When I want a convenient break from Shambhala Mountain Center, the Buddhist retreat where I live and work, I head to a dark, smoky bar called the Red Feather Café. 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 while the other half are fellow Buddhists from Shambhala Mountain. Almost any night of the week, I can find both ranchers and Buddhists shooting pool at one of the two tables or sitting at the bar, matching each other drink for drink.
Check your Sutras and you’ll see that 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 here 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–most of the places you might see alcohol in regular American life. It wasn’t long before I started wondering: Why isn’t my Buddhist retreat center on the wagon?
The answer, like most involving Buddhist practices, lies in the particular lineage of teachings represented here at Shambhala Mountain. Acharya Bill McKeever, Shambhala Mountain’s resident teacher, 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.”…
“Imagine you are enjoying a picnic in a beautiful spot with your lover,” says McKeever. “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 monasteries scattered across the high plains of Tibet, monks incorporated alcohol into their esoteric Vajrayana practices. (These Tantric rituals have historically been viewed skeptically by more straitlaced Buddhists around the world.) 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.
This month, more than 100 people have gathered at Shambhala Mountain Center to become full-fledged Vajrayana practitioners. In the seventies and eighties, long before the Dalai Lama visited Central Park, Chögyam Trungpa taught Vajrayana Buddhism in North America, establishing hundreds of Shambhala meditation centers including this rustic retreat in the Rockies. For many people, this Vajrayana Seminary is the culminating event after years of study and practice. The Vajrayana students meet every morning in a large white tent in the center of campus, spending their days mixing meditation, talks, and study groups. At some point, they will be 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 normal night at the bar. Imagine people seated in lotus position with cups of sake (rice wine) 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 very 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 is hard to know where the line between utility and abuse lies. It turns out that, despite their mindful drinking lessons, it is hard for the people in Shambhala, too.
“When the formal feasts work, they can be great, but sometimes people drink too much and it can be a disaster,” says John Ohm, a resident at Shambhala Mountain center, a Vajrayana practitioner and a recovering alcoholic.
That’s in a formal setting. The issue gets even muddier in plain old social contexts. While few fellow Buddhists claim to be practicing “mindful drinking” when I see them out at the Café, the community is remarkably tolerant of alcohol. Drunkenness is about as prevalent up here as it was when I lived in New York. When a visitor or a new arrival inevitably questions all the drinking, it is common for an old hand to justify the excessive behavior by explaining that Shambhala Mountain is a “Vajrayana practice community.”
People sometimes invoke the personal example of Chögyam Trungpa, who was by all accounts a prolific drinker who died in 1987. McKeever says that Trungpa Rinpoche implored his students to follow his teachings, not his personal embodiment of them, but it was a distinction that many of his students missed. “We just didn’t get it,” he says. “Because we’re Buddhists we think we’re special, but drunkenness is drunkenness.”
Ohm points out that mindful drinking should be seen as one valid tool for practice within a tradition remarkable for its wide variety of effective tools. And a dangerous one for people with an alcohol problem. “It is suicide for some people,” he says. ” ‘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.
So I’ve turned a few visits to the Café into my own mindful drinking laboratory. On the nights when I order one or two beers, I’ve noticed that I feel relaxed and open. If I pick up a pool cue on those nights, I can even hang in a game with the local ranchers. Then there are nights when I order that third beer. When that happens, my mood gets a little more erratic. I become either giddy or sullen. And my pool game? Don’t ask.