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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Still Point: Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism.

Johnston, William. (1970).
New York: Fordham University Press.

ISBN: 0-8232-0860-5

Description: Hardcover, xiii + 193 pages.

Contents: Preface, 11 chapters, index.

Excerpt(s): In some ways the word "mysticism" is unfortunate. It is too much surrounded with an aura of the occult, stemming from its etymological origin, as though it spoke of something a little esoteric. The same is true of its Japanese equivalent, shimpi. This also suggests abnormal psychic experiences; it recalls Aldous Huxley and the addicts of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). Hence it is not surprising that so many Zen masters reject it, denying that their exercise is in any way mystical. (page 124)

But if religious experience is so important, it might be a good idea to stimulate it, and thus arises the use of drugs as a way to mysticism. The best-known experimenter in this line is, of course, Aldous Huxley, whose little book The Doors of Perception told of the inner world of mystical space that the author had discovered under the influence of mescalin. A religious adventurer Huxley may have been, but no one can deny his brilliance as a writer. Anguished man, he insists, feels an irresistible need to escape, to transcend self, to get away from the drab world; and of all the possible ways of achieving this transcendence, mescalin, which induces mystical experience, is the least innocuous and most successful. ("All I am suggesting is that the mescalin experience is what Catholic theologians call `a gratuitous gift,' not necessary to salvation but potentially helpful and to be accepted thankfully if made available.") The some times tragic subsequent history of mescalin need not occupy us here. Some years ago, while visiting a Zen monastery far out in the countryside at the foot of Mount Fuji, I was astonished to hear the good Roshi refer to an article about "instant Zen" in Time, where it was indicted that LSD might be a short-cut to satori. The monk smiled good-humoredly. He neither affirmed nor denied. But his smile bespoke what was in his heart. (page 134)

First of all, philosophical. I have expressed my opinion that the best philosophical definition is the Thomistic "simple intuition of the truth." This covers Christian mysticism, Hellenic and Neoplatonic contemplation, and Zen. All these can, I think, be truly said to culminate in an intuitive grasp of the truth which becomes increasingly "simple" in proportion as duality (particularly subject-object duality) is lost in an experience of unity. But can this definition cover experiments like Huxley's? Here I would say no-if the subject, far from seeking truth, is trying to escape from it. And Aldous Huxley avowedly is doing just this.

Then from the theological aspect. I have referred to the Thomistic contention that faith in, and love for, God in Christ enlightens the mind with high wisdom. In other words, what is special to Christian mysticism, both in its initial and final stages, is precisely this sapiential and unitive love. Such a way of speaking is, I believe, eminently suitable, and the Zen Roshi would readily agree that their exercise does not fit into this category.

As for the drugs, if they do not induce mysticism in the philosophical sense, a fortiori, they have nothing to do with theology.

Thirdly, there is the phenomenological aspect. Here the description of William James remains, I believe, substantially accurate and acceptable. Perhaps it is most significant in pointing out that mysticism plunges downward, opening up a new and deep level of the psyche untouched by discursive thinking and reasoning. And again, while admitting that it covers both the Zen and Christian experience, we might ask if a similar psychological condition is induced by the mescalin experiment of Huxley.

It seems true, indeed that certain drugs can touch the same level of psychic life as does mysticism, accentuating the same faculties and enabling one to see into the essence of things in a way similar to Zen. Indeed, James himself indicates that "the drunken consciousness is one bit of the mystic consciousness." ...

And yet I would be reluctant to call such experiences mystical, even in the phenomenological sense. The reason is that the true mystical descent to the core of one's being is always accompanied by progress in moral virtue and in psychic maturity, and effects a reform or conversion or whatever it may be. In Christian mysticism it has always been the moral norm, formulated in the so-called " Rules for the Discernment of Spirits," that determines the validity of mystical experiences. But in the use of drugs no such moral change is evident: Aldous Huxley himself made no such claim to have grown in virtue after swallowing mescalin. There is as yet no evidence for the existence of a drug that effects the detachment and the serenity resulting from silent meditation. And all this indicates a profound difference between the experiences. (pages 137-138)

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