The Fifth Precept: Abstain from Consuming Intoxicating Drinks and Drugs

This is from a book on the precepts for lay people which was written by Shi Faxun, who has kindly given permission for us to serialise it over the coming weeks.


The Precept

Surā-meraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicating drink that causes heedlessness.

Conditions Under Which A Violation Is Considered to Have Occurred

• Object: The intoxicant
• Intention: The intention of taking the intoxicant
• The Act: The activity of ingesting it
• Consequence: The actual ingestion of the intoxicant

Exceptions

When the person in question is:

• If the intoxicants are taken as medicine or for medical reason
• The substance is non-alcoholic but tastes, looks like or smells like alcohol
• If the alcohol is used in cooking and has evaporated through the cooking process

Alcohol refers to any alcoholic drink made from grain and yeast, such as whiskey, beer, vodka and gin. Fermented liquors such as wine, mead and rum are alcoholic beverages which can be made from flowers, fruits, honey and sugar.

While the precept specifically refers to alcoholic beverages, its meaning extends to illegal drugs and to the misuse of prescription drugs. However, correct use of pain killers after surgery, for example, is not included in this precept.

The key factor for violation is the intention, the intellectual catalyst leading to the physical act of consuming the alcohol. The Vibhanga states that even as little as a drop the size of a dewdrop on the tip of a blade of grass is enough to constitute a violation. So, having even a small glass of wine, even if it does not make one drunk, is a transgression. In addition, the number of offenses involved is determined by the number of separate sips, so each separate sip would count as an offense. There is no offense if alcohol or intoxicants are used for medical reasons, such as homeopathic tinctures, or for cooking to add flavor, as the alcohol would evaporate during the cooking.

The Intensity / Severity of Violation

There is no gradation of moral weight given to this precept.

The Purpose of the Precept

Unlike the previous four precepts which deal with our relationship to the rest of society, this precept deals with a person’s relationship with himself, that is, with his own mind and body. Taking intoxicants can influence the way in which we interacts with others. We might normally be restrained, but under the influence of intoxicants, we might lose self-control, become heedless and engage in unethical acts such as killing, stealing, adultery and lying. Under the influence of intoxicants we say and do things that we would not normally say or do, and these actions often cause many difficulties in our relationships. In addition, most criminal actions are done while under the influence of intoxicants. Traffic accidents due to drinking and driving harm self and others. If someone is killed due to our carelessness due to drinking and driving, we feel great remorse for the rest of our lives. Alcoholism in families destroys family harmony and often leads to domestic abuse, gambling, and so on. By abstaining from intoxicants, we protect ourselves from heedlessness, and the misfortunes resulting from it, such as loss of wealth, quarrels, shameless conduct, negligence, and we protect the well-being of family and society.

Quotes from Scriptures

Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. In giving freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings, he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is the fifth gift, the fifth great gift — original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning — that is not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and is unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives & priests. And this is the eighth reward of merit, reward of skillfulness, nourishment of happiness, celestial, resulting in happiness, leading to heaven, leading to what is desirable, pleasurable and appealing. (AN8.39)

Fifth Mindfulness Training by Thich Nhat Hanh

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will 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.

The Buddha only mentioned alcohol, but it is wise to understand this precept in broader terms and relate it to our contemporary world where many people are intoxicated physically and mentally. Although the Buddha did not speak about television, the Internet and print media, we need to be more mindful of what we take into our body and mind.

Can I take the Fifth Mindfulness Training (the Fifth Precept), and still drink an occasional glass of wine or beer with dinner?
(taken from Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to be Possible, 2007, Appendix 1, p109-110)

Thay [Thich] Nhat Hanh advises us not to drink any alcohol, if possible. If you still have a strong inclination to drink, please do so mindfully. Look deeply into the conditions of your liver, your heart, and the fact that humankind is wasting a lot of grain and fruit making alcohol instead of feeding other humans. Meditating in this way will lead us to feeling uncomfortable when drinking any amount of alcohol.

If you are not ready to stop drinking entirely, please take the first four mindfulness trainings and try to drink mindfully until you are ready to stop. Thay [Thich] Nhat Hanh advises those who take the Fifth Mindfulness Training [Fifth Precepts] not to drink at all, even one glass of wine or beer a week. French authorities advise their citizens that one glass of alcohol is okay, but that three is saying hello to the damage that an accident can cause. But how can you have a second or third glass if you have not had the first?
Under normal conditions, we may drink one or two glasses of wine from time to time. But in moments of despair, we might have five, six, or seven glasses in order to forget our sorrows. This can lead to alcohol abuse. A lovely grandmother on a retreat in England asked this question, and I told her, “You are a moderate drinker, but are you sure all your sons, daughters, and grandchildren are like you? If during one or two moments of despair they gradually drink more and more and become alcoholic and destroy themselves physically and mentally, who would be responsible? Haven’t you participated partly in that process? If you keep the Fifth Mindfulness Training now, you may be the torch for the future generations of your grandchildren. You keep the mindfulness trainings as a bodhisattva and not as an order that you are forced to obey.”

In my work, I take clients out to eat often and at these times, everyone drinks. Taking the precept not to drink is not practical for me. Also, my family has a drink with dinner and my friends drink at parties. If I do not join them in drinking, they will think I am strange, that I am being unnecessarily prudish, or that I am pretending to be morally superior. They may even think poorly of Buddhism if I do not join in what “normal” people do.

An Australian devotee once told me she used to drink with her mum. According to her, it is part of Australian culture to drink; to drink alone means you are alcoholic, but drinking with someone is just being sociable.

Are we being unnecessarily prudish if we do not join in what “normal” people do? Is what “normal” people do always correct? In the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha advised us not to follow blindly what others do, but to use our wisdom to inquire. Only when we are satisfied that an action benefits us and others, then we proceed.

A sister nun of mine was studying in a university in Japan. Once she was invited to attend a function in her faculty, where she was offered a glass of wine by her professor. She would have appeared rude if she did not accept the offer, but she courageously decided to do so politely anyway. She confidently told her professor that since her ordination, she had promised the Buddha that she would not drink from then on. Her professor not only did not feel offended, he was very impressed by her courage and honesty, and got her a cup of fruit juice instead.

As the world globalises, there is greater acceptance and understanding of other cultures and behavioural systems. We need to learn to express our choice in a polite way. If we are clear about why we are upholding the precepts and of what we are doing, we can speak with confidence and sincerity. Our friends will accept our differences and respect the choices we make.


Shi Faxun

Shi Faxun

VENERABLE FAXUN graduated from Singapore’s Ngee Ann Polytechnic in 1989 where she was President of the Buddhist Society. She was ordained in Taiwan in 1992 by Venerable Wu Yin of Luminary of Bhikkhuni Sangha and underwent five years o f basic monastic education in the Luminary Buddhist Institute, also in Taiwan. Upon completion of her monastic training, Venerable Faxun returned to Singapore in 1997 and served in the Sagaramudra Buddhist Society, where she conducted adult’s and children’s Dharma classes in English and Mandarin. In 2001, Venerable continued to pursue her education by doing a Bachelor of Arts and Education degree at the University of Western Australia, where she majored in linguistics and Asian studies. While in Australia, she also taught meditation at the Sagaramudra branch in Perth, which she helped to manage. In 2009, she completed her Honours Degree with a thesis entitled The “Other” Path: The Bhikkhuni Quest for Liberation. Since then, Venerable has been teaching at various Buddhist centres in Singapore, Malaysia and Western Australia, and contributing articles to Buddhist magazines.

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