Image 1: Evocation #017, © 2007 Mary Daniel Hobson
Artwork by Mary Daniel Hobson Image 1: Evocation #017, © 2007 Mary Daniel Hobson

Typically, the first things that come to mind when we encounter the fifth Zen precept are drugs and alcohol, particularly alcohol, which in excess can make us drunk, inebriated or intoxicated. There are many words for it. Originally, this precept was about refraining from buying or selling intoxicants, when selling was considered even worse than imbibing. And it’s no wonder, since the earliest meaning of the transitive verb to intoxicate in English is “to smear with poison”—which is what I’d be doing to others were I to sell or give them intoxicants. On the other hand, we do say that the fragrance of certain roses is “intoxicating.” But what is intoxication really? Getting high? What exactly does that mean?

Before we get into the meaning of intoxication, it would be good to look at how the fifth precept is treated in the two versions of the Ten Grave Precepts considered foundational in Zen. Bodhidharma says of number five: “The ten dharma worlds are the body and mind. In the sphere of the originally pure dharma, not being ignorant is called the precept of refraining from using intoxicants.” Eihei Dogen says: “Not being ignorant. It has never been: don’t be defiled. It is indeed the great clarity.” Some other translations include “Not giving rise to delusions is called not giving or taking drugs.… Drugs are not brought in yet, don’t let them invade, this is the great light” (Aitken Roshi); “Not allowing the mind to become dark is called the precept of refraining from using intoxicants” (Daido Roshi); “Where nothing can be brought in, everything is inviolable, this is exactly the great brightness” (Reb Anderson).

As the various translations indicate, intoxication has something to do with ignorance, defilement, delusion, darkness, and a clouding over of light or clarity. But is being intoxicated by the fragrance of a rose an example of delusion? If I hold the rose up to your nose, am I smearing you with poison? Surely not! The poet Rumi helps to distinguish among intoxicants in his poem “The Many Wines”:

God has given us a dark wine so potent that,
drinking it, we leave the two worlds.

God has put into the form of hashish a power
to deliver the taster from self-consciousness.

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