Filed in Health

The Fifth Precept

Wisdom Collection

To access the content within the Wisdom Collection,
join Tricycle as a Supporting or Sustaining Member

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, and teacher at

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.

Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
mahisasaka's picture

I wonder why there are no quotes from Theravada teachers are included here. Is it because Theravada teachers usually tend not to cut corners with their sila? (The precept quite clearly is against the taking of intoxicants, not simply getting intoxicated.)

Also, if someone thinks that "an occasional glass of wine" does not affect their capability for mindfulness and clarity, I would suggest that is because their mindfulness has not deepened and matured enough to detect the degrading effects resulting from that drink, and the resultant strengthening of the fetters. One step forward, one step back, and you're back to square one.

And the sad state of Japanese Buddhism (or Buddhism in any other country, Asian or Western) shouldn't be an excuse either.

Traditionally, the keeping of a precept is said to become pure in three ways: a)one does not break the precept, b)one does not help others break the precept, c)one does not speak in praise of actions that would break the precept.

"The drinking of fermented & distilled liquors — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from drinking fermented & distilled liquors is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to mental derangement." - Vipaka Sutta

Dominic Gomez's picture

"I do not do drugs. I am drugs" answered painter Salvador Dali when asked how he came up with ideas for his visually jaw-dropping pictures.

chrismannolini's picture

Well done DharmaChick, I aspire to have your discipline.

I think motive is important here, as well. Why are people drinking or smoking or taking other drugs. If it's to share a meal and wine with some people, it's fine. Each individual should, I suppose, reflect on their motive and their behaviour.

From experiece, alcohol and meditation don't mix - "don't drink and sit!" - and I would say dope and meditating would be a complete waste of time. But I've never done that so I don't know. I don't see the point of trying it.

DharmaChick's picture

I agree re: intoxicants. Another reason I don't drink or use any other intoxicants is the profound sense of respect I have for my body. Same goes for smoking. Also, I like to live in harmony with my body and not be in conflict with it. Even my dietary habits reflect my respect for my body. :)