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The exact meaning of the Fifth Precept

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  • The exact meaning of the Fifth Precept

    Dear Ajahn Brahmali (and anyone else who might be up to this),

    Recently I came across a thread on another forum which breaks down the Pali of the fifth precept and analyses it to mean abstinence from getting intoxicated by alcohol beverages. In other words, if you drink half a glass of wine and do not feel intoxicated, you're not breaking the fifth precept.

    I would like to hear your opinion on this. Below is the post:

    samadiyami = I undertake
    sikkhapadam = the training precept
    veramani = of abstaining from

    Now for the long compound:

    This is a compound made up from sura + meraya + majja + pamada + thana

    sura and meraya are two different alcoholic drinks. Sura may be a kind of beer, and meraya maybe some kind of cider. Anyway, both are alcoholic.

    majja = either intoxication or intoxicant drink
    pamada = indolence, carelessness, negligence, intoxication

    majja and pamada are practically synonyms here

    now for the last member of the compound: thana. This word means "condition".

    So, suramerayamajjappamadatthana is literally "beer-cider-carelessness-intoxication-condition".

    In order to make this into a more idiomatic English, we have to start from the end: "the condition of intoxication and carelessness caused by beer and cider"

    So what then does the precept say? It says: I undertake the training precept of abstaining from the condition of intoxication and carelessness caused by beer and cider (or, alcoholic drinks).

    This is the literal meaning of the precept. Not to abstain from the drinks, but to abstain from the condition of intoxication.

    You may say that as soon as you drink, you will get intoxicated, so that the wise thing is to abstain from the drinks in order to abstain from intoxication. I fully agree on this point. The sensible thing is not to get drunk, and in order not to get drunk it is wise not to drink.

    But if you know yourself so well that you know that you can take a small glass of wine or beer without getting drunk - and stop there! - the precept is definitely not broken.
    Thanks in advance!

  • #2
    Dear Saw Naw,

    The critical issue here is the meaning of ṭhāna. The basic meaning of this word is place or location, but it has several extended meanings as well. The most common of these is basis, foundation, or cause, and that is what ṭhāna seems to mean the present context.

    Ṭhāna can also mean 'condition', but condition in the sense of 'cause', not in the sense of 'state'. 'State' is normally expressed by the word dhamma, not I]ṭhāna[/I]. For this reason, I don't think the translation above really works.

    I would translate surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā as follows: "the basis (ṭhāna) of heedlessness (pamāda), which is alcohol (surā-meraya-majja)" or simply "alcohol, the basis of heedlessness". This would imply that any drinking of alcohol would be a breach of the fifth precept.

    I hope this helps.

    With metta.


    • #3
      Thanks, Ajahn Brahmali. I suppose this is consistent with a few other suttas where the Buddha clearly advises abstinence from alcohol.


      • #4
        Modern scientific research has shown that drinking in moderation has health benefits, especially for people aged over 50. In light of this, do you think it's OK for lay Buddhists to consume alcohol in strict moderation, say a glass of wine every two days, or is it best to adhere strictly to the precept?


        • #5
          Originally posted by Ajahn Brahmali View Post
          I would translate surāmerayamajjapamādaṭṭhānā as follows: "the basis (ṭhāna) of heedlessness (pamāda), which is alcohol (surā-meraya-majja)" or simply "alcohol, the basis of heedlessness". This would imply that any drinking of alcohol would be a breach of the fifth precept..
          I offer a real-life experience that highlights the wisdom of this. I knew a person who had one drink every evening. The was a very self-controlled individual who not drink enough to become intoxicated. After a long time of this daily drink, this person started exhibiting behavior a little out of character, as reported by close associates, and eventually had a blackout during which some unskillful things were done. After a lot of investigation as to the cause of the blackout and unskillful behavior, it turned out that there was a compelling case that there was a cumulative toxic effect of this daily drink. I.e. Low grade, cumulative poisoning. (Said person stopped the daily drink and never had a recurrence.)

          I never knew such a thing was possible, but learning of these events helped me more deeply understand the wisdom of completely refraining from intoxicants. That has been my personal choice for many years, but this story highlighted that intoxicants can work in unexpected ways with unfortunate results.


          • #6
            Dear Saw Naw,

            There are so many things that are potentially beneficial for our health that we don't do. I would propose doing all those things before considering the use of alcohol. In practice, this means the question will never come up.

            With metta.


            • #7
              Dear Claralynn,

              Thank you for this interesting anecdote. I seems highly unlikely that medical science should have a full overview of all the benefits and dangers of alcohol consumption. All the more reason to be careful!

              With metta.