Buddhism: abstinence from alcohol for monks and nuns.


The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, c. 563 ~ c. 483 BC) named Dhamma-Vinaya the religion founded and taught after his Enlightenment. Dhamma for Truth, Vinaya for Discipline.


During the second half of his life, the Buddha did not only reveal the reasons and means of Liberation. He founded a community (parisa) of followers and disciples with whom he travelled the plain of the Ganges, mainly the kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala. The first community grouped around the Buddha found there protectors and benefactors. It was composed of monks and nuns (bhikkhus/bhikkhunis) and lay men and women who took care of the material maintenance of the first ones. The principles edicted by the Buddha during his lifetime form the Vinaya, rules that every monk and nun must know and follow in order to join the community, live there and progress towards his liberation. More than 200 main or minor rules and recommendations given by the Buddha form his oral teaching of the Discipline.

A few centuries after the nibbana of the Buddha (Nirvana/Liberation of earthly rebirths), these rules are written in a Canon (Tipiṭaka/Tripiṭaka = Three Baskets), guide and memory of the communities (sañgha) that will study it, recite it and transmit it. Historians place the writing of the Canon in the Pali language around the 2nd century BC.

The rules enacted by the Buddha expressly concern those who abandon their ordinary social life and dedicate their existence to the Dhamma. They pursue Enlightenment and, in fine, their liberation from the circle of earthly rebirths (the Samsara), synonymous with perpetual suffering, deprivation and dissatisfaction. This quest implies renunciations and improvements, a difficult and deserving path. The Discipline does not concern civil society, nor even the lay people who surround a Buddhist community and work for its material needs.


Some rules are mandatory: the Pacittiya define what must be made known by the person who breaks them or who notices the transgression. Known to all, the fault is rectified: for the personal salvation of the one who committed it and for the benefit (teaching) of the other members of his community. The scale of faults corresponds to the gradation of penalties. Some are equivalent to one or more "bad deeds", others are serious offences that must be made public; the most serious result in banishment from the community, which is the heaviest penalty, since the guilty party is deprived of the support of his or her community in order to be liberated[1].

One of these pacittiya concerns fermented beverages: "Drinking fermented beverages must be revealed", i.e. known as a serious offence, the transgression of a prohibition explicitly pronounced by the Buddha.

The written statement of an pacittiya follows a precise arrangement :

  • Laconic statement of the rule (as above "Drinking of fermented beverages must be revealed").
  • History of its origin, most often inspired by an episode in the life of the Buddha and his disciples (here the disciple Svagata).
  • Semantic analysis of keywords.
  • Correspondence table with other rules of life.
  • Penalties set according to present case.
  • Derogating cases and mitigating circumstances.
  • Past experiences with similar cases.


We owe to this logical, juridical, pedagogical and semantic rigour to know not only why the Buddha taught monks not to drink alcohol, but in what context and according to what definition of alcohol. Incidentally, the Buddhist Discipline confirms us that rice and millet beers were the most common fermented beverages at the time of the Buddha. These beers are the ordinary fermented beverages of northern, western and eastern India at that time, as confirmed by the Arthasastra, a text of secular origin, a sort of government manual for Indian monarchs. It deals with rice and millet beers (sura), their brewing and their control by local or central authorities. In southern India, palm wine is the dominant fermented beverage. This region was not yet frequented by the followers of Buddha in his time.

In Buddhist texts, the drunkenness is written in Sanskrit madyapāna, and the drunkard śauņda (pāli śoņda). Always in search of clarification, the Buddhist normative texts use an expression of 5 words, always the same ones, to designate the drunkenness, an expression which joins together the causes (fermented drinks) and the effects (stupor, unawareness):[2]

- in pāli : surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-ṭṭhāna = state of stupor caused by [the beer]-surā or [the wine-]meraya.

- in sanskrit : surā-maireya-madya-pramāda-sthāna = idem (state of stupor caused by [the beer]-surā or [the wine-]meraya).

He who renounces fermented beverages is therefore a pativirata-surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-ṭṭhāna (pāli) or a prativirata-surā-maireya-madya-pramāda-sthāna (skr), "he who abstains from the stupor...". The material causes of drunkenness are clearly identified: beers (surā ) from various cereals and wines (maireya ) from palm, sugar cane or various fruits. These data overlap with the list and description of fermented beverages provided by the treaty Arthasastra. As in this treatise, the place where fermented beverages are made and sold are the surā-geha or surā-ghara, i.e. essentially shops that brew and sell several kinds of surā-beers.

All the sometimes very subtle debates of the first Buddhist communities on the nature of fermented beverages, on what is or is not yet alcoholic, on the difference between solid fermented food and liquid fermented beverages, all these texts become clear when one understands that the main fermented beverage is a beer brewed with rice, millet or barley using amylolytic ferments, using the traditional Indian method (seer Surā and beer brewing diagrams)[3].

The statement of the rule that compels one who follows the path of the Buddha to renounce fermented beverages is based on the exemplary history of his transgression. It features Svagata, one of the best disciples of the Buddha.


[1] The most terrible punishment for a Buddhist monk is to be condemned to wander during his present existence without spiritual guidance and hope of accumulating merits, deprived of the support of a Buddhist community. However, the spiritual search of the isolated individual remains open, the one followed by some hermit or wandering monks. Abstaining from fermented beverages is a prescription that Brahamans must also follow. Other religious schools, such as the Tantras, use controlled (or ritualised) alcoholic intoxication as a means for opening the mind and tearing away the veil of worldly appearances.  The doctrinal positions towards fermented beverages from the Hindu background are more complex than the caricatures often portrayed in the West.

[2] Jean-Marie Verpoorten, Le bouddhisme et l'ivresse , in Acta Orientalia Belgica XXII, René Lebrun in honorem, Vin, bière et ivresse dans les civilisations orientales. Entre plaisir et Interdit. Louvain-la-Neuve 2009, p. 57.  VERPOORTEN Jean-Marie. Le bouddhisme et l'ivresse. Acta Orientalia Belgica 2009

[3] One cannot translate surā by liquor or alcohol, generic terms that lead on the wrong track when trying to understand the arguments of the Buddhist monks about the role and nature of fermented grains. Forgetting to refer to the methods of brewing Indian beers with amylolytic kinva ferments, the Western authors speculate on the distillation of grains in India during the Buddha's time.

18/06/2012  Christian Berger