Experience, Buddhism, and Psychedelics, Oh My!

I’ve wanted to say something(s) regarding the intersection of the titular topics for some time. However, as it often happens, I don’t quite know what it is I want to say until I’ve begun saying it, and haven’t felt impelled until now to begin interpreting the inchoate urge into legible prose. At the prompting of my second date with Dimethyltryptamine, let us away, then.

I’ll begin by situating myself within Douglas Osto’s taxonomy of Buddhis(t/h) users of psychedelic drugs. There are those for whom psychedelics “opened the door” to altered experience(s) of self/world in ways which encouraged further meditative exploration within more or less traditional Buddhist institutions and soteriology, as well as a second camp to which I suppose I must now belong, though I was for a while in the first. Rather than psychedelics simply “opening the door” to a more sober, mature spiritual practice, this second camp keeps the door open, as it were, considering psychedelic use either an adjunct to traditional practice or an integral part of one’s continuing development. I can see either of these camps as being useful places to stake one’s tent dependent on personal priorities and spiritual ideals.

For myself, I’ll explain the appeal of the open camp by way of a neater dichotomy between Buddhist traditions than actually exists. There are schools of Buddhism which regard visionary experience as, at best, stumbling blocks. Exemplary here is the denigration of odd perceptual phenomena as mere ‘makyo’ (illusion) in Zen, or the ‘corruptions of insight’ in the Theravada. Bliss, light, vivid and immersive imagery, noetic encounters with beings of various sorts, all these are considered pitfalls. Not something to be avoided, per se, but side effects of proper practices which are potential distractions from advancing on to genuinely liberating (non) experience(s). If all phenomena are inconstant, impersonally fabricated, and unsatisfactory as dogma dictates, best to leave all behind for the deathless, the unfabricated, nirvana, the end of birth, the end of experience. “There is nothing further for this world.”, and all that. So goes the renunciant cant.

Let us grant that all phenomena are indeed inconstant, impersonally fabricated, and unsatisfactory. As it is elaborated in later Buddhism(s) (I am thinking specifically of Mahayana and Vajrayana), however, that unsatisfactoriness, the whole of samsara, is not inherent to phenomena, but a product of the ignorance of their empty, fabricated nature. The fading and eventual complete cessation of fabricated phenomena and therefore of perception (nirvana, nirodha) is reinterpreted and instrumentalized as a means to this realization, and not an end in itself. What reappears, remains, and fluxes is what was there all along: empty, which is to say dependently arisen (see MMK 24:18-19), phenomenality, though now free of habitual reification of self/world and opened to an abundant play of perceptual malleability.

What has all this to do with psychedelics? My view is that their use may, with suggestive set and setting, provide not only an abrupt, perhaps rude and at worst traumatizing, introduction to the fabricated, dependently arisen, empty nature of self/world and all phenomena, but also the possibilities of more or differently functional, blissful, compassionate modes of perceptual auto/mythopoesis. A groundless, creative freedom to inhabit myriad senses of self/world, of space, of time, of awareness, of identity dependent on what appears useful and/or enjoyable.

I believe that the full depth, and perhaps more importantly, the day-to-day availability of this groundless freedom is not accessible without meditative development. That said, psychedelic use may, for the serendipitous individual, act as a spur to such development and a delightful recreation in the hyperbolic possibilities of consciousness. If bizarre, blissful, unitive, synesthetic transformations and disappearances of phenomena and identity laden with mythic significance are available through substances, why not engage them, enjoy them, cognizant of their emptiness? Unless one is wedded to traditional proscriptions against intoxicants, or valorizes the equally empty unfabricated at the expense of the fabricated, I see no reason.

So goes my elaborate justification of getting high out of my mind.

Thanks to All, though relevantly Rob Burbea and his book, Seeing That Frees.

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