Web Exclusive—Reader Responses to the Fifth Precept

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.

I take that precept to mean that one should 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.


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.


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.

The fifth precept talks about the use of intoxicants that 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.


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 exhilarating.” 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 exhilarating 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 role-playing 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 exhilarating 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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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..