Can drugs contribute to enlightenment?

Clearly drugs cannot contribute to enlightenment. Right? According to James Austin’s new book, “Zen-Brain Reflections,” which I posted on here, zig-zag Zen is a “cultural aberration”, the term “entheogen” “camouflages” “ungodly hallucinations”, LSD causes bad trips, which studies such as Pahnke’s ignored, drugs amplify delusion, LSD is dangerous because it promotes the idea that reality is something to be maninpulated rather than accepted…and may leave you nuts, and on and on. He quotes Blake negatively, saying that his statement that “if the doors of perception were cleaned” involves a “very big if”.

The biology of religion, however, provides a different perspective. It says that meditation or other spiritual practices cause plasticity-based changes in the brain which promote well-being and/or happiness. There should be no difference if those same changes are occasioned by drugs. There are no a priori grounds for asserting that drugs could not produce equivalent changes in the brain, behavior, and state of life.

Leaving aside arguments along the lines of “I meditated for 20 years to get where I am and I’ll be damned if someone can get there overnight by ingesting psilocybin,” we must examine carefully the arguments for or against drugs being a positive element in spiritual development.

One counterargument is that drugs produce a one-time effect which quickly wears off. But kensho is also a one-time effect, which must be built upon, and there is no obvious reason why drug-induced experiences could not be similarly built upon. Indeed, all of our experiences are “one-time.”

Others argue that drug-based enlightenment experiences simply cannot, by definition, measure up to the “real thing.” But why not, if they are functionally or descriptively identical?

Let’s approach this scientifically. Assume that there is an inherent temporal limitation in the ability of the brain to adapt. In other words, certain types of brain changes require a specific, finite amount of time to take effect. This would seem to support a model of only meditation one, two, four, eight, or sixteen hours a day over years or decades being capable of causing those changes. That may well be the case. But people making this argument provide no neuroscientific evidence whatsoever concerning such required durations for neural modifications. It could just as easily be the case that drugs could in fact accelerate such structural changes in the brain. Or, perhaps extended, incremental drug use could yield equivalent neural restructuring: four pills a day instead of four meditation periods.

An argument with which I can agree is that some people may view drugs as a shortcut, and imagine that they can achieve happiness and understanding through their weekly trip, without bothering to take responsibility to work through issues and manage their own spiritual development. But that is certainly not an indictment of a drug-based approach per se, only of how a certain subset of people try to take advantage of it.

At the end of the day, it seems counterintuitive that selective, disciplined use of psychopharmaceuticals could not play a role in a program of spiritual evolution. Dogen’s zazen has been passed on nearly unchanged for close to a millenium; certainly there is room for the blessings of modern science now to make their contribution.

Image of James Fadiman.

24 Responses to “Can drugs contribute to enlightenment?”

  1. erin o. Says:

    i whole-heartedly disagree with you.

  2. Suraj Says:

    I whole-heartedly agree with you.

  3. Sridhar Ratna Says:

    I would always believe in direct experience than intellectual derivations like this. Let me know if someone discovers an “enlightenment drug” someday. Meanwhile, I will go with the 2500 years old method…

  4. Sridhar Ratna Says:

    Comments from an online Buddhists community.

  5. Kamma Says:

    It depends alot on your idea of ‘enlightenment’. Afterall, Enlightenment is just an idea. What you consider to be enlightened is the point you want to reach, so, perhaps drugs can be the path for some and not for others?

  6. Journeyman Says:

    Drugs for enlightened state, why not? The danger is attachment. Eventually we are only left with consiousness—what then?

  7. Haidyn Says:

    I experienced deep, strong and beautiful enlightenment, after 9 hours of frightning insanity on the drug pcylociben (Magic Mushrooms). The insanity was unimaginable. The biblical idea of fire and brimstone and eternal damnation in hell is much preferable to the torture (albiet physically pain free) of insanity. Insanity makes a day in hell look like a walk in the park. In itself though, there was enlightenment.

    Then there was the answers to the universe, to the self, there was wisdom and understanding of eternal truths and rememberings of a grander reality. The truth of oneness. The illusion of separation. The core of universal motivation being love. The great truths of God, the same thing we call life and love and light. The deliverance from the asking – to finally become the knowing.

    Has my life changed? You bet it has. I had my experience on that druga very long time ago and have yet to feel any sense of sadness. For how can I be sad, when love is at the core of every deed?

    That drug changed my life, but taught me nothing new, it simply validated what already made common sense to this former Agnostic.

    Life is Beautiful. Everyone should have magic mushrooms once – so that they can recall the deeper truths and give them what we all want the most eternal euforia, enlightenment and exctacy.


  8. Haidyn Says:

    Oh and by the way – I reached Nirvana. And it is as amazing as it’s supposed to be. I hope everybody gets there.

    I strongly encourage those who have the discipline to meditate in boxes or under a tree for 20 years (just to taste what I had in a drug experience one cold June day a long time ago) try what I did and having the short-cut route, may help you to understand and experience what all your hard work is aiming towards.

    And on a final note. I make my own decisions on what I consider good or bad – or as I prefer to think of it – What works and what doesn’t work for me. At the end of the day – why judge?


  9. Lao Tzi Says:

    The way that can be sold is not the Way
    The way that can be shown is not the Way
    The way that can be ingested is not the Way…

    Thousands of years of attempting to find an external stimuli to affect the body which is the result and cause of ego, not Self, and the only way to find the everpresent way is to empty the “mind” of all attachments to “reality”, and eliminate the falsity of dualistic existence, only then will one truly take the first step towards enlightenment.

    But realize this…
    He who says he is the way is not the Way.
    He who says he possesses the way is not in possession of the Way.
    The only one who can experience the Truth which is Divine Eternal Self is the Self of self…

  10. david the guide Says:

    there is no right or wrong way to enlightenment, nor can anyone know when they truly are enlightented, as there is always a larger truth waiting to be revealed outside of every reality.
    i help people attain a better grasp of how to become part of the eternal and infinite, be it by making sure they have a good trip if they decide to do drugs of any kind, or just attempting to explain in my very humble and small way the sort of thing that will help them get to where they want to be in their universe- ruler- creator- destroyer. we are all of these but only by experience can we learn how to apply these abilities to the external as well as the internal life.
    there are no rules.
    live while u can.
    but remember death is not the end.
    as birth was not the beginning.
    there are countless relams of pleasure, excitement, ecstasy, adventure, joy and love, just waiting to reveal themselves to each and every one of us. knowing your own key to unlocking these internal delights is your secret that must be kept that way.
    share your secret only with the souls who are prepared to understand it, or even want to.
    and keep this to a minimum.
    in the big wide world, the less said the better on some subjects.
    the time to speak of these things openly is approaching.
    we have all of eternity to get there.
    much peace love and harmony to you all.

  11. Nienke Bosch Says:

    Yes, there there are “special medicines”, which, if taken with the proper attitude, can facilitate self-realization.” Then he added: “But if you have the proper attitude, you can take anything – take a walk, or a bath. ”
    Zen Master Soeng Sahn

  12. Kaf Says:

    ecstacy triggered OCD and panic attacks for me. A lot of hippies who found “the secret” with LSD in the 60’s became angry divorced parents in the 70’s. Does meditation enlighten us? Who knows? But I certainly doubt that drugs do (though I forever think and feel differently now after having done them- and not always for the better) I HIGHLY caution anyone reading this that is considering doing hallucinogens (including ecstacy) that doing it ONCE completely changed my life and I would probably not do it if I could go back in time. Meditate. It can’t hurt you and won’t set off a chamical imbalance in your exceptionally delicate brain chemistry. Thanks for listening

  13. kaf Says:

    sorry, the email address above is fake

  14. friedrich Says:

    I have known many people who have taken ecstasy and not one of them ever had a bad trip. I have known people who have taken lsd or mushrooms and had a bad trip but not the first time they took it, and they don’t regret trying. These types of drugs are not dangerous, unless you are the type that considers alchohol dangerous. You can get intoxicaed and then go drive your car and die, but that is not the fault of the drug. Psilocybin is one of the safest substances there is, nobody has ever died from overdose, and even the worst trip wears off.

  15. andrew Says:

    not one experienced person in the world of drugs said no to this possibility. Only the folks that have no experience or one measly X trip which isnt even in the drug category that causes enlightenment. You cannot judge something you’ve never tried and with drugs if you’ve never tried them you’ve never come close to the world of truths they reveal. I will not check back to see ignorant arguements but think about what you say against the matter for we have been in both worlds you are blinded to one, let us ask the color blind man his choice of color.

  16. Mike Says:

    Now I’m sure that many kids end up commenting on these things, mentioning “o ya, i wuz totaly trippin and saw god”. This isn’t one of those.

    I am and have been a recreational user of certain mind-altering substances and I can tell you from full experience that a drug CAN in fact recreate the psychological conditions required for enlightenment.

    I was raised in an extremely religious environment, always having Bible verses shoved down my throat, and because of this I decided I would truly find out how reality works.

    To declare myself an atheist may be a stretch but I don’t believe in a “God” in the usual sense, and definitely not the Christian sense. But one night, a friend of mine and I decided to do some Ecstacy. We did not find out until later that these rolls had been cut with Ketamine, which can cause hallucinations. Well, about a week before this, we watched the movie The Number 23. We had seen this movie before and to this day still use 23 as almost a game, just trying to find it where ever I go. But on this particular night, while we were tripping, we decided to discuss this movie. We started talking about how 23 can be found in anything if you try hard enough and then


    The only way I can explain this experience is if you were to imagine just one, single, solitary object. Now in the very next moment, imagine this object logically connecting to every other object, nay, every other possible conception, places, people, time, words, principles, thoughts, all connecting at once. A complete realization of this infinitely complex web of truth, trailing down infinitely through everything, even riding on our DNA. It was in that instant that I genuinely cried.

    I hadn’t believed in anything beyond my own two eyes in over 10 years and then all of a sudden I could see the truth behind every religion, every culture, every single persons purpose in life. My friend described it as “spirituality without the bullshit.” For a hardened atheist to believe in something beyond spiritual is awe-inspiring.

    Now, I’m not necessarily advocating drug-use nor am I against it. Every person has their own path, whether it leads them to enlightenment or not, and what ever their path may be, let them leave their own footprints in the sands of time.

  17. Ka Says:

    I too had a transcendent experience on ecstasy. In fact I encountered a being who I believe may have been Jesus, though I can’t say for sure who this person was. Let me first say that I am not now, nor have ever been religious, only spiritually minded for most of my life.

    I was at a dance party, where people usually consume E, and was practicing with energy and chakra visualizations while dancing to trance music. I had taken one pill and after having a very good dance session decided to sit against the wall and meditate for a bit. I was feeling waves of bliss roll through my body and began to see wispy shapes and colours swirling in my vision. A black light was shining at me from across the room and I noticed that i could see the black light with my eyes closed while the rest of my vision disappeared. Then I could see dreamlike images of faces swirling around and around and they were beckoning me to enter some space and holding out what appeared to be chalices swirling around and around. I focused intensely, calming my mind, steeling myself, and released into the swirls.

    What happened next is completely beyond my ability to rationalize or comprehend. Upon my “release”, I divorced myself from physical reality and shot into some kind of astral space that was filled with loving bliss and electricity. A man was there waiting for me, with long beard and clear blue eyes, smiling at me excitedly as if to say “congratulations, you found it, you figured it out!” Completely 3D technicolour astral world, perceptually as real as anything you are looking at right now. Full of love and bliss and some kind of electric energy. I could see every hair of his beard because it was full of this static electricity and the hairs were standing on end as when you hold a balloon over your head, and they were all standing out from his face as he smiled at me. I remember thinking at that point “this is either Jesus or Jim Morrison”, a thought which made me chuckle to myself, as I still had a semblance of my normal self as well as a sense of humour apparently.

    The entire OBE experience lasted for maybe 5 seconds of real time, but that experience has stayed with me as the most profound and supportive experience of my life. I am filled with bliss every time I think of it, and it has been about 8 years since it happened.

    Maybe it was all in my mind, a particular pattern of neurons firing or whatever, but nobody can say that it wasn’t a valid spiritual experience. My only hope is that everyone can experience something like this, drug-induced or not. I would not advocate drug use for everyone, but it should never be shunned as a short cut or invalidated as unreal, or not as good as the real thing, or whatever people think. These experiences are all clues to a higher reality and the means to obtain these clues are irrelevant. What counts is the subjective experience and if was meaningful to you. Someone might say oh thats nothing, not as good as an experience I had meditating or whatever, but that doesn’t mean anything to me. Our experiences are only relevant to ourselves, and nobody can judge them because nobody else is in there with you. It’s all up to you what you consider enlightenment, there is nobody saying oh you’ve made it, oh not quite almost, or oh you cheated, sorry…

    Judgemental mind disappears in the face of transcendence and I would laugh so hard if somebody told me my experience wasn’t real because I was on drugs. I would say that what you are experiencing right now is then not real because it is coming from your neurotransmitters. HAHA it so funny! There is no experience, only the brain tricking itself endlessly. Woo hoo, nice one brain!!

    So what is real? That is the question. The only thing that endures, beyond your thoughts, beyond your perceptions, behind all the curtains is your self.

    Only your self (including the universe around you).


  18. :) Says:

    Hallucinogenics can certainly help you realise your own delusions as well as create new illusions.

    Why is it that positive enlightning experiences from drugs for most seem to solidify into memories?

    Ideas of what constitutes enlightenment vary but loss of ego, realising unconditional love and oneness, reaching a higher level of conciouness seem to be general themes. I think drugs can lead you to experience these things. They can also lead you to better understanding of how these things come about.

    However, I think for most people the understanding or knowing may remain but the continued experience and enlightened feeling fades.

    Could it be that in those drug enduced states where you seem to find enlightenment, you actually have found it. You have many realisations as a result which stay with you and continue to benefit you in your life. But once the drug wheres off your brain returns to its prior state only with new knowlege or understanding. I wander what life would be like if you remained in that state without the hallucination. Pretty damn good and enlightening I think. The latching on to the experience by the ego doesn’t seem to help you stay there.

    I’m curious to know when people say that they have been enlightened by drug use whether it is the realisations that occurred in that state that continues to benefit them or wether it goes beyond that and they continue to be in similar or changed states.

    I personally have found an emense sense of profound peace, love and new understandings through drug use. I don’t wish to go into details but I feel it important to say that I have seen similar persuits with drug involment go very seriously wrong. So it is a very poinient subject for me and encourage people to be mindful and careful.

  19. JORD Says:

    I have started taking some drugs mainly ecstasy as I grow older, after coming back from Ibiza I have found my self thinking more and more about how the world works and why things are the way they are. In my head of I come up with a picture of the world, where no one is equal and the rich take from the poor and the poor works for the rich (?Illuminati?) . In my head this is wrong, I believe now that people should all be equal and that if money didn’t exist that there would be much less or perhaps no evil in the world!

    I never used to think in this way about the world but as I grow older and learn more it seems to become more clear. After studding economics at A-level and Business studies I can see how influenced the world is by money and all the greed, jealously and hate that is created through money.

    These days I tend to think positive all the time and try to create a better world simply by doing one random act of kindness everyday. If everyone in the world did this the world could at least start to more towards a lighter place, as I can see the world is simply not been enlightened yet. Before I started taking ecstasy I never used to think in this way but now I do and have turned to Christianity for guidance and support. To finish ye I agree that drugs may help to lead you to enlightenment, however the problem is they may lead you into darkness if done with the wrong people in the wrong environments.

    If you have read this feel free to share your opinion by emailing me or something as I am every interested in hearing peoples opinions to compare with mine.

  20. Daniel Kochanik Says:

    I think that drugs will only show you a bits of future that will happen anyway. The danger is in the attachment to that future and in thinking that it will happen now, or soon, rather to admitting that you don’t know when. But probably in far, far future, say decades.

    So if you take ketamine, and experience enlightened state, that serves more or less as the preview to what is waiting for you anyway, in your far future (maybe even in 20-40 years). The problem is, that when you get out of the K-hole and get back to reality of sober state, you’ve got a number of problems ahead.

    Firstly you crave that heaven again and you are addicted to it, before you even know it. Secondly, more you do it, more and stronger you believe, that this is your reality and you like it. So when the reality comes back, you are hurt. Not straight away, but with a some delay.

    It’s dangerous to want to be in God-like state forever. Makes you hate reality even more and the down-turns start piling up. In the end you are forced to get back to reality, but it’s not a one pleasant awakening. It’s split into the 100 of small, partial surrenders, each of them hurting like hell. It literally feels like dying.

    The withdrawal symptoms from any tranquillizer can take up to 2 months, which is more than 3 times longer than from heroin. Take this to consideration before using it.

  21. SARA Says:

    the world would look totally different if money did not exist. people still living in forests or villages growing vegetables and hunting, just to be able to eat. no one would want to build better buildings, faster planes, busses, trains, cars…only basic things would exist. no choice. no reason wanting to improve, no reason to work harder than others – why work at all when so many people wouldnt work…?
    would there be any culture?
    money is a mean for exchange, they link people with different values and enable them to live together.
    of course, ‘the evil’ exist with or without money (only temporarily, until people let it go)

  22. ian Says:

    Sadly, everyone’s idea of enlightenment is only a delusion. So if you keep striving for the delusion, you have a long road ahead of you. It might take you 20 years of sitting on your ass breathing before you even get a glimpse of the truth and then maybe you’ll realize that you and your ideas are a delusion.
    Keep the faith, if you like sitting and daydreaming, or maybe try something new.
    It’s not what you think it is.

  23. ahaha Says:

    don’t pursuit enlightment, what you need to do is fully aware what happned right now around or inside you, why. because if you do not aware what around or inside you, either you are sleeping, or you are in your mind, or in other word thinking, the first case is ok, the second case is not always ok, thinking normally will lead you to anger, depression or excitement, eventually will cause pain to you. Actually pain is an illusion when you fully aware of it, and if you drawned into it without awareness, it looks so real.

  24. ahaha Says:

    thinking with awareness will be much helpful when we deal with work and daily life to avoid being drown into negative emotion.

Leave a Reply