No Drinking or No Selling? “Prajñā Water” or Vice?

Another in a series of posts trying to think through and share some “takeaways” from my recent graduate work and thesis about Soto Zen in the Meiji Period.

In my last post  I raised this question:  are the Zen precepts so flexible that they are essentially meaningless?  If each of us ends up just interpreting the precepts to mean whatever we think they should mean, why have Zen precepts at all?

For example, for someone who thinks priests should be able marry (like I do), the Zen precept regarding sexual misconduct allows priests to marry.  For someone who doesn’t think priests should marry (like Nishiari Bokusan), the precept on sexuality forbids priests from marrying.  For someone who was taught to think that war is unjustifiable (as I was), the precept on killing precludes war-making; for someone who was taught to think that military aggression is a moral imperative when the nation is at risk (as Nishiari was), the precept on killing demands war-making.  So what’s the point, where are the teeth, where is the moral compass?

Along with sex and war, there is a third example from my study of Nishiari that I could have included:  the prohibition against alcohol.  As I went over Nishiari’s biographies for my thesis research, I was startled to notice how much and how often Nishiari was shown drinking.  From youth to old age, in story after story, there was alcohol.

I tried not to draw any particular conclusion about Nishiari’s drinking – I didn’t want to conclude that it was just what everyone did at the time, nor that Nishiari stood out as some kind of full-blown alcoholic.  I don’t know enough about the social context of the time to say either way, and anyway I’m suspicious of my own moralism around alcohol (which I think is more basically Protestant than Buddhist in my case).  But I couldn’t get away from the fact that even the sources themselves were consistently using terms like “heavy drinker” or “extraordinarily fond of alcohol” to describe Nishiari, in contrast with their accounts of his strict and life-long discipline on other points of monastic conduct like orthodox dress, celibacy, and vegetarianism.  There is not so much condemnation of his drinking in these accounts so much as a sort of wink – that ol’ SOB!  One cheerfully written anecdote recalls that the old master liked to use the phrase “Prajñā water” for sake warmed with hot water.

I haven’t sorted out yet whether Nishiari felt the precept didn’t apply to his own drinking or whether he was just resigned to his own vice.  He wrote plenty of comments on the precepts that I think hold the answer to that, but for this post at least there is a more basic question on my mind.

Whatever Nishiari thought about his drinking, or however he dealt with his habit (addiction?) in light of the precept, what’s important to me for now is why I think of the precept as I do, why we in American Zen tend to take it as we do.  For most of us, as far as I can tell, the precept is pretty clear:  intoxication is not a good idea.

After all, that’s what the fifth precept says:  “I vow not to intoxicate mind or body of self or others.”  Or, as Suzuki Roshi put it, “A disciple of Buddha abstains from taking harmful intoxicants or drugs.”  Or, as they say at Great Vow Monastery, “I vow not to misuse drugs or alcohol but to keep the mind clear.”

Most of the English translations of the precept have this sense, and it is only recently that I realized how skewed this “translation” is.  The precept as written in Chinese and as recited in Japanese is quite clear and quite different:  fukoshukai (不沽酒戒).  In Nishijima’s blunt transliteration, “Not to sell liquor.”  Aitken’s version is pretty clear as well, a bit updated: “No dealing in drugs.”

So “non-intoxication” is not a translation at all, but is a willful and blatant mistranslation, another entry in the vast catalog I can’t help calling American Buddhist Apocrypha.

This isn’t to say that there is no stream of temperance in Buddhism.  There are various prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol in the early monastic rules.  In the novice precepts of the Pali tradition as transmitted to China, for example, “the precept to not drink alcohol” (fuinshukai 不飲酒戒) is among the first few.  But even as far back as the Brahma Net Sutra, the most important source for Mahayana precepts in China, the major precept – as a Bodhisattva precept – is not about personal purity but is about supporting others.  Granted there is a minor precept in the Sutra that clarifies that alcohol should be avoided personally, but the grave precept, the greater fault, lies not in intoxication but in enabling intoxication in others.

Japanese Buddhism shed the minor precepts pretty early on as I understand it, and in doing so they lost this background precept of “not drinking” (fuinshukai) and kept only the more Bodhisattvic, other-focused precept of “not selling” (fukoshukai).  And then it seems that they maybe sort of, um, forgot that the basic assumption behind the Bodhisattvic version, too, must be that alcohol is basically impure or problematic.  If it’s not a bad thing to begin with, why would it be a problem to share it?!

It’s tempting then to say that by purposely mistranslating “not selling” as “not drinking” we American Zen people are somehow correcting a medieval Japanese mistake and recovering or restoring a more original and basic sense of the precept.  It would be funny to frame our take on precepts as anything like a “return,” though, because on so many other points of discipline we are unabashedly not returning.  We’ve been way too selective in our American Zen interpretations to have any room left to claim that we’re doing a “return”!  If we’re “returning” from the point of view of alcohol, shouldn’t we “return” too to, say, “home-leaving” and avoiding high beds?  Given that we have the whole canon and all of Buddhist history laid out in front of us and that we pick as we’d like from ancient, medieval, and modern (and India, Thailand, China, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, etc.) we can’t really call our way a “return” just because one of our many selections happens to line up with an earlier iteration.

So from this rambly (and I assure you, unintoxicated) stew, I am left with at least two somewhat contradictory questions:

1) What’s up with Nishiari drinking all the time?!

And, 2) When, why, and how did American Buddhists decide by and large to “translate” not selling as not drinking and then basically erase the tracks of this change?


5 thoughts on “No Drinking or No Selling? “Prajñā Water” or Vice?

  1. Really interesting, thanks Jiryu. I remember reading somewhere Suzuki-roshi translating the precept as “don’t sell the wine of delusion, which (also) means… don’t sell Buddhism.” This makes more sense given your explanation above.

    If American Zen is adapting the tradition and changing it just as the Japanese did, and the Chinese before them, etc, perhaps “mistranslation” is an essential aspect of the tradition!

  2. But American Zen is getting itself in a bit of a pickle.

    First it is arbitrarily redefining things to fit in with Puritan Christian values then it’s trying to hold other ‘Buddhists’ to conform to those new redefined standards without actually admitting that what they are doing is creating a sect for now other reason than to feel comfortable about pre-existing held beliefs. Not so much working on relinquishing all views instead tying a pretty bow on the approved ones.

    Far too many people fighting over how to tie the knots on the raft and far too few saying “and one day you can throw the raft away”. Almost to the point of fetish. If after all this redefinition you are still not using the raft as a raft then why not admit that too? If it doesn’t work for the advocates of it why not admit that too?

    it takes real talent to take a simple thing and make it complicated. 😦

  3. Near the end of your post you say, “If it’s not a bad thing to begin with, why would it be a problem to share it?!” That doesn’t sound like a Buddhist thought to me at all. There are no evaluations in a Buddhist mind, neither “problems” nor “bad things.” Furthermore, Buddhist thought, as I understand it, is not concerned to establish relations of justification between more fundamental and merely derivatively justified precepts.
    I propose to think of the relationship between the “minor” and the “grave” precept regarding intoxicants differently: We should try to put ourselves and others in a position where we can become enlightened, or let go of our attachments. We know that generally, people tend to be more easily distracted from their present, actual situation etc., when drunk or otherwise intoxicated. Now this is a generalization. It is easy to imagine exceptions. Think of medicine which, as a side-effect, makes you drowsy for some period of time, or think of the state of addiction, where completely abstaining makes it almost impossible to focus on anything but the drug. So basically, everyone should judge for themselves what they want to do. (I’m not encouraging anyone to become complacent and to use anything like this as an excuse not to work toward becoming clean, of course. Nor am I making any implicit judgment in support of Nishiaris habits or the example he gave.)
    Buddhism is much more aware than the Western tradition of how influential our own behavior and example is for others. All of our behavior has effects on others. We cannot, for example, honestly advise a novice that he should try drinking less if we ourselves drink much. In a restaurant, we don’t order and consume our drinks “in private”, even though our effects on the behavior of others may often seem minute. (Sometimes, we later have to say: “It’s us who got drunk last night. It was none of the individual persons who decided to, all by herself.”) Given the habituating effects of taking a drug, even using it in our private room, curtains closed, makes it more likely that I will in some moment of distraction use it in public. So, inasfar as others see, perceive and are affected by my behavior, there is no difference between “selling” and taking drugs, just as there is no difference, in the end, between my enlightenment and the world’s enlightenment.
    This is not to derive the “minor” precept from the “grave” one. It’s not that it is bad to drink simply because we thereby often induce others to drink. There is no derivation of precepts, since they are identical, or not really different. Nor does the reason for keeping to the precept lie in the purity or impurity of anything. You’re not sinning if you make an exception sometimes.
    Just honestly consider the effects of this or that intoxicant on yourself and others, and you’ll cease thinking that taking it is a good idea…

  4. wonderful post! This topic too has bothered me too, and I was thinking of going back to the original texts to see exactly what was written, as I , too, had heard that the original words were “not selling”. picking and choosing indeed. Maybe it all just comes down to not harming, but then again, that is just choosing too! Justin

  5. I always like to remember the Buddhas’ words “Be a light unto yourself” when making decisions about my Buddhist practice. As a meditator it doesn’t help my practice’to drink, so I don’t. The same holds true for celibacy, my practice is stronger while not engaging in sexual activity.

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