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Buddhism, Shamanism and the use of entheogens

Psychedelics, entheogens and hallucinogens

Definition: The word 'psychedelic' is formed from the Greek roots psyche -  'mind' and delos - 'clear, manifest'. Psychedelic therefore literally means 'manifesting clear mind'.  It is also sometimes defined as 'mind expanding'.

Psychedelic agents are usually derived from natural products (technically known as 'secondary metabolites') of plants and fungi.  They have been used since time immemorial by Shaman religious practitioners.

The word 'psychedelia' is sometimes used to refer to psychedelic agents, but more commonly means art and music created under the influence of psychedelic agents.

A related term to 'psychedelic agent' is 'entheogen', which means invoking the divine nature within oneself.

Contrasting terms are 'hallucinogenic' and 'hallucinogen', which mean causing hallucinations.

The words 'psychedelic', 'entheogenic' and 'hallucinogenic' are often used to describe the same agents, such as mescalin, LSD, psilocybin and so on. However their use has different connotations.  The terms 'psychedelic' and 'entheogen' suggest a genuine experience, whereas 'hallucinogen' suggests confusion and derangement.

From the Buddhist point of view the use of all intoxicants is frowned upon, nevertheless the effects of psychedelic agents need to be examined in two respects:

  1. The materialistic versus spiritual explanation for their effects.
  2. The large number of Western Buddhists who have started on their spiritual path from the use of entheogens.

Materialistic versus spiritual explanations of the effects of hallucinogens/entheogens

From the materialist's viewpoint, transcendental and religious experiences are the result of the disordered functioning of the brain. The fact that people get spiritual experiences under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs clearly demonstrates that all these transpersonal experiences are simply delusions caused by disruption of the normal electrochemical activity of the neurones.

From the spiritual viewpoint the mind is not the same thing as the brain. The brain is an organ which has evolved to present a particular interpretation of reality to the non-physical mind. There's no dispute that the brain operates abnormally under the influence of entheogens - but you've got to ask yourself - what is the purpose of the normal functioning of the brain?

The brain hasn't evolved to represent ultimate reality to the mind. The brain has evolved by selection of the fittest (not the most truthful) to project  the delusion of the inherently-existing self onto the mind. This delusion of a permanent, unchanging self is 'imputed' over the ever-changing transitory collection of biochemical building blocks that makes up the physical aspects of a sentient being.

These biochemical building blocks are brought together by a loose temporary alliance of selfish genes. This alliance comes into existence at conception and ends at death. When the brain is functioning *correctly*, it is acting in the best interests of the alliance.

The brain is the alliance's propaganda machine, and it is constantly exhorting the mind to:

" Preserve ME !   Reproduce ME ! "

The correct functioning of the propaganda machine is obviously necessary for the preservation and procreation of the species. Nevertheless, to perform its function the brain needs to project a distorted view of the self onto the mind.

Disruption of this ceaseless barrage of ME-ME propaganda by psychedelic agents enables the mind to temporarily push the doors of perception ajar and peek beyond mundane biologically-determined appearances. 

Entheogens and the spiritual path

It's no secret that many Westerners have come to Buddhism via use of psychoactive substances (in fact the Buddhist magazine Tricycle once devoted an entire issue to this subject). This was especially true for the 'baby boomer' generation who reached adulthood in the sixties. Like the Beatles, they realised that mind-altering chemicals could demonstrate that there was a spiritual dimension to existence, but the only way for a westerner to follow it in any controlled manner was by meditation.

This isn't to disparage shamanism, but shamans typically undergo a prolonged period of meditative training before using these substances. The shaman will also use pure legal natural preparations of known potency, rather than illegally popping pills of dubious origin, or munching magic mushrooms which may or may not be the correct species.


Historically Buddhism has probably been helped in its spread to the West by prior familiarity with expanded mental states during the psychedelic era.   But these factors would seem to be of declining influence nowadays. Present day use of psychedelic agents should be discouraged on the following grounds:

  • They are mostly illegal.
  • They are often adulterated and may cause physical and psychological problems.
  • They may contain or lead on to use of addictive substances.
  • There are the dangers of a bad trip - if your meditation gets a little freaky you can just stop. But if you've dropped acid you have no choice but to go where it takes you.
  • The dangers of a one-way trip.  It takes a professional mycologist to identify mushroom species correctly. Get the wrong type of Amanita, and -   Bye bye, its Bardo time!
  • Safe techniques of manifesting clear mind are now readily available in the form of meditation classes. Why use a sledgehammer to break down the doors of perception when you could simply unlock them by turning the key?

See also:
Anthropology of religion
'...Among many anthropologists it has recently become fashionable to dismiss all religions as memes -  parasitic mental processes which propagate in the same manner as chain letters...'

Arguments against Buddhism
The best way to understand the strengths of a philosophy is to attempt to refute it.

Buddhist Teachings
on the mind, personal relationships, meditation and the spiritual path.

The very subtle mind
'...The mind is neither physical, nor a by-product of purely physical processes, but a formless continuum that is a separate entity from the body. When the body disintegrates at death, the mind does not cease. Although our superficial conscious mind ceases, it does so by dissolving into a deeper level of consciousness, called 'the very subtle mind'. The continuum of our very subtle mind has no beginning and no end....'

'... To the western materialist, the state of a 'dead' mind is OFF / Non-Existent / No Activity.  It is the ultimate Quietus -  no experience  whatsoever. To the Buddhist it is impossible to envisage 'no mind'. The state of a disembodied mind is active, hallucinatory and, depending on its karmic imprints, sometimes nightmarish...'

'...compassion is the root of a Buddha because all Buddhas arise fom the mind of compassion, it is the root of Dharma because Buddhas give Dharma teachings out of compassion for others, and it is the root of the Sangha because it is impossible to become Sangha without practising compassion.'

Dharma and dogma
'Buddha Shakyamuni never claimed to have any higher authority for his teachings than his own experience.'

'The western response to materialism is dualism, which claims that there are two kinds of things in the universe - material objects and souls. The major exponent of dualism was Descartes. Dualism implies that  mental experience is a radically new feature that only humans possess, and a late optional extra slipped into an already well-defined, functional, physical universe.'

'Dukkha is sometimes translated as suffering but in actual fact encompasses all senses of unsatisfactoriness,  even including pleasure (which evolution has contrived  will always be a transient sensation - lest it detract too much from the grim business of survival).'

The mind cannot be an emergent property of the brain or any other physical system, since emergent properties and emergent phenomena are psychological in origin, and require the pre-existence of an observer's mind in order to become manifest.

Feminine spirituality, philosophy and science
'Why is God male rather than female? Gender is required to allow DNA to recombine and evolve in different and potentially novel combinations.  Patriarchal religions preach that God is a single unborn, uncreated, unevolved, non-biological entity who does not reproduce and will endure for all eternity. He hasn't undergone evolution Himself,  so why does He need to be sexually differentiated at all?.

Feud between Science and Religion
'Many (most?) scientists believe religions to be irrational, obscurantist and anti-scientific. The problem goes back to Galileo, who discovered that the earth goes round the sun, rather than vice-versa as stated in the Bible.'

Formless mind
'The description of the root mind as 'formless' doesn't just refer to its non-material nature, but it emphasises that it is unlimited, non-mechanistic and totally free from any structure or topology. . In Buddhist psychology the root mind is non-physical and non-algorithmic.  The mind cannot be understood in terms of circuit diagrams and flowcharts. It is pure awareness.'

'For in Him we live, and move, and have our being'

'Sow an action, reap a habit.
Sow a habit, reap a character.
Sow a character, reap a destiny.'

Laws of physics - their anthropic origin
'Both quantum theory and Buddhist teachings on sunyata suggest that as soon as an observer's mind makes contact with a superposed system, all the numerous possibilities collapse into one actuality. At some instant one of these possible alternative universes produced an observing lifeform. The first act of observation by this mind caused the entire superposed multiverse to collapse immediately into one of its numerous alternatives'

'The Mahayana practitioner's objective is to achieve advanced spiritual states (culminating after many lifetimes in Buddhahood), in order to guide, teach and ultimately rescue all unhappy sentient beings from their suffering. To do this she needs to develop a number of attributes including great compassion (bodhicitta). '

There can be a number of objectives of meditation from simple relief of stress, through improving the long-term peace of mind in this life, up to stabilising and clarifying the subtle (permanent) mind that goes on to future lives.'

Parietal Lobe and Mystical Experience
To the average Westerner, deliberately cultivating the idea that your ego doesn't exist as a fixed entity may seem weird and scary, but in fact it can be immensely liberating.   As one of the researcher/meditators taking part in the study said "It feels like a loss of boundary. It's as if the film of your life broke and you were seeing the light that allowed the film to be projected"

Particle physics
Basically, what quantum theory says is that fundamental particles are empty of inherent existence and exist in an undefined state of potentialities. They have no existence 'from their own side' and do not become 'real' until a mind interacts with them and gives them meaning.

'The Buddhist does not doubt that the brain does some very sophisticated ordering of its incoming nerve impulses into the datastructures which are the objects of knowledge.   But when all is said and done, those datastructures remain as objects. They are not themselves knowledge, neither are they that which performs the function of knowing.'

Rebirth - reincarnation
The belief in rebirth is not confined to Buddhism..... few Christians realised the importance of the concept of reincarnation or rebirth in Judaism, where it is known as 'gilgul' or 'ibur'.   This  has raised the question: 'If belief in rebirth occurs in Judaism, why was it not carried forward into Christianity?'   The Buddhist and Jewish beliefs are similar in that it is the very subtle, non-material mind which survives death. Since this is the only thing that we can take with us to the future, we need to make the best use of our present life to improve its state. 

Science of the mind?
Science will never be able to analyse such phenomena... because these 'things' do not have any structure - they do not have any nuts and bolts for the dismantling tools of science to get a grip on. 
The phrase 'Science of Consciousness' is thus a self-contradiction.

Sentient beings
What make a sentient being different from an automaton?

Symbiotic mind
Animals above a certain level of development require more than automatic reflexes in order to survive. Advanced organisms need motivation and intention in order to function in complex environments. Motivation and intention are chiefly driven by dukkha - the need to avoid suffering or unsatisfactoriness and the restless but futile search for lasting happiness. It is the suffering and grasping of their minds - the need to avoid pain and seek pleasure - that provides the driving force for survival and reproduction of complex animals.

Evocative symbols are interpreted by and affect the more subtle levels of the mind. Evocative symbolism is associated with art, architecture and poetry, especially where there is a spiritual aspect.

Tantra and Tantric Meditation
All phenomena are free from inherent existence, that is they are not definable in terms of themselves, but are dependently related to other phenomena.  The same line of reasoning can be applied to our own identities, for if we search hard enough for our Self or Ego -  we find it isn't there!

Tat Tvam Asi - That Thou Art
Is the mind of God separate from the minds of His creatures?   Do we all have a spark of universal mind?

Tibetan Death Chart

Transpersonal Psychology
Transpersonal Psychology grew out of the rejection of the mechanistic or behaviorist model of the mind which was the orthodoxy of the mid-twentieth century academic establishment .   Charles T. Tart refers to this orthodoxy when describing his college experience in the 1960's: 'As to things like mystical experiences, if they were mentioned at all, which was rare, they were relegated to the fringes of psychiatry as being undoubtedly schizophrenic in nature and just showed how sick religions were to be associated with superstitious nonsense like that'

Wicca - an intuitive reaction against materialism?
'As both Tibetan Buddhism and Wicca are growing rapidly in the English-speaking countries, there will come a time when there will need to be an interfaith dialogue between the two paths. The purpose of this article is to examine the similarities and differences between Wicca and Tibetan Buddhism.'


- Sean Robsville


If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation