Saturday, May 23, 2009

Have a Drink...Or Not

Last night I went out in the East Village with my friend Dan. We found a great little Dominican restaurant with excellent food -- I had plantain fritters and a layered chicken dish made with corn flour and tomatoes. We also had a couple of mojitos, which were quite excellent.

Then we wandered about ten blocks to a laid-back neighborhood gay bar called The Phoenix, and had two or three beers. I wound up getting home about 1:30 a.m.

As you know if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, I am the somewhat unusual Drinking Buddhist. I don’t drink a lot, usually, but every once in a while I have a night out. Lately, my drinking has been a bit on the upswing, as Dave and I have been trying different wines with meals and I’ve taken part in the springtime whirl of social events.

I’m beginning to feel a bit conflicted.

Many, if not most, Buddhists are teetotallers. Buddha told his followers not to use alcohol or drugs, and it’s one of the core precepts that we pledge to uphold during jukai, when we more or less “become” Buddhists. Drinking clouds the mind and numbs us to life.

I’m all about balance, though, and as I’ve written before, I think it’s smart to leave some leeway. Sometimes drinks are called for -- on nights out with friends or special occasions, or to heighten the flavors of a special meal. Rarely, when we have a party at the Zendo, we serve wine to those who want a glass or two.

I don’t like the fact that I'm drinking more these days. I think I have a pretty good internal alarm that goes off when I’m becoming unbalanced -- kind of like a washing machine -- and it’s starting to beep and clang. Maybe I need to think more about the terms under which I drink -- a two-drink max? Just beer and wine? Hmmm.

Robert Aitken, in his book “The Mind of Clover,” which is sort of my bible for navigating the precepts, definitely leaves room for alcohol now and then. He points out that Zen masters in the past have enjoyed their wine, and that Bodhidharma says the precept is really about “not giving rise to delusions”:

It is not only drink, or drugs, or tobacco, or coffee, or TV, or whatever. What is happening in your mind? Do you provide your own barbiturates? All of us do, and so all of us violate this precept. It is really the Three Poisons* that this precept is about, self-centered delusions that cloud and darken the mind in our world of Zen practice, and in our application of realization in our everyday life. Victimized by our own separation from others, we drink to break down inhibitions. But when we dwell in that place where every day is truly a good day, a little wine, or the Chinese thrush, or meeting an old friend from far away, can gladden our hearts.

So I think there’s room for a drink or two. But I also think I need to listen to that internal alarm, telling me when to cut back and respect my practice.

*The Three Poisons are greed, anger and ignorance.

(Photo: Huge Cyclops tag in Bushwick, Brooklyn, May 2009)


  1. My encounters with alcohol are almost purely social, so it varies a lot depending on what I'm doing and who I'm with. I might have a drink every night for a week, and then not touch a drop for the next month ... which I think is fine.

    LIke the saying goes: everything in moderation ... including moderation. :)

  2. There are cultural differences at work here, STeve. In France, a glass of wine with dinner every night is part of the meal, not thought of as drinking. Here in America we have such a contentious relationship with alcohol.

    As for the Buddha, who knows what he was referring to? Those dudes were really into denial of the flesh.

    But maybe you've just got a hangover this morning. Five drinks would put me into a seriously remorseful state if it were me.

    Great post, though! Thank you for making us think!

  3. I always have to remind myself that alcohol has only a very temporary positive effect on me. Fortunately I normally fall asleep before I can ever drink too much. I actually find I don't miss it at all if I go weeks without a drink. You might want to examine your reasons for drinking before you decide whether to change your emerging pattern. You are your own best judge. Just leave the Buddha out of it. That's my 2 cents!

  4. Grain, is just liquid bread! If you set your max at two beers, and then feel the urge to drink a few more, then just toss a few pieces of lunchmeat in there and call it a sandwich. That's what I'd do...don't tell Mom!

  5. So what are you saying? No more excursions to McSorley's with me?

  6. I recall fondly a reply Gary Snyder (Buddhist poet/eco-philosopher, etc.) gave to a questioner after a reading I was attending. The question had something to do with the speaker's vegan-ness, and the morality of eating meat. Snyder roared back something to the effect of, "What's a 'vegan,' anyway?! Vegans are from Vega, if you ask me. I don't eat meat everyday, but after this reading I'm going out with dear friends for a delicious steak. Next question."

    Balance! :-)


  7. do what you feel ste, and feel what you do

    (you're back, and by teh sound of it i have missed out on some juicy gossip??)