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,
Other substance than my thought?
Lives it by my sense alone,
Or by essence of its own?
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
I hear beyond the range of sound,
I see beyond the range of sight,
New earths and skies and seas around,
And in my day the sun doth pale his light....
It speaks with such authority,
With so serene and lofty tone,
That idle Time runs gadding by,
And leaves me with Eternity alone....
Such fragrance round my couch it makes,
More rich than are Arabian drugs,
That my soul scents its life and wakes
The body up beneath its perfumed rugs.
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
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
For Yankee monists, Transcendentalism had this to offer:
I am the owner of the sphere,
Of the seven stars and the solar year,
Of Caesar's hand and Plato's brain,
Of Lord Christ's heart and Shakespeare's strain.
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,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
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,
Beyond the light, lighter than light . . .
Ethereal, pervading all, (for without me what were all? what were God?)
Essence of forms, life of the real identities, permanent, positive,
(namely the unseen.)
Life of the great round world, the sun and stars, and of man,
I, the general soul . . .
And just in case anybody should have missed his meaning:
What do you suppose creation is?
What do you suppose will satisfy the soul, except to walk free
and own no superior?
What do you suppose I would intimate to you in a hundred ways,
but that man or woman is as good as God?
And that there is no God any more divine than Yourself?
And that that is what the oldest and newest myths finally mean?
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
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
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
The charge is serious, if it holds up in court. Does it?
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