To celebrate our fifth anniversary, we have chosen to focus on a controversial issue that claims both a complex history and a contemporary revival: Buddhism and psychedelics. Dozens of controversies surround the subject of psychedelics. Some involve legal and medical issues; others, issues of empiricism and religion. Beyond controversy, however, is the historical relationship between Buddhism and Psychedelics (See Rick Fields’ “The High History of Buddhism,” p. 45). For the new Buddhists of the 1960s and 1970s it was the rare bird indeed who came through the dharma gates totally independent of “mind-expanding drugs.” Exceptions exist, but with such infrequency that they affirm the rule, and, according to Jack Kornfield (see p. 34), that includes those Western teachers who are now middle-aged. But the inflated idealism of a mass spiritual awakening through psychedelics faded fast. Within two or three years of the first Be-In at Golden Gate Park, the flower children of Haight-Ashbury looked more like trauma victims lurching toward Lourdes than tribal members celebrating a rite of passage. The meticulous and ritualized approach of using psychedelics to summon the sacred degenerated into recreational indulgence and, for too many people, patterns of abuse. The more substance abuse increased, the more the public became skeptical about the benefits of entheogens, i.e., “certain plants and chemicals used for spiritual purposes.” (see Robert Jesse, p. 60).
As Alan Hunt Badiner, guest editor of this issue’s special section on Psychedelics and Buddhism, points out, a public conversation about psychedelics was not even possible in the political (and politically correct) climate of the 1980s. Today, a discussion is not only possible, but necessary, for there is once again a parallel or—depending on one’s perspective—a convergence, or a coincidence, between Buddhism and psychedelics.
In the 1980s there were so few people in their twenties coming into dharma that it seemed that Western Buddhism might die on the vine. That is no longer the case. In Western Europe and in North America meditation halls and introductory workshops are witnessing a growing interest among the new generation, while middle-aged people and the elderly continue to enter the stream in substantial numbers.
And psychedelics are back. Some people claim that they never went away, but just went underground. In any event, many baby-boomer Buddhists have been experimenting with MDMA and ayahuasca while twenty-somethings are experimenting with LSD and “’shrooms.” On the Lower East Side of Manhattan, marijuana is referred to as “Buddha,” e.g. “scoring some Buddha.” Why? What is this persistent connection about?
This special section is designed to reflect some of the current trends, questions, and debates. Some people argue that psychedelics are a hindrance; others argue that they are—or can be—a help. Our editorial position is neither. Rather, we encourage the reader to to just say maybe; that is, to suspend one’s preconceptions and biases and to consider the other side—whichever side that may be.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.