Zig Zag Zen by Allan Badiner (ed.)
The use of entheogens, like the practice of meditation itself, requires a global vision and an ethical basis with an ultimate objective of the happiness of all beings. The entheogens can be used erroneously as mere inebriators or narcotics, in the same way that religion, be it Buddhist or any other—politics, culture, or baseball—can be erroneously used as an “opiate of the people.”
– Dokushô Villalba
Originally published in 2002 by Chronicle Press, Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics is an anthology of writings edited by Allan Badiner. A new edition of the book was published in 2015 by Synergetic Press and, as well as having renowned visionary artist Alex Grey as its Art Editor, includes a preface by Huston Smith and a foreword by Stephen Batchelor. In his foreword Batchelor notes:
It is undeniable that a significant proportion of those drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s (including the present writer) were influenced in their choice of religious orientation by experiences induced by psychoactive substances such as cannabis and LSD. (Badiner 2015: iii)
Buddhism and psychedelics share the twentieth-century as their fertile breeding ground in the Western world. While they have long existed in a myriad of forms and varieties across large swathes of the globe, there was a particular time in the mid-twentieth century when Western Europe and the United States had a popular awakening to both. For many people, LSD and the religious teachings and observances of the East came as part of a cultural package. And in many respects, Zig Zag Zen is the fruit of this happening.
The book is a study concerning the various ways in which these two territories intersect; theoretically, historically, personally, artistically etc. Underpinning the whole collection is a belief in the cultural determination of both as having arisen, not only in tandem, but as a series of questions each posed to the other. The book is split into three primary sections – Intersection, Concrescence, and Lessons – and their mutual questioning is the major driving factor.
Badiner outlines a range of understandings that Buddhist practitioners have in regard to psychedelics which range from seeing them as a “legitimate gateway”, as interesting but unrelated, to seeing them as completely incompatible. While the essays are largely tempered between the extremes, two essays stand out as helping to define the outer edges of the discourse.
After the original publication of the book in 2002 author Brad Warner “wrote some unkind things about it in my book Hardcore Zen (Wisdom Publications 2003).” It is a testament to the editor therefore that Warner was asked to contribute a chapter to this new edition, and he writes: “The Buddhist way is to do without drugs or enhancements of any kind. This is the intrinsic aspect of the path […] Learning to wake up by yourself.” This, in more distilled form, is the concern of many of the contributors.
In Warner’s respect, the question of their relationship has tended to shift toward asking what, as a Buddhist, might psychedelics do for you? Rather than what does Buddhism brings to your psychedelic experience? The latter framing is more closely examined by the psychonaut Terence McKenna who is interviewed by Badiner. McKenna, rather than seeing them in simple opposition, or psychedelics being a potential tool for Buddhism, describes them both as tools to be used in tandem:
The thing about psychedelics is the inevitability of it once you simply commit to swallowing the pill. But Buddhism and psychedelics are together probably the best hope we have for an antidote to egotism and materialism, which are fatally destroying the planet. (Badiner 2015: 169)
McKenna perceives them both as tools in a wider socio-cultural project of liberation. For instance, when asked if he anticipates the emergence of a Buddhist psychedelic culture, he replies, “No, it’s a Buddhist, psychedelic, green, feminist culture!” The majority of essays focus on the individualist mode of thought, through which the two territories appear to offer a similar therapeutic, spiritual path. Indeed, Badiner notes, “Ultimately, Buddhism and psychedelics share a concern with the same problem: the attainment of liberation for the mind” (Badiner 2015: 2). This, of course, lies in their historical development, where what they shared was a concern for overcoming ego, liberation of Self, and practices for one’s own mind to overcome illusion.
In the chapter ‘Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice’ Robert Forte interviews Jack Kornfield, who notes that psychedelics are rarely found in the Buddhist tradition and are usually lumped in the precepts as intoxicants. However, Kornfield, an American Buddhist teacher, takes a tempered middle way approach. He sees their value in awakening people to possibilities in exploring mind and body, and feels their danger lies in becoming habitual aids which would thus begin to become a governing principle in practice, rather than an aid. Kornfield, like so many others, had his roots in that period when they were part of a cultural package, and in which sense their conjunction was a newly blossoming tradition.
Oriental religious notions played an important part in the popularisation of psychedelics in the mid-twentieth century. Most famously, Leary et al.’s The Psychedelic Experience, based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, or Bardo Thodol, attempted to lead people into a state of ego-loss that corresponded to the earlier book’s aim of releasing the soul from reincarnation at the point of death. As a result the intersection between Buddhism and psychedelics often revolves around the authors’ psychological and psychiatric territories.
Ralph Metzner, who co-authored The Psychedelic Experience, has a chapter included called ‘A New Look at the Psychedelic Tibetan Book of the Dead’. As well as covering some of the work and episodes in psychedelic history dealing with death, for instance Huxley’s famous LSD finale. and Grof and Halifax’s The Human Encounter with Death, he looks more closely at the process of the original Tibetan text. In light of the continuing research in this field, the approach to ego-death, actual death, and psychedelics is particularly prescient.
One of the most outstanding elements of Zig Zag Zen is the artistic one. Renowned visionary artist Alex Grey has included an absolutely delightful selection of artwork. It covers work as diverse as The Buddha (c. 1905) by Odilon Redon and the seventeenth century Ensō by Eun, through the excellent sculpture work by Sukhi Barber, to the more traditional visionary painting that emerged in the late twentieth century. In his own article, ‘Vajravision’, Grey writes:
The vajra is a spiritual tool, a thunderbolt sceptre owned by the Hindu god Indra. It was adopted by the Buddhist sages as a symbol of the diamond-like clarity and brilliance of the mind’s true nature and has come to stand for a special class of Buddhist teachings. These are known as the Vajrayana, which incorporate complex visualizations of deities, Buddhas, gurus, and sky-dancing dakinis. (Badiner 85)
Grey goes on to note that vajravision helps the artist see beyond the “opaque material world” and into a spiritual one that lies beneath. Furthermore, that the entheogenic, or psychedelic, experience is a very useful tool for introducing the artist to this type of visionary sight. In many respects, Grey manages to make practical the inter-territoriality of Buddhism and psychedelics in a very coherent manner that beautifully explains art as a transcendent form.
It seems appropriate to conclude this review with a passage in Badiner’s introduction: “Zig Zag Zen is a celebration of where Buddhism and psychedelics have informed each other, as well as penetrating criticism of where such a confluence may have led us astray”; and this is without a doubt a fair summation of the book.