A Pure Life: Abandoning Intoxicants (In particular alcohol and marijuana)

This is part nine of a 12-part series on how to skillfully train in the Eight Mahayana Precepts.  The 15th of every month is Precepts Day, when Kadampa practitioners around the world typically take and observe the Precepts.

One of our Mahayana precepts is to abandon 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 their 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.

Let’s talk about alcohol

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 does not 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 virtually 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 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 cannot 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 us 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. 

Let’s talk about marijuana

Some people agree that drinking alcohol just makes us stupid and taking hard drugs is just too dangerous, but they then ask what about marijuana?  People who have smoked almost all agree that it makes them more mellow and often gives them insights which are very similar and profound like what we realize with the Dharma.  There are also a great number of medical studies about the health benefits of this drug.  Let us face it, a very high percentage of Dharma practitioners have smoked pot in the past. 

Here the case is much harder, but still it is not worth it.  Why?  First, just as alcohol functions to undermine our inhibitions, marijuana functions to undermine our desire to do anything other than more marijuana.  This is true, and anybody who has smoked knows what I am talking about.  Conventionally, people usually all agree that people who regularly smoke have less ambition and drive than they used to.  Whenever free time arises, their first impulse is to light up.  As we know from the lamrim teachings, desire is everything.  All of the lamrim meditations are ultimately about building up within us an unquenchable desire for liberation and enlightenment.  Marijuana deflates our desires, and the more we smoke the less we desire anything else. 

Second, if we are even slightly prone to psychiatric disorders, marijuana is downright dangerous.  When I was in Geneva, there were three different practitioners who were mentally completely normal prior to smoking marijuana, but they had latent potentials for psychiatric disorders, and after smoking regularly for a period of time, they all three developed very serious psychiatric issues, so much so that all three of them have spent a fair amount of time in mental hospitals.  We do not know what latent potentialities we have lurking under the surface, and smoking could activate them.  Perhaps we have smoked a few times without a problem and therefore think we are immune to this problem.  But we never know if we are just one joint away from tripping over some invisible karmic wire we did not know was there.

Third, marijuana is a gateway drug.  It is like crossing the Rubicon, and once we have done so the other drugs which before we said we would never even consider trying suddenly no longer seem that different.  Marijuana seems to be OK, perhaps Ecstasy, opium, or a little blow might be OK too.  Geshe-la explains in the teachings on delusions that the easiest way to stop delusions is to do so early before they have gathered up steam.  Once we allowed them to run a little bit in our mind, they can seemingly take on a force of their own and become unstoppable in our mind.  It is the same with drugs.  Just as they say it is easier to attain enlightenment once we have become a human than it is to become a human if we have fallen into the lower realms, so too it is easier to avoid marijuana now than it is to avoid using other drugs once we have started using marijuana. 

Finally, sometimes people object saying that when they smoke marijuana it gives them deep insights into the Dharma, so how can that be bad.  Perhaps it is true that when we smoke up, suddenly emptiness makes sense.  We see all the connections between the different Dharma teachings.  Such experiences can quickly and easily be used to justify doing it some more “for valid Dharma reasons.”  So again, just like with the health benefits of drinking a glass of wine every day, let us assume for the sake of argument that there are deeper insights to be had by smoking marijuana.  Once again, my question is simple:  isn’t have a precious human life also good for gaining spiritual insights?  Every time we practice moral discipline for spiritual reasons, we create the karmic causes for an entire precious human life.  So what gives us greater opportunities to gain spiritual insights, 80 years worth of a precious human life or a few hours each week for 80 years?  And this is setting aside the fact that there are diminishing returns.  Perhaps the first time we get high we feel the subtle vibrations of the cosmos, but do we get that same feeling the 20th time we get high?  Eventually, it starts to do very little for us.  So again, let us assume you smoke once a week for your whole life.  By taking this vow, you will train in this moral discipline 3,120 times (assuming you are 20 and live until you are 80).  3,120 actions of moral discipline translates into 3,120 precious human lives or another 249,600 years’ worth of precious human existence.  What will give you the opportunity to gain greater spiritual insight, 250,000 years’ worth of precious human life or a few random insights from being high?  Again, math does not lie.

The final thing I want to address is the situation of what happens if despite all of the above, we are ready to take the Pratimoksha vows for everything except this one related to intoxicants.  We just can’t bring ourselves to do it.  Should we hold off on taking the vows?  I have heard some people within the tradition say yes.  This is wrong, and a dangerous wrong at that.  It runs exactly counter to everything Geshe-la teaches about the working gradually and skillfully with all of the vows.  It makes absolutely no sense to refrain from all moral discipline just because you cannot do one act of moral discipline perfectly.  How is that any better?  Now it is true that we cannot take all of the Pratimoksha vows except the one regarding intoxicants, we need to work with all of the vows, but we can work with each one at different levels according to our capacity.  Just as Buddha skillfully encouraged the butcher to no longer kill animals at night, so too we can skillfully promise to refrain from taking intoxicants in some circumstances, such as never do so while alone.  Or not on Tuesdays, whatever.  Start somewhere, and then gradually expand the scope.  What matters is that mentally you understand the value of moral discipline and you maintain the intention to one day keep even this vow purely.  It is better to get incomplete benefits from imperfect Pratimoksha vows than it is to get no benefit from no Pratimoksha vows.  So don’t let this wrong understanding prevent you from getting started on the path of improving your moral discipline.

One thought on “A Pure Life: Abandoning Intoxicants (In particular alcohol and marijuana)

  1. Thank you for sharing this context i really got to the upstanding of morel discipline
    Myself I have not dunk alcohol for many years now and enjoy all the dharma teachings the world needs to know the power of dharma on a daily basic and learn then lesson that are there for us all who wish to follow the teachings ❤️

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