Dharma Drinks

Marcus was nice enough to let me know that he mentioned me in a post about drinking and the Precepts in Buddhist practice where he quoted a past post of mine. Which is fine. It is a well written post and, as with all posts of merit, it made me think. I would recommend everyone check it out. Here is the quote about me…

Just two weeks ago, in an otherwise excellent blog, a zen practitioner wrote, beneath a photo of two people at a bar, that “sometimes ‘skillful means’ requires oyster shooters and grotesque amounts of wheat beer”. Maybe. But this sounds less like ‘skillful means’ than ‘a skillful excuse’ to me. I prefer the advice of Master Thich Naht Hahn: “To persuade one person to refrain from drinking is to make the world safer for us all.”

First off, thank you for the complement. “Excellent” is a descriptor I rarely get to hear. But my post was mostly on compassion and positive teaching and very little on beer or drinking so I take some exception on the “otherwise” part of your comment.
Actually, the comment about drinking was simply meant to express the need to expand our understanding of teaching beyond temples, zendos, monasteries and meditation halls. We need to approach all aspects of our lives through a lens of compassion. That even includes drinking and celebrating (which are occurrences in any householder’s life) and which are, frankly, aspects of the lives of many Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike so why not apply the same lessons of the Dharma to those situations (Hell, seems like they would be right at home there). I still go to a happy hour every once in a while and sometimes even meet up with some Buddhists and talk Dharma. It is non-traditional but hardly bad. But this does punctuate some points recently made by some other bloggers – That much of our practice is up to our own interpretation and insight rather on what others insist as the proper or “real” way of practicing. The 5th Precept is a great example.

While some approach the precepts from the view of prohibitions I prefer the following view:

The Precepts
The precepts are a condensed form of Buddhist ethical practice. They are often compared with the ten commandments of Christianity, however, the precepts are different in two respects: First, they are to be taken as recommendations, not commandments. This means the individual is encouraged to use his/her own intelligence to apply these rules in the best possible way. Second, it is the spirit of the precepts -not the text- that counts, hence, the guidelines for ethical conduct must be seen in the larger context of the Eightfold Path.

The first five precepts are mandatory for every Buddhist, although the fifth precept is often not observed, because it bans the consumption of alcohol. Precepts no. six to ten are laid out for those in preparation for monastic life and for devoted lay people unattached to families….

The above phrasing of the precepts is very concise and leaves much open to interpretation. One might ask, for example, what exactly constitutes false speech, what are untimely meals, what constitutes sexual misconduct, or whether a glass of wine causes heedlessness (from the 5th precept to not take intoxicating drinks and drugs causing heedlessness.).

I prefer Buddha’s conversations with householders as opposed to the ones to monks. These conversations revolved around the need to be moderate and careful in the indulgences of worldly life. If you need to drink, at least drink to the benefit of all sentient beings (OK, I made that one up but it makes a great toast) and keep your wits about you. If you decide to make the choice to not drink as a part of your practice then great, but remember that your choices are not meant for everyone. There is a fine line that we walk between the reading and interpreting the Dharma and fundamentalism. The moment you say that someone is not a “real” Buddhist for some reason – you start straddling that line
Much of what the Buddha taught to the Householder revolved around happiness in this present life:

There are four things that lead to the welfare and happiness of a family man in this very life. What four? The accomplishment of persistent effort, the accomplishment of protection, good friendship and balanced living…and what is balanced living? A family man knows his income and expenditures and leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, so that his income exceeds his expenditures rather than the reverse…by so much the scale has dipped down by so much it has tilted up, so the family man knows a balanced life.

The wealth thus amassed has four sources of dissipation: womanizing, drunkenness, gambling and evil friendship. Just as in the case of a tank with four inlets and outlets, if one should close the inlets and open the outlets, and there would not be adequate rainfall, a decrease rather than an increase of the water could be expected in the tank so that these four things bring about an increase…

For me this reads less of prohibition and more along the lines of balancing out one’s life. The sources of dissipation are negatives when brought to a specific extreme. The analogy of rainfall and the tank infers (to me at least) that there is a definite balance to be struck with the vices listed. “Womanizing” doesn’t preclude sex and neither does “drunkenness” preclude anyone from drinking. Instead it serves as a lesson in the balancing of extremes. A warning to keep things moderate. While these dissapations are hardly positive (they are framed as something that dissapates happiness, after all) in nature they are only viewed as a negative when they are abused or harm others.

So the point from my original post…

So what happens after we spend all that time gaining knowledge and staring at a wall? Someone comes to learn from us and what do we do? We grab all that knowledge and force it upon the person. We toss quotes and terms and postures and chants. That is not teaching. That is throwing information and hoping that some will get lucky and stick. A good teacher needs to approach a student and determine his/her ability, intent and drive. Then from that assessment we teach to the individual and not at him. That is compassionate teaching and that is Zen.

With those thoughts in mind try to focus how you can practice from day to day without implicitly stating that another teaching is incorrect or unbalanced…and that sometimes “skillful means” requires oyster shooters and grotesque amounts of wheat beer.

If you drink, ensure that you do no harm to others or to yourself when you drink. It is as simple as that. If you wish to take the precepts of a monk and renunciate all worldly pleasures and attachements, then by all means take those on yourself. For me, I am a householder and I try to keep the balance.


11 thoughts on “Dharma Drinks

  1. Hi,

    Can I start off by thanking you?

    There is always the danger that a conversation like this can soon become a horrible "you said… I said…" nasty arguement. I'm very glad that in out blogs and comments we have managed to avoid that. Thank you.

    I also want to say right off that I agree with you. You write: "If you decide to make the choice to not drink as a part of your practice then great, but remember that your choices are not meant for everyone." I agree.

    Like you, I sometimes find myself in a bar with other Buddhists. They might have a beer or two. I don't. My practice is to not drink at all (though there have been exceptions since I took this vow, no-one is talking about perfection), their practice allows them a beer now and again. That's fine.

    The precepts are not – again you are right – a set of inflexible laws imposed upon us. They are training tools, they are aspirations, they come, fundamentally, from our inherant true nature and are the best of us. They are the living and the breathing of the Dharma and not meant as shackles!

    However, I still think that the fifth precept does, ultimately, mean – and certainly for me it means – giving up all alcoholic drinks. And it most certainly means not encouraging others to drink, not glamourising alcohol, and not celebrating the act of drinking.

    Alcohol is a terrible social evil, that lubricates some of the worst behaviour humans are capable of. And we live in a world where drinking is normal, encouraged, and celebrated. Pictures of happy drinkers throwing back "grotesque amounts", or any amounts, of beer do not reveal the common truths of drinking, the chaos and suffering alcohol helps give rise to.

    By making this point I am not trying to impose upon you either the precepts, or my interpretation of the precepts. I am simply making the case for not drinking and not encouraging others to drink. I stand my my contrast of your picture and your recourse to 'skillful means' with TNH's call "To persuade one person to refrain from drinking is to make the world safer for us all."

    I am not saying what is and what is not Buddhism, but I am aware of the Buddha's words, to both monks and laypeople:

    "Whoever destroys living beings,
    speaks false words, who in the world takes that which is not given to him, or goes too with another's wife, or takes distilled, fermented drinks, whatever man indulges thus extirpates the roots of himself even here in this very world."
    (Dhammapada: 246-247)

    And I am also aware of how one thing leads so easily into the next. Not just drinks, but the entire line of thinking. First comes a drink, then, afterwards, talk about how precepts aren't that important, how this zen master drank and that one cut a cat in half, and how that one drank and had sex with students, and that's okay because the teachings go deeper than just what you do…. etc etc etc

    It is, I'd suggest, a path that runs counter to the one that leads to liberation. Perhaps that's okay for you. You have the awareness and the skill to handle this. But for many many others – including myself – it is better to try to keep going in the one direction the whole time.

    Better, by far, to strive to follow the precepts, and – vitally – encourage others to do so.

    Surely that's real compassion?

    "One who violates the precepts
    And yet wishes to help others
    Is like a bird with broken wings
    That puts a turtle on its back and tries to fly."
    – Korean Seon Master Won Hyo:

    All the very best and wishing you peace and happiness,


  2. really interesting discussion here, and one I often have in my head. I think it really comes down to personal choice and where you are in your practice. For me, it seems to be more about how alcohol(/drugs) affects my energy levels, than about it causing me to do/say things I regret. When I wake up the morning after having had as little as one beer (yeah, I'm a lightweight), it's quite a bit harder for me to get into the nice clear, happy spots I'm used to in my sitting meditation (or in general). (in fact, it has taken me up to a week or more to get back to where I was. There's a lot to be said for mindfulness-momentum.) To me, it boils down to, what's better? An alcohol buzz, or jhanas? Kind of a no-brainer after a while.
    I've found the social aspect to be the hardest to overcome internally, but I find that if I don't make a big deal out of my not drinking, nobody else does.
    As for the reason stated above for the 5th precept (alcohol makes you do things you'll regret, i.e. break the other precepts), I find that the euphoric buzz from a few cups of tea is as likely to cause me problems as that of a drink! 🙂

  3. @ Marcus

    No problem. To be honest my first version of this post started to go down that path but reading through your post fully, I see that you are not judging people but instead providing your understanding and application of the Dharma. That I respect even if I disagree. What people don't understand sometimes is that we all "push" our Dharma on others when we explain it. So I would not expect you to do any different when you present a case for not drinking. The problem is when people cross the line and begin to judge others as not "real" Buddhists for the disagrement (A line that I think neither of us have crossed)

    Your "slippery path" arguement is expected and fully understood. It is quite easy to start disregarding all after the one. I agree and that is why the compilers of the Pali Canon put those precepts in there. Grey areas are not good for monastics but lay-people need them. For the exact reasons everyone has brought up.

    Precepts are important (but perhaps not essential) and every drip that passes my lips is accompanied by an understanding of those precepts lest I go too far into heedlessness.

    Good conversation, Marcus! I feel that we have a better understanding of each other without judgement. Cheers to you! I look forward to your future posts and comments.

    Although…could you please include a blog archive on your site? Scrolling back to find hidden gems is a trial. 🙂

    @ dizzwave

    Thanks for the comments! I specifically did not include the whole tea/coffee thing b/c I expected silly responses from some out there. But the point is well taken – I am far more attached to caffiene than to alcohol and likely to do things I regret if I have too much (or not enough). Thus my application of the precepts to be about moderation rather than prohibition.

    Personally, my jhanas are not impeded by my occassional drink…other things, however, do require my attention more. More on that in future posts.


  4. Reb Anderson, in his book on the precepts (Sitting Upright), writes a lot about the issue of intoxication and disatisfaction with the the fifth precept. He goes so far as to point out a time he was driving somewhere in Minnesota (my home state) and loving the fall leaves, which are always so colorful in late September and October here. He said at some point, he started thinking "if only it was a little warmer outside." And this tiny complaint grew, and sort of put a tint on the actual situation. In other words, it separated him from experiencing life as it is.

    To me, when drinking or any activity rises to the level of intoxication, then you've tipped out of balance. At the same time, I have met former alcoholics who are intoxicated with their sobriety and preach incessently at those of us who choose to have a drink with our friends. After studying Reb's book twice with my sangha, and talking to many others about the fifth precept, I really think viewing it as a prohibitive about alcohol and drugs is way too narrow.

    Let's face it, a person can eliminate all alcohol and illegal drug use, but then be on tons of psychological medications that are, when you get down to it, drugs. It's a little silly to argue that one set of drugs are "bad" and another set are "good." Some pharaceuticals are just as damaging if not moreso than alcohol, even if they contain the problem they are designed to contain. And beyond this, as I said before we can get intoxicated by nearly anything. How many times in the teachings are there stories about monks who get "zen sickness" – get stuck on emptiness and lose touch with the relative, everyday world.

    I find working with intoxication to be a much wider field of practice for my life than worrying about every drink or non-drink I take in my life.

    What's interesing is that since I did jukai last year, the amount of drinking in my life has just decreased mostly on its own. I drink less, but also think about it less. It's no big deal.

    Maybe that's a result of several years of practice, and maybe it's just that I hit the point where focusing on it (which I used to do a lot more) just hit a wall for me, and it was time to let that go.


  5. @ Nathan,

    Sometimes it just falls together like that. I quit smoking after 10 years when my wife got pregnant. It just happened, the time and circumstances were right and, while not an easy task, it was one that I was willing to follow through with.

    I will have to check out Reb's book. It sounds like we are of a similar mind.

    Ha! "Zen Sickness", I need to remember that.


  6. @ Marcus

    I wasn't planning on commenting again but something you wrote in your comment struck a chord with me…

    "Alcohol is a terrible social evil, that lubricates some of the worst behavior humans are capable of. And we live in a world where drinking is normal, encouraged, and celebrated. Pictures of happy drinkers throwing back "grotesque amounts", or any amounts, of beer do not reveal the common truths of drinking, the chaos and suffering alcohol helps give rise to."

    You allude to "social evils" and I agree that those exist but in our (Western) culture, but I don't believe that booze is the cornerstone of our problem – Is ridding the “lubricant” the best focus of our practice? Or do we need to go deeper and look at how our culture perceives the concept of excesses. Quantity is always the issue for western minds and our self-worth is determined by "how much" and "more" rather than the quality of our practice and person. This is the “lubricant” of many evils in our society and this world. Booze may be the bullet but lack of moderation is the gun. *Ugh! What a STUPID analogy but I don’t have time for better*. So, while I can grant that getting rid of the bullet may help but it won’t solve the problem overall.
    We need to look past the written word and search for its spirit, to its actual root.

    We may prohibit drinking (in the letter) but that overindulgent attitude is still there – still waiting, dormant, for the next "thing" to grab onto.

    Again, my two cents (I think I’ve thrown in like 1.50 by now). And, of course, this is not a statement against those that don’t drink or anything like that. I am just tossing out a few more ideas into the mix.

    I think that largely my Christian upbringing taught me not to trust the written word of Holy Books, or at least to not take them too seriously (this was not the desired result of my Christian upbringing but it is what I got out of it). Sometimes we cling too much to the words and translation rather than what actually feels right for us. Of course, what feels right for one doesn’t necessarily feel right for another person.

  7. “There is little to choose between a man lying in the ditch heavily drunk on rice liquor, and a man heavily drunk on his own ‘enlightenment’!”
    ~Oda Sessō (小田 雪窓, 1901—1966)

  8. "We may prohibit drinking (in the letter) but that overindulgent attitude is still there – still waiting, dormant, for the next "thing" to grab onto." This is pretty close to the focus of intoxication I was speaking about. I keep thinking about some of the "dry drunks" I met spending time in Al-Anon meetings as a young adult. (Al-anon is the meeting groups for adults who have alcoholics in their family – we met in the same place as the AA groups, so during breaks people mingled.) It's interesting how, for some people, removing the drinking didn't really address their issues. They were still angry, cruel, destructive, overindulgent, addicted (lots of chain smokers, but beyond that, the addicted habit pattern wasn't shifted by quitting alcohol), etc. Hence the name "dry drunk," which is an AA term.

    As far as I'm concerned, if you really practice with intoxication as a focus – and I have for at least a few years now – really digging into that as it flows in and out of your life – then issues like alcohol consumption become lose their power. Either you quit drinking all together, or you find the balance point for where you are at in your life. But regardless, you aren't fixated either on defending your drinking or refraining from drinking.

    I also say this as someone who has, at least twice in my adult life, stopped drinking all together for six months or more to watch myself, and to change directions in my life. So, I've experienced the prohibition side, and it was of benefit in terms of learning about my mind – seeing the subtle cravings that come up if I've had a really long day, or if I'm with friends who are drinking.

    To me, when the Buddha told the sangha to be "Lamps unto yourselves," he was telling them, and now us, to experiment and learn the truth through our lives. So, that's how I live as much as possible.


  9. @Jack – great post, if I hadn't said so before.

    @Marcus – I hope you'll continue to come to progressive, my posts there aren't at all racy like on my personal site. Best of Luck!

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