Here's an old post of mine that I dug up from a now defunct message board. What does everyone think?
This morning when I opened up my copy of Majjhima Nikaya, I turned it open randomly as I normally do and landed on the . This is one of those suttas where the Buddha presents an exhaustive list and definition of virtual conduct, specifically geared towards the householders he is addressing. He splits it up into bodily, verbal and mental conduct. There are more than a few Sutta's in the canon that present with such content and in a similar format. What is interesting is how often the 5th precept seems to be missing from that otherwise exhaustive list. What does this mean? Does this mean that the Buddha perhaps attributed less importance to this precept than he did the others?
Anyone familiar with the Patimokkha (monasitic code of conduct) and how it was formed realizes that it was laid down in such a way that rules were not created until they were needed. The Vinaya recounts the following story preceding the training rule which prohibited monks from taking intoxicants:
"Then Ven. Sagata went to the hermitage of the coiled-hair ascetic of Ambatittha, and on arrival — having entered the fire building and arranged a grass mat — sat down cross-legged with his body erect and mindfulness to the fore. The naga (living in the fire building) saw that Ven. Sagata had entered and, on seeing him, was upset, disgruntled, and emitted smoke. Ven. Sagata emitted smoke. The naga, unable to bear his rage, blazed up. Ven. Sagata, entering the fire element, blazed up. Then Ven. Sagata, having consumed the naga's fire with his own fire, left for Bhaddavatika.
"Then the Blessed One, having stayed at Bhaddavatika as long as he liked, left on a walking tour to Kosambi. The lay followers of Kosambi heard, 'They say that Ven. Sagata did battle with the Ambatittha naga!'
"Then the Blessed One, having toured by stages, came to Kosambi. The Kosambi lay followers, after welcoming the Blessed One, went to Ven. Sagata and, on arrival, having bowed down to him, sat to one side. As they were sitting there they said to him, 'What, venerable sir, is something the masters like that is hard for you to get? What can we prepare for you?'
"When this was said, some group-of-six bhikkhus said to the Kosambi lay followers, 'Friends, there is a strong liquor called pigeon's liquor (the color of pigeons' feet, according to the Commentary) that the bhikkhus like and is hard for them to get. Prepare that.'
"Then the Kosambi lay followers, having prepared pigeon's liquor in house after house, and seeing that Ven. Sagata had gone out for alms, said to him, 'Master Sagata, drink some pigeon's liquor! Master Sagata, drink some pigeon's liquor' Then Ven. Sagata, having drunk pigeon's liquor in house after house, passed out at the city gate as he was leaving the city.
"Then the Blessed One, leaving the city with a number of bhikkhus, saw that Ven. Sagata had passed out at the city gate. On seeing him, he addressed the bhikkhus, saying, 'Bhikkhus, pick up Sagata.'
"Responding, 'As you say, venerable sir,' the bhikkhus took Ven. Sagata to the monastery and laid him down with his head toward the Blessed One. Then Ven. Sagata turned around and went to sleep with his feet toward the Blessed One. So the Blessed One addressed the bhikkhus, saying, 'In the past, wasn't Sagata respectful to the Tathagata and deferential?'
"'Yes, venerable sir.'
"'But is he respectful to the Tathagata and deferential now?'
"'No, venerable sir.'
"'And didn't Sagata do battle with the Ambatittha naga?'
"'Yes, venerable sir.'
"'But could he do battle with even a salamander now?'
"'No, venerable sir.'"
What is interesting about this story is that it appears that prior to this incident the monks were allowed to partake in alcoholic drinks. This can be inferred by the very fact that the Bhikkhu's, while traveling with the Buddha, requested of the Kosambian's the alcoholic drink right after they had spoken with the Buddha. Also, it is clear that Ven. Sagata was no novice monk, but was in fact quite accomplished in his practice when he requested the drink of the lay followers.
It seems likely that there had been no occasion prior to this in the Monastic order where a monk had become inebriated, and so no training rule was established.
My personal belief is that this does not make the training rule any less important. The Buddha was not in the habit of pointing out common sense to people, and only spoke when he knew that it would lead to some beneficial knowledge. It's quite obvious to anyone who undertakes a serious practice that inebriation is incompatible with it.
Indeed, it would seem that the consumption of alcohol in and of itself is not the problem here, but it is instead the headlessness that a drunken state leads to. Every time the training rule is phrased it makes a point of this:
Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami
I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.
It would seem that the Buddha incorporated the training rule against intoxicants later in his life, and the fact that it is absent in many discourses just reflects the fact that those discourses were spoken when he was younger. The list on the different kinds of unrighteous conduct is still exhaustive, intoxicants just make you more likely to indulge in those things.