Monday, August 31, 2009

The Fifth Precept

Alcohol is a chemical produced by fermentation, which suppresses the central nervous system and causes intoxication when ingested. The word alcohol comes from the Arabic al meaning `the' and kahal meaning `collyrium' and was originally an alchemic term. Alcoholic drinks are usually categorized into three different types - beers made from fermented grains, wines made from fermented fruits and spirits made by distilling either beers or wines. Drinking certainly seems to have been widespread in ancient India, at least during certain periods. The Ramayana describes Ayodhya as a city pervaded with the aroma of wine and streets full of drunks staggering about. Sounds like Melbourne on a Saturday night! Four main types of alcoholic drinks are mentioned in the Tipitaka. Sura was brewed from rice or flour (Sn.398; Vin.I,205), meraya was distilled alcohol made from sugar or fruit and sometimes flavored with sugar, pepper or the bark of a certain tree (M.I,238). Majja was made from honey and asava was made from the juice of the palmyra palm or the wild date palm and could be either just brewed or distilled (Vin.II,294).
The fifth Precept which all Buddhists undertake to practice, is to abstain from consuming alcohol or any other recreational drugs. In the case of alcohol, this is mainly because alcoholic intoxication clouds the mind, while the whole rationale of Buddhism is to clarify the mind. However, drinking alcohol may also result in several other personal and social disadvantages. The Buddha says: ‘There are these six dangers of drinking alcohol: loss of wealth, increase of quarrels, ill-health, a bad reputation, making a fool of oneself and impaired intelligence’. (D.III,182). In the Dhammapada the Buddha warns, ‘The person who drinks alcohol digs up his own root in this world’ (Dhp.247). The Buddhist tradition says that if one breaks the fifth Precept, this can easily lead to breaking the others and there is some evidence that this is true. A very high percentage or crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol.


Jamie G. said...

You said:
A very high percentage or crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol.

I am a cop and I can testify to the truth of this statement. There is a joke around my department that on Friday and Saturday nights most of our calls somehow where related to a particular bar in town. Almost every person we took a report from started like this, "Well, we were at Benton's when..." We all rejoiced when that bar finally shut down.

I would say that 98% percent of our domestic abuse reports have the suspect having used alcohol. I may actually look a the numbers some day in the future.

The sad reality, and I see this every day, is that people think that the alcohol and the drugs will help them escape their suffering.

Ben said...

As far as I know alcohol wasn't forbidden for monks right from the beginning, but after the Buddha went to a city to look for the regional Sangha there, he found two monks lying drunk on the ground at the town gates and consequently banned the alcohol. Before this incident is was quite common that monks evens "asked" for alcohol when they went on their round to ask for alms. This may have had practical purposes as alcoholic drinks are likely to be free of germs.

Maybe this was one of the rules Buddha meant when he told Ananda that some of them can be abolished.

Does "other recreational drugs" also include such as anti-depressives?

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Jamie,
Thanks for this ‘on the ground’ report. Only those who have to clean up afterwards know the real impact of alcohol.
Dear Ben,
I have never heard of the story you tell. I’m pretty certain it’s not from the scriptures. Can you give us the source or is it just something you heard? Medicines are not included in the Fifth Precept because of course the intention in taking them is the restoration of health, not intoxication. But some drugs like anti-depressants are a ‘borderline’. They are meant as a medicine but they are sometimes misused. As in all moral questions, the key is intention (cetana).

aah-haa said...

Alcohol, narcotic, drugs, herbs have medicinal uses. When controlled and appropriately prescribed they may not be intoxicants (toxic). Taken excessively or abused, they have side effects ranging from addiction to death, not just heedlessness.
In ancient time, wine was the dining beverage before drinking became a pastime (recreation). Alcohol must have been so abused then (and now) that it must have caused a lot of trouble, hardship, demeanours to the point that some form of control or prohibition was needed. Islam specifically prohibits drinking alcohol. What about Christianity?

reasonable said...

Perhaps the spirit of the 5th precept is not to forbid the consumption of alcohol for health reasons but to prevent and forbid the indulgence in consuming alcohol for pleasure?

Ben said...

I read it in secondary literature: H.W. Schumann, I think the most respected German indologist, "The Historical Buddha". He writes:

When Buddha came to Kosambi in 520 BC he found he Bhikkhu Sagata totally drunk lying in front of the town-gates, because he had a cup of palm-wine at every front door. It wasn't a triumphal procession when the other Bhikkhus had to carry him back to the monastery.

Due to this incident Buddha banned alcohol (Suttavibhanga/Sv 51,1) and later he enacted that novices who were drinkers are not allowed to receive full ordination. (Mahavagga/Mv 1,60)

Unfortunately I cannot find the source by myself, so please let us know whether this story is wrong or right.

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Ben,
I found the reference you gave, and I must admit, I have never seen it before. Thanks for pointing it out.