Mindful Drinking? (Vajrayana tradition: Alcohol & Buddhism)

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I spent a year and a half living up at Shambhala Mountain Center, and when I wanted a break I headed to a dark, smoky bar called the Red Feather Café [recently burned down—ed.].

The Café isn’t the only dive bar in western Larimer County, Colorado, but it is the only one with two pool tables, good service and great pub food. Half of the regulars are the local ranchers. The other half are fellow Buddhists from Shambhala Mountain. Almost any night of the week, I could find both ranchers and Buddhists shooting pool at one of the two tables or sitting at the bar, matching each other drink for drink.

The basic Buddhist teachings on alcohol consumption are quite clear. Alcohol, the Buddha taught more than 2,000 years ago, is a poison that clouds the inherent clarity of the mind. That timeless logic would explain why, if you visit a typical American Buddhist community or meditation center, you are likely to be entering an alcohol-free zone.

Yet there is no prohibition on frequenting the Café or even on drinking alcohol at Shambhala Mountain. While public consumption of hard liquor is verboten, wine and beer are regularly offered at private parties, public events and special dinners—places you see alcohol in regular American life. It wasn’t long before I started wondering: “Why wasn’t my Buddhist retreat center on the wagon?”

The answer, like most involving Buddhist practices, lies in the particular lineage of teachings represented at Shambhala Mountain. Acharya [senior teacher] Bill McKeever, Shambhala Mountain’s resident teacher a few years back, explained how drinking alcohol in certain contexts is considered one of the many advanced practices offered in Shambhala’s Tibetan Vajrayana tradition.

It is called “mindful drinking.”

Here’s the basic idea: once a meditator has developed basic Buddhist discipline (known as Hinayana training) and adopted the intention to dedicate his or her life to benefit others (the Mahayana view) the practitioner is ready to incorporate Vajrayana teachings, in which the simple prohibitions outlined in traditional Buddhist sutras are re-evaluated. When a meditator reaches this point, which usually takes a number of years, a dangerous substance like alcohol is viewed—within a context of strong discipline and clear intention—not as a conventional escape, but instead as a tool for loosening the subtle clinging of ego.

“Imagine you are enjoying a picnic in a beautiful spot with your lover,” McKeever told me. “You want for nothing in this situation.” If you choose to drink at this moment, theoretically, you have no reason to overdo it. You’ll drink just enough to relax, to appreciate your situation and, as McKeever puts it, “to help your ego go to sleep.”

That is why for centuries, in the Kagyü lineage monasteries scattered across the high plains of Tibet, monks incorporated alcohol into their esoteric Vajrayana practices. When one of those Vajrayana lamas, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion of the country, he brought his teachings—including those on the use of alcohol—to the West.

Every other summer, more than 100 people gather at Shambhala Mountain to become full-fledged Vajrayana practitioners. In the 70s and 80s—long before the Dalai Lama visited Central Park—Chögyam Trungpa taught Buddhism in North America, establishing hundreds of meditation centers, including this rustic retreat in the Rockies. For many people, Vajrayana Seminary is the culminating event after years of study and practice. The students meet every morning in a large white tent in the center of campus, and spend their days mixing meditation, lectures and study groups. At some point, they are given a lesson in mindful drinking.

As a relatively new student who has not yet attended Vajrayana seminary, I’ve never experienced this lesson, but I’ve been told that it is much different than a night at the bar. Imagine people seated in a meditation position with cups of sake in front of them.

McKeever recalled the lessons Trungpa Rinpoche offered him decades ago: “He had us take three sips and then look at the effect on our mind. ‘Have you relaxed?’ he’d ask. ‘Is your mind extending into space? If so, stop there.’”

The goal of drinking mindfully is to bring full awareness to every sip.

Once instructed in this setting, Vajrayana students begin incorporating the practice into regular ritual feasts, which are not unlike Jewish Passover seders, where alcohol is served. “If you’re really paying attention to alcohol’s effect on your mind, those feasts can be illuminating,” one Vajrayana student told me. “Literally, everything is brighter.”The practice acknowledges an intuitive truth: a little alcohol can be a useful thing.

The problem out in the real world is that it can be hard to know where the line between utility and abuse lies. It turns out that, despite their mindful drinking lessons, it’s hard for Buddhists, too. “When the formal feasts work, they can be great. But sometimes people drink too much and it can be a disaster,”said John Ohm, a resident at Shambhala Mountain, a Vajrayana practitioner and a recovering alcoholic.

That’s in a formal setting. The issue gets even muddier in plain old social contexts. Few Buddhists claim to be practicing “mindful drinking” when I see them out at the Café. The community is remarkably tolerant of drunkenness—it’s about as prevalent up there as it was when I lived in New York. When a visitor or a new arrival inevitably questions the drinking, it is common for an old hand to justify excessive behavior by explaining that Shambhala Mountain is a “Vajrayana practice community.”

Chögyam Trungpa was by all accounts a prolific drinker. McKeever said that Trungpa implored his students to follow his teachings, not his personal embodiment of them. It was a distinction that many students missed. “We just didn’t get it,” he told me. “Because we’re Buddhists we think we’re special. But drunkenness is drunkenness.”

Ohm pointed out that mindful drinking should be seen as one valid tool within a vast tradition—and a dangerous one for people with an alcohol problem. “Alcohol is suicide for some people,” he said. “‘Mindful drinking’ can be such an easy excuse.”

Vajrayana practitioners need only remember the context of the mindful drinking lesson in order to use it correctly. Ohm recalls a comment made by a fellow recovering alcoholic Buddhist: “When I get to the point where I can walk through fire or fly through the air, then I’m ready to try drinking again.”

Without the formal Vajrayana lessons, most of us are left to get the gist on our own. But the heart of this teaching, like so many of the Buddhist instructions, is easily accessible for any individual willing to maintain an open, honest perspective.

Before I left Shambhala Mountain, I turned a few visits to the Café into my own mindful drinking laboratory. On the nights when I ordered one or two beers, I noticed that I felt relaxed and open. If I picked up a pool cue, I could even hang in a game with the ranchers. Then there were nights when I ordered that third or fourth beer. When that happened, my mood vacillated.

And my pool game? Don’t ask. 



Mindful drinking at its finest:


The above is conservatively adapted from the original, which first appeared on beliefnet.com

Ted Rose is the director of Business Development for Renewable Choice, a clean energy company. His audio commentaries have appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. For more: ted_rose@mindspring.com

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anonymous Feb 14, 2014 6:52pm

In Buddhist scriptures, “intoxicated” means one who misconducts him/herself by body, speech or mind. So anyone who does evil is “intoxicated”, whether he drinks or not.

No STRONG drink refers to highly intoxicating and addictive substances. That is why during Uposaths, every Buddhist should show complete restraint.

There are people who say and do evil things without any drugs or alcohol and others who drink who do no evil and always have “the Dhamma in mind.”

anonymous Jan 13, 2014 8:08pm

I’m Buddhist and would like to quit altogether,but that’s very hard in Milwaukee Wisconsin.I love wine but I also know that the body can only take so much until it breaks down.A few drinks if your not driving is probably OK,but drinking as lifestyle is not.I think the ideal is not to drink at all,This Samadhi in a bottle is an illusion and is fake enlightenment.I Want to be as close to mindful and sober as I can be.

anonymous Aug 23, 2013 6:29pm

Alcohol is insignificant as compared to the realization of emptiness and love for all sentient beings. Part your judgement.

anonymous Jul 5, 2013 4:16am

I can understand the concept, but this seems like an excuse as the author infers to a certain extent. This is the same sort of reasoning that allows a guru to molest his students and own a Rolls Royce. Sure you can do those things with full awareness, but that seems to serve little purpose. Additionally, I believe that further enlightenment creates a natural morality of action. Actions that naturally flow from existence do not require elegant sophistry or reasoning to defend them. This enlightened freedom of action and behavior is the equivalent of working out koans in the world. The whole issue reminded me of a quote, which I initially attributed to one of the Buddhas, but later realized it was from the Apostle Paul. “All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own good, but that of others.” The passage goes on to state that while you are free to do whatever you want this can have a bad influence on those around you. Some people might argue that having practitioners drinking with locals lends a “regular Joe” face to Buddhism. What happens if one of those locals has enough knowledge of Buddhism to question them on their drinking though? Are they going to go on with some bullshit about “well, in the Vajrayana tradition we enter into drinking alcohol as a mindful practice to examine the subtle facets of the minds workings…” while their buddy gropes some fellow Buddhist in the corner. I think it would be better for everyone if they simply owned their actions without doing the mental jui jitsu necessary to produce this Vajrayana bullshit excuse.

anonymous Jul 4, 2013 6:29pm

There’s a chapter in one of Chogyam Trungpa’s books where he explained why he believed it was ok for him to drink. It struck me Immediately as being the typical heavy drinke’rs excuse – I’m different from other people. I can hold my liquor. I’m not affected the way others are. All couched in buddhist terms but essentially the same reasoning. I felt so sad.

This is where the concepts of lineage and guru devotion can be problematic. I’ve found that Shambhala has some wonderful teachers but they’ve tied themselves to the views and preferences and personal history of one man. I’ve asked how they come to terms with Trungpa’s controversial behaviour and been met with a shrug or “You had to be there”. I’m sure that’s true. I remember the seventies and in some circles reckless behaviour was the norm. I’ve been meeting and sitting with Shambhala people for five years and I feel their history is a burden to them.

anonymous Apr 19, 2013 6:10pm

You rock, Chad! Way to tell it like it is 😉

anonymous Feb 17, 2013 9:07am

[…] Mindfulness. Read here for some more in-depth perspective via Ted Rose. […]

anonymous Jan 9, 2013 10:36am

When I was in early “recovery”, I would go to 12 step meetings and judge
people as being either moderate drinkers, hard drinkers or “real
alcoholics”. I took pride in convincing you I was a “real hardcore”
alcoholic/addict, saying things like, “You’re not addicted. Let me tell
you about being addicted!” and then share my worst (or best) war stories
to convince you of how I was different from you. http://www.non12steprehabs.org/

anonymous Dec 30, 2012 11:28pm

[…] a “Hinayana” point of view, less is definitely more. It’s good to focus on building a foundation of […]

anonymous Dec 27, 2012 5:17pm

"Mindful drinking". For me, that brought an ironic smile to my face. I wonder how much that could be extended to: mindful smoking/toking/binging/commodities.

"If you choose to drink at this moment, theoretically, you have no reason to overdo it"
So, it can be dependant on your situation?! I've been out with friends/family at many moments and had no reason to be selective on my reasons for not drinking alcohol.

I've been with drinkers who can talk a great rationale into why it's a great moment to drinks – I would admire any person who's inner voice tells them 'it's ok to have a drink' and for them to let that moment pass. A more beautiful lesson, I feel.

    anonymous Aug 16, 2014 5:47pm

    If you Mindfully cause illness to yourself, you Willfully subside (even if you do not "want" to).

    Even though you may not have a fully delivered self into the world of mindfulness, your last paragraph really summarizes why it IS acceptable.

    If you need to ask anyone what to do, you're not a Buddhist.

anonymous Sep 30, 2012 12:30pm

As someone who works in substance misuse in London one of my more depressing tasks is to deliver a two day training on the effects of alcohol…For me (and that is just for ME) any form of mindfulness exits when you take that first drink. As a byline the chances of cancers and other hideous ailments increase dramatically – and that is for moderate drinkers, not your hardcore alcoholics! "Alcohol is suicide for some people"…Well, I think alcohol is a potential Russian roulette for anyone who partakes to be honest. Having said that I am pragmatic enough to realise that my wifi signal could be baking my brain as I type and I may get hit by a bus tomorrow (I have been before!) but I guess I just like to lessen the odds and try to be conscious of what I put in my body where possible – it's not a moral stance, just a logical one for me.

anonymous Aug 8, 2012 5:20pm

[…] Mindful Drinking? (Vajrayana tradition: Alcohol & Buddhism) | elephant journal. Rate this:Share this:FacebookMoreTwitterEmailStumbleUponDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← Distracted From Life? […]

anonymous Mar 12, 2012 11:30pm

[…] Mindful Drinking? (Vajrayana tradition: Alcohol & Buddhism …Mar 12, 2009 … I spent a year and a half living up at Shambhala Mountain Center, and when I wanted a break I headed to a dark, smoky bar called the Red … […]

anonymous Feb 22, 2012 11:48am

Wow. So many people so full of themselves and their Buddha"ness". What a great amount of thinking you do. There are many perspectives on Buddhism and many people will want to argue for their way is best etc… Alcohol was one of the 5 precepts of the Buddha. He also begged for food. Owned nothing. Lived in forest. Walked everywhere. He did not engage in entertainment, money, etc… All of which you are doing at this moment. Drop the concepts and realize that by getting incensed by this article you are just falling into the trap of aversion (and grasping at your own superiority).

    anonymous Jul 4, 2013 7:41pm

    Great response to the shocked and gasping comments at the thought of drinking alcohol. I would add that if you are that fundamentalist on what is right for everyone according to *your* Buddhism, what else are you that fundamentalist on and is that really the spirit of Buddhism? Not everyone is cut out for the vajrayana path; there's nothing wrong with those who are.

    anonymous Aug 16, 2014 5:44pm

    that's absolutely correct, in the ancient ways of Buddhism that has long been erased even by practice.

    Private ways of personal life and individualistic living don't accommodate Buddhism from the spiritual realm it was once.

    We're too far separated from one another to be concerned about more individual paths to success.

    Consider Buddhism as a growing religion with changing rules with changing times, because it has evolved and adapted.

    What good are you as a Buddha if you aren't changing the world for those who suffer? That is the coincidence to Buddha's understandings, therefor, teachings.

    What is "Intoxication"? Did you refer to it as a cup of wine? A giggling fit? Too much food? Intoxication is the over-indulgence of…anything. Even becoming fixated to starving off desires.

    You cannot declare who or what a Buddhist is, you are only defining what is meant to be without definitions but within a realm of reasonable rules to achieve enlightenment and break suffering.

    You all follow some strange code or moral misconceptions and duality never has good reason. Drop it, and do.

anonymous Jan 8, 2012 9:35am


If the mind is all powerful and is being correlated to god, why does a physical occurrence (alcohol affecting brain cells) affect the way our minds work? Specifically derailing it from its normal action, thoughts, and awareness.

    anonymous Feb 22, 2013 10:34am

    I do not agree with your premise. Mind in any normal sense of the word is the activity of brain cells. As certain parts of the brain are destroyed or inhibited, mental functions are lost. Although the brain has not been fully mapped out like our genome, all of the existing scientific evidence points in this direction.

anonymous Mar 3, 2011 10:19am

[…] This view is based on our essential nature, which comes down to pure awareness. That is the most fundamental aspect of what it means to be a sentient being. Duality and conflicting emotions cover this essential awake nature but are not intrinsic to it. That is both the “ground” of Padmasambhava’s story and the view of vajrayana. […]

anonymous Oct 31, 2010 2:25pm

[…] Bows, elephant journal. […]

anonymous Sep 1, 2010 12:02pm

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anonymous Mar 29, 2010 9:36pm

Wow. I am vowed to celebrate tantric feasting on the 10th and the 25th of the lunar month. Sorry for some of you – that includes flesh food and alcohol. Transforming poison is the way of the tantrikas – the Mahasiddha path. Many of us may fail. I do not blame the Mahasiddhas or Chogyam Trungpa. The tantric way is just one way…

anonymous May 8, 2009 10:44am

alcohol and buddhism do not mix – ever – as Peter said, if you think it's okay to drink alcohol (even just a social drink) then you are only deluding yourself.

    anonymous May 8, 2009 6:49pm

    How do you figure that alcohol and Buddhism do not ever mix? By what criteria have you determined this view?

    Curiously yours,

anonymous Apr 9, 2009 1:12am

No real lama would ever advise breaking one of the most basic tenants of buddhism: the 5 precepts, which speak specifically against alcohol and all other intoxicants, in any amount.

Maybe that is why Chögyam Trungpa is nothing more than an example of the bad karmas and decisions destroying the brightest of minds. Even he could not control himself. What lama would ever lead and not follow?

If you want to know the truth about buddha's teachings, they are easy to find. You may also consult the dalai lama's teachings.

If you want to continue to take intoxicants and call yourself buddhist, you will need to look away from buddhism and back into delusion.

    anonymous Jun 9, 2010 1:00pm

    I second what you said, because nowadays many Buddhist wannabees think they are doing the right thing by drinking. Buddhsim derives from sharmanas religions, which also forms Jainism. In their ORIGINAL religion, the drinking of alcohol is considered as blasphemy, and they believe that the drinker's face will be "carved" with "Drinker" in the hereafter.

anonymous Mar 13, 2009 3:54am

thank you. excellent.

anonymous Jun 20, 2009 3:43am

I want to clarify that black lodge is a reference to any teaching that isn't pure. So that makes most teachings and schools on the Earth today Black with the potential to become White. I also want to apologize for saying this as it is only an opinionated observation on my part. Shambhala is a beautiful setting and has a lovely Stupa.
It just needs more discipline is all.

God Bless Everyone

anonymous Jan 9, 2012 1:21am

I have to thank you for this post. I know it was written a long time ago, but I had a very similar experience recently at a Buddhist temple over New Years. I was reminded of a bumper sticker I was once – "Jesus! Save me from your followers!" This western dilution of illumined teachings…tell me – does anyone gain muscles going to the gym everyday but only doing five crunches and lifting two pound weights?" People want the reward but none of the guidelines wisdom teachings advise to get there. And since when did Buddhism become a philosophy that looks outside of yourself? If you need alcohol to feel relaxed and open – there is something missing in your meditation practice. When deciding to do anything, we should ask ourselves – "is this conducive to my spiritual practice?"
We can only surrender to what is within once we've left the crutches behind.