Zig Zag Zen:
Buddhism and Psychedelics
Edited by Allan Hunt Badiner
Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 2002
238 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

Zig Zag Zen concerns the influence of psychedelics on Buddhism, but the issue it ultimately raises is a deeper one: How important is the experience of awakening to spiritual practice?

There are those, of course, who would deny that drug-induced experiences are legitimately spiritual at all. Zen practitioner and psychology professor Ray Jordan, for instance, states that in his experience, “Even the deepest and most powerful realizations associated with LSD were weak compared to the reality and clarity of sesshin events.”

David Chadwick reports otherwise.

About his experience with LSD, he writes, “I died, it seemed, as completely as one can die and found myself at one with all that is, beyond space and time, birth and death, bathed in love—it was always changing—and then the dualism even of this oneness gave way, and my mind opened to the experience of the clear light, of which, later, I could really say nothing but that the experience seemed to be the crowning glory of all that is and isn’t.”

That beats any sesshin I ever had. No less an authority than Lama Surya Das (note his initials) states that “to say drug experience is unreal, and thus cannot provide an experience of reality, is nonsense.” And Huston Smith, one of the most distinguished writers on religion in this country, sees the Buddha’s enlightenment as something that “his third eye had disclosed to him.” “Twenty five hundred years later,” Smith writes, “people are still having their third eyes opened, only now often through microscopic ingestions of a small class of entheogenic plants and chemicals.”

Many of the teachers in this volume profess, however, that it is not the experience of awakening that is important but what produces it. If awakening comes about through years of dedicated meditation practice, it may deepen into something that can change one’s life. But if it is simply the result of a flirtation with drugs, it won’t have much effect at all, except possibly to lead one into practice in the first place.

Years ago I read about a Japanese monk who had spent years at a monastery without solving a single koan—he’d never had an experience of awakening—but whose every act, even sweeping the entryway, was a lesson in mindfulness. Isn’t that kind of attention the point of practice, rather than occasional fireworks’ Eihei Dogen said that the enlightened mind is one that is intimate with every mind state, including boredom, distraction, and pain. Even writers in Zig Zag Zen who cherish their drug experiences do so primarily because they were led deeper into practice.

David Chadwick, for instance, had the good fortune to come under the influence of Shunryu Suzuki. “He told us that enlightenment was not a state of mind, was not contained in any experience, and he guided us away from trying to recreate past profound experiences and toward accepting ourselves as we were. He taught a disciplined life of zazen meditation, attention to the details of life, not wanting too much (especially another state of mind), and not getting too worked up.” The simplicity and beauty of that advice stands in stark contrast to the extremes of the young man’s experience, and puts it in perspective.

Zig Zag Zen reveals how many of our most distinguished teachers—people who look like models of rectitude today—started off as dope-smoking hippies, then moved on to mescaline, LSD, and some of the “plant teachers” like peyote, psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and ayahuasca. Almost none, however, recommends continued drug use.

For one thing, drug use seems to produce not a deeper awakening but just more of a wish to use drugs. People get hooked on a particular experience, not on openness to experience itself. There is the possibility of serious addiction, as well as concerns about what drugs do to brain chemistry, to say nothing of the fact that most of them are illegal.

In a spirited group interview at the end of the book, old-timers Robert Aitken, Richard Baker, Joan Halifax, and Ram Dass exchange views. Though they don’t deny or undervalue their drug experiences, each one—like every other teacher in the volume—recommends
against continued use. Only Ram Dass is a holdout, and unfortunately, the volume ends with a lame statement from him:

“I feel sad when society rejects something [psychedelic drugs} that can help it understand itself and deepen its values and its wisdom. . . It’s not a purification of Buddhism. It’s trying to hold on to what you’ve got rather than growing.”

We’re glad Ram Dass is in touch with his feelings—an accomplishment which the seventies worked so hard to bring about—but vague, whiney statements like this don’t do much to further his cause. When he gave his teacher in India a huge hit of acid, it had no apparent effect at all. The man was seeing that reality all the time. That is the consciousness that spiritual practice had brought him to. We haven’t yet found a plant or pill that can do that.  ▼


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