The past century has seen a great many individuals undertake the daunting task of translating Buddhism to the West. The early philologists (Evans-Wentz, etc.) were hampered by the problems of translating religious texts they seemed to view as somehow equivalent to the Old and New Testament, believing that a somewhat faithful word for word translation would suffice. The result was decades of misunderstanding about Buddhism and what it, as a spiritual path, has to offer.
But the confluence of the arrival of a great flood of Asian Buddhist masters in the latter half of the 20th century, along with the serious undertaking of the Buddhist path by a great many Westerners, led to a considerable evolution in the presentation of Buddhism to a Western audience. No longer can Buddhism be conveyed as merely a set of doctrines and beliefs. Instead, it is accepted that Buddhism can not be understood outside of the lived, sensory experience of it and the incorporation of meditation into living experience.
Darren Littlejohn, standing on the shoulders of many giants both in the field of Buddhism and addiction recovery, has offered us The 12 Step Buddhist, a raw and visceral account of his attempts to integrate Buddhism into his own recovery. The 12 Step Buddhist stands as a street level, no-nonsense guide to bringing the wisdom of Buddhism into the everyday life of the recovering addict. Littlejohn eschews intellectualization and abstraction in favor of practicality, grit, and hard-won realization about what works and what doesn’t work in attempting to find real relief from what ails us. His excitement about the ways that Buddhism can turbo charge one’s recovery program is palpable.
Reading The 12 Step Buddhist is somewhat like having a portable, text bound sponsor. You can almost hear Littlejohn’s voice through his writing – scratchy, tired but energized, full of heart and sincere as hell. He pokes and prods, shows you his heart wounds, sings songs of hope and possibility, exposes your self-deception, and loves you even as you drown in your darkest shadows, in a way that only someone who has been there can. You get a real sense that Littlejohn is no stranger to suffering – to being decimated by life – and that he wants badly to do what he can to pull you out, and keep you out, of the hell realm of your addiction. But Littlejohn isn’t satisfied with just helping you abstain from your addiction of choice. His is an attempt to help those with addictions use the suffering and passion inherent in their sickness to propel them toward conquering the ultimate addiction – the ego.
The book is both a spiritual biography, complete with many layers and levels of despair and redemption, as well as a heart-centered attempt to share with others the power and possibility of Buddhism as an enhancement to recovery. Littlejohn, introduced to Zen in the ‘80s and then to Tibetan Buddhism in the last decade, has become a voracious reader and seeker of teachings and spiritual practices and the teachers who give them.
Like a wizened 12 step veteran, Littlejohn is blunt and incisive. There is little that could be called “lyrical” about his writing. But Littlejohn’s sincerity and passion provide the reader with a sense of urgency and enough encouragement to give Littlejohn’s suggestions a try.
The second part of the book is a chapter by chapter review of each of the 12 steps, the Buddhist correlate to that step, and a set of practice guidelines that help you maximize your understanding and benefit of that step. Littlejohn would probably be wise to introduce a separate workbook that sets up the practices more distinctly, further develops them, and emphasizes the importance of actually doing them, instead of just reading over them as many will be tempted to do. He often encourages the reader to do shamatha at the beginning of each practice session, which may be difficult for those unfamiliar with meditation and without instruction outside of Littlejohn’s introduction. For those who don’t have the intellectual and spiritual ravenousness necessary to follow Littlejohn’s suggestions about further practice and finding teachers, fully investing in the book may prove daunting. The writing sometimes gets lost in its own attempts at inclusiveness and reach, but just like a veteran 12-stepper, haggard and harried by a long life of hard won wisdom, this book delivers surprising nugget after nugget of spiritual wisdom, and real direction for finding a deeper and direct way to true freedom from all our addictions.
Reverend Scott Leiker, M.Ed
San Francisco, CA