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Barnes & Noble Internet Chat with Huston Smith

On Tuesday, 20 June 2000, welcomed Huston Smith to discuss his new book, Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemicals.

Cary from Barnes & Noble:Good Evening Huston Smith, welcome to Barnes &! It is a great pleasure to have you as our guest tonight. How are you? Where do we find you?

Huston Smith: I'm very well, thank you, and I'm honored to be part of your program today and look forward to it.

Cary from Barnes & Noble: What are entheogenic plants and chemicals, and what role can they play in the contexts of religion and faith?

HS: The entheogens are psychoactive plants or chemicals that, under some circumstances with some people, have the power to facilitate mystical experiences of a very extraordinary order. The classical entheogens include the peyote cactus, psilocybin-containing mushrooms, and Ayahuasca, an entheogenic "tea" made from certain South American plants. I have done some studies which I think are conclusive to show that -- again, one always has to say, for some people under some circumstances -- entheogens can trigger mystical experiences that are indistinguishable from the classical mystical experiences that are reported in the literature of this subject. This is explained in my book.

Marjorie Boyll from Toronto: Are there any contemporary religions that are founded upon the principle of the chemically induced "vision"?

HS: Yes, there are living traditions founded solely on what scientifically we know are chemically induced visions. Closest at hand is the Native American Church, which is estimated to have around 250,000 adherents, and whose sacrament is peyote, which they revere as the dwelling of their peyote god. We know that the principal active chemical in it is mescaline. This is a fully authentic and operative religion which has received universally good marks from anthropologists. Among other things, it has more power to offset alcoholism than anything else that social workers have been able to devise or come upon. That's nearest at hand, but there also are the mushroom-based religious practices of Mesoamerica, the several South American religious sects that use ayuhuasca, and the West African Bwiti use of tabernanthe iboga. Now those are living religions that use entheogens on a regular, sacramental basis. How many other religions whose ordinary practitioners do not use sacred plants and chemicals originated in their founders or prophets having such experiences is a harder question.

Joan Estigarribia from Los Angeles: Do you believe that spiritual longing is innate, or is it taught? If one were raised without God, is his natural progression going to be to move toward God? Do you believe that Rike was right in suggesting that all of humanity, all of evolution was a moving toward God, perhaps becoming -- or becoming one with -- God?

HS: Joan, I do believe that there is a God-shaped vacuum in the depths of our human selves. Some are more aware of this than others, but the outreach for a "more," which most people try to satisfy through possessions, power, and the like, is actually an unrecognized yearning for the infinite. I believe that Rike saw the matter clearly.

Aaron John from Ann Arbor: By all accounts, religious experiences seem to be fleeting, finite events. How is one to recapture the sensation of the Divine? By repetition?

HS: Aaron, you are quite right in thinking that experiences come and go. That is not limited to religious experiences that are chemically occasioned. There is a familiar verse in the Hebrew Bible that runs, "Restore unto me the joy of my salvation." It is the psalmist's lament that experiences of the divine that were tremendously important to him or her have not reoccurred. So this is a common problem that besets the religious life.

In any case, many experiences are not necessarily better than one experience. The fleeting religious experience is merely a doorway to a life that is more divinely centered throughout.

Tom Bari from San Jose: How can one tell if he/she is having a hallucination, or if he/she is having an insight into living, breathing the matter that might make up all things? (What I remember most vividly from my mushroom trip was the walls "breathing")

HS: During the experience there is no litmus test that will differentiate the two. There are innumerable examples of people believing under the influences of chemistry that they are discerning something profound, but when they try to articulate it, it comes out as nonsense. One example, from no less an authority than William James himself: "The whole universe is pervaded by a strong smell of turpentine." Within the experience, as I say, that can be felt as intensely as a profound religious insight. However, when one returns to an ordinary state of consciousness, the difference is usually perfectly clear.

Cary from Barnes & Noble: Why did you choose to publish this book now? Do you have any concern that this work could tarnish your extraordinary reputation as a "serious" scholar of religions and religious experience?

HS: I did wrestle with whether its publication was appropriate. In the end, I decided to go ahead because, as Aldous Huxley says, the mescaline experience is without any question the most extraordinary and significant experience available to human beings this side of the Beatific Vision. It seems to me that something is profoundly wrong in a society that allows no legal access to substances that can occasion this "most extraordinary and significant" experience. This seems particularly irrational regarding the classical entheogens, whose addictiveness and organic toxicity rank far lower than those of alcohol (though the entheogens too are not without behavioral and psychological risks). I think the topic should be openly and responsibly discussed.

Peter Fredericks from San Francisco: Aldous Huxley said that Judeo-Christian religion could be expected to be inherently hostile to any attempt to attain knowledge via hallucinogenic substances (and perhaps knowledge in general), because of the Genesis myth of the apple (tree of knowledge). Do you follow Huxley in seeing Eastern religions (in particular the Hindu Upanishads) as more favorable in this respect?

HS: Peter, Aldous Huxley was virtually my guru for 15 years and was extraordinarily generous and kind to me. However, I am not myself able to extol the wisdom in some of the major religious traditions above that of others. It does appear, though, that the Asian religions are more mystically inclined than the Abrahamic triumverate of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. What the Western traditions have to balance this is a greater sensitivity to social injustices. Then again, you have Ezekiel, Revelations, and the mystical traditions of the Kabbalah, of Meister Eckhardt, of Lady Julian, of early Quakerism, for example. So the Judeo-Christian traditions do have their mystical resources. Maybe it's time to reemphasize that component.

Nick from San Francisco: I've had some drug experiences that have been nothing but drug experiences, and I've had others that have reshaped my worldview, changed me in ways I'd never have anticipated. But one way or another, all of my drug experiences have been driven by my own worldviews going into the experience. For instance, I sit zazen every morning and evening - in the selfish hope, I admit, of one day achieving kensho! But only on certain drugs have I ever had any experience remotely resembling kensho…are drugs the lazy man's kensho?

HS: Nick, I understand completely what you're saying. If there is one undisputed fact in this very complicated area, it is that there is no such thing as "the drug experience." All are conditioned by what students of the subject call "set and setting." By 'set' they mean the personality and personal history of the person ingesting; by 'setting', the circumstance under which the ingestion occurs. My important entheogen experiences enabled me to see regions of the world that I already believed in but had not directly experienced. Entheogens could be considered a "lazy man's kensho," but we must always remember that Zen masters say that kensho is not the point. It is only a doorway for moving the kensho experience into one's daily life and experiencing in that daily life the wonder of kensho. As the saying goes, "Drawing water and hewing wood - this is the marvelous activity." That requires constant, ongoing work. Even the Buddha after his enlightenment experience continued to meditate to the end of his life.

Li Po from the bottom of the pond: How can we tell the saint from the madman?

HS: Li Po, how's the weather down there? I put your question to someone who should know, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His answer was terse and to the point. He said, "Observe the person in question carefully in as wide a variety of life circumstances as you can. The difference will become clearly apparent."

Brian J. from Manhattan: What are your feeling about the use of Ecstasy, ketamine, and marijuana among younger people today? Could "raves" and other all-night parties in which hundreds of young people get together week in and week out be considered sacred in any way, given the nature of the ritual and the meaning it holds for the participants?

HS: Brian, it seems quite plausible that some rave-goers are having profound experiences that are religious at heart. Of course, chemicals are not the only factors at play here - music and dance, in favorable circumstances, can be potent inducers of nonordinary states as well. The questions that must be asked are these: Do these young people approach the events with sacred intent? What impact do the participants' experiences have on the totality of their lives? Are the participants becoming more open, aware, and concerned for the welfare of others? Do the celebrations augment these traits visibly in their daily lives? One might also question the necessity or wholesomeness of going to raves "week in and week out."

As for the substances mentioned, MDMA and ketamine are not known to have the very low toxicity and abuse potential of the classical entheogens. On them, the jury is still out. On cannabis, history records some spiritual use, but it seems not to be as effective as the classical entheogens.

Melissa from San Francisco: How does one cultivate a state of mind and quality of life that is receptive to the incursion of the Divine?

HS: That's a good question, Melissa. There is no pat answer, but I would suggest that we take seriously the admonitions "Follow the light where it leads" and "Seek and ye shall find." Trying to act compassionately and opening one's self expectantly to the unknown will probably help.

I hear that Cary, our moderator, is going off next week to spend a week at the Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont working on this very question - that's wonderful, Cary! I wish I were free to join you.

Cary from Barnes & Noble: Huston Smith, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to chat with us today. I too wish you were free to join me. Before we sign off, do you have any final thoughts for the online audience?

HS: I thank everyone for tuning in. We have been at work on a very important issue that demands the clearest thinking we can muster. I have been impressed by the questions that have come in and the spirit in which they were asked. The path will not be easy, but I think this conversation augurs well for continuing, long-range, responsible dialogue.

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