One of the biggest challenges for me since I disrobed is to find a healthy relationship to the issue of alcohol. Several of my lay Buddhist friends have expressed surprise that this should be an issue for me, especially since I went twenty years in the monastery without a drop of alcohol and it was never a problem. One friend said that she has had no inclination or interest to drink over the past 25 years because she values the quality of mindfulness and alertness so much. Another friend said she wouldn’t consider drinking because the Buddha made it so clear in the teaching on the five precepts that drinking is ‘wrong conduct.’
Venerable Nyanaponika Thera once emphasized that Buddhist ethics are ‘experiential.’ In this vein, the moral injunctions or rules in Buddhist practice are usually referred to as ‘precepts’ rather than ‘commandments.’ Granted, the word ‘precept’ originally meant ‘admonishment,’ in the sense that a person is ‘taken before’ ostensibly an external judge. We could also, however, say that a person is ‘taken before’ himself, that is we all must face our own conscience.
Ajahn Payutto explains the relationship of this fifth precept to the other four, by saying that an abuse (and many would argue a ‘use’) of alcohol makes a person heedless and prone to commit the other four offenses: of killing/harming, stealing, sexual impropriety, and wrong speech. Of course this is often the case, as any study on say domestic violence or car accidents would validate.
Like with any other Buddhist teaching, our invitation and task is to be a witness, to see how this teaching has a bearing on our daily life and to verify the process of cause and effect. What is the consequence of drinking alcohol, even if no one else is obviously harmed by our actions? If one is under the influence of alcohol, how does one respond to the prospect of formal meditation, for instance of meditating on the breath? Does one experience any resistance? By investigating in these ways, one learns from one’s experience.