We were recently asked a great on our Instagram page about a Higher Power and Buddhism. The question read, “How does the higher-power concept fit within the Buddhist philosphy?” I personally have wondered the same thing in my journey through twelve step recovery and Buddhist meditation.
First, we must consider what Twelve Step programs are asking from us when they speak of a Higher Power and its importance to the program. On page 12 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous Bill Wilson says, “It was only a matter of being willing to believe in a Power greater than myself.” The book doesn’t say that we must believe in a specific Higher Power. It even says we can use our fellows as our Higher Power on page 107 of Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, “For the time being, we who were atheist or agnostic discovered that our own group, or A.A. as a whole, would suffice as a higher power.”
Many Buddhists are atheists, and don’t believe in a god. There are devas and bodhisattvas in Buddhism, but the Buddha taught that the origin of the universe was irrelevant to the ending of suffering. However, many of atheistic Buddhists are in recovery, and find ways to work the Higher Power concept in with their own beliefs. This is just my opinion and experience.
The Third Step of Alcoholics Anonymous states that we “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.” It does not say what this “god” must be. In my Buddhist practice, I turn my will and my life over to the Three Jewels, which are the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.
The Buddha here (in my tradition of Buddhism) is both the Buddha-seed within me and the historical Buddha. The Buddha taught that we all have Buddha-nature within ourselves. We uncover and connect with it by practicing the path. Turning my will and my life over to this inner Buddha consists of living my life and practicing in a way that is skillful and wise. The historical Buddha is the teacher, and the one who laid out this path for us.
The dharma is the path or the teachings that the Buddha laid out. From the Noble Eightfold Path to the Foundations of Mindfulness, the dharma consists of the way to liberation. Turning my will and my life over the dharma means following the way in my daily life, observing the five precepts, and meditating daily. For me as a sober person, I find that this also includes working the Twelve Steps in my life.
Finally, I turn my will and my life over the sangha. The sangha is the community of other people who practice. Traditionally, it is the community of monks and nuns. However, many modern Buddhists use the term to include laypeople. Turning my will and my life over to the sangha is much like engaging in the fellowship. I call others, ask for help, and learn from my teachers.
A writer previously wrote about similarities between the Three Jewels and the Triangle-Circle Symbol. To me, taking refuge in the Triple Gem falls in line with twelve-step programs greatly. This thinking may be a bit atheistic. Some people criticize because part of this logic is using ourselves as our Higher Power. However, the book tells us on page 46, “Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God.” It is nobody’s business but ours what our Higher Power is. These criticism are not worth arguing with or even really addressing.
This perception of a Higher Power has worked for me for years, and continues to work today in my life. When somebody in a meeting or anywhere else uses the term “Higher Power,” I think of the Three Jewels. When I go through the steps and must turn my will and my life over, I use my own perception.
I do urge readers to consider that this is just my opinion and experience. Just as the program suggests, you must pick your own Higher Power. For me, this works. I don’t think the atheism of Buddhism is a problem with the Twelve Steps. If you cringe at the word “God” like I have in the past, you may want to read this as well!