The Tao that can be told

is not the eternal Tao.

The name that can be named, is not the eternal name.

~ Tao Te Ching, Chapter 1

These first lines of this great Asian classic underscore the ineffable quality of awakening that we experience in the Zen tradition. At times, in meeting with students, we will both look at each other and shrug or perhaps laugh, because we both know there is nothing to be said. In fact, in Zen we find words and concepts so bereft of value, that we feel more confident in expressing our understanding of Buddhism by holding up a single index finger or running around like a rhinoceros. And when we do use words, they usually have no meaning whatsoever, like “No” or “Barrier”. Henry James, in his landmark essays, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), used “ineffability” as one of the definitions of a mystical, religious experience.

So recently I was fascinated to become reacquainted with James’ definition in a book about another apparently ineffable experience: a review and personal account of experimenting with the psychedelic drugs psilocybin and LSD, by Michael Pollan in his book How to Change Your Mind. (2018). In recent years, the disciplines of medicine and psychology have seen new interest in reviving clinical trials for these Schedule 1 drugs, which were outlawed in the 1960s. The early results in treating depression, addiction, and anxiety, are exceedingly promising, according to Pollan. There is another application for psychedelics, as the author mentions, which not surprisingly, gets little institutional support: the use of these substances for spiritual awakening.

If Timothy Leary represented the recreational drug experience to touch a previously unknown reality, his former colleague, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), also an early proponent of LSD experimentation, represented the move away from chemicals to a more sustainable discipline based on meditation. And until the last few years, it seems, there has been little discussion, at least in spiritual circles, of going back to drugs to experience a mystical awakening.

Many friends who came to Zen in the 1970s were initially inspired by openings that they had experienced through psychedelics. I was not one of them. When my early high-school friends started experimenting with getting high by sniffing glue, paint, and gasoline, I gladly returned to the Boy Scouts to finish up my canoeing merit badge. By the end of high school, my friends had largely left drugs behind and were now meditating, and I joined them. I did take psilocybin mushrooms once, however. Though I have not hunted in a very long time, the small brown mushrooms were easily gathered in the cow pastures of Humboldt County. The experience, for me, was lovely. Simple objects during a journey to the grocery store became animated with a clear light. But I have to say, as nice as it was, in Zen terms the experience was more of a makyo (devil’s realm), or illusion, than kensho (seeing the nature), or awakening. So, I have stuck to meditation. This weekend, if you see some older guy standing ankle-deep in Golden Gate Park’s Yoda Fountain, practicing his merit-badge inspired canoe stroke while muttering to himself “barrier, barrier”, it is probably me.