Are drugs ever a valid part of the spiritual path as an awakening tool?
Some people see drug experiences as spiritual experiences in that they open up new pathways in the mind. But at the same time, others are being closed down. What gets closed down varies from person to person, but usually it's mindfulness that goes. People confuse mindfulness and alertness. In drug experiences you can be extremely alert--to colors, to certain relationships--but mindfulness, your ability to keep certain principles in mind, to keep a sense of judgment intact, is compromised. You're wowed by things that aren't actually all that substantial. There's nothing to guarantee that the realizations you get during drug use are valid. I remember in college writing down insights I had when I was on drugs and reading them the next day and wondering, "What was I thinking!"
What is the Buddhist view of drug use?
The Buddha saw that intoxicants of whatever variety limit brain function and give you strong states of delusion. People, he said, are intoxicated as it is--with youth and health and life--and drugs add more on top of that. When you're intoxicated, it's difficult to see reality for what it is. Not that you can't have moments of insight and intense experiences, but you don't realize how limited they are.
Moreover, it's not a safe tool--it's a sloppy way of using the mind because the results are unpredictable and your power of judgment is so impaired. The Buddha wanted to give people a safe path. That's why he established the fifth precept: the vow to abstain from using intoxicants.
People who've used psychedelic drugs point to experiences of bliss or ecstasy, and a sense of interconnectedness and compassion, which they see as spiritually significant. You can also have those experiences on a meditation cushion. Are feelings of bliss and connection important in and of themselves?
Ecstasy is not the goal of the spiritual path. On the meditative path, we do create states where there's a lot of bliss. But it's the mindfulness and alertness that are also cultivated that help you understand the nature of that bliss--how you got there, and how there can be a sense of stress even in a state of bliss. It takes a lot of alertness and discernment to see that. In meditation, you use the state of bliss as a tool for gaining insight into the constructed nature of reality and as a basis for deconstructing it.
But isn't someone who has attained nirvana, like the Buddha, in a state of bliss?
It's said to be a different kind of bliss. It's the ecstasy of liberation, of having no attachments, no clinging.
What about the sense of connection and compassion? Isn't that meaningful?
Compassion, while it's important, doesn't end suffering. People who've felt very alienated may enjoy a sense of being interconnected [on drugs], but the compassion that grows out of it is not the ultimate aim of the spiritual path, either, unless you have the wisdom and equanimity to accompany it.
How do the delusional states of mind that arise during a drug experience differ from run-of-the-mill delusional states of mind, like anger or infatuation?
Actually, they're pretty similar. When you're angry, certain functions of your mind get shut down, and you do whatever occurs to you. There's a lot of delusion. You're actively blocking out certain aspects of reality to focus only on tiny parts of an experience.
What do you think about the fact that so many Western Buddhists and Buddhist teachers came to their path after experiences with psychedelic drugs? I think it tells you a lot about the poverty of the religious scene back in the 1950s and 1960s--that people had to use drugs to get tuned in to different levels of reality. What bothers me is when people look back and don't see the limitations of drug experiences versus what they're experiencing. Otherwise, it's not really a problem, as long as the limitations are acknowledged and left behind.
Have you taught meditation to students who are using drugs?
I've taught people who had been heavy drug uses, and they just can't get it together. They have lots of problems with concentration, even if they're no longer using drugs. It can do long-term damage to the mind.