"With more deaths to its name than all the illicit narcotics put together, there can be no doubt that tobacco is the most dangerous drug in the world." The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances.
However, there is no need to stop smoking before you devote yourself to practicing Buddhism. The general view is that if you "Start Where You Are," and try to apply principles such as Mindfulness, you will eventually stop doing negative actions.
The use of tobacco by smoking was not widely known outside the New World, where a very powerful form of it was primarily used for ceremonial purposes, until 1519 when Oviedo carried tobacco leaves back to Spain from Mexico.
Jean Nicot de Villmain introduced the plant now designated Nicotiana rustica to France in 1560. (Nicotiana is a family of plants and the small one with white scented flowers is a popular garden favorite.)
It is widely, but probably incorrectly, held, that it was Sir Walter Raleigh who introduced tobacco to the court of Elizabeth the First of England. It was first known as Petum, a Guarani (native American) word.
However, another kind of wild tobacco grew and was used by humans independently of the American one, in the "outback" of Australia. Captain Cook's 1770 expedition records show that Aborigines chewed it.
By 1924, there was no place that tobacco had not spread to, though its use was not necessarily by smoking. Snuff-taking as the most popular form of its use in the Asian countries for a long period of time. In Tibet until very recently, users had a yak horn container adorned with silver, corals and turquoises to hold the powdered tobacco. It has a little bone spoon set in the stopper which is attached by a chain to the bottle.
There is no mention of it or any allusion to it, including proscriptions against using it, in Buddhist (or Hindu) writings until much later. Also, there is no word or phrase for it in the classical languages of India and Tibet, though of course now there is. There are prohibitions in some older texts against the use of "black stuff" but whether the phrase referred to hashish, opium, tobacco or even tea is not clear at all.
^ an early Tibetan/Chinese pipe
Hvashang [Tibetan] or Hotei
[Chinese] is a figure associated with tobacco, in that his hempen or calico
bag was said to contain that substance. Waters (1890's) in his discussion
of the "18 Arhats" mentions that
tobacconists kept his figure in their shop windows.
Blocking the Channels
Monks and nuns and people working with what are known as the drops and winds of the subtle body, besides not using tobacco thinking that it might contradict the prohibition against using intoxicants, also seem to feel that it hinders or creates blockages in the subtle channels.
On the other hand, some lamas do not appear to think its use is of major concern. Also, V.R. Burkhardt, writing about Chinese customs in the 1950s, remarked that some Buddhist nuns from Shanghai officiating at a funeral in T'ai Tam "smoked endless cigarettes."
Nevertheless, the predominant contemporary view follows:
From the Ratna Lingpa Vajrakilaya by Yangthang Rinpoche (translated by Sangye Khandro, published by Yeshe Melong Pacific Region, Yeshe Nyingpo Media and Archives):
The work of paleo-anthropologist Johannes Wilbert is cited in the encyclopedia article linked at the foot of this page which further says "South American shamans believe that, whilst the human hunger is for food, the hunger of the spirits is for tobacco."
In tantrism "the view is more important than the written context, eg. eating meat and drinking alcohol at a Mahakala tsok [feast] on the surface appears to contradict the Buddha's example, but it is basically a representation of transformation of an obscuration [stain, or "sin"] to a virtue.
On my trip to Tibet, I met several rinpoches who were jailed during the cultural revolution in China. Not only had they been beaten to a pulp in their jail cells but also were forced to smoke [cigarettes]. I met one rinpoche who transformed this activity into practice instead of an indulgence -- an offering to wrathful deities in his daily practice."
~ edited from r.s. to the Kagyu email list
Link to "Tobacco"
from The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Substances
Start Where You Are: A Compassionate Way of Living
is by Pema Chodron, 1994.