07/10/2013 12:59 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Jesus and Buddha Walk Into an AA Meeting

The similarities between Buddhist thought and 12-Step philosophy are fascinating to me, and the focus of my life's work. But I grew up with Protestant ideas floating around in my head. When I got into 12-Step recovery in the mid 1980s, I spent a number of years studying the teachings of Jesus. For many, these three would seem to be totally different. To me, there are so many commonalities that it's often hard to distinguish among them. In 12-Step we're asked to look for the similarities, rather than the differences. Let's discuss this!

In 12-Step recovery, we first have to admit that we have a problem before we can begin to solve it. The admission is one of powerlessness over our drug of choice (not everything else, as is commonly misunderstood). Once we admit that we can't control the addiction, we can entertain a solution. Since no human power for many of us has been able to solve our problem, we look for a higher power. It doesn't have to be called God, but often is. Some call it a doorknob, which is kind of silly. I like to think of it as higher principle, spiritual teaching, meditation, the power of now and the power of vow. There are options. Our next step asks us to turn our decision making over to this greater energy, whatever it is. Then we do a bunch of work to figure out what kind of jerks we've been and go about ways to repair the damage done as the result of our selfish behavior. Ultimately, we're tasked to live out our clean and sober lives with our thoughts and actions geared toward love and service. The Alcoholics Anonymous basic text says that, "Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs."

In my view, those of us with addictions are uniquely qualified to understand the nature of what Buddha taught, namely, that in our lives we suffer and that the path out of suffering is about how to be better people. Buddha taught that we are to, "develop the motivation to benefit each other and extend it to cover all beings," and "It is the great merciful and compassionate heart, the motionless heart, the unpolluted and unattached heart, the emptiness-observing heart, the respectful heart, the humble heart, the uncluttered heart, the non-view and non-grasping heart, and the uppermost Bodhi (enlightened) Heart. You should know that such hearts are the feature and characteristics of this Dharani (mystical incantation), you should practice according to them."

Being an addict teaches us, probably more quickly than for non-addicts, the nature of what Buddha called attachment, aversion and ignorance and how these three poisons keep us stuck. But in 12-Step, we don't really talk about the goal. There doesn't really seem to be a goal, aside from staying clean and being nice. In Buddhism, the goal is to become enlightened, just like Buddha. To that end, the tools and practices of Buddhism, such as taking vows, meditation, practicing generosity, patience and others, are all to become Buddhas. This is definitely not what most Christians think of when considering what Jesus had to say on this topic.

Jesus taught, "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy," and "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you," and "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."

Christians don't normally, at least in my experience, talk about becoming God. There's more of a notion of original sin, that man, humankind, while made in the image and likeness of God, will never be as good or as powerful as God. It seems blasphemous to even talk like that. We're asked to believe, pray, have faith, and more or less do what we're told. If we're lucky, for reasons that are never quite explained, we might get into Heaven when we die. But no one knows for sure.

Yet in Buddhism we train ourselves to become fully Awakened Ones, through the practice of compassion. Buddha doesn't ask us to believe, but says we should try things for ourselves. 12-Step, like Christianity, requires faith. They even go so far as to say that faith without works is dead -- something quite Biblical. The similarities between the teachings one would hear if Jesus and Buddha were to share at an AA meeting are about compassion. But as far as I can tell from my research as an author of three books on the subject and as a recovering addict since the mid-80s, Buddha is the only teacher that tells us that we can do what he did and achieve what he achieved. Jesus mentioned it, AA doesn't broach the subject, and most people who I know, even Buddhists, don't think enough of their potential to consider actually becoming a Buddha.

What do you think? Comments are welcome. Try to keep it friendly.

My new book, The Power of Vow will be free on in Kindle format (no Kindle required) on Amazon from July 11-13th 2013. Free review copies in .PDF format are available now at Join us for our third annual 12-Step Buddhist Hot Springs Retreat in Central Oregon on Aug 25-27th, 2013. For details see