Tricycle magazine has a new article up on their website confusingly titled Psychedelics’ Buddhist Revival. That’s the word “Psychedelic” in plural possessive form, then “Buddhist,” then “Revival.” So is it a Buddhist revival possessed by more than one psychedelic? Or one Buddhist possessed by multiple psychedelics who is having a revival? The title appears to have been composed by someone on drugs. Maybe that’s the point? I really don’t know.
Sadly, the article itself is about as confusing as its title.
Whenever I’ve gone off on this topic, I get butthurt responses from people who love their drugs and feel personally insulted. Or I get folks who protest on behalf of “indigenous peoples” (indigenous to where, they never say) whose religions I have apparently demeaned by pointing out that paying $300 for an ayahuasca journey in Oakland hardly counts as an example of “indigenous religion.”
But maybe it’s my fault I get this sort of response because I focus too much on the drugs themselves and not the more fundamental issue.
The article focuses mainly on the work of someone named Spring Washam, who is a teacher at Spirit Rock, a fancy schmancy meditation center on Northern California. She says that ayahuasca enhanced meditation retreats she’s promoting through her company Lotus Vines Journeys are a kind of “ultimate meditation.” “Through the lens of the dharma,” she says, ayahuasca can “accelerate a type of spiritual growth that we need on the planet right now.”
So Tricycle is apparently giving out free advertising for mind altering drugs these days. Interesting.
Be that as it may, the following paragraph is, to me, key to why the article is so very, very wrong. Here it is in full:
Washam reported a recurring pattern at American dharma centers of students expressing dissatisfaction with their practice. “Many people complain that they’ve plateaued,” Washam said. “They go to retreat after retreat after retreat, get more blessings by more rinpoches, and they’re like, ‘I’m not fundamentally feeling like I’m changing anymore.’” This mindset is part of what Washam attributes to more Buddhists being willing to explore entheogens.
This paragraph says exactly why psychedelic drugs are not now, nor can they ever be, a part of Buddhist practice.
To be fair, the article also contains a quote that refutes Washam’s position entirely. Jesee Vega Frey, a teacher at Vipassana Hawaii says, “It is the wanting of things to be other than they are that is the heart of our imprisonment. Changing the colors, textures, and flavors of the prison doesn’t lead to freedom.” Unfortunately, this quote is buried in an article filled with rah-rah hype for the use of drugs.
Folks today just now getting the idea of using chemicals to enhance spirituality seem to favor two mutually opposing notions. One is that psychedelics are a brand new thing and we ought to help Buddhism progress by introducing them into the practice. The other is that these kinds of substances have been known and used by people around the world — including India — for thousands of years.
The fact is that the Buddha was well aware of the idea of chemical enhanced spirituality and rejected it 2500 years ago. The rejection of the path of using plant-based or man-made chemicals is as old as Buddhism itself. It is enshrined in the Fifth Buddhist precept.
Buddha attained his enlightenment without any chemical assistance and taught others how to do the same. If you call the use of medicines to obtain spiritual insights “Buddhism” you are wrong.
The mindset that Washam says leads Buddhists to explore drugs is precisely the mindset that Buddhism seeks to dive deeply into rather than trying to alleviate it with pretty colors and exciting experiences.
Why do we want things to be other than they are? Why do we feel we have plateaued? We long for fundamental change, but what is it we most need to fundamentally change? Could it be that our desire for something else is the root of our problem? Could it be that satisfying that desire with something that looks like spiritual progress is the very worst thing we could possibly do — not just to ourselves but to everyone around us?
Rather than running off to find new experiences to relieve the boredom of meditation, maybe it would be better to dive deeply into that boredom and find out where it comes from and whether it really needs relieving.
It makes me sad to see Tricycle magazine giving space to an idea that runs so counter to the deepest ideas of Buddhism.
• Here is an hour long talk on the Tricycle article •
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