Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept?

Some years ago I wrote a piece entitled: “Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept?” It was posted on our old site and I apparently did not save a copy when we took that site down.

The gist of the essay was that the Buddha clearly and precisely indicated alcoholic beverages in the fifth precept. He did not say anything about any of the other mind altering substances that were almost certainly available in his day. Those other substances included at least some of the following: soma, amanita muscaria, psilocybin, Syrian Rue, opium, and cannabis. There may have been others. I don’t think anyone is sure what was available back then, but we know that soma was highly praised in ancient Indian literature and that it probably was a psychedelic substance.

As far as I know, all of the Buddhist traditions accept the Pali version of the fifth precept as authentic. It says: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” Or words to that effect.

A Sri Lankan Buddhist scholar and translator told me that his best rendition of the fifth precept in English is: “I take it upon myself to refrain from the heedlessness caused by fermented and distilled beverages.” Or “I take it upon myself to refrain from the irresponsible use of alcoholic beverages.” I may have words slightly off, but am quite certain that the essence is right.

Given the above, is it right to change the fifth precept to its more common modern form that often says something like the following: “I take it upon myself to refrain from all intoxicants.” Or “I take it upon myself to refrain from all intoxicants and all substances that may harm the body and mind.”

The purpose of this post is not to encourage the use of drugs or alcohol but rather to be clear about what the Buddha really meant.

Most of us know that the Buddha was a very careful and unambiguous speaker. Would he have said “fermented and distilled beverages” when he meant all intoxicants? Why then was he so careful to name both kinds of alcohol, but nothing else? Did he mean no alcohol or no irresponsible use of alcohol?

I am not going to answer these questions, but I will say that good practice entails thinking about everything and not just adopting rules someone has told us. By the way, if anyone has a copy of the essay I lost, please let me know. Thanks.

2 comments on “Are We Misunderstanding The Fifth Precept?

  1. Nick Skuse says:

    As a spiritual seaker and somebody who has recently adopted the Buddha Dharma thank-you for posting this. Almost every other thing I have read about the precepts (esp 5) is 1. dogmatic and not at all in line with the simplicity of the Dharma 2. is filled with ideologies generated by the media and modern thinking on what harms us and 3. argued by the most unfriendly of thinkers. Not that I intend dashing off for a bit of Opium or Cannabis, I just think that this is the most Buddhist teaching on the matter that I have come accross.

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