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Dear Rinpoche: What Are Your Views on Substance Use?

A Buddhist meditation master provides guidance on readers’ real-life problems. Here is his advice on occasional substance use.

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Dear Rinpoche,

I’m curious to hear your views on occasional substance use, particularly the more socially acceptable substances of alcohol and marijuana. Obviously, substance abuse is a serious issue, as are all forms of addiction, but I’m not talking about that. Specifically, I’m asking to hear your thoughts on moderate, recreational use. Do you think the occasional drink or joint is a dangerous indulgence to always be avoided or do you think if used responsibly and in moderation substances like alcohol and marijuana are okay, perhaps even beneficial from time to time? I know the 5th precept warns against the use of intoxicants, but how is this best applied in the modern world? Does that mean no glass of wine when out for dinner with friends? Or is that following the letter and missing the intent? As an interesting piece of data (can’t vouch for its veracity): In France where people are exposed to responsible alcohol use at a much earlier age, often around 11-14, there are actually fewer cases of binge drinking and alcoholism than there are in the US. The French have an old adage: Drink to enjoy not to forget.

Sincerely,
Curious About Consumption

Dear Curious,

We often think of drugs and alcohol as addictive substances, but nowadays there are so many things we can become addicted to: watching movies, our phones, the Internet, etc. So many sensory habits are cause for addiction. We need to understand our relationship to these habits. For many of us, we need to consistently keep moderation in mind.

When we look at the teachings of the Buddha carefully we can see that they are quite moderate and practical. That said, ultimately I think it is important to not be intoxicated. Intoxication can of course result from taking a substance, but we also experience mental intoxication, which arises from many different factors. The intoxication that comes from ingesting a substance is actually easier to stop than mental intoxication. These two can go hand-in-hand.

If you’ve taken the five precepts of the Buddha’s teaching then you should not take substances because one of these vows is explicitly about abstaining from intoxicants. Now, if you have not taken that vow and you want to enjoy a drink in social life, that is a different issue.

On the whole I think it comes down to the individual: One must know his or her own mind. You said you are not referring to addiction in your question but the issue is actually primarily about addiction. Some people can take substances and not be addicted, others are more susceptible. It can sometimes be useful: Certain ancient medical practitioners used marijuana as medicine.

Even within the scriptures there are descriptions of taking what we would normally call “intoxicants” as medicine. There may be medicinal uses of drugs that we usually associate with addiction, but you might take that substance to produce a beneficial result. At the same time, we often like to make excuses for ourselves. We continually take substances and convince ourselves that we are not addicted. “Oh the Buddha said do things in moderation, so why not?” In fact we are repeatedly under control of the substance.

Outside of the vows, I think to say you are absolutely not allowed to take a substance is one extreme. However, when you say you are totally allowed, that is another extreme. This is my observation. The methods of conduct in the Buddhist teaching are articulated to improve a person and prevent him or her from falling into an extreme. The precept to not take intoxicants exists because we are so easily addicted to them and because we make unclear decisions under their effects. We are so susceptible to falling under the power of so many sensory experiences. But when you look carefully at the Buddha’s teaching we see that things are largely individual and that a great number of precepts exist to prevent obsession on many levels and to prevent us from hurting ourselves and others.

With Compassion,
Rinpoche

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