Is moderate drinking acceptable in Buddhism?

  • I have heard a certain interpretation of the 5th precept and I'm curious about it, the person said that for lay people the 5th precept means "not drinking alcohol to the point you get intoxicated or lose control of your actions", therefore it would be ok to drink a glass of wine having dinner for instance. On the other hand, once you start drinking it becomes very hard to know your limits, most of the people don't have this ability.

    Is there a limit or something regarding drinking alcohol according to Buddhism?

    Similar (not exactly the same) question at See for additional viewpoints on this issue. :)

    Drinking alcohol, (or more precisely the ethanol,) has been linked to an increased risk of mouth, throat, larynx and tongue cancer. 4.5% to be precise. Thinking about limits that may be applied by Buddhism is one thing, but please do think of your health!

  • The application of the fifth precept is a matter of controversy even within specific traditions, so there is no simple yes/no answer to this question.

    The Tibetan tradition famously incorporates alcohol in the bi-monthly ceremony known as tsog (see Lama Thubten Yeshe's "What is Tsog?"). Lama Palden Drolma's opinion on the matter seems to summarize well the thinking in the Tibetan tradition:

    To refrain from taking intoxicants is one of the primary vows that
    laypeople may take and that monastics have to uphold. One of the main
    reasons for not becoming intoxicated is that this can—and often does—
    lead to breaking other vows or straying from one’s integrity. Another
    reason for not becoming intoxicated is that for many, intoxication
    obscures the clarity of mind— the clarity to understand and rest in
    one’s true nature moment to moment. If one’s mind has stabilized in
    true nature to the extent that its clarity is never obscured, then it
    makes no difference whether one takes in substances or not.

    From the point of view of the dharma training I was given, it is
    permissible, even having taken this vow, as a layperson, to enjoy a
    glass of wine occasionally. A distinction is made between
    intoxication, where one’s clarity is compromised, and simply enjoying
    partaking of a substance. I also do not feel that occasionally
    utilizing a substance for transformational work is an obstacle to
    awakening. It may be helpful—but honest discernment and consultation
    is needed if one engages in this way, so that one does not fool
    oneself and go astray. [Source]

    Good point, there is this old joke about a monk that is forced to decide by a lady, he has to pick one: Drink a bottle of wine, sleep with her or kill her goat for dinner, he decides to drink the wine because it would be the less "offensive", next day he wakes up naked with her, the bottle is empty and the goat became dinner. It is an old joke but it shows the risks of being intoxicated. I tend to agree that if you have control over what you are doing, like a glass of wine, it should be ok, but this is based only in my commom sense

    That's a great anecdote! By the way, I think you might enjoy this article, titled "Mindful drinking?"

    Indeed ^_^ I have found rakija to be a wonderful releaser of subtle egos of spiritual people

  • There are many different views on the 5th precept. I'll sum up the 3 main views that I've encountered most:

    1. Theravada

    In this article Bikkhu Bodhi explains that

    The taking of intoxicants is defined as the volition leading to the bodily act of ingesting distilled or fermented intoxicants.[10] It can be committed only by one's own person (not by command to others) and only occurs through the bodily door. For the precept to be violated four factors are required: (1) the intoxicant; (2) the intention of taking it; (3) the activity of ingesting it; and (4) the actual ingestion of the intoxicant. The motivating factor of the violation is greed coupled with delusion. No gradations of moral weight are given. In taking medicines containing alcohol or intoxicating drugs for medical reasons no breach of the precept is committed. There is also no violation in taking food containing a negligible amount of alcohol added as a flavoring.

    In short, no alcohol. The only exceptions are when the alcohol is part of medication, or if one was drinking it unknowingly.

    2. Mahayana

    Trading or selling alcohol goes against the 5th Boddhisattva precept so that is a major offence.
    Drinking alcohol still is an offence, but a minor one.

    3. Less strict views

    The less strict views on alcohol usually follow the reasoning that rules themselves do not lead to enlightenment and/or that the Buddha meant that for the 5th precept one should look at the intention of the person that is drinking. If the intent is to dull the mind or become drunk then it is an offence, otherwise it's ok.

    There are 2 less strict views I'd like to mention explicitly here because I find them interesting.

    - Mindful drinking

    In the Tibetan Shambhala tradition apparently there is something called "mindful drinking":

    once a meditator has developed basic Buddhist discipline ... the practitioner is ready to incorporate Vajrayana teachings, where the simple prohibitions outlined in the Sutras are re-evaluated. When a meditator reaches this point, which often takes a number years in the Shambhala tradition, a dangerous substance like alcohol is viewed as a potential aide for the practitioner. Within the context of strong discipline and clear intention, alcohol holds the possibility of no longer acting as a conventional escape, but instead being a tool for loosening the subtle clinging of ego.

    - Strict rule only for monks

    Some people have suggested that the "no alcohol"-rule only applies to monks, and for lay people it's more of a guideline or warning.

    These are the six dangers inherent in heedlessness caused by intoxication: loss of immediate wealth, increased quarreling, susceptibility to illness, disrepute, indecent exposure, and weakened insight.
    (source Digha Nikaya III, 182)

    This can be seen as "nothing more than a warning". Also in the story of Svagata in the Divyavadana the Buddha said:

    Monks, there are these and other transgressions involved in drinking alchol. That is why monks should not drink or distribute alcohol." (source).

    This was after the monk Svagata appeared before the Buddha intoxicated, before that all monks were allowed to drink. The author of this article suggests that via interpretations of this story and the Buddha's teachings, later this monastic rule was changed into the 5th precept for lay people.

  • Drinking alcohol (whisky) and eating meat was a part of Tantric empowerments that I was lucky to attend.

    Teachings on emptiness tell us that on the absolute level all things have no intrinsic existence, everything is perfect and pure as it is and has nothing to do with good or bad. Perceiving alcohol as poison is definitely useful but ultimately we should know that it is only a concept which one day we will have to abandon.

    It is of course wrong to use the above explanations to justify our excessive drinking. Such teachings are really advanced and for most of us it is better to still perceive alcohol as something to be careful with.

    I practise Vajrayana and my masters (who drink some alcohol themselves) taught me that one should not lose face or behave in a bad style because of alcohol and that life is too short for a hangover. If you can have a bottle of whisky and at the same time behave nicely and in the morning you still can do a meditation session before work, do it. I know myself well enough and I stop drinking after a pint. In that way I still behave in a civilized way and my non-Buddhist friends don't get offended because I refused a drink from them.

  • I wanted to include an addendum on to this part of kukkuripa's answer:

    A distinction is made between intoxication, where one’s clarity is compromised, and simply enjoying partaking of a substance.

    Alcohol is banned in Olympic shooting events as a performance enhancing drug. Alcohol in small doses helps the shooter remain calm under pressure, focused and even slows their heart rate.

    Obviously, if competitors consume too much alcohol their balance, steadiness, reaction time and motor skills become impaired.

    It all comes down to dosage. Being sober or drunk is not a binary relationship. There are degrees and a continuum to everything.

    *Being sober or drunk is not a binary relationship*. Nice.

  • There are many interpretations of that precept. It makes sense to try to understand the spirit of the precepts, rather then the letter only. The precepts are not the arbitrary will of Buddha.

    They have a function. They protect us from bad karma.

    The point is to not get intoxicated. Intoxication leads to heedlessness. When we're intoxicated, we do not think clearly and our moral judgments are hampered.

    What's the harm of sipping a little sparkling wine when celebrating? I don't see any harm if it doesn't result in intoxication.

    However, I avoid even that celebratory sip. The reason is that I know myself and I noticed that if I drink even just a little, it creates a desire in me to want to drink more. I don't know why I am that way.

    Therefore I avoid it altogether. But I acknowledge there are different, more disciplined people, in whom the desire to get drunk doesn't arise. For those people I would say, there's no need to obsess over that precept. When I reflect upon it, I think the precepts were made exactly for weak people like me who are unable to control themselves and be disciplined. I find that for such people, it is best to follow the precepts á la lettre. Not because they're commandments, but because I see they are protecting me with motherly kindness, protecting me from myself, from my blind passions.

    This is an excellent and balanced thought that I will refer to in my answer.

    You may think that the point is to not get intoxicated, but the Buddha was quite clear: a practitioner of his teachings does not drink alcohol.

  • The problem with most answers to this question is that they render Buddhism worthless to many people.

    None of us here know exactly what the Fifth Precept means. It is quite possible that what it means is to abstain completely from drug and alcohol usage; but it is equally possible that there is something else behind it. In Christianity, literal interpretations of the Bible have lead to hatred, violence, and stupidity. The examples abound.

    Imagine someone who is suffering from some sort of chemical dependency - call it psychological. Hypothetically; this person only knows how to feel confident meeting new people when they are drinking. For this person, believing that they can only practice Buddhism by abstaining completely from intoxicants, will be completely dis-empowering.

    Using the 'realms of existence' metaphor - we could say that this person is in a certain level of 'Hell'. Since one can't attain liberation while in 'Hell', they should do nothing, right?

    But of course this is not the case. Inaction is mostly less useful than incomplete action.

    Wittgenstein, a German philosopher once famously said,

    My propositions serve as elucidations in the following sense: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them - as steps - to climb up beyond them.

    (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

    When one is undertaking Buddhist practices, one is already doing something that will further their growth. If one reaches the point where what is between him and the next level of awakening is to discontinue intoxicants, he will know that before he could learn it from a precept.

    But if one must first eradicate all desires and sensory pleasures before undertaking the journey, the journey will be a short one indeed - the journey before the journey will be the journey.

    Buddhism is both dogmatic and non-dogmatic. It's dogmatic nature can give rise to deep spiritual discipline when practiced with rigor at a very high level - but as with any dogma - it can strangle practitioners - confuse them into clinging to their own understanding of an interpretation rather than opening themselves to a larger context.

    It is easy to see the non-dogmatic aspects in Buddhism - as stated here by Venerable Sumedho:

    Suttas are not meant to be 'sacred scriptures' that tell us what to believe. One should read them, listen to them, think about them, contemplate them, and investigate the present reality, the present experience with them. Then, and only then, can one insightfully know the truth beyond words.

    And two other quotes that seem to fit the context that I am creating:

    When I do not know who I am, I serve you.
    When I know who I am, I am you

    Indian Proverb

    ... and perhaps my all time favorite

    The genuine path of unminding is not a religion for the immature.


    Note: I am aware that this response jumps around. I was looking to capture the space of several points rather than promoting a well-founded point of view.

    Interestingly when looking up another quote for my response, I found the following quote:

    The true meaning of the precepts is not just that one should refrain from drinking alcohol, but also from getting drunk on nirvana.

    attributed to Bassui

    And another cool one from The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. ( quoting Jesus I've learned)

    It's not what enters men's mouth that is evil," said the alchemist. "It's what comes out of their mouths that is".

    This is a extremely interesting answer - especially this statement - 'The problem with most answers to this question is that they render Buddhism worthless to many people'. Thank you. It's a shame it's a late answer to a popular question so will be marooned at the bottom of this question. It's a limitation of the system - but hopefully you will pick up a few more positive votes if people scroll down this far

    I think I remember somewhere saying that if what you can practice is four precepts, then try to practice four precepts.

    @ChrisW. I like that. You could also say ... 3 and ... 2, because it would also apply. Better to practice two than one and better one than none.

    Thanks. That last quote is quoting Jesus, by the way: Matthew 15:11

    There have been many Christians in the world - whether a literal interpretation of the bible has led them to "hatred, violence, and stupidity" (which you, of course, are free of) more than people not having a literal interpretation of it, I don't know. But I do know that if you actually read the Buddha's teachings you would be in a better position to speak about them accurately.

    @Tharpa - kind of a nasty response. You have no knowledge of what I have or haven’t read. In addition you cherry picked a quote with no context in order to call me a hypocrite. You also fail to make a point apart from a personal attack. Do you have a criticism with what I said, or do you just want to sow discord?

    A very late comment, but - I think this is a very deep, beautiful answer and it resonates with my experience, particularly: "If one reaches the point where what is between him and the next level of awakening is to discontinue intoxicants, he will know that before he could learn it from a precept." This happened to me - I gave up trying to be a "Buddhist" 10 years ago and just started meditating with no goal. On my own I decided to stop drinking because I felt it was hindering me. I had actually forgotten the precepts until I looked them up today.

  • If I can just answer from the perspective of my experience practicing with the Triratna Buddhist Community. We are quite fond of reframing the 5 precepts as their positive counterparts. So the fifth precept of

    I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants that dull the mind.

    viewed positively becomes

    With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.

    We are not hugely keen on beating ourselves up about not sticking to the negative precepts. If we fail in them then pick yourself up and try it again. However we are very very keen indeed in living the positive precepts.

    I've never heard of anyone being berated for having a glass of wine. I've even been in study groups where highly committed dharma practitioners speak of occasionally having too much to drink with friends (admittedly not common but again no-one berates them - they know what they are doing and it's up to them). But I have been in many many groups and ceremonies where the ideal of clear and radiant mindfulness is spoken of again and again and again. The positive ideal is preferred and spoken about.

    No need to beat yourself for not practicing them - just practice them. If you aren't ready to practice them, don't beat yourself up, just say, "I am not ready to practice them. Myself and others will experience the natural consequences of that." And in time, you may reach the stage where you are ready to practice them. The important point is not to reframe them. Instead of calling them the Negative Precepts, just call them The Five Noble Precepts. Euphemisms are the enabler of many harmful actions.

  • Any alcohol is an intoxication of the mind. So no, you can't even drink one drop of alcohol.
    There is no reason at all to drink alcohol, unless you desire it. When you want just one drink, ask yourself: why do you want to drink the alcohol and not a glass of water? ( i'm thinking it's because you like it, you desire the effects of the alcohol)

    In Buddhism you are trying to develop Mindfulness every minute of every day. If you consume any alcohol you will impair, even slightly, your mindfulness. And this is why alcohol is unwholesome, it effects the minds ability to function rationally.

    There is plenty of science fact that shows the prefrontal cortex (rational thinking) is more and more bypassed the more intoxicated one becomes, and the amygdala( emotion response) becomes more active.

    Alcohol is completely contradictory to the practice of mindfulness, even one drop!!!
    What do you want more, freedom from suffering? or a poisonous beverage?


  • Consuming alcohol or any kind of drug for pleasure and with the intention of being intoxicated will break the 5th precept.

  • Lifelong mental rigidity and dogmatism is much more an obstacle to any Buddhist concept of liberation, than a single drop of alcohol.

    Methexis's answer seems very thoughtful and balanced to me. Methexis understands the limits of dogmatism, and also understands her/his own self well enough to choose intelligently to take on a strict abstinence from alcohol.

    On the other hand, those answers who simply state "all alcohol is bad" seem to be missing the point. One drop of alcohol does not impair your clarity of mind more than, say, working a regular job past 2 in the afternoon. For that matter, one whole beer impairs your mind a lot less than many people's average work schedule and sleep deprivation. Does it really make sense to say "ABSOLUTELY NO ALCOHOL!!!" but not even consider other things that could be far worse impairments?

    And as for the argument that any consumption of alcohol is driven by craving, I think that also completely misses the point. The whole point of the 12 links of dependent origination is that ALL ordinary actions are driven by craving. We eat food because we crave it. We eat good food instead of the barest survival essentials because we crave it. We go to our job because we crave more than what we would have as beggars. The Buddha and all his early disciples didn't work day jobs, that's for sure! They were all beggars! So are we going to say that Buddhists can't have jobs?

    There are many things that can be the object of excessive and destructive craving, but obviously the ancient Buddhist precepts don't list them all. Any Buddhist who is proud to be abstinent from everything listed by name in the old rules, while still engaging in (for example) compulsive and addictive Facebooking and video game playing, is completely missing the point of Buddhism in general, as well as the precepts themselves.

    It is true, of course, that alcohol and other intoxicating substances are unusually likely to lead to excessive indulgence and loss of clarity. For this reason, a rule of thumb that says "no intoxicating substances" is pretty good, as rules go. But anyone who is more interested in following rules to the letter, than they are in truly understanding how their own mind works and how it actually relates to experience, is not going to get very far in Buddhist practice.

    Also sparked another thought: Given a rigid observation of a Dogma, one is more likely to be dishonest with themselves about their own violations. Thus dishonesty at the level of Self - probably more detrimental than a Guinness.

    Nothing dispels the wrong view that the Buddha was against rules more than reading the Vinaya, the collection of rules for monks and nuns, of which is the Five Precepts (for householders) is a small part.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM