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The OTHER Precepts

The Other Precepts

A Reader recently wrote:

As someone is relatively new to Buddhism, I have read about the sixth precept of not eating untimely meals. What does this mean to a western Buddhist?

And my response:

We only talked about FIVE precepts, but depending on your group, there may be more. In some cases, there are as many as several hundred (for new monks).

The sixth precept goes something like this:

In observing the sixth precept, the lay Buddhist eats one or two simple meals between dawn and noon and avoids taking food beyond that. This cuts down the time spent on meals and allows him more time to spend on mediation.

The sixth precept also follows the practice of bhikkhus and aims at cutting down the sloth which is experienced after a day’s work and a substantial evening meal, while it ensures that the body is light and fit for meditative practice. In the precept, the words “outside the time” mean after twelve noon until dawn the following day. During this time no food is eaten. However, some flexibility will be needed here with people going out to work. For them it would mean no food after their midday lunch until breakfast the next day. If one is troubled by tiredness after work on a day when these precepts are undertaken then tea or coffee are allowable as refreshing drinks. If hunger is the trouble then cocoa (or even plain chocolate) should cure it. None of these refreshments should contain milk, which is considered a food, though sugar, honey and butter are allowed (to bhikkhus, and therefore to lay people keeping the Eight Precepts), presumably because one can take only a little of these things. Fruit juices which have been strained (without fruit pulp) are other possible drinks.

And just to head it off before anyone asks, the next two precepts are:

7. I undertake the rule of training to refrain from dancing, singing, music, going to see entertainments, wearing garlands, smartening with perfumes and beautifying with cosmetics.

8. I undertake the rule of training to refrain from a high or large sleeping-place.

Yes, #8 tells us to sleep on a floormat, not on a raised bed. This has some historical meaning as not to try to rise above your station in life. Several times last week we discussed the way Buddhism changes over time concerning science. By the same logic, changing social rules have some impact on Buddhism as well: Do you really get arrogant by sleeping on a raised bed? Remember also, precept #6 was written long before electricity and the ability to stay up long past dark; in many cases, our days are far longer than they were in those days.

If you look back at Thich Nhat Hanh’s version of the 5 precepts, he pretty much covers most of the stuff contained in #7 in his discussion of intoxicants (bad TV, etc). His version also makes more sense. I think there’s a reason TNH went with only the first five precepts.

The question being how do these new precepts affect Westerners? I’d really like to say that they are primarily intended for monks, but they are specifically for laypeople. Instead, I’m going to go way out on a limb and say I don’t follow them, and I feel no guilt whatsoever about ignoring these.

Am I wrong?

8 comments to The OTHER Precepts

  • I was wondering why many martial artists today and samurai from the past followed Zen and Buddhism? Didn’t the fact that they were (and in some cases are still) warriors exclude them from being a Buddhist because of the very nature of their work? (i.e. killing others and creating suffering). What’s your opinion on this subject?
    Thank you for your time,


  • Zen inspires and requires clear thought. Crystal clear thought. Clear thinking at that level is really useful for concentration and focus. This kind of thinking can be a great help to warriors and assassins as well other, less violent, professions.

    Also keep in mind that here on the Daily Buddhism, we have really only been looking at “pure” Buddhism, the theory and ideas of the Buddhist way. In real life, historically, Buddhism has often been flavored by politics and social necessity, ideas such as honor, loyalty, and national defense often get in the way of pure Buddhism.

    Also keep in mind that Buddhism was quite often an official “state religion” in many eastern countries. Just because people are required to be Buddhists by the government, doesn’t mean they really followed the rules or believed any of it. Hypocrisy was as rampant in the historical Far East as it was/is everywhere else.

  • Jason

    On the subject of the Five Precepts, I have some thoughts on this precept: “I undertake the training rule to abstain from drinks and drugs that cause heedlessness.”

    I have disagree with the notion this precept is telling the practitioner to abstain from all drugs. The best medical studies show that moderate amounts of alcohol and caffeine have beneficial consequences. Why should Buddhist precepts contradict new discoveries in science? If Buddhism is about reality and its true nature, I think it’s time to live the spirit of the precept (avoid that which, for you, could lead to heedless behavior) rather than the letter. This would mean a person with a genetic predisposition towards addiction (heedlessness) might have to weigh the benefits vs. obstacles of drinking or using a drug much more carefully than one who can easily handle, say, a glass of wine every day (especially if prescribed by a doctor) or an occasional marijuana joint. Also, you said this precept even covers caffeine, but weren’t Zen Buddhist monks known for their use of green tea? In short, this precept seems to be more about avoiding heedlessness, not about which substances you choose to use. Under a strict reading of the precept, even chocolate contains a drug that could lead to heedlessness. I think the key focus should be on one’s behavior subsequent to taking a drug or drink. If the behavior leads to suffering, stop using ‚Äî if not, why stop?

  • I am personally still not convinced about the benefits of alcohol that some studies have shown; I think that the tendency to overdo it outweighs any small potential health benefits. It’s just too easy to start down the path to a real addiction problem. That’s just my opinion.

    “this precept seems to be more about avoiding heedlessness, not about which substances you choose to use.”

    No, I absolutely disagree on this. It specifically mentions intoxicants, there is no vagueness about it. I think in this case it is very clear that they mean intoxicant-induced heedlessness. General “sober stupidity” is another matter entirely, and there are plenty of prohibitions against that sort of foolishness in Buddhism.

    I personally don’t drink alcohol (ever) or take any kind of non-medicinal drugs. I do, however, love my caffeine, whether in coffee or soda. I see little harm in it, but I can see where it might affect concentration while meditating. I’m not going to justify it; I know it’s not the optimum situation. Someday I may choose to work on breaking that habit, but right now, I see bigger problems that I need to focus on. As with everything in Buddhism, it’s up to you to work out what is best for you.

    It’s not for me to condemn imbibing occasionally in small quantities. The precept itself is pretty clear on the subject, but if science were to unequivocally prove that small amounts were good for you, then Buddhism would adapt to allow it… or maybe not in this case since it can still lead to addiction.

  • Jason

    You wrote: “I personally don‚Äôt drink alcohol (ever) or take any kind of non-medicinal drugs. I do, however, love my caffeine, whether in coffee or soda. I see little harm in it, but I can see where it might affect concentration while meditating.”

    By the same token, I see little harm in drinking a glass of wine that has been recommended by my personal physician. We never see harm in taking that which with we are comfortable. Plus the precept is a 2,500-year-old suggestion ‚Äî not a commandment. While the wisdom of not abusing drugs cannot be argued, the people who promulgated this precept knew little about the effects of intoxicants compared to modern research. And, I have to add, there IS some vagueness in a sense about the precept given that it is so old. Very few ancient sayings have survived intact so we really don’t know how it was originally presented ‚Äî ask any honest Bible scholar. The best we can do is ask: Does it make sense given what we know. When we “close the book” and say “No further discussion” or “in this case, it is very clear” we risk making Buddhism into a fundamentalist religion. Obviously, this case is not very clear, or this disagreement (and I see it as a merely friendly disagreement) would not exist.

    Also, ask yourself: If green tea was OK for ancient Zen practitioners, why should you worry about trying to quit caffeine?

    Science has unequivocally proven small amounts of alcohol are beneficial, therefore, my Buddhism has adapted. This is not my opinion, several studies over a number of years have shown the benefits of moderate alcohol in fighting heart disease and (with wine) increasing antioxidants. Granted, overuse is unhealthy but that is true in the use of any natural substance — food, alcohol, drugs, plants, etc. My 21st-century adaptation of the precept is:

    “I undertake the training rule to abstain from misusing drinks and drugs that cause heedlessness.‚Äù

  • Jason

    By the same token, I try to space my daily wine apart from zazen meditation (same for green tea) because I do recognize that even a glass could interfere in a small way but that’s a far cry from eliminating it from my diet. I also try not to eat heavy meals near this time since the chemicals in foods can also affect meditation. It’s all about moderation (feel free to append this to my previous comment).

  • Mike Pavlick

    “I undertake the training rule to abstain from drinks and drugs that cause heedlessness.‚Äù
    To me this statement seems all encompassing and doesn’t leave room for debate. The question to me is do you follow it to the letter or do you just accept the things that go well with you. Personally I believe that if we stick with our meditation the rest will eventually take care of it’s self.

  • Vasantha Madanayake

    As I do not imbibe any alcoholic beverages, It is easy for mre to agree with those who advocate total elimination of ethanol from what one partake. But being a follower of the teachings of the Buddha, I have to look at this rationally and sympathetically.

    The precept does not say that I undertake to abstain from drinks and drugs that causes heedlessness. It says I would abstain from being pressed into heedlessness by intoxicants. This would naturally allow drinking of tea coffee in moderate quantities.

    If one rules out alcohol, in prescribed quantities as medicine then what are we to do with many prescription drugs that has effect on the mind and the body. Many of these drugs are also habit forming and may be addictive. The key word should be the mindfulness. If the drug one takes causes heedlessness, then one should take a decision, based on sound medical advice.

    It also may be noted that many doctors do not prescribe alcohol as a medicine. If it was discovered recently, is it likely to obtain FDA approval as a drug?