An Odd Case for a Monk Smoking Weed
Prison is for rapists, thieves, and murderers. If you lock someone up for smoking a plant that makes them happy, then you’re the fucking criminal. —Joe Rogan
The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world. —Carl Sagan
Make the most you can of the Indian Hemp seed and sow it everywhere. —George Washington
Since the time of my ordination I have been relatively strict in Vinaya, also known as the rules of Buddhist monastic discipline. I used to be extremely strict, and could go for weeks without being aware of having broken any of the roughly two or three thousand rules (and I knew them fairly well). Now I’m not nearly so fanatically strict as then, but I’m pretty sure I still follow the Vinaya rules more strictly than most. I should point out, though, that following the monastic precepts is not the same as being saintly or even particularly moral. There are probably lots of monks who are much more saintly than I am, including some who are very sloppy in their monastic discipline. I just figured very early on in my monastic vocation that since I voluntarily joined the Order, I should follow the Order’s rules, and not cheat, within reason.
Which brings up the idea, which some people have difficulty in understanding, that there is a real distinction between following Buddhist rules and being moral. Some rules have little to do with actual ethics: it’s against Vinaya, for example, for a monk to grow long hair or long fingernails, or to eat food in the afternoon or at night, or to keep more than three articles of clothing (plus a belt), or to use a bowl made from a human skull, or to urinate while standing (without a good reason for doing so), or to bless another monk after he sneezes. Contrariwise, some acts of immorality are not necessarily against the rules: cussing, for example, or eating too much, or, arguably, even looking at pornography. Rules apply to outward actions of body and speech, with some of it being little more than ancient Indian monastic etiquette; whereas true morality is, from the Buddhist perspective, primarily internal and mental.
Buddhist ethics are extremely finely tuned; for example, any indulgence in or desire for sensual pleasure is immoral or unwholesome or “unskillful”—wanting or enjoying tasty food, playing music, sniffing pretty flowers, basking in a warm bath, sleeping on a soft, comfortable bed, and on and on. Not only is Buddhist ethics extremely subtle, with pure morality being virtually impossible, but it is also based on very ancient north Indian ethical philosophy in which purity of spirit is required to escape Samsara. Even believing that you exist as an inherently distinct individual is akusala, or unwholesome, based as it is on worldly delusion.
Some readers may be very skeptical of my claim that, arguably, a monk ogling pornography is technically not breaking any rules. A legalistic argument would be as follows. First, for a monk to fondle a woman lustfully is a relatively serious violation of Vinaya, requiring six days and six nights of penance, followed by a formal ceremony attended by at least twenty monks, to expiate the transgression. However, for a monk lustfully to touch a mere representation of a woman, say a sculpture or picture, is only a dukkata offense, a transgression of the most minor sort, being of the same severity as growing one’s fingernails too long or opening a door with one’s bowl in one’s hand. Looking at a woman’s groin area with a mind inflamed by lust is also this same kind of dukkata offense; so if ogling a real woman’s pee-pee is the most minor sort of transgression, then ogling a mere representation would presumably be much less than that, which would be no transgression at all. But still, as I have said, just because something isn’t technically against the rules does not mean that it is right. Doing anything with a mind inflamed by lust—or greed, or anger, or delusion—is unethical or wrong. So a monk who looks at porn, and enjoys it, still has no justification. He just isn’t guilty of a monastic transgression which he must confess. Hell, even to believe that women really exist is immoral. It’s complicated.
With the foregoing as a bit of preliminary rhetoric, I now move on to the case for a Buddhist monk smoking cannabis, or to be more specific, the case for me smoking it. It’s a strange and rather surprising situation for me. In my case it is concerned with the treatment of gout. I’ll eventually get to that before I’m done with this.
Many Buddhists, including plenty of monks, would say that smoking cannabis is in violation of Buddhist ethics, especially considering the fifth precept: “I undertake the precept to refrain from ale, wine, and intoxicants which are the basis for cloudedness of mind.” This seems reasonable, although there are technical complications. First, the Vinaya rule for monastics corresponding to the fifth precept specifies only intoxicating drinks, namely alcoholic ones; and furthermore the use of cannabis is allowed for medicinal use by a rule in the sixth section of the Vinaya Mahāvagga, the Section on Medicines or Bhesajjakkhandhaka.
|Phineas of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, one of my early role models|
The ancient Pali word for cannabis or weed is bhanga. It has the same prehistoric Indo-European (“Aryan”) etymology as the Polish word for hemp, pienka, which is one of several bits of evidence that the ancient Aryans who invaded India during the 2nd millennium BCE were regular users of the stuff, and not just as a fiber for ropes and coarse cloth. The use of entheogenic plant substances in ancient India was widespread, and ancient even in the Buddha’s time. The odd thing is, though, that although the Vinaya rules allow monks to use cannabis medicinally, and even to own a pipe for inhaling medicinal fumes, the exact usage of it is not specified. If I remember correctly the only medicinal use for bhanga that I have encountered in the commentarial literature is that a monk is supposed to roll in it for the purpose of inducing sweating, implying that it is for external use, which makes little sense to me, and may simply be one of many wild guesses made by medieval Sinhalese and south Indian commentator-monks who were unfamiliar with ancient north Indian customs and folk medicine.
Also, just because a drug or medicine alters consciousness does not necessarily imply that it is unethical to use it, or that it must be against the rules. Caffeine is an obvious example of a mind-altering drug that only the strictest fanatics would insist is forbidden to monastics. Tobacco is another example—although I suspect that if it existed in Iron Age Ganges Valley the Buddha would have prohibited its use, not so much because it is mind-altering as because it is highly addictive, thereby almost necessarily conducive to craving, the cause of all suffering, in accordance with the Second Noble Truth. Another possible example is quinine, used to treat malaria, which has very strong side effects, including dizziness and nausea, sometimes causing its users to suspect that the cure is worse than the disease that it cures. But even though the quinine-induced dizziness and vertigo would certainly qualify as “cloudedness of mind,” it is an effective cure for malaria, and even the aforementioned fanatics of discipline generally don’t claim that its use should be against the rules. (Though to be fair, the giddiness induced by quinine is not generally euphoric, and it is not, so far as I know, used recreationally, except in gin and tonics.) So what it boils down to in this case, and in the case of cannabis, is the motive of the user. If one is using it specifically to induce euphoria or “cloudedness of mind,” then sure, it should be a violation of Vinaya as well as of Buddhist ethics; but if one has some other purpose, then maybe not. Unless it’s alcohol, in which case even drinking some accidentally, just a sip, is automatically a pācittiya offense, i.e. a transgression of medium severity, requiring confession.
So here’s the thing. I evidently inherited gout from my father’s side of the family; and so sometimes, because my liver is not quite efficient at metabolizing uracil, an ingredient in RNA, which in turn is an ingredient particularly in plant sprouts, grape skins, and organ meats, tiny uric acid crystals accumulate in the joints farthest from the heart, and I wind up with a very sore and swollen toe. When I was living in Burma I would get a flareup bad enough for me to be painfully limping around maybe four times per year; but after returning to California a year ago, for some reason I was having flareups of gout about half the time, practically every week. I started taking allopurinol tablets, the usual treatment, and it had no obvious effect—even with daily allopurinol I was still getting attacks of gout about as often and as bad as before. At the time I suspected that it was caused, if not by some metaphysical effect of kamma, by lack of exercise. Here at a Burmese temple in California I mostly just sit in my “cell” all day, and do little walking; whereas in Burma I was walking every day: walking to the village every morning for my daily bowl of food, and also the standard fetch wood, carry water stuff of a monk living in an Asian forest monastery with no water pipes or electricity. The theory went that walking continuously flexes the joints in the feet, which increases blood flow there, which helps keep the capillaries relatively free of little uric acid crystals. Burmese doctors to whom I told my theory, though, didn’t believe it; they thought it was because of change of diet to richer food, of which I was skeptical.
I used to smoke marijuana as a layman, and I always liked it better than ethanol as a mind-altering substance. That, eroticism, and the feeling of walking into a bookstore knowing I can buy any book I wanted, were three of the things I missed the most from my pre-monastic days. In fact the use of certain “consciousness-expanding” drugs was an integral part of my early spiritual searching and practice. During the more than twenty years I was in Burma the only time I smoked dope was when some American layperson would visit and offer me some, which wasn’t often, on average maybe once every two or three years. So when, back around September or October, a friend/supporter offered me some buds he grew in his yard I accepted gladly. I was willing to break a minor rule to smoke it—I was willing to make the sacrifice, so to speak. But more on the rule-breaking aspect of it later.
So what happened was that I would go out behind the monastery, smoke a bowl—at first from a pipe made from an empty Red Bull can—and do walking meditation, or just pace back and forth, for half an hour or so, usually in the evening, maybe five nights per week. Sometimes I’d smoke two bowls. And lo and behold, starting from that time I haven’t had another flareup of gout. None whatsoever. The thing is that being high caused me to enjoy walking meditation more, so I walked more, and I considered the extra walking to have ended the gout attacks. It seemed to corroborate my earlier hypothesis.
But then the weather here became wintry, and too cold to do much walking meditation in the evenings. I’d smoke a bowl, walk back and forth for a few minutes, get cold, and go back inside. But even so the gout stayed gone, even without much walking at all. So now the hypothesis is that the cannabis itself has somehow treated my gout. Or, maybe it’s just some kind of placebo effect, or a case of the cannabis easing some psychosomatic tendency, or some such. But the fact remains that I haven’t had a single flareup of gout, which I had been experiencing repeatedly and painfully, since I started smoking a bowl of dope in the evenings maybe five times per week.
I looked up medicinal marijuana on the Internet, and found that it has been used for treatment of gout by medical professionals. In fact there is at least one US state which will issue a permit for medicinal cannabis for treating it. I don’t think it’s effective merely as a pain reliever, since there is no pain to relieve, or swelling either. I was willing to break a rule by smoking a little weed, but it looks like I may have a legitimate medical excuse, which is convenient. Furthermore, it’s legal in California; a person can just walk into a shop and obtain some really potent bud—though I am a little concerned that commercially grown hydroponic clones may lose their plant spirit, or some such, and become a kind of soulless vampire weed. I’ve been smoking around three grams per month, or approximately one tenth of a gram per day. I don’t even bother taking allopurinol anymore.
Now here is the threatened legalistic case. As I already mentioned, cannabis or bhanga is allowed in Vinaya for medicinal purposes, and a monk can even legally own a pipe. So, at worst, smoking cannabis for the high itself would be the dukkata offense of taking a medicinal substance without a genuine medical reason for it, which would be exactly the same precept applying to a monk who eats hard candy in the afternoon without a medical reason, just because he likes it. (Sugar or molasses is also considered medicinal in Vinaya.) But if cannabis really is what has caused my gout to stop, then I may have an actual justification.
As I mentioned above, just because something isn’t technically against the rules doesn’t mean that it isn’t immoral. And to some degree the stuff I’ve been smoking could be said to cloud the mind, and the effect certainly can be euphoric and pleasant—I seem to like everything better when I’m high. I become less intellectual and more sensual, which I suppose isn’t so good; but on the other hand I also become more meditative. Sometimes while walking back and forth out back I begin spontaneously repeating the sacred syllable AUM under my breath, which lately has been almost the only time that I still spontaneously AUM. (It’s a Hindu practice rather than a Buddhist one, but one that comes up of its own accord, and is a sign that my mind is detaching from empirical Samsara, at least a little.)
Consequently, especially considering that I may not even be breaking any rule of monastic discipline, the plan is to continue with my approximately nightly bowl of weed outside until I eventually run out, or until the venerable abbot here commands me to stop.