The Private Sea
7. Yankee Hindoos
The Orient's first substantial impact upon America occurred in a rather indirect manner, in 1492. Or the actual date might be placed two centuries earlier: it could well be argued that America owes its discovery to the Great Khan Kublai, lord of the Tartars, for the hospitality he showed Marco Polo in the thirteenth century. Columbus of course discovered the new continent while searching for the fabulous Cathay about which Marco Polo had writtenand there is some irony in the fact that Polo's book contains one of the earliest accounts of the psychedelic experience.
Passing through Persia, the Venetian merchant learned the history of the Old Man of the Mountain, who lived in a castle which concealed a magnificent hidden valley. The Old Man invited youths to the castle, drugged them with hashish, and had them carried into the Valley of Delights, where they were wined and dined and entertained by dainty damsels. After four or five days the youths were carried back into the castle and told they had been in the Moslem Paradise. The Old Man could send them there any time he wanted, he said, if they would carry out his wisheswhich usually meant killing somebody. This band of happy cutthroats became known as "hashshashins," from which we have derived the word assassin.
The barbarian invasions and the fall of Rome had cut the old Silk Road into Hither Asia, and later the Crusades served to divert Europe's attention still further from the Orient. There had been virtually no contact whatever between East and West when Marco Polo arrived in Tartary with his father and uncle, and indeed the Polos were the first Westerners Kublai Khan had ever seen. The promise of a restored relationship was shattered when the Chinese overthrew the Tartars and slammed the door on foreigners; then the Turks spread across Central Asia, effectively padlocking the doorand just incidentally forcing Columbus to seek a sea route to Cathay. The English penetrated India by the late seventeenth century, following the Portuguese; but China kept all foreign devils out until the middle of the last century, and Japan was a terra incognita until Admiral Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in 1853.
It is understandable, then, that America was a long time making its own discovery of the East. The young country's first real introduction to Asian philosophy was provided by the New England Transcendentalists, whose writings were often a bewildering blend of Unitarianism and Orientalism, of Yankee self-reliance and Hindu self-abnegation. The influence of Romantic idealism and German philosophy also was evident. Thus readers of The Dial in 1841 found themselves asking, with Frederic Henry Hedge:
Hath this world, without me wrought,
Margaret Fuller wrote of Man as a whole: "As this whole has one soul and one body, any injury or obstruction to a part, or to the meanest member, affects the whole. Man can never be perfectly happy or virtuous till all men are so." Thoreau wrote of his inspiration:
I hear beyond the range of sound,
It speaks with such authority,
Such fragrance round my couch it makes,
As the last stanza suggests, Thoreau undoubtedly would have no part of LSD were he alive today. In Walden he observed, "I prefer the natural sky to an opium-eater's heaven." The point is, however, that Thoreau could turn himself on, needing only that natural sky for a psychedelic, and he was wholly preoccupied with the modes of inmost being. There was no object in going around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar, he said. "Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clark and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans.... Nay, be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within you, opening new channels, not of trade, but of thought. Every man is the lord of a realm beside which the earthly empire of the Czar is but a petty state, a hummock left by the ice.... it is easier to sail many thousand miles through cold and storm and cannibals, in a government ship, with five hundred men and boys to assist one, than it is to explore the private sea, the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean of one's being alone."
As for the dualism of good and evil: "I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another.... The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal." As for the verbal mind: "I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born." As for the rational sense of time: "Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars." And as for the comforts of formal religion: "I believe that men are generally still a little afraid of the dark, though the witches are all hung, and Christianity and candles have been introduced."
One passage in Walden strikes a particularly responsive chord for psychedelic cultists. Indeed, William James singled out the same passage as exemplifying those moments we all have "when the universal life seems to wrap us round with friendliness" and those hours "when the goodness and beauty of existence enfold us like a dry warm climate, or chime through us as if our inner ears were subtly ringing with the world's security." The oft-quoted passage:
I have never felt lonesome, or in the least oppressed by a sense of solitude, but once, and that was a few weeks after I came to the woods, when, for an hour, I doubted if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and happy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. But I was at the same time conscious of a light insanity in my mood, and seemed to foresee my recovery. In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since. Every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, even in scenes which we are accustomed to call wild and dreary, and also that the nearest of blood to me and humanest was not a person nor a villager, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.... "How vast and profound is the influence of the subtile powers of Heaven and of Earth! We seek to perceive them, and we do not see them; we seek to hear them, and we do not hear them; identified with the substance of things, they cannot be separated from them." . . . I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned.
One wonders whether Huxley's antagonist R. C. Zaehner would dismiss that as natural mysticism or as monistic mysticism, or possibly as both. Theistic it is not.
Emerson probably did more than anybody else in his time to translate Eastern ideas, as he understood them, into the American idiom. He informed his readers about a school of thought, across the sea, which held that "what we call Nature, the external world, has no real existenceis only phenomenal. Youth, age, property, conditions, events, personsself, even are successive maias (deceptions) through which Vishnu mocks and instructs the soul." He added his opinion: "I think Hindoo books the best gymnastics for the mind, as showing treatment. All European libraries might almost be read without the swing of this gigantic arm being suspected. But these Orientals deal with worlds and pebbles freely." Emerson's poetry is freighted with Eastern imagery, and his "Brahma," for example, is almost a literal rendering of a passage from the Katha Upanishad:
If the red slayer think he slays,
For Yankee monists, Transcendentalism had this to offer:
I am the owner of the sphere,
As with Blake, Walt Whitman's poetry as a whole seems to reflect the viewpoint of Eastern mysticism. In his later years Whitman gives the impression of somehow being in a permanent state of satori, and James indeed suggested that Whitman probably had "a chronic mystical perception." Rather tempting bait for speculation is offered by the fact that Whitman for so many years was little more than a journalistic hack. What was the source, then, of the inspiration which gave us Leaves of Grass? Following Wasson, it might be asserted that the Good Gray Poet at some period in his life was introduced to hashish or peyote or some other psychedelic, perhaps on that trip he made to New Orleans. The idea is farfetched, and we shall not pursue it; the fact remains that, spontaneously or otherwise, Whitman suddenly began to write poetry which echoes and re-echoes with Oriental and psychedelic intuitions:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
Maybe it wasn't hashish; maybe it was Hegel. According to an 1882 entry in Specimen Days, the most profound theme to occupy the mind of man is the relation between the Me and the Not Me of the universe. And while Kant and Schelling perhaps had supplied us with partial answers, "G. F. Hegel's fuller statement of the matter probably remains the last best word that has been said upon it . . . illuminating the thought of the universe, and satisfying the mystery thereof to the human mind, with a more consoling scientific assurance than any yet." Long before that entry was made, however, Whitman had written in his journal of 1847: "I cannot understand the mystery, but I am always conscious of myself as two-as my soul and I." He was not contained between his hat and boots, he later wrote. There also was "the unseen soul of me." There also was the square deific, the One. There also was:
Santa Spirita, breather, life,
And just in case anybody should have missed his meaning:
What do you suppose creation is?
For the general soul, read Brahman or pure Being; for Yourself, read Atman. Clearly, if Wordsworth speaks for the mescal drinkers, Whitman deserves consideration as the poet laureate of LSD. He also hinted at an esoteric doctrine of reincarnation, especially in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and, like Thoreau and the three monkeys, he heard, saw, and spoke no evil. As we shall see, the innocent denial of evil in the universe is the basis for one of the principal charges that would later be lodged against Whitman, just as it is lodged now against the psychedelic drug movement.
America was given another injection of Eastern metaphysics in 1875, when the Theosophical Society was founded in New York City by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Henry Steele Olcott. Madame Blavatsky, a Russian, said that she had studied under an Eastern master in Tibet, and the Theosophists were effective in promoting many Hindu and Buddhist concepts including reincarnation, the monistic brotherhood of man, and the direct, mystical knowledge of a Universal Self. At the turn of the century, James's classic study of religious experience had a profound and lasting influence on theology and psychology; it opened the eyes of scholars and laymen to whole new realms of consciousness, probing deeply into the mystical awareness of East and West alike. On a lesser scale, R. M. Bucke helped to lay the groundwork for future developments by popularizing the concept of "cosmic consciousness." Bucke, a Canadian psychiatrist and a contemporary of James, wrote in 1901:
The prime characteristic of cosmic consciousness is a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe. Along with the consciousness of the cosmos there occurs an intellectual enlightenment which alone would place the individual on a new plane of existence would make him almost a member of a new species. To this is added a state of moral exaltation, an indescribable feeling of elevation, elation, and joyousness, and a quickening of the moral sense, which is fully as striking, and more important than is the enhanced intellectual power. With these come what may be called a sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life, not a conviction that he shall have this, but the consciousness that he has it already.
Bucke might easily have been describing the deep-seated conviction of a psychedelic cultistand in fact some of the cultists have begun now to speak of themselves as a new species: as the forerunners of an emerging race of psychic mutants who will transcend the world to attain the nirvana of pure Being. Even at the time Bucke wrote, experimentation was beginning with various psychedelic agents then available. As mentioned, James himself was exploring the implications of nitrous oxide intoxication. Havelock Ellis had been dabbling with mescaline. And during the latter part of the nineteenth century, American Indian tribes had begun to use peyote as a sacrament in their religious ceremonies, leading finally to the establishment of the psychedelic Native American Church, which now has an estimated quarter-million members.
The new century saw a proliferation of cults, sects, and societies whose teachings often were a combination of mumbo jumbo and Eastern philosophy (for example, the I AM movement). Some of the issues at stake were translated to the secular and political level; the conflict between monism and pluralism reappeared in the antagonism between democratic individualism and the anthill conformity of fascism and communism: even the Rotary Club orator fulminating against creeping socialism and the Washington octopus was in a very real sense addressing himself to one of the most basic problems of metaphysics and East-West theology: the Many versus the One. As far as the laying of a groundwork is concerned, significance must also be attached to the new respectability which parapsychology gained as a result of the studies inaugurated at Duke University in 1930 by J. B. Rhine. The painstaking research devoted to such phenomena as extra-sensory perception and psychokinesis would lend its scientific aura to the astonishing statements which would later be made by the prophets of the drug movement, making those statements sound not quite so astonishing to an empirically minded generation. Indeed, it is possible that the Duke research has a direct bearing on the validity of psychedelic experience. As the ultra-cautious Rhine explained in 1947:
The research in parapsychology even now touches other great issues of religion. If the mind of man is nonphysical, it is possible to formulate a hypothetical picture of a nonphysical system or world made up of all such minds existing in some sort of relationship to each other. This leads to speculative views of a kind of psychical oversoul, or reservoir, or continuum, or universe, having its own system of laws and properties and potentialities. One can conceive of this great total pattern as having a transcendent uniqueness over and above the nature of its parts that some might call its divinity.
Eastern themes were everywhere. Even the schoolgirl was not immune as she turned the treasured pages of Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet. "Fare you well, people of Orphalese," said that chosen and beloved one, Almustafa. "A little while, and my longing shall gather dust and foam for another body. A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me."
The floodgates were opened by the outcome of the Second World War, of course, and one does well to remember that Zen was "camp" long before LSD. Buddhist study groups sprang up. American pupils and housewives could be found writing haiku poetry in grade-school classrooms and on the backs of grocery shopping lists. Bookstore racks gave prominent display to paperback editions of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tao Te Ching.
These developments perhaps were inevitable; nevertheless, it seems fair to say that the Eastern influx could not have attained its present magnitude had it not been for the conscious and dedicated efforts of five men: Carl Jung, Daisetz T. Suzuki, Alan W. Watts, W. Y. Evans-Wentz, and Aldous Huxley. Jung's concept of the collective unconscious has Oriental connotations, and Jung in addition had an abiding interest in Eastern metaphysics: he lent the authority of his name to works on Zen and related subjects, writing forewords and commentaries which expressed his enthusiasm, and he once affirmed that the Tibetan Book of the Dead had been a "constant companion" to which he owed "not only many stimulating ideas and discoveries, but also many fundamental insights." Suzuki, a Japanese scholar who died only recently in Tokyo, wrote literally scores of books in which he sought to interpret Zen for Western readers, and he also lectured widely in American universities. Watts complemented Suzuki by examining Zen through Western eyes; a gifted interpreter and popularizer of complex ideas, he has made Eastern wisdom comprehensible to a vast audience through books, lectures, and television classes. Evans-Wentz introduced the West to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, a remarkable book which deserves our attention if only for the fact that it has since been adopted as the bible of the drug movement.
"It is a book which is sealed with the seven seals of silence," we are told in a foreword by Lama Anagarika Govinda. "But the time has come to break the seals of silence . . ." And why? Because "the human race has come to the juncture where it must decide whether to be content with the subjugation of the material world, or to strive after the conquest of the spiritual world." The origins of the book go back at least a thousand years. In the original Tibetan the work is known as the Bardo Thödol, which means "Liberation by Hearing on the After-Death Plane," and the exoteric purpose of the book was emancipation from the reincarnational wheel of death and rebirth. The book was read over the bodies of the recently deceased by those Sages of the Snowy Ranges, the Buddhist lamas of Tibet, and the idea was to talk a dead person out of seeking reincarnation in a new body. A dead man was believed to wander in the Bardo or After-Death Plane for forty-nine days (a symbolic number based on seven times seven), and during this periodin fact at the moment of deathhe would encounter the Clear Light of the Void. If he had the understanding which comes with good karma, he would surrender his sense of individuality and would merge with that Void, thus ending the matter then and there. But the Void is terrible to behold if you lack understanding, and many reincarnations are normally required before one earns one's karmic passport to nirvana. And so it was that most dead men would turn in terror from the Clear Light. They would wander in the Bardo, their senses assaulted by visions both frightful and beatificby the Wrathful Deities and the Peaceful Deitiesand finally they would enter the womb to be born again. In hopes of preventing this, the lamas would therefore read aloud from the sacred book, a sort of Fielding's guide to the Bardo region, and the dead men would thus receive detailed instructions for every stage of their journey. They would be told that their fear of the Clear Light resulted from their false sense of self, whose existence the Clear Light quite correctly appeared to threaten. They would be told that the visions they saw, apart from the Void, were nothing more than sangsaraprojections of their own minds, which were still caught in the Net of Illusion. And finally they would be told that the womb was simply a doorway back to the world of appearances.
That was the exoteric teaching; but when Evans-Wentz first presented the book to the West, in 1927, the suggestion was made that it included or concealed an esoteric interpretation. Jung, for example, contributed a psychological commentary in which he asserted that "it is an undeniable fact that the whole book is created out of the archetypal contents of the unconscious." More to the point, Lama Govinda stated in his foreword that the book "was originally conceived to serve as a guide not only for the dying and the dead, but for the living as well." And that in any case is what it has since become, whatever the original intention might have been. More than a quarter-century after its initial publication, the Evans-Wentz edition came to prominence again in 1954, when Huxley made much of it in his very influential book, The Doors of Perception. In that book Huxley wrote of his first experience with mescaline, which he took in his home in California in the spring of 1953. Huxley reported that at one point he felt himself on the verge of panic, terrified by the prospect of ego disintegration, and he compared his dread with that of the Tibetan dead man who could not face the Clear Light, preferring rebirth and "the comforting darkness of selfhood." Thus the Tibetan Book of the Dead was inexorably linked to the psychedelic experience, and ten years later, in 1964, there appeared a volume titled The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The authors were LSD enthusiasts Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert, and they boldly offered their own interpretation of the ancient book: it had to do not with the death and rebirth of the body but rather with the death and rebirth of the ego in mystical states of mind. It was indeed a book for the living. More than that, it provided, in symbolic imagery, a precise account of the psychedelic experience. Absorption in the Clear Light is nothing more than a good trip, in which the psychedelic subject feels himself united again with the Ground of his Being. It is the apprehension of pure Being, beyond the sangsaric deceptions of language and rational perception. And those Peaceful and Wrathful Deities represent the hallucinatory period which occurs when one fails to achieve the central experience. A bad trip results inevitably when the subject refuses to face the Clear Lightviolently resists the disintegration of his egoand rather than seek rebirth in another body, he pleads for a shot of Thorazine which will return him to his own body in the phenomenal world of ego and rational symbolism.
Huxley's book has a certain historical significance; what we refer to today as the drug movement may be said to date from that book, although, as we have attempted to show, a substantial base for the movement had been in preparation long before 1954. In any case, the drug movement appeared to dovetail very neatly with what might be called the Eastern movement, and it might well be asked if this occurred naturally or under duress; that is, did the two really fit together, or were they made to fit? The latter possibility has been suggested by R. E. L. Masters and Jean Houston, who cite as evidence the phenomenon they refer to as "galloping agape." They assert that the supposed capacity of the psychedelics to promote feelings of brotherly love was rarely detected during early research in the 1950's: it became manifest only with the appearance of love-oriented drug literature. By the same token, Huxley and other drug enthusiasts are accused of leading their readers down the lotus path. Masters and Houston criticize the emergence of a "quasi-Eastern mystique," of a "wholesale leap to the East" and a "nebulous chaos seen as Eastern 'truth.' " These developments are all the more regrettable since the psychedelic drugs "may genuinely give some inkling of the complexity of Eastern consciousness."
Masters and Houston conclude: "To at least some extent the responsibility for this seduction of the innocent must lie with such authors as Huxley, Alan Watts, and others who in their various writings imposed upon the psychedelic experience essentially Eastern ideas and terminology which a great many persons then assumed to be the sole and accurate way of approaching and interpreting such experience."
The charge is serious, if it holds up in court. Does it?
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