Words of the Buddha:
“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.” (AN 8.39, tr. Thanissaro Bhikkhu)
The fifth training rule, or precept, is “I undertake the training rule to abstain from intoxicants causing heedlessness”.
Heedlessness means being inattentive to how you are affecting the people and circumstances around you — incapable of seeing the results of your actions. Taking intoxicants is a way of purposely making yourself heedless. The fifth precept gives a guideline for observing causes and effects in one’s consumption behavior, and helps in directing you towards the wholesome. Alcohol and drugs are the most obvious causes of chronic heedlessness, though other obsessions or addictions can also make unwholesome actions seem attractive.
The fifth precept may have come into the Buddha’s teachings some time after the first four. Possibly it was noticed that becoming intoxicated made it very difficult to keep the other four precepts. As with all the precepts, you don’t take up the fifth one, abstinence from intoxicants, until you become convinced that there’s value in it for you.
From an American monk in the Theravada Buddhist tradition:
“To dispel any doubt about his reasons for prescribing this precept, the Buddha has written the explanation into the rule itself: one is to refrain from the use of intoxicating drinks and drugs because they are the cause of heedlessness (pamada). Heedlessness means moral recklessness, disregard for the bounds between right and wrong. It is the loss of heedfulness (appamada), moral scrupulousness based on a keen perception of the dangers in unwholesome states. … The use of alcohol blunts the sense of shame and moral dread and thus leads almost inevitably to a breach of the other precepts. One addicted to liquor will have little hesitation to lie or steal, will lose all sense of sexual decency, and may easily be provoked even to murder. Hard statistics clearly confirm the close connection between the use of alcohol and violent crime, not to speak of traffic accidents, occupational hazards, and disharmony within the home. Alcoholism is indeed a most costly burden on the whole society.” (from A Discipline of Sobriety by Bhikkhu Bodhi (http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/bps-essay_36.html)
Bhikkhu Bodhi gets directly to the point in the quotation above. The problem is not drinking with your pals, the problem is the recklessness that inevitably follows from surrendering your self-control. “Losing your inhibitions” is the equivalent of losing awareness of the effect you’re having on others. “I don’t remember a thing” is not a defense, it’s an admission that you willingly abdicated responsibility for your actions. However, this doesn’t mean you are not responsible for any consequences that follow. No one is obliged to forgive you. You made the choice to make yourself (at least temporarily) stupid. The shame that often comes after an episode of intoxication can also cause the behavior to continue. It can become an unwholesome feedback loop: “I’m worthless, might as well get drunk.” At the societal level, intoxicants are probably responsible for inciting more mayhem than any other individual cause.
One late afternoon, while out for a walk, I witnessed three adult males and two or three small children emerging from a park. One of the men was lagging behind the others and carrying a beer can. He was barely sober enough to walk. He slurred some words in the direction of no one in particular. I had a visceral reaction to the situation — a man so drunk in a party with such young children? “Alcohol truly is a poison”, I thought. How many partners and children of alcoholics live unhappy and insecure lives because of a frequently inebriated family member?
Of course, there are degrees of heedlessness. One glass of wine with dinner on the weekend is not the same as consuming a quart of vodka daily or using drugs every day. Yet, even fine wine has addictive qualities: “Oh, nice! More, please!” If you often come home from work thinking you need a drink (or to smoke some weed) to calm down, very soon a daily habit is formed. The fifth precept recognizes the addictive nature of intoxicants. It is up to you to truthfully assess how well you handle their addictive quality.
For myself, this has been a difficult precept. I have had long periods of total abstinence from any sort of alcohol, and a long-standing abhorrence of drug use. But sometimes I get seduced by the “good life” quality of a wine with dinner. The argument that, for most people, a glass of wine a day is good for one’s heart (reported in a few scientific studies) temporarily takes on added weight. Usually, after some months of indulgence, I notice that I’m looking forward to having wine with dinner – that the thought occurs hours before dinner. I take that as a warning sign and establish a new abstinence resolution. At the time of this writing, I’m in a period of non-indulgence, which is showing signs of lasting a very long time. However, I’m deep into middle age and so have spent much of my life not actively training with this precept.
Many years ago, I stopped all alcohol after several months of reflection on the fifth precept. I noticed that after two glasses of wine, I almost invariably ended up saying something that I later wished I hadn’t. After one glass I wasn’t at my best, though the external trouble was contained. Based on these observations, I set myself some rules for imbibing: one glass of wine (at the most), with dinner, only if I don’t have to be responsible for anything for the rest of the evening, and no more than three nights a week. I knew I was just containing the damage when I did this. One thing I know for sure: in no case does an intoxicant make me kinder or more alert.
Other people set themselves different rules. One person might drink only on weekends. Someone else might drink a bit each day until she notices that the quantity is creeping up, or that she’s agitated if she doesn’t get her drink on time. Total abstinence is right for some (perhaps many) people. The key is awareness. What is your relationship to intoxicants?
Taking the precept as a temporary measure
If one goes on a meditation retreat, abstinence is part of the bargain. When cultivating a more refined awareness than is possible in ordinary life, the mind’s sensitivity is heightened. It seems the most normal thing in the world within that context to abstain from any intoxicant.
In some cultures, Buddhists do a slightly intensified form of practice on the full moon days (Uposatha days), and sometimes more often. Practices vary, but abstaining from intoxicants is one of the rules voluntarily adopted for the 24-hour period. One can find inspiration in the idea that one is behaving, at least temporarily, similarly to the Buddha’s devoted followers.
Words of the Buddha:
[He considers:] ‘For all their lives the arahants [fully enlightened people] dwell having abandoned distilled and fermented intoxicants which are the occasion for carelessness and refrain from them; so today I dwell, for this night and day, having abandoned distilled and fermented intoxicants which are the occasion for carelessness, refraining from them. By this practice, following after the arahants, the Uposatha will be entered on by me.’ (AN8.43 tr. Bhikkhu Khantipalo)
In a Christian context, the period of Lent is an obvious invitation to practice temporary abstinence from intoxicants.
Whether done in a religious context or simply as an experiment, the results may be surprising. If one observes reality with scrupulous honesty, one finds that feelings come and go, that states of mind don’t stay the same. Cravings come and go. A feeling of peace or freedom comes and goes. If you do undertake a temporary abstinence, don’t miss the opportunity to use your improved mental clarity to make some discoveries for yourself.
The challenge of restraint
It can be a difficult decision to eliminate intoxicants from one’s life. Family and friends may consider it a strange or anti-social idea. Some people take the refusal of an offer to drink as a negative judgment on their own consumption. So one thing to consider is how one spends social time — what types of events to attend, and with whom. In general, restraint is not a much admired characteristic in our consumption-oriented culture. It can be an uphill battle, but the rewards of restraint are great. What freedom there is in not going along with the crowd!
Restraint is not repression, but a declaration of independence from unwholesome states. It is choosing something of lasting value over temporary and superficial pleasures. The happiest people I know are those who live the most simply. They have fewer worries, because they don’t generate problems for others or themselves. They know that arranging their lives around consumption of exquisite food, entertainment and intoxicants cannot ultimately satisfy them. Being satisfied with what is simple, healthy, and what brings out the best in oneself and others, can bring a sense of security and calm. It helps you remember the needs of others. The absence of regret and self-centeredness can be a great liberation. Purposefully moving away from the unwholesome and towards the wholesome brings the contentment of knowing your life is under your own direction, and confidence that you are pursuing the best possible path.
Doing it for yourself
A particularly good reason to abstain from intoxicants (or at least to reduce consumption) is that you will be healthier if you do. If you are thinking of keeping yourself healthy, you could eat well, sleep enough, and get regular exercise. The resulting physical health then enhances all of your activities. When your body feels good, your moods are more likely to be pleasant and your resilience is likely to increase.
From a Buddhist practitioner:
“The individual should also be taught to cultivate a sympathetic attitude toward his own body and mind. They are his instruments of action and it is his own responsibility, and in his own interest, to keep them healthy and efficient. … When the benevolent attitude becomes deeply ingrained in the mind, the meditator will gradually refrain from habits which are injurious to his own body and mind.” (from Radical Therapy by Lily de Silva, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/desilva/bl123.html)
If intoxicants are a significant part of your life, and you want to maintain your health, you’ve got contradictory goals. Since nothing stays static, you’ll eventually move in one direction or the other. Why not set a higher priority on self-care?
Doing it for others
As a motivation, consider the goal of developing greater kindness towards yourself and others by reducing or eliminating your consumption of intoxicants. But – beware of sanctimoniousness! That separates rather than unites people.
All five of the precepts have been called gifts. Our own harmless behavior is a gift we can give to others, near and far. With this gift, we create a zone of safety, of peace. It is easy to underestimate the power of this gift.
Words of the Buddha:
“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 and priests.” (From AN8.39, tr. Thanissaro http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ptf/dhamma/sila/pancasila.html)
The connection between our actions and their results on ourselves and others is very close, very immediate. Day by day, moment by moment, the connection is created, for good or ill. By careful attention to our own actions, we maintain the gift of wholesome actions.
An integrated approach, words of a Buddhist monk:
“Actions performed by body and speech are not, from the Buddhist standpoint, so many detachable appendages of a distinct spiritual essence, but concrete revelations of the states of mind which stand behind them as their activating source. And states of mind, in turn, do not remain closed up in a purely mental isolation, but spill forth according to the play of circumstances from the fountain of consciousness where they arise, through the channels of body, speech and thought, out into the world of inter-personally significant events. From the action we can infer the state of mind, and from the state of mind we can predict the probable course of action. The relationship between the two is as integral as that between a musical score and its orchestrated performance on the concert stage.” (from Nourishing the Roots, Bhikkhu Bodhi)
As Bhikkhu Bodhi so eloquently points out, our bodies and minds are not separate. What we think affects how we act. How we act affects how we think. It is an unavoidable truth. The training rule to refrain from intoxicants is one of the five training rules inviting us to notice, ever more often and more closely, what we are doing and what are the results of our actions. In this way, it is possible to nudge one’s behavior in a better direction, one interaction at a time. A willingness to restrain oneself is necessary, but another essential ingredient is curiosity. Ask yourself a few questions. How much control do you have over your impulses? How often do you notice what motivates you to take a particular action? Can you reflect on that motivation? Can you change your mind?