Higher Power in Buddhism & Twelve Step

While it isn’t for everyone, many people have found help with addictions and compulsions, whether their own or a loved one’s, though the 12 Step program.

The original AA program was written for people of all religions or lack thereof. In the words of the second step, “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

For a Buddhist, this power greater than one’s own ego can be Amida Buddha, Avalokitesvara, or even the Dharma itself as the moral order of the universe. One’s “higher power” can even be the Sangha or the AA group itself, rather than a spiritual entity or force.

Every individual member of AA and other 12 Step groups is welcome to find a higher power according to their own understanding.

The following are the words of Dr. Bob, the co-founder of AA, saying that the Eightfold Path can be supportive of, or even a substitute for, the Twelve Steps of AA:

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.
The Buddha and Bill W. | The Fix

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I’m a member, though I haven’t found the steps to be necessary or useful. There are several books that try to say, “Look! Look! The steps can be Buddhist!” but they mostly do a lot of lawyerly eel-wriggling and hand-waving and are unconvincing. When the steps talk about a “higher power,” the Abrahamic god is what is meant, and five steps actually use the word.

There is a recovery system based in early Buddhism, called Refuge Recovery, which is handy for non-goddists generally and Buddhists especially. There’s a meeting near me, but of course it’s after my bedtime, so I’ve only been once.

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A Buddhist who sees the Triple Gem as their “higher power” might be closer to what AA originally intended than some random dude at a meeting who says that the coffee maker is his higher power. The Twelve Step program was designed to include all religions, in the words of Bill W and Dr. Bob.

What AA originally intended is that everybody believe in Bill W.'s god. Chapter four of the AA book is a good demonstration of that, though the whole book makes it clear throughout.

The only reason the “higher power” and “of your understanding” stuff is in there at all is because there were two agnostics in the early group that made Bill tone things down a bit. Bill changed his mind about his insistence on a deity later in life, but the original book was never changed to reflect that.

Of course, there are agnostic/atheist meetings, but they have to be careful because local intergroups have been known to de-list them. That happened to some groups in Toronto and the kerfuffle went all the way to a high court to get settled in favor of the groups.

The Chapter to the Agnostic in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous defines a “higher power” so broadly, as to mean the boundless compassion that pervades the universe:

Mahayana Buddhism believes that such a boundless compassion exists, though without being a creator or judge or even using the word “god.” The Mahayana Buddhist term would be the Dharmakaya.

Haha @AndyL stepped into the trap!


What trap? Some Buddhist temples have Twelve Step meetings. Finding a higher power, according to one’s own understanding, is inclusive of all religions, including Buddhism.

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So, putting aside the not so useful ‘trap’ tangent…

Thanks for the post Kensho, I really enjoy it when it is possible to see how frameworks or ideas that are a bit outside one’s familiar territory can be meaningfully adapted to beneficial effect.

A dear friend of mine—neither Chrisitan, nor Buddhist—found AA very steadying, and joining a group marked a real turning point in her life. She found her own loose way of negotiating the “higher power” thing, and more than anything (if I understood her correctly) she valued it as something to keep her ego in check and a way of recognising a whole bunch of stuff wasn’t in her control.

I think the point you opened with is absolutely key:

Works beautifully for some, for others different things will be more suitable.


Exactly. One’s “higher power” in AA can be practically anything beyond one’s ego.


I haven’t actually been involved in the 12 Step program since converting to Buddhism three years ago, but I will always be welcomed if I need it in the future. I might start going to meetings again, at least to support my sibling.


IMO the “point” of this higher power talk is essentially a lesson in selflessness. You aren’t the big shot.

Maybe that’s an absurdly simple way of viewing it.

Obviously AA & other associations that use programs like this don’t suggest that this “Higher Power” will literally magically/supernaturally save you and rectify your habits in this life for you, so it, in the end, must be an attempt to instil a humble mindset, or something of the like.

IMO at least.


If you took the Serenity Prayer of AA and substituted the word “god” for a Buddhist equivalent, it would be a pretty good description of the Buddhist path:

In reciting the name of Amida Buddha, Namu-Amida-Butsu, I am asking the same things as above for Amida to do in my life.

The Serenity Prayer is about allowing a power beyond your own selfish ego to guide you on the right path in life, rather than expecting a supernatural being to magically solve all your problems, unlike other forms of prayer.

You could ask the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, etc. to grant you the same serenity and wisdom as in the Serenity Prayer.

I’ve just ordered this workbook, on how to work the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous from a Buddhist perspective:

A longtime Buddhist practitioner and 12 Step participant, Kevin is a leader in the mindful recovery movement and one of the founders of the Buddhist Recovery Network. He has trained with the leading Western Vipassana teachers, among them Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, and Ajahn Amaro. His teacher training was as a Community Dharma Leader at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Marin County, CA.

Kevin teaches nationally in Buddhist centers, treatment centers, professional conferences, and academic settings. He specializes in helping people in recovery connect with meditation and a progressive understanding of the 12 Steps.
Buddhism and the Twelve Steps: A Recovery Workbook for Individuals and Groups: Kevin Griffin: 9780615942216: Amazon.com: Books


I was reasonably sure that ages ago I saw some 12-step talk on Dharma Seed. I just checked, turns out I did, it was a series led by Griffin. You may well have come across it already, but in case of use:



Hmm, does this have anything to do with Jodo Shinshu, Amida Buddha, or the Dharmakaya?

Every Buddhist in AA is welcome to define higher power according to their own understanding.


The sudden awakening in a flash of light that led Bill W to found AA has been compared to the satori experience of Zen Buddhism:

In Pass It On: The story of Bil Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world (at page 302), one of Bill’s close friends, Bill P. discusses what happened to Bill in the moment of his “hot flash” at Townes Hospital. “The thing Bill had was a perfectly clear case of satori or somate,” he says. “You know by the fruits. The guy goes out and starts to act like an enlightened man. No one ever went further to prove it than that man did - he led a life of total service.”
“RECOVERY TABLE” Spiritual Awakening, Alcoholism and Addiction Recovery: What Was Bill’s Spiritual Experience? Did He Experience Satori?

A Buddhist based recovery program has been implemented that doesn’t rely on a higher power

see the site below

Refuge Recovery is a mindfulness-based addiction recovery community that practices and utilizes Buddhist philosophy as the foundation of the recovery process. Drawing inspiration from the core teachings of the Four Noble Truths, emphasis is placed on both knowledge and empathy as a means for overcoming addiction and its causes. Those struggling with any form of addiction greatly benefit when they are able to understand the suffering that addiction has created while developing compassion for the pain they have experienced. We hope to serve you, and meet you on the path.

No need to try to fit a square peg in a round hole with “higher power” stuff.


Since the term “higher power” in Twelve Step can mean pretty much anything beyond one’s ego, there are Buddhist teachers actively involved in the Twelve Step program as well.

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