Adam: I’ve heard two interpretations of the precept of “abstaining from alcohol.” Basically: “Don’t drink at all.” and the other interpretation of “drink, but don’t get drunk.”
I’m just curious what the texts say,
“suraamerayamajjapamaada.t.thaanaa verama.nii sikkhaapada.m samaadiyaami.”
We have had one proposed translation of this from Kåre: “I undertake the training precept of abstaining from the condition of intoxication and carelessness caused by beer and cider (or, alcoholic drinks),”
which he then interprets as enjoining moderation, or abstention from intoxication, rather than abstention from alcohol itself.
I disagree with both Kåre’s translation of the precept and his interpretation of it. Let me start by taking up his challenge to supply a grammatically plausible parsing and translation that would support the abstinence interpretation.
To do so I will use Nyanamoli’s rendering from his translation of the Majjhima Nikaaya, which I’m satisfied conveys the precept’s meaning faithfully:
“I undertake the rule of training to abstain from liquor, wine, and intoxicants, which are the basis of negligence.”
I don’t know how Nyanamoli himself arrived at this rendering, but I would do so like this:
1. First I would divide the compound ‘suraamerayamajjapamaada.t.thaanaa’ into two sub-compounds: ‘suraamerayamajja’ and ‘pamaada.t.thaanaa’. I take the relationship between these two halves to be an appositional one, wherein ‘pamaada.t.thaanaa’ states in brief what is to be abstained from, while ‘suraamerayamajja’ specifies it in detail. In English the relationship between the two halves will be indicated by some phrase such as ‘namely’, ‘that is to say’, ‘consisting in’ or (as Nyanamoli renders it) ‘which is/are’.
2. I agree with Kåre that ‘suraa’ and ‘meraya’ denote two kinds of alcoholic drink. In the commentaries suraa is said to be of five kinds: “flour liquor, cake liquor, rice liquor, liquor containing yeast, and liquor mixed with condiments.” And ‘meraya’ is likewise given as five kinds: “flower wine, fruit wine, sugar wine, honey wine, and that mixed with condiments.” Some modern scholars have arrived at other definitions based upon a survey of the use of these terms in the broader Indian context. But both approaches issue in the same general conclusion, namely, that taken together ‘suraa’ and ‘meraya’ encompass all alcoholic substances intended to be drunk for the pleasure of intoxication, while excluding alcohol intended for other purposes, for example as a paint-thinner or an ingredient in medicine.
3. Coming to ‘majja’, I see three plausible construals:
3.a. As an adjective qualifying both ‘suraa’ and ‘meraya’: “intoxicating
liquors and intoxicating
3.b. As a noun used appositively with ‘suraa’ and ‘meraya’: “liquors that are intoxicants
and wines that are intoxicants
3.c. As the third noun in an enumerative compound: “liquors and wines and substances that intoxicate
4. I take pamaada.t.thaanaa to be a genitive dependent-determinative compound in the ablative case: “from the basis/cause of negligence/heedlessness.”
5. I have no disagreement with Kåre regarding the remaining words in the precept.
6. And so on this parsing fairly literal translations might go:
A. “I undertake the rule of training [that is] abstinence from the basis of negligence, [consisting in] intoxicating liquors and intoxicating wines.”
B. “I undertake the rule of training [that is] abstinence from the basis of negligence, [consisting in] liquors that are intoxicants and wines that are intoxicants.”
C. “I undertake the rule of training [that is] abstinence from the basis of negligence, [consisting in] liquors, wines and intoxicants.”
Nyanamoli’s translation is then simply a more idiomatic rendering of C.
Translated in this way, clearly the precept is to be interpreted as involving abstinence from alcohol itself, and not the state of intoxication and negligence to which alcohol leads.
And so we have two grammatically feasible parsings of the precept, mine and Kåre’s, which issue in conflicting interpretations. That being so, clearly grammatical analysis by itself is not adequate to demonstrate the precept’s meaning. At best we can use it to rule out some of the more far-fetched proposals (e.g., Roshi Kennett’s interpretation that it means abstaining from selling
Are there any other grounds for determining its meaning?
For those who trust the commentaries there can be no doubt at all that complete abstinence is enjoined, for in the commentarial view the consumption of even small amounts of alcohol is described as “involving blame” (savajja).
Likewise, for abhidhammikas there can be no doubt that complete abstinence is enjoined, for in the Abhidhamma the aaramma.na of the fifth precept is stated to be a ruupa dhamma. Alcoholic drinks are ruupa dhammas; intoxication and negligence are naama dhammas; therefore the object abstained from is alcoholic drinks, not intoxication and negligence.
For Sutta-only Theravaadins I suppose the matter might be a doubtworthy one, for I’m not aware of any Sutta passages that provide unambiguous support to either the abstinence or the moderation interpretation.
and how we should reconcile this with cultural and geographical norms.
I would say that the proper course is to evaluate these norms in the light of Dhamma, rejecting whatever in them is akusala and keeping in mind that the Dhamma goes against the stream.
Correct me if I’m wrong but the buddha only established this training rule after one of his followers was rewarded by villagers with alcohol for defeating a powerful naga, correct?
It’s true that this is the circumstance that led to the Buddha laying down the prohibition against alcohol for bhikkhus. However, as with any Vinaya training rule, its purpose is not to be limited to merely that of preventing the recurrence of the particular scenario that led to its being established. And in any case, this doesn’t have any bearing on the fifth precept for householders, which was expounded by the Buddha in a variety of ways and contexts.
Now, what logic is being used by the more northern monks who practice drinking?
Among some Tibetan Buddhists the logic goes something like this:
1. All kammically akusala actions are included in the list of ten unwholesome courses of action (akusala kammapa.tha): taking life, taking what is not given, misconduct in sense-pleasures, false speech, divisive speech, harsh speech, frivolous speech, covetousness, malice, and wrong view.
2. The consumption of alcohol is not
included in the list of ten akusala kammapa.thas.
3. Therefore consuming alcohol is not in itself kammically akusala. (from 1 & 2)
4. Since consuming alcohol was discommended by the Buddha, it must in some
sense be blameworthy.
5. An act may be blameworthy either because it leads to akusala kammapa.thas or because it is itself an akusala kammapa.tha, or both.
6. Since consuming alcohol is not itself an akusala kammapa.tha, it must be blameworthy because (and only because) it leads to akusala kammapa.thas. (from 3 & 5).
7. Not all consumption of alcohol is sufficient to give rise to the akusala kammapa.thas.
8. Therefore the fifth precept enjoins only abstention from consuming excessive
alcohol, i.e., alcohol in such a quantity that the akusala kammapa.thas may reasonably be expected to result.
The Tibetan argument wouldn’t have been accepted by the Theravadin commentators, although they would have differed over the precise grounds for rejecting it. Buddhaghosa and Dhammapaala would have accepted points 1-6, but rejected 7-8, since it was their view that even the minutest quantity of alcohol leads at least to mental akusala. Buddhadatta and Sumangalasaami would have rejected premise 2, since it was their view that consuming alcohol is
included in the akusala kammapa.thas under misconduct in sense-pleasures.