Friday, September 4, 2009

Comments on the Fifth Precept

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.

Dharma Drinks

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.


Theresa said...

This makes a lot of sense, thanks.

Adam said...

I like your part about addiction. You left out one important thing though. Many people use religion to cure themselves of an addiction, but in the process just simply replace their drinking or drugs with religion. I've known a few people personally that have done this (they became born-again christians) and while they destructive addiction of alcohol was no longer a part of their lives, they had become addicted to their new found religion. I've never known any buddhists personally to do this, but I'm sure it's happend.

The problem isn't the addiction itself, it is the root cause of that addiction. A Buddhist would probably say that the cause of the addiciton was most likely suffering. But turning one addiction into another is just as dangerous for the concious mind as it is for the body. We just happen to notice the cirrhosis more easily.

Barry said...

As you have noted, teachers have parsed the Fifth Precept ever since Buddha handed it down.

It's worth looking at the Buddha's exact teaching words on this matter because his words capture his intent quite clearly. (And I think/hope we would all agree that his realization was unfathomably profound, and thus worth honoring.)

The Buddha said:

"A noble disciple gives up wines, liquors, and intoxicants, the basis for negligence, and abstains from them. By abstaining from wines, liquors, and intoxicants, the noble disciple gives to immeasurable beings 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." (AN 8:39, IV 245-47)

The Buddha couldn't have been more clear: "give up" and "abstain" from alcohol and other intoxicants.

Further, the Buddha makes it clear why we should abstain: to help others live in freedom from fear, hostility, and oppression.

By asking us to follow the Fifth Precept, it seems to me that the Buddha asks us to accept fully the Great Bodhisattva Vow - to live our lives wholly for the well-being of others.


Algernon said...

In our school, we render it as, "I vow to abstain from intoxicants taken to enduce heedlessness." I like the use of that word, heedlessness. It suggests an important point you raise in this post: that there are many things, chemical and non-, that may cause us to become heedless, to lose our direction in life or our vow. Intoxication implies surrendering our own power of decision -- we can lose it to political activism or gossip as well as to a bottle of Jim Beam.

Anonymous said...


Yes, there are many things we can be addicted to. But that doesn't mean they are all the same.

I must admit to having something of an addictive personality. Which is it better for me to be addicted to - booze or green tea? Vodka or chanting the Heart Sutra?

I agree entirely with Barry, the Buddha was clear. Even if drinking alcohol does not damage yourself (and yet, surely, it is against the flow of the habit energies you are trying to create) if sets a potentialy damaging example for others.

Besides which, have you ever thought about your responsibilty not just to other beings around you, not just to those who might take on your habits and examples, but the lives contained even within your own body. The cells that live and die within you are also lives - lives that you are responsible for. How many do you kill with each drink?

Better, by far, I think, is to try to stick to what the Buddha said, to try to stick to what is the most wholesome direction for the spiritual path, and to try to stick to what is clearly best for all beings - and not drink.

It's all about aspirations - and working towards them. Good luck in your practice,


Adam said...

Isn't the lesser of two evils, still evil? Obviously green tea is better for you than vodka. No one is saying otherwise.

wu_wei said...

I find this whole discussion very interesting.

I am a "Western Buddhist", and live in the Canadian prairies (where alcohol consumption approaches a religion in its own right). I have made the somewhat drastic vow to not (knowingly) consume alcohol.

My wife (who is not specifically Buddhist) and I have had numerous, erm, discussions about this topic. She, for the longest time, could not comprehend my choice to not drink at all (not even when offered a drink at someone's house). She seemed to think my refusal would be embarrassing for someone involved.

My argument compared my choice not to drink with the same choice made by a recovered alcoholic. They are allowed to choose not to drink, and it is looked upon as a wise decision. I, on the other hand, being an "average Joe", am being silly making the same choice.

I was buried in arguments like "studies have shown that drinking reasonable amounts of alcohol can have beneficial effects, especially lowered cholesterol and blood pressure." While my lack of medical training minimizes my ability to directly refute these claims, I maintain that there are other ways to achieve similar benefits without using alcohol. This, for some reason, does not come across convincingly to many Westerners.

What I find truly interesting is that this is such a hot-button topic. I feel like those in the Buddhist community who are arguing for and against alcohol (and drug) use are doing the exact same thing my friends and family are doing. Judging. They think they are justified in deciding whether my behaviour is "appropriate".

Personally, I feel that (Buddhist or not) if you're gonna drink, you're gonna drink. My deeming it "right" or "wrong" doesn't change your decision. Whatever effects your drinking have (to yourself, or to those around you) are your karma, not mine. I can respectfully point out my own reasons to anyone for not drinking, just as they can point out their own reasons for drinking. I don't expect anyone to accept my opinion as law, nor do I necessarily accept anyone else's without question.

Why don't we all just grab a drink (be it alcoholic or not) and toast each other's health and well-being, and get on with the business of waking up?

Nathan said...

Wu Wei,

So very true. Part of why I feel it's so important to examine all this at the broader level of intoxication is because so often, people end of being intoxicated by what they see as "right view."

It's interesting that you experienced such a litany after quitting drinking. I had a few comments like that as well when I quit the second time for several months. Somehow, that time, it was more obvious and it occurred after I started zen practice. People wondered what my reasons were since I, too, wasn't an alcoholic.

What I do wonder is how much of the argument is driven by attachment - either to being able to drink or to being a non-drinker.


wu_wei said...

That's exactly it, Nathan. Westerners are so attached to alcohol (or, to the right to drink it) that the someone deliberately not drinking sounds like someone deciding to stop breathing.

It is kind of ironic to hear Buddhists defend this kind of attachment, don'tcha think?

Nathan said...

Ironic, yes. Surprising - well, the longer I practice, the more I see how attachment creeps in so easily for all of us.

Given the pressures to drink where you live, I can imagine your decision not to drink has been a great point of practice for you. My old teacher would ask us "what's your edge?" and I can definitely see that decision being a great practice edge to work with.

wu_wei said...

Strangely, it's not as much of an "edge" as you might think. Once you decide to let alcohol go, it's a pretty easy decision to stick to.

The ultimate reason I gave up drinking had little to do with the precept (though it was a convenient explanation). Incidentally, imagine the funny looks you can get telling people in the Canadian prairies (a predominantly non-religious and christian demographic) that you aren't drinking because you're a Buddhist. I really gave up drinking because there was little upside and significant downside. I also don't like the feeling that alcohol causes. Basically, it was essentially logical reasoning.

One thing I've noticed is that people are more likely to accept a decision not to drink for reasons of religious adherence than they are for reasons of "cuz I don't wanna anymore".