Friday, March 27, 2009

Drugs to Enlightenment?


The fifth Precept in Buddhism runs, "I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that occasion heedlessness."
Generally this is taken to mean alcoholic beverages, which cause one to engage in behavior that violates the first four Precepts: to refrain from taking life, taking what is not given, taking liberties with regard to sexual conduct, and taking liberties with the truth.

It is not clear if entheogens would be barred. Do they occasion heedlessness with regard to the Five Precepts? That is, when one is utilizing a "mind expanding" substance, is one engaging in unskilful behavior one would regret and not otherwise engage in?

If the answer is yes, then in no way can entheogen use be justified. However, with the right intention (with a motivation to expand consciousness, tap intuition, open up and become more receptive and skillful in meditation) some may undertake this dangerous path without compromising virtue. Ultimately, like the choice of upholding the Five Precepts, one has to weigh the benefits and choose.

WQ has reported that in the past there may have been Buddhist "cults" or splinter groups who engaged in sacramental use of Soma and Amrita/Ambrosia. What were they? These were legendary substances, presumably derived from mushrooms or herbs, known as the "nectar of the gods" (when "god" is understood in the ancient Greek and Indian sense of deva).

There is no doubt that such groups existed in Hindu, Christian, and indigenous or Native European circles. The most popular entheogen in this regard, as has been reported in WQ, seems to have been Amanita muscaria (Fly agaric mushroom).

Today the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the sacramental use of Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi, yage, natema) tea. This was done in accord with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Is it safe? Will it be useful in one's spiritual quest and personal growth? Will it lead to a deterioration or an enhancement of virtue, concentration, and wisdom (sila, samadhi, and prajna) -- the three cornerstones of Buddhism?

Can "drugs" (herbs, vines, mushrooms, entheogens, sacraments) lead to enlightenment? Not directly. Can they lead to better concentration? Possibly. Can they be any worse than liver-damaging synthetic chemicals and pharmaceuticals? Probably not. They may help but must be respected, just as shamans have respected them for countless centuries. Take the case of Iboga as a powerful example.

There is no doubt psychedelics and hallucinogens can yield "wonderful" experiences. An entire generation of Americans discovered that in the 1960s. However, does it lead to Buddhist "enlightenment"? No. Can it? Maybe.

Most people have very little idea what "enlightenment" (the Buddhist term bodhi) literally means. So they frequently fail to tie it to final liberation. What is final liberation? It is freedom from:
  • ignorance (avijja, avidya)
  • wrong-views (miccha-ditthi)
  • delusion (moha)
  • selfishness (lobha, the most common and harmful wrong-view)
  • anger (dosa)
  • suffering (dukkha), and
  • continued rebirth (Samsara).

Does a drug/entheogen/plant lead to liberation from these?

Enlightenment comes in definite stages. And one may have many insights without being the least bit closer to enlightenment.

The most important insight to "enter the stream" (and directly see the Noble Eightfold Path that opens to the ocean of nirvana) is anicca, dukkha, anatta (the Three Marks of impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, egolessness). This presumes a great degree of sila (or at least past good karma that gives its result as calm-concentration when it's needed). To become a Sotapanna ("Stream-enterer"), the first stage of enlightenment, it is essential to understand these Three Marks. Will drugs (even entheogens) lead to that understanding? For example, one is likely to feel "at one with everything." But that sense of oneness is not no-self; oftentimes it is an expanded sense of self. Previously one felt limited and apart, whereas now one feels (as long as the high lasts) unlimited and deeply connected.

The Three Marks (instability, distress, and impersonality) are tricky concepts even for the most sober individual. Failing to understand these fundamental principles, drugs of any kind are likely to worsen one's understanding. They are then likely to lead one on a downward spiral, particularly as one becomes attached to feelings and experiences in spite of one's deteriorating condition. Look at all the addicts around us (coffee, heroin, nicotine, worry, alcohol, synthetic medications). Insight into impermanence, misery and no-self is accomplished systematically:

First of all, one builds a skillful, moral base (sila, i.e., the Five, Eight, or 227 Precepts). This base leads to collectedness, non-distraction, tranquility, focus (a meditative calm-and-concentration known as samadhi). Both lead to "insight" (Pali, panna or Sanskrit, prajna). Insight in turn reinforces virtue and serenity. Once one is able to enter concentrated meditative states at will, one emerges purified and turns attention to insight-meditation objects. This is the gradual path of training.

Webs of spiders exposed to four common drugs

One person's entheogen (or sacrament) is another person's substance of abuse.

Will entheogens lead to more love (empathy) and the fundamental ethical principle of ahimsa (doing no harm to oneself or others)? Or do drugs weaken body, intellect, and sympathy?

Will entheogens lead to better focus, undistractedness, attention (free of thoughts and judgments), and concentration?
The Buddha defined samadhi ("concentration") as the Four Jhanas (or meditative absorptions). The first English translators (Pali Text Society, etc.) rendered the jhanas as "trances." This is because they look from the outside like unconscious states. They, however, are the opposite. They are one-pointed (ekagata) states of concentration, wherein the mind (full awareness and attention) is absorbed into a single object. (This is often spoken of without clarification as "non-duality," a state where there is no distinction between the observer and that which is being observed).

Finally, will entheogens lead to "wisdom"? Wisdom arises intuitively from direct observation of phenomena (as outlined in the Maha Satipatthana Sutra, the "Longer Discourse on the Fourfold Setting Up of Mindfulness"). No amount of direct observation in the absence of sila and samadhi (undistracted concentration built on a firm base) yields liberating insight. (That's why Vipassana practice, as helpful as it is in relieving stress and directing one, doesn't pack an enlightening punch; the fuel, the catalysts, the intensifiers are missing). It is wisdom because it leads to more virtue and more concentration.

There is a famous saying. "Knowledge always leads to pride, whereas wisdom always leads to humility." That's the difference to look for in terms of whether one is progressing on a fruitful path of practice (drugged or otherwise).

A guide, at the very least a companion, is crucial. "The supreme life leading to enlightenment is not partly based on noble friendship (kalyana-mitta); it is completely rooted in good companionship and wise association." Also crucial is some purification (dietary, emotional, moral), a ritual (a set of behaviors to be engaged in when one is no longer in one's proper state of mind), and conducive surroundings.

You don't fly to the moon on a whim. If you do, you certainly don't expect to come back safely. Or as it is more commonly said, "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail."

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