Tuesday, October 12, 2010

In the Shadows of Sagebrush

IMPORTANT WARNING: This article discusses a deadly poisonous plant in terms of its historical use as an entheogen. Please be warned and advised that some people read articles such as this one, and decide to ingest this plant by various means in order to sample its effects. Those people are dead, because this plant kills. Please do not be a fool. For expanded research into this plant's toxic chemical properties, please consult the Phyto database and Toxnet.

When you first began to study Vajrayana, perhaps you will recall that your teacher gave a little analogy to explain the difference between Vajrayana and the other vehicles. 

Your teacher might have told you that when a follower of  the Hinayana sees a poisonous plant, he thinks "Alas! A poisonous plant!" and he avoids it at all costs. When a follower of the Mahayana sees a poisonous plant, he thinks "Poison, true! But even poison may be made into useful medicine!" so he thereafter sets out to transmute the thing. However, when a follower of the Vajrayana sees a poisonous plant, he thinks "Everything is fundamentally pure!" and gobbles the thing right down.

You can regard that as literally as you dare, but keep in mind the difference between analogy and admonition. If, for some irrational reason, you are tempted to gobble poisonous plants, I suggest you first sharpen your skills by bringing speeding locomotives to an abrupt halt.

If you can derail locomotives, then I suppose you are ready for locoweed -- otherwise known as Datura.

Either way, you are dealing with a train wreck.

Datura is a genus of plants with anywhere from nine to twelve species (depending who you consult) that some botanists consider native to North America.

In the natural world, Datura plants are food for the larvae of Lepidoptera.

In the unnatural human world, they are highly toxic deliriants.

Datura kills, but first it causes you to go completely insane. Like a bad marriage, only quicker.

All Datura plants contain tropane alkaloids,  among numerous other chemicals, so basically one experiences extreme delirium, and cardiac arrest, followed by forty-nine days at the multiplex. If you  take Datura, you will wake up afterward. The thing is, you will wake up in a different body. Relatives and friends will be sobbing or arguing over the old one, and large birds will have no cause to struggle with a menu. 

Thus do we again warn you: do not experiment with Datura!

Datura is also known as toalache, which is an old Mexican name, and toalache forms the basis of what ethnographers refer to as the "toalache religion" of the Native Americans. Up the hidden arroyo you see in the photograph, above, we find one ancient center of shamanic practice, which the evidence suggests involved the use of toalache. 

As mentioned in Letters From An Old Magician, human habitation of this area is usefully dated to some 11,000 years ago. The petroglyphs we found here are easily 1,000 years old. What this ultimately suggests is that the authors of the petroglyphs found some relatively reliable means to ingest datura, -- we know they did because of archaeological evidence -- to the extent that it became a ritual behavior that was practiced well into the nineteenth century. Still, we do not know precisely how the datura was prepared, nor do we know what parts of the plant were used.

This ritual was called tamonin, or the "teaching." Once a year, adolescent boys ingested a decoction of Datura meteloides, then danced around a fire until the drug took effect. The boys were then laid out in rows, to sleep off these effects. Visions would come to the sleeping boys that were, upon waking, interpreted by various means, and thereafter used to guide the boys for the rest of their lives.

Indeed, this was one means by which shamans were developed: according to the character of their dreams and visions during the toalache ceremony. Although it was generally believed that shamans were "born with the power," this power was sharpened by subsequent toalache drinking, which typically continued throughout the shaman's entire life.

Now, it comes to us, in the twenty-first century, from the hand of twentieth-century scholars, that the prehistoric shamans were motivated to record their dreams by inscribing petroglyphs on the rocks surrounding their sacred spaces. The scholars reason that, what appears to modern eyes as the abstract quality of the petroglyphs, is in fact a simple record of entoptic phenomena brought about through drinking toalache. 

So, then...

Do the wavy lines of the petroglyphs above the shaman's cave suggest entoptic "snakes" of the shaman's drug-induced vision, or is a righteous visionary well in touch with his environment taking his clue from other sources? 

Do you see the shadow of the sagebrush on the rock, in the photograph, below?

Why is this interesting?

Well, even though botanists believe Datura is, in the ultimate sense, native to America, it is being used in rituals elsewhere in the world, and as it happens, these rituals are of the Vajrayana. 

Datura is mentioned in the Vajramahabhairava-tantra, and the Cakrasamvara-tantra, to name but two. When we tear that down a bit more, we are left with the understanding that Datura is being used in Oddiyana circa the eight century, and if you want to bring in other Indian sources -- the venerable Kamasutra jumps to mind -- you can push use back to the fifth century.

One of two things has happened here. 

Either somebody in Asia -- and we can safely say this "somebody" would have been a person occupied with spiritual pursuits -- found his way to America with Datura seeds, or somebody else of a similar character in America found his way to Asia with Datura seeds. 

Now, since the very name Datura comes from the Hindi dhattura, we begin to wonder if the botanists have their signals crossed. Yet, when we examine the incidence of the genus in the field, we find persuasive evidence that yes, indeed, Datura originates in North America, because it is here that the various species are seen to perfection, and nowhere else. 

Cute? Maybe. But, I don't know how probative.

Yet again, we find that it is the arguably "American" species they are using in Oddiyana. As it appears, much of the scientific evidence available to us at the present time argues in favor of prehistoric ritual use of Datura -- the putative  deliriant muse of the rock artists -- somehow making its way to India from the wild arroyos of western America, and on to Oddiyana circa Padmasambhava's time.

Except, the ritual context is entirely different. 

In Asia, Datura is being used for purposes that I do not, for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons, having less to do, perhaps, with samaya than cultural sensitivity, feel entirely comfortable discussing. Suffice to say that it has nothing to do with sleeping lads, all in a row, dreaming of a grand new dawn. You want to read a most interesting article on all this, consult "Datura Rituals in the Vajramahabhairava-Tantra," by Bulesu Siklos, which investigates the matter in some detail. For an extensive key to resources, see R.C. Parker, "The Use of Entheogens  in the Vajrayana Tradition."


The particularity of who did what, and in which direction, is diverting but maybe not so important. The generality is what we have under discussion: North American ritual used Datura for life, Asian ritual employed it for death. You can take feathers, bamboo, and a bit of sharpened stone, to make an arrow that kills or jewelry that adorns. As the above photograph of my old friend from Mongolia illustrates, shamans did not visit the three o'clock in the morning of their minds with philosophical armor alone.

Consuming dangerous flowers, men and moths echo costumes that author a stronger testament than scratches on stone. Fear, spiritual contest, assertion, and preservation. All about hope and fear, isn't it? Will these help? Or is this a poison that poisons itself?


The horizontal shadows of the sagebrush, do you see them? Thoughts of taking up and putting away are just like these. Even they are here, before us, how long can they stay? As quickly as they come, so do they go -- you can say they come and go simultaneously, right in their own place -- so what becomes of them? 

Just one moment, do you realize? The sagebrush will never again grow uniquely the way it has for just this moment. Even one year to the second hence, the light will not cast precisely this way. In time, even the rock will surely move. Just this place, this time, these causes, these conditions, and then never again.

What is produced by the notion of benefit and harm?

Just one flash -- the fragment of a second -- with the shadows of the sagebrush is far, far better than a lifetime of mirrors and struggles, regardless of whether this takes on the illusion of meditation in a cave, or dress in a dream. Datura's poison will only kill you once. Unless you come to understand them as self-liberated when they arise, the five poisons will kill you over and over and over again.

Learn to transmute them by seeing them just as they are.


The shadows of the men on the stones, do you see them? Can you tell me how these are any different from the shadows of the sagebrush? 
"When a single feather and a thousand worlds
Are equally this Space,
Who can say which contains which?
Who can find limits 
To life's richness?"
                           --Kyabje Tarthang Rinpoche


In our shared belief, it is difficult to think of poison without thinking of peacocks. This is because peacocks are reputedly able to ingest poison without ill effect. 

Usually, when we think of peacocks, we think of them as multicolored, and we get caught up with their fascinating display. 

However, just like rainbows, their colors are only their colors. 

On the other hand, there are also -- albeit quite rarely -- some plain, white peacocks upon which numberless colors are reflected as they walk through this world.

Simply by lacking confidence, whether you speak of them for good or ill, it will be the root of a mistake. Possessing confidence, you can bring all of that with you like the colors stainlessly absorbed by those white feathers. It all becomes weightless.

When the Datura's flowers wither; when the snow and the sun kill the plant to its roots, and it blows away like dust, where does its poison reside? When abrasive wind and shaking earth crumble the inscribed stone walls, what becomes of the mystery inscriptions? Indeed, as time seems to pass, what becomes of motive?

In the instant that light changes, what can you find in the shadows of sagebrush?


May it be auspicious.

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5 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

if i remember correctly there is a native story of the two twins who arose from the underworld in between, from the last world to this one, and one was malevolent and one was benevolent, belladonna and datura...

they were in human form

James Short said...

Datura is also mentioned repeatedly in "Introduction to the Middle Way", the renowned 7th century Indian Buddhist master Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara. This is available in various versions, the one I have with commentary by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche is arranged according to Gorampa’s 15th Century commentary - available from the Khyentse Foundation.

The context in which Datura is
mentioned is as an intoxicant, which, as with alcohol impairs the sense organs to the perception of truth. The rituals cited in the tantras you mention and others such as Guhyasamaja Tantra, I think are likely to originate from pre Buddhist tantra. Tibetan Bon tradition or Siddhi.

From the Guhyasamaja Tantra "[M]aking an image of the enemy with the excrement and urine of those who follow the great Dharma, wrathfully burn it in a fire of thorn-wood, and even the Buddha will certainly perish. [...] So he said black mustard-seeds, salt, oil, poison, and thorn-apple [datura], these are taught as the supreme destroyers of all the Buddhas."

This type of magic I think Milarepa became involved in before he saw the light of the middle way. It seems to be a trait of human nature we follow the easy path, assuming intoxicants provide the necessary alteration of mind to transcend samsara, failing to appreciate we are subscribing to an even greater illusion.

This characteristic of Datura is also evident in other ways. Consider the way it is used today in western herbal medicine, albeit in very small doses due to its entirely allopathic effects. i.e. it is not considered curative, more suppressant of abnormal nervous system activity, due to its depression of parasympathetic nerve activity (i.e. it suppresses the nerves which keep you alive).

Just one its constituents Hyoscyamine – in increasing doses produces happiness, stimulation, fantasy, hilarity, illusions, auditory and visual hallucination, rage, epileptic fit, deeper breathing, red skin with inc body Temp, culminating in central nervous system paralysis, coma and death

With constituent differences inherent between varieties and dependant on growing location, climate etc, selecting the right amount of plant for a given effect is a dangerous lottery. Therefore never a plant to be dallied with, and hence its historic association with evil deeds.

TENPA said...

Datura also has atropine and scopolamine. Add phenobarbital to that and you get Donnatal -- so while you are having a heart attack and telling the truth about it, at least you won't be getting cramps.

Note also that Datura is used in voodoo, hence --- zombies.

Anonymous said...

European witches combined it with belladonna, and sometimes hemp and/or opium, to make the infamous flying ointments. In Casteneda's writings it is also used to create the illusion that one is flying. It is also used in the ointment form there. As you state, ingestion is nearly always fatal.

snakespeak said...

Already had done it as a result of Carlos Castaneda. But, the experiments were conducted after hundreds of LSD, mescaline and psylocybe. The experience is highly conditioned based on culture, as all of them are.