Magical practice

An interview with Dale Pendell

This is a transcript of a small discussion with botanist-poet Dale Pendell, a long-time practitioner of Zen Buddhism and the occult, a student of the legendary intellectual Norman O. Brown, and — as they say — a graduate of Dr. Hofmann. It took place at the World Psychedelic Forum in Basel, Switzerland, on 23rd March 2008. A small group of people who’d just attended Dale’s talk on Zen and psychedelics gathered round a table in the busy foyer, and Dale created a focused bubble of attentiveness with his measured, colourful discourse.

I’ve not bothered transcribing the group’s questions in full, as they’re often hard to decipher; the gist is here.

Videos / podcasts of the formal talks that Dale delivered at the Forum can also be found on the web: ‘Plant Teachers and the Path of Eve‘ and ‘Psychedelics and Zen Buddhism‘. The original recording of this discussion is on Soundcloud.

[Question about who taught DP about the occult in Los Angeles.]

Dale Pendell: His name’s not really important. He kind of hid his traces, because he insisted on being without credentials. Anytime I would look for credentials, like, “Where did you get your Zen training, Carl?” “Why do you ask? Is that gonna make you believe something I say?” So he would never tell me. But he had a personal teacher. What he taught was the importance of a personal teacher. His personal teacher was a woman named Mary. And that’s as far back as I know the transmission. But I get a sense of high knowledge being passed on that way: through personal relationships, with some occult structure overt.

I don’t know, he was able to walk in and out of Zen temples like he belonged there. He was an artist, and sat with Suzuki, Roshi in San Francisco, and they palled around like old friends. When Trungpa came to town, they palled around like old friends—he was his driver for a while. Every place he went, he liberated people; he gave people permission. He constantly violated expected behaviour, and laughed a lot. I still consider him my true teacher. I would like to be able to give people permission the way he did.

So, I can’t speak for any occult tradition. I just know there are transmissions of higher knowledge.

[Question about what specific traditions or techniques of magical practice DP uses.]

Very eclectic. But I certainly look to general magical theory, magical dynamics and magical laws. So I would look to… I mean I read Crowley, and Lévi… I mean, it was harder to find stuff, back in the sixties. From the poetic tradition, like the charming song tradition of the Inuits, where charms are like spells. They had different kinds of songs; one group of songs you sing just for the joy of seeing the sun rise, or fresh snow on the ground or something. And then there’s the songs of derision that you sing to make fun of somebody. And they would share all these songs. But one class of songs they wouldn’t share at the “songfest”, and those were charming songs. Charming songs were meant to change, like change the weather, renew luck.

So I kind of combine those any way I can. I kind of feel my way into it, sensing, trying to feel or see, sense the presence someplace.

I have a favourite story. An anthropologist was talking to his Native American informant at the edge of a field, and he said, “So, I suppose you think that all of these rocks out there in the field are alive?” And his informant goes, “No… But some of them are!” The art is in the “some of them”, and figuring out which ones.

Working with charms, and remembering that if you use magic, you are vulnerable to it… It’s very delicate work. Like Marí­a Sabina said, relations with the mushrooms are muy delicado—very delicate.

[Mention of DP’s characterization, in his talk, of tobacco as a “diplomat”.]

Tobacco is good. It brings up certain questions. That is, we’re all kind of rational, educated. What difference could it really make to the world to leave a tobacco offering at the base of a plant? What difference could it make to say grace before a meal? How is that really going to change the world in any way? In fact, maybe you can just skip the whole meal, and just swallow a pill or something, and get on with what’s really important.

There is perhaps some step of faith here. That doing something beautiful, something proper, that seems to put the world in balance, is a worthwhile thing to do, and makes a change in the universe.

I have a poem on this subject. In poetry and literary criticism, they have something called the “pathetic fallacy”. Pathetic fallacy is when you say, “The sky was weeping.” Giving human emotions to inanimate things. I think they haven’t gone far enough. So I’m for what I call the cosmic fallacy. This is called ‘Last Specimen’, it’s about plant collecting, pressing [????] specimens.

In the bank of a gravely wash
A mile from the road in Saline Valley
I found the desert paintbrush.
Not a rare plant
Just one I didn’t have in my collection.
The brilliant scarlet-tipped bracks of the inflorescence
Were still enfolded.
Kneeling down, I gently pulled them open
To inspect the corolla
And then saw, still a child.
It’s not that anyone else would come by here
But that you live to blossom
Alone, here, beneath an empty sky
Does mean that somewhere a soldier won’t die
Or that on a dried planet somewhere in Cygnus
It will rain.
And I return with an empty press.

And all the people who have lived close to the earth for a long time seem to respect these rites and rituals. They feel a sense of gratitude. God, even Nietzsche said, “A sense of gratitude is seemly.” Our existence here rests on many lives who have gone before us, generations of people. And not only people; all sorts of beings that have lived, and suffered, and died, and micro-organisms creating even the air that we breathe, and the topsoil, and all of it. So every day of our lives is a gift of countless generations that have provided it, for our benefit. So a sense of gratitude is right, and it is good to give something back. It’s good to take a moment to place an offering, or a word or something. Ultimately I don’t think we can prove this. But I say, the other side can’t prove their way either. It comes down to a wager. And I put my wager on a green square, and to do these things, to find a way to move in beauty ourselves, does change the world. It’s the only way we can change the world.

So, that’s a long way of saying that that’s the ultimate basis of my magic. [laughs]

[A question about Zen, psychedelics, koans and healing.]

I’ll come back to that. I have one more thought on magic, another kind of magic that I dabble in. And that’s charms to change things. I call it demon work. Principles of working with demons, getting to know them. It all revolves around this business of diplomacy. So, give them a place to go. You can make a little shrine for your demons, and it’s good if you can name them. I have one called “She’ll Be Hurt” that’s stopped me from doing all kinds of things that had nothing to do with “she” or “her”[?]. Then I learned she had a big sister called “She’ll Be Angry”. [laughter]

In that way I invoke a being I call “The Great Fuck-You Bodhisattva”. The Great Fuck-You Bodhisattva sits with his middle finger up, and he looks like an ape. I made a clay model of him, he’s got big nails sticking out of his head, and I have this shrine with this incense for him. Anybody who has a worse inner critic than I have has either quit writing, committed suicide-or both! So when I get the voices saying, “You’re not good enough to do that”, I get to where I can recognize it, and go “Aha!” I go over to the Great Fuck-You Bodhisattva, put a stick of incense in, and get on about my business.

I even made a scourge at one point, very wicked-looking. Magic has to with changing reality, so you do physical manipulations. So I made a scourge, a cat o’ nine tails with these leather thongs and twisted, very wicked-looking pieces of wire on them, and wrote all kinds of stuff on it (in blood actually), like, “Bring it to the surface”; or “You’re doing it to yourself anyway”. And when I would get a critic attack, all these voices saying, “You’re kind of fucked up” or “You can’t do it”… “Aha!” I would go get the scourge. And go, “Right! I get it! Thank you!” [mimes hitting himself over the back]

I look on all those operations as magical operations. It’s a wonderful field to be creative in. All good art is magic. All the best art is magic. So you can use aesthetic criteria to help find your way.

[A question about precautions necessary in “unbinding magic”.]

I’m not sure it’s a problem with unbinding. Unbinding is not really… You’re not asking for something for yourself. It’s like releasing a bird. I think the dangerous magic is when you’re trying to get something for yourself; that’s a binding magic. Or trying to hurt somebody else. Any of those things, the vibration, the colour of it is so different, you can feel it right away. The best unbinding magic is invisible, there’s nothing there that anything can catch on; you can draw teasel through it. That’s the goal, and we come as close to it as we can. We usually end up with something that things still catch on, cling to; but that’s the ideal.

[Questioner remarks that in unbinding there is sometimes resistance, that things seem to prefer to stay bound.]

[sighs] Yeah. [long pause] The ocean is salty because of Kwan Yin‘s tears, when she realized she could not really save any beings. That’s what I heard. Any being at all.

[A return to the question of koans and healing, advice on koan practice.]

Sure, I’ll be bad. Go right into koan practice. Why not accept several hundred obstructions right away? [laughs] They help you get unobstructed! Koans are quite wonderful, there’s a lot of misconceptions about koan practice. Like, some people think, they don’t really have answers, you just have to do something spontaneous, or they have strange ideas about the answers. But there’s hundreds of them, and many of them are quite specific. Some actually have particular presentations. Maybe you’ll come up with a variation or something, and your teacher will say, [uncommitted, slightly dismissive tone] “Yeah, that gets the point.” Then he’ll say, “But the traditional answer is so-and-so.” And you always go, “Ah yes, that hits it right on the head.”

They’re kind of like brain candy. Very seductive. They’re meant to absorb your whole power of thought and mind, attention. Doesn’t that sound like fun? [laughs]

Not all Zen schools use them. The Soto schools don’t really use them, but in Rinzai Zen and some of [????], there’s a transmission.

[Questioner asks about koans and tripping.]

Like, my intention for that trip is to solve a koan? I don’t know of any rules. If you’re working with a teacher, he gives you a koan. You go back to your cushion… “OK, OK, sound of one hand, what’s that?” You go back to the teacher, and you present your answer. And he’ll probably go, “Hmmm, back to the cushion. Sit with this some more.”

Some of the great teachers worked on the first koan for years. One was about to kill himself, he worked on it for seven years. All of his friends had already solved it, you know, they were all whipped off to be Buddhists someplace. He was about to jump off a balcony or something… when he got it. He went on to be the great Mumon.

It becomes so all-encompassing. It should be, good practice; to where it’s all you think about, all the time, it’s what you’re thinking about. That’s good, that’s the way it should be.

So, tripping at such a time… I don’t know. It wasn’t my way. Maybe some people have gotten answers that way. Salvia divinorum has the best shot, I think. But the best is just going back and focusing on it, on your cushion. But one never knows, and there’s no rules on this-so, whatever works. It’s probably wise to try the way that people have been doing it for a long time.

Laura Pendell: Or it’s like the story you told about Gary [Snyder]. He came up with the perfect answer…

DP: Yeah, he came up with the perfect answer, that’s what it usually seems… Marijuana seems to do that, too. You get “perfect answers”—but it’s not the point of the koan.

Go work on this some more. [sly laugh]

[Question about the use of psychoactives in Buddhist history.]

Tea. They made an early alliance. In fact, tea is even said to be Bodhidharma’s eyelids. He fell asleep, and he was so upset that he ripped his eyelids off so he wouldn’t fall asleep again. He threw them behind him and they grew into the first tea plants.

[Someone thanks DP for his books introducing them to the pleasures of tea.]

The interesting thing is that all the major religions have abandoned whatever use of entheogenic substances that they once had. Sometimes I’ll think about why… Going back and reading early accounts of psychedelic administration, even Oscar Janiger, who collected hundreds and hundreds of accounts, made a point of giving LSD to people for the first time without them knowing anything about it, without them knowing what to expect, because he was collecting information. Almost everybody felt positive about it. About a third of them had bad trips… I don’t know, it’s very time-consuming, it goes all over the place. So we find lots of traces of entheogenic substances at the origins of religion, and in tribal religions, shamanic religions. All of the cosmopolitan schools have abandoned them, except for the saddhus. Who else?

[A woman in the group talks about finding motivation, about having interest in psychology and writing and helping the world, but feeling lost and directionless. She starts crying halfway through, telling DP she feels she trusts him. She has to support her family but nothing seems to have sense, the world doesn’t need her help.]

Maybe try some of this magic stuff? Leaving a little flower offering, or tobacco offering at four cardinal points, or by your door every day. It doesn’t take much, some of the old ones said, to push the world over into the right direction. It just needs a little help, from you. There’s nothing you have to write[?]. Just leave a little offering; something that makes the world a little more beautiful. If we can get out without making the world worse, we have succeeded. That’s all we need to do, is find a way not to make things worse. That’s good enough.

Add a little bit of beauty someplace. You will see. It is OK to be in this state; it’s a very good place. A very good place. It’s very open, you’re kind of stretching out this open moment. Spiritual teachers have a word for that, they call it acedia. It’s like the “dark night of the soul”, it’s this point of not recognizing your own way, your own worth, just where you are in the spiritual process. But it’s a very pregnant and rich point. So, stretching that out is… painful. But it’s very good. Something very good, something very good is going to happen to you. Lay out a nice offering; invite the good spirits in: “Here’s some flowers for you. Here’s some hazelnuts.” I don’t know.

[An American woman says, “You think the world doesn’t need your help? I live in a country that needs a lot of help.”]

[A question about the relationship of the psychoactive effects of the poppy to Zen practice.]

Wow. That’s a very esoteric question! I’ll have to think about it to make a connection; I’m sure there’s a way to do it… What I think of with the hallucinogenic effects of poppies is Greek healing, and the temple of Apuleius, where with a drink from the poppy, sick people would go in to have dreams-and the dream would reveal to them why they were sick.

If you approach it right-you know, you have to walk through the door the right way, you don’t want to offend the gods. Again, it’s a matter of ritual propriety. Confucius made a big deal of ritual propriety—what’s the Chinese word, li? I think so. It’s one of the foundations of his whole system, you can almost feel that it’s a carry-over from the older animistic traditions. Ritual propriety. Keeping everything clean with the spirits—that’s what you want to do. That’s the basic magical law.

María Sabina with the leaves, and Eve in Paradise Lost, that’s ritual propriety. With the Salvia leaves, it becomes almost palpable. If you have stems with some parts that are left over, you wouldn’t just throw them out anywhere, that would be shocking, you know? The great Japanese flower masters would dig graves, dig a little hole in a special place to put the old flowers in. You don’t just put them anywhere. And this matter of ritual propriety is much neglected by our culture. There’s no sense of presence… In the animistic world there are spirits that live in streams and trees and rocks and places, little nooks, this little nook has its spirit. People who’ve lived close to the earth for a long time all seem to have some sense of the presences around, and recognition that they do not want to offend that presence. It would be a desecration. Our culture kind of moved all that, had it taken out of the environment and boxed up in the Kirche, in the church, where it’s clear, that’s a sacred space and you wouldn’t think of throwing trash on the ground in the church. That’s pretty clear. We have it all boxed into this special place, but it’s in all of Earth’s places around us. This matter of presences is again one of the fundamental principles of all shamanic magic. You can kind of build the whole system up pretty much from that. Recognizing that there’s presences, you don’t want to offend them, you want to keep them in balance, and trying to find propriety.

If you don’t always know, you need to come up with some means of divination. Divination is another neglected art, it’s a kind of hazy area. It’s still a big part of our world, but we pretend that it’s… We flip a coin at sporting events-who goes first? That was to get the will of the gods. What do the gods have to say about this? Now we call it “chance”.

When you talk about using tobacco, how do you use it? Offering, or smoking?

You don’t have to smoke it. Tobacco offerings are very traditional; tobacco moved around the world very quickly after Columbus.

[A question about the tobacco industry and chemical additives.]

Well, you can’t look to me for purity. [laughter] I do grow tobacco, and it’s very good to grow one’s own magical plants. Kat [Harrison] made the point in her talk [on her fieldwork with the Mazatec Indians in Mexico] that with sacred medicines, any shaman wants to know who’s touched them, where they came from, their history. And making magical objects, the materials, and the history of the materials is all very important. You don’t want to get boorish on this, but the more you can refine that, the further you can trace that out, the more powerful the magic is gonna be, and it’ll probably be better art, also.

[Question about tobacco as an offering.]

Yeah, and you can use it as a purifier. Smoke some, burn some on charcoal and you can clean things. It’s very famously used as a cleaner. You can clean bad vibes off something with tobacco.

Something else I’ve found is good for cleaning bad vibes I learned from the Chinese, which is firecrackers. Wanna get the bad spirits out? That’ll work. Whole strings of them, let ’em off all at once!

There’s a great wealth of lore, ways different peoples dealt with things for a long time. Much of it is neglected, but we can still find these very useful things.

And if magical thinking goes against your grain because you’re educated, and you don’t want to be superstitious, look at it as art, use aesthetic principles. Look at it as art and theatre, and you can do the same thing that way.

[Question about magical propriety and sacred space in dense urban environments.]

It is more challenging, yeah, but you can use all the same principles. I’m kind of “seat of the pants”, so I started hanging yarrow in the door. Something like that. In the sixties we all made these gods’ eyes. I still have one—shows how bad I am. I’m sure there are lots of people who do stuff like that. Over huge parts of the world people have all these charms and amulets as protection against the Evil Eye. So yeah, start with charms and amulets. I like yarrow, that’s good.

I don’t know what to do about sound. You’ll think of something. [laughs]