on July 30, 2006
"Entheogens and the Future of Religion" was published by The Council of Spiritual Practices which describes itself as "a collaboration among spiritual guides, experts in the behavioral and biomedical sciences, and scholars of religion, dedicated to making the direct experience of the sacred more available to more people" (see [...]
Although this book is the second volume in their Entheogen Project Series it can certainly stand alone and it is an excellent book for those interested in the social, political, ethical, spiritual and historical aspects of the religious use of entheogens.
Edited by Robert Forte, this collection of essays, interviews and transcripts of speaking engagements from various authors with differing areas of expertise approaches the topic of the religious use of entheogens both broadly and specifically and from different perspectives. Since this book is comprised of significantly differing chapters, the remainder of this review will treat each chapter separately.
"Testimony of the Council of Spiritual Practices" by Robert Jesse, president of CSP.
This is a version of a talk given at the Committee of Drugs and the Law of the Association of the Bar in New York City 1995. Jesse speaks in defense of the religious liberty to use entheogens as part of a sincere spiritual practice and explores the legal issues and ramifications involved as an appeal to legal practitioners to consider entheogens and their religious use to be very different than recreational and hard drugs and their abuse. Jesse offers reasonable alternatives to total prohibition of entheogens and discusses what might entail legal accommodation of safe, sincere employment of entheogens as part of a religious practice.
"Explorations Into God" by brother David Steindl-Rast Ph.D, O.S.B.
A Benedictine monk and author, Rast received permission from the Vatican in 1967 to start a formal Christian-Buddhist dialogue along with Zen teachers. This chapter is a talk brother Rast gave at the Esalen Institute in 1984. Rast barely mentions entheogens directly. Whether ones' spiritual practice involves entheogens or not is irrelevant to address but by refraining from making any distinction between any particular spiritual practice, he validates the sincere use of entheogens in a spiritual life because, rather, he talks moreover of religious sincerity. Continuously vital religious spirit as opposed to fixed religious dogma is what is important, Rast tells us. He points out that entheogens can be used with the right intention, honesty and a sincere interest in spirituality to enrich a religious life, but this is beside his point. This is perhaps the most joyous and sincere chapter in this book.
"Das Mutterkorn: The Making of DeLysid" by Dale Pendell
Pendell is a software engineer, long-time student of enthnobotany and an important poet and author in entheogenic culture. In his signature style, Pendell waxes poetic on Hofmann's discovery of LSD, the ancient Greek Eleusinian mysteries in which a drink that scholars now think may have contained a potent LSD-like entheogen was administered, R. Gordon Wasson's popular rediscovery of the age-old use of sacred mushrooms in the rainforest of Mexico, and what seems to be fragments of a technical process of manufacturing lysergic acid. Pendell swiftly jumps from one to an other and back again, cross-weaving a thread to make a tapestry, using poetic license to combine chemistry, history and religion.
"The Message of the Eleusinian Mysteries for Today's World" by Albert Hofmann, Ph.D., Dr.Pharm.H.C., Dr.Sc.Nat.H.C.
As many people know, Dr. Hofmann is a chemist who invented LSD. Dr. Hofmann also isolated psilocybian and, among other things, is a fine author as well as demonstrated in this chapter in which Hofmann gives us a good little history lesson on the Eleusinian mysteries briefly described above.
The Eleusinian mystery rites were something of a religious service held at the temple in Eluesis in which seekers fortunate enough to be admitted were led through something of a guided tour through the death and rebirth myth of Persephone. History tells us that, although the details of what exactly went on in these rites were kept secret, what took place in profoundly changed those who went through it. Many of the most influential figures of the classical Mediterranean world found themselves transformed and inspired by the experience there, resulting in the ideas that went on to change Western civilization. History also tells us that some sacred drink, called kykeon, was served during the rites.
This raised the central question in this chapeter, "Could the visions of Eleusis have been produced solely by unknown rites," Hofmann asks, "or was the kykeon a psychopharmakon, a plant extract capable of inducing an ecstatic state?"
Hofmann voices the central issue of both his chapter specifically and of the entire book in a more general way when he says, "This question also brings us to a problem of our own time. This involves the question - much discussed today - of whether it is ethically and religiously defensible to use consciousness-altering drugs under specific circumstances to gain new insights into the spiritual world."
Hofmann goes on to argue that the use of kykeon in the context of the Eleusinian rites and the use of the LSD-like ololiuqui the Indigenous people of Mexico in their own ritual context can serve as models for the beneficial use of entheogens in a religious context today.
"Eleusis can be a model for today. Eleusis-like centers could unite and strengthen the many spiritual currents of our time, all of which have the same goal: the goal of creating, by transforming consciousness in individual people, the conditions for a better world, a world without war and without environmental damage, a world of happy people."
That is some fine writing for a chemist! One more important passage cannot go unquoted here. "In conclusion," Hofmann says, "I wish once more to raise the fundamental question: why were such drugs probably used in Eleusis, and why are they still used by certain Indian tribes even today in the course of religious ceremonies? And why is such use scarcely conceivable in the Christian liturgy, as though it were not significant? The answer is that Christian liturgy worships a godly power enthroned in heaven, that is a power outside of the individual. At Eleusis, on the contrary, an alteration in the inmost being of the individual was striven for, a visionary experience of the ground of being..."
Indeed, this is the fundamental ideological issue at hand.
"A New Vocabulary" by Ann Shulgin and Alexander Shulgin Ph.D.
Alexander Shulgin holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of California in Berkeley, has made much important research with tryptamines and phenethylamines (two major classes of hallucinogenic chemicals), and, along with his wife Ann, has authored two books - PIHKAL and TIHKAL - that are held in high esteem by chemically oriented entheogen enthusiasts.
In another case of chemists producing eloquent writing, this chapter - an abridged version of a chapter in Alex and Ann's book TIHKAL - is based on a speaking engagement given at the 22nd annual Conference of the Association for Humanistic Psychology in 1984.
They explore the concept of the various experiences made available by various psychoactive substances as a vocabulary of the human experience and potential, a vocabulary which can bring to light unexamined subconscious drives that affect our lives from the level of the individual to the level of world politics.
"What we are doing is looking," the Shulgins say, "as have countless others before us, for a way to communicate the experiences of the deeper parts of ourselves, a way to share knowledge which has traditionally been called "occult," or "hidden," and which has been, until our time, considered the private preserve of those few shamans, teachers, or spiritual guides in each culture who had earned their way to it."
They stress the importance of a greater awareness of this vocabulary among our political leaders because, as the Shulgins argue, they are acting out of mainly destructive archetypes and in our modern world of increasingly destructive weaponry and technology of increasingly invasive control, it is imperative that our leaders gain more enlightened perspectives and act accordingly.
"Natural Science and the Mystical World View" by Albert Hofmann.
Dr. Hofmann gives us another fine chapter here, summated neatly in the first paragraph where the good doctor begins by asking, "Which is true: the picture of reality that natural science presents us, or the one that the mystic experiences in visions? This question can only be asked by one who thinks that natural science and the mystical world view are mutually exclusive. But that is not the case. On the contrary, natural science and the mystical experience complement each other."
The remainder of this chapter serves to demonstrate his exposition. Another fine essay by the good doctor.
"Psychedelic Society" by Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna has explored the outer and inner world - in the tropics and with psychotropics - looking for the secrets of shamanism, ethnopharmacology and ontology. He was an author and a public speaker who inspired many to engage in similar explorations and to entertain his ideas, both sensible and bizarre.
This chapter is a version of a talk Terence gave at the ARUPA meeting at the Esalen Institute in 1984. Here he talks about his ideas of what "psychedelic society" may mean. As he says, "When I think of psychedelic society that notion implies creating a society which lives in light of the Mystery of Being."
Terence does not directly address the topic of the use of entheogens in a religious context as such. Rather, as he would often do in his many public speaking engagements, Terence focuses here on the immediate direct experience of the great mystery of life without dogma or premature reductive interpretations - in other words, the pure religious experience as opposed to its antithesis - religious institution.
He goes on to present his ideas of what the future may hold for such a society, including his "archaic revival" scenarios in which high technology is used not to alienate us even further but rather in service to the unfolding of the human potential for a quantum leap in self-directed evolution in the light of the Mystery. Terence concludes his talk by saying that our society has long ago abandoned the use of psychedelic plants (Terence does not prefer to use the word entheogen), that we have gone very far down the road of dysfunction and destruction as a result and that it is imperative that we must integrate psychedelics back into society if we are to save ourselves from ourselves and flower into the psychedelic utopian dream in which Nature, humanity and high technology, come to harmony, and explore both inner and outer space.
"A Conversation With R. Gordon Wasson" being an interview with R. Gordon Wasson by Robert Forte.
R. Gordon Wasson played a very important role in the history of the rediscovery of entheogens (a word he much preferred over the word psychedelic) for the modern world. Wasson was a banker and vice president of J.P. Morgan Trust before becoming interested in entheogens and writing some of the finest books ever made on the subject.
Like many westerners, Wasson had little interest in - and an aversion to - mushrooms until his wife Valentina, coming from her mushroom-loving Russian culture turned him onto edible mushrooms and mushrooms in general. The Wassons then went on to study the relationship between various cultures and mushrooms, hereby starting the study called ethnomycology. The Wassons came to focus on sacred mushrooms - that is mushrooms that inspire religious experiences. Gordon Wasson argued convincingly that soma, the sacred elixir that inspired the Vedas (the holy scriptures of Hinduism), was made from the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria.
Although he was not the first modern westerner to rediscover psilocybian mushrooms and their use by the indigenous people of Mexico, Wasson was one of the first few to encounter this age-old entheogenic practice and was certainly was mainly responsible for bringing this to the attention of the public at large when, in 1957, LIFE magazine published his account of his travels to Mexico in search of the elusive teonanacatl, the sacred mushrooms.
In this interview, conducted in 1985, Wasson discusses his role in the rediscovery of entheogens for the western world. This chapter may be somewhat tedious to readers who are not already familiar with Wasson's work and who are not hungry for the further details Forte helps to uncover as an apt interviewer.
"Sacred Mushroom Pentecost" by Thomas J. Riedlinger.
Riedlinger M.T.S., F.L.S. is an author with a master's degree in world religions from Harvard Divinity School.
In this chapter, Riedlinger makes a comparison between the Christian Pentecostal movement and the sacred mushroom ceremonies of the Mazatecs curanderos and curanderas of Mexico - the same people whom Wasson encountered in his quest to rediscover this age-old yet continuously vital entheogenic practice. Both of these practices favor an ever-revitalized experience of the divine rather than dogma and doctrine. In both practices, the intent is to allow the divine to move through the worshipper, stirring their hearts and tongues, speaking through them. More specifically, there is also the element of what can be called "divine wind" or the "breath of god" that refreshes the soul that is shared by both traditions.
Riedlinger expertly points out and discusses these underlying common elements and their ramifications in what is a fine chapter. As with David Steindl-Rast's chapter, there is the implicit point that whether or not entheogens are used, it is the vitality and sincerity of a religious practice that is important.
"Psychedelic Experience and Spiritual Practice: A Buddhist Perspective", being an interview with Jack kornfield by Robert Forte.
Jack Kornfield Ph.D. is a Buddhist Monk trained in monasteries in India, Burma and Thailand, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society. He has been a teacher (presumably of Buddhism) since 1974 and has written many books.
As with his interview with Wasson, Forte displays his knowledge and insight with the quality of his questions and responses. In this interview Kornfield gives his Buddhist perspective on entheogens. Unfortunately, there is very scant mentioning of entheogens (or psychoactive substances in general) in official Buddhist doctrine. Kornfield, however, elaborates with his own thoughts. Kornfield is perhaps a bit prudish in his own attitude towards entheogens, but to be fair, he sums up a very reasonable stance on all psychoactive substances when he gives us the Buddhist precept that one must, "refrain from using intoxicants to the point of heedlessness, loss of mindfulness, or loss of awareness."
As sincere entheogen users would agree, because the point is to increase awareness, not to escape from reality, but to open up to a much deeper, wider reality, there is no conflict between Buddhism and the use of entheogens with the right intent and practice. "It does not say not to use them and it is very explicit." Kornfield says.
Ultimately, "it is left up to the individual, as are all the precepts, to use as a guideline to become more genuinely conscious."
"Academic and Religious Freedom in the Study of the Mind" by Thomas B. Roberts Ph.D.
Roberts is a professor in the College of Education at Northern Illinois University and an educational psychologist with a focus on models of consciousness and on the multiple states it can operate in.
Robert outlines his essay himself when he says, "With a special interest on psychedelics, this chapter describes some of the ideas, experiences, groups and values which are victims of current drug law policies. These include cognitive sciences, multistate psychology, religion, mystical experiences, and personal freedom. Drug law policies decisions affect constituencies from these areas, and when new policies are written, these groups have a right to significant input into the reformation of these policies and laws.
Most of the commentary on current drug policies comes form a narrow range of selected professional constituencies. By in large, parts of the legal, political, and medical communities dominate current discussions of rational alternatives to drug policies. These issues are also the responsibility of the academic, religious, and cognitive science communities; these groups have important stakes in the determination of these policies too."
We applaud him when he later says, "We like to think that American liberty guarantees the right of the people to select their own ideas and ways of thinking; if we are to enjoy this freedom, then psychedelic-based ideas and psychedelic-supported cognitive skills need to be included too."
"Biomedical Research With Psychedelics: Current Models and Future Prospects" by Rick Strassman, M.D.
Dr. Strassman made history in the field of psychedelic research when he became the first to gain federal approval to perform research with illegal hallucinogens in over two decades. In Strassman's case, the potent DMT was used in his study at the University of New Mexico Department of Psychiatry. This study would be published after Entheogens and the Future of Religion in his book DMT: the Spirit Molecule.
In this chapter, Dr. Strassman discusses the history of scientific research with entheogens, the issues and legal difficulties involved. More pertinent for this book, he also discusses the mystical, ontological and religious implications of such research, albeit with much less brevity than in his subsequent book mentioned above.
"Law Enforcement Against Entheogens: Is It Religious Persecution?" by Eric E. Stering.
Eric E. Sterling, J.D. is president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, served as council to the Committee on Judiciary, U.S. House of Representatives. He played an important role in the passing of the landmark Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.
As the title aptly describes, Sterling's chapter focuses on the effect of drug laws and law enforcement on religious freedom. Important court cases are discussed, as is the lack of discrimination in law enforcement between entheogens and street drugs.
To quote from his chapter, "For law enforcement officers engaged in the protection of youth from the harmful effects of "drugs," it may be very difficult, given their training, to distinguish what appears to be harmful use of street drugs from the responsible use of entheogens in spiritual practices. But it is fundamentally the mission of the law to draw distinctions."
After the essays and interviews, there is the brief CSP "Statement of Purpose", the "Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides" and a section that gives a little information about each contributor. This helps to understand where each individual author or interviewee is coming from and what criteria inform their opinions.
It should be mentioned that this book is not a "how-to" for the religious use of entheogens so readers wanting ideas on how to incorporate entheogens into spiritual practice will not find much here at all.
Also, this book is not instructional legally. If you want to ascertain whether your religious use of an entheogen would be found constitutionally protected in a court of law, or what sort of penalties you would face and so on, this book will not provide such information for you.
This reviewer would imagine that readers who appreciate books like "Persephones Quest", "Cleansing the Doors of Perception" and similar books would appreciate this book as well.