Bernie Flynn, a longtime student of Chögyam Trungpa, recently told me about the time he and the Rinpoche tried to quit smoking cigarettes. A few days in, he was driving the Rinpoche to a meeting. Antsy and in withdrawal, Bernie couldn’t help but notice his teacher sitting calmly in the passenger seat. Finally, his nerves on edge, Bernie turned to Trungpa and asked how the whole quitting thing was going. “It’s easy,” said Trungpa. “Either you smoke, or you don’t smoke.”

Ah, so simple.

Later that evening, Bernie entered a room to find the Rinpoche gleefully chain smoking.

Oh, not so simple.

The psychoactive effects of drugs, alcohol included, don’t exactly jibe with the goals of Buddhist practice. Sure, some people stumble into the dharma after stumbling through an acid trip, but the fact that LSD can be a gateway to practice doesn’t mean it’s allowed beyond the gate of any respectable dharma institution. And though many Buddhists drink, it’s generally understood that this should occur in moderation and off the cushion. Hence, refraining from intoxicants is one of the five basic Buddhist precepts.

Cigarettes, however, seem to exist in a hazy gray area, both literally and figuratively. Caffeine, a substance that might otherwise find itself in similar ambiguous territory, has a sexy origin story: the Ch’an patriarch Bodhidharma, angry at himself for dozing off during zazen, rips off his eyelids and flings them to the ground, from which sprout the first tea leaves. Thus caffeine has long been accepted by Buddhists the world over as a mild performance enhancing drug, endorsed by legend. Tobacco, lacking such an auspicious beginning, has long been tolerated in Buddhist communities anyway, though the Buddhist stance on smoking is vague at best. 

Thus, the question remains. Either you smoke, or you don’t smoke, yes, but should you smoke? I found the answer, like a good koan, to be both elusive and entirely dependent upon who is answering.

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Smoking is not technically prohibited in Buddhism, but then again, neither is juggling chainsaws or playing Russian roulette. It would be tedious if all prohibited actions had to be spelled out (which doesn’t mean people haven’t tried. See: the Vinaya). I pointed this out to Dr. Joel Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Skidmore College. “Of course [smoking is not prohibited],” said Smith, “but if you look at the eightfold path and you have any kind of subtle interpretation about right action and right effort, it doesn’t take much to argue that [right action and right effort] should be applied in that kind of way.”

Smith traveled in Japan with John Daido Loori Roshi, longtime abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery in upstate New York, when Daido was receiving his confirmation rituals at Eihei-ji many years ago. He remembered Daido stepping outside the Eihei-ji buildings to smoke in between ceremonies.

“I asked him about it once,” Smith said, “and he responded, ‘Zen is not a health trip.’”

While this may be true, it glosses over the fact that smoking is, at its most basic, a harmful action. Dr. Smith has been teaching Buddhism and Eastern philosophy for decades, and over the years he has brought many students to dharma institutions to hear teachings. A number of them, he said, are turned off by the fact that they see monks smoking. “This is really where the rubber hits the road,” said Smith. “You can talk generally about compassion, but if you can’t apply it to something so basic in one’s personal life, then what the heck is going on?”

Aside from the issue of alienating the dharma-curious, the fact that Buddhists smoke raises a deeper issue for Smith. “If you love life and affirm it and want to do good in the world and be compassionate to other people, then you want to make your body and your mind as much of a vehicle for that as possible for as long as possible.” Smoking cigarettes would seem to undercut that possibility, limiting the amount of time one has to be a vehicle for the dharma. So why do Buddhist teachers continue to allow their addiction to impinge on their responsibilities? Shouldn’t overcoming their addiction be of the utmost importance, both as exemplars of the teachings and as vehicles for them?

I put this question to Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness. Brewer and his team at Yale University have developed the Craving to Quit app, which uses mindfulness to help people kick their addiction. “It’s a great question and I would want to talk to these folks and get their story,” said Brewer. “Is it just a habit that’s so much in the background that you’re not paying attention or is the level of suffering that it causes so minimal that there’s no drive to change the behavior?”

I asked Brewer if Buddhist teachers have a moral imperative not to smoke.

“If I had a gun and I killed myself, that wouldn’t be that helpful if I were a good teacher. And smoking has obviously been linked to increased mortality and morbidity, as well as a number of illnesses, including cancer.”

Indeed, John Daido Loori Roshi died of lung cancer in 2009 (though he did give up smoking later in life). Like shooting yourself with a gun, smoking will ultimately aid in your demise. “It’s not exactly suicide,” said Brewer. “It’s just a slower burn.”

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In 2005 I was one of 33 college students who lived in a Burmese monastery in Bodhgaya, India, where we studied Buddhism and lived according to the five basic precepts. Though it may have gone against our youthful inclinations, we refrained from taking intoxicants, sex, stealing, lying, and killing.

Cigarettes, however, were not prohibited, and like many of my fellow students, I took up smoking. We spent countless afternoons on the roof of our dorm, watching our cigarette smoke drift away while ruminating over deep questions like, is killing a malaria-ridden mosquito bad karma or good karma? Since we were suddenly living a life of previously unimaginable austerity, smoking didn’t seem like such a big deal. It gave us something to do, and though we were learning about the emptiness of self, smoking seemed like the last way we could fill ourselves up, albeit with smoke. It gave us something to cling to, the last iceberg in a sea of melting vices.

Maybe the fact that Buddhists smoke is as simple as that. Maybe Buddhists the world over puff because it is one of the few remaining ways they can puff themselves up. For a spiritual tradition so devoted to compassion and helping others, cigarettes may be the final frontier of autonomy. In a spiritual tradition so devoted to the eradication of self, cigarettes might be the last shred of selfishness. Fumo ergo sum.

I smoke, therefore I am.

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Google Buddhism and smoking and the resulting hits are not what I would describe as particularly helpful (unless you want lurid details about the monks recently arrested for smoking Crystal Meth in Phnom Penh, Cambodia). However, I did come across an amusing anecdote from the blog of the Scottish-born Buddhist teacher Bodhipaksa:

A young monk strolled into the office of the head monk.

“Say, man. Would it like be okay if I smoke when I meditate?”

The head monk turned pale and began quivering. When he recovered, he gave the young man a stern lecture about the sanctity of meditation. The novice listened thoughtfully and went away.

A few weeks later, he returned with another question.

“I’m concerned about my spiritual development. I notice that I spend a lot of time smoking. I was wondering, do you think it would be okay if when I am smoking, I practice my meditation?”

The older man was overjoyed and of course said yes.

I’m not so sure about the credentials of this pale, quivering head monk (or, for that matter, the novice), but I found the anecdote surprisingly informative. Perhaps the point isn’t what we do, but how we do it. Perhaps, in taking a “thou shalt not” approach, we miss the moment for the creed.

When I emailed the Bodhgaya alumni to ask for help researching this topic, one person responded, “Wouldn’t a Buddhist smoking cigarettes be kind of hypocritical, irresponsible, and ironic?” It is attitudes like this that reveal the gap between what people believe about Buddhists and how Buddhists actually behave. And maybe this is the crux of this issue. Maybe this isn’t about smoking at all but about the ideals we place on our teachers.

In his book Sex, Sin, and Zen, author and Zen teacher Brad Warner writes, “When we project our expectations about what a divine being ought to be onto real people, what else can we hope for besides disappointment?” After all, addiction does not discriminate between enlightened and unenlightened, and perhaps, in smoking, teachers unwillingly demonstrate that addiction is not a roadblock to realization. This notion—that an enlightened person can be an addicted person—might shatter our preconceptions about realization, but to practice Buddhism and believe one’s preconceptions will remain neatly intact seems about as naïve as believing a teacher is a divine being.

Warner’s own teacher, Gudo Nishijima, was himself a heavy smoker. But, said Warner, it wasn’t a problem. “He told me once that he just happened to notice one day that smoking was a bad habit, so he stopped doing it.”

“I tend to think Buddhist teachers are like artisans who take on apprentices,” said Warner. “If we take that viewpoint, it’s not such a big deal whether the teacher smokes or not. But a teacher who smokes should know that their behavior is going to be imitated. If the teacher cares about that, then maybe they should not smoke.”

So should Buddhists be required to refrain from smoking?

“I don’t think Buddhism should be in the business of requiring people to do or not do things. That seems to go against everything Buddhism is about. If you demand people follow the Buddhist rules, that demanding itself is counter to the Buddhist philosophical approach. The precepts are not requirements.”

Randall Ryotan Eiger, sensei at the Village Zendo in Manhattan, who studied with Daido for eight years, was himself a smoker for 20 years, and as a freelance speechwriter in the 80s and 90s worked for a major tobacco company. His Buddhist smoking credentials run deep, so I asked him the same question. Should Buddhists refrain from smoking?

“To be a Buddhist means to take refuge in the three treasures of Buddha, dharma, and sangha,” said Ryotan. “I don’t believe one needs to be a non-smoker, or any particular kind of person, in order to take refuge.”

Indeed, such stringent requirements would create a culture of exclusion, leaving out those with addictions who might otherwise benefit immensely from the dharma. As Dr. Brewer pointed out, his app has exposed many people to the dharma “through their own doorway of suffering, which is smoking.”

As for Buddhist teachers, Ryotan disagreed with the idea that they have a “moral imperative” not to smoke.

“One sign of the moral confusion in our market-driven society is that people have the tendency to elevate consumer and lifestyle choices into matters of high moral drama, leading to overblown talk of ‘moral imperatives.’ Tortuous analysis of one’s thoughts and actions produces a facsimile of moral seriousness that is pleasing to the ego, but it is no substitute for the wisdom and compassion that arise from the awakened heart.”

He continued, “Is smoking inherently unhealthy, unwise, and maybe a little selfish? The answer is ‘yes.’ Are smokers inherently unable to realize their buddhanature and save all beings? The answer is ‘obviously not.’”

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Zen is not a health trip. Depending on your view of smoking, this response is either frustratingly reductive or refreshingly concise. For some, like Dr. Smith, smoking remains one of the largest thorns in Buddhism’s side. “Smoking involves in a personal, immediate way the core Buddhist issues of suffering, craving, death, compassion, and awakening,” said Smith. “What matters is how well one deals with those issues concretely, in smoking and other concrete immediate situations. Smoking isn’t the only place where we can engage these issues—they come up elsewhere, obviously—but it’s one of the ways, and we must engage them there.”

For others, the fact that some Buddhists smoke is as mundane as the fact that some Buddhists eat meat. But even Brad Warner understands the reservations one might have about teachers who smoke. “As a learner, I would steer clear of teachers who have such obvious bad habits on the grounds that if they can’t even get it together to stop smoking, how can I believe they can guide me to get past my own bad habits?” And yet, Warner’s own teacher smoked, and perhaps that is why he and other teachers are unwilling to take a stance against cigarettes.

Nirvana means “extinguishing the flame.” When faced with the issue of human suffering, the burning ember of a lit cigarette might not seem like the highest priority. There is a more pressing conflagration at hand. Either you smoke, or you don’t smoke, yes, but in the end, we are all part of the slow burn anyhow. And maybe in the end, to borrow a phrase from the smoker Charles Bukowski, what matters most is not whether or not you smoke, but how well you walk through the fire.

[This story was first published in 2015.]

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