The Institute of Buddhist Studies provides graduate level education in the entirety of the Buddhist tradition with specialized instruction supporting Jodo Shinshu Buddhist ministry.
Buddhism and Twelve-Step Programs
I WAS A BUDDHIST BEFORE I GOT SOBER. I entered Buddhist practice at San Francisco Zen Center's Green Gulch Farm in an effort to get control of my life which was rapidly fragmenting as I plummeted through the last phases of my struggle with alcohol. If I got up earlier, if I did more meditations, if I studied harder, if I went to more retreats, if I lived inside the Green Gulch monastery instead of outside in the community, if, if, if . . . then everything would be all right.
Sometimes I could drink, and sometimes I could not. I abstained for months at a time to prove that I didn't need alcohol. I no longer drank daily. Few people saw me perceptibly drunk. I rarely drank during the day. I was one of the many alcoholics who can function well despite intoxication. Toward the end, I rarely drank anything other than wine or an occasional beer. I kept up my health, ran three miles a day, sat two periods of meditation daily, led wilderness trips, and published a book. I didn't look like an alcoholic, but I was in utter despair about my life.
"Sit, just sit," I thought each morning as I entered the meditation hall to sit in silence on my round black cushion. I sat on my feelings and kept silent about my pain. Wounded, enraged, and frightened by the dissolution of my marriage, the increasing speed with which my life was unraveling, I sensed somehow that events were steadily backing me up against a brick wall; meditation practice helped me see and feel that more clearly. I remember sitting at five o'clock one morning, facing the blank white wall, the temperature near freezing, trying desperately to remember to count my breath. I tried to talk to my teacher and to the practice leader, but I couldn't tell them that my problem was alcoholism, because I didn't know it myself. They had no real way to help with the information I gave them, nor were they particularly experienced at seeing through to the problem that I denied. I went on blindly, sitting rigidly on my cushion, determined to be a good student at all costs. I continued to die daily in my long black robes and ever-present smile. But rather than dying from the "ego-killing" meant to occur in Zen practice, I was succumbing to the living death that alcoholism and addiction bring.
After two years, I was finally forced to admit that Buddhist practice wasn't going to help me stop drinking. And, confronted by my daughter in tears one night, I finally had to admit that I was in trouble and needed to do something about it. I called someone who had gotten sober, three thousand miles away. "Can you control your bowels when you have diarrhea?" he asked, bluntly. "Of course not," he went on, cheerfully answering his own question. "Well, that's what trying to control your drinking is like if you have a problem with alcohol. Stopping drinking isn't a moral issue and it doesn't have anything to do with will power. This is a disease, and you've got it."
I held the phone in my lap for what seemed like hours. The desk light shone overhead. My children were off in another part of the house, still upset. Then I had a moment of clarity. This wasn't the kind of mother I wanted to be, or the kind that I'd had in my family. I couldn't imagine anyone at the Zen center behaving like this. Everyone seemed so calm. Not only was I failing as a mother, clearly I was not a good Zen student. I was missing something, all the practice hadn't changed me. It was time to try something else.
How could my friend say that being an alcoholic wasn't a moral issue? I was convinced that I was a terrible person. Yet his insistence that I was not in an insoluble moral dilemma, but suffering from an illness from which I could recover, cast new light on my situation. It gave me enough hope to pick up the phone and call the one person nearby who I knew was sober. On the phone that night more than eleven years ago, she told me where the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was held. And I mentally surrendered, admitting to myself first of all that no matter how much I wanted it to be otherwise, doing a Buddhist practice wasn't going to cure my addiction. I would have to go to AA for that.
SUNDAY MORNINGS WERE EMBLEMATIC of the painful transition that followed. During my first year in AA, in addition to trying to maintain daily attendance at Green Gulch for zazen, I continued to go to the abbot's Sunday lecture. I would stand in my long black robes, talking and sipping tea, when suddenly my heart would start pounding, my palms would begin to dampen, and my anxiety would skyrocket. It was time for me to leave for an AA meeting. I was too ashamed to tell anyone why I was leaving and too polite and self-centered to just walk out and think that no one would be personally offended. My heart sank every time I turned my back on the community and walked up the road beneath the pungent eucalyptus trees to the parking lot. Standing there, in the doorway of my car, I would pull on long pants underneath my robes. Then quickly, when no one was looking, I would unknot my belt, whip off the three layers of robe, under-robe, and blouse until I was wearing only a t-shirt, pull on a sweatshirt, roll up my robes, and drive away to a noon meeting on the verge of tears.
By the end of that first year of sobriety, I discovered that it's not only the alcoholic or addict who is busy destroying herself. Often there are many people who unconsciously encourage the addiction, despite their intentions to do the opposite—from the wife who finds that she can get what she wants after her husband has had his requisite cold beers to the children who discover that mom doesn't mind that they take money from her purse after they bring her another bourbon. This realization helped alleviate the guilt and shame that made me think I was different from everyone else—especially from my own family. Just because I had identified myself as the alcoholic didn't mean that I was the only one with a problem.
Still, as I sat in meditation every morning, shame would bubble up in the silence to taunt me. The Twelve steps had taught me that there are moments when it's essential to reach out to another person. During a difficult visit to Minnesota, I called Katagiri Roshi at the Minneapolis Zen Center, whom I'd never met, and was invited to visit for a private talk.
The next day over tea, after listening patiently, Katagiri Roshi put down his cup and smiled broadly. "Other Zen students had problems with alcohol too," he assured me. He said I was only seeing people from the back in the zendo. "If you could see them from the front like I do, you would know that everyone struggles with life, and some of them struggle with alcohol. He encouraged me: "Don't judge, don't compare—just keep going!"
Katagiri's description of a Zen meditation hall where people often sit facing a wall, their backs to the interior of the room, illuminated part of what was lacking for me in Zen practice at the time. His comment was a metaphor for the traditional hierarchical structure where only the teacher "sees" everyone's face. With our backs turned to each other, we saw each other only partially. There was no mechanism in the community for the level of self-disclosure necessary to confront alcoholism.
When I began to study Buddhism in the late seventies, the honeymoon of Buddhism coming to America wasn't yet over. Many of us idealized it and saw it as a way to transcend the world and get out of it, not into it. Buddhism was just heading into the period of scandal and crisis that would mark the eighties. In 1983, San Francisco Zen Center was among the first communities to experience the trauma of confronting an abbot for abuse of power. The request for the abbot's resignation was preceded by charges of sexual misconduct. When I began attending Green Gulch, the setting was still peaceful, calm, and quiet. The denial of my private dilemma was a perfect fit with the community's denial of the abbot's behavior.
When the crisis finally broke, in the year or so after I got sober, I found myself angry, sad, and oddly relieved. Part of my relief was purely selfish: I now knew that the strange tension I experienced in the community wasn't just my private difficulty. The craziness wasn't due only to my alcoholism. Because I had learned that problems are systemic and take years to develop, I realized that the abbot's behavior required participation (however unwitting) of many. Now the dam had broken, the abbot had resigned. Some senior members left, others stayed. The difficult, perilous work of restructuring began. San Francisco Zen Center had broken through the denial, brought in professional help, organized itself into small groups, and started talking.
I now understand that the abyss I had to cross when I left Green Gulch for my Sunday AA meetings was in my mind. It was imaginary. I feel quite differently after a few years as a student of both Buddhism and sobriety. It wasn't that "Buddhism wasn't enough"; rather, it was my own practice that was limited by rigid, narrow monastic concepts. Maybe some alcoholics and addicts can get sober and clean by sitting in meditation. I couldn't. And alcoholism is a chronic disease with physical manifestations, not just a state of mind. Detoxifying one's body can be a dangerous matter, depending on the stage of the disease. While it certainly isn't always the case and it wasn't in mine, some people go into delirium tremens. Some people die detoxing.