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How Does One Uphold the Precept of Abstaining from Drinking Alcohol?

The precept of abstaining from drinking alcohol is unique to Buddhism. Although drinking alcohol does not, in itself, constitute a bad action, it can easily lead to mental confusion, impaired judgment, and, consequently, to many harmful behaviors. Whereas the first four of the five precepts are fundamental to moral life and thus primary, not drinking alcohol is a precept of prohibitive nature and thus secondary, since drinking alcohol is conducive to behaviors that break other precepts and rules. Loss of control of mind after drinking alcohol can lead to verbal aggression, killing, sexual assault, or robbery, and thus can lead to the breaking of all other precepts.
 


Conditions for Breaking the Precept to Abstain from Alcohol

There are three conditions that constitute breaking the precept to refrain from alcohol. They are:

1. A substance containing alcohol: The substance can make people drunk.
2. Awareness that the substance is alcoholic: The drinker knows it is alcoholic.
3. The alcoholic substance enters the mouth: One should not allow even a single drop of alcoholic drink to touch the lips. Once alcohol enters the mouth, it is considered swallowing one sip. The rule-breaker can repent once they violate the precept.

 

Restraint from Desires

What constitutes breaking the precept to abstain from drinking alcohol? The Four-Part Vinaya says:“Where it has the color, the scent, or the taste of alcohol, one shall not drink it. Where it contains alcohol, even without the color, smell or taste of alcohol, one shall not drink it.”One should avoid anything that has the taste or smell of alcohol, even if it contains only a trace amount of it. Even a small trace of alcohol can lead to a clouded mind, since people tend to unwittingly increase their consumption over time. After all, one of the functions of taking precepts is to protect us from the robber's mind, which steals us away from our virtuous nature by taking precepts lightly. By strongly wanting to uphold the precepts, we can restrain our desires. The robber's mind is in our every arising thought, including thoughts of clinging, grasping and calculating. These are conditions of rebirth. Unless we stop the robber's mind, we cannot be liberated from birth and death.

However, if one is surprised to find alcoholic ingredients in the food one is eating and has no the intention of tasting the alcohol, then one may take an exception to the precept to abstain from alcohol. This is out of  consideration not to waste the food and to embarrass the family or friends sharing the meal. Yet, even in such a situation, one must maintain mindfulness and awareness. The focus in upholding the precept of abstaining from alcohol is to clearly understand the principle of the precept, and thus to avoid alcohol in any form. But in the event that one has consumed alcoholic ingredients by mistake, one does not need to create difficulties for oneself or others.


 

Resource:

50 Questions about Receiving Buddhist Precepts(受戒50問), Dharma Drum Publishing Corp.


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