Commentary: Respect the Fifth Precept

I came to the dharma through the suffering of addiction, something that I believe is true for many people. Having come to Buddhism through the Theravada tradition, I felt very supported in my abstinence-based recovery practice—the Buddha had been clear about the necessity of a drug-and-alcohol-free way of life. As far as I could tell, I had finally found a reliable refuge.

I was later shocked—honestly, dismayed—to find out that so many Buddhists of all traditions choose to ignore or reinterpret the Buddha’s clear and obvious teachings around the fifth precept’s invitation to live free from intoxicants. I understand that most people practicing Buddhism do not suffer from addiction and are able to partake in recreational drinking or get high without becoming addicted. But still, it perplexes me that so many Buddhists choose to blatantly ignore one of the five precepts.

Of course, there is the argument that the Buddha taught a “middle way”; we often understand this teaching to mean “everything in moderation.” But this is not what the Buddha taught. The middle way referred to in the suttas is a path that avoids extreme austerities and extreme gluttony. Abstaining from alcohol is not an extreme austerity. The precepts are clear about what we must abstain from: killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxication. Nobody is saying it’s okay to kill, lie, or steal in moderation, so why do we continue to rationalize the use of drugs and alcohol?

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.


  1. says

    This is my take on the fifth precept. The dharma teaches us that the only thing we have in this life is the present moment. The dharma also teaches us that are worth as a person, or the value of our life is inherent, that it is not dependent on our external experiences. The Buddha talked about in his fire sermon, in that we can delude ourselves into thinking that pleasure and pain we experience is how we should judge our life.
    This got me thinking about the fifth precept, because the sensation of alcohol and other intoxicants is another ‘fire’ that the Buddha was talking about in his sermon – not only that – they interfere with your ability to be fully in the moment. This made me think that the fifth precept was not some rule we should strive to obey – but a natural conclusion of how you would live your life if you were fully in the moment. You would naturally not want any intoxicants to interfere with your ability to be in the moment if you are fully in it. I looked at the other precepts the same way – If I believe that my worth as a person isn’t dependent on what others think of me or what they do to me – then I would not have the urge to cause harm or speak harshly to another person because there is nothing they could do that would make feel diminished as a person. If I believe that I don’t need material possessions to feel good about myself than I will have no urge to take them when they are not freely given. If I don’t need sex to make me feel good about myself then I won’t be manipulating and lying in order to get it. So I no longer look at these precepts as ‘rules’ – but rather as the natural state of behavior we’ll naturally follow when living in the moment and not needing any ‘fires’ to make us feel good about ourselves.