Forest of Visions: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Spirituality, and the Santo Daime Tradition

Forest of Visions: Ayahuasca, Amazonian Spirituality, and the Santo Daime Tradition

By Alex Polari de Alverga. Rochester
VT: Park Street Press, 1999. Paperback, xxxiii + 255 pages. 

A leap of faith is required to fully appreciate this fascinating tale, the same leap already made by the Santo Daime religious community in the Brazilian Amazon: that a highly intelligent divine being, at times called "the Daime," "Juramidam," or "the Christ energy," somehow inhabits ayahuasca, an ancient shamanic, psychoactive drink prepared by brewing together the jagubr vine with the rainha leaf.

For those familiar with Terence McKenna's similar claims about psilocybin mushrooms, or the Native American's relationship to peyote, this is not such an outrageous proposal. But to the uninitiated and the skeptical, it could easily sound like a delusional excuse for substance use. Those in that category should know that CONFEN, the Brazilian government's drug bureau, has conducted extensive on-site studies of the community and have officially approved the drink for religious practices.

Forest of Visions tells this remarkable community's story through the eyes of Alex Polari de Alverga, a former political activist who spent years in jail under the military junta in Brazil and later discovered his spiritual path in the Santo Daime. Alverga had the opportunity to apprentice himself to one of the church's founders, the late Padrinho Sebastiao Melo de Mota, who "rejoined the spirit world" in January 1990. The author's relationship to his padrinho ("godfather") is that of a devoted and adoring disciple to a Master, and there is an innocent sweetness to his love for "the old man with the long white beard and luminous eyes" who led the early "Daimistas" into the heart of the Amazon rainforest to establish their main home in Ceu de Mapia.

The book further reveals a belief held by church members that requires yet another leap, this one more difficult for me: Alverg likens the Santo Daime to the Essenes, and declares Padrinho Sebastiao to be the reincarnation of John the Baptist, taking birth in the Amazon to herald the second coming of Christ-this time imprinted in the Daime and in the hearts of all who awaken-during what the group clearly believes to be the apocalyptic end times. Again, to some, this is perhaps nothing but millennial madness, another strange cult holed up in seclusion in the jungle, waiting for the world to end.

Yet unlike other such groups, the Santo Daime community appears to be stockpiling love and good works, not weapons or lunatics. I had the privilege of participating with them in their religious rituals in 1994 and can confirm what the Brazilian government also found in their investigations: the church is composed of peaceful, hard, working, ethical men, women, and children, with a great generosity of spirit and hospitality. Creating a harmonious sustain, able community is in fact the very fabric of the Daime teachings, which emphasize the importance of translating one's religious revelations into concrete acts of loving, kindness toward all creatures.

The "Daime Works," as their rituals are called, involve lengthy sessions-sometimes all night-in which participants ingest the sacred drink at regular intervals and sing liturgical hymns nonstop. The hymns have been channeled over the years by Padrinho Sebastiao and others and form the actual teaching and doctrine of the church. They invoke a peculiar blend of African and Christian imagery-from Jesus and the Virgin Mary to Mother Oshun of the Waters.

There is often a purgative reaction to the drink at first, particularly for newcomers. I personally never threw up so many times in my life. I remember well those moments at four in the morning, my head hanging out the chest-high church windows that had been designed for that very purpose. But many are showered with powerful visions, personal teachings, and often ecstatic states, induced by what they perceive to be a divine source. Early on, Alverga meets Padrinho Seu Mario, who tells him: "The first rime I drank [the Daime] I found everything I was looking for. I quenched my thirst. I died and was reborn-the man who drank the Daime never returned; the one who came back was a new man."

Opponents of psychedelics often argue that there are no shortcuts to God or enlightenment. The Daime, however, is in fact considered to be a shortcut, albeit a steep and challenging one, divinely dispensed in the rainforest to speed up the evolution of mankind now that time is short. Regardless of where one stands about such remarkable ideas, Padrinho Alex Polari de Alverga has provided a moving firsthand account of an unusual and compelling contemporary spiritual phenomenon.


January/February 2000