The 5th Precept

Buddhist ethical conduct including the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).
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The 5th Precept

Post by Samvega » Sat Jan 21, 2012 7:57 pm

Here's an old post of mine that I dug up from a now defunct message board. What does everyone think?

This morning when I opened up my copy of Majjhima Nikaya, I turned it open randomly as I normally do and landed on the Saleyakka Sutta. This is one of those suttas where the Buddha presents an exhaustive list and definition of virtual conduct, specifically geared towards the householders he is addressing. He splits it up into bodily, verbal and mental conduct. There are more than a few Sutta's in the canon that present with such content and in a similar format. What is interesting is how often the 5th precept seems to be missing from that otherwise exhaustive list. What does this mean? Does this mean that the Buddha perhaps attributed less importance to this precept than he did the others?

Anyone familiar with the Patimokkha (monasitic code of conduct) and how it was formed realizes that it was laid down in such a way that rules were not created until they were needed. The Vinaya recounts the following story preceding the training rule which prohibited monks from taking intoxicants:

"Then Ven. Sagata went to the hermitage of the coiled-hair ascetic of Ambatittha, and on arrival — having entered the fire building and arranged a grass mat — sat down cross-legged with his body erect and mindfulness to the fore. The naga (living in the fire building) saw that Ven. Sagata had entered and, on seeing him, was upset, disgruntled, and emitted smoke. Ven. Sagata emitted smoke. The naga, unable to bear his rage, blazed up. Ven. Sagata, entering the fire element, blazed up. Then Ven. Sagata, having consumed the naga's fire with his own fire, left for Bhaddavatika.

"Then the Blessed One, having stayed at Bhaddavatika as long as he liked, left on a walking tour to Kosambi. The lay followers of Kosambi heard, 'They say that Ven. Sagata did battle with the Ambatittha naga!'

"Then the Blessed One, having toured by stages, came to Kosambi. The Kosambi lay followers, after welcoming the Blessed One, went to Ven. Sagata and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there they said to him, 'What, venerable sir, is something the masters like that is hard for you to get? What can we prepare for you?'

"When this was said, some group-of-six bhikkhus said to the Kosambi lay followers, 'Friends, there is a strong liquor called pigeon's liquor (the color of pigeons' feet, according to the Commentary) that the bhikkhus like and is hard for them to get. Prepare that.'

"Then the Kosambi lay followers, having prepared pigeon's liquor in house after house, and seeing that Ven. Sagata had gone out for alms, said to him, 'Master Sagata, drink some pigeon's liquor! Master Sagata, drink some pigeon's liquor' Then Ven. Sagata, having drunk pigeon's liquor in house after house, passed out at the city gate as he was leaving the city.

"Then the Blessed One, leaving the city with a number of bhikkhus, saw that Ven. Sagata had passed out at the city gate. On seeing him, he addressed the bhikkhus, saying, 'Bhikkhus, pick up Sagata.'

"Responding, 'As you say, venerable sir,' the bhikkhus took Ven. Sagata to the monastery and laid him down with his head toward the Blessed One. Then Ven. Sagata turned around and went to sleep with his feet toward the Blessed One. So the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying, 'In the past, wasn't Sagata respectful to the Tathagata and deferential?'

"'Yes, venerable sir.'

"'But is he respectful to the Tathagata and deferential now?'

"'No, venerable sir.'

"'And didn't Sagata do battle with the Ambatittha naga?'

"'Yes, venerable sir.'

"'But could he do battle with even a salamander now?'

"'No, venerable sir.'"

What is interesting about this story is that it appears that prior to this incident the monks were allowed to partake in alcoholic drinks. This can be inferred by the very fact that the Bhikkhu's, while traveling with the Buddha, requested of the Kosambian's the alcoholic drink right after they had spoken with the Buddha. Also, it is clear that Ven. Sagata was no novice monk, but was in fact quite accomplished in his practice when he requested the drink of the lay followers.

It seems likely that there had been no occasion prior to this in the Monastic order where a monk had become inebriated, and so no training rule was established.

My personal belief is that this does not make the training rule any less important. The Buddha was not in the habit of pointing out common sense to people, and only spoke when he knew that it would lead to some beneficial knowledge. It's quite obvious to anyone who undertakes a serious practice that inebriation is incompatible with it.

Indeed, it would seem that the consumption of alcohol in and of itself is not the problem here, but it is instead the headlessness that a drunken state leads to. Every time the training rule is phrased it makes a point of this:

Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.

It would seem that the Buddha incorporated the training rule against intoxicants later in his life, and the fact that it is absent in many discourses just reflects the fact that those discourses were spoken when he was younger. The list on the different kinds of unrighteous conduct is still exhaustive, intoxicants just make you more likely to indulge in those things.

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by cooran » Sat Jan 21, 2012 8:53 pm

Hello samvega,

The Buddha's discourses were addressed to people in differing circumstances - they weren't done in sequence like subjects in an education course - neither are the order in the Nikayas in a time sequence.

Bhikkhu Bodhi ''A discipline of Sobriety'':
[Extract .....]
‘’The fifth precept, it should be stressed, is not a pledge merely to abstain from intoxication or from excessive consumption of liquor. It calls for nothing short of total abstinence.
By this rule the Buddha shows that he has understood well the subtle, pernicious nature of addiction. Alcoholism rarely claims its victims in a sudden swoop. Usually it sets in gradually, beginning perhaps with the social icebreaker, the drink among friends, or the cocktail after a hard day's work. But it does not stop there: slowly it sinks its talons into its victims' hearts until they are reduced to its helpless prey.
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. Heedfulness is the keynote of the Buddhist path, "the way to the Deathless," running through all three stages of the path: morality, concentration, and wisdom.
To indulge in intoxicating drinks is to risk falling away from each stage. ‘’ ... ay_36.html" onclick=";return false;

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by bodom » Sat Jan 21, 2012 9:30 pm

"I'm allergic to alcohol and narcotics, I break out in handcuffs." - Robert Downey Jr.

After battling with a severe Alcohol and drug addiction for over half of my life, I have seen clearly the damaging effects of intoxicants. I do not need the Buddha to tell me that intoxicants lead to suffering. I have seen it for myself.

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by chownah » Sun Jan 22, 2012 3:23 am

There are people in the world who suffer from intoxication.
Everytime they see someone enjoying taking intoxicants they are encouraged and tempted to take intoxicants.
People of compassion do not take intoxicants knowing that it will be an influence which incourages and tempts others to take intoxicants.
Just think about children....watching grownups having such a great and wonderful time while drinking...and in fact from a child's perspective the mirth and revelry is just the kind of fun that excites them.....children learn from copying adults.....if you love children you will not provide an example that teaches them that intoxicants and the effects they produce are something to pursue.....

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by pilgrim » Sun Jan 22, 2012 4:39 am

Islam, for example, views alcohol as something evil and would not tolerate touching a drop. In contrast, I believe the 5th precept has a specific purpose in mind, which is to avoid heedlessness leading to breaking the first 4 precepts. Most ppl do not view taking food cooked in alcohol as wrong even though the cooking process may have removed most but not all traces of alcohol. Similarly, a cold beer after a hot run or a half a glass of wine after dinner does not cause any noticeable heedlessness in me and as far as I can recall, has not led me to break the first 4 precepts. It also does not affect the quality of everyday mindfulness in a practical extent.

I would however, be extra vigilant of the 5th if I intend to meditate on that particular day or week, ( which admitedly is not something I do often these days). I can understand that many do not agree with this, but I feel this is a more moderate and sensible application of the 5th.

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by Bhikkhu Pesala » Sun Jan 22, 2012 9:30 am

Samvega wrote:What is interesting about this story is that it appears that prior to this incident the monks were allowed to partake in alcoholic drinks.
There is something wrong with your reasoning here. As you stated earlier, the rules were not laid down until there was an occasion to do so.

Before the precept prohbiting sexual intercourse, were the monks "allowed" to indulge in sexual intercourse? Well, there was no rule against it, but they did not indulge in it because they knew very well that it was unsuitable for a renunciate who was striving to achieve the cessation of craving. “Rules are for fools.” That is, the wise do not need rules to tell them what is unsuitable — they know instinctively how to behave.

The same was true before the rule was laid down regarding abstention from alcohol — even to the extent of how much could be held on the tip of a blade of grass. Most monks knew that it was unsuitable for one gone forth. The Group of Six were shameless monks, and it was they who requested the alcohol, not Venerable Sāgata. No doubt they were jealous of the praise lavished on him, and plotted to bring about his downfall.

Of course, heedless people do not even imagine that they are being heedless. They really have no clue about the meaning of "ātapi, sampajañño, satimā, vineyya loke abhijjhā domanassaṃ." When I teach people about the need to meditate for the entire day without a break, they think that it is not following the middle way to practise so long and hard. When I was teaching meditation at Ilford Temple, I once made the people sit for 45 minutes instead of the usual 30, and one of them complained that it was too long. He was one of the heedless Buddhists who saw no harm in drinking intoxicants. One hour is a long time for a beginner, but an experienced meditator should regard that as just an average session. If anyone is really intent on gaining deep insight or realising nibbāna, they should be prepared to strive much harder than that.

To give an analogy: if any lay person just wants to keep fit, an hour a day of jogging or working out in the gym or swimming pool is adequate for good health. If one has aspirations to run a marathon inside 4 or 5 hours, then jogging for an hour a day won't be sufficient. If one wants to win a marathon then one will need to run over 20 miles a day for months or years.
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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by Ben » Sun Jan 22, 2012 9:41 am

Well said, Bhante!
“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.”
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Learn this from the waters:
in mountain clefts and chasms,
loud gush the streamlets,
but great rivers flow silently.
- Sutta Nipata 3.725

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by mirco » Sun Jan 22, 2012 11:40 am

Samvega wrote: What is interesting is how often the 5th precept seems to be missing from that otherwise exhaustive list. What does this mean? Does this mean that the Buddha perhaps attributed less importance to this precept than he did the others?
Whenever I heard a Theravada teacher say something on the fifth precept, it was something like:
Breaking this precept will open the doors for breaking the other precepts.

Maybe it is too obvious, that intoxication causes and feeds strong mental hindrances, that the Buddha did not need to stress that one.

"An important term for meditative absorption is samadhi. We often translate that as concentration, but that can suggest a certain stiffness. Perhaps unification is a better rendition, as samadhi means to bring together. Deep samadhi isn't at all stiff. It's a process of letting go of other things and coming to a unified experience." - Bhikkhu Anālayo

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Re: The 5th Precept

Post by Hickersonia » Sun Jan 22, 2012 12:21 pm

For whatever it is worth, coming from another person who used drink: I never thought of myself as heedless until I was reading Bikkhu Bodhi's "Going for Refuge" and got to the part about the Fifth Precept. I had recently finished a 24oz beer and it dawned on me that I was having a terrible time focusing - I found myself skipping words/sentences, having to reread a lot of it in order to understand. Part of my mind seemed to be acting in aversion to the act of reading ideas that demanded change.

It was at that moment when I decided I was done with it, and the benefits have been profound to me. I have come to realize that I was indeed much more receptive to committing acts that were, ultimately, violations of the first four precepts without my even realizing it. In other words, my practice of sila was entirely stalled to account of 2 of 3 beers a night.

Let's not even get started to issues of mental clarity, memory retention, or basic compassion, all of which seem to have improved.

So I caution anyone who drinks and suggest that we all examine our motives and rationalizations for any behavior that is contrary to that which the Buddha spoke of as wholesome.

*edited post because of an error I couldn't fix on my mobile device earlier today*
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