Web Exclusive—Reader Responses to the Fifth Precept

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.
Bob Levinsky
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
@ 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."
Mike Wear
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.
Bill Fennell
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.
Nate DeMontigny

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.
Stephen Daniels

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.
Esme Vos

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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..