The Buddhist Recovery Approach to Addiction

Valerie Mason-John talks to Lion’s Roar’s Rod Meade Sperry about the Buddhist Recovery approach to contending with addiction.

Rod Meade Sperry
31 January 2018
Valerie (Vimalasara) Mason-John. Photo by Juan Luis Rod.

Rod Meade Sperry: You are the president of the Buddhist Recovery Network. What is the BRN’s role?

Valerie Mason-John: The BRN was started so people involved in different Buddhist-inspired recovery programs could pool ideas and work together. I think its role is to popularize Buddhist recovery so people see it as a mainstream complement— or alternative —to programs like 12-step recovery. I’m in touch with some recovery houses and they say the Buddhist-inspired approach is great. They want to know about alternatives, because not everybody wants to do 12 steps.

One of the things the Buddhist Recovery Network emphasizes is the need for more diversity in the recovery movement.

I’ve been in recovery for a long while. Many years ago, when I went along to help at meetings, I was freaked out because it was just practically all men and practically all white. It didn’t reflect me at all. I was at a recovery conference and there was only one other person there of African descent! Yet we know that the war on drugs in the United States has often been a war on Black people, a war on Hispanic people.

Even in the Buddhist recovery community, it has been dominantly male and there’s a real gap as far as women and people of color are concerned. We teach Buddhism through the lens of the Western gaze, unless you came from an Asian–American community. Buddhism was brought to the West by the Sharon Salzbergs, the Jack Kornfields, people like that. They brought it here, which was brilliant, but it’s seen through that Western gaze. But it’s not so accessible to certain people or communities.

Do you have to be Buddhist to do Buddhist recovery?

No. We’re using the teachings to help people with recovery. We do use Buddhist principles like the five precepts, which are recited at the meeting. But Buddhist recovery can be helpful to someone who’s a Christian, who’s a Hindu, who’s a Muslim.

What makes the Buddhist-based approach to recovery different from the 12-step program or other forms of recovery?

Twelve steps comes out of the Christian community and Buddhist recovery is based on the Buddhist teachings, which are all about coming out of suffering. In a way, it’s interesting we call it Buddhist recovery, because we could say that the whole path of dharma is about recovery, whether you’re an addict or not.

I think what’s really important is the centrality in Buddhist recovery of going into refuge. That’s really important, because people have gone to their addiction for refuge. If you have an addiction, what is at the center of your life? What is at the center of your thoughts? It is your addiction.

So Buddhist recovery emphasizes placing the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha at the center of your life. Of course, we’re not saying to place the human being, the Buddha, at the center of your life. We’re saying take refuge in what the Buddha achieved—liberation, freedom from the prison of your mind, and teachings that point to truth and spiritual community.

One colleague, actually a top psychiatrist, noted that when you look at all the books written on addiction, and at all the training, how often do people talk about kindness, about hope, about the language of the heart? Buddhist recovery has a lot to offer the recovery world.

Rod Meade Sperry. Photo by Megumi Yoshida, 2024

Rod Meade Sperry

Rod Meade Sperry is the editor of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Guide (published by Lion’s Roar), and the book A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers. He lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with his partner and their tiny pup, Sid.