The Psychedelic Experience: LSD and Buddhist Practices


“Tricycle” magazine described the boom of LSD during the 1960s as blowing the generation gap wide open. They described it as “the old were appalled while the young were enthralled.” In his manuscript for Flashbacks Leary wrote, “Some students quit school and pilgrimage eastward to study yoga on the Ganges. Not necessarily a bad development from our point of view but understandably upsetting to parents who did not send their kids to Harvard to become Buddhas” (Fields 1).

LSD stands for Lysergic Acid Diethylamide. The synthetic hallucinogenic drug was discovered by accident in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman. Hoffman was so taken aback by the immediate and profound distortions caused by LSD that he penned his experience immediately after his “trip.”

“I was forced to stop my work in the laboratory… and to go home, as I was seized by a particular restlessness associated with the sensation of mild dizziness. On arriving home, I lay down and sank into a kind of drunkenness which was not unpleasant and which was characterized by extreme activity of imagination. As I lay in a dazed condition with my eyes closed (I experienced daylight as disagreeably bright) there surged upon me an uninterrupted stream of fantastic images of extraordinary plasticity and vividness and accompanied by an intense, kaleidoscope-like play of colours. This condition gradually passed off after about two hours.” (Nevid 328)

LSD affects the user by decreasing the affect of serotonin in the brain. Because serotonin normally acts as a neurotransmitter that inhibits neural activity, a decrease in serotonin causes brain activity to escalate. The resulting increase in brain activity produces major sensory distortions, including changes in color perception and hearing. Users often claim that LSD “expands consciousness and opens new worlds – as if they were looking into some reality beyond the usual reality” (Nevid 328). Leary hypothesized that LSD doesn’t actually alter reality in so much that it allows the user to see reality as it truly exists. This is not terribly different from the Yogacara philosophy branch of Buddhism that discusses how the mind is empty and reality as it is seen is actually an illusion. Leary’s idea that LSD enables users to see reality as it truly exists is similar to what Buddhists call “Thusness” or “Ultimate Reality.” The psychedelic experience is described as being beyond the users in that it cannot be put into language or mental constructs. Leary often opined that that while science had the benefit to develop a specific language used to communicate across the board from one scientist to another, no such set of language exists for the psychedelic experience (Leary 24).

As such, it is often difficult to explain what occurs during an LSD trip. Like Hoffman’s experience after accidentally discovering acid in his laboratory, users typically describe vivid colors and sounds coming in what some have described as “waves”.

The psychedelic experience draws many parallels between sensory deprivation, yoga exercises, disciplined meditation, and many religious or aesthetic ecstasies. Leary theorized that the actual drug does not produce the “transcendent experience”; LSD merely acts as the chemical key to opening the mind (Leary 11).

Leary himself had his first psychedelic experience after tripping acid in Mexico in 1960. His familiarity with Buddhist and Eastern studies began while attending West Point Military Academy in Massachusetts. There, he used his time in punitive isolation to study Eastern texts. Leary said his time at West Point was comparative to studying in a yoga monastery (Unknown Author 1).

As a psychologist and professor at Harvard University, Leary expanded his ideas of the useful nature of LSD. He gave acid to inmate volunteers and found the drug useful in the treatment of alcoholism and schizophrenia. His controversial work was decidedly unpopular with his colleagues and Harvard refused renewal of his contract with the Ivy League university. Leary continued his experiments with psychedelic drugs, including LSD and mescaline. He wrote several books on his studies including High Priest Psychedelic Prayers of the Tao Te Ching, Your Brain is God, and The Politics of Ecstasy

In 1962, Leary, along with Ralph Metzner and Richard Albert, adapted the Bardo Thodol of The Tibetan Book of the Dead to write The Psychedelic Experience The book, which has since been translated into seven languages and sixteen editions, was meant to show the correlation between LSD and The Tibetan Book of the Dead Because the original manual was meant to acquaint a dying person with the liberation of the Clear Light of Reality, Leary said it was easy to recast that theory with the death of the ego during a psychedelic trip. He wrote the manual with the intention “that acid, in conjunction with the manual’s guide, could be used to direct and control awareness in such a way to reach that level of understanding called liberation or enlightenment” (Leary 45). This is comparative to the way many practitioners of Buddhism use mediation in an attempt to reach Nirvana.

Leary actually guided his friend Aldous Huxley through the psychedelic experience

while Huxley was dying of cancer. Years before, Huxley had read parts of The Tibetan

Book of the Dead to his first wife as she was dying of cancer. He repeated the instructions into her ear even after she had stopped breathing, all the while saying, “Let go, let go. Go forward into the light. Let yourself be carried into the light’ (Fields 1).

Huxley had his own experiences with hallucinogenics while participating in experiments with mescaline in Los Angeles in May of 1953. During his experience, Huxley remembered a line from one of D.T. Suzuki’s essays, “What is the Dharma Body of the Buddha?” and said he found the answer: The hedge at the bottom of the hill. “What had previously seemed only a vague pregnant piece of nonsense was no clear as day. Of course, the Dharma Body of the Buddha was at the hedge at the bottom of the garden, he wrote in The Doors of Perception (Fields 1).

Still Huxley remained skeptical about the experience. “I am not so foolish to equate what happens under the influence of mescaline with the realization of the end and ultimate purpose of human life: Enlightenment” (Fields 1). Instead, Huxley chose to call it a “gratuitous grace.”

Leary, on the other hand, saw the psychedelic experience as a life-changing one. He advised readers that the only way to hold onto what they learn during a psychedelic session was to extend those principles to everyday life. This is Leary’s famous, “turn on, tune in and drop out” advocacy.


TURN ON -‘The turned on person realizes that s/he is not an isolated, separate social

ego, but rather one transient energy process hooked up with the energy dance around hir” (Leary 86). To turn on, Leary said it was important to not let the psychedelic experience stop even after the LSD has worn off.

TUNE IN – ‘Tune in means to arrange your environment so that it reflects your state of

consciousness, to harness your internal energy to the flow around you” (Leary 86). To tune in, Leary recommends changing your dress and housing to reflect your newly “turned on” point of view.

DROP OUT – “Walk, talk, eat, drink like a joyous forest-dwelling god” (Leary 87).

Leary theorized that if everyone turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, there would be grass growing on Wall-Street in less than one year.

The main thrust of Leary’s argument in applying a book meant for the dying is the loss of the ego during a psychedelic experience. The ego is Leary’s term for self. Without the ego, the user has no sense of self. Leary hypothesized that to reach pure awareness, or enlightenment, the user has to remove themselves from the “game,” referring to the roles, rituals and rules defined by society.

The process begins by the user preparing themseif for an actual session by reading material on the psychedelic experience. Then comes the actual taking of the LSD. LSD is an orally ingested drug, usually blotted onto paper or sugar cubes. The drug begins to take affect 30 to 60 minutes after being ingested. The effects of the LSD depend largely on dosage, and as Leary emphasized, setting.

“Immediate set refers to expectations about the session itself. People naturally tend to impose personal and social perspectives on any new situation. For example, some ill-prepared subjects unconsciously impose a medical model on the experience. They look for symptoms, interpret each new sensation in terms of sickness/health, and, if anxiety develops, demand tranquilizers.” (Leary 58)

Some of the side-effects of ingesting LSD include the following: Nausea Trembling, shaking Clammy coldness-which the Tibetans call water-sinking-into-fire Feelings of body melting Body Pressure-which Tibetans call earth-sinking-into-water

Leary wrote that these physical reactions should be avoided as signs of illness, but rather “the consciousness moving around in the body and the onset of ego loss” (Leary Dudjom Rinpoche, a great yogi scholar, once said, “if you see something horrible, don’t cling to it. If you see something beautiful, don’t cling to it.” This idea of refusing to hold onto anything reinforces the Buddhist perspective of impermanence; That nothing is forever. This idea is reinforced in the original Tibetan Book of the Dead and the idea of “samsara”-the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

Another researcher of Buddhism and LSD, Terence McKenna, said that the links even go so far as compassion and awareness. McKenna spent 25 years studying the ontological foundations of shamanism and spiritual transformation. In an April 1996 interview with “Tricycle” magazine, McKenna said the psychedelic society easily fit into the notion of Buddhist practices.

“Well, compassion is the central moral teaching of Buddhism and, hopefully, the central moral intuition of the psychedelic experience. So at the ethical level I think these things are mutually reinforcing and very good for each other. Compassion is what we lack. Buddhism preaches compassion. Psychedelics give people the power to overcome habitual behaviors. Compassion is a function of awareness. You cannot attain great awareness without attaining greater compassion, whether you’re attaining this awareness through Buddhist practice or psychedelic experience.” (Hunt-Badiner 1). The “habitual behaviors,” as McKenna described them, are what Leary refers to as the “game”- the system of roles and rules the ego goes through on a daily basis. It is perhaps because of the roles and rituals already so thoroughly reinforced by Leary’s time that his ideas were met with such intense scrutiny and dismay. He was often accused of advocating LSD “for kicks” and thought to be the pied piper of a whole generation hell bent on drug use.

“When I’m accused of promoting the use of LSD for kicks, I wonder what they mean by “kicks.” To me the kick means an ecstatic revelation… In any sane society, the word kick could be the ideal, the ecstasy, it means going beyond, getting out of your mind, confronting God. A confrontation with divinity, your own higher intelligence, is going to change you, and some people don’t want to change.” (Leary 96). Instead, Leary said the aim of taking LSD was to open up the user philosophically, increase intelligence, and increase sensitivity. The idea of being led to a higher state of consciousness has even simpler roots in Buddhist practice as evinced by a story Leary recounts of when he was in prison:

“When I was studying mammalian theology at Folsom prison in 1973, it was my custom, during the clear, blue-sky, desert-hot summer months, to walk barefoot in the prison yard. One day the leader of the Hell’s Angels, his name was James “Fu” Griffin, approached me.

“Hey man,” he said, “how come you walk barefoot in the prison yard? Don’t you know that’s dangerous?” We were the best of friends and his question was solicitous, not hostile. He wanted nothing but the best for me.

“Why is it dangerous?” I asked.

“Well you’re exposed. Like to germs and all. You know all these animals spit on the ground here.”

“Yeah, I know. But here’s how I look at it. When you walk barefoot, like undefended, you are very alert about where you put your feet. I’m more alive, like a wild animal, when I’m barefoot. A And, come to think of it, I believe it would be better if more prisoners here stopped spitting on the yard and joined me walking barefoot.”

“I see what you mean,” said James “Fu” Griffin.

He subsequently got a degree in anthropology from Berkeley and later became a Country-Western promoter in San Francisco.” (Leary 23)

Aside from the obvious Buddhist theme of walking barefoot and being “in tune” with your surroundings, another subtler connection can be found between the previous mentions of the links between the psychedelic experience and Buddhism in terms of awareness and compassion. “If we all stop spitting, we can all use it,” Leary said. What Leary is perhaps really saying is that if everyone had the benefit of seeing reality through the lens of the psychedelic experience, maybe everyone would change the way they live. “If everyone in Manhattan were to “turn on” and “tune in,” grass would grow on First Avenue and tieless, shoeless divinities would dance or roller-skate down the carless streets. Ecological consciousness would emerge within 25 years. Fish would swim in a clear-blue Hudson” (Leary 87).

Unfortunately, society at large reduced Leary’s ideas to a hipster fantasy and never truly took the psychologist seriously. John Perry Barlow, co-founder of the Electric Frontier Foundation, reasoned that “the public terror of LSD is based more on media-propagated superstition than familiarity with its effects on the real world” and that even “regular” citizens who have dropped acid are quick to dismiss the benefits of LSD. LSD promotes manipulating reality, rather than accepting it, Barlow said. “LSD is not illegal because it endangers your sanity. LSD is illegal because it endangers control” (Barlow 1). Even the 25 million Americans who have taken LSD would be somewhat hesitant to admit even taking the drug, let alone contributing any sort of positive change to it.

It is because of this existing hostile environment that the use of LSD continues to be done in secret. Many continue to use acid in secret as a sacrament, much like the earliest Tantric circles in India who transformed such taboo substances such as meat and wine into sacraments (Fields 4). Leary even tried to formalize a religion around the use of LSD for legal purposes, even though he shunned the idea of organized religion all together. He attempted to found the “League for Spiritual Discovery” as a means to legalize the use of LSD in the context of religious purposes. After all, Catholic priests were still afforded the right to use wine as a sacrament during prohibition. The idea never came full-circle.

As such, practitioners who use LSD in the context of furthering spiritual development must do so in secret. They say the benefits of such practices far outweigh any stigma of being seen as a “acid drop-out.”

Said one Buddhist practitioner, Myton J. Stolaroff, “In learning to hold my mind empty, I became aware that other levels of reality would more readily manifest. It was only in absolute stillness that many subtle but extremely valuable nuances of reality appeared. I found this effect to be greatly amplified while under the psychedelic substance. This, in turn, intensified my daily practice” (Fields 4).

It is highly worth mentioning, as Leary often emphasized, that the idea of promoting LSD as a means of reaching spiritual awareness, must be done with utmost care and consideration. All throughout The Psychedelic Experience as well as his other texts, Leary continually reinforced the idea of having a guide and understanding the context of what you were doing.

It could be argued that the children who dropped LSD in the 1960s contributed to a decade of confusion and conflict. It could also be argued that those same children grew up and went on to found such things as the internet and continually build society to the way it is today.

This was not just doing drugs just to do drugs. This was a group of scholars, researchers, and psychologists who thought they found a way to change the world, and if not the world, than at least it’s consciousness.


Works Cited

Barlow, John Perry. “Liberty and LSD.” Tricycle Magazine April. 1996.

Hunt-Badiner, Allan. “Sacred Antidotes, an Interview with Terence McKenna.” Tricycle

Magazine April. 1996.

Fields, Rick. “A High History of Buddhism.” Tricycle Magazine April. 1996. Leary, Timothy. The Politics of Ecstasy Berkeley, California: Ronin Publishing, 1980.

Leary, Timothy. Your Brain is God Berkeley, California: Ronin Publishing, 1988.

Leary, Timothy, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert. The Psychedelic Experience A

Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead New York, New York: Kensington Publishing, 1964.

Nevid, Jeffrey, Spencer Rathus, and Beverly Greene. Abnormal Psychology in a

Changing World New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2000.

Unknown Author, Internet Source. “Timothy Leary, Biography, Beatland.”

http://www.spress.de/beat-generation/

One thought on “The Psychedelic Experience: LSD and Buddhist Practices

  1. The plural of hallucinogen is not hallucinogenics, but hallucinogens.

    A substance can be hallucinogenic (adjective).

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