Did the Buddha Prohibit the Consumption of Drugs?

tumblr_o77n7y5jf81t2p3goo1_500In sutta 17 of the Digha Nikaya, the Buddha summarizes the full fivefold set of precepts plus one in his story of King Mahasudassana. Maurice Walshe translates this as: “Do not take life. Do not take what is not given. Do not commit sexual misconduct. Do not tell lies. Do not drink strong drink. Be moderate in eating” (DN 17.1.9, ii.175). However, in sutta 32 Walshe has the Buddha teaching “a code of refraining from taking life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from lying speech, and from strong drink and sloth-producing drugs ” (DN 32.2). This comes after sutta 31, in which the Buddha refers to “strong drink and sloth-producing drugs” as a way of wasting one’s substance (31.7, iii.183), immediately following the fourfold restraint, consisting of not taking life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, and lying speech, without any reference to drinking alcohol or anything else.

In the corresponding translation of the Rhys Davids’s, in sutta XXXII, they have “intemperance” instead of “strong drink and sloth-producing drugs.” However, in the previous sutta Rhys Davids have only “intoxicating liquors.” There is no reference to drugs, and in sutta XVII, they refer only to “maddening drink.”

The foregoing comparisons lead one to ask the question: What is the basis in the Pali for Walshe’s reference to “sloth-producing drugs” in suttas 31 and 32?

In order to make this comparison I referred to the Burmese Chattha Sangayana edition of the Pali Canon online. The key word here is Surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-(ṭṭhānā)-nu-yogo in the phrase “Surāmerayamajjappamādaṭṭhānānuyogo kho, gahapatiputta, bhogānaṃ apāyamukhaṃ” (CS 3.8.247), which we may parse as follows (note the word plays)::

  • sura (m): intoxicating or distilled liquor or brewage
  • meraya (nt): fermented liquor, rum
  • majja (nt): liquor, intoxicant
  • [jappa]: greed, desire, lust
  • [pa]: preposition indicating leading toward or intensification
  • pamada (f): remissness, negligence, carelessness
  • [mada]: pride, intoxication, sexual excess
  • nu: a
  • yoga (m): endeavour, effort
  • kho (ind): indeed, really, surely
  • gahapati (m): commoner, householder, head of the household
  • putta (m): son, child
  • bhoga (m): possession, wealth, enjoyment
  • apayamukha (nt): cause of ruin

I have bolded the three critical words in this sentence: sura, meraya, and majja. Checking these words in the Pali-English Dictionary, there is no allusion to drugs. Rather, the threefold formula seems to approximate to the English “beer, wine, and spirits” – but not “drugs”! The whole passage might be rendered, “Truly, addiction to drink, which leads to sin, will be the downfall of the householder and his heirs.” The same principle may or may not apply to drugs, but that is not what the Buddha says. The essential objection appears to be to the loss of self-control that results from imbibing alcohol, which was used in the Ayurvedic medicine of the time as an anaesthetic. We should also remember that the Buddha himself did not consider drinking to be a matter of much importance until the sangha was embarrassed by the behaviour of a single monastic during a time of famine, eight years after the founding of the sangha. It is these sorts of details that often get overlooked in the religious fundamentalist synthesis.

Similarly, the very same word appears in CS 3.9.276; there is no difference. The conclusion is that Professor Walshe’s translation, unlike the Rhys Davids’s, is loose, and that the Buddha does not refer to drugs in these passages, with all the redolence of that word in contemporary English, probably because the Buddha had no conception of drugs in the modern (non-medical) sense at all. The Buddha does of course permit the consumption of medicinal drugs, and even allows the rules of the Vinaya to be bent or broken in the service of treating illness or preserving health.

References

Crowley, Mike. Secret Drugs of Buddhism. Published Sept. 10, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpZNPWs5cV0. Accessed July 21, 2016.

Pinchback, Daniel. “The Link Between Buddhism and Psychedelics.” Sept. 8, 2015. http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma8/zigzag.html. Accessed July 21, 2016.

Redmond, Geoffrey. “Buddhism and Psychedelics: Zig Zag Zen.” http://www.urbandharma.org/udharma8/zigzag.html. Accessed July 21, 2016.

Rhys Davids, T.W. and C.A.F., trans. Dialogues of the Buddha: Translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya. 4th ed. Part II. Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Ed. T.W. Rhys Davids. Vol. III. 1959; rpt. London: Pali Text Society, 1977.

———-, trans. Dialogues of the Buddha: Translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya. Part III. Sacred Books of the Buddhists. Ed. T.W. Rhys Davids. Vol. IV. 1921; London: Pali Text Society, 1977.

Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. The Teachings of the Buddha. 1987; rpt. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

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