16 July 2010

The Fifth Precept

veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

I undertake the training principle of abstaining from intoxicating drinks and negligent states of intoxication.


Of all the precepts this one is probably the one most commonly fudged. I know a lot of Buddhists who like a drink, and a few who take recreational drugs. I'll try to avoid being moralistic, but I want to explore the fifth precept and its implications.

Let's start with the translation. Although the first three words (which I have joined with hyphens) are often seen written as separate, the first two don't have inflections, and therefore the three must a single compound: surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭḥānā which will require some unpacking. The word surāmeraya is itself a compound: surā and meraya are synonyms for intoxicating drinks. Surā possibly comes from the root √su meaning to 'press out' (from which we get the Vedic soma, the drug used by the early Vedic poets). While some information has been lost on what exactly these words refer to, the dictionaries link surā to distillation. I'm not sure what the level of technology was in the the Buddha's day - perhaps they were making distilled liquors then? The Monier-Williams Sanskrit Dictionary (MW) suggests that it originally referred to a kind of beer (remembering that the earliest Vedic texts predate the Iron Age by some centuries). Meraya seems to have more or less the same reference, and is found in combination with surā more often than not (even in Vedic texts). Majja (Sanskrit madya) is a third almost synonymous word, though in this case more clearly related to mada from √mad 'intoxication'. I suspect that at the time the distinctions might have been more meaningful, although it is a feature of Pāli literature to use synonyms for emphasis. The intention seems to be to cover all kinds of intoxicating drinks, and probably all forms of intoxication.

The same root √mad occurs in the next word - pamāda - which is often translated as 'negligence'. [1] Keep in mind that in Buddhist texts the opposite appamāda 'vigilance' is almost always associated with objects of the senses - and is akin to 'guarding the gates of the senses'. The word ṭhāna means 'a state', so pamādaṭṭhāna is a state of negligence, especially with respect to the senses.

So the compound surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-ṭṭhānā unpacks as: 'intoxicating drinks and negligent states of intoxication'.

The rest of the formula - veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi - is relatively straight forward. The verb is samādiyati 'to take upon oneself, to undertake' in the first person singular: 'I undertake'. Veramaṇī is 'abstaining'. Sikkhapāda is a compound with sikkhā meaning 'training, discipline, precept', while pada here is 'an item': so sikkhāpada is a training rule or training principle, i.e. a precept. Note that the precepts are not really 'given' or 'taken' from another person. The form is 'I undertake', it is an individual act of will, a personal undertaking, though making a public declaration of one's intention to undertake this training usually indicates a deeper commitment to the training.

It is worth making the point that in the Buddha's day the attitude to alcohol was very different to our Anglo-Saxon attitude. This is brought out in in stark terms in the Dhammika Sutta:
The householder who finds pleasure in this Dhamma,
Should not practice drinking alcohol;
Should not cause any other good person to drink,
Knowing it leads to madness.

Intoxicated, they foolishly do evil,
And cause other negligent people to do likewise.
This occasion for disgrace should be avoided,
This crazy, idiotic pleasure of fools. [2]
Although some 'sophisticated' urban Indians have started drinking like Westerners, amongst the poorer and rural Indians that I know, drinking is still seen as a great evil. Of course drinking patterns in Europe and its colonies have typically been different. This does not mean that drink is not a great social evil in West. As the UK Office of National Statistics says:
The number of alcohol-related deaths in the United Kingdom has consistently increased since the early 1990s, rising from the lowest figure of 4,023 (6.7 per 100,000) in 1992 to the highest of 9,031 (13.6 per 100,000) in 2008. [3]
That's about 25 people per day dying alcohol related deaths in 2008, and doubling in the last 18 years. [4] Those people have families and loved ones who are affected by their deaths; by their drinking habits; by their behaviour. In the UK alcohol deaths far outstrip all other drugs combined except tobacco which kills more than 80,000 people a year on its own (and for what one wonders?). Alcohol is responsible for thee times as many deaths as road accidents, although clearly alcohol is also a major factor in causing road accidents. There is no doubt that alcohol is a major problem in the UK. Imagine if, instead of reporting the names of the soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan each day, a list of people who died alcohol related deaths in the UK (or wherever you live) were read on the news each day? In the USA the situation is very similar:

via +Vox 
One of the arguments about unethical products is that by not participating in the process of production, distribution and consumption we make that product marginally less profitable. By not eating meat, for instance, we reduce the demand for meat generally and this has an effect on the industry, making it marginally less profitable. Collectively we can have a great effect. It's worth considering that while you personally might not have a problem with alcohol, that on balance society does. By consuming it you help to keep the product economically viable and contribute indirectly to all the problems that alcohol creates. Is your personal pleasure at drinking enough to justify participating in the production of a substance that kills so many people?

Of course the Buddhist drinker will usually argue that they do not drink very much, do not drink to excess, do not drink so that their "mindfulness is impaired" (as I have often heard). And perhaps this is true. Perhaps the are right to argue that it is the 'spirit' of the precept rather than the letter that should apply. However it's hard to tell how much alcohol it takes to affect your mind, partly because alcohol itself makes this kind of judgement more difficult - alcohol impairs judgement. I note for instance that over the years the acceptable level of alcohol when driving has consistently gone down, and that some authorities say that the limit should be zero. The argument on how much is too much is clearly not settled, but the cut-off has trended downward as investigations have intensified into the effects of alcohol on the brain.

Another 'let off clause' is that medical journalists have reported that drinking alcohol can actually be good for your health. Fully unpacking the problems with this would take an essay in its own right. The story on the health benefits from alcohol, and the type of alcohol involved, has changed regularly and considerably over the years. Some of the studies employed doubtful methods. Not every study has been able to confirm the health benefits found in the others, so there is no consensus. The issue is not clear, but journalists are not really interested in scientific process, and medical journalism is still about selling newspapers. If one is using popular press stories to justify stretching a precept that is shaky ground to take a stand on.

We often look for ways to rationalise our lax ethics. We cite the Aristotelian motto "moderation in all things" as a formulation of the middle way that allows for some moderate vices.[5] One needs to be clear about how the Buddha saw his middle way playing out in lifestyle terms. To the Buddha the idea lifestyle was to reject family, work, holidays, status, and possessions generally; to live simply, live on handouts, eat only once per day and then only enough to sustain your body; and importantly in this context he was insistent that the middle way did not include any intoxication at all. So if we want to cite the middle way as a guide for our lifestyle, then we need to be prepared to really take it on.

I take the spirit of the precept to extend beyond alcohol to include all sources of intoxication and intoxicated states (pamādaṭṭḥānā). It could conceivably also cover such things as television, films, and the internet as well (gulp!). Anything we turn to repeatedly in order to alter our perceptions to make our present experience more pleasurable has the potential to become intoxicating and addictive. And this is the heart of the problem with intoxicants - in taking them we are pursuing pleasure, or perhaps avoiding misery, in the mistaken view that by increasing the amount of pleasure we experience the happier we will be. This is the fundamental error of the unenlightened; this is how people get hooked. Not only does pursuing pleasure not lead to happiness, it actually has the opposite effect though we find it hard to see the cause and effect because we have a wrong view about it.

This is not to damn pleasure, only the unhealthy pursuit of it. Pleasure, in and of itself, is not the problem. Intoxication is. Hence the fifth precept is not simply tacked onto the end of a list of four important ethical training principles. It is not there to make Buddhists behave themselves; not a penitential after-thought; nor there simply to make up the numbers. It's not about being a 'good Buddhist'. The avoidance of intoxication is at the heart of the Buddha's transformative program; and if we take the Buddha seriously, we must also take the fifth precept seriously.


  1. I've written before about my research into the words pamāda and appamāda and how in practice they relate to intoxication with the objects of the senses in my essay: The Buddha's Last Words, which is also summarised as a blog post: The Last Words of the Buddha.
  2. Dhammika Sutta, Sutta-nipāta. Sn 398-9. My translation. Pāli text from tipitaka.org.
  3. www.statistics.gov.uk
  4. By contrast the UK recently made the drug Mephedrone illegal on the basis of reports of a possible 25 deaths since its introduction, though as I understand it none of these cases have been proven, and in at least two cases Mephedrone has subsequently been proved not to have been involved.
  5. My, admittedly shallow, reading of Aristotle is that he thought it ethical to satisfy natural desires, such as thirst and hunger, but going beyond that was profligacy and therefore blameworthy. The question then is whether the desire for intoxication is 'natural'. The Buddha's position on this, as I understand it, is that it is not natural.
25 Sept 2010. This post generated a lot of comments which explore the issue further. I did not at the time draw attention to the 17th of Dr Ambedkars 22 conversion vows:
I shall not take intoxicants like liquor, drugs etc.
Note the unequivocal phrasing here!
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