Beliefnet
When I want a convenient break from Shambhala Mountain Center, the Buddhist retreat where I live and work, I head to a dark, smoky bar called the Red Feather Café. The Café isn't the only dive bar in western Larimer County, Colorado, but it is the only one with two pool tables, good service, and great pub food. Half of the regulars are the local ranchers while the other half are fellow Buddhists from Shambhala Mountain. Almost any night of the week, I can find both ranchers and Buddhists shooting pool at one of the two tables or sitting at the bar, matching each other drink for drink.

Check your Sutras and you'll see that the basic Buddhist teachings on alcohol consumption are quite clear. Alcohol, the Buddha taught more than 2,000 years ago, is a poison that clouds the inherent clarity of the mind. That timeless logic would explain why, if you visit a typical American Buddhist community or meditation center, you are likely to be entering an alcohol-free zone.

Yet there is no prohibition on frequenting the Café or even on drinking alcohol here at Shambhala Mountain. While public consumption of hard liquor is verboten, wine and beer are regularly offered at private parties, public events and special dinners--most of the places you might see alcohol in regular American life. It wasn't long before I started wondering: Why isn't my Buddhist retreat center on the wagon?

The answer, like most involving Buddhist practices, lies in the particular lineage of teachings represented here at Shambhala Mountain. Acharya Bill McKeever, Shambhala Mountain's resident teacher, explained how drinking alcohol in certain contexts is considered one of the many advanced practices offered in Shambhala's Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. It is called "mindful drinking."

Here's the basic idea: Once a meditator has developed basic Buddhist discipline (known as Hinayana training) and adopted the intention to dedicate his or her life to benefit others (the Mahayana view) the practitioner is ready to incorporate Vajrayana teachings, where the simple prohibitions outlined in the Sutras are re-evaluated. When a meditator reaches this point, which often takes a number years in the Shambhala tradition, a dangerous substance like alcohol is viewed as a potential aide for the practitioner. Within the context of strong discipline and clear intention, alcohol holds the possibility of no longer acting as a conventional escape, but instead being a tool for loosening the subtle clinging of ego.

"Imagine you are enjoying a picnic in a beautiful spot with your lover," says McKeever. "You want for nothing in this situation." If you choose to drink at this moment, theoretically, you have no reason to overdo it. You'll drink just enough to relax, to appreciate your situation and, as McKeever puts it, "to help your ego go to sleep."

That is why for centuries in the Kagyü monasteries scattered across the high plains of Tibet, monks incorporated alcohol into their esoteric Vajrayana practices. (These Tantric rituals have historically been viewed skeptically by more straitlaced Buddhists around the world.) When one of those Vajrayana lamas, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion of the country, he brought his teachings, including those on the use of alcohol, to the West.

This month, more than 100 people have gathered at Shambhala Mountain Center to become full-fledged Vajrayana practitioners. In the seventies and eighties, long before the Dalai Lama visited Central Park, Chögyam Trungpa taught Vajrayana Buddhism in North America, establishing hundreds of Shambhala meditation centers including this rustic retreat in the Rockies. For many people, this Vajrayana Seminary is the culminating event after years of study and practice. The Vajrayana students meet every morning in a large white tent in the center of campus, spending their days mixing meditation, talks, and study groups. At some point, they will be given a lesson in mindful drinking.

As a relatively new student who has not yet attended Vajrayana seminary, I've never experienced this lesson, but I've been told that it is much different than a normal night at the bar. Imagine people seated in lotus position with cups of sake (rice wine) in front of them. McKeever recalled the lessons Trungpa Rinpoche offered him decades ago. "He had us take three sips and then look at the effect on our mind. ‘Have you relaxed?' he'd ask. ‘Is your mind extending into space?' If so, stop there." The goal of drinking mindfully is to bring full awareness to every sip.

Once instructed in this setting, Vajrayana students begin incorporating the practice into regular ritual feasts, which are not unlike Jewish Passover seders, where alcohol is served. "If you're really paying attention to alcohol's effect on your mind, those feasts can be very illuminating," one Vajrayana student told me. "Literally, everything is brighter." The practice acknowledges an intuitive truth: a little alcohol can be a useful thing.

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