The fifth precept
A pretty literal rendering would be: I undertake the footstep of training to abstain from: beer, wine and intoxicants which cause carelessness.
In Pali: Surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-ṭṭhānā veramaṇī-sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.
The positive form as used in Triratna is: With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.
What does this precept imply?
In the early days of Buddhism it could be undertaken strictly, as a one-day precept, and then it was recited like this;
All enlightened ones, for as long as life lasts, have given up the taking of liquors and intoxicants, of that which intoxicates, causing carelessness. They are far from intoxicants. All of you have given up the taking of liquors and intoxicants. You abstain from drink which causes carelessness. For all of this day and night, in this manner, you will be known as having followed the enlightened ones, and the [precepts] will have been observed by you. 
Would it help to try not to use alcohol or other intoxicants at all? The Buddha said: 
A layman who has chosen to practice this Dhamma should not indulge in the drinking of intoxicants.  He should not drink them nor encourage others to do so; realizing that it leads to madness. 
Through intoxication foolish people perform evil deeds and cause other heedless people to do likewise. He should avoid intoxication, this occasion for demerit,  which stupefies the mind, and is the pleasure of foolish people.
The precepts are “footsteps of training” — to do with moving on in a natural way from where you are now. So it’s not really a question of either drinking or not drinking, but of shifting in a direction that means that you are doing fewer things that cause heedlessness, and doing more things that encourage mindfulness. If your practice is alive, you’re probably looking at all your addictions and intoxications, and working with them, changing them in helpful ways.
Does it also help others?
In [giving up intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones] gives freedom from danger, from animosity, from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. [And so] he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is [a] great gift … And [it leads] to welfare & to happiness.
You are more likely to break all the other precepts if you are inebriated. So others are in less danger from you if you remain sober. But perhaps more important nowadays is the freedom not to drink that you can grant others, who may have a serious drink problem, by not yourself not joining in social drinking.
Addiction comes from wanting to repeat pleasures or palliatives until they become excessive. Happiness does not come from pursuing pleasure, it seems to come from being fully engaged with life, and gradually breaking down the limitations on your awareness.
You can tell whether or not you are addicted by whether or not you get distressing and uncomfortable symptoms when you stop using the intoxicant. So whatever you enjoy, sometimes just try doing without it for a while, to experience yourself without your habitual props.
Addiction also comes from wanting stimulants, to distract one from discomfort and unhappiness, and distract one from feelings of self-dislike. A way of tackling destructive addictions is to enhance one’s feelings of self-worth. The best way is from the genuine esteem and love of friends.
The lesson is to offer love and esteem to others!
Intoxication with health, youth, and life
The Buddha describes that after seeing the four sights (examples of decrepitude, sickness and death, and of a seeker for truth), he reflected like this:
Drunk with the intoxication of Youth, … Health,… [or] Life, an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person engages in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct. … ‘Subject to birth, subject to aging, subject to death, run-of-the-mill people are repelled by those who suffer from [being subject to birth, ageing and death.] [He continues his reflection:] And if I were to be repelled by beings subject to these things, it would not be fitting for me…’ As I maintained this attitude — knowing the Dhamma without acquisitions — I overcame all intoxication with health, youth, & life as one who sees renunciation as rest. For me, energy arose, [Nirvana] was clearly seen.
It seems that originally Buddhist ethics emphasised only four precepts. The Buddha felt it necessary to add a precept about intoxication because he placed such an enormously high value on being conscious and aware, on being mindful. “Awareness is really precious and it is hard to come by”. So the positive version of the precept is about mindfulness.
- the mindfulness is clear; radiant
- it is about being present;
- not being forgetful (recollection);
- having a clarity of purpose, where you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it;
- vigilance: having an awareness of your mental state, and whether it’s a good idea to act from that mental state or not;
- an awareness of the way your state of mind changes – noticing what’s coming up.
The Buddha’s analogy is that mindfulness is the bouncer of the mind. It stands at the door, and some visitors it lets in, some it excludes. It is aware of the effect of the experiences and the stimuli that are trying to get into the club. Jostling at the door, are the intoxicants. They range from specific substances such as alcohol to very general infatuations such as youth and health.
You might consider your favoured intoxicants: what makes you less conscious? But also what makes you more conscious, face-to-face with life, what wakes you up?
Did the Buddha ban drinking?
Maybe some of the remarks I have made, and the quotations from the Pali Canon, could help you to decide how best to practise the fifth precept. The Buddha was certainly stricter in his interpretation of the precept for those of his disciples who had forsaken home and family for a full-on life of practice, those we sometimes call the ‘monastics’. Today, some Buddhists drink to excess, some drink, some don’t. I had some mulled wine at a private view of paintings last week. Did it do me any harm? It did affect me. Would it have been a problem not to have it?
Some questions for personal reflection
- Is it generally worth the trouble to strive for mindfulness?
- What are your ‘favourite’ intoxicants?
- What effect do they have on you? Do they cause heedlessness?
- What pleasures or benefits do you get from them?
- Would you like to reduce your dependence on them and enjoy more awareness?
- How could you do so?
 The eight lay precepts. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.041.vaka.html The wording reflects Ñaravara Thera’s translation of the fifth precept.
 Sutta Nipata, 400-401. Alternative translation by Jayarava, in an excellent essay on the fifth precept: The householder who finds pleasure in this Dhamma,/ Should not practice drinking alcohol;/ Should not cause any other good person to drink, /Knowing it leads to madness.
Intoxicated, they foolishly do evil,/ And cause other negligent people to do likewise./ This occasion for disgrace should be avoided,/ This crazy, idiotic pleasure of fools. Dhammika Sutta. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/fifth-precept.html
 Abhisanda Sutta. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.039.than.html
 Sukhamala Sutta. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.038.than.html
 Jack Kornfield. http://www.skepticfiles.org/mys3/action.htm
 appamada again.
 Samyutta Nikaya IV 194