Are We Misunderstanding the Fifth Precept?

While poking around on the web, I came across some old pages from the original American Buddhist Net. The post below caught my eye and I thought I would repost it here. A link to the old post can be found here. That link loads somewhat slowly but it does load. Some comments at the end of the original page may be of interest to some readers. Please remember that the fifth precept is for lay Buddhists, not monastics who live by stricter rules. ABN

Some people say the fifth precept is concerned with alcohol. Some say alcohol and other intoxicants. Some say alcohol and other intoxicants that lead to “heedlessness.” Some say all intoxicants lead to heedlessness and that thus the fifth precept asks us to refrain from all of them.

A very fine Sri Lankan translator and Buddhist scholar personally told me that the fifth precept should be translated thus: “I take it upon myself to refrain from the irresponsible use of alcohol which can cause heedlessness.” I may have the words slightly off, but his point was refraining from “irresponsible use” of alcohol and that “irresponsible” means becoming “heedless.”

Bhikkhu Bodhi has this to say: The fifth precept reads: Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” The word meraya means fermented liquors, sura liquors which have been distilled to increase their strength and flavor. The world majja, meaning an intoxicant, can be related to the rest of the passage either as qualified by surameraya or as additional to them. In the former case the whole phrase means fermented and distilled liquors which are intoxicants, in the latter it means fermented and distilled liquors and other intoxicants. If this second reading is adopted the precept would explicitly include intoxicating drugs used non-medicinally, such as the opiates, hemp, and psychedelics. But even on the first reading the precept implicitly proscribes these drugs by way of its guiding purpose, which is to prevent heedlessness caused by the taking of intoxicating substances.

This reading gives two possible interpretations but then blends them into one by saying that however you look at it “the precept implicitly proscribes these drugs by way of its guiding purpose, which is to prevent heedlessness caused by the taking of intoxicating substances.” And this means that the Buddha was saying that all intoxicants should be avoided.

This all leads me to ask a few questions:

1. Do all “intoxicants” (loaded word) lead to heedlessness?

2. If the Buddha meant all “intoxicants,” why did he specify only alcohol? We all know that the Buddha was an extremely careful and precise speaker. Why then did he phrase the fifth precept this way–“I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.”? Why didn’t he say: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from all intoxicants”?

3. Were other intoxicants available in the Buddha’s day? I believe the answer to this is yes. We know that soma was considered as a God in the Vedas, and we can guess that soma was a drug of some kind, possibly the psychedelic mushrooms amanita muscaria or psilocybin. It could have been a mixture of those and other plants including Syrian Rue, cannabis, and/or opium. We may never know what soma was exactly, but we do know that it was highly praised and that it probably was some kind of plant or a mixture of plants. Widespread use of soma may have died out before the Buddha’s day, but that does not mean that soma, or something like it, was not used during his lifetime. We can be quite certain that amanita muscaria or psilocybin grew in that region (amanita in the woods, psilocybin in cow dung). We know that amanita is used today in Siberia, Mongolia, and probably Tibet. We know that psychedelic drugs were and are widely used throughout the Americas in traditional cultures. Wherever they are used traditionally – whether in Asia, Africa, Europe, or the Americas – they are described as teachers that lead to wisdom if used properly and only as “intoxicants” that lead to “heedlessness” if used improperly.

4. Would the Buddha have had access to these kinds of plants? I think it is almost certain that he would have.

5. Would he have used them? If he had access, which as a prince he must have, and if he were curious about his mind and the world (which surely he was), and if he lived at a time (which he did) when psychedelics were seen as wisdom plants, I think it is more than likely that he would have used them.

6. Now we are back to the first question with a little more oomph. If he did use them, why did he not specifically tell his followers to abstain from them? With less oomph, even if he did not use them, why did he not specifically tell his followers to abstain from them?

7. When Ashoka purged the Sangha, was the use of psychedelic drugs one of the practices he purged? Are the roots of esoteric Buddhism to be found in psychedelic plants? How far back in time do those roots reach?

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