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Buddhism and Alcohol: What would Sid drink?

image courtesy of the Museum of anti-alcohol posters

by Lodro Rinzler

Before Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment at age 35 he was a
confused twenty and thirty-something looking to learn how to live a
spiritual life. He had an overbearing dad, expectations for what he was
supposed to do
with his life, drinks were flowing, lutes were playing, and the
women were all about him. Some called him L.L. Cool S. I imagine
close friends just referred to him as Sid.


Many people look to Siddhartha as an example of someone who attained nirvana, a buddha. But here we look at a younger Sid
as a confused guy struggling with his daily life. What would he do as a
young person trying to find love, cheap drinks, and fun in a city like
New York? How would he combine Buddhism and dating? We all make mistakes on our spiritual journey; here is where
they’re discussed.

Each week I’ll take on a new question and
give some advice based on what I think Sid, a confused guy working on
his spiritual life in a world of major distraction, would do. Because
let’s face it, you and I are Sid.


Have a question for this weekly column? E-mail it here and Lodro will probably get to it!

Q: A while ago you mentioned “Right Drinking” in one of your posts. What is that? I often drink too much. How can I make drinking not be detrimental to my meditation path? Thanks, Chuck

To start off I should note that nowhere in Buddhist texts will you find the term “Right Drinking.” I first mentioned it in my post on whether or not Sid would take a job as a bartender (I said he would). In fact, traditional Buddhist teachers stick pretty strongly to the whole “I undertake the vow to abstain from intoxicants that cause heedlessness” thing.


As is often discussed on this blog, traditional monastic systems clash with the reality of a modern existence in the West. As such we need to determine for ourselves what it means to partake in intoxicants that can easily lead to confusion and recklessness. Because if you’ve seen textsfromlastnight you know there’s a lot of heedlessness to be had when you drink. As such the first question I might pose to any practitioner would be, “Do you want to drink at all?” If you feel like you can’t be a practitioner who drinks that’s fine.

However, it seems like your question was not so much “Is it okay to drink” but “How can I drink while not losing my head?” That is a great question. How often have you seen an alcohol ad that ended with “Drink Responsibly?” What does that even mean? The alcohol companies aren’t gonna tell us so we have to figure it out for ourselves.


Personally I feel that when we say we’re trying to bring our mindfulness off the meditation cushion and into our everyday world we can’t say, “I’ll be mindful washing the dishes, at work, walking the dog, but not when I drink.” If you want to lead a mindful life then you should aim for meditation practice to penetrate every aspect of your existence.

When you’re meditating you might catch yourself mid-fantasy and say, “Whoa. Back to the breath.” Similarly, when you’re arguing with your spouse you might catch yourself mid-biting remark and instead bite your tongue. Good meditation practice is the meditation practice that seeps into your everyday existence.

If there’s Right Speech why can’t the modern day practitioner engage in Right Drinking? I mean, Sid did drink in his youth but as the Buddha he acknowledged that it’s a dangerous fire to play with. Over time as Buddhism spread and encountered new lands it morphed to accomodate those cultures. Today in many monasteries in Tibet and India Vajrayana practitioners will incorporate alcohol as part of their practice.


The intent is not to get the monks schwasted but to take what is seen as a poison and transform it into a tool for spaciousness. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche attempted to lead his Vajrayana students in the West in what he referred to as “mindful drinking” with mixed results. Some students would engage the practice to the point where they felt a loosening up on their ego and their dualistic sense of “me” vs. “the world.” Others threw up.

One student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said they were encouraged to “drink just enough to relax, to appreciate your situation and to help your ego go to sleep.” The idea was to watch how the the alcohol effects you and see how it can relax your mind. When you feel that loosening inside you then you stop.


Unfortunately most of us don’t stop there. Most of us go out with the intention of loosening our mind, celebrating something with friends, or having a low key get-together and don’t have the discipline to say “no” to one more drink.

With that said I think Right Drinking would include the following:

1) Know your intention: are you motivated to drink as a practice tool? to shake off a bad day at work? to relax with a friend? to drink your sorrows away? Knowing in advance what you’re intending to use alcohol for is important. Drinking alcohol is a bit like taking out a chainsaw; if you don’t know what you intend to do with it you’re going to get hurt.

2) Taste it: this is a very simple way to bring mindfulness to your drinking habits. Don’t chug,  don’t gulp it down, but try to taste every sip. Enjoy the alcohol you drink. Along those lines I’d recommend drinking less and drinking good alcohol. Quality, not quantity.

3) Watch what happens to your mind as you drink:
notice the effect the alcohol has on you. You don’t have to make a big deal of it but you can at least pause after you finish a drink, look up, rest your mind, and see how you feel.


4) Find your own Middle Way: it might be that you’re walking the fine line between relaxed, spacious, and pleasant now but will one more drink push you over the edge into crazytown? As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged his students to do, stop while you can still appreciate the situation.

Alcohol is easy to abuse. I don’t want to seem like I’m trying to make binge drinking ok by saying it’s meditation. That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to get across. Instead, I’m saying let’s bring mindfulness to the act of drinking. Let’s not over indulge but work with our craving in a similar fashion to the way we work with it on the meditation cushion. Let’s enjoy the experience without falling into the trap of confusion.

At the end of the night of a Right Drinking don’t be surprised if instead of feeling woozy you feel refreshed by the experience.

Comments read comments(10)
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posted October 9, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I am a Buddhist practitioner who wrestles with this problem. I drink only low-alchohol beer, which is no problem because you would virtually have to drown yourself in it to go over the limit, but I really do like red and white wine, and they can be definitely detrimental to practise. I compared it once to putting round-up (weedkiller) on the roses – you get these beautiful mindstates from devotion to practise, and then a bottle of red really causes them to shrivel up and die. I know this from experience. Still it is a problem, one day soon I know I will really have to take a vow of abstinence from wine. (I used to like spirits too, but can live without them. I really can’t see how you can reconcile drinking spirits with commitment to dharma.)
One firm and objective measure is ‘never drink to much to drive’, even if you are not driving.
(Chogyam Trungpa is not the best example to provide in this context. He had a serious alchohol problem, notwithstanding all the great work he did and things that he set in motion. It is described in the Wikipedia article on him.)

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posted October 10, 2009 at 7:16 am

I am definitely not an alcoholic; I drink very little. After I became serious about meditation and studying Buddhism, I didn’t drink for months. Then I went on vacation and during a lonely vacation day, I decided to drink two glasses of wine with supper. That night my stomach was upset, I was drunk, couldn’t keep my mind on anything, felt shame, was woozy and uncomfortable with the dizzy sick feeling and had a sour stomach in the morning. Yuck! Not fun. Not doing it again. I see no benefits to alcohol. I remember the buzz feeling that was slightly pleasant before I practiced. Now, I don’t see it as pleasant to be less mindful, and to become that way on purpose is not a compelling idea to me. Try going without drinking for a few months and then drink a couple and see if you ever want to drink again. I don’t think I will.

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posted October 11, 2009 at 8:22 am

i am new to this blog but i have to say that Rinzler’s what would sid do series is quickly becoming a favorite. his direct, down-to-earth tone brings a humorous clarity to the questions at hand. this post in particular helped to reconcile my questions about my state as a student of Buddhism and alcohol consumption. “a” – a lot of your comments really struck home as well. the advice to “taste it” was great – i feel vindicated in being that pereson who can nurse a beer or a glass of wine for an entire evening. i realize that when i do drink, it’s more often for the taste of the beverage than for the effect of the alcohol. the faintest “fuzzy” feeling will actually cause me to panic, because i realize that i may no longer have the focus to make the right decisions large or small (ie from saying something i may regret, to something larger, scarier). again, love this series and look forward to its future installments!

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Anan E. Maus

posted October 11, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Buddhism, as with every major world religion, shuns the use of alcohol.
To my mind, there are two elements within this. One is, of course, the common sense wisdom to help people from becoming alcoholics.
The other is the sense of spiritual discipline that it fosters.
Is taking a drink once in a blue moon a horrible thing? No, of course not. But, does striving for absolute perfection create a powerful spiritual will? Of course it does.
When we start compromising, we risk watering our lives down to nothing. At the same time, balance, of course, is very important.
I think the spiritual plan here is to strive as best as possible to be as pure as possible.
And if folks can pull off an alcohol free life…they should absolutely do it.
And if folks want to have an occasional drink and maintain spiritual disciplines, no, I don’t think it is the worst thing in the world.
But the great achievements in the inner life come from great effort and great purity.
I heard Eric Clapton talk about touring with a blues band in the early 60’s. He said that they were so devoted to perfecting their music that they lived “like monks.” That kind of effort is what makes great musicians and what makes great spiritual achievement.

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Your Name

posted October 12, 2009 at 3:47 pm

Wow, what a careless article about being care-full and mind-full. As a Buddhist in recovery (haven’t had a drink in eight years), this is a fairly casual article about what can be a life-threatening illness (mental AND physical). Perhaps the author could’ve been a lot more mindful about the disease of addiction and the “medicine” of Dharma. Or maybe talked to a Buddhist alcoholic, just to get the lowdown on the early signs of alcoholism, like those inherent in the reader’s initial question.
And, with due respect to his brilliant teachings, Trugpa was a complete drunk, just like me, only he never stopped “picking up” and often justified it to his students (many of whom were continually trying to find more creative ways to hide his alcohol from him) as Dharma experiments of one sort or another. Bottom line: he was an alcoholic by any definition and certainly not the best example to use herein.
A lot of us suffer from this disease and Dharma is what I call “the 13th step” to recovery. It’s a serious issue, not to be treated anywhere near as lightly as it has been herein.

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Your Name

posted October 14, 2009 at 10:05 am

I don’t think this is careless at all! Rinzler talks in the first few paragraphs about this being something that we have a choice in- we don’t have to drink.
That’s not the question tho- the question was if i’m going to drink how can i do that with mindfullness?
Keep on keepin on- these articles are helpful thanks

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TABC Certification

posted October 16, 2009 at 12:00 pm

nice blogs, alcoholics are in every religion, even the Muslims consumes alcohol, it all matters that how much alcohol do you consume, you should drink according to your limits. If you know your limits then alcohol won’t harm you much.

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posted October 23, 2009 at 12:25 am

I am curious about the relationships we have with alcoholics. As a person who is relatively new to the path of Buddhism, it is my understanding that first and foremost, we start with an open heart, no? My younger sister is 25 years old, and is suffering greatly from alcoholism. Continuing a relationship where she and I share a dialogue is extremely hurtful for me (we speak over the phone and live on opposite coasts).
I feel that I want to open–yet there is a real barrier due to the drinking (because the behavior involved with heavy drinking is often times disconnected and frankly, very self centered). There is a weird mixture of feelings for me that involves going back and forth among A) Being frustrated and wanting my sister to see the cause of her suffering, and B)Knowing deeply that we all have this addiction in some form, and connecting to this notion that we all experience that sticky, desperate, messy and addictive hell.
I have searched on the internet for free articles on the subject of a Buddhist approach to relationships with alcoholics, and have not found anything this specific. Of course this entire situation with my sister is unfolding its teachings constantly, but I seem to get stuck in the frustrating elements.
ANY thoughts would be appreciated!

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posted October 23, 2009 at 10:56 am

@Jenny, I hear you. It’s very difficult, yes, to be in a family relationship with an alcoholic. Very tough stuff and very frustrating. Where does compassion end and co-dependence begin? When is co-dependence idiot compassion, and when are we part of the interdependently arising problem? And when are we not?
I have to say that aspects of Al-Anon can be very buddhist in that it recognizes the interdependence going on in any relationship, and the role of co-dependence in creating the problem. There is you, there is your sister, and there is a third entity, the relationship of you and your sister. What are you each putting in? And are you expecting to get something out?
When I realize I am in a dialogue that “is extremely hurtful for me” I have to look at my part in it, what I am contributing to the arising situation, and what it means that “I hurt.” That’s where Buddhist teachings on self really come into play for me. What hurts? What is being hurt? My boundaries, my personal safety, my wish that everyone I love be okay? Sometimes I just have to rest in the hurt, cause that’s how it is. I try to stay with B), but A) comes and goes. I think that whole interplay is part of the “soft spot” Pema Chodron talks about.
“Expectations are resentments waiting to happen,” “You didn’t break it; you can’t fix it,” and “What other people think of us is none of our business” are the sort of “lojong” slogans of Al-Anon that have been really helpful to me.
That, and Pema Chodron. Try Getting Unstuck for stuff that really helps with addiction – the messy kind we all have, as well as the specific kind.

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Dave Andrews

posted August 18, 2010 at 11:45 pm

I have to say I found this completely refreshing, original and insightful with regard to such an important topic that is written about quite often. Thanks for a great post – The Tao of Sobriety is a great book for those looking to read more about Buddhism and Sobriety.
Dave Andrews

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