A short section from our upcoming book Wisdom in Buddhism
Do not take Intoxicants
Intoxicants have been with humanity for a very long time; caffeine, tobacco, peyote, alcohol, hallucinogenic mushrooms, cocaine, marijuana, etc. Why is this so? Why have so many intoxicants been used by even our earliest, ancient ancestors? Why has humanity spent so much time and energy seeking them out?
It might simply be that (as we will discuss in the Chapter 11.1 The Four Noble Truths) life as a human being is very hard. We suffer in one form or another almost every day. Modern man suffers from work stress, family stress, urban stress, financial stress, looking after ageing parents stress, etc. It’s very stressful and we almost always want to be doing something else, feeling something else or feel like we are someone else. Our brain drives us crazy thinking of ways to be anywhere, other than in the here and now. The brain works its way back to the past and rushes ahead to the future, but it just can’t stay in the present moment without a lot of work, for the present moment may be too stressful.
That’s where intoxicants come in. They give us the illusion (emphasis on illusion ) of escaping to another, better place. Another time or another state. They often, but not always, numb our feelings and our emotions, making the stress of everyday living seemingly easier to take.
They can also be a social undertaking, in the same way that some people gather for a meal, others gather to take intoxicants. “Grabbing a beer,” after work is so common that bars will often have a “happy hour” to entice regular customers to consume alcohol at their premisses. In Venice, they have their cicchetti bar crawl (shadow walk, turning of the shadow or giro d’ombra) for workers on their way home. They stop in a number of these bars, eat tasty morsels from toothpicks and wash it down with a glass of wine.
In North America, high school students will often gather after hours, out behind the school at 4:20 to smoke marijuana before their extracurricular school activities or before going home. Getting on the Yonge 97b bus at 8:20am here in Toronto, it’s clear a lot of students enjoy their marijuana before school, for you can smell it on their clothes and see them smoking up at the corner of Yonge and Montgomery.
Intoxicants, while offering the promise of escape, rarely present any real or lasting benefit to the user. Intoxicants muddle the mind and make thinking less clear. When thinking is not clear, we may more easily say unskillful words or enact unskillful deeds. We may drive our car dangerously. We may insult people. We may perform silly or embarrassing acts that we will have to apologize for next day. We may harm people or assault them while under the influence of intoxicants. This inability to think straight, brought about through the use of intoxicants, means that real wisdom is suppressed and the Johnny Walker wisdom (so well expressed in the song Closing Time, by Leonard Cohen) comes to the fore.
As I write this chapter, in January 2018, two Toronto police officers are in the news over intoxicants. Having intentionally eaten marijuana cookies (presumably found at a crime scene), they began hallucinating and had to call for backup. When the backup officers arrived, one of them slipped and fell on ice, breaking her ankle, requiring an ambulance. Rumours are circulating that one of the intoxicated officers found himself up a tree! Needless to say, but the officers have been suspended (with pay) and will likely face disciplinary action at the very least and job loss and possibly even criminal charges.
Taking intoxicants to ‘escape’ has dangers beyond simply muddled thinking and embarrassing behaviour. There are real risks that can lead to a dependency and addiction. Addiction can lead to major health problems and even death. Tragically, overdoses among addicts are all too common.
For the Buddhist monastic intoxicants are to be avoided for all the reasons listed above. When on the spiritual path, as part of a monastic community, one wants the mind clear, the thinking precise and leaving no room for doubt. Intoxicants would only negatively influence that mental clarity.
But what might this mean for the householder or lay person. Is it wrong to have a glass of wine or a beer with an evening meal? Is it inconsistent with Buddhist values to have a drink after work? These are questions that need to be grappled with, not just “in theory,” but in reality, for here in Ontario, Canada, marijuana is about to become a legal substance (July 1, 2018) with little restrictions placed on it’s acquisition or possession, although its use will generally fall under the same guidelines as alcohol or other intoxicants, esp. around legal age, driving and operating machinery and probably enforced by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.
Like most of the Buddhist doctrine, householders are not held to the same standard as monastics. While Buddhist monks are to avoid sexual contact, such is not the case for householders. Where meat is generally not eaten by Buddhist monks, lay persons are free to decided for themselves what to do. It seems to be the same with intoxicants - or at least alcohol. Having a glass of wine with your meal does not seem to bend, too greatly, any exhortations against consuming intoxicants. As a Theravada Buddhist myself, I will consume a glass of wine or beer, 2 or 3 times per week with the evening meal, but will not consume to the point of intoxication.
The wisdom in avoiding intoxicants is that we are left with clear and concise thinking. However it feels, intoxicants will only ever lessen our wisdom and increase our risk of exposure to long term mental and physical harm.
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