5 Questions for MIKE L. CROWLEY
Mike is an author, translator, and lecturer based in the U.K. His book, Secret Drugs of Buddhism, explores the historical evidence for the use of entheogenic plants within the Buddhist tradition.
When did you first turn on?
I took my first psychedelic in 1963, when I was 15. My friends and I were into the "hip" culture of the day (Kerouac, the "beat" poets, modern jazz, etc.) and one of our number had a West Coast magazine with an article about morning glory seeds. In this article we read that these innocuous seeds, available from any garden center, contained a substance called ergine, which was similar to LSD. So, I bought a packet of the seeds and chewed them up. It was the evening after an anti-nuclear march and I was away from home, sleeping on the floor of someone else's house. This was obviously not the best set and setting, and the dosage was a bit hit and miss, too. In the event, I did not enter an altered state (chewing the seeds is a not the way to go) but Morning Glory's notorious emetic properties manifested at full intensity and I spent an hour or so communing with the toilet bowl.
My next attempt was more successful. Here is how I described it in Secret Drugs of Buddhism:
That evening, I ground all the seeds to a very fine powder in my parents’ coffee grinder, mixed the powder with cold water and set it aside overnight to soak. Our intention had been to drink it the very next day but the adventure was postponed because John had family commitments. When we heard that he couldn’t make the following day either, we decided to go ahead without him. I strained the batch of powdered seeds through cheesecloth, bottled the liquor and took it to Sean’s flat. At the last moment, due to the unappetizing appearance of the fluid, we decided to make lemon Jell-O with it. When this had been made and consumed, we sat around, listening to records, chatting, and waiting for the effects. An hour went by—nothing. Another hour—still nothing. We concluded that either the morning glory high was a myth or that I had failed to prepare it properly. Accordingly, we changed our plans and went our separate ways around town.
Wales was at home to England in a major rugby match that Saturday afternoon and everyone not actually in the stadium was at home, glued to the television. The streets were almost deserted and unnaturally quiet except for the occasional, distant roar of thousands of spectators responding to the game. As I wandered through the shabby back-streets, their mingled voices, following a myriad acoustic pathways, washed about me like waves, seeming to come from all directions. I stopped walking and stood still, the better to appreciate this sonic phenomenon. A long, exultant roar followed by nothing but echoes signaled the end of the match and a home win. As I stood there, still listening, a blackbird, unseen but very close, opened his throat to the gathering darkness. His song unfolded in liquid trills and plangent grace notes that hung almost visibly in the air before reverberating through the dingy streets. The crystalline purity of this simple birdsong transformed the prosaic back-street into a thing of indescribable beauty, peeling posters, discarded cigarette packets and all.
At this point I hastily revised my opinion of the morning glory seeds and decided to seek the comfort and security of The Moulders’ Arms, our favorite pub, before the full effects set in. The sidewalk beneath my feet had become unaccountably elastic and spongy but I made it to the pub without incident. To my surprise, Sean had arrived before me and was seated next to the coal fire, staring intently into the flames, looking even higher than I felt. Sean had not bought a drink and the landlady was leaning across the bar, trying to catch his attention. Given his condition, this was no small feat but when, eventually, he emerged from his reverie I tried to explain to him that the landlady was asking what he’d like to drink. Sean smiled as if he had suddenly realized what we were talking about then turned to her and said brightly, “A cup of coffee would be great, thanks.”
Regardless of what they may serve these days, coffee was not an option in Welsh pubs of the 1960s, not even Irish coffee. Alarmed at what the landlady might think of Sean’s bizarre request, I mumbled an excuse about him having “had too much already” and dragged him out of the bar. It was very fortunate that Sean’s place was only a short walk from the pub as, by the time we had climbed the stairs to his tiny third-floor flat, the effects had reached their full intensity. It was not that we were incapable of walking, or even climbing the stairs; no, our motor skills and coordination were fine, but a distinct tendency to lethargy was settling upon us and language was becoming strangely problematic.
The evening was chilly so Sean lit his little gas fire and we sat either side of it, he in the only armchair, I on his bed, both of us lost in silent introspection. My mind was perfectly clear although a lot of unfamiliar, yet fascinating, things seemed to be going on within it. For one thing, whenever I closed my eyes, I found myself watching odd little stories. Surreal tales of unfathomable meaning and gratuitous intensity would play out in Technicolor and fully-formed 3D. After a while I recognized themes and motifs from my dream-life, still continuing during waking hours. It seemed as if dreaming were not merely a nocturnal phenomenon but a perpetual process of which we occasionally catch glimpses. Some of these glimpses, which we call “dreams,” occur naturally during a state of consciousness normally induced by sleep, but I discovered that a tablespoon of small black seeds works, too.
Occasionally Sean would speak and I would reply but it was difficult to look at him as the outlines of his face tended to break up into multicolored neon threads. This didn’t bother me too much but there was something else that did, a subliminal unease which, though vaguely familiar, I could not place. This strange problem was resolved when a visitor arrived. It was Jenny, my girlfriend, who came and sat beside me on the bed. As soon as she sat down, she reached back and shut the window behind us. Miraculously, the mysterious feeling of discomfort dissipated. Apparently, I had been sitting in a cold draft.
Jenny was amused by our condition and continued to minister to our needs, making cups of tea and changing records. The mood of the evening improved greatly but I was still not entirely enjoying the drug experience. Even with a comfortably warm back, there was still a little knot of anxiety deep inside me. Eventually the cups of tea worked their way through my system and I made a visit to the bathroom. To my utter astonishment, I found that I couldn’t urinate. I stood there, poised over the toilet bowl, and tried to analyze the problem: I definitely needed to go, so why couldn’t I? In a moment of intuition, I understood that my reluctance to let go of my urine was, in some way, analogous to my inability to “let go” and enjoy the experience. The instant this realization dawned, the flood-gates opened and I was able to release a stream of piss. As I watched it merge with the water in the bowl I realized that just a moment before, this substance had been an integral part of my being, held inside my bladder. Now, as I flushed this portion of myself down the toilet, a pint of me was extending myself into the watery realm to unite with the contents of the sewer, then the sea, and eventually to lap upon unseen shores beyond vast oceans. By the time I resumed my position on the bed, I was no longer confined within my previous notions of what constituted “self.” The cosmos was one—seamless, indivisible; by relinquishing attachment to the notion of “me,” I had become the whole.
Jenny put “Otis Blue” on the turntable. I fell back onto the bed and closed my eyes as my body dissolved in a cloud of incandescent joy.
I later had access to LSD while it was still legal and, before the 1960s were out, we found that the the local mushroom species Psilocybe semilanceata, was potently psychedelic.
When/where/how did you meet the dharma?
Again, to quote from Secret Drugs of Buddhism:
My interest in Buddhism had begun [in 1963] when I was at high school in Wales. To be precise, I can date it to an occasion when I decided to enliven an otherwise uninteresting afternoon by arguing with a visiting speaker. He gave a brief introductory talk on Buddhism which was followed by group discussion. As an avowed atheist, I initially felt very superior to this foolish fellow who had been duped by some exotic god cult, but what a surprise I had! It soon transpired that he, like most Buddhists, was an atheist, too. That was not all. Not only did he have no belief in god, he told us that Buddhists didn’t believe in the soul either. Most of our problems, he explained, derive from an instinctive, yet misguided, attachment to this fictitious “self.”
A self? Surely, I had a self. Didn’t I? What proof could I offer anyone (myself, even) that I had a self? It had never crossed my mind to ask such strange questions before but I found this attitude of profound skepticism intellectually intoxicating. My habitual distrust of religion was difficult to shift and throughout the discussion I stubbornly challenged the speaker’s every statement but, in truth, I was fascinated. This calm, analytical philosophy was unlike any religion I had ever heard of.
When the discussion was over, I approached the speaker to ask him where I could learn more. Visibly astonished at my apparent volte-face, he explained that he was a volunteer for the Buddhist Society, which was based in London, and suggested that I begin my inquiries there. So, from that point on, whenever I made a trip to London, I made a point of visiting the Buddhist Society. I would pick up the latest issue of The Middle Way and a few of the numerous instructional pamphlets about this “religion”—a spiritual path with no interest in a supreme being.
What does the 5th Precept mean to you?
On May 1st 1970, I took refuge and the upasaka vows, including the pañca-sila. As this was the Tibetan version, the 5th precept was to abstain from drinking ch'ang or Tibetan beer. Taken literally as Tibetan barley beer, this would have been ridiculously easy for a Welshman living in London. But I knew that Tibetan had no word for alcohol, per se, and that it really meant "no alcohol" and I tripped on LSD the very evening of the day I took the vows. I entirely abstained from alcohol, however, remaining a teetotaler for 20 years until I took the Ñing-tik Yab-shi (dzogchen) empowerment in 1990. One of the damtsik vows required for that empowerment was to take amrita every day—even if it's only a tiny, token, amount (Vajrayana microdosing?). There was a corollary to this vow which came as something of a surprise (to me, anyway). It was the instruction that if we can't obtain amrita we should use alcohol. Since then, I have allowed myself the occasional glass of beer or wine.
I know that many versions of the 5th precept say to abstain from "any substance which clouds the mind" but my own research suggests that the origin vow, like the Tibetan version, explicitly said "alcohol".
What do you understand the heart of Buddhism to be?
a) Non-dual awareness.
Have you learned anything from psychedelics?
I'm tempted to say, "Nothing yet... You?" but that's just my warped sense of humor.
I find psychedelics offer a direct experience of that which the sutras and tantras speak of. Without psychedelics, these states are likely to be merely names and concepts on a printed page without any living correlate—words that may be intellectualized or entirely misconstrued. Even with psychedelics it's possible to go astray. And that's why our tripping should be informed by our meditation practice and our contemplation of enlightened texts.
A year after my refuge ceremony I had a taste of ancient Buddhist wisdom when tripping. Here's how I describe it in Secret Drugs of Buddhism (2nd edition):
In the late 1960s, my friends and I discovered that, although herbal cannabis and hashish had been illegal since 28th September 1928, cannabis tincture had escaped this law. Not only was it legal, it was available over the counters of certain London pharmacies at £1 per pint bottle. Better still, a couple of my friends had acquired National Health prescriptions for a medical tincture, so all they paid was the standard price of a prescription: one shilling (about a nickel). We soon determined that the optimal (stoned but not incapacitated) dosage was one teaspoon, usually stirred into a cup of well-sweetened coffee. A pint bottle held 96 teaspoons which we all agreed was not bad value for a shilling.
The law removed this anomaly in 1971 by declaring this tincture illegal but, for a brief window of time, bottles of this potent elixir were circulating at the same time as “Orange Sunshine” pills. These high-dosage LSD tablets were distributed free of charge by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, an underground Californian organization of hippies who were determined to turn on the world. Quantities of both cannabis tincture and the “Sunshine” were brought to a weekend gathering at a country house near the Buckinghamshire village of Iver Heath. I shared a pill of the LSD with two friends and took a large spoonful of tincture in a glass of water. I frankly did not expect a mere third of a pill to do much and was expecting the high to be mostly cannabinoid. It was the fireflies that changed my mind.
I was standing on the patio, idly gazing at the tall elm trees, silhouetted against the dying embers of the sunset, when a cloud of fireflies rose into the darkness, thrown into brilliant contrast against the shadowy buildings of the turkey farm next door. “Wow, look at that!” I exclaimed to the friend at my side.
Then, just as he was saying, “What? Where?” the “fireflies” began a complex aerial dance, weaving a rainbow-colored arc across the evening sky.“Oh, never mind,” I said, as I headed back into the living room and the comfortable safety of an armchair.
J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue was emerging in geometrical precision from our host’s hi-fi. This sublime music seemed perfect for my elevated state and I closed my eyes and let the music take me. Then it happened. With my inner eye, like imagination but far more vivid, I beheld an infinite array of crystal spheres, suspended in space. Each sphere was so perfect and crystal clear that it reflected every other sphere with minute accuracy. But that’s only the visual part. It was apparent to me that each sphere was nothing but the reflection of every other sphere. At the same time, each sphere in space was also a wave-packet in a field. Just as each sphere was the combined reflections of all other spheres, each wave-packet was the pervading field, modulated by all the other packets (which, in turn were the local field modulated by all the other packets, etc.). The “sight”, though internal and personal to myself, was truly awe-inspiring. It was as if I were witnessing hidden dimensions of space which exist in addition to (and at right-angles to) the usual three.
One might ask where, exactly, I stood in regard to this magnificent array. It’s a reasonable question but, as every point was equivalent to every other point, I was nowhere in particular while, at the same time, every crystal orb in the entire, infinite vastness of the array was simultaneously visible in every other sphere. And while no sphere had any individual existence, each attested to the intricate interconnectedness of every particle of the cosmos. I rested in this vision, rapt in wonder, for what seemed an eternity, observing first-hand the matter/wave duality of quantum mechanics while simultaneously witnessing a vision which seemed heavily laden with profound spiritual significance. This was before I had encountered the philosophy of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and its metaphor of Indra’s Net…
The Buddhas know that all phenomena arise interdependently.
They know all world systems exhaustively.
They know that all phenomena in all worlds are interrelated as in Indra's net.
— Avataṃsaka Sūtra
An ancient Chinese sage described the net thus:
The manner in which all phenomena interpenetrate is like an imperial net of celestial jewels extending in all directions infinitely, without limit…
As for the imperial net of heavenly jewels, it is known as Indra’s Net, a net which is made entirely of jewels. Because of the clarity of the jewels, they are all reflected in and enter into each other, ad infinitum. Within each jewel, simultaneously, is reflected the whole net. Ultimately, nothing comes or goes. If we now turn to [for instance] the southwest, we can pick one particular jewel and examine it closely. This individual jewel can immediately reflect the image of every other jewel.
As is the case with this jewel, this is furthermore the case with all the rest of the jewels—each and every jewel simultaneously and immediately reflects each and every other jewel, ad infinitum. The image of each of these limitless jewels is within one jewel, appearing brilliantly. None of the other jewels interfere with this. When one sits within one jewel, one is simultaneously sitting in all the infinite jewels in all ten directions. How is this so? Because within each jewel are present all jewels. If all jewels are present within each jewel, it is also the case that if you sit in one jewel you sit in all jewels at the same time. The inverse is also understood in the same way. Just as one goes into one jewel and thus enters every other jewel while never leaving this one jewel, so too one enters any jewel while never leaving this particular jewel.
— Huayan wujiao zhiguan
This was written by a 7th century master known as Tu-Shun (557–640 CE), founder of the Huayan school of Chinese Buddhism. Apart from Tu-Shun’s apparent reluctance to engage with the topic of interpenetrating wave-packets, his description comes very close to my experience. But, as ancient Chinese had no word for “wave-packet”, we should probably forgive Tu-Shun for this omission.
I had been profoundly moved by my Orange Sunshine/cannabis tincture experience but had assumed that it was a private, personal, revelation. To discover that not only was it known, recognized and described in detail a full twelve centuries before my trip, but that it had even been mentioned centuries before that, led me to wonder. Was the experience universal, available to all meditators, or was it attainable only through psychedelics? If the former, I had stumbled upon a route to the wisdom of the ages; if the latter, this implied that Buddhists of earlier centuries were not merely comfortable with the use of psychedelics but employed them to great effect. Either way, this was thrilling confirmation that I was on the right track and that, if used correctly, psychedelics held the key to deeper spiritual exploration.
Hoping this suffices,