Kokyo Henkel: My name is Kokyo. I’ve been a Zen Buddhist priest for 18 years in the tradition of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and San Francisco Zen Center, mostly living in monasteries or similar environments over the course of that time. Around the same time as I was beginning Zen practice, some psychedelic experiences were really formative for me. I think it was a significant condition for giving my whole life over to Buddhist practice.
James (Jim) Fadiman: I’m Jim and in 1961, I started working with psychedelics with Richard Alpert, now Ram Dass, and then with the International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park while I was earning a PhD in Psychology from Stanford. Until I first experienced the effects of psychedelics, I had no interest in Buddhist practice. However, explorers in the psychedelic realm, doing formal or informal research, became aware early on that there were experiences that apparently overlapped the core mystical experiences of many spiritual traditions. That is more true today. I recognized that my central concern is helping establish the proper place of altered states of consciousness in contemporary society.
Kokyo: Let me set the stage for the Buddhist perspective with one of the major issues that people have in Buddhism around this topic, which is what we call the ethical precepts that go all the way back to early Buddhism. They include not killing living beings, not taking what’s not given, not misusing sexuality, and not lying or speaking falsely. The fifth one, as originally worded in the Pali and the Sanskrit, is “not to consume alcoholic beverages that lead to heedlessness or carelessness.” I think it is interesting that the first four precepts are not explained. It’s obvious why these actions are harmful to others, so in the original language they are very short. But the fifth precept is longer since it includes the reason for it. We often interpret the fifth precept as not intoxicating body and mind, or not taking intoxicants, which at the time meant alcohol. The main issue here is: Does psychedelic use lead to harming others? Does it lead to carelessness and heedlessness? Do we start disrespecting others through having altered our mind in this way? So if we do use psychedelics, this would be the bottom line: Is it harmful to others or harmful to ourselves?
I think that’s a good context to look at the use of different substances. Do we think that it would be beneficial to our self and—from a bodhisattva perspective, being beneficial to our self is not the foremost thing—is it beneficial to our deeper unfolding of realization so that we can help others more fully?
Jim: The serious question seems to be: Does having psychedelic experiences improve or degrade my practice? This isn’t yet looking at the inner framework, or the life situation of the person. This question, “What does it do to my practice?” is still internal. I’d like to share some stories that have helped my understanding.
Near the end of his life Alan Watts was asked by a young man, “Is it worthwhile to take LSD?” After pondering a bit, Alan replied, “That’s like asking me if life is worthwhile.”
Next is a quote from the website DMT-Nexus: “I can says this after a lifetime of meditating and only two trips on psychedelics, that they are not just a trip. The lasting effects are huge. The changes in me have been profound and seem substantially permanent. I agree; it is best to work on yourself using all available methods.” And finally this from a professor, speaking of a high dose experience: “After the collective purification ended, I was spun into the radiance of what, using Buddhist vocabulary, I perceived to be the domain of diamond luminosity. I’ve known light many times before, but this was an exceptionally pure light. Its clarity was so overwhelming, its energy so pure, that returning to it quickly became my deepest agenda for future sessions. After my first initiation into this reality, it took five sessions of intense purification and surrender before the doors were opened again and I was returned to the diamond light, now experience at a slightly deeper and even purer form.”
For me, these reports bring up very practical questions: Are psychedelics beneficial in the sense of moving you towards living a life more life a bodhisattva? Are they good for you right now?
Kokyo: One place we can go is to talk about what qualities of psychedelic experience could be in accord with Buddhism—because there are lots of things that happen in a psychedelic experience that have nothing to do with Buddhism.
A basic Buddhist teaching is that the root of all our problems is the belief that things are separate, outside us, and things substantially exist in and of themselves. So the profound insight that those are actually illusions can release one from all kinds of suffering, if it’s deeply realized and integrated into one’s life. But going beyond this, in Mahayana Buddhism the purpose of that very insight is not even for our own liberation from suffering; it’s so that we can really help others, and really meet others with complete openness and a sense of non-separation. That’s the bodhisattva path. So, there can be realization of nonduality, of non-separation, that people aren’t who we think they are. And to realize that people aren’t who we think they are is very beneficial to those people who we meet.
There may be—lastly, and maybe most importantly—persisting positive changes in attitude and behavior after a psychedelic experience is over: Changes in attitude towards oneself, toward others, towards life and towards spiritual experiences. Deep meditation practice and psychedelics can both bring up unconscious problems or issues, karmic patterns, and enable us to really look at them in a caring and therapeutic way. More sensitivity, tolerance, openness, and love of others, with lasting change, can occur through a psychedelic experience. Vocational commitment and appreciation of all life can be strengthened.
Audience: Either with psychedelics or practice, how do we get past the problem that, once we’ve seen something, we want to get back there, and we’re grasping, and we’re looking for it, and it’s hard to get there because it’s a state of innocence?
Kokyo: That’s a great question. We have a wonderful experience that we feel is really beneficial, and then we wonder how do we get back there? It’s a state of innocence, so any movement or wish to get back to that state of innocence is already not innocent. This is a major issue in Buddhist practice, maybe not talked about so much in psychedelic practice but I think should be. That’s what we call grasping or attachment, saying, “I gotta get that again.” That is the definition of discontent in Buddhism.
Jim: It’s not talked about in psychedelics enough. It is that wonderful paradox of, “I just did this and then this incredible wonderful thing happened. And, I want it again.” The question all too often is: “What drug should I take, and do you have any?” instead of the questions we are asking.
In an early chapter of my book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, I say that after you have a major experience, if within the first six weeks after it you feel you have the need to get back there, what you are doing is avoiding working with something in yourself that has come up. [sigh from the audience] The advice is wait another six weeks.
We know from the meditative traditions, if you get out of the way, the universe brightens. Here is what interests me: if “I,” Jim Fadiman, want that experience, and the “I” that wants it is going to be diminished, then if I get it, “I” can’t get it. The me that needs to get out of the way can never get it. But maybe, of course, if I had the right psychedelic [laughter] or the new ones maybe [laughter], it would be different. You see the problem.
Kokyo: A quote comes to mind from Dogen Zenji, “Buddha-Dharma cannot be realized by a person . . . Only a Buddha can realize Buddha-Dharma.”
Jim: Let me ask a question: Whatever that highest and most amazing experience is, let’s call it unity, where there is no division between you and the universe, and that you understand that there’s no distinctions of time and space, and that while your personality and body are mortal, you’re not. How many people have actually experienced that? [looking around, many raised hands] So, here we are, everybody came back. Many of the people I have guided have this question when they come back. “Why did I come back into this body, with all of its neurotic problems? When I was out there, it was clear that I was not necessarily attached to it.”
Kokyo: In ultimate truth there is no division, just complete unity; there’s no self and no other. Emptiness. The conventional truth is where there is the appearance of self and other; those two truths are not separate: the conventional and the ultimate truth. Of course, most of us live in the conventional truth, the conventional world, almost all the time. We need to realize the ultimate truth, but as Nagarjuna, one of the great Indian ancestors, says, “in order to realize the ultimate truth you must be completely grounded in the conventional truth,” which means the precepts of ethical conduct, and so on. If we neglect how we are taking care of ourselves and other people, then it is actually impossible to realize the ultimate truth, at least in the Buddhist view. Now, in the psychedelic world, some of us might say, “Let’s bypass the conventional and go straight to the ultimate.” This can be a problem.
Audience: I wanted to ask about the practice. In your experience and the experience of people in the room, how can psychedelics be used as a practice, as an ongoing process of spiritual maturation?
Kokyo: Maybe part of that question is implying that there are two different types of psychedelic use, especially in relation to Buddhism. I think we could look at a psychedelic experience as an initial opening, like you have an insight into non-separation for example, and then you pick up a meditation practice or some other method to sustain and develop that insight. Another use would be to use psychedelics as an ongoing path of practice. One problem with an initial experience is that you “see” a certain realm of reality—you “see” it; just that very language implies there may be a subtle duality there, that you’re seeing “something.” It might be very, very subtle, but the emphasis is on seeing a realm. In my tradition of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji criticized the term kensho, which means seeing the nature of reality, seeing nature, seeing buddhanature. This is usually said to be the goal in Rinzai Zen, seeing your nature. Dogen, with his emphasis on nonduality, was critical of that term because it’s putting something out there. Dogen is always talking about manifestation or becoming. So you might say that it is not a matter of seeing your true nature. It’s about becoming that, manifesting your true nature, which you might not even realize is happening as some objective thing. It’s easy to make the enlightenment into something and try to get it.
Jim: You mean it’s not a thing? It’s not a destination? It’s not a realization that colors the rest of your life? It’s not a sense of awareness that pervades more and more of your life? We’re asking what’s the purpose of psychedelic experience? When is it appropriate? When is the correct time in one’s life to do such and such? Those questions must occur in Buddhism. There is something about timing, what the Sufis call, “a sense of occasion” and what therapists call, “a teachable moment.” Kokyo, you have devoted your life not to just work on yourself, but to working on yourself in the service of others. Most people who talk psychedelics don’t say that. They do say that they are working on themselves, and want to make the world a better place. But there is still a lot of self that is primary, and that may be a difference.
Kokyo: Myron Stolaroff in his essay, “Are Psychedelics Useful in Buddhism?” said that another thing they both do is dissolve mindsets. Any kind of fixed mind set, cultural and societal assumptions—a lot of things we just take for granted—one can see through, with both of these technologies. And that’s part of the reason, some people have theorized, why most of these substances are illegal, because they threaten the very fabric of society as we know it.
Jim: Kathy Speeth, a gifted teacher, had a wonderful saying: “Enlightenment is always a crime.” What she was saying is that every culture wants to remain stable and wants its institutions to be supported and believed in. Enlightenment, from any tradition, cuts through that. What she was pointing out was that it is culturally correct to define enlightenment as a crime.
Kokyo: To add to the discussion about ritual settings for psychedelics, and to bring Buddhism and psychedelics together, you might be surprised that there’s an experiment scheduled to begin this year by a friend of mine. Vanja Palmers is the senior dharma heir of Kobun Chino Otagawa Roshi, who taught at Santa Cruz Zen Center many years ago. Vanja is a longtime, very serious Zen practitioner and priest. He lives in Switzerland most of the time, and he got permission from the Swiss government to do an experiment during a sesshin. Sesshin means to collect the mind, to gather the mind. It’s the Zen name for an intensive meditation retreat. In a five-day sesshin, you’re meditating basically all day, completely in silence; from 4 or 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. there is sitting meditation, interspersed with walking meditation. The experiment will be that on the fourth day of sesshin, twenty people will take a medium does of psilocybin, and twenty won’t, in a double-blind experiment, and basically see what happens—particularly around mystical experience. Vanja is hand selecting the people, inviting particular longtime experienced meditators, who ideally also have some experience with psychedelics. He’s doing interviews with them beforehand and following up afterwards for at least six months, and maybe longer. In the “Good Friday Experiment” in the Christian tradition that I mentioned earlier, they followed up with the subjects six months later, to see how many of the changes had lasted. And they admitted that six months is not very long. So in this case they may check after six months, maybe longer, to interview people regarding the lasting effects of the experience.
This may be the furthest that this kind of experiment has gone, integrating serious intensive Buddhist meditation with psychedelics. Part of this particular experiment is a medium dose. People often have mystical nondual experiences with a high dose but without meditation. So part of the proposal of the experiment is to see if after four days of all-day meditation, can a similar thing happen with a smaller dose?
Audience: I have a question about Buddhism. Could you compare something like the jhana states with the psychedelic experience?
Kokyo: The jhanas are different levels of concentration, or states of absorption, particularly emphasized in Theravada Buddhism. They are deepening levels of withdrawal from the external world, or more simply, becoming more and more absorbed in nondual concentration. These jhanic states were taught by the Buddha, not as enlightenment itself, not as insight, but actually as concentration practices to develop a stable body and mind in order for insight to arrive. The jhanas are not the main point. They are part of the path, and many traditions don’t practice them methodically. The practice of withdrawal from the external sensory world is one way to develop these jhanas.
That’s often the case with psychedelics as well. Part of the setting, with psychedelics, is whether the eyes are opened or closed. With eyes closed, there can be an internal unity experience, a whole internal world going on, where one is not really relating to objects. With eyes open, one is still visually relating to the apparently external world. Then there’s the unity of self and sensory objects, an experience that happens in a so-called mystical experience. Jhana is maybe more related to the inner unity as opposed to the external unity.
Audience: Can you talk about the role of satsang [spiritual community] in Buddhism and how community can be used in the integration process in the psychedelic experience?
Kokyo: In Buddhism, sangha is the spiritual community and it’s very important, one of the refuges to rely on. We rely on the spiritual community to help sustain our practice and encourage us. So practice is not just an individual thing; we do it together. Especially in the Zen tradition, meditation practice and retreats are very much a group thing. We’re in silence, but in very close quarters, sitting right together, and it’s very interactive, with lots of rituals. We serve food to each other in very particular ways in the silence.
The spiritual community in Buddhism is very important, because part of what we’re realizing through practice is non-separation and intimacy. The realization is that we’re all completely intimate beyond our imagination. Psychedelic work tends to be more individual, even if people are tripping together. On the other hand, I have had experiences with psychedelics that were excruciatingly intimate; for example, at a Grateful Dead Concert. [laughter] We are one being! [laughter] That is one example of a communal ritual that has been commonly used in the tradition.
Jim: There are communities that help their members with integration. The one that is most developed is the Burner community. Burning Man is one of the closest replacements we have to Grateful Dead concerts, and it lasts for a week, not an evening. If you look at this stage of development, and compare it to Buddhism in the first 50 years after Buddha’s death, which is where we are with psychedelics in this country, we may be doing all right. Buddhists have had a lot more time to work out some of the problems.
Kokyo: May we all stay connected and realize our intimacy. As we often do at the end of dharma events, let’s dedicate the merit, any positive energy that was generated by this discussion, to the benefit of all beings, to the awakening and freedom of all beings.
I’d like to finish with a classic quote from Dogen Zenji, the Japanese founder of Soto Zen:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind, as well as the body and minds of others, drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no trace continues endlessly.
To read more on this topic, check out the 1996 “Buddhism and Psychedelics” special issue.
Reprinted with permission from Synergetic Press from Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics (New Edition) edited by Allan Badiner with Art Editor Alex Grey (2015). For more information, visit Synergetic Press.
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