Does Thai Buddhism Offer Any Solutions for People Dealing with Addiction?
by Paul Garrigan
Buddhism plays a significant role in life here in Thailand, as this is a path followed by the majority of the population. Our program here at Hope Rehab Center is not specifically based on the teachings of this philosophy, but we do incorporate aspects of it such as mindfulness. There is also a good deal of overlap between Buddhist psychology and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), and this connection was recognised by Dr Alan Beck who is regarded as the ‘father of cognitive therapy’ (source: Beck Institute).
Buddhism and addiction: Some of our clients do go on to develop an interest in Thai Buddhism during their stay (this is something we neither encourage nor discourage), and this spiritual path can be a good fit with recovery approaches like the 12-steps.
Is Buddhism a Philosophy or Religion?
Buddhism can be described as a nontheistic belief system, and there are many atheists/agnostics who refer to themselves as Buddhist. This is not to say that it isn’t a religion. If you go to a temple here in Thailand, you will see people doing things that appear to be of a religious nature – such as kneeling in front of statues and making merit. There are many conflicting opinions as to whether Buddhism is a philosophy or a religion, and the most honest answer might be to say that it can be both.
What is Thai Buddhism?
Buddhism originated in India around 2,500 years ago, and it has blossomed into a number of different paths. The differences between the various schools of Buddhism are mostly concerned with the emphasis of the teachings, and there has never been any major conflict over which interpretation is the right one.
It is convenient to break Buddhism into two main categories – Mahayana (great vehicle) and Theravada (teaching of the elders). Mahayana includes schools such as Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism (although this is sometimes treated as a separate category), and Pure Land Buddhism. Theravada is considered to be the oldest form of Buddhism, and it is what is practiced in Thailand – as well as neighbouring countries like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia (Vietnam is mostly Mahayana). The main difference between Mahayana and Theravada is that the focus of the former is on liberating all sentient beings, while the later focuses more on personal liberation.
Buddhism is believed to have existed in Thailand since at least 300 BC (source Access to Insight). It has developed its own unique flavour over the centuries and has been influenced by local animistic beliefs. The statistics show that 96 per cent of the population would describe themselves as being ‘Buddhist’.
Buddhist View of Addiction
It is common for people who get caught up in addiction to talk about a feeling of being disconnected from their life – this is sometimes referred to as a ‘hole in the soul’. The Buddha believed that this feeling of being at odds with the universe occurred due to three characteristics of existence – impermanence, non-self, and suffering.
The Buddha taught that people don’t really exist in the way they think they do. He invited his followers to use meditation to seek out the self so they could see that no such thing existed. The idea of non-self can sound counterintuitive, but the Buddha carefully laid out the logic that led to this conclusion. For example – most people just assume that they are their thoughts, but if that were the case, why would people find their thoughts working against them when they try to quit alcohol or drugs (e.g. thoughts of relapse)?
It could be said that the central teaching of Buddhism is all about the overcoming of addiction. The Four Noble Truths are presented as a diagnosis and suggested treatment plan for this type of suffering:
First Noble Truth – there is suffering
Second Noble Truth – suffering is caused by attachment and cravings (to things that are impermanent and don’t exist in the way we think they do)
Third Noble Truth – there is a way to overcome attachment
Forth Noble Truth – the path to overcoming cravings is made up of eight parts – right view, right action, right intention, right understanding, right concentration, right livelihood, right effort, and right mindfulness
Buddhists believe that addiction is a particularly extreme form of attachment. The person turns to alcohol or drugs in the belief that this can ease their suffering, but it only makes things much worse because it increases the feeling of craving.
Buddhism and addiction – A Solution for Addiction
The Buddhist Eightfold path can be used as a program of recovery from addiction. It is important not to think of this path as a linear process because the elements of this approach feed into each other (e.g. right understanding can lead to right action, but right action could also lead to right understanding). One of the most intriguing things for us here at Hope Rehab Center is how flawlessly this path fits in with our own approach.
- Right understanding – you learn about the nature of addiction
- Right intention – you commit to sober living
- Right mindfulness – during your stay with us you learn to use mindfulness and CBT so you are less of a prisoner to your thoughts and emotions
- Right concentration – practices like mindfulness improve your focus so you enjoy clearer thinking
- Right effort – you make sobriety your number one priority in life
- Right view – with the help of therapy you begin to let go of beliefs and opinions that have been holding you back in life (e.g. low self-esteem)
- Right livelihood – if the way you make your living is triggering your addictive behaviour (e.g. you deal drugs), you may need to make some career changes
- Right action – you commit to regularly doing the things you need to do to maintain a strong sobriety
Buddhism and the Twelve Steps
If you belong to a 12 Step Program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, you are not going to find any conflict between this and the Buddhist approach. There have been a number of books written about how well these two programs fit together – although the fellowship is not aligned with any particular religion.
The Tools of Buddhism can be used by Anyone
You don’t have to become a Buddhist, or even believe in these teachings, in order to benefit from some of the practices found with this path. There is now growing evidence of the benefits of mindfulness, and it can be particularly good for helping people deal with cravings – it can also be effective as a treatment for depression. Loving-kindness (Meta) meditation can be an excellent practice for people who are dealing with any type of self-hatred issues.
Experiencing Thai Buddhism at Hope Rehab Center
The influence of Buddhism is everywhere here in Thailand. The ‘mai pen rai’ (it doesn’t really matter) approach to life of the local people is due to an acceptance of the principles of non-self and impermanence. The attitude towards Buddhism and addiction is more compassionate than other parts of the world, and there is no suggestion that ‘addicts’ are ‘bad people’. The local people are never going to make any attempt to convert you to their belief system – although they will usually be happy to share their views on the world if you ask. If you visit a local temple, you will be made to feel welcome so long as you are respectful – e.g. don’t turn up in your swimming trunks.