These questions keep coming up and were the basis of a conversation with Jack Kornfield in February, 1986. Here are some sections of that interview, the balance of which will be published in a forthcoming anthology. Incidently, Huston mis-attributed "get the message, hang up the phone" line to Ram Dass. Originally that line was contributed by Alan Watts. This is sort of long. But the questions raised by the original post have no useful short answers. Consider this a critique of the medium where the message has to be reduced to sound bite format. . .

Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice:

A Buddhist Perspective

An Interview with Jack Kornfield

by Robert Forte
"The goal, cannot be stressed too often, is not religious experiences: it is the religious life. And with respect to the latter, psychedelic theophanies can abhort a quest as readily as, perhaps more readily than, they further it."
-- Huston Smith Forgotten Truth

RF: Jack, thanks very much for sharing your perspective. With so much said about psychedelic experience and spirituality it may help to look at psychedelics from within an extant spiritual discipline. There is a great deal in Buddhism that can illuminate psychedelic phenomena and help us to understand the curative effect - when there is a curative effect. Maybe a Buddhist perspective can help us to maximize the positive effects of psychedelic experiences and improve or reduce the negative ones.

JK: There are a couple of things I want to start with, some thoughts I have had on the subject, and we can go on from there. The first is a statement in answer to your question which asks for a Buddhist point of view on psychedelics. It is important to say that there is no Buddhist point of view on psychedelics. They are rarely found in the Buddhist tradition, if at all, and generally would be lumped in the precepts under "intoxicants." In Zen, Vajrayana, and the Theravada traditions, the three largest living traditions, there is very little mention of them, very little written, and there is no traditional point of view about the use of them. It is important to understand that. What points of view we have come from our understanding of Buddhist masters and teachers based on contemporary experience. But there is not a traditional body of knowledge in relationship to these substances that I know of.

A second point to make is that, unlike in Hinduism, which at least in its modern form uses a variety of mind-altering substances - particularly things like hashish that some sadhus use sitting by the river Ganges smoking a chillum - the fundamental relationship to psychedelics in Buddhist practice and tradition is as intoxicants.

The precept in Theravadan Buddhism for dealing with intoxicants is one of the five basic training precepts: not to kill, not to steal, not to speak falsely, not to engage in sexual misconduct, and lastly, to refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness. It does not say not to use them and it is very explicit. It is interesting that it is worded that way: to not use intoxicants to the point of loss of consciousness or awareness. There is another translation of it which says not to use intoxicants which remove that sense of attention or awareness. Then it is left up to the individual, as are all of the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious.

A third thought I have to start the conversation, and I think I mention this in Living Buddhist Masters, is that practice in the West has taken a reverse direction from spiritual practice in the Asias; particularly Buddhist practice, but Hindu as well.

In Asia the tradition has three parts. You begin with sila or virtue. This is the foundation upon which any spiritual life is built. People take care with those precepts; they do not harm. There is a development of ahimsa; which is a respectful, caring, and nonviolent relationship to the people and beings around. This allows the heart to open and the mind to quiet. Out of sila comes the various spiritual practices. They are built on that as a foundation.

The second step comes after you are living a moral and a harmonious life - without which you can not really have a quiet mind or an open heart. When your actions are in harmony, then you begin to train yourself through yoga, through concentration practices, through all different ways to begin to tame the wild and untamed monkey mind, and to use that training to open up the inner realms. This is samadhi, or concentration.

The third domain is the domain of wisdom, prajna, from which arise the kinds of insights and understandings of the play of consciousness in the realm of human experience, based on the foundation of a moral life and the training in various disciplines. When those insights arise and wisdom comes they are established on a base so they become available to you easily. They already have become integrated in your life by your discipline and your prior training - and you have a context to understand them in. What has happened in the West seems to be a reverse of that.

Many people who took LSD, mushrooms, or whatever it was, along with a little spiritual reading of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or some Zen texts, had the gates of wisdom opened to a certain extent. They began to see that their limited consciousness was only one plane and one level and that there were a thousand new things to discover about the mind. There are many new realms, new perspectives on birth and death; on the nature of mind and consciousness as the field of creation, rather than the mechanical result of having a body, the biological result; and on the myth of separation and the truth of the oneness of things. Great kinds of wisdom opened up, and for some people, their hearts too. They began to see the dance in much greater perspective.

People's obvious experience was that in order to maintain this they had to keep taking the psychedelics over and over, generally speaking, that is what happened. Even though there were some transformations from these experiences, they tended to fade for a lot of people, at least aspects of them. We might want to discuss this further....

Anyway, this is a kind of simplistic analogy to the East and West but I think there might be some crucial points to it. Following that people said, "If we can't maintain the highs of consciousness that come through the psychedelics, let's see if there is some other way." And so people undertook various kinds of spiritual disciplines. They did kundalini yoga and bastrika breathing, or they did serious hatha yoga as a sadhana, raja yoga, light and concentration exercises, visualizations, or Buddhist practices as a way to get back to those profound and compelling states that had come through psychedelics.

RF: Are you saying that it instilled in people a thirst for experiences?

JK: A thirst, that is correct.

RF: Would you say this the same thirst considered to be the cause of suffering in terms of the Buddha's second noble truth? Buddha taught that we suffer because of our desire or thirst for sensual or mental experience. Suffering is inevitable because everything is transitory, yet the thirst goes on. Even the highest mystical experiences can lead to suffering because of our tendency to become attached to that which is transitory. In other words, I wonder if these experiences can actually inflate the ego or tempt it with the possibility that even "God" is within its grasp.

JK: Well, the thirst has two sides to it. There is a useful thirst as well. When it is involved with a lot of grasping and attachment - to the extent that there is grasping and attachment - there is suffering. But psychedelics awakened in people not just a thirst, but a sense of the possibilities in exploring the mind and body, and living in a different way. Then they began to have those sensitivities and those visions without repeatedly taking psychedelics, by undertaking some spiritual discipline, yoga, or meditation. People began to see what was necessary was to take care with their speech, with their relationships, with their family, with their actions in the social community and the political world, in a way that was non-harming and that was conscious. So we have gone backwards in a way to discover that the roots of fundamental change has to do with our physical body, with our behavior, and with all those things that are called "virtue," followed by a systematic discipline. Those are the supports for long lasting or genuine access to these transformative experiences.

I would not say this is true for everyone. There may be people who actually have used psychedelics as a sadhana, as a practice. But I have been around a lot and it is really rare.

RF: Stanley Krippner once said that LSD may be an important cause for the importation of Eastern spiritual practices into this country during the 1960s. Because of LSD, as you are saying, young people sought out those maps and practices which could enable them to understand their experiences.

JK: They certainly were powerful for me. I took LSD and other psychedelics at Dartmouth though I was studying Eastern thought even before then, but they came hand-in-hand as they did for many people. It is true for the majority of American Buddhist teachers that they had experience with psychedelics either right after they started their spiritual practice or prior to it.

I even know of cases where people were genuinely transformed by their experience in the way that one would be from an enlightenment experience. They are rare. Of the many hundreds of people I know who took psychedelics I know of a few cases where people had radically transformative experiences. These were as much as an "enlightenment" as any other kind of "initial enlightenment," using the terminology of a system that has a few major satoris and then finally full enlightenment. This is something you are welcome to print. However, along with it print that I am reluctant to say it because it may be misleading. It is like winning the lottery. There are not a lot of people that win. A lot of people play and not so many people win. But the potential is there. I am not sure if it is helpful for people to hear that.

RF: There is a story about a Buddhist master who was asked if you could use drugs to attain enlightenment. He said, "I sure hope so." And when Zen Master Soeng Sahn was asked what he thought about using drugs to help in the quest for self knowledge he said: "Yes, there there are special medicines, which, if taken with the proper attitude, can facilitate self-realization." Then he added: "But if you have the proper attitude, you can take anything - take a walk, or a bath. "

Could you say more about sadhana? What is the right attitude? What are those qualities of mind and action that are basic to the Buddhist path?

JK: Okay, I am thinking if there is some linking question that comes in between these two. There is really. I will mention it briefly and then I will go into the development of sadhana.

First of all, I have the utmost respect for the power of psychedelics. They are enormously powerful. They have inspired and opened and awakened possibilities in a lot of people in really deep ways. They have provided transformative experiences. In taking a tempered view of them it does not mean that I do not have a lot of respect for them, and for the work that researchers like Stan Grof and others have done.

My sense from my own Buddhist practice and from the tradition as a teacher for many years is that people underestimate the depth of change that is required to transform oneself in a spiritual practice. It requires a very great perspective called "a long enduring mind" by one Zen master - which means it can be days, weeks, months, years, and lifetimes. The propensities or conditioned habits which we have are so powerfully and deeply ingrained that even enormously compelling visions do not change them very much. Therefore, the system of liberation taught by the Buddha, and other great masters, draws on several different aspects or elements of life to help empower such a deep transformation. The Buddha said at one point, "Not good deeds, nor good karma, nor merit, nor rapture, nor visions, nor concentration, nor insight. None of these are the reasons I teach; but the sure heart's release, this and this alone." The possibility of human liberation is the center of his teachings. The liberation from greed, hatred, delusion, and the liberation from the sense of separateness and selfishness. This is a very compelling possibility for humans and it is quite profound.

To come to this level of illumination, first one has to discover the power of those forces in the heart and mind that bind us. In the beginning it may sound like the forces of greed, hatred, and delusion are a little dislike of this and wanting of that, and not being so clear about things, being confused, or not seeing so deeply. But when you have undertaken a deep spiritual practice of whatever kind, and I will include psychedelic experiences as part of that, you begin to realize that what is meant is Greed with a capital "G," the most primal kinds of grasping; and Hatred meaning Hitler and Attila the Hun in the mind; and Delusion meaning the deepest dark night. The forces are tremendously powerful. So then how does one encounter these forces and transform them in a way that leads to genuine liberation?

First, you have to have a lot of respect for them. And a lot of people use psychedelics in very misguided ways, with wrong understanding. Some modern researchers like Stan Grof have a much greater sense for set and setting and of the power of the forces that one can deal with. Similarly in spiritual practice one needs to respect the depth of these experiences. Secondly, one has to make a conscious commitment to the journey of spiritual change - through whatever inspiration - meeting an inspiring person, inspiring reading, faith, or through psychedelic experience.

Lama Chgyam Trungpa once spoke to a group in Berkeley and when he began he said: "My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and it is too demanding. What I would suggest, if you haven't already begun, is to go to the door, ask for your money back, and go home now." He said, "This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you and you should understand that from the beginning. So it is best not to begin. However," he said, "if you do begin, it is best to finish." He is such a lovely teacher.

For those who through some vision, faith, or reason have started, the next thing that is required, after seeing the power of these unconscious forces and of suffering in the world, is to make a commitment to the path of liberation, the path of the Bodhisattva, the path of the transformation of our being. To make that commitment wisely one has to realize that it encompasses every domain of life. This is the ground of spiritual discipline.

Spiritual discipline is based on our actions, our speech, and our relationship to people, animals and plants in the environment. It is related to our inner thoughts; to whether our minds are filled with hatred, jealousy, and greed, or of kindness, tenderness, and compassion. It has to do with our intimate relations to our families, lovers, friends, and to the people we work with. All of this is a fundamental part of spiritual practice.

So there is seeing the forces, making a commitment to transformation, and seeing that the path is really a deep and fundamental one. There is realizing that the work of transformation takes place on all the levels of body, speech, and mind. Then there is the beginning of a spiritual sadhana.

Now your question comes in: What are the kinds of disciplines, what are the parts to it? Again, this is a kind of elaboration of what I started on.

The ground for systematic spiritual practice is virtue. Virtue doesn't mean commandments and/or moralistic teachings, it is an understanding that one have the proper - John Lilly would call it the "launching pad," or to have the earth base covered. And so one begins here.

Sadhana means to keep the five basic precepts in mind: not killing or harming living beings; not stealing, not taking that which isn't given - not being piggy basically in a world of limited resources. To use proper speech, that is, words which are both true and helpful - not brutal honesty - but to see that one's speech is both true and useful. Speech is very powerful. Words can heal. Many people have been healed by a word from their estranged father, a great teacher, even from a stranger in certain circumstances. And words have the power to create tremendous harm and to start wars. To refrain from sexual misconduct means to take care with the great power of sexual energy. Sexual energy can be associated with greed, compulsion, lust, denigration, exploitation, or it can be associated with intimacy, care, communion, attention, and love. So make sure that energy is used in a non-harming way. Finally for intoxicants: not to use intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, which means not use them to escape, to cover over one's pain or difficulty, or in a regular or addicted way in which one has to use them. There has been tremendous suffering in the lives of many million alcoholics, drug abusers, and great suffering for their families. The unnecessary pain, misuse, and widespread addiction to substances generally has been a concern of legitimate spiritual traditions for thousands of years.

Even among the relatively conscious explorers of contemporary psychedelics, addiction and attachment has sometimes been a problem. Even more critical is the overly positive message about both the spiritual and the casual use of these drugs that has been adopted by quite a few people who could not handle them well at all. As many of us who have used psychedelics have discovered, it is not an easy path. What matters from the point of view of this precept is to make their use non-habitual (which probably means occasional). If one uses these substances, whether it is a glass of wine, a joint of marijuana, LSD, or mushrooms, this precept says to make that a conscious and careful part of your life. Without these precepts, if one even begins the journey, they will get lost or go off the track. You can not complete the journey until you get the basics right. This is really a very simple message...

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