Yes, it is true. Monks in South East Asia smoke like any other smokers. Like my friend, most Bhutanese would surely raise their eyebrows and question some aspects of Buddhism (that we believed).
'Why? How could...?' my friend was still dumbfounded.
We talked about it for a while. We got at nothing. It was too scholarly for us.
Yes, we know there are different sects of Buddhism. We claim ours is the Mahayana school of Buddhism and theirs is the Hinayana. They also claim that theirs is the Mahayana school of Buddhism while ours is the Hinayana. Whatever the fact, our friend was still ruing over the fact that monks smoke. It somehow seemed 'unethical' and unacceptable.
'Even some of our monks are said to be smoking...' I joked. This didn't please him.
How is smoking 'bad' or 'harmful' or 'unwholesome' from the Buddhist point of view? We will many answers. As a little boy, I was often admonished by my parents that smokers suffer in hell. A tobacco plant will grow from my body, its roots and branches shooting out from my eyes, nose, mouth, ears and any other orifice of my body. I was scared, as a child, but not anymore. Tobacco plants growing from my body after I die? I laugh. Other than the plant growing from my body in my hell life, no definite answer was provided why it is harmful.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche says at the Deer Park Gathering (a Buddhism Discussion Forum)
Basically one should refrain from anything that harms other beings or oneself. When we talk about harming, we are talking about a very big subject. Depending on how sophisticated you are, your interpretation of harming will also change. Of course, if there is someone who would kill another person if he can't get a puff, I would rather just let him have a cigarette rather than kill. Now if the same person is a bit more sophisticated and can learn to calm down, he will not become a murderer if he misses one or two puffs. I might say to such a person:
"Maybe it is time to slow down with killing yourself."
Great answer! But those monks may not have heard about Khyentse Rinpoche or his answers and they may never read this blog. Will DJKR read this blog?