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Related DC writings: Shunryu Suzuki on drugs and alcoholPsychoactivism

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Intoxication and Practice

by DC                                                excerpts and articles

[this is the unedited version of a piece done for the summer 2004 issue of Buddhadharma. They asked me to write on intoxication and practice. This is over 900 and they cut it back to 800. No problem - I never complain when magazines cut stuff. Their edited piece is tighter and probably better, but this is what I sent them.]

Pondering the subject at hand, I go to Google and search for Buddhist Precepts. Under Sidney Cybershrine I find "Refrain from taking intoxicants." I like to get a little out of it now and then, but I don't like to get too out of it too much and thus my rule is to do as little as possible of any of it that I can - including caffeine. I do tend to do too much, though I don't beat myself on the head for my excesses. I just pick myself up and keep going. Anyway, I see the precepts as warning signs around certain areas of conduct, not absolute commandments but flashing lights suggestion we be careful and wary, in this instance, of intoxicants. We don't want to hurt ourselves or others so we should take heed.

But what are intoxicants? Gregory Bateson said that everything is intoxicating, that it's just a matter of the level. On Buddhist out of Sydney, there's a quote from Bodhidharma that says, "Self-nature is subtle and mysterious. In the realm of the intrinsically pure Dharma, not giving rise to delusions is called the Precept of Not Giving or Taking Drugs." I remember Shunryu Suzuki giving a lecture on the precepts back in the sixties. When he got to the one on intoxicants, which in the version he was using read "not to sell" them, he said, "This means not to sell Buddhism." Suzuki said this even though we were largely a group of former and not-so-former libertine beatniks and hippies. I took it that he knew we knew not to consciously mix zazen and Buddhist practice with alcohol and pot and LSD - at least not to come to the zendo high. That was clear. What we didn't know so well was how pervasive intoxication is. Late in his life, upon returning from a visit to Japan where, among other things, he looked with no success for a satisfactory place for his students to study, Suzuki said that Marx was right, that religion is the opium of the masses. I think that readers of Buddhadharma might, like Suzuki's students, not need much advice in the realm of drugs and alcohol. If things get out of hand we know how to back off or go to AA or to otherwise seek help from friends and sources within or without our sanghas. But all of our ideas about Buddhism, religion, practice, meditation, reality, form and emptiness, and ourselves and each other - this is where we really struggle and flounder.

To be intoxicated literally means to be poisoned. The three poisons in Buddhist lore are greed, hate, and delusion. Greed seems to be about problems with embracing form and emptiness, while hate has to do with rejection, and delusion maybe stems from our beliefs and thoughts about it all. In the USA, possibly due to our puritanical roots, we tend to place what seems to me an inordinate amount of emphasis on the harm caused by greed while giving scant attention to the byproducts of hate and delusion. I gather that Buddha and Jesus both were more concerned with the later two. Buddha clearly said that greed was of minor importance and that hate and delusion were of major importance. Jesus emphasized love, forgiveness, turning the other cheek, and reigning in ones judgment of others.

A Buddhist buddy of mine named Frank Kilmer says that we can, for the sake of this discussion, divide practitioners into two camps: those on the path of purification and those on the path of transformation. One problem he sees is that they're both judged by the standards of the former. At times I look at how we relate to each other and see it as a tug of war between the greed types and the hate types, or between the urges to embrace and reject within each of us. The hate camp, I fear, tends to win - rejection appears stronger than acceptance. At Tassajara Zen Mountain Center I once saw it as the Gypsies versus the Nazis. The War on (some) Drugs can be seen this way, as the Indulgents versus the Prudes. Here, those intoxicated with opposition to insobriety appear to cause greater harm than those they are trying to control. I find it interesting and disturbing that when so many fundamentalists get together to talk about how things are going that they focus so much on the habits of others and how to stop them from doing this and that, concentrating on the motes in the others' eyes while ignoring the beams in their own. I suppose that the most hideous drunkenness today is our tendency toward solving problems with violence, but closely following is persecution such as locking people up for getting high and doing immoral things. This is to me a form of religious persecution. Surely from the standpoint of spiritual growth it's better not to get high and be immoral, but it's also much better not to judge others so much and try to limit, control, and subjugate them.

The Greeks gave us a positive way of looking at the human story as the play between Dionysus, the god of wine and having a good time and Apollo, the god of the sun and keeping things in order. They stressed the need for a balance between the two. I like this idea of balance and pray that each of us finds our own balance and may we do so while causing as little harm as possible to ourselves and others.

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