In 1964, former Harvard research psychologists Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (before the latter went to India and came back as Ram Dass), along with Harvard grad student Ralph Metzner, adapted the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead to a thoroughly modern purpose: as a road map for people tripping on psychoactive substances. Beginning in 1960, the men had conducted psychological experiments with psychedelics at Harvard, working under rigorous scientific conditions with subjects ranging from divinity students to incarcerated prisoners, and also exploring the drugs for personal use. Two years later Harvard fired Leary (for not showing up to class) and Alpert (for allegedly giving an undergrad psilocybin in a private apartment). Undeterred, they took their experiments off-campus, going on to garner so much publicity they had to turn away droves of volunteers who wanted to participate.
Aldous Huxley, who had been on the founding board of the Harvard experiments, suggested they adapt the Tibetan Book of the Dead as a guide for trippers; in its centuries-old spiritual instructions for navigating the states of consciousness leading up to and following physical death, it offered a surprisingly usable model. Leary, Alpert, and Metzner called their version The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and it was in print for years, eventually becoming a Penguin Modern Classic, right alongside the works of Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf, and John Steinbeck.
The linking of a venerable Eastern religious text and hippie hallucinogenic drug use encapsulates a dirty little open secret of the American counterculture: “A significant portion of those drawn to Buddhism and other Eastern traditions in the 1960s (including the present writer) were influenced in their choice of religious orientation by experiences induced by psychoactive substances such as cannabis and LSD,” writes the eminent Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor in his foreword to Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics (Synergetic Press, 2015). The intersections between the two — and the attendant doctrinal, ethical, and mystical issues those intersections raise — are explored in Zig Zag Zen, a newly expanded edition of an anthology of essays, interviews, and artwork that was first published by Chronicle Books in 2002.
Edited by Tricycle Magazine contributing editor Allan Badiner and with art curated by the visionary painter Alex Grey, this second edition is shrewdly timed. Eastern practices like yoga and meditation, introduced to mainstream American culture in the ’60s, now form the basis of a multibillion-dollar industry, and the Dalai Lama is a pop-cultural icon with 12.2 million Twitter followers. Scientific experiments on the medicinal and therapeutic uses of psychoactive substances are currently on the rise. Among Westerners, so is personal exploration of hallucinogenic plant medicines from indigenous shamanic cultures, like the Amazonian ayahuasca vine, the Andean San Pedro cactus, and the African shrub iboga. Imagery from psycho-spiritual realms can be found in rave culture, in the burgeoning music festival scene, and throughout Burning Man. Most of these trends are touched on to varying degrees in Zig Zag Zen, in new essays that augment the original pieces, penned by such heavyweights as Huston Smith, Joan Halifax Roshi, Jack Kornfield, Gary Snyder, Peter Matthiessen, and Terence McKenna.
To someone (including the present writer) who practices both Buddhist meditation and sacramental (not recreational) use of ayahuasca, the historical connection between ’60s psychedelic drug use and the rise of American Buddhism makes intuitive sense. The consciousness techniques I’ve honed through longtime meditation practice and years of yoga are my secure foundation when I take an inner journey during an ayahuasca ceremony. For the painter Alex Grey, this connection first arose through the visuals induced by psychedelics. “It was only after I had taken LSD,” he writes in Zig Zag Zen, “that the thangka paintings of Tibet and Nepal began to make sense, with their glowing beings surrounded by rainbow light and horrific many-headed, multi-limbed deities surrounded by patterned flames. My pursuit of the meaning of those images then began in earnest, with study of Buddhist scripture and my becoming familiar with the art’s unusual perspective on existence.”
In Zig Zag Zen, Grey has curated a collection of images that only begins to suggest the enormous variety of both Buddhist and psychedelic experience, as well as some of the links between the two. The new edition has 40 artworks in a variety of media (up from the original 30), by artists ranging from Odilon Redon, Mark Rothko, and Francesco Clemente to Mariko Mori, Randal Roberts, and Android Jones. “Some of the artists appearing in this volume have never done drugs, and some of these artists have probably never meditated,” Grey explains (immediately making me want to know who has and hasn’t done which, but he says no more). What ties the images together, to Grey’s curatorial eye, is something he calls “Vajravision”:
The vajra is a spiritual tool, a thunderbolt scepter owned by the Hindu god Indra. It was adopted by the Buddhist sages as a symbol of the diamond-like clarity and brilliance of the mind’s true nature, and has come to stand for a special class of Buddhist teachings [the Vajrayana] … A dependable way to introduce one’s self to the brightly colored and minutely articulated visionary inner worlds, to “see” with Vajravision, is through an entheogenic or psychedelic experience.
Zig Zag Zen is boosterish throughout on the concept of psychedelics as a spiritual technology; here, for example, is Grey on the contemporary use of hallucinogens: “Psychedelics are ancient sacramental tools for bringing humanity into alignment with higher wisdom. For many people [today] psychedelics are the reset button for a meaningful life. It was that way for me.”
The language might seem over-the-top, but public interest in the subject is certainly present. Last July Synergetic Press teamed up with Evolver Learning Lab to offer a three-week “Buddhism and Psychedelics” interactive video class live from New York’s Rubin Museum, hosted by Badiner and featuring Grey and his artist wife, Allyson, for the first class. The series sold out so quickly that a repeat session was immediately added. Perhaps we are, as Grey writes, “in the time of a worldwide sacramental psychedelic revolution.” Given the depth of growth I myself have had on this path, I can only hope this is so.
Overall, Zig Zag Zen presents a wealth of intelligent perspectives on Buddhism and psychedelics, and Grey’s selection of artworks gives a welcome glimpse of inner human experiences for which verbal descriptions invariably fall short. It does leave me wanting more on the art side — more images, and even an additional essay or two giving art-historical context to the works. For that, we’ll have to wait for the third edition. If interest in the transformative power of sacred psychedelic use keeps rising, there’s sure to be one.
Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics is now available from Synergetic Press.