The fifth precept is refraining from alcohol and drugs (authentic medical need excluded) “that cause heedlessness.” I am inspired by this, as the last words of the Buddha are reputed to be “strive on with heedfulness.” This is something upon which we can deeply reflect—the need for sobriety and clarity of mind as requisites for the heedfulness highlighted in the Buddha’s last injunction as he lay dying. How can we practice heedfulness having ingested that which is designed to encourage heedlessness?
The Buddha in a sutta explains the reason for this precept: A man has a drink, spots a chicken in his neighbor’s backyard, steals it, kills the bird and lies about it. Drugs and alcohol can have cascading negative consequences.
I recognize the difference between those who are struggling with physical addiction and psychological dependence and those who imbibe for “social purposes.” I do not undertake to cover the complexities and nuances of this wise precept in this short column. I am deeply sympathetic to the damage that alcohol has done to families and friendships and the havoc it wreaks internally, and also recognize the depth of the struggle.
How to practice? We can recognize toxins already present in consciousness: craving, anger, confusion, fear, hatred, and despair. Our happiness and peace depend on our ability to transform them. In addition to restraint from alcohol and drugs, we can be mindful of the qualities of what we habitually ingest: films, books, magazines; and our conversations. We can vow to ingest only that which reinforces clarity, kindness and heedfulness.