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Buddhism and Alcohol: Is There Such a Thing as 'Right Drinking'?

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Many people look to Siddhartha Gautama as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. Every other week in this column we look at what it might be like if Siddhartha was on his spiritual journey today. How would he combine Buddhism and dating? How would he handle stress in the workplace? "What Would Sid Do?" is devoted to taking an honest look at what we as meditators face in the modern world.

Every other week I'll take on a new question and give some advice based on what I think Sid, a fictional Siddhartha, would do. Here Sid is not yet a buddha; he's just someone struggling to maintain an open heart on a spiritual path while facing numerous distractions along the way. Because let's face it: you and I are Sid.

This week's question comes from Chuck: "On another blog you mentioned 'Right Drinking' in one of your posts. What is that? I often drink too much. How can I make drinking not be detrimental to my meditation path?"

To start off, I should note that nowhere in Buddhist texts will you find the term "Right Drinking." I first mentioned it in my post on whether or not our fictional Sid would take a job as a bartender. (I said he would.) But in fact, many traditional Buddhist teachers stick pretty strongly to the whole "I undertake the vow to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness" thing.

As is often discussed in this column, traditional monastic systems clash with the reality of a modern existence in the West. Given this, we need to determine for ourselves what it means to consume intoxicants that can easily lead to confusion and recklessness -- because if you've seen sites like textsfromlastnight, you know that there's a lot of heedlessness to be had when you drink. The first question I might pose to any practitioner pondering this question would be, "Do you want to drink at all?" If you feel like you can't be a practitioner who drinks, that's fine. That is your truth, and it's worth sticking to.

However, it seems that your question, Chuck, was not so much, "Is it okay to drink?" as, "How can I drink without losing my head?" That is a great question. How often have you seen an alcohol ad that ended with "Drink Responsibly"? What does that even mean? The alcohol companies aren't going to tell us, so we have to figure it out for ourselves.

If there's Right Speech, then why can't the modern-day practitioner engage in Right Drinking? We know that the historical Sid did drink in his youth, but as the Buddha he acknowledged that alcohol is a dangerous fire to play with. Over time, as Buddhism spread and encountered new lands, it morphed to accommodate those cultures. Today in many monasteries in Tibet and India, Vajrayana practitioners will incorporate alcohol as part of their practice.

The intent is not to get the monks wasted but to take what is seen as a poison and transform it into a tool for spaciousness. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche attempted to lead his Vajrayana students in the West in what he referred to as "mindful drinking," with mixed results. Some students engaged the practice to the point where they felt a loosening up on their ego and their dualistic sense of "me" vs. "the world." Others threw up.

One student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said that they were encouraged to "drink just enough to relax, to appreciate your situation and to help your ego go to sleep." The idea was to watch how the alcohol affects you and see how it can relax your mind. When you feel that loosening inside you, then you stop.

Unfortunately, most of us don't stop there. Most of us go out with the intention of loosening our mind, celebrating something with friends, or having a low-key get-together and don't have the discipline to say "no" to one more drink.

With that said, I think Right Drinking would include the following:

  1. Know your intention: are you motivated to drink as a practice tool? To shake off a bad day at work? To relax with a friend? To drink your sorrows away? Knowing in advance what you're intending to use alcohol for is important. Drinking alcohol is a bit like taking out a chainsaw; if you don't know what you intend to do with it, you're going to get hurt.
  2. Taste it: this is a very simple way to bring mindfulness to your drinking habits. Don't chug, don't gulp it down, but try to taste every sip. Enjoy the alcohol you drink. Along those lines, I'd recommend drinking less and drinking good alcohol -- quality, not quantity.
  3. Watch what happens to your mind as you drink: notice the effect the alcohol has on you. You don't have to make a big deal of it, but you can at least pause after you finish a drink, look up, rest your mind, and see how you feel.
  4. Find your own Middle Way: it might be that you're walking the fine line between relaxed, spacious, and pleasant now, but will one more drink push you over the edge into crazy town? As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged his students to do, stop while you can still appreciate the situation.

Alcohol is easy to abuse. I don't want to seem like I'm trying to make binge-drinking OK by saying it is meditation. That's the opposite of what I'm trying to get across. Instead, I'm saying let's bring mindfulness to the act of drinking. Let's not overindulge; let's work with our craving in a fashion similar to the way we work with it on the meditation cushion. Let's enjoy the experience without falling into the trap of confusion.

At the end of the night of a Right Drinking, don't be surprised if instead of feeling woozy you feel refreshed by the experience.

Have a question for this column? E-mail it to this address with the subject line "What would Sid do," and your question will likely appear in a future post.

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