After months of wandering India and Nepal,

Chinmoy arrived at a small village in the Northeastern foothills of the Himalayas. He had come to hear talks on Buddhism by a spiritual master whom everyone called ‘Baba.’ Though Chinmoy didn’t know it yet, this is where he would receive his new name, learn to smoke ganja from the chillum, and be initiated into the Nath Lineage, a spiritual tradition whose oral history goes back thousands of years.

As he walked to the ashram, an afternoon rain cooled his head and washed away the road dust from his body. Wild orchids perfumed the air, and rumbling waterfalls spilled into pools hidden from view. In the distance, the jagged, white peaks of the Himalayas reminded him of just how far he’d come.

Chinmoy grew up in the suburbs of Evanston, Illinois, in what he considers an average 1980s, middle-class upbringing—shuttling between divorced parents, basketball games in the park, music lessons, summer camp. Perhaps not so typical though, was his relationship with a Tibetan refugee from India.

When Chinmoy was ten, his mother sponsored the refugee, a Tibetan woman who came to be resettled in Chicago. “She was like an adopted big sister to me, and exposed me to Tibetan Buddhism,” says Chinmoy. Inspired by his close friend, he studied and learned all he could about Buddhism, and began to use meditation as a way to explore his introspective tendencies.

He experimented with marijuana in high school, and by the time he was in college, he smoked regularly. He would walk to Lake Michigan, sit by the edge of the water, smoke and stare out. “I would relax and project out onto the water, as if I could reach out with my vision and touch the waves, feel their lapping sensation and merge with them.”

When he was 20, Chinmoy traveled to Amsterdam. On the wall of a coffee shop, he saw a poster of an elderly man with gray dreadlocks, wearing a loincloth and sitting cross-legged on the front step of a mud hut. “He held a large basket full of the most beautiful, green ganja buds. Across the top, the poster said ‘INDIA.’” Right then, he decided to someday travel to that holy land.

At the ashram, Chinmoy was greeted by devotees in thin robes. One of them—an American—invited him in and said that Baba was taking a nap. The American showed Chinmoy to a room where he could drop his things and rest. Chinmoy sat and took everything in—the cool, still air, wafting incense and soft prayers coming in through the door—as thoughts of his past faded away.

That evening, some devotees brought Chinmoy upstairs to the shrine room on the guesthouse roof. He looked out at the sunset and the valley below. “There were steep cliffs and lush jungles sinking into a deep river valley. All around was bamboo swaying in the breeze, eagles soaring high overhead and birds darting in and out of the jungle,” says Chinmoy.

Baba finally arrived. He wore a blue robe, had a dark beard and dreadlocks drawn up into a knot on the top of his head. In a thick Bengali accent, he asked how Chinmoy’s travels had been. He poured Chinmoy a small glass of brandy and they talked for a while. Then, Baba introduced Chinmoy to the chillum ceremony.

Spiritual cannabis use in India goes back to prehistoric times. Lord Shiva himself is classically depicted as smoking a chillum (a special Indian ganja pipe) and drinking bhang (a traditional Indian drink made from cannabis). In the Nath tradition, cannabis is approached with great reverence and discipline. It’s a holy sacrament, used only in rituals to facilitate meditation and heighten awareness of the ceremony.

A devotee offered the chillum to Baba, and then called out the names of Lineage Gurus and of Lord Shiva, followed by “Adesh,” meaning ‘Order,’ and then they all chanted “Byom,” meaning ‘space’–invoking the quality of voidness. Baba blessed the pipe, took a few puffs and then handed it to Chinmoy.

“Channel these experiences through meditation, or another activity that allows you to get absorbed in a one-pointed focus, like music, painting or running…”

Chinmoy took the hit. “It is said in our teachings,” says Chinmoy, “that psychic energy, the energy of our thoughts, is carried through smoke.” They began to meditate. Soon after, Baba gave Chinmoy his ‘empowerment,’ a ritual in which the spiritual energy of the Guru is transmitted directly to the devotee. Later, Baba gave Chinmoy his Sanskrit name. This was Chinmoy’s initiation into the Lineage, joining the ranks of Nath Yogis going back countless generations.

He stayed at the ashram for a few months, visiting holy sites and learning from Baba. And when it was time, Chinmoy returned to America, where he now lives with his wife on a small farm in the Midwest.

Once a wanderer, full of doubts and anxieties, he now has the tools and context needed to walk the path with confidence. For those who feel the soul-tug of spirituality, and believe cannabis can help take them there, Chinmoy offers some wisdom:

“Channel these experiences through meditation, or another activity that allows you to get absorbed in a one-pointed focus, like music, painting or running. One of the best things about using cannabis for spiritual development is the way it can help us focus our observation, but it’s important to exercise moderation. Cannabis shouldn’t be used as a crutch, and we shouldn’t conflate our ego thinking that we’re doing anything special or holy by consuming it. There’s an old saying in the oral tradition of India: ‘Drink, but don’t get drunk. Smoke, but don’t get doped.’”

This article was originally published in the May, 2017 issue of Dope Magazine.