Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

General discussion of issues related to Theravada Training of Sila, the Five Precepts (Pañcasikkhāpada), and Eightfold Ethical Conduct (Aṭṭhasīla).

Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby manjughosamani » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:40 pm

Hello,

retrofuturist wrote:I agree, but they only lead to intoxication in certain volumes... hence presumably why medicinal uses of alcohol in accordance with the Vinaya are permissible for bhikkhus. From that I think it's clear it's not a case of absolutes.


My understanding is that the medicinal exceptions for alcohol use in the vinaya are specific to a certain class of diseases rooted in disturbed vāyus (winds). According to this type of proto-āyurvedic medical theory, vāyu has certain properties that alcohol can serve as an antidote to. There was no distillation of alcohol in the Buddha's time and the medicinal alcohols would have been about 2% alcohol (as they still are in many traditional Indian medicinal alcohols).

As an aside, it would be interesting to find out what types of vinayic medicines are in use now, or if bhikkhus are primarilly seeing allopathic physcicians for their health care needs.

Wishing you all the best.
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Nibbida » Wed Mar 16, 2011 1:59 pm

retrofuturist wrote:Greetings bhante,
Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:The precept as worded is an undertaking to abstain from intoxicants that lead to heedlessness, not an undertaking to abstain from becoming intoxicated.

I agree, but they only lead to intoxication in certain volumes... hence presumably why medicinal uses of alcohol in accordance with the Vinaya are permissible for bhikkhus. From that I think it's clear it's not a case of absolutes.

Metta,
Retro. :)


Ay, but therein lies the rub. The effects of alcohol on the brain are not all-or-nothing. One may only notice intoxication after a certain threshold is reached, but the effects of alcohol on the nervous system (& rest of the body) are graded. So even a little alcohol could produce effects on decision-making (i.e. heedfulness) emotions, and behavior. There's no clear line where it either has/doesn't have an effect.

I'm not sure that the alcohol in the non-alcoholic beer will have any effect because it may be metabolized by the liver as quickly as it's being consumed. One would have to drink an awful lot of it really fast to get any effect. But on the other hand, let's not forget classical conditioning. The brain rapidly creates associations between the taste of alcoholic beverages and the intoxicating effects on levels that we may not even be aware of. So even drinking a beverage completely devoid of alcohol that tastes like an alcoholic beverage can have effects.

Here's an interesting example. A study was done where people came into a lab on different days where they drank one of two beverages, either beverage A or B on any given day. One, say A, had alcohol while the other didn't. The flavors were heavily manipulated to disguise the taste of alcohol to the point where subjects could not tell the difference. However, when rating their feelings of intoxication (e.g. relaxed, etc.), people did rate more of an effect of beverage A. After drinking each one a few times on different days, people came in and sat at a table where glasses labeled A and B were placed before them. Their eyes were monitored and they spent more time looking at A than B. So the conditioned associations happened very rapidly and subtly (but measurably) between the label and the intoxication, and those associations caused a stronger draw on one's attention.

This can get to the point of splitting hairs. But my point is just to point out how subtle and insidious the effects of alcohol can be.

Besides, it's not a case of absolutes. It's a case of Absolut (scroll down on the picture):
absolut-vodka-absolut-nirvana-small-39593.jpg
absolut-vodka-absolut-nirvana-small-39593.jpg (19.04 KiB) Viewed 894 times
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Ron-The-Elder » Wed Mar 16, 2011 5:55 pm

It seems to me, based upon my own experience, that a desire to consume alcoholic beverages, or engage in other mood altering substances reveals an attachment and clinging. Since we already know the result of clinging, attachment, and desire, the point of continuing the practice would be what?: Exchange of short term pleasure for long term dukkha?
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Vardali » Wed Mar 16, 2011 8:08 pm

I really wonder how much Christian puritanism is involved in interpreting this precept?
I mean do our Asian posters here from a Buddhist cultural background interprete it with the same level of strictness or lenience as Western converts?
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Wed Mar 16, 2011 9:19 pm

retrofuturist wrote:I agree, but they only lead to intoxication in certain volumes... hence presumably why medicinal uses of alcohol in accordance with the Vinaya are permissible for bhikkhus. From that I think it's clear it's not a case of absolutes.
Medicines that contain alcohol are allowable, under strict conditions.
he Mahāvagga (VI.14.1) allows this medicine for use only as long as the taste, color, and smell of the alcohol are not perceptible.

It would be well to read the whole Vinaya Rule

Effort. The Vibhaṅga defines drinking as taking even as little as the tip of a blade of grass. Thus taking a small glass of wine, even though it might not be enough to make one drunk, would be more than enough to fulfill this factor.
If he does not know that it is alcohol, it is still an offence.

The interpretation of the wording of the precepts is clear enough. The application of it varies widely both in Asia and in the West. All devout Buddhists are Teetotallers. Not all Buddhists are devout. Puritanical is a nasty word to use — it smacks of self-righteousness. The precepts are for one's own benefit, not for imposing on others. How strictly anyone wants to observe them is their own free choice. If you have a beer even if you're dying of thirst, then you broke the precept — that should be clear enough.

If we apply the same flexibility to the other four precepts where will the lines be drawn?
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Ben » Wed Mar 16, 2011 9:46 pm

Greetings Bhante,
Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:If he does not know that it is alcohol, it is still an offence.

I would appreciate clarification on this point as it seems to be at odds with my own understanding. If there is no intention to break the sila, then where is the wrong-doing? Certainly if one encourages others to drink or speaks in praise of drinking, then I can see the wrong doing. But if one is oblivious to the fact that whatever he or she is drinking contains alcohol, and only discovers it later, then where is the wrong doing in that?
kind regards

Ben
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Mar 16, 2011 10:05 pm

Greetings Ben,

There's probably pragmatic reasons for it. Imagine this...

"Oh dear, I had no idea this drink had alcohol in it... (wink, wink)... those naughty, naughty laypeople giving me inadmissable offerings (wink, wink, guffaw, hic)"

If it's a Vinaya offence regardless, it cuts out the wink winks and encourages monks to be vigilant about such offerings.

As an aside, the impact of lack of sleep on mindfulness (think about road safety advertising, for example) is often said to exceed that of a small amount of alcohol. I'm sure you've been less mindful before at 2am than after a 0.5% beer during the day.... and mindfulness is whole the point, yes?

I would see sila as a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Mettam
Retro. :)
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Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Bhikkhu Pesala » Wed Mar 16, 2011 10:28 pm

Ben wrote:I would appreciate clarification on this point as it seems to be at odds with my own understanding. If there is no intention to break the sila, then where is the wrong-doing?
What if a man meets a woman, who says she's unattached, and sleeps with her, but she is married, where is the wrong-doing? Or, if one receives stolen goods not knowing that they're not stolen. Or if a monk eats after midday, not knowing what time it is.

Isn't there a duty of care to check about such things? Either way, if one doesn't check, and others see what one has done, they will blame us anyway. So take care.
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby daverupa » Wed Mar 16, 2011 10:40 pm

Bhikkhu Pesala wrote:Either way, if one doesn't check, and others see what one has done, they will blame us anyway. So take care.


A lot of Buddhist morality seems tied to this sort of approach, especially Vinaya origin stories which have upset laypeople as the source of a rule. Comportment is very important if donated necessities are one's livelihood - and, for a layperson who may or may not be seen as a representative of the Sangha, comportment will matter to greater or lesser degrees depending on whether or not the Dhamma will be disparaged via a perceived moral laxity.
    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Ben » Wed Mar 16, 2011 11:06 pm

Thank you Venerable and Paul

Paul I'm talking about a situation where a person is vigilant but doesn't hav the intention to break sila. A similar situation would be driving in the car and unbeknownst to the driver kills small insects. As I said earlier, my understanding is that intention to break the sila is a key element. Unfortunately I don't hav the time to track down the textual source which ennumerates how sila is broken. Respectfully I disagree with your post and I suggest that if one intends to drink alcohol and if one drinks a drop, then the precept is broken. You are right that the precepts are not an end in themselves but they are an important foundation for the development of sammasamadhi and panna. How one attends to sila conditions the development of samadhi and panna.

Dear Bhante,
What if a man meets a woman, who says she's unattached, and sleeps with her, but she is married, where is the wrong-doing?
Breach of the third precept, in my humble opinion, regardless of whether she is married or not. But if he knew that the woman was married then it is weightier.
Or, if one receives stolen goods not knowing that they're not stolen.
Certainly guilty of taking that which is not freely given if the receiver knew the goods were stolen. If however, he did not know, I don't see how the precept is broken.
Or if a monk eats after midday, not knowing what time it is.
Then surely he is only guilty of not knowing what time it is. Incidentally, what do monks do at mealtimes when they are in-flight and crossing multiple time-zones?
Isn't there a duty of care to check about such things? Either way, if one doesn't check, and others see what one has done, they will blame us anyway.
Absolutely, I couldn't agree more. I'm not talking of a situation of a lazy person or someone who takes advantage of a situation where alcohol could be served by someone who doesn't know one has taken the fifth precept. Perhaps the blame in many situations is the result of the defilements in the other person's mind rather than anything to do with our one's own behaviour. I thought the consideration of blame is when it arises in the mind of the 'wise'.

It seems to me that if one breaks sila when the intention was not present then it appears, and perhaps I am very wrong, to conform to the teachings of jainism rather than buddhism. And so, the crux of my enquiry is really in relation to the role of intention in sila.

So take care
Thank you. I do to the very best of my ability. And I wish you well too.
kind regards

Ben
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby retrofuturist » Wed Mar 16, 2011 11:20 pm

Greetings Ben,

Ben wrote:Respectfully I disagree with your post and I suggest that if one intends to drink alcohol and if one drinks a drop, then the precept is broken.

Oh, I don't disagree with that - certainly the precept is broken, no arguments there... but the precepts (as an embodiment of sila) are, as we both agree, a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Again, take your 0.5% beer... if that consumed on a day where you did several hours meditation, would that be a better day (in terms of benefit/outcome) than a day with zero alcohol content where you indulged mindlessly in sense pleasures, but without breaking sila/precepts.

My point is that the issue of "unbeknownst wrongdoing" for a lay-person is neither here nor there. What matters is the benefit/outcome. And what is the outcome? In your case, a small amount of alcohol was consumed which had a correspondingly small detrimental impact on mindfulness for a short period of time. That is what matters, because that's what happened, regardless of intention, in natural law and experience. Precept and sila is a construct to support good natural outcomes, but it is just that... a construct, an abstraction, a framework - it does not exist in natural law and experience. Spoken another way, where does a precept or sila fit in relation to the five aggregates of experience? How does a precept or sila fit in relation to the six senses?

I suspect you'll find more rewarding answers by delving in and analysing your question from the framework of the five aggregates, than by judging yourself against some psuedo-Vinaya criteria.

Metta,
Retro. :)
If you have asked me of the origination of unease, then I shall explain it to you in accordance with my understanding:
Whatever various forms of unease there are in the world, They originate founded in encumbering accumulation. (Pārāyanavagga)


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One who is such, calmed and ever mindful, He has no sorrows! -- Udana IV, 7


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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Ben » Thu Mar 17, 2011 12:11 am

Hi Retro
Thanks for that reply. I'm in the middle of a huge cooking session so I'll be brief...
To be clear, I am not trying to judge myself. Certainly I am using an example of my recent past experience but I'm merely seeking clarification on what Venerable said and that has to do with the role of intention in sila. And I am seeking clarification so as to assess and correct my own understanding.

As for exploring the nexus between my own query and the five aggregates - that is an interesting avenue of investigation but not one I can attend to immediately. Perhaps later.
Anyway, garlic and ginger are calling me away...
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Mawkish1983 » Thu Mar 17, 2011 9:55 pm

Ben wrote:Anyway, garlic and ginger are calling me away...
...and soy sauce and a tiny bit of lemon? Sounds tasty... mmmmmmmmmmmmmm intoxicating
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Ben » Fri Mar 18, 2011 5:50 am

Hi Mawk,
Mawkish1983 wrote:
Ben wrote:Anyway, garlic and ginger are calling me away...
...and soy sauce and a tiny bit of lemon? Sounds tasty... mmmmmmmmmmmmmm intoxicating
Yesterday's cooking session called for freshly roasted and ground cumin and chilli which was mixed with garlic and ginger as a marinade paste for chicken which was sealed in canola and butter, water and fruit chutney added and simmered with oregano and parsley. Precooked for 90 people who will cook their own cous cous and reheat their chicken and chutney mix.
Anyway, it appears my enquiry regarding the role of intention in breaking sila still has not been picked up by anyone.
kind regards

Ben
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Mawkish1983 » Fri Mar 18, 2011 7:05 am

Ben wrote:Anyway, it appears my enquiry regarding the role of intention in breaking sila still has not been picked up by anyone.
Sorry Ben, I'm really not qualified to answer.

I found retro's answer about fatigue being more damaging to mindfulness than a little alcohol really intruiging, which is why I tried [rather clumsily] to link the idea of intoxication to other non-alcoholic elements, such as food.

Anyway, I suppose the question was about alcohol so I'm :offtopic:

Sorry
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby ground » Fri Mar 18, 2011 7:34 am

Stefan wrote:If you are thirsty but there's nothing in the fridge except beer, and tap water is undrinkable, would alcohol be allowed in that case?


I guess the meaning of "thirsty" is relative. There might be the possibility to discover that "thirsty" actually is not that "thirsty" as it appeared when not observing mindfully and that there actually is occasion to wait for alternative drinks becoming available


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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby meindzai » Fri Mar 18, 2011 1:17 pm

Ben wrote:Anyway, it appears my enquiry regarding the role of intention in breaking sila still has not been picked up by anyone.
kind regards

Ben


Ben,

My impression is that the expectations of Sila for monks is simply so much higher than those set out in the precepts for laypeople. They call for a degree of vigilance, attention, and mindfulness that is exceedingly difficult to maintain perfectly, especially considering all the rules that are given.

I won't say where or who, but I once stayed at a monastery where I met a monk that I got along with very well, but he was a tad on the "spacey" side. He actually reminded me of myself, if I had become a monk. I saw him reprimanded a few times for minor offenses, none of which seemed a matter of "intent" as much as a lack of carefulness of mindfulness. It got me thinking a lot about what the expectations are for a monastic, and what it means to be expected to have such a high degree of vigilance.

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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby meindzai » Fri Mar 18, 2011 1:24 pm

Here's something in Thanissaro Bhikkhu's "The Buddhist Monastic Code" that addresses "intention." Emphasis mine.

http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/auth ... .ch01.html

Offenses. In analyzing offenses for the purpose of determining penalties, the Vibhaṅga divides an action into five factors: the effort, the perception under which it is made, the intention motivating it, the object at which it is aimed, and the result. In some of the rules, all five factors play a role in determining what is and is not a full offense. In others, only two, three, or four play a role. For example, under the pārājika rule forbidding murder, all five factors have to be present for a full offense: The object has to be a human being, the bhikkhu has to perceive him/her as a living being, he has to have murderous intent, he has to make an effort for the person to die, and the person has to die.

If any of these factors is missing, the penalty changes. For instance, object: If the bhikkhu kills a dog, the penalty is a pācittiya. Perception: If he cremates a friend, thinking that the friend is dead, then even if the friend is actually alive but severely comatose, the bhikkhu incurs no penalty. Intention: If he accidentally drops a rock on a person standing below him, he incurs no penalty even if the person dies. Effort: If he sees a person fall into the river but makes no effort to save the person, he incurs no penalty even if the person drowns. Result: If he tries to kill a person, but only succeeds in injuring him, he incurs a thullaccaya.

In some rules, though, the factors of intention, perception, and result do not make any difference in determining offenses. For example, if a bhikkhu is sleeping alone in a room and a woman comes in and lies down in the room with him, he incurs the pācittiya for lying down in the same lodging as a woman even though his intention was to lie down alone and he was unaware of her presence. A bhikkhu who drinks a glass of wine, thinking it to be grape juice, incurs the pācittiya for taking an intoxicant all the same. A bhikkhu who tries to frighten another bhikkhu incurs a pācittiya regardless of whether the other bhikkhu is actually frightened.

Of these factors, intention is the most variable. Under some rules, it deals simply with the issue of whether the bhikkhu's action was fully deliberate. In others, it deals with the impulse, the mental state, e.g., anger or lust, impelling his action. In others, it deals with the immediate aim of this action; in others, with the underlying motive that the immediate aim is intended to serve. In still others, it deals with combinations of any of these four.

Another variation is that in rules where a bhikkhu may be put into a passive role in committing an act that would fulfill the factor of effort, the factor of intention is changed to consent: mental acquiescence to the act combined with a physical or verbal expression of that acquiescence. Under some rules, such as the rule against sexual intercourse, simply letting the act happen counts as physical acquiescence even if one lies perfectly still, and the question of whether one incurs a penalty depends entirely on the state of one's mind. Under other rules, though — such as the rule against lustful contact with a woman, which includes cases where the woman is the agent making the contact — simply lying still is not enough to count as a physical sign of acquiescence, and even if one consents mentally, say, to a woman's fondling, one would incur a penalty only if one says something or responds with a physical movement to her action.

Because of the many variations possible in the factor of intention, it might be argued that it should be consistently divided into such sub-factors as presence or absence of deliberation, impulse, immediate aim, and motive. However, the Vibhaṅga itself is not consistent in distinguishing among these three. Under Pr 3 and Sg 1, for instance, it clearly distinguishes among them, in that impulse and motive play no part in determining the offense in question, whereas deliberation and immediate aim do. Under Sg 8 and 9, however, the impulse — anger — is conflated under motive: the desire to see another bhikkhu expelled from the Saṅgha. In fact, under most rules the Vibhaṅga does not make a clear distinction among these sub-factors, so it seems artificial to force a consistent distinction throughout. Thus the approach followed here is to place these considerations under one heading — intention — and to alert the reader to the distinctions among them only when important...

...Although it may seem harsh to impose penalties for unintentional actions, we must again reflect on the state of mind that leads to such actions. In some acts, of course, the intention makes all the difference between guilt and innocence. Taking an article with intent to return it, for example, is something else entirely from taking it with intent to steal. There are, however, other acts with damaging consequences that, when performed unintentionally, reveal carelessness and lack of circumspection in areas where a person may reasonably be held responsible. Many of the rules dealing with the proper care of Community property and one's basic requisites fall in this category. Except for one very unlikely situation, though, none of the major rules carry a penalty if broken unintentionally, while the minor rules that do carry such penalties may be regarded as useful lessons in mindfulness.


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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Moth » Fri Mar 18, 2011 4:41 pm

Perhaps there is some loophole case where one can drink, or perhaps there may be some reasonable justification for it at a certain moment, but ultimately what's the point? One drinks alcohol (non-medically) because of tanha. The whole point of our practice is to uproot tanha. Even if one did not want to drink, but had to due to some social obligation they are still doing so because of tanha--if not for the liquor then for their being-for-others/sakkaya ditthi.
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Re: Is alcohol allowable in certain cases?

Postby Viscid » Fri Mar 18, 2011 7:11 pm

Sometimes I don't know whether the strict adherence to the precepts that is advocated by fundamentalist Buddhists are a product of incredible piety or incredible neuroticism. I question why having such a restrictive interpretation of the precepts would be so instrumental in the development of concentration, wisdom and insight.

[Ananda:] "What, O Venerable One, is the reward and blessing of wholesome morality?"

[The Buddha:] "Freedom from remorse, Ananda."


It would seem to me that how strictly one should interpret the precepts would depend on whether or not one's interpretation reliably prevents them from experiencing remorse. If you are not remorseful drinking a single beer, and it does not result in unwholesome action or mindlessness, then what's the harm?
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