Vows, commitments and modern life: Pratimoksha vows: Abandoning intoxicants (alcohol)

To abandon taking intoxicants 

This includes drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or taking drugs.  This is often one of the toughest ones for us to follow.  The object of this vow is obviously any intoxicant, whether it is legal or not.  Some people ask the question whether caffeine counts, after all it is highly addictive and many people relate to it no differently than other drugs.  And if coffee is an intoxicant, then aren’t all of the centers and festivals and World Peace Cafes constantly encouraging others to break their Pratimoksha vows?

Some people don’t like the answer I am about to give, but I will give it anyways.  Yes, I think caffeine can be considered an intoxicant.  I think nothing is really an intoxicant from its own side and everything can be an intoxicant for us depending on how we relate to it.  Sugar is not an intoxicant from its own side, but if we adopt an addictive attitude towards it, then for us I would way it is and likewise should be brought under control.  Likewise, many people get addicted to porn.  This is a very common addiction in the modern world, especially with the ease of access on-line.  This too can be a form of intoxicant for us depending on how we relate to it.

Some objects, like cigarettes, alcohol and drugs are in a somewhat different category because there express purpose is to alter our mind.  This is the main point.  If we understand that our problem is our mind and alcohol and drugs help us change our mind, then can’t we argue that with them we are at least solving the right problem?  From one perspective, I guess we can say that.  But it is still a completely wrong thought.  Yes, we need to change our mind, but we need to change our mind with our mind.  We can think of our mind as like a muscle.  The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.  The more we become dependent upon other things to change our mind, the weaker that muscle becomes.  Ultimately, we need a very strong mind.  Further, alcohol and drugs function to render our mind uncontrolled.  Our goal is to make our mind controlled.  So these things may change our mind, but they do so in a way that makes our mind more uncontrolled, and thus they take us in the opposite direction of where we want to go.

Alcohol in particular generally just makes us stupid.  The reason why alcohol is so dangerous is it primarily functions to undermine our inhibitions.  Our inhibitions are often what hold us back from engaging in negativity.  If we harbor in our heart a good deal of negative impulses, then when we consume alcohol it erodes those inhibitions and our negativity is given free rein.  We all know stories.  Now, some people say that there is nothing wrong with being an occasional social drinker, especially if is done in moderation.  It is true that it is less bad, but that doesn’t necessarily make it good.  It is true that it is good to be social, but how will you grow more as a person, by using the crutch of alcohol or doing the deep inner work of overcoming those delusions which prevent you from being a socially engaged person?  I am now a diplomat and I attend quite a number of social gatherings where everyone – and I mean everyone – is drinking.  I walk around with a glass of water or even orange juice in my hand.  At first, I hated these gatherings because I have never liked parties.  But I forced myself to learn how to become socially engaged, to let go, relax and have a good time.  I learned how to be able to have a good conversation easily with anybody.  The secret to this is not complicated:  take a genuine interest in what others have to say.  Everyone has a lifetime worth of experiences waiting to be tapped, and all you need to do is be interested in finding out what they have to say.  Usually people only want to talk about themselves anyways, so it is not difficult to get the conversations started, and what you will find is because you have all of your mental faculties about you, you are better able to cherish the other person and occasionally pepper the conversation with some wisdom. 

Other people object saying, but having a glass of red wine every day has been medically proven to be good for your health.  I am not a doctor, so I can’t say whether this is true or not, but let’s just assume it is.  My question is simple:  isn’t moral discipline also good for your health?  Let’s take a wild exaggeration of the benefits of drinking a glass of wine every day and say it adds 10 years onto your human life.  Surely that is extraordinary, is it not?  Surely that is enough justification to do it.  But every time we engage in the practice of moral discipline we create the substantial karmic cause for a rebirth in the upper realms, for example as a human.  If we assume an average lifespan of 80 years, what extends our experience of human life more, the 10 years or the 80?  And, just to take this a little further, if you practice this moral discipline every day from age 21 to 80, then that is 21,535 instances of moral discipline, each one of which creates the cause for at least another human rebirth of say 80 years, then keeping this vow will extend our experience of human life by 1,722,800 years!  Do the math.  Logic doesn’t lie. 


8 thoughts on “Vows, commitments and modern life: Pratimoksha vows: Abandoning intoxicants (alcohol)

  1. The key words are:
    Affect to ‘have an effect on’.
    Effect ‘change’.

    How do these things affect me? How does it affect my happiness?
    What effect does this have on my behaviour towards myself and others? What type of effect will it bring about?

    We can look at it in terms of our well-being and happiness: Temporary happiness, future happiness & infinite happiness.

    There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with wanting a bit of temporary happiness, which is stimulated by worldly pleasures: Alcohol, smoking, drugs, sex, rock & roll. These things can be secondary causes of happiness. I rejoice when I see others enjoying themselves at the pub or with friends. I rejoice because it is illusory-like happiness. People crave happiness yet attachment is ‘wrong’ because it says, ‘happiness is outside the mind’, which is of course it is not.

    Future happiness: Well we might not want to drink because we might get fat, spend too much or our health may suffer. We may smoke but be concerned about getting cancer. We may also see the benefit of stopping these things so that in future our well-being and happiness are more important. This is what we do with future lives.

    Infinite happiness: That actually depends on gaining control of our inner winds, not our delusions. However, the more bliss we experience inside, the less everything samsara offers us as a true cause of happiness.

    What is critical to understand is that everyone in samsara is being tortured, it’s heart-breaking. They have no real happiness.
    As a practitioner, we have 2 choices when we see others engaging in physical actions. We can view them with a positive Dharma mind or not. This means that we can learn and let it affect our happiness and move forward or we become more entrenched in our own samsara.

    As a Kadampa, we take the middle way. We avoid extremes. Every being has a different capacity. The only judge of our actions is karma. Accepting where we are at and where others are at is a vital part of ours and their escape.

    If we judge others in a self-important way, we actually increase our pride and so forth. We can change ourselves gradually and peacefully, until all we will need is profound Mahamudra.

    • Great comment, thanks as always. The only thing I would add is we should never judge other people’s moral choices. We should only look at our own. When somebody is at the pub or whatever, we should never judge them. We likewise shouldn’t ever judge Dharma practitioners who still seem to be doing these things. When we judge them, it just makes them feel bad and want to reject the Dharma and us. That helps nobody. Instead, we just focus on our own behavior, practice moral discipline according to our capacity, etc. What others do is their business, and their business alone.

    • Hi Dharma General,

      My question is regarding the following paragraph.

      —Infinite happiness: That actually depends on gaining control of our inner winds, not our delusions. However, the more bliss we experience inside, the less everything samsara offers us as a true cause of happiness.—

      What is the relation between delusions and inner winds control in order to achieve happiness? I understand delusions are the contaminated feelings towards certain objects, like I can see an iPhone with attachment towards it, or just like a bunch of parts denominated iphone without the necessity of possessing it to be happy. On the other hand I understand winds move our mind from one object to the next so it makes sense if I control these winds, I no longer would give inappropriate attention to objects that give arise to delusions, so I fail to understand the relation between these two..

      I hope my question is clear, but if not it shows a little bit on my confusion.

      • Hi Jose,

        It’s almost impossible, but still possible, to attain enlightenment using Sutra alone which focuses more on delusions.

        Tantra goes straight to understanding that if your inner energy winds are pure, then all minds that arise will be pure. And since minds ride the inner winds, the easiest way to attain enlightenment is to learn how to control and purify our winds.

        Negative conceptions are supported by the impure winds via the peripheral channels, so all delusions flow through them, unlike the central channel which supports pure winds.

        All delusions are tainted by the gross conceptions of dualistic appearance. So this means they are still imagined by mind as existing as completely independent of mind. These conceptions actually disappear when our winds are pure ie when they flow through the central channel.

        So until we gain control over the winds, we pretty much will always experience a type of subtle inappropriate attention since pretty much all objects we experience are contaminated by ignorance. We live in a mind of ignorance, entrenched in it.

        In Tantra we do not need to control our delusions. Thats not our goal. We use our winds to generate spontaneous great bliss and realise the union of the two truths. This is the heart practice of Mahamudra.

  2. Exactly. Alcohol doesn’t make us stupid. Attachment is stupid.
    And people only want to talk about themselves is a myth. The object that humans grasp most is their ‘I’ but most people just want to have fun 😉

  3. But we all know, the key to having fun is to poke fun at your illusory ‘I’ it’s this I that inhibits living beings, protecting and cherishing something that does not exist. Creating the lack of openess and warmth for genuine connection because it wants to be separate. Alcohol can be an escape, i guess. The real freedom comes from seeing the illusory ‘I’ and changing its basis.

  4. As someone about to take Pratimoksha vows I am really enjoying and appreciating the practical way you are presenting them. I can be too easy to merely take them at face value and as you point out they have implications in just about everything we do!
    Please keep your erudite and entertaining thoughts coming!
    Best wishes,

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