Untitled, Walker Bernard, 1994. Courtesy Walker Bernard, and Neal Crosbie.
Untitled, Walker Bernard, 1994. Courtesy Walker Bernard, and Neal Crosbie.

From the thin, rocky ridge where a few friends and I were resting following a 13,000-foot climb, we could look out over the entire expanse of New Mexico’s Pecos Wilderness, east over the Great Plains, and north as far as Colorado, almost 200 miles away. As we sat there in a circle, sheltering each other from the strong mountain winds, we silently passed around a water bottle full of fresh peyote tea. We gulped down the bitter mixture and then lit tobacco and sage as an offering to the local spirits. As the peyote began to take effect, we took turns praying aloud for what we hoped to take from the experience.

That was six years ago, and I was nineteen at the time, but I first started using psychedelics when I was fourteen years old. I was raised at the Rochester Zen Center; my parents were on resident staff there for the first fourteen years of my life. The Zen Center, like most monastic-style Buddhist communities in America, discouraged the use of alcohol or drugs, or any substances that “clouded the mind.” There seemed to be the attitude among staff members that they had finished their reckless days of experimentation and indulgence in makyo (hallucinations), and graduated to more serious practice. Having taken the Buddhist precepts at age seven, I also had mixed feelings about drugs and experimentation. 

So while on the one hand I was coming from a place that definitely saw the use of drugs as a juvenile indulgence, on the other hand I was just entering my teenage years and wanted to test the bounds of reality a little bit. I “converted” to Tibetan Buddhism, which I have practiced with some degree of leisure ever since. 

Fundamentally, I saw the use of psychedelics as a process of self-inquiry, which seemed to be entirely in keeping with Buddhist thought. Testing the bounds of reality, asking “What is the nature of mind?”, seeing the impermanence in all phenomena, and having one’s sense of self challenged seemed to be not only elements of the psychedelic experience but also basic tenets of Buddhist practice. So while there was something of a moral question when I began dropping acid, there was never the idea that what I was doing was in any way out of sync with my basic Buddhist philosophy. 

Having been raised a Buddhist, the lotus lands and deva realms I saw on acid were not new phenomena, but felt quite familiar. Spending my adolescence juiced on mushrooms and peyote, and running through the thick pine forests of northern New Mexico howling at the moon, I didn’t feel as if I was experiencing anything drastically new on acid. It seemed like more of an extension of my Buddhist childhood. I saw collapsing landscapes breathing and melting into one another, and I thought: impermanence! All connection to words, thoughts, and the intellect shattered, and I knew the experience of selflessness. 

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