Dharma Wheel symbol Buddha and Bill
The Dharma &
The Twelve Steps
gold pyramid in gold circle

The Spiritual Goals of Buddhism
and of Alcoholics Anonymous

Part I: Spiritual Goals of Buddhism

The goals of Buddhism are both spiritual and practical. The main goal is to go from samsara to nirvana. This is done by doing things that foster serenity, happiness, confidence, wisdom, love, and compassion— and that remove anxiety, hopelessness, fear, ignorance, resentment, and hatred. But, at least for Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism and Shin Buddhism as well as some other branches of Buddhism), the practitioner dedicates his spiritual efforts to the salvation of all living beings, even above his personal self.

So, what is samsara, and what is nirvana? Samsara is the general condition experienced by the mind that is habitually latching onto this and rejecting that while constantly attempting to satisfy a great craving. The causes of suffering are mistaken for the causes of happiness. Even when the object of desire is apprehended, there is no lasting satisfaction; instead of exposing the futility of the quest, such experiences of temporary satisfaction gradually intensify the craving. The mind loses the ability to distinguish between the raw experience of happiness and whatever objects temporarily make us happy and give us the illusion of well-being. This is a mind in samsara. This sounds like the mind of a drug addict or an alcoholic. But it also applies to most if not all people living in this world. It is only a matter of degree.1

Nirvana then is the total absence of such craving. The mind is serene and the experience of happiness no longer depends upon external circumstances. One whose mind is in the state of nirvana is said to be enlightened. Such a person's reaction to things is less extreme—he or she is able to be at peace and serene even when in adverse circumstances. This hardly means that such a person behaves as if he or she is apathetic or under the influence of some kind of intoxicating drug. Instead, the person maintains a true sense of fortitude, faces situations courageously, and makes decisions based on genuine wisdom and compassion.2

This does not mean that living in samsara is always a waste of life. To the contrary, nothing need be wasted.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Zen Master who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King in 1967. In his book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation (c. 1998), he writes:3

"For forty-five years, the Buddha said, over and over again,'I teach only suffering and the transformation of suffering.' When we recognize and acknowledge our own suffering, the Buddha—which means the Buddha in us—will we look at it, discover what has brought it about, and prescribe a course of action that can transform it into peace, joy, and liberation. Suffering is the means the Buddha used to liberate himself, and it is also the means by which we can become free.

"The ocean of suffering is immense, but if you turn around, you can see the land. The seed of suffering in you may be strong, but don't wait until you have no more suffering before allowing yourself to be happy. When one tree in the garden is sick, you have to take care of it. But don't overlook all the healthy trees. Even while you have pain in your heart, you can enjoy the many wonders of life—the beautiful sunset, the smile of a child, the many flowers and trees. To suffer is not enough. Please don't be imprisoned by your suffering."

Taitetu Unno is a spiritual teacher in the Jodu Shinshu branch of Buddhism. In his book Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn Into Gold, he writes:4

"Buddhism is a path of supreme optimism, for one of its basic tenets is that no human life or experience is that no human life or experience is to be wasted, abandoned, or forgotten, but all should be transformed into a source of vibrant life, deep wisdom, and compassionate living. This is the connotation of the classical statement that sums up the goal of Buddhist life: 'Transform delusion into enlightenment.' On the everyday level of experience, Shin Buddhists speak of this transformation as 'bits of rubble turn into gold.'"

For alcoholics such as myself, the disease of alcoholism has become the epicenter of our samsaric suffering. In the description of samsara above, we saw that obsessive patterns associated with all the cravings are, to a degree, akin to alcohol and drug addictions. By working the 12 Steps of AA and integrating them with the teachings of the Buddha and other enlightened teachers of the Dharma, we can transform the rubble generated by the storms of samsara into gold.

On this same note, I highly recommend reading the webpage "Two Dialogues on Dhamma" by Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano. (Bhikkhu Nyanasobhano (1901-1994) was a German-born Theravada Buddhist monk. In 1958 he helped to found the Buddhist Publication Society (BPS) based in Sri Lanka. He was the editor-in-chief of BPS until 1984 when he became its president. He retired from the BPS in 1988. The term Dhamma is a Pali word equivalent to the Sanskrit word Dharma. In the present context, it can be taken to mean the teachings of the Buddha or the bare Truth that is the foundation of those teachings.)

Part II: Spiritual Goals of Alcoholics Anonymous

"It has often been said of A.A. that we are interested only in alcoholism. That is not true. We have to get over drinking in order to stay alive. But anyone who knows the alcoholic personality by firsthand contact knows that no true alky ever stops drinking permanently without undergoing a profound personality change."
—Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 1.
"We thought 'conditions' drove us to drink, and when we tried to correct these conditions and found that we couldn't do so to our entire satisfaction, our drinking went out of hand and we became alcoholics. It never occurred to us that we needed to change ourselves to meet conditions,whatever they were."
—Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 1; Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 47.
"People who are driven by pride of self unconsciously blind themselves to their liabilities. Newcomers of this sort scarcely need comforting. The problem is to help them discover a chink in the walls their ego has built, through which the light of reason can shine."
—Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 74; Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 46.
"Years ago I used to commiserate with all people who suffered. Now I commiserate only with those who suffer in ignorance, who do not understand the purpose and ultimate utility of pain."
—Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 3.
"Someone once remarked that pain is the touchstone of spiritual progress. How heartily we A.A.'s can agree with him, for we know that the pains of alcoholism had to come before sobriety, and emotional turmoil before serenity."
—Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 3; Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, pp. 93-94.
"We must never be blinded by the futile philosophy that we are just the hapless victims of our inheritance, of our life experience, and of our surroundings—that these are the sole forces that make our decisions tor us. This is not the road to freedom. We have to believe that we can really choose."
—Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 4.
"Is sobriety all that we are to expect of a spiritual awakening? No, sobriety is only a bare beginning; it is only the first gift of the first awakening. If more gifts are to be received, our awakening has to go on. As it does go on, we find that bit by bit we can discard the old life—the one that did not work—for a new life that can and does work under any conditions whatever.

"Regardless of worldly success or failure, regardless of pain or joy, regardless of sickness or health or even death itself, a new life of endless possibilities can be lived if we are willing to continue our awakening through the practice of AA.'s Twelve Steps."

Bill W., As Bill Sees It, p. 8.

Let us now go on to The Four Noble Truths.


1For clarifying and eloquent elaboration of these points, see for example: (1) Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, The Joy of Living: Unlocking the Secret & Science of Happiness (c. 2007), pp. 117, 119; (2) Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice (c. 2001), pp. 98-99; (3) Ringu Tulku Rinpoche, Daring Steps: Traversing the Path of the Buddha (c. 2010), pp. 30-31.

2For confirmation of these points, see for example: (1) Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche, op. cit., p. 6; (2) Nyanaponika Thera, "See Things as They Are" in Entering the Stream: An Introduction to the Buddha and His Teachings (c. 1993, ed. by Samuel Bercholz & Sherab Chodzin Kohn), p. 85.

3Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching (c. 1998), pp. 3-4.

4Taitetso Unno, Shin Buddhism: Bits of Rubble Turn into Gold (c. 2002), p. 11.


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