The Buddha and Bill W.

By Regina Walker 03/03/15

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

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about the life and suicide of Audrey Kishline, the founder of Moderation Management, as well as an appreciation of the life of Ernie Kurtz.

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Regina Walker is a licensed psychotherapist in NYC. She has written for multiple publications and is an avid photographer. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.