Friday, December 30, 2011

Alcohol and Buddhism: To abstain or drink?

Wisdom Quarterly; translators √Ďanavara Thera (Thai), Bhikkhu Kantasilo (English)
The world loves alcohol (and drugs). It loves to check out. There are times when people seek "mind expanding" sacraments and substances (DMT, Iboga, Ayahuasca, mushrooms, LSD, poison toad sweat, cacti, and other entheogens).

But most of the time it is about becoming unconscious, careless, negligent, and uninhibited. The Buddha drew out five fundamental actions to abstain from just to be human -- to be reborn in this world or higher.

They are absolutely fundamental to profitable conduct, to freedom from remorse, and to absorption (jhana), insight (vipassana), mature wisdom (prajna), and enlightenment (bodhi).

One would not think so given the lax attitude towards nearly all of them today. It is important to note that the Buddha did not invent these, nor was he the only one to advocate them. They have a long history he acknowledged.

5th Precept: "I vow to undertake to abstain from consuming intoxicants that occasion heedlessness." Sura-meraya-majja-pamadatthana veramani sikkha padam samadiyami.

But he personally verified that holding these precepts led to long term happiness -- freedom from worry and a good rebirth when the karma of holding them comes to fruition. There is a famous saying: "One who upholds the Dharma (the truth) is upheld by the Dharma."

The Five Precepts are almost universally agreed on. They are what we would like "done unto us" even if it is hard not to do them unto others:
  1. refrain from taking life
  2. refrain from taking what is not given
  3. refrain from taking sexual liberties (misconduct)
  4. refrain from talking falsely (perjury, slander, divisiveness, useless chat)
  5. refrain from intoxicants (sura and meraya) that lead to heedlessness.
How many types of intoxicants are there? There are ten types of intoxicants, five sura (fermented brews) and five meraya (distilled spirits).
Fermented from...
  1. flour (ale),
  2. sweets (toddy),
  3. rice (saki),
  4. yeast (beer),
  5. a combination of ingredients (Jagermeister or Leberkleister, “liver glue”).
Preared from (meraya)...
  1. flowers (flavored wine),
  2. fruit (wine),
  3. honey (mead),
  4. sugar-cane (spirits),
  5. a combination of ingredients (liqueur).

In the fifth precept specific mention is not made of all intoxicants. But the same is true of all the precepts: not every permutation is listed.

What is intended? Intoxicants. What is one to infer? If it tends to lead one to heedlessness, it is best avoided.

Heedlessness means paying no heed to the Dharma, good for oneself and others, and the other four precepts. This happens when one is incapacitated by intoxication. Drugs such as opium and cannabis can have the same effect, as can heroin, cocaine, and to a lesser degree addictive caffeine.
  • Tobacco, strangely, is NOT very addictive. Cigarettes are! But that is not due to the nicotine, as we are told. Grow it, roll it, and see. Corporate manufacturing, additives, hybridization, and delivery make "tobacco" highly addictive (probably due to the sugar used to cure the leaves), cancerous, and debilitating.
  • The same might be true of coffee beans and coca leaves and possibly medical cannabis (low on THC, high on medicinal cannabinoids). In their natural state, they are mild. As manufactured chemicals, they are intensely harmful and difficult to give up.
  • Dr. Gabor Mate has demonstrated with thousands of addicts that, in fact, addiction is not about the substance itself. If it were, every experimenter would become addicted. It is about the interaction between early trauma that predisposes one to addictions.
If one is observing the Five Precepts as a permanent ongoing practice (nicca sila, or as a lunar observance, Uposatha) and indulges in intoxicating substances, is it breaking the fifth precept?

The precept is broken with the use of intoxicants that have the tendency to lead to heedlessness. So intention plays into it. We can fool ourselves all we want and say, "It's medicinal." That does not change the fact. Even medicines can be abuse. In fact, most drug abuse today is the purposeful misuse of pharmaceuticals.

Tiny amounts of brandy, celebratory champagne, or other spirits are alcohol and occasion heedlessness. If used in small amounts (not enough to get high on) for medicinal purposes, then they will not cause one to become inebriated or addicted, and the precept is not broken.
The Buddha Explains
Wisdom Quarterly translation (Udana 5.5)
Thus have I heard. One time the Buddha was residing at Jetavana, the monastery donated by Anathapindika, near Savatthi.

At that time the Blessed One, having called all the monastics together, addressed them: "Meditators!"

They responded, "Venerable sir!" (They then prepared themselves to hear the following discourse). The Buddha then gave the following instruction on the lunar eight-precept observance (Uposatha).

"Meditators, the lunar observance is comprised of eight factors observed by the noble disciple. Such observation brings glorious and radiant fruit and benefit. "What is it?"

"Meditators, noble disciples in this Dharma and Discipline reflect in this way:
  • 'All enlightened beings, for as long as life lasts, have given up the taking of liquors and intoxicants, of that which intoxicates, causing carelessness. They stay far from intoxicants.'

"All of you have given up the taking of liquors and intoxicants. You abstain from drink that causes carelessness. For all of this day and night, in this manner, you will be known as having followed the enlightened ones, and the lunar [sabbath] observance will have been kept by you."

PHOTOS: Five Precept plaque, Lumbini monument (; generic alcohol (; Buddha as psychedelic hipster on the Eightfold Path (; Buddha in copper (Robert Kendall); Hotei, Happy fat Zen Buddha (Ericmichel_def/; traditional depiction of monastics in ancient India with the Buddha; Buddha mind of a psychedelic meditator (Sergiy Kindzerskiy,


Rick said...

I am a Buddhist and, am bothered by "Westernized" Buddhism that dillutes the precepts. You cannot water down the precepts so as to indulge in pleasures of the body. I believe the five precepts to be very direct. Further, on Full moon observances and Dec 8 and April 8 I observe the Eight Precepts. I wisheeryone to know Buddha an the Dharma and Samgha in a real way, as Buddha intended it. Namaste

Matthew | Loving Awareness said...

I am western Buddhist who strongly disagrees with the Puritan interpretation. Unlike the Buddhas time, dissociation is a major problem in modern times, perhaps from the education system. Thus conscious use of mind expanding substances can be helpful. Many articles have been written about the intersection of Buddhism and psychedelics. I'm also OK with disinhibitants in moderation, perhaps to open up some emotions to flow with a supportive friend. Alcohol has been used to good purposes in history. Intention, set and setting matter so much.