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buddhism and 12-step programs

March 6, 2010

I did not think these two things would be compatible. I don’t know much about 12 step programs, but do know that the word “God” is used a lot, and therefore I thought these programs would be incompatible with Buddhism. Buddhism is sometimes considered an atheist faith, or at least one that atheists would be comfortable with.

But, it seems, with some tweaking, (no I don’t mean tweaking as in using drugs), the two are somewhat compatible, as evidenced by the meeting I just got back from.

I’m trying to get more serious about Buddhist practice, and the two local priests this past Thursday evening (when our regular meetings occur) encouraged me to come to the once a month Saturday morning meeting, which is Buddhism blending with 12 steps. Emphasis on the Buddhism but with a lot of talk on how Zen and 12 steps are similar.

The head priest of the area, who is usually in town once a month, led the meeting today, and talked a lot about a higher power. I didn’t know Buddhists believe in a higher power, but she talked a lot about the infinite and that we all had to have come from somewhere, and the Buddha nature is one way of describing a higher power – something that we all have, and the Dharma, the Buddha way being a higher power – our triple treasure, the Buddha (meaning not the man specifically but the Buddha nature in everything – still a bit unclear on what this means) the Dharma – the teachings of the Buddha and practice of meditation, and the Sangha – Buddhists meeting together.

Being sleepy and as usual uncomfortable around other people and therefore somewhat distracted, I didn’t catch everything she (the head priest – perhaps I should just call her the abbess) said, but that is the gist of it. The “higher power” does not have to be the Judeo-Christian god. Were  A.A. and these other 12 step programs started by Christians? I wonder. I have a host of problems, but substance abuse was never one of them, so I never got involved in a 12 step program, and the only reason I came to this one is because it is Buddhist.

We had two sitting meditation sessions, a lengthy talk, short break for tea and snacks during the middle of our time. I didn’t count the number of people, but my impression is that there were at least 20 there,  and the room was more crowded than usual.

I thought part of the talk was interesting, because the priest was comparing various aspects of the Noble 8 Fold path to the various steps. She is not all that familiar with the 12 steps, but most people who came to the meeting today are not Buddhists, but are 12-steppers, so they knew the steps rather well, and participated in the talk.

I have been quite perturbed by the use of the word “God” for quite awhile now, but through continued study of various religions, not only Buddhism, but some reading of Taoism, Paganism, and Hindu books, as well as doing my own thinking and perceiving of “God,” I am more comfortable with the word.

It is quite subjective really, it can mean whatever you want it to. I do believe in nature, and spiritual/natural energy (one in the same, really). I believe holy ground is wherever one happens to be standing, you don’t need to make a pilgrimage to some far off place.

As far as the infinite – a rather nebulous concept for me. I thought Buddhists didn’t believe in the infinite, whatever that is. I thought the Buddhist view was that everything is impermanent. I suppose the infinite doesn’t need to be in a permanent state, but can be constantly changing. The ancient Chinese called this the Tao.


One interesting thing the abbess talked about was the significance of some of her bows. She makes 3 bows during the beginning part of the service and one of the bows is facing her cushion. She studied with Suzuki-Roshi – (Roshi being a term of respect – meaning “Teacher,” I think – sort of like the Tibetan term “Rinpoche,” I’m guessing). Suzuki told her that the bow toward the cushion (also called zafu, but if the cushion is on the mat, are both objects called “zafu” or something else?) ok.. the bow toward the zafu is for the benefit of “any spirits or ancestors. This is to let them know that I will be sitting here very soon, and if they want to hang around I will be sitting on them.”

Hmmm.. I didn’t know there was much, if any talk on spirits and so forth in Zen. I thought that was mainly a Tibetan or Theravedan thing.. I keep showing up, and I keep learning.

Not sure how I feel about all that spirit stuff, I guess I’ll just roll with it.

One other thing that was a bit unusual was that, considering this was both a 12 step meeting of sorts and a Buddhist service, before we said the robe chant, we prayed the serenity prayer. That felt odd. But again, I’m getting more comfortable with the word “God.”

Thing is, the serenity prayer starts of with, “God, grant me..” and I don’t believe in a type of God that takes requests. But, who knows, I could be wrong. In my life, the typical western notion of prayer – asking for stuff, has back-fired on me horribly at times when I have asked for certain things, so I don’t believe in praying for stuff, even good things, even for help for others.

I do sort of believe in what pagans call magick, and what Buddhists and others call energy, and that this energy can be used for good. So that’s something.

Anyway.. Buddhism and 12 steps blending together, who knew?

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