Did the Buddha permit grape wine?

In an earlier post “Why did the Buddha prohibit alcohol?” we reviewed the Vinaya literature (Buddhist monastic codes) that discuss why the Buddha laid down a precept against the consumption of alcohol. 

There are different versions of this account, but generally they all agree that a bhikṣu named Svāgata passed out from drinking too much after celebrating his defeat of a Nāga that had been terrorizing a region. Whether this really happened or not aside, the early Buddhist community, like other śramaṇa traditions, looked down on alcohol consumption and thus it sobriety was highly valued from early on.

However, Buddhists in at least one part of India were involved in wine production not so long after the Buddha died. It also seems probable that many of them consumed alcohol as well, and that it might have become not so unusual in later centuries.

Harry Falk in his paper “Making Wine in Gandhāra Under Buddhist Monastic Supervision” outlines the archaeological discoveries indicating that in Gandhāra the Buddhist monks possessed equipment for making wine, which was a prominent feature of the local culture. He also discusses how wine drinking was depicted on stūpa panels and stair raisers. He notes that "it seems that neither non-Buddhist visitors nor the heads of the monasteries were passionately opposed to the production, distribution and consumption of wine in connection with religious festivals."

Wine making had been a long-standing practice prior to the introduction of Buddhism. Falk asserts that the "age-old and non-Buddhist wine-cum-merry-making festival was so attractive that its organisation was hijacked by the Buddhist monasteries. It was also adopted by Buddhist communities further east, in Sanghol and Mathura." While he acknowledges the Vinaya strictly forbids monks from consuming any alcohol, his final assertion is that monks eventually legitimized their own participation in such activities, the monks "finding an excuse for drinking and erotic encounters by creating religious constructions which we today subsume under the label of Tantric Buddhism."

Gandhāra one will recall is in the northwest of the Indosphere, which is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is well-known for its Hellenistic style of Buddhist art, though the western influences run very deep and I would recommend anyone interested to read "When the Greeks Converted the Buddha: Asymmetrical Transfers of Knowledge in Indo-Greek Cultures" by Georgios T. Halkias (see here).

This culture of wine consumption on the part of monks possibly became prominent enough to be mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. The Vinaya is a section of the Buddhist canon which details the rules and administrative procedures Buddhist monks and nuns are to follow. Early Buddhist schools each developed their own editions, so the Vinaya that a Theravādin monk would follow would be different from this Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, which was incidentally probably used at the prominent monastery of Nālandā. It is also the monastic code used by Tibetan monks (see Berzin here).

The version of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya I'm familiar with is the Classical Chinese translation done by Yijing (635-713) 義淨 in 703. It has an account of the Buddha apparently instructing the disciples how prepare grape juice in a way that could easily produce wine.

As the story goes, a yakṣa offered grapes to the bhikṣus on the outskirts of a monastery. The bhikṣus did not recognize what they grapes were, so they asked the Buddha. He explains that grapes are a fruit of the north and are to be “made pure” through fire. This is a formal gesture that Buddhist monastics are supposed to do with food where it is disfigured or made imperfect before being consumed. The following in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Bhaiṣajya-vastu relates what happened afterward:

《根本說一切有部毘奈耶藥事》卷9:「于時葡萄食訖。由尚多殘。佛言。應可押取葡萄汁。煎汁不熟。遂便抒出。佛言。應可熟煎盛貯。供僧伽等非時漿飲。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1448, p. 39, c17-19)

At that time, the grapes had been consumed and because there were still many leftover the Buddha said, “The grape juice is to be pressed out of them. Heat the juice but not thoroughly cooking it, and then strain it.” The Buddha said, “It is to be heated and stored away, to be offered to the sangha as a beverage when it is untimely [past noon].”

A similar story is related in the Sarvāstivāda Vinaya (a different Vinaya from the Mūlasarvāstivāda), but it says nothing about heating the juice and storing it.1 However, a similar story is found in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Nidāna-mātṛkā, also translated by Yijing. The sangha is offered a basket of fruits from a yakṣa, which includes grapes. After the Buddha explains to the bhikṣus what the fruits are and how to purify them, he says that the leftovers are to be mashed into a beverage which may be consumed at will. There were further leftovers and the Buddha states, “Having boiled it store it in a jar. It shall be consumed on another day.”2

This could actually just be referring to the production of unfermented grape syrup, which was common in the Near East. However, this is not entirely certain. Ronald Jackson mentions an ancient technique of wine making that “entails concentrating the juice or semisweet wine by gentle heating or boiling. The treatment results in a loss of varietal character, but generates a caramelized or baked odor."3 Unless the juice has been boiled down to a syrup, it will certainly naturally ferment if stored in jars.

In light of Falk's discussion about wine production in Gandhāra, I am inclined to think this is tacitly referring to actual wine production. If there was a concern that the grape juice could ferment – and they would have been aware of this – then I imagine it ought to state that if fermentation occurs it is not to be consumed.

The reality is that wine consumption in the northwest of the Indosphere was quite prevalent and predated the introduction of Buddhism. Xuanzang's 玄奘 (602-664) translation of the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra states, “In the north poor men drink grape wine while in other places even the rich cannot obtain it.”4 

Xuanzang in his travelogue of India also explains the sorts of alcohol available in India when he visited in the seventh century. He states something to the effect that “śramaṇa-s and Brahmins drink grape and sugar cane beverages, but they are not called liquors.”5 The grammatical structure of the last part of the sentence is unusual (非 … 之謂也), and seems to be saying “it is not considered” or “not called” liquor. Unless the text is corrupted (and it is quoted elsewhere identically in a premodern source),6 then given that he is describing the sorts of liquors available in India, he is basically explaining that wine (and rum apparently) is consumed by śramaṇa-s (i.e., Buddhist monks), but simply called otherwise to avoid the taboo against alcohol. This brings to mind the custom in Japan, which comes from China originally, where liquor is comically referred to as “prajñā soup” (hannya-tō 般若湯).

Although the Vinaya forbids alcohol quite clearly, this does not mean this prohibition was universally upheld or even valued so highly in India. The Vinaya literature was basically in the care of a minority of literate Buddhist clerics, who clearly updated the materials when it suited them. It would be unwise to think their rules and regulations actually reflected the reality of Buddhism on the ground in ancient India.



1《十誦律》卷26:「彼頻闍山中有一夜叉鬼。字優耽摩。舊在彼山中住。此鬼信佛言心淨。思惟。我當何物上佛。此中唯有葡萄。即取上佛。佛言。與僧作分。彼即與比丘。比丘不受言。佛未聽我曹噉葡萄。以是事白佛。佛言。從今日聽噉葡萄。時大有葡萄食飽多殘。諸比丘不知當云何。白佛。佛言。壓汁飲。若葡萄不作淨。若汁中不以水作淨。不應飲。若葡萄作淨。汁中不作淨。若汁作淨。葡萄不作淨。不應飲。葡萄淨汁亦淨應飲。」(CBETA, T23, no. 1435, p. 192, c9-19)

2《根本說一切有部尼陀那目得迦》卷10:「時彼藥叉既承信已。即送葡萄石榴甘橘甘蔗胡挑渴樹羅等成滿筐籠。命餘藥叉送彼庭中令持供養。諸苾芻見而白佛言。此北方果不知如何。佛言。以火作淨然後應食。時諸苾芻一一別淨。佛言。應為一聚但三四處以火淨之。食皆無犯。行與眾已仍有餘長。佛言。應可捼碎作非時漿隨意而飲。復更有餘。佛言。煮已瓨盛餘日當飲。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1452, p. 454, b30-c8)

3 Ronald S. Jackson, Wine Science: Principles, Practice, Perception (Academic Press, 2000), 400.

4《阿毘達磨大毘婆沙論》卷12:「北方貧人飲葡萄酒餘方富者亦不能得。」(CBETA, T27, no. 1545, p. 60, c4-5)

5《大唐西域記》卷2:「沙門、婆羅門飲蒲萄、甘蔗漿,非酒醴之謂也。」(CBETA, T51, no. 2087, p. 878, b5-6)

6《四分律名義標釋》卷14:「沙門。婆羅門。飲蒲萄甘蔗漿。非酒醴之謂也」(CBETA, X44, no. 744, p. 512, c11-12 // Z 1:70, p. 309, b1-2 // R70, p. 617, b1-2)

7 Gregory Schopen, “The Good Monk and His Money in Monasticism of 'the Mahāyāna Period'” in Indian Monastic Buddhism Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaelogical Evidence (New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited), 1-2.

8 Quoted in Johannes Bronkhorst, Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism Handbook of Oriental Studies (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 18-19.

Amoghavajra and the Indian Calendar in Chinese

The zodiac Cancer.
It was in the year 764 as part of his compilation of the Xiuyao jing 宿曜經 (T 1299) that the Vajrayāna master and translator Amoghavajra 不空 (705-774) translated the Indian lunar calendar into Chinese with with his assistant Yang Jingfeng 楊景風, a Chinese court official who later was involved in official calendar reforms. The latter added notes to explain the differences between the two systems. While both are lunar rather than solar, they still differ considerably.

Unlike the numbered system of months and days in Chinese, the Indian lunar calendar uses a sequence of 27 (or 28) constellation (nakṣatra) names, which represent the zones the moon travels in a month before returning to its original place. In ancient China they likewise had a similar system of 28 constellations (the xiu 宿), though those stars do not really match the ancient Vedic model, if it is even possible to reliably compare them since the Vedic literature doesn't provide accurate coordinates and later Indian star catalogs are inconsistent (see David Pingree's article "Identification of the Yogatārās of the Indian Nakṣatras" here). Nevertheless, it seems the inspiration for such models had a common source, which was probably Babylon though there is no such evidence proving this to my knowledge. This remains a significant mystery in Asian history.

The 27 nakṣatra-s paired with the Chinese constellations are as follows:

1.  婁宿 Aśvinī
2.  胃宿 Bharaṇī
3.  昴宿 Kṛttikā
4.  畢宿 Rohiṇī
5.  觜宿 Mṛgaśīrṣa
6.  參宿 Ārdrā
7.  井宿 Punarvasū
8.  鬼宿 Puṣya
9.  柳宿 Aślesā
10. 星宿 Maghā
11. 張宿 Pūrvaphālgunī
12. 翼宿 Uttaraphālgunī
13. 軫宿 Hasta
14. 角宿 Citrā
15. 亢宿 Svāti
16. 氐宿 Viśākhā
17. 房宿 Anurādhā
18. 心宿 Jyeṣṭha
19. 尾宿 Mūla
20. 箕宿 Pūrvāṣāḍhā
21. 斗宿 Uttarāṣāḍhā
22. 女宿 Śravaṇa
23. 虚宿 Dhaniṣṭhā
24. 危宿 Śatabhiṣaj
25. 室宿 Pūrvabhādrapadā
26. 壁宿 Uttarabhādrapadā
27. 奎宿 Revatī

In the 28 nakṣatra model, before Śravaṇā is one more constellation: 牛宿 Abhijit. The 27 model was initially used in Amoghavajra's work, though later editors of his work in China added the extra constellation, presumably because it suits the Chinese model which is strictly 28 constellations. The Indians could use either, though the 27 model allows for an equal division into 3 parts of 9, which is perhaps astrologically significant.

In the Indian model the month commences from the full moon, unlike with the Chinese lunar calendar where it starts from a new moon. Also, as Yang Jingfeng states in India "the month is always named based on which constellation (nakṣatra) the moon is in on the night of the fifteenth day of the śukla-pakṣa" (i.e., the last day of waxing or the full moon), hence the months are called Citrā, Viśākhā, Jyeṣṭha, Pūrvāṣāḍhā and so on (see below). In Chinese reckoning, this would be the 15th day of the month (wang 望), since the 1st is the new moon (shuo 朔). The waning period would run from the 16th-30th, which is the kṛṣṇa-pakṣa. In the Indian calendar the 30 day month is divided into the two pakṣa-s, which are also astrologically significant according to Buddhist scripture.

For instance, the Chinese translation of the Four Deva Kings Sūtra 四天王經 (*Catur Devarāja Sūtra) – which is also quoted in Nāgārjuna's (c. 2nd-3rd cent.) Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa – details how the Four Mahārāja under Indra's direction descend with their entourages to inspect the world and its inhabitants:

The devas on the fasting days examine the good deeds and misdeeds of people. Atop Mount Sumeru there is the second [desire realm heaven] of Trāyastriṃśa where there is the celestial sovereign named Indra whose virtues are lofty. The chief four devas, the four deva kings, are Indra's four guardian kings, each managing one direction. On the eighth day of the month envoys are always dispatched who descend on an inspection tour of the whole world. They investigate the sovereigns, kings, officials, citizens, nāgas, spirits, fliers, crawlers and wrigglers – the good deeds and misdeeds in the thoughts of their minds, the speech of their mouths and the actions of their bodies. On the fourteenth day he dispatches the princes who descend. On the fifteenth day the four kings themselves descend. On twenty-third day the envoys again descend. On the twenty-ninth the princes again descend. On the thirtieth day the four kings again personally descend.
The text was translated into Chinese by Zhiyan 智嚴 and Baoyun 寶雲 in 427. It is clear here that they converted the Indian two 15 day pakṣa model into the Chinese 30 day model. In any case, this belief in various gods descending into the world or inspecting it on specified days of the month is found in other Indian Buddhist texts as well, which should be noted are not Mahāyāna like the Abhidharma Mahāvibhāṣā Śāstra, attributed to Kātyāyanīputra. This work is generally held to have been composed sometime around the 2nd century CE in northwest India, and moreover was a key treatise of the Sarvāstivāda school in Kashmir. See the following:

Question – Why only speak of thirty-three devas? Answer – The devas frequently gather to discuss good deeds and misdeeds. Hence the partial discussion of them. The devas during the waxing and waning periods, on every eighth, fourteenth and fifteenth, always gather in the Hall of Saddharma to weigh the amount of good deeds and misdeeds in the world. Furthermore, the thirty-three devas constantly together inspect the creators of good deeds and misdeeds. Seeing one who has created good deeds, they then protect them. Seeing one who has created misdeeds, they then together resent and ruin them.

This system was understood easily enough for the Chinese who had a lunar calendar of their own, but the more advanced model provided by Amoghavajra with specific month and day names was more complex. The first draft of this manual in 759 wasn't readily understood by Amoghavajra's Chinese colleagues, so they revised it using a table, which I've reproduced using the original Sanskrit nakṣatra names (click here for full image file):

This is a brilliant example of cross-cultural intellectual exchange between the Indosphere and Sinosphere in pre-modern times. Amoghavajra took the time with his colleagues to carefully translate the Indian calendar into Chinese terms. The text also introduces the concept of weekdays, which was alien to the Chinese but important for esoteric Buddhism as well as Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, which is why the names for weekdays in Persian and Sogdian are provided in transliterated Chinese so people could ask a foreigner what day of the week it was. For instance, Venus for Friday in Sogdian: na xie 那頡 = n'xyẟ ).

This is one part of my present research, which is exploring how occidental astrology was introduced and employed in China in the Tang dynasty (618-907). I am also in the process of translating this Xiuyao jing into English. While this should be of interest to Sinologists, the work is actually an important period specimen detailing Indian astrology from the eighth century. Only a fraction of such classical Indian literature is available in Sanskrit, which highlights the importance of Indian literature preserved in other languages like Chinese and Tibetan.