Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics

Jun 26, 2002 at 12:00 am

After downing some unmentionables one night in college, a friend had a vision involving life force, a river and thrones. The way he explained it, the experience beat the hell out of Philosophy of Religion 101. The next day, he lamented on his inability to go that deep without drugs.

“It’s like drugs are the training wheels,” he said. “I need to learn how to ride the bike.”

In Zig Zag Zen, several authors probe the connection between drug-induced visionary states and altered states of consciousness achieved through an integrated spiritual practice — a commitment to learn “how to ride the bike.” Editor Allan Hunt Badiner draws on an impressive cast of characters for this collection, including everyone from Soto Zen master Dokusho Villalba Sensei to big hippie Ram Dass.

Many authors give firsthand accounts of their own drug-induced visions and how these flashes of insight affected their spiritual lives. Alex Grey, who edited the book’s incredible collection of visionary art, discusses the benefits of creating from a deeper aspect of being. Rick Fields chronicles the history of psychedelic drug use and Buddhism in America.

According to Badiner, “consciousness-constricting drugs” such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are not being called into question here — only a group of psychedelics known as “entheogens” (literally, “that which gives rise to inner divinity”). And several of the works, including Robert Jesse’s “A Survey of the Entheogens,” are medical accounts of peyote, MDMA, LSD, DMT and other entheogenic drugs.

Zig Zag Zen is a thick, beautiful book attempting to cover a profound and visually stimulating topic. It largely succeeds, weaving together observations, personal experiences, formal studies and flat-out opinions. The only area where it falls short is with the “Zen” in the title.

Visionary states may go hand in hand with Buddhism, but they also have a connection to other shamanic and mystical traditions. A few of these traditions are even touched on in the book — including Badiner’s own account of drinking the psychedelic yagé with a Hawaiian shaman. And still, the book returns to Buddhism, perhaps because it’s a spiritual path that many Westerners feel comfortable pursuing. Tripping out in a dorm room and walking to the local Zen center is more socially acceptable than wigging out on the jungle floor and going to attend services with the Brazilian Santo Daime.

For a topic this far-reaching, the title and general Buddhist focus seem constricting at times. Other than that, Zig Zag Zen is an informative, scenic and entirely enjoyable bike ride.

E-mail Kari Jones at [email protected].