is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Training of Sila, the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).

is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby mynameisadahn » Mon Aug 13, 2012 4:17 pm

Hello,

I am interested lately in how Americans/other westerners view and relate to the 5th precept, forbidding intoxicants.

For some background - Personally I have a great attachment to alcohol in moderate amounts. I have 1-3 drinks a day, and generally I am very unhappy to go without (possibly this would be called "alcohol dependence" I don't know). I fully recognize this is a hinderance to progress in meditation, etc., and it clearly violates the 5th precept. It is just one of the more gross/obvious issues that I need to work on.

But for my question, is it your impression (as members of this forum) that western lay buddhists take the 5th precept seriously? My impression is that drinking is fairly well tolerated by many western lay buddhists. There is even one writer, Lodro Rinzler, who writes for the Huffington Post. He gives a very permissive view of alcohol and also marijuana use

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lodro-rin ... 54051.html

Please note, I'm not referring to Mr. Rinzler as an authority, just as a possible example of what I see as a permissive attitude. Given that he writes articles for the Huffington Post, I would perceive this as somewhat 'pop culture'.

Otherwise, I get the impression that many western buddhists see at least infrequent or occasional alcohol use as not being a problem. This would include my in-person meditation teacher, from the IMS perspetive, who at least on one occasion suggested that he might have a beer infrequently.

For these reasons, I don't get the impression that the 5th precept is taking exceedingly seriously by many westerners. Is this also your impression? Should they take it "seriously?" It does trouble me when portions of the pali cannon would seem to suggest that total compliance with the 5th precept is necessary. For instance, one of the six recollections refers to 'possessing the moral virtues held dear by the noble ones . . . unbroken, untorn, umblemished, unmottled . . .'

I am not asking this question with the intent of trying to justify my own non-compliance with the 5th precept. But I appreciate any discussion or thoughts on this topic. Personally, I don't know if I can actually recite the six recollections to myself with any seriousness, unless I am wholly compliant with at least the 5 precepts.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby reflection » Mon Aug 13, 2012 4:34 pm

In my experience it is quite dependent on the specific tradition or group. In some groups it is not taken very strictly, in others it is by most of the practitioners. So it's not really possible to generalize 'western Buddhism' on this matter. Neither do we need to, because we are responsible for our own actions. In my eyes the suttas are clear enough; they ask us not to drink. And the reasoning behind it is clear enough, to keep mindfulness high and sensual indulgence low.

I went with a very occasional (very infrequent, a few per year) drink for quite a while, but now stopped totally for quite a long time for the drunk feeling messes up mindfulness. It makes me very content and happy to know I follow all the 5 precepts the Buddha asked the laity to follow.

With metta,
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:09 pm

I think the permissive attitude some have towards alcohol consumption is one of the greatest tragedies in western Buddhism. I just don't understand it; the five precepts are the most basic and foundational aspects of our practice and the idea that some see them as disposable is heartbreaking. Alcohol causes so much sorrow and pain in this world and intoxication is the absolute antithesis of the Buddha's path. There is no excuse for practicing Buddhists to consume any amount of alcohol, and anyone who has lost their way enough to advocate or even tolerate such a shameful behavior is not one I would trust for any guidance on the path.

I hate to sound harsh or judgmental but I just don't see any possible leeway on the subject.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby mynameisadahn » Mon Aug 13, 2012 5:23 pm

thanks for both your responses, so far. this is an issue that greatly vexes me when i read the pali cannon and try to bring this text into my daily life.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby corrine » Mon Aug 13, 2012 6:09 pm

I do not understand the concept of certain precepts being 'optional'. Each of us can choose to follow the precepts or not, but 'optional'?

Just like any other set of rules. No one can make you follow rules. We choose to do so when we embrace a way of life. I understand that all of us are capable of failing from time to time, but that is different than picking and choosing which rules we will follow. Either we embrace a belief system, or not.

It is never easy to live life in a stone cold sober state. Which is what happens when we decide to refrain from all intoxicants. But I believe that it is only in doing so, that we are able to see anything as it really is.

Life is challenging. Intoxicants blunt some of the sharper edges. But isn't it our challenge to at least try to live in the present moment, fully aware of all that is in that moment? How can we do that if we have chosen to numb our emotions with drugs or alcohol?

I have lived a long life and have tried, many times, to escape my life through the use of all sorts of distractions, but, at the end of the day, none of that works. The only thing that has worked for me is to simply be where I am with all that that entails, including emotional and physical pain. Life is not always pleasant, but when we choose total sobriety, we are able to deal with what really is. Intoxicants are never helpful if they allow or encourage us to escape reality. And why else use them?

Just my view from the far side of life.

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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Mon Aug 13, 2012 6:11 pm

Not only among western Buddhists, but also among Asian Buddhists, the fifth precept is often not adhered to, but it really is not optional.
Surāmeraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants, which cause heedlessness.

The precept is not "I undertake to refrain from getting intoxicated." For a monk, even a tiny amount taken by mistake is to be confessed as an offence. A lay Buddhist should abstain from alcohol and other intoxicating drugs completely. Medical drugs, even strong drugs like morphine, may be taken if there is a real need for it.

Pamāda (heedlessness) is the antipathy of mindfulness. A driver who has taken just a few units of alcohol is considered legally incapable of controlling a vehicle properly, so those so-called Buddhists who think that they can drink in moderation and still stay on the Noble Eightfold Path are deluded.

Human beings are already intoxicated without taking one drop of alcohol. They are intoxicated and heedless, thinking when they are young that they will not get old, when they are healthy that they will not get sick, and when alive that they will definitely die and can do so at any moment.

Though they cannot deny these facts when reflecting wisely, they are intoxicated and so enjoy life's various pleasures without contemplating. Monks are rarely much different in this regard. They may not be so much concerned with the pursuit of wealth or sensual pleasures, but they are often intoxicated by fame, praise, and gain.

Appamāda Vagga

Heedfulness is the path to the deathless, heedlessness is the path to death.
The heedful do not die; the heedless are like the dead. 21

Distinctly understanding this, the heedful wise ones rejoice in heedfulness,
delighting in the realm of the Noble Ones.22

The constantly meditative, the ever steadfast ones realise the bond-free,
supreme nibbāna.23
Last edited by Bhikkhu Pesala on Tue Aug 14, 2012 1:11 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby reflection » Mon Aug 13, 2012 6:35 pm

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Not only among western Buddhists, but also among Asian Buddhists, the fifth precept is often not adhered to, but it really is not optional.
Surāmeraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ
samādiyāmi.
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicants, which cause heedlessness.

The precept is not "I undertake to refrain from getting intoxicated." For a monk, even a tiny amount taken by mistake is to be confessed as an offence. A lay Buddhist should abstain from alcohol and other intoxicating drugs completely.

Dear venerable,

Thank you for replying in this topic and I agree with you generally, although I must say I think it is important to say our actions are always our own responsibility and there is no "should" or "have to". However, more importantly, this brought up something in me I would like to add.

I think that even a tiny amount of alcohol has an effect on the mind and so to refrain from getting intoxicated is virtually the same as refraining from intoxicants. For some this may not be noticable because they drink quite frequently. But I did notice the effect of very small quantities of beer and even of alcohol free beer. I thought it had no alcohol in it, but I felt the effects and upon googling, I found out that it can contain alcohol, albeit very little. So this amount may not be noticable to 'the avarage person', but it certainly can for those who usually don't drink. So yeah, I stopped drinking so called "alcohol free" beer as well.

Perhaps a monk may even get 'drunk' from smelling alcohol. :tongue:

With metta,
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Buckwheat » Mon Aug 13, 2012 6:45 pm

I don't really like the form of the question in this OP. Is the fifth precept optional? Everything we do is a choice, and those choices have consequences. I thought the point of the precepts was to point out the five actions that are the strongest causes of suffering. If you kill, steal, fornicate, lie, or drink, you will suffer (and cause others to suffer). If you don't want to suffer or cause suffering, don't drink.

I don't always follow the 5th precept (I call them four precept days) largely due to social pressure. I drink less than I used to, and I plan to quit entirely in the near future. But if you really want to stop suffering, the 5th precept is not an option.
Sotthī hontu nirantaraṃ - May you forever be well.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby LonesomeYogurt » Mon Aug 13, 2012 6:51 pm

reflection wrote:Thank you for replying in this topic and I agree with you generally, although I must say I think it is important to say our actions are always our own responsibility and there is no "should" or "have to". However, more importantly, this brought up something in me I would like to add.

You're right that compulsion and blind adherence have no place in Buddhism, but it's also important to remember that abstention from intoxicants is such a fundamental element of the path that one could hardly be said to be on it otherwise. It'd be a bit like saying, "I'm a Muslim but I worship several Gods." It's not "dogmatic" or "coercive" to say that you can't be one and do the other; it's just acknowledgement of the obvious contradiction.

I think that even a tiny amount of alcohol has an effect on the mind and so to refrain from getting intoxicated is virtually the same as refraining from intoxicants.

The thing is, the precept isn't even "to abstain from intoxication." It's "to abstain from drinks that cause intoxication." Even if you somehow could drink without effect - which you're right, you really can't - it would still violate the precept. If I say, "Don't get on the bus to New York!" then getting on the bus is still breaking the rule even if you don't actually get to New York.
Gain and loss, status and disgrace,
censure and praise, pleasure and pain:
these conditions among human beings are inconstant,
impermanent, subject to change.

Knowing this, the wise person, mindful,
ponders these changing conditions.
Desirable things don’t charm the mind,
undesirable ones bring no resistance.

His welcoming and rebelling are scattered,
gone to their end,
do not exist.
- Lokavipatti Sutta

Stuff I write about things.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby reflection » Mon Aug 13, 2012 7:13 pm

LonesomeYogurt wrote:
reflection wrote:Thank you for replying in this topic and I agree with you generally, although I must say I think it is important to say our actions are always our own responsibility and there is no "should" or "have to". However, more importantly, this brought up something in me I would like to add.

You're right that compulsion and blind adherence have no place in Buddhism, but it's also important to remember that abstention from intoxicants is such a fundamental element of the path that one could hardly be said to be on it otherwise.

Hmm.. yes and no. I get the idea, but it's a bit like saying someone who sometimes accidentally lies can not be a Buddhist... or who breaks any of the other precepts, who doesn't have perfect virtue isn't a Buddhist or isn't on the path.. that's a bit harsh. To learn about the importance of the precepts in my eyes is also part of the path. And only if we really understand their importance, can we really follow them.

This is in no way a degration of the importance of the precepts, don't get me wrong. But I don't want to call anyone not a Buddhist or not on the path if they sincerely try, but just struggle with certain precepts. For some this can just be very hard and getting through this they need support. Well, they can get it from me!

You go girls! :clap:
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Cittasanto » Mon Aug 13, 2012 8:51 pm

Hi
I take it seriously, the precepts are what we take upon ourselves, so if we take a vow not to do something we should not do it!
There is an idea that we can take this particular precept in moderation but the Buddha never advised us to do that, although there may be legitimate reasons to use intoxicating substances for a legitimate reason, such as the recent example of marajuana use for Rheumatic pains, or alcohol as a preservative in medicines in a thread on medical marajuana.
But this moderation idea could equally be applied to any of the other precepts.

At the end of the day I believe it is down to how seriously you take your own word, do you sign a contract with another intending to break specific parts? I don't and see no reason why I should do the same when it is a contract with myself for my own well-being.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
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"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Cittasanto » Mon Aug 13, 2012 8:58 pm

reflection wrote:This is in no way a degration of the importance of the precepts, don't get me wrong. But I don't want to call anyone not a Buddhist or not on the path if they sincerely try, but just struggle with certain precepts. For some this can just be very hard and getting through this they need support.

Hi Reflection,
This underlined part stuck out as very apt here!
I recently read an article on adiction called "adicts, mythmakers and philosophers" in philosophy now issue 90 may/june2012
in essence it was saying (in this regard at least) that it is a self delusion which causes adicts to start back again even if the intention is strong and they are willing, they lie to themselves and think it 'ok' just this once. then potentially fall into a guilt trip over breaking the promise.

just thought I would throw that out there :)
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby mynameisadahn » Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:21 pm

Cittasanto wrote:Hi
IThere is an idea that we can take this particular precept in moderation but the Buddha never advised us to do that,


I think this is exactly the point.

Basically, I am trying to get at how this seems like a very significant issue. One shouldn't be dogmatic, of course, but it is important to seriously consider.

It is something I struggle with conceptually/academically as well as personally.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Hickersonia » Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:38 pm

I can't speak too much for how others think about alcohol and how it relates to their "Buddhist-ness," but I do know a number of Asian Buddhists that work with me and drink regularly and who were rather surprised when I told them why I had quit drinking.

Oddly, it is because of these folks that I found interest in the Dhamma in the first place. Ha!

Anyway, just speaking for me, it was just before Christmas last year when I realized that I was starting to refer to myself as a Buddhist -- and I decided at that time that in order to not be breaking the precept on false speech I had to also abide by the precept to refrain from intoxicants. Save for a single infraction, I have remained true to that intent -- and even that infraction was the result of peer pressure (a problem I have sense resolved).

I don't harp on others' choices to drink or not to drink, and I'm not often asked why I quit anymore because I stopped going to places where people consume the stuff as a matter of course. I even joke with my wife about it because she'll occasionally have wine and I'm OK with that.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Cittasanto » Mon Aug 13, 2012 9:54 pm

mynameisadahn wrote:
Cittasanto wrote:Hi
IThere is an idea that we can take this particular precept in moderation but the Buddha never advised us to do that,


I think this is exactly the point.

Basically, I am trying to get at how this seems like a very significant issue. One shouldn't be dogmatic, of course, but it is important to seriously consider.

It is something I struggle with conceptually/academically as well as personally.


Hi
{EDIT =I realise I have essentially said the same thing 3 times here but the bottom is the condensed version! I may delete some out in a moment but will leave it all for your consideration as some points may be more meaningful than other similar points repeated :)}

Like I also "hint" at, the other precepts are not considered to be - by anyone - a "everything in moderation" scenario.
at the end of the day if you can drink in moderation, you could equally rational killing in moderation, or sexual misconduct in moderation.
Although I do realize while writing this that Lying is another considered by some to be a moderation precept, another I would also say is not the case.

There is a difference between dogmatic and keeping a promise, the precepts are ethical guidelines which lead to our own welfare simply by keeping them, if you don't intend to keep them it is like shooting yourself in the foot to see if it hurts then doing it again to see if would hurt just as much. by this I mean it is saying one is going to do something then not, and lying by taking the precept if one does not intend to keep it.

The path is a path of both honesty & mistakes. have a look at how powerful truthfulness is depicted in the canon for an example see the Angulimala sutta, where the mear speaking of truth saves a womans life and her child she is in labour with.
the canon is littered with mendicants making mistakes, but it is always followed by a re-determination to uphold the training better in the future an example slightly edited
AN4.159 wrote:“Honourable One, i was overcome and transgressed against you, i was weak, foolish, and unskilful to act in 'such & such' a way, May the Honourable & Noble 'one' accept my apology for the offence, and I will be restrained in the future”
(meditators response) “You were weak, foolish, and unskilful to act in 'such & such' a way, I accept your apology for the offence, so be restrained in the future”

In regard to taking the precepts if we can not be honest with ourselves who can we be honest with? from my point of view, if you don't want to keep a precept don't take it, there is nothing wrong with that, there is also nothing wrong with makeing a mistake, but there is a problem with deliberately saying one thing and doing another.
This offering maybe right, or wrong, but it is one, the other, both, or neither!
Blog, - Some Suttas Translated, Ajahn Chah.
"Others will misconstrue reality due to their personal perspectives, doggedly holding onto and not easily discarding them; We shall not misconstrue reality due to our own personal perspectives, nor doggedly holding onto them, but will discard them easily. This effacement shall be done."
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Monkey Mind » Mon Aug 13, 2012 11:22 pm

I renewed my precepts back in March, and this time with a sincere intention to keep the 5th precept. Before this, I would accept the 5th on Uposatha days, and days before and after a retreat, but otherwise I was very dedicated to drinking in moderation. I was influenced by a belief that many or most Buddhists still drink alcohol. I thought quitting alcohol would be hard, it really wasn't.

Most obvious improvements: better moods, more energy, more enthusiasm for meditation, and when meditating a sharper "clarity".
"As I am, so are others;
as others are, so am I."
Having thus identified self and others,
harm no one nor have them harmed.

Sutta Nipāta 3.710
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby Hickersonia » Mon Aug 13, 2012 11:30 pm

Monkey Mind wrote:I thought quitting alcohol would be hard, it really wasn't.

While I know many people will say things to the contrary, I found that my quitting was also not particularly hard...

The conditions were just right I guess for it.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby pilgrim » Tue Aug 14, 2012 5:27 am

I don't see the 5th precept as optional but at the same time, I don't see the occasional beer or glass of wine as a serious breach. Everything we do in Buddhism has a purpose. The first 4 precepts are clear enough as a breach is damaging. The purpose of the 5th is to prevent one from losing mindfulness which leads to breaking the first four.

One uses intoxicants to get intoxicated. Intoxicants are not evil per se. I think the practice of not allowing a single drop to pass one's lips is a dogmatic attachment to the letter rather than the wisdom behind it. It reminds me of the practice of vegetarianism by some Mahayana Buddhists who would not eat a meal which was cooked in a pot that once was used to cook meat for fear of a few molecules left behind.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby manas » Tue Aug 14, 2012 7:25 am

Gosh I must be lucky. My body can't physically tolerate alcohol, even in moderation. Every time I used to 'have a few', there would usually be some kind of illness or physical dis-ease one or two days later. In the end, I thought, "a few hours of pleasant feeling is not worth a day or two of sickness and/or pain", and I've never gone back to the stuff. So, my sympathies to those who can tolerate it. Must make it harder to give up. But for me, it was dead easy.

with metta.
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Re: is the 5th precept seen as "optional" by some?

Postby pilgrim » Tue Aug 14, 2012 10:34 am

manas wrote:Gosh I must be lucky. My body can't physically tolerate alcohol, even in moderation. Every time I used to 'have a few', there would usually be some kind of illness or physical dis-ease one or two days later. In the end, I thought, "a few hours of pleasant feeling is not worth a day or two of sickness and/or pain", and I've never gone back to the stuff. So, my sympathies to those who can tolerate it. Must make it harder to give up. But for me, it was dead easy.

with metta.

You and I may share a genetic predisposition to Alcohol Intolerance.
http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/alcoho ... ce/ds01172
It is for this reason too, that I abstain.
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