Step Two: the Dalai Lama as Higher Power

In Step two of the 12 Steps of recovery, we’re asked to Come to Believe that a Power Greater than Ourselves Could Restore Us to Sanity. What 12-Steppers tell you in the beginning is that you can choose your own concept of what that Higher Power is, as long as you choose something. That said, one big criticism of 12-Step programs is that even though they say you can choose your own HP, they really mean God when they say God. The subtext: if you don’t believe in God, you’re not going to make it. And if you argue about it, you’re not willing. And you have to be willing to make it. And if you don’t believe now, you’ll come around eventually. This leaves some people feeling like they can’t do 12-Step recovery.

The book, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions from AA says, “The minute I stopped arguing, I began to see and feel.” We call this “becoming teachable,” which is a necessary part of accepting help. But it doesn’t mean that we should become some kind of blind-idiot-conformist-follower. That’s why I like Buddhism–it’s based more on method than blind faith. More on that later. Continuing, “AA’s tread innumerable paths in their quest for faith. If you don’t care for the one I’ve suggested, you’ll be sure to discover one that suits if only you look and listen. Many a man like you has begun to solve the problem by the method of substitution.” So many of us use substitution.

But deep in our hearts we may still feel like we’re observers in a community that thinks and feels differently than we do about spirituality. About as comfy with “turn it over to the Universe” as an atheist in church, some people don’t believe in any spirituality whatsoever. Others have been traumatized by a puritanical religious upbringing, rife with various forms of religious, emotional and even sexual abuse. Abused kids often become abusive addicts. Brain research shows us that traumatized children are at high risk for addiction–these days sooner than later. Yet the cure, seen through the 12-Step model, seems to be to go back to the problem, namely, trust.

If I was traumatized as a kid and have no ability to trust anyone, let alone a religious body or authority figure due at least in part to that trauma, why the hell would I consider “turning it over” to a Higher Power to treat my addiction? Why indeed. The answer is because we want to end suffering. That suffering can kill us or make us “willing to go to any lengths.” But what I found was that going along with the program, renaming their version of God to a friendlier “Universe” or “Divine Love” or “Positive Thinking” didn’t keep me sober. In fact, it was part of the reason I needed to drink again after a decade of sobriety. Substitution will only get you so far without some serious dedication to spiritual growth.

Zen Buddhism is non-conceptual, non-dualistic and, at least in the school I came up in, non-scriptural. I sat meditating for years looking into what seemed a black hole. Feelings came up and it made me upset. Committed, I continued to “sit through it,” always with the ongoing help of a therapist.

But my relationship to the 12-Step community suffered as I sat in meetings where people professed to know God’s will and seemed to be floundering on surfaces of spirituality that I’d delved deep into–years earlier, and found wanting. So the concept of no concept didn’t work either. I needed something or someone more concrete to practice trust with. I’d later find that in Tibetan Buddhism, but not without a fight. I won’t go into that here as I’ve covered it in detail in 12-Step Buddhist. I’d like to suggest that if you don’t believe in God, use the perfect role model: His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (HHDL).

If belief in a God that you can’t directly see, touch and feel is difficult, why not use a real living spiritual master? One might say, “Buddhism may be interesting, but who was the Buddha anyways and how would his teachings be applicable to our high-tech modern life?” Although the practice of the Dalai Lama as Higher Power may seem esoteric on its face, no one can argue that HHDL is indeed alive and well and highly regarded on the earth right now. With that consideration, it makes sense.

Bob Thurman outlines the many reasons why the Dalai Lama is an important world leader in his book, Why the Dalai Lama Matters. While it’s true that His Holiness is an amazing diplomat and peacekeeper, his significance to me as I know it is for Dr. Thurman, is as a spiritual master. I’ve met Bob Thurman a couple of times and I can tell that he’s spent a lot of time with the Dalai Lama. They both have this kind of glow that is unmistakable. In Tibetan Buddhism we call our number one spiritual master (though we can have more than one) our Root Guru, who is the source of all Dharmas (enlightened teachings). What this means is that we literally see the guru (teacher) as Buddha (Awakened One). This view is really a preliminary practice for eventually seeing all beings –even the nasty ones — as Buddhas and the whole universe as what is called a Pure Land. Through mind training in this way we practice the path whose goal is to end suffering for all living beings. We can’t end suffering so long as we see separation due to political, ideological, territorial and other disputes which have at their origin the attachment of ego.

To that end, we can use our root guru as a sort of Pure Vision of perfected enlightenment. Without going into detail on how to find a root guru and the differences between traditional views of this, my advice is that it’s a no brainer to use HHDL. His behavior is impeccable — although he doesn’t claim to be perfect. Almost without exception he is considered to be the highest teacher in Tibetan Buddhism by all the schools and all their lamas. My own teacher sees HHDL this way. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.

The Dalai Lama is certainly a power greater than myself politically and spiritually. Tibetan lamas can be very accomplished yogis who are extremely adept at very advanced forms of meditation. Yet there are very few lamas who wouldn’t prostrate at the sight of him. Most would cry if he looked their way with his signature benevolent smile that he gives all living beings. Whether one considers him the reincarnation of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan), the Bodhisattva of Compassion or not, he is truly one of the most powerful spiritual figures in world history. Could he qualify to be my HP? Good enough!

How can we apply the concept of HHDL as HP to our recovery in Step Two? Simple. In order to “come to believe,” or if we simply want to be restored to sanity, we can follow the path of this sane and saintly monk. We can read his books, follow his teaching schedule in person or online, listen to his audio teachings on our iPods. Above all, in any situation we can ask ourselves the obvious question: What would the Dalai Lama do?

To use some ideas from Tibetan Buddhist practice, we can also make prayers for his long life. Here’s one:

In the land encircled by snow mountains
You are the source of all happiness and good;
All-powerful Chenrezig, Tenzin Gyatso,
Please remain until samsara ends.

Another practice would be to visualize the Dalai Lama sitting on the top of our heads on a thousand-petal multi colored lotus. He smiles and sends compassionate rays of light down through the middle of our crowns, filling our bodies with healing light. If we want to say the mantra of Chenrezig, OM MANI PADME HUM it can be considered a form of prayer. Although technically mantras of this sort are said to be the actual enlightened speech of enlightened beings and aren’t separate from them, or any living being for that matter.

To take it a step further, one can receive tantric initiations of Chenrezig from qualified lineage lamas–even the Dalai Lama himself. Most if not all of these include some form of Guru Yoga practice in which one practices the principles outlined above, but in a deeper and more systematic manner. For more on guru yoga, please see Step 11 from the 12-Step Buddhist for a method directly applicable to recovery. I would refer more serious students to examine for further study the amazing book, “The Union of Bliss and Emptiness: Teachings on the Practice of Guru Yoga,” by The Dalai Lama. Below is a prayer of praise and request from this book, which one might use in a guru yoga practice.

Vajradhara, source of all realizations, lord of sages;
Avalokiteshvara, great treasure of compassion of non-apprehension
Manjushri, lord of stainless wisdom;
Lord of the secret, destroying all lords of maras;
Sumatakirti, crown jewel of the sages of the land of snows:
To you, guru-buddha, comprising the three objects of refuge,
I make requests, showing respect with my three doors.
Please grant your blessings to ripen and liberate myself and others;
Please bestow the supreme and common realizations.
–page 122. Snow Lion Publications

Whatever you choose, may your practice bring benefit and relief to all who suffer.



  1. dmcb123

    Dalai Lama as Higher Power is a positive addition to 12 step suggestions. If you read ” The Dilemma of No Faith” by Bill Wilson (grapevine April 1961) be clearly demonstrates the spiritual arrogance of many in our fellowship. This humble monk (HH the 14th Dalia Lama) is a true example of love and compassion. He was asked to define Buddhism briefly, he said,” Buddhism at its best is to help others and at its least is to do no harm.” Works for me…David McB.

  2. bodhi

    His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a higher power, interesting. As I was taught “One may use anything as their higher power if it meets these conditions: It is loving, It is more powerful than you.” His Holiness appears to meet these conditions so ….. I guess he works.