The Fifth Precept isn't
optional for Buddhists - if one considers oneself a Buddhist ... it is part of the Training - and being part of the Training doesn't mean it is "Optional".
The Buddha said:
"The drinking of fermented & distilled liquors — when indulged in, developed, & pursued — is something that leads to hell, leads to rebirth as a common animal, leads to the realm of the hungry shades. The slightest of all the results coming from drinking fermented & distilled liquors is that, when one becomes a human being, it leads to mental derangement." AN 8.40 Vipaka Sutta: ResultsA Discipline of Sobriety
by Bhikkhu Bodhi
Several months ago I went for a two-week retreat to a hermitage in the low country highly respected for the austere, meditative life of its monks. Each day a different group of dayakas (donors) comes to the monastery bringing almsfood, often from remote towns and villages. They arrive the previous evening, prepare an early breakfast which is sent up to the refectory, and then, in the forenoon, offer alms directly to the monks when they come down on alms round. After the other monks have collected their food and gone back up, one elder stays behind to give the Refuges and Precepts, preach a short sermon, and conduct the dedication of merit.
One day during my retreat I noticed some of the male dayakas behaving rather oddly near the abbot's quarters. I asked my friend, a German monk, about their strange behavior, and the explanation he gave me jolted my mind. "They were drunk," he told me. But that wasn't all. He continued: "The only thing unusual about yesterday's incident was that the men had gotten drunk early in the day. Usually they put on their best behavior until the formalities are done, then they break out the bottles."
This stark revelation aroused in me both indignation and sorrow. Indignation, at the idea that people who consider themselves Buddhists should flaunt the most basic precepts even in the sacred precincts of a monastery — indeed one of the few in Sri Lanka where the flame of arduous striving still burns. Sorrow, because this was only the latest evidence I had seen of how deeply the disease of alcoholism has eaten into the entrails of this nation, whose Buddhist heritage goes back over two thousand years. But Sri Lanka is far from being the only Buddhist country to be engulfed by the spreading wave of alcohol consumption. The wave has already swept over far too much of the shrinking Buddhist world, with Thailand and Japan ranking especially high on the fatality list.
The reasons for this ominous trend vary widely. One is rising affluence, which for the rich makes of liquor (hi-grade imported) a visible symbol of newly acquired wealth and power. Another is a burgeoning middle class, which blindly imitates the social conventions of the West. Still another is poverty, which turns the bottle into an easy escape route from the grim face of everyday reality. But whatever the reason, it is more than our woes and worries that alcohol is dissolving. It is gnawing away at the delicate fabric of Buddhist values on every level — personal, family, and social.
For his lay followers the Buddha has prescribed five precepts as the minimal moral observance: abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and the use of intoxicants. He did not lay down these precepts arbitrarily or out of compliance with ancient customs, but because he understood, with his omniscient knowledge, which lines of conduct lead to our welfare and happiness and which lead to harm and suffering. The fifth precept, it should be stressed, is not a pledge merely to abstain from intoxication or from excessive consumption of liquor. It calls for nothing short of total abstinence. By this rule the Buddha shows that he has understood well the subtle, pernicious nature of addiction. Alcoholism rarely claims its victims in a sudden swoop. Usually it sets in gradually, beginning perhaps with the social icebreaker, the drink among friends, or the cocktail after a hard day's work. But it does not stop there: slowly it sinks its talons into its victims' hearts until they are reduced to its helpless prey.
To dispel any doubt about his reasons for prescribing this precept, the Buddha has written the explanation into the rule itself: one is to refrain from the use of intoxicating drinks and drugs because they are the cause of heedlessness (pamada). Heedlessness means moral recklessness, disregard for the bounds between right and wrong. It is the loss of heedfulness (appamada), moral scrupulousness based on a keen perception of the dangers in unwholesome states. Heedfulness is the keynote of the Buddhist path, "the way to the Deathless," running through all three stages of the path: morality, concentration, and wisdom. To indulge in intoxicating drinks is to risk falling away from each stage. The use of alcohol blunts the sense of shame and moral dread and thus leads almost inevitably to a breach of the other precepts. One addicted to liquor will have little hesitation to lie or steal, will lose all sense of sexual decency, and may easily be provoked even to murder. Hard statistics clearly confirm the close connection between the use of alcohol and violent crime, not to speak of traffic accidents, occupational hazards, and disharmony within the home. Alcoholism is indeed a most costly burden on the whole society.
When the use of intoxicants eats away at even the most basic moral scruples, little need be said about its corrosive influence on the two higher stages of the path. A mind besotted by drink will lack the alertness required for meditative training and certainly won't be able to make the fine distinctions between good and bad mental qualities needed to develop wisdom. The Buddhist path in its entirety is a discipline of sobriety, a discipline which demands the courage and honesty to take a long, hard, utterly sober look at the sobering truths about existence. Such courage and honesty will hardly be possible for one who must escape from truth into the glittering but fragile fantasyland opened up by drink and drugs.
It may well be that a mature, reasonably well-adjusted person can enjoy a few drinks with friends without turning into a drunkard or a murderous fiend. But there is another factor to consider: namely, that this life is not the only life we lead. Our stream of consciousness does not terminate with death but continues on in other forms, and the form it takes is determined by our habits, propensities, and actions in this present life. The possibilities of rebirth are boundless, yet the road to the lower realms is wide and smooth, the road upward steep and narrow. If we were ordered to walk along a narrow ledge overlooking a sharp precipice, we certainly would not want to put ourselves at risk by first enjoying a few drinks. We would be too keenly aware that nothing less than our life is at stake. If we only had eyes to see, we would realize that this is a perfect metaphor for the human condition, as the Buddha himself, the One with Vision, confirms (see SN 56:42). As human beings we walk along a narrow ledge, and if our moral sense is dulled we can easily topple over the edge, down to the plane of misery, from which it is extremely difficult to re-emerge.
But it is not for our own sakes alone, nor even for the wider benefit of our family and friends, that we should heed the Buddha's injunction to abstain from intoxicants. To do so is also part of our personal responsibility for preserving the Buddha's Sasana. The Teaching can survive only as long as its followers uphold it, and in the present day one of the most insidious corruptions eating away at the entrails of Buddhism is the extensive spread of the drinking habit among those same followers. If we truly want the Dhamma to endure long, to keep the path to deliverance open for all the world, then we must remain heedful. If the current trend continues and more and more Buddhists succumb to the lure of intoxicating drinks, we can be sure that the Teaching will perish in all but name. At this very moment of history when its message has become most urgent, the sacred Dhamma of the Buddha will be irreparably lost, drowned out by the clinking of glasses and our rounds of merry toasts.http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... ay_36.htmlEXCERPT FROM Radical Therapy - Buddhist Precepts in the Modern World
by Lily de Silva
The precept against intoxicants
Brewing liquor is one of the most profitable industries in the world today and the market is replete with various brands of alcohol. In Sri Lanka the state coffers are handsomely augmented by the revenue earned from the sale of liquor, and the consumption of expensive foreign alcohol is regarded as a luxury of high society. Values have become so perverted that it is the teetotaller who gets cornered in society today. Only a man with high moral scruples and a strong character can decline the offer of a drink at a party despite the embarrassment of being regarded as a wet blanket or one under petticoat government. It also remains a fact that many who end up as alcoholics were first introduced to drinking for social acceptance.
Alcoholism and drug abuse are burning social problems of modern society. They ruin the physical and mental health of the addicts. One does not have to be a habitual drunkard to fall prey to disease. According to a British medical journal, daily beer drinkers are twelve times more at risk of developing cancer of the colon than non-drinkers. It is also reported that even relatively modest social drinking by pregnant women can harm the fetus. The babies are abnormally small, or have small heads or jittery eyes. These are effects associated with what is called the fetal-alcoholism syndrome, which in its extreme form produces very distorted features and a retarded brain. Alcohol also causes irreparable damage to brain cells in adults even when taken in small quantities, while larger quantities can damage vital organs of the body. Drug abuse is even more injurious.
Fully realizing the harmful effects of intoxicants, Buddhism has included abstention from them among the basic moral precepts. The dangers of intoxicants are enumerated in a number of the Buddha's discourses, the most famous of which is the Sigalovada Sutta (D.iii,182). Indulgence in intoxicants causes economic downfall. The episode of Mahadhanasetthi (DhA.iii,129), who squandered a vast fortune by drinking with evil friends and was reduced to beggary in his old age, is a classic example related in the Pali texts of a wealthy man ruined by alcohol.
Intoxicants can cause disputes, quarrels and family violence. Disruption of family life is often caused by addiction to liquor and drugs, and this brings about a whole chain of other related social problems. The Suttas report that ill health and a bad reputation are also caused by the habit of taking intoxicants, which also destroys inhibitions and weakens wisdom. The situation is aptly summarized by a modern writer who said that man's conscience is soluble in alcohol.
Most of the crimes in modern society, as well as serious traffic accidents, have liquor and drugs as the root cause. In spite of the devastating social effects of alcohol that are so evident today, attractive advertisements clutter the mass media depicting liquor as integral to the lifestyle of the affluent, to emulate which is the dream of the common man. People have to be educated and convinced not only of the ill effects of intoxicants but also of the value of will power and strength of character to resist the temptations that society throws in their way. It is only one who is weak in character who will get trapped in these snares.
The individual should also be taught to cultivate a sympathetic attitude toward his own body and mind. They are his instruments of action and it is his own responsibility, and in his own interest, to keep them healthy and efficient. In the meditation on loving-kindness in Buddhism the individual is first taught how to develop a benevolent attitude toward himself. "May I be well and happy" is quietly and mindfully repeated several times each day at the beginning of the meditation to impress upon the mind a compassionate attitude toward himself. When the benevolent attitude becomes deeply ingrained in the mind, the meditator will gradually refrain from habits which are injurious to his own body and mind. It is the paramount duty of all concerned people who realize that society today is in a precarious state, to muster all resources at their command to bring about a change in man's attitude to rescue him from the perils of his own making.http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... bl123.htmlThe Fifth Precept in Theravada Buddhism
Bikkhu Bodhi explains in "Going for Refuge" that the Fifth Precept can be translated from the Pali to prohibit "fermented and distilled liquors which are intoxicants" or "fermented and distilled liquors and other intoxicants." Either way, clearly the guiding purpose of the precept is "to prevent heedlessness caused by the taking of intoxicating substances."
According to Bikkhu Bodhi, violating the precept requires an intoxicant, an intention to take an intoxicant, the activity of ingesting the intoxicant, and the actual ingestion of the intoxicant. Taking medication containing alcohol, opiates or other intoxicants for genuine medical reasons does not count, nor does eating food flavored with a small amount of liquor. Otherwise, Theravada Buddhism considers the Fifth Precept to be a clear prohibition of drinking.
Although Theravada monks generally don't march around calling for prohibition, laypeople are discouraged from drinking. In southeast Asia, where Theravada Buddhism dominates, the monastic sangha often calls for bars and liquor stores to be closed on major uposatha days.http://buddhism.about.com/od/theprecept ... recept.htm