Western society is obsessed with medication. Because medical science has advanced so far so quickly, we are prone to imagine that drugs can cure any illness if only we can find just the right combination of chemicals. So naturally when we hear representatives of Eastern religions describe our normal condition as diseased, we wonder what we can take to fix that. The notion that there might be a pill to make us enlightened seems to make perfect sense.
The idea that psychedelic drugs might be able to do in minutes what used to take years of deep introspection and hard practice has recently made a major comeback. As if the 1960s and 1970s taught us nothing, there is a whole new generation promoting hallucination as a substitute for meditation.
I don’t doubt that these formerly vilified medications can have therapeutic uses, and I’m glad that research is being done in that area. But the question whether or not medicine or drugs can be used as a shortcut to the goals of Buddhist practice is one that I think the Buddha might have answered with his characteristic phrase “The question does not fit the case.”
James Hughes, the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Connecticut, recently published an article titled “Using Neurotechnologies to Develop Virtues: A Buddhist Approach to Cognitive Enhancement” on the Institute’s website. In the article Dr. Hughes postulates ways in which various psychoactive drugs might help those who are not genetically predisposed to do so, to follow the Buddhist paramitas (perfections) of generosity, proper conduct, renunciation, transcendental wisdom, diligence, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and serenity. In one example, he speculates that MDMA, which those who came of age during the 1990s rave scene will know as “ecstasy,” could be used to chemically stimulate the Buddhist virtue of lovingkindness. And drugs being developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease and Down syndrome might, he hypothesizes, be used to bring about the transcendental wisdom spoken of in the sutras.
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