Most practicing Buddhists in Asia and the Western nations adhere to a guideline known as the fifth precept, which by definition prohibits the taking of intoxicants. There’s always plenty of lively discussion among Buddhists about whether this rule prohibits the drinking of caffeine, and thus tea and coffee. Even teas with very low amounts of caffeine, and those like matcha tea that offer a slower release of the substance into the bloodstream, are often the subject of speculation when the Buddhist precepts are being examined.
For those who have wrestled with the question, and even those who are just interested in what Buddhism teaches in this regard, here are some key points to consider when deciding whether caffeine is what the Buddha meant when he spoke, 2,500 years ago, about the dangers of “intoxicants” on the path to enlightenment.
- For Buddhists of the Theravada, Mahayana, and Tibetan schools, the fifth precept literally states, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.” The interpretation pivots on what can be called an intoxicant, and what heedlessness is. Furthermore, many debates among well-meaning practitioners of the faith have also revolved around what the term “which are the basis for” means.
- Meanwhile, back in the real world, nearly every Buddhist who cares a whit about this rule takes it to mean alcoholic beverages and not caffeine. Fermented and distilled beverages that contain alcohol can rightly be labeled as “intoxicants,” but we’re still left with that pesky definition of “heedlessness.”
- Historically, most monks have used caffeine (especially in matcha tea) to promote alertness and wakefulness for meditative purposes. Unless taken in huge amounts, caffeine in fact makes the human brain more alert and takes it in the exact opposite direction of heedlessness. Consider the traditional method of sobering up which consists of fast walking and plenty of black coffee.
- Some sects even condone the use of alcohol in moderation as long as it does not cause one to become drunk or buzzed. A glass of wine with a meal to aid digestion or a glass of beer to relax the nerves is typically condoned by many Buddhist communities and serious adherents.
- Theravada groups and sects, which tend to be more conservative, frown on any alcohol or drug use at all, but look at caffeine as just another food substance. Of course, for those who become unduly “wired” by caffeine, then heedlessness becomes an issue for them.
- Mahayana Buddhists often look at the concept of heedlessness or drunkenness to judge whether a particular substance is breaking the fifth precept. Which means that from a Mahayana point of view, any food, drink or activity could break the precept if it takes one away from normal consciousness. Technically, though, the fifth precept does not speak of “activities,” but of “intoxicants,” so it’s really a point to ponder about the intention of the precept.
- Those who meditate regularly, especially in the mornings, often say that coffee impedes the experience of mindfulness while tea consumption does not. Coffee can lead to agitation and a “rush” which is usually not the case with tea.
- Thoughtful writers on the subject have pointed out that there may well be good reason for people to avoid caffeine, chocolate, tobacco and sugary foods; but the fifth precept does not address these issues. It can be helpful to view the precepts, as many do, for what they say literally and take that original wording as guidance.
- The original meaning of the Pali wording of the precept instructs adherents to avoid a form of carelessness that results from fermented beer and/or cider. That “form of carelessness” is called intoxication. So, at least the original wording seems to point to a rule about not getting drunk, which is a far cry from mere alcohol consumption (not to mention caffeine, which rarely results in what can be called “drunkenness.”)
- In Buddhism, as in most major religious traditions, ancient rules and codes are often loosened due to cultural changes and linguistic ambiguities, but are rarely made narrower. That is why the world’s Buddhist communities often tolerate moderate consumption of “intoxicants,” however that term is defined, as long as the user does not arrive at a state that could be called “drunk” or “high.” In the U.S. and Europe, it is common for both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists to indulge in the occasional glass of wine or beer, but not to the point where it might prevent one from, say, driving a car. In other words, the fifth precept is more often loosened than tightened. Caffeine consumption, even among Buddhist monks, is usually not considered a breaking of the fifth precept.
- While it makes perfect sense, from a medical point of view, to avoid excessive sugar, over-eating, smoking and other unhealthful habits, Buddhism as a way of life really doesn’t address these issues directly.
- What about hard drugs? They weren’t “literally” included in the original precept since they aren’t distilled or fermented. However, nearly every Buddhist sect considers things like cocaine, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine and many others to come under the umbrella of the fifth precept due to their inherently intoxication effects. It’s not the “addictive” aspect of most drugs that causes the problem, but the way they interfere with clear thinking and mindfulness.
- While some teas are fermented, the precept refers to fermented liquors, not teas. Essentially, one is to avoid heedlessness or drunkenness by abstaining from the use of distilled liquors, fermented liquors, and “other intoxicants.” Many Buddhists of all varieties think the precept is clear and unambiguous and that it obviously does not prohibit the drinking of tea or coffee.
- As some point out, meditation does much to reduce cravings for things like alcohol and tobacco, which is a more positive way of examining the questions that arise about the fifth precept.
Most Buddhist scholars and monks of all the major traditions are in pretty solid agreement that caffeine, when taken in moderate doses, does not constitute a breaking of the fifth precept. However, when one delves into the issue, it’s clear there can be serious problems with addictive caffeine consumption for Buddhists, as there can be with any addictive substance.