In the comment section of another post I’ve been having a lively discussion that’s morphed into a discussion of alcohol, so I thought it might be worth a post on its own. Some traditions such as Theravada tend to frown on drinking. Others, like Shambhala indulge. Still others, like Zen, have a complicated relationship with drinking. So what did the Buddha have to say about it?
How can somone practice both for themselves and others?…He does not drink alcohol and encourages other people not to drink alcohol.
Anyone who kills, steals, has affairs, drinks alcohol destroys his own roots in this life. Know this: these things are harmful and wrong. Don’t let greed and ill will prolong your suffering.
-Dhammapada vs. 246-8
A lay follower should not be involved in 5 kinds of business:
- These 5 are Wrong Livelihood.
To hate evil and refrain from doing to, to avoid alcohol and to be steadfast in one’s virtue, this is the greatest blessing.
Mahanama, a lay follower should avoid kills, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and drinking alcohol. This is how a lay follower is virtuous, Mahanama.
In this next teaching the Buddha is talking to Sigala and teaching how a lay person should behave.
Young man, there are 6 terrible consequences of drinking alcohol:
- losing wealth,
- more fighting,
- worse health,
- gaining a bad reputation,
- leading to public nakedness,
- becoming stupid.
Anyone that gambles, drinks alcohol, has affairs, associates with bad characters, he wanes like the moon in its waning phase.
Anyone that drunk and broke but is still going to bars to drink falls into debt like a rock into water, bringing a bad reputation to themselves and their family.
Anyone who sleeps all day, stays out all night, gets drunk and sleeps around is not fit for the family life.
Now, I realize this is quite a list, but I just want to make it totally clear what the Buddha actually said. We can argue back and forth, but if you have trust in what the Buddha taught, remember he was abundantly clear in this teaching. I have read every word that we have from the Buddha on drinking, and his only teaching was, “Don’t do it.” The only exception is small amounts of alcohol used in medicinal preparations or cooking. This includes “mindful drinking” or any other modern inventions.
Avoiding alcohol is among the hundreds of precepts that monks and nuns take when they ordain, but it is also in the 5 precepts, the basic restraint that lay people take when they become Buddhists. It’s basic.
So why do some Buddhist traditions, especially the Tibetan schools, indulge in drinking. An uncharitable explanation would be that they just really like to drink and found excuses to do so. Goodness knows that people can use all kinds of intellectual contortions to find excuses for all sorts of behavior from killing Communists to 4-star dining at retreat centers. An even more uncharitable explanation would be that much of Tibetan Buddhism is deeply influenced by witchcraft. A charitable explanation would be that they extended the Buddha’s teachings by using the metaphor of extracting a thorn with another thorn. I personally think this goes beyond “extended” the Buddha’s teachings into the realm of “violating” the Buddha’s teachings.
So what if you do have a drink from time to time? What if you have a glass of wine for your health with dinner? Does that mean you aren’t really a Buddhist? As we all of these things, the teachings are there for our benefit. If we do drink (or lie or have affairs) we are not hurting the Buddha. We are hurting ourselves and usually our loved ones and complete strangers as well.
And by the way, the supposed health benefits of drinking are not very certain, and at best are extremely minimal.