Web Exclusive—Reader Responses to the Fifth Precept

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.
Gregg Winston

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.
Maureen Mead

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jcfine's picture

This is a precept close to my heart. I could really relate to the reader with the martini in her hand! It took the 12 step program of AA and finding Buddhism as my "higher power" to find myself. I don't judge others who drink, however, I do know that even slight amounts of alcohol do effect the body, including the mind.
I love the clarity I have now especially in knowing any feelings I have are clear, and not at all influenced by any other substance. This allows me to truly examine those feelings that cause any suffering when they arise, and be able to respond to them in an honest way without the excuses I found when using.
Daniel Woo's comment is also a good one. "Intoxicants" are not exclusive to substance (abuse). We can be intoxicated by our own ideas and or other types of addictions such as shopping, gambling, hoarding, etc. Intoxicants are varied and it is the effect they have on the body and especially the mind that is the danger Buddha warns us about. Namaste <3

cobham's picture

It was a bit of a shock to read Wendy's post, as it was so close to my experience, that I just had to write something so that Wendy wouldn't feel alone. Have you read ( a bit of an irony here i'm afraid!) Francis Spufford's, "The Child that Books Built"? He read to escape from family life that centred around a sick sister. If you resolve any of these issues, please post anything helpful, as I would be most interested; thank you for commenting which made me feel that I'm not alone.

Philip Tullgren's picture

The thread of this post seems to have been knotted on 9/13/2010, but I will add one more comment.

I am (re) reading Bhikkhu Bodhi's wonderful "In the Buddha's Words, An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon." This is not a plug for the book, as good as it is, but rather for the source of the book's wisdom - Buddha himself.

On page 172 Bodhi quotes the Buddha speaking of the eight streams of merit - the first three being fefuge in the Buddha, Dharma & Sangha, then following upon those the five precepts. The language is so beautiful it should be shared.

"Here, monks, a noble disciple has gone for refuge to the Buddha. This is the first stream of merit, stream of the wholesome, nourishment of happiness, that is heavenly, ripening in happiness, conducive to heaven, and that leads to whatever is wished for, loved, and agreeable, to one's welfare and happiness.

Further, a noble disciple has gone for refuge in the Dharma...to one's welfare and happiness.

Futher, a noble disciple has gone for refuge in the Sangha...to one's welfare and happiness.

There are further, monks, these five gifts - pristine, of long standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated and never before adulterated, that are not being adulterated and that will not be adulterated, not despised by wise ascetics and brahmins. What are these five gifts?

Here, monks, a noble disciple gives up the destruction of life and abstains from it. By abstaining from the destruction of life,, the noble disciple gives to immeasurable being freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression. By giving to immeasurable beings freedom from fear, hostility and oppression, he himself will enjoy immeasurable freedom from fear, hostility and oppression. This is the first of those great gifts and the fourth stream of merit."

And so on, with the same language structure, does the Lord expound on stealing, sexual mis-conduct, false speech & "wines, liquors, and intoxicants, the basis for negligence".

Had I been taught to think of the Vows in this way when I took them, long before I ever read this book...

It is such a beautiful conception, thinking of these often viewed constraints (do this, don't do that) as gifts instead, gifts to all sentient beings - as well as being sources of merit for oneself.


earnestpea's picture

For me its all in the why.

Am I having a glass of wine because I'm frazzled and I'm looking for a way out of feeling frazzled, or because I'm at dinner with friends? Am I taking the sleeping tablet because of being on other side of the world for work, or because "its just easier". Am I taking the pain medicine because of ilness, or because its relaxing?

Answering the why question helps me make "the right" choice. Sometimes I'll still go ahead even when the answer is that I'm avoiding reality, but I'll still do so mindfully and see if going with the "the wrong" choice actually makes me any happier - which to date it hasn't..