Restraint from Drinking Intoxicants
A.1 Western values concerning alcohol
Alcohol in the West is a substance primarily associated with relaxation and celebration. Most westerners would shrink from any hint that alcohol is an agent of mass destruction. However, consider some of the following national statistics from the USA summarized in a Scientific American report in June 1998 (p.67):
• Alcohol consumption contributes annually to 100,000 deaths in the USA alone.
• Alcoholism is the third most common preventable cause of death after smoking and obesity.
• 14-20 million Americans have some history of their lives being disrupted by their relations with alcohol.
• An estimated 40% of Americans have been intimately exposed to the effects of alcohol abuse through a family member.
• As many as 12,000 children born annually to drinking mothers in the US have mental and physical deficiencies as a result of their exposure to alcohol in utero.
The mores and traditions of our era form a veil of self-satisfying myths which often blind us to the damage alcohol consumption actually brings to modern society — and perhaps by understanding how deeply alcohol is woven into Western culture, can we take care not to have the wool pulled over our eyes too!
In the West before the popularity of tea and coffee in the late eighteenth century, alcohol was claimed to be one of the only hygienic drinks available. Although Judeo-Christian teachings prevalent in the west have never supported drunkenness, they have portrayed alcohol consumption as a necessary coping mechanism in the face of social hardship:
“Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.” (Proverbs 31)
Wine has even been incorporated into the most sacred of Christian ceremonies — the Mass. Historically speaking, the escalation in the seriousness of alcohol problems has been accelerated as the distilled liquor products have become more readily available on the market. Research as early as 1813 established the connection between alcohol consumption and liver disease, jaundice, wasting and mental malfunction. Indeed, alcohol consumption has not gone completely unopposed in the West — however, in Christian circles such opposition has mostly come in the form of temperance rather than abstinence. It was Methodist values backed by clinical research which led to the American Prohibition from 1920 to 1933.
Because of its long history of acceptance in Judeo-Christian culture alcohol remains deeply rooted in the Western idea of respectability. Thus, as we pursue our path of the Manual of Peace, whether in a Buddhist context or otherwise, we need to take care to make ourselves truly open to alternative approaches to intoxicants like alcohol — westerners reading the content of this blessing need (perhaps more than for other blessings) to have particular conviction in the wisdom of ‘Restraint from drinking intoxicants’ to adopt standards concerning the consumption of alcohol based on the Buddha’s teachings rather than the current social norms.
A.2 Why Buddhists consider abstinence from alcohol indispensable
Abstaining from alcohol is a virtue we have already encountered several times on our journey through the Manual of Peace — as a ‘road to ruin’ in Blessings Six, Seven, Thirteen and Fourteen, as the Fifth Precept in Blessing Nine and as a substance which is not to be sold for one’s livelihood in Blessing Eighteen. The Buddha devotes an entire blessing to ‘Restraint from Drinking Intoxicants’ in Blessing Twenty, not simply because of the damage alcohol does to one’s physical health, but because if one doesn’t abstain from alcohol definitively by this point in the Manual of Peace, one will have no chance to upgrade oneself in the direction of Blessing Twenty-One (Avoiding recklessness in the Dhamma) and beyond.
If you consider self-discipline based on the Five Precepts, you will find that each of the Five Precepts is more or less independent from one another — except for the fifth. If you break the any of the first four precepts, normally it will not cause any other of the Precepts to be broken. However, if the Fifth Precept is ever broken, it subsequently increases the risk of breaking all the other four Precepts. When you drink, you say more than you mean to, some is true; the rest breaks the fourth Precept. If you have some latent adulterous tendencies, they will manifest themselves when you are drunk. If you have tendencies to steal then you will find it hard to keep your hands to yourself when you are drunk. If you are normally bad-tempered, when you are drunk you will be uninhibited in your violence. Alcohol may be the single reason why you break all the Precepts. Without alcohol, when our conscience is fully-functional, we cannot do anything harmful, because we still feel shy of wicked deeds — especially for our reputation. Thus alcohol is something about which we have to be extremely wary.
For most of us, no matter how bad we may start out, if we don’t go to the lengths of drinking alcohol, we still have the opportunity to change ourselves for the better. Supposing someone is a ruffian who likes to pick fights, usually such habits will only last for as long as he is a teenager. When he is more mature he will stop by himself. Thieves who have been stealing since they were young, as they grow up will start to think, “Am I going to keep on stealing like this until the day I die?” Even the Casanovas of the world, as they get older will become reflective about their own condition — they will become self-conscious about being seen by others as a ‘dirty old man’. Liars too will eventually become bored of lying. However, if any of these four types of people are still drinking alcohol as well, they will be unable to stop their old ways. The thought of stopping might cross their minds, but as soon as they start drinking, their behaviour will regress into its old ways. The fifth Precept is thus the most crucial. If you ever hear anyone boasting that they can keep all the Precepts except the last, take their claims with a pinch of salt — all five of their Precepts are at risk.
A.3 How alcohol affects the mind
The problem with alcohol is that it worsens the latent weaknesses and unwholesome tendencies that already exist in the mind. The Buddha taught that the untrained mind tends to have the following four weaknesses:
1. It is habituated to unwholesomeness: The mind will squirm like a fish out of water: being so used to negative moods as soon as you start to take the mind away from these negative states it will struggle.
2. It will change continuously: You will tend to change your mind about any decision you have made
3. It will wander: It is hard to keep the mind on a single thing
4. It is hard to pacify.
Under the influence of alcohol, all these bad features of the mind have the chance to manifest themselves to the full.
A.4 Drunkenness even without alcohol
Even if we are sober it is difficult enough to perceive the true nature of life and the world around us. The Buddha taught that, even if we don’t smoke, drink alcohol or abuse drugs, we are already drunk the whole of the time — especially concerning the following three things:
1. we are drunken concerning our youth (we tend to think “I am still young — I can still go out every night. I am still beautiful — I can still turn the heads of young men”)
2. we are drunken concerning our freedom of disease. Those who are healthy are wont to think that they will be healthy like that forever and that abuse of their health doesn’t matter.
3. we are drunken concerning the length of our lives. We think that the likes of us doesn’t die so easily. We tend to think we are still strong and that our time has not come — in fact we are fooling ourselves.
The Buddha called such attitudes ’drunkenness’. Even without drinking alcohol, people still think like this. If we drink alcohol as well, there will be many more forms of drunkenness which will be attracted to us as the result.