Precept 5: I Vow Not to Misuse Drugs or Alcohol, But to Keep the Mind Clear

In preparation for receiving the precepts next week, I’ve been writing about what each precept means to me. This is the sixth post in series of six about the Five Grave Precepts. You might want to read the introductory post if you haven’t already.

Buddhists tend to have great disagreement about this precept. Some view it as rigid prohibition against consuming drugs and alcohol. Some view it not as a prohibition against a particular substance, but rather a proscription of clouding the mind with any intoxicant.

I am in the latter camp. Considering one’s intake of drugs and alcohol are very important in regards to this precept. Lots of people use alcohol and drugs (both illicit and prescribed) to muddle their minds and their experience of the present moment. Many use drugs for the specific purpose of turning away from their present suffering. And, of course, many are incapable of engaging alcohol or drugs without abusing them. For these people, I think interpreting this precept as a prohibition makes sense.

But many things can be used to cloud the mind, not just drugs: sex, eating, shopping, exercise, video games, gambling etc. Pretty much any activity can be utilized to distract the mind away from the truth of now.

Personally, I’m uncomfortable viewing this precept as an outright prohibition against drugs because of our culture’s views about drugs. We have a history of biased, irrational thinking about drugs and have allowed special interests to dictate policy regarding the legality of substances that humans have been using in positive contexts (for healing and spiritual growth) for thousands of years. I don’t think it makes sense to discount these substances simply because our culture has labeled them as illegal. Marijuana is a good example. For many, it offers better pain management than opiates and without the major side effects of those powerful narcotics. I think it is possible to use drugs (and, to a lesser extent alcohol) responsibly and without clouding the mind.

Because intoxicants are not limited to drugs and alcohol, and because normal activities like sex and eating can be used as intoxicants, I think this precept is much more about mindfulness is our substance/activity use. It’s about about being mindful regarding my intentions and of how a particular substance or activity affects my mind-body state mind-body. Is what I’m doing clouding my mind? Is it taking me away from the present moment? Am I engaging in this activity to escape? Am I avoiding unpleasant emotion?

Sometimes we can’t avoid clouding the mind. If we need a surgery, we are likely to be given strong narcotics that will change our state of mind. When we are sick, we are often clouded in our thinking. It’s in these cases where examining intention becomes important.

One would hope that our bodies get sick as part of the natural course of events and not because we have made ourselves sick. We hope that we take narcotics in order to enable our bodies to endure a procedure and heal. Then again, we know that this is not the case for all people. The death of Michael Jackson comes to mind here.

For the most part, I’ve been very cautious and metered in my use of drugs and alcohol. But looking back, there have been times where I have abused both substances. Back when I was going to Burning Man every year, and still very into taking substances to enhance my experience there, I recall someone saying to me that they didn’t need to takes drugs anymore, that they could get to these higher states of mind all on their own. At the time, I thought that notion very silly. That person was just old and boring (how embarrassing it is to think about this).

But now I realize what the person was saying is true. The closeness that I wanted to feel, the dropping of barriers, the union with something bigger than myself. Those are all things that I’m learning how to find on my own, without the aid of a drug. It’s pretty powerful to recognize that I can do this all on my own, and do it with a clear mind and a clear heart.