Precepts – Not Abusing Intoxicants (#5)


In preparing for this talk, I read The Mind of Clover by Robert Aitken, and also, Being Upright—Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts, by Reb Anderson. Reb is a senior teacher and former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and has practiced there for over 45 years. I also went online and listened to a couple of talks on the precepts and found three different written versions of the 5th precept, which I will read now because it helps us understand the scope of the 5th precept. The first wording is the one most of us think of, simply, Not Giving or Taking Drugs. The second version says Not to Intoxicate With Substances or Doctrines, But to Promote Clarity and Awareness. A sub paragraph reads, “to share spirits moderately with friends may be alright, but intoxication as a way to relax or cope whether it be with substances or doctrines creates confusion and unhappiness.” There is quite a difference between these two versions. The first one is so narrow, and I wonder if it is older or meant for men and women in a monastic setting. The second version allows for moderate use of spirits and introduces doctrines as something to be careful with and also mentions the importance of seeking clarity and awareness. The third version is Norman Fischer’s poetic wording “A follower of the Way Polishes Clarity, Dispelling Delusion, Does Not Intoxicate Self or Others.”

When I think about the word intoxicate, I naturally think of drugs and alcohol, so it was interesting to look the word up in the dictionary and see that it is wider than drugs and alcohol. The root of the word toxic is from the Latin which means “poison”. Intoxicate means to take in poison. A secondary definition means exhilarating. So one can intoxicate with drugs and alcohol, ideas or beliefs, accomplishments, or a person—be that a loved one or a leader of some kind.

I remember when our daughter graduated from college, one of the speakers gave a very good talk. This was in June, 2002, shortly after the September 11th attacks in New York. She was talking about problems in the world and reminded us that a lot of trouble in the world is caused by people who are convinced that they are right and others are wrong. In the extreme, this is intoxication with doctrines and beliefs, and is at the root of many of the problems in the world and many of the conflicts between individuals.

The most surprising thing I came across in my reading for this talk, was in Reb’s book, in the chapter on the 5th precept. He grew up in Minnesota, and left in his early 20’s to go to the San Francisco Zen Center. He tells a story of visiting for the first time in many years, during the fall. For a week, the weather was cold and clear, and the bright blue skies, the sun, the white clouds and the brilliantly colored leaves were just beautiful and he was really happy and satisfied. Then, there was a rainy day, and it was still beautiful, but he noticed thoughts like….”it would be better if the sun was shining.” A little thing really, but he called that “the impulse to bring something in.” to make things different, as opposed to being so much at peace that there is no desire to change anything. At First, I was surprised that he sees this in the context of the 5th precept—I am not sure where I would put it, but it sure is a common experience. I suppose that has to do with thinking that the 5th precept is all about drugs and alcohol. When I read this for the first time I thought “Wow, I do this all the time.” And I imagine many of us do this a lot—I know I still do. It struck me when I read this story again recently. I do think that being dissatisfied with how things are and wanting them to be different contributes to the use food, television, the internet, shopping as well as drugs and alcohol, in ways that can be destructive and become addictive.

It does seem to me that much of the impulse to use things destructively or addictively is driven by discomfort of some kind—loneliness, fear, anxiety, boredom, etc. etc. How can our practice help us when these conditions arise? Here, we look at the other parts of the 5th precept—the parts about promoting clarity and awareness, dispelling delusion. Reb talks about the Buddha Dharma having 3 aspects—generosity practice, precept practice, and meditation practice. It is the integration of these practices that Reb calls “being upright.” This practice can happen on the cushion, at work, in relationship, or any part of day to day life. Practice can help us develop the ability to open to whatever your situation is—awareness of the body, thoughts and emotions, with patience, curiosity, kindness toward self and others, is a way to explore a situation without having to change it. It’s a container for any discomfort and helps us avoid reacting to discomfort in a way that increases suffering.

I think Pema Chodren is talking about the same thing in an article on facing difficulties when she says “The Buddhist teachings are fabulous at simply working with what is happening as your path of awakening, rather than treating your life experience as some kind of deviation from what is supposed to be happening. The more difficulties you have, in fact, the greater the opportunity there is to let them transform you. The difficult things provoke all your irritations and bring your habitual patterns to the surface. And that becomes the moment of truth. You have the choice to launch into the lousy habitual patterns you already have or to stay with the rawness and discomfort of the situation and let it transform you on the spot.”

Here, again is where meditation practice is so helpful, not only to assist us in noticing habitual patterns as they emerge and play out, but to have some ability to observe without necessarily speaking, or acting or having to change anything can be a great help in seeing what is under our usual responses. This is polishing clarity, promoting awareness. Reb talks about the Bodhisattva precepts are not a side issue, they are at the core of the process of awakening. On the same subject, Suzuki Roshi adds: “receiving the precepts is a way to help us understand what it means to just sit.” All of these teachers emphasize the strong connection between meditation practice and precept practice, especially when there is discomfort.

Some of you know this already, I am an alcoholic and I quit using alcohol and drugs a long time ago, before I started meditation practice. I still remember very clearly how worried I was during my last year of drinking. It’s a terrible feeling to wake up in the morning and not remember what happened the night before—and there were a lot of other worries besides that. Once I was able to stay away from alcohol for awhile, there was tremendous relief about not having to worry about what did happen or what might happen, but I did not realize how much drinking was a part of my social life and it was quite a adjustment to try to socialize without alcohol. I often felt awkward and uncomfortable, I didn’t know what to say and felt I often didn’t fit in and sometimes now, I still feel that way, but meditation practice has helped me a lot to be more tolerant and accepting of that, to just accept it when its happening without adding self judgments and criticism. And, it helps in other situations where I am uncomfortable to identify the discomfort and have some peace about it, even if the discomfort stays. An example of this is in my work as a psychotherapist. If I hit a spot where I am confused and don’t understand what is happening in the room, its much better to be accepting of that situation and be patient with it and explore it, rather than tell myself “ I’ve got to get this figured out now.”

The last thing I want to mention is using prescribed medication for conditions like serious depression, anxiety or chronic pain. I didn’t find anything about that in my reading, although I know some things have been written. So, this will be just my personal opinion. I know that these medications can be misused. They can be taken too often, used at the very first sign of discomfort, they can be relied on too heavily or taken with the attitude that a pill is all that is needed. However, I think if you take the Buddhist concepts of wisdom, compassion, and the notion of a middle road, then prescribed medication can be used in accordance with the 5th precept. If someone works with their physician and uses the medication as prescribed—to find the right medicine and dose and make changes as needed, then the wisdom part is covered. If medications are used to address significant suffering and other resources such as exercise, physical therapy, lifestyle changes are included in treating a condition, then medications are being used both wisely and compassionately. Lastly, the middle road avoids extremes—rather than being rigid and saying never use medications or always use them, the middle way allows each person to make a choice about addressing health issues based on their situation and beliefs.

That covers everything I wanted to say about the 5th precept.

About Seishu John Wiley

John is a Lay Entrusted teacher of Red Cedar Zen Community.
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