The 12 steps and the 12 traditions of secular Buddhism

April 17, 2023


As a teenager, I was struggling with undiagnosed ADHD, which left me feeling overwhelmed and scattered. I was dealing with a lot of emotional storms and chaos, and I was looking for something that could help me find peace and stability.

It was during this time of stress that I was first exposed to practices that would lead to my interest in Buddhism, first through the Japanese martial art of karate, and then through the mediation practice that helped calm me down when I needed it.

Through martial arts, I learned about the importance of focus, discipline, and perseverance. I also found that the physical exercise helped me manage my ADHD symptoms even though I was not officially diagnosed at the time with it, as I could channel my excess energy and restlessness into productive movement.

One day, while browsing at my local library, I stumbled upon a book about Buddhism, and something about it resonated with me. I was drawn to the idea of mindfulness and the concept of being present in the moment. It felt like a way to anchor myself and find some stability amidst the chaos.

I began reading more about Buddhism, and I found that the teachings and practices spoke to me in a profound way. As I learned more about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other key concepts, I started to see how they could apply to my own life.

One of the most helpful aspects of Buddhism for me was the practice of mindfulness meditation. I found that by sitting and focusing on my breath, I could calm my racing thoughts and find some peace in the present moment. This was especially helpful when my ADHD symptoms were particularly intense.

As I continued to study and practice Buddhism, I found that it offered a framework for understanding my experiences and navigating the challenges of my mental health. The idea of impermanence, for example, helped me see that the difficult moments I was experiencing would eventually pass. The practice of compassion helped me cultivate greater empathy and kindness towards myself and others.

Overall, Buddhism became an important part of my journey towards mental health and well-being. The combination of Buddhism and martial arts gave me a holistic approach to finding balance and well-being in my life. By integrating these practices into my daily routine, I found that I was better able to manage my mental health and cultivate a sense of inner peace and strength. But I was not truly a full convert because of the dogmatic beliefs in traditional Buddhism I ran into along the way.  Growing up in a Christian fundamentalist household, I wanted to avoid any form of dogmatism.

Additionally, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) helped me develop practical skills for coping with difficult emotions and situations. For example, I learned how to use mindfulness to observe and describe my emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. I also learned techniques for regulating my emotions, such as deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.

One of the most powerful aspects of DBT for me was the emphasis on self-compassion and acceptance. Through the practice of radical acceptance, I learned to acknowledge and accept the reality of difficult situations without judgment or resistance. This helped me move past the cycle of self-blame and negative self-talk that had been holding me back for years.

As I continued my work with my therapist and integrated the principles of DBT into my daily life, I found that my mental health began to improve in ways I had never thought possible. I was able to manage my emotions more effectively, communicate more clearly and assertively, and develop stronger relationships with the people around me.

Looking back on my journey, I am struck by how the principles of mindfulness and cognitive restructuring that I first learned through my Buddhist practice were ultimately instrumental in my healing process. Through the integration of these principles into my therapeutic approach with DBT, I was able to find a way to manage my mental health that felt authentic and empowering.

Secular Buddhism and the 12 Step Recovery Programs

As I continued my journey toward mental health and well-being, I was also introduced to the 12 steps and traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). While I found the support and community of AA to be helpful, I struggled with the dogmatism and religiosity that can sometimes be present in 12-step programs.

It was around this time that I began to explore the concept of secular Buddhism. As I learned more about this approach to Buddhism, I saw that it offered a way to integrate the principles of mindfulness and compassion into a more flexible and inclusive framework.

Inspired by my experiences with AA, I began to think about how secular Buddhism could be approached in a similar way, with an emphasis on community support and personal growth.  A lot of 12-step programs over the years have become secular in order to help individuals from different backgrounds and belief systems recover from addictions.

So, this is how I would approach teaching and instructing the basics of Secular Buddhism to those who never had any exposure to any form of Buddhism or Eastern Asian philosophy or religion at all.

First, let’s set up the 12 steps of  Secular Buddhism as a teaching mechanism that includes the basics of Buddhism. The steps are as follows:

1. We admit that life is marked by suffering and that suffering arises from craving and attachment.
2. We come to understand that our thoughts and actions have consequences and that we are responsible for our own happiness and well-being.
3. We commit to practicing mindfulness, being present in the moment, and cultivating a deep awareness of ourselves and our surroundings.
4. We undertake a moral inventory of ourselves, acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses, and striving to live with integrity and compassion.
5. We admit to ourselves, and to others, the nature of our flaws and mistakes, and we seek to make amends where possible.
6. We cultivate an attitude of openness and willingness to learn, and we seek out knowledge and wisdom from a variety of sources.
7. We commit to living with intention and purpose, setting clear goals, and working towards them with diligence and perseverance.
8. We cultivate a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the good things in our lives, and we strive to live with an attitude of generosity and kindness toward ourselves and others.
9. We commit to being of service to others, recognizing that our own happiness is intertwined with the happiness of those around us.
10. We continue to practice mindfulness and self-awareness, recognizing that personal growth and development are ongoing processes.
11. We cultivate a deep sense of compassion and empathy towards ourselves and others, recognizing our shared humanity and interconnectedness.
12. We strive to live with an attitude of joy and equanimity, even in the face of adversity and challenge.

These 12 systematic steps are based on the basic teachings of Buddhism, including the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and other key concepts. However, they are presented in a secular way, without the religious or dogmatic elements that can sometimes be present in traditional Buddhist teachings.

By approaching Buddhism in this way, we can draw upon the insights and wisdom of this ancient tradition, while also integrating modern psychological and scientific approaches to mental health and well-being.

Traditions of secular Buddhism

The traditions of secular Buddhism guide the practice of Buddhism without adherence to any particular religious doctrine or authority. These traditions are similar in structure to the 12 Steps of Recovery, providing a framework for individuals to follow as they work toward their own spiritual and personal growth.

1. Personal Responsibility: In secular Buddhism, individuals take personal responsibility for their own spiritual growth and development. This means that they actively seek out the teachings and practices that will help them along their path.

2. Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a central concept in secular Buddhism. It involves being present at the moment, without judgment, and cultivating a deep awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.

3. Compassion: Compassion is the practice of empathy and kindness towards oneself and others. In secular Buddhism, individuals are encouraged to cultivate a compassionate mindset as they navigate their own spiritual journeys and support others in theirs.

4. Non-Attachment: Non-attachment involves letting go of desires and expectations, and accepting things as they are in the present moment. In secular Buddhism, individuals practice non-attachment as a way of cultivating inner peace and contentment.

5. Impermanence: Impermanence is the recognition that everything is constantly changing and evolving. In secular Buddhism, individuals embrace impermanence as a way of letting go of attachment and finding comfort in the ebb and flow of life.

6. Interdependence: Interdependence is the recognition that everything is connected and that our actions have consequences. In secular Buddhism, individuals strive to act in ways that promote harmony and well-being for all beings.

7. The Eightfold Path: The Eightfold Path is a set of principles that guide individuals toward enlightenment, self-actualization, and spiritual growth. In secular Buddhism, individuals study and practice the Eightfold Path as a way of deepening their understanding of the teachings and developing their own personal path.

8. Community: In secular Buddhism, individuals recognize the importance of community and seek out others who share their spiritual values and beliefs. They may participate in meditation groups, attend retreats, or connect with like-minded individuals online.

9. Service: Service is the practice of giving back to others and contributing to the well-being of the world. In secular Buddhism, individuals are encouraged to find ways to serve others as a way of deepening their own spiritual practice.

10. Continuous Learning: In secular Buddhism, individuals recognize that spiritual growth is a lifelong journey and that there is always more to learn. They are committed to continuous learning and seeking out new opportunities for growth and development.

11. Personal Transformation: Personal transformation is a central goal of secular Buddhism. Through the practice of mindfulness, compassion, and non-attachment, individuals work towards transforming their own minds and hearts.

12. Gratitude: Gratitude is the practice of acknowledging and appreciating the blessings in one's life. In secular Buddhism, individuals cultivate gratitude as a way of finding joy and contentment in the present moment.



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2 Replies to “The 12 steps and the 12 traditions of secular Buddhism”


Well articulated.

A good way of looking at things. Another way could be this articulation of the precepts:
The Three Boundless Precepts

I vow to refrain from all action that increases suffering.

This is the intention to always practice a wise restraint.

I vow to perform all action that increases awareness.

This is the intention to actually do what occurs to us that can make ourselves and others truly happy.

I vow to live for and with all being.

This is the intention to always try to see everything with an unselfish eye.

The Ten Clear Mind Precepts

A follower of the way cultivates and encourages life, does not take life.

One who is committed to following the way lives with awareness. Such a person can never knowingly harm a single thing.

A follower of the way honors the gift not yet given, does not steal.

Everything belongs to us and nothing belongs to us; but we don’t take anything unless it is offerred to us as a gift.

A follower of the way remains faithful in relationships, does not misuse sexuality.

There is no way to remain deeply in relationship without complete honesty and openness.

A follower of the way communicates truth, does not lie.

Our speech must be true and accurate and kind. We make and destroy worlds with our words.

A follower of the way polishes clarity, dispelling delusion, does not intoxicate self or others.

To share spirits moderately with friends may be all right; but intoxication as a way to relax or cope, whether it be with substances or doctrines, creates confusion and unhappiness.

A follower of the way creates wisdom from ignorance, does not criticize others mindlessly.

This precept is very important in marriage. We make an effort to be thoughtful and caring in our speech about others. In this way we can love and be loved.

A follower of the way maintains modesty, praises others, not self.

This precept is also very important in marriage. Please let each other know, frequently, how much you love and respect each other and why.

A follower of the way shares freely, is not stingy.

Since there is nothing we can possess, especially others, we approach the world and each other with open hands.

A follower of the way dwells in equanimity, does not harbor anger or ill will.

When there is anger, see it as anger; respect it but don’t keep it close; try as much as you can to let it go. Try not to let a single day end with ill will between you. There is no justification for resentment. Remember this.

A follower of the way respects the Buddha, unfolds the Dharma, nourishes the Sangha.

With the taking of these precepts we express our vow to live a life that is in accord with the sacred nature of all that is.

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