Intoxicants: Bending The Rules?

There’s a new article today on CNN about a monk in Japan that mixes hip hop, Buddhist sutras and alcohol in hopes of attracting younger people to the Dharma in Japan. Right off the bat, I do enjoy a beer (Guinness, love my dark beers) with dinner if I happen to go out with my wife, so I’m not playing the hypocrite role here, just making an observation.

Anyway, I’ve always understood that one of the precepts says to abstain from intoxicating substances. While that could be painted with a broad brush, it mainly reflects alcohol consumption. There has been debate about whether or not this means complete and utter absolution, or if we can “bend the rules” a bit.

Not living back in the day of the Buddha and asking him myself, I cannot say what the absolute is here, but from the sound of it he was pretty stearn…

To dispel any doubt about his reasons for prescribing this precept, the Buddha has written the explanation into the rule itself: one is to refrain from the use of intoxicating drinks and drugs because they are the cause of heedlessness (pamada). Heedlessness means moral recklessness, disregard for the bounds between right and wrong. It is the loss of heedfulness (appamada), moral scrupulousness based on a keen perception of the dangers in unwholesome states. Heedfulness is the keynote of the Buddhist path, “the way to the Deathless,” running through all three stages of the path: morality, concentration, and wisdom. To indulge in intoxicating drinks is to risk falling away from each stage. The use of alcohol blunts the sense of shame and moral dread and thus leads almost inevitably to a breach of the other precepts. – Bhikku Bodhi, A Discipline Of Sobriety

The line gets fuzzy though when we start to look deeper into this, especially in the form of addiction. Alcohol has a strong addictive quality for some people, especially those with the chemical makeup that are prone to addiction. The question is this, how do we discern the difference? Those that have the addictive quality very well may not think they do, hence the denial part of addiction.

As the Dharma manifests itself in a new way, I believe that people are interpreting the precept differently to suit this time and age. The interpretation is this, do not take intoxicants to the point of intoxication. Honestly, I could do without the beer I drink on occasion, but it’s good to enjoy from time to time as long as their is no pull to want more and be excessive with the consumption. How do we know though if we are not feeding the addiction?

How do you all feel about this precept? Can alcohol be used in moderation and can we drink alcohol in a way where we do not become intoxicated? I for one, whether it’s one beer or two, can immediatly tell that I have drank alcohol. The fuzziness it produces is almost immediate for me. How do you feel about this?


  1. My understanding of the precepts is that they are a guideline (or skillful means) and not an absolute “rule.”

    Research has shown that mental activity/ acuity actually increases (in the average person) with one drink. A small amount of alcohol can also calm nerves and produce a peaceful feeling in many people. Of course the danger, and the likely reason for the precept, is that it is hard for many people to know when to say when. For those of us who do, why not have a drink occasionally if it has positive effects?

    As a side note -I don’t know how common this is- but I was partially brought to Buddhism through drug experiences in which I felt I had gained insight into the mind, the world, etc., which corresponded to the Dharma. Frankly, I don’t know if I would be on this spiritual path were it not for intoxicating substances…

  2. Paul writes: “… where Zen masters are raging alcoholics (*cough*Maezumi Roshi*cough*) and salarymen stagger around Shinjuku every night, looking for a capsule hotel because they missed the last train home. Japanese culture is steeped in Buddhism; they don’t have to work anywhere near as hard at it as Western converts to get it right.”

    It depends on what your definition of right is. And Buddhism, for that matter.

    And as a side note, while you may be exaggerating on purpose, let’s remember that most Japanese people are not alcoholics, and many don’t even drink.

  3. @orkneyearl “it doesn’t usually taste very good”

    I think this completely ignores the rapidly growing craft beer culture here in America. For us brewers, we don’t usually approach brewing as simply a means to intoxication. It is pursued as the craft that it is, and the product is treated as such. Much like specialty tea, a fine cigar, high-end coffe, artisan cheese, or hand-blown glass or whatever you can think of that falls into the “craftsmen” category. And yes, it is usually very tasty.

    But again, if you choose to completely abstain from drinking, great. I just know that for me it isn’t a major source of suffering in my life, so I’m not too concerned about it.

  4. Mumon, you say “obsessing around complete abstinence from alcohol may be another addiction/intoxication/distraction”, but that sounds like justification to me (no disrespect intended). It seems very easy to play the “middle way” card so you can have the occasional beer/wine/spirits. It seems far more difficult to buck the Western trend and say “no, thank you, I don’t drink”.

    I have even gotten into arguments with my wife (who I love dearly) about whether I should or shouldn’t have an occasional drink at family gatherings. I’m not sure if it’s an embarrassment thing for her, possibly because it is a very “manly” thing in her family to drink. Perhaps she thought it made me seem less of a man. Over time, we have come to an understanding about it, but it was a difficult road.

    In the West, we take our alcohol very seriously. I don’t really know why, either. If you really think about it, it doesn’t usually taste very good. In larger quantities, it makes you say and do things you normally wouldn’t. As you consume it, your ability to discern the line between sobriety and intoxication becomes significantly weaker. Most people wake up the next day with more suffering than they normally would (read “hangover”). All for what, exactly. What are Westerners clinging to here? Where’s the upside?

  5. Good luck trying to graft American Puritanical attitudes toward booze onto the Japanese, where Zen masters are raging alcoholics (*cough*Maezumi Roshi*cough*) and salarymen stagger around Shinjuku every night, looking for a capsule hotel because they missed the last train home. Japanese culture is steeped in Buddhism; they don’t have to work anywhere near as hard at it as Western converts to get it right.

  6. As I lay down the ‘middle way’ card…

    In my case, before coming to discover Buddhism, I had problems with relating properly to alcohol (as was the case with sex, and pretty much everything else with the label of ‘fun’). The lack of mindfulness that came with engaging in these activities surprised me in retrospect after examining my relationship with them. For me, experiencing a ‘drying out period’ from all of these activities helped me to better understand and relate to my thoughts when presented with a nice cold beer or foxy hottie. Attachment. Craving. Loss. Rinse. Repeat.

    “Drying out period” – I’m such a goof!

  7. Several things —

    Besides when engaging in the required training at a temple that it takes to become a priest in Japan, the precept on drinking is rarely followed, and it is the same with many of the other precepts (refraining from sexual activity, not eating animal products, etc). Priests even have their own name for alcohol – hannya-to. “Hannya” means wisdom, and it comes from the title of the heart sutra in Japanese. “To” means water, therefore “wisdom water.” There is even sect (Jodo Shinshu, True Pure Land Buddhism) that even explicitly rejects the precepts on doctrinal grounds (which interestingly, in my experience, is the sect with the most life in it these days in Japan).

    And for what it’s worth, from the same article by Bhikkhu Bodhi:
    … If we were ordered to walk along a narrow ledge overlooking a sharp precipice, we certainly would not want to put ourselves at risk by first enjoying a few drinks. We would be too keenly aware that nothing less than our life is at stake. If we only had eyes to see, we would realize that this is a perfect metaphor for the human condition, as the Buddha himself, the One with Vision, confirms (see SN 56:42). As human beings we walk along a narrow ledge, and if our moral sense is dulled we can easily topple over the edge, down to the plane of misery, from which it is extremely difficult to re-emerge.

  8. “Can alcohol be used in moderation and can we drink alcohol in a way where we do not become intoxicated?” Yes, certainly some of us can and do. It is different for each individual, and it also depends on the drink you’re having. Bud lite (3.2%ABV) or a glass of Chimay (9%)? Are you a 145lb teenage girl, or a 225lb 30-something? Having a beer with dinner, or drinks with friends? Chugging long island ice teas, or sipping on a shot of Glen on ice?

    What about drinking Kombucha tea (it has about 1% or less ABV) or swishing with mouth wash? Caffeine? Pheremones are certainly intoxicating as well, what to do about those?!

    All that aside, I’d like to make a point. Is it wrong (when dealing with the 5th precept) to have just a tiny sip of beer, which quite obviously has no intoxicating effects? I say no, and it’s because of what Bikkhu Bhodi said “one is to refrain from the use of intoxicating drinks and drugs because they are the cause of heedlessness”. It isn’t the drink or drug itself, it’s the effect of said substance. And if your goal is constant mindfullness and concentration and enlightenment, then you should most definitely refrain from being drunk. No argument there.

    But one takes the precepts willingly, and does so for training purposes. I for one, have not formally taken the precepts, though that doesn’t mean that I disagree with them either. I break a few of them all the time. I’m terribly imperfect. It seems to me that the purpose of the precepts is to cultivate alignment with the 8-fold path, and to lessen suffering. For me, my having a beer with dinner a couple of times a week does NOT cause suffering, nor is my occasional intoxication a great cause of suffering in my own life, or those around me (i don’t drink and drive, I don’t fight, i just laugh and talk more than i usually do and listen to music really loud). Also, I find my homebrewing to be a great excercise in meditative activity. Personally, I’m much more concerned with my other short-comings than my occasional beer or once/twice a year shot of Glenlivit.

    Of course, for people that can’t handle their liquor and just get f*d up all the time, or alcoholics, they might want to put “alcohol consupmtion” at the top of their list of things to take a serious look at.

    As for the monk, well, not my mug of ale, ya know?

    And for those that refrain from alcohol, great! More power to ya!


  9. I can feel the effects of coffee, tea etc. too. However, I can feel that after 3 drinks in an evening there is a definite effect the next day, that does cut into one’s ability.

    That’s for my age, weight, and life.

    On the other hand, obsessing around complete abstinence from alcohol may be another addiction/intoxication/distraction.

  10. my thoughts are this…back in the day when i used to drink (i quit cuz it just wasn’t something i wanted to do and nothing good every really came from it anyway) i found that my meditations were messed up for 3 or so days afterwards…like the fuzziness took a really long time to get rid of. for me, i just didn’t find this appealing.

    i would say that all things considered, there is a greater percentage of chance that while intoxicated with whatever…there will be some karma left behind. i prefer to minimize my karmic skid marks as much as i’m able.

    but sometimes i think it’s helpful to have a big dose of obliteration or a mental douche that getting fucked up can possibly help with. for myself, i just prefer to eat myself into a food coma.

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