Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Smoking Buddha

Can a Buddha be a chain smoker? An alcoholic? Be a gambler or have some other kind of clinical obsession/addiction? This was the topic of conversation I had the other day. My friend commented that she was turned off by a Buddhist teacher because he was a chain smoker. She didn't know how seriously she could take a teacher who didn't have the will power to stop smoking. This may sound moot, but given Buddhism's emphasis on desire and clinging, I think it is a perfectly valid question; it begs us to ask, "What is a Buddha?"

Stories of the Buddha often paint him as a serene, beatific being, immune to the turbulence of events around him. Although still human, he has transcended all earthly desire. This picture reminds me of a saint--in the world but not of it. Clearly, smoking is inconsistent with this image of the Buddha. But we all have to use our own personal judgment to determine how much faith we put inside this image of perfection.

I think that part of the confusion has to do with the terms we use when discussing enlightenment. In Zen (some schools at least), a great deal of emphasis is placed on satori, a breakthrough or enlightenment experience. Much of Rinzai training aims directly at this. But is satori enlightenment?

Every couple of years the Buddhist community is shaken by scandal, where some highly respected teacher is accused of abusing power (usually sexual). So what about these guys? Are they enlightened? Obviously they don't match the traditional image of the transcendental Buddha seated on a lotus flower.

My best answer is that these teachers may have had an enlightenment experience but are not themselves enlightened--if they were, they would understand that their actions are harming others and would therefore refrain. Of course all humans are going to have habits and personality tics--I don't think that enlightenment scours all that away--but I have a hard time reconciling severe behavior disorders with the image of a fully enlightened being. Perhaps that is naive or idealistic of me.

So, can a Buddha be an addicted smoker, gambler, drinker? My gut tells me no, but then again I'm not enlightened. I'll tell you when I get there.

What do you think?
Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: AndyRamdin/


  1. I was introduced to Buddhism by the poet Allen Ginsberg, who struggled with a nicotine habit for many years of his life. Obviously no Buddha.

    The first Buddhist author I read deeply was Allen's teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Naropa University and Shambhala, and a raging alcoholic who declined to quit drinking when his wife (and many others) told him to stop. Another non-Buddha, clearly.

    I was taught to sit zazen 33 years ago by Maezumi Roshi, founder of LA Zen Center, who was then an active alcoholic. Eventually, to the relief of his senior students, he joined AA. But on a return visit to Japan, he relapsed, and drowned in a bathtub after a night of sake drinking. Buddha? Not.

    Now I'm looking for a *real* teacher-Buddha, who will act the way I expect an enlightened teacher to act, and never disappoint me. He or she must be around here somewhere.

    Steve Silberman

  2. This gentleman:

    Wrote a book about recovery from any addiction and Buddhism. It's called "One Breath at a Time". It weaves 12 step programs and Buddhism beautifully.

  3. @steve~~ we all have to deal with out humanity!! if you find the perfect teacher, please in the spirit of loving kindness, share.

  4. "There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in"
    Leonard Cohen
    I benefitted from Kevin Griffin's book, and just finished the
    latest food obsession manual, Geneen Roth's Women Food
    and God. Very instructive, for anyone who eats.

  5. May I ask what is a *real* buddhist teacher ?

    What does make us a buddhist ?

    If I smoke, I am not a buddhist ? If I sin, I am not a christian ?

    Do teachers have to be perfect ? What is perfection ? Is there such a thing ?

    Buddhism isn't about being perfect; it's the path at realizing and truely seeing who we are.

    The perfect buddhist teacher image is just that, an image.

  6. Thanks guys for all the great comments. A friend on Facebook pointed out to me an important distinction that I didn't pick up on. While I doubt that a chain smoker may 'be' a Buddha,I certainly agree that a chain smoker can 'become' a Buddha. Provided they kicked the habit first, that is!

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.