An Intellectual-Spiritual Biography
< THIS PAGE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS >
My name is Christopher “Doc” Kelley. I received a PhD in Religion from Columbia University where I studied Indo-Tibetan Buddhism with Robert A. F. Thurman. I am a scholar of Buddhism and a part-time associate professor in religious studies at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts, The New School University. I am also the founder of Psychedelic Sangha, a public Meetup group aimed at reducing spiritual harm for Buddhist psychonauts. And I enjoy curating and creating non-ordinary spiritual events and immersive experiences.
In all my projects, I try to engage in "abnormal" discourse, pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty’s term for those ideas and practices that have the potential to de-center and disrupt reified notions about yourself and the world around you. I value a spiritually pragmatic approach that recognizes the primacy of subjective experience and the importance of practical application. I am the creator and director of a number of different kinds of avant-garde events aimed at pushing the larger conversation on a particular topic or issue in a new and unforeseen direction.
Buddhism has been a part of my life for nearly as long as I can remember. My Aunt Merry Colony introduced me to the Buddha Dharma when I was a young boy. I have fond memories of watching her perform exquisite Buddhist rituals and mind altering meditations. I did not, however, take a serious interest in Buddhism until I went to college and experienced two things—existential crisis and psychedelics. Through existential crisis I came to appreciate the Buddhist truth of duhkha, or “suffering.” And through psychedelics I was able to gain some experiential purchase on the relativity of personal identity that Buddhists frame in terms of anatman, or “no-self .“
After graduating from college in 1997, my mother gifted me a trip to Asia to visit Merry where she was living in Kathmandu. I arrived amidst the sacred anarchy of the Holi festival that—much like a psychedelic trip—challenged my everyday presuppositions and purged me of my unconscious American hubris. What had been planned to be as a three-month sojourn through various Asian countries, turned into a year-long residency in Nepal with two excursions into Tibet by way of public bus and hired cars. After completing the Buddhist intensive known as the “November course” at Kopan Monastery, I took Buddhist refuge vows with Khensur Rinpoche Lama Lhundrup and consummated my life-long interest.
When I finally returned to USA, I took a job working at the FPMT International Office in Soquel, California where I knew I would meet new teachers, be able to continue my study of Buddhism, and hopefully earn enough money to go back to Asia. During my stint at the International Office, I was interviewed for a feature article in Mandala Magazine on “The New Generation of Young Buddhist Practitioners.” The article is now twenty years old, but it still conveys the somewhat controversial view that I maintain regarding Buddhism and psychedelics, namely:
I don’t think the true essence of Buddhism became accessible to me until after I had begun to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs. I found that, through certain hallucinatory experiences, I was better able to understand my mind and specifically the way I had been perceiving reality. The change was that I had become more open to different views and philosophies on an experiential level. I am not advocating casual drug use, but for myself I think that there were certain experiences that I had, under the influence of drugs, that helped me to be more open to Buddhist thought and practice. And it was through these experiences that I found myself able to move on to more real, drug-free experiences.
It is widely known that many Americans entered the Buddhist path by way of a transformative experience facilitated by psychedelic substances—the “Paisley Gate” between hippiedom and Buddhism. As a result, there is widespread acceptance of psychedelics as a gateway, but surprisingly few resources for integrating and processing that experience. This is largely because those experiences, albeit useful as a gateway to Buddhism, are generally perceived as spiritually illegitimate once one is a Buddhist on the Path to enlightenment. Clearly I harbored that view. And for many years I repressed my desire to mix Buddhism and psychedelics. What I have come to realize is that I have been holding those unpr experiences and . on account of the because they Buddhist insights. Moreover, in my experience, there is profound intolerance within the tradition for anyone within the tradition for those who those though I knew several Buddhist converts who had similar views, I could find no resources for processing and integrating my psychedelic experience into a Buddhist framework. Today, it’s immensely gratifying to see research studies that strongly suggest, if not confirm, the power of psychedelics to open your mind and facilitate bonafide religious or mystical insight. It is largely as result of such research that we now have the emergence of “harm reduction” and “psychedelic education.” I encourage contemporary Buddhists to embrace the research and make strides to incorporate harm reduction and psychedelic education into our American Buddhist tradition.
I had the opportunity to meet several Buddhist teachers while working at FPMT International. One of those teachers was Geshe Michael Roach.
Like a lot of people in the American Buddhist scene, I was profoundly moved by Geshe Michael’s acumen and uncanny ability to translate the monastic curricula into a practical program of study for westerners. When I requested that he take me as a student, he wasted no time in sending me back to Asia. In less than three months after meeting him, I found myself on a plane headed India to rendezvous with him at his own alma mater, Sera Mey Monastery in Bylakuppe.
When Geshe Roach sent me to India, he said I would cherish the experience for the rest of my life—he was right. The monks I met are among some of the most beautiful souls I have ever known. They taught me Buddhism and how to live a simple and communal life (and also how to cook and do laundry by hand). Nonetheless, monasticism was not my calling. And so after a couple of years in the monastery, I returned to my native home of New York where I met my future wife and decided to apply to graduate school at Columbia University.
At Columbia I studied Tibetan Buddhism with Robert A. F. Thurman and Sanskrit with Gary Tubb. I learned the theory and method of religious studies as well as how to write a dissertation. In 2006 my wife and I had a child and we began the herculean task of raising one in New York City. My wife, a writer at that time, was just finishing work on her first book, The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2010). And I was exploring new areas of inquiry in consciousness studies and comparative philosophy.
In 2006, I received a grant to produce a two-day international symposium with twenty-four remarkable scholars from fields as diverse as neuroscience and Sanskrit literature. The event was called Mind & Reality, and it was convened in the historic Low Rotunda of Columbia University to discuss the "problem of consciousness." Needless to say, we did not solve the problem. The event did, however, ignite a genuine interdisciplinary collaboration which led me to co-found a new University Seminar on comparative philosophy. With faculty leadership from Professor Tubb, I co-founded University Seminar #72— The Columbia Society for Comparative Philosophy (CSCP). I organized several meetings for CSCP as well as another conference on the nature consciousness, The Reflective Self. For this event we narrowed the scope and adopted a more phenomenological approach.
In 2010 my second daughter arrived, and I began my teaching career. I was among a few graduate students who were selected to teach Literature & Humanities in the Core Curriculum of Columbia College. Though the syllabus was largely comprised of western texts, there was room to supplement with some non-western masterpieces like Ashvaghosha’s Buddhacharita (Life of Buddha). I relished the opportunity to teach the classics and participate in the Core Curriculum program at Columbia. My dissertation was also beginning to emerge, and I discovered my passion for western ethics and moral philosophy. And most especially, the project of better understanding Buddhism through that lens. This led me to convene another large scale academic conference, but this one was solely dedicated to the topic of Buddhist ethics.
And so in 2011, I won a grant from The John Templeton Foundation to create and organize, Contemporary Perspectives on Buddhist Ethics. Thanks to my co-organizer Dr. Jake Davis, we were able to publish a volume of the conference papers (including one of my own) under the title, A Mirror Is for Reflection: Understanding Buddhist Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2017). During this period, I found myself asking penetrating questions about the compatibility between western ethics and Buddhism—in particular, I became intrigued by compatibility between the metaphysical presuppositions associated with in the western human rights tradition and those associated with the Middle Way or Madhyamaka School of Buddhist philosophy. After all, the Dalai Lama is a an outspoken proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The result was my dissertation Toward a Buddhist Philosophy and Practice of Human Rights.
After graduate school I took a part-time teaching position in the religious studies program at Eugene Lang College, The New School. I was initially hired to teach “Religions of South Asia,” but soon I was designing original courses like: “Buddhism and Human Rights,” “Mind & Matter in Indian Philosophy,” “Buddhism and Cognitive Science,” as well as reinventing traditional introductory courses. As I mentioned above, I try to engage in the kind of discourse Rorty labelled “abnormal.” The kind of discourse that pushes the boundaries of “normal” or accepted disciplinary conventions. And so I did not hesitate to accept an invitation to co-found the New York chapter of a new science and technology movement called, Consciousness Hacking.
Together with my business parter Spiros Antonopoulos, and then later with Todd Gailun, we grew a public Meetup group to nearly 3000 members. We hosted a wide variety of speakers and artists, workshops, and tech demonstrations. And convened monthly meetings at The New School, The Alchemist’s Kitchen, and Eddie Stern’s yoga studio. Consciousness Hacking is the brain child of Mikey Siegel. And we worked closely with him on our largest event—a four-day Consciousness Hacking Film Festival at the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan.
Consciousness Hacking led me directly to new areas of abnormal and interdisciplinary discourse. It was around this time that “The New Yorker” magazine published Michael Pollan’s groundbreaking article that trumpeted a new wave of psychedelic research— a “psychedelic renaissance”— happening in laboratories at John’s Hopkins University, NYU, and at various other institutions of higher learning in Europe. Intrigued… I read about how Drs. Bill Richards, Katherine MacLean, Roland Griffiths, et. al. were looking into the role of psychedelics vis-a-vis mystical experience and one’s personality domain of openness. I found their scientific findings jibed with my own subjective experience. Emboldened by this newfound legitimacy of the therapeutic value of psychedelics, I began to add journal articles and papers on psychedelic science to the syllabus of my New School class, “Buddhism and Cognitive Science.” It has always been clear to me that the philosophical ideas and contemplative technologies of Buddhism provide a perfect container for utilizing the spiritual potential of psychedelics (i.e. “set and setting”). My students responded very positively to the new readings and the conceptual pairing of contemplative and psychedelics discourse.
That semester I received an email from a reporter working for The Village Voice named Madison Margolin who was keen to interview me for an article that she was writing on the newfound intellectual culture—the psychedelic renaissance that the new research had ushered in. I met Ms. Margolin at the New School and we talked in my office for a couple hours. I found myself opening up and going on the record again about my own psychedelic experiences and my views on their potential to facilitate mystical or religious insight. It was a lovely conversation that—later that night—I worried was too forthcoming. In the days following that interview, I wrestled with my fear of repercussions—both socially and professionally. Eventually I decided that my stance would be public. That I would not shy away from being honest and forthright about my views regarding Buddhism and psychedelics.
Madison wrote up the piece, but her editor scraped the article and it was never published. From my perspective, the experience was a gift; an instance of Buddhist skillful-means (upaya) that enabled me to embrace my fear and be more honest about my thoughts on psychedelics and religion.
Buddhism is generally very tolerant of psychedelic use as a gateway to a more spiritual life, but very intolerant of psychedelic use in concert with serious Buddhist practice. When I took Refuge and Bodhisattva vows, I swore to abstain from intoxicants. I was taught that “intoxicants” meant alcohol and drugs because they dull your capacity for clear thinking and reasoning (as well as make it easier to break your other vows). Thus it was not without some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak candidly about my psychedelic experience at the aptly entitled event, “People: On Drugs” hosted by Psymposia at the University of Pennsylvania.
TO BE CONTINUED…
APOLOGIES IF YOU’VE READ THIS FAR. I’LL BE ADDING MORE SOON.