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Full Review
Zig Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics
by Allan Hunt Badiner & Alex Grey (eds.)
Chronicle Books LLC 
Reviewed by free agent .rez, 7/5/2005

Zig Zag Zen explores the intricate relationship between Buddhism and psychedelics in the West. There are several ways to approach reviewing a book like Zig Zag Zen, because books affect people for different reasons at different points in their lives. There was a time when I would have read this book as a metaprogrammer, experimenting with psychedelics and their effects. Now, I am most certainly more a part of the other intended audience: those who are primarily Buddhist who also have some experience with or interest in psychedelics. But a book such as this one can also be reviewed from a third perspective: a pivotal coming-together of elements, which has the ability to spark new points of view and synergies that would not have come about had either topic been explored in isolation.

It is this third view of Zig Zag Zen that interests me the most. Factual data on psychedelic experiences is something that I have long since left far behind, and indeed, even when I was into such details, I often found them to abstract me away from my experience much as throwing words at the meditative practice can sometimes separate one from its most immediate effects. Depth of study in either the realm of psychedelics or Buddhism is, likewise, not what Zig Zag Zen is about. It is definitely a sampler, but for those with open eyes, Zig Zag Zen has the capacity to be extremely influential, and to perhaps be encountered as a pivotal work, in a pivotal time. This is, admittedly, an instinctive argument: many people are led towards psychedelics or towards Buddhism during times when they have opened themselves up to other possibilities. So, it is also possible for the seasoned psychedelic enthusiast, or the practicing Buddhist, to use this book to jumpstart their explorations into the other area.

It is worth asking why should psychedelics and Buddhism be considered together at all. Indeed, the forward to the book, by respected Buddhist author Stephen Batchelor (Buddhism Without Beliefs), addresses this question. He points out that, for whatever combination of reasons, Buddhists in the West have often arisen from the ranks of psychedelic explorers, and that therefore, understanding this connection is key to understanding the prospects of Buddhism in the West. That this connection is so often overlooked is to the detriment of those who would study Western Buddhism without the insights that an understanding of this crossroads can

In “The Paisley Gate,” Zig Zag Zen perhaps finds its perfect fulcrum and balancing point. Erik Davis makes an extremely astute observation and states a pivotal thesis: that Buddhism must approach psychedelics in the West much as the indigenous spirit/nature-religion of Bon was approached by Buddhism as it entered Tibet, an inherent element of the environment that would have to be integrated, rather than shoved aside, for Buddhism to truly take hold and find its full potency. This analogy is doubly apt considering the extent to which psychedelic experience calls upon indigenous, shamanic, and nature-spirit currents for its roots and methods. However, the West also represents an opportunity for that raw primal shamanic energy as well, one which perhaps was not available to Bon practitioners in Tibet: the possible positive repercussions of a true fusion with Buddhism (and not simply a surrender to its methods) are immense, and should be of extreme interest to anyone concerned about the fate of the Western world (and the world as a whole). If the middle-ground between inherent compassion and ecstatic exploration can be found and forged, practitioners and world alike could benefit tremendously. In this aspect alone, Zig Zag Zen has the potential to become as pivotal a book for its time and place as Be Here Now was for its.

Zig Zag Zen will appeal to a broad audience of Buddhists and psychedelic experimenters, and none should expect that every essay will prove equally compelling to them. For instance, I had left psychedelics to one side for so long that it took me a fair bit of effort to digest and truly enjoy the earlier essays which concentrate on the psychedelic side of the connection. (See, notably, “A High History of Buddhism in America,” third essay in the book). However, once I found those essays which spoke to me most directly, I was more easily able to find inroads into the others. So, Zig Zag Zen should be approached with a sense of exploration, and one should not be afraid to skip around liberally while getting one’s bearings. This advice relates also to my suggestion that Zig Zag Zen is in its best capacity as a crossroads and a fecund coming-together of themes, as a catalyst and springboard for further exploration of either Buddhism or psychedelics, depending on where you are coming from.

For me, then, many of the most interesting essays were in the later half of the book, which gives as much emphasis to Buddhism as the first half does to psychedelics. Of these, I found particularly illuminating the discussion with the late Terence McKenna, wherein he expresses his sincere surprise at the extent to which Buddhism has explored realms he had decided were solely the realm of psychedelia. An understanding of the blind spot approached in this essay seems crucial to a true understanding of the bigger issue: “The puzzle to me is how Buddhism achieves all of this without psychedelics; not only how but why, since these dimensions of experience seem fairly easily accessed, given hallucinogenic substances and plants, and excruciatingly rare and unusual by any other means.”

Herein lies, I think, the key. It would seem possible that Buddhists have in many cases different goals, and so their motivations may seem more opaque to those who approach the experience of openness to the flotsam and jetsam of the mind/world with more of the eye of the neutral explorer.

In Zig Zag Zen’s final discussion, perhaps the most illuminating of all as it brings together three individuals representing three fairly different approaches to the issue, Robert Aitken notes (as a Buddhist) that “we seek understanding, not ecstasy.” While there seems nothing inherently wrong with ecstasy as a mindstate, many of the book’s later, Buddhist authors point out the pitfalls inherent in any quick path to ecstasy, or to extreme psychic experience. In “On The Front Lines,” Michelle McDonald-Smith warns of “a deep level of attachment in the mind, where if one is needing to repeat an experience, it is reinforcing [...] attachment [to that experience]. When a person feels that they need drugs to deepen their spiritual journey they’re just reinforcing the attachment to those particular states of consciousness.”

The crux of the question seems to be what is done with the openness which results from extreme spiritual/mindbody experience. Is it used to open up further to the world, and thereby sense its sufferings and seek to soothe them, or does it simply allow one to fold in on themselves, descending into deeper and deeper layers of technical juggling? The Buddhist who is hung up on the minutiae of interpretations of the dharma is no less at risk than the psychedelic explorer whose main concern has become the cataloging of sets and settings, dosages and details. the middle path seems to avoid these diversions form genuine openness, and steer one back towards remaining exposed and tender towards the world.

One of the most intriguing concepts set forth by the late Chogyam Trungpa was that compassion was an all-but-inevitable byproduct of openness. If one is truly open and exposed to their environment, to the extent that they can see clearly that their “me” does not end with their own skin, then compassion towards an ailing world becomes a natural response. Certainly psychedelics open one up to SOMEthing. I cannot say whether or not my own experiences with psychedelics, and the openness or exposure they create, led me towards greater compassion. I can, however, say that my experiences with psychedelics DID lead me towards Buddhism, and that through Buddhism, my compassion towards the world and sense of responsibility to the world has indeed increased. For that I owe my psychedelic experiences a debt of gratitude.

Whichever direction you are coming from or going, Zig Zag Zen can serve as a pivotal roadmap and compass, and more importantly, can introduce you to ideas and connections you had forgotten, or had not yet discovered. But it can be hesitantly offered that all roads through psychedelics ultimately lead to openness in one form or another, and that all roads through openness ultimately lead to Buddhism in one form or another. Perhaps Buddhism leads back to psychedelics, and perhaps not. Either way, both will benefit from the dialogue represented so well in this volume.

Originally Published In : Trip
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