The amount of time, energy and bloviating Americans devote to religion indicates that it’s frequently on our minds even if our craving for an interior life that includes spirituality is rarely satiated. In recent decades many have gone farther and farther afield to feed that hunger, and nowadays a considerable number of Americans wake up every morning as Buddhists. According to “Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics,” a new anthology, many Western Buddhists arrived at their adopted religion via a decidedly nontraditional route: psychedelic drugs.
In essays and interviews, “Zig Zag Zen” looks at the intersection of Buddhism and mind-altering substances over the past 35 years or so, taking into account “moral, ethical, doctrinal, and transcendental considerations.” The book’s more than two dozen contributors and interview subjects range from writer and ordained Zen priest Peter Matthiessen and Esalen Institute co-founder Michael Murphy to one-time Timothy Leary cohort and author of “Be Here Now” Ram Dass and Richard Baker Roshi, founder of the Tassajara Zen Monastery. It’s a unique, intelligently compiled collection — part history, part philosophy, part inquiry — that sometimes succeeds at the precarious sport of discussing the spiritual quest and its fulfillment.
Both the foreword of “Zig Zag Zen,” by Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor, and the book’s introduction, by editor Allan Hunt Badiner, make the case for its premise. “It is undeniable,” Batchelor writes, “that a significant proportion of those drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s (including the present writer) were influenced in their religious orientation by experiences induced by psychoactive substances such as marijuana and LSD.” And Badiner says, “While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits, and one does not necessarily lead to the other … Psychedelics lurk in personal histories of most first-generation Buddhist teachers in Europe and America, yet today many teachers advise against the path they once traveled.”
Badiner also makes it clear exactly which substances he sees as having had some legitimate relationship to boomer Buddhism while getting in a jab at the nincompoopery of the War on Drugs: “The problems caused by cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other consciousness-constricting drugs are indisputable and nowhere defended in this book,” he writes in the introduction. “The notion that all ‘drugs’ are fundamentally alike is at the root of the confusion in our drug laws and the social debate about them.”
“Zig Zag Zen” suffers from a slight case of preaching-to-the-choir syndrome. But whether or not you’re interested in Buddhism and/or psychedelic drugs this is an intellectually refreshing book in that it tackles profound religious questions and spiritual ideas in a serious, even eloquent way that doesn’t put you to sleep. And given the 1960s hysteria over psychedelics, the book’s mostly successful attempts to examine the possible benefits of mind-altering plants and chemicals is admirable and often fascinating. Even among its contributors there’s no consensus, which is what makes the collection worthwhile.
In one of the book’s more contentious exchanges, Robert Aitken Roshi, an author and retired master of a Zen Buddhist society he founded in Hawaii in 1959, says, “I don’t think drugs helped anybody arrive where they are. It’s just that by the cultural circumstances of the time, in the ’60s and early ’70s, it so happened that people came to Zen through their experience with drugs … But that was then. When I hear this talk I feel transported back about 30 years. It seems like kicking a dead horse.” If so, it’s a dead horse that acid pioneer Ram Dass is not willing to bury: “It’s a great gift, a profound sacrament,” he insists to Aitken about the psychedelic experience. “You can’t put it down. We just don’t know how to use it, for the most part … to say that [psychedelic drug use leading people to Buddhism] was some kind of historical accident is absolute nonsense. One needs only to take a big trip … ”
“During the ’70s and ’80s,” Rick Fields, former editor of Yoga Journal, writes in one essay, “… psychedelics were remembered as a boat that had gotten [Buddhists] to the other shore of real practice but was now a distraction to be abandoned.” Or, as LSD champion and master interpreter of Zen Buddhism Alan Watts said, “Once you get the message, you hang up the phone.” Indeed, one recurring theme in “Zig Zag Zen” is that for many former acidheads stopping dropping and turning to Buddhist discipline may simply have been a way to get off the party line and subscribe to a more dependable, consistent and authentic means of making a spiritual connection.
In his short, elegant essay “Shadow Paths,” Matthiessen says as much: “Now those psychedelic years seem far away; I neither miss them nor regret them. Drugs can clear away the past, enhance the present; toward the inner garden, they can point the way … Lacking the temper of ascetic discipline, the drug vision remains a sort of dream that cannot be brought over into daily life.”
In his piece “The Paisley Gate,” Erik Davis, author of “Techgnosis,” describes psychedelic drugs as a technology for modeling religious experience while he questions their ability to deliver the real thing over the long term. “Drugs can be seen as flight simulators for the bardo [the Buddhist word for the intermediate state between death and rebirth],” Davis writes. To the degree that there is an ongoing debate about traditional spiritual practice vs. using psychedelic drugs as a means of achieving a religious state, the crux of that debate is that the intense meditation and spiritual practice of Buddhism is far superior to the “instant nirvana,” fast-food-for-the-soul phenomena induced by LSD, mescaline, psilocybin and the like. And Buddhism, of course, is legal.
Still, many learned people insist that there is something more to psychedelic drugs than simply a cheap, visually spectacular high. Unfortunately, beyond casual experimentation, woefully little has been done to determine what that more is, and if and how it might be helpful to people — spiritually or otherwise. The psychedelic circus of the 1960s ensured that serious research with mind-altering drugs would be all but impossible to carry out, and for the most part that’s been the case over the last three decades.
In the book’s foreword, Batchelor writes, “It’s all too easy either to dismiss drugs as thinly veiled justification for hedonistic indulgence, or to invoke the tragic consequences of heedless excess as grounds for denying the validity of any drug-induced experience at all. In so doing one fails to recognize the spiritual aspirations of people who are seeking expression and fulfillment in this way. One likewise ignores the harsh fact that Western societies have lost the ability to address the religious feelings of a considerable segment of their youth.” That’s putting it mildly.
Michele McDonald-Smith, a meditation teacher, seems to speak for most of the Buddhist contributors to “Zig Zag Zen” when she says that psychedelic drugs “bring all this energy into the system so that it catapults you into a different state of consciousness at the same time that it taxes your body, mind and heart. You get a sort of beatific view, but actually you’re farther down the mountain.”
But there are others — Alan Watts was one — who say that either road will get you there. Once when I saw Watts speak at an Esalen-sponsored seminar, he was asked a question on this very topic. “Which way is the best way to achieve enlightenment,” the person asked, “through meditation or psychedelic drugs?”
Watts laughed a little and thought for a moment, then said, “Well, I don’t know about a ‘best’ way, but perhaps you want to think of it like this, you can walk to New York or you can fly.”