Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Fifth Precept one-month challenge

I recently had a short, friendly discussion with a Twitter friend regarding the Fifth Precept, rendered on Access to Insight as follows:

Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.

I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
Now, as my friend pointed out, this precept is understood differently in different traditions. So I wish to write here merely from my own perspective, based on the tradition that speaks most effectively to my own disposition. I do not wish to parse Pali, or try to argue in favor of one understanding over another. Let me be clear that I do not advocate prohibition, and I do not regard the precept as a moral absolute. I offer the following in humility and without judgement, in hopes that it is helpful.

As I understand them, the five precepts are training rules for our own benefit. They are not commandments. They are not laws. They are not factors by which to measure others. Their sole purpose is for oneself, to aid in creating the kamma (volitional action) in this present moment that is most conducive to awakening. That is all. If we judge others by the five precepts, we miss the point, in my opinion.

I think it's worth noting the other precepts, so that the Fifth Precept can be regarded in context. The other four (also from Access to Insight) are:

I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying living creatures.

I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given.

I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct.

I undertake the precept to refrain from incorrect speech.
The entire entry at the Access to Insight link noted above is worth reading. One thing that I notice about each of these precepts is that they each involve giving something up. This makes sense to me, since this is the path of liberation through not clinging. It is a path of letting go.

In that context, it makes sense to me to regard each one of these precepts as a challenge to be present in this very moment and mindful that I refrain from something. That I do not kill. That I do not steal. That I do not engage in sexual misconduct. That I do not lie. And with regard to alcohol? That I do not drink it. These are the training rules as I understand them. Naturally we may find that we do not always keep them perfectly. That is part of practice.

I am aware of the position, widely held, that when it comes to alcohol, the precept is not broken unless intoxication occurs. I believe there are some potential pitfalls in adopting that approach to training. One of them is that it raises the question, is "mindful drinking" a training rule that creates the kamma of letting go? Does "mindful drinking" support the path of liberation through not clinging?

Another pitfall I see is that this same approach doesn't seem to work with the other training rules. Mindful killing? Mindful stealing?

And, of course, it can be difficult to know when intoxication will occur with alcohol. It varies by person, by diet, by environmental factors, and from day to day for each individual. So the Fifth Precept becomes vague and difficult to follow if we take it to mean that we train by refraining from intoxication when we drink alcohol.

But separate from any kind of Buddhism or any interpretation of the precepts, I also notice that alcohol has a bizarre place in our society. It is everywhere. There is massive social pressure to drink alcohol. Toasts at weddings. Wine with dinner. Drinks with friends. Almost anybody with any social life will be offered alcohol, even pressured to have alcohol. It is deeply engrained in our society.

People have surprisingly strong opinions about alcohol consumption.

I also notice that alcohol is a contributing factor in many social ills. We can all understand the concept of dependent origination and nutriment, where certain factors must be present for other things to occur. When this is, that is. When this is not, that is not. Here are some of the things that would be removed from our lives if we stopped drinking: Fetal alcohol syndrome. Alcoholism. Drunking driving deaths.

And there are many studies that show a connection between alcohol use and violence. While it may be true that alcohol does not cause violence, we all know from personal experience that alcohol can lead people to loosen up and behave in ways they wouldn't normally behave. Alcohol can be a contributing factor in violence. Alcohol has an effect on the brain and the body. A meditator can be keenly aware of this.

When we drink, even if we drink mindfully, we become participants in a pattern of social behavior that has demonstrable ill effects. When we drink socially, we feed this social habit, making it more likely that others around us also will drink. When we purchase alcohol, we support an industry that advertises the affirmative message, "drink responsibly," which is just another way of telling people to "drink." When we drink around our children, we teach them to drink. There is a ripple effect whenever we pick up a drink.

So I propose the following merely as an experiment, as an exercise in mindfulness: Give up drinking for one month, and see what happens. How about July?

For anyone who benefits from mindfulness training, this is an ideal time to take up this challenge, with summer holiday weekends at hand. Here are some things that one could be mindful of: What sensation arises in the body when I have the desire to drink? What sensation arises when I refrain from drinking? What emotion do I experience when I tell others that I do not wish to drink right now? What emotion do others seem to experience, and how do I react to that?

During the course of a month, there may be many opportunities to see what happens in one's own life when one decides not to drink. What pressures does one face? What sacrifices must one make? Are there any surprises? Some of these experiences might seem unpleasant in the moment when they are occurring. And this can be part of practice, too.

At the end of one month, take stock and see if there is anything you have learned about yourself or others.

Some might regard this as a pointless exercise, particularly if one is firmly established in the belief that one's own moderate drinking has no ill effects on oneself or others. One might think, what's the harm? Why worry about it? Why bother? For a person serious about mindfulness, however, such a reaction might awaken a curiosity about what would actually occur for oneself during the month in question.

If anybody actually tries this challenge, I would be interested in hearing about it. Feel free to use the Twitter hashtag #5precepts. I am proposing this solely for the purpose of practice. If you choose to try it, may you be successful for the benefit of all beings.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. I do hope people take up the challenge.

    One thing to consider as well is the order in which the precepts are given. Each of them very specific, yet, this one placed last. At first it may be seem that this is an indication that we can look lightly at this one. Upon further investigation the opposite becomes clear:

    "I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness."

    I can only speak for myself, but from what I remember of drinking, even a single beer can put one's ability to practice mindfulness in question. When we voluntarily consume something that lessens our abilities, our chances of keeping the first four precepts lessens as well.

    ...joining palms