Sorry the following is so long, but once I got stared, I couldn’t decide where to stop.
The Buddhist Precepts are simply a bunch of rules that the early sangha came up with to govern how to live together, and those precepts that seem to enhance our following of The Eight-Fold Path have stuck with us and have been handed down over the years. Today, there are many, many different versions and translations of the precepts, almost one set of precepts for every Buddhist school, if not teacher.
Monastics have many more precepts that they’re asked to observe beyond the basic Ten Grave Precepts, and in some monasteries there are literally hundreds of precepts. Apparently, as monastic life proceeded over the centuries, more and more precepts were required to deal with situations that arose, and Buddhist teacher Gil Fronsdal says we can only imagine what must have led up to one monastic precept he’s heard that states that no monk shall ever insert his penis into any orifice smaller than that of a chicken’s.
Some schools of Buddhism go to great, even comical (in my opinion) lengths to try and comply with all of the many monastic precepts. For example, I have heard of Tibetan monks not being allowed to even so much as touch money, and having to request others to take their cash out of their wallets for them and hand it to a ticket agent so they can board a train. And of course, many monks have practiced celibacy in order to comply with the Third Grave Precept on sexuality (except, apparently, with chickens).
I recently heard the Fifth Grave Precept expressed as an admonition against “intoxicants that engender heedlessness.” In the tradition in which I practice, The Silent Thunder Order, we just say “Do not cloud the mind with intoxicants.” The late John Daido Loori’s Mountains and Rivers Order states “Proceed clearly. Do not cloud the mind,” and does not even mention intoxicants at all. I don’t know if the addition of “that engender heedlessness” helps point out the problem with intoxicants or merely creates the perception of a loophole in the precept (such as, “what about intoxicants that are so debilitating that one can’t possibly behave heedlessly?”)
The precepts are often confused with absolute rules, and in Judeo-Christian, Western society, they are often thought of as similar to The Ten Commandments. But in Buddhism, there is no divinity passing down a set of absolute, if inscrutable, laws. In Zen, we “observe” the precepts more than “obey” them.
On close examination, we violate the precepts all the time. While I’ve managed to avoid the temptation of murdering anyone today, and I might even have avoided proxy killing by not eating meat that someone else slaughtered for me, my tax dollars still go to war efforts, drone strikes, police actions, and so on in other forms of proxy killing. I might not knowingly step on bugs and try to avoid killing insects and pests indiscriminately, but I may still kill small organisms unconsciously when I scratch what I thought was an itch. Even my blood with its hemoglobin and antibodies and such is designed to kill microbes, parasites, and other foreign organisms, so my very body is engaged in killing all of the time. And aren’t plants living things, so don’t vegetarians kill as well? And so on. We can’t not kill - to live is to kill. This certainly doesn’t excuse us to go out and commit murder, but by observing when and how we violate the First Grave Precept (“Do not kill”) and the karmic effects that it has, we move in the direction of not more, but less, killing.
When I first started Zen practice with Sensei, I heard him say “We observe the precepts by breaking them.” At first, this struck me as a massive cop-out, a way to avoid moral behavior, especially with regard to the Fifth Grave Precept against intoxication. It didn’t help that I was dating a recovering alcoholic at the time, and had chosen to practice total sobriety with her. But Sensei enjoys his Saki, and has some amusing stories about getting shitfaced with his teacher. I figured he just didn’t have the moral fortitude to refrain from drinking (if he wasn’t an outright alcoholic himself), and had found himself some wiggle room to continue to drink. It took me several years to understand the Fifth Grave Precept.
Intoxicants go beyond alcohol and drugs. Music can be an intoxicant, as can other forms of entertainment. Daido Loori even goes so far as to say that sunglasses can be an intoxicant. Let me explain.
In yet another version, all of The One-Minded Precepts of Bodhidharma start with the phrase “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous.” The fifth of the precepts states “Self-nature is inconceivably wondrous; in the intrinsically pure Dharma, not arousing ignorance is called ‘not being intoxicated.’” As Daido Loori explains, we violate the precepts with the “if only. . . “ assumption that the world would somehow be better if only something were a little different. We violate the First Grave Precept when we decide the world would be a better place “if only” a certain person or persons or animal(s) were not in it with us. We violate the Second Grave Precept against stealing when we decide that the world would be a better place “if only” we possessed what someone else owns. And so on.
As for intoxication, we violate the precept when we decide that the world would be a better place “if only” we had a slight buzz, or a major buzz, or were totally anesthetized against the nature of the reality around us. That’s why Loori equates any manipulation of reality to intoxication, including music to rid the universe of its unbearable quiet or just to change the mood, or earplugs to get rid of the unbearable noise, or even sunglasses to change the way er perceive light.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t listen to music or wear sunglasses (or do both at the same time to be really cool)? Not at all. We should just observe that we’ve chosen to impose our own egocentric version of how reality should be over that of our “inconceivably wondrous Self-nature” (which is to say the entire universe, since to a Buddha Self-nature and the universe are one and the same). As for alcohol and drugs, it is up to each of us to observe our own behavior, observe how we violate the precept and why, and the effects that those violations have on us and others around us. As we observe, our behavior will naturally change on its own accord in relation to those observations.
Personally, I’ve almost entirely lost any appetite for inebriation and intoxication as I’ve come to appreciate that inconceivably wondrous nature of the reality of this very moment. But that doesn’t mean I can't and don’t enjoy an ice-cold beer on a summer day, or a good glass of wine with dinner. Or listen to new music to excite my interests and curiosity.
It is no different when it comes to sexuality. Our order states the Third Grave Precept as “Do not misuse sexuality.” That’s a far cry from practicing celibacy, and many Zen priests are married and have children. In fact, considering that sexuality is one of the joys of being alive, I could argue that suppressing our sexual nature in a celibate existence is itself an abuse of our natural sexuality. Committing rape is clearly and obviously a violent misuse of sexuality, but other actions that do not honor the body also go against the precept, such as commodifying and selling the body in prostitution. There’s a lot of grey area here, and the violations are probably as much in the intent and the attitude as in the actual acts performed, and I’m not going to be the one who tries to say what is or isn’t in violation of the precepts. Bodhidharma doesn’t even mention sexuality in his One-Minded Precepts, but instead implores against greed in the third of his precepts.
Zen Master Ikkyu is an interesting case. First of all, we have to assume that he was a fully awakened and self-realized Zen Master, and all indications are that he was. But to those who asked, he would say that his true self was very sexual by nature and best expressed in the bedroom and the bordello. Therefore, he was able to commit actions, such as consorting with prostitutes and frequenting whore houses, without violating the precept, as he was celebrating, not denying, the wondrous nature of his true self. But as he was fully awakened and self-realized, he had an understanding that far surpassed mine, so I’m not able to say “Me, too” and run down to the local strip club. Or to say my true nature really likes to party and partake of drugs, as I’m not Ikkyu and self realization is still outside of my own direct experience.
It’s similar to the famous story of the two monks who encounter a young lady on the street. One can pick her up and carry her over the mud puddle (a violation of his very strict, monastic precept against touching a member of the opposite sex) because he was able to immediately move past the action, while the other dwelled on it (“I put her back down, but you’re still carrying her,” the first monk said when the second admonished him later).
I think the point of the Ikkyu case is not that it’s okay to behave in any way that we think that we want from our own small, egocentric viewpoint, but that the precepts themselves are but points to observe on the road to realization (the Eight-Fold Path). To put it another way, the precepts aren’t absolute rules which must be obeyed at all times in order to appease a vengeful deity nor are they absolute requirements for achieving nirvana, but instead are a common sense set of things to observe as we try to follow the Eight-Fold Path. Violations of all of the precepts are us putting our own egocentric interests over those of our true nature, which leads us further away from our true nature.
Finally, I have to point out that in zazen, we are fully in accord with all of the precepts. We’re not killing, we’re not stealing, we’re not abusing sexuality, and we’re not engaged in other one-sided acts of egocentric gratification or denial of the inconceivably wondrous nature of the universe.