Almost every Westerner knows that the Christian Bible has 10 famous commandments. “Thou shalt not kill”, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, and so forth. Well, Buddhism has some very famous rules, too, but it appears that some purveyors of Buddhism seem to be playing rather fast and loose with those rules.
In order to understand this, we have to talk about the very basics of the religion. Thai Buddhism, when taught traditionally, works on something of a formula.
The religion has three great treasures which lead to the five precepts of Buddha and those precepts are achieved through chanting and meditation.
The three treasures are also known as the triple gems. You see, the three most important aspects of Buddhism are Buddha, the teachings of Buddha and the monkhood.
The teachings of Buddha are called the Dharma in Thai, but you do not need to remember that word. Buddha’s teachings are considered the second great treasure because they guide our lives, perpetuate the religion and provide the path to escape suffering.
Finally, the Buddhist monkhood is considered the third great treasure for a number of reasons. Monks do all of the hard work at temples, and most importantly, they teach Buddha’s message.
This is the core architecture that underpins the religion. Buddhists in Thailand not only respect these great treasures but also take shelter in them.
That shelter is literal in terms of temples and psychological in terms of Buddha and his teachings. When a Thai Buddhist takes an oath under the three treasures, they are promising to live by Buddha’s five precepts.
These precepts are rather similar to the 10 commandments of the Christian Bible and this is where things get interesting.
Traditionally, the five great rules of Buddhism have been; do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not lie and don’t use intoxicants.
The last great rule is the one of interest to us today.
I have known for some time that the fifth precept, don’t use intoxicants, had been mistranslated when Buddhism was exported to America.
What I did not know until recently, however, was that this was no accident. I recently happened upon a report from Contemporary Buddhism about this.
The article explained the issue very well and I am going to boil it down so it is more understandable to non-Buddhists.
The five great precepts of Buddha came from an ancient ledger in the Buddhist canon, but the controversy is that there are actually two versions of the same list with slight variations.
One list is a little older than the other. Thai Buddhism is the most conservative form of Buddhism and it follows the original list.
But other forms of Buddhism follow the other list. Buddhism was introduced to the West in the early 20th century and, as the article explains, the early Monks who moved to the west quickly became aware that alcohol consumption is rather inherent to the culture.
In other words, their converts were struggling to follow the fifth precept because they were accustomed to alcohol for cultural reasons.
So, the literature goes on to highlight one particular Monk as being aware of the two lists. He simply decided to move to the newer list and essentially erased the fifth precept and picked a new precept.
That is a rather awesome and phenomenal concept. More or less, that would be kind of like junking one of the Christian 10 commandments because you found it to be a little pesky.
I ran this controversy past some friends and family in the West and everyone found it particularly interesting that it was intoxicants that were deleted from the list.
Everyone basically said the same thing. To paraphrase their reactions (and eliminate some choice words), the general reaction was “that’s a biggie!”
While I hate to turn my articles into a daytime talk show, let’s talk about this for a moment. Those of us who live in Thailand know that the penalties for recreational drug use are severe.
Alcohol is restricted in the Kingdom on a number of holy days each year. Marijuana use is strictly forbidden and pedalling drugs can even risk the death penalty.
Meanwhile, Westerners in Colorado and many European locales are allowed to light up marijuana in public. There are no restrictions besides age on alcohol in America, even fewer restrictions in much of Europe, and an increasing number of drugs are becoming legal in the Western hemisphere.
These are indeed two diametrically opposing worlds. In America, I am thought of as rather conservative because I only drink one beer and don’t use anything besides what my doctor orders.
In fact, I was able to quaff a lot more until I cut it to one, which for me is essentially none.
So, I could be chided for being just a little loose on the fifth precept but, then again, one drink has no intoxicating effect on me. Is that still wrong?
That’s the real crux of the issue. Where do we draw the line? Does just one count as none? Am I a heretic for maintaining a social tradition that does not really cloud my mind?
Should we condemn this foreign monk for playing fast with one of Buddha’s most sacred rules or rather celebrate him for bringing Buddhism to a totally new audience?
The answers all depend upon who you talk to. More liberal forms of Buddhism say no problem, conversely, Thai Buddhism says just: No! This is a fascinating debate.
It’s practically like freshman ethics class all over again. The debate is so interesting that I actually struggled to think of how to close out this article.
My thought process is, let’s close by going back to the beginning.
The three treasures and the five precepts are navigated by chanting and meditation.
The goal is to eventually have a mind that is completely unclouded, as well as to have a sense of empathy for every living thing, great or small.
We really can’t make a final judgement on this raging debate in one article but one thing is for certain: Now that we know about this, each one of us will have to make our own judgement and, hopefully, we won’t pass that judgement onto anyone other than ourselves.