In keeping with AA tradition, members remain anonymous with regard to print and other media. Respecting that tradition, we print this article anonymously. -ed
Writer's caveat: I am no expert or authority on Zen or 12 Step recovery. This article is strictly my own opinions based on my experience. I speak neither for AA nor Buddhism in any formal way.
Since Alcoholics Anonymous was founded 60 years ago, many people have recovered from alcoholism, other addictions and destructive behavior patterns using the 12 Steps developed by the original members of AA in the 1930s. Today, there seems to be a 12 Step program for every obsession and compulsion.
Briefly summarized, the 12 Steps suggest a process of admitting the problem, developing faith in, and reliance on, a 'higher power,' self examination and confession, restitution for wrongs done, and continued spiritual growth through the practice of regular prayer, meditation, service and practical daily application of 'the program.'
About 5 years ago, I sought out instruction in meditation at the Dharma Rain Zen Center. I was 5 years clean and sober at the time and very active in AA as well as Al-Anon, a 12 Step fellowship for relatives and friends of alcoholics. I was working with the 11th Step which suggests the practice of prayer and meditation as means of improving 'conscious contact' with 'God as we understand God.' Individuals are encouraged to develop their own faith and practice. There is no pressure to conform to any particular religion, understanding or practice. 12 Step programs have a fair share of atheist and agnostics as well as 'believers.'
When the Steps were written down and formalized in 1939, meditation was not a well known practice or concept in America. I've often wondered why meditation was included in the wording. It seems to have brought many latter day seekers to the Dharma of Buddhism and other meditative paths. I'm very grateful for that. Today, I consider myself a member of the Sangha and of AA and Al-Anon.
There is a striking harmony between Zen and the 12 Steps. Both emphasize self discovery through direct experience. Neither path rigidly adheres to dogma and both allow people to make use of the forms and teachings without insisting on acceptance of the 'whole package' or 'signing up.'
AA was developed on the premise that only a spiritual awakening or experience could bring the chronic advanced alcoholic to permanent sobriety. This idea was influenced by the work of William James, Carl Jung and the few medical doctors of the era who considered alcoholism a true illness, and not a moral defect.
The 12th and final Step reads: "Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics (others) and to practice these principles in all our affairs." Most people who have seriously made the Steps a part of their life describe a gradual awakening: a slow, but profound psychic change, that has allowed them to return to sane, whole lives, free of the destructive obsessions and compulsions that previously defined their lives. A few (notably Bill Wilson, one of AA's co-founders) have had abrupt 'lightning bolt' experiences that rearranged their way of thinking and living at once. But this 'gradual awakening' reminds me of Soto Zen. Through persistent practice over years, one gradually progresses to increasingly aware and awake states of mind.
Compassion for the 'ones who still suffer' is an essential aspect of both Buddhism and the 12 Step path. AAers believe that nothing will insure their continued sobriety better than working with alcoholics who need and want the recovery AA offers. Buddhists consider compassion a natural part of the awakened mind, and often work or volunteer in service situations, focusing on the less fortunate or on issues of peace and justice.
The Precepts are principles that challenge us to live mindfully and in accordance with the Eightfold Path. The 10th Step encourages a daily 'inventory' to increase awareness and responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and actions. This daily discipline relates to the phrase "practice of these principles in all our affairs" found in the 12th Step. Likewise in Zen, we take the lessons and awareness we gain in zazen off the zafu and into our daily life. Practice happens wherever we are, in the workplace, home, on the bus, as well as the zendo.At the core of both Zen and 12 Step recovery is a personal liberation brought about by the surrender of the ego. 'Relieve me of the bondage of self' is a frequent prayer of AA members. Abandoning self pity and self righteousness as ego defenses, the recovering person is able to experience 'the Great Reality deep down within us,' as the basic AA text says it.
Monju rides the beast of self in equanimity, and as small mind and small self fall away, we get a glimpse of our true Buddha nature, which is blissful, peaceful and deathless. The 'Big Book,' AA's basic text, talks about the effects of thoroughly following the path: "We will know a new freedom and a new happiness...We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace...fear will leave us... We will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle us." Is this an expression of our Buddha nature?
Every 12 Step meeting begins with a prayer for "the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference." Acceptance is a major attitude tool that helps us stay balanced and to live well without returning to our addictions to cope with the stresses and difficulties of life.
I've heard acceptance described in dharma talks as compassionate clarity of vision, an empty-handed approach to life that allows us to experience what life is really about and not filter it all through rigid mental structures rooted in desire, aversion and delusion.
Community is an essential part of both paths. The Sangha, like 'home groups' and the 12 Step fellowship as a whole, provide essential support, nurturing and encouragement. There are many differences between Zen and the 12 Steps. I've heard of 'grasping the will' as a phrase connected with disciplined training. The experience of most advanced alcoholics is that the will utterly fails in arresting the disease, even when our very life may depend on it. Thus the emphasis on a 'higher power' to provide the needed help, guidance and protection from 'taking the first drink.' There is no Deity in the standard religious sense in Buddhism; many, but not all,12 Steppers have a very focused relationship with the 'God of their understanding.'
I've just sketched a few thoughts about how these two paths have connected for me. They seem to reinforce and support each other as I continue to practice both.
One of the interesting things Kyogen and I acquired on this summer's Zen Tour is a cassette tape of music made with kids in mind. Because the tape player in the Zen Center's van doesn't work, we didn't know until we got back that this tape is such a gem. It is funny and sweet, silly and profound. The musical styles change with every song as do the age levels of the contents. This last fact means the tape is not very useful as a baby sitter for children too young to operate the tape player solo. It is useful for providing something for just about everybody.
I can recommend this tape to adults and grade school children. For preschoolers, there are several good interactive songs that could be fun in a group. "Under the Bodhi Tree" and "Respect Song" both involve thinking up something to fill in the blank for each new verse. "The Birthday Song" requires both thinking up something new and acting it out before the verse can be finished. The tape is designed to be listened to, not to lead children in their play, but the tape does come with liner notes that could be used by a leader once the tunes are learned. Most of the songs are clearly aimed at an older audience (age 7 & up, perhaps). "Sangha Round the Campfire," "The Four Noble Truths," and "The Charioteer Song" are pure Buddha Dharma delivered in engaging stylistic packages. "Kwanseum" (Korean pronunciation of "Kanzeon"), "Let Go," and "Dharma Moon" are artistic renditions of the messages of Zen that could require children to concentrate in order to understand, and to practice before they could sing along well. But salted generously between these morsels of concentrated dharma are some bright silly songs that are both relevant to kids and catchy, as well as the more simplistic interactive songs. The result is so much like a plate of party food it would be easy to not notice that it is nutritious. An important part of this party atmosphere is the ingenious use of musical style. I don't know enough about music to name the styles I hear in these songs. It is perhaps safer to say that some songs remind me of show tunes from the twenties or perhaps the roaring 1880s, the saloon songs of the old West (according to the movies), folksongs, lullabies, and the rhythms of the Caribbean.
The bottom line is that it is fun. Just try it. Available in the Center bookstore.
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