[sixties-l] Zig Zag Zen (fwd)

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Date: Sat Nov 09 2002 - 22:22:45 EST

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    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    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
    originally appeared.

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