Can ingesting cannabis help your spiritual practice? Many have argued it can. Cannabis has been used as a spiritual aid around the globe from India to China since ancient times, and even has a lengthy history of spiritual use here in America. Now, the use of marijuana is slowly being legalized state by state in the U.S., with seven states and the District of Columbia legalizing the recreational use of the drug, while a majority of the remaining states have legalized cannabis for medical use.

But there are signs that cannabis use for spiritual practice is again on the rise in the U.S. “Marijuana use has played a role in the ever-growing segment of the U.S. population who consider themselves religious or spiritual at a personal level, but do not subscribe to the doctrines of organized religion,” says Robert C. Fuller, PhD, a professor of religious studies at Bradley University and author of 13 books, including Stairways to Heaven: Drugs in American Religious History.

Cannabis as a Spiritual Tool

Fuller says there are three main reasons that cannabis is seen as a spiritual tool. First, “It is a light intoxicant and can therefore be used fairly frequently and without the kinds of impairment associated with major hallucinogens.” Second, he says cannabis is conducive to group social use and fosters conversation about philosophical and theological matters. Finally, Fuller says cannabis weakens our ability for sustained attention. This might be terrible for taking a math test or operating heavy machinery, but it’s great for aiding in shifts of perspective and giving experiences a more pluralistic character. “Individuals thereby ‘discover’ that there is no one single truth, but many perspectives. Experience seems symbolic and loaded with multiple meanings, multiple perspectives, multiple truths,” Fuller says.

This last aspect of marijuana’s effects seems the driving reason the drug has been used for spiritual practice by sects within Tibetan Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Sufism, and a multitude of other religious groups for millennia.

Cannabis History: 101

One of the better-known groups to use cannabis as a spiritual tool in the modern west is the Rastafarians, a Jamaican nationalist movement that emerged in the 1920s and ’30s. “The Rastafarians believe marijuana, or ganja, helps produce visions, heighten unity and communal feelings, dispel gloom and fear, and bring tranquility to the mind of the dispossessed,” Fuller says.

In India, many religious groups, such as Buddhists, Naths and Shaivites, use cannabis in their meditation practices as a way to stop the mind and enter a state of profound stillness, also called samadhi. Tantric Buddhists of the Himalayas use cannabis to facilitate deep meditation and heightened awareness. In fact, spiritual texts such as the Buddhist Tara Tantra list cannabis as an important aide to meditation and spiritual practice.

Because of its spiritual properties, cannabis is also considered the favorite herb of one of Hinduism’s most important gods, Shiva. Worshipers of Shiva, yogis and ascetics use the drug to aid in their sadhana, or spiritual practice. To this day, a cannabis-infused drink called bhang is widely used in spiritual practice in India and cannabis is so important in Benaras, the main city of Shiva worship, that it’s sold in government-run shops.

Historically, in ancient Japan, cannabis was believed to drive away evil spirits. Believing that evil and purity cannot exist alongside one another, Shinto priests would wave a stick with hemp fibers called a gohei to produce sacred space and purity. Clothes made of hemp were also worn during formal and religious ceremonies for this reason.

In China, Taoist shamans in the fifth century B.C. mixed cannabis and ginseng, believing it would alter time and reveal future events. Later, Taoists sought immortality by adding cannabis to their incense. The fumes were also seen to promote wellbeing and induce a mystic exaltation.

Your Own Spiritual Awakening

Cannabis enables a subtle shift toward a more mystical state, says Fuller. “Many drugs, or intoxicants, soften this sharp subject-object dichotomy and help us feel more connected with the wider world. Such experiences dismantle the instrumental nature of most thinking and instead allow us to appreciate life for its own intrinsic value,” Fuller tells Bodhi Tree.

Whether or not to use cannabis for spiritual awakening is a very personal endeavor—and possibly an illegal one, depending on where you live. But history has made it clear that the leafy green herb has been exalted as much as it’s been vilified.

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About the author

Terence Loose’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Movieline, L.A. Times Magazine, Riviera, Coast, The Orange County Register and other magazines and literary journals.