With the Buddhist Recovery Summit 2017 coming up in Washington state later this month, Valerie Mason-John (Vimalasara), co-author of Eight Step Recovery, talks to Lion’s Roar’s Rod Meade Sperry about the Buddhist Recovery approach to contending with addiction, and why she hopes this year’s gathering will mark a step forward for diversity in the Buddhist Recovery landscape.
Rod Meade Sperry: What is the Buddhist Recovery Network?
Valerie Mason-John: The BRN was put together by people like Paul Saintilan, Alan Marlatt, Kevin Griffin, and Noah Levine to pool ideas together and look at what was happening in Buddhist Recovery. Since its inaugural gathering eight or nine years ago nothing much has happened; so, people want to revise BRN and see what its role is.
What do you think is the role of the network?
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 and SMART Recovery, and that recovery houses also see that as an alternative as well. I’m in touch with some recovery houses and people say it’s great. They want to know about alternatives. Not everybody wants to do 12 steps.
What makes Buddhist Recovery distinct from traditional 12-step recovery or other forms?
For me, what makes it distinct from the 12-steps is that we are borrowing from the Buddhist teachings. 12-steps comes out of the Christian community and Buddhist Recovery comes out of the Buddhist community. The Buddhist teachings are all about coming out of suffering. So, in a way, it’s interesting that we call it Buddhist Recovery. We could really say that the path of dharma is about recovery — whether you’re an addict or not.
Do you have to be Buddhist to do Buddhist Recovery?
No. We’re using the teachings to help people with recovery. Buddhist Recovery can be complementary to someone who’s a Christian, who’s a Hindu, who’s a Muslim.
We do have the five training principles, the five precepts, and those are recited at the meeting. Also, I think what’s really important is the centrality in Buddhist Recovery of going into refuge. Now, this is my view. I think it’s really important, because people with addictions, they 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. And, of course, we’re not saying place the human being, the Buddha, at the center of your life. We’re saying place what the Buddha achieved there — liberation, freedom from the prison of your mind, and teachings that point to truth and spiritual community.
You’ve been to gatherings like this in the past but that this one is different for you, specifically when it comes to considerations about diversity and inclusivity.
Yeah. You know, 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 don’t know why, but the recovery world seems to be more men — more white men than there are women. Even in the Buddhist Recovery community, it has been dominantly male and that might be because people who’ve been leading in this are people like Noah — and I think it’s fantastic, the population that Noah is bringing to the dharma, because you don’t see that population elsewhere.
But, for me, there’s been a real big gap as far as women and people of color. I was at a recovery conference (it wasn’t 12-step or Buddhist Recovery), and there was only one other person who was of African descent there! You know? There were a couple of Asian people there. No East Indian people. And, there were some indigenous First Nations people. Where are we?
We know that in the States that the war on drugs has often been a war on black people, a war on Hispanic people. And, even here, in Canada, the war on drugs has also been on the black community as well. The African-Canadian, the Asian-Canadian, the First Nations community, often, were put in the prisons or in the mental institutions because we’re not familiar with or don’t have access to recovery houses. One of my wishes is to make recovery accessible to different communities like the First Nations, the Asians, and the African-Canadian community.
Buddhism was brought to the West by a lot of Westerners so, therefore, we teach Buddhism through the lens of the Western gaze, unless you’re Asian and you came from an Asian community. The Sharon Salzbergs or the Jack Kornfields, people like that — they brought it back, which is brilliant, but it’s through that Western gaze. And, so, therefore it’s not so accessible to certain people or communities.
The Buddhist Recovery Conference itself: what will happen there?
For me, this summit is to bring people together who’ve been working in the field and looking at what we’ve been doing. How should we promote Buddhist Recovery? Are we willing to have people come through our doors who may be inebriated – who may be under the influence of drugs? How can we better support people? What can we learn from the 12-step community?
So, will there be representatives of the non-Buddhist 12-step community there?
I don’t know. Our hope is that we would have non-Buddhist people coming because it’s the non-Buddhist people who will take the Buddhist Recovery out into their workplaces or into their world.
I don’t want people to think that Buddhist Recovery is a panacea and if you do Buddhist Recovery, that’s all you need. Actually, no. Even the psychiatrists, even in the medical profession, they’re saying we need to start collaborating.
One colleague — actually a top psychiatrist – has noted, when you look at all the books written on addiction, all the training, how often do you read people talking about kindness, talking about hope, talking about language of the heart? So, Buddhist Recovery has a lot to offer the recovery world.
The Buddhist Recovery Summit 2017 — a collaboration between the Northwest Dharma Association and the Buddhist Recovery Network — will run from October 20 to 22 at the Gwinwood Retreat Center in Lacey, Washington. There is currently a wait-list for registration. For more information visit the Summit website.