Awareness in Every Sip

'Mindful drinkers' say alcohol in moderation can illuminate the mind. But some Buddhists get more than a buzz.

BY: Ted Rose

 
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.

 

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