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 The five meats

At a typical Vajrayāna initiation, the practitioner is given an “elixir of immortality” (Skt: amŗita) to drink, the guru recites meditation instructions – the details for visualizing a deity and a mantra. In fact, one medieval writer opined that the three essential elements of an initiation are these three: the amŗita, the visualization and the mantra. The practitioner is therefore expected to practice the deity-meditation every day and is entitled to attend the monthly or fortnightly tantric feast (Skt., gaṇacakra; Tib., Tshogs ‘Khor) dedicated to that deity. The flask which is used to distribute the amṛita at such initiations and gaṇacakras invariably has a spray of peacock feathers adorning the neck. This is not merely decoration, this spray is used to sprinkle amṛita upon the assembled celebrants. It is said that a small bundle of twigs may be substituted if peacock feathers are not available. But, clearly, the fact that this work-around is allowed implies that peacock feathers should be used if possible. Why is this? What on earth could connect amṛita and peacock feathers? The answer, once again, is to be found in a psychedelic mushroom.
The tantric feast

The gaṇacakras were often said to be held in cemeteries and cremation grounds at night. The celebrants feasted on five meats: cow, horse, dog, elephant and, what is euphemistically called “the great meat” (Skt: mahāmamsa), human flesh. To wash down the five meats they quaffed “the fivefold elixir” (Skt: pañcāmŗita) – a concoction of (human) urine, pus, brains, blood and semen. We shall see that none of these supposed “meats” or their corresponding amŗitas should be taken literally. It should be noted that the list of five meats is usually the five given here. Occasionally, though, “cow” is replaced by “peacock”.1

Now, this is rather curious. Could it be that a cow and a peacock are in some way equivalent? If the gaṇacakra rituals (like most tantric rites) use secret, cryptic, terminology then could “cow” and “peacock” be two different code words for the very same item? We shall see that both terms in fact refer to the psychedelic mushroom Psilocybe cubensis. The reason that this mushroom species would be called “cow” is quite simple: it grows on cow dung, but where do peacocks fit into this puzzle?

We saw earlier, in the discussion of the name Nīlakaṇṭha, that it can just as easily mean “blue stem” as “blue throat” and that Psilocybe cubensis, a psychedelic mushroom, is characterized by a blue coloration. It so happens that in Sanskrit literature, the peacock is frequently called “blue throat” (Skt., nīlakaṇṭha), for obvious reasons. Thus, the logical chain which equates beef with mushroom and mushroom with peacock-flesh takes some working through but is not really complicated or far-fetched. Indeed, it is possible that corroboration for this hypothesis may be found in the iconography of the Vajrayāna protector deity Yamāntaka.

The wrathful deity Yamāntaka is usually said to ride a water-buffalo – a suitably wrathful mount. But just occasionally, his mount is described as a peacock. Using the above logic, may we then conclude that Ps. cubensis also grows on buffalo dung? Well, no, we cannot because it doesn’t. However, there is a related mushroom which does.

Panaeolus camboginiensis is a mushroom which is reported to grow only on the dung of the water-buffalo.2 Though small, it contains very high concentrations of psilocin and psilocybin. Paul Stamets cites concentrations as high as 0.55% psilocybin and 0.6% psilocin.3 Due to the high levels of psilocin it exhibits a strong bluing reaction when bruised. It would therefore deserve to be called “blue throat”, just like Ps. cubensis and would thus be eligible to share its association with the blue-throated peacock. Thus, we may perceive a chain of associations by which both the water-buffalo and the peacock become identified with the mushroom. Perhaps this might go some way towards explaining why a medieval Hindu monastic order devoted to the god Śiva called itself the “intoxicated peacocks” (Skt., matta-mayūri).4 Note that matta has a range of meanings covering any temporary mental derangement, including the sexual frenzy of a bull elephant in heat. It does not necessarily imply intoxication with alcohol.