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.