June 02, 2010

Share your thoughts on the Fifth Precept

For the forthcoming issue of Tricycle we're putting together a special section on the fifth precept--refraining from taking intoxicants--and we would love to hear your thoughts. Perspectives on the fifth precept vary a great deal--from those who refrain from any and all drugs and alcohol, to those who interpret the term "intoxicants" more loosely and use psychedelics as part of their Buddhist practice.

Where do you fall on this spectrum? Send your comments, questions, stories, and opinions to editorial@tricycle.com or reply directly to this post. Who knows, your answer might end up in next issue's special section!

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Mandalas … WTF? « Sweep the dust, Push the dirt's picture

[...] Some of that story is born from the mandala but much of it you provide through your own introspection and nature.  Like a koan, it is not immediately understood but understanding will arise and probably give a good solid kick in your ‘nads.  Like a mirror it reflects only what you put in front of it.  Would I know from experience? No.  My practice is short, ugly and prickly like a cactus but hopefully budding into a wonderful flower from which I can make tasty, tasty tequila (speaking of which…check out the Tricycle blog and leave your opinion of the 5th Precept). [...]

Stef's picture

For me, "intoxicants" go well beyond drugs and alcohol. In my view, "intoxicants" are those things which encourage me down a path of mental (or physical) numbing/unawareness/disconnection/harm to myself and/or others. So for me, intoxicants are things like violent or greed-stimulating or lust-inducing media (TV, movies, music, etc.); and things like super-refined/processed/void-of-nutrition foods; and so on. This certainly doesn't mean that I abstain from all intoxicants perfectly; indeed, I have been known to zone out on Facebook, drink a sugary soda, or watch some unwholesome TV show. But. As my commitment to meditation - and specifically to Buddhism - has increased, I am noticing more and more 1) how I so often feel compelled to use these various intoxicants to my detriment, and 2) how I REALLY feel after consuming them. This awareness helps me improve my future choices, thereby helping to alleviate (and possibly even avoid) some future suffering. I can only imagine what true, sincere, honest-to-goodness peace and liberation might feel like; and if refraining from watching a crappy TV show or not eating potato chips will help get me there (much less refraining from consuming drugs and alcohol), I'm willing!

Maura's picture

I haven't "taken the precepts" yet, but my understanding of the fifth precept is that one should not "cloud the mind," that is one should avoid any behavior that makes one less alert, less mindful, less aware. I'd like to know the history of the various phrases and formulations of this precept, from Sanskrit and Pali onward. Does it always refer to a substance that one ingests, or is it more general? Is it a guide for monastics or for all people? If it's more general, or can be applied more generally (like all the other precepts), then we have to expand the list of substances and activities almost infinitely. ("Delusions are inexhaustible . . .") Some respondents obviously have had trouble with alcohol and other intoxicants and drugs, either personally or in their families, and have learned how damaging an uncontrolled use of these substances can be. Others (like myself) have a drink now and again, usually with meals and in company, and don't feel our minds are clouded or our bodies damaged--to the contrary, there are many well-documented health and social benefits to a light consumption of alcohol. We can drink now and again, but also quite happily go without, either deliberately, as a test of our attachment to habits, or as the occasion requires. In vino veritas.

Maureen Mead's picture

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.

Jen Tucker's picture

Ask yourself why it is you "need" it? Why can't you simply drink water when you socialize? Why do you try to justify or rationalize having a beer? Why can you not just put down the smoke when you want to relax? Is it because you want it or do you tell yourself it is because you like it, & you should be able to have it if it isn't hurting anything? Either way it is an attachment. You are attached to the idea of it or the thing itself. Water is pure & good for you & all your body needs. That being said, alcohol is no worse & may indeed be healthier than soda or anything containing HFCS & preservatives & additives. Marijuana is most certainly better than cigarettes. When you look at the things that did not exist when the precepts were created that we put into our bodies every day, beer & wine are much better choices than sodas & diet drinks & super caffeinated beverages. However, using these things in order to overcome anxiety, depression, lack of sleep, fears, etc. is a harmful thing to do. I never had a drop of alcohol until I was 21. I have never had any drugs. I have smoked cigarettes. You can never truly reach your true self when your mind is altered before you start, no matter how slightly altered it is.

Morning Star Dhamma's picture

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 kamma 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 kamma.

Adam's picture

And let's not forget that "intoxicating drinks" have saved countless millions of lives by giving people potable water to drink!

Yet at the same time we shouldn't neglect the damage alcohol and drugs have had on our society for thousands of years.

There is nothing inherently evil about these substances, only in the kamma we create when we use them.

Red Shelley's picture

With every action, one should look at his or her own mind and intentions behind them, which includes EVERY behavior, not just taking intoxicants. Though I give you guys credit for tackling this tough topic... kudos. I love it when Tricycle gets risky. You guys should do more of it.

But if we are talking about escapism... well some people even use meditation as form of escape, however, a healthier one I should add.

So with every behavior, intoxicants, meditation, relationships, etc... look at your mind! If one uses anything to escape, to avoid suffering, then you miss the point of what Buddha taught. "With everything look at your mind." Isn't that how the saying goes? ...then leap from there.

Tricycle Staff's picture

Thank you all for your thoughtful, insightful, and respectful comments. We’ve really enjoyed reading your thoughts on the fifth precept and we’re looking forward to putting together a special reader’s response section for the August issue of the magazine—until then, keep the responses coming!

Erin Feeney's picture

There is the famous, if apocryphal, story of William Penn becoming a Quaker and asking George Fox how long he could wear his sword and still be a Quaker. And George Fox responded "wear thy sword as long as thou canst."

I think this is a good attitude to all the vagaries and confusion around all of the precepts.


I also think it is interesting that everyone is still speaking of physical substances -- many of which have been used medicinally throughout history -- yet not talking about other ways that we "intoxicate" ourselves. Television, food, the web, reading books, listening to music.

Adam's picture

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 North West, 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 4 times a year! And do I loose 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 5 training precepts do so to bring about the end of suffering in their lives. My few beers a week isn'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 an "attachment" as some might (wrongly) claim.


Leland Jory's picture

What I don't understand (and I'm not sure if it's been mentioned here yet) is, why take alcohol at all? It seems to be a systemic part of western culture. You're looked at differently if you choose not to drink (as opposed, say, to those who are recovering alcoholics and therefore have a reason not to drink).

I think the reason this is such a sticky wicket in the western world is that we are clinging to alcohol as a freedom we've earned for turning {insert legal drinking age for your region here}.

Seems to me, it's not the drinking that creates issues for the validity of your practice, it's the clinging to the freedom to drink that might mean your practice isn't as strong as you think it is.

I choose not to drink, and yes I do so because of the 5th precept. Not because I think alcohol is bad (it can't be good *or* bad), but because I see no net benefit to taking it.

Adam Azzzlan's picture

to be honest this topic kinda bores me...

News flash: In predominantly Buddhist countries pretty much everyone drinks if they can afford it or even if they cant...

They're all real Buddhists though i.e. believe in the whole bartering system of Money for Karma

And the fact of the matter is no one really knows if you can't actually reach enlightenment getting a little buzzed every night and staring sadly at stars...

Also, lastly to fellow folks with families that are train wrecks...

Guns dont shoot people...people do

ann's picture

ann June 3, 2010

I have been a Buddhist for almost 40 years. I am also a recovering alcoholic. I am very fortunate to be a member of AA which has reinforced my spiritual practice. No one wants to be an alcoholic. It took me many years of denial before I finally recognized the addiction. Actually, quite a few Buddhists share this affliction and I can only suggest that recovery is a wonderful and necessary path to follow. A large majority of alcoholics, unfortunately, do not recover. For those of you who drink, I would suggest that you become aware of the nature of alcoholism. It is a disease; it is not simply a matter of having a lack of will power. Why would people continue to use a substance that makes them physically ill and unpleasant to be around? Alcoholism also appears to be a genetic disorder. If your parents are alcoholics, you probably shouldn't be drinking. If you spend a great deal of time thinking about alcohol, you might have a problem. People who are not alcoholics don't give drinking much thought. If you have taken one of those alcoholism tests that occasionally show up in magazines - you're probably an alcoholic. Non alcoholics don't bother to take those tests. Let me just suggest that giving up alcohol makes meditation much more effective. My best wishes to you all - especially you Buddhist alcoholics. Gassho.

michael's picture

Some great posts on this already that cover 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 alchohol in recent years. I have only recently begun studying the dharma (12 months or so). Previous posts have picked up on a pressient point, that people must be honest with themselves about why they are using drugs (alchohol 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 - alchohol 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 alchohol to me represents running and hiding from reality, 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 :) ps wonderful web content tricycle thankyou

Rebecca Holton's picture

I think that this precept is very connected with mindfulness and the training of the mind. In order to do these things we need to be able to work with our mind and work towards understanding it. We need clarity for this. Clarity is the opposite of how we are when we use intoxicants.

I think that certain psychedelic drugs could sometimes be useful for some people as a kind of initiatory crutch, but not repeatedly and certainly not over time. They can give us a glimpse of states of mind that we've not expeerienced before so could be useful as a kind of initiation - an initial experience of that mind state.

In this case I thnik that we need to be very careful and also understand that an initial experience can only happen once, that's why it's called initial. So, however we have that initial experience, e.g. with a teacher, with drugs, or simply through our own deepening practice, it is clearly a once-only event.

Afterwards we can use the initiation as a kind of signpost for us to find that same mental state without the help of the teacher, drug or other such thing.

I think it's very important to examine ourselves with complete honesty against this precept. If we are going to use intoxicants why are we doing it? it is helping our practice? Is it helping us with our mindfulness practice?

Personally I work with a teacher and have help from him for initiatory work so I don't use any intoxicants at all. This works for me and helps me to I feel at ease with the 5th precept. I've found that there is liberation in not using any kind of intoxicant. I know that I'm not gonig to do it so I am freed from thoughts and decisions about it, here, now, in the present. I find this very opening and easing.

Rodney Hatch's picture

This is my version of the Fifth Precept in the Panca Sila: "I take the precept to abstain from anything that causes intoxication or heedlessness. (ie craving unwholesome excitement). I will CULTIVATE mindfulness and clarity of mind". Recited every morning.
I was long a NON-precept practicing Buddhist with an "intoxication" problem. When early in the process of attempting to come to terms with this I enquired into the "why" of the fifth precept. The answer? Intoxicants induce a state of heedlessness. I MAKE BAD DECISIONS! I just don't have "the wisdom to know the difference"! In Buddhist terms I see "heedlessness" & "unwholesome excitement" as being inconsistent with a compassionate, discerning mind. xx

zotar's picture

I practised Buddhadharma off and on for over ten years with hardly a second glance at the 5th 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 5th precept and abstain from alcohol and intoxicating drugs from 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 recognising 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 humour? 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 taking the 5th 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.

camilo's picture

There is a simple approach to this question.

If you take refuge in the three jewels and take the 5 precepts then the thing to do is to try keeping them for ten years so as to have an experience of what that is like: what consciousness comes from it!.

Then if you want to break them, go ahead and break them. Observe closely. Comaprae.

Mindfulness is only 1 of the 3.

so, try sticking to the all 5 precepts for a good stint and then customise them if you realyy feel you have to

what you will find is that they are there for a reason and the insight you get from them will far outweigh the illusion of freedom that come from tweaking them

Gregg Winston's picture

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.

Kate K's picture

I've had multiple discussions on this subject because there are some who believe that because I take antidepressants that I don't follow the 5th precept. I don't believe the Buddha would advise me not to take medicine for a physical ailment like an infection, and that's what depression is, a physical chemical imbalance. It is not, as someone above said simply "difficult emotions."

Regarding alcohol, I believe it can be mindfully consumed and enjoyed without intoxication. In my youth, I drank to get drunk and was very reckless in my behavior. There is all the difference in the world.

Mike Wear's picture

I believe, you either follow a precept or you do not. They are taken for benefit, not as a moral judgement or fear of "sin".

Wendy's picture

When I first took refuge, I thought the fifth precept would be the easiest one for me. Actually, I assumed I wouldn't even have to think about it. I grew up in a family with an alcoholic parent and, as a result, chose to avoid what I labeled intoxicants (alcohol, illegal drugs) altogether. I had incorrectly concluded that the intoxicants were the primary cause for most of my childhood suffering and figured that if I didn't engage in them, I would eliminate my suffering.

Here I am, some four decades later, still working on eliminating my suffering. After attending teachings on refuge and the lay precepts, I learned the word "intoxicant" can refer to a great many things. Intoxicant, in my dictionary, is defined as "intoxicating or exhilirating." Through the living of my life, I have come to recognize it as an addictive activity or state of being that leads me to behave in negative ways. There are many things in life that can be exhilirating or lead to a negatively altered state of mind without me having to drink or ingest anything.

When I was young, the way I escaped suffering was to read. Reading, that's a good thing, yes? Parents encourage it. Teachers encourage it. The thing is I didn't just read. In my mind I was living whatever I read which was usually a fictional novel. To get my attention, someone would have to actually touch me because even when they yelled at the top of their lungs in my face, while I was reading, I didn't hear them. I read while walking to school and walking home which, given my level of immersion, seems like risky behavior to me now. I read when I was supposed to be doing my homework which led to poor grades and nearly failing my senior year in high school.

Ultimately, thinking about what an "intoxicant" actually is and working to identify them in my life has been the true gift of taking this precept. Now the activities I work hardest to counter are watching television and playing games (mostly online roleplaying games). These "intoxicants" not only rob me of time better spent but they also frequently result in negative behavior when I feel I'm being interrupted from an exhilirating pursuit. Running away or distracting myself from what is in front of me, which seems to be the goal of most intoxicants, just hasn't work for me in the long run. So the precept I thought would be one I could virtually ignore has turned into probably the most significant of all.

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[...] Tricycle » Share your thoughts on the Fifth Precept tricycle.com/blog/?p=1808 – view page – cached For the forthcoming issue of Tricycle we’re putting together a special section on the fifth precept–refraining from taking intoxicants–and we would love to hear your thoughts. Perspectives on the fifth precept vary a great deal–from those who refrain from any and all drugs and alcohol, to those who interpret the term “intoxicants” more loosely and use psychedelics as part of their... Read moreFor the forthcoming issue of Tricycle we’re putting together a special section on the fifth precept–refraining from taking intoxicants–and we would love to hear your thoughts. Perspectives on the fifth precept vary a great deal–from those who refrain from any and all drugs and alcohol, to those who interpret the term “intoxicants” more loosely and use psychedelics as part of their Buddhist practice. View page Tweets about this link Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['tricyclemag'] = {"photo":"http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/314841142/big_t_normal.jpg","url":"http://twitter.com/tricyclemag","nick":"tricyclemag"}; tricyclemagHighly Influential: “Help with our next issue. Please share thoughts on the 5th Precept (refraining from intoxicants) on the Tricycle blog. http://bit.ly/bpQ5l0 ” 2 hours ago retweet Topsy.Data.Twitter.User['tricyclemag'] = {"photo":"http://a1.twimg.com/profile_images/314841142/big_t_normal.jpg","url":"http://twitter.com/tricyclemag","nick":"tricyclemag"}; tricyclemagHighly Influential: “Share your thoughts on the 5th Precept--refraining from intoxicants--and you may see your response in the next Tricycle http://bit.ly/bpQ5l0 ” 6 hours ago retweet Filter tweets [...]

Losang's picture

I think the key to a lot of things here in is the Middle Way, balance. And awareness. Don't we often offer up alcohol to Dharma Protectors? It is a symbol and a tool, I believe it is meant to represent how to transform suffering into happiness...?

Beer, for example, has no inherent wrongness to it. Alcohol, in small does, has actually been found ... See Morebeneficial to the human heart! Ecstasy is being studying as we speak: we are finding out it is very beneficial in couples counseling in particular.

Wonderful to get so many perspectives! _/\_

Jesse's picture

Ironically it was the fifth precept that led me to the Dharma path.
I didn't know it at the time....but it was because of being involved in the 12 step recovery process and the resulting desire to go deeper into the 11th step that brought me to my first meditation Teacher. From there it has been a continuum of coincidence (we think not) of people and events I have been drawn to as well as the Blessing to practice Dharma in the real time of "life on life's terms".
So I attribute my interest in Dharma to the principle instructions of the twelve steps. I refer to the author of the twelve steps as my first Dharma teacher...before I even knew of the Dharma Path. And from the many people whom I meet along the way who have very similar histories I know this is not a unique experience.
Thank you, thank you, thank you .

Emma's picture

The fifth precept talks about the use of intoxicants which cause heedlessness. As others have pointed out, we have a wide variety of substances in our culture that can cause heedlessness: alcohol, illegal drugs, prescription drugs, tv, the internet, and gaming to name just a few.

I struggle with the interpretation for my self in my culture - so different than the bhikkunis and bhikus of Buddha's time and place. I see the Buddha's pointing finger and I try to look beyond the 'rule' to the intention, the essence of the teaching: avoid heedlessness. Be mindful.

Each situation allows me the opportunity to consider carefully my choices and the outcomes. Most often I choose to refrain from alcohol, from drugs, from the other variety of intoxicants. However, this is not a hard and fast rule for me. There are situations when I choose to experience intoxicants - for the pleasure of the moment in a mindful manner as well as for the understandings that arise afterward.

Eric's picture

What is interesting to me is the fact that this is even considered a big issue, and how far people will go to justify the use of intoxicants. I do not drink, so the Fifth Precept is not an issue to me, and I have to admit that I do not understand why people need to drink. But it seems to me that a lot of people are clinging to the use of alcohol, whether they have a "problem" or not. Before we examine the question on an individual level we might want to examine the role of alcohol in society, to provide a context. What makes alcohol so important in our culture?

I do not think that any use of intoxicants is consistent with skillful behavior, but that is just me. Others disagree and of course their opinions are equally valid. What is important is that we examine this issue with insight and honesty.

Paul's picture

This is the hard one, isn't it? I have the impression that the precepts, at first, were intended as a practical measure, to keep the peace among the Buddha's followers, a lot of possibly pretty aggressive men thrown into close quarters together. Drunkeness could lead to violence. I contemplate this as I'm pouring my after-work martini.

Joe's picture

I was drawn to Buddhism for its lack of "Do it because the scripture says to do it!" The Buddha said, "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." If following precepts doesn't make sense to you, then don't do it. Buddhism is all about mindfulness. The only thing we MUST do is be mindful of our actions and how they influence others. We should act with compassion and mindfulness in everything we do. Intoxicants can take mindfulness away from you. If one takes intoxicants recklessly or to intentionally escape reality or encourage loss of mindfulness, then it is wrong.

Molly's picture

I'm with John, I think about how drinking or drugs affect me and go from there. I don't think moderate drinking, smoking marijuana etc. is a bad thing. My partner, family and friends are responsible, and for our get-togethers we always have alcohol and non-alcohol drinks available. Interesting topic, but not one I think that should be necessarily over thought unless you have a real problem coping with them.

Mary's picture

I was taught that it may not be as important as the first 4, but if you accidentally break the first 4, say in a car wreck, it wouldn't necessarily mean you are going to be reincarnated in the lower three realms, but if you are under the influence of intoxicants, and "accidentally" break one of the first four, you would.
I used to drink alot. I would drink until I passed out. Should have died several times, but didn't. I started drinking much less when I started studying Buddhism, and once I took my vows, haven't had so much as a sip since. I think this is a very important precept. Maybe there are Buddhists who can have a drink now and then, and feel that they are still in control of their mind, but for me, that simply would not happen.

FTW's picture

I take that precept to be to refrain from using intoxicants in any way that could lead to behaving unskillfully. Like most of Buddhism, living out that precept could be very different for me, for the people I know, and for the people who have posted above. For some people, that would mean no alcohol period. For others, it could mean one or two drinks. For others with a greater capacity, it could be more. We are each individuals who need to decide for ourselves what it takes to make the most skillful choices.

Joshua's picture

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.

Whatever you think of *your* behavior, however you individualize your drinking as a discreet and confined to you -- the fact remains that the industry you depend on for it willfully preys on and decimates poor and working class communities, families, and cultures. The same goes for drug consumption. The body count of the global south, as a consequence of the global north's appetite for cocaine, marijuana, and the like is something most of us could not hold emotionally, if we could imagine it at all. When the Buddha asked that we remind ourselves, at all moments, "this is not mine" -- he meant our consumption, as well. The bodies in Juarez, the walking wounded in our inner cities... Our consumption and its effects are *theirs*, too. It's a matter of skillful (and rigorous) understanding.

And perhaps, at a personal level, the moderation argument misses the point. Maybe it's not about how you think alcohol or other intoxicants affect you. Maybe it's a practice of learning -- quite directly -- just how much in this world we *don't need*. Maybe it's a practice of learning just how okay we are with rather little. There's a reason the precept refers to a *training*, after all.

People can socialize without alcohol. We can have wonderful, vibrant, rich family and social lives without these things. It's not rocket-science, it's just a matter of clearing enough space in our lives for a modicum of discipline, and undertaking the creative labor of fashioning new ways of being -- new ways of being with each other, new ways of being with the world. And in turn, we can be examples to others of what they're capable of, and what worlds they're capable of building right here, right now. It's not a lot to ask.

Gurudas's picture

I have no problem with cocaine or jimmy-juice with my friends in PA.

Esme Vos's picture

The reason for the injunction against intoxicants is that intoxicants affect your brain and, in certain quantities, can make you do things you would otherwise not do. Like all the other precepts, this one requires you to think carefully about your limits. Unfortunately, most people don't like to think. They just like to be told "don't drink alcohol or take drugs. Period."

Ask yourself: Does one glass of wine make you do stupid things? Five glasses of wine? A bottle of vodka? What do "drugs" mean? Anti-depressants? Perhaps you'd rather take anti-depressants and other kinds of drugs foisted on us by the pharma-medical industry rather than deal with your difficult emotions.

And what about cultures where people drink moderate amounts of wine with food and sit around the table as a family or group of friends, socializing? Is that as BAD as the rampaging lager louts and football hooligans who, after many pints of Guinness, riot in the streets and break shop windows?

On the other hand, you know that taking psychedelic drugs and experimenting with your doors of perception is taking a risk: no person reacts in exactly the same way as another when it comes to drugs. Moreover, how do you know the drugs are pure? Unless you make it yourself in a chemistry lab and test them with spectrometers, you never really know. You could die, as did several attendees at a rave in San Francisco last week.

What I am trying to say here is that 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.

John's picture

This is such a sticky widget for many Buddhists. The 5th Precept precludes them from the intake of intoxicants so if you drink are you a bad Buddhist? Maybe not a Buddhist at all?

As long as a practitioner is aware that suffering can be caused by the intake of intoxicants when done in an unmindful manner, I have little problem with following the 5th precept and still having an occasional beer or glass of wine. The most important aspect is that we stay committed to the mindful life for the benefit of ourselves, our family and the larger sangha.

By not drinking I can elliminate that possibility, right? No drinking, no drunkiness and thus no physical or mental detriments. However, for me, a moderate drinker, it is better to focus upon the mindfulness of the activity and not the prohibition of that activity. The same thing can go for the rest of the precepts as well...we can view the 1st precept as "not to kill" but at the same time can internalize it as "preserve and encourage life." We can also view the 5th precept less as "Do not drink" and more as "promote moderation and responsibility."

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 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. Everytime 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.