Friday, September 4, 2009
There has been a lot of talk in the Buddhist blogosphere about the Fifth Precept and specifically about alcohol consumption. It's been very lively with wide ranging opinions. Here are a few of the posts that you can check out to get a taste.
The Fifth Precept
What's interesting is that this precept is one of those which has been hotly debated for most of the existence of our tradition. People in the zen schools are probably aware of stories of monks and zen masters from the past who were both highly realized and big drinkers. Those in the Tibetan Buddhist communities have similar stories, and in both cases, there are also contemporary examples of well-known teachers who have imbibed plenty in their lives. Other schools and sects of Buddhism either seem to have less of these kinds of stories, or I'm simply unaware of them.
But what does the fifth precept actually say? And how might it apply differently to different groups of people?
The translations are all over the board from what I have seen.
John Daido Loori's translation:
Proceed clearly; Do not cloud the mind.
Bodhidharma, speaking from the 5th century, said "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs."
Here is Thich Nhat Hanh's very detailed take:
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I vow to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I vow to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
Less than a year after I began practicing at the zen center I am a member of, the former teacher there offered a class on the precepts. It was designed for those who were doing a ceremony known as jukai: a public ordination for lay practitioners during which they receive the precepts. I was very interested in the ethics of our practice, and feel fortunate that both our previous teacher and current one have placed these teachings high up on the list as focal points. It would be five years before I, myself, did jukai, but during that original class, we studying a book by zen teacher Reb Anderson that illuminated the precepts for me in many ways. I offer the book, Being Upright, as a well thought out, complex take on the ethics of our path.
One of the important teachings I have taken out of that book is the three ways in which to work with the precepts - or the three ways the precepts manifest in our lives.
1. The literal way - that is, just how the text reads. If it says no lying, we don't lie.
2. The compassionate way - that is, you approach any given precept with a mind towards liberating yourself and others, towards reducing harm and suffering. In this way, you may lie to another if it means saving the life of someone else, for example. This is in lines with the teaching of skillful means, or upaya, which is a practice of deep paying attention to situations that arise in your life, and then acting in ways which are in accord with the given situation. It can mean, for example, that the way you speak with a person will depend upon what you think are the words they might best respond to. This is just one example; there are infinite ways.
3. The ultimate way - that is, beyond right and wrong, there is no, when it comes down to it, breaking or keeping of the precepts.
Before I make any further comments, I have to say that during the past several years, I have gravitated most often toward the compassionate way. This isn't to say that I don't refrain from drinking, for example, because I do - but definitely not always. Nor is it to say that I ignore the third way, but frankly the ultimate level is very tricky, and easily used as an excuse for sloppy, damaging behavior, so I see it more as a reflection point rather than something I can actually manifest and declare to others.
When speaking of the fifth precept, Reb Anderson and Norman Fischer, among others, have placed an emphasis on "intoxication" as the directive of the precept. That intoxicating yourself is the means of breaking this precept, and that which leads to the sometimes terribly damaging behaviors that we have seen with alcohol abuse. However, there are two other reasons for focusing on intoxication in my opinion.
First, these teachers and many others who are working in "convert" communities in North America and Western Europe, recognize that alcohol use in these places has a long, deep history and that it might just be that it's more skillful to focus on intoxication than to come in and declare to all those interested in the Buddha Dharma that they must quit drinking alcohol now and forever. In addition, maybe these same teachers, who are primarily either Asian immigrants or their white students, may have more complex views of the precept themselves, and don't simply see it as a call to refrain from alcohol and drug use.
This leads us to the second, and in my opinion, more important issue. Focusing on intoxication allow us to broaden our view of the application of this precept. Let's take a look at the phenomenon of the "dry drunk." You've probably met someone who fits this definition. They have quit drinking, or have quit taking illegal drugs. And yet, removing the drinking or drugs didn't really address their issues. They are still angry, cruel, destructive, overindulgent, addicted (lots of chain smokers, but beyond that, the addicted habit pattern wasn't shifted by quitting alcohol), etc. So, one might say that even though this person is following the fifth precept on the the literal level, they really are still a mess.
But let's move beyond alcohol and drugs. Thich Nhat Hanh's take on the precept really gets at the idea that one can be intoxicated by almost anything. On the extreme level, some are intoxicated with "saving life" and end up blowing up abortion clinics and killing doctors because of their intoxication. Terrorists, as Marcus has seen firsthand in Thailand, are intoxicated by their ideas about religion and purity, and end up killing others and destroying communities as a result. Still others are intoxicated by their sobriety, and violently condemn (in words and sometimes even in actions) people who drink or take other substances.
However, one need not go to these levels of extreme to become intoxicated. How many of us can say we have never gotten fixated on an idea we felt was "right"? How many of us can say we have never eaten too much of a food we really like, or have pined for another in lust?
It's really easy to become intoxicated, the more and more you look at it. And I really feel that, no matter what side of the fence you fall on concerning alcohol, that this wider approach of intoxication is a very essential practice for us.
I say this as someone who has, at least twice in my adult life, stopped drinking all together for six months or more to watch myself, and to promote other changes in my life. I've experienced the prohibitive side, the literal side, or this precept, and believe that it's probably something every Buddhist practitioner should attempt sometime in their life, even if they end up deciding it's ok for them to drink. Stopping something that you take as normal behavior actually helps you to see the constructed, conditioned nature of that behavior. You actually see how something like drinking alcohol, is attached to things like comfort, and friendship, and even how your mind craves it. These learnings might lead you to stop drinking all together, or they might lead you to recognize when you are using alcohol to sooth negative emotions or just to fit in with a group, both of which I have observed in myself and have worked hard to refrain from drinking when either of those conditions are present.
When the Buddha told the sangha at the end of his life to be "Lamps unto yourselves," he was telling them, and now us, to experiment and learn the truth through our lives. So, that's how I live as much as possible. I see the precepts as vital tools to guide that experimenting, and in the case of the fifth precept, I continue to learn all the ways in which intoxication manifests in my own life.
just refraining from doing something, like drinking, never would have taught all this - at least for me. I can imagine that for some, refraining might be exactly what is called for. What's skillful for one, isn't for another. The Buddha Dharma truly is vast and subtle.
Posted by Nathan at 7:34 AM