Review: Secret Drugs of Buddhism by Mike Crowley

book religion review

Secret Drugs of Buddhism: Psychedelic Sacraments and the Origins of the Vajrayāna by Mike Crowley | Synergetic Press | 2019

Mike Crowley’s Secret Drugs of Buddhism (SDB) has gone through several iterations of publication. I first read sections of it online many years ago, and latterly Crowley self-published an edition (2016). This official ‘Second Edition’ has been brought out, and beautifully presented, by Synergetic Press. It includes a number of revisions from the previous one, and a foreword by Crowley’s good friend, the fabulous Ann Shulgin.

While not an academic in the formal sense, Crowley has been studying Buddhism since the mid-1960s, and regularly lectures on the topic around the world. SDB draws on a range of sources: scriptural, iconographic, botanical, and pharmacological. Indeed, it is a dizzyingly diverse array of expertise that underpins the central thesis of the book—a thesis that seeks to explicate a forgotten history of psychoactive drug use in the rituals of Vajrayāna Buddhism.

Vajrayāna is a form of Buddhism that embraced tantric texts and traditions (which itself emerged in early medieval India around the 6th century), and came to exert an influence on the development of the Tibetan variety. It features a very large pantheon of deities, and places an emphasis on the use of spiritual guides. Crowley states, however, that although he often uses Tibetan evidence, ‘this is only due to the paucity of other sources; [the book’s] main subject is the early years of Vajrayāna Buddhism in India’.

This desire to focus on the early years is important to Crowley’s thesis. Not only does he argue that Tibetan sources are an outgrowth from Indian ones, rather than being a special case alone, but that it was the earlier tradition which made use of psychoactive substances—a ritual element that gradually became lost over time. Anyone familiar with entheogenic literature will recognise this narrative: the growth of primary religious experience centred on a particular substance slowly being replaced in importance by secondary religious rituality. Ultimately this results in a forgetting about the substance and its reduction to metaphor and allusion.

Central to this exploration therefore is the word amrita which appears throughout the Vajrayāna literature. It is used as part of god-names, and as a liquid that is visualized during meditation. In this latter form, it also appears on altars and is drunk during major rituals. However, as Crowley notes, its ‘origin and history, are rarely discussed’. SDB is in part a corrective of this and argues that, whatever is used now, has come to replace an earlier psychoactive ingredient. Interestingly, its earliest mention is in the Rig Veda, the oldest Hindu text, which also describes ‘soma’, another important subject of entheogenic literature.

What follows in SDB is a discussion of the author’s experiences as a Buddhist, a discussion of soma, and elements of ritual and symbolic interpretation—the symbol of the peacock for instance. As to the overall thesis of the book, this reviewer is hardly qualified to comment. However, as an exploration into the use of plants in Buddhism it is fascinating, and the breadth of learning considerable. It has certainly opened up a world of learning that would take a lifetime to digest, but which has given me a deep appreciation for the traditions the book expounds.


This review first appeared in the Psychedelic Press journal, issue XXXV. You can check out all our print publications here.

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