I came to the dharma through the suffering of addiction, something that I believe is true for many people. Having come to Buddhism through the Theravada tradition, I felt very supported in my abstinence-based recovery practice—the Buddha had been clear about the necessity of a drug-and-alcohol-free way of life. As far as I could tell, I had finally found a reliable refuge.
I was later shocked—honestly, dismayed—to find out that so many Buddhists of all traditions choose to ignore or reinterpret the Buddha’s clear and obvious teachings around the fifth precept’s invitation to live free from intoxicants. I understand that most people practicing Buddhism do not suffer from addiction and are able to partake in recreational drinking or get high without becoming addicted. But still, it perplexes me that so many Buddhists choose to blatantly ignore one of the five precepts.
Of course, there is the argument that the Buddha taught a “middle way”; we often understand this teaching to mean “everything in moderation.” But this is not what the Buddha taught. The middle way referred to in the suttas is a path that avoids extreme austerities and extreme gluttony. Abstaining from alcohol is not an extreme austerity. The precepts are clear about what we must abstain from: killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, and intoxication. Nobody is saying it’s okay to kill, lie, or steal in moderation, so why do we continue to rationalize the use of drugs and alcohol?
Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.