Higher Power in Buddhism & Twelve Step

And yet it’s good to have options especially because there has been a lot of valid criticism of AAs methods lately. See below

As Buddhists we must be mindful of the traditions in the West that come from monotheistic traditions.

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I got sober with the help of AA. I’ve hesitated to comment on this thread thus far because it hasn’t been clear to me exactly what the purpose of this thread is other than to say “hey, AA exists and has spiritual principles which can be supported by the dhamma”. This is of course, true. I am still not clear though on what the overall purpose of this thread is, and am concerned it may be too unmoored to be productive. That said, my two bits:

Bill W. I believe had zero idea of what Buddhism is, or what exactly meditation is, (even though meditation is mentioned as a “good” thing to do in the 12/12), and he certainly was not a enlightened/awakened being or a Boddhisattva, just a good intended guy with a problem who had found a method of recovery that had already been around (read up on the Washingtonians and Carl Jung), and shared it with others in a productive way. He has done a lot of good for the world but I believe there is a bit too much cult of personality around him.

My higher power was and is the dhamma. The term “higher power” sets off warning bells to many, and keeps many people from getting help. I know it did for me. But by the time I went to get help in the rooms of AA, I didn’t care anymore. My ego wasn’t going to get in the way of me getting sober. I didn’t and don’t believe in god, but my way had not worked, and many many people had gotten sober through AA. There are many people who truly practice real Christianity in AA-- a doctrine of universal love and forgiveness. I had no idea people like that existed! My sponsor is Jewish. Nobody ever batted an eye that I didn’t believe in god, and was a Buddhist. So its there to help. Refuge Recovery is interesting as well-- I have been to some meetings, although it was years ago and largely based on a secular Buddhist model at the time. Its new. We’ll see where that goes. AA has been around for a long time.

Anyway, my main point here is there are many powers greater than ourselves. Dhamma. Kamma. Nature. The Universe. So, if you see it the right way, there is no absolutely no conflict with AA and Buddhism. Alcoholics, knowingly or not, have a problem connecting with these things, and are often swallowed in despair and nihilism. Unless you’ve been there and done that, its hard to explain.

Criticize AA if you like, but realize there are probably people looking on here who are alcoholics and will need help at some point, and while far from perfect, at this time AA has done a lot more to help more people than any other organization of its kind has.

Again, just my 2 bits. Thanks for listening :slight_smile:


I have no personal experience with the organization, but the criticism I’ve cited above cites peer reviewed studies which question the validity of AA for most attendees.

That doesn’t invalidate your personal experiences with the group, but it does cast doubt on the organization and its methods from a larger perspective.

And at the end of the day, the fact is that AA is founded in Judeo-Christian ways of thinking about the self, craving and one’s relationship to more universal forces. Those Judeo-Christian ways of thinking about things might not be salient in all AA groups, but they are nevertheless still present.

It is definitely something that one should be aware of especially if one is coming from a Dharmic perspective.

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Bill W and Dr. Bob, the original founders of AA, though from a Judeo-Christian background, drew inspiration from all the world’s major religious traditions, including Buddhism, in order to establish a spiritual program where the members of all religions can find sobriety. Bill W and Dr. Bob quoted from a variety of religious traditions, while befriending any religious teacher who had a mutual sympathy for alcoholics.

Pacific Standard - After After 75 Years of AA, It’s Time to Admit We Have a Problem: Challenging the 12-step hegemony.

The nub of the critique is seems to be:

** Rather than treating AA as one potentially excellent resource out of many, though, all too many people still regard 12-step programs as the only true way.

A couple of notable quotes that seemed to me to be applicable to most practitioners:
Buddha, Dharma, Sangha

It’s clear from studies of recovery, with or without treatment, that some of the most important factors in success are having social support and a sense of meaning and purpose. Both of those can be provided by AA—at least to those who find its approach amenable.

… some studies find that people mandated into AA do worse than those who are simply left alone. … ( AA’s own surveys suggest that some 165,000 Americans and Canadians annually are court-mandated into the program) …

Degree’s of stuckness?

Contrary to popular belief, most people recover from their addictions without any treatment—professional or self-help—regardless of whether the drug involved is alcohol, crack, methamphetamine, heroin, or cigarettes. One of the largest studies of recovery ever conducted found that, of those who had qualified for a diagnosis of alcoholism in the past year, only 25 percent still met the criteria for the disorder a year later.

Which begs the question of the 25 percent who didn’t recover in a year. It seems to me that AA and other programs are targeted to the cohort who don’t recover on their own.
(Also, the numbers about quitting smoking seem to fly in the face of common experience and other statistics.)

If 4 + 8 = 12 then Buddha founded the first 12 step program.
Dukkha Recovery.

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For me the ‘Higher Power’ in Buddhism is ‘Wisdom’ as per AN10.58, so the serenity prayer in this case ends up making not too much sense (to me).


That sounds like hair splitting.

Only a minority of AA members insist that AA is the only solution to alcoholism, and other AA members call them Nazis.

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I dunno… seem pretty workable to adapt it in a meaningful enough way:

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

to something along the lines of:

By wisdom may I accept the accept the things I cannot change, have the courage to change the things I can, and have the good sense to know the difference.

In any case, the most splendid thing is that it doesn’t have to work for everyone, just those it actually works for. :wink:


You can cast doubt on the tradition if you like, but the fact remains it does more for more people to get clean in western countries than any other group. And it does it for free and does not charge (for Refuge Recovery treatment centers do charge from what my understanding is). Judeo Christian or not, it works for many people, although of course it isn’t perfect.

If you haven’t suffered with alcoholism, you probably won’t understand. Unfortunately the alcoholics know what its like, so be glad you haven’t been where we have and when it comes to discussions about how to get clean, maybe we know a thing or two.

Remember, there are people watching this forum right now who have a drinking problem, and reading these words will have an effect on them. Let’s hope the dialogue doesn’t further discourage people from getting into a room to get help. As a Buddhist forum, we should aim higher.


That does not seem to be supported by the evidence, as the two articles above show.

free of charge

The site says the Refuge Recovery services are without fees and they are a non-profit

Remember, there are people watching this forum right now who have a drinking problem, and reading these words will have an effect on them. Let’s hope the dialogue doesn’t further discourage people from getting into a room to get help. As a Buddhist forum, we should aim higher.

None of this is a reason for not addressing the issues with AA.

AA is no longer the only option available, the fact is that there many alternatives now, people should be aware of them and the fact that AA has helped some people does not invalidate the issues raised by the articles linked above. Just because something has been marginally helpful does not mean it is immune to criticism or that one should not discuss the issues associated with it.

As you usually tend to do, you are talking past me and not addressing any of the concerns raised. Your responses are basically pure non sequiturs.

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As a general friendly reminder to everyone, The Watercooler is intended as a space for relaxed, light-hearted, warm-natured, even supportive exchange and isn’t so much for getting into wrangles. Undoubtedly, the original topic can easily lead to various kinds of important surrounding issues, but this isn’t necessarily the right context within which to address them. Much advance thanks for bringing your super-charged kindness and consideration of others to further posts. :pray:


Your “concerns” raised are not based on personal experience though, as you admit, you don’t know and haven’t experienced addiction. Your statements are based on things you have read online. The experience of addiction is something that is very personal, maybe not to you, but to those who have suffered with it, it certainly is. Not a problem. You haven’t had the experience and don’t understand. I know many people whose lives were saved with the help of AA, including my own. On the other hand, I doubt armchair criticizing of people’s methods of seeking help for addiction has ever done much to help anybody. Just sayin’.

The suttas also fall under things I have read online, where one gets the information doesn’t matter in this case.

Also the studies mentioned in these articles are based on people’s personal experiences as well. You can criticize me personally all you want for pointing out the faults of AA but since I am not making an argument from personal experience in the first place it is misdirected.

If the mere fact that something helps some people meant that that thing was beyond any criticism then there would be no point in ever improving modern medical practices , for example.

And yet the suttas are pointless unless too without being put into action. Information alone isn’t enough. Even good information. That’s why there is emphasis on experience in 12 step programs. Might I suggest going to a meeting and see what its like, maybe just for your own information. Lastly, nothing I have said is criticizing you personally-- I don’t know you. Only your words.

Greetings Friends,

I’d just like to reiterate Aminahs comment from this morning.

This is not about the value of the topic discussed, but rather moderating the site so as to provide consistency. Given the explicit purpose of S.C discourse, we need to ensure that this site doesn’t drift too far into general discussions and loose it’s unique purpose. There are many other forums in which general issues can be discussed. To maintain the integrity of D&D, please keep topics focused on EBT’s and the understanding and implementation of them.



Good example. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t understand how that fits with the EBT understanding of ‘Wisdom’ or the EBT understanding of the 8 fold path? :woman_shrugging: My response was because it was claimed:

Personally, I don’t think it is. But I’m quite prepared to accept that this is because I don’t understand Buddhism, I don’t understand your version of the serenity prayer, or indeed, I don’t understand either. :wink:

Yes, I agree that this would be true, if it was wholly benign otherwise. You know what I mean right? Lots of things work out for some people, whilst (further) damaging others. It’s probably not a good idea to offer all the kids in the classroom lots of sweet sugary drinks everyday even though some of them have a particular metabolism that means that they thrive on it.

I am yet to see the 12 steps uproot unwholesome tendencies, although I’m quite prepared to accept that some people’s lives have been saved by it. But these are, of course, two very different things.


All very fair points, Stu. :anjal:

I wouldn’t like to say too much about how well the two things things fit together, I don’t know a great deal about AA, I’ve never used it (although it was at one point suggested that I should! The notion didn’t appeal for a bunch of reasons).

I’ve never given any thought to how the AA model might be approached from a specifically Buddhist perspective. Off-hand, I’d say there’s likely to be a pretty clear limit to their comparability, but at the same time I’ve no qualms about putting the wish to abandon heavily mind-distorting substances aided by the 12-steps on the same potential trajectory as the wish to move towards much deeper levels of wisdom and abandon ever more subtle mind-defiling substances like anger, or unkind thoughts, or the tiniest twinge of a slightly dodgy impulse (although, naturally, the later wish does not necessarily follow on from the former). Of course, if the proposition was the 12 step programme is akin to the Buddha’s teaching, it ought to be refuted, but I’ve never really understand that to be the proposition, but rather that the 12-steps may be used as a tool within a Dhamma context.

With regards to the serenity prayer in particular, I can certainly see the potential for alignment (albeit a fuzzy edged, non-exact one). I think the EBT are pretty big on relinquishing things one falsely takes as ones own and also on examining ones actions and motivations behind them. As I look at it, the core idea underlying the serenity prayer is the encouragement to relinquish things you think are, or should be in your control but, in fact, are not, while still making effort with those things that are worth making an effort on; to know where effort is rightly applied requires close examination of and reflection on one’s actions and motivations.

Meh! What do I know? As I say, just off hand thoughts. What I really do know is that some people have been able to make meaningful links between the two things, and it seems to work for them. This, I believe, is worth much respect (from where I’m sitting, saying “hey, this is one avenue that is possible to explore, and has worked for some.” isn’t quite the same as making all the kids in the classroom drink sugary drinks. :wink: :anjal:).


I’d like to comment about the serenity prayer (I have no basis for commenting on AA one way or another.) I think the nuances of wording are very important in such statements, especially if they will be used often and in times of distress.

Personally, I have difficulty with wording that suggests there is a “higher agent”, that is, a thing with agency that can do things like “grant”. This is partly due to my exposure to fundamentalist Christian attitudes in my native midwest USA, although fortunately that wasn’t my upbringing. And also it is due to my understanding of the Buddhadhamma. So the wording in the form of “May X grant …” doesn’t work for me, no matter what is put in for X.

I very much like the phrasing that is common in English translations of Pali, about “arising”. So I would reword the serenity prayer as
“May serenity arise in me to accept the things I cannot change.
May confidence and energy arise in me to change the things I can.
May wisdom arise in me to know the difference.”

It’s not perfect. In the dhamma, serenity and equanimity are different mental factors, and I would look to equanimity for acceptance of "things I cannot change. There is still too much active “self” in there, accepting and changing, for my taste. For example, just because I “can” change something, does that mean I “should” change it? The whole concept of right action is missing from this ditty.

So agree with the opinion that just replacing “god” with “X” fixes everything.
EDIT (AGAIN): So disagreement arises in me with the opinion that just replacing “god” with “X” fixes everything.

(Disclaimer: I’ve dealt with some (psychological) addictive behavior in my life, like smoking and other harmful behavior, through self-hypnosis, and am currently looking for strategies to handle internet news addiction.)


It’s also worth remembering that, before Bill W and Dr. Bob founded AA, alcoholism and addiction were treated by society as a moral failing, rather than as a sickness, even by medical professionals. AA literally revolutionized the way the world looks at alcoholism and addiction, despite any possible flaws in the AA program itself.

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