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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?

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Similar (not exactly the same) question at buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1344/…. See for additional viewpoints on this issue. :) –  Robin111 Aug 7 at 11:06

14 Answers 14

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]

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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 –  konrad01 Aug 7 at 2:11
    
That's a great anecdote! By the way, I think you might enjoy this article, titled "Mindful drinking?" elephantjournal.com/2009/03/… –  José Porcher Aug 7 at 2:17
    
P.S. See also this answer to a related question buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1344/… –  José Porcher Aug 7 at 17:06

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.

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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.

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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.

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This is an excellent and balanced thought that I will refer to in my answer. –  David Perlman Aug 19 at 17:59

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.

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

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"Intoxicated", i.e. 'affected by toxic/poison', seems to me to denote a medical state and amenable to a medical/social/scientific definition (doesn't need a specifically Buddhist definition); for example:

  • There's a legal limit to much you are allowed to drink before you drive a car: i.e. one or two standard drinks, and in some countries no alcohol at all if you're a young/new driver.

  • Similarly there are recommended maximum weekly limits above which you should fear long-term health ill-effects.

Allowing yourself one drink, sometimes (not every day), seems to me to be:

  • Relatively harmless
  • Not incompatible with the Middle Way (neither extreme austerity nor extreme self indulgence)

It may also be unnecessary; different Buddhists might suggest different limits, one of the limits sometimes suggested is "none at all".

Furthermore I read the precept as "avoid intoxicants". IMO it's not just a matter of how much you drink: it's also a matter of how much your companions drink; avoiding intoxicants may imply avoiding intoxicated people.

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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.

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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.

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The final goal of any Buddhist is to live every moment in Mindfulness.i.e. to live fully aware of every single thought & deed. That and only that stage can prevent the accumulation of defilements which will bind you to the Samsara, the cycle of rebirth. Alcohol can only cause to deteriorate one's awareness. Therefore, although it is not a Sin, it causes Delay.

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A person who is seriously doing insight meditation/mindfulness will immediately drop the addiction of drinking alcohol. The value of the Buddhist principles like not drinking alcohol, not using intoxicants exc.. can be easily understood by a person who starts to understand the reality through insight meditation/mindfulness and it will no longer be just faith and trust to the conceptual teaching. That is why Buddhism is wonderful and life-changing religion, it's practical and leads people to understand the reality theirselves through direct experience.

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You are enquiring about the thing that is going to satisfy your desire.Everyone can live without alcohol.Buddha says"Desire is the root cause of misery".so the answer is simply no.

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No drinking alcohol at all.

If I am given two glass of water; one with poison and one without, I will avoid drinking of both. In other words, I will not take that action. Similarly, If I am in doubt about certain action might or might not break a precept, I will avoid doing that action. In the end, I gain nothing from it.

In general; As seen in Karaṇīyamettā Sutta, (Karaṇīyam, "(This is what) should be done).")

Do not do the slightest thing that the wise would later censure

@Suminda Sirinath Salpitiko also pointed out that

"As for the use in some buddhist traditions Second Buddhist council since some monks started drinking beverages which were in the process of fermenting. This has been rejected by the Theravada branch of monks in the 2nd council though the other sect also did have their Council. So not drinking at all is the best interpretation."

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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?

Metta

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