Was the Buddha a Shaman?

Talk presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, May 24, 2014.


Alexander Duncan

“many goals of the tantrikas were already realized much earlier historically – and much more comprehensibly – by the shamans.”

Claudia Muller-Ebeling et al., Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2002), p. viii.


In this talk, I will be discussing the question, “Was the Buddha a shaman?”. To address this question I will begin by explaining what shamanism is. I will then discuss why we might ask this question of the Buddha. That is to say, how is this question relevant to Buddhism? I will then proceed to a discussion of soma. Soma was the forgotten ecstatic plant medicine that was the central object of the Aryan Vedic cult that became the determining cultural influence of India after 1500 BCE. Thus, by definition it influenced Buddhism too. Next, I will compare the elements of the Buddha’s life and teachings to those of the classic archetype of the shaman. Finally, I will conclude with a discussion of the use of psychedelics in Buddhism. Please note that the question here is, “Was the Buddha a shaman,” not, “Did the Buddha or his entourage use or advocate the use of psychedelics?”. The latter is a much more complex question than the former. Nonetheless, the close association of shamanism and psychedelics and psychedelics and the Vedic dispensation is well-established and for that reason I will be discussing it. 


The word “shaman” is derived from the Tungus word, saman. It is etymologically related to the Sanskrit and Pali words for an Indian ascetic of the 5th and 6th centuries BCE, a shramana or samana. The word derives from shram, meaning “to heat.” Shamanism is especially associated with the northern steppes, close to the reputed origin of the Aryans, the creators of the Vedas and the initiators of the Vedic cultural complex that the Buddha inherited.  Shamanic ideological motifs and ecstatic techniques have also been identified in Asia, Africa, and America. This has led to the hypothesis that shamanism is the original prehistoric proto-spirituality of humanity.

The essential task of a shaman is the cultivation of the ecstatic trance journey. Through this journey, he experiences contact with intelligent entities. These entities take various forms. Some provide him with spiritual teachings, prophecies, and information. These include cures for the maladies of the people, including the experience of ecstasy itself. Thus, the shaman is the archetypal “wounded healer.” He becomes sick and then is healed by the same medicine that he offers to others. These entities are often described as “spirits.” The 19th century view that shamans are “mentally ill” has been discredited, but is still unfortunately widespread. Mircea Eliade has shown that shamans are the psychologically healthiest and most intelligent members of the community. They are “tricksters” for sure, but not in the vulgar sense of “fakes” (although of course there are fake shamans too).

The ecstatic trance state of the shaman may be induced in many ways. I have appended a list of 35 techniques to this talk. I codified these examples of technical methodologies for the induction of altered states of consciousness (ASCs) because of my study of shamanism during the 1990s. However, pre-eminently psychedelics have been used to induce this state, including ayahuasca, yage, iboga (ibogaine), soma, cannabis, etc. Although illegal in our “democratic” Western countries, it is still possible to experience these plant medicines in their indigenous cultural context in a few countries in the world, notably in Peru. These sacred plant medicines seem to enable the user to access higher dimensions of consciousness and other ontic levels of existence. Aldous Huxley, Terence McKenna, Graham Hancock, and others theorize that the discovery of psychedelics by pre-hominids led to the rapid evolution of the human neocortex, the so-called “stoned ape” hypothesis.

During the rest of this talk, I will explore the similarities between shamanism and samanism, known to antiquity as the Samanaeans a.k.a. Gymnosophists, followed by a discussion of the soma cult of the Aryans and its influence on late Vedic culture. Finally, we will compare the life and teachings of the Buddha to the archetypal pattern of the shaman. I will conclude with an overview of the use of entheogens by Buddhists.

You may also experience a bit of repetition since I recur to similar themes from different angles in order to make my various points and build up a comprehensive picture. 


When the Buddha abandoned his father, wife, child, home, and inheritance at the age of 29 – according to most modern scholars, about 453 BCE – he gave away his horse, stripped off his clothing, shaved his head, and adopted the brownish-orange robe of an Indian samana, probably scavenged from a charnel ground, as was the custom. Samanism was a non-Vedic, anti-Brahmanic Indian religious counterculture that was already well-established by the 5th century BCE. It originated in the 6th century and before. The Upanishads, the oldest of which appeared between 1200 and 800 BCE, influenced the samanas. The most recent Upanishads were written during the last several centuries BCE. Like the Upanishads, the samanas cast their minds back to a primordial spiritual philosophy coterminous with the origin of Indian civilization, hidden in the Vedas or even pre-Vedic. The samanas gave rise to yoga, Jainism, Buddhism, and the notions of samsara and moksha, but most of all to the proto-Shaivites, worshippers of Shiva. The practices of the Shaivites bear many resemblances to the samanas.  The Sanskrit word shramana, the origin of the Pali word, is derived from the root sram. This word has numerous meanings and connotations, including “to heat, roast, cook, ripen, mature, seethe, boil, conquer, subdue, overcome, make effort, exert oneself, labour, bake, sweat, rush, hurry” (Spoken Sanskrit Dictionary). Similarly, the Pali word for austerity, tapas, also means “heat.”

The Pali Canon contains detailed descriptions of the kinds of practices that the samanas, including the Buddha prior to his enlightenment, engaged in, including living and sleeping in charnel grounds or forests, torturing the body, self-starvation, cross-legged meditation, regulating the breathing, and various mental exercises designed to develop the will and detachment from pain and desire in the pursuit of spiritual emancipation or moksha. The Buddha took self-mortification, including eating his own excrement and subjecting the body to extremes of hot and cold, to the threshold of dying. The Buddha engaged in these practices prior to his enlightenment and attained a Kundalini-type illumination accompanied by severe physical pain. He also mastered the meditations corresponding to the “spheres” of nothingness and neither-perception-nor-non-perception (the top two planes of samsara). Although, after his enlightenment at the age of 35 (circa 447 BCE), the Buddha rejected the extreme aspects of the samana cult (hence the name of majjhima patipada or “middle way” for his teaching), many samana practices remained part of the Buddha’s teaching, including retiring to charnel grounds, meditating on death, poverty, chastity, and the practice of yoga.

The samanas exhibit many similarities with the later Shaivite cult. The origin of Shaivism is generally assigned to the Svetasvata Upanishad, which was written between 400 and 200 BCE. The Shaivites worshipped Shiva. Shiva was famous for consuming datura, cannabis, psilocybin (in this talk I will use the word psilocybin to include psilocin, to which psilocybin is converted in the body), and strychnine, as well as soma. The samanas also sat cross-legged, meditated, and practised many austerities. How extensive experimentation with plant medicines might have been amongst the samanas, and therefore how likely it is that the Buddha himself might have been exposed to it, is unknown to me at this point. Later Buddhism certainly incorporated Shiva himself in at least ten forms, including Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, who holds a flask of amrita, and Mahakala, a fearsome Buddhist protector, amongst others. The word samana is also the etymological origin of the English word “shaman.” The word “shaman” originates from the Tunguski Evenkii language of North Asia, but has been applied to a wide-ranging system of spiritual beliefs and practices that have been identified in Asia, Africa, Australasia, and the Americas. Many scholars believe that shamanism represents the Paleolithic proto-religion of humanity, from 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. The prehistoric cave paintings of France and Spain, which date from about 30,000 to 40,000 years ago, are highly consistent with modern representations of presumed spiritual, mystical, or ecstatic states. These include the cross-legged shaman of the Indus Valley civilization, known as Pashupati, the Lord of the Animals; the Celtic Cernunnos; the pictographs of Petroglyphs Park, located in Ontario, Canada; and modern ayahuasca visions. That such phenomena, widely diverse in time and space, exhibit such similarities is striking evidence of an underlying commonalty.


The Aryans are supposed to have progressively merged with and displaced the native Dravidian population over a period of several centuries about 1500 BCE. They are reputed to have emigrated from the northern steppes. They also practised shamanism in conjunction with the imbibition of the psychedelic soma drink, especially the rishis, the vatic seers to which the origin of the Vedic hymns are attributed.

1000 BCE is the threshold to the late Vedic period. For a reason that has yet to be satisfactorily explained, but may be related to migration or weather or environmental changes, the recipe for soma was lost and the ritual cult of Brahmanism developed a more rigid and authoritarian religious and social structure including the caste system and the oppression of women. This period was also a period characterized by a mythic war between two groups of divinities, the devas (“shining ones”) and the asuras (literally “lords” but interpreted based on an etymology which means “anti-gods”). The asuras seem to be associated with vast cosmic and natural powers older and more powerful than the devas (the explanation for why the devas were able to overcome them and cast them down from the Plane of the 33 Gods is that they were drunk, suggesting a connection between the downfall of the asuras and the forgetting of soma?). The asuras were cast down into the cosmic ocean where, together with the devas, they churn the cosmic ocean for soma. This mythos reminds me of the lotus that digs its roots deep into the slime. It is interesting that the asuras, who are now essentially demonic in nature, are still necessary for the production of soma. The Brahmans, no longer able to experience the original soma, substitute a relatively innocuous surrogate, made from a non-psychoactive vine or concoction made from herbs, grain, and saffron. The ritual replaced the reality, a point that the Buddha makes frequently. Thus, Vedic India is an example of a culture that is explicitly based on the cultivation of the psychedelic experience. It is a prime argument for the “stoned ape” hypothesis that psychedelics are responsible for the rapid evolution of the human neocortex and, indeed, human civilization itself. The Vedas themselves are the articulate expression of soma.

Professor Iravatham Mahadevan has identified a filter that he associates with soma usage, or some similar substance, during the Indus Valley period (3300–1300 BCE). The Indus Valley civilization was located in what is now northwest India and Pakistan. Cannabis may also have been smoked during this period. It also seems likely that the inhabitants of the Indus Valley, who had cultivated cattle for generations, were familiar with psilocybin, which grows on cow dung. The universal veneration of the cow in Indian culture is interesting in this context. The psychological effects of psilocybin are very similar to ayahuasca, the potent visionary medicine of the shamans of the Amazon.

The use of entheogens is also documented in the Oxus Valley civilization (2300–1700 BCE), the ancestors of the Indo-Iranians, located to the north of the Indus Valley civilization. This civilization shows evidence of the use of cannabis, poppy pollen, and ephedra in the context of ritual fire worship. Viktor Sarianidi regards this as a precursor of the soma/haoma cult (“haoma” is the Iranian term for soma). Strainers or filters like the ones found depicted on Indus Valley seals have also been identified.

Soma is associated with the chief of the Vedic pantheon, Indra. Indra drinks it insatiably and is also associated with mushrooms. Thus, soma is both the object and the source of the enlightenment of the rishis, the inspired ecstatic vates. The essence and source of their enlightenment is the soma sacrifice, called the agni-hotra. This sacrifice probably originally referred to the psychological death-rebirth experience, but subsequently became the sacrifice of a soma surrogate as a ritual object. Martin Haug, in his introduction of his translation of the Aitereya Brāhmanagrantha, recognizes the central significance of the soma rite:

Such expressions as, ’to make the Brahma,’ or to, ‘stir up the Brahma,’ (Brahma jinvati) throw some light on its nature.  They show (as in Taitiriya Brāhmanagrantha 1.1) that it was regarded as a latent power, like electricity, which was to be stirred up at the time of performance of a ceremony.  The apparatus were sacred vessels or the hymns or chants.  So at a certain ceremony at the morning libation of the Soma feast, the Adhvaryu and the Pratiprashthātra put the two grahas (Soma cups) together and address them (Tait. Br. 1.1), ‘May ye stir it up for me….’

‘The sacrificer wishes by means of the mystical process of the sacrifice to get hold of it, for only then he is sure of obtaining anything he might wish for….

Secret Drugs in Buddhism thus describes this rite:

Using 108 bricks, a hearth was constructed in the shape of a bird. within which priests would build a fire. An animal, tethered to a post was beheaded and the main part of the ritual began. The priests would lay out a leather mat and place upon it two circular grinding-stones. A certain plant was crushed between these stones with an admixture of milk or water to make an inebriating drink, which was then consumed. As this process allows no time for fermentation we must infer that soma (also called amṛita “immortality”) was a decoction of a psychoactive plant, and not alcohol.

One hundred and fourteen hymns of the ninth book of the Rigveda are dedicated to the god of soma. He is also referred to throughout the Vedas. The Yajurveda celebrates soma as the source of illumination and awakening:

I place thee that hast light.
I place thee that makest light.
I place thee that findest light.
I place thee that shinest.
I place thee that burnest.
I place thee that flashest.
I place thee that art aflame.
I place thee that blazest.
I place thee that art immortal.
I place thee that hast great light.
I place thee that awakenest.
I place thee that art awake

Soma is the source of the divine immortality. This mythos reappears in the Hebrew Bible, in which the Elohim (literally “gods”) cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden lest they eat of the tree of life and live forever, like the gods themselves. Soma, like the Buddha, is described as a royal Bull.

It seems safe to say that Indian spirituality in general and the Vedas in particular have their specific origin in the psychedelic experience. 

The Ancient Tradition

Since the Buddha was certainly a samana, one might, therefore, ask the question: Was the Buddha also a shaman? Is Buddhism shamanic? Since the characteristics of shamanism are well defined, answering this question should not be a hard task.

The Buddha himself refers to a forgotten, ancient tradition that he himself rediscovered in the current age. This is the dharma, the truth of things as they are or the cosmic order (rita). Similarly, the shaman enters the other world to obtain ontic knowledge. The Buddha could not be referring to Brahmanism or even the Vedas, which were well-known and which he explicitly rejected, but he may have been referring to something within the Vedas that had been forgotten (or hidden, because the Buddha also attacked secrecy), or even to a lost prior civilization. It is clear that during the late Vedic period the primordial spirituality of the Vedas was replaced by the dogmatic, superstitious, authoritarian, and oppressive regime of the Brahmans, who the Buddha criticizes and even derides frequently.

Mircea Eliade, author of the definitive study of shamanism, entitled Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, notes that “a first definition of this complex phenomenon, and perhaps the least hazardous, will be: shamanism = ‘technique of religious ecstasy’.” Therefore, the first question we must ask is, did the Buddha teach a technique of ecstasy?

The English word ecstasy is derived from Latin ex + PIE *sta, meaning ‘to stand.’ Thus, ecstasy means, “to put out of place.” In Pali, the English word “ecstasy” is translated as jhanam. This refers to the four jhanas. This term may also be translated as “trance” or “meditative state.” They were central to the practice of meditation as taught by the Buddha. Practitioners of jhana would retire into a remote, secluded place, including a charnel ground, where they would sit cross-legged and concentrate. A special object that was used as a focus of visualization, called a kasina, often induced this mental concentration. Isolation, hypomotility, concentration, awareness, and visualization are all techniques commonly found amongst practitioners of shamanism.

Shamanism is, primarily, a technique for altering consciousness in order to communicate with the spirit world. By means of this contact, the shaman brings back knowledge and benign power. This includes the therapeutic power to heal the spiritual ills of the people (ultimately, all ills in this worldview are spiritual). Similarly, when the Buddha achieved the experience of enlightenment, he remained in a deep trance state for an entire week. During this time, his body became physically rigid and he became impercipient. The Buddha’s original purpose was to discover the cure for the primary ill of humanity, dukkha or existential suffering. Similarly, the shaman brings back cures to heal the sickness of the people. During his enlightenment experience, the Buddha experienced intense visions of Mara that included various hallucinations and culminated in a conversation with the chief deva of the Brahma realm. The Buddha also stated that devas came to him at night and gave him teachings. The Buddha taught his disciples a wide variety of mental techniques for altering consciousness. These included the cultivation of the mental body. The mental body is a psychic projection of the physical body. In this state, one is able to experience other ontic realms inhabited by spirits and other deva beings. This is all explicitly documented in the Pali Canon. One need not invoke any Mahayana sutras or Tantras. It is, however, interesting to note that the teachings of the Buddha were subsequently merged with native magical and shamanic traditions that were already well established throughout the Himalayas, especially in Tibet.

Eliade identifies eight core beliefs of shamanism, as follows:

  1. Spirits exist and they play important roles both in individual lives and in human society.
  2. The shaman can communicate with the spirit world.
  3. Spirits can be good or bad.
  4. The shaman can treat sickness caused by malevolent spirits.
  5. The shaman can employ trance-inducing techniques to incite visionary ecstasy and go on vision quests.
  6. The shaman’s spirit can leave the body to enter the supernatural world to search for answers.
  7. The shaman evokes animal images as spirit guides, omens, and message-bearers.
  8. The shaman can perform other varied forms of divination, scry, throw bones/runes, and sometimes prophesy.

Similarly, the Buddha refers to devas or “spirit(ual) beings” whose lives intersect our own. These include relatively minor deities such as nature spirits, the great forces of nature, and sublime spiritual beings far more beautiful, intelligent, longer-lived, and powerful than we are. There are also great spiritual beings that range from indifferent to hostile toward humanity. Humans themselves are reputed to be descended from the radiant devas, who inhabit three deva-realms next above the brahma-realms, that are in turn the lowest realm of the Form World next above our Sensual World. They fly through the air as spherical globes of light, cohabit with us in our oldest cities, influence us mentally, and watch us. Not all devas are either benign or Buddhist. Certain devas, including the aforementioned asuras, actually oppose human spiritual progress. The Buddha stated many times that he communicated with beings of higher worlds and visit ed them there. Such beings also appeared to him and he received teachings from them.

Buddhism ascribes to the Buddha and the Buddha ascribes to himself the discovery of the cure for the essential problem of human suffering. Thus, the Buddha is the ultimate shaman-physician. The Buddha taught numerous techniques designed to alter consciousness in the pursuit of spiritual emancipation. The Buddha himself experienced trance for seven days during his enlightenment experience. Many of the Buddha’s techniques correspond to similar essential techniques used by shamans. The Buddha’s quest for enlightenment is tantamount to a vision quest. Eliade alludes to the importance of the shamanic crisis. This corresponds exactly to Gotama’s bringing himself to the threshold of death before his subsequent enlightenment. In the meditative state, the Buddha’s disciples are said to ascend to higher planes of existence. This is done by the cultivation of the mental body. The mental body is a simulacrum of the physical body projected by the imagination and used to experience other dimensions of consciousness and reality. The Buddha divinized natural forces such as the sun, wind, rain, etc. He referred to them as devas. He regarded animals as not dissimilar from human beings in terms of rebirth. Thus, he regarded the natural world as intimately interconnected. There is a long Buddhist tradition of reverence for the natural world that seems to go beyond simple compassion for suffering beings.  The power of truth (a.k.a. “truth magic”) is ascribed to the Buddha. This includes many psychic abilities also ascribed to shamans, including remembering past lives. A Buddha cannot lie. Therefore, he himself is used as a tool of divination. The Buddha’s reputation for wisdom made him into a kind of oracle. Nevertheless, the Buddha denied he could foretell the future.

The Use of Psychedelics in Buddhism

There are those who might object that the Buddha forbade the consumption of drugs. Didn’t he? We all know the fifth precept, Surā mera yamajja pamā daṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi. – “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented drink that causes heedlessness.” This is often extended to drugs, so one often reads in popular expositions of Buddhism that the Buddha also forbade consuming alcohol and non-prescription drugs. I have discussed this at some length in my book, Fundamental View. In fact, this passage refers to three specific types of alcohol, including one used in Ayurvedic medicine as an anesthetic. Hence, the qualification, “that causes heedlessness,” is probably a direct description of the effects of the drink. In other words, strong alcoholic drinks that cause heedlessness are forbidden. This offence is, moreover, a minor offence in the Vinaya. Often in the Pali Canon it is omitted from the list of precepts referring to not killing, not stealing, not committing adultery, and not lying. Clearly, this prohibition was never intended to include psychedelics, which the Buddha’s cultural tradition clearly regarded as sacrosanct.

The Buddha does not mention the use of psychedelics in his accounts of samana practices as far as I know. He did, however, choose to designate the uposatha, lit. “eve of the soma sacrifice,” as his “sabbath.” The days of the new and full moons are the Buddhist high holy days. The Buddha was also supposed to have been conceived, born, enlightened, and died on the day of the full moon. But why the moon? What does the moon have to do with anything? In the Rigveda, the moon is regarded as the cup of soma. This moon-cup is drained by the gods and refilled every month. Hence the symbolism. It is possible that the symbolism of the number seven is also derived from this lunar symbolism, seven days being the length of a lunar phase in the lunar calendar (a lunar month is 28 days, 4 x 7). Similarly, the four phases of the Tantric initiation rite seem to be designed to correspond to the four stages of psychedelic intoxication. R. Gordon Wasson has also suggested that the Buddha’s final meal of “pig’s delight,” which has always troubled scholars, was in fact a psychedelic mushroom. Wasson speculates that this was in fact a medicine intended to heal the Buddha of his terminal illness, which is why the Buddha said that it is a meal fit only for Buddhas and instructed it to be buried in the ground. It is certainly possible that the Buddha experienced psychedelics. The samanas, like the Buddha, were deliberately recalling a pre-Brahmanic, even pre-Vedic, experiential spirituality based on direct knowledge or gnosis.

Buddhism does not refer to the Vedic soma as such. Rather, it uses the word “amrita,” a close synonym. Literally, amrita means “deathless” or “immortal,” whereas soma itself means “moon.” Vajrayana Buddhism uses this sacrament extensively: the consumption of amṛita in some form initiates all its important rites. Amrita originally referred to a combination of the fly agaric mushroom and psilocybin. Later it came to refer to a specifically Buddhist mixture of five psychoactive herbs. As in Brahmanism, it was also visualized or an innocuous surrogate was imbibed in place of the real thing (rather as sexual intercourse is imagined in the right-hand path instead of being actually engaged in as in the left-hand path so-called).  During the fire ritual, while intoning mantras, the Brahmans ground the soma plant between two stones. Mixing the resulting mash with water or milk, they used the wool of a sheep to filter the mixture, offered a small amount to the gods by pouring it into the flames, and then consumed the remainder. It is clear that the original purpose of this ritual was to induce a psychedelic vision of the mandala, culminating in an actual experience of, and ultimately union with, its deity. This ritual is now rarely performed. When it is performed, the soma that is consumed is no longer psychoactive. Today in Tibet barley beer is substituted for amrita. Thus, Buddhist soma has suffered the same fate as Vedic soma. ASCs are still cultivated, however, the prime example being the Nechung Oracle, the State Oracle of Tibet, who is possessed by Dorje Drakten. In this state, he advises the Dalai Lama. Dorje Drakden is the chief minister of Gyalpo Pehar. Gyalpo Pehar is the chief of the realm of the Four Great Kings. This refers to the deva realm next above our own, associated with the slopes of Mount Sumeru, the symbolic projection of the earth plane. I have discussed this symbolism at some length in my talk, “Near-Earth Realms, Fallen Angels, and Human Beings in Buddhist Cosmology.”

Tantric initiates are permitted to attend the ganachakra. This refers to a Tantric feast performed twice a month, just prior to the new and full moons. Traditionally these were held in cemeteries and cremation grounds. Male and female celebrants sit in a circle, sing, chant, and utter prophecies, while eating meat and drinking the fivefold amrita. There was also dancing, strangely similar to the European traditions concerning the witches’ covens. This amrita was symbolically said to consist of urine, feces, brains, blood, and semen.

In my discussion of Soma I mentioned the churning of the world ocean by the devas and asuras, who together distil out the sacred soma. The Tibetans have another version of this myth, derived from Shaivite sources. In this myth, amrita is stated to be the antidote to halahala. Halahala is a demonic poison that results in death, perhaps a metaphor for death itself, as amrita is a metaphor for deathlessness – a term that the Buddha uses throughout the Pali Canon as a synonym for emancipation! After a series of events that I will not describe in detail, it results that the amrita appears all over the earth in the form of plant medicines. These plant medicines come from the demon blood of Rahu, the serpent god associated with the lunar eclipse. Interestingly, this is also the name that the Buddha gives his son. In the Pali Canon, Rahu attacks the sun and the moon but is compelled to release them by their intoning of a mantra (see the Candima and Suriya Suttas in the Samyutta Nikaya). In the Tibetan tradition, Padmasambhava subjugated Rahu. The persistent association of soma/amrita with the serpent, suggestive of the Hebrew story of Genesis, aforementioned, is also interesting in view of the universal association of the serpent with Kundalini or chthonic energy. Soma/amrita is also associated with the demonic and the telluric.  It is also noteworthy that the origin of the terrestrial amrita is the sky, which accords with Terrence McKenna’s thesis that the origin of psilocybin is extraterrestrial.

There are explicit references in the Tibetan literature to the use of plant medicines as a legitimate mode of spiritual practice. For example, the Golden Rosary of Tara refers to a farmer who took Tara as his meditation deity. “When he dug in the earth and cried “Phu! Phu!” [i.e. “Hiss! Hiss!”] the gate of Pātāla [the subterranean world] itself opened. Entering the place of the Nāgas [serpent deities], he drank the amrita he found there. Thus, he became like a rainbow body.” The attainment of the rainbow body or “body of light” is of course the ultimate accomplishment of Dzogchen, corresponding to the creation of a “mental body” referred to in the Pali Canon.


In this talk, I have addressed five topics in relation to the question, “Was the Buddha a shaman?”, viz., Shamanism, Samanism, Soma, the Ancient Tradition, and Psychedelics in Buddhism. I have shown that shamanism is the primordial experiential spiritual tradition of humanity that therefore underlies all human spirituality, including, therefore, the dharma. I have compared shamanism with samanism, the proto-Shaivite yogic cult that the Buddha is said to have practised for six years prior to his enlightenment. I have shown that although the Buddha repudiated certain aspects of samanism, specifically, extreme mortification of the body, he was also influenced by it and continued to emphasize samana practices in his post-enlightenment teaching. This included meditating in charnel grounds and meditating on death. I have also compared the archetypal pattern of the shaman with the life and teachings of the Buddha, and shown consistent, profound, and pervasive parallels between the two. I have discussed the Vedic sacrament of soma and its Buddhist analogue, amrita, in the context of the Pali Canon as well as the later Buddhist cult of Vajrayana. Although I have found no conclusive evidence that the Buddha used or recommended the use of psychedelics, it seems unlikely that he did not know about them, entrenched as they are in Indian culture. As a samana, it is at least possible that he experienced them. However, insofar as shamanism is concerned, the correspondences between the life and teachings of the Buddha and the prototypical cult of shamanism are too fundamental and too pervasive to deny that the Buddha does in fact conform to the shamanic pattern.


Primary Experiential Techniques of Shamanic and Spiritual Experience

(the sequence in which they are listed is more or less arbitrary)

0  Death/near-death experience

1  Concentration

2  Entrainment

3  Hypostimulation

4  Empowerment

5  Ordeals (crises)

6  Imagination

7  Drugs

8 Purification (asceticism)

9  Breathing (breath work)

10  Posture

11 Reversal (confusion)

12 Indoctrination

13 Dreaming (dream work)

14  Devotion

15  Hypermotility

16  Ritual

17  Standardization of the sensory field (monotony)

18  Focusing of attention

19  Chanting (mantra)

20 Isolation

21 Introspection

22 Relaxation

23 Chastity (sexual abstinence)

24  Fascination

25  Monotonous rhythmic stimulation

26  Sonic driving

27  Pain stimulation

28   Self-control

29  Kinesthetic awareness

30 Visualization

31  Hyperthermia

32   Sacrifice

32bis Hypomotility

31bis  Sexual excitation


2.6 my BP–10,000 BP: Paleolithic period
3300–1300 BCE: Indus Valley civilization
2300–1700 BCE: Oxus Valley civilization (Bactria–Margiana Archaeological Complex, BMAC)
1500 BCE: Aryan incursion
1500–1200 BCE: Rigveda
1200–800 BCE: Earliest Upanishads
1000–500 BCE: Late Vedic period (Brahmanism)
6th–5th cent. BCE: samana movement
c. 480–400 BCE: Siddattha Gotama the Buddha
400–200 BCE: Svetasvata Upanishad (earliest Shaivite text)

 Additional Quotations

“This transmission dissolves the student’s mind into the mind of the teacher of the lineage.” Chogyam Trungpa

“By the power of this nectar [i.e. amṛita], a burning-like blissful feeling and warmth is generated within you; thus the Initiation of Wisdom is attained by you.” Initiation Ritual of the Fierce Guru

“Hindu scholar Agehananda Bharati called attention to how the traditional phases of a tantric ritual may be intended to synchronize with the effects of a drug. In his example, the ritual was the Hindu rite of maithuna (i.e. tantric sex) and the drug was bhang (a cannabis drink) but the same principles may well apply here.”

“If we accept Trungpa’s description, drinking amṛita (at least in its original formulation) produces psychedelic effects which first begin to manifest by the end of the second abhiṣeka. As the effects of the amṛita continue to intensify, the student is introduced to philosophical concepts of increasing subtlety in two further abhiṣekas. When the effects are at their peak, the student (now an initiate) experiences the mahāsukha (“great bliss”) of non-duality and finally, with the fourth abhiṣeka, breaks through into the state of ‘suchness’.” Secret Drugs in Buddhism


Eliade, Mircea (1964). Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy. Bollingen Series LXXVI. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Godbole, Ravindra (accessed 2014, May 20). “Indus Civilization, Vedic Literature, and Soma.” Chapter 12 of The Meaning of Vedas. http://www.themeaningofvedas.com/CHAPTER%2012.htm.

Richard Gombrich (1974). “Eliade on Buddhism.” Religious Studies, 10, 225-231. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034412500007447.

Manné, Joy (accessed 2014, May 19). “Was the Buddha a Shaman? Buddhism, Shamanism and the Nature of Consciousness. http://www.joymanne.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/Was-the-Buddha-a-Shaman-Buddhism-Shamanism-and-the-Nature-of-Consciousness-131010.pdf.

Secret Drugs of Buddhism (accessed 2014, May 19). http://secretdrugs.net.

Wilkins, W.J. (1900). “Soma.” Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, Chapter 8.  http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/hmvp/hmvp12.htm.


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