Psychedelics Aren’t Zen — But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Bad

Psychedelics Aren’t Zen — But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Bad July 31, 2015

For today’s sermon I’m going to once again riff off a post by Brad Warner.[Warner, “Why”] He recently participated in a webinar about Buddhism and psychedelics organized by Allan Badiner, author of the book Zig Zag Zen, and he posted a reflection on why he doesn’t use them.

I share some of Brad’s frustration with people who claim that psychedelics are some sort of instant enlightenment. (I’m going to be informal here and speak of Brad by his first name, since we met at Starwood a few years ago and occasionally nod at each other on Facebook.) And credit where it’s due, he’s mostly making explicit “‘I’ statements” here: he says that this is “[n]ot why you shouldn’t [use them]. Why I don’t.” Also by participating in Badiner’s webinar he’s being quite a bit more diplomatic about the topic here than he was in his 2003 book Hardcore Zen, where he refers to Badiner’s book as “putrid” and a “lump of turd”.[Warner, “Hardcore”, 163] (It may or may not be putrid, I haven’t read it. But credit also to Badiner for inviting Brad after that comment.)

My goal here is not to say “No, Brad, you really should! You’re missing out!” But I think he makes some claims about psychedelic use that are not quite accurate and need to be addressed, and I’d like to consider the relationship of such use with Buddhism a little more deeply. I don’t think it is a path to instant enlightenment, but I do think that with proper preparation the use of psychedelics can be a powerful and useful spiritual experience.

(We even have some research being done right here in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins that backs that up.[Griffiths] And yes, I’ve volunteered to participate in that research but they haven’t called me.)

(Yeah, not really, But this was fun to make.)
Like, cosmic, man. (Yeah, not really, But this was fun to make.)

I am going out on a limb here, as Brad is a Genuine and Authorized Zen Buddhist teacher while the closest thing I have to a credential in Zen is ranking in a karate style that includes a little meditation. (For the record, psychedelic use is not endorsed by my karate school.) But I like to think my cheekiness on these topics is part of my charm…right, dear reader?

Before we get into the Buddhism part I’d like to directly address three things Brad says:


If you’re making MDMA — or LSD, or growing ‘shrooms, etc. — your target market isn’t a handful of people using that suff as a sacrament for religious purposes. Your target market is kids who wanna party. I don’t want to support the people who supply that market or put anything they make into my body.

It is true that due to prohibition you can’t check your copy of Shopping for a Better World when you go out to buy drugs to try to be an ethical consumer. But there are people who grow psilocybin mushrooms only for their own use and the use of friends. There are pharmacological suppliers of LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA for research and therapy, though those supply channels aren’t open to those of us without special connections. There are legitimate religious organizations using ayahuasca and peyote.


I also don’t want to incapacitate myself for an indeterminate length of time and require someone to babysit me. Because that’s what all the “set and setting” crap that people who are into drug-based consciousness exploration talk about really means. It means someone sober has got to be around to make sure I don’t hurt myself. Who am I to demand someone look after me like I’m a child?

First, if you have an idea what you’re taking and how much the time involved isn’t really indeterminate.

Second, I’m afraid Brad has misidentified set and setting here. They refer to one’s mindset and environment when embarking on a psychedelic experience, not to having a “babysitter.”

Indeed when I look at Brad’s report of his experiments with psychedelics and compare them with my own early experiences, the contrast in set and setting is striking. He was sharing a “horrible old house” with a bunch of punk rockers, including one who was the sort of guy who thought that two hits of acid plus a quart of whiskey was a good idea, and started ripping apart the kitchen. And he did not yet have any experience with mediation.[Warner, “Hardcore”, 168-170]

On the other hand I was living in a decent apartment in the D.C. suburbs with mellow people — heck, my first LSD experience was at a Grateful Dead show, with one my best friends, still one of the best and most peaceful men I’ve ever known. And I had some tiny experience with zazen at the time, as well as starting to poke my nose into Paganism. I had also read a fair amount about psychedelics before I started my experiments.

We had very different mindsets and environments, and so had very different outcomes.

It is true that it’s not a good idea to go on a psychedelic experience alone, because it can be incapacitating. (One of my own most intense experiences revolved around that point —  a tale for another time.) But there are a number of worthwhile things that humans do that shouldn’t be done alone. We tell people to use the buddy system when swimming. You shouldn’t go rock climbing alone. When I spin fire poi I’m supposed to have a safety standing by to put me out if I catch on fire.

Caretaking is a worthwhile human activity, and being the guardian or guide for someone on a “trip” can be a powerful experience in itself. Of course if one is always the caretaker or always demanding that someone else take care of you, that’s unhealthy. But all in all it’s not that different than being the designated driver, it’s something people can do for each other on a rotating basis and not really a big deal.


And what about all this stuff where people say MDMA or other such substances made them more compassionate? …Real compassion is a skill. It’s not just a big warm fuzzy feeling in your “heart space.” It’s knowing what to do with that feeling.

I’m not big on MDMA, and I agree here about warm fuzzy feelings of compassion not being enough. A pill certainly won’t make you into a bodhisattva. But it might (just might) introduce you to a feeling in your body that you’ve never experienced before or have forgotten, and that might (just might) put you on the road.

I’m reminded of someone I met at Playa Del Fuego, the East Coast regional Burn (Burning Man style event), last fall. The weather was lousy, lots of rain and mud, and at the end of the festival a lot of cars were getting stuck in the mud. I tried to help one guy out but he was halfway up his wheels in a mud pit, there was no way we could push him out. Then one of the vets arrived with a tractor. (The event is held at the Vietnam Veteran’s Motorcycle Club.) After he pulled the stuck guy out, the veteran and I started talking. Turned out he’d been up all night partying because he’d taken some MDMA-like amphetamine derivative someone had given him. Personally that’s on the list of stuff I will not mess with, but thanks to the energy and the warm fuzzy feeling this pill had given him this man was running around in the rain and mud rescuing people. A pretty decent impression of some bodhisattva action, it seems to me.

I sometimes wonder what he took home from that. Maybe nothing, but maybe the experience helped him along the path.

Okay. On to the Zen part.

Zen is always telling us that the Buddha nature, enlightenment, the divine, nirvana, all those words we use to try to bracket that Tao that cannot be named, is our ordinary mind. It is the tree in the courtyard, it is washing your bowl after you eat, it is the cry of a crow.

(As I usually do, I am using “Zen” as a general term to refer to the lineage that includes the Chinese Ch’an school of Buddhism and its descendents: Japanese Zen, Korean Seon, and Vietnamese Thiền.)

According to the mythical history, at the beginning of his quest the Buddha mastered several different styles of mediation that focused on achieving special ecstatic states of consciousness but eventually decided that these were beside the point. It seems to me that Zen style mediation might be described as learning to bear witness to the mind rather than learning to enter ecstatic states of consciousness.

From that it seems that the psychedelic experience is not very Zen.

But on the other hand, we read about how the Buddha met with demons and gods and had Big Cosmic Visions during his enlightenment. And when we read the literature of Zen, we are struck by descriptions of intense trans-personal mystical experiences, called satori or kensho and the like.

(Zen has a hierarchy of such experiences, which strikes me as a shining example of “Square Zen”, to steal Alan Watts’s phrase. My favorite story along those lines is about the iconclastic Zen master Ikkyū, who told his teacher Kasō about his enlightenment experience only to have Kasō dismiss it as a low-level sort of thing and say that it wasn’t the enlightenment of a master. “Fine,” said Ikkyū, “I hate masters.” Kasō laughed, “Now, that’s the enlightenment of a master!”)

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