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Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals
by Huston Smith
Sentient Publications 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jay Yasgur R.Ph, M.Sc., 8/13/2007

With Cleansing the Doors of Perception, Huston Smith—philosopher, religious scholar, author, and teacher—presents a collection of his essays written over the past forty years.

Although these essays were originally published in various other places, they have recently been edited liberally for inclusion in this volume, making the collection a unique offering. The book wrestles with Smith’s essential question: “Do drugs have a religious/spiritual importance?” I think we all know the answer to this query. Smith quotes Aldous Huxley (who was indirectly responsible for introducing Smith to entheogens, via Timothy Leary) as stating that “nothing was more curious, and to his way of thinking more important, than the role that mind-altering plants and chemicals have played in human history.” Later, at the end of the Preface, Smith offers another relevant Huxley paraphrase: “chemicals [don’t] cause visionary experiences, they occasion them.”

In the Introduction, Smith succinctly presents his personal history, as well as the events and thoughts that lead up to his entheogenic initiation on January 1, 1961. In the essays that follow, he talks of soma, the Eleusinian mysteries, the Native American Church, empirical metaphysics, the case of Cardinal J.H. Newman, the sacred unconscious, and more. In discussing Walter Pahnke’s Good Friday Experiment, Smith provides details of “…a significant incident that occurred during the experiment [which] had not appeared in the reports…” So as not to spoil the suspense, I won’t relate the specifics in this review, other to mention that it involved one of the participants who managed to escape the church setting! Pahnke conducted this experiment on the Boston University campus as part of his Ph.D. dissertation, and Smith dedicated Cleansing the Doors of Perception book to Pahnke’s memory.

Smith’s essay “Historical Evidence: India’s Sacred Soma” provides the reader with just enough detail about R. Gordon Wasson’s research to not drag on and bore. It is good reading for the uninitiated:

“…When fragments of the white veil of the fly-agaric still cling to, the cap, though night has taken over all else, from afar you may still see Soma, silver white; resting in his well-appointed birth-place close by some birch or pine tree. Here is how three thousand years ago a priest-poet of the Indo-Aryans gave voice to this impression: “By day he appears the color of fire, by night, silver white (IX 979d).” Soma’s scarlet coat dominates by day; by night the redness sinks out of sight, and the white patches, silvery by moon and starlight, take over” (4:41–42).

Two appendices finish off the book: “Secularization and the Sacred: The Contemporary Scene” and “Thinking Allowed with Jeffrey Mishlove: A Televised Interview.”

This edition of Cleansing the Doors of Perception is well produced, with an easy-to-read layout and font, on a cream-toned paper, and an adequate index. You will be well served with the purchase of this fascinating volume.

Originally Published In : in the Winter Solstice 2003 issue of The Entheogen Review

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