The war on at least one drug—the psychedelic variety—has been won. In place of the alchemicals that reigned supreme for a momentarily eternal moment, young would-be mind explorers now toke their way through a fractled marketplace of pot, coke, weak acid, heroin, cocaine, ludes, Ecstasy, speed, crack. Set and setting? The set is the fresh curious wary jumpy insecure brain of a bright young kid—fourteen, twelve, ten, the age keeps dropping—and the setting is the schoolyard, the street corner, the stall in the boys’ or girls’ room before homeroom. Or maybe (at best?) it’s a tribal merge at a thumping, flashing rave or a Grateful Dead concert. Always a buzzing swarm. But still hardly the contemplative gardens or paisley candlelit retreats of the first psychedelic illuminati. The heady halcyon days and nights of psychedelia, which once led so many to Buddhist practice, have been efficiently eliminated, reduced to retrofashion. The young now turn on in a world in which the sacred has been trivialized into the recreational. No wonder so many are relieved to see Buddhism as a recovery program: in the morning a half hour of meditation in a halfway house.
That practice can be helpful, even lifesaving, to the strung-out is of course good news. But there is another sort of good news—for some unreformed heads at least. There is something of a psychedelic revival going on these days—and more than a few
Buddhists are taking part in it. The sacramentals are partly the old familiar (LSD), the new (Ecstasy and other designer drugs) and the ancient (plant entheogens such as mushrooms, peyote cactus, and the Amazonian ayahuasca). Interestingly, it is the last category, the ancient plants used by the oldest indigenous peoples on the earth, that seems to hold the most promise for the future.There are a number of reasons for this psychedelic revival. For one thing, psychedelics have proven to have a certain staying power. Stamped down countless times, abandoned for various reasons, they nevertheless somehow manage to pop up like mushrooms from one generation to the next. Timing is also a part of it. A dynamic back-and-forth relationship between psychedelics and Eastern spirituality has existed since the nineteenth century. In the fifties Buddhist and Hindu texts inspired aristocratic British exiles like the writers Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley to seek an experiential illumination through psychedelics. In the sixties the same psychedelic experience inspired American academicians like Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) to investigate Eastern texts and practices.
During the eighties the use of MDMA (Adam, Ecstasy) became fashionable, both among psychotherapists and in the new youth culture in the rave and dance club scene. Ecstasy is not a hallucinogen or entheogen, but has best been described as an empathogen: it seems to relax the stranglehold of the individual ego and open the way to an unusually high level of intimacy and communication (hence its popularity with marriage counselors). The general calmness, serenity, and spaciousness of the experience has led, in some circles, to its being called the “Buddha-drug.” If psychedelics correspond (for some at least) with Tibetan or tantric Buddhism, then Ecstasy could be seen as the Mahayana or bodhisattva drug of choice. In fact, at least one rumor tells of a serious circle of practitioners who use Ecstasy as a support for their metta (loving-kindness) practice.
During the seventies and eighties, psychedelic drug use seems to have been largely discounted in Buddhist communities—as it was in the larger culture—though it was not entirely absent from either arena. It simply went underground. Buddhist groups quite understandably were anxious to stay on the right side of the law and seemed as anxious as most organizations to separate themselves from the sixties’ drug and anti-war countercultures. And individual students were growing older, taking on the responsibilities of families and careers. For most students psychedelics were remembered as a boat that had gotten them to the other shore of real practice but was now a distraction to be abandoned.
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