Orange robed monks walking in a spiral corridor

What Did Buddha Say About Compassion and Addiction?

Mike Mather
With the intention to attain
The ultimate supreme goal,
That surpasses even the wish granting jewel,
May I constantly cherish all living beings.


What is the intention of an alcoholic at rock bottom?

Is it the relief from the insanity that tastes and smells like, “Can’t go on — Can’t stop”?

There is that desperate inner voice that says, “If I have one more it will be the end of me, and yet I need just one more”.

If the intention of all alcoholics is to attain permanent sobriety, and that surpasses all other current desires, Buddha suggests that we start by cherishing others.


That can’t be right!

Stark image of a drunk sleeping on a couch on a rooftop

Photo by Acton Crawford on Unsplash

Buddha and Bill Wilson

And yet, in the AA big book it says, at the core of our problem is selfishness, self-will run riot, and all other manners of self. So Buddha agrees with Bill Wilson and his friends.

In order to attain and maintain sobriety, our focus must be to help others and stop being so self-centred.

Not only is ‘self’ causing so many difficulties, but the opposite of our selfishness, which is cherishing others, is touted as the solution to the problem.

In Geshe Kelsang Gyatso’s ‘New Eight Steps to Happiness’, he outlines a plan of action* for all sentient beings to overcome their dissatisfaction. It turns out that addicts aren’t the only ones suffering this torment. And it is not a modern problem.

In The Beginning

Since beginningless time, we have all suffered the pains of life. They are the sufferings associated with birth, death, sickness, ageing, being separated from loved ones, encountering others whom we despise, and having unfulfilled desires.

Whether other factors outside of humanness contribute to the addiction crisis, I will not opine. Epigenetics, familial trauma, and societal pressure all have their parts to play, no doubt.

This author has found great success with implementing these 8 Steps with the other 12 for continuous sobriety and relative happiness since 2008. For around 1000 days prior to that, I was in great pain to achieve 50 days straight, straight. I was in a straight of freight!

The importance of Gyatso’s and AA’s message is that, a significant shift from self-focus to other-focus must be practised in order for significant change to take place. This is contrary to modern thinking — Stoic, Instagram watching, self-promotion, and image maintenance.

One could stretch this philosophy to suggest that over-concern for ‘self’ is the basis behind all today’s problems — political, environmental, societal, and familial.

Woman in a white dress meditating on the grass

Image by Honey Kochchaphon kaensen from Pixabay

Our Ultimate Goal

In this opening passage, Geshe directs us to the ‘ultimate, supreme goal’. There is only one prayer that seems common to all suffering alcoholics. That one is ‘God save me!'. Salvation from addiction, using the 12-Steps model, starts with admission that we are powerless and that a Higher Power could and would help, if He were sought.

Turning our lives around and focussing on others, instead of ourselves, is a great place to begin. This is never easy, but it is so simple.

Inimitably, Buddha makes it easy. Meditate.

There is something so daunting about turning your life around, isn’t there? And yet, the idea is put into action through simple ‘inaction’. Sit and close our eyes and think of others.

The New Eight Steps to Happiness is such an easy read, and it’s even easier to follow. There are eight stanzas of just a few lines each. We are directed to read the whole sutra firstly, then focussing our mind on one stanza at a time, we meditate.

As Daffy Duck would say, “Thimple!”

And In The End…

Enlightenment may take many lifetimes of concentration and practice, but the beginning of a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Langri Tangpa*, the original author of this ancient text, gives us the first step, and it is so simple. Mediate on cherishing others.

The main cause of enlightenment is Bodhichitta, and the root of Bodhichitta is compassion.

Since the development of compassion depends upon cherishing others, the first step to sublime happiness or enlightenment is learning to cherish others.

In the Fellowship of AA, we are given many chances to show compassion. Usually, newcomers are assigned the job of being a greeter at the meetings. Then there is tea-towel duties, putting out chairs, and conducting the meetings for the benefit of other sufferers. All of this is Buddhism 101.

Service work in the larger community is encouraged, and before long the selfish alcoholic is transformed into a powerhouse of compassion.

Service = Cherishing Others

Similarly, if we were to join a local Sangha, there are plenty of service jobs to do for all. One day you might even be asked to run a community whilst the Gurus are gathering for a meet-up. (Just checking to see if you’re reading, Gerry)

Remember, a basic premise of Buddhist philosophy is that we all have Buddha-nature. This teaching applies to all sentient beings, yet it is so useful to an addict in the pits of despair. Turning our lives around from being controlled by our rampant desires and addictions, to a life of freedom from suffering, begins with the focus of our attention.

Turning our gaze to others and what we can offer to our community is the way forward for alcoholics, other addicts, and all sentient beings. This has been the case for all time.

*a treatise on Langri Tangpa’s ‘Lojong Tsig Gyema’

About the Author Mike Mather

Mike was born in 1963 which technically makes him one of the youngest of the Baby Boomers. An Australian with Indigenous and European heritage, he has been an avid and required student of Buddhism and alcoholism since 2008.

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