from the Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies
MAPS - Volume 6 Number 1 Autumn 1995

spiritual uses of MDMA in traditional religion
Nicholas Saunders

Nicholas Saunders
14 Neals Yard
London WC2H 9DP

Most spiritual teachers are strongly against the use of any drug. Some warn that drugs will undo years of hard-earned progress towards enlightenment, while others say that the drug-induced state may appear the same but is on a lower level, and that this can mislead people. A few believe that a true mystical state can be induced by drugs, but that its value is lessened.

However, there are a number of teachers who do believe in the value of MDMA, both for their own personal enlightenment and for teaching others. I interviewed four: a Benedictine monk, a rabbi, a Rinzai Zen monk and a Soto Zen monk. I also obtained comments from another Benedictine monk. These are active religious leaders who write spiritual books, teach spiritual practices and give public lectures on spiritual matters, but, except for the last, have never publicly admitted their views about the spiritual value of MDMA. The Soto Zen monk, Pari, agrees that "Drugs do not go with meditation." However, he says, "Meditation goes wonderfully with drugs." There is no contradiction: Drugs disturb acquired patterns of meditation, but while taking MDMA it is easy to meditate. "Being still when taking MDMA helps you to know how to sit, it provides you with experiential knowledge." But is it a good way to learn? "It is like a medicine. If we look at the state of our own mind and the planet, we should be grateful for any means that can help. However, like any good medicine, it can also be misused." All of them believe that they have benefited from the use of MDMA, that it can help produce a valid mystical experience, that it does no harm to the psyche and is a useful tool in teaching students. The reason they do not promote its use is that they have to follow the policies of their religious orders, and these naturally uphold the law. I found it fascinating to hear how similar their experiences were to one another, yet how different to most other people's. When I asked them what they thought of MDMA use by ravers, their opinions differed. The Benedictine felt it was profane for people to take the drug unless they were spiritually oriented, while the rabbi thought the feeling of oneness and seeing life from a new aspect was an equally valuable experience for ravers.

I took Bertrand, the Rinzai Zen monk, to a rave party where he took some MDMA - previously he had only taken it while meditating. When it took effect, he glowed and announced "This is meditation!" Far from being alien to his experience, he saw that everyone was totally absorbed in their dance without self consciousness or internal dialogue, and that this was the very essence of meditation.

The rabbi was not only aware that dancing on MDMA could be a spiritual experience, but that mysticism was now more readily available on the dance floor than in churches, mosques or synagogues. He suggested that if priests tried the drug themselves, they would not only appreciate its spiritual value, but would be able to understand young people better. Pari made this analogy: "It is like a climber walking in the mountains who is lost in the fog and unable to see the peak he has set out to climb. All of a sudden the fog clears and he experiences the reality of the peak, and gains a sense of direction. Even though the fog moves in again, and it's still a long, hard climb, this glimpse is usually an enormous help and encouragement."

Interview with a Benedictine monk

Brother Bartholemew is a monk who has used MDMA about 25 times over the past 10 years as an aid to religious experience. Normally, he has taken it alone, but has also taken it among a small group of like-minded people. He describes the effect as opening a direct link with God. While using MDMA, he has experienced a very deep comprehension of divine compassion. He has never lost the clarity of this insight, and it remains as a reservoir upon which he can call. Another benefit of his use of MDMA has been that the experience of the divine presence comes to him effortlessly. The effect manifests in its elemental form in the breath, the breath of divine God. After the awakening, he began to discover the validity of all other major religious experiences.

He believes the 'tool' of MDMA can be used on different levels " as a research tool or as a spiritual tool. When used appropriately, it is almost sacramental. It has the capacity to put one on the right path to divine union with the emphasis on love, vertical love in the sense of ascending. However, this gain only happens when one is looking in the right direction. It should not be used unless one is really searching for God, and is not suitable for hedonists such as teenage ravers. The place where it is taken should be quiet and serene. There should be a close emotional bond among those sharing the experience. The experience has to be pursued under a certain amount of supervision, because the influence of MDMA produces a tendency for attention to drift off. There is also a danger of squandering the experience by being trapped in euphoric feelings, rather than reaching into a spiritual realm. However, although it can be invaluable, its use should not be necessary, as the need for a drug negates freedom.

[I sent Br. Bartholemew a copy of the above notes for approval, and he added the following:]

"One element you might want to add is that of intimacy of voice in conversation. MDMA always propels me into an intimate space in conversation. There is a special quality to this conversation. One feels a heaviness, a sense of the weight of the moment, of something profound, of the seriousness of life itself. It is a space that is inner, without masks, without pretense, utterly open and honest. It is not an erotic intimacy, but a philosophical and mystical intimacy. Does this make any sense? One has the consciousness that this is an inner communication rarely achieved in ordinary discourse. There really are no adequate words to express this state of awareness, only to say, that it is essential in my experience."

Interview with a rabbi at the West London Synagogue

After a talk which touched on the need to prepare for death, I asked the rabbi a question about the value of MDMA in terminal patients (referring to Dr. Charles Grob's study in Los Angeles.) He replied that MDMA was valuable for the dying as much as at raves, in that it allowed the feeling of oneness and seeing life from a new aspect. Prohibition is not the best way to deal with substances that can be used in ways that are as sacramental as communion wine. These substances may arouse feelings of awkwardness which may be uncomfortable but are essential for deeper understanding of our selves. However, there are other methods of achieving these feelings, such as are described in a book called Mind Aerobics.

At the end, the rabbi beckoned me to come up onto the stage. He took me into a fire exit staircase, out of earshot of his entourage, and told me that he could not afford to undermine his project by publicly supporting the use of illegal drugs, but that he had my book (which he praised.) He believed that MDMA and other psychedelics could be used to immense benefit, not only for personal awareness, but also for the sake of Gaia or the cosmic wellbeing of the planet. He implied that the MDMA experience was of the same quality and potential value as other mystical experiences, and suggested that priests should take the drug themselves, both in order to understand young people, and to see the validity of spiritual experiences produced by drugs. He referred to Abraham Maslow's conclusion concerning 'peak experiences': that taking drugs is like reaching the top of a mountain by cable car instead of the toil of climbing - it can be seen as cheating, but it gets you to the same place. He ended by giving me a big hug and encouraging me in my work.

Visit from a Rinzai Zen monk and teacher

Bertrand is a Zen Buddhist monk and teacher of meditation in his early seventies. Following a conventional career, he had an awakening experience on mescaline when he was 47 which made him re-evaluate life and seek a spiritual path. This led to his taking up Rinzai Zen with a strict Japanese master. Though he found the training extremely hard, he eventually became the abbot of a Zen monastery.

Bertrand has taken MDMA about 25 times over 10 years. He has generally used it on the second day of a seven day meditation, and finds that the drug allows him to give his wholehearted attention without distraction. As a student, he also once used the drug when undertaking a Zen exercise called Koans. During Koans, the master names the task which the student must contemplate, such as the classic: "to understand the sound of one hand clapping." The student has to demonstrate comprehension, normally after a considerable time, and very often after being told to try again.

On MDMA, Bertrand zipped through the Koans with impressive ease. He has also felt enlightened on two occasions, although he is wary of accepting this as the highest level. He also knows a Swiss Zen Buddhist who uses MDMA, but never told his own master. He feels that the experience would be of great value to some of his devout but stiff fellow Zen monks, although he knows only one other Zen monk who uses MDMA.

Asked whether the MDMA experience was of equal value to “getting there the hard way,” he replied that MDMA simply allows one to focus wholeheartedly at the task in hand, and that the result is in every way as real because it is the same. In fact, MDMA allowed him to go further than he was able to without it. I pressed him to find negative aspects, and he told me that he once made the mistake of taking MDMA just before leading a meditation. This opened his eyes to how strained and needy his students were. He expressed what he felt too freely: that they looked like corpses, all lined up in their black shawls! This was inappropriate, and he did not use MDMA while teaching again. He felt his mistake lay in not respecting that his students were in a different space.

However, Bertrand believes that MDMA would be an extremely useful tool for teaching if the students were on it too. In fact, he wondered if he would live long enough to be able to use it legally. Pressed for possible problems, he said that there were always people who came wanting to be given enlightenment on a plate, and that news of a new technique using a drug would attract those who expected it "to be done for them." The rave party was the first time Bertrand had taken MDMA except while meditating, and he was surprised by how different the experience was. Beforehand, he said he could hardly stand the noise and volume. After the MDMA took effect, he could see the value of the volume in drowning out distractions. The monotonous beat was akin to some American Indian ceremonies which also provide the feeling of tribal bonding by the use of a drug - although he felt the rave missed the Indians' cultural framework and focus. (Bertrand had been a guest in an American Indian ritual, though without taking any drug.) He could see the value of his new experience to Buddhism as expansive - meditation was contractive, but both were essential.

His first reaction, after the MDMA began to take effect, was sadness in his position as part of the establishment of a restrictive religion, and a realisation that the Zen training was not suitable for Westerners in its present form. Later, he got into the dancing. As his face changed from severe to happy he exclaimed: "This is meditation - to be truly in the moment and not in your head." The next day, he said that he felt the experience had made an impression on his life, and he was not sure where it would take him. It had emphasised what he already knew: that his students were too contracted, and that the expansive experience of the rave was what they needed, and it was a pity that he could not advocate it in his position.

The next day, he said this may be an important turning point in his life. He had to take time to digest what he had learned, but his immediate response was that he could not continue to be part of the establishment of his school in its present form. He could see that the contractive aspect of the training had been overemphasized in his school, in the belief that Westerners were too expansive anyway. In fact, those who sought Zen masters in the West really needed the ability to be expansive - and the rave provided it. A month later, Bertrand rang me to say that he had just given a week's retreat, and that it was lighter and more positive with almost a sense of gaiety. He attributed this to the rave experience affecting him, which in turn affected the participants. Also, he still feels much younger and more flexible. In fact, a back problem that had caused him pain for several years appeared to be completely cured, which made him suspect that back problems in particular are caused by the mind. I had sent Bertrand the draft interviews with the Benedictine monk and the rabbi. He commented that his experience agrees with that of the rabbi about being in an open state of mind. It conflicts with the Benedictine, in that he finds MDMA enables him to focus totally without distraction, and with prolonged attention. He feels that the underlying state of mind is emphasized. I asked how he would suggest making use of MDMA. He would recommend meditation after opening up as a way to channel released energy. Bertrand described MDMA as "a nourishing experience."

Visit to a Soto Zen monk and teacher

Pari took LSD at university. In fact, he moved into a commune that took LSD at regular weekly rituals, but later this quest for knowledge lead him away from drugs and to Yoga, which he practiced intensely for several years. He then travelled and got involved with Zen, living in a Soto Zen community for 10 years until he was ordained as a monk. He has since been made an Abbot by his master; i.e. given the power to ordain new Zen monks. He now lives in a beautiful quiet Victorian house in the city with his wife and son, where he has a small zendo. He also has a mountain retreat centre. He divides his time between Buddhism and social/ecological activism. Over the past five years, Pari has taken MDMA about 15 times, usually alone or with his wife or intimate friends. It provides him with great clarity and calmness, very much like after a week-long sitting (seshin), when everything becomes more clear, more awake.

Traditionally, eastern teachings are strongly anti-drug. But his particular tradition was an exception to the rule, and his teacher in Japan had used peyote, LSD and MDMA. Once Pari angered the famous Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh by pointing out that the majority of his western students had come to seek him through drug experiences, so it was not quite right for him to take such a strong stand against the use of drugs, especially since he had not tried them himself.

He has used MDMA for teaching with a few students, including one who has since been ordained a monk. This was a man who was extremely keen, and put tremendous effort into trying his best to succeed in meditation. MDMA helped him to see that trying itself was his main obstacle. Another student was a very successful and hard-driving businessman. MDMA simply stopped him - he made a dramatic change into a warm, contented person who just wanted to sit quietly in the zendo.

When I asked if success through the use of MDMA was as valid as without, he replied: "It is the experience that matters, not how you get there. Look back at the history of the major religions. Many of their founders and saints had their mystical unions during wound-fever, during which, as we know today, the body produces psychedelic substances. A good example would be Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order."

I asked if Pari thought there may be types of people who would not benefit from, or who would be misled by MDMA. "It could be a problem for those who are not sufficiently well grounded, those who have a tendency to float into other worlds rather easily anyway. However, most of us are too earth-bound, too stuck in this particular reality, and a little help from a friend can be of great value." Unlike LSD and other drugs, MDMA works in terms of relationships - with oneself, God, nature. It even opens up a common ground with other people whome one does not yet know.

I asked whether there was any point in using MDMA once enlightenment had been achieved. "Achieving enlightenment for most of us is transitory and seldom. After a while, the direct experience becomes replaced by a memory of it, and direct experience from time to time helps and refreshes." But, I asked, is the drug-induced experience really the same? After some hesitation Pari replied, "Yes, the state of mind is identical, yet there is a subtle difference, perhaps due to the drug's physical effects on the body. Without the drug, there is one less factor. This is simpler, and perhaps this implies it is better. The value of the state is the same: to be able to look back and to see one's 'normal' state of mind with a clear but different perspective."

What is the ideal situation? "For a beginner, a trusted, more experienced friend is highly recommended. You must create an environment that you find conducive. Do whatever spiritual practice you have. For some this may be singing, praying, painting, meditating or sitting in a cathedral; for others walking alone in the mountains." However, he warned that not every attempt is positive. He felt sick and shaky during his last MDMA experience, though after an hour he vomited and then felt better.

Comments by Brother Steindl-Rast

Brother Steindl-Rast is the Benedictine monk quoted praising the use of MDMA in Ecstasy: The MDMA Story. He rarely replies to letters or gives interviews, but a mutual friend put some questions to him for me. He has tried MDMA about 4 times, but does not use it any more.

He thinks people tend to expect too much of MDMA, although he knows of many people who were helped considerably in overcoming their interpersonal barriers. He is in favour of legalizing its use with terminally ill patients and other conscientious use by physicians.