Saturday, 19 June 2010
THE FIFTH PRECEPT
This was the final talk in a series on the Five Precepts given to the Tuesday night 'drop-in' group at the Bristol Buddhist Centre.
When we considered the previous four precepts, they seem fairly obvious on the face of it but as we look a little closer we began to see subtleties and grey areas that were not so apparent. So it is with the Fifth Precept, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants’.
Firstly, let’s look at the obvious. This is a clear reference to alcohol and drugs. Does this mean a total abstention or do Buddhists tend to allow themselves a little license, imbibing in moderation? As usual, it depends on which tradition you follow and also your personal choice. Where do you draw the line in the light of your own experience?
Theravadan Buddhists tend to interpret this as total abstention from alcohol and recreational drugs. In Asia they usually call for bars to be closed on Buddhist festival days. Mahayana practitioners are more ambiguous although they consider that selling alcohol is not a ‘right livelihood’ occupation as described in the Noble Eightfold Path.
Zen teacher Reb Anderson says, "In the broadest sense, anything we ingest, inhale, or inject into our system … becomes an intoxicant”. He describes the act of intoxication as bringing something into yourself to manipulate your experience. This "something" can be "coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, sex, sleep, power, fame, and even food."
This doesn't mean we should prohibit ourselves from using coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, etc. It simply means to take care not to use them as intoxicants; as ways of soothing and distracting ourselves from the direct and intimate experience of life. In other words, whatever we use to distract ourselves into heedlessness is an intoxicant.
In the course of our lives most of us develop mental and physical habits that enable nice, cozy states of heedlessness. The challenge of working with the Fifth Precept is to identify what those are and deal with them. From this perspective, the question of whether to abstain from alcohol entirely or drink in moderation is an individual one that requires some spiritual maturity and self-honesty.
Of course we all understand the dangers present in the over consumption of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. What is perhaps surprising is that the Buddha was equally aware.
The Buddha described addiction to intoxicants as one of the six causes of ruin. It brings about six main disadvantages: loss of wealth, quarrels and strife, a poor state of health (liability to diseases), a source of disgrace, shameless and indecent behavior, weakened intelligence and mental faculties. I think he nailed it pretty well.
Those of us who have an interest in meditation and Buddhism would tend to either abstain from drugs and alcohol or be moderate in our consumption. But have we considered Reb Anderson’s broader view. How about his view of “..coffee, tea, chewing gum, etc.” My experience of Buddhism is that if floats on a lake of tea and most of us would be reluctant to regard it as an ‘intoxicant’.
I guess it is like everything else – it comes down to a question of degree. Coffee is a stimulant. Some people get a caffeine ‘buzz’ when they drink coffee and they feel it necessary to exclude or reduce consumption to the minimum. For others, their consumption of tea has become compulsive, mindlessly putting the kettle on every hour or so although they are in no need of refreshment or hydration.
Reb Andersen goes on to say that his intoxicant is television and we know that TV can become addictive – particularly soaps. I suppose this cannot be truly considered an intoxicant unless we reach a point where the emotions revealed and expressed in TV dramas become a substitute for the real thing. We may watch East Enders and become concerned, angry, compassionate and sad as we empathise in the characters and scenarios being portrayed on the screen but can’t do we feel the same level of engagement with real life and real people.
Heedlessness seems to be the key word when considering what constitutes an intoxicant. Anything that we consume, engage with or participate in to the point where we are heedless of the affect on our mental states, our clarity of mind and our general wellbeing is an intoxicant.
Mindfulness is the positive counterpart of this precept. Those of us who aspire to follow the teachings of the Buddha, or simply wish to develop a clearer vision of ourselves and the world that surrounds us, invest time and energy in meditation, retreats, discussion and study. We seek to become more mindful, more aware with a greater degree of clarity. The heedless use of any intoxicant whether it be alcohol, drugs, nicotine, coffee, internet sites, Twitter, salted peanuts (my personal obsession) soap operas, sex (Tiger Woods is currently being treated for sex addiction) runs counter to these aims and if ignored would render all the effort pointless.
So once again, Buddhism requires us to take responsibility for our own actions. We have to recognise our personal intoxicants, consider whether if our use of them is heedless and then decide where we draw the line. We have to make these judgements based on our own experience. Do we abstain totally or do we have sufficient self awareness to ensure moderation?
I use three intoxicants. The first two are good whisky and good coffee. There hasn’t been a bottle of whisky in my house since Christmas, but when it is there, I take a glass now and then, usually on a Friday night to mark the end of the week - and with a generous splash of water.
Coffee is a once-a-day habit. I have an espresso maker and my one extravagance is good quality coffee. However, I think that I am probably more addicted to the whole process of making my 11 o’clock ‘cortado’ (a Spanish version of an Italian macchiato) as I am to the actual coffee. It is time away from whatever I am working on plus the familiar noise as I steam the milk and the smell of the coffee rising as it dribbles into the cup, I enjoy as much as anything.
Is my consumption of whisky and coffee heedless? It certainly was in the past, but no longer.
The third intoxicant is food. During times of stress and anxiety, I ‘comfort eat’ and I definitely do so to ‘manipulate my experience’. I am still working on this one.