Do Buddhists get Drunk? Is Non-intoxication the Opposite of Self-Medication?


Let’s explore this new sober buzz!

I stumbled this week on an article in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, about non-intoxication. In The Middle Way of Sobriety – Reflections on non-intoxication Matthew Gindin talks about sobriety as a principle that goes much deeper than just giving up alcohol.

He says, “Sobriety means not hiding. Sobriety is to develop your own capacity to face yourself as you are—in all your vulnerability, pain, or anxiety. Most deeply, it can mean facing the impermanent nature of all of our states of being and the very limited control we have over what happens in our lives or comes up in our bodies and minds. It’s to cultivate resilience in the face of reality.”

Being Sober and Vulnerable is Empowering

Non-intoxication is a fascinating concept for sober me. Looking it up, as I do, revealed triggering definitions like abstinent, abstemious, abstaining, ascetic, self-abnegating and alcohol-free!

I feel that vulnerability in reality, the raw reality of sobriety. A reality which can be hard to handle without the alcoholic drink. I know. On the other hand, I will never know why so many people drink. It is a personal thing. But I am learning why people drink. And it is a complex subject with subjective reasons.

I think that I drank to avoid. I have avoided many things in my life. The biggest avoidance I had was deep connection with the people around me who were wanting it the most. And I still avoid connection with family. Not my kids, no. Family in the greater scheme of things. When I was a drinker, it was always easy to just pour the wine and be fine. Not anymore!

Now it means facing reality and all the things that irritate and trigger and cause huge discomfort. The hardest part now is learning how to deal with that irritation, those triggers and that huge discomfort. And learning how to be authentic. What IS that? Authenticity?

Buddhism and Authenticity

As if in answer, I found some fascinating reading about Buddhism and alcohol. It seems that the evils of alcohol are everything that Buddhism steers far away from. I mean, drinkers get involved in car crashes, domestic violence, child abuse, addiction, sexual pleasures, food extremes, rash decision-making, lack of direction and often, lack of compassion.

Buddhism, on the other hand, advocates the five teachings “…as the minimal moral observances: abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and use of intoxicants.” Apparently, those who choose to drink in this life will suffer karma. They will have to deal with the consequences of their evil ways in their next lives.

Apparently, we don’t die at the end of this life but that we may find our spirit selves in one of various kingdoms: of the gods, of the humans, of the animals, of the hungry ghosts or the hell beings. Now that I am sober, I hope to find myself in the animal world for sure! Others who battle with the consequences of their alcohol addiction may end up in the realm of the hungry ghosts!

I agree with Chimi Dema who notes that “Alcoholism and intoxication of the substances are a costly burden on the modern societies.” But why then do some Buddhist monks still drink? Some of the most enlightened, even famous, teachers were known to enjoy a drink.

And my next question is, how does this gel with the search for meaning in a life where ego, thoughts, material and physical pleasures are regarded as taboo? Many Buddhist teachers and monks spend their entire lifetimes escaping these human weaknesses, emptying their minds of any negativity and darkness. Only to reach for a drink at the end of the day?!

Alcohol and other intoxicating substances have been a part of human history for millennia. But true Buddhists believe that Buddha himself highlighted the fact that intoxicants like alcohol would lead to a lack of “heedfulness”. In other words, heedlessness.

This was “moral recklessness, obscuring the clarity of mind to understand the bounds between what is right and what is wrong.” In the Buddhist scriptures, Buddha states that any potential Buddhist who drinks should know about the negative effects of alcohol and that he should not expect to become a Buddha.

Non-Intoxication in an Impermanent World

And that takes me back to Gindin and how non-intoxication is the new sober buzz (for me at least!) It feels right that not indulging in alcohol will make me a better person. It will force me to be present. Not to run away from all the stresses that I blamed for my wine drinking. It means facing all the raw realities of my daily life, without blurring the edges with a red wine and another and another.

Most of the human race, who can still afford it, self-medicate. With wine, other alcohol, cigarettes, dagga, over the counter pills and more. I try to self-medicate with exercise and yes, it works. I also avoid tricky situations and yes, it works.

Are we all too fearful of the uncontrollable world out there? Are we trying to control our lives but losing control all the time anyway? Remember that nature is uncontrollable and unpredictable. It is dynamic and never static. What, if anything, is permanent? What is controllable? What if we just decided, It Is What It Is?

I believe that when we become intoxicated, we lost touch with reality. But what then is reality? Those of us who are drinkers will know that alcohol distorts our realities and adds a blur to everything we do and say. We lose touch with WHO we are, and WHAT is going on in the REAL world around us.

Get Drunk and Be Creative?

In another article I stumbled upon while writing this blog, the writer is FOR intoxicants. Mansoor Iqbal defends intoxication which he says expands human creativity. He talks about the historic use of intoxicating substances since the days before the Romans, even earlier. This got me thinking: but why should this make alcohol and other mind-altering substances acceptable?

He says,” We’re not all artists, but intoxicating substances can afford us a wonderful sort of escape — from our habit-worn perception of the world around us, from our inhibitions, from our nagging everyday problems, and sometimes just from monotony.”

Wow! Woe is me! Stop reading if you are recently sober! Stop reading if you are sensitive about alcohol and still just a little bit addicted! As long ago as 1500BC, religious texts mention the ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms which supposedly opened connections to the gods. But only the rich and influential in society could afford these mushrooms – the poor were only allowed to watch.

Then along came alcohol and the poor could afford it or make their own. Centuries ago, alcohol was nurtured to be a ‘social lubricant’ and a release from the toil of every day life working and trying to survive. Some workers were even paid in alcohol.

Iqbal refers to “intoxication” as being “an altered state of mind, not complete oblivion or clinical dependency… This escape is from routine, nothing more serious.” He draws the line on complete addiction to substances.

And now I write in defense of non-intoxication. Who is with me on this? Being sober IS so much more than just giving up an addictive drink. Non-intoxication is being real and true to your inner child, the person you were before you ever raised a glass to your lips. And I will drink to that. A cup filled with coffee of course!

The 7 stages of alcohol intoxication are:

  1. Sobriety, or subclinical intoxication.
  2. Euphoria.
  3. Excitement.
  4. Confusion.
  5. Stupor.
  6. Coma.
  7. Death.



The 11 Year Fact

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