"Zig Zag Zen"
-- Reviewed by Geoffrey Redmond, MD --
Zag Zen -- by Allan Hunt Badiner and Alex Grey
use of psychedelic drugs is that dark little secret behind the
popular origins of Eastern spirituality in America, but if they
really open the mind in the same ways meditative experiences
do, why shouldn't they be legitimated and brought out into the
open? In Allan Hunt Badiner and Alex Grey's Zig Zag Zen authors,
artists, priests, and scientists are brought together to discuss
this question. Opinions fall on all sides. Ram Dass, for instance,
discusses the benefits as well as the limitations. Rick Fields
sets the historical scene. China Galland offers a wrenching
personal experience. Lama Surya Das tells of his early drug
years. And a roundtable discussion with Ram Dass, Robert Aitken,
Richard Baker, and Joan Halifax caps it all.
of Buddhist Ethics - Volume 11 - 2004 -- Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism
and Psychedelics -- Reviewed by Geoffrey Redmond, MD - Center
for Health Research, Inc. 303 East 83rd St # 25C, New York,
NY 10028. - GPRedmondaol.com
Buddhism and Psychedelics: "Zig Zag Zen" - A review
by Geoffrey Redmond, MD - (hereafter abbreviated
as ZZZ ) is an attractive book, coffee table in design though
not in size. The cover shows what at first appears to be a seated
Buddha but is actually Padmasambhava from a 1992 painting by
Gana Lama (73). Swirling colors radiate from the nose and the
solar plexus, giving a psychedelic effect. Within are reproductions
of attractive works by established modernists such as Odilon
Redon and Mark Rothko, as well as recent ones by an emerging
Buddhist avant garde represented by Mariko Mori, Alex Grey (who
is co-editor) and the virtuoso Robert Beer. Lest we still fail
to appreciate that this is a work of advanced consciousness,
the typography indulges in such computer age quirks as upside-down
headings. ZZZ 's publisher, Chronicle Books, specializes in
lavish illustrated volumes, often on Asian subjects. Lest anyone
be offended by the conspicuous consumption implied by the books
lavish production, its editor, Allan Hunt Badiner, begins by
assuring the trees used to produce the book that they are wholeheartedly
thanked, honored, and appreciated.
The text of ZZZ is a collection of essays and interviews concerning
the relation of psychedelic drug use to Buddhist practice. Many
of the articles first appeared in the Fall, 1996 issue of Tricycle:
The Buddhist Review. Most selections are by Buddhist spiritual
quasi-celebrities whom we regularly see on the covers of Tricycle
and other mass market Buddhist periodicals. Contributors include
Richard Baker Roshi, Lama Surya Das, Stephen Batchelor, Rick
Fields, Peter Matthiessen, Huston Smith, and Michael Murphy
of Esalen fame. A few sections offer the reflections of ordinary
practitioners on their experiences. Given this cast of characters,
one might expect ZZZ to be an initial step toward a documentary
history of the role of psychedelics in Western Buddhism. If
so, the actual reading will disappoint. Fresh insights are few;
the views expressed are generally familiar from many other sources.
Regrettably, dates of writing of the various chapters are not
given. Since attitudes toward both drugs and Buddhism have changed
considerably in the past five decades, this omission limits
the value of ZZZ as cultural history.
The opinions expressed fall easily into a few categories. Though
a few reflect on unfavorable outcomes of drug use, most are
economiums. Some simply recall nostalgically their early adventures
during the heyday of psychedelic tripping. Other make grander
claims that drug experiences awakened them to the spiritual
dimension of life. A few are pure hype, making use of the breathless
psycho-Blarney brought to perfection by the late Dr. Timothy
Leary and Terence McKenna.1 The glorification of drugs in ZZZ
is pervasive, though sometimes qualified. Here is an example,
from the contribution by Myron Stolaroff:
Psychedelic agents, when properly understood, are probably one
of the most valuable, useful and powerful tools available to
Brigid Meier manages to tie the plant origin of many psychedelics
I apprenticed to the realm of plant medicines to seek teachings
from a stratum of nonhuman consciousness in order to open to
the direct felt experience of Gaia, to the interdependence of
It remains my belief that sacred plants, as a frequency of planetary
intelligence, have offered themselves as emissaries from the
increasingly ravaged natural world. [They] do their subversive
work of dismantling the cancerous human ego that is destroying
the planet (129)
The notion of a cancerous human ego includes too
many assumptions regarding the nature of humans and society
for me to attempt to fully unpack it here. Pop psychology frequently
attributes human problems to the ego without any
clear conception of what that might be. This popular use is
quite different from that of Freud, for whom the ego regulated
and controlled the libido. Blaming ego, as in the above quotation
is really moral ranting, more akin to preaching than social
analysis. Meiers environmental concerns are no doubt shared
by many psychotropic users -- and non-users. Yet it is hard
to see how the availability of sacred plants for
human ingestion would further the cause of environmental protection.
To actually do something about the environment requires mental
At the same time they extol drugs, most ZZZ contributors stop
short of explicitly advocating their use, whether because they
are wary of attracting the unwelcome attention of the drug enforcement
authorities, or because they have come to see unqualified advocacy
of psychedelics as unskillful.
One barrier to serious consideration of the effects of mind-altering
drugs is the terminology perpetuated by their advocates. The
ubiquitous term psychedelic, supposedly coined by
Humphry Osmond, means opening the psyche (79). Throughout
ZZZ we encounter the newer term entheogen meaning
god generated within (47). Terms like psychedelic
and entheogen are more akin to marketing than to
objective description. Do psychedelics really expand awareness?
Do entheogens really generate an experience of God? These are
critical questions, especially since it is difficult to conceive
how such effects might be verified. This does not mean they
could not be real, but it does mean that we are entitled to
some degree of skepticism about the alleged benefits. Certainly,
if we judge by the external behavior of frequent psychedelic
or entheogen users, most do not seem to have expanded awareness,
nor to be in contact with God.
In contrast, scientific pharmacology classifies neuroactive
drugs by the sort of effect they have: stimulant, sedative,
antidepressant, anxiolytic, and so on. When knowledge permits,
they are classified based on the chemical changes they engender
in the brain, for example selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors
(SSRI), a class that includes the familiar Prozac (fluoxitine).
These terms function to describe the effects of the drugs, not
to entice us to use them. (They are often, of course, marketed
aggressively by other means.)
Drugs and the Inconvenient Fifth Precept
In many places ZZZ does express a less ebullient morning-after
mood. Thus Rick Fields summarizes the initial uncritical
enthusiasm for psychedelics in this way:
were those who claimed that psychedelics had changed the rules
of the game, and that the mystic visions once enjoyed only by
saints could now be had by anyone (38).
goes on to note that as Westerners learned more about actual
Buddhist practice, drugs no longer seemed to be the easy way
to enlightenment: it turned out that practice was not
really about getting high at all Some teachers slotted
drugs into the mind-intoxicant category of the precepts
The Pali version of the fifth precept for lay Buddhists, as
translated by Peter Harvey is as follows:
undertake the training-precept to abstain from alcoholic drink
or drugs that are an opportunity for heedlessness. 2
This precept was not mentioned much, if at all, by early counterculture
Buddhists like Alan Watts and Jack Kerouac, both of whom were
alcoholics.3 Now that the ethical aspects of Buddhism, including
the five lay precepts have become familiar to Western Buddhists,
some popular teachers rationalize use of psychedelics by declaring
that they are not intoxicants and hence not contrary to the
precepts. Thus Jack Kornfeld, in what is a generally balanced
series of comments, notes that there is little mention of psychedelics
in Buddhist tradition and, while conceding that they would be
included in the category of intoxicants, goes on to say, there
is no traditional point of view about their use (51).
This seems evasive to me. Psychedelics impair awareness, as
do most other mind-altering substances, and would seem to be
exactly the sort of substances specified by the term intoxicant.
Like religious rules generally, this precept is as often ignored
as followed. Nor is this the only precept which modern Buddhists
tend to set aside. Few take seriously the many admonitions in
both sutra and sastra against sexual activity.
The Crisis of Faith
There is no doubt that enthusiasm for psychedelics has waned.
This raises the question of why, if they are such valuable spiritual
tools, only few continue to praise them without reservation.
Rick Fields, the historian of American Buddhism, blames this
on the decline of American culture: The young turn on
now in a world in which the sacred has been trivialized into
the recreational (33). He does not mention that many of
the contributors to ZZZ were themselves major influences in
the commoditization of spiritual experience. If psychedelics
were truly beneficial forty years ago, they should be now. To
explain why they seem not to be, the blame is placed on changes
in set and setting. This phrase refers to the theory
that the effect of mind altering drugs is determined in great
part by the mental set of the user and his or her physical and
social milieu. Those advancing this argument do not recognize
that it weakens the case for psychedelics by acknowledging that
the critical factors that facilitate religious experience may
not be the actions of the drugs themselves. Perhaps, with the
proper set and setting, the drugs are not necessary at all.
The PR-savvy early Buddhist exponents of psychedelics could
freely claim similarities between drug and meditative states
because many had little experience of the latter. Thus Alan
Watts as described by Michael Murphy: here we have
Alan writing a book about mysticism and sex and saying drugs
are another way in. He was not a celebrant of long-term
contemplative practice, but he was a glorious human being
Since it was the writings of Watts (without concomitant drugs)
which first turned me on to Buddhism, I agree that
he had his glorious side. Yet Watts privately derided what he
taught in his books and lectures, dismissed meditation as sitting
on your ass, and died of alcoholism. Whatever his glories,
he was certainly not a reliable guide to Buddhist practice.
The same can be said -- at the risk of offending some of his
many admirers -- of the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa
was immensely popular but was openly alcoholic -- he drank conspicuously
and copiously during his late night harangues to his followers.
Fields notes with approval that Trungpa was one of the few teachers
with whom he could discuss drugs (44f). Thus Trungpa rationalized
LSD as samsara but a super-samsara which could be
useful. Trungpa disapproved of marijuana use, however, which
he considered self-deception (45). This ignores
the self-deception on Trungpas part in refusing to confront
his own alcoholism, and that of his followers in refusing to
admit it. Trungpas criticism of use of drugs other than
alcohol is ironic but not surprising. Many who are addicted
to one sort of drug criticize those who use others. I recall
a former patient who was addicted to barbiturates but criticized
her boyfriends addiction to speed. Her reasoning was that
he eventually needed to take sedatives to come down anyway so
why not just use downers. We tend to be more tolerant of vices
we share than those we do not.
Fields omits mention of Wattss or Trungpas alcoholism,
which he certainly knew about. We may charitably attribute this
reticence to a sense of decorum in writing about men he admired,
a degree of taste rare in our era of exposés. For this
he may be respected. Yet in speaking to several of Trungpas
former followers I have often noted what the jargon of alcoholism
treatment programs terms co-dependence-behavior
that enables the alcoholic to continue his or her addiction.
Trungpas open drinking while lecturing was rationalized
as a profound teaching method.4 One follower explained to me
in all seriousness that Trungpa was not an alcoholic -- because
he was enlightened, his body handled alcohol differently than
A similar belle indifferance regarding addiction issues is apparent
in many contributions to ZZZ. Thus Dokusho Villalba Sensei
Many native Americans have been able to overcome addiction
to alcohol and its underlying causes through use of peyote within
a ritual and traditional spiritual context (62).
No evidence is given for this claim. Whenever one sort of drug
is claimed to cure addiction to another, we should remember
that heroin was originally thought to be an effective treatment
for morphine addiction. (Morphine in turn was tried as a cure
for cocaine addiction.) The distorted thinking associated with
addiction affects even those who are not themselves addicted.
This should warn us to be skeptical of the claims of the spiritual
benefit and safety of psychedelics.
To balance the preponderant drug apologetics, anyone who takes
up ZZZ should be careful not to overlook the chapter by Trudy
Walter entitled Leaning Into Rawness. Walter poignantly
and honestly describes her years of daily marijuana use, clearly
an addiction, and her rationalization of it with Buddhist concepts.
She acknowledges an underlying desire to feel only the
good stuff and wanting out of the violence of my
anger, confusion, helplessness, hunger, and fear. With just
a puff or two, anger simply got fuzzy and rounded off
(126). She realized The hypocrisy of living half of my
life trying to wake up by meditating and the other half trying
to anesthetize myself. Yet, Without fail, I would
rise every morning with the fervent vow that this would be the
day I would quit She found her feelings of anger, which
Buddhism considers a mental poison, particularly distressing.
Finally, she recognizes that she needs help in overcoming her
addiction. There is also rather ambivalent discussion of her
teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in which she seems to want
to find a way to rationalize his alcoholism as somehow different
from her own marijuana addiction.
Walters article contains useful lesions. First, it reminds
us that addiction can be rationalized within any system of belief,
including Buddhism, despite the primary goal of Buddhism being
the abolition of tanha, craving. Second, practice by itself
does not invariably solve the problems of dukkha, the distressing
contents of the mind. Preaching against anger and other mental
defilements may even make matters worse by engendering a sense
of unworthiness. Many left Christianity to escape feelings of
sinfulness, only to find them in another form. Like Christian
preachers and gurus of all persuasions, Buddhist teachers can
use peoples negative feelings to manipulate and harm them.
Telling people that they are somehow defective and can only
improve through the teachings of the master can be extremely
effective in retaining disciples.
Many contributors to ZZZ, while not completely abandoning their
belief that psychedelics can be spiritually beneficial, have
come to see their value as limited at best.
Dass, who hints that he still uses them (215), offers this assessment:
I dont see psychedelics as an enlightening vehicle, but
I do see it (sic) as an awakening vehicle. I see them beginning
a process that awakens you to the possibility (215).
Joan Halifax, on the other hand, seems to feel that they are
not beneficial: I
didnt find that it really worked, for the kind of mind that
I found emerging in meditation free of psychedelics, to do both.
I dont know many people who have managed to actually keep
a psychedelic practice and a mature Buddhist practice -- except
maybe Ram Dass (215).
Michael Murphy notes: Nondrug programs at Esalen have survived
because they are the fittest. What I think will happen over
time is that these drugs will have their place as initiatory
David Chadwick: In the Buddhist circles Im familiar with,
psychedelics are mainly seen as something to forget about and
move on from (120).
Robert Aitken, notable among Western Zen teachers for his emphasis
on the ethical aspects of Buddhist practice, sees little place
for drugs: I dont think drugs have particularly helped anybody
arrive where they are. Its just that by the cultural circumstances
of the time, in the sixties and early seventies, it so happened
that people came to Zen through their experience with drugs
Many Westerners were first drawn to Zen, and Buddhism generally,
through a misconception: that meditation would induce a state
similar to a drug high. There seems to be a near-consensus now
that this is not the case. However, we should not imagine that
this was the first time Buddhism helped established itself in
a new culture based on false premises -- though I am not suggesting
that these distortions were a deliberate subterfuge. Among the
Chinese, who made profound contributions to Buddhist art and
philosophy, much of the interest of the general populace and
even emperors was the expectation of magical powers conferred
by meditation. Even with Huayen, which some modern scholars
have considered the most profoundly philosophical school, the
reputation of many of its masters rested upon their supposed
magical attainments. Perhaps drugs are the successor to magic
in promoting the Dharma. Both involve temporary release from
ordinary reality. For better or worse, such are part of Buddhist
history. To put the best light on them, they can be likened
to the carts that are used by the enlightened father in the
Lotus Sutra to entice his children from the burning house.
Along with abandoning of the misconception that Buddhist practice
as akin to psychedelic drug experience, we seem to be leaving
behind the anti-intellectualism of sixties Zen and returning
to Buddhisms textual roots. Aitkin tells us:
All you have to do is pick up a good Buddhist text, and
thats reality. You dont have to take drugs to wake
up to it. Most people that come to me now are awakened by reading
we take enlightenment by reading as a modern equivalent of enlightenment
by hearing, Western Buddhism seems to be recovering the methods
that have been central to the tradition since its beginnings.
One senses that the time when psychedelics might be justified
as a useful first step in spiritual development is past. Not
to be overlooked as a reason for this change is the very realistic
fear of legal consequences, which is a separate issue from the
possible spiritual benefits and biological hazards of psychotropic
use. But this is surely not the only reason. Buddhism is now
practically mainstream in the West and the possibility of spiritual
experience, even enlightenment is widely assumed. The patronizing
view of Sigmund Freud and others who dismissed religion as illusion,
to be left behind as humanity matures, is no longer dominant.
If psychedelics were needed in the sixties to demonstrate that
spiritual states of mind actually exist, this is no longer the
Can There Be a Buddhist View of the Drug Issue?
If we grant that psychedelics were an episode in recent Buddhist
history but less pertinent today, the question still remains
as to what is a reasonable attitude toward their use. Some of
the claims of spiritual benefit might be true, at least for
some users, and they might even be justified as a form of recreation,
a break from ones ordinary routine not unlike visiting
an art museum or seeing a film. There are however, serious arguments
against such relaxed views that I shall advance shortly. Unfortunately,
dispassionate public debate on these issues has become all but
All cultures seem to be afflicted with certain issues so divisive
they cannot be resolved by any process of negotiation. Often
the resulting conflicts cause damage that later seems far out
of proportion to any direct harm. An example is the suppression
of heresy by the Christian Church. Hundreds of thousands were
killed for their views on doctrinal matters, yet now it is difficult
even for scholars to understand what the differences were, let
along why they seemed so important. While executions in the
West for ideological differences have mostly ceased, espousing
unpopular views can still be hazardous. Fraught issues for our
society include abortion, gay marriage, school prayer and, of
course, non-medical drug use. As the phrase zero tolerance
indicates, non-extreme views on drugs are unacceptable to the
majority and politicians generally will not risk losing votes
by taking moderate positions on drugs. In jurisdictions where
judges are elected rather than appointed, a record of harsh
sentencing of drug offenders is a political asset. Nothing in
our political system encourages a temperate approach to the
drug problem. The level of sophistication of the general population
is apparent in the popularity of the recent anti-drug slogan,
Just say no, which entirely ignores the problem
of why so many say yes.
The mainstream regards drugs as a major cause of social evil
and tends to prefer punishment to a medical approach. The medical
establishment offers a therapeutic approach. When discovered,
whether drug users end up in prison or in rehabilitation is
to a large degree random. Close to one half percent of the American
population is in prison for drug-related offenses, a high proportion
of them non-violent. It is said that the money spent on the
war on drugs is twice the entire biomedical research budget.
Yet despite the anathematization of drugs and the severe penalties,
tens of millions of Americans indulge at least occasionally.
Many escape both medical and legal consequences, reducing the
effects of the dire warnings of the anti-drug advertising campaigns.
It is convenient for both politicians and law enforcement agencies
to blame drugs for most violent crime. Doing so deflects blame
from social conditions and also supports the need for higher
enforcement budgets. The drug treatment establishment also encourages
public paranoia about drugs from similar economic interest.
I am not here equating therapeutic and punitive methods; compassion
and the principle of ahimsa, non-harming, clearly are most consistent
with a therapeutic approach. My point here is that drug treatment
is a lucrative industry and so its commitment to finding a solution
may be incomplete. At present, the public and institutions are
too attached to drugs as a scapegoat for the unsatisfactoriness
of American life for a middle way to be found between the extremes
of unrestricted use and severe penalties.
Even a drug skeptic like myself has to admit that many influential
figures in the recent history of Western Buddhism used them.
There is an obvious paradox here in that what most regard as
a social disaster may also have facilitated the establishment
of Buddhism, by any assessment a peaceful religion, on Western
shores. Blanket condemnation of drugs, then, oversimplifies.
It would be hard to maintain that society would be better off
if those contributors to ZZZ who acknowledge prior drug use
-- Ram Das, Jack Levine, Joan Halifax, Stephen Batchelor, to
give but a few examples--had been incarcerated instead of spending
their time writing and teaching. Whether because of -- or despite
-- their drug use, they have clearly enriched our culture.
The logic of imprisoning people for non-violent drug use seems
to be as follows: Drugs can ruin peoples lives and so
everything must be done to prevent people from using them. Therefore,
to frighten people away from using drugs, we will make sure
their lives are ruined if they are caught. Thus if the drugs
themselves do not injure the user, the legal system will. Though
this ethical reasoning lacks cogency, it is rarely questioned.
That the war on drugs is misconceived does not however mean
that drug use is desirable.5 There are of course valid arguments
for stringent prevention of drug use by those who might endanger
others if impaired: doctors, pilots, truck drivers, child-care
workers and many others. However, protection of the public does
not usually require that non-violent drug users be imprisoned,
simply that they be kept from activities in which they might
I am sure it is clear by now that I regard the choice to use
mind-altering drugs as an unskillful one. To the extent we can
invoke the historical Buddha, he seems to have held a similar
view in that the precepts for both lay and religious counsel
avoidance of intoxicants. I use the Buddhist ethical term unskillful
in preference to the more Judeo-Christian bad or
evil because I regard the issue not so much as a
moral one as a matter of self-care. The legal system does not
regard the matter in this way however. It is muddled as to whether
anti-drug laws are to protect people from themselves or to prevent
them from harming others. This sort of confusion is prevalent
in social policy generally. We forbid riding without seat belts
but allow the sale of tobacco products. Any law for protecting
people from themselves is based on utilitarianism and so must
on the balance cause more benefit than harm. Imprisoning people
for simple drug use clearly fails to meet this test. Forbidding
the sale is another matter. The problem here is that while such
interdiction would be desirable in the view of many, myself
included, it has never succeeded and often fosters crime rather
than suppressing it. No one has yet proposed a solution to drug
problems that would be both effective and politically acceptable.
I do not have the temerity to suggest a solution when no one
else has been able to. Instead, I will confine myself to two
narrower ethical issues: can drug use be a reasonable choice
and is it ethical to recommend, directly or indirectly, drug
use to others?
Before exploring these issues in more detail, it is only fair
to make full disclosure of my own views. Though I came of age
in the sixties and seventies, I never used mind-altering drugs.
I did indulge in alcohol in college and for some years after,
but became a teetotaler many years ago. My reasons for missing
out on the psychedelic experience were threefold. The primary
reason, I must confess, was simply fear. I depend on my mind
to earn a living and did not want to take any chances with it.
Second, I became aware of the disproportionate legal consequences
that befell acquaintances who were ingenuously experimenting.
Finally, my meditative practice of the past twenty years has
been in a direction that led me to give up all consciousness
altering substances, even alcohol and caffeine. The reasons
for this have nothing to do with morality but were simply that
I came to value greatly the natural clarity of the mind.
This last point requires some elaboration. My practice has at
times been concentrative in the Zen tradition and at others,
insight-oriented based on Theravada teachings. The former values
mental lucidity while the latter is highly analytic and intended
to sharpen awareness. I cannot imagine that drug experiences
resemble either state. I have at times practiced techniques
that might conceivably be mind-expanding -- moving
qi within my body and the jhana of concentration on infinite
space. I found these valuable but not to the extent of giving
them a central place in my practice. On a few occasions I have
experienced states that might be termed ecstatic.
While I liked these, I have not felt any urgent need for them
to happen again. That my practice does not regularly lead to
such states may have disappointed me once, but it does not now.
I am not putting forth my own approach as an example to be followed
but simply to situate myself within a wide variety of attitudes
toward spiritual practice. To some it may seem that I have settled
for goals that are too limited. I cannot refute this but would
reply that ones individual temperament determines to a
great degree what forms of meditation are congenial. For myself,
I prefer the cognitive to the affective. In sixties terminology
I might be labeled as uptight. Perhaps I am, but as a physician,
I cannot afford the loss of mental control that might be beneficial
to the visionary artist or writer. Nor can practitioners of
other occupations in which the welfare of others is at stake.
Even the most ardent advocates of turning on, tuning in, and
dropping out would not want their doctor, airplane pilot, or
even accountant or childs baby sitter, to follow their
An additional factor in my attitude toward psychedelics derives
from my work as a biomedical researcher. It happens that my
particular area of specialization is adverse effects of hormones
and neuroactive drugs. Conducting studies to detect harmful
effects, as well as prescribing medications for patients in
my practice, keeps me constantly mindful of the potential for
injury of pharmacologically active substances.6 Standards for
assessing drug safety have become increasingly rigorous in recent
years. As we shall see, none of the assertions about safety
(or even benefits) of psychedelics meet even the most minimal
standards of clinical evidence. Despite their authoritative
sounding assertions of safety, the advocates of psychedelics
lack even minimal background in the methodology of drug safety
testing and hardly display the equipoise that is the ideal of
the clinical researcher. They were -- and are -- biased toward
seeing psychedelics as both beneficial and safe and so have
been excessively selective in what data they consider. Were
a pharmacologist to be as casual in studying any drug, he or
she would be quickly discredited. Within science, anecdotes,
that is, single events often known only through hearsay, do
not constitute evidence. They may suggest a beneficial or adverse
effect but cannot prove such. The reasons are multiple but two
are important here. First, we all tend to perceive what we want
to perceive and so objective studies require use of methods
to control the effects of subject and observer bias. Second,
most adverse effects occur in only a minority of those who take
a particular drug. As a salient example, the recently withdrawn
diabetes drug troglitazone gave excellent control of the disease
in many, but caused serious liver injury and sometimes death
in about one in 4,000. As a result, it was withdrawn. Only by
systematic reporting of adverse events can infrequent ones such
as these be discovered. A doctor might treat hundreds of patients
with such a drug without ever seeing the serious side effect.
To go solely by ones own limited observations is not an
adequate way to assess drug safety. Hence simple claims that
one has never seen anyone harmed by a particular drug are unpersuasive.
The association of drug use, including psychedelics, with cognitive
dysfunction is beyond doubt. What is less clear is the incidence
of this and other adverse effects. Nor is there any means to
predict which individuals can use them safely. Not least because
they are illegal, no system exists for tracking adverse events
of psychedelics. I recall a psychiatric nurse I met while I
was in medical school who held forth to my fellow students and
myself about her use of LSD. She was particularly eloquent about
how drugs enhanced lovemaking for her and her boyfriend. At
the time, I was envious of her apparent sophistication and her
lifestyle, which seemed much freer than mine. However, when
by chance I ran into her a few years later, I formed a much
different impression. She was working at a much lower level
job, avoided eye contact, had become sloppy in her appearance
and now gave off an aura of dissipation rather than sophistication.
I was saddened to observe how a few more years of the drug lifestyle
had rendered this bright young woman pitiable. A single instance
does not establish that drugs will cause similar deterioration
in all who try them. It is within the realm of possibility that
the contributors to ZZZ who commend drug use were not harmed
by them. Even if this is so -- which is far from clear -- a
momentous problem remains, namely, how does one know in advance
which outcome one will have: enlightenment, or personal deterioration.
The critical issues of drug-induced mental disturbance and addiction
tend to be passed over in ZZZ . Myron Stolaroff observes, Widespread
unfavorable public bias toward psychedelics has been created
by very selective reporting by the media (201). The media
certainly are selectively negative about drugs, as they are
about many other things, but the psychedelic advocates such
as Timothy Leary and Myron Stolaroff himself have been at least
It seems self-evident to me that if claims are made for benefits
of any substance, including psychedelics, they should be substantiated
by systematic observation rather than mere anecdotes and opinion.
Stolaroff makes a valid point that the illegal status
of psychedelics has prevented the publication and sharing of
results and effective practices (203). Yet he goes on
to enumerate his own theories about effective use, despite his
admission that supporting evidence is lacking. That legal restrictions
have prevented adequate research is hardly a valid reason for
venturing forth into psychedelic use.
Illumination as a Drug Effect
A decision to take a drug generally assumes that the potential
benefit outweighs the risks. As an example, let us suppose a
person has advanced cancer and is considering trying an experimental
drug. He or she is told that without it, death is almost certain
within six months. With the drug there is a 5% chance of death
within a month but a 50% chance of extending survival for another
year. (Real life decisions are usually even more complex, in
part because the probabilities are often incompletely known.)
Most of us would probably take the 5% chance of earlier death
in the hope of gaining a year. Suppose however that the drug
is for headache. It has a 100% chance of curing the headache
but still a 5% chance of being fatal. No one would opt for it.
The difference is not in the degree of risk but in whether the
value of the benefit is sufficient to justify this risk.
Applying such an analysis to psychedelics is problematic. The
risks are clear enough: legal penalties, debilitating addiction
and brain damage manifesting as cognitive impairment. We do
not, of course, know the probabilities of the latter two, but
they are at least the 5% of the previous example, and likely
more. What about the benefits? What is the value of spiritual
enrichment? Texts from Pali suttas to Alan Watts insist that
it is the most worthy goal of human life. But do we actually
live as if this is the case? Even those of us who are committed
lay Buddhists spend the preponderance of our time working toward
goals other than attainment of enlightenment. Many of us could
become monks or nuns but choose not to. For some this is an
ethical decision based on responsibilities to spouse, children
and others. But of Western Buddhists without such obligations
only a small fraction enter the Sangha and many of these eventually
leave.7 Thus it can be inferred that, whatever their rhetoric,
as a practical matter most Western Buddhist practitioners do
not give attainment of enlightenment their highest priority.
I point this out in response to the argument, sometimes implied,
that the spiritual benefits of drugs are so great as to be worth
the risk of brain injury or incarceration.
The most prevalent motivation for drug use, though one only
occasionally mentioned in ZZZ , is entertainment or titillation.
What is for most simply the pursuit of pleasure is inflated
into a quest for spiritual improvement. Such conundrums are
not unique to drugs. The back pages of many free urban newspapers
contain advertisements from attractive women describing themselves
as escorts, some of who offer tantric
services. I think we can assume that the background of these
enterprising ladies is not philological and that the motivation
of those who presumably respond to such advertisements is more
the relief of biological drives than the hope of enlightenment.
Given the faddishness of spirituality in our culture, Buddhist
jargon can be a convenient camouflage for behavior which otherwise
would not be considered admirable. Both drug taking and visits
to escorts are risky behaviors and, while many are willing to
take the risks, few would recommend such behaviors. It is notorious
that the young often make poor judgments on risk-benefit issues;
the decision to smoke is the most obvious example. Much of the
sixties drug use can be attributed to the fondness of youth
Psychedelics Bring Spiritual Benefits?
The most obvious problem regarding spiritual effects of drugs
is barely addressed in ZZZ : why do the vast majority of psychedelic
drug users not derive any recognizable spiritual benefit? My
contact with regular users has not convinced me that as a group
they are particularly spiritual. More common is an apparent
impoverishment of character (spaciness), a pervasive
restlessness (uddhacca in Abhidhammic terminology), and inability
to relax or find enjoyment with their own resources.8 These
traits are the opposite of the comfort with ones own mental
content and patience which meditation develops. So, even if
we grant that drugs can have spiritual benefits for a few, for
the majority they appear to have the opposite effect.
Dependency and the Promotion of Psychedelic Use
Buddhism is not a proselytizing religion, for the most part.
Though it tries to attract adherents, it describes its claimed
benefits in a rather restrained fashion. The same cannot be
said for the drug culture which, particularly in the sixties,
marketed its products relentlessly. Why drug users so often
want to turn on others remains a puzzle. Though
many drug users engage in dealing, there is no reason to think
that the vocal advocates like Timothy Leary praised psychedelics
out of economic self-interest.9 The most likely explanation
for the blandishments of the psychedelic advocates is a curious
but pervasive aspect of mind-altering substance use: people
in a drug state want their companions to be in the same state.
Everyone has noticed how heavy drinkers usually press their
companions to keep up, round for round. No doubt this reassures
the drinker that his (usually; women are more likely to try
to conceal the extent of their alcohol consumption) intake is
appropriate. However there is probably something neurological
also. Our thoughts and behavior are different in different mental
states. Consider a couple when one is sexually aroused and the
other is not. The discordance produces definite discomfort and
often anger on both sides. When in a particular state we want
the others around us to be in a similar state. For the drug
advocates, a turned-on companion was more congenial company
than a straight one. For the rest of us, being around those
in a drug state is hardly edifying.
Culture and Art
A possible argument favoring drug use is that it has inspired
some remarkable art. ZZZ exemplifies this; many of its illustrations
seem to be of the genre of psychedelic art. (Whether this art
really has its source in drugs rather than other art of the
same genre is a relevant question.) Many Tibetan mandalas resemble
drug art -- for which they were a source of inspiration -- but
there is no evidence that drug use influenced their creation.
Though psychedelic art is not admired by the fine-art establishment,
it is widely popular. It is easily found in book illustration
and in such locations as New Age CD liners and Tarot cards.
I do not mean this to be derogatory. Postmodern ideology has
driven most visually attractive art out of contemporary art
galleries and museums. We clearly do have drugs to thank for
this often striking art that perhaps even offers a taste of
the psychedelic experience without the risks of the drugs themselves.
Yet conceding that some meritorious art may have been inspired
by the drug experience does not by itself mean that taking drugs
is desirable. Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock were alcoholics.
We can be moved by their art without wanting to live their self-destructive
lifestyle. Nor does admiration for Van Gogh makes us yearn to
be schizophrenic. Similarly, we can enjoy Gauguins paradisiacal
settings without therefore abandoning our wives and families.
Not only in the arts but also more broadly, the reports of psychedelic
explorers helped bring to American culture a sense of the freedom
and possibilities of the mind that was lacking in the Eisenhower
era. Yet, this was not entirely new. Interest in altered states
of consciousness was an important element in the European avant-garde
long before the mid-twentieth century. The Beats and hippies
did however bring the transgressive values of the avant-garde
into the mainstream.10 Learys infamous formula, Turn
on, tune in, and drop out is simply a catchy phrasing
of a previously existing Bohemian stance. The dropping out was
always a delusion -- where else is there to go?
In contemporary culture, what begins as transgressive often
becomes mainstream. Elvis Presley, once denounced as dangerously
lewd, is now on a U.S. postage stamp. Allen Ginsberg, despite
the obscenity-ridden rants of his early poetry, also became
an American icon. Buddhism, too, has moved from Bohemian to
respectable. The alcoholic and cool Chogyam Trungpa seems to
have paved the way for acceptance of the sober and judicious
Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama.
Zig Zag Zen is appealing on several levels. Its trendy layout,
somewhat reminiscent of Wired magazine, together with its well-chosen
art make it a pleasure to browse. Yet there is reason to be
suspicious of its attractions. Though ZZZ does not univocally
commend drug use, in its lavish design and production it clearly
celebrates it. Those who, like the present reviewer, lived through
the sixties and seventies will feel a sense of nostalgia for
an era which thought itself sophisticated but was, in retrospect,
Despite its attractions, ZZZ does not make much contribution
to our understanding of psychedelics. The views expressed are
not new and contributions are often repetitive. Reading only
the initial chapter by Rick Fields and the final Roundtable
with Ram Das, Robert Aitken Roshi, Richard Baker Roshi and Joan
Halifax Roshi gives a sufficient idea of its entire contents.
Too many sections are reminiscences by well-known figures who
have said the same things in print many times before; these
tend to have the stale quality of celebrity interviews. Deeper
analysis of the social, psychological and medical issues surrounding
psychedelics is lacking. The ethical issues are barely addressed.
For those interested in the place of such drugs in recent American
life, a much more useful account is available in Jay Stevens
Storming Heaven.11 In short, ZZZ exemplifies the superficiality
of the era it chronicles.
Can we reach any conclusions regarding the place of drugs for
Buddhist understanding and practice? I propose that we can.
First, even if we allow that many were helped along by drugs,
many, perhaps far more, were harmed either biologically or legally.
We must remind ourselves that non-harming is central to Buddhist
ethics. For this reason, I think we should not encourage drug
use, either on a personal level or by the sort of media advocacy
exemplified by Timothy Leary. This does not mean on the other
hand, that drugs should not be discussed honestly. My suggestion
is that psychedelic use is an unskillful choice, not an unethical
one. Encouraging others to try psychedelics or persist in their
use is ethically questionable. I say questionable rather than
unequivocally wrong because drug issues do not justify suppression
of freedom of speech. The ethical question is not whether adults
should be permitted to alter their consciousness; I see little
justification for suppression of mental freedom of any kind.
Rather the issue is whether the price paid for achieving altered
states is too high.
That drugs often harm those who use them does not justify the
repressive measures of the war on drugs. Like all other wars,
this one inflicts considerable collateral damage. Americas prisons
are filled with non-violent drug offenders, a magnitude of oppression
comparable to the Inquisition, witch hunts and the Chinese Cultural
Revolution. In a century or two, the motivation for imprisoning
so many for use of mind-altering substances may seem as incomprehensible
as do trials for heresy. Those incapacitated by drug use, especially
those whose impairment may affect the welfare of others should
be pressed into treatment and not allowed to work in their professions
unless drug free. This seems beyond argument. And those whose
drug use is associated with violence must be accountable for
the harm they inflict. For those whose drug use does not harm
others, however, criminal penalties have only done further damage.
I have made my jaundiced view of psychedelics clear throughout
this review. ZZZ did nothing to alter these views. Nor does
it, unfortunately, contain anything likely to moderate the views
of the majority of Americans who seem to support the atrocities
of the war on drugs. Regrettably, Zig Zag Zen leaves the drug
issue where it began.
1- Here is an example of the latter's style: In
my confrontations with the personified Other that is resident
in the mushroom, part of its message was its species-specific
uniqueness and its desire for a symbiotic relationship with
humans (Terence McKenna. The Archaic Revival. New York:
HarperCollins 1991, p. 117). This seems to suggest that certain
mushrooms produce mind-altering chemicals as a way of having
a relationship with humans. Such verbiage is enjoyable to read,
at least in limited doses, but cannot be taken as a serious
contribution to understanding effects of psychedelics.
2- Peter Harvey. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2000, p. 67.
3- These writers are now out of fashion among serious
Buddhists, even though many, like myself were first attracted
to Buddhism by their books. Recent scholarship has been highly
critical of them. Yet perhaps they merit some indulgence from
us. While hardly scholarly, they were not always wrong. For
example, Kerouac^^d5s notebooks on Buddhism, Some of the Dharma
(New York: Viking Penguin, 1997) demonstrate, at least to my
reading, a serious effort to understand Buddhist teachings.
While sometimes describing meditative states as if they were
akin to drug highs, the book also considers the more austere
aspects of Buddhist philosophy such as the Five Aggregates of
Grasping and the twelvefold Chain of Causation (p. 19). Significantly,
this book was turned down by publishers when some of Kerouac^^d5s
other works such as On the Road were best-sellers. They must
have judged that the relative asceticism of actual Buddhism
was not what Beats and flower children were hoping to find.
4- In San Franciscos Chinatown is a grungy bar
named Buddha. Yet peeking at its denizens through
its murky windows does not suggest that it functions as a center
for propagation of Dharma. Misapplying Buddhist terminology
obscures, but does not change, the reality.
5- I am not referring to efforts to interdict drug supply
or to capture and prosecute large-scale drug dealers. These
law enforcement activities are clearly appropriate, though their
success is limited.
6- At least two drugs that I studied were discontinued
due to harmful effects shown by my research.
7- An important question regarding contemporary Buddhism
is why monkhood seems to be losing its attraction. It can even
be questioned whether monastic life is the best setting in which
to seek enlightenment. I set these interesting questions aside
and simply assume that if spiritual development is the highest
value for someone, Sangha entry would be a serious consideration.
8- Television may have similar effects and has been at
least as damaging to our culture as drugs, but it is not the
subject of this review.
9- In our culture, the desire for media coverage seems
to be almost as strong as the desire for wealth. Advocates of
bad behavior make great copy because the media loves nothing
so much as provoking its readers ^^d0 anger stimulates them
to tune in the next day. Here Learys use of the term tune
in may be unintentionally revealing, as if the drug experience
is akin to turning on the TV.
10- This making epatier le bourgeoisie into a bourgeois
activity in its own right is highly paradoxical. I will leave
this matter unaddressed except to say that psychedelic use too
is practiced by the establishment.
11- Jay Stevens: Storming Heaven: LSD and the American
Dream. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.