Whether or not psychedelics have any usefulness to someone on a Buddhist path was the subject of four recent interviews, conducted by Allan Hunt Badiner and combined into the following roundtable discussion.

Robert Aitken Roshi of Hawaii is one of America’s most senior and respected Zen masters. 

Richard Baker Roshi leads a thriving Zen Buddhist community in Colorado with informal branches throughout Europe. 

Ram Dass is writing a new book about the impact of practice on aging, and is a serious student of both Buddhism and psychedelics.

Joan Halifax is a senior Buddhist teacher with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and the director of Upaya in New Mexico.

Tricycle: Psychedelics is a huge category. We are focusing mostly on materials that are derived from plants, that when ingested in appropriate doses and in appropriate conditions may contribute to an expanded state of consciousness. Can use of psychedelics of this kind lead to enlightenment?

Halifax: In the earlier days, we defined psychedelic as “mind manifesting.” The way it was seen, particularly by LSD researcher Stan Grof and others, is that domains of the mind are evoked when certain substances are taken. Different plant teachers are like keys that unlock different doors within the mind. For example, mescaline produces a different kind of vision than psilocybin does, or yagé, and so on.

Ram Dass: From my point of view, Buddhism is the closest to the psychedelic experience, at least in terms of LSD. LSD catapults you beyond your conceptual structures. It extricates you. It overrides your habits of identification with thought and puts you into a nonconceptual mode very fast.

Tricycle: What about the so-called Buddhist pill, MDMA, a.k.a. ecstasy?

Ram Dass: I don’t find it to be a Buddhist pill. I find that MDMA is wonderful for relational therapy. It enhances the quality of compassion, of loving, of seeing the beauty in people and all that, but not the experience of formlessness or emptiness. I don’t like the speed component in it, the kind of jaw-clenching and all that stuff. I took about fifty trips of MDMA and decided that was enough. My guru, Neem Karoli Baba, commented on psychedelics once. “It’s useful,” he said, “but it’s not the true samadhi. It allows you to come in and have the darshan of Christ, but you can only stay two hours and then you have to leave.” And he said, “You can’t become Christ through your medicine.” The distinction between seeing and becoming is where Buddhism comes in.

Tricycle: Two hours of Christ doesn’t sound so bad! 

Ram Dass: It’s not bad! But it can also trap you in a certain kind of experience. And experience isn’t non-experience. It’s an analog of the thing but it’s not the thing itself. It’s like the experience of emptiness rather than emptiness itself.

Tricycle: Ram Dass, you mentioned the habit-override potential of psychedelics. But this is short-lived, isn’t it?

Aitken: It’s all very well to have a delightful experience of forgetting yourself, but what about afterwards? The acid test is how this works out in the daily life of working for a living and paying taxes and raising kids and so on.

Ram Dass: Everybody’s a little greedy for being enlightened immediately. What I’ve noticed in my own life over the thirty-five years since my first ingestion, is that when I reenter, the habits come back in. But what I have in addition to the habits is the memory of the experience, the sense of knowing that it’s possible. Knowing that it’s possible changes the meaning of all spiritual practice that follows because you go in with a perspective that’s not just from here, but from there as well.

Aitken: I think that there are both negative and positive experiences possible under psychedelics, but I think you must leave them behind if you want to take up Buddhist practice seriously. Many people came to Zen Buddhist practice through their experience with psychedelics. I don’t meet any newcomers that have that experience now.

Tricycle: How did the refugees from psychedelica do?

Aitken: Drugs gave them a sense of religious possibility, but then they felt they had exhausted the potential and wanted to take up a practice that would lead them to religious insight. There were people during that period who tried to do zazen and take drugs at the same time. This really didn’t work at all because there was a quality of self-absorption in the experience of the people taking drugs that was quite out of keeping with the goal of practice.

Baker: We were in San Francisco right in the middle of the whole scene from ’61 on. What Suzuki-roshi and I noticed was that people who used LSD—and a large percentage of the students did—got into practice faster than other people. Not always, but usually it opened them up to practice faster. But we also noticed that for the most part, those people leveled off after a couple years and didn’t advance much in Zen practice, particularly those people who used it a lot. My feeling is that psychedelics create a taste for a certain kind of experience. It seems that, because of the way their mental space was so strongly opened and conditioned by LSD, Zen practice was only fruitful when it related to this mental space. People who used it a lot, i.e., fifty trips, two hundred trips, didn’t advance much past what a good practitioner would after two years. Also in part because of a familiarity with such strong inner-mind language, it was harder for these students to recognize the more subtle inner-mind language that one learns to recognize in Zen practice.

Tricycle: Zen didn’t get them high enough?

Baker: They got a taste for a certain kind of mental and spiritual excitement, and when it wasn’t present, and the mind was in more the neutral category, their interest in practice diminished. Much of Buddhist experience occurs in the territory where you neither like nor dislike: so-called neutral territory. Neutrality, as in non-grasping, is the deepest kind of feeling, but you can’t call it either good or bad. Psychedelic experience tends to have such a strong and exciting quality that it can block the more subtle internal language.

Tricycle: So it was easy to distinguish those who used psychedelics from those who didn’t?

roundtable2 copyAitken: Absolutely. There were people who would be training in our zendo during the week, and then smoke and drop or whatever on their days off; when they came back I would definitely notice the difference in their manner and in the quality of their practice. They would be quite scattered and unsettled instead of returning refreshed. We would have these fierce arguments and, although I wasn’t a teacher in those days I was certainly an elder brother in the dharma, but they were not open to any kind of guidance.

Halifax: It’s almost like a smell: you can pretty much tell who does and who doesn’t. How I tell is: those who use are not as tightly knit as those who don’t, in terms of the way the mind is woven. It took me quite a while to settle down on the cushion. After I stopped taking psychedelics, my tendency toward dispersion has definitely ceased, and my reactivity has definitely diminished. I am relieved to have committed myself to the path of meditation.

Tricycle: Although for some time you must have found much relief in psychedelics.

Halifax: There is no doubt about that. Psychedelics are an extraordinarily powerful tool for opening the mind field. I look at psychedelics as a kind of phase through which we pass when we’re trying to become more truly who we are, more authentic, and more genuine. I feel like I graduated from psychedelics, but that they were definitely part of the evolution of my own psychological or developmental maturation. But it’s really a different kind of mind that is cultivated in meditation, where the qualities of stability, and loving-kindness, and clarity, and humbleness are the primary qualities. Psychedelics don’t necessarily cultivate those qualities.

Tricycle: Did you ever mix media? 

Halifax: Of course I have. This was during the seventies, and in the late sixties when I first took LSD. But after a while I didn’t find it was too successful an experiment, frankly. At least for me.

Baker: There were a small number of students at Zen Center who tried to smoke marijuana and practice. One student became upset and stopped practicing because I told him he couldn’t be my student if he was smoking marijuana.

Ram Dass: A lot of people say that smoking grass helps their meditation, but I don’t find that it does.

Halifax: I think everyone has their own response to psychedelics. I didn’t find that they really worked with the kind of mind that emerged in meditation, free of psychedelics. As time went on, I became less and less interested in the qualities of mind evoked by psychedelics. I don’t know many people who have managed to actually keep a psychedelic practice and a mature Buddhist practice going at the same time, except maybe Ram Dass.

Ram Dass: I don’t see psychedelics as an enlightening vehicle, but I do see it as an awakening vehicle. I see them beginning a process that awakens you to the possibility. That’s the way I’m using the word “awaken.” It breaks you out, in the same way that trauma can do it, near-death experiences, and perhaps years of intensive meditation.

Tricycle: Once you have the memory and you start using methods that are perhaps more satisfying in the long run, your work then becomes collapsing the gap between that memory of freedom and your current experience of reality. Is that right? 

Ram Dass: Yeah.

Tricycle: So do you still take drugs? 

Ram Dass: I have.

Tricycle: And have you found it useful? 

Ram Dass: Yes, and I’ll tell you why: I saw that I could socialize any method. I could make any method work to keep my ego going. When someone does their first hit or goes on their first retreat they think, “Oh, my God! It’s going to do it!”—this is going to bring enlightenment. And then you figure out the little corners of the mind, to play with it, to protect yourself. So I use one method against another continually as a check and balance to see where I’m conning myself.

Tricycle: But you can’t always control or direct the experience, can you? 

roundtable3 copyRam Dass: I’m part of the psychedelic explorers club from back in the sixties, and I understand that the nature of the experience you have with psychedelics is a function of your set as well as your setting, and that as I do my spiritual practices my set changes. So I will go for two years of deep practices, and then I’ll be interested to see where I am in relation to psychedelics. I’m at the point now where, if I never had them again, it’ll be fine, and if I do have them again, it’ll be wonderful. I don’t know and I don’t care. That’s a different set from which to do them, instead of “I need them to find reality.”

Aitken: All you have to do is pick up a good Buddhist text, and there’s reality. You don’t have to take drugs to wake up to it. Most people that come to me now are awakened by reading. They just realize, “Oh, there’s something more to my life.” But it’s correct to say that the acquisitive society is very seductive and draws us in. The average couple work very hard and they come home and, naturally, they want to unwind. So they want to have a drink, or look at TV. It’s a kind of vicious circle. Zen Buddhism has its work cut out for it. We need to find ways that people can leave home without leaving home.

Baker: I also think it’s true that the job of a culture is to be totally seductive and to offer no other alternative. And that’s what Buddhism is always facing in every culture, how to break through this very convincing cultural, societal thought-sheath.

Tricycle: Many Buddhist teachers appear to be saying “Do what I say, not what I’ve done” when it comes to psychedelics. Young people today seem very sincere about the quest and unwilling to take it on trust that certain methods are helpful or not helpful, particularly when they are controversial.

Aitken: I don’t think drugs have particularly helped anybody arrive where they are. It’s just that by the cultural circumstances of the time, in the sixties and early seventies, it so happened that people came to Zen through their experience with drugs. Before that they came to Zen by their experience in theosophy and other occult paths. And after that they came to Zen practice through their reading and their experiences with yoga or aikido or Theravadin practice or whatever. It was just a peculiarity that at that particular time LSD was discovered and made widespread. It coincided with a lot of disillusionment with the Vietnam War and civil rights, etc. People were in despair of standard forms. They were ready to experiment. But that was then. When I hear this talk I feel transported back about thirty years. It seems like kicking a dead horse to me.

Whether or not psychedelics have any usefulness to someone on a Buddhist path was the subject of four recent interviews, conducted by Allan Hunt Badiner and combined into the following roundtable discussion.

Robert Aitken Roshi of Hawaii is one of America’s most senior and respected Zen masters. 

Richard Baker Roshi leads a thriving Zen Buddhist community in Colorado with informal branches throughout Europe. 

Ram Dass is writing a new book about the impact of practice on aging, and is a serious student of both Buddhism and psychedelics.

Joan Halifax is a senior Buddhist teacher with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and the director of Upaya in New Mexic

roundtable4 copyTricycle: Robert Aitken, what is your experience with psychedelics?

Aitken: I have experimented with LSD, and several times with marijuana.

Tricycle: What did you learn?

Aitken: None of them were really satisfactory experiences. The marijuana experiences left me with a false impression of solidarity with peers (in fact, they weren’t my peers—they were a lot younger than I). Anne Aitken and I had purchased a little house on Maui that later became the first Maui Zendo. But before we moved, we rented it to a group of young people and would go over and visit them. All of them smoked marijuana. On one occasion I was sitting in a circle with a group of young men, and we were passing the marijuana cigarette around. I had this wonderful feeling of solidarity with the circle. The women were in the kitchen cooking, and one of the women had a little baby that was very fussy. Anne came out and asked me if I would look after the baby while the women did their cooking. I refused. But then I thought to myself, what’s the matter with me? I love little kids and I can pacify any baby. What sort of delusion of solidarity am I under when I’m excluding the rest of the world, so to speak? So that was my awakening to the limitations of marijuana.

Tricycle: But you had that realization as you were sitting there stoned?

Aitken: Yes.

Tricycle: Did you act on it?

Aitken: Oh, sure. I got up, left the group, and picked up the baby.

Tricycle: A reasonably short-lived delusion. What about the LSD trip?

Aitken: The one LSD experience was an experience of illusion. I was lying on my back in the tall grass, looking at the clouds and finding Roman legions in the clouds and so on.

Tricycle: Did you enjoy it?

Aitken: Well, I kind of enjoyed it at the moment, but then afterwards there was this terrible comedown where everything looked ugly and I could see very clearly how wrinkled people’s faces were and how disagreeable everything was. I suppose it’s that experience that takes people back to the false kinds of delusions that they experience on LSD. It was only one experience so I can’t really judge on that narrow base.

Tricycle: Richard Baker, any notable experience here? 

Baker: I do not use psychedelics. I would not recommend that my two daughters use psychedelics. And although in the sixties I organized a conference on LSD in Berkeley, I have never taken LSD. In the late fifties, I took some peyote buttons and mescaline a few times, and maybe some psilocybin. I didn’t like the lack of fluidity, and the way it kind of pushed my mental states around. I preferred the fluidity that I could develop in meditative concentration. One time I was in Chile with two native shamans and a friend who teaches shamanism. I was part of the group, so I drank all the brews that they did. I think they wanted to test the Zen teacher, so they loaded me up. I ended up having to stay up all night and take care of everybody. No big deal.

Tricycle: Joan, what was it like to immerse yourself in older, indigenous cultures and take psychedelics with them, and to do it by their rules?

Halifax: In so-called psychedelic cultures, cultures where hallucinogens are used and where the psychological technology is highly developed, I observed that the religious set is so utterly well articulated and elaborated. And of course it’s culturally acceptable and not on the fringe of culture like it is here. In the case of the Huichols or the Mazatecs or the Kayapos in Ecuador, you saw a world that was really harmonized to the use of hallucinogens and the visions that were given by these plants.

Tricycle: What about ayahuasca, or yagé? Ayahuasca in particular has taken the Buddhist world for a spin lately.

Halifax: Ayahuasca is just an amazing plant teacher.

Ram Dass: It’s the current ritual of choice. But I think the rituals tend to keep you in dualism. Shamanic journeys are, for the most part, boring to me because they are usually concerned with good and evil and power.

Tricycle: Are psychedelics a hindrance, Joan? 

Courtesy Tom Haar.
Courtesy Tom Haar.

Halifax: Even asking that question is a hindrance. You know what I’m saying? Even Buddhism is a hindrance. What I ask is: what kind of mind do you want to bring forward? What qualities do you think would serve you and really serve other beings in this world? What do you think would really help you? What’s the most healing thing to do? I try to ask those questions in a way that is non-condemning of any choice one might make. However, many of us wouldn’t be comfortable on a cushion had we not taken psychedelics.

Aitken: When I look back on my first introduction to Zen, which was R. H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature, I can see lots of mistakes in that book. But it was very important for me at the time. That doesn’t mean that I’m now going to tell people to read Zen in English Literature first, you see. It just happened that that was my experience back in 1943.

Tricycle: Ven. Dr. Ratanasara, a Sri Lankan monk who chairs the American Buddhist Congress, is fond of pointing out that when you act unskillfully, the worst damage is not external to you—not divine displeasure, karmic effects, or even the logical consequences—but rather the uneasy feeling or disequilibrium that lingers in the mind. Wouldn’t using psychedelic drugs, on some level, create a hindrance just by virtue of the fact that they are illegal, or that studies find them harmful physically?

Ram Dass: Most of the data critical of psychedelics, claiming brain damage, or that they lead to harder drugs and all of that, come from politically motivated research that does not stand up under independent study. As far as breaking the law is concerned, what we are really talking about is the politics of consciousness and control. Those vested with power fear the destabilization of society by forces that they can’t control. The desire for drugs cannot be controlled. It’s disrupting all the structures of society, it’s overwhelming the judges and the jails. Drug policy has been a total failure.

Tricycle: What about bad trips?

Ram Dass: For the most part, bad trips can be prevented by care in the set and setting, and of course, the illegality of the material is itself part of the setting. But those that do occur usually consist of what I call the “outs” (on the way out), and the “ins” (on the way back in). On the way out, what may happen is that the person reaches a point where even the minimal structure needed for holding on to a sense of self is perceived to be in jeopardy. Some people who are not prepared for that push against it, and when you push against it, the whole paranoid process starts; energy is taken from the psychedelics, and a user-generated hell realm is created for you.

Whether or not psychedelics have any usefulness to someone on a Buddhist path was the subject of four recent interviews, conducted by Allan Hunt Badiner and combined into the following roundtable discussion.

Robert Aitken Roshi of Hawaii is one of America’s most senior and respected Zen masters. 

Richard Baker Roshi leads a thriving Zen Buddhist community in Colorado with informal branches throughout Europe. 

Ram Dass is writing a new book about the impact of practice on aging, and is a serious student of both Buddhism and psychedelics.

Joan Halifax is a senior Buddhist teacher with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, and the director of Upaya in New Mexico.

Courtesy Sally Boon.
Courtesy Sally Boon.

Tricycle: And on the way in? 

Ram Dass: You’re resting formlessly in peace, and equanimity, and awareness, and bliss. As the chemical wears off, you see what you’re going back into and it seems like such a prison, such a corruption, that you just don’t want to go back, and you push against reentry. It’s a bad trip when you come back and everything’s “yick.” You don’t like the people, and they all look plastic and false.

Tricycle: It isn’t always pretty.

Halifax: To have the feeling that you’re doing something against the social grain that could actually bring harm to yourself, or others, in terms of jail, etc., is not a very comfortable position to be in when you’re trying to become more vulnerable and peaceful. I’m really glad that I’ve had those experiences in other cultures because, in fact, no matter how authentic we try to be in our own culture vis-à-vis creating a beautiful setting for psychedelics, whether it’s in nature or whether it’s having icons, music, incense, and candles around or whatever, there’s something about an integrated vision—a spiritual vision that’s part of a continuum of a culture—that is irreplaceable.

Tricycle: Can Westerners ever escape their conditioning? Can they legitimately partake in and fully benefit from these rituals? 

Halifax: If I go to Japan, or Korea, or Vietnam, and sit in a temple and have an authentic experience ofsamadhi while doing zazen in these environments, is that any different, for example, than somebody going to South America or Middle America and having a psychedelic epiphany in a particular cultural setting? I think it’s fairly comparable. I think we can cross those boundaries. Meditation and this medicine are both powerful contexts for shifting our assemblage point out of the habitual mind of culture and into a new frame of reference.

Tricycle: Unlike our own psychedelic unfolding, we are now seeing a generation blur the distinctions between so-called psychedelics and hard drugs, and we see lots of crossover. A little LSD, a little heroin, a lot of pot, some pills—

Ram Dass: But the distinctions are there. I think they can tell the distinctions among them. I think what we are generally dealing with is the attraction to altered states, to both the intensity of the experience and the excitement that comes from taking a risk.

Tricycle: Ram Dass, you are somewhat responsible for this, aren’t you? We all recall a wild enthusiasm that you brought to the use of drugs. 

Ram Dass: There’s really a contrast between escape drugs and sacramental drugs, you know. There’s clearly a great deal of drug-taking now that no one would want to endorse. Children and drugs just don’t mix, for example. I’ve always said, “Become somebody before you become nobody.” But drug use is like these pseudopods that shoot out from the culture and, in the case of crack and coke, represent clear statements of the failure of cultural mythology. Crack is used in reaction to the ceiling of opportunity for people in the inner cities. And in the upper class it’s coke, which is used in reaction to the failure of the myth that success brings happiness. I mean, you win and you’re still not winning. People with millions of dollars feel gypped somehow. I find the philosophical materialism that undercuts the society, and the zeal to keep it stable, are resulting in an oppressive atmosphere. I’m not upset about being part of something that shakes that system up.

Tricycle: What about marijuana? Ram Dass, do you still smoke it? 

Ram Dass: I’m a light user of marijuana. I see it as an elevator to shift my planes of consciousness. That’s kind of the technical way I would say that I’m using it. I like to watch the way my mind works—in all the planes, and not in them at the same moment—on marijuana.

Tricycle: Does a new student of Buddhism need psychedelics to make real and rapid progress on the path? 

Ram Dass: No. I don’t see any reason why. Psychedelics are now just another method. They are even kind of an anachronism because of the politics of drugs in this culture. The paranoia connected with them renders them much less useful.

Tricycle: Do you have to have a spiritual context to make progress on the psychedelic path?

Ram Dass: You need some context in your life outside of drugs to create the proper setting. Buddhism is a good context for the psychedelic experience.

Tricycle: Is there something that psychedelics can teach us about death: Is there an advantage to using psychedelics to overcome the fear of death and promote one’s acceptance of it? 

Ram Dass: Yes, absolutely. Starting with Erik Kast’s work back in the sixties at the University of Chicago. One quote from his work stands out in my mind. It was from a nurse who was dying of cancer and had just taken LSD. She said, “I know I’m dying of this deadly disease, but look at the beauty of the universe.”

Tricycle: Joan, you have done, and are still doing, a lot of work around death and dying. Would you use psychedelics in this work again, or encourage others to? 

Halifax: Not anymore. What I have found is that one’s inner attitude, a quality of presence that one can bring to a dying person or that one can bring to oneself, is sufficient and in itself a profound comfort and relief. I’ve had some just incredible experiences with dying people without drugs having to mediate them. In the latter phases of dying, people are frequently in such altered states of consciousness that gilding the lily further doesn’t seem necessary. What really works is a kind of a transmission of the heart, a flooding of love, a quality of absolute love and patience in the presence of dying. This magic of being both empty and full of compassion at the same time produces an incredible effect for both the caregiver and the dying person.

Tricycle: Richard Baker, so there are no herbs or plants in the bowl of the medicine Buddha, only sutras? 

Baker: Buddhism is a religion and not a philosophy, because you only take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha and nothing else. And there’s an alchemy to that which cannot be duplicated by sometimes taking refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and sometimes taking refuge in something else. For me, the chemistry or alchemy of Buddhism, of serious practice, really functions when you give yourself no other alternative.

One definition of an enlightened person is one who always has everything they need. At every moment what they need is there; they’re not seeking anything. If you really are seriously practicing to be free and to simultaneously realize enlightenment, you never seek out of the immediate situation, no matter how bad it is. You transform the immediate situation into what you need. You imagine that feeling that you need something as being exactly what you need. For instance, if I missed zazen one morning, I might think later in the day, “God, I wish I’d been able to do zazen this morning.” At that moment, I take that statement to mean not only that I didn’t do zazen, but also that what I need from zazen at this instant is the idea that I didn’t do zazen. You don’t try to change your state of mind, you always try to find exactly what you need in your present state of mind. So for me this is a kind of alchemy that has a psychedelic quality to it. But the pill is made from the ingredients of your immediate situation—not from attempting to change your state of mind, but changing through not changing

roundtable6 copyAitken: I would add that there is a qualitative difference between the ecstasy that some people report from their drug experiences and the understanding, the realization, that comes with Zen practice. We seek understanding, not ecstasy.

Ram Dass: I feel sad when society rejects something that can help it understand itself and deepen its values and its wisdom. Just like the church ruling out the mystical experience. It’s not a purification of Buddhism. It’s trying to hold on to what you’ve got rather than growing.


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