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by Rosemary McGinn
I’ve always wanted to eavesdrop
on a conversation between Siddhartha Gautama and Bill Wilson (the founder
of Alcoholics Anonymous). I think they’d get along great: Both of these men found paths
out of suffering in their own experience and went on to share them with
many people. They both struck chords that have resonated for millions
of people over the years.
The Twelve-Step way of life
and Buddhism share many similarities and connections, even beyond the
apparent compulsion to number important things. They’re loaded with
similar paradoxes: Buddhists take vows, but dwell on and in the impermanence
of all things. Sober alcoholics “count days” of sobriety, yet survive
one day at a time.
Here’s what struck me the
most when I started hanging around with Buddhists, though: both Bill
and Sid got that we can’t do it alone. Or rather, that we don’t
have to. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The Buddha said that Right
View is to have faith and confidence that there are people who have
been able to transform their suffering.” Bill Wilson started off the
Twelve Steps with the word “we”, and marked the beginning of AA
not from his own sobriety date, but from the date when he and AA’s
co-founder got together to help a third alcoholic.
Why bother? Why not just get
the home versions of the Twelve Steps and of the dharma? I’m sure it’s
possible – people who are not fortunate enough to live in New York
City do it every day. But we are encouraged by both gentlemen to take
refuge in the communities of those like us – because that’s where
hope comes from. When I look around my zendo, I see people who have
been able to transform their suffering – and that makes it easier
for me to sit for another 25 minutes. When I look around my home Twelve-Step
group, I see people who have come a million miles from their histories
of hardship and trauma – and that makes it easier for me to show up
at the next meeting.
If I didn’t have these powerful
examples, I doubt I’d get very far, because I want guarantees. I want
to be sure of the results before I take a step or make a commitment.
My default is to wait for my fear to go away before doing the things
I’m afraid of. I’d learn to swim when I’m not afraid of the
water any more, I thought. I’d apply for that job, I’d sign
up for a new class in a new place, I’d go on a retreat with people
I don’t know, I’d ride my bike down that unfamiliar street – when
I’m “comfortable”, when it “feels safe”. That’s how I used
to run my life.
Obviously, guarantees are not
forthcoming, so it’s a good thing I’ve found Bill and Sid to help
me along. I’ve learned to “make a ziff” – or “act as if”
– acting my way into right thinking rather than thinking my way into
right action, as they say in the Twelve-Step rooms. The Noble Eightfold
Path holds a lot of this, too: Right Speech, Conduct, Livelihood, all
lead us to awakening and serenity, rather than vice versa.
But I wouldn’t have the courage
to do any of this if I didn’t have teachers, veterans, and peers around
me in both circles. Today, I know that I don’t need blind faith in
either the Steps or the dharma: I have proof. All I need to do is look