Truth By Any Other Name


I was preparing to facilitate an addiction recovery group at the outpatient clinic where I work, and I decided to reference Kevin Griffin’s One Breath at a Time.  While this book was instrumental to me in my early recovery, I hadn’t read it in a long time.  Exactly how long became apparent when a folded sheet of paper fell out as I pulled it from the shelf.  The short essay was from a reading and talk that I gave at Open Meadow Zen Center several years ago, most likely eight or nine years judging from the date reference it contains.  Being that my humble little blog has been foundering a bit over the past half year or so, I decided to seize this serendipitous event and print it here as a means of re-dedicating myself to the endeavor of sharing musings from the world of Buddhist informed recovery.

What follows is an unedited reprint of the talk I gave that evening:

After sharing the poem “Inscription on Trust in the Mind” by Tseng Ts’an back in September, I was gently yet sternly informed that I wouldn’t again be allowed to slide by without offering a personal commentary on the reading, as the purpose of the weekly reading wasn’t merely to share insight, but to allow the other members of the group to get to know us.  Interestingly, this passage by Kevin Griffin was the other reading I’d considered sharing back in September, but apparently I wasn’t in much of a self-revelatory mood.  Tonight I’ll take the opposite tack and identify myself as a member of a 12 Step recovery program.  Usually when I offer commentary, I just sort of wing it off of phrases underlined in the text and notes jotted down in the margins, but this time I’ve taken the time to write out my thoughts, as this is pretty important stuff.

Founded in 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous is probably the most important spiritual movement of the 20th century.  Despite the insistence in the AA Preamble that “AA is not a religion,” that’s pretty much exactly what it is…  an organized system of beliefs, complete with literature, regular meetings, and rituals designed to offer its adherents a better, more fulfilling way of life through the dissolution of the ego.

What separates both Alcoholics Anonymous and Buddhism from other religions is the emphasis on direct personal experience over beliefs.  While we’re contin ually offered the guidance and support of those who have walked the path before us, we’re encouraged to apply these teachings and practices to our own lives on a daily basis.  In both traditions, the basid understanding underlying the teachings is “don’t take our word for it… do what we do, trust your own experience, and see what happens.”  The adoption of this attitude is facilitated immeasurably by the profound realization that there’s nothing to lose.

After staying in recovery for extended periods, there is a tendency for people to open to wider spiritual paths or to reconnect with the religion of their youth.  The relationship between my spiritual life and my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction grew a little bit differently.  Like Kevin Griffin, I began my study of Buddhism some time before I arrived at my first AA meeting.  I’m not sure when my interest in Eastern Philosophy began… probably as something far-out and esoteric to groove on while getting stoned in college.  George Harrison probably had something to do with it.

At any rate, after finding myself in a drug and alcohol rehab in the fall of 1995, my first reading of a piece of AA literature called The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was punctuated by many “A-ha” moments… those flashed of insight followed by a sense of deja-vu… a feeling of “wait a minute, didn’t I already know that?”  I was so astounded by the parallels between AA and Buddhism that, for a while, I was convinced that AA co-founders Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob had deliberately re-drafted the dharma to make it more palatable to a Depression-era American audience.

The reality, of course, is that they were two hopeless drunks trying desperately to conquer their alcohol problem and lead normal, productive lives.  They proceeded to outline their own personal experiences for the benefit of others, just as the Buddha had offered us the Eightfold Path as a means of achieving liberation from what is known in 12 Step parlance as the “bondage of self.”

When people in recovery ask me what Buddhism is all about, I tell them, “it’s like AA.” When Buddhist practitioners ask me about 12 /step recovery, I tell them, “it’s like Buddhism without all the bSanskrit and Pali words.”  The connection between the two traditions is clear:  They present basic human truths arrived at by different means, in different times, for different reasons.  But truth by any other name is just as urgent.

Alcoholics and addicts aren’t unique; we don’t have the mearket cornered on suffering.  We find ourselves plagued by an exaggeration of the human condition, which Albert Einstein described as an “optical illusion of consciousness” in which we percieve ourselves to be seperate in space and time from all other beings.  And we’re the only ones who can save ourselves from this condition.  There is no externam savior.  That’s the bad news.

The good news is that we’re already saved.  To attain this truth, just as to achieve sobriety, isn’t a matter of learning anything new, but rather of unlearning mental habits and false information, or, as Kevin Griffin puts it, “shedding limiting concepts until nothing remains.”

One of the greatest things about Alcoholics Anonymous, and the reason that the fellowship has been able to survive for 75 years, is that the Boddhisattva Vow is built into the program.  Step 12 reads, “Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”  We can only keep what we’ve attained by giving it away.  In this spirit, I hope I’ve done some 12th Step work here tonight.


And I hope, as well, that I’ve done a little more 12th Step work by sharing these thoughts with a wider audience here.  Zen Master Seung Sahn said that our job as humans is to transform our experience into wisdom for the benefit of others.  The preamble of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “we share our experience, strength, and hope with each other that we may solve our common problem…”  None of us does this work alone, and I’m deeply grateful to all you bloggers whose words have helped me.


Author making offering outside of temple, Phitsanalouk

May this be of benefit.



The Guest House

Traditional Thai guest house on Mae Klong in the village of Ampawa

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness.
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.


I chose this poem to share with the sangha after evening sitting recently at Open Meadow Zen Center, or, more appropriately, it chose me. I had signed up in advance to do a reading, but, as so often happens, I’d neglected to select anything until the day of the sitting. Shortly before leaving for the zen center, I grabbed Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi (New York: HarperCollins, 2004, p.109) and randomly opened to this page. The poem jumped out at me not only because it’s short, and a short reading is nice after a long sitting, but also because it reminded me of one of my favorite zen stories.

A hermit meditated in his mountain cave for years. Every night as he sat, a group of demons arrived outside his door, disrupting his silence with their horrifying shrieks and howls. Every night he’d run outside and shout right back at them, demanding that they leave him in peace. He’d stomp up and down and throw sticks at them until he collapsed from exhaustion, but the next night, the demons would be back at his door. One night, sensing the futility of his actions, the hermit finally gave up. When the demons showed up, he walked outside and said, “Come in. Sit by my fire and have some tea.” The next night, the demons didn’t come.

This idea of making “friends with our demons” is pretty widely regarded as being an effective way to deal with fears and neuroses, but Rumi takes the practice a step further. Beyond merely tolerating unwanted mental states, or even being hospitable to them, Rumi implores us to actually be grateful for them. To do this, I think, takes a broad mind and a big heart.

The practice of zen is a practice of continually putting aside our preferences. The teachings remind us again and again that aversion is simply the flip side of attraction; both are forms of attachment, unskillful mind states that don’t serve us on the path. If my own experience has taught me anything, it’s that I have no idea what I need, no idea what’s good for me. My practice, then, is to not reject anything that arises. The only option I’m left with is acceptance.

I’d planned on adding more to this post until my wife and I attended an evening of Rumi’s poetry and ecstatic dance put on by a local Sufi organization. This expression of Truth through music and movement renders the use of words ineffective by comparison. As a zen student, I’ve long misunderstood the Sufi paradigm of the individual as lover and the Divine as Beloved; it seemed to me a mental construct that merely reinforces the delusion of separateness. In reality, the Sufi path has little to do with concepts and everything to do with experience. What happens is that the illusion of separation is played with as a means to achieve unity. The idea of God as Beloved is the most apt metaphor with which we can approach our relationship to Totality. Have you ever loved another human being so completely, so fearlessly, so regardless of consequences that you held absolutely nothing back and cared not whether you lost yourself entirely in the process? Good for you if you have. Can you imagine taking the risk of risks and making that juicy, reckless leap of faith without the knowledge that your Beloved is even there? That’s what Sufism invites us to do. That’s the very zen spirit of 100% commitment with which Rumi dares us to leave our lights on and our doors open. It’s a tall order, but when you really stop and think about it, what do we have to lose?


Where Did They Go?


Golden Buddha at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in PhitsanalokSAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Thailand isn’t zen country. It’s deeply Theravadin, home to the “Doctrine of the Elders,” also known as Southern Buddhism, as it is characteristic of all of Southeast Asia. Other teachings took root farther to the north – Mahayana Buddhism in India and Tibet, and zen farther to the east in places like China, Japan, and Korea. True teaching, however, knows no geographical distinction, and takes place whenever one is slapped out of a dream and into reality. One morning during our recent pilgrimage, my wife, Jennie, and I stopped with several members of her family to make offerings at Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat in Phitsanalok, the town about halfway between Bangkok and Chaing Mai where her mother was born. We were told that the Wat is home to the most beautiful golden Buddha statue in the all of Thailand.

Candles, large bowls of sand for incense, and round trays for flowers were arranged along the portico outside of the temple. After making my offerings, I stood lazily in the morning heat waiting to get inside the temple when a streak of gray whizzed past the corner of my eye. I heard a sharp “Thunk!” and spun quickly to look behind me; I thought someone had thrown something. Turning back forward, I realized what the gray object was: a tiny pigeon chick. Glancing upward I could see its mother in a nest at the top of a column high above the marble floor. The chick couldn’t have been attempting a first flight; it was far too small and nowhere near fully fledged. It must have been accidentally nudged out of the nest. Whatever had happened, the fragile bald chick lay there motionless at my feet. It lay there dead at my feet.
Wat Phra Sri Rattana Mahathat

I was stunned into the reality of the present moment until a temple attendant came along and matter-of-factly swept the newly-born, newly-dead bird out of the portico with a straw broom. It appeared as though this was not the first time that this had happened. The attendant’s gesture seemed cold-hearted until it occurred to me that what had happened was a tragedy only in my own mind, conditioned as I am to the belief that life is vastly preferable to death. It also occurred to me that this unfounded belief is rooted in simple fear of the unknown.

Reflecting on the incident, I considered that the bird’s life, while brief, may well have been fortunate. My mind was drawn back to the words of Rampuri Baba commenting on the dogs, cats, rats, and monkeys that invariably hang around the temples in India; there’s really no earthly reason for them to be there. If it’s food they’re looking for, there are far better places to hang out. Rampuri speculates that these animals are drawn by the energy of sacred places… perhaps they heard the Dharma in a previous life and are attracted to the sound of the chanting. I’m no ornithologist, and, as such, can’t arrest to the level of sensory development of such a young bird, but even if she or he couldn’t hear the chanting, smell the incense, or see what is reputed to be the most beautiful golden Buddha in all of Thailand, the tiny pigeon felt the energy. Somehow, I feel as though I can attest to that. It seems likely that the vibration of love and devotion followed that being wherever it went after leaving its body on the marble floor of the temple in Phitsanolok.

The bird died at the beginning of the day that would be the culmination of our pilgrimage to Thailand. We had come to return Jennie’s mother’s ashes to the place of her birth. Her name was Nola Saisakorn, and her family’s memorial stupa is at the foot of the hills outside of town, on the grounds of a temple built by her father. A couple of dozen more family members joined us to walk the newly cleared, freshly cemented path through the woods behind the temple. There in a clearing stood the family stupa, some fifty feet tall and recently refurbished for the occasion by a thoughtful and devoted cousin. The photographs and ashes of Jennie’s grandparents are sealed behind a glass door in the pale yellow façade of the stupa, and behind the glass doors on each of the other three sides are three shelves; Jennie’s grandparents had nine children, and there is a place for a porcelain urn containing the ashes of each of them. Five orange-robed monks led us in chanting as we circumambulated the stupa three times.

The clouds broke as Nola’s ashes were set in the stupa by her eldest and only son, revealing a rainbow halo around the sun. The monks all concurred that such a sunburst is an extremely rare meteorological occurrence in that area. Was this a sign of a soul’s ascension on wings of love and devotion? I’m not qualified to comment. I’m merely recording what I saw, and it was beautiful. I don’t know where people go when they die. I don’t know where birds go, either.


Better to Give

Naam Phoo making offering to Thai monk on Mae Klong

“The meaning of generosity is very clear.  All human beings have possessions.  But why do you obtain and keep these things? Are they only for your own pleasure, or do they help you to help others?”  So begins Zen Master Seung Sahn’s discussion of the Six Paramitas in The Compass of Zen, his compendium of the essential teachings of the three main schools of Buddhism [1].  In the Mahayana tradition,  the virtue of generosity is generally regarded as foundational to the path of liberation.  In his introduction to a collection of essays titled Dana: The Practice of Giving, Bikkhu Bodhi explains that “in the Pali suttas, we read time and again that ‘talk on giving’ was invariably the first topic to be discussed by the Buddha in his ‘graduated exposition’ of the dhamma.” [2]   Why such strong emphasis on this quality of behavior that isn’t explicitly regarded as a component of the Noble Eightfold Path in its own right?

The answer to this question is pretty simple: the practice of generosity is the most direct route through the all-pervasive delusion of separation between me and all other human beings to the reality of oneness.  This delusion, created by thinking, can not be dispelled by more thinking;  it can only be cut through by action.  “When you help someone else,” Zen Master Bon Haeng has told me, “you’re really helping yourself.  There’s no separation.” I’ve seen him demonstrate this principle more than once. There’s a traffic island at the intersection of Route 2 and Alewife Brook Parkway where panhandlers usually stand; we pass it on the way to the Cambridge Zen Center. Without missing a beat in the conversation happening in the car, he’ll roll down the window and hold out a dollar bill for the homeless man or woman to take. No fanfare, no “teaching” involved, just simple, spontaneous, appropriate action for the sake of someone else.

I recently returned from Thailand, a predominantly Buddhist country where the concept of “merit” is deeply entrenched in the local rituals. I’ve long disparaged this idea of gaining merit as reeking strongly of the Catholic religion in which I was raised, where good deeds done in this life are considered karmic money in the bank to ensure a comfortable position in the next. “The true Buddhist practitioner,” insists the Righteous Judge in my mind, “has no thought of self. Action is taken for the sake of others, not for the sake of one’s own future well being.” Merit-seekers, it logically followed, are deluded. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d never actually witnessed religious Buddhists in the act of meritorious offering. In the 12-Step Tradition, this is commonly known as “contempt prior to investigation.” Thankfully, my trip to Thailand afforded me the opportunity to investigate.

On our first night there, my wife, Jennie, and I, stayed with her family in a traditional Thai riverside house in the village of Amphawa. In the morning, a monk from a monastery farther down the Mae Klong canal paddled by in a wooden boat while making his daily alms rounds. We stood on the concrete walkway along the canal in front of the guesthouse to await his arrival, but the Mae Klong is a tidal waterway, and the tide was out; the monk’s boat could come no closer than 30 feet away from us. I observed all of this, wondering how the situation was going to play out… How would our donations make it from the shore to the boat?

It went line this: Naam Phoo, a young woman who manages the guest house, gathered up the packages of food, envelopes of money, and flowers that we’d amassed for the occasion and put them into a large basket. She kicked off her sandals and walked down the concrete steps to the mud exposed by the receding tide. Sinking deeper with each step, she was almost knee-deep in sludge by the time she’d reached the boat. Bowing, the monk accepted the offerings. Naam Phoo bowed back. Words are not exchanged in the formal practice of alms giving.

Witnessing this act of selfless sacrifice, it occurred to me that merit is not something gained at some future time, but rather something experienced in the moment by a human being who is available to act for others. It also occurred to me that as I speculated about how the scenario was going to “play out,” the possibility of me crossing the mud flat to the monk’s boat hadn’t presented itself… My “how can I help” mind was nowhere to be found in the situation. Perhaps I was too concerned with indicting the concept of gaining merit to act for someone else’s sake. Zen Master Seung Sahn warns us not to “check other people’s minds.” In 12-Step parlance, the admonition is “don’t take others’ inventories.” Where is my mind in this moment?

As our trip continued, we visited several temples, making customary offerings of incense, flowers, and money before entering. Following Naam Phoo’s example, I tried to make my offerings with an empty mind and a full heart. True merit has nothing to do with expectation, and everything to do with intention.

Making an offering at a temple outside the Royal Palace, Bangkok

[1] Zen Master Seung Sahn (1997). The Compass of Zen, Shambhala: Boston & London, p.198.
[2] as quoted from Tiramit’s blog