The Buddha and Bill W.

The Buddha

By Regina Walker
Originally published on March 3, 2015 in The Fix.

AA is often accused of being a Christian cult, but it has a lot more in common with Buddhism than many may realize.

Consider the eight-part program laid down in Buddhism: Right view, right aim, right speech, right action, right living, right effort, right mindedness and right contemplation. The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by these eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism. (From the Akron Pamphlet; “Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous” edited by Dr. Bob, co-founder of AA)

Those who have difficulty with the 12-step views on powerlessness and God will find in Buddhism a recovery process that does not ask for belief, only encourages direct knowing.

There appears to be much in common between Buddhist thought and the 12-step recovery program practiced by members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and other programs aimed at aiding people who struggle with addiction. I had the opportunity to communicate with a number of Buddhist teachers and writers who addressed the possible positive connection between Buddhism and recovery from addiction.

But first, what is Buddhism?

The easiest way to think of it, if you’re encountering Buddhism and its teachings for the first time, is that Buddhism is all the different traditions, teachings, and practices that have grown up around the teachings of Siddhãrtha Gautama, the historical Buddha, who is thought to have lived and taught in India around 2,500 years ago. Today, there are a huge number of different schools of Buddhist practice and thought, but almost all adhere to certain core teachings. These teachings include certain fundamental views such as the Four Noble Truths, the Three Treasures (the Buddha, or a teacher; the Dharma, or the teachings; and the Sangha, or the community of practitioners) and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The Four Noble Truths, for instance, are as follows: the truth of suffering, the truth of the cause of suffering, the truth of the cessation of suffering, and the path. While this might sound alien or exotic at first, it simply means acknowledging that we all suffer, and that there are reasons for suffering, as well as the possibility of ending suffering through certain methods.

Interestingly, the word “suffering” is a translation of the original Indian word “dukka” which means something closer to “dissatisfaction.” The idea is that when we have pleasure, we get greedy and don’t want it to end, and that when we have pain, we want it to end as quickly as possible. But, in neither case do we have real inner peace.

Additionally, in Buddhism there is a description of a world in the afterlife, populated by beings, so-called “hungry ghosts,” whose appetites exceed their capacity for satisfaction. Their stomachs are huge, but their throats are tiny. No matter how much they attempt to eat, their hunger remains unsatiated. The realm of the hungry ghosts is one of the “six realms of Buddhism,” which at first glance might seem like actual places—there is a “hell realm,” for instance, which could be thought of as a real hell.

Another way of looking at them is as descriptions of certain mental states. The hungry ghosts, or pretas, might be imagined as real beings, but in a larger sense they are simply sentient beings whose hunger defines and dominates their existence; we may call them alcoholics and drug addicts.

Noah Levine is a Buddhist teacher, author and counselor. (Learn more about him at and “The root cause of addiction is the survival instinct we are all born with. We are born into a body that craves pleasure and hates pain. Addictions are a maladaptive manifestation of trying to create pleasure and avoid pain.” said Levine.

“Buddhism’s whole teaching is directly related to recovery. The Buddha started his teaching (First Noble Truth) by asking us to break the denial that we have about the suffering in our lives, an encouragement to turn toward and directly face the facts. He then pointed out (Second Noble Truth) that the main cause of our suffering is craving for and addiction to sense pleasures. This craving can also manifest as aversion to pain and the cycle of escapism that leads to addiction to substances and behaviors,” Levine continues.

“He then taught (Third Noble Truth) that we can fully recover or be liberated from all of the suffering that addiction causes. We do this by renouncing the behaviors that we have become addicted to. In support of renunciation, we also take refuge in our potential to recover (Buddha), a disciplined meditation practice (Dharma) and a community of recovery (Sangha). The path that will lead to a full recovery (Eightfold path) has eight factors: Understanding, Intention, Communication, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration.”

When I asked Mr. Levine if he believed the practice of Buddhism was complementary to the 12-step model of recovery he responded, “Most will find Buddhism to fit well with their 12-step process. It will depend on one’s concept of a Higher Power. If one believes that there is an all-powerful God that is the creator and controller of the universe, they may have difficulty understanding things like karma. But I think that most 12 steppers will find the universal principles like generosity, forgiveness, compassion and the meditative path of mindfulness as complementary to the steps. More importantly, those who have difficulty with the 12-step views on powerlessness and God, will find in Buddhism a recovery process that does not ask for belief, only encourages direct knowing.”

Byakuren Judith Ragir is the Guiding Teacher at Clouds in Water Zen Center in St. Paul, MN.  She shared with me some of her thoughts about the relationship between Buddhism and addiction recovery.

I asked her, “Is there a common root cause of addiction in Buddhism?” Ms. Ragir replied, “Trungpa Rinpoche (an important and controversial teacher of Tibetan Buddhism who pioneered the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in America) said it right. All illusions are on a spectrum of addiction. From the habituated patterns of the way we think about “self” and “reality,” to small patterns that help us escape our problems, to overwhelming addictions; they are all based on the root that we can’t hold our present reality and we want to escape. We could also call it a spectrum of neurosis or compulsions.”

“In Buddhism, we seek to understand the underlying truth about life, a person, a life span and karma, which can start to unravel our tight grasp on who we are and what are problems are. ‘Relieve me of the bondage of self,’ our literature says. Meditation practice teaches us how to increase our capacity to stay with our negative emotions without acting out or repressing. This is incredibly important for addicts, otherwise we hit a feeling/emotion we don’t like and we escape through our addiction. It’s part of growing up. Life has suffering in it, the First Noble Truth. Can we be present to our life as it is? Can we plant seeds of goodness in our current conditions, one day at a time, that will manifest positively in the future? Changing my relationship to suffering, which is a basic teaching in Buddhism, has radically changed my life. Buddhist practice and 12-step recovery are very complementary. They each deepen the other. Their strengths lie in different areas.”

Kevin Griffin is a Buddhist teacher and author of numerous books including A Breath at a Time – Buddhism and the Twelve Steps as well as a leader in the mindful recovery movement.

“Mindfulness and meditation practices help people in recovery be a little bit more peaceful, to feel a bit more calm, to relieve stress,” said Griffin.

In describing “mindfulness,” Mr. Griffin remarked, “In mindfulness practice, we explore our habitual thought patterns. This can help the addict see the ways they are undermining themselves with thoughts, with obsessive thoughts, with reactive thought patterns.” Mr. Griffin continued.

“A bit of negative thought or self-hatred is going to be another trigger for relapse. So, we can see that in mindfulness practice we can respond in a more intentional, conscious way to those habitual negative patterns and really question them. The bumper sticker, ‘Don’t Believe Everything You Think’ comes to mind. This describes, in a way, the cognitive-behavioral practice of challenging thoughts.”

Mr. Griffin expressed the belief that “they (Buddhism and 12-step programs) share an understanding that craving is the cause of suffering.”

Finally, Mr. Griffin remarked, “Most of my work and my writing is seeing the parallels between 12-step work and Buddhist teachings.”

Darren Littlejohn has studied Buddhism for over 30 years and is the author of The 12-Step Buddhist.

Mr. Littlejohn has written extensively on the complementary relationship between Buddhism and the 12-step program and remarked, “Attachment gone wild is addiction.”

In The 12-Step Buddhist  Mr. Littlejohn writes: “I believe that Buddhism contains immeasurably powerful methods for everyone, especially addicts. If these methods are understood and practiced in the context of a recovery program, they will help you understand and realize your spiritual nature, which is the true mission of the 12 steps. As the Alcoholics Anonymous literature states, ‘our job is to grow in understanding and effectiveness.’“

“The roads to recovery are many… AA has no monopoly on reviving alcoholics.” – AA Co-Founder, Bill W., September 1944

23 Responses

  1. life-j says:

    Indeed Trungpa Rinpoche is a controversial character, in Wikipedia he is described as a heavy alcohol and drug user, and probably in part died of it.

    Other than that Buddhism does seem to have much to offer us in recovery. Somehow for me though it is difficult to get into the four this, the three that, and the nine the other. Kind of chops it up for me. Or is it the foreign-ness of it? Or concepts such as kharma, which are every bit as foreign to me as afterlife and controlling gods. I don’t know, I have never been able to get into Buddhism, though I have tried a number of times. And yet, buddhism remains to me one of the more sympathetic spiritual paths, most of all because it seems to not have any god per se.

    • Regina Walker says:

      Trungpa Rinpoche was indeed a controversial individual.
      His alcoholism was well known as was his other questionable behaviors.
      He contributed much as well though (“Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” is one of his early books and a favorite of mine).
      I think Rick Fields (a historian of Buddhism in America) said it best: “[Trungpa] caused more trouble, and did more good, than anyone I’ll ever know.”

  2. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks so much, Roger, for posting this article. Quite serendipitous, actually — were I of the Christian bent, I would say it is a god-hot . . . 😉

    Visiting my son, Tommy, in Tucson, AZ last night, I attended with him an NA mens meeting and his Dharma Punx recovery meditation meeting. I was quite impressed by both.

    My son hit his first rehab when he was 14 and spent the next 10 years in and out of rehab, psyche wards, jails. I moved him to where I was living in Tucson in 2002 so he could break the cycle of using with is peers on Long Island in the Rave Scene. In Tucson he struggled for several years before getting clean and sober in 2005, however he never really connected into NA or AA, but he stayed clean and sober. Within the last year, however, he reconnected with an NA Sponsor who is very active with the Shambhala Center and a practicing Buddhist, when his anger/rage issues and scattered mind in a high stress job was threatening his sobriety. He’s been regularly attending NA and Dharma Punx, meditating and doing yoga for several months now.

    I was greatly impressed with the NA mens group meeting. I had presumed that it would be similar to NA I’ve experienced elsewhere, mostly hardcore, motorcycle-riding heron/meth users in their 30s and 40s. Rather, the average age was mid-50s with lots of professionals and white collar workers. I was puzzled by this until I went to a regular morning AA meeting I attend when I am in Tucson. They ended with the Lord’s Prayer, and when I mentioned I was an atheist, I got a couple of raised-eyebrow-looks. After all, Tucson is the home of Wally P., who started his “Back to Basics” proselytizing movement here in Tucson, so free-thinking men are perhaps more comfortable in the more open environment of NA. At least this is what I surmise, not necessarily reality or the truth at all . . . 😉

  3. Wally K. says:

    My image for AA is “big tent” with room for all and universal tolerance among those within its walls. To that end, Roger has published an article that can enrich this concept with ideas and information. My group, “Atheists, Agnostics & All Others” is a microcosm of this.

    My personal template for translating the AA Program into a secular, pragmatic prescription for recovery came from Carl Sagan who said, “I don’t want to believe. I want to know.” And so my approach has been to observe, analyze and conclude. My first data set was taken many years ago at my initial encounter with AA at an upscale rehab facility in eastern Connecticut. I noted that invariably, the sober alcoholics using the AA program were significantly better by nearly all measures than they described in their earlier lives, and certainly living far better lives than their still-drinking peers. I concluded after some thought and experimentation upon myself that AA was my path out of desperation. The rest of my research, analysis, and conclusions have extended over several decades and continue today.

    Thanks, Roger, for a view through another prism.


  4. Jack S. says:

    I was lucky when I first came to AA because I already had a deep knowledge of Buddhism – and saw right away that the 12 steps fit very well into my idea of a higher power. Also – I have always lived in ‘liberal’ areas – where the Chritian element was small – and other ideas were welcome. So I have not suffered as many here on Agnostica have – with my “alien” beliefs.

    In fact – after 13 years sober in AA – I now see Buddhism as more akin to AA than Christianity is. There is no “God” in Buddhism – and the higher power is the Buddha – nature that we ALL already possess! So the group works just fine as my higher power – since “all beings contain Buddha nature.” Thus my peers in AA are mirrors for me to see the divine within – within you all – and within me – AND even within the dying alcoholic who comes to AA desperate for help. This person also has Buddha nature! It is easy to see myself in him – and to feel compassion rather than judgment. We are all in this together! I feel lucky that my higher power is not so high as to be out of reach and out of sight!

  5. Tommy H says:

    I find the statements about Buddhism being attractive for A.A.s having trouble with powerlessness and a higher power right on with my experiences, esp in the context of “regular” A.A.

    Life-J: I am going with the flow and not trying to figure everything out.

  6. Alyssa (soda) says:

    Thx 4 the article revealing yet another method toward eclectic recovery. Pretty neat stuff to compare and embrace both cultural practices. Right now I’m dabbling in the sacred 7 teachings of our First Nations people and interpreting the language best suited for my learning. I’m finding that anything that adds is a bonus. Thx again to the author:)

  7. Tommy H says:

    Life-J: I think it is the foreignness of it, something I had trouble identifying with early on, but I have been going with the flow.

    I had a hard time with meditation until I found a guided meditation app and now won’t do without it.

    A really good article.

  8. Ho Ming Kim says:

    I’m not keen to drag the religion of Buddhism into recovery. As a secularist, I insist that the two remain separate. As a resident of a Buddhist-majority country, I can assure you that Buddhism is very much a religion. In fact, it’s the 4th most followed religion in the world, and it behaves *exactly* as any other religion.

    With an endless array of supernatural nonsense, a pantheon of godlike entities, intercessory prayer, a privileged and abusive clergy, dogmatic fanaticism, feuding sects, greed and misappropriations of funds, and a profound disrespect for women. No worse, no better, than any other religion.

    Buddhism may be rather exotic and thus attractive to western consumers of new aged and alternative spirituality, as it doesn’t strictly conform to western notions of monotheism. But as it is actually practiced, Buddhism is very much a religion. It’s no more a “philosophy” than Christianity is.

    You don’t need supernatural woo to be compassionate. And you don’t need Buddhism to be mindful. Let’s not substitute one kind of nonsense for another.

    • Adam says:

      As a Western Buddhist and AA member, I hear what you’re saying, but please understand it is incredibly useful as a Westerner amidst a sea of Christian traditions to have access to the unique psychological insights of Buddhism, and in the West, it takes on an an increasingly secular tenor, with some of my favorite teachers being outright secularists.

      I’m not interested in throwing the good out with the bad from any tradition.

    • Jack S. says:

      Zen is not like the “religion” you describe above. Yes – some forms of Buddhism are mixed with Hinduism and have the bells and whistles and absurd dogma you describe.

      I would suggest reading “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” for a fresh and unveiled read on what a more simple and elegant and useful form Zen is. There is no “god” in Zen or in real Buddhism. There is only the reality of the present moment. All else is delusion. But humans seem to need the “mystical” element. Zen has none of this.

    • jennef says:

      Such a sad, sad comment… “Let’s not substitute one kind of nonsense for another”.

      I’ve been an A.A. member for quite a while in spite of the Christian traditions which are still irksome to me.

      The help and comfort I’ve got from Tara Brach’s “Radical Acceptance” and “True Refuge” and from Kevin Griffin’s books “Buddhism & the Twelve Steps”, “A Burning Desire ” and “One Breath at a Time” have been immeasurable, deep, enlightening and LASTING.

      Alan Watts is well worth reading, too, it goes without saying – “What we are seeking is already here. This is it”.

      Exposure to the work of these writers has taken a weight off my shoulders and made me feel comfortable in the World. That’s an amazing observation for an alcoholic to make, don’t you think?!

      I recommend reading them.

      • Regina Walker says:

        I would make another book recommendation – “The Zen of Recovery” by Mel Ash. I wanted to interview him for the piece but couldn’t make it happen.

    • Thomas B. says:

      Ho Ming Kim, I certainly understand and to some degree identify with where you’re coming from — I lived for two years in Sri Lanka where I experienced the religious aspects of Buddhism that were just as viciously violent and less compassionate than any religious bigotry I’ve experienced from fundamentalist Christianity. There was a sect of Buddhist monks who dressed in camies and carried AK-47s who felt it was their devoted duty to Buddha to eliminate as many Hindu Tamils as they could.

      Recently, the NYT has been reporting on efforts of the Sri Lankan government to have a “Truth and Reconciliation” process for the thousands (hundreds of?) Tamil Sri Lankans who have disappeared and/or been placed in teeming refugee camps throughout the North and East of Sri Lanka as a result of their 40 year struggle with the Tamil Tigers, who were brutally genocided between 2005 – 2010 by the military of the Buddhist majority government.

      But, as others attest, Buddhism as practiced in North America is much less dogmatically religious than the predominant religious practice of many evangelistic and pietistic Christians.

    • Jack M says:

      Describes Thailand exactly. Well thought and well stated.
      I shamelessly enjoy asking of my fellow farang whether they would participate in such obvious rituals if approached by a “Pastor” in their native countries.

    • Roger says:

      We are talking about two very different things now.

      There are cultures in which Buddhism is the religion of origin and which behave in an abominable fashion. In spite of whatever, the tribalism common to all humans often leads to behaviour that is disgusting, deplorable and destructive. And it may very well someday result in the obliteration of humanity, all of it, via nuclear confrontation.

      But that has very little to do with Buddhism as we know it in the West.

      The writings of people like Tara Brach, Kevin Griffin, Jack Kornfield, Darren Littlejohn, Thérèse Jacobs-Stewart and one of my favourites, Stephen Batchelor, and many, many others, can be very helpful, not only to those of us in recovery, but to anyone who reads them.

      Acknowledging the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism – that life brings suffering, that suffering is part of living, that suffering can be ended and that there is a path that leads to the end of suffering – can be the beginning of recovery for an alcoholic or addict. Meditation is increasingly recognized by science as an effective way of dealing with anxiety and depression, i.e. reducing suffering. Mindfulness, via meditation, has everything to do with reducing the self-obsession of the ego and better understanding our place in the world. Ain’t nothing wrong with any of that.

      That’s Buddhism as we know it in the West. Let’s not confuse it with something else. Thank you. “May all beings be happy.” (Buddhist Metta meditation)

  9. Adam N says:

    One day, a few years into recovery, I was driving by a large gathering of very attractive females and, being a stereotypical male in this regard, I found myself filled with craving, lust and desire. Suddenly I realized that what I really wanted, deep down, was not to ‘satisfy’ my desires, but rather to be freed from them. I attributed this insight to my time in Alcoholics Anonymous, and the way we think of our alcoholism/addiction as a bottomless, unfulfillable thirst. The source of my misery was the relentless craving itself. In this sense, Buddhists and AA members might tend to see things in a very similar light.

  10. Andy says:

    This article gives the impression that Buddhism is a unified, monolithic entity, which it is not. Theravada practitioners are concerned with supernatural concepts such as merit, reincarnation, and karma. Mahayana places little to no emphasis on such concepts, depending on the sect. Vajrayana has saints, gods, goddesses, and magical powers. All three of these major schools are Buddhist, but their practices and teachings vary markedly. A Vajrayana practitioner would have little trouble meshing with standard AA, since Tara would make an excellent higher power. A Zen Buddhist would have a great deal more trouble, as it’s more of an atheist worldview.

    • Adam N says:

      Well informed response. I once had an instructor who taught that there was no such thing as ‘Buddhism’. Many, many Buddhists, yes. With a wide range of beliefs and practices. But no ‘Buddhism’. I thought that was very, well, enlightening!

  11. boyd p. says:

    Regarding the closing quote by Bill dated September 1944. This was the first year of the Grapevine magazine. Is that where it appeared?

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