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The Fifth Precept: The Power of Renunciation

By Gil Fronsdal

Renunciation is one of the most beneficial, empowering, and freeing practices of Buddhism. As its purpose is to heighten the best qualities of our hearts and minds, renunciation is not meant to diminish our lives but rather to enhance them. Abstaining from intoxicating drinks and drugs — the fifth ethical precept — is an important Buddhist practice that can reveal the power of renunciation.

On the surface, the fifth precept differs from the first four in being more personal than interpersonal. Killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, and lying all directly involve other people. In contrast, consuming intoxicating drinks and drugs is a personal choice that does not inherently affect others.

The immense personal and interpersonal damage that comes from alcohol and drugs is often invisible in the personal, seemingly innocuous decisions to consume them. This harm can be masked when intoxication, even mild inebriation, temporarily alleviates pain and brings longed-for relief. Its negative effects can also be invisible when intoxication’s temporary pleasure, relaxation, and lack of fear can seem preferable to less pleasant feelings. And yet, we’re all aware of the tremendous personal and social costs of intoxication. Under the influence of these substances — and in their aftermath — people frequently make poor choices, often with long-term consequences. The cost of human lives lost or relationships destroyed due to intoxication are incalculable.

The issue of intoxication is not only a modern one. More than 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said that intoxication can lead to “the loss of wealth, increased quarreling, susceptibility to illness, disrepute, and weakening of wisdom.” What is modern is the incredibly wide range of addicting substances and unwholesome pleasures that are readily available.

With its emphasis on mindfulness and wise intention, Buddhism helps us see how intoxication clouds the mind and diminishes our ability to make wise choices. A traditional Buddhist reason for abstaining from alcohol and drugs is that intoxication increases the chances a person will violate the first four precepts. For example, we are more likely to speak what is not true or to flirt inappropriately, if we are even a little bit intoxicated. And, as wisdom is often lacking when intoxicated, these can easily lead to greater and more damaging problems. Children can grow up in fear when drunk parents are prone to anger, violence, and neglect. Our prisons are filled with people who committed crimes while intoxicated.

The literal English translation of the fifth precept is “I undertake the training precept to abstain from alcohol, liquor, or spirits that are a cause for heedlessness.” The mention of heedlessness points to the way in which intoxication involves a loss in care, caring, and carefulness. While Buddhism links intoxication with heedlessness and lack of mindfulness, modern psychology discusses this in terms of decreased cognitive abilities, increased attention deficits, and poor judgment.

Ideally, abstaining from intoxication is not only about avoiding harm and heedlessness. Abstinence can also be motivated by the personal and interpersonal benefits it brings, which can be deeply nourishing. Any time the desire for intoxicating substances is strong and we refrain from acting on that desire, we strengthen our capacity for renunciation and self-mastery. The stronger the desire, the greater we need to rely on commitment and wisdom to avoid giving in to it. Doing so strengthens us. It also can improve our relationships with family, friends, and others.

By refraining from drinking and drugs we maintain the mental clarity that is essential for mindfulness practice. Furthermore, mindfulness can be increased by staying alert to the ways in which desire for substances can get the upper hand. Restraining these desires strengthens our will power, a faculty that can free us from all kinds of compulsive desires, not just ones for alcohol or drugs.

Abstinence also develops and supports wisdom. Through it we can better understand how the mind works, how it can delude us and how it can heal us. We’re better able to recognize the desire to get intoxicated as an indicator that something in our life is out of balance. Are we using alcohol as a way to deal with stress? Do we drink or take drugs due to social pressure from friends or colleagues who do so?

For those walking the Buddhist path, abstaining from intoxication is a strategy for our long-term happiness. It is a training in personal maturation and growth. Rather than relying on short-term pleasures and highs, the Buddhist path relies on an increasing self-understanding that brings enduring wisdom, on developing compassion that provides ongoing forgiveness, and on cultivating personal strengths that keep us steady in the face of life’s challenges.

One of the biggest supports for abstaining from intoxication is the faith that it’s worthwhile to do so, and confidence that we can do it. Such faith and confidence grow best in community with people who inspire it in us. To be around others who restrain themselves from drinking or taking drugs can inspire us to do the same. To be accompanied in our efforts by friends and other practitioners means we don’t have to rely solely on our own efforts. If we are less likely to consume alcohol or drugs when we have the support of others, making sure we have this support may help us to relax effort that may be too forceful, and thus counterproductive. To have the loving acceptance of community can help us to be more self-compassionate and less moralistically harsh toward ourselves. All too often the regular use of alcohol and drugs ruptures relationships, and with them our own self-worth; practicing the precepts in a community of other practitioners can be a way to heal this wounded part of ourselves.

Practicing with the fifth precept has a lot to do with being truthful with ourselves, which is a very significant form of mindfulness. One way we can know we’re being truthful is by having a friend or a community with whom we can tell the truth. If you are using alcohol and drugs and aren’t willing to tell this to your friend or community, you’re probably not being truthful even to yourself. Done wisely with people who support you, truthfulness is one of the most powerful supports for the fifth precept.

While some people live by the fifth precept as a way to avoid the dangers that come with intoxication, it’s also helpful to be motivated by the benefits it can bring. Having increased clarity, wisdom, personal freedom and improved social relations can provide motivation to use every act of renunciation as an opportunity for much more than abstention. Renunciation has the power to bring out the best in us. It is an opportunity for making the world a better place for ourselves and others.

—Gil Fronsdal