The global substance abuse crisis is a pressing issue that plagues societies worldwide, affecting individuals, families, and communities. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)’s World Drug Report 2023, the number of people using drugs around the world was 296 million in 2021, a 23 per cent increase from a decade earlier. “In the same period, the number of people suffering from drug-use disorders increased by 45 per cent to 39.5 million globally. Yet despite these rises, only one in five people suffering from a drug-related disorder was receiving treatment for drug use in 2021.” (International Bar Association)
While governments focus primarily on dealing with drug production, distribution, and abuse—along with its health and societal effects—there are clearly deeper sources to the problem. Addiction, in whatever form it comes, derives from a profound sense of thirst and longing. Can we, as a global community, better address this longing at the heart of addiction?
Buddhism, with its comprehensive teachings and philosophical underpinnings, offers several approaches to addressing this crisis. Rooted in mindfulness, compassion, and understanding the human condition, Buddhist principles can play a pivotal role in combating substance abuse and supporting recovery.
Solutions might come in one of two general categories: individual-focused and society-focused. Individual-focused solutions to addiction point first to understanding a person’s addiction in terms of the underlying psychological roots of all suffering: greed, aversion, and ignorance. These three keep us all spinning through life, repeating unhealthy habits that perpetuate our suffering. Drug use, here, is just one subset of those habits.
The practice for Buddhists confronting addiction, then, is to turn the light of Buddhist wisdom directly on the addictive behavior, feelings, and thoughts. This is formulated clearly by the Thailand-based Hope Rehab Center. Drawing from the Noble Eightfold Path, they describe their method thus:
Right understanding – you learn about the nature of addiction(Hope Rehab Center)
Right intention – you commit to sober living
Right mindfulness – during your stay with us you learn to use mindfulness so you are less of a prisoner to your thoughts and emotions
Right concentration – practices like mindfulness improve your focus so you enjoy clearer thinking
Right effort – you make sobriety your number one priority in life
Right view – with the help of therapy you begin to let go of beliefs and opinions that have been holding you back in life (e.g. low self-esteem)
Right livelihood – if the way you make your living is triggering your addictive behaviour (e.g. you deal drugs), you may need to make some career changes
Right action – you commit to regularly doing the things you need to do to maintain a strong sobriety
The Hope Rehab Center adds that the tools of Buddhism can be used by anyone. The practices of mindfulness to learn to observe habits and addictive impulses rather than following them, and loving-kindness to address self-hatred or poor self-esteem are both effective tools that anyone—atheists, Christians, Hindus, and Muslims—can apply to their recovery path.
The efficacy of mindfulness-based interventions has been demonstrated in substance-abuse treatment. Techniques such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) have been adapted to help individuals with substance-use disorders. By fostering non-reactive awareness of feelings of craving as they arise, these practices aid in managing responses to cravings, thus reducing stress and enhancing self-regulation, thereby supporting individuals in their journey toward recovery.
Meanwhile, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah, PhD, in the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, turn us toward the Buddha’s first Noble Truth. They do this through offering some questions that a person can ask in the moment when addictive impulses arise:
What place are you not feeling?(103)
What part of you are you rejecting?
What aspect are you not loving?
What truth are you not willing to accept?
It is precisely by facing these questions for ourselves that we create the opportunity to step out of our inherited ignorance. By doing so, often with the help of professionals, perhaps acknowledging the limits of our self-power and the need for the help of a greater source or being—such as found in Pure Land teachings—we can let go of our habits of self-clinging and embrace our interdependence.
A second direction that Buddhists might go for tackling the rise in drug use is to look at societal issues. This gaze follows the rise of engaged Buddhism, with its efforts to put Buddhist ideas and practices into social and political spheres. Such a perspective invites all of us into the conversation, realizing that even in the comfort of our home or office, we share a fundamental connection to all beings, including those suffering from drug addiction.
This engaged Buddhist approach, which draws from the Mahayana goal of liberating all beings, demands a global perspective. It also draws us to deepen our sense of compassion, noting that most of us typically offer little empathy toward individuals caught in the spiral of drug abuse. Here we might begin by considering how we might feel and how we would wish others to treat us if we became addicted to drugs, and then apply that outward toward others. In addressing substance abuse, compassion-based practices facilitate self-acceptance, forgiveness, and empathy toward oneself and others affected by addiction.
On the topic of forgiveness, Charles Goodman, in his book Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics, presents a chapter on the topic of punishment from a Buddhist perspective. Although not dealing specifically with drug addiction and the legal world that surrounds it, it applies well here.
Goodman writes that a hallmark of Buddhist ethics is to see the world from multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who are involved in crime. By doing so, we can reduce our reactionary anger and cultivate a more positive and helpful attitude. Goodman gives a case study of this working in an experiment:
Psychologists Arthur G. Miller, Anne K. Gordon, and Amy M. Buddie asked experimental subjects to read accounts of crimes and then write explanations of the causes of the criminals’ actions. The subjects were also asked to offer judgments about the criminals, expressed in a numerical scale. Some were asked to do so before, and others after, writing the explanations. The results were as follows:
Participants who generated explanations before indicating their rating-scale judgments took a relatively more exonerating stance toward the perpetrator. They displayed more empathy, attributed more influence to the perpetrator’s socioeconomic status, and rated the perpetrator as a better person than did participants who made these ratings immediately after reading the scenarios. They also recommended less punishment and saw the perpetrator as being less of a threat to society.(Goodman, 192)
Goodman concludes: “Psychological evidence, it seems, is beginning to appear that supports the Buddhist tradition’s views that to understand is to forgive, and that the desire to inflict harsh punishment often flows from a form of anger that cannot withstand rational scrutiny.” (193)
The International Bar Association points to places where understanding and forgiveness have helped to shape policy in recent years, noting that several nations have decriminalized various drugs—in small quantities—with the aim of moving away from punitive relationships with most drug users.
Felicity Gerry KC, Asia Pacific Regional Forum Liaison Officer of the IBA Criminal Law Committee and a barrister at Libertas Chambers in London, says: “One of the main challenges the report exposes is how to achieve a move away from a militaristic criminal law approach—the ‘war on drugs’—to a public health/law/education approach to drug use and misuse.” She continues: “Another is the challenge to reduce poverty and exploitation in drug production and sale—neither pure liberalization nor mass incarceration is sustainable.” (International Bar Association)
However, as Gerry KC notes, this alone will not solve the problem. Broader systemic issues, including employment, education, and healthcare must be addressed so that people no longer feel a need to risk their health and potential legal punishment for the short-term high from illegal drugs.
While this points to systemic problems that will need to be addressed before drug abuse can be meaningfully reduced, it also returns us to our original question. Can we address the longing at the heart of addiction? Yes. If we work toward societies that ensure access to education and healthcare, opportunities for meaningful work, and economic stability.
While that does not necessarily fit in with some understandings of the Buddhist path, it can easily be seen as part of the larger bodhisattva ideal of Mahayana Buddhism as well as the engaged Buddhist project to alleviate suffering throughout society.
Goodman, Charles. 2009. Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics New York: Oxford University Press.
williams, Rev. angel Kyodo, Lama Rod Owens, with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD. 2016. Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
UNODC report shows significant increase in drug use as international responses diverge (International Bar Association)
Buddhism and Addiction (Hope Rehab Center)
Mindfulness-based relapse prevention for substance craving (Science Direct)
Related features from BDG
Renaissance or Dead End? The New Debate on Psychedelic Drug Use by North American Buddhists
Does an Addict Have to Sober Up Before Treading the Buddhist Path?
Addiction and Recovery: Buddhists on the Path to Sobriety in AA
The Wheel of Mental Balance