 of 100 answered, and the results showed that 94% had employed drugs in the past, but 76% had since given them up. About a fifth of those surveyed stated that these substances had informed their practice of Tibetan Buddhism, and about four times as many people reported being helped, rather than hindered, by the experience. Many reported startling insights into emptiness, the illusion of separateness, ignorance, and the ineffable nature of reality (Tart 169-173).
Stolaroff suggests that incorporation of psychotropic experiences into a meaningful spiritual life is the biggest problem. He states that these substances are not significant for experienced practitioners who have already learned to achieve results from meditation. Nor are they useful for people with heavily guarded psychological traumas who may experience difficult unconscious openings, but for the working, family-oriented adults with little time to devote to lengthy retreats, training programs, or practice, “informed use of psychedelics can be quite helpful in more rapidly reaching the level of accomplishment at which practice becomes self-sustaining” (2). While he holds that ultimate liberation must be attained without artificial aids, Stolaroff maintains that certain conventions of psychotropic substance use could be observed to ensure positive results when combining meditation practice with psychotropic substance use. The summary of his suggestions includes an assimilation of advisories provided by Dr. Stanislav Grof, who pioneered the field of LSD psychotherapy in his book of the same name, while taking into account Leary’s preliminary research in the early 1960s at Harvard.
First, considering “set and setting,” Stolaroff suggests that an ethical framework, such as Buddhism’s eight-fold noble path, is essential. It is important for integrating any insights obtained from psychotropic substances. Second, he advises that participants should prepare themselves with a high-dose experience which is facilitated by a qualified guide. Third, the proper dosage level should match the correct substance. Fourth, mental stability must be cultivated via meditation before beginning a program of psychotropic substance use. This is due primarily to the increased agitation of mental baggage that participants may experience. With a basic stability of mind established before practice begins, the meditator may notice the interaction between their heightened state of awareness and their thoughts, attitudes, and feelings. This allows for the increase of concentration necessary to hold deeper states of consciousness for longer periods of time by avoiding distractive skandas. In particular, Stolaroff points out that psychotropic substances may enable one to hold perfect stillness in the mind, and that this becomes a source of great inspiration for lay practitioners with otherwise chaotic mental states. Fifth, he suggests that meditation practice may deepen significantly if the above conditions are met, and that the use of psychotropic substances may ultimately be deemed unnecessary (5-7). “I maintain that psychedelics are way showers,” states Stolaroff, “and we then must work with serious intent to attain the states that are shown to be possible. Nevertheless, it is of enormous benefit and inspiration if one can glimpse and experience firsthand the territory to which we aspire” (7).
While the case for judicial use of these substances in a sanctioned, Buddhist framework seems possible, the dangers and limitations must also be carefully examined in turn. Unfortunately, it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully evaluate all psychoactive drugs that have been mentioned thus far. LSD, marijuana, and mescaline all have varied and complicated histories, politics, and side effects. However, psilocybin, found in the hallucinogenic mushrooms, presents the best option by far for future study. It is the oldest of the psychotropic plants and it has a shadowy history of traditional Buddhist usage. Once more, according to The Co-ordination Centre for Assessment and Monitoring of New Drugs in Denmark:
This drug is not associated with physical or psychological dependency, acute toxicity is largely limited to possible panic and anxiety attacks and, in terms of chronic toxicity, the worst that can happen are flashbacks. Consequently, the use of paddos (hallucinogenic mushrooms) does not, on balance, present any risk to the health of the individual. The product is relatively easy to come by, yet there is little adequate information available to users. The quality of the product is unreliable and the quality awareness of those who sell the product is, for the most part, lacking. (5)
This information helped change the status of psilocybin to a Schedule II drug of the Dutch Opium Act in 2008 as it scored low to none in every category of assessment. Similar reports have come out of the UK in past years, where a 2007 study by University of Bristol and Oxford scientists found LSD, cannabis, and MDMA to be lower on the “harm” scale than alcohol or tobacco (Randerson). Once more, Leary’s legacy suggests that adverse psychological reactions, like bad trips, flashbacks, and anxiety, can be managed or avoided entirely with a trained guide or teacher and the appropriate set and setting.
Currently, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic studies is funding rigorous testing initiatives on an international level. Their aim is to provide psychoactive substance prescriptions to those patients in medical need, and they are committed to science, safeguards, and the therapeutic use of pure substances in a legally supported framework of testing and review. While their research is mainly centered on addiction therapy, medical marijuana, cluster headaches, and psychotherapy, they are also actively researching how psychoactive substances may help anxiety in terminally ill patients, a familiar Buddhist area of activity (Maps.org). On a scientific level, this organization offers the best hope for understanding the possibilities and risks without breaking the laws and taboos that Leary and company so eagerly flaunted and which resulted in a dark age of psychedelic repression. Studies are currently underway to examine cross-cultural uses of these substances and to determine the effects of guides in a variety of psycho-spiritual modalities and traditional, religious frameworks.
In conclusion, due to the depth of human history involving psychoactive substances, and when considering health risks, therapeutic innovations, and the inspiring legacy of Buddhist trail blazers in the West, the potential for future practices involving drugs and Dharma seems assured. While research is truly just beginning for these substances, the testimonial accounts of our past generation of Buddhist teachers may help guide our curiosities and direct our future areas of inquiry. Kornfield suggests that psychedelics have been enormously useful for some people and may continue to be so again, as long as they exist in a “context of purification” (Forte 65). He has offered workshops and retreats with Dr. Grof, adding to the knowledge concerning LSD psychotherapeutic research. Lama Surya Das, who initially understood that Buddhahood was possible through his initial experiences on psychedelics, has even offered a series of Zen commandments concerning their judicious use. Far from the dogmatic arguments concerning violations of the fifth Buddhist precept which prohibits intoxication, he believes that “whatever substance is being used, it should be used consciously and intentionally, and not mindlessly” (179). The central statement from the teachers mentioned in this essay seems to be that these substances concentrate the awareness, rather than dispersing it in an intoxicated stupor, if used properly. These substances can be yogi medicine for the neophyte practitioner, but only if done with intention, awareness, trained guides, and with a basic foundation of meditative discipline. Ultimately, no teachers of Buddhism advocate for a meditation practice that includes these drugs over the long term. Meditation itself, if cultivated properly, holds the promise of offering the deepest levels of awareness, insight, and concentration and requires nothing by the natural mind. But if we look carefully at the realization of culture-bridging teachers like Das, Nydahl, and Kornfield, we can’t help but correlate their spiritual successes to early experiments involving psychoactive substances. While not essential, they appear highly useful if used sparingly, as meditation medicine. To be sure, finding a place for them is an integral part of developing the tradition of Western Buddhism, as they have played a leading role.
Contact Kevin Murray on: firstname.lastname@example.org
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