CANNABIS CULTURE – I often get asked about Buddha’s one hemp seed a day diet. This tradition can be traced back to a number of ancient sources”. In the Text and Commentary of the Memorial of Sakya Buddha Tathagata, by Wong Puh (Translated from the Chinese by the Rev. S. Beal.) which appeared in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 20, (1863), a parallel is drawn between the 7th century AD Chinese Buddhist text the Memorial of Sakya Buddha Tathagata, which is a story of the life of Buddha, and the 3rd century AD Indian biography of Buddha, Lalita Vistara (Sanskrit), by Dharmarakcha, (308 AD). The Memorial of Sakya Buddha Tathagata, contains the passage, “He ate grain and hemp seed, subduing pain, subduing pleasure.” In reference to this text, Rev. Spence Hardy noted that:
“There is no life of Gotama Buddha, by any native author, yet discovered, that is free from the extravagant pretensions with which his history has been so largely invested; from which we may infer that the records now in existence were all prepared long after his appearance in this world. The Chinese work, of which the following is a translation, was written about the middle of the seventh century after Christ. We learn from “The History of the Sung Dynasty” that there was constant intercourse between China and Ceylon at this time, as well as in much earlier periods. The pilgrims from China were accustomed to take from the island relics, extracts from the sacred books, and models of the most celebrated images of Buddha. We are, therefore, prepared to discover a similarity between the mythical records of India and China.” (Hardy, 1863)
In relation to the Hemp-seed reference in the Chinese work, the following earlier verse from 3rd century AD Indian text, the Lalita Vistara was cited as a likely source:
“The prince coming to the Ka-ye (Gaya) mountain, to the Ni-h’n (Nairanjana) river, reflected, considering that, as he intended to penetrate to the secret influences which actuate the conduct of men, he might, after six years, be in a position to save them. Thus he addressed himself to the practice of austerities (Dushkaracharya), each day eating one grain of hemp, one grain of rice; by this means reducing himself to a condition of overcoming all pleasure. Afterwards, perceiving that this was not the true way, he pursued the contrary method, using indulgencies, bathing, perfuming himself, and so on; by these means he subdued sorrow” (as the text says).
The Lalita Vistara does mention “indulgences” to subdue sorrow, which opens up some possibilities of intoxication, but a vague reference from a text thought to be composed some 8 centuries after the life of Buddha, is unfortunately a weak piece of evidence to make any case. However, in the much later Buddhist text the Tārātantra, cannabis is described as being essential to spiritual “ecstasy”. The author of the medieval text, Taranatha records the Buddha saying that drinking wine without also having consumed cannabis “cannot produce real ecstasy”, which was seen as a pivotal step in attaining enlightenment (Maitra, 1983; White, 1996). Ofcourse though, it should be noted that the Tārātantra is a relatively minor text, composed two millennia after the life of Buddha, (1600) and it has not exerted much influence on the Buddhist religion.
Other medieval Buddhist references have also been noted. “Over the last few decades, university religious studies departments have produced translations of Buddhist tantric texts of unprecedented quality, providing ample material for an examination of psychoactive plant use by Buddhists in Asia” (Parker & Lux, 2008).
“There are several reasons to look to tantra for psychoactive substance use in pre-modern Buddhist Asia. The first and most important is that non-tantric monastic Buddhism is far less tolerant of violations of scriptural precepts than tantric Buddhism. Buddha’s injunction against consuming intoxicants precludes the open use of psychoactive substances by members of the Buddhist monastic establishment. In contrast, tantric Buddhism can allow for, and even applaud, shocking transgressions as a sign that the yogi has transcended ordinary patterns of valuation and behaviour.”” (Parker & Lux, 2008)
In there well researched essay, Psychoactive Plants in Tantric Buddhism; Cannabis and Datura Use in Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhism, researchers Parker and Lux identify references to cannabis, datura and other psychoactive plants in medieval Buddhist Tantric texts such as the Mahākāla Tantra, where the “plants are employed to attain health, wealth, wisdom, and supernatural powers such as seeing underground and flying” (Parker & Lux, 2008).
“These formulas include cannabis in several different forms, including leaves, resin, and other plant material. Given that these cannabis products are included in the “perfect medicine’ formulas of the Mahākāla Tantra, cannabis may perhaps be considered a significant part of this tantric lineage.” (Parker & Lux, 2008).
The Cakrasamvara Tantra also identifies a magico-medical role for cannabis and datura, recording that a mixture of compounds including cannabis will help one “become a yogin who does what he pleases and stays anywhere whatsoever.” Although, like the Tārātantra, the Mahākāla Tantra and the Cakrasamvara Tantra, can by no means be considered mainstream Buddhist texts, and have had limited impact on modern Buddhist traditions. Even at its peak, from about 700-900 AD, well over a millennia after the life of Buddha, medieval Tantric Buddhism was a fringe tradition, practiced by laypersons and not ordained Buddhist monks or nuns (Parker & Lux, 2008). Thus, these medieval Tantric Buddhist references to cannabis, likely give indications of later influences on Buddhism from the religious and cultural milieu that was medieval India, such as devotees of Shiva, who used hemp in an identical way to achieve “ecstasy”, rather than being regarded as actual edicts from Buddha.