What is the reason for abstaining from all mind-altering substances?

Q: I’m curious! What is the reason for abstaining from all mind altering substances? Doesn’t everything alter the mind? For instance, food and drink. Most neurotransmitters, like the ones psychedelics cause the brain to release, are byproducts of bacteria in our gut whose populations vary with the type of food we eat. And hydration affects us too. For instance, I once accidentally went without water for a long time, and I experienced a wild state of paranoia. My mind felt altered in a big way until I rehydrated. But the extreme situation made me conscious of the way that water could affect my mind, and how even small variations in the amount I drink each day are likely leading to subtle changes in my experience.

Thank you for the reminder to reflect on all sides of the psychedelic conversation. This video[one uploaded to YT] was a challenging one for me to sit with, as I’m among those who believe my life was saved by psychedelics. This belief encourages me to seek help and be open to medicine, but it also comes with its own attachments in believing there is something outside myself that I could need.

A: [Jayasara] Thanks for your open and honest curiosity and questioning. It reflects wisdom and honesty in the way you relate to this issue and grapple with it. In terms of why the Buddha encouraged his disciples to abstain from all intoxicants, the reason is multi-layered and should not be seen as a “commandment” or moral mandate, which is only a superficial reaction to this guideline. I could write screeds on it, but I will endeavor to keep it succinct.

You touched on the very heart of the reason in referring to your “extreme” situation of dehydration and the results that came from that. The essence of the Buddha’s teaching was the middle way Dhamma and avoiding extremes of sensual indulgence and asceticism. This he learnt and taught based on his own experience. Taking intoxicants and powerful mind altering substances would be considered an extreme and give rise to mind states (many of them negative) which over-power us and could lead to careless actions that create negative karma. This is the primary reason he laid this down as a precept… out of compassion and wisdom to protect us from creating negative results.

The other factor, as you intimated in relation to psychedelics, relate to dependency on a substance to see into Truth and Dhamma. If we believe we have to take a substance to see Reality it can make us weak and we lose confidence in our own inner Guru. We have to develop and sustain this inner wisdom naturally in all circumstances and situations with a clear, unaffected and undeluded mind in order to realise Liberation. Drugs may offer some sort of a temporary glimpse, but more often it is mixed with much delusion that is present in the mind of the person ingesting them. Many may think they are enlightened because they saw something or felt something, or understood something under the power of the substance. We are simply compounding the delusion. Again, the reason to abstain is to help, not hinder the person. Compassion informs this decision, not condemnation.

Lastly, the deepest reason to abstain relates to the Absolute Truth of reality. When one begins to understand emptiness, even just intellectually, one understands that everything is just a reflection of one’s own mind, and that all phenomena are essentially illusory and insubstantial. What one experiences on a ‘trip’ is simply one’s own mind writ large. They can bring up all the dark shadows, demons, fears, ecstasies, joy, love, etc. that lay dormant within the mind in a seed form. Depending on the content that arises in consciousness, it will likely give rise to desire or aversion in an ordinary mind/person and keep us bound to the illusion of samsara. If one keeps chasing these experiences it shows that one hasn’t understood the very nature of the mind itself and the deepest reality of emptiness. It is more urgent to understand the context of the mind and the way it works, and not be fooled by appearances and what arises and ceases in it.

When one sees this clearly, then everything in ‘ordinary’ consciousness is the path and we realise we are constantly on a kind of psychedelic trip in this dreamworld! No need for substances when you understand this deeply. It is easier to free ourselves from this illusion when we can breathe easy, feel relaxed, and not be overwhelmed by extreme visions, feelings, sensations, etc. whether they be of the terrifying or ecstatic variety. These arise naturally in the meditator/practitioner to face anyway. But (ideally) we have a calm, clear, equanimous, and centered mind to do this wisdom work for the benefit of all sentient beings. Love and compassion informs our way of practice and we are grateful for the natural mind and okay with whatever arises and ceases in each mind moment. No desire to intensify, change, or escape the present moment via extreme measures informs all our actions. The ‘manipulator’ and ‘controller’ dies a natural and quiet death through wisdom-insight. However, this asks for renunciation, patience, wisdom, faith; and a slow, quiet, spacious and uncluttered mind in order to purify all the obscurations required for liberation.

I hope these reflections might be helpful.