The Fifth Precept: Refrain from Intoxicants

The fifth of the five precepts—Buddhist guidelines for an ethical life—is to refrain from using intoxicants, which are said to cause carelessness. While the phrasing in Pali, the language of some of the oldest Buddhist texts, undoubtedly refers to alcohol, beliefs about whether this precept allows for any form of alcohol consumption or drug use differ from school to school and even from teacher to teacher. Perhaps because of ingrained cultural habits of social drinking and the association of alcohol with the good life, the fifth precept is often not followed to the letter. 

The fifth precept was created as a support for following the rest of the precepts. As anyone who has drunk to excess knows, minding yourself in word and deed is far more difficult, sometimes impossible, when you are intoxicated. The Buddha, in one of the Jataka Tales about his past lives, minces no words when describing the effects of drunkenness:

The one who drinks this brew will sin in thought, word, and deed. He will see good as evil and evil as good. Even the most modest person will act indecently when drunk. The wisest man will babble foolishly. . . . You will grow accustomed to evil behavior, to lies, to abuse, to filth, and to disgrace.
Kumbha Jataka: The Fifth Precept, from Jataka Tales of the Buddha: Part III, retold by Ken & Visakha Kawasaki

Still, many Mahayana Buddhist schools and teachers today maintain that it is intoxication of the mind that violates the precept and not the drinking per se. Those who hold this view are apt to draw a distinction between becoming tipsy, blacking out, and enjoying a glass of wine with dinner.

Taking medicines containing alcohol and eating food made with trace amounts of alcohol are not considered violations in any Buddhist schools because unless abused they do not cause intoxication. Pain medication is also not an issue, if taken as prescribed for legitimate medical reasons.

Most traditional Theravada Buddhists find marijuana, hallucinogens, and other recreational drugs to be clear violations of the fifth precept, while opinion among Mahayana Buddhists varies. The belief that hallucinogens can serve as spiritual aids has been popular in the West, since many current Western Buddhist teachers came to Buddhism during the drug-exploratory counterculture of the sixties. This view lost favor in ensuing decades but is once again in vogue today.

Some teachers, particularly Zen Buddhists, understand the fifth precept to mean refraining from any addictive or compulsive behavior that intoxicates the mind, such as pornography, gambling, shopping, overeating, excessive exercise, unskillful use of the internet, and overconsumption of TV, and other media. Even Buddhist practice, when undertaken obsessively, can be an intoxicant in this view.


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