August 18, 2010

Recovery & The Fifth Precept

Do you have a problem with the fifth precept—refraining from intoxicants? If so, Don Lattin, author of The Harvard Psychedelic Club, encourages you to ask yourself why that might be. In his piece “Recovery & The Fifth Precept” from the Fall 2010 issue of Tricycle, Lattin writes:

Many of us who came of age in the 1960s convinced ourselves that getting high was the quickest—if not the best—way to begin the long, strange trip toward higher consciousness. Aldous Huxley, the man who wrote The Doors of Perception and turned Timothy Leary on to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, seemed to be saying that we could access ancient wisdom through the wonders of modern chemistry.

For a while at least, that theory seemed to hold true for me, and I suspect I’m not the only reader of this magazine who became interested in Buddhism following an acid trip back in the sixties.

Lattin goes on to point out that interpretations of the fifth precept vary a great deal among Buddhist teachers. The same is clearly true of Tricycle readers—as demonstrated by the many, many thoughtful comments, stories and opinions that we received from you all about the topic. Some questioned what qualified as an “intoxicant”—do television and the Internet count?—others held that it really depends on the individual taking the intoxicants, and some related that, like Lattin, drugs served as a gateway introducing them to the dharma. Most all agreed that it is a questioned to be explored seriously and honestly.

Thank you for all of your wonderful thoughts.

Read reader responses to the fifth precept here.

Read the rest of Lattin’s piece here.

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Emmet's picture

It would seem to me that if one is "in recovery"; i.e; has accepted the First Step of AA or NA ("We admitted that we were powerless over drugs/alcohol, and our life was unmanageable"); then they have sufficiently demonstrated empirically that for themselves, ANY use of intoxicants leads to suffering, and should be avoided in favor of maintaining clarity and mindfulness (by the time someone accepts the First Step, they've usually replicated this result under so many different variables for it's validity to be unassailable).
As Thich Nhat Hanh has observed; while one glass of wine might be OK, but three glasses of wine harmful, there can't be that third glass unless there was the first.
Be well and at peace.

Hugh Croft's picture

Well I'd start by saying the goal is keeping oneself in balance. Most of us accumulate an overload of impressions. A safe way to discharge them is through the physical realm. The skill is in maintaining the correct sense of measure. A beer or two on a Friday night after an intense week in the office may be the wise thing to do. Denying that one is out of balance over weeks or months may trigger the body to put us out of action - and we end up in bed sick for a week.

Brad's picture

For me, drugs and alcohol have never been an issue. While I have consumed them in extreme moderation in my past, I have never been drunk or high. However, I was seriously addicted to food. For me, eating was what I did to release the feel good chemicals in my brain. Sugar, fat, carbs, salt were all my drugs of choice. Obviously, I cannot give up eating completely because that would kill me. However, I have confronted my addiction and behavior and I have begun having a healthy relationship with food. My overindulgence caused me great suffering because I was (and am) obese. However by changing my relationship to the thing that I was addicted to, I have begun to lose weight (32 pounds so far) and I have begun to eat and live healthier. So, I do not think the intoxicant is bad in and of itself, however, it comes down to making sure whatever we put into ourselves isn't going to cause us or anyone else to suffer. That's the challenge of the fifth precept to me: not to overindulge in food.

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Adam's picture

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Pat Weston's picture

I drink beer or wine, but do not become intoxicated. I have one with dinner and never more. Is this within the guidelines? Is the precept to "not become intoxicated" rather than to avoid them entirely? The wine and beer are good for my health. I would not drink them if they made me intoxicated.

Victor Fama's picture

All of the precepts, like Buddhism in general, have the elimination of suffering as their aim. Precepts are not rules or commandments, but a guide to the elimination of suffering. If we find resistance to a precept, it is a good area for us to explore-perhaps there is some form of craving in which our resistance is rooted. Simply put, for most of us, over-imbibing an intoxicant, however defined, will cause us suffering. Our task is to see how this is true. When you watch Rush Limbaugh, or Chris Matthews, or True Blood, do you find yourself getting angry or say, lusty? If so, then you should not watch Rush or Chris, because you are causing yourself suffering. If you have a single beer and you get a little, say, loose sexually, or, perhaps, argumentative, then you're causing suffering to yourself and you probably shouldn't drink the beer. If have a single glass of wine with no ill effects, then, for you, it's fine. But one must approach the question with sincerity and alertness. It's all about causing suffering and ending it.