Drugs, Addiction, and Honoring the Great Light

From a talk I gave at the Zen Center of Denver, Oct. 1, 2006.

Our guide as Buddhists to drug use is the Fifth Precept, the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs. At this temple we add the phrase, “…that dull the mind,” and so we say, “I take up the way of not giving or taking drugs that dull the mind,” and vow also to keep the mind clear at all times. I think these are useful clarifications that pose the question: Is your mind clear, or has the drug interfered with your naturally clear consciousness?

In my own life, I’ve gone through many phases of drug use. I won’t go into the sordid details, because I don’t want to unintentionally glorify drug use, but with that said, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, I took most recreational drugs that came my way. Understand, though, that this wasn’t part of an addictive pattern. It seems to me that people most often do drugs for three reasons: first, to gain social acceptance; second, to fulfill emotional needs; and third, to discover meaning as part of a spiritual search. This last was true for me. I took drugs because I was looking for something genuine in the world, and when I finally discovered Zen practice, I stopped doing drugs so intensely.

I’ve often heard zazen compared to drug experiences, and in some ways this is understandable, but in others it’s completely mistaken. People compare the two, I think, because of the separation between their everyday lives and their zazen. They regard zazen as something out of the ordinary, and their experiences of samadhi or kensho as “altered” states of consciousness. Yet zazen is not an altered state of consciousness. It is pure, unaltered consciousness itself. 

There is a relationship here, though, in that we must be careful not to cling to any experience at all. In this respect, any experience or state that we cling to may be regarded as a drug. Television can be a powerful drug, as can video games, Internet pornography, trashy novels, or whatever we do to escape reality. Even peak experiences during zazen can be a terrible obstacle to practice, because we often look to re-create those experiences.

One may see meditation vs. drug use as being analogous to the Zen concepts of joriki and tariki. Joriki is self-power or self-reliance, and this is the type of energy cultivated by Zen practice and meditation. There are no crutches in zazen. Nobody can do this practice for us. We sit upright, under our own power.

Tariki is other-power, reliance on external spiritual power. Most often this term is used in reference to religious sects that pray to external powers—deities and such—in the hope that those powers will favor the petitioner. However, tariki is perfectly reflective of drug usage. Rather than cultivating wisdom through long and difficult spiritual practice, one instead seeks an emotional state or insight through the drug.

I would like to be clear that these insights and states are not necessarily false or delusive. I say this to avoid the dichotomy often seen in public discourse and government policy. There’s no doubt that drugs can be extremely harmful, even deadly, but it’s also true that drugs sometimes help people to overcome psychological blockages and become more insightful and open.

Still, these experiences come at a price. There’s a catch to using drugs, and it’s that whatever other effects they cause, drugs most often encourage continued reliance on the drug, and that reliance is often in proportion to the degree of positive emotions or insights that the drug provides.

So you get caught in this cycle. You want happiness and turn to the drug to provide it, but once that state fades, you turn again and again to the drug to recreate it.

This is clinging to a state of mind. You feel dukkha, lack, that life is out of joint, and you take a drug and experience of sense of well-being. Then the feeling fades, and you find that your sense of lack has actually become more acute.

And the more you cling to this state, the worse your suffering becomes, because clinging causes suffering. And the more you suffer, the more you want to escape. This is the downward spiral of addiction.

I have a friend who calls using drugs getting twisted. This is an interesting expression and very descriptive of drug effects. You take the drug and it twists your mind, and because you’re in a different state, sometimes you can see things about your life that you didn’t see before, or you can temporarily escape whatever state you were in. But when the drug wears off, you don’t return to the same place; you’re somewhere different than where you started, and with continued drug use it becomes difficult to see how off-center you’ve become.

Bodhidharma said, “Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs.”

In any case, after discovering Zen, I cooled off and stopped taking psychedelic drugs. I actually cooled off all the way a couple years later when Lindsey (my ex-wife) and I went to Hawaii to train with Robert Aitken there. The entire time we lived with Aitken Roshi, I took no drugs whatsoever, including alcohol and coffee. I took nothing stronger than black tea for about a year and a half. This was also instructive. There’s no doubt that it helped to drive me into my practice, and I’d come there to practice, and that’s what I did.

However, I also learned that complete abstinence didn’t altogether suit me. It made me rigid, uptight, and inflexible, and kept me separate from people, kept me from connecting with them.

Zen also has the archetype depicted in the tenth ox-herding picture: entering the marketplace with helping hands. The picture shows the spiritual traveler with a wine gourd over one shoulder, ready to share it with whoever comes along, completely open.

So when I came back to Denver, I gave up abstinence too. Since then, I drink alcohol socially, though even that tends to slowly escalate. I’ve also smoked marijuana a few times—maybe a couple of times a year—which is something I continue to examine. It seems that I do it to feel close to old friends, but every time I do I conclude that I really shouldn’t again. Until the next time.

Dogen said: “Drugs are not brought in yet. Don’t let them invade. That is the great light.” Our minds are naturally bright. We are naturally full and complete and aware. How do you honor that great light while remaining open to the people around you?  

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