When the Dalai Lama recently revealed his support for the use of medical marijuana, advocates of the drug discovered they had a new ally. But are the Dalai Lama’s views on medical cannabis breaking rank with the traditional Buddhist stance? Or are Buddhists generally in favour of medical marijuana as well?
Primary to the debate is what Buddhism calls the “five precepts”: refrain from taking life, don’t take what’s not yours, avoid sexual misconduct, don’t speak falsehoods, and avoid intoxicants.
It’s the last precept that’s a sticking point when it comes to medical marijuana.
Rev. Dr. Bhante Saranapala, a Buddhist monk and preacher working at the West End Buddhist Temple and Meditation Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, contends that the fifth precept forbids marijuana in any form.
“The five precepts are moral principles, and one of them is to refrain from intoxicants. If any substance leads to heedlessness, or could make one unconscious, you have to refrain, regardless of whether you think it’s good,” he says. “It alters the pure nature of the mind.”
The possibility exists, he added, that “you would not understand what you’re doing, or what you’re saying (while high). That’s why this is distinct.”
Historically there are few, if any, references in Buddhism regarding marijuana as a medicine, according to an article on Beliefnet.com.
Yet, the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center notes that Buddhists have used cannabis in tandem with meditation practices “as a means to stop the mind and enter into a state of profound stillness, also called Samadhi.” They add: “Various spiritual texts, including the Buddhist Tara Tantra, list cannabis as an important aide [sic] to meditation and spiritual practice.”
One source notes that Buddha himself believed cannabis was a cure for rheumatism.
Brian Ruhe, of the Theravada Buddhist Community of Vancouver, sides with the Dalai Lama on the issue.
“I’m in favor of [medical marijuana] as well. I explain it by saying the idea of medical marijuana is reducing suffering, and reducing suffering is good. In this case it’s reasonable, showing intelligent use for that situation,” he adds.
Ruhe has been a practicing Buddhist for 22 years and spent seven months as a Buddhist monk in Thailand in 1996.
“Medical marijuana is OK because Buddhism is a path of intelligence, discernment and compassion, not just following rules,” he contends.
“The Buddha said his teachings were not internally inconsistent because sometimes he would say one thing to a person, and something else to someone else. This is an example.”
Ruhe, also the author of two books on meditation and a teacher of university-level courses on Buddhist philosophy and meditation, emphasizes that the medicinal aspect is key. “You should avoid recreational marijuana, to avoid deluding thoughts.”
Sean Hillman, a Buddhist scholar-practitioner and a University of Toronto doctoral student in Religion, Bioethics and South Asian Studies, says that “it is difficult to establish an authoritative stance” on many issues.
As such, “what people choose to ingest is their private business, not subject to Buddhist religious scrutiny,” Hillman notes.
He spent 13 years as a Buddhist monk, ordained by the Dalai Lama. His research straddles religious studies and medical anthropology, with a strong interest in the interaction between religion and end-of-life decision making.
“Simply, when the pain at hand is addressed without any intoxicating side effects, medication has been administered correctly and pain management is effective,” he states.
“Finding the best delivery method and dosage are the challenges. If there is intolerable pain, it is not yet managed. Going beyond this threshold can lead to side effects, including drowsiness and even respiratory failure. I would ask if it is possible to treat illness by this means without side effects.”
The real challenge, therefore, may not be inherent in the chemistry of the drug. Unwieldy side effects are “obstacles on the various Buddhist paths,” as Hillman puts it.
Ajahn Punnadhammo, a Buddhist monk ordained in Thailand in 1992 who runs the Abbot of Arrow River Forest Hermitage in the Thunder Bay, Ontario, region, says most Buddhists would find medical marijuana acceptable because the use of opiates as painkillers for severe injury or illness has already been around for decades and Buddhists don’t oppose that medicine.
“Recognizing that any of these substances are open to abuse, most Buddhists would accept their proper medical use with due caution,” Punnadhammo adds.
Photos courtesy Rev. Dr. Bhante Saranapala and Brian Ruhe
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