Western society is obsessed with medication. Because medical science has advanced so far so quickly, we are prone to imagine that drugs can cure any illness if only we can find just the right combination of chemicals. So naturally when we hear representatives of Eastern religions describe our normal condition as diseased, we wonder what we can take to fix that. The notion that there might be a pill to make us enlightened seems to make perfect sense.
The idea that psychedelic drugs might be able to do in minutes what used to take years of deep introspection and hard practice has recently made a major comeback. As if the 1960s and 1970s taught us nothing, there is a whole new generation promoting hallucination as a substitute for meditation.
I don’t doubt that these formerly vilified medications can have therapeutic uses, and I’m glad that research is being done in that area. But the question whether or not medicine or drugs can be used as a shortcut to the goals of Buddhist practice is one that I think the Buddha might have answered with his characteristic phrase “The question does not fit the case.”
James Hughes, the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies and a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Connecticut, recently published an article titled “Using Neurotechnologies to Develop Virtues: A Buddhist Approach to Cognitive Enhancement” on the Institute’s website. In the article Dr. Hughes postulates ways in which various psychoactive drugs might help those who are not genetically predisposed to do so, to follow the Buddhist paramitas (perfections) of generosity, proper conduct, renunciation, transcendental wisdom, diligence, patience, truthfulness, determination, lovingkindness, and serenity. In one example, he speculates that MDMA, which those who came of age during the 1990s rave scene will know as “ecstasy,” could be used to chemically stimulate the Buddhist virtue of lovingkindness. And drugs being developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease and Down syndrome might, he hypothesizes, be used to bring about the transcendental wisdom spoken of in the sutras.
He goes even further, envisioning a future wherein “we will have the capacity to change genes that affect the brain permanently, and install neurodevices that constantly monitor and direct our thoughts and behavior” in order that we all may follow the Buddhist perfections.
But I have to wonder who is going to program these neurodevices or decide which of my genes need changing. Based on what criteria? Who decides what is and is not “enlightened” thought and behavior? Do we really want devices of any kind directing our thoughts and behavior, even if it means we’ll behave in ways that someone has designated as enlightened? Do we really want someone’s ideal of a perfect society forced upon us by genetic manipulation and machines in our brains, even if that perfect society is labeled “Buddhist”? And even if we submit to all that, what happens when the devices break down?
Once during a sesshin I attended, another participant waxed lyrical about the benefits of the kiyosaku, the “staff of instruction” used in many Zen temples to stimulate effort in sleepy meditators with a sharp whack across the shoulders. My teacher, Gudo Nishijima (who never used the kiyosaku), listened patiently and finally said, “Maybe that’s true. But I think it’s better to learn to wake up by yourself.”
The basic problem with Dr. Hughes’s speculations is that a crucial element of Buddhist practice is learning to wake up by oneself. Even if drugs and genetic manipulation could be used to create real compassion, lovingkindness, and so forth—and I don’t believe they can—this would not be at all the same as learning how to develop these qualities on one’s own. What happens when your prescription runs out or your insurance gets canceled? How much does lovingkindness cost at your local Walgreens pharmacy?
Dr. Hughes and many others imagine that Buddhist practice is all about goals. They imagine that we strive to have transcendental wisdom and we use meditation as a means to reach this goal. Since reaching our goal is the point of the exercise, they seem to believe, wouldn’t it make more sense to get there as quickly as possible by taking a pill or having a neurodevice implanted in our brains?
But Buddhist practice is never about creating goals and trying to achieve them. It’s about learning to see clearly for ourselves our own real state in each and every moment. As we come to see what life really is, we begin to behave more logically and ethically, because that’s what makes sense. Drugs and brain implants can’t help us with that. Buddhist practice is a journey to be enjoyed and savored, not a race to be won quickly and efficiently.
When someone puts forth ideas like this, they generally bring up the Buddhist prohibition against the use of intoxicants and then use clever wordplay to pretend it doesn’t really matter. The usual tactic is to claim that this prohibition is only against certain “bad” drugs, not the “good” drugs they recommend. “While alcohol, opiates, and cannabis certainly could not create a permanent state of chemical happiness, much less facilitate spiritual insight,” Dr. Hughes says, “the neurotechnologies of this century might create permanent changes of mood.”
But the Buddhist prohibition against intoxicants isn’t about bad drugs versus good drugs. It’s about learning to wake up on your own. A thousand years after the Buddha, Dogen Zenji amplified the precept when he said his students should not try to augment their practice by taking “medications prescribed for mental diseases.” The notion that Buddhist virtues could be stimulated chemically has been with us a long time.
The Buddhist way is to do without drugs or enhancements of any kind. This is an intrinsic aspect of the path. The use of drugs, gene manipulation, or brain implants to enhance our mental state runs counter to the very core of what Buddhist practice is all about.