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  The Private Sea

    William Braden

        5.   The god of the East

    Toward the middle of the last century the poet Charles Baudelaire became a member of the famed Club des Haschischins in Paris. He was initiated into the mysteries of hashish, one of the derivatives of psychedelic hemp, and he later wrote of the drug in something less than glowing terms. Baudelaire declared that the "accursed sweetmeat" resulted in "an appalling thing, the marriage of a man to himself." It led to "the individual's belief in his own god-head." In short, it made a man feel he was God.
    A similar objection to the psychedelic experience was lodged more than a hundred years later by Professor R. C. Zaehner of Oxford, an authority on Eastern religions and a Roman Catholic. Zaehner set himself the task of replying to Huxley's enthusiastic claims for mescaline, and to play fair the professor took mescaline himself. "I disliked the experience," he reported, and what especially displeased him, as he put it, was the fact of losing control of oneself. "My conscious resistance to the drug was, indeed, very strong." That was not a very propitious set, as the cultists say, and as a consequence no doubt Zaehner's experience was limited to a sort of silly jag which often occurs in the early stages of a complete experience. Everything seemed utterly ridiculous and totally funny, and Zaehner laughed himself to tears. He described The Golden Bough as one of the great comic classics, and he said the trouble with Jung was "he doesn't realize how dull his collective unconscious is." Cultists believe this period of cosmic laughter reflects a first dawning of the awareness that words and normal perception patterns are both artificial and inadequate. In any case, Zaehner never went beyond it, and even in his most mirthful moments, he said, he managed to distinguish between funny and sacred objects. Shown a reproduction of a praying figure in a nativity scene by Piero della Francesca, he remarked that this was "a holy thing not to be looked at when you're drugged." Later he evaluated the experience as in a sense anti-religious—not conformable with religious experience or in the same category— and he reported with some pride that his normal religious consciousness "was never completely swamped." Zaehner's book, Mysticism, Sacred and Profane, is so far the most authoritative attack upon psychedelics from the viewpoint of orthodox religion, and in it the professor denies the idea that drugs might give rise to a genuine state of mystical consciousness. Zaehner concedes that psychedelics might promote what he terms natural mysticism and monistic mysticism, in which the subject feels a sense of union either with nature or with some impersonal Absolute; but they do not promote Theistic mysticism, in which the subject encounters the transcendent, personal God of Judaism and Christianity. That at least is Zaehner's opinion, to which he adds: "In the case of Huxley, as in that of the maniac, the personality seems to be dissipated into the objective world, while in the case of theistic mystics the human personality is wholly absorbed into the Deity, who is felt and experienced as being something totally distinct and other than the objective world."
    In Theistic mysticism, Zaehner explains, the subject is conscious only of God and loses his awareness of all other things. In Huxley's brand of mysticism, one identifies himself with the external world—to the apparent exclusion of God.
    From his own point of view, Zaehner may be right. But there is reason to dispute even his basic premise—that psychedelic drugs cannot promote Theistic mysticism—and his statements in any case are somewhat confusing if not confused. The Zaehner test for authenticity does not compare the psychedelic experience to mysticism as such. It compares it to Western mysticism. And that is just the point. There also is Eastern mysticism, which is older even than Western mysticism, and in fact it is just here that the drug movement offers its second major challenge to orthodox theology.
    Zaehner to the contrary, Westerners under the influence of psychedelics very often have reported overwhelming awareness of a transcendent God; on the other hand, they also have reported the experience of alien concepts which frankly astonished—or even terrified—them, and these by and large have been the concepts of Eastern mysticism. Within the drug movement, moreover, it seems fair to say that the tendency has been toward the latter type of experience. There are subjective factors which may help to account for this tendency, and we shall discuss them later. But for the moment we can say that psychedelic experience on the whole frequently appears to validate Eastern ideas about God, man, and the universe.
    This of course is a very broad statement and possibly a very hazardous one; it assumes that it is possible to speak of Eastern ideas as such, as if these constituted a monolithic system of belief. The fact is otherwise, it scarcely needs to be said, and in one sense it is just as misleading to speak of Eastern religion as it is to speak of Western religion, thus bedding down together the Unitarian, the Roman Catholic, and the Seventh-day Adventist. It is not even proper to speak in general terms of Hinduism as such, or Buddhism as such, or even Hinyana Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism as such. Each is a major system which contains various levels of sophistication and paths to the truth; in India, for example, you will find one Hindu worshiping a whole pantheon of Gods (330 million, according to one count, including the elephant-headed Gunputty), while another Hindu contemplates a metaphysical abstraction: you will find one Hindu who denies the world and another Hindu who is totally involved in the world. As you delve into Eastern thought you reach a level of interpretation which seems to correspond with at least some elements in Western thought; at a still deeper level it becomes almost impossible to say anything positive at all. But we shall call attention to some of these finer points, and meanwhile the fact remains that there is something the Westerner refers to mentally when he uses that term, Eastern ideas. Perhaps in what follows it might be more correct to say that we are describing Eastern ideas as they are generally viewed in the West, from a more or less superficial point of view, and that for the most part (in this chapter) we are describing the ideas of India rather than those of China or Japan: that is to say, we are talking more about Hinduism than Buddhism, and a rather rudimentary Hinduism at that. Within such a context, then, riding roughshod over nuances, it might be said that psychedelic experience is Eastern in so far as it appears to validate immanence rather than transcendence, monism rather than pluralism, reincarnation rather than resurrection, nirvana rather than heaven, maya rather than hell, ignorance rather than evil, liberation rather than salvation, and self-knowledge rather than grace, redemption, or atonement.
    As applied to the concept of God, transcendence refers to a form of deity whose nature is wholly different from man's. Theistic transcendence implies a wholly-other God who is some sort of supreme Person, in the sense at least that he can and does enter into a personal relationship with man. In strict transcendence, God and man are no more the same person than a master and his servant are the same person. In immanence, on the other hand, men partake of God's nature; God dwells in men, and they are in fact a part of God. The concept of immanence as such is perfectly acceptable from the viewpoint of Western Theism, so long as it does not deny altogether the element of transcendence. Thus it is fine to say that in God we live and move and have our being, in the orthodox interpretation of that phrase, just so we do not develop some fancy notion that we are him. The relationship in this case is crudely that of a father and son perhaps, as opposed to that of a master and his servant. But in pure immanence, or pantheism, God's nature and man's nature are identical. God is just another word for mankind as a whole, or the universe as a whole, or reality as a whole, or the life force as a whole. In pantheism it is neither insanity nor heresy to imagine you are God, because in fact you are God. Western theology on the whole has tended to emphasize the transcendent aspect of God—certainly so at least in comparison to Eastern theology, which has tended to emphasize the immanent aspect of God. In Asia, moreover, the emphasis has been given to pure immanence or pantheism, and God in any case is not conceived from a Theistic viewpoint as in any sense a person or being who dwells apart.
    Consider next the doctrines of monism and pluralism. Pluralism insists upon the integrity of the individual soul, self, or ego. In monism, the individual personality has no lasting reality. It is a passing phenomenon, illusory in nature, and, in the end, all of the individual selves will be absorbed again into the godhead: into the One, the Whole, the Absolute, like drops of water in a termless sea. The godhead perhaps has temporarily divided itself for some practical purpose, as the hand is divided into five fingers; or more likely the godhead is simply amusing itself, making all the world a stage on which it acts out the various roles—a method of killing eternity, as it were. In Hinduism, this monistic Absolute is known variously as Atman or Brahman, and all individual selves are but aspects of Atman or the supreme Self. A Hindu holy man contemplates the sacred syllable OM, emblematic of the Atman godhead, and he asks, "What is that?" He is told, "Thou art that." Thus the wise Hindu is never jealous, for of whom should he be jealous? He sees no other, hears no other, knows no other, for what other is there to see, hear, or know? He hates no living creature—not even the tiger—for he knows that all creatures are simply food: are born from food, live upon food, and then become food. As the hissing Hamadryad in Mary Poppins put it: "It may be that to eat and be eaten are the same thing in the end.... Bird and beast and stone and star—we are all one, all one."
    As cream in butter, as salt in the sea, Atman is in everything and is everything. Atman is like a flame which assumes the shape of each object it consumes. As the air in a jar is nevertheless the same as the air outside the jar, although it takes the shape of the jar, so the Self in every self is nevertheless Atman. And the wise Hindu knows this. He knows that he himself is the youth, the maiden, the old man bent upon his staff, the dark butterfly, the green parrot with red eyes, the thundercloud, seasons, and seas. Buddhists, in reverence, refuse to limit reality even to a universal Self, and thus they never speak of Atman. They speak instead of the Void or of the Clear Light of the Void. But the Void is not a void in the Western sense; the expression is a via negativa which seeks to avoid the trap of language, because there are no words—even Atman—to describe that which is beyond all words and beyond all determinations.
    But call it Atman or call it the Void, enlightenment comes when the individual self realizes it has no separate identity beyond this Absolute. Such liberating awareness is referred to as moksha by Hindus and satori by Zen Buddhists, and with it comes that perfect peace in which the individual self achieves nirvana and is absorbed into the Absolute.
    In the Theistic mysticism of the West, strictly speaking the soul is not absorbed by the Absolute, or by God. Rather, the soul and God retain their distinctive identities, and their relationship is one of love. Love is the key word that distinguishes Theistic mysticism from Eastern mysticism; it implies a relationship between two separate entities, and it therefore preserves both the transcendent nature of God and the everlasting integrity of the individual human soul. The soul is not sucked up by the Absolute as water is sucked up by a sponge; the soul relates to the godhead in an act of love, and the soul in fact may be referred to, in this relationship, as the Bride of Christ. As Buber expressed it in terms of his I-Thou relationship, I-Thou necessarily implies both an I and a Thou; I is not Thou and Thou is not I, but I and Thou are united in love: hence the significance of that hyphen.
    In the Asian doctrine of absorption, of course, the achievement of nirvana can mean different things, depending upon the interpretation. It can mean an actual release from the world, physically and psychically, or simply a new state of consciousness in which one is no longer deceived by his intellect and therefore views the world as it actually is, beyond language and appearances. But nirvana commonly has been associated with the former interpretation, and this leads directly to the Asian concept of reincarnation—as opposed to resurrection. Resurrection was an Egyptian idea; it supposes that man has but one life upon the earth and thus only one chance to win his just and lasting reward, whatever that might be. On the judgment day of Western theology, the soul will be reunited with its body to find eternal life in a pluralistic heaven. Saint Thomas among others found it necessary to insist upon resurrection; with his rejection of dualistic idealism, it seemed the only way to provide for the personal immortality of the individual soul, and this point was the main basis for Thomas' famous quarrel with Averroism. Averroes had denied the possibility of personal immortality and had proposed instead the theory of monopsychism: the idea that mankind as a whole has a single mind in which all individuals participate. It is said that Thomas considered personal immortality the most important issue of the thirteenth century; he defended it vigorously, and Averroism was anathematized by the bishop of Paris in 1270.
    But resurrection and the permanence of the individual soul also are denied by the East. In the alternative doctrine of reincarnation, the separate self does not really exist, and it is only the realization of this fact which permits the achievement of nirvana. But realization is difficult—far more difficult than good works or avoiding sin. So a man is given not one life in which to achieve it, but many lives. The soul passes from body to body in a cycle of death and rebirth, as a leech proceeds from one blade of grass to the next, and each life offers a fresh opportunity to make the great discovery in which one recognizes at last the nature of the Grand Illusion. With the discovery comes the death of the individual personality, which never was, and absorption into the monistic Absolute or the everlasting peace of nirvana. This doctrine also has been interpreted symbolically as a poetic expression of the many stages that one man passes through in one lifetime, just as nirvana has been interpreted to mean a state of awareness rather than literal absorption into nirvana which leaves the earth behind. But the goal in any case bears no similarity to the phenomenal heaven of the West. State of mind or state of Being, it is not a place, and the individual personality is not an aspect of it.
    In the same sense, there is no Eastern equivalent to the Western hell. If there is a hell, it is the world itself, or at least the deceiving world of appearances—the phenomenal illusion which is known as maya or sangsara. A man lives in hell when he fails to recognize reality. He lives in hell when he denies his own true nature and is therefore tormented by lust and desire. It is his mistaken sense of individuality which causes all of his pleasure and all of his pain, and there is far more pain than pleasure. He is a victim of dualism, hopelessly enmeshed in meum et thrum. Because he imagines that there is an other, he envies or desires the other. Because he imagines that his little self is his real Self, he weeps at the thought of his own mortality —for he knows full well that the little self is finite and that one day it must perish forever. But with enlightenment comes peace, serenity, and release from this hell. The wise man knows that there is no other, so he does not envy or desire the other; he is free from craving. The wise man knows that there is no little self, so he does not weep for his own mortality; he knows that there is only Atman or the Void, there is only the One, and he is that One, and therefore he is in fact immortal and can never perish.
    It also follows, from the Eastern viewpoint, that evil deeds are a product of ignorance. Evil in the Western sense is just one more example of dualistic perception. It suggests there is a very real, if negative, force which causes man to sin against the light. But ask the Western moralist what would happen if a potential murderer were somehow spirited away to a tropical island and left there alone. This would-be killer would have nobody to kill, and so of course he would not kill anybody. On judgment day, shall he be judged a murderer or not? The problem is easily resolved in the East, where all men in a manner of speaking are stranded upon that island. It is impossible to kill anybody else, because nowhere in the universe is there anybody else. There is no other, except as imagined. In doing harm to what he supposes is another person, therefore, a man does harm only to himself. Homicide is impossible; there can only be partial suicides. And so it is, according to the doctrine of maya, that men do wrong through ignorance. They sin against others, and thereby against themselves, because they are deluded as to their true nature—because they fail to understand that they and their fellows are but elements of a monistic whole. Thus knowledge is the path to righteousness, and he who has knowledge will never sin. Thus the goal of wisdom is liberation from maya.
    It follows that Eastern liberation is not the same as Western salvation. The Westerner must work for his own salvation, but ultimately it comes to him only through the love and mercy of God. In an act of grace, the transcendent deity may bestow his gifts upon some erring soul. For Christians, man's redemption was secured by the sacrifice on the cross, a direct intervention of the supernatural power on behalf of mankind. But in the East there is no supernatural power to intervene. There is no forgiveness, for there is no God who is able to forgive. The burden of liberation falls entirely upon the individual, who must lift that burden himself; he cannot pray that it be lifted from him. He must strive for liberation through self-knowledge, and in doing so he is helped or hindered by his karma—the sum total of a man's thoughts and actions during his lifetime or his lifetimes. He will be helped if it is good karma, hindered if it is bad karma.
    Bad karma might seem at first to correspond with Western guilt, but it does not really. Guilt implies that sinful action is provoked by the active powers of darkness—by the force called evil—and that free-willed man has perversely chosen darkness over light. A clear-cut choice and the freedom to choose are basic assumptions in the doctrine of guilt,-and the whole idea is foreign to Eastern thinking. There may be a choice, but there is nothing clear-cut about it. It is obscured by maya, which prevents a man from seeing it. If he could see it, there is no question what his action would be; he would do the right thing without a moment's hesitation, because the right thing is simply the logical thing: it is the selfish, or if you will the Selfish, course to follow. Bad karma arises from ignorance, not perversity. It has been equated with cause-and-effect and with heredity. One remains a prisoner in the Net of Illusion because one has not been thinking the right thoughts—has not gained the proper knowledge, in other words—and heredity is another way of saying that karma follows you from one generation to the next, or from one reincarnation to the next. Evangelists such as Billy Graham have complained bitterly that people no longer believe in guilt, and Saint Augustine in his time felt called upon to condemn a similar trend. In the latter case, the false prophet was the astrologer, who suggested that a man's faults lay in his stars, while the tempter's voice today belongs to Freud. And perhaps America at least is moving toward an Eastern view of sin. It has been said that an American takes delight in his analysis, talks about it freely, and has a penchant even to boast about it, while a European is still ashamed of his libido and would not dream of discussing it in public.
    But the world as illusion does not sit very well with traditional American concepts, and some would view this idea as a greater threat to our values than pantheism, monism, or any of the other Eastern isms. It seems to assert that life itself is a curse, and indeed the Hindu speaks of life as a terrible wheel of death and rebirth; reincarnation in his eyes is a curse, and a new birth is something to be avoided at any cost. This might be taken as a direct challenge to the Christian doctrine that being as being is good (esse qua esse bottom est), and, as mentioned, some elements within the drug movement seem to have found it an attractive idea. Moreover, it could be argued that modern physics supports the basic proposition with its formula that energy equals mass times the velocity of light squared (E=MC2)—suggesting that matter after all is not the solid, substantial stuff we had supposed it to be. Nor is this just another idea of some woolly-headed philosopher; it is an idea that blew up Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
    These various ideas represent the religious tradition of half the world. Insofar as it confirms them, therefore, the psychedelic experience cannot be dismissed as non-religious on the grounds laid down by Zaehner and Baudelaire, who really meant that it is non-Western.
    It seems fair to say, moreover, that most drug cultists do interpret the LSD experience as a confirmation of Eastern metaphysics.
    Timothy Leary, the high priest of LSD, has often appeared a bit vague on this point in his public statements. While he expresses himself for the most part in Hindu and Buddhist terminology, he tends to speak of the experience simply as "religious" in nature—suggesting that the religions of the East and West are fundamentally the same. Shortly after he founded his League for Spiritual Discovery, however, I asked Leary if there are not in fact certain basic differences between the Eastern and Western views. He agreed that there certainly are. I then asked him whether he thought LSD experience supports the pantheistic Eastern God or the transcendent Western God. And he told me there is no question about it—the experience supports the Eastern God, not the Western.
    Even so, is it necessary to regard Eastern thinking merely as threat and challenge? As we have already indicated, many of the Eastern concepts are subject to different levels of interpretation—and some of them at least, at certain levels, may be entirely compatible with Western trends of thought. Furthermore, we might demonstrate that these Eastern ideas are not so foreign to the West as they may seem.

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