Dangers of intoxicating drinks (liquors) in Buddhist tradition

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-By Pham Nhat Huong Thao

In Pāḷi, the term majja1 refers to intoxicant, intoxicating drink, spirits2. Besides, surā3 is also another term related to intoxicating liquor. among kinds of surā, the following are mentioned in the Buddhist sacred scriptures: (1) aiṭṭhasurā, a wine prepared from rice; (2)  pūvasurā, prepared from sweet cakes; 3) odanasurā, prepared from boiled rice and also with ferment and spice; (4) meraya, prepared with extracts of flowers (phalasāvo), madhu or honey, and guda (galasāvo) mixed with various spices; (5) kāpotikā and pasannā are two other types of drinks mentioned in the Vinaya.4.

Nowadays, an alcoholic drink plays a special  role during festivities for people to celebrate or have a good time. The container of an alcoholic drink is usually labeled to show alcohol content in it. Beer is much weaker than whisky: beer might contain only 4 per cent alcohol, but whisky might contain 40 per cent.

Throughout the 10,000 or so years that humans have been drinking fermented beverages, they have also been arguing about their merits and demerits. The debate still simmers today, with a lively back-and-forth over whether alcohol is good or bad for drinkers5. Alcoholic drinks are forbidden in some countries. In order to reduce its consumption, some governments even impose taxes on alcohol.

The Buddha prohibited drinking liquor as laid down in the fifth precept for lay Buddhists. The use of alcohol orintoxicants or other forms such as drugs, narcotics, etc., is regarded as a cause for one’s downfall. There are many examples of evil actions springing from the influence of intoxication As the Buddha taught toad vise the layman in the Sutta Nipāta (VV: 398-0):

“One should not take intoxicating drinks. The householder who likes this teaching should not urge others to drink and should not condone drinking, knowing that it ends in madness. Through drunkenness, foolish people commit evils and cause them to be committed by other foolish people. avoid that which is a realm of evil, maddening, deluding and the delight of the foolish.”6

Not only for the lay disciples, Buddhist monks are also forbidden to partake intoxicants. The monks when they seek admission to the Order as novices take upon themselves the observance of ten precepts7 including restraint from the “occasion of sloth fermented liquor, spirits and strong drink.” For those monks who have received the Higher Ordination, if they partake of intoxicants, it is an offence coming under Expiation.8

Though wine or alcohol may help in surviving cold and give us a sense of momentary happiness, its mental and physical benefits are far less as compared to its harmful effects. The impact of different concentrations of alcohol on human body is shown in the table.10

In 2012-13, over 297,000 people were admitted to various hospitals for conditions or injuries related solely to alcohol consumption. Ofs these, 34,000 admissions were the result of alcohol poisoning,  with around 50,500 admissions due to alcohol-related liver disease. Mental and behavioural  disorders caused by alcohol consumption were the most common alcohol-related diagnosis in 2012- 13, resulting in 198,600 hospital admissions.11

The Buddha advised the householders to avoid being addicted to intoxicating liquors because of its six dangers or consequences (surāmerayassa cha ādīnavā), as mentioned in the Sigālovāda Sutta.

Concentration of Alcohol                                                Approximate Effect
(mg/ 100ml)

20                                                                                sense of relaxation and well-being
40                                                                               less inhibited, talkative, increased sense of
well-being, greater likelihood of accidents
60                                                                                ability to make decisions impaired
80                                                                                physical co-ordination diminishes
100                                                                             deterioration in physical and social control;
obviously drunk
140                                                                            staggering; double vision, vomiting
400-500                                                                      death

1.Actual loss of wealth (sandiṭṭhikā dhanajāni)
2 Increase of quarrels (kalahappavaḍḍhanī)
3 Susceptibility to disease (rogānaṃāyatanaṁ)
4 Earning an evil reputation (akittisañjananī)
5. Shameless exposure of body (kopīnanidaṁsanī)
6 Weakening intellect (paññāya dubbalikaraṇītveva).12

Further, the Buddha also advocated 35 harmful effects of drinking13. Some of them are as follows:

1. It is the cause of diseases.
2. It is the source of fighting.
3 Overshadow wisdom.
4 Matters that should have been kept in secret are spoken bluntly to others.
5. Power of body is weakened.
6. Countenance becomes skinny.
7 No respect for parents or elders.
8 It is impossible to distinguish the right and the wrong because one’s mind is gloomy when drunk.
9 Enjoying evils’ company.
10 Keeping aloof from the wise.
11 Breaking the precepts.
12 No shame.
13 Standing aloof from the realm of Nibbāna.
14. Sowing the cause of ignorance. Problem drinking also touches drinkers’ families, friends and communities.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism:

  • 18.2 million Americans meet standard criteria for alcohol abuse or alcoholism.
  • Alcohol plays a role in one out of  three cases of violent crime
  • More than 16,000 people die each year in automobile accidents in which alcohol is involved
  • Alcohol abuse costs more than USD 185 billion dollars a year.

In short, due to the dangers as well as harmful effects of drinking alcohol or intoxicating liquors, the Buddha did not allow his disciples to consume intoxicated liquors, especially in the fifth precept. However, not only Buddhism bans drinking,  other religions have also promulgated commandments not to drink.

References

1 Rhys Davids, T.W. & Stede, W., Pali-English Dictionary, Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd., 1994: 514; D. III. 62-3; PTS, 1995: 63-4.

2 Ratnapala, N., Crime and Punishment in the Buddhist Tradition, Delhi: Mittal Publications, 1993: 139. [‘Spitits’ could be extracted from flowers, fruits, honey, sugar and is mixed with other  ingredients.]

3 PED, Op. Cit., 720.

4 Ratnapala, N., Buddhist Sociology, Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1993: 169.

5. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/ nutritionssource/alcohol-full-story/ (Accessed on 16th October, 015).

6. Ibid.

7 Vin. IV. 105-6.

8 Vin. II. 328.

9. The concentration is shown as the number of milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood.

10. www.unesco.org/education/educprog/ste/ pdf-files/sourcebook/module23.pdf, Op. Cit http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/alcoholpoisoning/ Pages/Introduction.aspx (Accessed on 16th October, 2015).

12. D. III. 183; PTS, 1995: 175; Selected Suttas, Vol. I, Sagaing, Myanmar: The Department of Research & Compilation, Sītagū International Buddhist Academy, 2004: 22.

13. vnbet.vn/mot-so-van-de-gioi-luat/20-bamuoi-  lam-tac-hai-cua-ruou-6367.html (Accessed on 17th October, 2015). (My own translation from Vietnamese into English)

14. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/alcohol-full-story/, Op. Cit.

About the author: Pham Nhat Huong Thao is a research scholar at the School of Buddhist Studies & Civilization, Gautam Buddha University.

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