Buddhist Precept: Intoxicants Cloud the Mind

Bronze Red Zen Buddha Statue

One Buddhist’s take on the precepts and recovery

By Arthur S

I’d like to first clarify that I’m no authority on Buddhism, Recovery or AA.

I’m going to try my best not to preach or teach. I’m just going to share my experience, strength and hope. I’ll be using a couple of quotes and paraphrases because I’m just a parrot that sits on the shoulders of giants.

Just like most of you, I faced that moment of overwhelming dread when I realized that I had to stop using my drug of choice – and escape the lifestyle that came with it – for the rest of my life. For those of us with years of recovery, we look back affectionately at the realization that this old way of thinking, if continued, would have destroyed us; but in letting go of it, we were liberated beyond belief.

My life-long love affair with alcohol began at the age of four.  While my father and uncles where watching a hockey game, I devised a plan to drop my little green soldier into dad’s beer so I could drink it. Then I would sneak downstairs and occasionally drink my dad’s whiskey. When I became an altar boy I woke up on time every morning to open the church, drink some wine, serve mass and go to school.

I’d compare it to an abusive relationship; at first it swept me off my feet, made problems look so small, so much so that it had me convinced I didn’t need anyone else in my life.

Then after decades, the days came that it turned on me like an abusive lover, convincing me that I was nothing without her and that everyone else was the problem. I went from a corporate executive, active leading member of a large parish, and a family man, to a divorced womanizer with no fixed address that lived with bikers.

So how does one like me come back from such dire straits with a head full of booze and western theology? Recovery can be a tough road if we don’t learn a new language of the heart. Indeed my case was more so, since my devout Catholic background considered the Big Book and its so called “program” rudimentary and bad theology that relied on the premise that the only way to recover from addiction was to have a religious conversion.

Indeed if it wasn’t for my first sponsor introducing me to the eastern philosophies and its inherent nature of a universal point of view, I don’t think I’d be sober today (which can be considered a religious conversion of its own sort). I guess for some people it seems rather absurd that I made this connection about how I view reality in order to change the way I see, hear, eat, speak and act in order to recover my life away from alcohol. But that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

You see in western thought we say “you made me angry” but in eastern thought (as I understand it) it’s presented as “I have this anger before me”, which makes it a choice between the stimulus and the response. Indeed, how many of us in the program have learned that no matter what the cause, we are responsible for how we feel. I learned that it’s the dramatic adrenaline rush of reactionary thinking or mindlessness that gets me in trouble most times; I’d play the “blame game”, “pity party” or my favourite “righteous indignation”. Only to suffer the emotional hangover of shame, guilt or remorse afterwards promising myself that I’d never do that again. I discovered that the problem was a wrong view and what’s required is to put a new pair of glasses on in order to learn how to intuitively solve problems that otherwise used to be baffling.

Another example are problems of what those in the program know as sin or defects of character that they’d like to be delivered from or removed. For me it’s a matter of “right view” vs. “wrong view” and a defective use of the character I have. I see that everyone believes they’re basically made of good intentions and everyone wants to be happy and it’s our distorted, limited or wrong point of views that have led us to the abyss.

So in simple terms my thoughts and behaviour are now based on this belief:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Lao Tzu

Because I believe the inherent nature of reality (no independent origination) also comes into play, my environment and everything I allow into me will change me. This is where the Buddhist precepts come into play.

The Precepts aren’t necessarily seen as rules but more guidelines to be followed.

They are as follows:

  • I undertake the rule to abstain from killing.
  • I undertake the rule to abstain from taking what is not given.
  • I undertake the rule to abstain from sexual misconduct.
  • I undertake the rule to abstain from false speech.
  • I undertake the rule to abstain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind.

I’ll summarize with this quote:

No one can practice the precepts perfectly, including the Buddha… Boiled vegetables contain dead bacteria. We cannot practice the First Precept or any of the precepts perfectly. But because of the real danger in our society – alcoholism has destroyed so many families and has brought about much unhappiness – we have to do something. We have to live in a way that will eradicate that kind of damage. That is why even if you can be very healthy with one glass of wine every week, I still urge you with all my strength to abandon that glass of wine.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Let’s face it, if we didn’t believe in the power of input influence we wouldn’t have an advertising industry.

So when I refuse to listen to or partake in various prayers and discussions about faith in deities that will intervene, it’s because I understand ideas have the power to mould my way of thinking and if it contradicts my critical thinking sensibilities, it just won’t work. It’s a baseless way into my heart and if I can’t live genuinely then I’d die drunk.

My religion is the pursuit to see things as they really are.

For me the purpose of prayers aren’t to influence the mind of some deity to change the universe for me; rather, prayers are affirmations to change my heart and faith and this refers to a serene commitment to the practice of the Buddha’s teachings and to trust in enlightened or highly developed beings, not deities. I have faith in the Sangha or the group because it’s in meetings that people can give me perspective and call me out on my shit.

Which comes to my final perspective and this is on the spirituality of unity. I’ll leave you with this final quote as a caveat emptor:

When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind. When you separate yourself by belief, by nationality, by tradition, it breeds violence. So a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system; he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.

Jiddu Krishnamurti



33 Responses

  1. Arthur S. says:

    Thank you everyone for such encouraging responses. I believe there’s a backlash that’s resonating throughout out world to the growing attitude of secularism. Churches can’t pay the mortgages on empty rooms.

    I have faith that the universe will unfold as it should, which is that there’s growth through adversity.

    I’m starting a Refuge Recovery Meeting Saturday mornings starting May 4, in Hamilton. The same church where there’s a We Agnostics meeting on Monday and Thursday nights.

    May the 4 be with you. ???

  2. Johnny says:

    I don’t feel so alone anymore… with this online group of free thinkers.

    We only have one secular meeting in our community of 500,000 and it’s an hour plus drive I have only attended one time. I attend a few traditional meetings a week for the last 22 years so I don’t forget what it was like. I live by the saying “To thine own self be true” and with that it can be very challenging to listen to all the horse shit in the meetings.

    For 17 years I kept my mouth shut and I lived by fake it until you make it. I stopped going to AA and beat myself up for four years (four more years) LOL. Made it back to the program on my own accord. I was going to lose everything starting with my freedom and an amazing life I put together with 17 years of not drinking. I dropped the fake it till you make it program.

    I am not afraid to speak my truth in meetings today. Life is good. Thanks for the great article Arthur.

    • Arthur S. says:

      Ya I can relate to that.

      After ten years I had to admit to myself that it’s my expectations of AA that were the problem and my recovery was based on eastern philosophies not AA dogma.

      So I’m starting a Refuge Recovery Meeting in Hamilton Saturday at 10am at the First Unitarian church.

  3. Kristi L. says:

    What a beautifully, simply and humbly articulated article. Can you recommend a translation of Lao Tzu’s writings? Thank you so much!

  4. Dave J says:

    Thank you for a great article.

    I’m grateful that even though I was fully indoctrinated with Christianity as a kid I had deprogrammed most of it before I joined AA. Over the years I took a gander at the other sacred cows. Mormonism is my fave… definitely the Gilligan’s Island of organized religion. Unfortunately none of them impressed: Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Ramadama ding dong (couldn’t resist but in fairness I find the other religions just as ridiculous). However Buddism I’m okay with. Some of it.

    I’m not an atheist because I think that’s just reverse evangelism but I know this… Big Book thumpers are not going to change. They will get worse. Holding hands with who knows (the next Ted Bundy) while chanting an odious piece of crap like the Lord’s prayer… this is not going away. Why? Because it’s stupid, mindless and easy and worse, continues to give control to the lunatic fringe who read little yellow 12 step pamphlets written in Akron by people who should really have stuck to making tires.

    • Arthur S. says:

      Ya it’s difficult for theists to accept that some of us don’t need deities to recover.

  5. Garry U. says:

    Wonderful article. I spent my first 20 of sobriety as a theist. An interest in meditation to address depression exposed me to Buddhism. That led to an adoption of agnosticism which has since taken on a more of atheist hue.

    As I have learned from this site, even pre-big book AA referenced Buddhism. Adopting a non-theistic approach to AA has required a lot more effort than the inclusion of Buddhist principles in my recovery.

    All my AA prayers now start with “May I…” as do most Buddhist affirmations.

    I describe myself as the world’s worst buddhist because I cannot with honesty say “May all beings be happy.” But I say it anyway.

    Just as being an AA member does not require that I believe in god, adoption of Buddhist principles does not require that I subscribe to karma and re-incarnation.

    I guess I have to some degree always been averse to fundamentalist AA although at times I practiced that attitude. I always liked that freedom of belief afforded by AA when I first showed up. Later, I learned, much of that freedom was lip service. I did not want to join a cult and fear many in the fellowship want to drag it in that direction. It seems to be a function of human nature. One that we must work to avoid. (I live in a country that claims not to have a state religion. But you could not tell that by watching the news.)

    The last ten years for AA have seen a welcome change. I wish that high profile atheist and agnostics in public eye did not cleve to dated ideas about AA. If they were exposed to sites such as this they might learn that AA works in helping people get sober and stay sober through fellowship, kindness, and addressing self-centeredness. Not theism.

    Maybe AA helps me practice the 5th Precept. Maybe the 5th Precept encourages me to stay close to AA.

  6. Denny says:

    Excellent article, thank you.

    The Lao Tzu quote recalled the first line of this song: “Wise ones know we plant a seed with every word and deed…”

    Here Comes Karma Now

    • Arthur S. says:

      Ya I’ve perceived most updates in my interpretations of eastern philosophies that there is an answer to everything, that answer is physics. ?

  7. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks Arthur for this most perceptive article and Roger for publishing it. For most of my recovery I’ve meditated and contemplated upon Buddhist thought, which is much more centered upon what lies within rather than seeking relief from an external and all powerful deity. I’ve been known to quip in religious AA meetings that I consider myself to be a “Born Again Buddhist.”

    • Arthur S. says:

      Thank you ? it’s not my desire to take sides. I think it’s always been Bill’s vision to coexist but the terms and society has changed at such a pace that many are being left behind.

      I’ve often considered that we’ve neglected to take the program to the “next frontier” of “emotional sobriety” meetings.

  8. Jimmy C. says:

    The San Francisco Zen Center website has this excellent document on the Steps: 9 Essays – Buddhism & The 12 Step Model of Recovery. Very helpful for a once evangelical one… I was fortunate to have fallen into an interfaith dialogue early on, being the skeptic. This has helped as I rejoin humanity and look for our commonalities.

    • Arthur S. says:

      Thank you! That was very informative!
      For me the work of Tara Brach resonates in my recovery.

  9. life-j says:

    Arthur, thanks. You show how Buddhism is one of the most sympathetic spiritual traditions to base one’s outlook on. Myself I tend to lean toward the Tao, and I notice you quote Lao Tsu. One thing that makes me prefer it is that there are practically no dogma, not even any four this, or eight that, benign as they are in Buddhism.

    I do like your suggestion that the concept of prayer should be seen as affirmations rather than petitions. A possible way to incorporate the Christian ways in a secular outlook, somewhat, anyway.

    I see some issues with your discussion of feelings and thoughts. I think we have only little responsibility for our feelings, other than perhaps for the general direction we try to nudge them over time, and to some degree this holds true for thoughts too, since they all are simply the results of organic processes we have little immediate control over. But of course with various techniques over time we can have influence on the places we let them take us. Through the continual exposure to a more positive outlook around me in AA I have slowly, very slowly come to let go of my feelings of inferiority, but it is not something I have been able to simply make a decision to change. Well, I could make the decision, but there was nothing there, or almost nothing that could turn it into action. I felt the way I felt, and only continual challenges over years of exposure slowly shifts my feelings. On the other hand, insofar as I’m not psychotic, I do have responsibility for how I act on those feelings. Though even that was a bit iffy early in sobriety. I think it is one of AA’s discoveries that it is easier to first change our actions and our thoughts and feelings will follow, rather than the other way around.

    • Arthur S. says:

      Ya I think that we live in a reality were the stimulus does influence the response and visa versa; the Dao, Tao or True Nature in the present moment is that space between. I think you’re also correct because we live in a universe of what appears to be contradictions, are actually our limitations to see the connections.

  10. bob k says:

    I much appreciated the writing—beautiful in its simplicity and plain-spokenness. The clarity of expression was delightful. Although I have adopted a Buddhist practice, I like the inherent common sense involved.

    • Arthur S. says:

      As I’ve often said, there’s an answer to everything, it’s called physics. ?

  11. Jackie K says:

    Thank you so much for this writing. I have been studying the four noble truths and the eightfold path for a few years now, having released myself from the idea that a superhuman being has my life planned and puts thoughts ino my head. I still stand and join hands with my fellows when the Lord’s Prayer is said, but my mouth does not move. No need in making a case of it. 12-step programs do have a lot of the same ideas about attachment — it’s just expressed differently. I no longer read aloud when asked because I will not state something aloud that I do not believe in. I say the 12 steps for Buddhists to myself, and it’s perfect!

    • Arthur S. says:

      Ya, it’s been difficult to let go of expectations of AA, but starting a Refuge Recovery Meeting in Hamilton in May will help.

  12. Denise says:

    So true…….

  13. Faye says:

    Nicely said. Thank you. It’s a lifelong journey

    • Arthur S. says:

      Ya, for me there’s a meaning to life, the meaning is that it’s all about the experience.

  14. Lance B says:

    Excellent! Just excellent! I want to remember and feel and internalize all. Thanks.

  15. James says:

    I went down this path. AA and Buddhism don’t mix. Every day AA is not prepared for or accepting of us. They insist that their methodology, including and especially prayer, trumps all things. I ignored them at first, now I do what I believe is right, correct and sober. They hate when I chair a meeting and make it all inclusive by banning their Christian prayers. 🙂

  16. David P. says:

    What a reassuring read for this stoic! “Parrot that sits on the shoulders of giants” is a perfect metaphor that I will shamelessly borrow on occasion. Great read and thanks for this “Sunday offering”

    • Arthur S. says:

      I’m afraid my parrot disclaimer may have been a paraphrase from another parrot. ?

Translate »