Drinking alcohol pali

From Alan

Hello All,

In the Jivaka sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, we have the case of abstention from alcohol discussed. The relevant section is:

yato kho, jiivaka, upaasako paa.naatipaataa pa.tivirato hoti.
adinnaadaanaa pa.tivirato hoti, kaamesu micchaacaaraa pa.tivirato hoti, musaavaadaa pa.tivirato hoti, suraamerayamajjapamaadatthaanaa pa.tivirato hoti; ettaavataa kho, jiivaka, upaasako siilavaa hotii”ti.

Understanding that pa.tivirato means “abstaining from,” I am trying to understand what it is, in fact, that should be abstained from in the case of alcohol.

The particular word in question is:


I am not sure what type of compound this is (Tappurisa, etc.), so I am not able to decipher its meaning, though I can see the components of “rum and spirits, intoxicants,” etc.

So, is it indeed the case that this compound is refering to the abstention from:

“alcohols, spirits and intoxicants [that lead to] heedlessness”

or abstention from:

“alcohols, spirits and intoxicants [to the point of] heedlessness.”

I appreciate your knowledge, as the differences between the various compounds are generally still beyond me.

My point above was that the compound word is very easy to understand when its components are broken down. However, when the word is seen as having a meaning larger than its components, things can get tricky, and it is difficult to know what type of translation to give without a thorough knowledge of Pali grammar including the various types of Pali compound words. What I was going for here was a strictly grammatical breakdown of the term in order to translate it. I understand that it is also important to look at the what any parts of the canon say about the issue as well as any commentaries, but I figured that we should start from square one. I got a very interesting response from John Kelly who has allowed me to post it here.

His edited response on the grammatical issues of this particular word are as follows:


You’ve brought up a very interesting topic. The 5th precept, linguistically, is a wonderfully complex compound word that, due to the nature of Pali, is open to several different interpretations.

One can break up the whole compound into 5 elements as follows:


The first 3 (suraa-meraya-majja) can be taken together as a dvanda compound – each word referring to a different type of alcohol (sometimes translated as ‘wine, spirits, and liquor’). Taking ‘majja’ as a more generic word for any intoxicant, some make the compound encompass other drugs by using a translation like: ‘wine, liquor, and intoxicants’.

This dvanda compound is then linked to the next word ‘pamaada’ in a tappurisa compound: ‘heedlessness (resulting from) wine, etc.’

‘Pamaada’ is itself linked to ‘.t.thaanaa’ in a tappurisa compound, and ‘.t.thaanaa’, having one meaning ‘state’ would appear here to be largely redundant, and simply means ‘the state of (heedlessness)’.

Or perhaps the whole compound is a kammadhaaraya and one can translate it as ‘the state of heedlessness that is wine, spirits, and alcohol’.

As you can see, ambiguities can arise depending on the particular translation one chooses. Is the 5th precept an undertaking to abstain from all intoxicants completely (as many Buddhist do), or is it rather an undertaking to abstain from being intoxicated, thus implying that a moderate amount of alcohol is OK (as yet others do)?

It’s interesting too that in many places in the suttas only the first 4 precepts are mentioned, which might imply that the 5th was a later addition. I don’t know whether any scholarly analysis has been done on that issue.

As we can see, the word is indeed a tricky one and can be translated any number of ways. This is one of the reasons, in my opinion, why this precept is always bound to have disagreements between Buddhists.

The point is that without looking to other sources in the canon it is not possible to decide which translation is the correct one. So, we must look to scripture.

An example that Dmytro brought up is this pali section of the “Atthakatha:”


Suraamerayamajjappamaada.t.thaanaanuyogoti ettha suraati
pi.t.thasuraa puuvasuraa odanasuraa ki.n.napakkhittaa
sambhaarasa.myuttaati pa~nca suraa. Merayanti pupphaasavo phalaasavo
madhvaasavo gu.laasavo sambhaarasa.myuttoti pa~nca aasavaa. Ta.m
sabbampi madakara.navasena majja.m. Pamaada.t.thaananti
pamaadakaara.na.m. Yaaya cetanaaya ta.m majja.m pivati, tassa
eta.m adhivacana.m.

Pathikavagga-Atthakatha 3.944

Suraamerayamajjapamaada.t.thaananti ettha pana suraati pa~nca suraa–
pi.t.thasuraa, puuvasuraa, odanasuraa, ki.n.napakkhittaa,
sambhaarasa.myuttaa caati. Merayampi pupphaasavo, phalaasavo,
gu.laasavo, madhvaasavo, sambhaarasa.myutto caati pa~ncavidha.m.
Majjanti tadubhayameva madaniya.t.thena majja.m, ya.m vaa
pana~n~nampi ki~nci atthi madaniya.m, yena piitena matto hoti
pamatto, ida.m vuccati majja.m. Pamaada.t.thaananti yaaya cetanaaya ta.m
pivati ajjhoharati, saa cetanaa madappamaadahetuto
pamaada.t.thaananti vuccati, yato ajjhohara.naadhippaayena
kaayadvaarappavattaa suraamerayamajjaana.m ajjhohara.nacetanaa
“suraamerayamajjapamaada.t.thaanan”ti veditabbaa.

Khuddakapatha-Atthakatha .26

Suraamerayamajjappamaada.t.thaanaanuyoganti ettha suraati
pi.t.thasuraa puuvasuraa odanasuraa ki.n.napakkhittaa
sambhaarasa.myuttaati pa~nca suraa. Merayanti pupphaasavo phalaasavo
madhvaasavo gu.laasavo sambhaarasa.myuttoti pa~nca aasavaa. Ta.m
sabbampi madakara.navasena majja.m. Pamaada.t.thaananti
pamaadakaara.na.m, yaaya cetanaaya ta.m majja.m pivati, tasseta.m

Mahaniddesa-Atthakatha 2.353

Ven. Bhikkhu Pesala pointed out a canonical text regarding monastics, but which could be cross applied to lay followers:


Buddhist Monastic Code I (paatimokkha)

“Effort. The Vibhanga defines drinking as taking even as little as the tip of a blade of grass. Thus taking a small glass of wine, even though it might not be enough to make one drunk, would be more than enough to fulfill this factor.

According to the Commentary, the number of offenses involved in taking an alcoholic drink is determined by the number of separate sips. As for intoxicants taken by means other than sipping, each separate effort would count as an offense.

Non-offenses. The Vibhanga states that there is no offense in taking alcohol “mixed in broth, meat, or oil.” The Commentary interprets the first two items as referring to sauces, stews, and meat dishes to which alcoholic beverages, such as wine, are added for flavoring before they are cooked. Since the alcohol would evaporate during the cooking, it would have no intoxicating effect. Foods containing unevaporated alcohol — such as rum babas — would not be included under this allowance.

As for alcohol mixed in oil, this refers to a medicine used in the Buddha’s time for afflictions of the “wind element.” The Mahavagga (VI.14.

  1. allows this medicine for use only as long as the taste, color, and smell of the alcohol are not perceptible. From this point, the Vinaya Mukha argues that morphine and other narcotics used as pain killers are allowable as well.”

Found here:

Coming back to the word itself, however, another poster to the Yahoo group (Steven Hodge) notes that Sanskrit sources show the following:


  1. Suraa: liquor distilled especially from fermented barley. Known from Vedic times onwards, but its use was frequently condemned.

  2. Maireya: a distilled liquor drunk by the upper classes. It was sugar- or honey-based, flavoured with flowers, to which further sweetening agents, astringents and pepper was added. This sounds to me more like a kind of aperitif or liqueur type of drink.

  3. Madya: alcoholic drink in general, but especially distilled spirits.

Steven wondered if perhaps the Buddha was speaking specifically about distilled beverages and noted that beer in places like Britain was normal for liquid intake because it was cleaner than the average water. People even drank it for breakfast apparently.

Now, of course this note about beer drinking in Britain is only circumstantial evidence, but it makes one wonder about the exact meaning of these Pali terms. Could they be referring only to distilled beverages?

Later in the same conversation, Ole Holten Pind commented on the Paatimokkha again to argue that indeed it seems that all alcohol is intended. He does point out, however, that the canonical book of ethics called the “Singalovaadasuttanta,” “does not refer to drinking alcohol as a kammakilesa, unlike murder, stealing, unlawful sex, and lying, but it is nonetheless described as one of the gates to ruin(apaayamukha), and is therefore condemned.”

Ven. Nyanatusita then gave his own analysis in which he agreed with Ole Holten Pind and went deeper into the grammar to conclude that the different types of alcohols mentioned have everything to do with ingredients and not strength. In other words, even something as weak as beer should be included.

Thus, we end up with a variety of interesting possibilities. Most of the people seemed to agree that though it might be possible to read the compound by itself as simply saying not to get intoxicated when drinking, that there is no case in the canon or commentaries for believing that this should be the proper translation. However, as we have seen, there is not total consensus. So, this issue will have to be one less based on grammar than canonical study I believe.

We must look to the Buddha’s teachings in many areas to see exactly what we think he would have intended for this issue. It may be tricky, but the more we study and have insight into his teachings, I think that we will begin to see the truth. Until then, perhaps we should listen to the general consensus of those who spend their lives studying the Dhamma via their understanding of Pali and their own practice. It seems that every Ven. Bhikkhu that weighed in on this issue (three of them) agreed. The fifth precept means no drinking alcoholic beverages of any type.