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Zig Zag Zen : Buddhism and Psychedelics


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Chronicle Books, 2002

reviewed by Michael Ziegler
Michael Ziegler is a rabbi who leads Shir Hashirim Minyan in Berkeley, CA.
© Institute of Labor and Mental Health, Jan/Feb 2004

Psychedelics were the most important paradigm shifting catalyst for the baby boomer generation. The contribution they have made in opening revolutionary vistas in art, music, ecology, religion, community, and politics should be honored. The normative consensual status quo has been so threatened by psychedelics that they have instead been outlawed and demonized. For over thirty years, due to drug policy politics, it has not been possible to explore the wise use of psychedelics. The Economist reported in 2002 that the United States locks up nearly 175 out of every 100,000 Americans for drug-related offenses. Drug crimes often get harsher punishments than violent assaults, rapes, or murders. The current political culture has made the legal consequences of psychedelic drug use so draconian that any reasonable public experimentation with them either by citizens or scientists is impossible.
book cover
It is in this loaded context that Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics, arrives to challenge the widespread misperceptions about drug use, and to reassess the contribution that the psychedelic experience can make to spiritual inquiry. The book is a cornucopia of art, essays, and interviews that explore the influence that psychedelics have had on well-known artists and meditation teachers, as well as the ways in which those experiences serve as gateways to deeper religious understanding. It uses a newer, more descriptive name for psychedelics — entheogens (en=inner, theo=spirit/god, gen=creation) — a term that acknowledges the capacity of certain substances to reveal the inner sacred spirit that is generated within the mind/body phenomena.

Zig Zag Zen harkens back to the psychedelic experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s, when many of today's prominent western meditation teachers and artists began to explore the expansion of consciousness and investigate other ways of knowing and being. According to sociologist James Coleman, there is a significant correlation between psychedelic use and Buddhist practice. In his book The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2001), he states that sixty-two percent of the Buddhist practitioners he surveyed had used psychedelics. U.S. government surveys indicate that about 8 percent of the general population has used psychedelics. Psychologist Charles Tart and Coleman both report that in Tibetan groups 75 to 80 percent of participants polled had used psychedelics. Coleman asserts that individuals who are drawn to psychedelics tend to be drawn to the inward gaze, "toward the direct personal experience of the ultimate rather than outward to the world of the established social order." Coleman's research about the Buddhist community certainly rings true in the other religious renewal movements of our time (Jewish, Christian, Sufi, Hindu).

Religious communities worldwide are at the vanguard of wise entheogen use. In the United States the Native American population uses plant entheogens (peyote) for its ceremonies. In West Africa the psychedelic plant iboga is used in rituals. In India, the religious use of a psychedelic called soma was featured in the Rig Veda and entheogens have been a part of south Asian religious practice for millennia. For two thousand years initiates into the Greek Eleusinian Mystery school would consume a powerful vision-enhancing drug called kykeon. In South America the sacred use of the psychedelic ayahuasca has moved from the native populations of the Amazon Basin into the urban centers where it is the central sacrament in their religious praxis. These ayahuasca churches are making rapid inroads into Europe and the Americas because they provide a meaningful community context for the powerful religious insights that entheogens can provide. In the face of the global war on drugs, those who have the interest and capacity can travel to Brazil to experience the sacred use of entheogens legally in indigenous communities and urban churches. (For more information about participation in ayahuasca ceremonies with Jews in Brazil, contact: jewpsychedelconf@aol.com.)

Though the title may suggest that this is a book exclusively about Buddhist meditation and psychedelics, it is more fundamentally about the relationship between entheogens and the spiritual journey. Psychedelics in fact profoundly influenced an entire generation of seekers who have become leaders of the growing alternative movements in our country today. Not only were the Buddhists and artists described in Zig Zag Zen influenced, but also political activists, eco-activists, and many others who participated in the alternative spiritual enterprise. The most interesting parts of the book are non-sectarian conversations about the influence of psyehedelics on awareness and their ability to open new places of insight and understanding in the individual.

These stories are supported by what co-editor Alex Grey calls the "vajravision" of artists, which means art that addresses "the themes of liberation of the mind," "altered states," and "depictions of transcendental emptiness." The psychedelic tale illuminated through the collected images is as revealing as the text. Yet, missing from the book was the vajravision of musicians. Musicians have traditionally held the ambient envelope for sacred journey space whether in a temple or on a psychedelic journey. Entheogens became widely accessible in America at the same time as new forms of music were emerging. The Zig Zag Zen story is incomplete without acknowledging the musical contribution of artists like The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Grateful Dead, and many of those artists popularized by Stephen Hill's radio program "Music from the Hearts of Space."

In my own case, the experiences I had more than thirty years ago using LSD while listening to music first awakened in me a felt sense of the sacred. My investigation of these experiences led me directly to rabbinic school and a life-long contemplative practice. Many of my peers shared this kind of Jewish awakening through the convergence of entheogen use and their own spiritual inquiry.

The Jewish people have a long tradition of altering consciousness for spiritual purposes. The ritual use of wine in Judaism is ubiquitous for organizing blessings and celebrations. It is a sacrament that has been used for centuries as an adjunct to prayer precisely for its consciousness-shifting qualities. Fasting is another ancient tradition of the Jewish people that is used as a means to alter consciousness in order to access places of deep grief and heightened moral introspection.

It is the combination of entheogens and meditation that Zig Zag Zen sets out to explore. It is an open secret that the dedicated seeker can achieve the kind of rare, mystical, and transcendent religious experience — often thought to be impossible in our age of enlightened rationality — through the twin paths of disciplined meditation practice and entheogenic exploration. Many voices within Zig Zag Zen discuss how psychedelics and meditation allowed them to cultivate empirical wisdom based on personal investigation, as well as open up to profound religious experiences. Many also suggest that the entheogenic experience helps to cultivate the conscious inner observer so fundamental to the spiritual journey.

Lama Surya Das, one of the book's contributors, writes that "Intense drug induced openings can help temporarily crack open the ego shell and break through a heavily guarded, stiff persona, providing non-conceptual mystical, sensual, emotional, visionary, heart-opening, and mind-expanding experience otherwise unavailable to ordinary consciousness." Zen master Dokusho Villalba Sensei takes this theme deeper when he writes,
By dissolving the firm hold of the logico-rational mind over the perception of reality, entheogens propitiate, on the one hand, the appearance and observation of contents arising from pre-personal levels (their regressive aspect) and, on the other, the appearance and observation of contents arising from transpersonal levels (their transcendental aspect). Training in meditation is an excellent preparation for confronting the expanded states of consciousness which entheogens generate, and, conversely, the intensity and forthrightness of these expanded states can provide a great impetus to apply the achievements attained during meditation in an emphatic way.

Even in the Buddhist community, however, there is a stigma attached to psychedelic drug use. Erik Davis, a contributor to the book, writes, "I suspect that a healthy chunk of self-identified practicing American Buddhists, keep at least occasional dates with the writhing world rending void lurking in the heart of psychedelic hyper-space. But I also suspect that, if asked to render judgment on such activities, most Dharma teachers would deliver a fat thumbs down. Indeed, psychedelic spirituality may be the only real heresy in American Buddhism." Buddhist teachers in the book speak about entheogen use in the distant past. To publicly confess or condone psychedelic use would be awkward because they are illegal and most (but not all) Buddhist teachers would say that they are prohibited from using them by the Buddhist injunction to abstain from intoxicants. The tremendous cultural fear and repression focused around drug use inhibits open dialogue about the positive role entheogens can play in spiritual awakening. Zig Zag Zen takes an important step in re-opening the discussion about the fundamental role psychedelics played in the creation of the contemplative institutions of Buddhist practice in the West. A clear discourse regarding the skillful use of entheogens is emerging in books like Dr. Stanislov Grof's LSD Psychotherapy and in Kelamine: Dreams and Realities by Karl Jansen, M.D., Ph.D. The logical sequel to the Zig Zag Zen anthology would address the sacred use of entheogens in the post-modern context.

It has been decades since pioneers like Stan Groff and Ralph Metzner, who had training in medicine and psychology, conducted their important pathbreaking research into the exploration of consciousness with the controlled use of entheogens during the short window when it was legal to conduct this kind of research with LSD. We can imagine the exciting possibilities of continuing these guided investigations about God, death, rebirth, prophecy, heaven, hell, good, evil, reincarnation, and attention to the core emotions (fear, anger, greed, and suffering) through the agency of entheogens and meditation.

The recent success of medical marijuana initiatives suggests that the age of strict drug prohibition, like the era of alcohol prohibition, may be passing. There is recognition that some of the demonized drugs may have some social merits. There is a growing movement for cognitive liberty, which argues that every person has the right to control their own brain. In a world in which cognitive liberty is a natural human right, entheogens become a prescription tool alongside Prozac and Viagra. We have a global biochemical-industrial infrastructure that provides chemical solutions to cancer, aging, impotence, depression, and the full spectrum of human problems. We already use chemicals and herbs for headaches, depression, hypertension, inflammation, and infection. We should be researching chemical pathways into prophecy, enlightenment, empathy, compassion, love, and friendliness as well. (For a detailed conversation on this topic see www.maps.org.)

The new millennium has revealed a global economy that is passionately pursuing the dreams of a materialist monoculture. The accumulative self-interest of individuals has joined with the interests of the capital markets for the pursuit of more consumables and expanding profits. These tendencies are joining with a global military-industrial complex whose expenditures are coming close to $1 trillion a year. At the same time the United States is engaged in the largest expansion in history of a prison complex which is being maintained to warehouse, disappear and control those elements of the population that our politicians desire to take out of circulation. One out of every four people in prison is there for a nonviolent drug offense. Can an expression of collaboration, sustainability, caring, compassion, ecology, and celebration maintain a niche in the face of the tidal wave of global corporate capitalism whose sole purpose is profits, a global military industrial complex whose function is war, and an expanding domestic policy of incarceration whose intent is to remove undesirable elements from society and to place them in prisons? What Archimedes lever of dissent is available for those who want to break open the extreme individualism and anomie embedded in the operating system of the global capitalist village?

Zig Zag Zen is testimony that entheogens have had the capacity to open many seekers to the possibility of new ways of envisioning reality. The use of meditation and psychedelics influenced the imagination of an entire generation of spiritual seekers who have since transformed the landscape of Western spiritual expression. Perhaps in the near future the widespread, controlled, legal use of entheogens in conjunction with contemplative practice will provide members of the global community with an alchemical catalyst to help us re-envision our way of life and the institutions that maintain it. The tacit message of Zig Zag Zen is that entheogens and meditation might lead us to choose a trajectory of love, compassion, insight, caring, conservation, and connected inter-dependence. As Jack Kornfield points out, "Psychedelics awaken in people not just a thirst, but a sense of the possibilities for exploring the mind and body-that they could live in a different way." Today we are in need of powerful medicines that can re-awaken in humanity our creative capacity to seek new ways to live inside of ourselves, with each other, and with the planet.