I was a Buddhist before I got sober. I entered Buddhist practice at San Francisco Zen Center’s Green Gulch Farm in an effort to get control of my life which was rapidly fragmenting as I plummeted through the last phases of my struggle with alcohol. If I got up earlier, if I did more meditations, if I studied harder, if I went to more retreats, if I lived inside the Green Gulch monastery instead of outside in the community, if, if, if . . . then everything would be all right.

Sometimes I could drink, and sometimes I could not. I abstained for months at a time to prove that I didn’t need alcohol. I no longer drank daily. Few people saw me perceptibly drunk. I rarely drank during the day. I was one of the many alcoholics who can function well despite intoxication. Toward the end, I rarely drank anything other than wine or an occasional beer. I kept up my health, ran three miles a day, sat two periods of meditation daily, led wilderness trips, and published a book. I didn’t look like an alcoholic, but I was in utter despair about my life.

“Sit, just sit,” I thought each morning as I entered the meditation hall to sit in silence on my round black cushion. I sat on my feelings and kept silent about my pain. Wounded, enraged, and frightened by the dissolution of my marriage, the increasing speed with which my life was unraveling, I sensed somehow that events were steadily backing me up against a brick wall; meditation practice helped me see and feel that more clearly. I remember sitting at five o’clock one morning, facing the blank white wall, the temperature near freezing, trying desperately to remember to count my breath. I tried to talk to my teacher and to the practice leader, but I couldn’t tell them that my problem was alcoholism, because I didn’t know it myself. They had no real way to help with the information I gave them, nor were they particularly experienced at seeing through to the problem that I denied. I went on blindly, sitting rigidly on my cushion, determined to be a good student at all costs. I continued to die daily in my long black robes and ever-present smile. But rather than dying from the “ego-killing” meant to occur in Zen practice, I was succumbing to the living death that alcoholism and addiction bring.

After two years, I was finally forced to admit that Buddhist practice wasn’t going to help me stop drinking. And, confronted by my daughter in tears one night, I finally had to admit that I was in trouble and needed to do something about it. I called someone who had gotten sober, three thousand miles away. “Can you control your bowels when you have diarrhea?” he asked, bluntly. “Of course not,” he went on, cheerfully answering his own question. “Well, that’s what trying to control your drinking is like if you have a problem with alcohol. Stopping drinking isn’t a moral issue and it doesn’t have anything to do with will power. This is a disease, and you’ve got it.”

I held the phone in my lap for what seemed like hours. The desk light shone overhead. My children were off in another part of the house, still upset. Then I had a moment of clarity. This wasn’t the kind of mother I wanted to be, or the kind that I’d had in my family. I couldn’t imagine anyone at the Zen center behaving like this. Everyone seemed so calm. Not only was I failing as a mother, clearly I was not a good Zen student. I was missing something, all the practice hadn’t changed me. It was time to try something else.

How could my friend say that being an alcoholic wasn’t a moral issue? I was convinced that I was a terrible person. Yet his insistence that I was not in an insoluble moral dilemma, but suffering from an illness from which I could recover, cast new light on my situation. It gave me enough hope to pick up the phone and call the one person nearby who I knew was sober. On the phone that night more than eleven years ago, she told me where the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was held. And I mentally surrendered, admitting to myself first of all that no matter how much I wanted it to be otherwise, doing a Buddhist practice wasn’t going to cure my addiction. I would have to go to AA for that.

Sunday mornings were emblematic of the painful transition that followed. During my first year in AA, in addition to trying to maintain daily attendance at Green Gulch for zazen, I continued to go to the abbot’s Sunday lecture. I would stand in my long black robes, talking and sipping tea, when suddenly my heart would start pounding, my palms would begin to dampen, and my anxiety would skyrocket. It was time for me to leave for an AA meeting. I was too ashamed to tell anyone why I was leaving and too polite and self-centered to just walk out and think that no one would be personally offended. My heart sank every time I turned my back on the community and walked up the road beneath the pungent eucalyptus trees to the parking lot. Standing there, in the doorway of my car, I would pull on long pants underneath my robes. Then quickly, when no one was looking, I would unknot my belt, whip off the three layers of robe, under-robe, and blouse until I was wearing only a t-shirt, pull on a sweatshirt, roll up my robes, and drive away to a noon meeting on the verge of tears.

By the end of that first year of sobriety, I discovered that it’s not only the alcoholic or addict who is busy destroying herself. Often there are many people who unconsciously encourage the addiction, despite their intentions to do the opposite—from the wife who finds that she can get what she wants after her husband has had his requisite cold beers to the children who discover that mom doesn’t mind that they take money from her purse after they bring her another bourbon. This realization helped alleviate the guilt and shame that made me think I was different from everyone else—especially from my own family. Just because I had identified myself as the alcoholic didn’t mean that I was the only one with a problem.

Still, as I sat in meditation every morning, shame would bubble up in the silence to taunt me. The Twelve steps had taught me that there are moments when it’s essential to reach out to another person. During a difficult visit to Minnesota, I called Katagiri Roshi at the Minneapolis Zen Center, whom I’d never met, and was invited to visit for a private talk.

The next day over tea, after listening patiently, Katagiri Roshi put down his cup and smiled broadly. “Other Zen students had problems with alcohol too,” he assured me. He said I was only seeing people from the back in the zendo. “If you could see them from the front like I do, you would know that everyone struggles with life, and some of them struggle with alcohol. He encouraged me: “Don’t judge, don’t compare—just keep going!”

Katagiri’s description of a Zen meditation hall where people often sit facing a wall, their backs to the interior of the room, illuminated part of what was lacking for me in Zen practice at the time. His comment was a metaphor for the traditional hierarchical structure where only the teacher “sees” everyone’s face. With our backs turned to each other, we saw each other only partially. There was no mechanism in the community for the level of self-disclosure necessary to confront alcoholism.

When I began to study Buddhism in the late seventies, the honeymoon of Buddhism coming to America wasn’t yet over. Many of us idealized it and saw it as a way to transcend the world and get out of it, not into it. Buddhism was just heading into the period of scandal and crisis that would mark the eighties. In 1983, San Francisco Zen Center was among the first communities to experience the trauma of confronting an abbot for abuse of power. The request for the abbot’s resignation was preceded by charges of sexual misconduct. When I began attending Green Gulch, the setting was still peaceful, calm, and quiet. The denial of my private dilemma was a perfect fit with the community’s denial of the abbot’s behavior.

When the crisis finally broke, in the year or so after I got sober, I found myself angry, sad, and oddly relieved. Part of my relief was purely selfish: I now knew that the strange tension I experienced in the community wasn’t just my private difficulty. The craziness wasn’t due only to my alcoholism. Because I had learned that problems are systemic and take years to develop, I realized that the abbot’s behavior required participation (however unwitting) of many. Now the dam had broken, the abbot had resigned. Some senior members left, others stayed. The difficult, perilous work of restructuring began. San Francisco Zen Center had broken through the denial, brought in professional help, organized itself into small groups, and started talking.

I now understand that the abyss I had to cross when I left Green Gulch for my Sunday AA meetings was in my mind. It was imaginary. I feel quite differently after a few years as a student of both Buddhism and sobriety. It wasn’t that “Buddhism wasn’t enough”; rather, it was my own practice that was limited by rigid, narrow monastic concepts. Maybe some alcoholics and addicts can get sober and clean by sitting in meditation. I couldn’t. And alcoholism is a chronic disease with physical manifestations, not just a state of mind. Detoxifying one’s body can be a dangerous matter, depending on the stage of the disease. While it certainly isn’t always the case and it wasn’t in mine, some people go into delirium tremens. Some people die detoxing.

I got off easy. I just had to sleep a lot and go on crying jags for a year. I was exhausted! People in AA were nearly the only ones I could really talk to at that time. The AA meeting rooms were full of people who had been through the shocking experience of re-entry, living life without an anesthetic for the first time. My skin didn’t begin to cover me. I had a life, three children, a career—already in motion.

This is when friends in AA would say, “Come with us for coffee after the meeting.” Even though it was ten o’clock at night, I went. There was always something going on, people to be with, to call, to come over—if I needed it.

I’ll never forget the first few times I went grocery shopping after I got sober. I marvelled at all the people who were coming and going and not buying alcohol. As I zipped around the store, I examined the contents of everyone’s shopping cart. What strength, what character “normal” people had! I was astonished. When I walked past the liquor section, I read the serenity prayer that I’d been handed on a wallet card in an AA meeting over and over like a mantra, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference,” and kept going.

courtesy of Marie Hyon.


Finally the day came when I had to choose between keeping up with my AA meetings at night or my morning meditation practice at Green Gulch. It was with great reluctance that I let Green Gulch go, but without sobriety there was no point in practice. The schedule was too demanding. One of the sayings around AA is “H.A.L.T.”, meaning don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Those states, or any combination thereof, are set-ups for what’s called a “slip,” taking a drink or using a drug; it’s also called “going out.” People do it—a lot—and a lot of people never make it back. Sobriety, like the Buddha’s teachings, is an infinite storehouse of wisdom, to be guarded, deeply valued, and treasured. I would have to expand my concept of practice, enlarge it, cultivate it to include the Twelve Steps. I began to sit at home alone.

Because I already had a meditation practice established, it was easy for me to begin the Eleventh Step, one of the primary ways in which Buddhism is compatible with the Twelve Steps: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, seeking only the knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out.”

But this Step and earlier ones also introduced me to one of the major barriers I would encounter: the language. As a newcomer (and a Catholic by birth), I found the all-male God-talk close to unbearable. I wanted to drink again, but I had nowhere else to go after AA. My choices were to continue, keep complaining all the while, or die. Then I remembered that at every meeting it is said, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” Simple. I did my meditations and ignored the God-talk. I also created my own gender-neutral text with white-out and a fine-line pen. The one sacred text of AA, known as the “Big Book,” was written in 1939, when AA had only one woman member. In my messy, marked-up copy of the Big Book, women, too, are alcoholics. I have a chapter I call “For the Spouse” (not “For the Wives” as it now reads), and God is not a “Him.”

The Eleventh Step itself has been a key to my recovery and has provided the bridge between Buddhism and AA. This Step includes a clear-cut directive to develop a spiritual practice but—blessedly—no particular kind of prayer or meditation is prescribed. Since few Western traditions include meditation, I see increasing numbers of people in recovery seeking out Buddhist centers to learn how to meditate.

For myself, Tibetan Buddhist practice, with its emphasis on visualization, has been particularly helpful. By practicing at home alone, I was forced to a new level of study, questioning, and seeking out teachers. And it was the Tibetan deity Tara, as much as AA, that saved my life. Tara is the Great Bodhisattva of Compassion, Goddess of the Khadiravani Forest, Liberator and Savioress, and—most important—a fully enlightened being who vowed to become enlightened in a woman’s body. Before Tara became enlightened she was Princess Yeshe Dawa, Wisdom Moon, so renowned throughout the region for her wisdom that all the monks and holy men gathered and counseled her to pray that her body be transformed into a man’s, since it was understood that enlightenment was impossible to achieve in a female body. But Yeshe Dawa refused. To their surprise, she informed them that she had given a great deal of thought to the subject but decided that worldly beings were sadly deluded in this matter. “Nowhere can I find what is male, nowhere can I find what is female. Since most Buddhas have chosen to come in a man’s body, I vow to become enlightened in a woman’s body, for all time, until all suffering is ended.”

Tara proved the antidote to the self-loathing I experienced at finding myself in a woman’s body. Underneath the need to anesthetize myself (biochemical components and physiological predispositions aside) was self-hatred. “The disease is in the thinking and the feeling,” the Big Book says, and I felt bad, especially bad about being a woman. I was a feminist before I got sober, but nothing really changed for me until I could see women as spiritually empowered.

courtesy of Marie Hyon.


Having had no image of the divine as female, having been raised with the belief that women couldn’t become priests because “they weren’t made in the image of Christ,” having grown up in a culture where, in the not-too-distant past, black women couldn’t enter convents because it was believed they couldn’t remain celibate, to have found the Buddha Tara with all her many different forms—fierce, compassionate, red, yellow, and black—was a discovery that made me ecstatic.

It was the Eleventh Step and, paradoxically, my Buddhist practice, that allowed my Christian roots to resurface. Over the years of sitting, Christ began to emerge, as did Mary. At first I wanted nothing to do with my Christian heritage. I wanted these presences to go away; I had done with them, they were part of a useless past I no longer claimed. The Buddhist saying “the Way is easy, no picking or choosing” changed my mind. I began to allow their presences in meditation. With them came the first twenty-five years of my life that I had thought needed to be cast out. It was tremendously healing to allow them into my meditation. Yet by now I was deeply engaged in Tibetan practice. How did they fit? Would I have to choose between Tara and Mary, Buddha and Christ? Was I really a Christian after all, and on top of that, a Catholic?

The late Tara Tulku Rinpoche gave me the answer and supported my faith in the particular form of practice that was evolving for me. I didn’t need to imagine all these presences as separate. Tara is famous for taking whatever form is most helpful to us. So I came to see that Mary could be a manifestation of Tara in the West. Yes, Christ could be a Buddha, too. They were not to be reduced or denied their identities in the Christian tradition by this possibility. No one could say that Mary was Tara or that Jesus was a Buddha, but conversely, no one could say that they weren’t. This turn of events had a profound impact on both my recovery and my practice, and cut through the illusion that Western tradition held nothing for me.

Tibetan Buddhists have a term, rangjung, which means the self-arising of a teacher or a deity. Sometimes I think of the Twelve Steps in a similar way, as the self-arising of the Buddha dharma, a wisdom called forth for our time.

I now think of the Twelve-Step programs as the Formless Form, a spiritual practice so thoroughly integrated as to be indistinguishable from everyday life, and see the meetings as dharma talks given by the whole sangha for the practice of sobriety. There are no senior students, no abbots, no hierarchy; we have only each other’s experience to draw from. It is here in community, through being witnessed that I am brought back to life again and again, nourished and ready to be of use. And the very structure of meetings creates an atmosphere in which I sometimes seem to catch a glimpse of that nameless wisdom, of the Buddha nature, arising here one moment, there the next, belonging to no one and everyone all at once.

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