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Sacred Plants
by Daniel Pinchbeck
In the astonishing religious diversity of the Americas, devotional ceremonies can take intoxicating forms

The firelight gleamed off the road man’s bony face in the dark. He turned to address the tiny gnarled cactus button, which sat on a wooden board near the flames on the ground in front of him. “Peyote,” he said, intoning like an old-style preacher launching a fire-and-brimstone sermon, “you are a great spirit. I am just a man. I have made mistakes, Peyote. I have fallen. But whenever I fell, you picked me up. You set me on the right path again. Thank you, Peyote. Thank you for helping me. Thank you for healing me.”
     I had come to this tepee meeting of the Native American Church to commune with the spirit of peyote — “Mescalito,” as he was called in the Carlos Castaneda books — a
mescaline-containing cactus. Some time ago, I became fascinated with the use of “drugs — sacred plants — for spiritual purposes, what the late psychonaut Terence McKenna dubbed “vegetable gnosis.” Some people collect stamps or CDs. For the last years, I have been collecting direct experiences of tribal shamanism and indigenous religions, going to West Africa for a tribal initiation using the psychedelic root bark iboga, taking part in ceremonies in Mexico and Ecuador and the US. In all of these traditions, the “power plants” are considered to be spiritual emissaries from the green nation — superconscious entities in themselves, and a means given to us to access other realms.
     Although the psychedelic compound mescaline is illegal under other circumstances, the ceremonies of the Native American Church have legal sanction in the US, though this right is still contested in some states. The leader
Navajo Nation, Arizona

A Native American church meeting just after sunrise.
PHOTO BY Adriel Heisey
of the Church — the equivalent of a tribal shaman—is called the road man. Our road man, Don, is a former opera singer, now in his sixties. During the Church meetings, held every two weeks during most of the year, Don addresses the peyote button as if it is the presiding entity.
     There were perhaps 35 of us inside the tepee, a wide range of ages and backgrounds — a few were fully indigenous, others had some tribal ancestry, and some, like myself, my girlfriend Laura, and Lily, our 18-month-old daughter, were white. Several other children were also present. The official members of the Church had special feathers and shawls and instruments carried in long wooden boxes. Like Don, they addressed the peyote directly, asking for guidance and healing and sometimes forgiveness for wrongs they had committed. I found it oddly moving to hear people speak to a little plant with such reverence.
“You are a great spirit.”      Music is a major factor in traditional ceremonies. The songs, from many different tribes across the West, were beautiful and unfamiliar; some were hymns of thanks-giving, some called in particular energies or spirits — the song of a young woman sitting across from me was directed at the eagle spirit. For a surprisingly long time, Lily loved the constant drumming of the water drum, a traditional instrument that produces a sharp echoey boing. Then she got tired. When she fell asleep we lay her gently behind us. Each time the peyote made its way to us, we had to get on our knees as a mark of respect. The meeting was like test of yogic discipline that I was sure I was failing, as I squirmed around in my place for most of the night.
     The ceremony I attended, in an off-the-grid community in Northern California, was held inside a beautiful tan-colored tepee made of hides wrapped taut around massive
logs that met almost 40 feet up in the air. The day before the ceremony began was taken up with erecting the tepee in a field next to a barn, while members of the church watched, sang, prayed. As the men struggled with the task of raising the tepee, the others paid careful attention to the particular way that it went up. The difficulties encountered while raising the tepee — if it collapses once or twice, if the men argue during the work — are thought to foreshadow issues and problems that could arise during the night. That kind of careful attention and watchfulness characterize all aspects of the meeting — every element has meaning. The tepee’s entry is oriented toward the rising sun — the first rays of dawn coming through the opening traditionally end the rite, when the “water woman” enters to assuage our thirst. The tepee itself symbolizes the body of the “Great Mother,” while the fire that blazes inside it represents the male principle. These
symbols become palpable as you sit there, hour after hour.
     At dusk, the ritual began. Inside the tepee, a large, crackling fire would be meticulously tended through the night, the smoke rising to exit through an opening near the top. The logs of the fire formed a V, like an arrow pointing at the leader of the service, who sat opposite the entrance. Maintaining the fire required constant diligence from two designated helpers, who also cleaned up when anyone “got well” (in other words, got sick) from eating the peyote. Our congregation sat around the perimeter of the tepee. Again and again during the seemingly never-ending night, peyote was passed around in different forms — as buttons of dried cactus, as a dark paste, and as a tea. In any form, it was raw-tasting, bitter, and difficult to digest.
     In the modern world, psychedelic drugs are reviled and ridiculed, as well as legally repressed. In the traditions
of the Native American Church and other indigenous or tribal-based religions, these substances are considered sacraments as well as medicines. We tend to associate psychedelic “tripping” with chaotic hedonism and adolescent freakiness. Nothing could be further from the intentions of the Native American Church, which imposes a severe spiritual discipline on its members during the meetings. Through the night, we were constantly reminded to sit up straight and not close our eyes, to stare at the fire or the person whose turn it was to speak or to sing. The ceremony lasted for 17 hours, running long past the dawn. During that time, we were allowed to leave the tepee only once. The peyote is not used to induce individual visions or hallucinations. After a high enough dose, you start to receive images, new ideas, or see — as I did that night — geometric patterns superimposed over the world around you, but you (continued right...)

At this year’s Hindu Kumbh Mela festival in India, Shaivas Sadhus (followers of the deity Shiva, who among other things is considered the patron saint of charas — hashish) gathered in the millions at the foot of the Himalayas to bathe in the Ganges and cleanse their karma. “After smoking from the chilam,” explains Mahunt Atmanand Sarasoti, “we are in complete control. Our habits of eating and living are well regulated in comparison with the man who uses alcohol.
Ujjain, India, 2004
Three Shiva worshippers smoking charas at
the Hindu Kumbh Mela festival.
PHOTO BY Adrian Fisk
He can be lying in the gutter with dogs pissing on him and he would not be aware of it. With charas and ganja we are able to concentrate. There is no way we can fall into the gutter. By smoking charas we gain more control over our indriyas (10 senses) — overcoming indriyas enables us to become numb and reflect inward. Once in this state we work toward a feeling of Ananda, a mixture of divine wisdom and bliss. Ananda is God.”
are instructed to focus and concentrate the energy of the group for purposes of healing and prayer.
     Some of the people there were former drug addicts or alcoholics who believe that peyote helped them to sober up. Anyone in the Church can call a meeting, if they are willing to undertake the responsibility of setting it up. This meeting was sponsored by a man in his early thirties, a former alcoholic and drug abuser, who felt that the Native American Church had saved his life. Apparently, for some people the peyote ceremonies can substitute for a twelve-step program, a popular drug-treatment method, which calls upon a “higher power” to help abusers. In the Church, the “higher power” is personified as a gnarled desert cactus possessing ancient wisdom.
     A few months after the peyote ceremony, I went down to Brazil to visit the Santo Daime, a religion that mixes
indigenous and Christian elements, and uses the psychedelic drink ayahuasca as its sacrament. The Native American Church and the Santo Daime have many similarities. The Native American Church began in the late 19th century, during the unstinting colonialist assault on the native world. Few tribes in North America used peyote before that time, but as their way of life was threatened with extinction, indigenous people in the US found that the peyote ritual allowed them to experience and reconfirm the inner truth of their sacred traditions. The peyote religion was given government sanction in 1918. Like the Native American Church, the Santo Daime was a syncretic response to modernism. Some black and mestizo rubber-tappers, working in the Brazilian Amazon in the 1920s, drank ayahuasca with local native groups. Schooled in Christianity, a few of the rubber-tappers experienced ayahuasca visions of the Virgin
Mary as “the Mother of the Forest.” The founder of the church, Mestre Irinieu, began to receive hymns when he entered the visionary state. These songs became the basis of the religion. Daime, which means “give me,” is the religion’s name for ayahuasca.
     We went into the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, traveling three days and nights by boat down a muddy river, to visit the town of Juruá, one of the centers of the Santo Daime. The town was buried in the humid jungle, spread out along trails and across rope bridges passing over swamps and streams. Conditions in Juruá were rudimentary. There were no sanitary facilities, no electricity, no phone. Our group of 11 Americans and Europeans slept on hammocks under mosquito nets in a one-room house. During the day, we learned how to make ayahuasca. Thick vines were brought in from the jungle, whittled down, and (continued right...)
Traditional Healing

Jabulani Zikhali, 40, is a sangoma — a traditional healer — who is based in Faraday, Johannesburg. Sangomas are chosen by the ancestors — you can’t just become one. Sangomas ask the ancestors to reveal a patient’s ailment and how to heal it. Most treatments are made of herbs and plants, and are called mutis. Sangomas are also able to interpret dreams, which are seen as messages from the ancestors that should be acted upon immediately. Illness is considered the result of a failure to appease the gods or follow wise counsel.
Johannesburg, 2004
Jabulani Zikhali.
PHOTO BY Marc Shoul
Zikhali’s recipe for Vuka-Vuka, a muti used for erectile dysfunction and poor stamina, is as follows: badlanga, ishaqua, uquotsi, and ibabazani. The patient should cook a piece of meat without using salt, take the gravy and mix it in a glass with half a tablespoon of Vuka-Vuka. The remedy should start working within two hours. For improved sensation during intercourse, Zikhali recommends bathing in warm water then rubbing the fat of a black mamba on the penis. It is advisable to make arrangements with a partner before digesting Vuka-Vuka — otherwise the effects may last as long as a day. One tablespoon of Vuka-Vuka costs R60 (US$8.96).
boiled in vats along with the leaves of a shrub containing DMT, dimethyltryptamine, a powerful hallucinogen. It seemed that the technology employed for making the medicine had not changed since the 1920s. During our stay, we participated in several all-night Daime ceremonies.
     Like those of the Native American Church, Santo Daime gatherings are highly structured and disciplined events. Inside a small, hexagonal-shaped church, men and women, wearing all white or white-and-blue uniforms, sit opposite each other, singing hymns. Some ceremonies involve dancing — from six to 13 hours, or more. Little four-foot-by-two-foot rectangles are painted on the floor. During the dancing rituals, participants perform a tight little two-step, shuffling back and forth within their box, while singing. Drinking ayahuasca helps to concentrate the energies of the group, and to “raise the vibration.” At first, the long sessions — aptly called “works” —
seemed to me like some form of psychedelic torture. However, during my third ceremony, I suddenly got a handle on what the Daime was about: instead of resisting the gathering, I let myself “enter the current.” Instead of fading out and making frequent mental escapes, I resolved to stay with it. I found that the practice was like a mindfulness meditation. As I sang and danced my two-step, ideas and images and memories would come up, but negative thoughts would get sheared away by the simplicity of the discipline. I fell in love with the Santo Daime that night.
     The writer Terence McKenna once described the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden after the notorious apple-eating incident as “history’s first drug bust.” In his book Food of the Gods, McKenna, a visionary and scholar of the use of psychoactive substances throughout history, argued that ingestion of visionary plants and
“I am just
a man.”
fungi was the initial inspiration for human spirituality; perhaps even the catalyst for our development of language. Soma, acclaimed in the early Hindu texts of the Rig Veda , was probably a mushroom. The ancient Greeks may well have imbibed some hallucinogenic cocktail during the initiation rite of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which continued for 2,000 years. As humanity increasingly separated itself from nature, founding cities and civilizations, those original sacraments of “vegetable gnosis” were first marginalized, then prohibited, and finally forgotten by the modern world.
     I received beautiful hallucinations during the ceremonies in Juruá.
     The last night was a healing ritual, during which we were given a very strong dose of the medicine. In my visionary state, I held a discussion with cosmic thought-beings who seemed to be floating above us, resembling huge-eyed
Hindu deities. At the end of the vision, they told me: You go deeper into the physical to get to the infinite. It seemed like a valuable teaching, and one that I had come a long way to receive.  

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