BRN logo

Psychedelics in Buddhist practice

In august Lions Roar published this article on psychedelics and enlightenment, inevitably the recovery world had a lot to say about the article. So BRN reached out to a few teachers and writers and asked them to share their thoughts on the topic.


Vince Cullen writes:

The Buddha is said to have spoken these words more than 2,500-years ago, clearly making the point that these suggestions for a peaceful life were already original and long-standing. He goes on to emphasise that by living in harmony with each of the five precepts we bring freedom to our communities and we then share in that freedom, for example:

"Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression.

As a ‘Buddhist’, or Dhamma practitioner, I think it would be dangerous for me to use intoxicants and irresponsible to encourage, by example or otherwise, others to do so. There are no shortcuts to Nirvana, and there isn’t enough mortuary space for more unnecessary drug deaths.

Vince Cullen has been associated with Wat Thamkrabok monastery in Thailand and Buddhist-oriented recovery since 1998. Vince founded the Fifth Precept mindfulness for recovery group and teaches 'Hungry Ghost' recovery retreats internationally.


Jude Thompson writes:

In some Buddhist circles, there is a notion that enlightenment can be reached by using psychedelic drugs. This idea, popularized by the research and writings of Timothy Leary, posits the notion that somewhere in our psyche we have all the answers. Why then, central to Buddha’s precepts, are we advised to abstain from taking drugs and alcohol? How many ‘enlightened’ beings stagger home from pubs and clubs after a night of indulgence? How many wake up the next morning feeling fresh, guilt-free and radiant? How many people have lost their lives through addiction to drugs and alcohol, or through trauma and accident that ensues from taking them?

Jude is a Buddhist prison chaplain and former special needs teacher.   She writes: "I am in recovery primarily from alcohol addiction.  I am currently working to co found Nalagiri Mindfulness Centre in Tipperary, Ireland with my partner Vince Cullen."


Devin Ashwood writes:

I spent many years exploring the nature of reality with drugs, food and eventually meditation, and got to know a lot of people like me; unconsciously attached to a painful sense of self and desire to escape. Experiencing some temporary altered state of consciousness that left me with the idea I had a deeper understanding was addictive. Luckily, meditation led me to Buddhist teaching and practice and to a way of life free from attachment to that painful selfish view. 

While drugs have been a part of many people’s path, from what I have seen, it is those that have given up chasing alternative states of mind who have matured in their understanding and ethics. I don’t say people who use drugs are wrong or bad, some people are clearly helped by some drugs, but their use is not the Buddha way and should never be associated or equated with it.”

Devin Ashwood worked has as an addiction therapist, trainer and prison Buddhist chaplain for many years and is now the Director at Gaia House meditation retreat centre.


Steven Tierney writes:

I think the idea of enlightenment due to the use of a powerful medicine (drug) is a grand idea.  Then again, I spent many years using alcohol and drugs to get deeper, know more and experience life at its most vibrant and colorful.  I had some fun, experienced life differently and felt things I’d never felt before.  It worked until it didn’t and as an alcoholic and addict, I spent a couple of decades trying to capture those experiences again.  I truly experienced suffering.

So, I am cautious about these powerful medicines, wouldn’t use them myself (for now) and would recommend that sponsees and clients not use them.  

That said, recovery literate encourages outside and professional help when needed.  If the psychedelic medicines are used is in a wise and compassionate clinical setting, it may be a new tool in the struggles of mental health and addiction.   I hope current and future research determine that with solid evidence.

Steven Tierney is a Zen priest in the Soto Zen lineage.   He teaches in the Meditation in Recovery (MiR) program at San Francisco Zen Center. Dr. Tierney is also a licensed psychotherapist.


Ralph Steele writes:

In my twenties, I experienced serious substance abuse and addiction, including to LSD, during my transition from the Vietnam War and my resulting PTSD from the War. Buddhist practice supported me in my recovery, and additionally gave me priceless insight as a person of color. It continues to guide me in recognizing what is appropriate for each moment in my life. Although I honor a Buddhist community that wishes to expand the effectiveness of Buddhist practice, I am reminded that the Buddha said, “I teach one thing only, and that is the Four Noble Truths.” This is the pure teaching and practice in how to live and to experience the liberation of the deathless. That is all.

Ralph Steele is the guiding teacher for Life Transition Meditation Center,; and author of “Tending The Fire”: Through War and the Path of Meditation.


Darren Littlejohn writes:

In AA we define sobriety as total abstinence from any mind altering substances. This is generally accepted to mean all of the major intoxicants, including pot, mushrooms, LSD, speed, alcohol, barbiturates and opiates. Most of the time, no one goes against the norm so these things aren’t questioned at all. But if you look back at the AA literature, the book, Pass it On tells the story of Bill W., the AA founder and many contemporaries who participated in the then popular practice of taking LSD, before it was made illegal. To my knowledge, no one changed their sobriety date because of taking LSD.

Fast forward to the current trend in recovery to go on Ayahuasca journeys to deepen one’s spirituality. This is a controversy in the 12-Step world and even among treatment professionals. But as I’ve said for years, we in the recovery field need to be open to any and all treatments that have the potential to help reduce the suffering of addiction. Back when I got sober in the 80s, they used to tell people not to take antidepressants because they were mind altering. But now most people in recovery have experience with the benefits of those psychotropics. We would never have considered Suboxone or Methadone or other Harm Reduction methods as “real” sobriety. But I think we were wrong.

Why not try to use plant based medicines in recovery? If they can bring healing, insight and strength, it could be a good thing. But you have to be careful, mindful and a good consumer. There are many charlatans out there and some people have been harmed and have even died. I personally have used mushrooms a few times in the past couple of years. But unlike my drinking and using days, I don’t try to get high or escape my feelings. The purpose is to go into a deeper state of awareness and enhance my spirituality. In my experience, the use of psychedelics in sobriety has been very difficult and painful. I have had severe PTSD and depression all of my life so the core issues that surround these disturbances are very difficult to root out. Therefore my experience has been the opposite of escape and has really taken me to new levels of self-awareness. For example, I didn’t know how far back my PTSD went until I did a San Pedro (mescaline) ceremony with some shamans on a blazing hot mountain top. We addressed the wounds of the family as the first of four stages of our ceremony and let me tell you, that was no party.

My advice in general is that total abstinence is probably your best bet for a decade or so. Combine that with meetings, therapy and fitness. Then you may be stable enough to approach the deeper work. But it’s so hard to get sober and our inner Addict voice is so tricky that I don’t think it’s generally a good idea to take any risks at all with getting into and maintaining recovery.

Darren Littlejohn is a best selling author of the 'The 12 Step Buddhist' and more.  He is are retreat leader, certified Yoga teacher and Reiki healing practitioner. A recovering addict and a practitioner of Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as well as a former mental health specialist, he earned a BA in Psych in 1991 and worked in chemical dependency and acute psychiatric care.