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Buddhism and Recovery

Treating an addiction to drugs or alcohol involves an approach that examines the addict on physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual levels. A school of thought has recently emerged that marries the psychology of addiction rehabilitation with a thousand-year-old philosophy. For people who struggle to make standard methods of aftercare apply to their lives, the addition of certain Buddhist principles may help them fully overcome the shadow of addiction.

What is Buddhism

Buddhism is both a religion and a philosophy. While Christians may search for God, or a similar transcendental experience, Buddhists focus more on addressing issues of moral concern. Buddhism is a religion that it deals with concepts of spirituality and an afterlife, but is it not focused on a deity. Buddhism admonishes its followers to focus on themselves, their minds, and their suffering.

The Four Noble Truths

Buddhism is founded on four noble truths, the first of which is: “Life is suffering, and the cause of suffering is desire.” This truth is the basis for how Buddhism can be used to bridge the gap between addiction and health. Buddhist philosophy looks at suffering in terms of craving. As humans, we are constantly in a state of want: we want pleasure, power, control, and freedom. Buddhism sees that suffering arises from our desires and our cravings, and this is what makes the Second Noble Truth.

The cessation of suffering is the ultimate goal in Buddhism. The Third Noble Truth teaches that “there is an end to suffering; it can happen to anybody,” and “the key to ending all suffering is to remove all desire.” Understanding the causes of suffering gives a person the information necessary to completely remove the causes of suffering from their life. Patients who have gone through psychotherapy and 12-Step programs might find this familiar, even if those respective programs do not frame the mindset within the spiritual approach of Buddhism.

The Fourth Noble Truth has eight parts5:

  • Right view
  • Right intention
  • Right speech
  • Right action
  • Right livelihood
  • Right effort
  • Right mindfulness
  • Right concentration

Once someone has moved through all eight parts, they are liberated and released from the suffering that has plagued them.

The Buddhist approach presents an alternative to addicts who do not want to or feel that they cannot, draw strength from and invest in the higher power espoused by the traditional 12-Step method. Instead, Buddhism teaches them to overcome their addictions and sufferings from within.

The 12 Steps and Buddhism

The 12 Steps are guiding principles designed to help patients overcome addictions, compulsions, or other behavioral issues using the help of a Higher Power. The 12-Step program can be employed by those who struggle with a variety of addictions, including gambling, eating disorders, and shopping. Twelve-Step programs require participants to transfer their focus outside of themselves—to God, or a higher power. Buddhism calls on its adherents to transfer their focus within themselves and look at the human mind as a committee, with good voices and bad voices. Using the principles of Buddhism as a supplement to addiction treatment helps show those who struggle how to find their good voices and use them to quell the bad ones.

People who are uncomfortable with a traditional 12-Step program might be put off by the spirituality of Buddhism. Fortunately, a number of programs exist for people who are not comfortable with their recovery being connected to a religious experience. Taking influence from larger programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, there are many programs that use similar and proven methods to help addicts overcome the challenges of addiction. The most important thing is to find a program that you or a loved one trusts and that makes you feel comfortable. Look for programs that have support from the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.


Addiction is a complicated issue. But there is a treatment approach that is right for you. Whether you want to surrender your recovery to a higher power, use age-old Buddhist philosophies to reorder the way you look at the world, or find a program that speaks to you as an atheist or an agnostic, there is a system of recovery that speaks your language and can help you begin a new life free from addiction.