Born in 1946, author and explorer Terence McKenna has spent the past twenty-five years in the study of the ontological foundations of shamanism and the ethnopharmacology of spiritual transformation. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a distributed major in ecology, resource conservation, and shamanism and then traveled extensively in the Asian and New World tropics, specializing in the shamanism and ethnomedicine of the Amazon Basin. His latest book, True Hallucinations (HarperSanFrancisco), is a narrative of spiritual adventure in the jungles of the Colombian Amazon. McKenna currently lives in Hawaii, where he divides his time between writing and lecturing. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Allan Hunt Badiner in April 1996 in Big Sur, California.

Terence McKenna. Courtesy Kathleen Carr.
Terence McKenna. Courtesy Kathleen Carr.

Tricycle: You have emerged as the leading spokesperson for the use of psychedelics. What is the history of your encounter with Buddhism?

McKenna: Like so many people in the sixties, I came up through D. T. Suzuki’s books on Zen. And then early on, because of my art historical bent, I became interested in Tibetan Buddhism. But my interest was not exactly Buddhism. It was more the shamanic pre-Buddhist phenomenon of the Bon religion—which grew out of the shamanic culture of pre-Buddhist Tibet.

Tricycle: Buddhist practice didn’t attract you?

McKenna: Buddhist psychology was very interesting to me. I came to it through the works of Herbert Gunther, who was a Heideggerian originally. He found Mahayana thought to parallel that of Heidegger. I was influenced by a book called Tibetan Buddhism without Mystification, published later as Treasures of the Tibetan Middle Way[Herbert Guenther, Shambhala Publications, Inc.], which contrasted paradoxically differing schools of Buddhist thought. Nargarjuna’s writings on nothingness were also a big influence.

Tricycle: What did you make of the Abidhamma—the psychological component of Buddhist teachings?

McKenna: The Buddhist style of talking about the constructs of the mind is now a universalist style. The puzzle to me is how Buddhism achieves all of this without psychedelics: not only how but why, since these dimensions of experience seem fairly easily accessed, given hallucinogenic substances and plants, and are excruciatingly rare and unusual by any other means.

Tricycle: How would Buddhism fit into your notion of the psychedelic society that you often talk about?

McKenna: Well, compassion is the central moral teaching of Buddhism and, hopefully, the central moral intuition of the psychedelic experience. So at the ethical level I think these things are mutually reinforcing and very good for each other. Compassion is what we lack. Buddhism preaches compassion. Psychedelics give people the power to overcome habitual behaviors. Compassion is a function of awareness. You cannot attain greater awareness without attaining greater compassion, whether you’re attaining this awareness through Buddhist practice or through psychedelic experience.

Tricycle: So compassion and awareness are the twin pillars of both Buddhism and the psychedelic society.

McKenna: Compassion and awareness. To my mind the real difference between Buddhism and psychedelic shamanism is that one is a theory out of which experiences can be teased and the other is an experience out of which theory can be teased.

sacred_3Tricycle: Well, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism is to abandon belief systems for direct experience.

McKenna: Yes, but like an onion, Buddhism has many layers. For instance, folk Buddhism is obsessed with reincarnation. Philosophical Buddhism knows there is no abiding self. How can these two things be reconciled? Logically they can’t, but religions aren’t logical. Religions are structures in the mass psyche that fulfill needs not dictated by reason alone. Any complex philosophical system makes room for self-contradiction.

Tricycle: One of the significant contributions Buddhism offers this culture is that it creates a context for the experience of death. You have said the awareness of death is one of the most important insights that the psychedelic experience offers. Are they similar perspectives?

McKenna: Well, they’re similar in that the goal is the same. The view of both positions is that life is a preparation for death, and it’s a specific preparation. In other words, certain facts must be known, certain techniques must be mastered, and then the passage out of physicality and on to whatever lies beyond is more smoothly met. So in that sense they are very similar, and they seem to be talking about the same territory.

Tricycle: You’ve said that the twin horrors or twin problems of Western society are ego and materialism, combining in a kind of naive monotheism. Why is Buddhism any less a remedy than psychedelics?

McKenna: It’s less a remedy only in the sense that it’s an argument, not an experience.

Tricycle: But it’s a series of practices that enable experience.

McKenna: Yeah, but you have to do it. The thing about psychedelics is the inevitability of it once you simply commit to swallowing the pill. But Buddhism and psychedelics are together probably the best hope we have for an antidote to egotism and materialism, which are fatally destroying the planet. I mean, it’s not an abstract thing. The most important thing Buddhism can do for us is to show us inner wealth and to de-emphasize object fetishism, which is a very primitive religious impulse. It’s an aboriginal religious impulse to fetishize objects, and Buddhism shows a way out of that.

Tricycle: The way you describe ecstasy in your talks has kind of a Buddhist flavor: “the edge or the depth of human feeling that includes suffering.” This resonates with the Buddhist notion that nirvana encompasses samsara.

McKenna: True ecstasy is a union of opposites. It’s the felt experience of paradox, so it is exalting and illuminating at the same time that it’s terrifying and threatening. It dissolves all boundaries.

Tricycle: Are you anticipating the emergence of a Buddhist psychedelic culture?

McKenna: No, it’s a Buddhist, psychedelic, green, feminist culture! I’ve always felt that Buddhism, ecological thinking, psychedelic thinking, and feminism are the four parts of a solution. These things are somewhat fragmented from each other, but they are the obvious pieces of the puzzle. An honoring of the feminine, an honoring of the planet, a stress on dematerialism and compassion, and the tools to revivify and make coherent those three.

Pure Ecstasy, Edward Ruscha, tea on moiré, 1974. Courtesy Edward Rusch/Leo Castelli Gallery.
Pure Ecstasy, Edward Ruscha, tea on moiré, 1974. Courtesy Edward Rusch/Leo Castelli Gallery.

Tricycle: The tools being psychedelic substances?

McKenna: Yes. It would be very interesting to find Buddhists who were open-minded enough to go back and start from scratch with psychedelics and not do the ordinary “we’ve got a better way” rap, but to say, “Maybe we do, maybe we don’t. Let’s go through these things with all our practice and all our understanding and all our technique and put it with botany, chemistry, and all this ethnography.” And then what could you come up with? If, as Baker-roshi says, people advance quickly with psychedelics, then advance them quickly with psychedelics. And then when they reach a point where practice and method is primary, practice and method should move to the fore. And maybe there are several times where these things would switch position.

Tricycle: You don’t see any contradiction in being a Buddhist and exploring psychedelics?

McKenna: No, I would almost say, how can you be a serious Buddhist if you’re not exploring psychedelics? Then you’re sort of an armchair Buddhist, a Buddhist from theory, a Buddhist from practice, but it’s sort of training wheels practice. I mean, the real thing is, take the old boat out and give it a spin.

Tricycle: Maybe you should try taking out the old zafu for a spin!

McKenna: Or try both!

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