Should You Avoid Intoxicants Or Intoxication?

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Seeing ‘moderate drinking’ as extreme,
thus never drinking even ‘moderately’,
you will never be drinking extremely.

— Stonepeace | Books

The traditional Pali wording of the Fifth Precept in the Theravada tradition is as follows —’Suramerayamajja pamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami.’ This has been translated to be, I undertake the precept to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs which lead to carelessness.’

Bearing in mind that intoxicants include alcoholic beverages, and all other substances that can cause loss of mindfulness, is the Fifth Precept to avoid intoxicants, as taught by the Buddha, to simply ‘avoid them’ altogether, or to ‘avoid being intoxicated by them’?

This is an interesting question, as it suggests the possibility of drinking without becoming drunk… which seems pretty safe? Some who believe they can hold their liquor well thus drink, on the assumption that they will never become drunk. Yet, all who become drunk are those who had a drop (or more) too many, even when they claim they did not, or assumed it was impossible for them to do so.

However, if you see the very first drop, already as one drop too many, you will truly never ever have one drop too many. Thus, the strictest guideline is to not drink even a tiny drop of alcohol at the tip of a blade of grass. Intoxicated, all who had drunk driving accidents deludedly and over-confidently believed they were not really drunk, which is why they drove, endangering many others on the streets. Social drinking can thus turn out anti-social in its ultimate sense!

Even drinking by yourself at home, you might have an accident, when due to tipsiness, you slip and hurt yourself, or collapse due to alcohol poisoning. Indeed, even habitual drinkers can underestimate how easy it is to lose their clarity of mind. (As an update, about four years after this article was written, a friend’s relative did indeed slip and fall at home due to drinking, and was unfortunately found deceased, due to overbleeding.)

In the Sigalovada Sutta, the Buddha further warned of indulgence in intoxicants possibly leading to decrease of wealth and intellect, increase of conflicts and diseases, getting of a bad name, and even shameless bodily exposure!

It is good to avoid wine for food flavouring too. Though unlikely to intoxicate due to its small amounts, it might subtly spur interest in its taste and smell, leading to some actual drinking later. Contrary to what many think, not all of the alcoholic content of wine vaporises when cooked. It can take more than two and a half hours for all of it to be cooked ‘away’. As an example, when brandy is poured on foods and set alight, about 75% of the alcohol remains after the burning.

Likewise, are medicines with alcohol better avoided, unless they are absolutely needed, with no other alternatives. This should be noted as there is increase in cases of abuse of habit-forming ‘medication’, which in effect makes it an addictive ‘intoxicant.’ 

Mindful that the First to Fourth Precepts are to avoid killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and lying, may we never become the infamous drunk who appears in numerous Buddhist cautionary tales, who unmindfully breaks in his neighbour’s house, kills (and eats) his pet, beds his wife and lies to cover his misdeeds. Let us observe the Fifth Precept to preserve the integrity of all other precepts!

True respect arises for those
who guard their moral integrity;
not for those who are ‘sporting’
with their loose moral integrity.

— Stonepeace | Books

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