In the ’70s, when we wandered up the hill to Kopan Monastery in Nepal in various states of drug- and alcohol-induced intoxication, we would ask Lama Yeshe, “What do you think about drugs, alcohol, and meditation? They make us more relaxed so it’s easier to watch our breath, and our visualizations are so much more vivid when we’re stoned.”

Lama, looking at us with an expression that was quizzically serious, would say, “You don’t need drugs, dear. You’re already hallucinating.”

Then, when we stopped laughing, he explained that intoxicants and meditation don’t go together. “Intoxicants take you away from reality; meditation takes you toward reality. Which do you want? You are already intoxicated by ignorance, anger, and attachment and suffer as a result. Why do you want to take more intoxicants?”

—Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron author, Tibetan Buddhist nun, and founder of Sravasti Avvey

To refrain from taking intoxicants is one of the primary vows that laypeople may take and that monastics have to uphold. One of the main reasons for not becoming intoxicated is that this can—and often does— lead to breaking other vows or straying from one’s integrity. Another reason for not becoming intoxicated is that for many, intoxication obscures the clarity of mind— the clarity to understand and rest in one’s true nature moment to moment. If one’s mind has stabilized in true nature to the extent that its clarity is never obscured, then it makes no difference whether one takes in substances or not.

From the point of view of the dharma training I was given, it is permissible, even having taken this vow, as a layperson, to enjoy a glass of wine occasionally. A distinction is made between intoxication, where one’s clarity is compromised, and simply enjoying partaking of a substance. I also do not feel that occasionally utilizing a substance for transformational work is an obstacle to awakening. It may be helpful—but honest discernment and consultation is needed if one engages in this way, so that one does not fool oneself and go astray.

—Lama Palden
western female lama in the Tibetan tradition and founder of the Sukhasiddhi Foundation

The purpose of the fifth precept is to help you observe the other four. It, like the others, is not a commandment or a rule, but rather a 2,500-year-old suggestion. The issue is heedlessness, not whether the precept applies to that one glass of wine at dinner or the joint you share with your sweetie. Can you consistently keep your mind focused on cultivating kindness, compassion, wisdom, and the practice that gets you there? If so, stop fretting about the rules and keep imbibing. After all, it’s not about Buddhism—it’s about enlightenment.

—Allan Badiner Zen practitioner, Tricycle contributing editor

In our lineage the fifth precept is usually read this way: “A disciple of the Buddha does not intoxicate mind or body of self or others.” This broadens the precept to refer not only to what we usually think of as intoxication (intoxication of body) but also to mental intoxication, that is, intoxication with doctrines or enthusiasms of any sort, and it includes trying to intoxicate others with these things. So it’s often understood to be a cautionary precept for Zen students and especially for teachers: do not intoxicate yourself or others with your practice or your teachings, drawing others into your orbit in a cult-like manner. Be modest and down to earth.

In its more usual aspect, not becoming intoxicated with alcohol or drugs, I have always taken the precept literally, not as a prohibition against use per se but as a prohibition against intoxication. To me this means that social drinking is OK, but that getting drunk is not, especially if one is getting drunk with some regularity as a way of blowing off steam or avoiding your problems. Even partying now and then, getting a bit smashed for the fun of it, is a violation of this precept. (Some may argue that even a single glass of wine is a little bit intoxicating. While this may be chemically accurate, I don’t look at it that way.) By this same logic, taking mind-altering drugs (including marijuana) would be in violation of this precept because any use of such drugs will intoxicate. So I don’t want to offer this precept to anyone who uses drugs other than alcohol. It is a well-known fact that in Japan there are Zen priests who drink plenty, more or less ignoring this precept altogether. Japan has its own social history of morality that, like our Judeo-Christian culture, has its up and down sides.

—Norman Fischer poet, author, Zen teacher, and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation

For readers’ thoughts on the fifth precept, click here.

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