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Addiction and Recovery: Buddhists on the Path to Sobriety in AA

Different shapes, sizes, and forms, we’re all headed in the same direction . . . yes? To discover our true self. Image courtesy of the author
Different shapes, sizes, and forms, we’re all headed in the same direction . . . yes?
To discover our true self. Image courtesy of the author

Several years ago I read an op-ed piece in a North American Buddhist magazine in which the author—never mind that he became sober through Alcoholics Anonymous—decided that AA is no longer a good fit for Buddhists to find sobriety. I disagree. Sober for 32 years now, this has not been my experience. I fault the editor for printing the op-ed as written. It’s a good thing when they print pieces about Buddhist-based recovery programs; but not by denigrating AA, a program that has helped millions become sober over the past almost 84 years.

At the urging of some friends, I walked into a Zen Buddhist meditation hall some 22 years ago and stayed. Today, with a daily meditation practice and numerous seven-day retreats over the years, my practice has evolved into what I call Twelve & Zen, in which the Twelve Steps and Zen koans are central to my daily life.

I’m now 75, with vastly more yesterdays than I have tomorrows; and today, because of AA and Zen, I “know a new freedom and a new happiness.”

Readers, if you in any way call yourself a Buddhist and want to stop drinking, please give AA a try. Don’t be swayed by those who tell you that AA won’t work for Buddhists. Experience it for yourself: AA and the Twelve Steps can work for anyone who desires to stop drinking.

Case 87 in the collection of Chan koans known as the Blue Cliff Record leads us to the fact that “the whole world is medicine,” but I sometimes think the world of Buddhist magazines might be overlooking a readily available and very potent form of medicine that’s been around for more than 80 years. 

I was re-reading “Koans for Troubled Times” by Joan Sutherland in Buddhadharma Magazine’s Spring 2008 issue when it dawned on me that Mazu Daoyi (709–788) and Shitou Xiqian (700–790), two famous Chan teachers of old, set an example for us today.

Not only are Alcoholics Anonymous and Buddhism compatible,
I find they complement each other. Image courtesy of the author

Joan writes: “Shitou and his descendants tended to emphasize reconciliation and the restoration of peace and stability in times of chaos. Ma’s line valued Chan’s independence from the mainstream, which allowed it to offer both a critique of the status quo and an alternative to it. Neither thought he had the one true way or tried to impose his view on the other. Ma and Shitou . . . shared something fundamental: both were deeply affected by the sorrows of their age, and as a result both were determined to reimagine what Chan was for.”

Here we find two schools of Chan growing and prospering, not by antagonizing or attempting to subdue the other, but instead acknowledging each as useful in its own right. As Joan wrote, “they shared something fundamental.”

It has been widely reported that two influential Buddhist teachers in North America, Taizan Maezumi Roshi (Zen) and Chogyam Trungpa (Vajrayana), both died as a result of alcoholism. Oh, if only it could be so easy—become a Buddhist and get sober. But it doesn’t work that way. Alcoholism is a cunning and baffling disease that needs to be treated. And I don’t think I’d be going out on a limb to say that most Buddhists from every tradition share something fundamental in supporting alcoholics and addicts in their efforts to find recovery, no matter where it is found. For the past 83 years Alcoholics Anonymous, with millions of members and meetings around the world, has been one way to find sobriety. The early members knew this. As the book Alcoholics Anonymous (fondly called the Big Book) says: “Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly.”

In other words, there are many paths to recovery. Over the past several years, Buddhist-based recovery programs such as Refuge Recovery have gained momentum through occasional articles and opinion pieces and a growing advertising presence in Buddhist and mainstream magazines and websites, all of which are effective means of outreach to Buddhists seeking a way out of addiction. 

AA is at a disadvantage here—because of its Twelve Traditions, it can’t take out advertising. Anonymity is another tradition and the reason I don’t use my last name. I’m not a spokesperson for AA; instead I’m simply telling you a small part of my Zen Buddhist/Twelve Step story, offering readers another recovery path to consider, one that embraces AA’s Twelve Steps and Buddhism, two paths that to me seem wonderfully complimentary.

I’m disappointed, however, to see few magazine articles and opinion pieces by Buddhists who have found long-term recovery in AA. We are out there and I am one of them. It’s in forums such as magazines where one can carry on (anonymously of course) meaningful dialogues about Buddhism and AA. I yearn to learn more about practicing the Buddhist Way and the Twelve-Step Way together.

We hand out these coins to celebrate sobriety birthdays. This one shows 28
years.The sides of the triangle, Unity, Service, and Recovery, are no less 
important than the Three Treasures of Buddhism, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
Image courtesy of the author

From what my friends tell me, Refuge Recovery is a sincere and dedicated program. If you found and maintained your recovery there, or in any other Buddhist-based program, I’m happy for your success. In fact, one of my AA sponsees attends both AA and Refuge Recovery meetings. Because of AA’s Tradition 10 (AA has no opinion on outside issues), he doesn’t talk about Refuge Recovery in AA meetings. He could, however, write about both in a magazine. 

My first teacher, John Tarrant Roshi, would often say that Zen does not require one to believe in anything. I felt great freedom hearing this. I remember when we were talking about what may be the most important statement in the Big Book, that one can have a Higher Power of one’s very personal understanding, and he said, “Good Zen book!” His statement surprised me, but over the years I have found it to be true. 

Zen practice is not about taking on more, he would say, “it’s about throwing stuff overboard.” We let things go and allow things to pass. AA is full of the same: “Turn it over . . . one day at a time . . . first things first,” and one of my favorites: “And we cease fighting anything and anyone.” Isn’t this what we’re doing on the cushion returning to our breath? 

And talking about throwing things overboard, throughout the Big Book are numerous examples of how the self causes one grief: “Selfishness, self-centeredness, that we think is the root of our troubles.” Suffering comes from our craving, said the Buddha. Alcoholics are big time cravers, for sure. A good Zen book indeed! 

In 2017, the Buddhist Recovery Summit was held in Washington State. It was apparent that many people attending had been AA members for years and credited AA with their own recovery; the point being, we do not have to choose between Buddhist groups and AA.

Barbara W. a recovering addict from Davis, California says, “I’m so grateful for being in both of these lineages. Sometimes the Christian level of Twelve Steps helps me get to the Buddhist goal I’m trying to get to. People aren’t seeing it as an either-or.” 

“The biggest block I encounter with people is the view that the Twelve-Step approach is Judeo-Christian in nature,” said Lindsay Shea, a chemical dependency professional from Seattle. There’s a logical reason for this. The first edition of the book Alcoholics Anonymous was printed in 1939. Around that same time, some 91 per cent of Americans considered themselves Christian. Of course the Big Book would come off with a Christian tone.

unnamed 3
The AA symbol is a circle with a triangle in the center.
The Zen circle is called an enso . . . that which cannot
be explained. Why not practice these together?
 Image courtesy of the author

Among the early first 100 or so members of AA, close to 50 per cent identified as Christians while the remainder identified as atheist or agnostic. Akron, Ohio, is considered the birthplace of AA because that is where the founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob met and got sober. But Bill W. returned to his home in New York and started an AA group there. The Akron folks were more Christian-oriented, while the New York people held more agnostic or atheist views. Bill W. wrote the Big Book, but not without input from many heated discussions about the “God topic” with his fellow early AA members. He wrote later that perhaps the most important phrase or concept in the book is that AA members are urged to find a god of their own understanding. Nowhere in the book are we told to find a specific god. When new sponsees seem troubled over the God thing, I ask them, what part of your own understanding don’t you understand? My long-time sober friend, a nun, might add, “And what if your higher power, whatever holds all this together, is a verb?”

The Big Book would look very different if written today, since the almost universal monotheistic Christian emphasis on a creator god has lessened. Seventy-three per cent of adults in Ohio consider themselves Christians; in New York it’s 60 per cent; and there are Buddhists living throughout the US. 

But even back in the 1940s, Buddhism found its way into AA literature. Too late to be included in the Big Book, it came in a pamphlet commissioned by Dr. Bob in Akron called Spiritual Milestones in Alcoholics Anonymous: “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 or an addition to the Twelve Steps. Generosity, universal love, and welfare of other rather than consideration of self are basic to Buddhism.” 

Let me tell you about one of my AA heroes, Indian Frank. He died a number of years back with 25 years of sobriety. His Higher Power was a doorknob.

After a quarter century of going in and out of AA, never staying sober for longer than six months at a time, he fell out of a moving truck and broke his leg badly. This slowed him down enough to stay in his chair at AA meetings, drink the coffee and eat the cookies and doughnuts, and get sober. In sobriety he realized that doors on all levels stood before him and that a turn of a doorknob would open those doors, that doorknobs turned had the power to open those doors. I would call this an awakening, just as we read about a monk being awakened by the “tok” sound of a pebble hitting a bamboo stem. Some people would laugh at his notion of the power of doorknobs, but it’s none of their business really; this simple concept worked for him.

There are other recovery programs out there. We are happy that
you are sober no matter where you find the solution. These
different programs are like flowers . . . put them together and
collectively they make a beautiful bouquet. Each flower
contributes to the beauty. I have friends who attend both AA
and Buddhist-based recovery meetings to their benefit.
Image courtesy of the author

Frank always lived in sober-living houses, in a small room of his own with a door. Then one day someone stole his doorknob! There in front of him was his doorknob-less door. This reminds me of The Gateless Gate, the title of one edition of the Mumonkan book of koans. Just as we have experienced gateless gates opening to us, other doors continued to open for Frank even with his doorknob missing; but elsewhere doorknobs abound! What counts is that he stayed sober. 

Call it what you will—God, Higher Power or higher power, nature, the power behind all things, the power of good, the source, the universe, The Three Treasures, G.O.D. (Generous One Dharma), doorknob—the only thing I know is that I’m not running the show but the show keeps running. There’s a phrase in the Big Book that says something to the effect that God is either everything or nothing. Simply put, my higher power is everything (form), so I try to pay attention to everything that comes my way. On other days and moments my higher power is nothing (emptiness). Ah yes, the Heart Sutra, “form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form . . .” I am at peace. 

I have been sober since 1986. My Zen practice, a koan tradition in the Pacific Zen School, began 10 years later. There was a time when I would say I had two practices, but today my practice is Twelve & Zen, a blend of the two; a symbiotic relationship in which I practice the Twelve Steps and Zen Buddhism fully, without obstacles. Zen and the Twelve Steps have given me a whole new reality, filled with purpose, joy, and gratitude. And I’m aware of quite a few other Buddhists with similar experiences at the Twelve Step meetings I attend. Theravada, Zen, Tibetan, and Nichiren, my friends have all found ways to mutually practice their particular Buddhist traditions and the Twelve Steps. 

We need to take a lesson from Shitou and Ma and realize that we practice in different recovery programs but we aren’t in competition with each other. We may have different techniques, but we have a common goal.

Readers, now that you’ve read my story, isn’t it time for you to tell other Buddhists how you’ve found and maintained your sobriety? Your stories would undoubtedly astound us all as a far-reaching medicine of sorts. Is your recovery practice an alternative to the Twelve Steps or a complement to the Twelve Steps? 

Koan Case 23 of the Mumonkan begins with urgency: Quickly, before good or evil . . .”Readers, quickly, before good or evil, show us how Buddhists get sober and stay sober! The whole magazine is medicine.

This is our life. RIGHT NOW . . . Image courtesy of the author
This is our life. RIGHT NOW . . . Image courtesy of the author

Bill K. is 32 years sober and the author of the book Three Buddhists Walked Into an AA Meeting…and got sober (CreateSpace 2016), and the blog The 12 Steps and Zen Koans

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The 12 Steps and Zen Koans

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