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Psychedelics and Zen: Teach Your Children Well

A landmark new anthology explores the confluence of Zen and psychedelics but leaves one question unanswered: what do we tell the kids?
 
 
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Allan Hunt Badiner, the editor of "Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics"; his artistic collaborator Alex Gray -- who brought 15 wonderful artists with works ranging from high Zen art to "very trippy" to the book; and Nion McEvoy, the publisher of Chronicle Books, all deserve much appreciation for creating a book that deals with a complex and charged topic in such a gentle and creative way.

zig zag zen book coverIt's nice to know that people who can make things happen are invested in exploring issues that, while fascinating, are certainly not at the top of the popularity totem pole, during these dark days of ignorance and repression in the world of drugs.

Badiner and Grey's effort brings together the thinking of a wide array of masters, gurus and wise men and women, weaving together two topics that seem to be headed in opposite directions in terms of public interest and engagement. Zen Buddhism continues to grow and attract new adherents as the one religious/spiritual quest that fits well into the progressive and cultural creative experience and mindset.

Psychedelics, on the other hand, seem to have faded deep into the background of a culture preoccupied with all things commercial and monetary, not to mention the dominance of designer drugs like Ecstasy. (The disappearance of LSD turns out to be an illusion, but we'll get to that in a second.)

Zen and psychedelics may seem like an odd juxtaposition, but Badiner says he's actually surprised that no one has done a book like this one before, given that people like Allen Ginsberg and Alan Watts were steeped in both worlds. He could have added Ram Dass, who is a star of this book, and who in earlier times (as Richard Alpert) was, with Timothy Leary, a psychedelic pioneer in the experiments in Millbrook, New York and then quasi outlaws -- more Leary than Alpert -- as the earlier version of the drug war raised hysterical fears about psychedelics.

What makes Badiner's book so grounding is that he recognizes two of the fundamental wisdoms of our time, one negative and one positive. He instinctively understands the profound implications of our society's inability to discern differences, to make choices, particularly its depressing tendency to lump all drugs into one bad heap.

On the other hand Badiner also grasps that the search for truth requires the consideration of many voices, not one rigid vision. Out of the mix evolves wisdom, and that is the accomplishment of the book. It's no surprise, as a practitioner of Zen, that Badiner doesn't finish his book with an answer. In fact the book ends with a somewhat heated exchange among some of the all-stars of American Zen Buddhism.

There are many gems in this book; much to learn about Zen practice and a wide range of drug experiences. Rick Fields, a former editor of Yoga Journal, provides an entertaining and intelligent "high" history of Buddhism in America. Charles Tart tells of the positive impact of early psychedelics on a group of committed Zen practitioners. Badiner describes a harrowing yet lighthearted ending journey on ayahuasca, while China Garland explains why, in the end, she decided not to take the trip at all.

The aspect of the book I found disappointing is that so many authoritative and wise people dismissed the wisdom of psychedelics, despite having had generally positive experiences themselves. While many of the authors give the sage nod toward the psychedelic trips of their youth, they then minimize their own experiences and discourage others.

That smacks of the double standard that is rampant among parents who grew up in the '60s, who survived and even thrived, yet don't trust their kids to be able to navigate the same developmental shoals that they did. And make no mistake, their kids are going to take the journey.

For the stunning fact is that the numbers of young people using LSD today are about the same as 30 years ago. According to the most authoritative study of national drug use, the Monitoring of the Future study conducted by the Michigan Institute for Social Research and funded by the National Institutes of Health, 13.6 percent of all high school seniors graduating in 1997 had tried LSD and 49.6 percent had tried marijuana. That translates to tens of millions of pot smokers and millions of trippers today, in 2002. And these students are doing it at the onset of their adolescence. More than 22 percent of eighth graders smoked pot and 6.7 percent tried acid. Rising and dipping only slightly since the study started in 1975, these rates make clear that since the '60s these drugs have remained significantly more popular than cocaine, heroin etc.

These statistics are cited in a brilliant new chronicle of rock and psychedelics in the '60s titled: "Tomorrow Never Knows" (Univ. of Chicago Press) by University of Massachusetts professor Nick Bromell. "Why these drugs?" Bromell asks. "What is the synergistic connection between these drugs and coming of age -- of middle class adolescence? Clearly this is something fundamental and still unresolved."

Bromell has some interesting theories that connect drugs, music and the natural alienation of youth. His point: "There was nothing noble about lounging all afternoon in a suburban rec room and feeling that life sucked. But there was (and still is) something mythic about dropping acid and descending into a maelstrom where the nameless nagging insecurities of the everyday become tempests and nebulae in the void of inner space."

So here is the question, Zen masters: If our children are going to take these drugs, what advice do we give them? Especially since many of today's young drug experimenters may be the Zen practitioners of tomorrow?

The superb leaders of Badiner's book have reached a level of enlightenment I'm afraid I can only dream about. My view of Buddhism and spiritual practice is more populist. Perhaps as a totally disciplined practitioner, I could have achieved similar states, but at this stage, I don't want to change that much -- nor apparently did I when I was younger.

In "Zig Zag Zen" Charles Tart writes, "...there was a problem. Meditation was far more difficult than I imagined, and a lot of meditating was spent daydreaming, rebuking myself for daydreaming and getting nowhere." (Gee, that sounds familiar.)

Tart adds, "It's clear that many of us Westerners have such hyperactive minds and complex psychological dynamics that it is very difficult to quiet and discipline our minds enough to make any real progress along the meditative path."

My own experience with acid is that the "trip" carried me to places not remotely accessible in other ways -- brilliant, wonderful, beautiful, sometimes sophomoric and occasionally scary, to be sure. But I wouldn't have traded it for anything. Which is probably why in "Zig Zag Zen," I'm drawn most strongly to John Perry Barlow's essay, Liberty and LSD.

Barlow writes that he knows full well that as a user and an observer of Grateful Dead culture that the public's fear of LSD is misplaced. Yet, like many others, he has kept quiet. He writes that by concealing the truth, "I participate in a growing threat to the minds of America's young greater than anything which acid presents. I mean by that the establishment of permissible truth in America. In a word, totalitarianism. Alcohol, nicotine, and prescription sedatives do more damage every day than LSD has done since ...1943."

This doesn't mean that Barlow thinks LSD is safe. "I consider LSD to be a serious medicine, but by "diminishing the hazards in our cultural drugs of choice and demonizing psychedelics, we head our children straight down the most dangerous path their youthful adventurism can take." LSD makes authority seem funny, "but laugh at authority in America and you will know risk. LSD is illegal primarily because it threatens the dominant American culture, the culture of control."

So, I wish the book had more wisdom for the youthful masses who will try LSD, and less for the meditator, who presumably has gone down that path already. Nevertheless the book has a substantial balanced perspective. Jack Kornfield, the fabulously successful author and Buddhist thinker, offers a good stance: "I have the utmost respect for the power of psychedelics. They have inspired and awakened possibilities in many people in really important ways. They have provided transformative experiences. In taking a tempered view....it does not mean that I do not have a lot of respect for them."

John Leonard, another famous writer and veteran of the Esalen experience, says he's very concerned about possible brain damage, but doesn't presume to "just say no": "Be damn sure what you have is very pure and that you have good circumstances."

To address the ultimate question of whether psychedelics can be a useful part of spiritual practice, Badiner brought together Richard Baker Roshi, Joan Halifax Roshi, Robert Aitken Roshi and Ram Dass. Besides Ram Dass, the other three represent active teachers who would merit inclusion in the U.S. Hall of Fame for Buddhist practitioners, if one existed.

With the exception of Ram Dass, this crew, all of whom used drugs in their development, have little use for psychedelics now, seeing them primarily as artifacts of the culture and obstacles to wisdom.

Aitken, the revered founder of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, is particularly prickly on the subject: "I don't think drugs have particularly helped anybody arrive where they are ... there is a qualitative difference between the ecstasy that some people report from their drug experience and the understanding, the realization that comes with Zen practice. We seek understanding not ecstasy."

Fortunately, Badiner had the wisdom to keep the ever-wise Ram Dass front and center: Ram Dass says of psychedelics: "It's a great gift, a profound sacrament. You can't put it down. We just don't know how to use it, for the most part. ... I feel sad when society rejects something that can help it understand itself and deepens its values and its wisdom. It's just like the Church ruling out the mystical experience. It's not a purification of Buddhism. It's trying to hold on to what you've got, rather than growing." Amen.

For me, Ram Dass offers a more helpful attitude. As Charles Tart writes, "The young now turn on in a world in which the sacred has been trivialized into the recreational." Hopefully, many young people may turn to Buddhism when the thrill of tripping is gone; shouldn't we offer some support and understanding along the way?

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.org.