Genie in a Bottle

 [Summary: Blog on the precepts and drinking alcohol – how much do you have to give up?]

I work out on the road all week, and get home on a Friday evening. Why can’t I share a bottle of wine with my wife, and enjoy the weekend,

asked Ryan. He was a keen Buddhist, and spent some time helping the monks at the temple. He was a keen meditator too, but he would get stuck on the fifth precept.

At some point every meditator has to consider the fifth precept – refraining from alcohol and drugs.
There are some misconceptions about this rule; around the issue of what constitutes a ‘drug’. We have references in the scriptures, but the five precepts appears to predate Buddhism, and was followed on observance days (every 7 or 8 days depending on the lunar calendar). The Pali actually refers to fermented drink and distilled fermentations, and the reason given for abstinence is because it makes you lose self-control. In one story someone under the influence kills his parents. In another story the Bhikkhu Sagata, who was well known for his high attainments which enabled him to battle with demons and nagas, was encouraged to drink something called “pigeon’s liqour”. He passed out by the city gates while on almsround and was taken to the Buddha, who asked the monks,

And didn’t Sagata once do battle with the fearsome Ambatittha Naga?
Could he even do battle with a Salamander now?

Thus it became a rule for monks to refrain from drink, which has six unwholesome qualities:

1. It is a waste of money.
2. It often leads to quarrels.
3. It is harmful to one’s health.
4. It is a source of disgrace.
5. It leads to impudent actions.
6. It weakens a person’s power of discernment

Thus smoking tobacco, caffeine and other mild stimulants, however addictive, are not included in this precept. They may be unwholesome behaviour, that is another question, but they do not belong under this precept which refers to fermented drinks, and drugs that make you lose self control. No one has ever killed their parents due to excess caffeine.
So can you drink and still be a Buddhist?
We define a Buddhist not as someone who keeps the precepts but as one who “takes refuge” in the Buddha (enlightenment), Dhamma (Natural Law) and Sangha (fellowship of Buddhists) – something that will be the topic of an upcoming blog. The precepts are guides that offer chance for reflection, rather than being defining commandments. That is something to remember when encountering monks and laypeople who have given up drink in total who look down on those who still drink. Anyway, looking down on people for whatever reason, is hardly skillful on their part.

It is up to the individual as to what level of drink they find acceptable. Although we can all aim for complete abstinence you should not discount yourself from meditation or Buddhism as a goal and principle because you drink sometimes. Ryan actually quit the temple and meditation for a number of years after hearing a monk teach that only total abstinence was acceptable for a Buddhist. Which is a pity. He was a good meditator, and by no means abused alcohol.
On the other hand, it will occur to the meditator who drinks, that

  • being drunk does not actually feel good
  • the addiction does not actually feel good
  • drinking ruins concentration practise

Sati, mindfulness, can arise even while under the influence, and shows how you really feel. If mindfulness is there while you are drunk it will show you just how uncomfortable the sensation really is. It does not take too long of seeing in this way before the mind learns. Once you thought you liked the feeling of being drunk, but then you realise you don’t. It is a bit of a let down. And worse still, you realise the craving for alcohol is a real discomfort; a craving that will not be eliminated by indulging. Sooner or later, you know it will have to be cut out entirely. In the meantime people like Ryan, who do not lose their sense of discernment by drinking, must decide for themselves. But it is not all or nothing – you can find your own balance with meditation, and take time in making big changes.

Discipline is for the sake of restraint,
restraint for the sake of freedom from remorse,
freedom from remorse for the sake of joy,
joy for the sake of rapture,
rapture for the sake of tranquillity,
tranquillity for the sake of pleasure,
pleasure for the sake of concentration,
concentration for the sake of knowledge
and vision of things as they are,
knowledge and vision of things as they are
for the sake of disenchantment,
disenchantment for the sake of release,
release for the sake of knowledge and vision of release,
knowledge and vision of release
for the sake of total unbinding without clinging.

5 replies on “Genie in a Bottle”

  1. Hi,

    A very interesting post and one I fully agree with. I especially like the way you suggest that following the fifth precept is the aim, if not the definition, of a Buddhist.

    But I do see many ‘Buddhists’ (their definition – who else’s?) drink. Not just Thais who are – after all – born into the religion, but also westerners who are keen enough to convert – but not keen enough to follow the basic lay precepts.

    And for those, people who claim to have been convinced by a new religion, to have joined it even, but who then choose not to follow its basic ethical rules, I’d quote Bhikkhu Bodhi from an article entitled ‘A Discipline of Sobriety’:

    “The fifth precept, it should be stressed, is not a pledge merely to abstain from intoxication or from excessive consumption of liquor.

    It calls for nothing short of total abstinence.”

    You can read the full article here:

    His conclusion:

    “If the current trend continues and more and more Buddhists succumb to the lure of intoxicating drinks, we can be sure that the Teaching will perish in all but name.

    At this very moment of history when its message has become most urgent, the sacred Dhamma of the Buddha will be irreparably lost, drowned out by the clinking of glasses and our rounds of merry toasts.”

    Perhaps, it might come across as preachy or as looking down on someone by insisting on complete abstinence, but if drinking really is drowning out the Dhamma, perhaps a little preaching is called for.

    With metta,


  2. Good comment.

    With all the precepts they are guide for improvement, and heavy preaching and absolute rules/interpretations serves to cut out the many rather than encourage them to grow.

    It is the same for monks – some people would like to cut out all the monks they perceive as ‘bad’ or ‘non-practising’ etc … but the temple is for people not devas. What would be the point of only allowing the very purest holiest people to ordain?

    Similarly for lay followers, we should approach kalyanamitta (friends on the path) with a sense of encouraging each other. And lets be honest – the occasional drink is the least of some people’s problems …. I have never mastered Right Speech for instance.

    Thus I would not like to disclude anyone for breaking a precept if they are basically good. At the same time, renunciation and purification is the name of our game.

  3. Thank you for your article.
    My opinion is that the ideal must be proclaimed, so that people know what is the right path in matters of precepts and behavior, but in the same time, as you said, we should encourage each others to improve ourselves and not give up the practice if at this moment, we are not still capable of observing all precepts. After all, the Dharma embraces us here and now, starting with our present state of mind, and not with what we should become. Buddhism is not for Buddhas, but for sick people like us.

  4. Maybe no one has killed their parents after drinking too much caffeine. But have you heard of the “Twinkie defense”? In 1978, Dan White killed the Mayor and a Supervisor and his lawyer claimed he had eaten too many Twinkies and sodas, thereby aggravating his mood swings with an excess of sugar. He was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder.

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