|About the Book
About Suzuki Roshi
An Excerpt from Zig
Zag Zen: Buddhism and Psychedelics,
by Allan Hunt Badiner (Editor), Alex Grey (Editor), Huston Smith (Preface), Chronicle Books
Well, not really an excerpt but the unabridged version that I submitted - twice as long as what was included. I have no complaints (except for a few changes I made for reprints) about the shorter version he used, but I have no space constraints here and want to put the whole thing in. This version has more stories.-DC
Harm Reduction page (reducing the harm from drugs and the war on drugs)
In the early '70s at a meeting of students at the
Western world's first Buddhist monastery, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center,
the agenda had been covered and there we all were sitting around the
dining room, enjoying the energy of being together talking, and not
wanting to go back to our cabins and to bed. The tables were pushed back
against the walls and 50 or so of us sat on straight-backed wooden chairs
loosely arranged in an oval, our faces highlighted by the flickering light
from the kerosene lamps. We didn't meet much like that -- maybe once or
twice in a ninety-day practice period. Someone broke the silence by saying
he'd like to conduct a poll on a topic of interest to him. The director,
who was leading the meeting, said "Okay, why not?"
"How many people here have taken LSD?" he asked. Most hands shot up. The room filled with laughter.
"Do mescaline or psilosibin count?" A student asked. "Yes," she was told. The student added her hand and a few others went up. More laughter.
Then the pollster asked who'd had more than one trip and a number of hands went down. This line of questioning continued. How many have had 5? More hands down. Ten? Fifteen? And up the line with oos and ahs until only a few hands remained. At 100 only one person's hand was up. He was a quite serious student who'd meditated close to once a week on LSD for several years before coming to the Zen Center. He went on to become one of the teachers of this group.
It's undeniable that psychedelics played a central role in the hippie counterculture revolution of the late '60s and early '70s, but sometimes we forget that the same is true of the influence psychedelics had during that same period on the emergence of Buddhism in America and a generations search for spiritual experience. To the uninitiated, the word psychedelics might conjure up media inspired images of colorfully dressed, long-haired hippies adorned with flowers, beads, and blissed-out smiles tripping around Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, dancing kids taking a break from the responsible course of their lives, or worse, destroying themselves. They may think about the bad trips, the freak accidents when someone decided they could walk in front of traffic free from harm or when Art Linkletter's daughter died jumping from a building while on LSD. That's all true, but it's a distorted image which neglects the sacramental role of these substances, that ignores the myriad of people who were encouraged on their spiritual journeys by one or more mind-expanding experiences with psychedelics or entheogens as they are often called by scholars these days. (The term psychedelic [mind-manifesting] has been supplanted by the name entheogen [generating the divine from within] for much serious discussion because of all the stigma attached to the former. These terms are used to refer to psychoactives (chemicals which affect the central nervous system) such as LSD, mescaline, psilosibin mushrooms, and what I consider the lesser psychedelics like ecstasy and cannabis.)
After thirty-five years of being around a diffuse sub-culture of Buddhist, Hindu, Shamanist, New Age, Sufi, Christian, and what-not enlightenment seekers, I am familiar with the formative role psychedelics has often played in their lives. This has been brought home again in the course of years of interviews while working on the biography of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center and Zen Mountain Center. Though many of the people I've known and interviewed have told me that their psychedelic experiences, like mine, were a prime factor in the early stages of their spiritual paths, most of them did not continue psychedelic use. Many people just mention it in passing as in, "I took LSD, read Alan Watts, and came to San Francisco looking for a spiritual community." Recently, I received a letter in which a retired professor of English wrote: "I still think LSD saved my life - breaking me out of the Berkeley existential, druggie, deluded, fashionable despair of the Beats." (The Beat writers were, on the other hand, also major contributors to the West's new openness to Buddhism and Eastern thought.) In a few cases I know of, an Asian priest tried LSD. One Japanese Zen priest who took LSD in the sixties called it "spiritual masturbation." Another took it and kept taking it for years (until he got arrested in Japan) and calls it "powerful medicine." Regardless of whether we view these psychoactives as helpful in the short or long haul, it's clear they have been and continue to be pivotal catalysts in the spiritual journey of a multitude of seekers. They sure were for me.
I was unusual at the Zen Center in that I'd been brought up in a family whose religion had much in common with Buddhism. My parents were my first spiritual teachers. I was taught that God was not a being but infinite and perfect mind. We didn't use the word "God" a lot, but we were Christians. My father had been a reader in the Christian Science Church but dropped out because he felt that they elevated Jesus way beyond being an extraordinary human who had realized his divine nature. We had a non theistic type of Christianity. One of my favorite memories of my father is his telling me, "Davie my boy, you don't know how lucky you are you weren't taught to believe in God." I knew he meant an anthropomorphic god. He also told me that matter didn't exist and I wondered what the heck he meant.
In Mexico at the age of 20 I discovered marijuana. It was an exciting epiphanious year. There were endless insights. Me and my friends thought that marijuana was the answer to all of the world's problems and was all that was good. We liked to get stoned and ride the roller coaster in Mexico City which I'd thoroughly enjoy as long as I didn't start wondering about how well it was being maintained. At times I would get high, lie down, close my eyes, and look for the kernel of my self and sometimes I thought I'd found it. Then one day I ingested vile tasting peyote with some friends, vomited, and went out walking on the streets. Everything was moving, alive, newborn, and I remember holding the galvanized pole of a traffic sign and saying that peyote had taken away all the cultural overlay and I could see the pole for what it was (I was studying anthropology at the time). I also discovered speed that year in the form of Dexedrine and Benzedrine (which you could get in pharmacies without prescription) I took it quite a bit till I decided to stop because more and more it had negative results like hurting my complexion, encouraging manic states, and making others not want to be near me. It was hard to stop taking it but I did it without any help from the government.
Thinking I'd gone about as far as I could with marijuana (though I didn't stop smoking it), I was eager to plummet deeper into my being with the aid of LSD which I'd heard so much about -- both wondrous promises and dire warnings (a guy in San Miguel de Allende had flushed his stash after a bad trip). Back in the States I bought a copy of "The Psychedelic Experience" by Harvard psychedelic pioneers Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later to become Ram Dass), and Ralph Metzner. To many, psychedelics are dangerous drugs which should be illegal, those who promote them are a scourge on society, and these men were like Pied Pipers, leading America's youth into a bottomless pit of ruin. To lots of us though, they brought good news, were the voices of new possibilities who suggested a responsible way to take psychedelics so as to avoid the pitfalls and awaken briefly to truths perennial and far more wonderful then the materialism and narrow world view we were being home, school, and media fed by our society. I took their book with me back to Mexico, studied it carefully, and did not take any more speed.
A year later I went to San Francisco. In the carnival atmosphere I tripped around smoking grass and met lots of new people who'd taken the pilgrimage to that hub of the hippies. In that summer I had to go back home to make an appearance for my draft induction physical that convinced them they never wanted me in the army. I had an acid trip while in Texas at that time that was most powerful. I followed the advice from The Psychedelic Experience closely. It was modeled after the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The point of both books is to guide one toward an experience of the clear light. I had been told by people who'd been there that to experience the clear light was to meet God, Buddha, ultimate truth, the absolute ground of being, and on and on. I believed them. I still do. On that day I reread the book beforehand, fasted, meditated, and as the sun went down, took 500 micrograms of LSD, considered the maximum dose necessary for total ego dissolving. There were two friends with me who served as guides. Their job was to be a reference to reality if I got paranoid or confused, and to remind me that we had an agreement to be quiet (my studies and prior experience had indicated that almost all the problems one encountered in a psychedelic experience where caused by social interaction). My friends were also to read me brief sections of the book when I showed an interest in communicating too much or needed to be gently nudged off a negative course.
This was not a frivolous event. I was trembling with gulping anticipation and knew the gravity of what I was about to do. Leary said that he experienced the clear light on about half his once-a-week trips, but he also said that he descended into a hell realm (there are endless options there) about one out of five times. I knew from what I'd read, talking to others, and a few skirmishes with lower realms on prior trips that being in the grips of seemingly eternal, fantastically paranoid, hideous horror was a possibility that I faced. When the pill washed down my throat I foresaw my ego was about to die and gave in immediately. As the LSD started to come on strong, my friends played, at my prior request, the Beetles' perfectly appropriate "Turn Off Your Mind, Relax, and Float Downstream," and then there was only the sound of the gentle waves of Lake Worth outside the screened porch as I lay on a cot and I did float downstream, leave my friends, the bed, the waves, myself, and the universe as I had known it, and passed through progressive visions each more ecstatic, powerful, and subtle than the prior. The deeper I went, the more familiar and wonderful it was. I felt I was going to my eternal home.
Leary advised taking a strong dose under these types of controls for early trips because it got one quickly beyond the transitional states where problems could come up as a result of one's ego fighting to maintain control. I had not a stitch of a chance to fight or maintain any type of control. I died, it seemed, as completely as one can die (even though my body of course was quite alive) and found myself at one with all that is, beyond space and time, birth and death. I was bathed in transcendent yet immanent love - it was always changing - and then, the dualism even of this oneness gave way and mind opened to the experience of the clear light of which, later, I could really say nothing but that that experience seemed to be the crowning glory of all that is and isn't. I felt that I had experienced what a Hindu text described as greater than if 10,000 suns were to explode in the sky. None of these experiences can be remembered any more than the Pacific Ocean can fit into a thimble, but I came back saying that the clear light was pure, unborn, ecstatic - things like that. On that evening I emerged from the clear light into a calmer, perfect, absolute, vast clarity with no sense of identity or physicality in it, a state not characterized by any mundane attributes such as existence, experience, or anything.
I remember some time later opening my eyes and seeing the stars through the screened porch, then realizing that I had returned to awareness of this universe which seemed dreamlike compared to the powerful bliss I had died into. I thought, "oh yes, space, time, stars, and I'm on a planet - this sort of reality." It seemed like one of an infinite number of possible dream places I could have landed, and it was beautiful. I soon realized I was there because I was tied in some way to a body which seemed to me like an idea which kept repeating itself, all this being experienced as a reflection in a mind beyond dimension - not located in space or time but that which imagined space and time.
I felt as if I'd just been born, didn't remember anything about myself and didn't know who the people were who were with me. I told them that if I was in the way that they should feel free to dispose of me. They gently urged me to lie back down and read me a few lines which cleared my mind. I experienced spectacular visions gradually reentering into lower though still quite exalted, brilliantly colorful states of mind. Every now and then I'd sit up. I remember looking at my friends and seeing our bodies as energy fields which grew out of the same base, like we were fingers on a hand. I saw they thought they existed as independent beings and I told them, "We don't exist in any way." No wonder so many people were irritated by hippies.
In the days that followed I contemplated the experience I had had on the lake and knew that there could be no purpose in my life to compare with awakening to the essence of being I had known that night. I also thought that taking more LSD or more of anything would not be the way to get there. I picked up some of the books I had on Buddhism and Hinduism and they made a lot more sense to me than before. I saw my normal state of mind as being tiny, confused, and filled with giant mountains that blocked knowledge of higher states. I knew LSD could evaporate these mountains but was sure that they'd just return. It seemed that books alone wouldn't get me there either. I thought that I needed to learn to meditate so as to gradually wear the mountains down and thought that possibly there could be a breakthrough satori experience after they'd been well eroded. I decided to travel the world looking for a teacher and had some idea of finding a community to meditate with. So I was off - first stop, a return to California. Soon I was meditating regularly at the San Francisco Zen Center.
In the Buddhist circles I'm familiar with, psychedelics are mainly seen as something to forget about and move on from and a story like the one I just told might elicit a been-there-done-that type of response. But I remember these substances fondly because they gave me what I felt was empirical evidence of the perennial goal of religion and philosophy and helped me to get on the path. And to think that what I did is now illegal. It wasn't yet then. I wonder what's going to happen to the nephew of a friend of mine who just got arrested at a concert with three tabs of ecstasy, now considered by the law to be like methamphetamine even though it is quite different in effect and doesn't have full effect if you take it more than once a month. This young man was planning on having a transcendent experience. Now he's under criminal charges - and he's a clean cut young guy.
To me, psychedelics are best used as a sacrament in an initiation ceremony which is what my experience seems to have been. It may be better for initiations to be conducted by elders or guides, but people, especially young people, have for years been self-initiating because their elders or their society are not there for them in this way. Society seems mainly interested in shielding them from anything that would challenge consensus reality, molding them into good workers and consumers, and chastising them if they get caught being too out of line. I know that my views on this are hopelessly astray from the norm, but I don't think that I or others or the state should have the right to tell anyone who's body has pretty much stopped growing that they can't do psychedelics or any psychoactives. It's telling people that their own mind belongs to the state, that the government, which has not set a very high moral or spiritual example, can regulate spiritual inquiry and which states of mind are legal. Like George W. Bush says, we should trust people to spend money as they see fit, run their own lives, and make their own decisions without government interference.
Taking LSD without proper precautions can lead to some unexpected initiations, even if one thought that every care had been taken. I am reminded of Mark, a high school student from Carmel, who in 1968 went with a friend to Tassajara, an hour and a half away, for their first acid trip. Anyone who'd read about how to take LSD knew that one should pick a calm, trouble free setting, preferably a natural one (as well as a calm set, or state of mind). Mark and his friend took it on the way, figuring they'd be at Tassajara before the acid came on and that all they'd encounter would be the inspiring vibes of the monastery and the nurturing warmth of the hot springs there. They were coming in late after everyone was asleep. They thought they were in a safe and controlled setting. But they didn't count on Larry.
Larry was an ex-biker with a steel plate in his head that was inserted after a motorcycle accident. He was a big tough sweet guy who was trying to set his life straight. Larry had stumbled upon Tassajara a few weeks prior. Normally we didn't take students off the road and would not have let him stay without first having some Zen practice experience elsewhere, but he was a mechanic and we didn't have one at the time. So he'd been living there on a temporary basis, working in the shop, trying hard to sit zazen at least a little, and to fit in with the community. Sometimes he'd get out of sorts and I'd take him to the kitchen and make him a stack of cheese sandwiches and that would calm him down.
On that day Larry had gone to town in our pickup truck to buy parts. The town was Monterrey which was an hour and forty-five minutes away - over the fifteen mile dirt road for the first half and then on paved roads through Carmel Valley. A sensitive, attractive, young woman student who needed to go to the dentist went with him. That night Larry and the woman were on their way back to Tassajara. He'd promised he wouldn't drink but his desires got the best of him and he'd gotten drunk and come on to her when they'd stopped to view the stars from the top of the mountain. She'd resisted him but he continued his advances and she'd gotten out of the vehicle and walked ahead. Larry sat in the pickup and sulked.
At this point Mark and his friend pulled up next to Larry on the dirt road and asked how far Tassajara was. Larry told them it was about five miles down the mountain road. He added that there was a girl ahead walking and if they picked her up he'd kill them. Their acid was just beginning to come on, a little earlier than they expected, and the word kill surely reverberated through their minds fostering uncontrollable waves of associated images and fearful dread. Shaken up they drove on and came upon a woman waving her arms at them. Gallantly they let her in and zoomed down the road biting their fingernails and sensing signs of looming peril at every turn as their normal sense of security, proportion, and the passing of time gave way to the distortions of their normal minds meeting emerging eternity.
Down at Tassajara, I was the firewatch, the person whose duty it was to walk around, blow out the hurricane lamps on the pathways, make sure all kerosene lamps in the cabins were out, and periodically strike together two wooden clackers that announced all was well and nighty-night. This was the summer guest season and we had about fifty guests visiting and fifty students in residence. I heard a vehicle approaching down the road and could tell by the engine's whine that it wasn't the pick up truck I was expecting. I walked up toward the gate in time to see car lights pull over to the side and shut off. I heard car doors open and close and soon the woman was running down the road crying. I tried to talk to her but she ran right past me. Looking back, I saw two shadowy figures dart into the tall grass between the road and the creek. I was just about to go check them out when the pickup truck came barreling in through the open gate and screeched to an abrupt halt beside me. I was confused. Why didn't she come back with Larry? Then I shined my flashlight on him and saw his puffy drunken unshaven face with a menacing gleam in his eye. A gust of alcohol laden breath wafted into my face and I knew there was trouble. He asked where the woman and the two guys were. I said she'd gone to her room and I didn't know where they were. He looked back outside the gate then abruptly went to the tool shed. While I asked things like, "What's up Larry?" and tried to talk, he single-mindedly went through the sharpened axes and I was greatly relieved, though not for long, when he finally settled on a long ax handle.
"Those goddamn guys picked her up after I'd told them not to and I'm gonna find them and beat their goddamn brains out," he said. He then proceeded to walk toward the exact spot where they were as I stayed close to his side and tried to dissuade him. Finally I said they weren't up there, that they'd gone to bed and we could all talk about it the next day. "They've gone to bed where?" he asked. I said I had no idea - probably some cabin. "Then I'm gonna go through every goddamn cabin till I find them," he said and started down the road with me literally hanging on to him and pleading for him to reconsider. The students could deal with him but the guests - oh lord. I finally convinced him that at least he should take a break and have some cheese sandwiches. We went to the kitchen where I lit a lamp and made him five thick cheese sandwiches. He ate them, got sleepy, and soon I was tucking him in bed. Mark and his friend lay in the tall grass all night hallucinating mind-expanded nightmares of violent death. The next morning Larry was driven out - sad and ashamed.
Mark was much more careful after that about his use of psychedelics and went on to become a Zen student who didn't use them anymore (maybe a little pot now and then). But he never forgot his first time. Just think - he could have been arrested and sent to jail for taking LSD by a legal system which has no more sense or subtlety than Larry did, a zealous jihad type legal system which can't be deflected by bribes of mere cheese sandwiches.
Ministers, priests, psychologists, and various types of spiritual teachers back in the sixties had an interesting situation to deal with. Lots of people were coming to them who'd had psychedelic experiences like mine or Mark's, and who were looking for an explanation of what they'd experienced or seeking a more grounded and lasting way to meet the vastness of higher consciousness. Many of these counselors had no idea what to say or summarily dismissed these experiences as bogus. Some, like Shunryu Suzuki, were more helpful. Suzuki had a way that worked well with such seekers. He told us that enlightenment was not a state of mind, was not contained in any experience, and he guided us away from trying to recreate past profound events and toward accepting ourselves as we were. He taught a disciplined life of zazen meditation, attention to the details of life, not wanting too much (especially another state of mind), and not getting too worked up. He said that people will have enlightenment experiences without spiritual practice, but only with such practice will their revelation continue and not come and go like psychedelic experiences. He made us feel confident that we could wake up to who we were without any chemical aids, and he did it without taking any strong stand against marijuana and LSD, though he really didn't want his students taking them. He appreciated psychedelics as an initial impetus, but not as a way of life.
A Stanford professor told Suzuki in the late sixties that he appreciated the open minds and curiosity of this new breed of young people but wished they'd stop being stoned long enough to pay more attention to their studies. He asked Suzuki how he dealt with that problem. Suzuki told the professor that he just taught his students how to sit zazen and that they soon forgot about drugs. But if he thought they weren't forgetting about it he could be stricter. He asked his students not to come to his temple under the influence of drugs or alcohol. At a wedding he performed, the colorfully dressed bride and groom were actively involved in the local psychedelic sub-culture. In a stern tone he admonished those assembled, many of them stoned at the time, that "we do not take drugs," and after he had gone on a bit and had made that clear, he continued with the ceremony. Suzuki had a light touch, and he offered an alternative.
Back at Tassajara this summer I spent some time talking to the DA of a medium-sized rural California city. I asked him what he thought about the War on Drugs. He said that his office concentrated on methamphetamine, that it was the drug causing the biggest rip in the fabric of society. He said that he'd seen too many young people who'd grown up in homes where there was heavy meth use who knew no other way but violence to express any personal power. He had no qualms about prosecuting those who manufactured and sold the speed drugs (like meth and coke).
He and I talked more. He'd been wild in his youth. We'd had similar experiences with excessive teenage drinking and the lack of judgment that can engender. He was younger though and had also smoked pot and taken a lot of LSD as a teenager. I asked him if he thought that psychedelics should be illegal. "In theory or reality?" he asked. I said that I didn't know - just whatever he thought. His answer surprised me. After a moment of reflection he said, "I don't know how I could have come to the understanding of life that I now have, if I hadn't taken LSD." He paused and added firmly, "But I don't want to see my kids taking it and going to school high on it." Of course not. That seems unthinkable to me. But I know a woman who says she took LSD every day of her senior year of high school. That's so crazy. I wonder how it effected her. You have to wait at least a week between trips to get the full effect so it must have been nothing compared to what I think of as acid. But anyway, she survived it without government assistance and is now a successful artist.
As with the DA's concerns about his kids, one of the major arguments for the War on Drugs is to protect children. I am reminded of Tom Lehrer's song, "The Old Dope Peddler" which conjures up an image in my mind of a seedy character hanging out near a schoolyard just waiting to hook the kids on contraband (first one's free). But of course drugs, legal and illegal, can cause very serious problems for the young.
I was walking with an old friend ( who has a prescription for marijuana) down the street in a quaint nearby village surrounded by redwoods. We passed some scruffy looking young people slouching the other way down the sidewalk. My friend shuddered and went "Oh no," and put his hand to his heart. He pointed out a girl who looked nervous, haggard, and hollow-eyed and said she'd obviously been taking speed. I could see it. She looked bad. He said that the last time he'd seen her, a year before then, she was a beautiful, happy, bright young girl. He was just sick about it. Imagine what her parents were going through.
I know a woman who taught school in an inner city near here and many of her students came from homes with serious alcohol and hard drug problems which were reflected in the kids. They were just in elementary school but some were pretty violent, miserable, hard to teach, and an awful burden on the other students who wanted to be good and do well in school. There was a woman across the street from the school who had a bunch of pre school-age kids that she kept locked up behind a cyclone fence while she went out and turned tricks to get her crack. My friend thought those kids should have been taken away from her. The woman was pregnant again. My friend thought that she should be sterilized. I told her that that was the way the eugenicists thought earlier in the last century, that they were influential on Nazi thinking, and that that approach was taboo. She didn't care. She had to teach kids from homes like that and it was like a fourth of her class was retarded and emotionally disturbed. Of course these kids came from very poor homes so isolating drugs as the sole cause of their problems is surely shortsighted.
Images like those, news of all the violence from the inner city drug turf wars, and people's real or media-driven fear for their safety help to fuel the War on Drugs whose propaganda lumps all illegal psychoactives together and goes after them in an uneven blitzkrieg. Alexander Shulgin, sometimes called the grandfather of ecstasy, wrote that "the entheogens are the dolphins caught in the tuna net of the War on Drugs." Aside from all those incarcerated for narcotics and stimulants, there are lots and lots of people being arrested, prosecuted, and locked up for dealing and using ecstasy, LSD, and especially marijuana. There's a lawyer named Len Tillem who has a radio call-in show on a local AM station who was answering a question asked by a young man who'd been arrested with a quarter pound of marijuana in his car. At one point Tillem said, "Let me say for the record, that I think the War on Drugs is crazy, and the War on Marijuana is especially crazy."
I wonder sometimes why more people don't come out against the War on Drugs in its present form. It's so extremely costly, ineffective, and as William Buckley says, a solution that causes more harm than the problem. We all want to deal with these problems but I think we could come up with a better way to deal with the situation - especially when the available budget is considered. I guess one reason is because upstanding people don't want to be associated with illegal drugs which are sort of the opposite of apple pie. Others may not want to call attention to themselves because they may have some illegal drugs in their possession. I'm not worried because if I have anything it's only a little roach or two someone gave me and the authorities would never find them (If I have any I keep them in the drawer to the left of my computer in my office over the garage).
In a local wine tasting shop the other day a few of us were trying to figure how many non violent offenders were in the criminal justice system in America for drugs. That includes those in prisons, jails, on parole, and on probation. We got on a laptop with a wireless modem and in a few minutes had a choice of many sites on the War on Drugs (called in one place "The War on Some Drugs" which a stoner friend of mine calls the War on People.). There were lots of interesting statistics on the Internet. In the few minutes we spent, we didn't find figures on parole or probation and lots of stuff we wanted to know, but we did find that according to recent figures, there are about a million folks, almost entirely non violent offenders, in a slammer for some psychoactive or other (two Woodstocks), about forty percent of all those incarcerated in the US. On the national NORML (National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws) site we found out that, according to government figures, seventy million Americans had smoked Marijuana since 1972 and ten million of them had been arrested since then. I think that it might be more like fifteen million according to some other up to date figures I've seen since then, but I'm not sure - anyway, very very many many. That was the year the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse issued its recommendation to Congress to decriminalize marijuana. In the few minutes we spent, we couldn't find how many people were in prison for life without possibility of parole for pot, but I'd read in the Atlantic Monthly years ago that it was hundreds. It was surprising to see that under President Clinton's watch marijuana arrests are up 60% - at an arrest every 45 seconds. I remember him being asked about the possibility of decriminalizing some drugs and how he went on sappily about his baby half-brother's cocaine problem and what it had put the family through. I'm glad his brother wasn't an overeater. I think Clinton ought to be as forgiving of the sins of others as many of us have been of his. I also think it would be the Christian thing to do.
Back to the kids. I was walking through Washington Square in Greenwich Village last year with Mark from Tassajara acid trip fame and we stopped to join a crowd gathered around an entertainer. He was a ballsy Chinese American comic who was pretending that he was a martial arts expert about to show us great feats of skill. At one point, he had a thick board he was going to break in two with his bare hand, but he just kept talking and leading up to his great feat and then after he'd done that for a while, he put the board down and went on to some other tease. At one point he asked for applause and when it wasn't sufficient he pulled out a supper soaker water gun to further motivate the crowd which responded by applauding and cheering him as he wished. But he still didn't feel the applause was great enough so he unleashed the soaker at random saying, "I'm doing it … FOR THE CHILDREN!" He seems to have captured the mood of the times. We want to help the children but we're not doing a very good job. We're just shooting at random and pouring big bucks into the bottomless pockets of the War on Drugs industry. I think it's more for those who profit from this so-called war than for the children.
Funny thing is that there seems to be an epidemic of giving legal drugs to kids. A young woman I know tells of how her parents and doctor put her on Ritalin when she was six because she was considered hyperactive. (I've taken Ritalin and it just seems like a mild form of meth.) By the time she was twelve she had developed ticks and nervousness to a degree that she was (can you believe it?) diagnosed with Turret's Syndrome and given drugs for that. In high school she was on so many prescribed drugs that she was supplementing her allowance by dealing them at school. On her eighteenth birthday she announced to her parents, "No more of your drugs!" Now she only smokes pot and takes ecstasy or mushrooms occasionally and is glad to be free from of all the legal drugs that made her so miserable. She is a libertarian and has absolutely no respect for authority. And now, because of the choices she's made, she can get arrested.
Lots of people have no respect for authority because of how the powers that be are all behind legal drugs and demonize all illegal drugs together in one basket. There's nothing quite as effective in undermining a young person's respect for the law as when they try pot and find it to be benign and fun and at times profound. I remember an old man telling me in the sixties that America used to be a nation where people respected the law - until Prohibition. "One day a whole lot of us became criminals," he told me, "And it was never again the same."
The War on Drugs also, in the eyes of many, makes criminals out of those in law enforcement, good people who we want to respect and support. Steve Kubby, a leader in passing the medical marijuana initiative and the libertarian candidate for Governor in California, publicly opposes the War on Drugs. It's well known he has a prescription for medical marijuana. In 1998 twenty heavily armed officers invaded his home, arrested him and his wife, and terrified their three year old daughter. Remember when the feds took Elian Gonzales at gunpoint how so many legislators were appalled and said things like "This isn't America!" Well it is America. This type of thing is happening daily all over America. There's an endless list of sickening statistics and horror stories. Otherwise law abiding citizens have had to choose between testifying against their spouses or going to jail and loosing their children.
Robert S. Deropp in his book "Drugs and the Mind," defined humans as a drug taking animal. He said that throughout history people have always taken whatever psychoactive they could get their hands on that would give them an experience of other than normal consciousness. Strangely, but even with our puritanical bent, America sure fills that bill. We're so drug crazy it's unbelievable -- for legal as well as illegal drugs. Doctors must get writers cramp writing scripts for mood altering drugs like Prozac (a favorite among Mormons who can't take anything that is considered recreational). We may be drug taking animals, but it seems humans can also be defined as a persecuting animal. We're so used to persecuting each other that we don't notice when it's going on all around us - especially when the poor and disempowered are the main ones being persecuted. The War on Drugs can be seen as a power drug the government is addicted to. I think it's just old-fashioned persecution and, at least in the case of psychedelics, it's religious persecution. (Thomas Szasz characterizes it all as religious persecution.) It's like McCarthyism, the witch burnings, and throwing the infidels to the lions. And so many of us don't notice it or think anything untoward is happening - just like the folks who went about their lives oblivious to there being anything terrible happening during those prior persecutions.
There's a proposition (which passed) before the voters of California which would allow many arrested for illegal drugs to be deferred to treatment programs rather than prison cells. Martin Sheen, an actor who is known for his devotion to liberal causes, is the spokesman for the opposition. His thought on the subject seems to be based on his experience with his two sons' drug problems. Nothing seemed to work for them but taking away their freedom. I must admit that just about everyone I know who has been busted for drugs has benefited from it. They quit making or dealing or taking tons of whatever they were busted for and set their lives on a new course. But these people that I know, and probably those that Sheen knows, are by and large educated white folks with financial resources and good lawyers. They didn't get twenty year sentences. I've also known people who feel they benefited from being in Japanese POW camps and from getting cancer.
No one I know wants their kids or friends to take strong stimulants or narcotics just like we don't want them to be constantly stoned-out pot heads or excessive drinkers. We don't want them to get caught up in all the gangster business that meets the demand not curtailed much by the present Prohibition. But a lot of us have done these things to one extent or another without robbing people or getting violent and have grown out of it. It seems that in our eagerness these days to protect ourselves from worst case scenarios, we're reacting like Stalin did in fear of his enemies and we have turned a blind eye to the suffering we've caused. I remember the cover of a Northern California weekly newspaper with a headline which read "Gulag California" above a photo of a long concrete hall overcrowded with depressed looking prisoners mulling about in and out of the cells. One point of the article, as I remember it (it may have been fifteen years ago), was that many of those in jails and prisons are there just for having illegal drugs, and not for being violent, stealing things, or breaking any other law. I gazed at the faces and could not believe that they were all dangerous enemies of the state who should be locked up. I was reminded of the line from Bob Dylan's song, Chimes of Freedom: "And for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail."
There are some engaged Buddhists these days who are working in the prisons, with homelessness and various social ills that bring them in touch with the victims of drugs and the War on Drugs. I salute these active Buddhists and non Buddhists too who are doing what they can to reduce all this suffering and confusion. But most of us don't know what to do and aren't doing anything. We've got zazen at Auschwitz and peace ceremonies on Hiroshima day; we remember these high ticket items and nobly proclaim may it never happen again while all around us something very bad is happening now.
It's a lovely day in late September. I sit at the top of the steps to my office and look out over the trees and rooftops to see the clear blue Sonoma sky. I wish there was such clarity in how American society dealt with the use and abuse of psychoactives. I wish there was such clarity in my mind about what, if anything, I could do. I pray to be alert for any opportunities that present themselves. I doze off and dream. My nightmare is Gulag America, the War on Drugs finally won by turning our shining land into one giant prison where we are all born and die, never to know there ever existed any such things as privacy or personal rights. My sweet dream is that I fly around the country miraculously freeing all those who've lost their freedom to drugs and prisons, and on the day following this gallant act of psychoactivism we all celebrate together in harmony, enjoying our natural minds and the good earth's fresh air and sunshine.
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