Reaching Enlightenment: Psychedelic American Buddhism

Hope Chang

When asked to imagine a “hippie”, what comes to mind? For many, it may look something like the following:

The 1960s, hallucinogenic prints, long hair, mind altering substances, and a “make love not war” mentality. However, what may be not as visibly stereotypically a part of the counterculture’s is its association with Eastern religion – Buddhism, particularly.

During the 1960s, psychedelic experiences led figures such as Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert to explore Eastern Buddhist practices and to eventually publish a book on the matter entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on The Tibetan Book of the Dead. During this time, many other psychedelic users were also drawn to Buddhism and its practices after their mind-bending experiences – the rise of interest in yoga, meditation, and Eastern religions in the 60’s and 70’s was closely tied to the rise of a counter cultural interest in psychedelics. In 1967, one anonymous Harvard East Asian expert went so far as to compare Buddhist monasticism and the “hippie movement”, claiming to have foreseen the movement in a book on Eastern religion written a ten-years beforehand (The Harvard Crimson, 1967).  However, in the following decades of the late 70’s and 80’s, many Buddhists distanced themselves from the antiestablishment counterculture that they had previously subscribed to, anxious to rid their reputation of the 60’s drug. Given that Buddhism’s fifth precept demands abstinence from all intoxicants, a large proportion claim to have left these drugs behind to subscribe to the more traditional, original practice – However, a newer generation of American Buddhist converts continue to combine their meditations with psychedelics, giving rise to a uniquely Americanized (and oftentimes, substance-involving) version of the religion.

For my final blog project, I intend to explore the relationship between psychedelics and American Buddhism. More specifically, I want to see how such a traditionally substance-rejecting Eastern religion became so associated with mind-altering substances in the U.S. – What caused this mingling and what are its implications? What would American Buddhists to leave behind the substances which lead them to their religion in the first place? 

The origins of the connection between Buddhism and psychedelics can be traced to the counterculture movement of the 1960s (Osto, 2019). The youth of this decade began to reject characteristic American conservatism, consumerism, materialism, and conformism, and as Mélisa Kidari, author of The Counterculture of the 1960s in the United States: An “Alternative Consciousness”?  writes, “they looked for a bigger horizon. What is bigger than the Universe? The Buddha taught connection with the universe”(Kidari, 2012). Ultimately, Kidari argues that it is only logical why the counterculture would be so attracted to tenants of Eastern philosophies – Feeling stifled by traditional expectations and limitations, turning inwards to search for spiritual enlightenment seemed like a direct rebellion of the norm and perhaps an avenue for peace to replace their social anxieties. However, in many sects of Buddhism, a practitioner primarily achieves enlightenment via rigorous meditation and asceticism – things that required a discipline that contradicted the counterculture’s rejection of authority (Kidari, 2012). However, some early experimenters of psychoactive substances proposed with the aid of such drugs like LSD, one could reach a similar enlightenment with the additional advantages of having to waste no time and no effort and abide by no discipline. Here, we begin to see why an overlap began to build between psychedelics and Buddhist philosophies.

 Through a number of major publications and studies, the 60s were witness to the birth of a major psychedelic movement. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert – both American psychologists now famous for being early advocates for the therapeutic uses of psychoactive substances – began the Harvard Psilocybin Project in 1960 to investigate possible benefits of psychedelics by recruiting various graduate students and faculty members in the Boston area and giving them psilocybin mushrooms. On Good Friday in 1962, one of the project’s most well-known experiments was conducted under the supervision of Leary: The Marsh Chapel Experiment of 1962 (also appropriately referred to as the Good Friday Experiment). Walter Pahnke – a medical doctor, a Protestant minister, and one of Leary’s graduate students – conducted the study in Marsh Chapel at Boston University as part of his Religion and Society PhD dissertation, specifically to investigate if psychoactive substances could induce mystical experiences. Even in its early days, psychedelics seemed to almost immediately tied to religion and spirituality.

Shortly after the experiment was conducted, Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard and began to co-author their own book entitled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (1964) with Ralph Metzner. As the title indicates, the authors were clearly influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or more formerly Bardo Thodol,from which the authors were inspired is a Tibetan guidebook which is meant to be read to the recently deceased to help guide their consciousness through the various bardo states before their rebirth into the next life. In several schools of Buddhism, the bardo is the intermediate state between death and rebirth and is primarily comprised of three stages – “bardo of the moment of death”, “bardo of the experiencing of reality”, and “bardo of rebirth”.  After Metzner, Leary, and Alpert had several experiences on various psychoactive substances, they equated their altered states to one of the bardo states they had read about in The Tibetan Book of the Dead – the Clear Light state found in the “bardo of the moment of death”. Thus, in The Psychedelic Experience, the clear light altered state became the primary goal and purpose of using psychedelic substances and became synonymous with Buddhist enlightenment. At the time of its publication, readers most likely knew little about Buddhism or psychoactive substances, and consequently the trio of authors soon became the major narrators of their popular perceptions in the U.S (Osto, 2019). It was this point in my research that I began to wonder what implications this could have for both users of psychoactive substances and the demographics of American converts to Buddhism. Hypothetically, if Metzner, Leary, and Alpert had not been a main introducer of Buddhism and psychedelics to U.S. populations, would psychoactive substances still be considered as spiritual as they are today? 

In addition to creating a guidebook for future users of psychoactive substances, Metzner, Leary, and Alpert also had another major objective in mind – the unification of science and religion through psychedelics. They write, “Modern psychedelic chemicals provide a key to this forgotten realm of awareness…. Now for the first time, we possess the means of providing enlightenment to any prepared volunteer…. For these reasons we have prepared this psychedelic version of the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The secret is released once again, in a new dialect, and we sit back quietly to observe whether man is ready to move ahead and to make use of the new tools provided by modern science”(Leary & Metzner & Alpert, 1969). Interestingly, the authors incorporate science as an additional motivation to utilize and link psychedelics to and in Eastern philosophies. One of the trio’s contemporaries, Alan Watts – an influential convert to Buddhism and popularizer of East Asian religions during the early 1960s –, was a self-proclaimed student of the psychology of religion. Similar to Leary and Alpert’s dismissal from Harvard, Watts encountered governmental and societal pressures to no longer pursue research in the field of psychoactive substances. In response, he argued that the mystical experiences induced by such substances were similar enough to the “tradition of genuine religious involvement” (Watts, 1968) that users should be entitled to at least some form of constitutional protection. He writes:

“This is a barbarous restriction of spiritual and intellectual freedom, suggesting that the legal system of the United States is, after all, in tacit alliance with the monarchical theory of the universe and will, therefore, prohibit and persecute religious ideas and practices based on an organic and unitary vision of the universe” (Watts, 1968)

After reading the above sentiments, my mind immediately circled back to a book I read for a Buddhism course I took last semester. In Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World (2012), the 14th Dalai Lama also interestingly calls for a necessary unification of religion and Western science (H.H. Dalai Lama, 2012). He of course does not call for the use of psychedelics as the bridge between the two as Metzner, Leary, and Alpert do, but the similarity in calling to bridge religion and science in Beyond Religion and The Psychedelic Experience demonstrates that perhaps there exists a significant population which craves some intermediary between the two – a craving that has possibly existed for decades and perhaps also played a role in why Buddhism and psychoactive substances have seemingly arisen so concurrently in the U.S.

Metzner, Leary, and Alpert may have been major perpetuators of the American link between Buddhism and psychedelics, but how did the authors become interested in this marriage in the first place? To provide further context for the link between the rise of American Buddhism, it is helpful to understand one of the main inspirations behind The Psychedelic Experience, another book published two years prior in 1962 entitled The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness written by the aforementioned Alan Watts. In its foreword, Leary and Alpert write, “We have had to return again and again to the non-dualistic conceptions of Eastern philosophy, a theory of mind made more explicit and familiar in our Western world by Berson, Alduous Huxley, and Alan Watts” (Leary & Alpert, 1962). Here, Leary and Alpert explicitly acknowledge Watt’s ability to write about Asian religions, giving further evidence to the association between Buddhism and psychoactive substances. In the book, Watts postulates that direct experience is the “purview of religion”, and so he aims to connect science and religion via experiences on psychedelic drugs. Throughout his writing, he appropriates from Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu lines of thought and aligns them with his own substance-induced hypotheses about the true nature of reality, ultimately concluding that psychedelics may be the form of “medicine” needed by humans to rid themselves of their false sense of separateness. He writes:

“Such aids to perception are medicines, not diets, and as the use of a medicine should lead to a more healthful mode of living, so the experiences which I have described suggest measures we might take to maintain a sounder form of sanity. Of these the most important is the practice of what I would like to call meditation – were it not that this word often connotates spiritual or mental gymnastics” (Watts, 1962)

Watts also repeatedly refers to the Buddhist notion of “void” in relation to his words on meditation, ultimately making the association to Buddhism explicit.  In Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America (2016), Osto analyzes that throughout his various works, Watts demonstrates a common narrative found in “psychedelic Buddhist” literature which hails that using psychedelics is not only a way to find spirituality by themselves but can also be supplementary with Buddhist practices (Osto, 2019)

At this point, I hope to have made the connection between psychedelics and Buddhism clear: The popularizers of psychoactive substances were often also the popularizers of Eastern religions, and a shared ideal of achieving some sort of higher consciousness and peace in place of pursuing traditional American expectations allowed for a logical relationship between substance and religion. However, although this overlap was acclaimed by some, it was also heavily criticized and resisted by others. In another Alan Watts publication Psychedelics and Religious Experience (1968),he argues that the notion of “mystical experiences” resulting from drug use is not generally well-accepted by Western societies and blames the culture’s enthrallment with placing value on a person depending on their ability to be a self-determining, responsible, and controlled individual through their own sheer effort and will. Ultimately, he believes that the notion of spiritual or psychological growth through the use of drugs directly contradicts and is even repugnant to the surrounding American cultural tradition. Thus, Watts postulates that resistance to allowing the use of psychoactive substances does not only originate in secular values, but in religious ones as well.

Since the 1960s, the association between Buddhism and psychedelics has remained present. In one 1996 edition of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, a poll from 1,454 readers found:

  • 89% engaged in Buddhist practice
  • 83% stated they had taken psychedelics
  • >40% said their interest in Buddhism was sparked by psychedelics
  • 71% believe that “psychedelics are not a path, but they can provide a glimpse of the reality to which Buddhist practice points”(Tricycle, 1996)

Given that according to government surveys only 8% of the U.S. population have experimented with psychedelic drugs (Osto, 2019), it seems Buddhists are more likely to have had experimented with psychoactive substances than non-Buddhists. However, it is pertinent to point out here that those who partake in “psychedelic Buddhism” are predominantly white, middle- or upper-class, college educated, politically liberal converts to the religion (Osto, 2019). Although Asian American Buddhists seem to be much less interested in using psychedelics, given the scope and topic of this post, I was not able to satisfactorily investigate nor speak to how Asian American Buddhists felt about usages of substances. However, I felt it was important to acknowledge race is a touchy but important subject in discussions surrounding American Buddhism. Here is a link to an article that can speak more in depth on the issue: https://www.lionsroar.com/were-not-who-you-think-we-are/. Putting that aside, Tricycle makes it clearthat the relationship between Buddhism and psychedelics did not die with the counterculture of the 1960s. When asked, “How important was LSD for the importation of Eastern spiritual practices into the U.S. during the sixties?”, one interviewee responded:

“I took LSD and other psychedelics at Dartmouth after I started studying Eastern religions. They came hand in hand, as they did for many people. In fact, the majority of Western Buddhist teachers used psychedelics at the start of their practice. A number still do on occasion”

Some even went so far as to claim:

“‘How can you be a serious Buddhist if you’re not exploring psychedelics?’ Then you’re sort of an arm-chair Buddhist, a Buddhist from theory, a Buddhist from practice, but it is sort of training wheels practice”

A tension currently exists between a more traditional and conservative rejection of psychedelics and a more permissive attitude (Badiner & Gray, 2002). A common narrative trope among boomer-generation American Buddhists found by Davis in Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism on Psychedelics (2002) is that “Yes, that is what we did back in the sixties, but then we got serious about our Buddhist practice and it stopped”. Ultimately, there seems to be a great amount of diversity and at times conflict among American Buddhists on what the role of psychoactive substances can or should play in their religion.

References

Badiner, A. H., & Gray, A. (2002). Zig zag zen: Buddhism on psychedelics. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle.

Buddhism & Psychedelics. (1996). Tricycle: The Buddhist Review6(1). Retrieved from https://tricycle.org/magazine-issue/fall-1996/

Hippies and Buddhists Compared by Scholar: News: The Harvard Crimson. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1967/10/28/hippies-and-buddhists-compared-by-scholar/.

Huxley, A. (1954). The doors of perception. London: Chatto and Windus.

Kidari, M. (2012). The Counterculture of the 1960s in the United States: An “Alternative Consciousness”? . HAL. Retrieved from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a485/18890adef0805e5db3e0ec31396202d649e7.pdf?_ga=2.212101271.2081329948.1575652564-1454238188.1575652564

Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Dass, R. (1969). The psychedelic experience: a manual based on the Tibetan book of the dead. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books.

Osto, D. (2019). Altered states: Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality in America. New York: Columbia University Press.

Queen, C., & Williams, D. R. (2013). American Buddhism Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship. London: Taylor and Francis.

Watts, A., Leary, T. F., & Dass, R. (1962). The joyous cosmology: adventures in the chemistry of consciousmess. New York: Vintage Books.

Watts, A. (1968). Psychedelics and Religious Experience. California Law Review56(1), 74. doi: 10.2307/3479497

1 thought on “Reaching Enlightenment: Psychedelic American Buddhism

  1. What an interesting topic! As someone who has recently read Aldous Huxley’s “Doors of Perception”, which depicts the author’s experience with mescaline, this topic was extremely fascinating. While reading the aforementioned book, I couldn’t help but notice that tripping on psychedelics seemed to have similarities with transcendental experiences which are often associated with mediation and spirituality — and this article perfectly studies the intertwined relationship of psychedelics and religion.
    I love how you first presented the topic in an unbiased manner, only to go into the controversies surrounding psychedelic use in Buddhism. Although the connection between the two is not surprising, I was not at all aware that it may be viewed negatively by traditional Buddhists (which now makes sense, as it can easily be viewed as a type of short cut). The statistics presented were also quite interesting and very relevant to the topic. Along with this, I appreciate how you gave a nice summary of the emergence of Buddhism in America and the leading influencers (especially Allan Watts, as I have recently began reading one of his books).
    Finally, I think the topic of bridging religion (especially Buddhism) and science is extremely relevant when it comes to psychedelics today, since research of the benefits of psilocybin mushrooms has recently begun at institutes such as Johns Hopkins University.

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