Your Questions, My Answers ~ ONE BECOMES TWO


"I have a son who drinks a lot, and I’m worried about this, as he also drives while under the influence; I’m afraid he will have an accident and be killed or maimed, or—even worse—that he will kill or maim someone else. As soon as he comes home from work, he starts to drink. His father is dead, and he will not listen to me. I love my son. Is there anything I can do?"


You are justified in your concern; it is, indeed, something to be concerned about.

We live in a hypocritical age, do we not? On one hand, we have anti-drug laws (with the death sentence meted out in some countries for possession of and dealing in illicit drugs), while on the other hand, alcohol—which is responsible for far more suffering and death than other addictive drugs (as it is more widely used and abused)—is socially acceptable; it also brings in huge revenues for governments. If it were something new, and had not the sanction of time, it would be banned. As time passes, however, and people get used to the newcomer, acceptance follows, and gradually, it loses its social stigma. Efforts to control use of even ‘soft’ drugs like marijuana have had little success worldwide; indeed, it seems that, in spite of —or maybe even because of—such efforts, its use continues to spread; maybe it is like the ‘forbidden fruit’ in the old myth about Adam and Eve: in spite of the abundance of other good things to eat, the one thing that they were expressly forbidden to touch seemed to them the most appealing.

Right now, in Australia—so I’ve heard, though how far it is true or not, I can’t say—a full grown marijuana plant has a street value of about A$1,000—and it’s just a weed that grows very easily! What an incentive to cultivate it! Crops of it valued at millions of dollars are seized and burned, but the risks of being caught and charged are far outweighed by the possible fortunes to be made. Why does society place such preposterous value on weeds? The widespread use of drugs today is a sure sign that our world is spiritually at low ebb; we have placed our confidence wholly in the material side of life, and it has failed to deliver what we seek—happiness and satisfaction —because these things, of course, are spiritual in nature, not material. Thus, many people, hating the monotony of their daily lives, and having no spiritual resources to fall back upon, look for a ‘quick fix’, but it is no answer at all, and only further complicates things.

In the ‘Thirties, spurred on by Christian fundamentalism, the US government tried to combat declining morals and alcohol abuse by banning alcohol completely, but this had the opposite effect to the one desired, and caused a dramatic increase in organized crime and ‘boot-legging’. When the ban was finally repealed, the damage done was irreversible, and the crime syndicates looked around for other means of easy profits. They found them in narcotics; hence the drug scourge of the Western world today.

It is easy to become addicted as we are creatures of habit; indeed, if we were to examine ourselves, we would probably find that most of us are addicted to something or other, to some degree. If we understood just how much we function by habit, we would be more than halfway to overcoming negative habits (if we wanted to overcome them, that is; in many cases, we don’t want to, because they are often pleasant and enjoyable). I mean, just watch yourself from the time you wake up and start your day: What do you do first, and how do you do it? If you are in your normal surroundings, you will almost certainly do things in a routine manner, starting, perhaps, by going to the toilet to relieve yourself (or, as Americans euphemistically call it, ‘the restroom’ or ‘bathroom’, as if the words ‘toilet’ or ‘lavatory’ are unspeakable! I’ve even heard some of them talk about their dogs ‘using the restroom’! How far out can you get?!). You might then brush your teeth, wash your face or shower, comb your hair, etc., all according to your own little system; do you know, right now, how you brush your teeth, for example? Without a toothbrush in your hand, you might not be able to recall, but you probably do it in exactly the same way every morning. Some people start the day with a cigarette, or a cup of tea/coffee, and couldn’t imagine doing it any other way.

It’s amazing how many things we carry out, by habit or routine, in daily life; it is as if we act by ‘automatic pilot’, while our minds are elsewhere. If, however, we are in a different environment than the one we are used to—like when on vacation or staying in a hotel or with friends—we feel somewhat disorientated, and our habits are put under stress, so it takes a while to adjust to the unfamiliar situation (something like jet-lag), and we might be unable to do things as usual. Some of us have very defined times about defecating—let’s not be coy about this; it is a perfectly normal and natural function that we all perform—and if we do not ‘go’ at our regular time, we might be unable to ‘go’, and the whole day is disrupted thereby. But if we stay with friends or strangers, we must consider their routines—as they have them, too—and try not to occupy the toilet/bathroom when they might need to be there. We may not be very happy about making some adjustment to our routine, but we do it anyway, as we have no choice.

Does not our functioning by routine and the discomfort we feel at the disruption thereof, reveal a proclivity to addiction? And it is not only to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and such that we become addicted—that is, psychologically dependent on—but even upon things so ‘low’ as defecating regularly. I apologize for being so crude about it, but we are speaking of something that causes so much suffering—addiction—so we cannot afford to mince words about it.

Most drug addicts would like to ‘kick the habit’—at times, at least—but lack the will power to do so; thus, their suffering goes on. If we knew more about the mechanics of addiction, it would certainly help. As I have tried to show by the toilet example above, addiction is more mental than physical—that is, we cause it to ourselves. Can it be broken? The answer is yes, if the addict has sufficient incentive to do so, if he/she comes to see how stupid it is to depend upon things like alcohol, tobacco, etc., and if there is something to fill the vacuum that withdrawal would create; without the substitute, it is doubtful the withdrawal would last long.

The media campaigns about drink driving and its consequences have had some remarkable and laudable results. The number of road casualties, compared with earlier, is down considerably, but we still have a long way to go. There is danger that we will get used to the graphic and gory details of twisted and mangled bodies being pulled from smashed cars or lying on operating tables, of mothers and lovers grieving inconsolably over their dead. Increasing evidence indicates that the more we are exposed to violence, crime and bloodshed—even if it’s only on TV—the more we become inured to it; it’s like developing calluses on our hands from repeated manual labor. Must something terrible really happen to us, personally, before we think about using our common sense?

I am not speaking merely of what I have observed in others when I say that alcohol befuddles the brain and causes us to do and say stupid and undignified things that otherwise we probably would not do. I used to drink to the point of drunkenness myself, so I know what I’m talking about. But alcohol is one of several things that I have no regrets about giving up.

Some time ago, I went to a Vietnamese doctor, and before examining me, he asked several routine questions, including: "Do you drink?", "Do you smoke?" I replied "No". Knowing something of the life style of monks, he then said: "Oh, you are not allowed to". "No", I said, "from choice. I don’t want to drink or smoke". I have seen many Vietnamese monks leave the monk hood and return to lay-life (which is their right, of course), and they leave behind not only the robe and their monk’s name, but also their vegetarianism and abstinence from alcohol, which seems to indicate—does it not—that they observed such things only because it was expected of them, instead of from deep personal conviction. If/when we understand that something is right, we try to follow it, without needing rules for it. One ex-monk I knew used to boast that he could drink twelve cans of beer without getting drunk, but he lost so much of his dignity through drinking that he thought nothing of beating his wife up, even hitting her in the face and knocking her down when she was just three weeks away from giving birth to their second child! He later abandoned his wife and kids to become a monk again.

Another man I knew, upon coming home from work, before bathing and eating, ordered his young son to bring him a drink, and the boy obediently brought him a large measure of whiskey. What kind of example did this man set his impressionable son? It was planting seeds of a similar habit in him. Later on, after his father died, the son became a heroin addict.

Many people, fond of alcohol themselves, try to persuade others to join them in this; "Just a little", they say; "Only one". But one feels lonely by itself, and looks for a companion, and then two becomes three, and so on. Who can restrict themselves to ‘just one drink’? An old Japanese proverb puts it so:

"The man takes a drink.
The drink takes a drink.
The drink takes the man".

Among other things, this is what the Buddha had to say about drinking alcohol:

"The layman who holds fast to the Teachings will not be addicted to strong drink. He will never invite anyone to drink, nor will he approve of drinking in another, since he knows that it all ends in madness. For, following upon drunkenness, fools fall into vice, and induce others to drink. Men should shun this haunt of evil, this foolishness, in which only the witless find delight".

The terminology of this might be rather out-of-date, but the meaning certainly isn’t, and not only people who call themselves ‘Buddhists’ would do well to consider it.

Are you still there, dear questioner? Can you relate to what I have said? I have said it in order to show that the cause of your complaint—our complaint—is to be sought within us. But, you may say: "It is my son who has the drinking problem, not me". Really? If it is not your problem, too—and mine—then why are you complaining about it, and why am I writing about it? It is our problem—that is, a community problem. How would you—or I, or anyone—like to see someone near and dear to them injured, crippled, mutilated or killed in a car smash caused by a drunken driver? How would you like to have to take care, for life, of someone who has been maimed and unable to do anything for him/herself? Put yourself in the place of the deranged mother who has just seen her child lying bloody and dead on the road, and imagine how she feels: Would you like that to happen to you? Would you like to be the cause of that to somebody else? There is no need for answers, is there? There is only need for thought and precaution before something like that happens.

In order to be able to communicate with your son, and perhaps help him with what is really his addiction, you must be able to understand why this sort of thing happens. You obviously love your son, and love, together with intelligence, might find a way to convince him to change his potentially fatal habit. One way might be to draw him into the practice of meditation, by which he could come to see things clearer. You see, the mind is like a camera, which cannot take clear pictures if it is out of focus. With its natural tendency to wander, it is hard enough to concentrate and keep the mind clear without intoxicating it with alcohol. (Look at the word ‘intoxicate’, too. What does it mean? It means: To poison oneself!).

Some people are social drinkers—they drink to be sociable —while others are compulsive drinkers, having developed a habit that they cannot/will not break. But there is hope, as the anti-smoking campaign shows: until quite recently, non-smokers had to put up with the noxious fumes of the tobacco addicts—for such they are—and suffer in silence; to have complained would have brought cries of "What are you—a weirdo or something?!" But now, public opinion has been sufficiently aroused to bring about a change, and smoking is banned in buses, trains, theaters, and other public places. This is indeed a major breakthrough, and will encourage people to be able to resist the call to, "Have a drink, mate", and say: "No, thanks; I don’t drink", or "Thanks, but I’m driving". The campaign against drinking-and-driving must be sustained and intensified, not as a means of punishing offenders, but more of prevention through education of the public. Needless to say, we are facing a long and hard task, since we have the wrong education of millenniums to deal with and overcome, and because people do not want to see and change their ways. But it is a matter of reducing the senseless road carnage, and not of curtailing people’s freedom.

If it seems that you will have little success in your efforts, don’t let this prevent you from trying; you are only one person, it is true, but you are not alone, because all around you there are people waking up to the fact that much of the suffering we undergo is unnecessary and avoidable, and who are looking for ways to change things. You should know that you are not alone.

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