Sacred Toxins

It looks out of place. Dark green arrow-shaped leaves, woody stems, huge blossoms, and spiky fruits look like they would be more comfortable in a Southwest arroyo. But here it is, growing out of a basalt outcropping along the John Day river in northern Oregon.

It turns out to be a datura plant that is indeed more typically found farther south. I have seen it on hikes in the canyon country of New Mexico and Utah. How it arrived here is anyone’s guess. Maybe a seed came in from a bird dropping, on a hiker’s boot, or from imported cattle feed. It does not matter.

I reflect upon datura stramonium, sometimes called jimsonweed or thorn apple. It is often referred to as “sacred datura” in cultures that use some species for their hallucinogenic and medicinal properties. Anyway you look at it, the plant is quite poisonous if you do not know how to prepare it. It contains atropine, a nervous system blocker, that is sometimes used to treat heart rhythm problems. It can just as easily kill you.

I am amazed at how humans can be so intelligent as to take a toxic plant such as datura and discover, by trial and error, many useful qualities. This is what we do in meditation practice. We uncover the toxicity behind all our flowery thoughts and then make something useful, something to benefit others. But it takes trial and error. It takes dedication to practice no matter what thorny apples we might discover.

The tantrayana teachings of our practice lineage suggest that every thought has a potential to be transformed into compassionate action. We do not reject a poison lurking in the shadows. We simply learn how to prepare it for proper digestion—and the instructions are written on our hearts.

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