Why Buddhism Is Perfect for Addicts

By May Wilkerson 08/21/12

Longtime AA member Josh Korda runs Dharma Punx NYC, a spiritual group with an edge. Here's how Buddhism became both his higher power and core program.

Josh Korda has far more banjos than he needs. Photo via

Every Tuesday and Thursday night, a growing group of New Yorkers gather on the formerly down-and-out Bowery, seeking to develop a spiritual practice with a punk-rock edge. These “Dharma Punx” meetings are based on Buddhism, but geared towards an edgy crowd that includes hippies, punks, hipsters and anyone seeking a spiritual solution to whatever ails them—which often is some form of addiction.

Dharma Punx NYC—where practitioners sit cross-legged on cushions and experience a 20-minute guided meditation, followed by a talk on Buddhist teachings and how to apply them to daily problems—is run by Josh Korda, a bald, soft-spoken Buddhist teacher with head-to-toe tattoos and 17 years of sobriety. If Buddha had been an addict and punk rocker, he might have looked a lot like Korda—whose talks can be found at dharmapunxnyc.podbean.com.

Raised by Buddhist parents, Korda has been meditating for over two decades. After getting clean in 1996, he began studying Theravada Buddhism, and he's maintained his sobriety ever since, relying on a combo of Buddhist practice and AA to stay as clean, sane and serene as possible—all without becoming a "super-virtuous goody-two-shoes.” Funny to boot, Korda has plenty to tell The Fix about sobriety, heavy metal, banjos and “talking shit”—and how Buddhism and AA might just be like peanut butter and jelly when it comes to finding a balance in recovery.

May Wilkerson: What was your drinking like, and how did you finally get sober?

Josh Korda: I started using alcohol when I was 13 and I drank for 19 or 20 years. I started because I felt really uncomfortable around people and in my own mind. I had obsessive, worrying and self-centered thoughts—so using was always a form of self-medication. After my first hospitalization at 19, I had a number of hospital visits throughout the course of my drinking. I also had addictions to virtually everything else. Whatever you can imagine, I either used it addictively or did a lot of it. I think I had my last hospital visit when I was 34 and then I went to a long-term outpatient rehab. I've been sober now for about 17 years.

"The vast majority of people who come to Buddhist centers, it's similar to why people wash up on the shores of AA: It is because they have hit bottom."

Did you go to AA right from the beginning?

For the first five years I went to meetings every day, and I held as many service commitments as you could possibly hold. Then, when I had five years, I went through a severe clinical depression, and realized that while AA was capable of keeping me sober, it was not providing me with enough tools to stay happy. At that point I decided to really deepen my Buddhist practice. Eventually, in a sense, Buddhism became my higher power or my core program—and AA is now secondary.

What about AA compelled you towards Buddhism?

AA is really, really strong in a lot of different ways. For 60-plus years it was the only organization that treated alcoholics and addicts without the presence of a doctor. You were basically being treated by a community of your peers. That’s a very powerful environment where you can share honestly with others who will not be judgmental, because they are addicts like you. The problem is that AA certainly has a very strong "God" theme throughout the literature. Even more so, there's a resistance to allowing people to talk about other addictions. And dealing with that stuff is a very, very important part of finding happiness. If you think of sobriety as finding happiness free of addictions in general—not just alcohol, but also shopping, gambling, sex addictions, love addictions, addictions to checking in with our iPhones every three minutes—in that way, Buddhist practice is taking the ball from AA and running with it. 

How did Dharma Punx begin?

It was first started by Noah Levine, who grew up, like I did, in a family where there was a Buddhist practice—but he didn't feel as a young punk very welcome in a Buddhist group made up of largely middle-class, middle-aged people. In his youth, he was a bit of a hooligan and an addict/alcoholic. So he started a community to reach out specifically to the very people that didn't feel comfortable in those Buddhist centers—young, tattooed, often drug addicts, recovering people.

How do people usually end up in a group like Dharma Punx?

With the exception of a few students who are just interested in it philosophically, the vast majority of people who come to Buddhist centers, it's similar to why people wash up on the shores of AA: It is because they have really hit bottom. The difference is, people in AA have hit bottom with drinking or drugs, and with Buddhism it's because they've hit bottom with excessive thinking of some sort, or fear, or some form of behavior. The problem may include drinking or drugs, but often they just feel their mind is a really uncomfortable place to be. They suffer from what the Buddha calls papanca—thinking too much, proliferation of thought, worry, fear, anxiety. So the arc of recovery is, "How do I get to a place where I can be in my own mind, my own body—which carries so much stress—comfortably?" 

Are there similarities between the 12 steps and Buddhism?

In virtually every step there is an equivalent Buddhist practice. Accepting that we are powerless over something is very much the Buddhist approach to seeing suffering—or
dukkha—in our lives, and acknowledging it rather than running away. Certainly the third step [is similar], which is basically being liberated from the "small self": our will. And opening up to a different way of turning this self/will over is very much akin to Buddhist teachings on how we have to let go of what [the Buddha] called sakkaya ditthi—or our views of who we are and what we are capable of. Instead, we open up to an understanding that is far deeper and far more transpersonal than our small fears, our small eye. The work that you do with a sponsor in AA is very similar to the work you do with a teacher in the Buddhist practice. And in terms of the 11th step, it goes without saying that meditation is one of the centerpieces of Buddhist practice. 

What are some of the differences?

One of the core things Buddhism has that AA does not is that Buddhism focuses so much on working with the body and the breath to bring about peace of mind. It talks about learning how to read your body to note where you carry vedana dukkha—uncomfortable feelings. Feelings of sadness. Buddhism talks about how to become aware of how you are holding your stress and bringing it from moment to moment in different places in your life, and how to relieve yourself of suffering.

"I think it's preferable to start with AA, simply because it's best in one's early years to surround yourself with as many people as possible who are going through similar struggles."

This is very counter to the 12-step model. Because in 12-step programs, they say your higher power has to be different than you—it has to be external. In Buddhism, the idea is that the mind is a committee: you’ve got good voices and bad voices. When we're drinking, the fear voices are in control and running the show. But the very fact that we get over that and take care of ourselves—we come to meetings, we reach out for help—means there are also healing voices in there as well. So rather than seek an external power only, Buddhism is also about finding inner voices of reason, healing, compassion and love.

Is it possible to stay sober through a Buddhist practice alone? 

I know people who do. But I think it's preferable to start with AA, simply because it's best in one's early years to surround yourself with as many people who are going through similar struggles [as possible], because it tends to help with those feelings of being isolated or unique.

What about someone who feels their 12-step program is in a rut?

If you find AA uninspiring—if the only thing it's giving you is access to other alcoholics to share with after the meeting—and you are not hearing what you need to hear to find lasting happiness, do not feel that that is all there is. Because there is so much available. Even within Buddhism, there's the Theravada I study and practice, and also Zen to Tibetan. Beyond Buddhism, there are yoga practices, to Quaker, to Unitarian—so many spiritual paths that talk about other tools for finding happiness. If there is one message I can get across it is do not—do not—stay in a rut. You do not need to. 

What are some of the least Buddhist things you do in your own life?

There are lots. I love really super Bond and British mysteries with serial killers. I love Slayer and Meshuggah and Metallica... Well, I don't know if I'm a fan of Metallica. But Lamb of God and these bands that inspire all kinds of craziness and unskillful behavior. I probably have far, far more material goods than Buddha had envisioned. He talked about having just enough to live comfortably, but not so much that you get caught up and attached. I have far more banjos than I need, for example. 

Also, to be completely honest, a lot of times after an [AA] meeting, I will go hang out with my friends and engage in what the Buddha called "idle chatter"—it does not unite, it is based on creating distance or difference from other people.

But in Buddhism, instead of giving up if you don't meet your goals, you just notice your shortcomings and try to engage in some skillfulness without suffering being readily apparent. Right now, I am totally capable of being happy and talking shit now and then. In the future, I might have to become one of those super-virtuous goody-two-shoes that never talks shit about anyone. That is fine—but right now, I am nowhere near that.

May Wilkerson is The Fix’s associate editor. For more about how Buddhism can be applied to sobriety, check out Josh Korda’s multi-part “online retreat” via Tricycle magazine, “Making Friends With Your Demons and Hungry Ghosts: Buddhist Tools for Recovery.” 

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.