Did Buddhists of ancient times use shamanic plants and mushrooms in their sacred rituals? This is the question that Mike Crowley attempts to answer in his new book Secret Drugs of Buddhism. The book looks at the central role which psychedelics have played in Indian religions, beginning with the legendary soma, and follows the trail all the way to amrita, the sacramental drink of Vajrayāna Buddhism.
A glance at the titles of Vajrayāna scriptures will find the word amrita again and again. Many Vajrayāna deities have amrita as part of their name and a liquid called amrita is frequently visualized in Vajrayāna meditations. Almost all the early teachers of the Vajrayāna are depicted holding skull-cups of amrita. Two "skull-cups" of amrita adorn Vajrayāna altars and a drink called amrita is consumed at all major Vajrayāna rituals. Hundreds of Vajrayāna deities are said to carry amrita in some form, whether in a skull-cup, vase, flask or bowl.
Consider, for example, the prominent meditation-deity Hevajra. He is usually described and depicted as having sixteen arms with every hand holding a skull-cup filled with amrita and in one of his several variants he and his trantric consort arise out of the amrita itself.
And yet, despite multiple references in Vajrayāna literature and near-ubiquitous depictions in Vajrayāna art, you may be forgiven for never having heard of amrita before. If you are, as I am myself, a practicing Vajrayānist, then you may have performed the Vajrasattva purification practice in which the body is (mentally) filled with amrita. But the actual nature of amrita, its origin and history, are rarely discussed, if at all. In fact, even a standard textbook which provides a detailed account of Vajrayāna Buddhism as practiced in India and Tibet has managed to overlook it entirely.
Secret Drugs of Buddhism sets out to remedy this 'blind-spot' in the understanding of ancient Buddhist practices, pointing out the importance of amrita to the Vajrayan Buddhist tradition, and even offers suggestions for the ingredients of the original, psychoactive potion.
In telling the story of amrita, this book provides a new perspective on the origins of the Vajrayāna itself and, in the process, it resolves a few puzzles of tantric iconography (e.g. the role of peacocks, wheels and water-buffaloes) as well as offering an explanation for the previously inexplicable "crown-bump" deities.
It must be said that, in many cases, Buddhist references to amrita are simply an allusion to a legendary "elixir of immortality" and nothing more. Such turns of phrase as "the nectar of my teacher's words" may be considered as expressions of devotion or mere literary tropes, but not references to a physical potion. On the other hand, there are abundant instances in which amrita (whether actually drunk or merely visualized in a meditation) is associated with "bliss" or even "intoxication". In these instances we may clearly perceive indications that a draft of amrita was expected to induce a state of "blissful" intoxication - at least in the historical past. Yet, as we will see, the drinking of a drug potion called amrita was an essential component of the original Vajrayāna practice.
The book is full of fantastic insights and speculation, such as the proliferation of 'parasol' imagery and multi-armed deities fanning their limbs about in a circle in Buddhist artwork - both rather close analogues to the distinctive shapes and anatomy of mushrooms (it seems so obvious once it is pointed out). Secret Drugs of Buddhism also features a short foreword from Ann Shulgin and colour plates illustrating points made in the book.
If you've read Paul Devereux's wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia, you'll know how prevalent the use of shamanic plants was throughout the ancient world. But what about the use of hallucinogenic honey?
Nepal’s Gurung people live mostly in small villages in the vast Annapurna mountain ranges. In this remote region, they practice an ancient tradition of honey hunting where they descend towering cliffs on handmade ladders, to harvest honey nestled under jagged overhangs.
In spring, the Gurung’s honey contains a rare substance called grayanotoxin from rhododendron flowers that’s known for its intoxicating effects. While some accounts say it’s a deadly poison, others refer to it as an aphrodisiac, powerful medicine, and a hallucinogenic drug.
VICE travelled deep into the Annapurna mountains to join a Gurung village on their spring hunt and understand Mad Honey's effects.
The use of 'mad honey' wasn't just restricted to Nepal though; people in Turkey, Japan, Brazil, North America, and various parts of Europe have over the years been intoxicated by hallucinogenic honey.
Who knew the Sicario soundtrack would be so suited to a DMT trip? ECHOES, embedded above, "is an exploration in the infinite nature of fractal geometry" via 3D rendering, set to Jóhann Jóhannsson's "The Beast". Sinister non-Euclidean geometry to satisfy anybody's inner Lovecraftian...
(via Boing Boing)
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A recent paper on ancient cannabis use has made news this week, with some fascinating insights into its origins and spread through Asia and Europe. You can read a good summary of the research at the New Scientist link, so no need for me to rewrite it here.
What did catch my attention though is the following image from the paper, which maps archaeological sites in Eurasia that have been found to contain cannabis remains that date to more than 3000 years ago (ie. 1000 BCE).
What this clearly shows is how widespread the usage of cannabis was in ancient times, with some of the dates stretching back well before the advent of written records. In his wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia*, Paul Devereux offers fascinating insights into how not only cannabis, but many other psychoactive plants, have been used the world over for millennia, often for ceremonial and/or religious/mystical reasons. It is one hell of an eye-opening read, especially for those who think 'tripping' was something that started with the counterculture of the 1960s, and I can't recommend it highly enough (no pun intended)!
Understanding this fact makes modern culture's outlawing of many of these plants as even more nonsensical than it already is. Our ancestors across the globe have actively used these plants as both physical and spiritual medicine for at least 10,000 years, but suddenly in the last few decades our governments and law-makers have seen fit to not just ban them from human consumption, but to make them illegal and even imprison people who choose to use them.
It is an absolute joke that such laws continue to exist - persecuting those wishing to explore their own mind - when prominent political leaders (the last three U.S. presidents), scientists (Carl Sagan, Francis Crick, Oliver Sacks etc.), tech leaders (Apple's Steve Jobs etc.) and artists and musicians (too long a list to even begin) have all admitted to using psychoactives, and in some cases have been passionate advocates for their use and benefits.
That is certainly not to dismiss the dangers that such mind-altering substances can sometimes pose. But as long as no-one else is being hurt by a person's decision to explore their own mind with psychoactives, I don't see how it is any business of the government, or law enforcement, to stop people from doing so (let alone imprison them for doing it!).
The laws are a nonsense, and it's far beyond time for us to state that plainly and make the necessary changes. The story of human history is one of exploring and expanding our minds to uncover new ideas and understand ourselves better, and the archaeological record continues to reinforce the fact that psychoactive plants have been an integral part of that entire history.
* Full disclosure: 'The Long Trip' is a release of Daily Grail Publishing.
In recent decades usage of the psychedelic substance N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) has grown considerably, and its intriguing effects have even been the subject of a study by Dr. Rick Strassman. In his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule, Strassman recounted many of the strange 'entity encounters' experienced by participants in his scientific trial, but noted that it was difficult for the experiences to be studied in depth due to the speed of the 'trip' (sometimes described as being 'shot out of a cannon' into a parallel universe before being quickly pulled back into reality).
Strassman's interest in the topic has not waned over the years, and in a new paper - co-authored with Andrew Gallimore - he has suggested a new method of delivering DMT that might sustain the experience for a longer period - effectively immersing study participants in the DMT realm, in much the same way that the application of general anaesthesia keeps medical patients immersed in unconsciousness.
"[DMT] users consistently report the complete replacement of normal subjective experience with a novel 'alternate universe,' often densely populated with a variety of strange objects and other highly complex visual content, including what appear to be sentient 'beings'," Strassman and Gallimore note. "The phenomenology of the DMT state is of great interest to psychology and calls for rigorous academic enquiry":
The extremely short duration of DMT effects—less than 20 minutes—militates against single dose administration as the ideal model for such enquiry. Using pharmacokinetic modelling and DMT blood sampling data, we demonstrate that the unique pharmacological characteristics of DMT, which also include a rapid onset and lack of acute tolerance to its subjective effects, make it amenable to administration by target-controlled intravenous infusion. This is a technology developed to maintain a stable brain concentration of anaesthetic drugs during surgery. Simulations of our model demonstrate that this approach will allow research subjects to be induced into a stable and prolonged DMT experience, making it possible to carefully observe its psychological contents, and provide more extensive accounts for subsequent analyses.
Australian broadcaster SBS recently reported on the use of ayahuasca in 'the lucky country' (video embedded above), which for a change gave some serious screen time to people who used the shamanic brew for self-improvement. One of those they talked to was ayahuasca 'facilitator' Julian Palmer - author of the book Articulations: On The Utilisation and Meanings of Psychedelics - who has over the years championed personal exploration of the mind using shamanic plants.
The feature also mentioned an upcoming meeting of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) at which they will be reviewing submissions "to legalise a small amount of DMT for religious ceremonies". While those who think shamanic plants should be legal to use might feel that this is an exciting step forward, it may not be quite as big a deal as it sounds. Respected Australian ethnobotany figure Torsten Wiedemann has posted a detailed critique of this submission. Some of his points include:
1) I am not sure what the application is trying to achieve. The TGA schedules are not a law. They are merely recommendations to the states which have ultimate control over the schedules under the state health acts. At best the proposal could provide for a federal guide, but I very much doubt the states will simply go along with it. Having some state based ministerial support would have been crucial for this.
2) There were suggestions that the TGA is taking this seriously simply because they tabled it. They did not decide on this process. All applications to the TGA have to be considered and decided upon by the delegate. By making the application they have no choice but to process it. There have been frivolous/ridiculous/unwinnable applications in the past, so the mere acceptance means nothing and we should not read anything into that.
8) Much has been made of the religious aspect. 'religious purposes' was a big issue in the USA and some other countries, but has little meaning in Oz. Our federal constitution only guarantees that the federal government can't make laws that discriminate on the basis of religion, but it does not have any control over state law [which is what the TGA schedules are empowered by]. A constitutional scholar friend of mine tells me that a TGA ruling against the proposal is not an infringement of the constitution. There may be recourse under state charters, but so far nothing like that has been successful. I have been saying for years that state support is needed to make progress on this because ultimately these are all state law matters. I think the federal approach is a waste of time unless there is a plan on launching a constitutional challenge in the Northern Territory or ACT. The hopeful view of translating religious freedom exemptions to australia is not likely to be of any merit.
9) My friends in law enforcement policy tell me that DMT is very much on the agenda - and not in a good way. The TGA will toe the line of the federal drugs council [whatever the name is escapes me right now] which is focussing to come down harder on DMT rather than to weaken their stance. The TGA has no interest or incentive to buck the trend. I am not going to waste any time on making a submission as I do not see any chance of voluntary rescheduling (ie without a court case). And even if I was wrong then rescheduling by the TGA achieves nothing in practical terms. I see the only viable options for progress on this issue via the victorian charter or a federal constitutional case. I also do not see any level of government doing this voluntarily - like so many progressive policies this needs to be imposed by a court.
In short: some natural plants, and exploration of your own consciousness, remain illegal things in the year 2016, and may soon be cracked down on even harder.
by Mike Jay
The first well-documented hallucinogenic mushroom experience in Britain took place in London’s Green Park on 3 October 1799. Like many such experiences before and since, it was accidental. A man subsequently identified only as ‘J.S.’ was in the habit of gathering small field mushrooms from the park on autumn mornings, and cooking them up into a breakfast broth for his wife and young family. But this particular morning, an hour after they had finished eating, the world began to turn very strange. J.S. found black spots and odd flashes of colour bursting across his vision; he became disorientated, and had difficulty in standing and moving around. His family were complaining of stomach cramps and cold, numb extremities. The notion of poisonous toadstools leapt to his mind, and he staggered out into the streets to seek help. but within a hundred yards he had forgotten where he was going, or why, and was found wandering about in a confused state.
By chance, a doctor named Everard Brande happened to be passing through this insalubrious part of town, and he was summoned to treat J.S. and his family. The scene that he discovered was so bizarre and unfamiliar that he would write it up at length and publish it in The Medical and Physical Journal later that year. The family’s symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves, their pupils dilated, their pulses and breathing becoming fluttering and laboured, then returning to normal before accelerating into another crisis. They were all fixated on the fear that they were dying, except for the youngest, the eight-year-old Edward S., whose symptoms were the strangest of all. He had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and was ‘attacked with fits of immoderate laughter’ which his parents’ threats could not subdue. He seemed to have been transported into another world, from which he would only return under duress to speak nonsense: ‘when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked’.
Dr.Everard Brande would diagnose the family’s condition as the ‘deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric [mushroom], not hitherto suspected to be poisonous’. Today, we can be more specific: this was clearly intoxication by Liberty Caps (Psilocybe semilanceata), the ‘magic mushrooms’ which grow plentifully across the hills, moors, commons, golf courses and playing fields of Britain every autumn. But though Dr.Brande’s account of the J.S. family’s trip would not be forgotten, and would continue to be cited in Victorian drug literature for decades, the nineteenth century would come and go without any conclusive identification of the Liberty Cap as the species in question. In fact, it would not be until Albert Hoffman, the discoverer of LSD, turned his attention to hallucinogenic mushrooms in the 1950s that the botanical identity of these and other mushrooms containing psilocybin, LSD’s chemical cousin, would be confirmed.
But if they were obscure to Victorian science, there was another tradition which would appear to explore the ability of certain mushrooms to whisk humans off to another world: Victorian fairy lore. Over the nineteenth century, a vast body of art and literature would connect mushrooms and toadstools with elves, pixies, hollow hills and the unwitting transport of subjects to fairyland, a world of shifting perspectives and dimensions seething with elemental spirits. Is it possible that the Victorian fairy tradition, underneath its twee and bourgeois exterior, operated as a conduit for a hidden world of homegrown psychedelia, parallel perhaps to the ancient shamanic and ritual uses of similar mushrooms in the New World? Were the authors of such otherworld narratives - Alice in Wonderland, for example - aware of the powers of certain mushrooms to lead unsuspecting visitors to enchanted lands? Were they, perhaps, even writing from personal experience?
The J.S. family’s trip in 1799 is a useful jumping-off point for such enquiries, because it establishes several basic facts. First - and contrary to the opinion of some recent American scholars - British (and European) magic mushrooms are not a recent arrival from the New World, but were part of our indigenous flora at least two hundred years ago. Second, the species in question was unknown at the time, at least to science. Third, its hallucinogenic effects were unfamiliar, perhaps even unheard of - certainly unprecedented enough for a London doctor to feel the need to draw them to the attention of his medical colleagues.
In other scholarly contexts, though, the mind-altering effects of certain plants were already familiar. Through classical sources like The Golden Ass, the idea of witches’ potions which transformed their subjects was an inheritance from antiquity. The pharmacopeia and materia medica of doctors and herbalists had long included the drug effects of common plants like belladonna and opium poppies, though mushrooms had featured in them rarely. The eighteenth century had turned up several more exotic examples from distant cultures: Russian explorers describing the use of fly agaric mushrooms in Siberia, Captain Cook observing the kava-kava ritual in Polynesia. In 1762 Carl Linnaeus, the great taxonomist and father of modern botany, had compiled the first ever list of intoxicating plants: his monograph, entitled Inebriantia, had included opium, cannabis, datura, henbane and tobacco. Slowly, the study of such plants was emerging from the margins and tall tales of classical studies, ethnography, folklore and medicine and becoming a subject in its own right.
It was as part of this same interest that European fairy lore was also being assembled by a new generation of amateur folklore collectors such as the Brothers Grimm, who realised that the inexorable drift of peasant populations from country to city was beginning to dismantle centuries of folk stories, songs and oral histories. The Victorian fairy tradition, as it emerged, would be imbued with this new sensibility which rendered rustic traditions no longer coarse, backward and primitive but picturesque and semi-sacred, an escape from the austerity of industrial living into an ancient, often pagan otherworld. Under the guise of ‘innocence’, sensual and erotic themes could be explored with a boldness not permitted in more realistic genres, and the muddy and impoverished countryside could be re-enchanted with imagery drawn from the classical and arabesque. Within this process, the lore of plants and flowers was carefully curated and woven into supernatural tapestries of flower-fairies and enchanted woods; and within this imaginal world of plants, mushrooms and toadstools began popping up all over. Fairy rings and toadstool-dwelling elves were recycled through a pictorial culture of motif and decoration until they became emblematic of fairyland itself.
This was a quiet but substantial image makeover for Britain’s fungi. Previously, in herbals and medical texts, they had been largely shunned, associated with dung-heaps and poison; in Romantic poetry the smell of death had still clung to them (‘fungous brood/coloured like a corpse’s cheek’, as Keats put it). Now, a new generation of folklorists began to ... Read More »
In October last year we linked to a story about a mycological mystery, titled "This mushroom that looks like a penis gives women spontaneous orgasms". It had taken a long time to hit the internet - it was based on a short mention of the alleged effect in the International Journal of Medicinal Mushrooms in 2001 - but once it got here, it went viral.
But while plenty of websites were more than happy to reap the hits from the sensationally titled piece, without looking much deeper, one intrepid researcher decided to go in search of the fabled fungi. Christie Wilcox, on her 'Science Sushi' blog at Discover magazine, describes how she tracked the mushroom down, and answers the big question: what was her reaction when she smelt it?
For a moment, we both stood in silence, staring at the phallic fungus. Then he turned to me. “OK, so… I guess you should sniff it,” he said. I nodded. Slowly, I dropped to my knees. I closed my eyes and took a breath. I placed my hands in the soft mulch on either side of the fungus, and let the air out of my lungs. Then, I pushed my face next to its orange stalk and breathed in as deeply as I could.
My physiological reaction was immediate and strong. In less than a heartbeat I was on my feet, staggering backwards, gagging.
“Are you OK?” Jake asked, concerned, as he rushed to my side. The taste was in my mouth. It was in my throat. This disgusting, foul, rottenness—there are no words that adequately describe the vile stench. Tears formed in my eyes. I nearly vomited. Though I had read about how bad stinkhorns smell, I really wasn’t expecting something that… awful.
It was, hands down, the worst smell that’s ever violated my nostrils.
Beyond the quest to smell the mushroom, and her reaction, there's plenty else of interest in the article. Most notably, how the short mention ended up in the journal in 2001 in the first place, and the background of the researchers involved. One of those, John Holliday, responded to questions about the paper rather weirdly:
...Holliday wasn’t eager to talk. “I hear so much crap about this. I saw some stuff written online last year. ‘This was never meant to be believed, it’s just a big hoax.’… Somebody sent me a link yesterday, it’s some lady I don’t even know, I have never heard of her or talked to her, and she is claiming that she talked to me and I told her that it was not legitimate… I don’t want to get myself or the company involved in any discussions of this, because it is too important for a whole bunch of reasons. Commercial reasons, scientific reasons. Reputational reasons. I am a pretty much a world renowned scientist…. When things like that come out that says this is a hoax, a lot of people that believe that. I don’t need that. I spend a lot of years getting to the point where I am. That is why I don’t really want to see anything about this.”
According to Holliday, he also is under a strict confidentiality agreement and therefore cannot discuss the study conducted in any way. He also implied that the research has continued since 2001, and that the pharmaceutical company he was working for (which he wouldn’t name but said was one of “the big ones”) was near to marketing the discovery. “If I was to say something like ‘We are about to release a blockbuster drug,’ and you go buy stock in this company, then you and I are both guilty of insider trading.”
There's also some fascinating discussion about how mushrooms can mimic both the shape of a penis, and also the smell ("the compound spermine...was so named because it was first discovered in 1677 in human semen—and it has been detected in odorous fungi") - and therefore whether any excitement or even orgasms in women might be via association with those factors. But Wilcox finds it an unlikely hypothesis.
Nevertheless, science is all about sample size (pardon the pun), so while Christie Wilcox was not impressed with the mushroom, further testing on more subjects may be required to get to the bottom of this one.
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I've long been fascinated with shamanism and the use of psychedelics throughout history, and am honoured to be the publisher of Paul Devereux's classic The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (Amazon US or Amazon UK). So a few years ago I was intrigued by a book, published on-line, titled Secret Drugs of Buddhism.
Written by long-time researcher Mike Crowley, the book offered some brilliant observations on the crossovers between certain aspects of Buddhism and the use of psychedelics. And now, after continued interest from many readers, Mike has created a Kickstarter in order to do a print run of an actual book version. With a foreword by Ann Shulgin, Secret Drugs of Buddhism...
...represents over four decades of research by Buddhist scholar Mike Crowley into the use of psychoactive sacraments in the religions of India.
Beginning with prehistoric cultures of central Asia, the book considers drug use from prehistoric central Asia, through the Indus Valley civilization and then Vedic ritual to medieval Indian Buddhism and, eventually Tibet.
The author points out that some mythic elements (e.g. Shiva's blue throat) rely on simple (Sanskrit) word-play to conceal allusions to psychoactive plants. Some of this research has already been aired in learned journals (e.g. Time & Mind) but the book treats the subject in far more detail.
If you're at all interested in the shamanism and the secret traditions of ancient cultures, I highly recommend chipping in to this Kickstarter as the book is wonderful.
Are some of the fantastical elements in Homer's Odyssey actually based on hallucinations caused by plant-based psychedelics?
Homer's "Odyssey" recounts the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus during his journey home from the Trojan War. Though some parts may be based on real events, the encounters with monsters, giants and magicians are considered to be complete fiction. But might there be more to these myths than meets the eye? Matt Kaplan explains why there might be more reality behind the "Odyssey" than many realize.
To learn more about the use of shamanic plants in ancient cultures around the world, grab a copy of Paul Devereux's wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK).