The 5th Precept and the 12 Steps — December 1, 2013, Sermon

In this December 2013 sermon, I explored the role of alcohol and drug addiction in our culture and why Buddhism and intoxicants don’t mix.


How many of you know The Count on Sesame Street? He loves to count things. I think that the Buddha shared his obsession. The Buddha and his followers loved to count things.

There are the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, the Six Realms, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eightfold Path, and the Nine Consciousnesses, sometimes regarded as just Eight Consciousnesses. And there are many more numbered lists.

Now I’ll do some counting of my own and declare Mel’s Four Most Important Numbered Buddhist Lists. They are the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Precepts, and the Eightfold Path.

Buddha Statue
Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura

Being a Buddhist means taking refuge in the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. “I take refuge in the Buddha” means both the historical person, Siddhartha Gautama, and the Buddha that exists in all of us – the potential to be awakened from the world’s illusions. “I take refuge in the Dharma” refers to the Buddha’s teachings, or what a Buddhist might call the world the way it really is. “I take refuge in the Sangha” is the commitment to the community of believers.

The Four Noble Truths are at the heart of Buddhism. They are what Siddhartha Gautama came to realize as he sat under the Bodhi Tree and became the awakened one, the Buddha. The first truth is that we all suffer, we all find life unsatisfactory. The second truth is that there’s a reason for the suffering: our unrealistic expectations that we can avoid pain and loss. Because the suffering has a cause, the third truth says we can stop it. And the fourth truth is the way to stop suffering – following the Eightfold Path.

I won’t enumerate the eight factors of the Eightfold Path, but they direct us to gain wisdom, to live ethically, and to train our minds to be in the here and now and fully aware of the present moment, which is our only reality.

The Five Precepts are Buddhism’s core ethics. There are longer lists of precepts in some Buddhist schools, and longer lists for teachers and monastics, but just about anyone who practices Buddhism commits to these five. I committed to them in a ceremony some 15 years ago.

The precepts are not commandments, but rather pledges to train our minds. Buddhist teachers compare them to the North Star. They give direction, but they are not the destination.

Many Buddhist teachers use terms like “mind training” instead of “precept,” so they become:

  • I undertake the mind training to refrain from destroying living creatures.
  • I undertake the mind training to refrain from taking that which is not given.
  • I undertake the mind training to refrain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the mind training to refrain from false speech.
  • I undertake the mind training to refrain from intoxicating drinks and drugs, which lead to carelessness.

These are broad. So, for example, we want to train our minds to avoid taking the life of any living being, but we know there will be times that we do kill a microbe or an insect or a trout or a deer. What’s important is that we’re mindful of what we’re doing and why we’re traveling outside of our ethical zone.

There’s some confusion over the third precept, about sexual misconduct. For most monastic Buddhists, it’s any sexual conduct at all. For lay people, it means excessive attachment to sensual – not just sexual – pleasures. Much of Buddhism is about freeing oneself from attachments. A Buddhist friend of mine once described attachment this way? It’s OK to want a Maserati. What’s not OK is believing that your happiness depends on getting a Maserati.

Commandments about killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and bearing false witness are also in the Ten Commandments, of course, and they’re somewhat similar to the first four Buddhist precepts. But nothing like the fifth precept was engraved on the stone tablets that God and Moses worked out on Mount Sinai. I don’t think Irish Catholicism would exist if one of the commandments was thou shalt not drink intoxicating beverages. (Forgive me, Father, for stereotyping.)

I’ve never been much of a drinker or drug user, and neither were my parents or siblings. So in the five years that I considered myself a practicing Buddhist and in the decade or so since then, when I’ve considered myself a sort of Buddhist fellow traveler, I never gave much thought to that fifth precept. It didn’t mean much to me. Many of you know, however, that over the last 13 months I and my family have done a lot of soul-searching about alcohol, drugs and addiction.

Why does Buddhism put intoxication into the top five things to avoid?

A teacher of Carol’s and mine once said that all of Buddhism can be summed up in six words: “Living happily in the present moment.” It’s all about awakening from the illusions of this world – waking up to the fact…

  • that all we have is the here and the now, and that it’s wonderful the way it is;
  • that the past and the future are only mental constructs;
  • that everything is impermanent;
  • that the mind is constantly distracting us from enjoying what simply is.

Intoxicants lead us farther from the simple reality of now; lead us farther from the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha; lead us farther from our true selves. In the Buddha’s words, “The person who drinks alcohol digs up his own root in this world.”

So intoxicants interfere with the practice of Buddhism, with mindfulness, with pursuing the other four precepts, the Three Jewels and the Eightfold Path.

And although intoxication doesn’t show up among the Ten Commandments, I was surprised, after doing a little research, at how much condemnation of alcohol I found elsewhere in the Bible. This line from Ephesians comes close to the Buddhist view: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit.” Rather than “being filled with the Spirit,” a Buddhist might talk about being empty, or being mindful, but the idea is similar. (Emptiness in Buddhism is a good thing.)

In case you’re fidgeting in your seat now saying: “Don’t tell me Mel is doing a fire and brimstone sermon about the evils of drink and drugs,” well, I am…minus the fire and brimstone.

Let’s look at some numbers from the 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, carried out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I apologize for all the statistics, but you’re welcome to a printed copy of this sermon if you’d like to review them.

First, for alcohol:

  • 23% of Americans 12 or older reported being binge drinkers within the last 30 days and 6.5% described themselves as heavy drinkers. Binge drinking here means repeatedly getting drunk. Heavy drinking is regular use of alcohol at higher-than-moderate levels.
  • Among young adults, Americans 18 to 25 years old, the rate for binge drinking was 39.5% and for heavy drinking was 12.7%.
  • For children, 12 to 17 years old, 12.9% reported being current drinkers.
  • An estimated 11.2% of Americans 12 or older drove under the influence of alcohol within the last year.

Now turning to drugs:

  • 2% of Americans 12 and older reported using an illicit drug within the last month. That’s almost one in ten of us.
  • For Americans 18 to 25 years old, the rate was much higher, 21.3%.
  • From 2007 to 2012, there were sharp increases in heroin users, and in people who used marijuana daily or almost daily, defined as 20 or more times in the previous month.

Some of you may want to factor occasional use of marijuana out of the statistics for other illicit drugs, but I don’t have a neat way to do that, and I don’t believe that changes the overall point.

Mel's MouthWhat became painfully clear to me over the last year or so is the extent to which junior high and high school children have access to – and use – alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, psychedelics, opiates, and psychoactive prescription drugs filched from someone’s medicine chest. And I repeat I’m talking about junior highs as well as our high schools. I am generally not a conspiracy theorist, but I have come to believe that the schools keep that quiet for fear of criticism, or maybe for fear of making the situation even worse. I know of instances in my own community when the schools did not report incidents involving drugs and underage drinking to the local police.

According to a study last year, 10% of Americans 18 and older reported being in recovery from a problem with drugs or alcohol. That is, they reported having an alcohol or drug problem in the past that they have overcome. By conservative estimate, another 10% to 15% of adults have drug or alcohol problems severe enough that they are harming themselves or others. So that’s 20% to 25% of the adult population dealing with or suffering from addiction to or abuse of alcohol or drugs.

I won’t begin to address the economic cost, or the diversion of resources, inherent in alcohol and drug abuse, but there are very clear human costs. More people in the U.S, died last year because of drunk driving than because of gun homicides. Drug overdoses killed more people than traffic accidents or gunfire.

And substance abuse harms other family members to a larger degree than any other illness. The quote in your order of service today is one that Carol and I heard recently from a young woman in recovery from drug use. Even though she had been clean for some time and in fact was working in a recovery center, she broke down when she talked about her failures to care for her daughter, as she told us: “There’s no love greater than the disease of addiction.”

Carol and I had a family friend who started using heroin at the age of 21 and didn’t live to 22.

South Korean novelist Young Ha Kim described in a New York Times op-ed article a week ago the ease with which some people get drawn into addiction. He had come to New York City in October 2012 to promote the English translation of his book, “Black Flower.” Hurricane Sandy hit, and his promotional event was canceled, so he made use of the Xbox and its equipment in the small New York City apartment he had rented.

For the next few weeks I lived inside a video and Internet-based game called “Killzone.” As soon as I woke up I reached for a game controller that resembled a gun, and shot and killed thousands of bad guys on the screen until my sore arms stopped me from continuing. I battled users from around the world. My book publicist contacted me with plans for a new event, but in a terse email, I replied that I had no interest, and continued playing. I ate tacos and drank Corona beer while killing thousands into the night. I lost weight. My eyes became hollow.

Looking back, I see my life has been a series of addictions. As a child, I went through a period devouring comics and martial arts books. For only a short time (thankfully) I became obsessed with card games.

In my 20s, I became obsessed with the role-playing game “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” named after a classical Chinese novel, and later “The Sims,” a life-simulation game, and “StarCraft,” a science-fiction game.

After 15 years of smoking, I barely managed to quit, at age 33. Until that point, I had been a chain smoker who even lit up in bed.

After giving up smoking, I began my battle with alcohol. I mixed whiskey and beer together into a glass and had it every night. It was the only way I could fall asleep. It took another few years to overcome this habit.

Though my addictive personality didn’t cut too badly into my productivity as a writer, it caused me to waste time, and I was always ashamed of it.

Many, although not all, addicts and abusers in recovery are members of 12-step groups. As an aside, some UUs and some Buddhists may have difficulty with the first couple of steps, because of the need to see yourself as powerless, with your life unmanageable, with the need to depend on a power greater than yourself. Some Buddhist organizations have integrated the non-theistic Buddhist teachings into the 12 steps. They may be helpful to some of us.

Even though so many of our friends and neighbors suffer from their own substance abuse or someone else’s, most of us go from day to day holding up the use of alcohol as the societal default. I don’t know if calling alcohol a gateway to other drugs is accurate, but I am certain that the way we drink, share, talk about and joke about alcohol normalizes it – normalizes the use of intoxicants that can be addictive.

I’ve begun to understand why so many in recovery go to 12-step meetings almost daily. In part, of course, it’s replacing a bad habit with a good habit. But I see now that the almost constant reminders are needed to overcome the endless stream of cultural pulls toward intoxicants.

And there’s a stigma attached to speaking up too loudly against, say, greeting everyone with a flute of champagne as they enter a party. I have been just as likely as others in the past to go along with alcohol as the default. I can think of two times in the not too distant past when I did nothing to stop a friend from driving home drunk. But I am seeking ways to change and ways to encourage others to change.

I recently learned of an organization called Many Faces One Voice working to overcome the silence that goes along with the anonymity of people in 12-step programs. They are calling on people in recovery to tell their stories – to come out – in order to promote understanding and better support from their communities. If you’d like to see and hear some of these stories, you can go to, with the “one” as a numeral.

The organization produced a documentary called “The Anonymous People” to tell the stories of and advocate for the 24 million Americans living in long-term recovery. To bring the film to a local movie theater requires a host to get it started, a movie theater willing to show the film, and a number of people to buy tickets in advance. Yesterday, as I was working on this sermon, I decided one thing I can do is to bring the film to the Leesburg area. So I have contacted the distributor to request that the film to be shown at the Cobb Village 12 on a Sunday afternoon in January. Once Cobb, or another theater agrees, I’ll be asking you to help spread the word and sell tickets.

I’ve heard it said that every minister has just one sermon that she or he keeps giving in different ways. I am not a minister, but I have delivered many sermons. And working on this one led me to see that my one sermon is about compassion for the lost and troubled. This time I’m calling for compassion for the people who are in recovery or need to be. I’m asking that we all think twice before acting or speaking in ways that glorify, or that simply normalize, intoxicants.

Our call to worship today was a quote about widening our circle of compassion. It’s a good thought to return to now as we sing our closing hymn, #131, “Love Will Guide Us.”

Copyright 2015 Mel Harkrader Pine

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