This is the final part of a three-part conversation between Michael Stone and Dr. Douglas Osto. It took place in September 2010, while Michael was teaching at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dr. Douglas Osto is the programme coordinator of the Religious Studies Programme at Massey University in New Zealand. He is doing research on the intersection of drugs and Buddhism.
Shôken Michael Stone is a psychotherapist, yoga teacher and Buddhist teacher. He is authorized to teach in the Vipassana tradition and is also a Zen student of Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara. He travels internationally teaching about yoga, Buddhism and social action. He leads Centre of Gravity Sangha in Toronto, a thriving community of people interested in the intersection of spirituality and community practice. He has written four books with Shambhala Publications on yoga, Buddhism and ethics and his new book is Awake in the World: Teachings from Yoga and Buddhism for Living an Engaged Life.
Do you think that psychedelics and Buddhism are in some way compatible? This has been a very personal story, but now that you’re a dharma teacher, do you see these paths as compatible?
With the right guidance, I could see how the paths could be compatible in the sense that you could explore experiences you once had on psychedelics and look at them through a Buddhist lens. But I think that with really good practice you can feel your way into a less dramatic version of the most meaningful parts of a psychedelic experience, because you can’t see the colors and the quick hallucinogenic film experiences when you’re meditating.
You don’t have that kind of visual fireworks experience that you do when you ingest mushrooms. But I think if there were a young person for example who was taking psychedelics, I would be interested in working with them, and supporting them, and really looking at it as sacred act that could help them really see aspects of what the mind is and isn’t. That would be interesting to me. But from my own experience, I would much rather have a lot more time with a person learning really simple ordinary meditation practices to keep them very grounded.
I’ve been working with this idea myself and I often had the idea that somebody who uses psychedelics could find Buddhism very helpful to them. But in some ways, Buddhism is a system that doesn’t need that; it’s already got everything within it to follow a spiritual path. A psychedelicist could probably benefit from Buddhism, but the Buddhist on the path doesn’t necessarily need psychedelics to round out their experience or propel them along.
I think that is a really good way to put it. I think that is the camp I would fall into.
I would also compare it a little bit to the way that in Tibetan Buddhism there is the notion of the Hinayana path and then eventually working your way up to the Vajra path. Or in yoga in the tantric esoteric path of Hatha Yoga, the texts say that this comes from a foundation in Raja Yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga, which begins with ethics. But then Hatha Yoga texts don’t talk about ethics. Likewise in Buddhism, if you are going to be practicing Vajra, Tantra practices, you have a foundation in the earlier practices of ethics.
So I think that would be an interesting way to think about it. Once somebody has that basis in an intention to cultivate compassion, an ability to have a calm abiding mind, groundedness in the body, support of community, the guidance of a teacher, and teachings. Then I think psychedelics could be a kind of Vajra path, a tantric path.
It is very interesting that you said that because in Zig Zag Zen, one of the contributors, Eric Davis, actually suggests that sort of American psychedelic Buddhism is a “home-grown” version of the tantric path. So that almost inverts it, because you take a young kid who likes to trip, and you say “Let’s work with him or her with the Dharma and see where we can go with that.” Now this model is almost the reverse of that in the sense that someone is trained in the ethics of the path and developed and working with the mind, and THEN there is a kind of almost tantric initiation.
Yes. Although, I personally wouldn’t do that with somebody. But I could see it as an academic or theoretical possibility. In my own life, the psychedelic experience has become less interesting. The breath is so interesting, the natural world is so interesting, and helping others is the most interesting. The point I am reiterating I guess: there was nothing about my psychedelic experience that made me a kinder or more compassionate person.
You know, here we are at Upaya Zen Center. We do this sometimes basic practice, sometimes elaborate practice, but basically it comes down to sitting still; and then we get up and we’re softer. We are more tender people, whether we are learning about compassion or not. No one talked about compassion during the meditation, but you come out and you’re a little softer. Maybe you do things a little more carefully and with more attentiveness. There wasn’t anything about the psychedelic experience that did that for me. It didn’t make me softer.
You’ve mentioned that these really radical experiences that you had with mushrooms almost turned the volume down on other things. Do you see that as almost antithetical to a Buddhist mindfulness approach where you’re supposed to be more appreciative of what you might say is mundane, the kind of beauty that happens in simplicity? Do you see those things clashing against each other in some way?
Maybe and maybe not. Because first of all when you do take mushrooms for example (I didn’t find this with LSD) small little things became so awe-inspiring and beautiful.
As an aesthetic kind of thing.
Yes. But in terms of how that functions in relational life, it doesn’t. I mean there is nothing about seeing the intimacy of all things on mushrooms that made me a more compassionate person. There is nothing about seeing the roots of a flower drawn down into the whole life-chain cellularly on psychedelics that made me kinder person. But you could also say there is nothing about meditation practice that makes you a kinder or more compassionate person unless it’s learned, as part of the teaching.
I wanted to get your thoughts on the whole legal issue. These things that you’re talking about, that were so important to you, are illegal.
Maybe it’s related to the ethics, because I don’t want people dropping acid and getting into their car. But I don’t want somebody buying a few grams of mushrooms and going to prison. That’s problematic to me.
So do you think that the laws, especially in the United States, are unethical? You know the US has some of the most draconian drug laws of any country?
Yeah. And I think that the prison system that receives people who have problems with drugs, or addicts even, does a great injustice to them and to us. I think the legal systems needs to have a much more sophisticated relationship with all drug use, and trading and trafficking.
Coming back to your practice of Buddhism, what particular tradition or teachers do you study?
I started out practicing in the Vipassana tradition. I encountered the Goenka tradition, but I was more interested in Vipassana via the Insight Meditation Society. I feel the closest to Norman Feldman, and he’s who I teach with, and under whose guidance I teach. But I also study Zen with Roshi Enkyo O’Hara who runs the Village Zendo in New York City.
Although I dabbled in some Tibetan Buddhism, I actually took refuge with Padma Rinpoche. I find these days, I love the precision of the Vipassana school when it comes to meditating; and then I like the complete “letting-go-of-it” that comes from Zen practice. And the two really compliment each other very, very well.
Now when you say Vipassana is there a particular technique that you use?
I would say there are three techniques. When I am at home in an urban environment, my primary focus is meditating on sound, and letting sounds come and go. The spaciousness of awareness. When it is a little quieter, or my neighbourhood is quieter, then I practice the Satipattana-sutta, primarily meditation on the breath, and sometimes with some focus on impermanence or how nothing that moves through awareness is “me or mine.”
And also I do concentration practices. So in early Buddhism this is called the jhanas. But that’s not how I experience concentration because my primary practice is not retreat practice. But Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra articulates different levels of samadhi. And I feel like his description of samadhi has become more and more for me an accurate reading for what happens for me when I get very concentrated, especially just the ability to let go of language.
So that is my formal meditation practice, but the rest of my practice is rolling up my sleeves and being really involved in the world.
You mentioned earlier how the community you put together does a lot of engaged Buddhism. What are the kinds of things that you do?
I help support people that are doing work in prisons, by giving them the tools to teach meditation and yoga to incarcerated people, especially youth. Our community does outreach to homeless people. I teach clinicians, everyone from palliative care workers to abortion providers. Our Sangha is donation-based so that means people who have no income, or are under-employed or have affordability issues can come and practice with us and are never turned away for not having money. In fact we are in the process right now of moving our Sangha into a social housing project.
I am really interested in the relationship between meditation practice, compassion, and action. Especially in an urban environment. That’s why I am so intrigued by our conversation because I haven’t thought for a long time about those psychedelic experiences. Now I am wondering how they are related to my commitment to work with all different kinds of people, and create a more flourishing community in a city. I would like to spend some time thinking about how those things are related.
An alcohol and drug interventionist is capable of using various approaches, from the pragmatic to the spiritual, to convince someone to seek help.