Vows, commitments and modern life: Pratimoksha vows: Abandoning intoxicants (marijuana)

Some people agree that drinking alcohol just makes us stupid and taking hard drugs is just too dangerous, but they then ask what about marijuana?  People who have smoked almost all agree that it makes them more mellow and often gives them insights which are very similar and profound like what we realize with the Dharma.  There are also a great number of medical studies about the health benefits of this drug.  Let’s face it, a very high percentage of Dharma practitioners have smoked pot in the past.  Here the case is much harder, but still it is not worth it.  Why?  First, just as alcohol functions to undermine our inhibitions, marijuana functions to undermine our desire to do anything other than more marijuana.  This is true, and anybody who has smoked knows what I am talking about.  Conventionally, people usually all agree that people who regularly smoke have less ambition and drive than they used to.  Whenever free time arises, their first impulse is to light up.  As we know from the lamrim teachings, desire is everything.  All of the lamrim meditations are ultimately about building up within us an unquenchable desire for liberation and enlightenment.  Marijuana deflates our desires, and the more we smoke the less we desire anything else. 

Second, if we are even slightly prone to psychiatric disorders, marijuana is downright dangerous.  When I was in Geneva, there were three different practitioners who were mentally completely normal prior to smoking marijuana, but they had latent potentials for psychiatric disorders, and after smoking regularly for a period of time, they all three developed very serious psychiatric issues, so much so that all three of them have spent a fair amount of time in mental hospitals.  We don’t know what latent potentialities we have lurking under the surface, and smoking could activate them.  Perhaps we have smoked a few times without a problem and therefore think we are immune to this problem.  But we never know if we are just one joint away from tripping over some invisible karmic wire we didn’t know was there.

Third, marijuana is a gateway drug.  It is like crossing the Rubicon, and once we have done so the other drugs which before we said we would never even consider trying suddenly no longer seem that different.  Marijuana seems to be OK, perhaps Ecstasy, opium or a little blow might be OK too.  Geshe-la explains in the teachings on delusions that the easiest way to stop delusions is to do so early before they have gathered up steam.  Once we allowed them to run a little bit in our mind, they can seemingly take on a force of their own and become unstoppable in our mind.  It is the same with drugs.  Just as they say it is easier to attain enlightenment once we have become a human than it is to become a human if we have fallen into the lower realms, so too it is easier to avoid marijuana now than it is to avoid using other drugs once we have started using marijuana. 

Finally, sometimes people object saying that when they smoke marijuana it gives them deep insights into the Dharma, so how can that be bad.  Perhaps it is true that when we smoke up, suddenly emptiness makes sense.  We see all the connections between the different Dharma teachings.  Such experiences can quickly and easily be used to justify doing it some more “for valid Dharma reasons.”  So again, just like with the health benefits of drinking a glass of wine every day, let’s assume for the sake of argument that there are deeper insights to be had by smoking marijuana.  Once again my question is simple:  isn’t have a precious human life also good for gaining spiritual insights?  Every time we practice moral discipline for spiritual reasons, we create the karmic causes for an entire precious human life.  So what gives us greater opportunities to gain spiritual insights, 80 years worth of a precious human life or a few hours each week for 80 years?  And this is setting aside the fact that there are diminishing returns.  Perhaps the first time we get high we feel the subtle vibrations of the cosmos, but do we get that same feeling the 20th time we get high?  Eventually, it starts to do very little for us.  So again, let’s assume you smoke once a week for your whole life.  By taking this vow, you will train in this moral discipline 3,120 times (assuming you are 20 and live until you are 80).  3,120 actions of moral discipline translates into 3,120 precious human lives or another 249,600 years worth of precious human existence.  What will give you the opportunity to gain greater spiritual insight, 250,000 years worth of precious human life or a few random insights from being high?  Again, math doesn’t lie.


15 thoughts on “Vows, commitments and modern life: Pratimoksha vows: Abandoning intoxicants (marijuana)

  1. I have a question about this. Marijuana has a large number of medical uses. I know someone who uses it to control her dog’s seizures, and people use it for the same purpose. Many use it to control cancer pain. Opiates are also used for severe pain and result in some intoxication, though just getting high is not the primary intention for most people. Are these things only intoxicants if the primary intention is to get high? When you have pain and take an intoxicating painkiller to subdue it, is there any violation of the pratimoksha and, if not, what’s the distinction between physical pain and psychic pain?

    Also, when does something become an intoxicant? Let’s say you take a sip of wine because you like the taste and not enough to become even mildly intoxicated. Is that a violation?

  2. If somebody has been legitmately prescribed marijuana by a doctor for legitimate medical reasons (and not just go down to one of the “doctors” on Santa Monica Pier who give you a prescritpion for $50 no questions asked), then of course there is no problem and not a violation of the Pratimoksha vows. Same goes for any other medication. On sipping the wine, my previous post was on alcohol. But in general we should never be too rigid with these things but use our wisdom based on the circumstances. Toasting your best friend’s wedding, for example, is clearly not a violation.

  3. The only reason I find weed incompatible with my training my mind is that I cannot hold an object for even a moment. It makes meditation impossible, which makes liberation impossible. I uses to love how it made me creative, thoughtful and inspired, but now, I know all I can hope for is a wafer thin correct belief, as delicately unstable as a dandelion clock in the wind.

  4. I know people who cannot access it legally and take in very minute doses to relax pain and help with chronic illnesses such as glaucoma, cancer, heart disease, seizures, chronic fatigue and even ME. Opiates have a different effect. My mother is on morphine, prescribed by a doctor, and would die from the withdrawals if stopped. It is highly unlikeley that any doctor at this time will prescribe marijuana for the above, (especially in the UK) even though documented evidence proves that small doses ease the suffering, as would codeine or morphine in other ways.

    If we look at the background of big pharma who have a monopoly on all prescribed drugs, on who’s authority can we say a street drug that has been outlawed by the Rockefeller drug and modern medicine (snake oil) fraudsters is any more or less virtuous than a plant grown, that can give relief. Who makes this judgement of one over the other? Legal to me means the laws of ordinary men, not Buddhas. We must look inside ourself for wisdom in such matters and find our way. I would suggest it may be an individual thing. Check our own motivation for taking or administering any drug, whether street, herbal or even the modern medical monopoly.

    Children are being ‘prescribed’ ritalin, a highly addictive stimulant drug similar in action to ‘speed’. So it’s ok to prescribe it and take it, but not on the street. I don’t put my trust in medics. Some of the concoctions I have been offered are terrible. Modern antidepressants are some of the worst addictive drugs on the planet and interfere with serotonin and therefore brain chemistry and sleep. Withdrawing from these is a nightmare. I am very fortunate, as I was not on them long enough to have damafged the brain chemistry. I know some who will never be able to stop them.

    Caffeine is one of the most contraversial. We offer Geshe-la and Dorje Shugden tea, we drink it and caffeinated drinks. We smoke tobacco, the most addictive substance second only to antidepressants. Dorje gets offered alcohol and we take our special inner offering. I think our ordinary view and taking things for their own sake, even if prescribed

    Heroin is dispensed in the form of diamorph. My auntie was given this after surgery as she got sick with morphine. So when it is prescribed by an ordinary person it is ok for pain, but when an unfortunate person suffering from severe emotional pain takes it from a street dealer they are tagged a junkie. Then can I say that this sounds like the vows are more broken for street diamorph than for medically prescribed diamorph. Same drug! Emotional pain is worse than physical pain, but medics wont prescribe other than useless heavy sedating drugs for emotional pain. They don’t even like prescribing benzos to people as they say they are ‘addicitive’.. Perhaps it is addictive to want to be free of pain and to want to be happy? And yes I know ordinary methods are not the path to liberation, whether it is prescribed or street drugs.Almost like we are taking the person out of the equation when drugs are involved.

    Trials in the 60s were proving the efficacy of the psychedelic (halucinogenics) in the treatment of severe anxiety and mental illnesses. It was stopped. My honest opinion, as someone who has worked in the modern medicine system, is this, that cures mean no money or profit, so thats why certain drugs are reduced to street level. We would never stand back and allow the Dalai Lama to abuse Shugdens, yet this modern Rockefeller driven medical system is depriving people of cures, due to profiteering. So by entering into it, and accepting one form (the one deemed acceptable in laws) are we not condoning the negative actions of others.

    Modern medicine made a pariah of cannabis and herbal treatments so that profits could be made on manufactured drugs (Rockefeller empire). So how can you make this judgement that a drug is ok because an ordinary person (not enlightened) said it was ok and ‘pushes’ his product on modern advertising. Doctors often unwittingly prescribess on the profit engineered works of big pharma and the Rockefellers. One could say this is obscene.

    I think it is obscene and cruel to administer chemotherapy and radiation treatments, to hack off womens breasts, when cannabis oil can cure these with very few psychogenic effects when prepared properly. Yes they do relax the body. I have taken these in the past and do prefer the experience of deep meditation, and have had deep meditative experiences. I used to take it for flu and for sleep problems. Not everyone experiences the effects same. Check out ‘run from the cure’ on youtube for some of the wonderful things cannabis has helped in the human body. I cannot judge it..

    If I required some treatment for a terminal or heavy illness I would turn to Geshe-la for refuge and advice. Fair enough there IS strong attachment going on, but this goes on in our families, eating, sleeping, but we never give them up. Have we given up our tea or coffee? Is tea or coffee with caffeine more legitimate than coca tea made from the coca leaf? Coca leaves contain very high amounts of antioxidants and minerals helpful in curing cocaine addiction and in treating fatigue conditions and mineral deficiencies. They derive from plant material, which have been known to be synthesised into cocaine! They are of dubious western legality! This is very contraversial, but we need to consider our motivations, looking at our mind all the time, and fully accept the reality of Buddhas wisdom, and not decide a prescribed drug is better just because a doctor prescribed it.

    Most doctors aren’t even aware of the system they are brainwasshed into, or indoctrinated into.

    • Thank you for your message. I think I addressed your main points in my reply to Ryan above. So please see the reply there. If there is something I missed, please do not hesitate to ask again.

  5. It is not what goes in to a person’s mouth that is immoral, but what comes out of it that causes harm for one’s self and others. I don’t think you have made any valid point in this topic. There are millions of smokers who are not mentally unbalanced and have no truth to it being a gateway to anything else. These millions also consist of motivated successful doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, police, etc, so you can’t say if a person smokes they will lack motivation. The opposite is actually true for many. You spoke of Dharma insight and used “it will lead to more” as a reasoning. If the insight leads to personal changes and growth then when evaluating a choice once should look logically at cause and effect. Taking the cultural propagandist views away, if a practitioner using it as a tool smoked and interacted with their family and observed the effects, they would experience a kinder, more patient, connected, easy going self appearing and see how this mindset positively effected their loved ones. That experience is deeper then a moment’s insight and when the person is not high it is easier for them to maintain the change. Marijuana is the one substance that can cause neurogenesis, which is the production of new neurons, so if it is used in a sacred way, it can imprint these Dharma lessons/insights on us in a very effective and transformative way. The simplest example would be if you smoked and found emptiness, does that realization go away when your not high? If you mix more deeply with compassion, does it go away, or does it help change your core?
    This in no way validates anyone’s use of it, but does show another view. Don’t believe a thing I say, or anyone else says…. There are many things effecting our brains right now, and even though we are not our brains, until we are liberated, we are forever intertwined with our brain. Foods, additives and artificial ingredients, are a few examples of things that effect our mental states. When you research this you see how certain ingredients actually affect the brain and our behaviors. The point is we are being affected by things and we can then identify them as good or bad and make our own choices. Marijuana isn’t inherently helpful it merely can be helpful given the correct intention.

    • Thank you for your message. I would just like to make two points. First, an individual’s moral discipline is a HIGHLY personal thing. It is never appropriate for one person to judge another’s behavior against one’s own individual moral standards. What is inappropriate for one person in one circumstance may be completely appropriate for somebody else in another circumstance. We cannot judge, and if it came across like I was doing so, I apologize. We each need to make our own choices based on our own understanding and circumstances. My post was written from the perspective of somebody who has taken the lay Pratimoksha vows and who has the intention of trying to keep them purely, but various objections and rationalizations come up in their mind which move in the opposite direction of their freely chosen vow. The points I make are aimed at helping such an individual beat back their own rationalizations to break a vow they have previously taken (or are strongly considering taking).

      Second, it all comes down to our intention. I am making absolutely no statement whatsoever about what is a legitimate medicine versus what is an illegitimate medicine. I know there are many honest and legitimate medical studies which have demonstrated the many medicinal benefits of marijuana, and I have no problem with that. What I am saying is there is a difference between a deluded rationalization being used as a pretext to indulge in one’s favorite objects of attachment versus a legitimate and appropriate use of medicine (regardless of what substance is being used). Take porn as an example. The tantric teachings teach us how to transform sexual attachment into the path, so it CAN be done. I have a lot of attachment to this sort of thing. I could say, “well, I will transform it with Tantra, so it is OK.” But in reality, I am using Dharma rationalizations as a pretext to indulge in my attachment. My real motivation is attachment, but I have just internally come up with more palatable reasons for doing what my attachment wants to do. In the same way, marijuana CAN be used legitimately as a medicine, but just because it can be doesn’t mean my own honest to goodness motivation for doing it is indeed medicinal. It may be that, just like with porn, my real motivation is to indulge my attachment and I am just using the medicinal qualities as my pretext/excuse/rationalization to do what my attachment wants to do. Of course it is possible that our motivation is legitimate and honest, at which point there is no problem. All I am saying is we need to be careful. Our delusions are very creative at manipulating us into doing what they want. We need to be honest with ourselves as to what our own motivation truly is, and whether or not we are just kidding ourselves. Only we can judge this for ourselves internally, what others say or think or see is irrelevant.

  6. Yes, i think the information in this article is perhaps a little misleading. If someone is not ready to give up intoxicants, they are not ready to take a formal vow saying “I will abandon taking intoxicants”. This applies to both lay and ordained Sangha. We are not taking a vow to reduce the intake, we are following
    Buddha’s holy advice to stop altogether.

  7. it is clear to me that the advice to take the vows gradually doesn’t imply to gradually stop the intake of intoxicants, it is the promise to stop the intake of them, understanding the disadvantages of doing so although maybe at that moment we haven’t had eradicated completely attachment to them. I think the article can lead the reader to a wrong conclusion. Or, if I’m wrong, please give a clear reference to your point based on scripture.
    On the other hand, we cannot assume that almost everybody in the NKT have had weed or any other drug, that’s totally a private matter of each practitioner.

    • Of course the ideal is to abandon it completely, but some people are not able to quit their intake of intoxicants cold turkey. If we insist that they do, then they will conclude it is too hard and therefore not try. If instead, like we do with any other aspect of moral discipline, we encourage people to abandon intoxicants gradually then it becomes something more doable. My mom, for example, quit smoking in this way. I know many people who used to have drinking problems who are not just the occasional social drinker. I know friends from college who did a lot of drugs, who now only occasionally do. The gradual abandonment of our bad habits is the very nature of the path. We have many examples in the scriptures for this, for example Buddha asking the Butcher to not kill at night.

      While it may be true that one is not ready to take the formal Pratimoksha vows if they are not ready to entirely abandon intoxicants now, we should not forget that the practice of moral discipline is not just the formal taking of the Pratimoksha vows. We should skillfully encourage people to gradually abandon these things. If later they want to go all the way, we can then explain to them the uncommon benefits of training in the Pratimoksha vows. But far too often our discussion of these things is black or white and extreme. This is not helpful to people who want to do better but aren’t ready to be perfect. It also creates for very rigid discourse about such topics which makes us sound little different than the intolerant social police we sometimes find in some other religious traditions.

      As Venerable Tharchin says, “it is not enough to be right, we need to be skillful.”

  8. I’ve smoked herb on and off for most of my life. I took pratimoksha vows about 10 years ago and abandoned the common intoxicants most people would think of like smoking, alcohol etc for about 7 years. I understand that for me using herbs easily becomes a habit that takes over and affects my long term goals in life. However i know that for me occasionally using herbs to evoke an altered state of consciousness is incredibly beneficial for many reasons. Using the plant in this way genuinely helps me. But to be clear, abusing it and using every day hinders me. So it seems intention is everything. My question is, if using cannabis enables me to contemplate more effectively and to gain insight into both the philosophy and my own personal practice and experience of dharma then why vow to abandon it? When I use it with the right intention for the said benefits the vow to abandon it seems like an obstacle. I don’t want the karma of breaking vows, but my main goal is enlightenment and this wonderful medicinal plant really helps. Id happily abandon it if i didnt find it so useful. Cannabis in my opinion is probably the most medicinal plant on the planet. But abuse it at your peril.
    I’m keen to hear other kadampas opinion on this. Thankyou x

    • I understand what you are saying. Yes, intention is almost everything. With the right intention, even normally non-virtuous actions of body and speech can be virtuous (for example, the story of a former life of Buddha Shakyamuni killing the sailor who planned to murder everyone else on the boat). So in theory, I believe, it would be possible to do as you suggest. However, and it is a big however, we need to be VERY careful that our attachment to such substances is not hijacking our Dharma understanding to justify doing what it wants to do. While in theory, all of these things are possible, the question is honestly where we are at are we capable of doing these things purely. We just need to be honest with ourselves about our intention. In thinking about this, I am reminded of Native American Medicine Men. They are essentially shamans who help guide other Native Americans engage in spirit walks with peyote and other substances. This is perhaps only done once or twice in an individuals lifetime, and there are all sorts of ritual preparations and ceremony surrounding it to create the right intention and context. There is no doubt the intent is profoundly spiritual, and as a result, the understandings which emerge from such experiences are too. That’s quite different than some college kids doing peyote on the weekend for the trip of it all, even if those kids have some spiritual glimpses along the way.

      • Thankyou for your reply. I agree with everything you said and really appreciate you writing this article and conversation. Used without attachment would it break the pratimoksha? I kinda think it does but on a deeper level it doesn’t.

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