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The Influence of the Psychedelic Movement on the Rise of Buddhism in the American Experience

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Jacob Curtis

A study submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Asian Religions course

Warren Wilson College


In an attempt to synthesize my own personal academic area of interest, that is: the history of the psychedelic movement in twentieth century America, with the content of the Asian Religions course, I have elected to study the relationship between the influx of Buddhist philosophy and the psychedelic counter-culture movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The subject, although highly specific, has nonetheless generated intellectual interest substantial enough to warrant a sub-field of study, in terms of Buddhist/American History examination. This paper will focus on the thought of the main harbingers of this movement, specifically Aldous Huxley, Alan Watts, and Dr. Timothy Leary. This study will also examine the corruptions of classical Buddhist philosophy wrought by these intellectuals concerned with integrating the psychedelic experience in an Eastern context. The connection between Buddhism and psychedelics in the American experience is a subject of contention because of the controversial associations of chemically altered perception as compared to traditional Bodhicitta, or the mind of enlightenment. The author Emma Layman, in her book Buddhism in America, asserts:

“Of all the Buddhist groups in America, those focusing on meditation have been most attractive to young people from the drug scene, and it is these groups that have taken the strongest stand against drug use. The psychological literature as well as the literature on Zen abounds in descriptions of the altered states of consciousness experienced under the influence of LSD-25 and other hallucinogenic drugs. Descriptions of these drug-induced states often compare them with the experience of satori or enlightenment which may result from Buddhist meditation. Frequently the opinion is expressed that, under certain circumstances, the LSD experience is a satori experience. ”

The popularity of Buddhism in America became most pronounce in the period after World War II. It is interesting to note that the United States had just concluded the most devastating war in human history, with the first use of the atomic bomb on the Empire of Japan, yet the Japanese of style Buddhism took hold in America more than other school after the war. It could be said that the main figure head of Japanese, or more precisely, Zen Buddhism, in America was the author and intellectual Dr. D.T. Suzuki. In terms of the American expression of Buddhism, Suzuki had more influence over the interpretation of Zen philosophy than any other writer of the time. His reception by the lay student of Buddhism was warm and appreciated, however his stance with the academics of the country may not have been so strong.

“Although D.T. Suzuki’s scholarly efforts have not always been praised, the overall estimate of his work and mission must be unequivocally favorable, especially because it offered Americans a “serious” Zen amidst the curious “Beat Zen” and “Square Zen” that developed in the 1950s. ”

It must be mentioned, however, that this “Beat Zen”, and other weternized forms of Buddhism had a significant impact on the experience of American Buddhism. The Beats, the counter-culture movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, offered an attitude that indicted the current social systems in America. With their whole scale questioning of traditional values in America, they sought out new avenues for spiritual exploration. Hence Zen is where the Beats turned vent their frustrations with the American spiritual traditions.

“The “Zen boom” of the 1950s is considered a major watershed in this American Buddhist history and linage. Two individuals, D.T. Suzuki, a lay student of Shaku Soyen, and Alan Watts, an Episcopalian priest and popularizer of eastern religions, were instrumental in introducing Buddhism, and the Zen tradition in particular, to the United States. Together with the Beats, they helped thrust Buddhism into mainstream America. ”

Not only were the Beats influential, in terms of popularizing Buddhism, but they also heralded the use of psychedelic chemicals as a means of altering consciousness. Consciousness, it seemed, was an untouched horizon in the mainstream history of American exploration. However, prior to the

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