Booze and drugs and dharma: What’s your stance?

Buddhism’s Fifth Precept is to abstain from taking intoxicants. Does this mean a “real” Buddhist doesn’t have a drink or a toke?

James Ure
11 September 2009
Booze and drugs and dharma
Photo by Andrew Jay

There is a post over at my friend Kyle’s new blog about the precepts. I posted a comment, which I wanted to turn into a post of my own about the subject because it is one that interests me a lot. I firmly believe that one can still drink a beer now and then and still be a very good, kind and serious Buddhist. As well as still take the precepts seriously. I aspire to lose weight but I still eat a cookie now and then. Does that mean all my efforts to eat healthy the rest of the time a waste and insincere? Of course not. Not everyone is able to commit to the precepts completely. So is it fair to say people who don’t steal, kill, misuse sex, or lie but do drink or smoke a cigar or even a joint from time to time aren’t serious Buddhist practitioners??? They may not be eligible for monk hood but how many of us can say that anyway?

If someone isn’t ready to give up alcohol completely then leave them be. Wouldn’t it be better to encourage their Buddhist practice in other ways where the are making progress? Rather than say it’s black and white and since you still drink or smoke you’re not a sincere Buddhist? To do so isn’t realistic, compassionate and in fact it’s hypocritical. How about not eating meat? I keep all the precepts quite well except for the occasional drink, cigar or joint. Yet someone else might keep them all except still eat meat, which in my view isn’t in keeping with the first precept of not killing. However, I would never call someone who does eat meat an “insincere” or “bad Buddhist.” I have no moral ground to stand on to make such an accusation nor do many in the Buddhist community.

Personally, I dislike eating meat, however, I don’t jump into someone else’s underwear to chastise them for eating meat. It’s none of my business and I know I don’t like people being the “Dharma Police” with me. So if we’re going to play Dharma Police then pray tell me, which of the two people is a “better Buddhist?” The non-meat eater of the non-intoxicant taker? Neither. We all have struggles with at least one of the precepts. Except maybe the Dalai Lama but even many monks I’m sure can’t keep them all. We need to remember that none of us are living how we should because if we were we won’t be here in samsara right now. I do think the precepts are good and helpful but they are not commandments except perhaps for monks. Rather they are recommendations on how best to live so that we reduce suffering as much as possible.

The foundation of the fifth precept is about intoxication and not everyone who has a beer or two after work get intoxicated. Not everyone drinks to the point of acting like a fool and in a headless manner. Yes, it’s true that it has that potential but there is such a thing as moderation and the majority of people who drink, smoke a cigar or joint do so responsibly. The other issue at hand here is that not everyone’s body is the same. Some people can’t ingest these substances without doing it to excess, however, many can handle them without acting stupidly. For example, I am able to drink or smoke a joint without going crazy. However, I know that caffeine is one substance that I can’t ingest much because the caffeine can increase my bouts of mania or actually trigger one to where I get anxious to the point of real suffering.

So, I stay away from caffeine for the most part but do I condemn the thousands of monks and millions of practitioners who drink tea or coffee? Of course not — It’s not my business nor do I believe responsible use of such substances is always bad or a hindrance to our practice. Caffeine is very much an intoxicant and addictive if misused yet traditionally Buddhists not only don’t add it to the intoxicant list; It’s encouraged to stay alert and awake for meditation. Drugs are drugs so if we’re going to condemn people who drink alcohol or smoke marijuana then we need to say the same for caffeine drinkers. If you have a problem with a substance then don’t ingest it and get help if you need it. However, not everyone who ingests these things is doing them irresponsibly or dangerously.

And what about people who over-eat, which is damaging their body to the point of risking heart disease, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, which can all be deadly. Food can be an intoxicant because chocolate for example is stimulant with all the sugar in it. Excessive sugar intake can cause diabetes, which is another serious and harmful disease, which like heart disease, etc. causes people a lot of suffering. Yet who amongst us would frown upon obese people from attending sangha or trying to practice the Dharma to the best of their abilities? Wouldn’t it be better to see people find relief in the Dharma even if it’s not total relief than completely alienate them by comdemning them and calling them insincere, irresponsible or immoral Buddhists???

It’s not realistic or our place to say people don’t take the precepts seriously if they can’t keep all of them 100% of the time but have a weakness with one or two of them. Even if you think it’s a “sin” I would remind you of what Jesus said to the crowd quick to stone a woman who, “sinned” “He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” If we are following them as best we can but still falling short like most of us then how can we not be sincere Buddhists? Who can say that they honestly keep them all at every moment of every day? None of us. I’m not encouraging killing by any means but even murderers aren’t turned away from the Dharma while they serve their sentence for their crime. There are prison sanghas who embrace these folks. Yet who would call their interest in the Dharma “insincere?” Who wants to cast the first stone? I bet we could look into your life and find some stuff that you’re not proud of or that would be objectionable to someone.

If you’re not keeping each one of those precepts all the time then you don’t have a leg to stand on when being so harsh toward others. Why not spend our time bolstering each other’s practice and finding where we can come together and inspire each other rather than going around and keeping track of who’s “sincere” and who isn’t based on how they live their life? If the precepts were to be followed by the letter of the law then they’d be commandments. We all have to be careful not to think we’re squeaky clean when it comes to our behavior. Even IF you keep all the precepts all the time I can assure you that you’re doing something else that isn’t “Buddha-like.” Or will do something like that at some point between now and when you die. If you were doing everything, “right” then you’d be enlightened on the edge of never being reborn. I doubt many of us are in THAT boat. At least those who might not be perfect in your eyes have found the Dharma in the first place, which while they might realize enlightenment in this life at least they are trying their best to better themselves.

We all do what we can and it’s not our job to question the sincerity of others unless we’re enlightened like Buddha. At the same time I think it’s admirable that many keep the alcohol and intoxicant precept. Just don’t get too holier-than-thou about it all or I might rescind my admiration. Ha!! The reason that I think that the precepts are recommendations is in part because Buddha knew that not everyone could keep them but he didn’t want to turn people away from his teachings that would bring them relief from suffering regardless. Perhaps keeping the precepts 100% and 100% of the time is the ideal and something we should all aspire to. However, moderation is a key in Buddhism too. Buddhism doesn’t require us to be perfect nor does it say the asceticism of completely giving up worldly pleasures is skillful either. Buddha taught moderation and those of us who do still enjoy some worldly pleasures should at least get some credit for doing it in moderation rather than condemned as “faux Buddhists” or whatever else nonsense might be said about us. Let’s just try and be more kind and compassionate toward each other. We’re all doing our best.

James Ure

James Ure is the author of The Buddhist Blog and practitioner.