NEW BOOK BY HUSTON SMITH
Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception:
The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals
(Tarcher/Putnam). By Craig Comstock
From the Mysticism Study Group Newsletter, American
Academy of Religion, December 2000.
Used by CSP with permission of the author.
After educating over two and a half million buyers of The World's Religions,
exploring the subject with Bill Moyers in a 5-part TV series, and receiving eleven
honorary degrees, what moved Huston Smith, in his senior years, to take up the live-wire
question of the religious efficacy of certain psychoactive agents? The proximate cause
was a suggestion from the Council on Spiritual Practices (www.csp.org), but it turns
out that this question has long engaged the energies of the author.
Gathering his essays on entheogens, the new book starts with a report inspired by his
own experience with mescaline, includes his widely-anthologized essay, "Do Drugs Have
Religious Import?", and deals with such subjects as "the sacred unconscious," the work
of Stanislav Grof, and the experiment with an entheogen at Boston University's Marsh
Chapel, in which the author was a participant. Smith's title of course alludes to
Aldous Huxley's slim book of 1954, which itself borrows the line from William Blake:
"if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is,
infinite." (It is also possible to read the manuscript as "every thing.")
In Cleansing the Doors of Perception, the author reports on the occasion
that "enlarged my understanding of God by affording me the only powerful experience
I have had of his personal nature" (page 105). Smith explains that while he knew that
God is love, he'd never been immersed in the knowledge that "God loves me,
and I him, in the concrete way that humans beings love individuals, each
most wanting from the other what the other most wants to give and with everything
that might distract from that holy relationship excluded from view."
The agent that occasioned this experience was psilocybin, a psychoactive agent found
in several species of mushrooms; and the setting was Good Friday, 1962, at Marsh Chapel.
Until this service, Smith writes, he had experienced "no direct personal encounter with
God of the sort that Bhakti yogis, Pentecostals and born-again Christians describe"
According to Smith, entheogenic experience introduced him to the true meaning of awe.
He quotes Gordon Wasson, who discovered the psilocybin mushroom ritual in the Mexican
mountains: "Ecstasy is not fun. Your very soul is seized and shaken until it tingles.
After all, who will choose to feel undiluted awe? The unknowing vulgar abuse the word;
we must recapture its full and terrifying sense."
Smith could not fairly be called either mindlessly enthusiastic about entheogens or
punitive toward them. Instead, he describes the significance in various cultures of
entheogenic initiation. In the modern West, Cleansing the Doors of Perception
reminds us, we are accustomed to associating agents such as mescaline and psilocybin
with a "counter culture." Thus, it is easy to forget that an experience of awe occasioned
by agents such as these has been at the very heart of more than a few cultures. As a
guest of the Native American Church, Smith has personal experience of mescaline in a
In writing the preface to the revised edition of
The Road to Eleusis (included in
Cleansing), Smith asks: "can a way be found to legitimize, as the Greeks did,
the constructive, life-giving use" of entheogens "without aggravating our serious drug
problem?" (page 115). Here Smith refers to the Eleusinian mysteries, a long initiation
that arguably culminated, according to the book by Wasson and his colleagues, with the
use of an entheogenic drink, the kykeon. Far from being counter-cultural, this ritual
was much prized in Greek society in the golden age and attracted many of the most
creative thinkers, artists, and philosophers for centuries. The equivalent today might
be a well-structured initiation that involved many of our most accomplished leaders in
Smith believes that when set and setting "are rightly aligned, the basic message of the
entheogens that there is another Reality that puts this one in the shade is true"
(page 133). He gives witness that, for him, entheogenic initiation endorsed "the traditional,
theomorphic view of the human self."
At present, the use of entheogens is forbidden in the U.S. under a non-discriminating
prohibition of psychoactive agents other than those sold, for example, by tobacco manufacturers,
liquor distributors, and pharmaceutical firms. In effect Smith asks, can we responsibly make
a place, as many other cultures have, for an experience of awe or self-transcendent wonder
occasioned by entheogenic plants and chemicals?
Craig Comstock is former director of the William James Center for Adult Development at
The Wright Institute in Berkeley, California.
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