Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics" Book Review

Huston Smith's preface confronts us: "Entheogens have entered Buddhism to stay; there can be no turning back from the point that has been reached." (14) Stephen Batchelor notes in his forward the crux of the Buddhist proscription against "intoxication"--some interpret this as to the "point of heedlessness." "Although certain ecstatic Zen masters and Tantric yogins may be deemed sufficiently awakened to be exempt from strict adherence to this precept, there is no discussion about the role that drug use might play in propelling someone onto the path in the first place." (10) 

Editor Allan Hunt Badiner promotes the individual's empowerment, freer of mediators or power structures:
"The democratization of psychedelics, however, and of Buddhism to a similar extent, has been very much about the breakdown of this restricted access to the divine. In Buddhism, as in psychedelics, the individual takes responsibility for their relationship to the source of their being, and for access to the highest states of spirit mind." (16) Contrary to two superficial reviews of this anthology preceding this one on Amazon, a careful reading of primary material, let alone the thirty or so essays, reveals their nuances.

"While psychedelic use is all about altered states, Buddhism is all about altered traits, and one does not necessarily lead to the other. One Theravadin monk likened the mind on psychedelics to an image of a tree whose branches are overladen with low-hanging, very ripened, and heavy fruit. The danger is that the heavy fruit--too full and rich to be digested by the tree all at once--will weigh down the branches and cause them to snap." (17)

Arts editor Alex Grey brings in many illustrations. Few of these wowed sober me, but your reaction may differ. A related article by Claudia Mueller-Ebeling and Christian Raetsch argues for a Nepalese and not Tibetan, shamanistic as well as Buddhist, explication of thangka paintings. The contents of the volume originated in the Buddhist American magazine "Tricycle" in Fall 1996. Those familiar with its readership and approach will find many representatives of what's now mainstream forms of Western practice within these pages. Although the lack of an index and the lack of a paginated reference to the illustrations detract from its usefulness, I found this to be more substantial than the small-coffee table format and the generous margins (with some odd typographical choices) suggest.

Section one explores intersections. Roger Walsh's "Mysticism: Contemplative and Chemical" compares and contrasts them efficiently, summing up Smith's defense of entheogens, Stanislav Grof's research, and qualifying assertions and denials made for the efficacy of drug-induced experiences. Rick J. Strassman weighs in with a report from a New Mexico clinical trial of DMT. Rick Fields engagingly relates "A High History of Buddhism in America"; while this accurately conveys some of the air of privilege or leisure which surrounds some of the more comfortably placed  practitioners. I note one editor lives in Big Sur and the other Brooklyn, tellingly. Robert Forte interviews Jack Kornfield, and that psychologist's caution about an unstable, or unsustainable, experience based on drugs serves as a smart balance to the more (literally) enthusiastic advocates. Peter Matthiessen offers a typically fluid essay on his and his lover's "shadow paths" as they wander into early-60's lysergia.

In section two, "Concrescence?" enters more personal accounts. One of the liveliest shows observer-participant San Francisco Zen Center's David Chadwick reflecting on himself--in retrospect long after his be-in--a babbling adept, in ecstasy: "No wonder so many people were irritated by hippies." (119) Not all report success--one telling factor; even those such as Chadwick write that the odds of a "bad trip" were one in five. Trudy Walter recalls her tougher encounters championing marijuana,  filtered through such alcoholic proponents as Chogyam Trungpa. While Badiner relates his DMT-laced yagé concoction in Hawai'i, China Galland counters with her careful decision to resist the entreaties of her companions. Committed to a twelve-step program, she decides not to ingest ayahuasca.

The third portion, "Lessons," provides its own variety. To name a few, you can choose from Terence McKenna's interview, John Perry Barlow's "Liberty and LSD," or Lama Surya Das (who coins "premature immaculation" as the temptation of too much too soon with drugs as a shortcut) as their firsthand testimonies mingling with more academic accounts by Charles Tart or Myron Stolaroff which fairly examine the need or not to keep taking drugs. Erik Davis, whose "The Visionary State" ( see my review) on California's "spiritual landscapes" compliments his essay here well, compares the flight simulators for the bardo" of earlier psychonauts with today's more jittery attitudes towards what  Mircea Eliade titled "technologies of ecstasy." (160) 

It closes as Badiner leads a well-chosen roundtable of Joan Halifax, Ram Dass, Robert Aitken, and Richard Baker. They square off, mostly Dass gently and teasingly favoring how drugs toy with the ego and nudge the mind; the other three edge towards caution. Halifax from her work with the dying figures they have enough to deal with already regarding sensation; Aitken relegates the golden age of experimentation to the height of the counterculture and its own awkward adventures; Baker reasons that Buddhist territory rests more in the "neutral" where neither good nor bad are to be grasped, whether as meditative states or drug-induced visions. These insights expand the scope of what's not a caricatured (i.e., entirely pro-plant based or chemically induced by artificial means) selection of contributors. (4-9-13 to Amazon US)

P.S. Book website w/ full forward, preface, and introduction texts, links, and contacts. Zig Zag Zen

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