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12 Steps, Higher Powers, and Buddhism


I appreciate all the hard work that you spend in spiritually enriching the lives of myself and, I’m sure, countless others. It is a matter of life and death for me, as I am on a path of recovery from addiction. I am unable to embrace a “higher power” via the christian concept because of issues in the past, having felt that god was not there for me during a most dire time of need; so an alternative is a serious need for me..

This is turning into a different communication than I had intended, but regarding recovery in the 12 steps, where your “higher power” takes an active role in your life, for example:

  • “restoring us to sanity”
  • “turning or will and lives over to the care of god as we understand him.”
  • “admitting our character defects to him and asking him to remove them”
  • (we)Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Does Buddhism have the notion of a higher power that personally intervenes in ones life, or lend guidance on a personal level, one that will actively be on the receiving end of “turning your will and lives over and guide us? Is there a god one can achieve “conscious contact” with or indeed even has a “will” for our lives and can bestow “power to carry it out”? If these concepts do not apply, What might be a counterpart in Buddhism. How might one apply such concepts within the framework of Buddhism?

Or, more broadly how may Buddhism assist one in achieving the same goals, and aid in recovery within or even totally removed from the 12-step concept?


We covered this topic once before in a guest post, which I will link to here: “Buddhism and the 12-Step Process” I would definitely suggest reading that before continuing.

Although there are groups of Buddhists who have something that could be called a “higher power,” most do not. Buddhism, more than any other “religion” emphasizes personal responsibility. You got yourself into this trouble, and you are the only one that can get you out. Regarding the quotes in your question, I’d say there is nothing there that couldn’t be dealt with in Buddhism.

Restoring us to sanity” That’s pretty much why we’re all Buddhists in the first place, isn’t it?

Admitting our character defects and asking him to remove them” Meditation and reflection is all about learning about ourselves and seeking to change things that need changing. The only difference is that you must take on the responsibility of change yourself, which if you are coming from the “there is no higher power” point of view, you realize already.

Praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” Again, this is meditation and reflection upon our own Enlightenment.

“turning or will and lives over to the care of god as we understand him.” This is the big one. If you want to follow the steps perfectly, then you need to substitute something for God. For Buddhists, this could be your own inner self, the universe as a whole, nothingness, or even the concept of Buddha himself as a wise teacher. And yet the wording of that line is problematic: the whole point of Buddhism is to gain control over your will and life, not to give it to some abstraction. You need to work this one out for yourself.

I read many other social media sites, including Digg and Reddit, both of which have a very vocal group of Atheists. Every time the topic of Alcoholics Anonymous or another group that uses the 12-step program comes up, they are attacked for being “religious indoctrination centers” or something equally hostile. It’s not just the Buddhists who have trouble with the whole idea of higher powers. More and more, people are scrutinizing the 12-step approach and picking it apart. Yet for millions of people it has worked. It’s just a matter of adapting yourself and adapting the program to fit YOUR needs.

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21 comments to 12 Steps, Higher Powers, and Buddhism

  • John Saunders

    I too found myself “in the rooms” hoping to cope with an addiction out of control at one point in my life and immediately was put off by the notion of a “higher power”. As a buddhist, this did not make sense to me, and left me feeling hollow after all, I wasn’t fitting in in a place where ANYONE could fit in..
    That said, I read some books, asked around, and meditated long on this subject. I found a simple answer.
    Buddhists, or anyone for that matter, do have a “higher power”. It’s karma silly! Being mindful of one’s karma is a perfectly realistic “power” that will only guide you on a successful path. Religious folks always have the option of ignoring their godly “higher power’s suggestions” and end up right back in the place that brought them to their suffering, but those that choose to be mindful of consequences often find progress over time that’s down-right heavenly :)
    Realizing this helped me tremendously through my own path of recovery. I found that if I just substituted the phrase higher power with mindfulness and karma, I was able to begin to “fit in” and reap the benefits that the rooms had to offer me. This didn’t happen overnight by any means. One thing I’d suggest is picking up the book from That helped me focus my meditation and I would only help that it could also help you.

    With Gassho,

    John Saunders

  • Patty Hensley

    I am going to find the 12stepbuddhist book referenced here. It has been a challenge to maintain an open mind in my recovery from addiction around religion and spirituality. It has required that I open my mind around my own resentments towards devoutly religious people. I can still get my buttons pushed by “them” but I am beginning to see that it’s my angry reaction that needs embracing. Something to learn and grow from. My “higher power” is simply something greater than my personality. What keeps me from being in the here and now can be my personalitie’s need to control, manage and manipulate an outcome. I might look to the inner higher self for guidance to open my eyes and my heart to what may be real – learing to love. It’s a continuing journey and I appreciate this site and the exchange of experiences. My past, and sometimes current, resentments toward western religious stuff pop me out of the here and now. It is a ripe area for growth for me and a challenge.

  • Jason

    It was 12-Step recovery that brought me to Buddhism in the first place. Of course, the “name” of the spiritual path one takes to a happy and fulfilling life matters little, calling it Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, or Wiccan merely sets some limits on a vast universal truth, allowing my limited human mind to even begin to touch it.
    And as with all of these paths to enlightenment, words being picked and chosen and taken out of context or interpreted from a limited perspective will always lead to confusion or disagreement. It is a sad truth that human attachment to the written word leads to suffering, yet how else are we to share with one another the beauty we have found in life? How else would we send or receive the message of recovery, or Bodhisattva ideal etc when apart from a community? We try to write the instructions down. Just like it is impossible to practice right action without right thinking, or believe that suffering will cease without admitting it exists in the first place, so too are the 12 Steps an ordered path to right living and perhaps even enlightenment. With the added benefit that we alcoholics also cease to be attached to alcohol as a “solution” to our perceived problems.
    Whatever the original authors of the Big Book, the Dhammapada, or the Bible use to relieve their suffering and enhance the lives of those around them is all equally, perfectly, valid. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist if it included some discrimination towards any one practice.
    Essentially, any spiritual practice boils down to this sure-fire recipe for creating our own heaven on earth (& it’s also a recovery acronym for god) — Good. Orderly. Direction.

  • John R

    Thank you for addressing this oft asked question. While I do not call myself “a Buddhist” any more than i call myself most anything, I have been practicing a variety of Buddhist techniques for years. I am also in my 29th year of sobriety through and thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous. I would recommend the book One Breath At A Time as the best book to date on recovery and Buddhism.
    Having said that, I would also like to mention that I am an atheist. That is, I do not believe in any god or gods at all. However, as a Hunka Lakota, I do practice ceremonial ways and have relationships with all our relations (Mitakuye Oyas’in). That is, as we see in physics and especially complexity theory, everything is related (connected) to everything else in inter-intra-penetrating ways. Without getting into the intricacies of the philosophic and quasi theologic aspects, I just want to say that many of us in AA are also not theists.
    One might remember the particular cultural context out of which the movement came and the book
    Alcoholics Anonymous was written. In addition, we can recognize the profound contribution this group (and its principles) has made to the cultural milieu of not only the United States, but countries and cultures around the world. Many have called the 12 Step program “Buddhism in practice.” I also suggest one read Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry to see how the 12 Step process and practice might blend beautifully with Buddhism and fill in some of the gaps he describes in the Asian Buddhist experience.
    I was a drunk for many years trying to practice spiritual disciplines of many kinds (including Christianity). Until I got sober, none of it bore any real fruit.

    Please feel free to contact me if you would like assistance, discussion, or help of any kind with respect to obtaining or maintaining sobriety.

  • I find a Buddhist analog to “turning over”/”surrendering” an issue to one’s “higher power” in the process of “letting go,” and allowing one’s Buddha Nature (magnanimity, compassion, and wisdom) to direct one’s actions. Perhaps, a “translation” (in your own mind) of “12-step talk” along these lines would help you feel more comfortable with/in the recovery community?

    But, if this is too abstract and cerebral for your needs, you might consider developing a practice focused on devotion to a particular bodhisattva, such as Avalokiteshvara, Guan Yin, or Amida Butsu, and regarding him/her as your higher power. There is, I think, plenty of precedent for such an approach, in Buddhist tradition.

  • Brent Johnson

    As a Buddhist in recovery, I have found that the Steps integrate perfectly with the Buddhist path and I don’t cling to the view of God. The spiritual aspect of A.A. is a personal one, “as we understood” and each member has his or her own path, but too often we forget what A.A. is all about! “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs”. Help someone!!! If you have 10 days sober, show someone with 1 day how you got 10!! then practice the precepts and live a mindful life! Look for the newcomer in the meeting and say hello, remember you have taken long enough, now its time to give back!!

  • Dennis

    The problem that I personally have with most Western religions, as well as the AA concept of a higher power is the lack of personal accountability. I found Buddhism when I decided it was time to recover and get my life back, and I didn’t see that it would be MY life without accountability. Anyway, here is the one line that works for me every time; “It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow. – Ralph Ellison…”

  • ZenSaint

    Seems to me that turning your life over to a “Higher power” means only that you accept there may be a force in this universe more powerful than man. I do not see the 12-step approach as theistic. My higher power could be my son or a tree in the back yard. Of course, at some time freedom from addiction must be for oneself and not for any external source. Since we’re all interconnected….

    Buddhism provides a wonderful focus for living in the moment, and how is that different than “one day at a time”?

  • Alexandra Ormsby

    While I am not in recovery, I did suffer from depression for many years, and was on medication off and on for 4 years. My path in Buddhism is rarely meditation (I’m sad to admit), but I love reading the Sutras, and I was immediately drawn to “The Bodhisattiva Ideal”. Once having read the Bodhisattva Vow (I vow to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings), I could not turn away from that vow, and it has guided my life since. And yes, I know meditation is essential to enlightenment, and I have to get busy! But as part of my education, I read the Sutras, and I have found they have completely dispelled my depression. Buddha speaks of Buddhaverses as vast as the sands of the Ganges. When the mind fully grasps that, it seems as if our earthly cares are dispelled and we look at life differently. That, with the Bodhisattva Vow, where I am looking out automatically for the suffering of others and dispelling it maybe by just a word or a simple smile — but with my ‘antennae’ always out – has so completely changed my life, that I cannot fathom how I was ever depressed. Well, this is what has helped me from my readings of Buddhism and I pass it on with love and compassion. Maybe it is far too simplistic for most, but it is a ‘step’ in the right direction before one moves on to the more complex ideals of Buddhism.

  • Thanks for continuing the stream of thought on this topic and for including the reference to the 12-Step Buddhist. These are deep questions, but the right answers will come for us. If we want them.


  • Jami

    Hi Brian, I did not recieve any of your mail-and for 3 months I or you went missing. Have you been away? I am glad to return here.

    My only issue abt this topic, is the narrow view of theism. Evangelical notions are one side of a rich history of the God-Concept. Meister Eckart’s fertile metaphors, his notion of ‘disinterest’, apparently conforms to the Buddhist term of ‘detachment’. These are germinal metaphors, and maybe in Nirbana, we have a semantic riddle, a bridge, even a pathway to inperceptible reality. And when the hasidim say we create God,is that not a window to many substantive truths?

  • lisa

    There is no control and a higher power can be earthly or not. There is perhaps too much focus on the verbage than the intention.

  • Laura

    I am a practicing Buddhism, have a Master, and am doing much reading at the present time. I am on the Vajra path (diamond path, Tibetan), the quickest path to enlightenment. You might want to read “What is Cultivation” or should I say study it and read the 6 realms of existance to get a small idea of what some of it is about. no matter which path you choose, you will be on the right one for you. I am also a recovering drug addict/alcoholic and practice the 12 steps in line with the practices of Buddhism. If you choose to be on the path, find a Sangha Center near you, attend it and ask as many questions as you need. If you like what you hear, keep going back to learn more and make a decision on whether or not if its what you want to do. You are welcome to check out my Masters Read everything on her page, you will get great insight. Being on the path of The Dharma has been the most liberating experience I have ever had in my life. I stuggles with the whole god theory to…on the Buddhist path everything is cause and effect. If you fall asleep with gum in your in your mouth and it ends up in your hair, its “cause and effect”, not some dude in the sky (never seen before) telling you that you need a haircut, lol. So, if you think about the “cause and effect” theory and it makes sense to you, you may be searching on the path that is right for you. I was a drug addict, the cause was I did drugs, the effect was jails and institions and lots of suffering. We also believe in Kharma in all that we go through, the good and the bad, if you do harm, the kharma is going to come back to you, if you do good to others, you get merit and create good kharma. This is becoming completely egoless, selfless, and all about helping others, even if it means taking on their pain and suffering to liberate them. I hope I was of some help to you. If you like you can visit my Masters website……read all that you can on her page…you will learn much more than I could ever explain to you on here.
    Blessings to you,

  • Japhy

    If I, on my Vajra path get there before you do, Is your Vajra path still the quickest?

  • In my opinion, a higher power is that of which is either spiritual blood to god or is one of those who have been assigned a position dealing with the balance of all dimensions, life, or death. The Buddah may very well be one of many Higher Power.
    7 chakras Meditation

  • karma yeshe

    Greetings and bows to all , i am on the path of creating a step recovery for those who follow dharma or have a sense of confusion with the god concept for any reason! The aa 12 steps are fabulous but corner anybody with complete failure snd misery and wala you can spoon him anything and he/she will listen thus im not dissing 12 steps just saying other ways are available and in buddhism we find liberation from all! For now consider the word GOD as your deepestidea YOU,not just the person you talk to when your alone but that deep innerbeing that once was honest, true snd compassionate as a kid! It’s there but you have to get into now to unlock the door to let yourself in again

    Many bows,

  • Adam

    I have sadness reading the above post about Buddhist practice, and am also tickled by all the responses. I was brought up with both Alcoholism and Buddhism, and have struggled with these questions for at least 12 years now. Currently I have found a great community in my ACoA and CODA groups, and they have put pieces back together for me so that I can get back to my own personal practice — as the religion that was apart of my religious abuse was Zen Buddhism itself. My sadness originates from some concept that Buddhist practice is above a concept of a higher power. I would disagree with this, in that – the concept of a higher power is really a state of reality that is very close to “right thinking” in the 8 fold path. It is a daily conscious awareness that we are not the sum total of the universe. We exist with others, cannot be in control of much of our lives, and so must accept this fact first to find our right place with life. In other words, we’re not here to be served, we are here to witness and to serve.
    Second, I can sense the need to judge and compare and to be better than in many of the comments posts. I very much relate to that, and also relate to experiencing that in the Buddhism I was taught as a child as well. My parents, as well meaning as they possibly could be, felt isolated and alienated by the Judeo-Christian world as well, so my brother and I clearly learned that “not believing in a God” is “better”, because we were shamed on almost a daily basis when others found out we were not Christian like they were. I understand the reaction completely, although at this point in our cultural development it seems like another false duality is forming where God is now vilified and condemned – when for some people he is primarily just that – a place to put all of our sorrows, and way to be heard in a consistent basis that we have never understood, and a force that is really an acknowledgement of our importance and place in the universe. GOD, Good Orderly Direction, is really a place holder where we acknowledge there’s more than just us, we’d believe that others want that as well, and we can all connect in this “greater” space. If that’s considered a crutch, in my practice, I find it just about as much of a crutch as the addiction to enlightenment, which my understanding is a necessary evil many times.
    Well I’ll leave it there. Mostly I had sadness reading what I interpreted as “the perfection” that is Buddhism, is “better” than needing a higher power. It reminds me of the shame and guilt of growing up as an imperfect Buddhist – trying to do away with myself before I knew how to be a person. Thanks for whomever has read this far.

  • Dhamma dude

    !2 step recovery can be seen and practiced through a Buddhist lens, but depending on where you are there are alternatives. I went to my first SMART recovery meeting the other day and was surprised by meeting 2 other practicing Buddhists there, out of 11 people in the room. SMART sees religious belief as a personal matter and not a cornerstone of recovery. !2 step groups are excellent for fellowship quite often and enabling people to see they have a problem, how you overcome that problem is for me best addressed in learning techniques and tools to deal with this pattern of behavior. This is more likely to happen in a SMART meeting, where i will not be told I am powerless, need to get right with God or have a disease.

  • recovering buddhist

    Read Kevin Griffin. There is a higher power in Buddhism that 12-steppers can use as effectively as the god of abraham. There’s karma, for one, or the dharma, for two. Suffering is a higher power. As is change and interconnectedness.

  • Axiom_status

    personally, i have battled with the addictions of myself, as well as the addictions of my loved ones. some of them have found solace in the twelve step process, some of them continue to abuse the gift they have been given, and some of them have “died” in the process.

    i have never found true any of the conventional dogma related to addiction. i believe that addiction is slavery to the ego. to liberate ones self, one must educate them self. sure there are many techniques that promise to help you quit. but enjoying the many states of mind, chemically induced or otherwise is what we enjoy in life. its what makes it worth living. the hippocracy of saying that these drugs are good for you and these drugs are bad for you is this; all drugs are chemicals. all chemicals can be volatile if present in the body in toxic concentrations. this includes food, water and air too.

    branding myself an alcoholic for the rest of my life doesn’t do much to bolster my confidence does it? maybe if you wear the name as a badge of honour, like “nigger.” i believe that once i have conquered something, i cease to be the person i was yesterday or ten minutes ago and i am born anew. clean slate. carte blanche. forgiven but not forgotten. the foolish notion that there are twelve steps or stages is basically just the concept of the heros journey applied in some convoluted judeo christian application. see joseph campbells “The Hero With A Thousand Faces.” this format for human problem solving has existed since the begining of time memorial in the mythos and ethos of human culture

    the reality that i see is this. use and abuse are two different things. if you want to quit smoking or whatever then you will make that decidedly healthy descision for yourself when you are good and ready. attachment to addiction is still addiction. in order to transcend that notion one must free themselves from the delusion of attachment. you’re best course of action is to develop smoke free habits and embrace the fact that the universe and everything in it is constantly changing and you seemingly have the power to exact change in yourself as well as in your environment.

    i think the real problem here is that somebody once told you that there was something wrong with you to begin with. learning how to live is a process of refinement. we are not born of evil, we learn it from the world. it is or secondary operational mode when threatened.

    the key to triumph over tribulation is having the right tool for the job and knowing how to use it. when you drive a nail into wood, thats it. its driven. its finished. no sense in beating a dead horse the rest of your life accusing yourself of actions you no longer embody. just enjoy what you have built after you finish hammering in all of the other nails in the project. when youre done you can admire your new identity as a free person and be proud of who you are and where you come from.

  • Steve

    Greetings to all. I am new to Buddhism and have over 30 years clean thanks to NA and AA.

    I have having a hard time reconciling the 12 steps and the programs with Buddhism, especially seeking God’s will as proscribed in the 11th Step.

    I am beginning to understand why 12 step programs have not been successful in Asia.

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