Applying Buddhism in Addiction Recovery

The Buddhist philosophy, as exemplified by (its) eight points, could be literally adopted by AA as a substitute for or in addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love and welfare of others rather than considerations of self are basic to Buddhism.

Akron Pamphlet, “Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous”, edited by Dr. Bob, 1940

By Dale Vernor
Originally posted on I Am Sober

Craving. It’s the one word that can sum up the debilitating condition known as addiction. Regardless of the myriad of reasons people may put up to explain their unhealthy obsession, the root cause always lies in an inordinate need – an excessive desire for something they think can make them happy or fill up an empty void in their lives.

In the case of substance abuse, the focal point of a person’s addiction is usually drugs, alcohol, and the like.

Addiction is destructive. It does not fulfill lives, it ruins them instead.

Buddhism in Addiction Recovery

While typical treatment of drug and alcohol addiction is often largely secular in nature, there are also those which are largely anchored on faith. These faith-based drug rehabilitation programs can either cater to a specific religious group, or they can be non-denominational in nature (a good example would be 12-Step Programs). Notwithstanding slight variations, these programs all espouse a similar concept: that people can cure their addiction with the assistance of a higher power.

This brings us now to Buddhism. Call it a religion, a philosophy, a way of life, or whatever, but it cannot be denied that its teachings translate very well insofar as knowing the origin of, and treating addiction.

Also known as the Middle Way, Buddhism teaches the virtue of moderation – that a truly happy life is one that is lived midway between excessive indulgence and extreme asceticism.

For people who want to curb their addiction for good, you’re not required to be a Buddhist to practice and benefit from its teachings. Just knowing and following the main principles – especially the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – can definitely help you in your road towards an addiction-free life.

The Four Noble Truths of Suffering (and its Cure)

The central tenet of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths, can be basically summed up thus:

  1. Suffering exists;
  2. The cause of suffering is selfish and ignorant desire;
  3. There is a way to end that suffering; and
  4. Following the Noble Eightfold Path can bring an end to the suffering.

According to the Buddha, a person who does not overcome his worldly desires is doomed to repeat his unhappy existence through an endless cycle of death and rebirth – a condition known as samsara.

However, once that person reaches enlightenment – that is, he truly knows the cause of his suffering and sweeps away all material attachments – he ends his cycle and attains nirvana, which is the state of enlightenment and true happiness.

For people suffering from an addiction, the simple truth that can be gleaned from the Buddha’s teaching is this: Unless they put an end to their desire for alcohol or drugs, they will continue their own cycle of suffering towards destruction.

The Noble Eightfold Path: A Cure to Suffering

Sharing his secret to enlightenment with his followers, the Buddha emphasized eight steps a person should follow and practice if he wishes to attain nirvana. Known as the Noble Eightfold Path, this collective set of teachings can help those who want to free themselves from the endless cycle of suffering, death, and rebirth.

The 8 steps can be basically summarized as:

  • Right understanding
  • Right thought
  • Right speech
  • Right conduct or
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right focus

Steps One and Two build up wisdom.

Steps Three, Four, and Five improve mental conduct, virtue, and morality.

Steps Six, Seven, and Eight help develop mental discipline.

Put together, these steps help create a mentally strong, upright, and disciplined individual.

Relevance of the Eight Steps to Addiction Treatment

For a person suffering from an addiction, the steps can serve as helpful tools in his treatment and rehabilitation.

Through Steps 1 and 2, the person can begin to fully understand the cause of his addiction and commit to healing himself.

Through Steps 3, 4, and 5, the person can make the needed adjustments to his lifestyle and activities.

Through Steps 6, 7, and 8, person is able to know the dangers of relapsing and conscientiously chooses not to stray from the right path anymore.


Again, you are not required to be a Buddhist to apply the Eightfold Path to your treatment. So long as it (and the other teachings of Buddhism) can help you, then by all means practice them constantly.

According to Buddhist lore, the Buddha often emphasized that the end of suffering begins when one admits his imperfections and takes the necessary steps to rectify them.

Hence, admitting you have a problem is a bold first step towards recovery. While the journey may be long and harsh, so long as you keep going and never give up, then you’re already halfway towards your goal. Once you totally free your body and mind from addiction forever, then you will definitely have attained your nirvana.

Dale Vernor is a writer and researcher in the fields of mental health and substance abuse. After a battle with addiction Dale was able to find sobriety and become the first in his family to earn a Bachelor’s degree. Dale enjoys writing about mental health and addiction so that more people can understand these highly stigmatized issues. When not working you can find Dale at your local basketball court.

We have posted a number of articles about Buddhism and recovery on AA Agnostica. Here are previous ones:

Buddhist Precept: Intoxicants Cloud the Mind (April 7, 2019)

Recovery – What’s Buddhism Got to Do With it? (March 27, 2019)

Buddhist Recovery Summit (August 6, 2017)

A Buddhist Path to Recovery (March 24, 2016)

The Buddha and Bill W. (March 11, 2015)

AA as “stealth Buddhism” (December 14, 2014)

Buddhism and the 12 Steps (July 16, 2014)

A Buddhist’s Views on AA (August 4, 2013)


15 Responses

  1. Andrew J says:

    Very happy the author didn’t fall into the old trope of the First Noble Truth that “Life is suffering”. Not sure who is responsible for this (Alan Watts?) but a helpful translation as noted above is good. My Roshi translated it as “In life there will be suffering.”

    As for the eightfold path being joined with the 12 Steps of AA it seems a bit forced. Siddhartha was not looking for a recovery program from alcohol. If he did write any of the above we don’t know. There are no original manuscripts anywhere near his lifetime nor that of his disciples (sound familiar?). Be that as it may, when I got sober nearly 17 years ago I was done with Christianity and most forms of religious/theistic thought. Yokoji Zen Mountain Center (as it is called now) is where I landed to deal with Andy the Alcoholic (among other things). The emphasis was on the practice of zazen (on and off the cushion) and not so much the tangled web of a 2500 year old belief system for a 21st century practitioner. Save the basics (survival and reproduction) many of the concepts and the winding labyrinth from 3rd millennium India to 21st century Southern California is “a long and winding road” and can obfuscate what this character “The Buddha” was really trying to pass along.

    Handy and useful, zazen (seated meditation) is a good practice although I don’t know that is what Bill W. and Dr. Bob meant in the 11th step.

    In short, Buddhism is way cool. They have as many different “denominations” as Christianity does, and here in the New Age burg of Encinitas one finds such a fecund mixture of belief systems (cohabiting uneasily on a good day)that what Buddhism is or isn’t can be quite an evening’s discussion.

    For me, sitting down and shutting up allows one to see how one thinks and one is confronted with all one is every time one sits down and shuts up. As an alcoholic, it is paramount that I remain aware of the first step in recovery, admitting to oneself that one is an alcoholic.

    Everything else is commentary.

  2. Chris L says:

    I attend Dharma meetings (formerly refuge recovery) along with an AA Agnostics meeting. Their wording is very different than this article. Of particular note, I find his description injects a Christian-like morality; also, step 2 descriptions (“selfish and ignorant desire” vs craving) and absolutes (“right” vs wise) all reek of Christian sin and guilt. Dharma does a much better job at removing the religion in the Buddhist approach. There is no talk of rebirth. As for AA, I view spiritual awakening as a change in thought and point of view (aka lightbulb moments). That works for me.

  3. Pat C says:

    Radical acceptance

    “Perfect and complete.” (This is not an alternative to original enlightenment, only a corollary to it.) Our delusions make us think that life can be better. This leads to desires and attachments. The goal (and the process) is to realize that this moment or any moment is perfect and complete as it is.

    Note: “perfect and complete” is like a code word for ridding yourself of judgments or expectations, desires or aversions. One gives total attention to the present.

  4. Somen C says:

    After coming to AA, I went to Buddhagoya, where, meditating under the bodhi tree, Goutama got enlightenment and became Buddha 2550 yers before. If, today Buddha opens his twitter account, I will be his number one follower.

    I agree with Roger and also like to read Stephen Batchelor. Another book of Stephen Confession of a Buddhist Atheist moved me. The simple tools of Four noble truths and eight fold paths are enough to live a better life one day at a time. I don’t mix Historical Buddha with Buddhism. I don’t accept cycle of death and rebirth concept of Buddhism but in my journey towards recovery Buddha played a major role.

    Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

  5. Steve b says:

    Any religion or belief system that says there is a cycle of death and rebirth is promoting an almost undoubtedly false idea. Since this notion is central to Buddhism, I distrust anything Buddhists have to say. This article suggests that if you act nice you can conquer addiction. Now that may or may not be be true, but I certainly would not credit Buddhism should it in fact be true.

    • Roger says:

      I have always been able to practice Buddhism without religion. As far as that goes, it certainly is in no way like Christianity. One of my favorite authors is Stephen Bachelor, who wrote Buddhism Without Beliefs. I spend a long weekend with him and his wife in Toronto and it was an exceptional and very special experience. As he correctly puts it what the Buddha taught “is a practice that we can engage in, regardless of our background or beliefs, as we live every day on the path to awakening”.

      Buddhism Without Beliefs

  6. Wallace K. says:

    I began incorporating Buddhism into my personal recovery program about a year ago. Since I got sober in 1972, I have used AA, and I added atheism as espoused by Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan about 40 years into sobriety. I have found Buddhism to be “AA on steroids”. I am very comfortable with its tolerance and the simplicity of its basic tenets. Of particular value to me is the complete shift from the Christian religious approach of sin, guilt and shame due to actions against the trinity to one of acceptance of one’s “human-ness” and personal accountability to oneself and the rest of humanity. Becoming a better human being and benefiting mankind are comforting without the trappings of a religion with a three-part god and a complex set of rules and pseudo-history parading as an instruction manual for life.

  7. Bullwinkle says:

    Buddha means “enlightened.” The visual path to enlightenment for me is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom. I’m not a leader, and I follow no leader, I’m my own light, I am Buddha.

    I practice an eclectic spiritual path, that lead me to the vision for “MY”recovery, not recovery from the symptom that was substance abuse, but recovery from why I became addicted. This vision exists in many forms. Just as I practice the Buddhist path, I practice the “same” that is from the book Alcoholics Anonymous in the Spiritual Experience, i.e. “an unsuspected inner resource.” These 4 words for me are the most powerful in the book. Doing the outsides is why I became addicted.

    Buddhists beliefs vary, some are secular, others believe in minor Gods, and some not in omnipresence, i.e., nothing is fixed or permanent and that “change is always possible”. My spiritual growth is on a continuum.

  8. Dean W says:

    I don’t practice Buddhism, though I regularly use the Loving Kindness Meditation in my mindfulness practice. I find Buddhism’s tenets much more compatible with my worldview than Christianity or even “AA Spirituality.” Buddhism can be practiced on a totally secular basis. It is also not fanatically evangelical, like Christianity and many in AA. The late Joseph Campbell, perhaps his generation’s foremost mythologist, said that Christianity, Islam, and Communism are “murderous traditions,” each seeking “total world conquest.” I think Campbell could have added Capitalism to the list (but he was a Nixon Republican so obviously he didn’t). Buddhism, to its credit, lacks this murderous desire for world domination.

  9. Joel B. says:

    “One Breath at a Time” by Kevin Griffin is my favorite recovery book. His look at the 12 Steps and how Buddhism is embedded in them is great.

    One Breath at a Time

  10. Doc says:

    In the early years of my sobriety I used the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path a lot. This made more sense that the god-centered approach and seemed more relevant to my life.

  11. Karl J says:

    Read this in Beyond Belief, “giving up is the birth of regret”.

    For me any path to change requires an inner strength, where and how to find that strength is what I’m looking for.

    Maybe it’s the quest itself, living, learning, loving…

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