Zen, Satori, and Mescaline


I lied.  I'm not done with Huxley yet.

Currently I am developing the Zazen page for the site and have been re-reading a lot of Zen authors.  One particular author, D.T. Suzuki, is especially interested in the experience of Satori, which is sometimes referred to as "non-dual awareness."  For Suzuki, the eventual experience of Satori is the only reason for practicing Zen.  If one was assured they would never attain this experience, Suzuki would probably tell them not to bother with Zen.  

"Satori may be defined as an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it.  Practically, it means the unfolding of a new world hitherto unperceived in the confusion of a dualistically-trained mind.  Or we may say that with satori our entire surroundings are viewed from quite an unexpected angle of perception.  Whatever this is, the world for those who have gained a satori is no more the old world as it used to be; even with all its flowering streams and burning fires, it is never the same once again.  Logically stated, all its opposites and contradictions are united and harmonized into a consistent organic whole.  This is a mystery and a miracle, but according to the Zen masters such is being performed every day.  Satori can thus be had only through our once personally experiencing it.  

Its semblance or analogy in a more or less feeble and fragmentary way is gained when a difficult mathematical problem is solved or when a great discovery is made, or when a sudden means of escape is realized in the midst of most desperate complications; in short, when one exclaims 'Eureka!  Eureka!'"

– D.T. Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddism


The experience, sometimes called Satori, sometimes called Kensho, sometimes called "Enlightenment," comes suddenly and completely.  Zen is sometimes referred to as the path of "sudden Enlightenment" as opposed to other schools of Buddhism in which Enlightenment (whatever we mean by that term) comes gradually.  Thus one may practice Zen for years and years without truly understanding the goal, until one day it miraculously appears, as, again, Suzuki conveys:
 

"The coming of satori is not like the rising of the sun gradually bringing things to light, but it is like the freezing of water, which takes place abruptly.  There is no middle or twilight condition before the mind is opened to the truth, in which there prevails a sort of neutral zone, or a state of intellectual indifference.  As we have already observed in several instances of satori, the transition from ignorance to enlightenment is so abrupt, the common cur, as it were, suddenly turns into a golden-haried lion."


There is debate about whether the state spoken of above can (or should) be induced by the use of certain chemicals.  The current debate is mainly over a chemical called psilocybin (see the two part podcast by Buddhist Geeks Meditation on Mushrooms and Psilocybin: A Crash Course in Mindfulness for more).  In the past, Aldous Huxley famously documented his experience on mescaline.  He believed that certain chemicals, mescaline being one of them, could induce states of consciousness that the mystics experience.  Here he describes looking at a vase of flowers while on the drug:

"The other world to which mescaline admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open.  The great change was in the realm of objective fact.  What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant.

I took my pill at eleven.  An hour and a half later, I was sitting in my study, looking intently at a small glass vase.  The vase contained only three flowers – a fullblown Belle of Portugal rose, shell pink with a hint at every petal's base of a hotter, flamier hue; a large magenta and cream-colored carnation; and, pale purple at the end of its broken stalk, the bold heraldic blossom of an iris.  Fortuitous and provisional, the little nosegay broke all the rules of traditional good taste.  At breakfast that morning I had been struck by the lively dissonance of its colors.  But that was no longer the point.  I was not looking now at an unusual flower arrangement.  I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation – the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence.  

'Is it agreeable?' somebody asked.  (During this part of the experiement, all conversations were recorded on a dictating machine, and it has been possible for me to refresh my memory of what was said.)

'Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,' I answered.  'It just is.'

Istigkeit – wasn't that the word Meister Eckhart like to use?  'Is-ness.'  The Being of Platonic philosophy – except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea.  He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what the rose and iris and carnation signified was nothing more, nothing less, than what they were – a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.

I continued to look at the flowers, and in their living light I seemed to detect the qualitative equivalent of breathing – but of a breathing without returns to a starting point, with no recurrent ebbs but only a repeated flow from beauty to heightened beauty, from deeper to ever deeper meaning.  Words like 'grace' and 'transfiguration' came to my mind, and this, of course, was what, among other things, they stood for.  My eyes traveled from the rose to the carnation, and from that feathery incandescence to the smooth scrolls of sentient amethyst which were the iris.  The Beatific Vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss – for the first time I understood..."

– Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception


Being-Awareness-Bliss.  That sounds nice.  It's unclear whether we can identify Huxley's experience with Satori, but the descriptions are clearly in the same ballpark.  

Some authors like D.T. Suzuki place a ton of emphasis on Satori.  Other famous Zen authors including Philip Kapleau and Shunryu Suzuki have a place for Satori in their thought, but don't put nearly the same emphasis on its attainment.  

But it is interesting to read accounts from people who have had this experience, or something like it.