Cannabis: Holy Sacrament Past and Future, with Chris Bennett

Chris Bennett is an internationally recognized scholar on the history of the holy sacrament cannabis and one of the expert contributors to the forthcoming book, Cannabis and Spirituality: Reclaiming an Ancient Wisdom Ally for the Generations to Come. As well as the many published essays, articles, and book chapters he has written, Chris is also the author of some of the most thorough scholarship on the history of the spiritual/ritual use of cannabis, through such books as Green Gold the Tree of Life: Marijuana in Magic and Religion (1995) and Cannabis and the Soma Solution (2010).

The intention behind the inclusion of a chapter by Chris in Cannabis and Spirituality is to honor and validate a long and rich history of cannabis as a spiritual ally, with an eye to a present and future renaissance. His chapter in the book is called “Venerable Traditions: A Brief History of the Ritual and Religious Use of Cannabis.” In that chapter Chris neatly summarizes some of the solid evidence of the history of cannabis use in traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, and Judaism. The following is an excerpt from the conclusion.

A Radical Revisioning

These references to cannabis in the ancient world and in a number of still existing world religions at the genesis of their conceptions offer a radical revisioning of religious history. In one respect, they present as much of a threat to the fundamentalist view of religion as Darwin’s theory of evolution does to the myths of creation as recorded in Genesis, in that what they reveal is the plant-based shamanic origins of the religious traditions themselves.

This follows and accords with the anthropological standard for the development of religion the world over, as well as an element that fundamentalists have struggled to squash since the dark ages when cults that practiced these forms of worship were obliterated or driven underground, such as with the persecution of witches for their topical ointments and shamanic preparations and of course in Africa and the New World, where whole traditions were suppressed and persecuted and considered the most vile sort of devilish practices by the missionaries who came across them.

Religious Renovation

When the people have achieved access to the divine via natural plants, the whole profession of a priesthood can be jeopardized and religious traditions of the past usurped by new revelations. An argument that modern prohibition is the result of “Christians vs. the Devil’s weed” is not without merit in this respect, and there is a justifiable inherent fear of these substances in the fundamentalist mind set.

In another respect, cannabis’ re-appearance at this time offers us the opportunity for a great renovation of religious thought and the connectivity of the world’s religions. Nowhere is the human-entheogen relationship more widespread and older than with Cannabis-Soma-Haoma. Indeed, its fibers wove our first plant cloth, its seeds were a valuable early food source, its leaves and flowers our first medicine and sacrament.

Medicine and Sacrament

Moreover, the implications of the modern return of cannabis are loaded with possibilities. Cannabis medicines are being studied for Alzheimer’s, cancer, glaucoma, pain, and numerous other diseases, with very promising results. Industrial hemp for fuel, paper, paints, cloth, plastics, and other commodities is just what is needed for a planet feeling the effects of close to a century of toxic petroleum products, healing our planet just as it heals our bodies.

Truly, the global circle of people who share cannabis transcends race, nation, and religion, and many are beginning to recognize it for the Holy sacrament that it once was and can be again. Clearly the association between cannabis and sacred states of mind has crossed barriers of cultures and times, and people have continually and independently been drawn to it for these purposes. In this natural substance perhaps we can find the true sacrament of the natural perennial religion that is at the root of so many traditions.

 

Cannabis and Spirituality: Freedom not Control.

Freedom not Control

He who drinks bhang drinks Shiva. The soul in whom the spirit of bhang finds a home glides into the ocean of Being freed from the weary round of matter-blinded self.- J.M. Campbell

There are various ways to delineate different character types and different drives in human experience. Perhaps the most fundamental—and arguably the most relevant for the species and the future of humanity and the planet altogether—is the dichotomy between the impulse toward freedom and the impulse toward control. Freedom implies courage, surrender, relaxation; trusting and embracing life in all its beauty, its wildness, and its insecurity. Control sees this freedom as the threatening enemy. The control impulse is the unexamined fear response in the face of the truth of insecurity, the truth of the non-existence of the separate self.

These two opposing motivations have functioned powerfully since time immemorial in both the external, material world of human affairs and in the inner, psychic world of human beings. The manifestation of control motivations in the world is the outer expression of the blind inner compulsion. As Mahatma Ghandhi put it, “The only devils in this world are those running around in our own hearts, and that is where all our battles should be fought.” In human civilization however, there is always the potential and often the reality of conflict between the two opposing drives.

Gnostic Mysticism versus Orthodox Control

He who will drink from my mouth will become as I am: I myself shall become he, and the things that are hidden will be revealed to him.- Jesus of Nazareth (from the [Gnostic] Gospel of Thomas)

One of my favorite historical examples of this dichotomy is the conflict between the Gnostics and the Orthodox in early Christianity. I didn’t pick this one randomly out of the hat. It’s at the heart of our current spiritual predicament and typifies the archetypal conflict. In a simplified description, the Gnostics were basically the mystical tradition of early Christianity. They believed that it meant nothing to call yourself a Christian unless you were initiated, that is, unless you had directly experienced at least some level of the truth of our divine nature. Apparently they weren’t big on institutional infrastructure. As a side note for this discussion, there are hints and allegations that the Gnostics were also medicine plant people. It certainly stands to reason. Check out, for example, the work of Chris Bennett, a well-recognized scholar on the history of cannabis in religion and ritual. (Chris will also have a chapter in the forthcoming book Cannabis and Spirituality).

During this period, the control impulse was manifesting and growing in those who feared the awakened state in themselves and insisted on controlling and obstructing its realization in others. By the year 200 of the Christian Era (C.E.), Christianity had developed into an institution with a hierarchy of bishops, priests, and deacons who claimed to be the true and only guardians of the Word. Until now the controllers have always won in larger societies—that is, had their clutching hands on the levers of temporal power—since quite clearly the drive to control leads them to try harder to control than those free of that fearful compulsion.

The result at the time was that the mystic teachings were suppressed as heresy and all but completely obliterated from the historical record save for an ‘accident’ of history which resulted in the rediscovery of many of the Gnostic Gospels in the Egyptian desert in 1945. (This isn’t some kind of new age woo-woo speculation. Check out the Nag Hammadi Library manuscripts if you’re interested in following up on this. The visionary science fiction writer Philip K. Dick also had some interesting things to say about the matter in his later novels such as “V.A.L.I.S.”)

Breathing Freely, Opening Hearts

The reverberations of the Orthodox domination into the present can’t be overstated. We’ve essentially been sold the wrong story; a pale, twisted, highly unsatisfying fictional version of the story of who we are and what we are capable of. Understanding the drive and activity of the control impulse in society and in ourselves is central and essential to the vision and hope of healing the deep wounds of the species and the planet altogether. As the teachings say, the place to start is in our own hearts. Would-be lover of life heal thyself first. We need to recognize the powerful, incredibly deceptive pull to bring down the blinds, protect ourselves, and attempt to force our control on our world.

Recognizing that impetus, we need to watch compassionately over its burning and dissolution. As we learn to free and empower ourselves, we need to (and we will) recognize the impulse and the impact of those who work to control others and to hoard power and wealth, and we need to (and will) find ways not to support that manifestation. The control compulsion is making life unnecessarily difficult and painful for great numbers of people while destroying a fragile planet.

Back to Basics: Getting Naked

The panic when we resist is like holding on to the last garment being pulled off us. We are naked before pot, and what we see first is ourselves. Jeremy Wolff 

You knew I had to lead this back to cannabis of course. When used wisely with intention, cannabis can show you yourself—both your illusory separate self and your unconditioned, authentic, free self. It functions as an amplifying mirror that can show us more clearly where we are. With some disciplined effort and perhaps persistent practice, it can show us the imprisoning bonds our control strategies have created in our mind/bodies and our societies and the clear, freely breathing space around those bonds.

I recently finished reading Nine Kinds of Naked, a lovely, inspiring novel by Tony Vigorito (who should be much better known.) Mr. Vigorito (through his characters) has much to say on the conflicting pulls toward control and toward freedom. He’s so quotable I’ve put together a post of little gems of insight I’ve culled from the book. Here’s one.

The most obstinate illusion is your own sense of an individual identity, the order you impose on the impulses of your spirit. All other illusions cascade from that singular confusion.

And now brothers and sisters, let us breathe.

 

Book Contributors to Cannabis and Spirituality

For the Cannabis and Spirituality book project I’ve felt it important to bring in voices from a variety of contemporary and traditional practices and ways of understanding the deeper potentials of wise use of cannabis. Seventeen leading voices with deep knowledge of cannabis as a spiritual and creative ally have graciously consented to write chapters for the book, or in some cases do interviews with me. Including best-selling author Julie Holland, who has written the Foreword, the book contributors are:

• Julie Holland, M.D. : Among her many activities and accomplishments, Julie Holland is the author of several highly-regarded and widely read books, including Ecstasy: The Complete Guide, and The Pot Book. 

Chris Bennett: I wanted to share a glimpse of the rich history of cannabis in spiritual awakening work so people can have some confidence that in approaching cannabis with the intention to “get real” so to speak, they are sharing in ancient lineages and possibly helping to continue them into the future. Chris Bennett is a leading scholar on the history of cannabis and religion with three books published on these subjects and another one in the gestation process.

•.Joan Bello: Joan Bello has done some wonderful work with her book The Benefits of Marijuana, now in its 4th printing. She also has a new trilogy of books due to come out in 2015. The first is titled The Yoga of Marijuana. Joan has some great research on how cannabis works in the body-mind to create these beneficial effects.

Kathleen Harrison: Kathleen Harrison is a wise and wonderful ethnobotanist and teacher, co-founder with her former husband, the late Terence McKenna, of Botanical Dimensions (http://botanicaldimensions.org/#/0/1), whose founding mission is “to collect, protect, propagate, and understand plants of ethno-medical significance and their lore.” Kathleen is also a writer of depth and sensitivity who has had a long friendship with cannabis.

Satyen Raja: Satyen Raja is an internationally known coach, mentor, and human potential leader of Indian descent. He is the founder of Warrior Sage Trainings (warriorsagetrainings.com) and several related enterprises under its umbrella. Satyen also leads groups on sacred pilgrimages around the world. One of those was the 2013 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad, India. Satyen was accepted into a Sadhu ‘family’ while there and spent a considerable amount of time in the inner sanctums of what he refers to as the real Sadhus, people of deep wisdom. Very few Indians, let alone Westerners, would ever have an opportunity to meet and experience the understanding of these highly evolved renunciates. Satyen shares with us a rare and precious glimpse into this hidden world.

LLP: LLP is a grower of cannabis. He has a spiritual, sacred approach to working with the plant and holds a strong conviction that the intention and practice of the person growing the plants has an important influence on the experience of the end user. With the extremely rapid proliferation of cannabis growing, this approach seems very timely.

Dee Dussault: Dee Dussault is a pioneer in the West, one of the first yoga teachers to openly combine yoga and ganja. She conducts classes she calls “Ganja Yoga” in California and has developed a unique approach to this fortuitous combination.

Sean Hamman and Steve Dyer: These two gentlemen have individually and together been working with entheogenic plants for many years. I would call them shamans. They are very experienced ceremony leaders and healers working with iboga, ayahuasca, and cannabis in particular.

Hamilton Souther: Hamilton is a master shaman who spent twelve years in Peru learning and practicing the skills of leading ayahuasca ceremonies. He has since moved back to the United States and now leads very popular live and online “cannabis friendly” ceremonies through his organization Blue Morpho Club.

• Mariano da Silva: Mariano is a highly respected ayahuasca shaman from Brazil who has for many years also worked with cannabis as a sacramental medicine, both within and outside the context of the ayahuasca ceremonies.

• Francisco: Francisco is an experienced and deeply immersed apprentice Ayahuasca practitioner working with a group to enable an effective experience of the sacred medicines within a safe container space for new people seeking the path, according to the traditional ways as established in South America, and Brazil in particular.

• Roger Christie: Roger Christie is a determined advocate of longstanding on behalf of the basic human right to use our ancient friend and ally as a sacrament. Roger founded and for nearly ten years operated and led the legendary (in some circles) THC Ministry in Hawaii. Like many others, he has paid a heavy price for his courageous commitment, spending 50 months in Federal prison between 2010 and 2014 for his work with the Church and his refusal to cower in the face of ignorance and injustice. Since getting out of prison Roger has continued his advocacy and his legal challenges to the ill-considered laws that have brought great hardship to many and kept many more from enjoying the multiple benefits of the people’s plant.

Jeff Brown: Jeff Brown is another one in this special group of people who have paid a heavy price for their courageous beliefs and advocacy on behalf of the sacramental use of cannabis. Jeff got interested in both cannabis and the Bible in his late teens and shortly after joined a Jamaican Rasta Church—the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which used Ganja as its sacrament. The group gained notoriety and extensive publicity around 1980. Jeff spent about 5 years in federal prison solely for his use of the holy sacrament in a religious setting.

• Steven Hager: Steven Hager has been a leading figure and pioneer in the world of cannabis for several decades. He is a cannabis and counterculture activist, journalist, filmmaker, and event producer. He was editor-in-chief off and on for 25 years at the iconic High Times magazine and it was during his reign that the magazine achieved its highest circulation. Among other remarkable achievements, he founded the Cannabis Cup, organized the first 420 ceremonies outside of Marin County, launched the hemp movement with Jack Herer, and was the first reporter to document hip hop. Steven is currently the founder of Abakus Media, which seeks to foster responsible cannabis tourism in Colorado. He is also the author of 30 books.

Jeremy Wolff: Jeremy is an artist and writer. I found a very insightful essay by him in Julie Holland’s “The Pot Book: A Complete Guide to Cannabis” and wrote to invite him to contribute to this book. His chapter in Cannabis and Spirituality, “Thots on Pot,Part II,” is just as brilliant.

Floyd Salas: The use of cannabis for creative, artistic purposes could be a separate topic altogether. I’ve occasionally envisioned a book that collects stories and testimonials from people using the plant in those ways. Many artists, not all of course, consider the connection to the muse and the deep concentration they enter when creating to be a sacred space.

Art can also be understood as a powerful way to help people wake up. My old Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa had some interesting and inspiring things to say about that. Here’s one of them. “There has to be the basic integrity of maintaining our human society in a state of sanity. That is and should be the only way to work with art. The purpose of a work of art is bodhisattva action . . . geared toward waking people up from their neurosis. (P.19, The Art of Calligraphy by Chögyam Trungpa)

Because of this relationship between creative, artistic practice and spirituality, there will also be some discussion on that subject. I’ve recruited a wonderful writer and poet, Floyd Salas, to contribute a chapter to the book on cannabis’ benefits for creative work and will probably also post excerpts from that piece on cannabisandspirituality.com.

• Svea Vatch: Svea Vatch designs and fabricates fine-art jewelry in silver and gold with precious and semi-precious stones. She has been selling her work at Canada’s best art shows and to customers around the world since the 1970s. This short essay offers excellent testimony on the spiritual depths accessible in artistic creation when cannabis is met with the kind of respect and surrender Svea describes.

Shamanism, Sacred Plants, Buddhism, Enlightened Societies

Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality was published in 2010 by the British mind/body/spirit publisher O Books/John Hunt Publishing. Writings associated with themes from the book can be found at www.stephengrayvision.com.

My original choice for the main title was “Uniting the Four Directions.” This image comes from a pre-Columbian Incan prophecy that foresaw a centuries-long period of darkness for indigenous peoples and a festering imbalance on the Earth that would finally reach a breaking point. At that time the Condor of the South would join the Eagle of the North and empower a new vision for Earth.

‘That’ time has arrived and this prophecy stands as a metaphor for a dawning coalescence of intention and commitment rising in the hearts of artists and seekers, healers and wisdom carriers worldwide. They’re saying our window of opportunity is all too brief and we’re being called to transcend division and hesitation in an urgent summons to heal ourselves and our planet by all the means available to us.

My intention in Returning to Sacred World: A Spiritual Toolkit for the Emerging Reality was to offer information, inspiration, and encouragement that, first, although nobody can have complete confidence in our future, and although the changes may well be wrenching, there is a widely held Spirit-empowered vision and prayer for a renaissance of radically realigned priorities on Earth, and second, that there are powerful practices, techniques, and tools available that if employed skillfully are fully capable of uncovering the awakened state that will allow us to manifest this vision.

Book Synopsis

The book is divided into three major sections as follows.

I begin by giving readers compelling explanations for the historical spiritual disconnect that has brought us to this precipitous moment. Using the image of partnership versus dominator societies as a starting point, I describe how the authentic state of mind innate to us has been hidden, suppressed, at great cost, until now we’ve reached the inevitable karmic endpoint of that mentality.

Along the way I make the causal connection between this ego-encased mind and the denigration of and violence directed toward women, indigenous peoples, and the living Earth itself. I’ve also shown that there’s a vigorous community of committed elders and visionaries focused on this subject. I’ve drawn readers’ attention to the insights of many of these wisdom carriers through instructive anecdotes and quotations.peyote, ayahuasca, psilocybin, cannabis spirituality, sacred meditation prayer

The second section presents useable, perhaps even essential, visions and teachings. These include:

  • chapters on topics like the role of art in the vision of planetary renewal
  • the need to reconfigure our relationship to time and nowness
  • the central importance of indigenous world views and prophecies
  • the role of spiritual teachers and guides
  • the shift ‘back’ toward community and reconnection to the living intelligence(s) of the Earth
  • selected Buddhist and indigenous teachings on letting go of the goal, using all of who you are now, discovering the power in humility
  • working with fear, getting strong, and developing confidence in the awakened state—or as is taught in some traditions—the living presence of the Creator

Ideas only go so far, and so the third and final section presents a number of powerful techniques and tools of awakening. There are detailed chapters on the two most universally accessible of these tools; mindfulness/awareness meditation, and prayer, particularly as practiced in the ceremonies of the Native American Church and in Tibetan Buddhism. In the final chapters I lead readers through a highly informative explication of the very poorly understood but remarkable potential of several spirit-medicine, healing, entheogenic plants and substances.

The thesis is, and it’s far from mine alone: that there are authentic indigenous traditions that have expertly and safely employed these plants as conduits to awakening; that elders from these traditions, as well as other guides, have much to teach us about the effective use of these plants; and that at this pivotal juncture these plant allies are here to play key roles in awakening a critical number who can add their prayers and their efforts to the healing of the planet.

 

Cannabis and Spirituality? Really?

Cannabis and Spirituality? Really?

Cannabis and Spirituality? Yes . . . really. Cannabis has been called the people’s plant. Many hundreds of millions of earth’s current inhabitants have at least a passing acquaintance with the sacred herb, (including some who claim not to have inhaled 🙂 Some use it for relaxation and for escaping the grind and stress of daily existence. Some use it to escape from the challenges of their lives altogether, preferring to dwell in a disconnected dreamlike state. Some use it to counter boredom during mundane activities, or as my friend Neil likes to say, to put a shine on things. Some use it to enhance and deepen a variety of sensory/sensual experiences. In the same vein, some use it simply to cheer up. A lot of folks engaged in some form of creative endeavor use cannabis to evoke ideas and sharpen and deepen their focus on the work. More and more of us are discovering a variety of medical benefits from the plant.

But how many of us think of and work with cannabis as a spiritual ally? How many of us are aware that in the right conditions (more on that below) cannabis is capable of catalyzing deep experiences of unconditioned reality and authentic presence.

The mere idea probably strikes a lot of people as far-fetched. But it’s not an outrageous concept at all. When used wisely with intention it’s actually quite the opposite. For starters, the plant has been included as an adjunct to and a central component of a variety of spiritual practices for thousands of years. That’s on the record and the information we have access to now that hasn’t been smothered, lost, or forgotten is probably a very small portion of all the ways and places people have used cannabis to open their hearts and reveal their true natures.

Freedom from Self-Blinding

He who drinks bhang drinks Shiva. The soul in whom bhang finds a home glides into an ocean of being freed from the weary round of self-blinded matter. 1

Not only does the historical record demonstrate extensive spiritual use of cannabis, today there are still people and groups scattered around the planet working effectively with cannabis as a sacrament. As well as those groups we don’t know about because they’re tucked secretly away from prying, disapproving eyes, cannabis is actively used ceremonially in a number of countries and traditions. Cannabisandspirituality.com will occasionally feature representatives from some of these living traditions. Spokespeople from some of them have also kindly agreed to contribute to the forthcoming book, Cannabis and Spirituality, (Park Street Press, Jan. 2017) for which I’m acting as the compiler and sometimes writer.

Though I don’t want to set myself up, or be set up, as the great wizard of cannabis authority, I have as of this writing had a nearly fifty-year relationship with the sacred herb. With that experience I’ve learned it can be a tricky plant, maybe you could even call it a trickster plant. There are definitely more and less effective and beneficial ways to meet this plant and that’s the raison d’être for cannabisandspirtuality.com, the book project, and what I envision as an ongoing interactive discussion.

The Importance of Intention

As the wise say, it depends on your intention. To clarify that, I’ll use a term commonly employed in working with psychedelics—“set and setting.” Set is everything you bring with you: your overall and current state of mind and body; the degree to which you are already processed and clear; your intentions and expectations; your knowledge of how to work with the potentially powerful energies unleashed in the mind/body with cannabis; your preparation for a particular meeting with the herb, and so on.

Setting refers to the environment, what we sometimes call the container. Are the physical circumstances set up to encourage calm, clear, presence and heart opening? Have you paid attention to the space, beautified it, created any kind of ritual form, brought in power objects, smudged it with cedar or sage, made tobacco offerings, stated intention, and/or otherwise energized and sacralized the container in whatever ways make sense to you?

Of course I would be remiss not to honor the natural world itself as a potentially great setting for encounters with cannabis. Cannabis and nature are harmonious allies of the highest order. Honoring the plant along with the air, earth, and water in a forest or other quiet, mostly natural setting can significantly enhance the experience.

A Variety of Practices

It gives I a good meditation; it is a door inside, when it is open you see everything that is good. 2

Then the practices—how you spend your ceremonial time—are also part of the setting. Alone or with others, do you do some silent, bare-attention meditation? Breathing practice? Visualizations? Yoga asanas? Do you pray, chant, or make use of sacred movement or dance? This site and the book will explore and describe various ways to engage with cannabis for spiritual healing and awakening.

I’ve been working and experimenting for many years with ways to effectively join mind and cannabis for spiritual benefit. Although the road continues and more opening work is required, during that time I’ve winnowed down some of the most effective—both for myself and others—practices and guidelines. Both the website and the book will offer some ideas for how to improve the chances of connecting deeply with this under-recognized power of the cannabis plant in both solo and group practice.

As I mentioned, my delusions do not include setting myself up as the great authority. Many others have had abiding beneficial relationships with cannabis and deep heart-opening, joy-releasing, and even genuine mystical experiences. I feel very grateful that 17 deeply experienced and knowledgeable contributors have accepted my invitation to share their understanding. I’ll list and periodically update the contributors to the book on the Book Project page.