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Date: Wed, 06 Nov 2002 14:05:08 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Zig Zag Zen
Zig Zag Zen
By Douglas Cruickshank, Salon
July 11, 2002
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 of
the Tassajara Zen Monastery. It's a unique, intelligently compiled
collectionpart history, part philosophy, part inquirythat sometimes
succeeds at the precarious sport of discussing the spiritual quest and its
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
^A'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
^A'60s and early ^A'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
^A'70s and ^A'80s," Rich 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
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 peoplespiritually 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 othersAlan Watts was onewho 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."
Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon, where this article
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