Welcoming impermanence – or not?

Do you think we can make Buddhism sound too positive, pandering to a need for reassurance that everything is rather lovely, really?

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s 2016 article ‘The Transformations of Mindfulness’ (1) is on the gradual leaching of central Buddhist priorities from Western Buddhist and mindfulness teaching. He acknowledges that coming to terms with one’s life, even delighting in it and dealing with various destructive habits through present-moment mindfulness is a very positive thing. But it leaves out the centrality in Buddhism of seeing through the defects of Samsara (unenlightened experience) and renouncing them, on the traditional basis of unfashionable/non-scientific viewpoints including karma and rebirth. He makes a number of points, but one of them in particular struck me. He says that some modern Western Buddhists and mindfulness teachers:

‘see impermanence as imbued with positive significance. They admit that clinging to what is impermanent brings suffering, but take this connection to mean, not that one should renounce the impermanent in favor of the imperishable nibbana, but that one should learn to live in the world with an open mind and loving heart, capable of experiencing everything with awe and wonder. The practice of mindfulness thus leads through the door of impermanence and selflessness to a new affirmation and appreciation of the world, so that one can joyfully savor each fleeting event, each relationship, each undertaking in its wistful evanescence, unperturbed when it passes. This attitude, though it has some resonances with Zen Buddhism particularly as expressed by Thich Nhat Hanh, is quite at odds with the Buddhism of the Pali Canon, the tradition from which mindfulness meditation originates. In classical Buddhism the fact of impermanence is viewed as a sign of deficiency, a warning signal that the things we turn to for happiness are unworthy of our ultimate concern. As the Buddha says: ‘Conditioned things, monks, are impermanent, unstable, unreliable. It is enough to be disenchanted with all conditioned things, enough to be dispassionate toward them, enough to be liberated from them.’

How do you feel when you read this? On the one hand I rejoice in that Zen-style open heart, and perhaps want to hunt the Pali Canon for contrary references. Or perhaps the early Buddhist approach is now out of date? On the other hand, my tendency to want to present Buddhism in these reassuring terms perhaps does it a disservice, partly because I am complacently content to keep my Buddhism on that level of successfully adjusting to the vicissitudes of life, finding joy and satisfaction in the ordinary, and pretending to myself that the full outcome of Dharma practice is no more than that.

I’ve also reflected on this in relation to a very different tradition: Tsongkhapa’s inspiring threefold summary of the path from the very beginnings of the Tibetan Gelugpa school (2). It is simply

  • Renunciation
  • Bodhicitta (a compassionate mind set on awakening)
  • Wisdom

To be frank, I’m rarely willing to renounce, I resist the embrace of the compassionate Bodhicitta, and I sidestep perfect vision of what is really going on. It’s easy to say this, but am I prepared to face the consequences of my habits of avoiding, and change my ways?! A chink of light is that I feel even more excited when I encounter Dharma teachings that oppose my customary approach than when I find teachings that encourage it. Is it not exhilarating to have your opinions exposed and convincingly overturned?

(1) Handbook of Mindfulness: Culture, Context, and Social Engagement, edited by Ronald E. Purser, David Forbes, Adam Burke (Springer, 2016), p3.

(2) The Three Principal Aspects of the Path, by Je Tsongkhapa. (Sangharakshita’s edition, translated by John Driver, is in The Middle Way, XXXV, No 3, November 1960, pp 99-102.)


Did the Buddha Ban Drinking? Alcohol, Addiction and Mindfulness

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.[1]

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. [2]

Would it help to try not to use alcohol or other intoxicants at all?  The Buddha said: [3]

A layman who has chosen to practice this Dhamma should not indulge in the drinking of intoxicants. [4] He should not drink them nor encourage others to do so; realizing that it leads to madness. [5]

Through intoxication foolish people perform evil deeds and cause other heedless people to do likewise. He should avoid intoxication, this occasion for demerit, [6] 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.[7]

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.[8]


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”.[9] So the positive version of the precept is about mindfulness.

  • the mindfulness is clear; radiant
  • it is about being present;
  • not being forgetful (recollection[10]);
  • having a clarity of purpose, where you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it;[11]
  • vigilance: having an awareness of your mental state, and whether it’s a good idea to act from that mental state or not;[12]
  • an awareness of the way your state of mind changes – noticing what’s coming up.[13]

The Buddha’s analogy is that mindfulness is the bouncer of the mind.[14] 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?

[1] https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/sevenfoldpuja.pdf

[2] 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.

[3] 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

[4] majja

[5] ummāda

[6] pāpa

[7] Abhisanda Sutta. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.039.than.html

[8] Sukhamala Sutta. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.038.than.html

[9] Jack Kornfield.  http://www.skepticfiles.org/mys3/action.htm

[10] sati

[11] sampajañña

[12] appamada

[13] appamada again.

[14] Samyutta Nikaya IV 194

The Buddha’s Last Words

As he lay on his deathbed between the twin Sal Trees, the Buddha’s parting words were: “Be your own light, be your own refuge, the Dharma is your light and refuge. Things naturally decay: win through by mindfulness!”

After reading Jayarava’s very thorough discussion of the last sentence above, from the Pali words given in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, I thought I would produce my own re-rendering, designed for accessibility and usefulness.  Jayarava raises many points about the meanings of the various terms, and his suggested translations are different from the above; he has not checked my rendering.  It is well worth reading his whole blog entry.