Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Pesky Fifth

I should not have had that second martini out on the patio last night. But at least it brought with it the benefit of having finally emptied the last dregs of the bottle of Ketel One vodka that has been sitting in the freezer since we bought it in preparation for the visit of my sons, a few weeks back. They preferred Scotch whiskey. So I have felt obliged, in the interests of non-wastefulness, to indulge in a small glass, a modest glass, each evening. Last night, out on the patio in the twilight with our good friends Brian and Mary, seemed like a good moment to apply the finishing touches to the bottle.

The fifth Buddhist precept, for those unaware of these guidelines for good living, is that which enjoins us to "abstain from fermented drink that leads to heedlessness." And that includes, as I understand it, all non-medical artificial stimulants. Unlike the locally more famous Ten, the precepts are not Commandments; they are more "thou shallt do better if..." than "thou shallt not." They include, of course, abstention from taking life, from taking that which does not belong to you, from false or idle speech, and from harmful sexual activity. The fifth, quoted above, is the one that gives me the most difficulty because I do like a good glass of wine. Well, the truth is, it's a precept I have chosen not to observe. As I say fairly frequently, I lay no claim to being a Buddhist.

As I say, I do enjoy the pleasures of a glass of wine. They include not only the sophisticated taste and the enhancement it brings to the tastes of a good meal, but also the pleasant buzz that distances us just a little bit from the daily woes; and the warmth of friendship, the softening of the barriers of social propriety, that familiar merriness. All of which, of course, are basically illusory. And with age comes an increased awareness of the less welcome effects of booze: the feeling of bloat that seems to follow even a single glass of wine these days; the losing battle with that spread around the waist; the dehydration that ensues, causing a more restless and shallower sleep. Not to mention the addling of the brain, that "heedlessness" the precept refers to, the waking up with a mind that is not as clear and ready to go to work as one might like.

So I know the principle behind the precept is sound. Actions, as the Buddha also said, have consequences. If one is to be "healthy and wise"--forget the "wealthy"!--abstinence from alcohol makes very good sense. As do the other precepts, if not as a moral code, simply as a guide to a healthy life in mind and body. Here's an excellent essay by Thanissaro Bhikkhu which argues the case with his customary wisdom, impeccable logic, compassion, and clarity. "The Buddha," he starts, "was like a doctor, treating the spiritual ills of the human race. The path of practice he taught was like a course of therapy for suffering hearts and minds." As the Christians say, Amen to that!

So that pesky fifth does make good sense to me. But then, like most of my fellow human beings, I'm a creature full of contradictions, and I too often fail to do what I know is best for me. At least the bottle of Ketel One is gone!


Paul said...

A few months ago there was a heated discussion about the the Fifth Precept. Blogger A wrote a thoughtful piece on the importance of Number 5. Blogger B seemed to see it as a personal attack on his behavior (it wasn't) by the "Dharma Police." Blah, blah, blah as Blogger C jumps in with "Who do you think you are telling me I can't have a beer or smoke a joint now and then and not be a Buddhist?"

Buddhism is a way of life, not a set of dogmas and rules that must be followed or else. There is no external agent who will judge a person as a "good" or "bad" Buddhist.

Instead, there is the law of cause and effect. The precepts - if one chooses to follow them (and it's always a choice) - protects not only the person following them, but everyone else.

By not drinking, for example, you ensure that you will not do anything that will cause harm to yourself or others through inadvertent heedlessness caused by the effects of alcohol. In other words it would be impossible to cause harm to oneself or others through an alcohol-induced heedless act if one didn't ingest alcohol. No cause, no effect. That's what all the precepts are about.

Come to think of it, that's what all of Buddhist practice is about: ending the causes that produce effects.

TaraDharma said...

I've got a couple of friends who are Buddhist. ordained, practicing teachers at a zen center, and they enjoy their Sunday roast beef every week. This one act gave me immense understanding.

your description of the lulling effects of alcohol are spot on...a little goes a long way, too much makes one regret the first drink!

PeterAtLarge said...

An eloquently expressed view, Paul. I'd expect no less, from an elegant thinker! I like the conciseness of that last para...

And Tara... yup. That second martini!

mandt said...

I'll drink to that! except I don't drink....