Cleansing the Doors of Perception
The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals
Tarcher/Putnam: New York, 2000
173 pp.; $22.95 (hardcover)
At eighty-one, Huston Smith is one of the most respected authorities on world religions. He has devoted his life to the study of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism. He says he believes in all of them. So it may come as a surprise to some that an issue of great fascination to him over the last forty years of his life has been the spiritual use of drugs. Smith says that, given his age, he may have thought and written more on this subject than anyone else alive. He professes total agreement with Aldous Huxley’s opinion that “nothing is more important than the role mind-altering plants and chemicals have played in human history.”
“We need all the help we can get to resist this tidal wave of materialism and stand up to it,” says Smith. “Now, for some people, they not only find themselves told that there is another world waiting, but they are actually ushered out of the cave and can see it.”
Smith, born of missionary parents and raised in China, has written 12 books of religious scholarship and philosophy and is the recipient of no fewer than 11 honorary degrees. His books include The World’s Religions, which has sold some 2.5 million copies around the world. He has taught at Washington University, MIT, Syracuse University, and most recently the University of California at Berkeley. A five-part PBS documentary called “The Wisdom of Faith: with Huston Smith” was recently produced by Bill Moyers. Smith himself has produced films on Eastern religions, including the award-winning Requiem for a Faith on Tibetan Buddhism.
At a time when the most often heard criticisms of U.S. drug laws are raised on political, social, economic, and medical grounds, Huston Smith comes forward in Cleansing the Doors of Perception with a compelling argument based on religious freedom. Given the current state of our society, Smith argues for keeping all our options for religious experience open.
“We live in the most secular, reductionistic, consumeristic, this-life-now-is-all-there-is society, history has ever known” he says. “There has never been a people for whom transcendence—or another world—has been so occluded. Our culture is living in Plato’s Cave. We have been stripped—and I hold the universities and intelligentsia in every area responsible for this—we have been stripped of belief in a reality outside the cave of mundane ho-hum, more-of-the-same life. The only ideals we have that are operative are success and maybe fame.”
This wise and witty book rejects the Learyesque school of experiential hedonism or the notion of liberation through intoxication. Using scientific, medical, and religious data, it illumines the key role that entheogens can play when used in the contexts of faith and discipline.
Smith calls the drug culture that grew out of the sixties “wild, chaotic, and irresponsible” and in part blames it for the current anti-drug “hysteria” of today. “The first thing that is very clear to me is that these substances are not for everybody,” Smith says. He sees young people today making a right-end run around institutional religion and linking up with Zen, Native American shamanism, and pharmacological mysticism.
To Huston Smith, whose wife, Kendra, teaches Theravadin Vipassana Buddhist meditation, all this mixing of Buddhist thought with American culture has produced a kind of “pop Buddhism” that is somewhat superficial when compared to the intricate tenets of traditional Buddhist psychology. “People in the U.S. are too busy to seriously tackle all that Buddhism historically has offered to those on the path of spiritual growth,” he says. Hence there is a need to create the right context for such journeys.
It was for this purpose that a maverick think tank called the Council on Spiritual Practices suggested he do the book. Founded by Robert Jesse, a former vice president of Oracle, the council is focused on religious scholars, spiritual leaders, and scientists whose work addresses “primary religious experiences,” or more specifically the relationship between “entheogens” and spiritual enlightenment.
Entheogens are plants and chemicals that have been used, some for thousands of years, and are being used today around the world, as means for going beyond the ordinary and encountering the sacred. The word Entheogen means “God-enabling,” and was coined in 1979 to replace the more provocative term psychedelic, although the “theo” in entheogen may not appeal to the nontheistic tendencies of Zen students.
What do these substances show us about the nature of mind and spirit? Smith’s book addresses the most profound philosophical questions surrounding the use of psychedelics for spiritual growth: What is the real religious import of these drugs? What does it mean to have such a religious experience fostered by a mind-altering substance? Does that make the experience somehow less authentic?
The book also touches on the historical role such substances have played in other faiths, from the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece to the use of peyote by the Native American Church. But the key question that Smith wants to address is how such a religious experience can be carried over into living a more religious life. “The important thing,” says Smith, “is not altered states, but altered traits of behavior. Does it change your life?”
“Even the Buddha continued to sit,” Smith observes, and he cautions: “While drugs appear to be able to induce religious experiences, it is less evident that they can produce religious lives.” Zen Buddhism is a good guide here, he notes. It insists that once you have attained satori you must return to the world. “Unless the experience is joined to discipline, it will come to naught.” After nirvana there’s the laundry, as Jack Kornfield might put it.
While Smith has an awesome respect, even fear, for entheogens—“awe is not fun,” he says—he himself has not used any of these substances in over twenty years. He reminds us of wisdom on this subject from Alan Watts: “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” Smith invokes the Buddhist doctrine of the Six Realms of Existence, or the fearsome states of mind which human beings go through continuously, to explain the force that his sacred psychedelic experiences have had for him after all these years.
The Zen Buddhist image of the Great Round Mirror is instructive, according to Smith. When, with the help of entheogens and disciplined spiritual practice, one removes the obscuring deposits of greed, hatred, and ignorance, the world is reflected just as it is. What does this cleansed perception actually reveal? Not the infinite per se, says Smith, but rather the infinite within the things at hand – perhaps “an old pine tree gnarled by wind and weather, or a skein of geese traversing the autumn sky.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
This is the first of your three free articles this month. Subscribe today to gain access to our award-winning publication plus all of our online offerings, including films, video dharma talks, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.