No other precept is the subject of such lengthy and tiring debate as the fifth. The Twitterverse, blogs, web-sites, periodicals, discussion groups, and the nether-regions of online Buddhist forums continually pulsate with it. To drink, or not to drink: that is the question.
But why, we are right to think, is this question even being asked? It isn’t because of any ambiguity in the Teachings; take one look at a decent translation of the Pāli Canon and you’ll see the Buddha unequivocally said ‘avoid intoxicants which are the basis of heedlessness’*. Nor is it because the precepts belong to a different time and culture; we are no less in need of moral guidance and sobriety than people were in the Buddha’s day – if anything, we are more in need.
So why? Because people would rather follow their defilements than the Path.
Now I know that there are people reading this who are partial to the odd tipple, including two in particular to whom I am very close. And I know that Buddhism means a great deal to them and that they try to follow it as best they can – cultivating concentration, mindfulness, truthfulness, non-attachment, loving-kindness, patience and so on. But I also know that they fully understand: what the fifth precept is; that they are not keeping it; that a Buddhist is one who does; and that it would be unskilful to claim that they are as long as they’re still drinking alcohol.
If you aren’t ready to give it up then this is the skilful approach: an honest admission that the precept is such and that you’re not keeping it… yet.
And then there are those who have made the commitment to abstain but who genuinely slip up. Having been trumped by temptation, however, they recognise their error and resolve to do better in the future. We are, after all, unenlightened beings in training, and so the occasional hiccup with one of the precepts is understandable.
The problem is that some people who purport to be Buddhists simply disregard the precept. They dredge up a slew of excuses as to why they shouldn’t keep it; reel off a million reasons why it’s all right to drink; or worse: claim the precept doesn’t mean abstention at all, and re-write it because it’s not the way they want it to be, calling theirs an ‘interpretation’ when it’s just a distortion in fancy dress. And to top it all off, some of them are intent on broadcasting their opinions to the world:
It’s all right to drink in moderation!
The precept doesn’t mean avoid it completely; it means don’t get drunk!
If I can still stand after a night out I’m not breaking it!
If I drink mindfully I’m OK!
It’s only the monks and nuns who are meant to be tee-total!
And, after all, the Buddha taught the Middle Way! The wise approach is to find that mindful balance between abstention and alcoholism!
Plus, times have changed! The precept was laid down over two thousand years…
Blah, blah, blah, blah.
See – Defilements. That’s what’s talking there. Plain and simple. Crafty, cunning, conniving defilements, sniffing and scratching and searching for a loop-hole in this precept.
What many people don’t realise is that it’s precisely these reactions, resistances, and desires to have things our own way that we as Buddhists are meant to observe and understand – not follow. If we honour the precepts we can do this; if we don’t, we can’t.
I’ll never forget the time when a certain man came here to talk about becoming a Buddhist prison chaplain. During these interviews the candidate is always asked what their take on the fifth precept is. As a chaplain, virtually every prisoner they’ll see will be locked up because of crimes relating to alcohol and drug abuse. It is thus essential that the chaplain himself abstains completely: what kind of moral example would he be setting if he was using the very same substances that had landed his charges behind bars?
So this man was asked the question and an impassioned reply followed. He related how he was from a certain country where drink is a vital thread in the fabric of the culture. And how at Christmas, when he’s sat around the family table, it would be unthinkable to refuse a glass of the sacred nectar. Can we imagine the suffering that would be wrought if he passed over the punch? Is it possible to comprehend the anguish that would arise if he glugged not the Guinness? So he couldn’t abstain. No: drinking alcohol at such a time, was, he assured us – and I quote – ‘the most skilful thing’ he could do.
Pull the other one.
* Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” (“Going for Refuge & Taking the Precepts”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight, October 3, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel282.html )