Fresh take on American Buddhism and psychedelics

Buddhism is based on the teachings of Buddha

Dr Douglas Osto's book on American
Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality

The pursuit of enlightenment through altered states of consciousness has always been controversial, but a new book aims to revisit the history of American Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality, and questions their place in today’s society.

Dr Douglas Osto is a senior lecturer in the Philosophy programme and programme co-ordinator in Asian Studies at Massey University’s School of Humanities. His book Altered States: Buddhism and Psychedelic Spirituality in America investigates the connection between American convert Buddhism and the religious use of psychedelics that began in the 1950s and has continued to evolve since it achieved notoriety in the 1960s and 70s.

The development of American Buddhism and the practice of psychedelic spirituality gained global attention with early-stage adherents experimenting with the use of mind-altering drugs like LSD and psilocybin. Practitioners wanted to find ways to experience a profound religious state and wondered if these drugs could help open the door.

Dr Osto’s book traces the history of psychedelic religious experience and the crossover and connection between American Buddhists and their experimentation with psychedelic drugs to achieve an altered state of consciousness.

“There has been very little done in contemporary scholarly research regarding this field, so this book fills a niche and while it has an academic focus, it’s written in a way that is accessible to non-academics,” Dr Osto says.

Psychedelic Buddhism’s most notorious practitioner was former Harvard psychologist Dr Timothy Leary, who, with Dr Richard Alpert led the Harvard Psilocybin Project in the 1960s. Leary is best known for his “turn on, tune in, drop out” phrase, delivered at the Human Be-In in San Francisco in 1967.

“Prior to the 1960s, there were covert experiments done with LSD by the CIA. One of the flashpoints for the psychedelic revolution was the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Leary, Alpert and Ralph Metzner eventually wrote The Psychedelic Experience based on TheTibetan Book of the Dead as their roadmap to try and achieve Buddhist enlightenment through psychedelics.”

Plants containing psychedelic compounds have long been used in Shamanic traditions in the Americas, including psilocybe mushrooms and peyote. While American Buddhists experimented with these substances in the 1950s and 1960s, many later abandoned the use of psychedelics in favour of stricter mental discipline. Others carried on using them and the practice of psychedelic Buddhism evolved.

However, by the late 1960s the laws around psychedelic drugs changed and they became illegal, so the culture of psychedelics went underground. Nevertheless, they continued to be used.

“In the latter part of the 70s and the early part of the 80s there was a distancing from the subcultures of American Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality, and I think a lot of that had to do with the backlash against psychedelics and the war on drugs. It became less acceptable to talk about psychedelics than it was in the past,” Dr Osto says.

“In the 80s psychedelics were re-branded, and ecstasy or MDMA became popular. There was rave culture, events like Burning Man, neo-shamanism – the psychedelic experience had evolved.”

In the book, Dr Osto interviews several well-known people in American Buddhism and psychedelic spirituality as well as weaving personal stories of everyday practitioners. He also looks at the fifth precept in Buddhism to abstain from intoxicants and investigates the debates over psychedelics as representing ‘the true Dharma’.

“It’s a very timely book. The backlash over drugs seems to be over and there is a renaissance in experimentation with psychedelics. It also opens up the possibility of their therapeutic use, which is why they were originally studied by medical science. A 2011 United States Government study revealed that ten per cent of people in the United States are on anti-depressants. Maybe there is also a therapeutic use for psychedelics we can explore further,” he says.

Dr Osto is delighted that Columbia University Press has published his book and says the experience working with them has been very positive. The process of writing the book took him five years, so to receive a response to his initial draft within 24 hours was affirming.

“It’s an edgy subject, and it’s controversial. But Kerry Taylor, my Head of School, has always been supportive, and being published by Columbia University Press adds the weight of an A-list academic publisher.”

Reviewers have called the book “insightful” in providing “valuable information on the American Buddhism that is developing in our global society.”

The book is published by Columbia University Press, and is available to purchase from their website.

Dr Osto has also featured on Radio New Zealand’s Sunday Morning programme with Wallace Chapman here, and in a podcast on his book here.

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