Part of Tricycle's Fall 1996 Special Section on Buddhism & Psychedelics.
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With more than a little trepidation, my girlfriend Marion and I boarded a flight to Hawaii. Once buckled in, I fell into a deep and unusually restful sleep. Hours later, I raised the shade and, overcoming a blast of near-blinding light, peered out the small window. The palm-fringed handful of islands strewn in a random arc in the middle of the blue Pacific looked like the last grains from a weary sower’s hand. I remembered that it wasn’t for the black sand beaches and helicopter rides over volcanoes that I had made this journey. It was 1987, and my moment with a shaman was coming near. I had an appointment with yagé, the “vine of the soul.”
Walls of red sugarcane stalks lined the highway from the airport as we sped to the place of my appointment: a botanical reserve amidst climax rainforest on the slopes of the Mauna Loa volcano. The placid blue ocean stayed constant, while the scenery on the other side of the road turned dryer, harder, and darker, and the mileposts whizzed by. Finally, the land was just a solid black crust of once-liquid lava beds as far as the eye could see, resembling a black version of a lunar landscape. A volcanic haze called “vog” hung high in the horizon above the still-fiery Pele some twenty miles farther to the south.
We turned up an inland road, parked, and boarded a waiting jeep. As we climbed the bumpy road, we noticed hints of vegetation appearing here and there, leading to persimmon bushes, and then groves of ginger flowers, mango trees, and macadamia trees. As we entered the reserve area we found ourselves on the edge of a jungle, an overgrown thicket of kukui grass with spectacular ocean views peering between tall trunks of blossoming ohia trees.
The shaman, with a gray beard and wizened features, greeted us with some Kona coffee and showed us to our quarters. The appointed hour was drawing near, and after a short rest, we assembled on the porch to drink the yagé—a catalyst for perhaps the most powerful and intensely visionary experiences ever known.
The sun was setting over the jungle as I contemplated my glass of the pungent brew. An incredible amount of work went into producing this thick, dark chocolate-like drink. Yagé is brewed from the Banistereopsis caapi vine mixed with the leaves of the DMT-rich Psychotria viridis, plants that originate from the Amazon rainforest, but also thrive in Hawaii. They are boiled first separately and then together for over a week, requiring constant stirring and removal of pulp. The origin of the recipe is itself a mystery, and I wondered what the odds were on the Amazon Indians discovering this formula randomly through trial and error.
I had read the descriptions of encounters with yagé by contemporary Westerners in William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg's The Yagé Letters, the McKenna brothers’ The Invisible Landscape, and Andrew Weil’s The Marriage of the Sun and the Moon. Nothing, however, except perhaps Buddhist meditation practice, had prepared me for what followed after emptying my glass.
I kissed Marion goodbye and was shown to the tent that the shaman had set up for me farther into the jungle. He wished me luck, reminded me not to cling to any visions, delightful or horrifying, and disappeared into the night. The stars above were so bright and numerous that I couldn’t take my eyes off the night sky. I remembered a bit of unfinished business to do before losing motor control, and picked a spot in the ground in which to deposit my vomit when it came time. Still feeling normal, my gaze returned to the starry heavens.
I was expecting all hell to break loose any second, but what ensued was so subtle that I could hardly believe it was a function of the vine. As I stared at the star formations, I could suddenly see that these were not isolated stars but points of light on a giant body - the body of a massive spider. She moved her body ever so subtly, as if to offer confirming evidence of her existence. When the spider moved, all the sky moved in relation to her, and in scale the way the many legs of a real spider would actually move.
This didn’t feel like a hallucination at all, but more like a filter had been removed, and I was suddenly able to see the true nature of the sky. I was ecstatic, not from the drug, but from the honor and thrill of seeing the heavens in all of its true form, power, and beauty. My preoccupation with the animated, breathing sky above me was interrupted by a powerful feeling of being lifted off the ground. The next thing I knew I was staring closely at the dirt and hearing a torrent of matter fleeing my body, its stream forming one leg of a tripod, my hands the other two, as my legs flailed about straight up in the air. The sound of my wretching reverberated through the jungle like a call to the spirits for help. I had expected the vomit, but what mystified me was how I was being supported upside down as it gushed from my mouth.
The feeling of being drugged was definitely kicking in now, and I quickly found my way into the tent and lay down. Just before I was able to get horizontal, a light and color show began. I laid back and watched the most extraordinary colors vibrate and gyrate into fractals. The colors were unlike any I had ever seen, and they displayed themselves with the most remarkable intensity. They seemed unaffected by whether my eyes were open or closed, and the first feeling of fear set in. Was I blind? Would I ever see the real world again?
Growing tired of the swirling colors, I longed to see my raised hand or the inside of the tent. How could I have done this to myself? I kept wondering. Please let it be over, I prayed. But the journey had just begun, and the light show was the fun part. I struggled to turn my mind away from the compelling visions to the steady rhythm of my breath. Suddenly the sound of my breathing became almost ear-shatteringly loud, as if it was blowing across the surface of a distant planet, like a giant windstorm.
Then my body vanished, and only my mind and sensory impressions remained. Gradually the true meaning of this experience became clear—I was journeying to the end of my life. In the process, I came to grips with something I had no idea was true about myself—that I was completely unwilling to believe that death was real. Intellectually, I was aware, like everyone else, of the inevitability of death. But the reality of the very moment of death, the moment of my last breath, was not something I was willing to see. And then I saw it. I was back on Earth, standing in the mud outside my tent and staring disbelievingly at a corpse—my own. I picked up a hand and felt the cold weight of an arm that would never again move on its own, and dropped it back into the mud. I noticed a small trail of blood from its mouth across an unshaven and pale cheek dripping into the mud. All the while I heard my mind saying, “No, it’s not real, it’s just the drug,” but my eyes saw my lifeless body laying there, real as could be.
As if this wasn’t convincing enough for my persistent ego, I flashed on a scene in which I was driving by a cemetery, only to notice one tombstone standing out among the others. I read with total horror my own name chiseled across the tall granite slab. Images from my life flickered before me, first slowly, then in hyperspeed, and finally there was just blackness. Death was finally real and surrender was the only option. But why didn’t this voice I was hearing stop, and who, or what, was listening to it?