The Spirit Of Cannabis: Ancestors Of Cannabis Spirituality


The partnering of cannabis and spirituality is by no means a recent idea. Most of the groundwork was explored and articulated early on by people who became icons for the '60s generation, and their wisdom is more popular than ever now thanks to the Internet. Here are a few resources that are worth your time looking into if you want to pursue this interest. All the works discussed are in print and usually in new editions, as well as being available online.

Dr. Timothy Leary's famous book of the '60s, The Psychedelic Experience, was based on the ancient Tibetan Book of the Dead. The Book of the Dead is basically a book of instructions to be read to the deceased in order to guide them through the bardos, or after-life stages leading to re-birth.

Leary's book was similar, except that it was a book of instructions for tripping and being high. Interestingly, the lyrics of  the Beatles' song “Tomorrow Never Knows” were taken directly from Dr. Leary’s book: “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream: it is not dying.”

The idea is posited that the effects of being high are sometimes eerily similar to a dying process: old ideas about self and the world are swept away and new concepts are born. For many, it could be scary and threatening. The words of the Book of the Dead, and many other sacred books from the Eastern world, provide reliable and reassuring guides to this personal process of substance enhanced spiritual re-birth.

The Psychedelic Experience was co-written by Richard Alpert, Leary's research partner in psychedelics. The experiences of altered states of consciousness completely changed Alpert and he sought to create a guide to his new world in Hinduism. Known now for generations as Ram Dass, he is a universally respected spiritual teacher and healer, drawing on all world traditions, and teaching a new way of perception and being. His first book, Be Here Now, chronicles his life journey and provides good advice for spiritual people that enjoy cannabis and other mind-altering substances.

Leary, himself, founded a group called The League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD), acknowledging the obvious links between getting high and getting right with the Universe.

By now, most people have heard of Alan Watts, the Zen teacher of San Francisco's spiritual and psychedelic scene. With his hypnotic British accent, he reached millions with his weekly radio broadcasts and numerous public appearances and recordings. His online presence years after his death is an enduring phenomenon that reaches around the globe and across generations.

Watts was very frank about his own use of cannabis and psychedelics and didn't shrink from seeing them as one. His book, The Joyous Cosmology, is a poetic and philosophical exploration of the spiritual effects of being high and confirms the experiences of many of its readers.

There are scores of other spiritual teachers and teachings that grew out of a generation's experience with getting high, as well as more recent ones. Got any favorites? Let me know!

Before wrapping up this “book report” section, I'll mention another more recent book (2002) that makes the connection explicit: Zig Zag Zen. Edited by famed psychedelic/spiritual artist Alex Grey, the book covers a lot of ground and is well-worth your time and thought. A well-informed cannabis user is a happy and healthy cannabis user! Know your history! Know yourself!

Do-It-Yourself Buddha-Hood

My exposure to cannabis and the experience of being high when a teenager led me directly to an interest in Zen meditation and other Asian traditions. So, yeah, O.K., I guess that proves that ‘pot’ is a gateway led me right into the arms of the universe! I shudder to think of what my life might have been like without walking this gentler path of grass and spirit.

Eventually, I entered a Zen monastery and became ordained as a formal Zen teacher (where I received my Buddhist name “Mu”, meaning emptiness). I went on to publish books on Zen and counter-cultural consciousness and to teach hundreds of workshops across the country. You might say I became a meditation missionary whose roots were in getting high. I’m preaching now!

How high can we get if being high means being in tune with a higher reality? What does being truly awake feel like? What will we be satisfied with? How can we use our insights to heal and change this suffering world? These are the questions cannabis made me ask then, and I'm still asking them today, all these years later. I think you ask them as well.

The spiritual path of cannabis doesn’t have any dogma, any authorized teachings and rules like other “religions”. How could it? Cannabis teaches me that to exist in this very moment is the holiest thing of all and that all around me is beauty yet unperceived. It relaxes the stranglehold that the past and the future hold on our present. All it asks of me is to just chill out, look around and consider other possibilities.

To hold lightly and let go easily.
To treasure relationships over things.
To see the world not as an object to be used, but as a subject to be enjoyed.
To judge ourselves and others less harshly.
To enjoy the sensations of our bodies, realizing that flesh and spirit are the same thing.
And ultimately, to realize that we and the world are the same.
When I wake up,
so does everything in creation.
When I light up,
so does the world.

A Generation of Seekers

When the use of cannabis became widespread in the '60s, there was also a great upsurge of interest in Asian spirituality. As young people experienced the calming and often mystical effects of cannabis, they also sought explanations for what they were feeling. The sensations of oneness with the world, closeness with nature and other people, life-shaking insights about life and death, and the existential questions that stemmed from the ultimate question: “what does it all mean?”

They took to things like meditation, yoga, Buddhism, Taoism, and other influences of the Eastern world in a generational exploration of consciousness.These traditions and cannabis seemed to go together like a hand in a glove, and helped many of us explore what it means to be human and how to live an authentic life.

As we aged and changed, this generation looked for ways to continue these experiences without the use of outside influences such as cannabis. Having noticed that techniques like meditation, can also induce similar states of mind, concepts like karma, tantra, chakras and kundalini became more widely accepted and practiced.

Today, many of those youthful explorers of the psyche are now well-known spiritual teachers in many traditions. Zen meditation and yoga are now no longer exotic, and have taken their place in mainstream society as cannabis is doing today.

The association of cannabis with Asian wisdom comes from a recognition by users that being high is akin to being enlightened. That is to say, the effects of THC put one into an oceanic state of spiritual awareness and understanding. Life makes more sense after using cannabis, and the bliss that it provides reveals that the previously cold and cruel universe of rigid categories, of right and wrong, and life and death is in fact a more fluid and forgiving place where we belong and can be at ease.

These feelings can be enhanced and even called upon at will by the practice of meditation and other disciplines. Eastern traditions, unlike Western models, are more psychologically based and usually focused on states of the mind rather than some deity or God outside us. This is the truest form of self-reliance, as it puts the onus on ourselves to think differently, more carefully, and more often.

The traditions become useful tools and models for exploring our own spiritual potentials, as spirituality becomes more than just a simple belief, creed or prayer. And for the first time in our lives, we can be in charge of our psychological evolution and destiny. Cannabis, coupled with Eastern wisdom, freed many of us from centuries of top-down rigid dogma, superstition and spiritual enslavement. Perhaps it can do the same for you.

Cannabis democratizes the spiritual and revolutionizes the actual. It can be the key to the mental handcuffs that we've worn for far too long - in this sense, cannabis combines the political with the spiritual. A potent brew feared by those who worship control and hierarchy...,maybe that's one of the unspoken reasons it has been illegal and defamed for so long.

Head Shop Temples

Have you ever noticed all the spiritually themed items for sale in smoke shops? Things like statues of Buddha, or the elephant god of friendship, Ganesha, as well as symbols like Om and the third eye of awakening?

They're on pipes, bongs, stash boxes, grinders, clothing and many other products. Names like Satori and Nirvana, Buddhist terms for enlightenment, are now featured as brand names. Growers and distributors sometimes have spiritual names and personas like Swami of  Mendocino or Soul Remedy of Oakland. To walk into many counter-cultural retail establishments sometimes feels like you're entering a temple. Holy Pot! Let the worship begin! The preacher is in the house...

For some of us, cannabis can feel like a sacrament (and I would argue that that’s a good thing). We may have well established rituals when using cannabis, or even use it to access a higher order of being. Well, it’s no wonder why, its use has been associated with spiritual disciplines and practices throughout history.

The Hindu god Ganesha, for example, is commonly known as the God of ganja, or cannabis. Shiva, the God of Gods in the Hindu pantheon, is also a patron of the herb, and it is said that as he smokes, he dreams this universe into being. By getting high ourselves, we can be said to share in that creation of reality. That’s an inspiring thought.

The Taoist hermits and mystics of China were no strangers to the spiritual effects of cannabis, and some think it influenced their nature-based view of the proper Way of Life, or Tao.

Rastafarianism is also well-known for its use of cannabis as a sacrament. Its most famous exponent, Bob Marley, always cast his cannabis use as a spiritual practice, which influenced millions of cannabis users around the globe.

The list is nearly endless when it comes to examples of cannabis' role in world spirituality. It is no coincidence then that the wisdom traditions of the non-Western world are imbued on the wares and paraphernalia of cannabis.