Nicholas Saunders, The Face, No. 98, November 1996

Can drugs bring you spiritual enlightenment? The people in this church believe they can. Their religion, Santo Daime, already has churched across Europe, and now it's coming to Britain. Nicholas Saunders takes communion...

Part of my research for my book Ecstasy And The Dance Culture concerned the use of Ecstasy for spiritual purposes. As well as speaking to ravers who often experienced a spiritual uplift, I also interviewed a rabbi and three monks who made occasional use of Ecstasy as an aid to meditation or prayer. One of the monks was a Soto Zen abbot of about 50 who teaches Buddhism in Switzerland. His own spiritual experience was induced by taking LSD while he was at university, and he believes that most of his students came to Buddhism as a result of drug-induced "openings". The rabbi, a respected middle-aged writer whom I interviewed in a London synagogue, went as far as to say that he believed the major world religions had become spiritually sterile and that "the best chance a young person has to find a spiritual experience nowadays is through drugs like LSD and Ecstasy." Another one of the monks was a Benedictine of about 40, who started using Ecstasy in the USA before it was illegal, and still does so when prayer is difficult in order "to open up a direct link with God". He later persuaded me to research and write a book on the use of psychoactive drugs for spiritual purposes.

It was as a result of his persuasion that I eventually found myself on the back carrier of my friend Arno's bike riding along the canal sides of Amsterdam. Arno had travelled to Peru where he spent time with a shaman who used the psychoactive plant drug ayahuasca, and was now visiting a service of the Santo Daime, an unorthodox Brazilian religion which uses ayahuasca, and which had a church in the city.

Arriving at a small building in central Amsterdam, we were greeted by Geraldine, a Dutch woman in her early fifties. Arno had told me good things about her: after being diagnosed as having an incurable brain tumour, she had travelled around Europe and then South America in search of cures until she reached the small settlement of Mapia, deep in the Amazon rainforest, to seek help from the Santo Daime, which had its spiritual base there. They taught her how to use ayahuasca as a medicine which she brought back home and drank every night while playing tapes of the hymns which carry the teachings of the religion. Two years later, her cancer apparently cured, she founded the Amsterdam church to which she now devotes her life as "madrinha" (spiritual leader). My immediate impression was of a very special person: sensitive, strong and warm; someone to whom I could entrust myself even in a vulnerable state of mind.

As the congregation of over 100 arrived, I was surprised to see that they mostly looked like respectable Dutch office workers. Most were between 30 and 50 and two-thirds of them were women. The most surprising was the uniforms worn by the initiates. The men reminded me of Western sheriffs with their black trousers, white shirt and a brass star embossed with a flying eagle, while the women wore calf-length heavily pleated dark blue skirts, white shirts and black bow ties.

Chairs were laid out in rows facing a central altar, a table displaying an incongruous collection of religious icons including a double-barred crucifix, a statue of Mary and a Star of David beside a twisted piece of vine, which I later learned was one of the plants from which ayahuasca was made. Men and women sat on opposite sides facing each other, with senior members at the front around the altar.

Some Santo Daime services involve dancing, a simple side-step shuffle to the rhythm of the hymns, but this was to be a "healing ritual" where we would have silent meditation. Geraldine briefed us; she said we should allow the energy flow through us freely, and not cross our arms or legs as that may block the flow. Vomiting was regarded as a purification and so was not be held back; helpers would provide buckets.

We were each told precisely where to sit, then the service, led by the group of elders, began with a few Our Fathers and Hail Marys in Dutch. Prayers were followed by hymns accompanied by a guitar and flutes, drums and other instruments brought along by the congregation. The simple repetitive tunes were sung with great gusto in Portuguese, more like sea shanties with a bouncy lilt than the Catholic hymns I was brought up with. We didn't kneel, but there was lots of standing up and sitting down.

After about 20 minutes of the singing it was time for us to receive the sacrament. We got up in line and, like a congregation going up to the altar to receive Holy Communion, followed a prescribed route to a side table behind which a Brazilian elder stood in uniform. He held a jug of dark brown liquid as thick as tomato juice, and as each person approached, he glanced up at them before pouring a judged dose into a glass. I accepted my half-tumblerful with a formal gesture and, although it smelt bad and tasted worse, I forced it down.

Back in my seat I sat through more and more hymns until the time came for silent meditation. The first thing I noticed was that I yawned and yawned again, then when I leaned back and closed my eyes I saw flowing geometric patterns. But that was about all. After half an hour everyone stood up and started to move out of their places, and my first thoughts were that this must be the end, and that the ayahuasca had been pretty weak stuff which I supposed might impress someone who had never had a psychedelic before. But I was wrong. We were in fact getting up to take another dose, and this time the drink was darker. The taste was also stronger, so much so that I gagged. As I glanced up, penetrating eyes of the elder met mine and left me in no doubt that I must swallow the lot. And so I did.

Back in my seat, I looked around at the room full of straight-loooking people dressed up in Thirties uniform, standing in neat lines after drinking this foul-tasting psychedelic tea. It was too much, and suddenly I got the giggles. My immediate neighbours were either on another plane or politely refusing to notice, but my friend Arno leaned over to me and whispered that he had once had the same problem and had overcome it by turning his mirth into a beatific smile.

This time the effect of the drink was stronger, and I had to hold on to the back of the chair in front when we stood up. I also felt more nauseous, and I hastily got out of my seat to avoid disturbing my neighbours. I threw up a little bit, but stopped the flow: my mind wanted to "let it all out" but my body refused. I felt rotten, and was not helped by my insight that this inability to vomit was a metaphor for being unable to let go emotionally. I had a block which I hung on to for fear of what lay beneath, and knew that I had to let go to overcome that fear. The harder I tried to vomit, the more my body resisted.

I desperately wanted to lie down but that was clearly not approriate. On reflection later, I understood how this formal, controlled setting was a way of directing the flow of energy by focusing attention on the ritual. The discipline provided a secure setting in which to allow the congregation to go deeply into their own religious experience, while discouraging individuals flying off into other realms.

As I still could not let go, I made the best of it by observing the scene. Being on the men's side I was facing the women, and saw that many of them were now glowing with beauty and inner joy. Some were apparently miles away, perhaps having deep spiritual experiences. A few looked upset (one had tears rolling down her cheeks) and were being attended by helpers who cared for them with obvious love and devotion, being supportive without interfering. Then I focused on Geraldine who radiated energy and health. It was clear that she was not blocked like me and could not possibly have cancer... then she caught my eye, and I looked away in shame.

The Santo Daime religion emerged from the Brazilian rainforest to the Amazonian town of Rio Branco in the Thirties, and reached the cities in the Eighties. The founder was a man called Raimundo Irineu Serra who, working as a rubber tapper in the Twenties, came into contact with indigenous people who used ayahuasca as both a medicine and a means of making contact with plant and animal spirit entities seen in visions. The contents vary, the mix used by the Santo Daime consisting of the bark of a vine, Banisteriopsis Caapi, which contains harmine, and leaves of a plant called Psychotria Viridis (referred to as the Queen Leaves) which contain dimethyl tryptamine or DMT (a powerful psychedelic). Since each component taken separately has an unpleasant taste and little effect - without the harmine working as an inhibitor, the DMT is quickly expelled by the body before it has time to work on the brain - it is often asked how primitive people discovered the magic effect of using them together in the first place.

Irineu was brought up a Catholic, but he was also influenced by Spiritism (a religion based on the spirits of plants and animals that is still widespread in Brazil), and by native indian beliefs. His visions were of the Queen of the Forest, a white woman clad in blue and indistinguishable from the Virgin Mary, who, he said, told him that his task was to found a new religion making use of ayahuasca; she instructed him how to use the ayahuasca tea as a sacrament, and then guided him through the hostilities he faced while establishing his new church in Rio Branco. In addition to visions, Irineu "channeled" hymns containing teachings which formed the doctrine of the new religion. The word "Daime" (Portuguese for "give me") occurs in so many of the hymns that the religion became known as the Santo Daime. Members also use the word Daime to mean their sacramental from of ayahuasca.

The doctrine of the church, as revealed in the hymns, includes beliefs from every religion in Brazil. The predominant theme is that the spirit of the ayahuasca vine is a teacher, but hymns also consist of prayers to the Queen of the Forest/Virgin Mary and the Christian God. Some hymns refer to reincarnation and salvation, but the religion is mostly concerned with enlightenment in the here and now. Its central tenets are summed up as well as they are anywhere in the words, taken from a hymn, which run I have come to receive the teachings/That are in the Holy Daime/I have come to release the power/That is deep within my mind".

The church spread, particularly among poorer Brazilians attempting to settle in the rainforest. However, it was harassed by the authorities to the extent that in 1981 Irineu's successor, Sebastiao, decided to leave Rio Branco and set up a community based on the Santo Daime. Their ashram-like village is called Ceu do Mapia (Heaven of Mapia) and now has about 700 inhabitants who live an ecologically-sensitive life without money, electricity or running water.

Thanks to the romantic appeal of Mapia and Sebastiao's magnetic personality, the Santo Daime acquired a fashionable image in the second half of the Eighties and became popular with metropolitan sophisticates. Its growth intensified when several Brazilian TV stars joined, and new churches were established in all the major cities. The Mapia nucleus, who were poor and mainly illiterate, found themselves outnumbered by sophisticated city people which caused inevitable friction.

There were also problems when, following the growth in the church's popularity, the Brazilian press began running scandalous scare stories about members being brainwashed and cheated of their money. The government set up an ongoing enquiry into the Santo Daime and its use of ayahuasca, and another Brazilian church which used the drug, called União do Vegetal, but found no evidence of wrongdoing. Indeed, in 1987, Brazil's Federal Drug Council concluded that, in the context of its use in religious rituals, ayahuasca was a positive influence in the community, encouraging social harmony and personal intergration. "The followers of the sects seem to be happy and tranquil people," said its report. "Many ascribe to the religion and to the tea integration with their family, renewed interest in their work, encounters with the self and with God." As a result, the churches were given government approval to use ayahuasca, just as the US government has given permission to the Native American church to use cactii containing mescaline.

In Europe, too, there is the danger of the church being portrayed as a dangerous cult, which attempts to indocrinate its followers under the influence of a mind-altering brew after being persuaded to make donations (members pay around £40 each at services, to cover costs and the travel expenses of padrinhos and madrinhas visiting Europe to conduct services). Unlike a cult, the organisation is not secretive, nor does it ask followers to give up their normal life, and the guru to which they are devoted is the Daime rather than the human head of the church, Padrinho Alfredo. A lot of money is raised to support Mapia, but no enquiry has yet found signs of exploitation or extravagant living.

Some members regard the expansion in Brazil as a prelude to Santo Daime becoming a worldwide religion. Certainly over the past two years, branches of the church have been established in Japan, the USA, Spain, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Italy, and France. DMT is prohibited all over the world apart from those exceptions in Brazil, but this has caused remarkably few problems. In Holland, the police actually raided a service and took away a sample. But instead of being charged with being in possession of an illicit drug, they were prosecuted under the Public Health Act because the tea contained too many bacteria! In Italy, Germany and Japan the police have also taken samples for analysis but made no charge. Followers have told me the reason is that they are "protected", but an alternative explanation may be that the tea contains no DMT: an experienced research psychologist tells me that the effects I observed could have been produced by harmine alone.

Towards the end of summer this year, Geraldine travelled to London to explore the possibility of setting up a church in Britain. Around 30 people gathered for the first official British Santo Daime service in a small venue in central London, some from Amsterdam, some British-based who had been to services abroad, and others who had heard about it by the word of mouth. The opinions from the first-timers I spoke to were largely favourable. "This is the way to do psychedelics!" exclaimed a 52-year-old shiatsu practitioner, going on to explain that he felt uplifted and free to share the service as a group celebration. A 25-year-old designer said he felt the flow of life force in every cell of his body, but the formality of the ritual would put him off coming again. A shopkeeper in her forties who regarded herself as an atheist told me she felt very little, but simply knew God existed. A massage trainer of 30 felt extremely nauseous and swore she would never do it again, but next day, after only three hours sleep, she felt "crystal clear and full of energy". (I have also felt surprisingly good after nauseous nights on ayahuasca.)

Although Geraldine's original intention was to establish fortnightly services, plans had, as THE FACE went to press, been put on hold while arrangements for a London madrinha were being made.

I have now taken part in ten religious rituals using ayahuasca. I felt uncomfortably nauseous in seven of them, twice felt nothing and only once had an enjoyable experience. That was in the União do Vegetal in Salvador when I had a vision: I was in a forest where I was "introduced" to the spirits of the trees and plants, and they accepted me into their world. Once in the Santo Daime, also in Brazil, I went out to vomit when I was overcome by a strong flow of energy that connected me to a higher plane, but it merely came and went as waves without providing any useful insight for me to learn from.

A cynic might add that it is the religious equivalent of fast food, providing spiritual nourishment without thorough preparation. Certainly there is a lot going for the Santo Daime as a religion of our time. Its origins in the rainforest, the use of a sacred plant medicine and the ecologically aware lifestyle of the Mapia community paint an attractive image, one of being uncorrupted and in touch with nature. Its holistic viewpoint accords with the prevailing New Age philosophy where physical, psychological and spiritual wellbeing are seen as one. It has incorporated shamanism and the "Goddess". It allows for individual spiritual experience "in the here and now". But most of all, it brings people into contact with the divine far more rapidly than the established European religions.

However, it is not an easy path. Rather than having a blissful time, ayahuasca makes most people feel nauseous, and only a small minority persevere. The Daime is said to seek out emotional blocks which are revealed on vomiting, forcing one to confront them. Geraldine, the Dutch madrinha, vomited and cried for the first six months and still winces at the taste. As in psychoterapy, awareness of blocks and even insight into their causes is no quick fix and often reveals deeper problems. On the other hand, there is the tantalising expectation of visions and deep mystical experience.

"When I came to the Santo Daime, it felt like coming home. I thought that I had got over Christianity, but it's in our roots. This path is based on acceptance, not rejection, and allows one to build on all that one has learned." A Dutch elder explained to me: "You can make fast progress, but it's too tough for many people. The Daime forces you to face yourself, and most people are not prepared for that."

The Santo Daime may have great appeal, especially to people who have a yearning to make sense of spiritual experiences encountered on psychedelics, but it is highly unlikely to become as popular as, say, the Eastern religions in the Sixties. I believe that the Daime can provide insight into oneself which is the basis for an effective holistic spiritual and psychoterapeutic path. But this may be the problem. Whether the risks and dangers of the taste and the nausea associated with ayahuasca are worth the experience is certainly something one has to ask oneself. The issue of how many people would really want to pursue a religion which insists on them confronting their inner problems is another question altogether.


The average Santo Daime follower in Europe is employed, has had a higher education, and is aged between 25 and 45. Around 70 per cent are women; Geraldine Finjeman, who runs the Amsterdam church, claims this is because male machismo inhibits the necessary psychological openness. Marijke Huber is a travel agent, and has been involved with the Santo Daime for just over two years. Despite initial scepticism, she claims it has made her more relaxed and self-knowing. She does admit, though, that drinking the ayahuasca tea was "terrifying". Christel Bortelsmann first came into contact with the church when her husband began attending services three years ago. She says that through the Daime she has seen "all the nooks and crannies of the universe - negative and positive" during her rituals. But, she says, "you have to learn how to control the way you perceive everything during the services."

Nicholas Saunders is presently writing a book on the ways people make use of psychoactive substances for spiritual purposes. Further information may be seen on his Internet site at http://ecstasy.org.

Warning. Ayahuasca contains substances which may have dangerous interactions with some other drugs including MDMA (Ecstasy) and antidepressants of the SSRI type as Prozac.

Copyright © 1996 Nicholas Saunders/The Face magazine.

[A paper on Santo Daime]


Neuro Links