Datura and the psychedelic Tao


In investigating the origins of psychoactive drug usage in China, we find that this history cannot be isolated from that of drug usage in ancient India and Central Asia. This applies to all three of the great triumvirate of plant medicines: cannabis (marijuana), opium, and the solanaceous nightshades. In their function as entheogens, these drugs are historically bound up with shamanism and religion as well — Taoism in China and Tantra in India. Cannabis and the nightshade henbane are known to have been in use among the Zoroastrian Persians and the Scythians, and it’s supposed that traders brought the plants westward to Europe, southward to India and eastward to China in the first or second millennium BCE. Yet both drugs were likely already used medicinally in China by then, hemp at least having been cultivated since the neolithic era (Métailié 2015). To sort out this tangled story, let’s begin with China’s oldest pharmacopeia, the legendary Shennong Materia Medica (Shennong Bencaojing), alleged to have been passed down orally from the third millennium BCE but not written down until the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220 CE). (For comprehensive historical accounts of entheogenic drugs worldwide, see Bennett 2010, 2018; Ott 1996; Rätsch 2005; Rätsch & Müller-Ebeling 2013; Schultes & Hofmann 1979; Storl 2017.)

Here’s what the Shennong Bencaojing has to say about cannabis: “Mafen [the fruits of hemp]…if taken in excess will produce hallucinations [literally ‘seeing devils’]. If taken over a long time, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.”[1] And here’s what it has to say about henbane: “[The seeds of tianxianzi, when properly prepared and] ingested over a long period of time, make it possible for one to go for a very long way, are useful for the mind, and increase power….One can communicate with spirits and see devils. If they are taken in excess, they will make one stupid” (cited in Li 1977).[2] What’s notable is the similarity of the descriptions, literally “seeing devils and going crazy” (jiangui kuangzou) in the case of cannabis and “going crazy” (kuangzou) in the case of henbane, if abused. “Seeing devils” (i.e. hallucinating) and “going crazy” is Shennong’s caution against misuse. The phrases can also be understood as a subtext or code for these entheogens’ spiritual properties in the hands of the shaman, or the Taoist’s “elixir of life.”

Medically speaking, the most practical application of these substances, as recognized during the Han Dynasty, was as an anesthetic. A legendary doctor known as Hua Tuo (c. 110–207 CE), first mentioned in Chen Shou’s Records of the Three Kingdoms (third century), created a potion known as mafeisan (“hemp boiled powder”), capable of rendering a patient during a surgical operation “intoxicated as though dead and completely insensate” (cited in Mair 1994). There has been much speculation on the exact ingredients of this concoction. While cannabis seems to be one of them (ma typically refers to cannabis but it can also mean anything with numbing properties), Victor Mair suggests the term mafeisan is a transliteration borrowed via the Persians from an Indo-European cognate of “morpheus,” and might therefore have contained any soporific medicine (there is no record of opium in China before the eight century CE, and morphine wasn’t invented until the nineteenth century; see my essay “Confucius and Opium,” in Cook 2020).

Cannabis can indeed induce a pain-distracting sense of dissociation, but it is not known for knocking people out to the point of unconsciousness, let alone serving as an effective anesthetic for any type of invasive surgery. Henbane, on the other hand, not only might have worked, it happens to be one of the world’s most effective natural soporifics and anesthetics. It thus seems odd that no one has yet posed the possibility that mafeisan consisted of a mixture of cannabis and henbane, both of which had long existed in the Chinese pharmacopeia. As you increase the dosage of orally consumed cannabis, you merely fall asleep (or vomit it up); you may still be highly sensitive to pain, or not, as reactions vary widely among people. A small amount of henbane, by contrast, can quickly incapacitate, plunging you into a trance lasting up to several days, from which you emerge with little or no memory of your experience. With its mild soporific and anesthetic qualities, cannabis is of little use by itself but may have served to soften or blunt the hardness of henbane, at the same time synergistically boosting the properties of both. Henbane is also highly toxic and a miscalculated dose easily kills. It’s assumed that any doctors of that era would have had sufficient experience working with the nightshades to avoid a lethal dose.

One recent study has proposed, in addition to cannabis, Datura metel as one of several possible candidates for the mafeisan potion (Zhao, Yu & Kagemoto 2018). Like henbane (Hyoscyamus niger), datura belongs to the Solanaceae family of psychoactive nightshades and contains the same tropane alkaloids hyoscyamine, scopolamine and atropine, with identical effects on the body to henbane. Although none of the datura species is recorded in any of the Chinese materia medica until Li Shizhen’s Bencao Gangmu of 1596 CE, a Song Dynasty botanist, Zhou Shihou (late eleventh century), who collected hundreds of specimens in his Notes on the Trees and Flowers of Luoyang (Luoyang Huamuji), mentioned datura (mantuoluo), purely descriptively and without any medicinal properties; he also mentioned the opium poppy (Métailié 2015). Zhao, Yu and Kagemoto might have suggested henbane instead of datura as an anesthetic candidate, but another historical lead suggests that datura indeed has a long if sketchily documented medicinal lineage in China. They cite the twelfth-century Song Dynasty physician Dou Cai, who penned a medical text, In the Spirit of Bian Que (Bianque Xinshu), in homage to the legendary physician of the fourth-century BCE. As with his descendant Hua Tuo, no writings by Bian Que survive but his fame as an anesthesiologist lived on. It’s unclear whether Dou Cai wrote his treatise out of whole cloth and assumed the name of the purported inventor of anesthesia for its cachet, as if to channel his great predecessor’s work, or recorded genuine medical knowledge passed down orally over fifteen centuries.

Dou prescribes a sleeping powder entitled shuishengsan (“sleeping saint powder”) for patients unable to tolerate the pain of moxibustion, consisting of cannabis (huomahua) and “mountain eggplant” (shanqiezi) and inducing a deep and painless slumber.[3] “Mountain eggplant,” as the modern editors of Dou’s text note, later known as “wind eggplant” (fengqiezi), is one of the native terms for Datura metel, along with the formal Chinese botanical names, mantuoluo and yangjinhua (Dou 1992). (The association with eggplant is due to the similarity of their leaves, eggplant being a related plant in the Solanaceae family.) Multiple, ambiguous terms describing the same plant shouldn’t surprise us; Datura metel and the closely related Datura stramonium are informally known in English by such interchangeable synonyms as thorn apple, jimsonweed, devil’s trumpet, angel’s trumpet, and the like. As we shall see, the confusion among these terms in Chinese is quite problematic, but I would first like to highlight one quote from Dou: “When you harvest the two plants [cannabis and datura], you must carry this out in a solemn manner, mouth closed and without speech. Let your feet keep pace with your hands to harvest the plants. For if two people are laughing and talking while harvesting them, they will be unable to stop laughing and talking after consuming the medicine.”[4]

This idea of a psychoactive plant having a magical or sympathetic influence on the mind prior to ingesting it (a twist on our notion of the “contact high”) is echoed by the great pharmacologist Li Shizhen (1518–93), whose aforementioned Bencao Gangmu (Compendium of Materia Medica) is the most comprehensive pharmacopeia in Chinese botanical history before the advent of modern science. As Li writes of the datura plant (who claims to have experienced it himself), “According to traditions, it is alleged that when the flowers are picked for use with wine while one is laughing, the wine will cause one to produce laughing movements; and when the flowers are picked while one is dancing, the wine will cause one to produce dancing movements. [I have found out] that such movements will be produced when one becomes half drunk with the wine and someone else laughs or dances to induce these actions” (cited in Li 1977).[5] Although Li Shizhen doesn’t cite Dou Cai’s similar reference to datura’s effects cite above, he was clearly familiar with the lore. Li also submits a rather enigmatic lineage for the plant, going back to the Lotus Sutra, “in which it is declared that when Buddha preaches a sermon the heavens bedew the petals of this plant [mantuoluo] with raindrops; and, according to a more ancient tradition of the Taoists, the name of the plant is that of one of the circumpolar stars, and every envoy sent down from this star to the earth is supposed to carry in his hand one of its flowers; so that the Chinese came to call the flower by the name of the star” (cited in Safford 1922).[6] Unless someone’s sleuthing in the massive Taoist Canon turns up something, the relationship of datura to the circumpolar star remains obscure (the circumpolar star is also known as the Tara star, after the Chinese goddess of navigation; see White 1996). The Lotus Sutra connection, however, can be pursued.

The Lotus Sutra is believed to have been first committed to writing in the first century CE but the earliest surviving versions are Chinese translations dating from the third and fourth centuries, of which the Kumārajīva translation (406 CE) has predominated and is the version generally used for translating into other languages, though subsequent Sanskrit versions survive as well. The datura passage in question appears in numerous permutations in the Sutra. To take the bodhisattva Maitreya’s opening lines in verse as an instance, most English translations render the names of two different flowers mentioned here by substituting the Sanskrit words for the ambiguous Chinese (I’ve bolded the Sanskrit words and included the Chinese pinyin transliteration in brackets):

“Why has the Leader / Emitted this great ray of light far and wide / From the tuft of white hair/ Between his eyebrows, / Raining down māndārava [mantuoluo] and mañjūṣaka [manshushahua] flowers, / And gladdening the people / With the fragrant winds of sandalwood?” (Lotus Sutra 2007).[7]

It’s the first flower, māndārava, that Li Shizhen identifies as datura (mantuoluo in Chinese). The problem is that māndārava, in Sanskrit at least, refers to a wholly different flower. The mandarava or mandara flower is considered sacred in India, Nepal and Tibet, but it’s not the datura flower (the Erythrina variegata or Erythrina indica species have been suggested, while the Lycoris radiata species has been suggested for the paired manjushaka flower). Datura metel indeed exists in India; the name “Datura” (also “Dhatura” or “Dutra”) itself comes from Sanskrit and was Latinized by Linnaeus to designate the species. But it remains a mystery how the Chinese transliteration of mandarava, mantuoluo, became associated with datura. To confuse matters more, the Chinese mantuoluo may have been a transliteration of the Greek mandragoras, referring to the mandrake plant, which had long existed in the Himalayan region (Safford 1922). The Greeks had been present in Central Asia (modern Afghanistan and Pakistan) and India since the fourth century BCE and traded with the Chinese as well along the early Silk Road; today the Chinese disambiguate the mandrake plant by the similar-sounding mandelacao. Meanwhile the Chinese name for datura, mantuoluo, along with another similar word, mantuluo, additionally doubled for the Indian word “mandala” (the elaborate circular symbols in Tantric Buddhism).[8]

Mandrake flowers
Eggplant flowers

This ambiguity in the Chinese terminology extends down to the present. The Chinese Science Communication website claims that Li Shizhen was mistaken in identifying the mantuoluo of the Lotus Sutra as datura when in fact it was the mandrake (“Mandelacao” 2022).[9] This is because Li also listed the domestic names “wind eggplant” (fengqiezi) and “mountain eggplant” (shanqiezi) to refer to datura (as Dou Cai had done), but “wind eggplant” (fengqie without the final zi) also refers to mandrake, not datura. The leaves and flowers of the mandrake plant do indeed resemble those of the eggplant, and of course the mandrake belongs to the Solanaceae family and contains the same psychoactive tropane alkaloids as datura and henbane (the Chinese term for “Solanaceae” is qieke, adopting the first character of the word for eggplant as a classifier). From the standpoint of mandrake’s use as a medicine or drug, it hardly matters whether it’s mistaken for datura. However, though seemingly indigenous for quite some time in the Himalayas, the mandrake was not common in China until the twentieth century, and only then began to spill over from the Himalayan region into southwestern China. Moreover, Li’s description of the plant, apart from a few details, is accurate enough: “Datura originates in northern soil but has been planted elsewhere….It stands upright to four or five feet high, with green stems and green leaves resembling the leaves of the eggplant. In August, white flowers bloom with six petals, shaped like and as large as the morning glory.”[10] Normally datura flowers are white with five, sometimes six petals, but purple and yellow varieties are common, while those of the mandrake and eggplant are typically small, short and purple- (occasionally white-) petaled. An alternative Chinese term commonly used today for datura is yangjinhua, literally “ocean golden flower,” “ocean” entailing “foreign” (that which comes from across the ocean), another way of saying the datura plant, its yellow variety anyway, was imported (from India). In any case, the datura flower is quite distinct from that of the mandrake or eggplant, as it’s long and tubular-shaped, more like the morning glory.

Datura metel

A final point of confusion stems from the existence of two related datura species, Datura metel and Datura stramonium, the former referring to the plant indigenous to India, and the latter to the New World, eventually working its way to the Old World (Europe, India and China) after the European maritime expeditions of the fifteen-sixteenth centuries. The two varieties are often mistaken for each other, though stramonium flowers are somewhat shorter, the leaf margins are spikier, and the seed capsules extend upward rather than downward. When Li identified datura as a northern plant, he may have been referring to D. stramonium rather than D. metel, though it’s the latter that is more commonly known and has the older pedigree, having been brought to China likely by Silk Road merchants up from India as early as Buddhism’s appearance in China two millennia ago; D. stramonium appears to have entered China via India along the same trade routes though many centuries later (Safford 1922).

Datura stramonium

Today in China, English-to-Chinese translation software fails to distinguish between D. metel and D. stramonium, and of the two species only the former seems to be acknowledged. The standard Chinese terms yangjinhua and mantuoluo are used interchangeably to refer to D. metel alone, or to the doubtful D. alba or “white-flowered” variety of Datura metel (baimantuoluo), as in one recent Chinese scientific paper, which employs both terms yangjinhua and baimantuoluo to refer to a D. metel sample from Hainan Province (Liu, et al. 2021).[11] D. alba, however, is not generally treated by contemporary botanists as a separate species from the yellow and purple varieties of D. metel (Rätsch 2005). D. stramonium, on the other hand, is alive and well in the field. The following map, based on biodiversity data collected over the past several centuries, shows the geographic spread of the three nightshade species common to China and their different distributions. The colored outlines show the range of the respective species as recorded from the time modern botanists began to take plant samples in China, roughly two centuries ago, up through the present. D. metel, as noted, arrived via India and the Himalayas and settled in the warmer south, D. stramonium spilled over from the Himalayas at a later date and settled in the more temperate middle zone of the country, and H. niger (henbane) was already long established in the colder northern belt.

Distribution in China of psychoactive Solanaceae (Hyoscyamus niger, Datura stramonium, Datura metel). Map by Isham Cook from data provided by the Global Biodiversity Information Facility ( and the Encyclopedia of Life (

Taken together, three solanaceous nightshade species have thus populated a good portion of the inhabited Chinese landmass for centuries, and in the case of two of them, for millennia. This fact contrasts with the comparative paucity of accounts of their use, until the nineteenth century when scientists began to take a deeper interest in psychoactive alkaloids. Two more isolated examples point to why traditional Chinese botanists might have been scared off by the nightshades. A late Ming Dynasty military treatise dating from 1621, the Wubei Zhi by one Mao Yuanyi lists datura root (mantuoluogen) among other toxins as a recommended crossbow arrow poison (Bisset 1979). Returning to henbane, Li Shizhen in the Bencao Gangmu relates a famous story from 1561, when the Emperor issued an edict warning the public against the use of four plant drugs, Hyoscyamus niger (henbane) (langdang), Caesalpinia decapetala (cat’s claw) (yunshi), Peucedanum japonicum (coastal hog fennel) (fangkui), and Phytolacca acinosa (pokeweed) (shanglu), after a monk adept at wizardry visited a family in Shaanxi Province and drugged his host, Chang Shu, in order to seduce his wife, only to cause him to go berserk and murder his entire household:

Upon finding the wife very beautiful, he asked that the entire family sit together at the table with him when he was being offered a meal. He put some reddish potion in the rice and after a while the whole family became unconscious and submitted to his assault. He then blew a magic spell into the ears of Chang Shu and the latter turned crazy and violent. Chang visualized his entire family as all devils and thereby killed them all, sixteen altogether, without any blood shed. (cited in Li 1977)

The exact toxin employed in the crime was never specified, but today, apart from henbane, none of the other three aforementioned plants has current proponents for its use as a hallucinogen proper (one scours the vault in vain; Rätsch 2005 lists only pokeweed as potentially psychoactive), though they may be of some benefit in traditional Chinese medicine. What Li Shizhen described as “hallucinogenic” can be understood in the sense of a delirium-inducing overdose of any toxic substance.

A triple-nested Datura metel flower

In India, we have a richer store of evidence. Datura metel was variously employed as an intoxicant, aphrodisiac, medicine (for rabies and alopecia), and poison as early as the fourth and fifth centuries CE, and is frequently mentioned in Sanskrit texts and Tamil songs from the sixth century (Geeta & Gharaibeh 2007). With the growth of Tantra in India in the fifth to eighth centuries, the siddha scriptures increasingly referenced the ritual entheogenic use of datura. Known as the “‘crazy datura’ (unmatted dhattura) or ‘Shiva’s datura,’ it was employed as a narcotic paste or as wood in a fire ceremony and could be easily absorbed through the skin or the lungs….In even moderate doses, datura can render a person virtually immobile with severe belladonna-like hallucinations” (Davidson 2002). A thirteenth-century Tibetan translation from the Sanskrit of the Vajramahabhairava Tantra, dating back possibly to the seventh century CE, exemplifies one such application of datura, consisting of chants for the casting of maleficent or lethal voodoo-like spells against enemies, as in the following grisly ritual:

The mantrin who desires to kill should, in union with the Buffalo-headed One [= the deity Vajrabhairava], naked, with dishevelled hair and facing south, draw the sixteen-section wheel of Vajramahabhairava [= Vaj rabhairava] on a shroud in venom, blood, salt, black mustard, nimba (Azadirachta indica) and Datura juice using a pen made from a raven feather or from human bone. When he has placed it in between two fires along with the name of the victim of the rite, he surrounds it with the ten syllables and writes eight HŪṂs. In the corners the syllable PHAT is to be written. Anointing himself with warm butter he places this magical device within two crania. When he has placed it above three hearths, he should kindle a fire with cremation wood. Then he tramples it with his left foot and recites the ten syllable mantra. By this means the victim will doubtless die instantly. (cited in Siklós 1994)

Triple-nested datura flower on the Nataraja Shiva’s head dress (Geeta & Gharaibeh 2007)

Datura had positive connotations as well, and was worshipped; it became a tradition to offer datura leaves or flowers to Shiva. In paintings and statues, Shiva is often adorned with a datura flower, as in the accompanying photo of an eleventh-century Shiva statue with a triple-nested Datura metel flower on his head dress. Shiva was also the “Lord of Bhang” (cannabis), a drug widely used in India, Tibet and China in Tantric and Taoist ceremonies, to be returned to below. In documenting early datura use in Sanskrit texts, Geeta & Gharaibeh (2007) point out that the drug was initially used as an intoxicant and aphrodisiac (fourth-fifth centuries CE) and only later as a medicine and a poison (fifth-sixth centuries). Time seems compressed from our retrospective standpoint, but the manifold character of drugs as complex as datura was only grasped over many generations or centuries. In China as well, we have noted how the nightshades were initially employed as an anesthetic and centuries later as a medicine and a poison. Of course, the surviving accounts give us a very incomplete picture of all the ways these alkaloids may actually have been understood and used, or not. This brings us to the topic of drug technologies.


Struck by the curious fact that Mexico and South America are much richer in varieties of psychotropic and hallucinogenic plants than the rest of the world, Schultes and Hofmann (1979) proposed the thesis that these plants evolved in a symbiotic relationship with hunter-gatherers, who discovered how the drugs heightened their senses and sensitivity to the environment and adopted them as hunting tools as essential as spears and arrows. The New World emerged out of neolithic culture at a comparatively later date than the rest of the world and hence has preserved knowledge of these plants up through the present, notably among the indigenous of the Amazon and the Andes. The Old World may originally have been equally rich in such flora before the advent of agriculture (e.g. the legendary haoma and soma entheogens of ancient Persia and India), which over the millennia reduced man’s dependence on such plants. The lore was subsequently lost, though some plants continued to serve shamanic functions among scattered communities down through the ages.

Today in Asia and many other regions of the world there continue to flourish three distinct psychoactive plants of such complexity that they can be considered nature-given technologies in their own right, created independently of (or in symbiosis with) humankind and inviting humans to study and experiment with and create complementary technologies to extract and employ their psychoactive compounds in all their myriad uses: cannabis, opium, and the five solanaceous nightshades — Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade), Brugmansia, Mandragora (mandrake), Hyoscyamus (henbane), and Datura. We have encountered the latter three. Belladonna is mostly confined to southern Europe, while Brugmansia is found in South America and resembles the daturas so closely it is often grouped with them as a single genus. Many other hallucinogens exist, of course: the psilocybin and Amanita muscaria mushrooms, the peyote and San Pedro cacti, ayahuasca, iboga, not to mention synthetic compounds such as LSD and DMT, all of which tend to “specialize” in engendering certain powerful and extraordinary effects. What makes cannabis, opium, and the nightshades unique, however, is their extraordinary range of uses and applications. Even when one allows for the growing medical potential of the classical psychedelics (e.g. in the treatment of depression and PTSD), no other drugs come close, and this puts them in a class of their own.

We can list these applications in the following table. Alcohol is included for comparison’s sake, but also because it figures prominently in the history of the other three. Datura is the most geographically widespread of the nightshades and I adopt the term here to refer collectively to all of them, whose effects are more or less identical. While not regarded as such in the West, alcohol traditionally has medicinal value in China, has long been used as an anesthetic around the world, and in some cultures has shamanic (entheogenic) uses as well. All four drugs produce qualitatively distinct aphrodisiacal and euphoric (pleasurable) effects; see Rätsch (2005) and Rätsch and Müller-Ebeling (2013) for a comprehensive rundown on the aphrodisiacs. Cannabis doesn’t elicit the brilliant visuals of the classic psychedelics (LSD, psilocybin, mescaline) but can be hallucinogenic in high doses, with visual distortions. By some accounts, opium is richly hallucinogenic — with the eyes closed. Datura, by contrast, is a “true” hallucinogen, eliciting hallucinations the user is unable to distinguish from reality. A deliriant induces a semiconscious or unconscious trance-like state that may involve random or uncontrollable behavior one has no memory of upon regaining consciousness. Opium consumed orally is lethal when overdosed and was long employed in China as a suicide drug; smoking opium, on the other hand, is seldom lethal, despite the stereotype of the wasted bodies of opium addicts. Likewise, alcohol doesn’t usually kill in the short term (except in frat-house hazings) but is certainly deadly to the body in the long term. By “poison” we mean the intention behind the use, to kill as opposed to accidental death. Opium is not concentrated enough to be an effective (disguisable and fast-acting) poison, unlike the more potent and deadly datura.

Toxin (lethal) ()
(Sources: Bennett 2010, 2018; Ott 1996; Rätsch 2005; Rätsch & Müller-Ebeling 2013; Storl 2017; World Wide Web)

If we now consider these drugs’ medicinal properties in more detail, we see that alcohol is quite impoverished next to the other three, though it does have its functions. All four drugs have a long history of use as anesthetics (acute pain relief), opium being the most effective, forming the chemical basis of other opiates and opioids. All four also have sedative properties, combating everything from nervousness and insomnia to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); alcohol, of course, being the most commonly used — and abused. Alcohol and datura are not terribly effective in treating insomnia as they disrupt sleep patterns and prevent deep sleep, though datura can induce a days-long involuntary trance and used to be employed in some medical institutions as an antipsychotic. If only laudanum were still available, the opium contained in the famous tincture was one of the most effective antidiarrheal medicines for gastrointestinal disorders, abdominal and bowel ailments, Crohn’s disease, dysentery and cholera. As an antispasmodic, cannabis is particularly good for menstrual cramps, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other seizures. All three drugs have anticholinergic properties which disrupt the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing contractions of the internal organs and relaxing the muscles, and all three have anti-inflammatory properties that have been variously used to treat arthritis, gout, rheumatism, skin inflammation, fever, and malaria.

The stodgy medical industry may remain skeptical, but everyone who has ever used marijuana for chemotherapy symptoms knows it’s the most effective anti-nausea medicine available, while the scopolamine contained in datura and other nightshades is still used to prevent motion sickness. Medical marijuana is increasingly being recognized as an indispensable medicine for chronic pain due to neurological conditions including neuralgia, Multiple Sclerosis, ALS, and AIDS. Codeine (derived from opium) is still used in cough medicines, and datura is also an effective antitussive. Opium and datura are both effective at reducing swelling and fluid retention. Marijuana and datura were traditionally used to treat urinary disorders (cystitis, urethritis, urinary incontinence). Marijuana and the nightshades are also uniquely effective for eye ailments — cannabis for glaucoma and belladonna as an eye dilator in eye operations, as well as to treat eye inflammations. The four drugs have additional unique properties unshared by the others: cannabis as an appetite stimulant (in addition to nausea suppression), opium as an appetite suppressant (for dieting) and mood lifter to combat fatigue (enabling rickshaw pullers to work their twelve-hour days in old China), and datura as an emetic (purgative) and an anticholinergic for controlling breathing disorders (asthma, bronchitis, CPOD); the scopolamine in datura is still commonly used to treat asthma. To give alcohol its due (and without delving into the nutritional properties of beer and wine), we may credit it with two more indispensable uses: as a solvent long used to extract the alkaloids in opium and datura and the cannabinoids in cannabis, and as an antimicrobial (antiseptic) for obvious use in the hospital and self-medication.

Medical applications:AlcoholCannabisOpiumDatura
Soporific, sedative()*()
Antispasmodic **
Nausea & motion sickness* *
Antitussive (coughing)  *
Edema (swelling)
Neurological disorders*
Genito-urinary disorders  
Eye disorders*
Appetite stimulant√ *  
Respiratory disorders*
Emetic, purgative  
Appetite suppressant  
Stimulant (fatigue)  
* = Uniquely effective for a given condition
(Sources: Bennett 2010, 2018; Ott 1996; Rätsch 2005; Storl 2017; World Wide Web.)

We can see there is considerable overlap among the four drugs’ medicinal repertoires, though they don’t necessarily operate on the body in the same ways or are equally effective for any given condition. What this does point to is their potential when used in combination, and this has been understood for thousands of years. The aforementioned Hua Tuo’s “hemp boiled powder” (mafeisan) and Dou Cai’s “sleeping saint powder” (shuishengsan) are two examples of the complementary and synergistic blending of cannabis with the nightshades to produce an efficacious anesthetic and soporific, particularly if the drugs are infused in alcohol to extract the psychoactive alkaloids and cannabinoids (though macerating the solution in any liquid over heat can achieve the same). There is evidence from around the world over the millennia of cannabis-laced wines used to intoxicate or sedate and all sorts of cannabis-opium potable and smokable admixtures. The mixing in wine of cannabis and henbane reportedly goes back to the Zoroastrians of ancient Persia, while henbane, hemlock, black hellebore, hemp, and opium were combined in stupor-causing potions in occult ritualistic ceremonies in India. A similar concoction containing hemlock, opium, mandrake and henbane and placed over the patient’s mouth, the so-called “soporific sponge,” was the usual knock-out anesthetic in medieval and Renaissance Europe, along with numerous medicinal and psychoactive incenses combining opium and mandrake. In nineteenth-century European pharmacies, “Indian cigarettes” made with hemp leaves included opium, belladonna, henbane and datura for treating for asthma, neuralgia and insomnia (Bennett 2018; Hatsis 2015; Rätsch 2005; Storl 2017, however, warns of the risk in combining opium with any of the nightshades, as their double action can lead to respiratory arrest).

The collective lore amassed and applied to these medicinal technologies — all the myriad applications of cannabis, opium and the nightshades, to say nothing of their synergistic action with innumerable other medicinal plants not mentioned here — was independently worked out by cultures around the world hundreds and thousands of years ago. On the other hand, the complete mastery and potential of the full spectrum of these technologies has yet to be attained. Knowledge is an ongoing cultural effort and learning process proceeding in fits and starts over many generations and centuries, and there are lacunae still being filled in today. Opium’s medicinal qualities, for example, were grasped long ago in ancient Egypt, Persia and India. But it was not until the Chinese way of smoking opium was invented in the early Qing Dynasty, a mere three centuries ago, that the drug’s full psychoactive potential was realized. Vaporizing the carefully melted and molded pellets in dedicated opium pipes more effectively concentrates and purifies the alkaloids, purging them of their toxins and making for a more exquisite and safer intoxication than oral ingestion (Lee 2006). This ironically resulted in an epidemic of addiction, and further technological advances have gone full circle in the modern era to create dangerously concentrated opium derivatives such as heroin and fentanyl, while the more benign opium itself is almost impossible to find anymore. Meanwhile, cannabis legalization in North America has accelerated the creation of sophisticated methods for growing and extracting marijuana varieties of unheard-of potency, with both benefits — a cornucopia of edible and medicinal products — and drawbacks — emergency rooms filled with the panicked and sickened who ingested a bit too much.

The technology of datura presents a different conundrum — it’s been lost. Except for pharmaceutically administered scopolamine still used to treat asthma and motion sickness, few today in the medical industry or anywhere understand how to prescribe or ingest the dangerous and deadly nightshades safely; or rather: few are willing to lay their knowledge on the line and open themselves up to lawsuits over accidental death. There is no known lethal dosage of cannabis and while an overdose of opium can be fatal, it seldom is when vaporized (smoked). A broad continuum of effects of these two drugs from the mild to the strong can be experienced without toxic symptoms, at least with only short-term use. The toxicity threshold of the nightshades is much lower, with little room for error between intoxication and overdose. The general advice when experimenting with the nightshades is to work one’s way up gradually with microdosing. Henbane is regarded as comparatively less deadly than the other nightshades. Topical applications are safer than smoking or orally consuming the plants. Individuals’ tolerance can vary greatly as well. That’s about it. The plants are shrouded in ignorance. Because they are feared and avoided by just about everyone, they remain legal. If a new generation of users were to recover knowledge of these drugs and they became popular, the authorities would quickly schedule and ban them.

Expertise in the nightshades is largely confined to history, the purview of mendicant doctors, witches and shamans of past centuries. It’s no wonder these folk apothecaries knew how to dose the nightshades to achieve desired effects: they worked with them as a living, and the consequences of not having such expertise would have been personally calamitous. To give an example of the aphrodisiacal (and nefarious) uses to which datura could be put when “ground to a powder and administered in wine,” the Portuguese doctor and explorer Cristóbal Acosta in his Tractado de las Drogas y Medicinas de las Indias Orientales (1578) described certain Hindu ladies who “are such mistresses and adepts in the use of this seed that they give it in doses corresponding to as many hours as they wish their poor victim to be unconscious or transported” (cited Safford 1922). I cannot resist mentioning an even more sinister — and enticing — possibility in ancient India during the Mauryan Dynasty (320–298 BCE), when the Emperor Chandragupta Maurya trained female assassins or “poison maidens” by feeding them minute amounts of poison until their system was so toxic that any male sleeping with them would die from contact during intercourse. It’s not specified what poison was used, but it could very well have been one of the nightshades, alone or in combination with other classic poisons such as arsenic or hemlock, which the body can tolerate in minute amounts (Michael 2021).

A rare and fascinating contemporary example of expertise in the entheogenic use of datura is related by a Swiss native who apprenticed under a Peruvian shaman who conducts ayahuasca and — for the more intrepid — datura (of the Brugmansia variety) ceremonies. Javier Regueiro was initiated over a four-month period with increasing proportions of datura in an ayahuasca tea, the latter serving to catalyze but also ameliorate the intensity of the datura: “This morning Don Francisco gave me the following message and instructions: yes, indeed the Toé [the local name for datura] wants me very much, and the dieta will start tomorrow with a tea twice a day from the roots of the plant for the first four weeks, followed by the raw juice of the trunk once a week for four weeks, then a tea of the leaves for a month, and finally a tea of the flowers for the last month.” As Regueiro relates one of his datura trances:

When daylight comes, I discover all of my belongings strewn on the dirt floor of the temple. And when I get home, I discover my face is bruised and bloodstained. What happened?!? When I wake up three hours later, I find that my hands, face, and one leg are covered with what looks like mosquito bites. The plot thickens as much as my worry. Don Francisco is gone, but Pedro informs me that early in the ceremony I had fallen off my seat in the temple down to the ground – twice – and that for five hours I was delirious and unconscious, moaning while he, Don Francisco, and his assistant did their best to call me back to this plane of existence. So I lay there on the dusty ground while my spirit was God-knows-where and mosquitos were feasting methodically and undisturbed on my body – for five hours. Nice! At 3pm, I finally catch Don Francisco in his rooms where he’d been resting from the hard night’s work. His observations: I finally reached critical mass levels of Toé in my body, and it went through the roof of my consciousness. Even though I was pale as death, he says my body was full of light – Toé energy. It was my initiation into the Toé trance: Don Francisco feels I did alright and that all the prep work has paid off nicely – otherwise I might have still been in La-La Land twenty hours later (ouch!). (Regueiro 2020)


In the decades following the death of Christ, numerous sects of radically differing Christian persuasions mushroomed around the Palestine-Syria region and spread westward to Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece, Egypt and Rome. The umbrella term “Gnostic” (“gnosis” means “knowledge”) refers to those sects — among them the Simonians, Valentinians, Carpocratians, Marcionites, Adamites, Borborites, Phibionites and Ophites — advocating ecstatic, shamanistic, and in some cases outright sexual forms of worship, with possible roots in the Mithraic and Eleusinian Mysteries of Ancient Rome and Greece. Little direct evidence of the Gnostic rituals has survived, as the sects were relentlessly crushed or driven underground by the Romans and later the Church itself; by the end of the fourth century they had largely disappeared — to reemerge in new guises down the ages. Surviving Gnostic texts of the Nag Hammadi library reveal much about their belief systems, but we are dependent on the hostile polemics of the Church Fathers for an understanding of their practices. The most notable of these enemies were Iranaeus (second century) and Epiphanius (relying on Iranaeus two centuries later), who go into great salacious detail on the sects’ licentious activities, though writing mostly at secondhand. Their accounts are regarded skeptically by historians as timeworn smear tactics applied to groups suspected of heresy, much as a millennium later witches accused of sabbath orgies were falsely and maliciously condemned to the stake.

At the same time, the hostile accounts are often richly rendered and breathe with life, and there is no reason to dismiss their veracity outright, however much they may have been exaggerated or embellished. They are consistent with what we know about shamanism and its long history, and moreover similar accounts kept reappearing in various parts of Asia over the first millennium, all resonating with similar practices. Not that celibate and sexually frustrated Church spokesmen weren’t capable of attributing their own elaborate fantasies to their enemies, but let’s be mindful we are not immune, in our modern hindsight, from our own puritanical prejudices that may likewise be blinding us to historical realities we would prefer not to see.

One of the most striking descriptions of these ecstatic ceremonies comes from Epiphanius’s account of the Borborites. The account is noteworthy in containing many elements of the ceremonies which we shall see repeated later, and I cite it in toto:

But I shall get right down to the worst part of the deadly description of them—for they vary in their wicked teaching of what they please—which is, first of all, that they hold their wives in common. And if a guest who is of their persuasion arrives, they have a sign that men give women and women give men, a tickling of the palm as they clasp hands in supposed greeting, to show that the visitor is of their religion.

And once they recognize each other from this they start feasting right away—and they set the table with lavish provisions for eating meat and drinking wine even if they are poor. But then, after a drinking bout and, let us say, stuffing their overstuffed veins, they get hot for each other next. And the husband will move away from his wife and tell her—speaking to his own wife!— “Get up, perform the Agape with the brother.” And when the wretched couple has made love—and I am truly ashamed to mention the vile things they do, for as the holy apostle says, “It is a shame even to speak” of what goes on among them. Still, I should not be ashamed to say what they are not ashamed to do, to arouse horror by every means in those who hear what obscenities they are prepared to perform. For after having made love with the passion of fornication in addition, to lift their blasphemy up to heaven, the woman and man receive the man’s emission on their own hands. And they stand with their eyes raised heavenward but for the filth on their hands and pray, if you please…and say, “We offer thee this gift, the body of Christ.” And then they eat it partaking of their own dirt, and say, “This is the body of Christ; and this is the Pascha, because of which our bodies suffer and are compelled to acknowledge the passion of Christ.

And so with the woman’s emission when she happens to be having her period—they likewise take the unclean menstrual blood they gather from her, and eat it in common. And “This,” they say, “is the blood of Christ.” And so, when they read, “I saw a tree bearing twelve manner of fruits every year, and he said unto me, ‘This is the tree of life,'” in apocryphal writings, they interpret this allegorically of the menstrual flux.

But although they have sex with each other they renounce procreation. It is for enjoyment, not procreation, that they eagerly pursue seduction, since the devil is mocking people like these, and making fun of the creature fashioned by God. They come to climax but absorb the seeds of their dirt, not by implanting them for procreation, but by eating the dirty stuff themselves.

But even though one of them should accidentally implant the seed of his natural emission prematurely and the woman becomes pregnant, listen to a more dreadful thing that such people venture to do. They extract the fetus at the stage which is appropriate for their enterprise, take this aborted infant, and cut it up in a trough with a pestle. And they mix honey, pepper, and certain other perfumes and spices with it to keep from getting sick, and then all the revelers in this herd of swine and dogs assemble, and each eats a piece of the child with his fingers. And now, after this cannibalism, they pray to God and say, “We were not mocked by the archon of lust, but have gathered the brother’s blunder up! And this, if you please, is their idea of the “perfect Passover.

And they are prepared to do any number of other dreadful things. Again, whenever they feel excitement within them they soil their own hands with their own ejaculated dirt, get up, and pray stark naked with their hands defiled. The idea is that they can obtain freedom of access to God by a practice of this kind.

Man and woman, they pamper their bodies night and day, anointing themselves, bathing, feasting, spending their time in whoring and drunkenness. And they curse anyone who fasts and say, “Fasting is wrong; fasting belongs to this archon who made the world. We must take nourishment to make our bodies strong, and able to render their fruit in its season.” (Epiphanius 2009, sections 4.1-5.8; see also Rudolph 1983)

The most egregious charge, that of aborting and consuming pregnant women’s fetuses, is the most dubious. Accusations of child molestation and murder have long been employed to stoke community rage against scapegoats. Even today QAnoners claim the Democratic Party elite has abducted untold numbers of American children for ritual Satanic sacrifice or the extraction of babies’ “adrenochrome” for its supposed life-enhancing properties. To refer again to European witches, the alleged murder of babies so that their fat could be used as an ingredient in satanic brews and potions was a conveniently devastating charge regularly brought against heretics, charges which scholarship has determined to be largely baseless (Hatsis 2015). If we cannot decisively rule out forced abortions by the Gnostics, here is perhaps an appropriate occasion to draw a distinction between the plausible and the implausible. The sects were under constant fear of being discovered and must have had protocols of secrecy and security, such as the hand-gesture codes reported in Ephiphanius’ account. Truly execrable behavior like cannibalism and the aborting of fetuses in a squalid and primitive sanitary environment, putting women’s lives at risk, not to mention indiscriminate pregnancy from multiple male partners, would have been highly destabilizing to the members’ community and liable to spark the very sorts of rumors they could ill afford.

The mention of menstrual blood, by contrast, is more interesting and plausible. With its lengthy pedigree as an aphrodisiac (enriched with hormones and pheromones) and ingredient in love potions in cultures the world over, menstrual blood’s mystical symbolism has long been paramount (Rätsch & Müller-Ebeling 2013). But there would have been a practical reason for its use in licentious religious rites. It was the one time of the month a woman could have sex in the reasonable assurance of not getting pregnant. And it was likely the case that in any given ceremony only those women presently on their menses were allowed to join in the sexual rites; the other females could have been rotated if the ceremonies were staggered at different times of the month.

Alabaster bowl depicting ritual nudity and worship of winged serpent in the sect of the Ophites, Syria or Asia Minor, 3rd-5th century CE (Rudolph 1983).

Iranaeus and Epiphanius elsewhere mention the use of “love potions” and “philtres” among some cult leaders in order to “seduce” and “outrage” women’s bodies, without specifying their ingredients. We can fill in the blanks. Menstrual blood and vaginal secretions are two known ingredients of traditional philtres, at least those designed for male consumption (Ott 2002). As for psychoactive substances, instead of trawling for evidence in texts of the period, we can simply consider what drugs were both widely available and effective for shamanic functions. As we have seen, there were three: cannabis, opium, and the solanaceous nightshades. Mandrake in particular, along with henbane and belladonna (datura came later), has a long and storied history of use as a soporific, deliriant, aphrodisiac and medicine in Europe and the Near East. A contemporary and critic of the Gnostics, Lucian of Samosata (Syria, second century), spoke of mandrake’s ability to cause “you to neither hear those who forswear, nor observe the committing of injustices, your eyes running and dazzled, blind towards anything discernible and your ears deafened just like those well past their prime.” Jumping ahead to twelfth-century Germany, there is no better description of the entheogenic use of mandrake in the Christian context than this anonymous author of the Trudperter Hohelied: “The bark of [mandrake] root brings stupefaction. This root denotes God, the image of whom was Christ. On earth he was a man. For us he is a medicine and a security for eternal life. He is the root….The root’s bark is the Holy Ghost, this means the numbing vapor which makes all lovers of holy Christ sleep” (both quotes cited in Hatsis 2018).

Meanwhile opium, according to the fourth-century Church father Ambrose, was in widespread, almost daily use as a medicine, while the Persian Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine (eleventh century) listed opium, mandrake, cannabis and hemlock as essential medicines (hemlock is not an intoxicant but was commonly prescribed as a soporific, medicine or poison, typically in combination with the nightshades). The most famous and influential occult text in Europe, the Arab-authored Picatrix (eleventh century), presents recipes combining mandrake and opium for both entheogenic and medicinal applications. The twelfth-century Jew Maimonides held cannabis to be the predominant medicine in public use (Hatsis 2018). Long before that, as Chris Bennett speculates on the basis of the drug’s extensive recorded history as a medicinal intoxicant going back at least three thousand years, Christ’s reputed miracles in curing the lame and the sick might have been real cures using marijuana (2010). Moreover, the kaneh (short for kaneh bosem) mentioned in the Song of Solomon (4.14) and Exodus (30.21), commonly yet wrongly translated as “aromatic cane” or “calamus” (Acorus calamus, sweet flag) despite the reputedly mild medicinal and aphrodisiacal effects of this plant (Rätsch & Müller-Ebeling 2013), was actually cannabis, the resin of which has been identified by archeologists at a 2,800-year old Jewish temple site (Bennett 2022).

To reiterate, throughout Europe and the Middle East, from the outset of the Common Era up through the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the only widely available drugs potent enough to elicit a broad spectrum of medicinal and euphoric effects were cannabis, opium and the nightshades. Only these intoxicants and these alone had the reliably proven desired properties. For further use as spirit-enhancing or ecstasy-inducing entheogens, again only these drugs would do, and they were also understood to be particularly efficacious when combined. As regards our modern skepticism on the ancient use of entheogens in ceremonial and ritual contexts, again we must be vigilant in critically checking our biases against so-called “illegal” and “illicit” substances whose use we are enjoined to frown upon or condemn as morally degenerate. The idea that drugs are bad is a modern concept. In the past they didn’t have “drugs” as we pejoratively understand it, and there were no “drug traffickers.” Instead, they had incense, aromatics, perfumes, spices, herbs, medicines and poisons. “Medicine” wasn’t generally understood in the collective sense (unless we borrow the term pharmakon known among those literate in ancient Greek) but only in the particular, certain plants or minerals with specific effects, or various combinations of medicines or minerals — potions, unguents and elixirs. When Shakespeare wanted to express the idea of a drug that caused drowsiness, for example, he used the word “mandragora” (mandrake) or “poppy” (opium) as synecdoche for all soporifics (Antony and Cleopatra 1.5.4; Othello 3.3.327); the word “drug” only appears as a verb (Macbeth 2.2.6).

Whether sexually unbridled or not, it can be assumed that the more “shamanistic” of Gnostic sects would have arranged music, singing, dancing and drugs, along with alcohol, the intoxicating substances infused in wine or separately inhaled in the form of incense. All this paraphernalia would have worked in tandem to compound the collective trance and produce a transformative and unforgettable ritual experience. Their Church accusers assumed drugs were used to incapacitate and rape the female participants; we must not discount this unfortunate possibility, which happens enough in our own day in frat-house and like parties. But to attain everyone’s cooperation and enthusiasm, it’s more logical to assume the drugs were used more benignly, to loosen sexual constraints enough to make all congregants equally willing, “to ease a mutual attraction into the sexual realm, rapidly to enable people to become better acquainted, in an emotionally-opened way,” as Ott (2002) characterizes the technique of applying hallucinogens like cannabis and LSD in sexual contexts.

We can reconceptualize the scenario and regard drugs not as a means to sex but sex itself as the fifth “drug,” the body’s natural, internal drug (an idea explored in Hanna & Thyssen 2002), to be combined synergistically with cannabis, opium, mandrake and alcohol. In other words, the Gnostics used sex as a means of enhancing ecstasy in its own right rather than for its own sake, exploiting it as a powerful, drug-like consciousness-expanding tool. But it’s just as likely that all the items they employed — music, marijuana, mandrake, wine, sex, semen, blood — were equalized simply as required ingredients of the rites, with indeed sacred significance but without much moral value attached to them. Though again, of the substances resorted to, the nightshades were the most potent, capable of pushing users into an extreme state of dissociation and stupefaction, and the right mixture and dosages of the drugs had to be approached with care and caution.


Although the roots of Tantra — esoteric, non-orthodox forms of worship employing yoga and meditation — go back at least to the first millennium BCE in India and evolved alongside the early development of Buddhism, it was not until the sixth-eighth centuries CE that Tantric sexual rites involving Kali (Shakti) cults and the voracious female energy spirits known as yoginis and dakinis began to flower. A sexual sacrament or “seal rite” of the eighth century enjoined Buddhist yogis to copulate with female spirits in secluded spots to acquire magical powers known as siddhi. At some historical point, real women — human dakinis — took on the role of these demonesses. Hatha and kundalini yoga were invented by the ninth century. Ritual activities included ingestion of cannabis (in the potable form of bhang), in possible combination with mandrake or datura — these and other entheogens being “viewed as foods for the kundalini serpent…thought to affect both the serpent, which reposes in the body, and the chakras” (Rätsch 2005) — and the formation of a “circle of naked men and women….consecrat[ing] a bowl of bhang to Kali, goddess of terror and delight. As the bhang begins to take effect, the worshipers mentally arouse the [kundalini] serpent at the base of the spine, sending waves of energy up to the cortex” (Aldrich 1978).

This ritual was spelled out in the Māhānirvana Tantra (eleventh century) and has been interpreted to be undertaken either literally or metaphorically depending on how scandalized one is by its implications. The circle of nude worshippers may have been momentarily segregated by sex or mixed, alternating pairs of men and women; if segregated, the females were called in for ritual copulation with the males at the opportune moment. It’s also possible only a single couple performed the sexual rite in front of the others. The entire rite was slated to last an hour and a half, enough time for cannabis ingested orally to take full effect by the sexual climax. The drug was resorted to not just for its entheogenic effects but to loosen inhibitions against fears of disrobing and engaging in open sexual intercourse. Finally, the male (or males) upon reaching climax withdrew from the vagina in order to ejaculate into a vessel as an offering to Kali: “OM, with light and ether as my two hands, I, exulting one, relying on the ladle, I, who take dharma and non-dharma as sacrificial ingredients, offer (this oblation) lovingly into the fire, Svaha.” The “offering” has also been treated either literally or metaphorically, ejaculation in the latter case being aborted to retain the semen for internal recycling in the “subtle body,” which was more in line with Buddhist Tantric (and Taoist), as opposed to Hindu Tantric tradition (cited in both Aldrich 1977 and Bharati 1965).

To imbue the sexual rites with a more formal veneer, Tantric traditions worked out an intricate system of alchemical symbolism arranged around cinnabar, a mineral whose components — mercury and sulfur — were believed to incorporate and fuse the seminal and uterine principles, also inherent in semen and menstrual blood: “The imagery of elemental mercury also links up with soma (another name for the moon, as well as the sacrificial substance of Vedic ritual), and seminal fluid, whose preservation and use is a central issue for the sexual yogic practices. Mercury is identified with the seed of the god Siva, caught in the mouth of Agni the fire god and scattered in deep wells in the earth, while the other principal substance of Indian alchemy, sulphur, is associated with the menstrual blood of the Goddess” (Samuel 2008). One passage from the Mātrkabheda Tantra (thirteenth century) instructs congregants to “place tamarind…and mercury together on the support. Mix these together…so that the mixture resembles mud….Having shaped it into a liñga [phallus], one should then harden it [in the following way]. One should tie it up inside cloth that [has been soaked] with menstrual blood [and place it] over a fire [fueled by] cow dung. Some heating will be necessary in order that it become hard” (cited in White 1996). As David Gordon White (1996) explains,

It is a basic assumption among these traditions that the fluid lineage or clan nectar, the subtle fluid essence of liberating consciousness, is naturally present in women, and it is precisely for this reason that the male tantric practitioner engages in sexual intercourse with her. This was the basic doctrine of Matsyendranäth’s venerable Yogini Kaula: women, because they are embodiments of the Goddess and because it is through their “wombs” that the lineage is perpetuated, have something that men do not; it is therefore necessary for males to tap into the female in order that that boundless source of energy be activated within them. This fluid power substance (dravya) or lineage nectar (kulämrtd), also simply known by the term “true being” (sadbhävd)—the purest substance found in the human body—is unique to women in their multiple roles as sexual consorts, practitioners of yoga, and biological mothers.

By the thirteenth century Islam had completed its conquest of India. Tantric Buddhism had spread to Nepal, Tibet and China, and within India itself social disapproval of religious sexual practices — indicating they may have been quite widespread — forced practitioners underground, to survive among isolated sects such as the Nath gurus, who today continue to practice hatha yoga and ritually smoke marijuana but avow celibacy, sublimating the sexual drive in goddess worship. Up until modern times in India as well, unfortunately, the history and tradition of Tantric sexual rites was denied or dismissed as a national embarrassment (Bharati 1965).

The existence of similar entheogen-fueled rites in both the Near East and the Indian subcontinent involving serpent worship, mixed-group nudity, sexual activity, and ritual invocation involving the male and female bodily fluids suggests that these ideas might have spread eastward in the intervening centuries rather than emerging independently as discrete phenomena. To unpack the problem of why it took so long for the practices to reach India, we must not make the mistake of confusing distance with time. The distance from the Mesopotamian region (modern Syria and Iraq) to the Indian subcontinent was not inconsiderable but had long been easily traversed. Ideas traveled with the speed of the plague, which is to say rapidly, in the space of weeks or months; for new ideas to be widely accepted, taken up and institutionalized, however, could and often did take centuries.

The movement of ideas and ideologies across Asia over the past two millennia can be illustrated by that most plastic and opportunistic of religions, Manichaeism. Born near Babylon in 216 CE, its founder Mani was struck at the age of 24 by visions convincing him he was the successor to Jesus Christ. Rejecting his family’s Zoroastrianism for a Gnostic-influenced cosmogony of his own devising, he set off with a growing train of converts eastward to India, where his powers of persuasion and conversion convinced some authorities there he was the Buddha incarnate. He spent his remaining decades proselyting around Persia under the royal protection of Shapur I before being executed by Shapur’s successor in 274. The faith itself spread rapidly westward and more slowly but inexorably eastward, reaching the Chinese interior by the ninth century.

It’s always been something of a mystery how this austere religion, whose elect forswear family for celibacy and abject poverty, supported by followers for their daily food and bed, rejecting even the plucking of fruit and vegetables as harmful to the “light” contained in them, held sway for some 1,300 years and spread to all corners of the Roman Empire and eastward as far as southeast China where, having long sloughed off its Christian roots for Buddhist trappings, it survived until the latter half of the sixteenth century. The Ming Dynasty’s founder, Zhu Yuanzhang, had himself fallen under the spell of Manichaeism and named the dynasty after its central tenet of divine light (ming meaning “light” or “bright”). To claim ownership of the name, he proscribed all Maitreyan Buddhist sects in an edict of 1370:

Sorcerers who pretend to call down false divinities, write charms, cast spells over water, “support the phoenix” [i.e. perform planchette writings], invoke the Sages, calling themselves the “Upright Master,” “Grand Guardian” or “Mistress,” or claim to be members of the Maitreya sect, or the White Lotus sect…which indulge in heterodox practices and in distorting the truth…together with those who conceal prints and images of their deities and congregate to burn incense to them and those who meet at night and disperse by dawn.…Their leaders shall be strangulated and their followers shall receive a hundred strokes of the heavy baton and be exiled. (cited in Lieu 1985)

Manichaeism had long been implicated in Maitreyan Buddhism in China, a millenarian movement foretelling the return of the living Buddha. The associated White Lotus movements and rebellions of the thirteenth-fourteenth and eighteenth-nineteenth centuries caused a trail of death and destruction around China, culminating in the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901. The White Lotus sects (at least those of the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries about which we have more information) were notorious for recruiting men and women for coed worship in sect members’ homes at nighttime. The sects were remarkably democratic and non-elitist for their time, in recruiting people irrespective of social background (the Indian Māhānirvana Tantra ceremony quoted above likewise forbade exclusion on the basis of caste), though obviously the educated (i.e. the literate) and the wealthy were sought out; females could become sect leaders. There were reports of sexual permissiveness, therapeutic massage that probably turned erotic, and even sex hospitality — where wives were given to male visitors for the night (Naquin 1974). The sects forbade meat and alcohol, earning them the moniker “vegetarian demon worshippers” (chicai shimo) (Lieu 1985). Women in China were granted more freedom of movement if they became nuns. While many took refuge from men in Buddhist and Taoist temples, others took advantage of this freedom; see the story of the prostitute nun Yang Sanniizi in Sommer (2000). Some temples or “vegetarian halls” (caitang) that offered free vegetarian food to locals may have given men access to nuns and were rumored to be dens of prostitution (Gates 1996). If these motifs of radical sectarianism — meeting secretly at night for mixed-sex rites, promoting women’s sexual equality and expression — can be traced only tenuously back to the Gnostics, we can nonetheless recognize there was fertile ground for it.

India has long been immune to outside faiths, instead absorbing and transforming foreign notions to its own uses, and Manichaeism never took root there; Mani himself was influenced as much by Buddhism as by Christianity. Other faiths fleeing persecution in the West — Gnostics, Nestorian Christians, Jews — found pockets of refuge and support across Central Asia, China and India. However, the question of whether and to what extent the esoteric practices of the Gnostics were seeded in India, if at all, could be better framed as why, among the multitude of ideas and doctrines in the air everywhere, some held greater universal appeal.

The world was much less populated two millennia ago than today but was every bit as busy and bustling. People traveled in all directions along the great river of commerce known as the Silk Road, which took off in earnest in the first century BCE and soon electrified the map all the way from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific, unleashing a fruitful collision of alien objects and ideas, a multidirectional procession of restless merchants, itinerant gurus, mendicant philosophers, motley priests, and the purely curious. Already by the first century CE, Buddhist pilgrims from northeastern India were exploring China along two overland routes: northward via the Silk Road and Tarim Basin and eastward through Burma and Yunnan (later known as the Old Tea Horse Road); and a maritime route through the Malacca Strait to Guangzhou. In the modern imaginary, travel in the ancient past perhaps appears as a stark landscape but for isolated trains of camels and solitary souls in rags. In reality, a steady stream of merchants carried animals, gems, metals, fabrics, spices, herbs, medicines, drugs and ideas — an infinite number of ideas multiplied by untold thousands of travelers.

Buddhist pilgrims didn’t just hitch rides on the merchant ships to and from India and China or on the merchant carts along the Silk Road; many merchants themselves were religious, and Buddhists were often merchants. In the cities and towns in the Tarim Basin’s expanse (modern China’s Xinjiang and western Gansu Provinces) Gnostic, Manichean and Buddhist merchants from Sogdia (modern Uzbekistan), besides trading war horses for silk and gold from China, were famously multilingual and offered their services as translators. Kashgar, Khotan, Loulan, Dunhuang and other oasis towns were way stations for Chinese and Indian monks and pilgrims to get acquainted and learn their respective languages before proceeding to their foreign destinations. Among the most celebrated of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to visit India were Faxian (337-422 CE), who traveled overland from Chang’an (modern Xi’an) in central China through the Tarim Basin and around the Himalayas and Pamirs and down across northern India to the Bengal region and the heart of Buddhism, where he lived for ten years, before returning to China by sea; and following in his footsteps, Yuanzang (629-645 CE), who also set off from Chang’an via the Silk Road to reach every corner of India over a period of seventeen years (Encyclopedia of India-China Cultural Contacts 2014).

Indian Tantra meditator with chakras (Samuel 2008)

One Indian pilgrim from an earlier era who traveled to China named Bhoga or Bogar (c. 550-300 BCE), who may have been a Chinese pilgrim, was the first according to legend to introduce Chinese Taoist alchemy into India. The problem is that while the beginnings of Taoism coincide with this period, Taoist alchemy was not developed in any systematic fashion until the second-third centuries CE. There may have been different pilgrims from the two eras whose names were conflated. The identity of the pilgrim is not terribly important in any case since the latest Taoist ideas brought into India, as well as the latest Buddhist teachings arriving in Tibet and China, were transmitted by a steady parade of pilgrims traveling in both directions. Scholars agree that Tantric alchemical and sexual schemes took inspiration from analogous Taoist theories imported from China between the fourth-sixth centuries CE. Basically, the Taoist circulation of qi energy through a series of dantian or “elixir fields” upward along the spine to the brain mapped nicely onto the Indian “subtle body,” with its circulation of prana (breath) through a series of chakras (energy nodes) upward along the spine to the brain (Dasgupta 1976; Samuel 2008; White 1996).


Taoist inner alchemy illustration (Needham 1983)

In entering upon a discussion of Taoism, it helps to divide its history into two periods, that of its inception and founding personality Laozi (circa sixth-fourth centuries BCE) up to the first century CE, and that of its subsequent history over the first millennium. By the second millennium Taoism, drained of its vital practices in the name of stolid conformism as a state religion, strikes me as a shell of its former self, though I can’t speak for the devout. The explosion in alchemical writings beginning from the second century CE and gathered under the rubric of the Taoist Canon, first compiled around the year 400 CE (of which some 1,400 texts survive), shifted the emphasis from Laozi’s pure philosophy to early “technologies of the self” (to use Foucault’s phrase): bodily transformation involving diet and the ingestion of elixirs of life (waidan or outer alchemy) or self-cultivation through yoga and breathing regimens (neidan or inner alchemy); both enlisted sexual techniques as well (mainly self-administered in the case of neidan). Laozi is relevant here only in passing for his mysterious opening lines in the Daodejing, that the “Tao” is that which cannot be put into words: “The tao that can be described is not the eternal Tao. / The name that can be spoken is not the eternal Name” (Lao Tzu, 1996).[12] As with the difficulties in defining the concept of Tantra (literally to “weave”), the Tao (literally the “way”) is open to interpretation. It could be loosely defined, for example, as “balance” or “sanity,” in the sense of being the way or road back to oneself; or simply as the way or method of longevity. Tao and Tantra may even playfully define each other, as in this characterization of Tantra by a contemporary Buddhist, where I substitute “Tao”:

Taoist inner alchemy illustration (Pieters 2017)

[The Tao] is the art of living itself. It’s the management of all we say and do to coordinate our passions with our intentions so that they correspond with the desired forces of the universe. It’s recognising within ourselves those resonant qualities that are important. Then, it’s striking a focussed chord of mindfulness with those desired forces to sort our identifications into alignment so that every part of daily living supports our becoming. (Walking 2017)

With several excerpts from the Taoist Canon combined with evidence gleaned from Joseph Needham’s exhaustive investigation of ancient Taoist practices in his monumental, multivolume Science and Civilisation in China (published over 40 years until his death in 1995 with continuing volumes by other scholars), we are able to put together a fragmentary but reasonably detailed picture of an esoteric Taoist ceremony as might have been conducted in the third to sixth centuries CE by “medieval men and women Taoists in their mountain abbeys, assuredly not without the prior strains of the lute and the burning of appropriate incense” (Needham 1983, Ch. 33). The traditional temple incense burner or censer was large and elaborate, signifying its importance and designed for communal use to facilitate a “quasi-orgiastic rite…assisted by strong olfactory stimuli, to say nothing of psychotropic drugs in aerosol form”:

The incense-burner remained the center of changes and transformations associated with worship, sacrifice, ascending perfume of sweet savor, fire, combustion, disintegration, transformation, vision, communication with spiritual beings, and assurances of immortality. Waidan and neidan met around the incense-burner. Might one not indeed think of it as their point of origin? (Needham 1974, Ch. 33)

The ceremony likely took place in an interior within the temple known as the “pure chamber” or “calm room,” closed off to seal in the marijuana smoke and bare but for the incense burner and an altar with offerings of wine and jujube dates, and floor mats for the sexual rites. The congregants began by invoking the spirits. “It is remarkable,” Needham adds, “that the injunction ‘Don’t look round!’ is frequent in the directions for doing obeisance to the incense-burner in the Pure Chamber oratory. This might suggest the need for concentration on the hallucinogenic smoke.” One spirit frequently invoked was Magu, literally “Hemp Maiden,”, goddess of cannabis. Another was Su Nü, literally “Pure” or “Immaculate Girl,” one of the goddesses of sex. Her Classic of the Immaculate Girl (Su Nü Jing), purportedly dictated to the legendary Yellow Emperor (third millennium BCE) to enhance his longevity through ejaculation control, is the earliest sexology text to survive and is considered China’s “Kama Sutra.”

One surviving set of instructions from the book Highest Clarity Nine Immortal Meridians Pithy Formulas (Shangqing Jiuzhenzhongjing Neijue, c. fourth-sixth centuries CE) addressed to this goddess is entitled the “method of steaming hemp according to Su Nü” (Needham 1974, Ch. 33). Though the recipe here is missing, similar recipes appear elsewhere in the Canon, such as in the Essentials of the Matchless Books (Wushang Biyao, c. third-sixth centuries CE), a lengthy catalog in 100 chapters of instructions for conducting Taoist temple rites, including this recipe for cannabis incense: “Use one ounce of hemp, one pound of sandalwood, one pound of green wood incense, one or two pieces of Radix Scrophulariae and fragrant beads. Mash the mixture into shape, cover tightly and fry over low heat for half a day” (Essentials, my translation).[13]

Appropriately intoxicated, after group meditation, ritual “gnashing of teeth” and invocations and prayers, the celebrants strip (if not already naked) and pair up for intercourse. According to one surviving description in the fifth-century Biography of the Real Pei Jun of Qingling (Qingling Zhenren Pei Jun Neizhuan), all are enjoined to refrain from sexual climax so that their vital essences — their semen and menstrual blood — are retained in the body for recycling (rather than emitted and consecrated as offerings as in the Gnostic and Tantric rites), as well as, presumably, to prolong the ritual and keep the couples in sync. The intended outcome in the case of males, at least those experienced in the technique of “returning the jade liquid pill,” was non-ejaculatory orgasm through so-called reverse ejaculation (also dubbed “injaculation”), whereby contracting the perineal and sphincter muscles on the point of climax forces the semen back through the seminal vessel and up the spinal column (or “central channel”) to nourish the brain. This is, of course, a physiological impossibility and a solution will be discussed in the conclusion below.

Menstrual blood was regarded in Taoist alchemy to be the female equivalent of semen and was thought to originate in the same location, the cavity in front of the coccyx and above the acupressure point in the perineum known as the huiyin. By withholding orgasm through perineal-sphincter contraction and preventing loss of “yin essence” through the vagina, and simultaneously cycling her qi downward through her breasts (by having them massaged or massaging them herself), a woman could likewise “irrigate the brain with nectar” (Needham 1983, Ch. 33). Yin essence could be blood, sexual secretions or ejaculate — female ejaculation was recognized in ancient Chinese texts. Other sexology texts advised women not to become overly excited or jealous lest their yin essence leak out (Pfister 2022).

Possibly the richest surviving source on the sexual rites, also from the Taoist Canon, is the Initiation Rite of the Yellow Book (Shangqing Huangshu Guoduyi), circa third-sixth centuries CE. The source was already notorious in its day and attacked by Buddhist polemicists (which resulted in the loss and destruction of many other such texts), though the ceremonies may have carried on secretly as late as the tenth century (Schipper 1978). I cite one excerpt here, as translated by Wile (1992), amended slightly with my explanatory insertions. Ancient sexual descriptions employed numerous metaphorical euphemisms for the genitals (e.g. “jade stalk” for penis, “jade gate” for vulva), and it’s not always possible to pin down their precise meaning but one can usually figure it out from the context. (See Pfister 2016 for an impressively detailed explanation of sexual metaphors from a Mawangdui silk scroll text of the BCE-era, with explicit, medical-style photographs of the female genitalia.) The ceremony proceeds like the one above. The celebrants, after bathing, burning incense, invoking spirits, mentally visualizing their “elixir fields” (dantian), gesturing to the Eight Trigrams (of the I Ching), etc., and disrobing, engage in a “sequence of dance, massage, prayers and meditation” led by an officiating priest (“his right hand” referring either to the priest’s or the lead couple male’s):

With his right hand he massages her lower dantian [the belly just below the navel] three times. Approaching the gate of birth [vulva], he opens the golden gate [labia] with his right hand while lifting the jade key [penis] with his left and casting it upon the gate of birth. Now supporting her head with his left hand, he massages the gate of life [the lower back between the kidneys] up and down and from side to side, while reciting the following three times: “Water flows to the east and clouds drift to the west. Yin nourishes yang with a qi so subtle. The mysterious jing [semen] and nourishing liquid rise to the tutorial gate [glans penis?].” The first partner now recites: “The divine gentleman holds the gate [retains his semen] and the jade lady [vulva] opens the door [vagina]. As our qi is united, may yin bestow her qi upon me.” The second partner now recites: “Yin and yang bestow and transform, and the 10,000 creatures are nourished and born. Heaven covers and earth supports. May qi be bestowed upon the bodies of these humble supplicants”….

Raising his head and inhaling living qi through his nose, he swallows yang according to the numbers 3, 5, 7, and 9 [a form of rhythmic breathing], and recites: “May the tao of heaven be set in motion.” The second partner now recites: “May the tao of earth be set in motion.” Following this he enters the gate of birth [vagina] to a depth of half [of the penis], while reciting: “Oh, celestial deities and immortals, I would shake heaven and move earth that the five lords might hear my plea.” Now the second partner recites: “Oh, celestial deities and dantian palace, I would move earth and shake heaven that the five deities of the body might each be strong.” He then penetrates to the [vagina’s] greatest depth, closes his mouth and inhales living qi through his nose and exhales through the mouth three times. Gnashing his teeth, he recites: “May nine and one be born in the midst.” Now he withdraws and then returns to a depth of half [of the penis]. [14]

Now, if this scene were truly representative of a sexual ceremony and intended to be carried out to the letter, even without the use of cannabis or another entheogen, you may notice a problem. Intended for initiates, it’s hard to see how they could all have recited and performed the complex choreography without a great deal of rehearsal. And whether initiates or the highly practiced performed the ritual, the intricate invocations and precisely scripted gestures would not seem conducive to sexual performance. If they were all heavily stoned on marijuana, the proceedings might have collapsed into confusion, awkwardness and laughter, if not paranoia and panic. If laughter wasn’t permitted, it might have been a rather stressful affair. Ceremonies are not performances for an audience but enactments occurring in real time; there is little allowance for preparation. The contradiction between the ceremony’s constraining formality and the volatility of group sex leads Raz (2008) to argue that the Initiation Rite of the Yellow Book was an exception never meant to be carried out in the flesh but only meditated upon allegorically. Regarding the larger question of drug use and the Taoist sexual ceremony, the same contradiction holds between the nature of intoxication and the administrative formality of the occasion. At low-to-moderate doses, cannabis magnifies sensations and heightens the sense of sublimity and as such it’s unmatched both as an aphrodisiac and mild entheogen. It thus might have facilitated a simpler, loosely structured sexual ceremony by adepts operating at the esoteric edges of the Taoist social hierarchy.

If, on the other hand, spiritual practitioners in those early centuries still adhered to their more primitive roots, we have a different scenario. Taoism emerged out of the wilds of folk medicine and shamanism. The business of shamanism is the production of group ecstasy, and certain essential components are demanded: a full-blown, “possessed” trance state capable of inducing awe, fear and ego dissolution. For this, a substance more potent than cannabis was called for. Having rejected R. Gordon Wasson’s soma candidate, the Amanita muscaria (fly agaric) mushroom, for want of evidence of its use in China (Bennett 2010 persuasively argues that soma was in fact cannabis), Needham raises this question without pursuing it further: “It remains to be seen whether other plant hallucinogens also might not have been suitable for group inhalation in the Taoist oratories” (1974, Ch. 33). My hypothesis is that datura or henbane, the nightshades long available in China as medicinal drugs and well suited to ecstatic use, might have been one of these “other plant hallucinogens.” Although there is no evidence they were, we do have some clues as to why there is no evidence.

To recall the excerpt addressed to the sex goddess Su Nü from the aforementioned Highest Clarity Nine Immortal Meridians Pithy Formulas, the same text highlights the importance of carefully following instructions for the rites before ingesting “cinnabar” or “other mineral elixirs.” Cinnabar was the single most prized and oft-consumed elixir ingredient in the Chinese alchemical tradition (also highly sought after by Indian alchemists, as noted above, who traded busily with Chinese merchants for the mineral). It seemed divine by its very nature: its beautiful bright red hue, its magical ability to transform into something distinct from itself — mercury — by the mere application of heat and be converted back into cinnabar by the addition of sulfur. No other substance could do anything like this. This led people to assume that ingestion of cinnabar must have supernatural properties — if only the right formula could be found. It was also relatively rare and expensive, enhancing its mystique. Whereas medicinal plants were short-acting, even when they effected genuine cures, the effects of true elixirs could be measured over hundreds of years, as attested by the legendary Taoists — Laozi being one — who reputedly lived for centuries or became immortal after consuming cinnabar. Mere plants were simply not taken seriously by many Taoist elites as substances worthy of gracing a liturgical ceremony, which explains the ambivalence surrounding them and the patchy evidence of cannabis use.

The reality is that cinnabar and related concoctions have negligible medicinal or psychoactive properties and are wholly unfit for human consumption. Ingesting cinnabar did in fact produce certain physical sensations, among them increased blood flow to the penis, thus earning its bogus yet tenacious reputation as an aphrodisiac. Needham attributes the paradoxically enlivening sensations of cinnabar and the various metals it was mixed with (including but not limited to arsenic, mercury, gold, lead, copper, tin, nickel and zinc) to the body’s vigorous immune response to invasive toxic agents. Compounding this folly, many Chinese in the past were deficient in the body’s healthy minerals and malnourished, and the ingestion of elixirs containing certain metals may have compensatorily caused an energizing reaction in the body that was taken to be beneficial, initially that is, before the symptoms of toxicity set in (1974, Ch. 33). It took the deaths of not a few Chinese emperors from elixir poisoning before its popularity among the elite began to wane (Liu 2021).

The dichotomy between the supposedly superior elixirs and mere medicinal plants mirrored the class opposition between the elites in their officially sanctioned temples and the rest of the population in their agrarian hovels and the rabbit warrens of their walled towns, with their primitive shamanism and folk medicine. The catch-all term for folk Taoists was fangshi, who have been ascribed occupations as various as “thaumaturgical craftsmen, adepts, or ‘gentlemen possessing magical recipes’…star-clerks and weather-forecasters, men of farm-lore and wort-cunning, leeches, irrigators and bridge-builders, architects and decorators, metal-winners and smiths, above all, alchemists” (Needham 1974, Ch. 33). Among the marginalized multitudes, the fangshi were “technical adepts practicing a variety of magical and esoteric arts, including astrology, divination, exorcism, physiognomy, alchemy, and drug therapy,” the latter handling cannabis, datura and other medicines in a distribution chain connecting those who harvested the plants to itinerant doctors and quacks and middlemen up to prestigious physicians and priests (Liu 2021). On the one hand, the fangshi at their most accomplished were intermediaries between the folk and the elite, a bridge to the official Taoism that became increasingly institutionalized after the second century CE and who were the priests’ source of drugs, minerals and elixirs. On the other, the further afield or back in time we look, the fangshi were more likely to be female, the bare-breasted shamanesses and sorceresses (nüwu) in the forests and caves of the distant past whose charismatic theatrical rites had their counterparts in the Eleusinian Mysteries of Mycenaean Greece and other matriarchal traditions (Hatsis 2018; Schafer 1951). Rather than designating any well-defined role, the fangshi were an amorphous group in a ragtag society in flux, and the term is better understood as standing for almost anyone, male and female, who dealt in the occult and medicinal arts.

What can be stated is that exceedingly few people could read and write in ancient China. Even if the fangshi had wanted to divulge their secret recipes and elixirs — and they would not have wanted to given the necessity of operating behind the scenes and away from the peering eyes of people out to steal their product or have them arrested for sorcery or deception — they could only have passed them down orally. Oral traditions invariably disappear from historical memory unless and until someone happens to preserve them in writing. Thus mute and nameless, the vast, myriad, experimental world of Taoist ceremonial practices among the folk and the entheogenic paraphernalia they surely had at their disposal has, apart from a few surviving traces, been swallowed up by time.


If the Tao is our starting point, it is not as a religion but purely as a technology of the mind-body. Cosmogonies, eschatologies, numerologies, and other convoluted occult systems served well enough to captivate the masses along with their gladiator fights and chariot races in the ages before the invention of radio, television, pornography, and horoscopes but are no longer of much relevance today. Sorry to put it in such harsh terms but a little education has this tendency to leave patriarchal religion, the spiritual enforcement arm of the environmental destruction machine, in shambles and washed away in a high tide of irony. What we can therefore believe in that is of higher importance and great urgency is ecology — reversing and repairing the damage to the planet — and simple compassion for people and all living things. Repair and compassion, not invocations or liturgy, are all that is needed. And I’d add: self-actualization.

For those eager to apply Taoism to their sex life, there are plenty of popular books updated for the modern age, some already classics in their own right, combining proven advice on health and nutrition with sexual technologies promoting longevity (if not immortality), e.g., Jolan Chang’s The Tao of Love and Sex: The Ancient Chinese Way to Ecstasy, Daniel P. Reid’s The Tao of Health, Sex, and Longevity: A Modern Practical Guide to the Ancient Way, Mantak Chia’s Healing Love through the Tao: Cultivating Female Sexual Energy, and Douglas and Slinger’s Sexual Secrets: The Alchemy of Ecstasy.

Moving beyond the basics and along a more esoteric path, we now explore the headier realms of communal psychedelic sexuality, as passed down from the secret wisdom of the Gnostics, Tantrics and Taoists. But as the sign above the door to the Magic Theater warned in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, “Entrance Not For Everybody!”

The first prerequisite for developing sex as a bodily technology is that it must be divorced from love. This does not mean that you can’t or shouldn’t love the person you are making love to. It means that you must learn how to enjoy sex in its own right, independently of the love or affection you feel for your partner. Once you achieve this, holding it abstracted in your hands as it were, you discover that sex is transferable: you can enjoy it with almost anyone and irrespective of love or affection for them — in theory at least. Obviously, we have better chemistry with some people than others, but the democratic ideal should be kept in view.

Sexual transferability is the first requisite step because communal practice involves the switching of partners. The ability to switch partners without deep embarrassment, tormented jealousy or destructive emotions frees you up to master the technology. You can practice in a group of three people for starters. Jolan Chang in his Tao of Love and Sex made the interesting point that a third person at the very minimum serves to “note the woman’s reaction during each stage of intercourse” (I would amend that to “the other’s reaction”). We are dealing, after all, with a technology made up of many steps that must be studied and applied in practice, and the skill of observation is paramount. Groups enable the participants to develop their technique more fully by peer observation.

Communal sex practices aren’t free-for-all orgies. Ground rules are set differently in different groups, but no one is pressured into engaging with people they don’t want to. A single partner may suffice, or more, in an orderly and consensual fashion. Group nudity, however, is essential and is what distinguishes these ceremonial arts from more benign communal practices. For one thing, sex can’t take place without it. But equally important, group nudity pries away your pet pride and humbles you in a wholesome way for a few hours. Shared nakedness has a profoundly democratic leveling effect, bringing everyone together. While it may be difficult the first time to shed your clothes, you soon get used to it and there is no going back to puritanical encumbrances once you experience the freedom and joy of social nudity. It’s also important to remember that it’s not a beauty contest; body shaming is forbidden, as is excluding people by age (unless under legal age), race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or body type. And recall that mixed-sex communal nudity was practiced millennia ago by the Gnostics, Tantrics and Taoists for the same good reasons. Finally, it’s a component in the attainment of ego dissolution.

Ego dissolution as we define it does not mean the stamping out or erasure of the ego — what totalitarian dictatorships set out to do to their populations by enforcing a “self-denying, masochistic, almost inhuman philosophy of the supreme importance of the state and the total insignificance of the individual,” as the journalist Paul Tabori aptly described China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967 (cited in Rocha 2022). Or what theocracies and religious cults of the brainwashing breed seek to do. Ego dissolution in the healthful, therapeutic sense, by contrast, is a temporary loosening of the ego’s hold on your mind to restore your childlike wonder at the world around you and remind you of your insignificance in the larger scheme of things ecologically speaking, allowing more fulfilling values to take the place of petty needs and obsessions. Ego dissolution has been practiced since time immemorial through long-attested ascetic, meditational and yogic techniques that return one to a happier, more centered or connected sense of self. But I’m veering off course here into New Age territory. Let’s get back to business.

Psychotropic and hallucinogenic drugs can do the same, which is why they are used in esoteric rites. Since they act quickly and powerfully, the drug experience of ego dissolution can be frightening, even shattering, but after peaking it is almost always followed by a profound sense of bliss and gratitude, with long-lasting or permanent effects. Of the traditional triumvirate of ceremonial hallucinogens, only marijuana is still in general use and fortunately is becoming legal in more and more countries. Opium has almost entirely been turned over to heroin and opiate production, while datura and the nightshades are lost to knowledge even as they thrive in the wild. However, there are plenty of other promising and proven mind medicines available today for exactly the uses we have in mind. DMT (the psychoactive component of ayahuasca) is found in many plants worldwide and is easily extracted with a few chemicals. Nature also provides the most efficient ego-dissolver of all, 5-MeO-DMT (distinct from DMT; see 5MEO for a fine documentary intro to the drug), along with iboga, mescaline, psilocybin, and other compounds used by the world’s indigenous for millennia. There are also synthetic versions of these natural drugs, along with the aphrodisiacal psychedelic 2C-B, the empathogen Ecstasy (MDMA), and good old Lucy (LSD).

Hippies on weed, shrooms or acid patting away on their bongos around the campfire might seem to conjure up the scene we speak of, but theirs is a far cry from the ancient ceremonial rites, since there is no real work involved, no challenge to overcome, no goal, no ecstasy. The ayahuasca ceremony conducted by an experienced shaman is the closest model we have today to emulate. The Amazon trek has become so popular among Westerners there is fear the plants used locally to brew ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis) are in danger of being plundered to extinction. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Days of vegetarian fasting are required beforehand to cleanse the body, and both spiritual and medical support is at the ready during the ceremony, with everyone vomiting their way through their dark night of the soul. But I’ve always wondered why some more creative ayahuasca groups don’t go a step further and bring things in line with ancient shamanistic practices. If you’re willing to shell out thousands of dollars on flights and fees for the possibly terrifying prospect of shedding your ego, surely you’re not afraid to shed your clothes. Group nudity is absolutely appropriate to the occasion.

Then with nudity being the norm, why not add sex? If we’re going to be experimenting with innovative varieties of shared psychic orgasm and communal ecstasy, let’s pull out all the stops. Let’s have adepts seated in an inner circle facing the outer circle of initiates, pulling each one toward them in sexual embrace just before the arrival of the blissful dawn. And the icing on the cake: the consecration of everyone’s semen and menstrual blood in the very bowls used earlier to serve the ayahuasca brew. True, the idea may seem revolting. Yet there’s an old logic and beauty to it: the way the rising sun’s rays illuminate the pearly jelly and glistening blood in their crystal chalices, the way these primal syrups capture the light, just as in former times congregants huddling in furtive darkness witnessed the like under candlelight or moonlight. We have more freedom today. We are morally obligated to take advantage of it.

If semen is ejected, how can semen retention be practiced (if that is a goal)? Lo and Barrett (2012) present an impressive array of anal sex depictions among male homosexuals in Chinese art and literature going back to the Han Dynasty, and they speculate on their compatibility with Taoist inner alchemy techniques. Regarding the rejuvenation of the brain by reverse recycling of semen through so-called injaculation, they observe:

In breath and sexual cultivation practices, tightening the anal sphincter, and the pelvic floor muscles in general, so as to seal up the body…is a prerequisite for propelling the physiological essences upwards….Penetration of the anal sphincter would hardly have enhanced one’s ability to strengthen qi, jing [seminal essence] or Yin in this way, and on the contrary suggests a leakage of both intestinal fluids and vital essence. However, these, of course, are the dangers facing the penetrated partner [not the penetrating partner].

As noted earlier, the idea that semen is capable of being sent up to the brain can be dismissed as nonsense (unless understood metaphorically). But there was for the Taoists a more realistic goal in semen retention through delayed or controlled ejaculation: prolonging the sex act for both your own and your partner’s enjoyment, while simultaneously preserving your lifelong store of semen for the sake of health and longevity. This did not require reversing the flow of semen, only the ability to withhold ejaculation. I’m not convinced regular ejaculation will shave years off my life, as some Taoists claim. But ejaculation control is sound enough advice for the purpose of enhancing sex for both partners, especially for men who suffer from premature ejaculation.

Note that in Taoist lore the location to be manipulated in order to forestall ejaculation, the perineum, is the very spot and source of pleasure reached through anal sex: the nerves lining the anus and prostate. An even more effective method of stimulating this area is anal fisting: the insertion of the entire hand up to the wrist into the rectum (some go up to the elbow). While some initial training is needed to accustom the sphincters to stretching, fisting is considered by its practitioners to produce the most intense sexual experience available. The receiver or fistee can also learn to develop the “anal orgasm,” a hot new item on health and sex websites. I have never experienced it, but men evidently can orgasm anally without ejaculating. This is after all the goal of Taoist sexual practice: to extend one’s sexuality spectrum beyond mere ejaculation.

Women are lucky in that they can orgasm vaginally, clitorally and anally all at once, and repeatedly so, without depleting themselves of their jing (vital essence). They can even be double-fisted — one hand inserted into the anus and the other into the vagina alternately in piston fashion (you can find videos of this on the web — quite mindblowing to watch, as one hand deftly transfers secretions from the vagina to the other hand to help ease it into the anus). To return to menstrual blood, despite its potential creative uses, it is not a requirement. Let’s put it in its place once and for all as having solely symbolic value — positive value at that — for the traditional rites. Woman’s true jing and counterpart to semen is her sexual lubrication. One contemporary American Buddhist relates his encounters with a dakini-style “Red Tantra” woman skilled in the art of “Samadhi absorption,” which typically involves “full-body orgasms complete with massive ejaculations of up to a half liter (two cups) or more of clear fluid, often repeatedly”:

[Female ejaculation] is not a myth. It’s a signpost of connection, both inner and outer, for a woman. For some, it’s natural, while for others, it’s a learned response. A woman who has established this connection inside of herself is said to be “sexually awakened.” That doesn’t necessarily mean spiritually attuned, but physically attuned as a prerequisite in this case. Not all orgasmic ejaculations are a sign of accessing concentrative absorption. (Walking 2017)

Incidentally, Walking and his sexual partners made liberal, unabashed use of MDMA, LSD and cannabis to help power their sessions.

Any isolated and protected indoor or outdoor space will do as a “temple,” ideally in a country where the desired drugs are legal or decriminalized. This reduces the possibility of paranoid reactions, not to mention potential trouble with the law. Every participant must be fully informed of the procedures. Stealth drug use or violating the predefined and mutually agreed-upon sexual boundaries is of course not tolerated. First-timers are invited to watch and be reassured of the safety of the rites. As a nod to the group, the only requirement is that they be naked. On their next visit, they can be initiated. Also present are several helpers or guides who stay drug-free but watch over the ceremony and keep order; the newbie observers may assist in this as well.

The initiates and adepts start things off by ingesting a moderately strong dose of either LSD (100-200 mikes) or psilocybin mushrooms (two to four grams); other entheogens can be substituted. Everyone relaxes to gentle music (ambient, light instrumental jazz or Indian classical) and lounges about to chat and bond. Once the effect of the drug starts peaking, the initiates lie down face up, forming a circle around the inner circle of adepts sitting at their feet, who begin massaging their feet and the rest of their body with oil (scented with an “erotic” essential oil like sandalwood or ylang-ylang). A cannabis bong is passed around to help focus and merge the individual states of intoxication into a communal trance.

Now the adepts’ hands begin working their way into each initiate’s anus, taking their time to relax and open up the sphincters, the other hand caressing the base of the penis (applying pressure as needed to forestall ejaculation) or preparing the vagina for double-fisting. As everyone begins to be fisted in sync and gets into the rhythm, the helpers place a vape pipe containing a “breakthrough” dose of DMT (25-50mg) to the mouth of each initiate, while the adepts continue fisting them for the duration of the DMT trip (typically half an hour). After withdrawing their fists for a few minutes of light massage, the adepts rotate to begin massaging the next initiate. A variation on this is to repeat the DMT vaping with each initiate in turn, working up to a breakthrough dose. Given that the experience may be a lot to absorb, one breakthrough dose for each initiate is enough. Alternatively, instead of moving on to the next initiate, the adepts and initiates switch roles (same or different pairs), giving the initiates training in the art of fisting.

The ritual can be capped off with full-blown intercourse — a pair of adepts performing for all, or all pairing up together — concluding with the sacramental emissions. Following the group sexual climax, some time is given over to reintegration, with the initiates going around to recount their experiences. The celebration winds down as it began, with mingling and conversation, everyone now fully dressed to provide a sense of closure. Everything is wrapped up in six to eight hours.

Disclaimer: the preceding is written in an experimental and hypothetical spirit only and is not intended to be undertaken by anyone except those already experienced in group sex, anal fisting, and the use and combining of powerful hallucinogenic drugs, conducted in a safe, legal setting among mature adults apprised of every element and stage of the ceremony, with emergency medical assistance close at hand.


[1] “多食令人見鬼狂走,久服通神明輕身”《神农本草经》

[2] “多⾷令⼈狂⾛。久服輕⾝,⾛及奔馬,強志,益⼒,通神”《神农本草经》

[3] “人難忍艾火灸痛,服此即昏睡,不知痛,亦不傷人: 山茄子 (八月收), 火麻花 (八月收)”《扁鹊心书》

[4] “收此二花時,必須端莊閉口,齊手足采之。若二人去,或笑,或言語,服後亦即笑,即言語矣”《扁鹊心书》

[5] “相傳此花笑採釀酒飲,令人笑;舞採釀酒飲,令人舞。予嘗試之,飲須半酣,更令一人或笑或舞引之,乃驗也”《本草綱目》

[6] “佛說法時,天雨曼陀羅花。又道家北斗有陀羅星使者,手執此花”《本草綱目》

[7] “文殊师利,导师何故,眉间白毫,大光普照? / 雨曼陀罗,曼殊沙华,栴檀香风,悦可众心”《法华经》

[8] I.e. 曼德拉草 (mandelacao) for “mandrake”; both 曼陀羅 (mantuoluo – “datura”) and 曼荼羅 (mantuluo) for “mandala.”

[9] “李时珍误以为即曼陀罗,《本草纲目》卷十七下“曼陀罗花”李时珍释名:风茄儿、山茄子。注曰:“《法华经》言佛说法时,有陀罗星使者手执此花,后人因以名花。曼陀罗,梵言杂色也。茄乃因叶似尔。姚伯声《花品》呼为恶客” (曼德拉草_百度百科 (

[10] “曼陀罗生北土,人家亦栽之。春生夏长,独茎直上,高四五尺,生不旁引,绿茎碧叶,叶如茄叶。八月开白花,凡六瓣,状如牵牛花而大”《本草綱目》

[11] “洋金花种子为茄科植物白花曼陀罗Datura metel L.的干燥种子,具有祛风胜湿、定喘消肿的功效,用于治疗喘咳、风寒湿痹、惊痫等病症” (Liu, et al. 2021)

[12] “道可道,非常道。名可名,非常名”《道德經》( To clarify any confusion, “Tao” is the traditional spelling of the Chinese word 道 and “Dao” is the more recently accepted pinyin (Mainland China) spelling. I use pinyin throughout this essay for Chinese terms except for the word Tao, since so many book titles and references retain the old spelling.

[13] “作香玄腴法: 用麻腴一斛,真檀一斤,青木香一斤,玄參一兩,香珠三兩。 搗碎內腴中,密蓋之,微火煎之,半日成,以為燈”《無上秘要: 卷之六十六》

[14] “復以右手摩下丹田三便詣生門,以右手開金門,左手挺玉龠註生門上,又以左手扶崑崙,右手摩命門縱橫,三言水東流雲西歸,陰養陽氣微,微玄精滋液,上詣師門,甲又尺神男持關王,女開戶配氣從陰,以氣施我乙咒陰陽施化,萬物滋生,天覆地載,願以氣施臣妾身….仰頭鼻三納生氣,三五七九咽陽,言天道行乙,言地道行,便進入生門中,令半首又咒,柳君妞君萬神生,吾欲搖天動地,五君各自諦乙咒,柳君妞君丹田府,吾欲動地搖天,身中五神各自堅徑進淵底,閉口以鼻納生氣,口吐之,三琢齒,言九一生其中,小退還半、首度甲先行始生氣”《上清黃書過度儀: 自導, 甲乙咒法》


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Many thanks to Feng Yihan for his research assistance with the Chinese texts.

* * *

Other posts by Isham Cook you might be interested in:
Confucius and Opium
The Classic Coffeehouse: Ten Essentials
Transgressions: From Porn to Polyamory

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