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Full Review
Zen, Drugs & Mysticism
by R.C. Zaehner
Pantheon Books 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Erowid, 5/29/1998

An extremely interesting topic from a one-sided viewpoint. Zaehner’s use of derogatory phrases such as “apostles of the psychedelic cult” and “propagandists of psychedelic religion” to describe anyone who is interested in the possibility that entheogens could produce a mystical state…is a good example of his position. His tone is sometimes quite mocking and he seems entrenched in traditional religious thought. A serious work that we couldn’t take seriously.

1 Comment »

  1. This has a reputation as an anti-drugs book by an anti-drugs religious academic, and this reputation isn’t entirely unfair. However, on skipping through it again recently, it struck me that it’s a litle more nuanced than that.

    In 1972 drugs weren’t new – but the idea that they were a route to spiritual experience, particularly for Westerners, was. Zaehner was writing in the context of a deluge of New Age material which routinely asserted that young Westerners taking LSD were doing ‘the same thing’ as shamans do in traditional Amazonian cultures, or ‘our’ notional ancestors did in the prehistoric past. Such claims are clearly more problematic than they seemed to the first generation of psychedelic evangelists, and it’s striking that Zaehner was the only person taking the trouble to deconstruct these assumptions at the time.

    I’ve also since read Zaehner’s own trip report, of taking mescaline in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge (I think – sorry, no refs to hand :-). It’s hilarious – his decision to place himself in a pious religious setting backfires memorably. It’s a salutary reminder of tripping’s mercurial qualities – how the experience can be wildly playful and subversive in ways that undermine any serious spiritual intent – and it rather changes the personality of Zen, Drugs and Mysticism. It no longer seems like a book written by an anti-drug zealot, but by someone who had the curiosity and courage to try psychedelics, enjoyed himself thoroughly but found the religiosity peddled by Leary, Harner to be pretentious and in certain ways at odds with the actual experience.

    Zen, Drugs and Mysticism is still in many ways a crusty, pompous and reactionary book. But it’s not quite the straightforward anti-drugs tome I’d remembered it as.

    Comment by JTM — 9/24/2006 @ 3:27 am

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