People get mad when I say it’s not right for drugs to be promoted as Buddhism. But that’s OK with me. Sometimes you have to make people mad.
When a recent spate of articles espousing drug use as dharma practice appeared in popular Buddhist magazines, like this one, they required a strong rebuke from someone with the proper credentials to say, “No, it isn’t.” I knew no one else was going to step up. So I did.
I was mean and ornery. I frothed at the mouth. I called people bad names. I said they were charlatans. It was ugly. But I felt like it had to be done.
A lot of people look to Buddhist magazines for guidance and support. Then the Buddhist magazines tell them things like “For some Buddhists, experiences of selflessness induced by hallucinogens are tools for practice” or “Ayahuasca can accelerate a type of spiritual growth that we need on the planet right now.” Or they quote others who say things like “We know that psychedelics are a valid doorway to dharma practice” and “When I took psychedelics, I actually experienced what before was only a philosophical concept.”
These glowing endorsements of drug use have an effect. I know they do, because they had an effect on me.
When I was in my teens, I started wondering hard about the nature of reality. It was urgent to me because I had just found out that a devastating genetic disorder ran in my family. At 16, I learned that I could be rendered fully incapacitated by this illness by the time I reached my thirties. I got my mid-life crisis early.
I wanted answers, and I wanted them quick. I didn’t know how much time I had left. Luckily, there was already a body of leftover literature from the druggy heyday of the sixties waiting for me at discount prices at every used bookstore in town. I devoured the works of Ram Dass, Timothy Leary, and John Lilly. Then I started asking around about where I could get my hands on some acid.
I eventually found some. I bought it from an aging hippie who kept the blotter stored on top of a layer of frost in his filthy roach-infested kitchen. I popped it in my mouth and let him drive me home, sitting in the bed of his rusty pick-up truck as it sped along Interstate 76.
The drug didn’t kick in until we reached my place. That’s when I became convinced that all my teeth had disappeared. Pretty soon I was seeing pretty colors everywhere and watching trails form behind my arm when I waved it in front of me. It was pretty far out, man!
But I didn’t take LSD to try to relive the sixties. I took it in the spirit of consciousness exploration and self-discovery. I took it because I thought it would open the doors of perception and free my mind to experience true reality.
Only it didn’t. The best I can say for LSD is that it confirmed for me that there were radically different ways of perceiving. I had suspected that before, but after taking acid, I knew for certain. I could’ve read that in a book, though.
My final acid trip was a waking nightmare of epic proportions. I lost the concept of time. I remember trying to tell myself that I’d be sober in a couple of hours. But the idea of hours meant absolutely nothing to me. I didn’t know if two hours was a short time or if it was eternity. I tried to close my eyes for some kind of relief. But the insides of my eyelids were flashing at me like neon signs. I spent the entire trip in a state of concentrated terror that felt like it would literally never end.
That was more than 30 years ago, and I can still return to the horror I felt that endless night. I don’t even like writing about it now.
I discovered zazen [Zen meditation] not too long after that. My teacher told me that it was the kind of practice that doesn’t show its effects for a very long time. This didn’t make me happy. But I’d seen what happens when you try to jump into this stuff too fast, and I knew that was never going to work. So I was stuck with the slow lane.
There’s a popular cliché that says drugs are like taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain rather than climbing it. You get the same breathtaking view as someone who has climbed the mountain, they say. But they’re wrong. It’s not the same view. Not at all.
Let’s say you met a veteran mountaineer with over a quarter century of climbing experience, a person who has written books on mountain climbing and routinely personally instructs others in the art of climbing. And let’s imagine what would happen if you tried to convince this guy that people who take helicopters to the tops of mountains get everything that mountain climbers get and get it a whole lot easier.
To the mountain climber, the guy in the helicopter is just a thrill seeker who thinks the goal is simply to reach the top of the mountain and that climbing is an inefficient way to accomplish this goal. He just doesn’t get it. At all.
The helicopter guy misses out on the amazing sights on the way up. He doesn’t know the thrill of mastering the mountain through his own efforts. He doesn’t know the hardships and dangers involved in making the climb. And he’ll never know the awesome wonder of descending down the mountain back into familiar territory. All he’s done is given some money to a person who owns a helicopter. When there are no helicopters around, the poor guy is helplessly grounded.
Enjoying the pretty view at the top is just one small part of the experience. It may not even be the best part. To a mountain climber, every view from every point on the mountain is significant and wonderful.
Meditation involves every single moment of life. “Peak experiences” can be fun. But they no more define what life is about than so-called mundane experiences. In fact, life is mostly about mundane experiences. When you start thinking that only your most thrilling experiences are significant, you have already lost the most precious thing in life, the ability to fully immerse yourself in every experience.
The idea that psychedelic drugs can somehow enhance Buddhist practice makes no sense to me at all. How is my real experience of life in the present moment enhanced by messing with the chemistry of my brain?
For having this attitude, I’ve been labeled a “fundamentalist” and a “puritan.” But look. I’ll be honest. If I believed there was any possibility of better understanding the fundamental nature of reality by ingesting some substance that would open wide the doors of perception and allow me a glimpse of the Godhead, I’d ditch Buddhism in a second and go get me some of the “good stuff.”
I’m not so attached to the idea of being a Buddhist that I’d pass over a better way if I thought there was one. If it were a choice between being a good Buddhist or getting a deeper glimpse into the nature of reality through some other method that was incompatible with Buddhism—like using drugs—then I’d definitely look into it.
But I’ve done them both myself, and I can see the difference. It boggles my mind that some people cannot seem to make that distinction. It’s like cookies and soap. If you can’t tell the difference, there’s something wrong with you.
Then there’s all this talk these days about “consciousness hacking.” What does that even mean? I’m not interested in trying to tailor my consciousness to fit some idea I have about how it ought to be. What do I know about how it ought to be? I’m more interested in what it actually is.
That’s because mundane life, just exactly as it is, with no enhancements or hacks at all, is incredible. How is this supposedly “ordinary world” I find myself living in even possible? There isn’t anything even remotely like planet Earth for at least 25 trillion miles. That’s the distance to Alpha Centuri, the nearest star. (And it’s probably not even that close!) Maybe there is nothing even remotely like this astonishing place anywhere else in the cosmos.
The life I am living right here and right now, “mundane” as it often seems, is an inconceivable, improbable, unfathomable, deeply wondrous and mysterious thing. I have no interest at all in trying to make my experience of it any murkier than it already is.
Besides all of that, as a Buddhist teacher, I have a responsibility to the people who look to me to tell them what Buddhism is about. I don’t know who is out there listening to my stuff. But I do know that for a lot of people, sobriety is a very fragile thing. They’re looking for any excuse at all to get back into the drugs. I can’t say anything positive about drug use and still maintain a clear conscience. Maybe some people can—with their caveats about being responsible and having guidance. But I can’t.
And when lots of Buddhists start rambling on about how drugs can be a doorway to deeper practice or accelerate spiritual growth, I feel like there are people out there who need someone with the authority to do so to tell the truth, they need someone to say clearly and unambiguously that that is a lie.
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