If memory serves, the first time I seriously considered the Fifth Precept was back in the late 1970s. I’d just finished a weekend meditation retreat at a Buddhist center with a popular teacher from Asia. During one of the forty-five-minute-long periods of zazen, I experienced an amazing flash of something—a kind of centered, detached, almost hovering state of pure awareness. It disappeared as soon as I thought about how to describe it. After the retreat, I briefly considered taking vows to become a lay student in that tradition. The precept that troubled me most was the fifth one: I take upon myself the precept of abstention from taking any intoxicating drinks [and, presumably, other drugs] that give rise to carelessness.
Back then, getting high was a central part of my “spiritual practice.” I’d give up hamburgers or sexual misconduct before I’d renounce marijuana or magic mushrooms. I was working as a newspaper reporter for the San Francisco Examiner at the time, so wine and distilled spirits were also part of my daily practice. I remember noting with relief that a couple friends of mine who had taken vows in this sangha and actually lived at the meditation center still smoked pot and took an occasional psychedelic trip. Someone told me there was a Zen translation of the precept that merely cautioned the practitioner not to “drink from the wine of delusion.” Now there was a translation I could get behind. Like so many people in my generation, my interest in Buddhism had been sparked—at least in part—by mind-expanding experiences I’d had on psychedelic drugs. In the end, I never took any vows and fell away from any serious kind of meditation practice.
Flash forward a couple decades. I was now living in Berkeley, freshly divorced. I’d just started attending a Thursday night meditation group led by James Baraz. Getting high was still an important part of my daily routine, but I’d long since given up the delusion that my use of drugs and alcohol was somehow furthering my spiritual growth. I was still very much in the grip of these substances, so my attention was focused one evening when James started talking about Buddhism and addiction. The drug he used to describe the addictive process was chocolate. I remember thinking, Chocolate? Give me a break! What does this guy know about addiction? At the same time, it was clear to me that any reasonably intelligent drunk or drug addict could find at least some wisdom in Buddhist ideas about the dangers of craving and attachment and obsession and selfishness and egomania. I remember thinking that there must be some book or some Buddhist teacher or some recovery sangha out there that was exploring the common ground between Buddhism and recovery. I sent James an anonymous note with a stamped envelope addressed to my post office box. Did he know of such a group or book? It took him a few months to send me an answer. When he finally did, he included the phone number of a friend of his who he thought might be working on a book on the subject.
Calling that number six years ago put me on a path that has deepened my own understanding of the Fifth Precept. So I replied with an enthusiastic “yes” when Inquiring Mind invited me to interview various Buddhist teachers on the topic. While I have not taken any formal Buddhist vows, I have practiced the Fifth Precept now for a number of years.
Any discussion of the precepts must begin with a look at their purpose. Unlike the Ten Commandments, which were purportedly brought down from on high, the precepts are guidelines designed to help Buddhists live better, and more aware, lives. Ajahn Amaro, the coabbot of Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California, compares the precepts to “safety procedures for driving on the highway”:
“It’s like if you want to avoid killing yourself or other people, then this is the best way to drive. These are guidelines for skillful conduct. You can act as you like, but you take the responsibility for your actions. The choice is yours, but also the karmic consequences are yours. If you want to live without checking your brakes or reading the road signs, then get out on the highway, but good luck.”
Diane Rizzetto, the abbess of Bay Zen Center in Oakland, takes a more positive approach to the Buddhist precepts, re-envisioning them as aspirations rather than prohibitions. Her phrasing of the Fifth Precept is “I take up the way of cultivating a clear mind.” Rizzetto, who writes about the precepts in her book Waking Up to What You Do, said she spends several months working with her students on the precepts: “I see them as doorways whereby we can access deeper intelligence and wisdom. . . . People uncover all kinds of addictions. Addiction to the Internet, to exercise—not to speak of sex or all the other stuff. . . . From my point of view, I don’t think drinking a glass of wine is harmful. It’s really a question of your intention in doing it.”
Our panelists disagreed as to whether the Fifth Precept implies that lay Buddhists should completely abstain from drinking alcohol—including occasionally enjoying a glass of wine with dinner or raising one for a wedding toast. “I drink occasionally, and I used to take drugs,” said Michael Wenger, who has practiced at San Francisco Zen Center since 1972. “Back in the sixties, when I was in my twenties, drugs (marijuana and psychedelics) were helpful for a little bit, then they weren’t very helpful. I don’t recommend that people take drugs, but sometimes they can be helpful.”
Li Lightfoot, who lives at Tse Chen Ling Buddhist Center in San Francisco, where he runs a recovery group, has a similar background. But Lightfoot, who has been sober for fourteen years, is more cautious when counseling people about drink and drug. “I myself came to Buddhism high as a kite,” he recalled. “I took refuge while still using alcohol and drugs and only stopped ten years later. Today, fortunately, there is increasing awareness about the problems associated with drug and alcohol consumption.”
What would Lightfoot say to a Buddhist novice who came to him saying, “I don’t see a problem with having a glass of wine with dinner or on some special occasion. It’s not like I have a drinking problem”?
“If you truly don’t have a drinking or other drug problem, then refraining from intoxicants shouldn’t be an issue,” he would advise. “If you do have a problem, perhaps you should consider the Twelve Step model, a very effective method. You should ask yourself, ‘Why is this so important to me?’”
Lightfoot and Jeffrey Schneider, a priest at the San Francisco Zen Center, both run weekly recovery/meditation groups at their respective Buddhist centers. Neither one of them is surprised to see alcoholics turning to Buddhism. “After all, we’re talking about thirst here,” Schneider said. “The Buddha is not saying that craving leads to suffering. He is saying that the craving and suffering are identical. I often tell people that they should be grateful they are addicts and alcoholics because it ups the ante to a point where you can’t ignore it. . . . They have their craving upped by drugs and alcohol and can see the suffering. They kind of have a step up on Buddhist practice—or at least on Buddhist insight.”
Further complicating one’s understanding of the Fifth Precept is the presence of Buddhist teachers and commentators like Alan Watts and Chögyam Trungpa, who never bothered to hide their lifelong habits of heavy, and ultimately destructive, drinking. Then there are teachers like Ram Dass—the former psychology professor Richard Alpert—who began his public career after being fired from the Harvard faculty for giving psychedelic drugs to an undergraduate. Alpert went on to spend much of the 1960s promoting the use of LSD and other drugs as a chemical means to spiritual growth. While Ram Dass now regrets some of his youthful enthusiasm for promoting LSD, he still honors the role that drugs played in his spiritual development. James Baraz, the coauthor of a new book titled Awakening Joy, was deeply influenced by the teachings of Ram Dass and spent five summers studying with Chögyam Trungpa at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
“I would go to Trungpa’s lectures, like everyone, mesmerized,” he said. “He was the ultimate crazy-wisdom teacher. He would limp in with his Marlboro cigarettes in his pocket and his huge carafe of sake, and he would down the whole carafe. It was clear that the sake was doing its thing, but he would come out with this brilliance. I spent the first two years asking, ‘What the hell is going on here?’”
Ajahn Amaro acknowledges that Chögyam Trungpa was brilliant and may have helped people, but he seriously doubts the man was enlightened. “He drank himself to death at the age of forty-seven. Doctors said his liver was in the state of someone who drank uninterruptedly. There is no way you could be doing that to yourself and really be an enlightened being. . . . There was some deep weakness in him that just obviously was completely unaddressed, and he had to drink to not feel that.”
Then there’s the trickier question about the role that psychedelics have on one’s spiritual growth. “There’s no denying that a lot of people had their glimpse into a wider perspective through what were called ‘consciousness-expanding’ drugs,” said James Baraz. “I was part of the sixties culture and saw people whose lives were ruined, but I also saw—and know—people whose lives were turned toward spirituality through seeing another dimension of reality. I was very lucky. I had a trip that took me to the brink of hell. Going through it, and facing my biggest fears, was a turning point in my life. I wouldn’t recommend it as a strategy for deep insight; it could have gone the other way. I know one teacher who spent years in fear working out something that happened on a psychedelic trip. So it’s a kind of crapshoot. But if somebody tells me they’ve had a huge opening through a mind-altering experience and asks, ‘Is this valid?’ I would say, ‘Yes, if you’ve found that you see things more clearly and your heart has been opened.’”
Ajahn Amaro, who was born in England in 1957 and ordained as a monk in 1979 in the Thai monastery of his teacher, Ajahn Chah, also tried psychedelics as a teenager in England. He acknowledges that they may have helped spark his interest in Buddhism, but he does not urge others to follow his example: “I would never recommend people take psychedelics. The risk for harm, for carelessness and irreversible damage of one kind or another is far, far greater than any benefit that may come from them. I’m not just saying that because I’m a card-carrying monk but from experience. One can have colorful and apparently meaningful experiences. But the main issue is how to digest that or bring that into alignment with the realities of your life, your body, your family, the world you live in. The whole purpose of meditation and spiritual training is to arrive at those insights in a much more direct and less chemically induced and risky fashion.”
In the end, every follower of the Buddha’s way must find his or her own interpretation of the Fifth Precept. There are various translations and understandings in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. You can find teachers who say the Fifth Precept only forbids the “selling” of alcohol. Others, such as Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, interpret the precept to mean a total prohibition against consuming alcohol or any other intoxicant, including “certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations.”
Michael Wenger, who has spent nearly four decades studying Zen, said his tradition translates the Fifth Precept in the following manner: “I vow not to intoxicate the mind or body of self or others.” Wenger said that precept is meant, in part, to be a warning to teachers of Buddhism—and not just a warning about drinking too much. “It’s saying that we shouldn’t get people high by teaching them Buddhism. You shouldn’t get high off the teachings,” he says. “You know, there’s something humbling about a religion that warns you not to get intoxicated by your own religion.”