Monday, December 15, 2014

Buddhists and That 12-Step “God” Thing

"...with God as we understood Him..."
This topic has been on my mind lately, that is, Buddhists finding their way in A.A. or any other 12-Step group.   After all, Buddhists don't believe in God, right?  Here is the way I see it.

There’s plenty of room for success for Buddhists (or anyone) in twelve-step programs -- that is, if one is open-minded and willing to find acceptance in other people’s choices in their Higher Powers.  This is my experience and I see it in others every day.

On the surface it would appear that twelve-step programs, with the Christian influence and theistic language, would be incompatible for Buddhists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people’s stories at meetings where, upon seeing the word “God” in the twelve steps hanging on the wall, would mutter to themselves, “I’m screwed.  This isn’t going to work for me.” Then they go on to say, “But I stuck around, listened, followed some direction and the ‘God’ obstacle eventually disappeared.”

Regarding this reliance on a God or Higher Power, clearly the founders of A.A. came up with a brilliant way to include all humanity.  Yes, they use the word “God” throughout the book of Alcoholics Anonymous; after all, it was written in 1935 when close to 95% of people in the U.S. considered themselves Christian.  But they also insisted that this Higher Power be of your own understanding.  Be creative, use your imagination, follow your heart – it’s your choice, not the choice of others.  “I chose to set aside my fears and just let see what happened,” said Christine S., Tibetan Buddhist nun with 29 years of sobriety, only to discover that “A.A. though theistic in language is clearly not theistic in spirit.”

And with a God comes prayer.  There’s not one among us who has not been thankful: the birth of a child, escaping injury in a car wreck, gazing upon the spectacular beauty of mountains, rivers, and stars, or feeling the snuggly warmth of your bed.  Who or what do you give thanks to?  Thank you Universe, thank you Dharma, thank you Tao, thank you Ancestors, thank you all Oneness of reality, or simply thank you.  Vajrayana teacher Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel writes, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know whom you’re praying to.  The very act of asking for help allows the heart to open and invite the world in.” We recite vows, “…which are a kind of prayer-wrapped intention,” writes Jan Chozen Bays Roshi.

Roger H., 19 years sober, who lives by the tenets of Buddhist traditions, told me, “Early on… having patiently waded through my resentment of A.A.’s clear and apparent Christian God peer pressure, I knew God was nothing but a delusion; I am an atheist.  Today, the ultimate purpose of my spiritual practice is to uncover and make contact with my essentially pure nature.” Roger has found his higher power!

In 1965 Bill Wilson, one of the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous wrote, “Newcomers …represent almost every belief and attitude imaginable.  We have atheists and agnostics. We have people of nearly every race, culture and religion.  In A.A. we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a common suffering.  Consequently, the full individual liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy whatever should be a first consideration for us all.  Let us not, therefore, pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views.  Let us instead accord each other the respect and love that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way toward the light.  Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive…”

My friend Tom C. with 33 years of sobriety told me, “A.A. and Buddhism -- as I've encountered it -- are gloriously compatible. To me, being sidetracked by A.A.'s often Christian-influenced vocabulary risks missing out on the inner, wordless, powerfully healing music, whose truth can't be defined with human words. Both A.A. and Buddhism are technologies in some sense. In my experience, Buddhism is a marvelous technology for experiencing the universe's music, and A.A. is an empirically efficient technology for getting us in good enough shape that we can hope to hear anything besides the incessant rumblings and shrieks of our addiction.”

In the beginning I mentioned the importance of being open-minded.  For me, this has meant that when I hear a person speaking about “God”, I understand this person is talking about his/her God or Higher Power.  When I read the book of Alcoholics Anonymous, these writers are telling me how they found and have a relationship with their Higher Power.  When I’m asked to speak at a meeting, I’ll talk about my relationship with my Higher Power. It’s as simple as that.  As Bill W. said, we are not to “pressure anyone with our individual or even our collective views”. If I hear something as pressure, I need to reflect upon the situation.  If someone actually tells me that I must do or think or believe what they do, then that goes against the A.A. Traditions.

“Our book [Alcoholics Anonymous] is meant to be suggestive only.” It’s a wise book, written through the experiences of many; open to one’s principled interpretations and widely adaptable to our lives today, no matter whom you think you are.

In April, 1961, AA Co-Founder Bill W. wrote: “Faith is never a necessity for AA membership … sobriety can be achieved with an easily acceptable minimum of it …our concepts of a higher power and God as we understand him afford everyone a nearly unlimited choice of spiritual belief and action.”

“God As We Understand Him: The Dilemma of No Faith,” The Language of the Heart.

Early on, Bill W. was loaned the 1902 book Varieties of Religious Experience by Harvard psychologist and philosopher William James.  In it he writes, “The only thing that it [religious experience] unequivocally testifies to, is that we can experience union with SOMETHING larger than ourselves, and in that union find our greatest peace… All that the facts require is that the power should be both other and larger than our conscious selves.  Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step.  It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary.” (Postscript, Page 283).

Bill K.

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