Psychedelic Zen?

blacklight shroomThe fifth Buddhist Precept is usually translated as “Don’t live by selling liquor.” The word “intoxicants” is often substituted for “liquor.” The general understanding is that it was never intended to be restricted to alcohol alone. Bodhidharma’s version goes, “Self-nature is mysterious and profound. In the midst of immaculate dharma, not giving birth to ignorance is called the Precept of Not Giving or Using Intoxicants.”

One of the things that never fails to get me riled up is when I see some guy in a set of Buddhist robes advocating the use of psychedelic drugs as a way to study the dharma. Recently I saw a well-known dharma teacher start posting stuff like, “I have known many, many people, and continue to meet more of them, who use (psychedelics) occasionally in a spiritual or ceremonial context with appropriate intention and setting, along with other daily meditation or other spiritual practice, with lasting benefit to their lives.” This appeared under a video he posted of some TED talk in which a guy advocates for psychedelic spirituality. It got me riled up.

Please bear in mind that I am a person who put out records with songs on them titled “Psilocybin Spot,” “Lysergic Mental Vibrations,” and “Psychedelic Mushroom Cloud Explosion.” And I did it long time before you were even a right swipe on your dad’s Tinder account, whipper-snappers! I am not a stranger to these substances.

Maybe a good way to explain why I feel so strongly is to talk about what happens in my very own brain when I see stuff like this.

I got into psychedelics after reading Ram Dass’s book Be Here Now and John Lilly’s Center of the Cyclone, as well as a number of other writings by and about John Lilly. Lilly was a psychedelic explorer of some renown in them bygone days, though he’s faded away lately. This is because, like pretty much every psychedelic explorer of consciousness, he started off with some cool ideas and then drifted away into madness. At one point he claimed alien robots stole his penis.

In short, I was influenced by people I regarded as being wise, whose use of drugs encouraged me to follow.

But, see, my 19-year old idea of “spiritual or ceremonial context with appropriate intention and setting, along with other daily meditation or other spiritual practice” amounted to something like this; taking LSD I bought from a weird hippie dude I’d never met before, in a decrepit punk rock house with my girlfriend (ceremonial context, you see?) after trying out a couple zazen sessions (my spiritual practice, obviously) with the intention of getting really, like, far out, y’know, the way Ram Dass and John Lilly did (appropriate intention, right?).

I learned the hard way that psychedelics won’t give you anything even remotely like a genuine spiritual experience and, thankfully, I was at least smart enough to stop after a few trips. The final one was an epic eternal nightmare I don’t think I have yet fully recovered from.

So when I see this guy posting his stuff on Facebook, what goes on in the dark nether regions of my mind?

Reading this post and a few others like it, I found myself starting to entertain, once again, the idea that maybe I ought to try out some ‘shrooms or MDMA or whatever. I’m pretty sure the Sherman Oaks Galleria has a Spencer Gifts store where I can get some blacklight posters for the “appropriate setting.” Plus I have a killer psychedelic playlist on my iPod. My “spiritual intention” and practice would surely be beyond question. I could probably enlist some unlucky person to babysit me for the night so I don’t jump off the roof or something…

And this is all going on inside the head of a person who definitely knows way better than that. One of the greatest things zazen has given me is the ability to see thoughts like this and have no real urge to actually follow them. It took decades of hard practice before I started to see that my own ideas were really no better for me than, say, some notion you’d get from a breakfast cereal commercial. Hell, half of “my” ideas were probably formed inside some coked-up advertiser’s head and then planted in me by the media anyway.

Not everybody can manage this trick. In fact, almost nobody can. It takes loads of work to get there.

This is why it’s extra super important when you put on the robes of a Buddhist Master to be really careful what you advocate. I have deep regrets about some of the stuff I’ve said myself in the context of being a Buddhist teacher. People listen to that shit! It’s scary!

But at least I usually avoid saying such stuff while wearing a set of formal robes. Those robes take every damned thing you say and turbo-charge it. This is why lots of people who wear the robes stick very closely to tried and true formulaic stuff. In fact, my personal policy with the robes is to wear them only when performing rituals. I feel like they’re kind of dangerous things.

Look. I’m not a fan of the whole War On Drugs, “Just Say No” garbage. I’m not even a big Straight Edge guy. Never was. I think legal recreational marijuana is a good idea. I’m not against the medical research that’s now being done on psychedelics — at least not any more than other potentially dubious kinds of medical research. I’ve heard LSD has been used to alleviate cluster headaches and migraines. As someone who has suffered from both, I’m glad for anything that might help.

It’s just that I feel like, if you start using your capacity as a Buddhist Master to spread ideas about how certain dangerous chemical poisons can be used to further spiritual practice (as long as you take them the right way, blah-blah-blah…), you are on some very shaky ground. That’s why the Fifth Precept is there. We should take it quite literally.

I am absolutely not trying to claim some higher moral ground here. I’m a sinner who should definitely not cast stones at anyone.

But when it comes to Buddhists, particularly in the tradition I’m part of, advocating psychedelic spirituality in their capacity as teachers, it will always be a sore point with me.

That’s pretty much all I want to get across for now.


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July 1, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex at Now That’s Class!

July 4, 2016 Cleveland, Ohio Zero Defex TBA

July 8, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 7:30pm Talk & Book Signing

July 9, 2016 Seattle, Washington EastWest Bookshop 10am-3pm Workshop

September 10-11, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland 2-Day Retreat

September 14, 2016 Belfast, Northern Ireland Zazen and Discussion

September 16-17, 2016 Dublin, Ireland 3-Day Retreat

September 22-25, 2016 Hebden Bridge, England, 4-Day Retreat

September 27, 2016 – Wimbledon, London, England – Talk and Q&A

September 29-October 2, 2016 Helsinki, Finland, 4-Day Retreat

October 3, 2016 Turku, Finland, Talk at the University

October 4-5, Stockholm, Sweden, Talk and 1-Day-Retreat

October 7, 2016 Berlin, Germany Zenlab

October 14, 2016 Munich, Germany, Lecture

October 15-16, 2016 Munich, Germany, 2-Day Retreat

October 23-28, 2016 Benediktushof Meditation Centrum (near Würzburg, Germany) 5-Day Retreat



Every Monday at 8pm there’s zazen at Silverlake Yoga Studio 2 located at 2810 Glendale Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Beginners only!

Every Saturday at 10:00 am (NEW TIME!) there’s zazen at the Veteran’s Memorial Complex located at 4117 Overland Blvd., Culver City, CA 90230. Beginners only!

These on-going events happen every week even if I am away from Los Angeles. Plenty more info is available on the Dogen Sangha Los Angeles website,

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