Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
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Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Fifth Precept and Other Fun Things

Playing in the background: Deuter, "Sea and Silence"

Every now and then I think I'm maybe taking this Buddhism thing a little too serious. Is it possible to be too serious about one's religion? Well, if it is then I am. What I've tripped over this time are the Five Precepts, which are sort of a simplified Ten Commandments phrased as "I promise to refrain from" instead of "Thou shalt not". These are, of course, the Big Five for laypeople; monks and nuns have scads more, I think numbering in the hundreds, and I think part of the job of being a monk or nun is just memorizing the silly things, never mind living by them. Anyway, the Big Five things for laypeople to promise to refrain from are killing living beings, taking that which is not freely given (stealing), sexual misconduct, lying and abusing intoxicants. It's number five that's getting me into trouble this time, and I don't even drink.

Reason this comes up: My cow orkers and I went out to dinner Friday night. Copious amounts of alcohol were consumed by just about everybody except me. This was a fancy restaurant, drinks were on the house (or on my boss, more to the point) and everybody was having a good time. And then there was me, sipping my ginger ale and dodging diet Coke jokes. (It was such a classy joint that I thought it'd be rude of me to drink diet Coke. Besides, ginger ale is kind of amber colored, fizzy and could look like an alcoholic drink if you squinted at it really hard.) A colleague had ordered a dessert wine, and I asked if I could have a sniff of it because it smelled good. She then got annoyed that I didn't actually want a taste of the stuff, and snipped at me "one swallow won't get you drunk, for God's sake" and was, I think, mightily offended that I turned it down.

Hey; I used to drink. I remember liking dessert wine a lot, especially ice wine. And she's right, one swallow probably wouldn't have done any harm. Still, precept number five. And here's where I wonder if I'm maybe taking this too serious. It says to refrain from the abuse of intoxicants. One sip of ice wine is probably not abuse of anything. It wasn't likely to lead to the ordering of a glass of the stuff for myself, either, because that would have occasioned even more comment and I'd already had my fill of diet Coke and ginger ale jokes for the evening. I'd rather just be invisible at these gatherings.

So what is abuse of an intoxicant, anyway? Most Buddhists I know take it seriously, too, and don't drink at all. Some drink a little bit but avoid getting drunk. And some drink a lot, which is I guess a reasonable cross-section of the rest of humanity, never mind Buddhists. But there are good religious reasons for not drinking alcohol if you're a Buddhist. Alcohol basically undoes all the stuff you do when you're meditating. Sure, it's relaxing, but it's relaxing in exactly the wrong way. Instead of teaching you to let go of your troubles and tread the Middle Way, it instead suggests to you that your troubles don't exist at all and won't as long as you keep drinking. Which is basically false. Besides, most people who drink socially drink to "take the edge off" of a situation, such as a dinner out with co-workers, that they'd rather avoid. By skipping the drink and instead exploring in meditation why you'd rather avoid it, you do yourself more good in the long run. Or so goes the theory.

I have even better reasons for avoiding alcohol; it messes with my medication, and can in fact turn one of them toxic. But my cow orkers don't know about that. So they make jokes about diet Coke and ginger ale, and I cling to the Fifth Precept with fingernails and teeth - which, let's face it, is probably not what the Buddha had in mind. Still, it's worked all these years, so I think I'll plow ahead. Or drink to that, as they say. With ginger ale. Or diet Coke.

1 comment:

AuntSally said...

So, if you don't want to drink, don't. If it interferes with your medication then you certainly don't want to. Just say,"No thanks.", smile and start a conversation about something else. It's nobody's business why you don't want to drink unless you choose to make it so. Hang in there kid.