Zen and Twelve Step

February 8th, 2020

“Attachment is the source of all suffering.” – Buddha

“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.”
― Carl Gustav Jung

A young woman goes to AA meetings every single day. I know this because I usually drive her to these sessions. The meetings seem to be working for her. I used to go to twelve step meetings many years ago, but they didn’t work for me. However, Zen practice helps.

I started participating in Zen meditation fifteen years ago. I’m still no good at it, but these things take time. Zen is a practice, with the end result possibly being enlightenment, although that goal is elusive. Zen meditation brings about change, often slowly and imperceptibly. I can honestly say that I am different because if Zen. “Different” is not necessarily good or bad, it’s just, well, different. 

I have been thinking about how Zen and twelve step programs relate to each other. Maybe they don’t. I think that there are similarities, but perhaps I see connections where there are none.

Both Zen and twelve step programs deal with attachments/addictions. Attachments and addictions are the same to me. The idea in both traditions is to let go of things. Letting go is a strange process. It can’t be forced. A person has to actively desire to give up something, but that same person also has to patiently wait for the “letting go” to happen in its own way and its own time. Letting go is not like throwing something away. It is more like just dropping something that is no longer of any use or interest.

“If you want something then you lose everything. If you don’t want anything then you already have everything.” – Seungsahn, founder of the Kwan Um School of Zen

In Zen we sometimes talk about the Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, and the Sangha. We take refuge in those three things. To use a very crude analogy, “Buddha” may be equivalent to the “Higher Power” in the twelve step world. “Dharma” means the “teaching”, so that might be a little bit like what is written in “The Big Book”. The “Sangha” is the “community”. For twelve step folks that community could be the people who show up for the meetings. I thnk that, in both traditions, these three things are essential. The terminology is different, but I believe that the underlying meaning is the same.

To me the sangha is the most important thing. I need to be part of a community where I care about people and they care about me. I find that within my Zen group. The young woman finds that with her AA friends. The Buddha and the Dharma are only real if they show in the actions of the members of the Sangha. I think that is also true in twelve step groups. Otherwise, it’s all just talk.

Zen and twelve step diverge in many ways. Zen is primarily a practice of silent meditation (sit down and shut up). AA and its various permutations all involve a lot of talking. That is not to say that nobody talks during a Zen session. We do converse, maybe too much. We also chant, and I don’t think that twelve step groups do much chanting.

Zen is all about getting rid of attachments, even attachments that may seem to be positive. There is even a Zen aphorism that says, “If you meet the Buddha, kill him!” The idea is not to cling to anything. In AA it sometimes seems like a person simply switches from one obsession to another. I know a man who got sober in 1985. For years he hid in a bottle, then he hid in his meetings. He went from a chemical attachment to an attachment to total sobriety. In the end, he never really let go of anything. He is still stuck.

In Zen there is the desire to have a clear mind, to see things as they are. That is the point of meditation. I think that twelve step programs attempt to achieve the same goal. They try to cut through the “stinkin’ thinkin’ “.

No matter which path is taken, a person who is active in a practice is just trying to see  what is there.

It just is.






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