Buddhism has deeply-rooted, and perhaps surprising, connections to psychedelic medicine. Lama Mike Crowley shares from his decades of wisdom.
Lama Mike Crowley met the Tibetan lama Lama Radha Chime Rinpoche in London when he was 18 years old. He became Lama Chime’s first student and has continued to study with him to the present day. He took “refuge” and the five Pansil vows on May 1, 1970, and, after much study and meditation, was ordained as a lama on January 1, 1988.
He is the founder of Amrita Dzong, an American extension of his teacher’s group, and a member of the advisory board of the national Psychedelic Sangha. We caught up with him about his latest book, Psychedelic Buddhism: A User’s Guide to Traditions, Symbols, and Ceremonies.
S+H: How would you suggest Buddhists balance the fifth precept (that is, to refrain from using intoxicants) and experimenting with psychedelics?
Crowley: Though the fifth precept prohibits alcohol and only alcohol, there are other drugs (opiates, ketamine, barbiturates, etc.) which I would place in the same category.
Prohibitions placed on psychedelics are the invention of modern teachers and have no basis in Buddhist history. In fact, psychedelics have a very definite place in Buddhist practice (see my book Secret Drugs of Buddhism).
However, in my own methods of teaching, I also...
prohibit all drugs (except those prescribed medically) for those following the Hinayana path,
limit exposure to empathogens (used once or twice) for those at the Mahayana stage, and
allow those at the Vajrayana stage to take a psychedelic (amrita) first at an initiation, then monthly thereafter.
That is, they should practice sincerely, in the order of:
- Hinayana (at least one year)
Take the five basic vows
- Mahayana (one or two years)
Take the Bodhisattva vow
Always put others first
Limited exposure to empathogens (MDA, MDMA, etc.)
- Vajrayana (rest of lifetime)
- Take a psychedelic (amrita), first at initiation, then monthly at tsog puja
What drew you to study Buddhism?
When I was at school, I was an atheist. There was a week of lectures at another school in Cardiff. I was assigned to go on Tuesday, the only day without a decent political lecture. I went and argued with the lecturer, but he had excellent answers to all my questions. After the workshop, I asked him where I could learn more. He was astonished that I was interested, but it set the course of the rest of my life.
What drew you to become a lama?
Due to that initial encounter, I attended weekly Zen lectures at the Buddhist Society in London. Then, when a neighbor gave me a p’urba (Tibetan ritual implement) that he’d bought for two pence at a jumble sale, I took it to the Buddhist Society for more information, where the librarian sent me to meet a Tibetan lama, newly arrived in town. After a few visits I decided to study with him. Me becoming a lama was entirely this lama’s idea. I just said, “Oh, okay then,” and began studying.
Can you share more about your relationship with Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche? How did he influence you?
Trungpa was the first practitioner of “crazy wisdom” I’ve met. His actions were entirely spontaneous and yet finely attuned to enlighten those around him. He was an absolute dynamo of a man. He encouraged me simply to be myself. Also, he occasionally took LSD, which caused me to be open to that path.
Is there a daily Buddhist practice that is particularly nourishing or meaningful for you?
Yes, the “Four Limitless Abodes.” There are many names for this practice, none of which are at all explanatory. It consists of generating the mental states of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
First, one generates each emotion for oneself, in the form of “I love myself,” “I have compassion for myself,” etc. Then, when each is firmly achieved, one extends it (whether love, compassion, joy, or equanimity) to all sentient beings in the universe.
What was your experience of taking refuge in the Buddhist tradition?
In a word, “baffling.” Although I had been studying Buddhism for three years, I had never even seen the ceremony before.
I had prepared in the previous weeks by memorizing all 10 pages (in the Pali language!), which the lama had given me, only to find that he used none of it.
How do psychedelics and your Buddhist practice influence your creative expression?
I have been practicing Buddhism and taking psychedelics since I was 16 years old, and all I can say is, “Yes, I am creative.” I play music, draw, and write, but how much can be attributed to Buddhism and psychedelics, I honestly have no idea. But then, how could I?
Perhaps someone could magically grant me another lifetime in which I do not adopt the Buddhist “religion” and never take any drugs. Only then, by comparing both lives, could I answer your question.
What kind of meaning have you made of your psychedelic experiences as you’ve grown older?
Very early on, I learned that it is a profound mistake to impose meaning or structure on my experiences, whether psychedelic or meditative.
Meaning bubbles up spontaneously from the depths of one’s being in the days and weeks following a psychedelic experience, but first it is inchoate and unformed. One should not be in a hurry to make sense of it, as eventually it will slowly crystallize into a fully-formed thought or urge to action.
Read our review of Psychedelic Buddhism here.