Lion's Roar

Readers’ Essays: Intoxicants

Buddhadharma readers share their experience of Buddhist practice in everyday life as it relates to intoxicants.

By Lion’s Roar

In the Buddhist community of which I am part, while I was an active alcoholic there was a great tolerance for outrageous behavior. This drew me to the community in the first place but left me feeling lonely and misunderstood when I needed space from it in order to recover from alcoholism.

If I took a first drink, I didn’t know when I would stop, or what humiliating or dangerous thing might come to pass along the way. Despite knowing that and not wanting to go there, I did, repeatedly. Eventually it was one of the four reminders that brought me out of denial—the face of Yama, the lord of death, staring straight at me as a vision of what I was moving toward if I remained in addiction. I have not had a drink in 18 years.

It is curious that even when our practice is about becoming fully familiar with our own minds, we can still pull the wool over our eyes regarding our use of alcohol. A.A. calls alcoholism a “disease of denial” and alcohol itself “cunning, baffling and powerful.” That so few people in my Buddhist community recognized what I saw as a massive self-deception regarding alcoholism was baffling indeed. The methods proffered within my community for working with the problem were utterly insufficient in my case and I eventually turned to A.A. as a great source of collective wisdom and support. I was warmly welcomed and free to do whatever translating of theistic terms I wished. That people within my Buddhist community looked down on this was anything but compassionate and helpful.

Now I am exceedingly grateful that there is so much more awareness about the potential problem of alcohol abuse as well as receptivity to the idea that for some people, drinking alcohol is simply not wise.

Name Withheld by Request

During a blacksmithing demonstration, the apprentice stopped hammering the hot iron bar and asked his teacher, “Is it straight enough?” The old master replied, “It’s either straight or it ain’t.”

Why is it so difficult to apply this teaching to the precepts? We either follow them or we don’t.

The precepts are skillful means to help get us where we claim we want to go. About twenty years ago I decided I don’t drink alcohol. So simple. And everyone I know recognizes, “He doesn’t drink.” Many assume I was an alcoholic because that’s the only explanation they can imagine for such bizarre behavior. “He doesn’t drink? Anything? Ever?” Inconceivable.

Make the decision once and you’re set. If you must make this decision every time a drink is offered—sometimes you say yes and other times you refuse—how difficult you make things for yourself. If you take this precept to heart I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how simple the situation becomes. In other words, it’s either straight or it ain’t.

Byron Mellinger
Wyomissing, Pa.

Alcohol has its place as a tool in energy management. We have all used various tools to bring our lives into a calmer place of equanimity where we can more readily access our wisdom. These tools might be yoga, a massage, a run, a wild, all-out dance, antidepressants, a workshop, a talk with a friend, a cookie or a glass of wine after a day that was so stressful that you are having a hard time letting go of the stories from it.

As with any tool, especially intoxicants and drugs that hold your mind for a period of time (here I include sugar and caffeine), there is a fine line between use and abuse. There are times in my life and practice where such tools can be useful if used wisely and in moderation, and let go of when they are no longer helpful. That’s why before using intoxicants it is important to ask myself my intention. Is there another tool that would be more helpful? Can I consider this question truthfully at the time I am about to drink? I almost always know when something doesn’t feel right, when I am creating harm for myself or others. Listening is key. A glass of wine sometimes helps me calm down to be able to listen. Not my best tool, but a tool.

Name Withheld by Request
Great Barrington, Mass.

I have been a practicing Buddhist for five years. I have used cannabis for thirty of my sixty years.

I do not feel that using dope is compatible with mindfulness and awareness because I don’t remember anything afterwards. It is hard enough to concentrate with a clear mind, much less all doped up. And because of the teachings on the interdependent nature of reality and interconnectedness with all things I have become aware how my behavior affects those with whom I interact, especially those close to me.

Earlier this year, I gave my nineteen-year-old goddaughter a ride in my car after taking a toke. I had chewed bubble gum and fresh mint from the garden but I still reeked of dope. When we got in the car the silence was deafening: you could have heard a gnat fart. I’ll never forget the look on her face and I never want to put her through that experience again.

Since then I have been clean and sober. Because of my practice my resolution not to smoke is stronger and more insightful. If I smoke I realize it will affect all beings, especially those dear to me, because even though I may smoke alone, I do not smoke alone.

Cruz Lopez
Cedarpines Park, Calif.

Intoxication extends beyond the traditional definition of the immoderate use of alcohol or taking drugs. Intoxication is a purposely sought euphoric feeling, which can be created by a variety of sources, such as seeing a new place, tasting a favorite food, listening to music, smelling a flower, touching the skin of a baby, and dreaming about the future.

The most gripping intoxicant that I have had to battle was an addiction to rock climbing. I dedicated every minute for eleven years to an activity that sent explosive rushes of adrenaline throughout my body and built a solid podium for my ego. This craving was undeniably self-centered, and over the years, it wrecked my body and created a personality that I did not like. I was a miserable person to be around if I took more than three days off from climbing. Endurance athletes, mountain adventurers and many other sports activists can probably relate.

In my understanding, a fully enlightened being is able to exist within the human world, engaging with its distractions, but not becoming attached to or intoxicated by them. He/she engages for the sole purpose of freeing all sentient beings. How wonderful! But until one is ready for such an enterprise, one must be careful with the use of intoxicants and mingling in the relative world. One reason I live in a monastery is because I need an environment devoid of worldly distractions to gain that deep insight into the Great Matter. With limited intoxicants, my mind is more clear and able to penetrate the layers of delusion.

“Good” and “bad” help us with our daily lives but become obstacles when too much emphasis is placed on them. Using or not using an intoxicant is a choice with unforeseeable consequences. Intoxicants provided a profound window for me to look into a new world, but once I jumped through that window, the thrill of drugs was dwarfed by what serious practice had to offer.

Michael A. Lewis
Clatskanie, Oreg.

Intoxicants are completely incompatible with Buddhist practice. I am taken aback each time I hear people make the argument that the use of intoxicants can be incorporated into Buddhist practice, or that their use is all right as long as one does so in moderation. This is simply delusional reasoning to justify unskillful habits. One only need look to the scriptures themselves to see that the Buddha says the ingesting of intoxicants, even as little as the tip of a blade of grass, is forbidden.

I can already hear people saying, “Yes, but this rule applies to monastics and not to us laypeople.” I would remind them that Buddhists are called upon to follow the five precepts throughout their lives.

Intoxicants destroy one’s sense of shame, weaken one’s discernment and can put one into a stupor. By following the fifth precept, you do not allow your self-awareness to become compromised and you give the gift of security to yourself and to those around you. Your bodily, verbal and mental actions will be such that you will not do anything you later regret, either in this life or lifetimes to come.

For a meditator, not taking intoxicants helps to build a solid foundation of concentration and discernment. If your mind is clouded by intoxicants, how can you expect to progress along the path? those who use intoxicants as aids in their meditation practice are only fooling themselves. The mind-states they are attaining are artificially induced. They think they are achieving insights and making great progress along the path when they are actually heading for a dead end.

I can already anticipate some saying, “This is too strict. Taking just a little bit of intoxicants now and then isn’t all that bad. It’s only a small thing.” One of my teachers said: “If you can’t practice even a small thing, your commitment and resolution aren’t very strong, are they?” Such people need to take a good, hard look at their practice and what they are expecting to get out of it. Another teacher summed up this dilemma perfectly by saying, “Remember, you can’t let go of your cake and embrace it too.”

Tom Patton
Troy, N.Y.

The majority consumes intoxicants in a way that is no problem: They enjoy moderate use on social occasions and let it go at that. For this group, getting a little high is an appropriate pleasure. However, a percentage of users lose or never had control of their intoxicant intake. These are the chemically dependent.

Dependence, or addiction, is a hereditary disorder of the body, mind and spirit. It is incurable and, left to run its course, fatal. No one chooses it. Why would they? It involves physical craving, mental obsession, and spiritual bankruptcy marked by cynicism, hostility and alienation.

My own addiction was an attempt to treat my pain, which resulted from estrangement and ignorance. I was completely focused on my cravings and hatreds. In a recovery of nearly fifteen years, Zen Buddhism has been the means of getting both better connected and less attached. My meditation practice allowed an awareness to arise that the solid, independent “me” who was having such strife with chemicals wasn’t even real. The only thing needed to “win” was to desert the struggle.

Claude Tower
Deerfield, Wisc.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

Lion’s Roar is the website of Lion’s Roar magazine (formerly the Shambhala Sun) and Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, with exclusive Buddhist news, teachings, art, and commentary. Sign up for the Lion’s Roar weekly newsletter and follow Lion’s Roar on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.