11.21.2005

Rainforests, Hallucinogens, Spirit Worlds, White Suits & Jesus?
Say Hello to Santo Daime!



Now Let Us Hallucinate

from The Telegraph

Colum Stapleton's initiation into an Amazonian religion and its exotic drugs rituals came in the most unlikely of surroundings - a community hall in rural Northern Ireland.

It was three years ago and the filmmaker was invited through friends to take part in a secret ceremony of the Brazilian religion Santo Daime, followers of which drink a hallucinogenic jungle brew.

"I opened the door and there were about 60 people all dressed in white," he remembers. "It felt totally bonkers. The men had white suits and blue ties, and the women white dresses. In the centre of the hall was a table covered in a white cloth with pictures of saints and a cross on top.

"That was the altar and there were three guys on guitars and three on percussion belting out happy-clappy Christian songs in Portuguese. The others were singing and dancing around the altar in simple choreographed moves. I was given a cup of the hooch, which tasted disgusting."

When the drug started to take effect, the sensation was more powerful than he could ever have imagined. "It was terrifying, horrific, dreadful," he says.

"Perhaps because I was there as an onlooker, it took its little vengeance out on me. It felt like a near-death experience. Everything became blue-lit and white and deathly. The people looked like filaments dressed in white.

"They were shouting 'Viva a floresta' [Hurrah for the rainforest]," says Stapleton, 40. "I was attracted by the sheer insanity of it in the middle of grim, dull Ireland. I immediately wanted to make a movie about it."

The singing and dancing ritual was to continue for more than six hours. But the experience was the beginning of a two-and-a-half year journey across Europe and South America that resulted in the documentary Empire of Juramidam, which premiered in Britain this week at the Latin American Film Festival in London.

It charts the spread of Santo Daime - also known as the Eclectic Church of the Flowing Light - from its Indian roots in the Brazilian Amazon to its proliferation in western Europe.

For decades the religion was restricted to a small area of the rainforest, but in recent years it has gained an increasing number of followers in Europe and the United States. It is estimated that there may be as many as 30 Santo Daime churches in Europe, including some in Britain.

The tea that is the religion's official "sacrament" is called ayahuasca or daime. It is a muddy liquid made by boiling a vine and a leaf which are both indigenous to the Amazon. Its active ingredient is DMT, or N,N-dimethyltryptamine, a Class A controlled drug in Britain.

About 20 minutes after drinking ayahuasca, the religion's followers attain an altered state that often includes visions and hallucinations. This state, they believe, connects them with the spirit world.

Indians in the Amazon have been taking ayahuasca for curative and religious reasons for millennia, although Santo Daime is only about 90 years old. The religion is a Christian take on the shamanic tradition. Its followers treat the drug as if it is a manifestation of Jesus Christ and believe that by taking it they get closer to God.

In Brazil, the Catholic Church is far more tolerant of the religious offshoot than its British counterpart which condemns Santo Daime's very ethos. Catholic commentators, such as Greg Watts, the author of Labourer in the Vineyard: a Portrait of Pope Benedict XVI, are extremely mistrustful.

"My reaction to this would be that drugs are not the way to experience God," he says. "Drugs are what man uses to try to replace God, so this enterprise is clearly not from God. In the history of Christianity, there have been all sorts of oddballs trying to distort the truth but in this case it has the potential to be very dangerous and to mislead people about the Christian message."

Such criticism of Santo Daime is unlikely to deter those in search of the ultimate religious high, however. Even though Stapleton's first experience of daime was a bad one, he continued to attend rituals to gain the confidence of the group.

Each time Stapleton took the so-called sacrament he "almost always felt terror", although he also began to have a new perspective on the world. "When you are under the influence, good and evil is terribly pronounced," he says.

"You feel the essence of the shortness of life and having to make use of it. In some ways it is like opening the doors of the asylum and never shutting them again. Usually I keep my documentaries at a distance. I couldn't do it with this one."

Santo Daime followers in Europe are reluctant to speak to the press out of fear that their activities will be curtailed by the law. In France and Germany, the authorities have already banned the consumption of ayahuasca.

In Britain, while DMT is a Class A drug and therefore illegal, ayahuasca is not listed as a proscribed substance. Followers of the bizarre religion can access the hallucinogen only when individual members bring in a supply from Brazil.

But even though Stapleton was taking part in ceremonies in Britain and Europe he was never allowed to film one. To obtain the footage of an actual ayahuasca ritual, Stapleton was forced to travel to Brazil to visit Santo Daime's "holy city" of Céu do Mapiá.

The rainforest community of a few hundred devotees is a day's boat ride from the nearest town, Boca do Acre, and is so remote that it has its own time zone.

I visited Céu do Mapiá, two years ago. I felt comfortable on my arrival in what seemed an idyllic country village centred around a star-shaped church. But the scene freaked Stapleton out. "When I arrived they were blaring hymns out of megaphones. It felt like Apocalypse Now."

During Stapleton's stay he was given total access to film the preparation of the ayahuasca and he shot remarkable scenes of the New Year's Eve ritual. For this all-night service, the women wear ceremonial dress of green sashes and sparkling tiaras, and the men wear white tuxedos.

Stapleton again had to take the drug, and this time had his worst-ever experience. "I felt I was dying. I had this huge paranoid crisis. It was pure, sheer terror."

I can well sympathise. I had a similar experience the first time I tried ayahuasca. I collapsed on the floor, hallucinated glowing rivers of colour and then had such an identity crisis that I could not remember whether I was a man or woman.

Stapleton blames his bad experience on his being there as a film-maker, as if that was somehow taking the sacrament under false pretences. Does he feel that it is a religion, a cult, or just a bunch of people getting off their heads? "All three," he replies.

Santo Daime dates from the 1910s when Raimundo Irineu Serra, a rubber tapper, took ayahuasca and had a vision of a woman who told him to start a new religion based on Catholicism. He "channelled" 132 new hymns while under the influence, which are Daime's sacred texts and considered the Third Testament.

Serra attracted many followers in his home town of Rio Branco, where he established the first church in 1945. After his death, the movement factionalised and there are now at least three Daime religions which have a combined membership in Brazil of up to 10,000.

Daime changed during the 1970s when Rio Branco's drug churches became a stop on the South American hippy trail. Middle-class arrivals adopted the religion and, eventually, started to spread it throughout Brazil.

The church does not actively recruit members and is happy to continue on a very small and clandestine scale. Hence, it is difficult to estimate how many followers there are at present.

One follower living in England, who has frequented Daime ceremonies in different European countries, says that the hallucinogenic brew is a powerful tool for self-knowledge. "One cup of tea can be equivalent to 10,000 hours of psychotherapy," he says.

"It shows you as yourself, not as other people see you. If you are self-aware it can help you in many ways."

In Céu do Mapiá, ayahuasca is used by many as a cure-all, the reasoning being that all illnesses are indicative of a problem on the spiritual realm that can be cured by spiritual work through the drug. Women take ayahuasca while giving birth and the brew is dabbed on children's mouths as soon as they are born.

Near to Céu do Mapiá there is a rehabilitation clinic run by a Spanish doctor, who buys the ayahuasca from the Santo Daime church.

Stapleton says that one of the aspects he admires most about Santo Daime is its relationship with nature and, through this, its attempts to send out a very modern message. "The believers have a sense of mission in the world," he says. "They have a sense of planetary emergency.

It is a very controlling religious system and there are strict rules, such as everyone must stand in a fixed position around the altar, make the same moves and sing a strict list of songs. Once the ritual has started, you are not allowed to leave. But having met the people and having been with them for long enough, I would ask why shouldn't they do what they do?"


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