Flashback Friday: Psychedelics And Religion

No, you weren’t the first one to take LSD and see God. Here’s some background.
Flashback Friday: Psychedelics And Religion
Nicholas Darinzo/ Wikimedia Commons

We all know many ancient religions were founded on wisdom provided by psychedelic experience. What you may not realize, however, is that there are still religions based on sacramental mind-expansion. For the January, 1990 issue of High Times, we sent intrepid psychedelic adventurer Peter Gorman to find out what was happening on the fringes of faith.

Droning music plays on an old boom box. Over it, dubbed onto the tape, someone reads scripture. Michael, just 22 or 23, with straight brown hair nearly down to his waist, lights the raspberry leaves he’s put in the hookah bowl. I suck the white-smoke sacrament and put the mouthpiece down.

I have no idea how high I will get and worry about that. I worry, too, because I am with a stranger and have no idea whether or not this is the right stranger to be getting high with. The whole scene is a little shaky: I’m in a New York City tenement, sitting on the floor beneath a loft bed, smoking a bowl of raspberry leaves which are covered with a psychotropic substance I’ve never heard of, listening to religious scripture with an avowed apostle of the Lord, one who has explained to me that I am a sinner for not accepting Jesus as my savior, and the white smoke as Jesus. It’s not the most conducive setting in which to experiment with the stability of my mind. Still, here I am, holding onto that smoke until I know nothing will escape when I open my mouth and gulp a fresh lungful of air.

The high is instant and hard. No warning, no intimation, just swallow and peak. Suddenly, my worries disappear and I’m warm and sitting in West Virginia and it is 1971….

I’d just returned to the East Coast from months of hitch-hiking out West, to Norman’s house in Sugar Grove, and it was Ellen’s birthday and the three of us had planned on tripping together and when Ellen decided she didn’t want to and walked off into the woods to make love with Norman I ate all three hits of windowpane and for the first time ever it was a large enough dose of acid to turn me inside out. Up on the ridge the trees started dancing and I felt them moving inside me. I felt the ground breathing with my breath. I spoke—in a way I couldn’t identify—with the insects, warning them off with reminders that I was their brother.

The rain pounded, drumming in my blood, and I was Earth and Air and Goodness and Light and everything made sense in a way I’d never dreamed it could. I glimpsed the holistic system of things and communed with divinity and understood the life-force and how it was in all things, even in those things which we don’t think have it, like rocks—oh, how they were filled with life!—and when the rain told me to get in out of it, that it was about to let loose a violent storm full of lightning and thunder, that’s what I did, and there, on cue, in the main room of the little farm house someone had put Richard Alpert’s Be Here Now, right out in the middle of things and I read and understood and knew what being here—here in the minute, in the page, in the letters, in all things at all times, in history and in stone and in the lightning banging at the house—knew what that meant and that it was a truth I’d keep forever.

The walls and I breathed together all that afternoon—their rhythm was fantastic and musical!—and when Norman and Ellen returned and saw that I’d eaten all the acid they asked whether I was alright and I assured them that not only was I alright. I was divine. They nodded. They knew the secret, too…

“Are you alright?” Michael asks gently.

“I’m fine. I’m thinking about something wonderful.”

“Do you want to share it?”

I think about that for a minute before answering. And when I answer I say no, it is too personal. Perhaps I think I can’t express it well enough, or that if I do I would be putting water into the cup and diluting my moments, moments I haven’t really thought about since the day they happened, nearly 20 years ago.

I have another toke from the raspberry bowl and think about the funny route things take sometimes, about how it happens that in 1989 I should be in a church which uses a potent psychedelic as its sacrament and seems to live according to what I know as Catholic dogma—reinterpreted through that psychedelic. This particular church, The Temple of the True Inner Light, views Christ in quite a literal biblical sense: Christ said he was in the Light; temple members have recognized the psychedelics as Light, and therefore Christ is the psychedelic. When you eat the body of Christ—smoke the psychedelic—you can get high enough to see beings, and those beings are seen as the angels of the lord, the messengers of God.

I release the toke and try to picture my eighth grade teacher, Sister Grace Maureen, as I tell her about this church and others where psychedelics—DMT, DPT, LSD, marijuana, psilocybin, MDMA, peyote and probably some I don’t know about—are the sacraments. She would wonder what the hell I’m talking about. And yet, here I am, in one of them, attending their mass, listening to a reading of the same bible I’d listened to as a child. And, while I don’t see their angels or receive their messages from God, I do leave feeling that Michael and the other temple members are good people, genuine in their beliefs. I don’t believe Sister Grace Maureen would’ve bought any of it and that I would be writing “I will not make fun of the church’s teachings” on a blackboard somewhere still.

The Temple of the True Inner Light was founded in New York City in 1980. Operating out of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Temple practices a revisionist Christianity whose members see themselves as apostles of a very real Jesus, a Jesus baptized by modern-day John the Baptist Timothy Leary, the man who spread the Word about the coming of Christ, the arrival of psychedelics.

Inspired by visions in which members realized that the psychedelic was the Light, the Temple evolved its theology beginning with the revised story of the Garden of Eden. In their visions, they saw that what the Biblical Serpent actually offered Eve was the psychedelic—intimate knowledge of god—a knowledge which both she and Adam accepted, but which a morally corrupt mankind could not. The Temple’s mission is to spread what they consider to be the true and inspired Word of God.

The Temple of the True Inner Light is only one of a burgeoning number of religions and cults built around psychedelics. Many have established religious philosophies at their core; others reflect New Age beliefs or old hippie philosophies. One of them, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Inner Light, is Norm Lebow’s Religion of Drugs.

The Religion of Drugs was founded in 1982 while Lebow was a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. An LSD experience having enlightened him to the idea that he was a slave to a corrupt society, Lebow realized that the goals of both religion and politics must be one and the same: the positive evolution of mankind. He then set out to create the proper religious setting wherein morally acceptable politics could be practiced. The Religion of Drugs calls for a peaceful revolution and redistribution of private property, simultaneous with the formation of a utopian Marxist society with a communal-representational government nominally running the show.

Lebow readily admits that on the face of it his conceptual world ideal is a naive proposal, but he believes that the use of psychedelics will act as a world-enlightening agent. This spiritual enlightenment will, in turn, lead naturally to his utopia. “It’s got to be a peaceful and enlightened revolution to work,” he said recently. “When you start with fools who make the thing violent it’s ruined. That’s a lesson from the ’60s.”

The relationship of hallucinogens to the divine is neither new nor limited to our culture. The ancient Greeks indulged in a psychotropic drink made from ergot, a fungus found on barley, during their annual Eleusinian rites; in Siberia, tribals have been ingesting hallucinogenic mushrooms for centuries as a means of inducing communication with their Creator Spirit; and the aboriginals of Australia chew pituri, an hallucinogenic shrub, to ease the pathway into their dreamtime. And of course there’s ganja—the name the Indian peasant classes gave to the marijuana which grew along the banks of the Ganges River, the most sacred water in India—which more recently became the sacrament of Rastafarians.

The introduction of psychedelics—specifically the heavier hallucinogens—to our modern Western culture, can be credited to three men, all of whom related them to the divine. Aldous Huxley, author of The Doors of Perception, a book published in 1954 which describes his first encounter with mescaline, wrote that the drug produced “the most extraordinary and magnificent experience this side of Beatific Vision.” R. Gordon Wasson, the New York banker who discovered for Westerners the magic mushroom religions in mid-’50s Mexico and wrote about his first trip in a 1957 Life Magazine article, saw in the mushrooms not only divinity, but the force which had enlightened and united primitive man on the subconscious level throughout the world. Wasson later spent a good part of his life trying to link tribal hallucinogens to all early religions and at least in part succeeded. The third and most directly influential spokesperson for psychotropics in our culture was Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who became acid’s primary PR man. In Acid Dreams, authors Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain quote Leary as saying of LSD: “It’s all God’s flesh … always a sacrament.” Early on in his career as a media personality, Leary had urged everyone to drop acid and start their own religion. The amazing thing is how many people listened to him.

Dozens of psychedelic churches set up shop in storefronts and on communes during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Some of them had a genuine feeling about religion which had been tempered and enlightened through hallucinogen use; others used the word ‘religion’ to sanctify their use or promotion of illegal substances. A few, most notably Charles Manson’s cult, were begun by madmen who saw in LSD a manipulating agent by which they could enslave naive followers. (NOTE: As documented in Acid Dreams, the US Army and the CIA first developed LSD specifically as an agent for mind-manipulation. It’s a wretched commentary on their initial intentions that one of the few people who used their creation the way they intended proved—so successfully—the validity of their thinking.)

Most of those early LSD-inspired religions quickly folded up their tents and disappeared; today only a handful remain. Among those which do, the Neo-American Boohoo Church is probably the oldest. It was founded during the mid-’60s by Arthur Kleps, a psychologist who’d spent a considerable amount of time with Leary, Alpert, (later, Ram Dass) et al., on Billy Hitchcock’s Millbrook, New York estate, the ’60s East Coast center for psychedelic experimentation.

Kleps’ organization—a marvelous parody—was the perfect hippie church: irreverent, non-traditional, enlightening and, if the member cared to make it so, political. Membership was simply a question of claiming to belong, and the tenets of the Boohoo Church could be reduced to these: that members view their psychoactive indulgences as a religious experience, and that nothing said to be religious should be taken too seriously. The theme song of the Boohoos was “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and their political stance was that members ought to be allowed to take psychoactives under the protection of the law since they were used exclusively for religious purposes. Needless to say, when the church eventually had its day in court over the use of drugs as sacraments, they lost the case. Nonetheless, the church continues to surface occasionally, most frequently when old hippies congregate.

The Church of the Tree of Life, another early ’70s religion which survives today, is built on the single proposition of personal liberation through the use of psychotropics. Its chief aim is the dissemination of information regarding a number of psychedelics, many of which it dispenses through its mail-order catalogue. Like Kleps’ Boohoo bunch, The Tree of Life’s political stance is based on Leary’s assertion that hallucinogens are always sacramental in nature; unlike Kleps, the Tree of Life deals exclusively with substances which are legal, avoiding the court battle its leadership knows it would lose.

The Fane of the Psilocybin Mushroom, a group from Canada which was founded in 1973, is also still active. In a recent article in The Journal of Drug Issues, Thomas Lyttle—an outstanding researcher into drug-based religions and the publisher of Psychedelic Monographs—says that The Fane is an inherently active religion whose goals are “to promote the general welfare of the community and to encourage enlightenment, which is the realization that life is a dream and the externality of relations an illusion.” Looking through their literature the primary activism of The Fane appears to be the publishing of Sporatic and Spore Print, membership publications which grow in the dark.

Of the more outlandish religions founded in the late ’60s, probably none had a more unusual approach to god than the Dog Commune. Originated in the hills overlooking Los Angeles, Dog Commune founders (said to include Sky Saxon of the Seeds), claim to have been enlightened during an LSD trip to the idea of all life being of equal value. Once aware of this truth they became fruitarians, limiting their food consumption to fruit which had fallen to the ground. Later visions informed them that God existed on Earth, incarnate in dogs, and it was revealed to them that all of Man’s ills could be directly traced to the mistreatment of canines. Hence the name Dog Commune, whose members herded dogs, tried to stop the use of them for scientific purposes and raided animal shelters to liberate their creator-incarnate. To the commune’s credit it must be noted that they were among the first groups in this country to try to raise the public’s consciousness regarding animal exploitation through experimentation.

Despite the initial illumination hallucinogens provide, their continual and random use eventually blurs reality and one’s place in it. Ken Kesey used to say that acid was a good school, but one a person had to graduate from.

The mass burnout which followed the late ’60s-early ’70s time of experimentation led hundreds of thousands of former users to search for a context in which they could use their new-found enlightenment. Eastern philosophy and oriental mysticism attracted a large share of ex-hippies; reborn Christianity had its adherents among former acidheads as well. But one of the problems many people had with the concept of religion was that it was seen as one of the establishment value systems which prevented personal enlightenment, and the idea of trading in a traditional religion for a new dogma—or worse, for a trendy experiment—was unpalatable. As a result, many people felt that a void existed between their new enlightenment and its application.

That void was filled when Carlos Castaneda published The Teachings of Don Juan, the first in a series of books in which he dealt with his experiences as an apprentice in the world of Indian Shamanism. While it has become fashionable to criticize the Castaneda books, their impact is undeniable: an entire generation was introduced to the concept of psychedelics as a tool to use on the pathway to enlightenment, rather than as an end in themselves.

That idea—that there were extant societies in which psychotropic use was integrated into the community lifestyle—was not new. It was, in fact, at the roots of R. Gordon Wasson’s discovery among the Mexican mushroom cults fifteen years earlier. But while Wasson’s work served as an invaluable introduction to the concept, it was written from an outsider’s point of view; Castaneda took us inside those cults and suggested that there were guideposts one could follow during states of heightened reality, pathways on the road to illumination. First published in 1968, The Teachings of Don Juan caught fire among spiritual and quasi-spiritual seekers in 1972 and precipitated a previously unheard of amount of interest in ethnic cultures.

Among the more accessible cultures which had a continuing history of psychedelic use were the peyote eaters of the Native American Church. Though the roots of the church date back to the ancient Aztec religions, missionization during the last two centuries has introduced a number of Christian beliefs, so that the church is now considered pan-Christian. Membership, while exclusively Native American, cuts across dozens of tribal boundaries, each of which incorporates its own oral history and traditions into church theology.

The tenets of the Native American Church involve a belief in the Christian god as well as in the life-force—the spirits—of plants, animals, and objects. The use of peyote is generally reserved for those occasions when communion with those spirits is necessary. There are two principal times when the use of peyote is called for: the first, known as a ‘Spirit Walk,’ involves a person faced with a difficult situation for whom counsel from other people has proven inadequate. The participant receives a quantity of peyote from the tribal shaman-known as a roadman—and communes alone, generally in the desert, for several days, using the hallucinogen to achieve contact and guidance from his higher self and the spirits of the creatures he or she encounters.

The second time the use of peyote is called for involves a group ceremony. This ceremony is presided over by a roadman, and the eating is frequently accompanied by music and chanting. The ritual may last all night, during which enormous quantities of peyote buttons may be consumed. One roadman once confided in me that “to learn a little something from the spirits, eat 100 buttons. To learn something important, eat 500.” That dose is decidedly not recommended for the general public.

The onslaught of outside interest in their religion—and specifically in the psychedelic they used—brought the Church undue attention from the US Government, which reminded them that the privilege of using a Schedule I drug legally was just that. As a result, the Native American Church closed its doors to non-Indians in the early ’70s; but by then an all-race group had already been formed. That group, still in existence and presided over by a roadman formerly with the Native American Church, incorporated itself as the Peyote Way Church of God. The members of Peyote Way don’t have the native oral traditions of the Indians and so tend to lean more toward Christianity than the Native American Church.

“We call ourselves Christian, but when it comes to someone who comes here for a Spirit Walk we don’t say you have to be a Christian,” says Ann Zaph, president of Peyote Way. “We say you take the peyote, you go out, you pray, you meditate, you see what you see, you believe what you’re shown.”

Once awareness of these psychedelic-using cultures was established, the study of tribal ethnobotany began in earnest. Droves of former and current acid users went into Mexico and Guatemala in search of shamen who would provide them with magic mushrooms and perhaps, like Don Juan, teach them to be sorcerers’ apprentices as well. Before long those rituals, so sacred and potent when performed intra-culturally, became little more than tourist sideshows performed for the almighty buck. Many people who had gotten just a taste of shamanic practices began setting up their own religions and rituals throughout the States, bogus medicine men who may have had the hallucinogen but not the substance of the cultures they mimicked.

It wasn’t long before the search for spiritual enlightenment through natural botanicals extended further south, to South America. In William Burroughs’ book The Yage Letters—published in 1963 but not popularly available until nearer 1970—he described his experience with yage, a powerful hallucinogenic drink made from the ayahuasca vine, as: “Space time travel … new races, as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. I took incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains.” That line caused spiritual seekers to flock to Colombia and Peru and Bolivia and Brazil in search of the new illumination. It wasn’t hard to find: brujos and curanderos, genuine and fake, were only too pleased to offer their services. The seekers not only found their yage but other hallucinogens there as well: the San Pedro cactus, which the Quechua say can take you to the World of the Dead; the Luna cactus, which the Ayamara use for astral travel; and psychedelic tobaccos which the Panoan groups use for future-seeing. But, like the magic mushroom, the spiritual power of these substances doesn’t travel as well as the substances themselves. Within the context of the cultures which employ them they are a thread of the cultural skein; they are used for specific purposes and their use is monitored by a tribal curandero. Outside of their cultures their use becomes another guideless psychedelic trip, one in which the potential expanse of the experience is substantially reduced by lack of direction. Beyond that, the enormous injustice done by these supposedly enlightened seekers to those tribals by reducing their cultural significance to the use of their hallucinogens is incalculable.

Which didn’t stop would-be shamen from starting a number of new religions around their use. In nearly every large city in the United States today, one can find, with little difficulty, a yage cult and a number of pseudo-religions built around a host of tribal spirit aids. Many of these presided over by people who have never once used these ethno-psychoactives within their original context.

Of course not all of the proponents of ethno-botanical psychedelics are charlatans. There are plenty of serious students of the subject out there. One of them, Terence McKenna, has been studying ethno-pharmacology for more than twenty years; he echoes the need to understand the cultural significance in which the substance is used. “I try to bring people to look at the psychedelic thing from a whole different perspective, to lay the stress on plants which have a history of human usage. The thing to look at is the idea that there was, in pre-history, a symbiosis between plants and humans. And it was the disruption of this symbiosis which set us up for the ego, so that the whole Western dominated mind-set is a consequence of being out of touch with this guyan-vegetable-gnosis thing.”

Psychedelics lend themselves to the concept of spiritual enlightenment of the most intimate personal levels. But spiritual enlightenment is frequently the product of the diminishing of a person’s ego, and the breakdown of the ego in the face of the immensity of one’s new-found knowledge can leave a gaping hole in a person’s ability to function. John Lennon once said: “I got a message on LSD to destroy my ego. Well, I destroyed my ego and didn’t think I could do anything.”

People faced with the unknown, people whose slates have become tabulae rasae, have often turned to religion for guidance, or out of faith in a higher power. And, since none of the religions typically practiced in our Western culture satisfy the need for a psychedelic context, people have created their own and will continue to do so as new psychoactive chemicals are synthesized and new ethno-botanicals are discovered. Conservative estimates put the number of psychedelic religions currently active in the United States at several dozen. If one were to include all of the cults and churches which don’t seek publicity or refuse to acknowledge their existence to non-members, that number might be multiplied by ten.

I recently spoke with Timothy Leary and asked him what he thought about his part in the wave of new religions which has been burgeoning for the past 25 years. He laughed at the question.

“I don’t see the psychedelic as being as important as many people do. It’s all just inner-brain neuron firings. Formalizing religion or defining what you see as angels or spacemen or God or whatever is just an attempt to pin down or freeze the process. And you can’t take the neurological processes and freeze them into symbols.”

“As to the religion thing, well, if good people do psychedelics and start religions, they’ll be good religions. If bad people do psychedelics and start religions, they’ll be bad religions. And if lunatics do psychedelics and start religions, well, they’ll start lunatic religions.”

Books and Papers Cited:

  • Acid Dreams, Martin A. Lee and Brace Shlain, Grove Press, 1985.
  • Psychedelic Monographs and Essays, Vol 4, Spring 1989, Edited by Thomas Lyttle.
  • The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda, University of California Press, 1968.
  • The Yage Letters, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, City Lights, 1963.
  • “Drug Based Religions”, Thomas Lyttle, The Journal of Drug Issues, Spring 1988.
  • Be Here Now, Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), Lama Foundation, 1971.
  • Religion of Drugs: Constitution, Norm Lebow.

Note: All of the churches and religions mentioned herein view cocaine, alcohol, amphetamines, barbiturates and opiates as non-enlightening drugs to be avoided at all costs.

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