Second, the notion that under any circumstances plants might speak is anathema to Western science. Indeed, anyone who declares that plants communicate, let alone that they are capable of offering detailed tutorials in pharmacology, is likely to be treated for a psychological disorder. But if plants do not speak, then where does the verifiable knowledge of Amerindian shamans come from The universe of ayahuasca therefore poses a profound intellectual dilemma. Jeremy Narby wasnt at all sure that he could resolve the paradox, but he was determined to try.
In May 1999, US customs agents searched property belonging to Jeffrey Bronfman in Sante Fe, New Mexico. Bronfman is the leader of the American branch of O Centro Espirita Beneficiente União do Vegetal (the United Beneficent Spiritual Union of the Plants). The udv, as it is known, is a Brazil-based syncretic church—part Roman Catholic, part animist—that uses hoasca (the Portuguese transliteration of ayahuasca) as a sacrament in lieu of the traditional wafer and wine. Founded in 1961 and now boasting a worldwide membership of some 7,000, the udv is one of three well-established ayahuasca churches in Brazil; the others are Santo Daime and Barquinha.
Bronfman had imported the tea used in the twice-monthly ceremonies of his 130-member New Mexico congregation. The agents seized some thirty gallons of hoasca, possession of which is illegal under Schedule I of the US Controlled Substances Act, but laid no charges. The following year, Bronfman sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, alleging a First Amendment violation of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion. Hoasca, his lawyers maintained, was an essential sacrament—used exactly as peyote is now used, legally, in rituals of the Native American Church.
There was more than a little irony in all of this. Bronfman, forty, is a second cousin of Edgar Bronfman Jr., Warner Music Group chairman and scion of the famous Montreal family and its once-great liquor empire. In the 1920s and early ’30s, Edgar’s grandfather, Sam, built a vast fortune eluding federal agents and running alcohol from Canada into the US, where its sale and consumption were banned under the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Now, seventy-five years later, another Bronfman was using part of his inherited wealth to take on the US government in a landmark case involving another banned drug.
At the first hearing in 2001, a US district judge sided with Bronfman’s group and instructed the federal government not to confiscate the tea. The Department of Justice appealed the ruling, but the US Tenth Circuit Court in Denver upheld the injunction, twice. The Bush administration, however, was not prepared to surrender. Federal attorneys again appealed, this time to the US Supreme Court. It, too, sided with the udv on the narrow injunction issue, but later agreed to review the case. Thus, on November 1, 2005, did lawyers for both sides appear before America’s highest court to contest Gonzales, Attorney General et al v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Unio do Vegetal et al. The question at issue: whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, “requires the government to permit the importation, distribution, possession, and use of a Schedule I hallucinogenic controlled substance.” The battle had been joined: America’s commitment to religious freedom versus the decades-long war on drugs.
Ayahuasca is not a trip, certainly not the hedonistic kind often associated with lsd, to which it is sometimes compared. On the contrary, drinking the tea—Narby likens the taste to acrid grapefruit juice—is a challenging, often terrifying, and at times transcendent, life-altering experience. Physically, the brew commonly induces nausea, vomiting, farting, and diarrhea—humbling moments in a room full of other voyageurs. It purges psychologically as well; the visions and emotions it conjures up can rattle one to the core, laying siege to the artfully arranged fortifications erected on behalf of the ego. It is for good reason that members of the oldest of Brazil’s ayahuasca churches, Santo Daime, call ayahuasca ceremonies trabalhos (works). Spiritually, ayahuasca is often said to put users in touch with divinity, to connect them with the ineffable presence of God, or with the spirits of the dead, including family members. Ultimately, the drug—a word disciples of udv, Santo Daime, and the estimated seventy-two other ayahuasca-based Amazonian cultures firmly reject—seems to reveal the hidden, deeper, and essential meaning of things.
Making post-facto notes of his first overwhelming ayahuasca session in 1985, Narby wrote:
Images started pouring into my head...an agouti [forest rodent] with bared teeth and a bloody mouth; very brilliant, shiny, and multi-coloured snakes.... I suddenly found myself surrounded by two gigantic boa constrictors that seemed fifty feet long. I was terrified.... [T]he snakes start talking to me without words. They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions.... I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all...I feel like crying in view of the enormity of these revelations. Then it dawns on me that this self-pity is part of my arrogance.
My own single experience with ayahuasca was not dissimilar. Forty-five minutes after I drank about five ounces of the tea, a wave of panic swept over me, as if my life itself were slipping away. I was powerless to stop it. I was cold and sweaty at the same time. In fact, I thought I was dying. The leader of the group I was with approached and suggested that I lie down. When I did, my legs and knees started shaking, rhythmically but uncontrollably. Later my whole body—lying supine on the floor—rocked visibly from head to toe, like a metronome, but again I was not the agent of the rocking. I had no ability to stop it. Like Narby, I was told—by thought—that I was nothing, a mere drop in the ocean. Images flashed before me at absurd speed, wild and intricate geometric patterns. Snake heads rose in front of my closed eyes and seemed to examine me. Oddly, they seemed benign and I had no fear of them. I felt—indeed, I knew—that I had been conveyed into the hands of some extraordinary power, the kind of power that traditional Judeo-Christian prayer frequently ascribes to God. I had uttered prayers thousands of times before, but had never genuinely understood them. Now, I found myself thinking okay, I get it. But I had no sooner conceived the thought than another replaced it: You haven’t begun to get it.