As I was taught, the fifth precept includes being intoxicated by one’s own ideas—not just the ingestion of intoxicants. Just recall what it feels like to be completely intoxicated with one’s own ideas, views, opinions, etc., including the bodily and emotional sensations, the mental ideas of being right, others being wrong—not a far place from being drunk, except that this is the drunkenness of self-absorption, self-belief, self-separation. I’ve certainly have had these experiences when I’m caught up in what I think ought to be.
Right speech and right action are difficult in any form of intoxication.
Daniel D. Woo
Aristotle’s “The Golden Mean;” Buddha’s “The Middle Way.” We all live life somewhere between excess and deficiency.
I think that starting from where you are is important. No judgment, just bring awareness to whatever situation you find yourself in, however intoxicated, or not! Life is complicated.
Willemien De Villiers
Anything that a loving mother or a father won’t give, feed or do to a child—as an adult and as a loving soul one must not offer it to our own inner child. It could be refraining from a thought, a substance, even from sugars. It says to our inner selves that we love and respect life and most of all we love ourselves just as we are. It’s being as we were when we were children. If we did not need to alter our state of being when we were children then we don’t need to as we grow. Being keeps you focused on the real purpose of your life! Allowing your true self to shine in the now!
@ Marife PG: It is good to be reminded that alcohol and other mind-altering substances often are mere stand-ins/replacements for the unconditional love we experienced as children, or didn’t, as the case may be. But I do think that as adults we may exercise our free will to use these substances, as long as we do so with no harm to ourselves or others. If you know that you become aggressive and destructive when using alcohol, then wake up and seek help; if not, I say, enjoy. Awareness and intention are key.
Willemien De Villiers
I believe, you either follow a precept or you do not. They are taken for benefit, not as a moral judgment or fear of “sin.”
When I took refuge and then lay vows the Geshe told us that the Fifth Precept was mandatory. The others were voluntary, otherwise you would break them anyway.
I take the fifth precept in both a literal and not so literal sense. Literally, it means to make a clear resolve not to partake in anything that causes one to become intoxicated. This means to not drink alcohol, take drugs, etc. All of these things can cause the mind to become clouded thus preventing us from thinking so clearly.
Not so literally, a beer with dinner does not cause intoxication. I think beer specifically, in moderation, is an ok thing. I know many practitioners who have been on this path for a long time that have a beer now and again, or a glass of wine. Knowing the limits is the key. Other intoxicants are not as simple though.
Also, certain medications that are prescribed by doctors can cause a level of intoxication. For those that recently had surgery, most of the time they are prescribed pain killers. These medicines say right on the label, “may cause drowsiness, do not operate vehicles or heavy machinery.” Unless you are superman and impervious to pain, it is necessary to take these medication until the pain is tolerable.
Basically I think moderation and intention are what we should look at when we seek to take this precept truly to heart.
Our minds are amazingly powerful, amazingly fragile, and amazingly susceptible to influence. The root of intoxication is toxic. Why would anyone who hopes for enlightenment/liberation even consider taking a chance with it? By the way, like the TV ads say, “buzzed driving is drunk driving.” Even in trace amounts, alcohol and other drugs can alter your thinking. If you’re the Buddha and you know it clap your hands, or drink up as the case may be. Otherwise abstain.
In the long run I am committed to cultivating a loving and compassionate environment for those that are willing to spend time around me. To cultivate that environment I need to be able to balance every aspect of my life and not fall into heedlessness. Sometimes drinking a beer and keeping an open ear is the most compassionate thing we can do to ensure happiness and end the suffering of others.
We each apply these precepts to our lives. They are living, organic statements that are meant to be internalized into our daily life and practice and not meant to be a checklist of restrictions to follow blindly.
The most important thing is that we refer to the precepts as we live. Every time I walk by a bar or grab a drink at a BBQ, I think about the precepts. It moderates my drinking and allows me to delve deeper into my actions.
I think this precept is sorely under-appreciated. I grew up in a household wrought with abuse, due in part to alcohol. And as a result, I swore off drinking—at all—from age 13 (I’m now coming up on 33). I don’t buy the moderation argument. I think the “everything in moderation” mantra has been warped and abused, owing a good deal to the fact that the boundaries defining “moderate” are dubious (if not altogether cynical). Is a little torture here and there ok? How about sexual violence in moderation? Or exploitation—is it okay to indulge racial or class privilege once in a while, so long as we’re mindful about the harm it can do? Of course not. And the only reasons I’ve observed for which anyone obfuscates this issue, or situates these things outside the boundaries of moderation while engineering said boundaries to include their consumption of intoxicants, is one of naked opportunism.
People should really think about the risks they are taking when they ingest drugs, about their tolerance for alcohol (what is the point at which they get silly?), and their unexamined faith in anti-depressants as a way to cope with emotions and difficulties in life.
I recently listened to one of Ken McLeod’s taped retreat sessions, in which he stated that ethics in Buddhism are descriptive rather than prescriptive. In other words, they describe how an enlightened being would behave, rather than telling us how we should behave. I have found that as my practice (of over 30 years) has matured, I have less and less desire to use any type of intoxicants.
I practiced buddhadharma off and on for over ten years with hardly a second glance at the fifth precept. I refrained from the use of alcohol and drugs at retreats where it was required (which, surprisingly, was not the majority), but apart from that I figured it was the least important rule to follow. In fact, drinking was common and sometimes even encouraged in my sangha. I accidentally arrived a day early for my first intensive retreat, and ended up joining a drinking party instead of meditating.
It wasn’t until recently that I had to admit that I was not drinking and using mindfully at all, but was using intoxicants to create a false sense of bliss where causes did not warrant it, or to avoid negative and painful feelings that I refused to work with honestly. Of course, occasionally it was easy to excuse it as socially necessary, or as “lightening up” when my practice seemed too serious and tense, but bottom line was that I was hiding from reality with my use, and eventually I found I had lost control.
Deciding to follow the fifth precept and abstain from alcohol and intoxicating drugs has been the most profoundly honest and challenging experiences of my spiritual life. Before this, dissatisfaction, craving and ignorance were mostly interesting concepts to be toyed with and discussed—occasionally complained about. Abstinence has meant facing a powerful physical and mental craving head on, and recognizing the limitations of my egocentricity and small mindedness to provide me with anything like lasting happiness. At the same time, it has proven to me the need for and efficacy of the path of dharma, and I am more deeply grateful for these tools I have been taught than ever before.
The choice of what and how to practice is for each person to make on their own, and I would never begrudge anyone’s right to take a drink once in a while if it causes no harm. I do, however, ask myself these questions when the thought of intoxication comes to mind:
First: What is it I am really seeking in a drink? Joy? Ease? Communication? Sense of humor? And haven’t I been taught (if I haven’t always experienced) that these states of mind are to be found bigger, better, stronger and longer lasting through skillful conduct, skillful thinking, and skillful meditation? It seems to me a better course of action to take a few knocks and maybe learn some patience by seeking more permanent relief from my dukkha through the tools the Buddha taught, instead of taking a cheap break in a bottle or joint. By choosing to use a little contemplation, a little mantra, or maybe just try being kind instead of running to the nearest quick fix, I express my faith in my spiritual path, and little by little that makes it stronger (so says the Enlightened One).
Second: If the use of intoxicants isn’t a “big deal,” then why did I always take it and never leave it? Not everyone is like me, to be sure, and thank goodness, but I wonder how many people who find it easy to refrain from drinking don’t just refrain from drinking? I can only suggest trying the fifth precept for one year. If it is too hard to do that—whether for personal or social reasons—then maybe we had better take a look at our persons and our society a little closer.
I truly hate to sound moralistic, but to me this seems to be the bottom line: if you are an alcoholic and addict, like I became, then the very best thing for all sentient beings is that you refrain from intoxicants. Pure and simple. If you are not an alcoholic or addict, then there should be no problem refraining from intoxicants. Pure and simple.
Some great posts on this already that have covered most of my thoughts! I have for maybe 15 years drunk too much too frequently, and smoked. I quit smoking and have had some good periods of abstaining from alcohol in recent years. I have only recently begun studying the dharma (12 months or so). Previous posts have picked up on an important point, that people must be honest with themselves about why they are using drugs (alcohol included) in the first place. The difficulty is that anybody regularly using drugs is addicted, whether using recreationally or constantly. Once ‘addicted’ the one thing that your ego cannot manage is honesty with yourself. Hence all drug users (myself included) repeat platitudes about ‘it helps me to relax’ or ‘there’s no harm in one or two drinks’. Deep down we know these are meaningless platitudes and that we are in the grip of a sinister addiction, but no way will we readily admit it to ourselves! Bringing this back to the fifth precept, alcohol is a poison so virulent that it must be watered down in order to safely consume it. It materially effects our senses—this is why large doses render us senseless. As such, alcohol to me represents running and hiding from reality, while the dharma attempts to lead us to a true experience of reality. As such the two are ultimately incompatible. I don’t think an enlightened being would need to drink. In the interim, I’m sure that we will all fall in one way or another, but by being honest with ourselves we can learn from the fall.
I approach beer from the craft-brewing viewpoint, and enjoy not only my home brews, but those from local micro beers as well. Living in the Pacific Northwest, I pretty much live in Beer Heaven, but the attitude is different here (for some). Craft brew is treated much like fine wine, specialty coffee and tea, high-end cigars, exotic chocolates and so on. Craft beer is something that isn’t “ice brewed” or meant to be drunk in mass quantities. That’s what tin can beer is for. Craft beer is meant to be appreciated for its flavor, color, bitterness, aroma, its style and all the subtle nuances that make each beer just a little different from one another.
So, I have a beer with dinner, or maybe a couple more on the few occasions that I get together with friends. Do I lose mindfulness and concentration when I have a beer with my dinner? Not any more than if I replaced that beer with milk or juice. It usually takes me an hour or so to drink my “dinner” beer. Can’t imagine getting buzzed drinking like that. Do I get a little bit buzzed on occasion with friends? Yes! Maybe a whopping four times a year! And do I lose concentration and mindfulness? Yes! But I’m not being very mindful right now either (at least not in the way the Buddha taught) and I can think of about 300 other things I already did today in which my concentration was wholly lacking. I’m continually failing, yet continually striving.
Those that undertake the five training precepts do so to bring about the end of suffering in their lives. My few beers a week aren’t a major source of suffering in my life, so I’m going to keep on enjoying them. Can alcohol be a major source of suffering? Hell yes it can. And if it is for you, by all means, give it up. But you should also look at the reasons behind the addiction when you do so (hint: it isn’t the alcohol’s fault) and whatever you do, don’t replace one addiction with another (booze for religion). Nothing really gets solved there except maybe some physical health aspects.
And for those of you that have completely given up alcohol, good for you! Nothing against that. I also don’t see abstaining from alcohol as an “attachment” as some might (wrongly) claim.
The precepts are training rules for your benefit. They are not commandments. If you break one, be mindful and try again. In a nutshell, the fifth precept is the training rule to abstain from drinking alcohol. It is not a training rule to “drink responsibly,” a slogan invented and promoted by the alcoholic beverage industry. One can take this precept or leave it, and that will be one’s karma in action. We can see the result. There’s no need to layer on judgments about “good Buddhist” or “bad Buddhist.”
The precept is what it is. You can and will do what you want to do. We are the owners of our karma.
Morning Star Dhamma
I used to joke, with a martini in my hand, that I could never be a good Buddhist because I couldn’t put my martini down long enough to stop gossiping. Then, one morning almost two years ago, I woke up and couldn’t remember how my kids got to bed. My life and my marriage were a mess and I knew I needed to make a change.
I was shocked and excited to find that the 11th step of the 12-Step programs involves meditation and, with reservations about “the God thing,” I started working the steps. Through my journey and 21 months of sobriety, I have had transformative experiences in working the steps and allowing Buddhism to lead me.
Both Kevin Griffith’s book One Breath at a Time and Darren Littlejohn’s book The 12th Step Buddhist have had profound impacts on my spiritual life. I was never, ever able to wrap my brain around the concept of meditation, never felt I could do it right, never felt like I could attain the “right” level of Buddhist.
A few months ago, my husband filed for divorce and I have found an incredible peace in my Buddhist path. I drank because I was uncomfortable in my skin and with my life. I drank to feel freedom and as though I was living life to the fullest. I see now that my world was very, very small. I used to think I was a compassionate and giving person, willing to bend over backwards for anyone—and I was, if you fit into my tiny vision of the world. And god forbid you let me down.
As Pema Chodron points out, there is a heightened anxiety in awakening. I remember this when I fall apart over and over as life challenges my practice. I try to be curious about the deepest shenpa I experience, to look at it instead of mask it with the perfect martini. To live with it, be comfortable with it and not let it define me. I use the pieces of myself as I come apart to pave my path.
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