Sarpashana Sourcebook

Chapter headings:

  • A Forward by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
  • Introduction
  • From the Wheel of Sharp Weapons
  • Body
    • The physical effects of ethyl alcohol
    • General classification of traditional addictive patterns
    • Stages of alcoholism
    • The phases of alcohol addiction (and chart)
    • A theory of brain chemistry and alcoholism
    • Thirty questions for adults
    • Fifteen questions for the female drinker
    • Early recognition of the “building up to drink” syndrome
  • Speech
    • The drinkers
    • The counselors
    • The recovering alcoholics
    • The co-alcoholics
    • Interview with Ane Tsultrim Palmo
  • Mind
    • How it works
    • The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
    • From a conversation with an AA sponsor
    • Comfort (a poem by Malcolm Lowry)
    • Surrender and recovery
    • Gregory Bateson on alcoholic pride
    • Stopping wine (a poem by T’ao Ch’ien)
    • From The Essence of the Nyingma Teachings
    • The slogans of Atisha
    • Remembering the present moment
    • Alcoholism and meditation: cutting through addictive patterns
    • The Buddhist alcohol map
    • Without the Nighted Wyvern (a poem by Malcolm Lowry)
    • From Stanzas for a Novice Monk
    • Conscious drinking and the seat of Maitri
    • Not drinking as practice
    • From our ubiquitous friend
    • Alcoholism and recovery: unmasking the process of ego
    • Boy with a problem (a song by C.Difford and E.Costello)
    • Prologomena to word processing
    • On alcoholism and Buddhist practice
    • Phenomenal world abuse and the middle way
    • Modern attitudes toward alcoholism with a special emphasis on the female alcoholic
    • A guide for the family of the alcoholic
    • Adult children of alcoholics
    • The family trap
    • Sane drinking and the care of your friend

Selected excerpts:

Examples of where Buddhists can be unhelpful:

“In my twenties, I was a very controlled, sober person. In grad school, friends would invite me to drink to loosen me up. It worked. Five years later I quit because my lover said that I was ruining our relationship. After three years of sobriety, a teacher/friend said to me that I should be able to pick up alcohol and put it down. No attachment. Since I didn’t understand alcoholism, I took her advice and started drinking again. At that time I didn’t know that alcoholism is a progressive disease. By the time I quit the second time, I was aware of addiction, and I was much more of a wreck, physically and emotionally.” (p. 52)

“By ’73 I was way over my head again in the booze. Then, between ’73 and ’77, I really struggled with it. I didn’t go back to AA. I was really involved with Buddhism, and AA hardly crossed my mind. Not only did I get no support from Buddhists, but they thought there was something wrong with me for not drinking. So I was very confused. I knew that my drinking was very devastating. I think people thought it was disgusting that one of their friends could be an alcoholic. That wasn’t an idea that people could entertain. Not to mention the old, “Come on! You’re in the vajrayana now! You can drink!”. So I drank and drank and drank.” (p. 86)

An example of where AA/Al-Anon can be unhelpful:

“The last point we wanted to mention was that it seems difficult for Buddhists to relate to the apparent theism of the Al-Anon program. I was in so much pain that I was compelled to bust through the translation from program jargon to Buddhist buzz words, so it worked for me. But I’ve seen a dozen Buddhists come into Al-Anon and drop out because they can’t relate to terms like “higher power”, or “God-as-you-understand-him.” (p. 101)

A quote on the integration of AA and Buddhism:

“The mahayana aspect of sobriety-as-path, corresponding to the AA Twelfth Step, is the vow to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. For the recovering alcoholic this means, in particular, working for others suffering from similar addictive problems. This is a highly potent practice which also possesses its inherent medicine, or healing power. This healing power derives from the continuous abdication of ego-bases in order to reach out, experience, and exchange oneself for others. This activity may be related to vipassyana or insight/awareness practice. It involves continuous readiness for the spontaneous arisings of prajna (insight) and the sharpening of upaya (skillful action).”
“The spirituality of the path of sobriety cannot be overestimated. Sincerely and genuinely practiced, sobriety for the AA practitioner involves a continuous cutting of ego-arrogance through heeding the call of a higher power. For the Buddhist practitioner, higher power might be shamatha/vipassyana practice, the teacher, the blessings of the lineage, all of the above or innumerable reference points that the buddhadharma provides for remembering the qualities of awakened mind. In any case, the pith instruction for both AA and Buddhist practitioners is the continuous cutting of arrogance and aggression, the practice of simplicity and humility, and the negation of allegiance to the ego by working for others.” (p. 152)

Copyright note: According to the website information on this title (at the point where it can be downloaded), “The Sarpashana Sourcebook is now officially ‘copyleft’ which means that it may be reproduced by anyone as long as its content remains unchanged.”

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Reviews posted:

Paul –

The Sarpashana Sourcebook is an eclectic collection of essays on addiction covering a wide range of perspectives: scientific, psychoanalytic, Buddhist, AA, and Al Anon. It has presumably been prepared in the hope of providing a general orientation for those new to recovery and Buddhism. There are interviews and a few essays that attempt to specifically examine Buddhist practice in the context of recovery. The name ‘Sarpashana’ given to this Buddhist Alcohol Study Group (pronounced Sar-pa-sha-na) is Sanskrit and means ‘poison eater’. The symbol for the group is the peacock because of the ancient Hindu story describing how the peacock derives its brilliant plumage from the consumption of poison (‘poison’ is defined here to mean the disease of alcoholism or any other addictive tendency). I have no doubt that this collection will be of benefit to many people. The thing that surprised me was the difficulties that had arisen among many contributors over the issue of their ‘attachment’ to alcohol. It appears that some well meaning Buddhist masters were creating havoc in these communities by arguing that ideally one should be able to take or leave alcohol – “no attachment”. They advocated this irrespective of whether or not one considered oneself alcoholic. This view is at odds with modern medical opinion and the collective learning of AA, and as such strikes me as dangerous. It also became clear to me reading the collection that some people have a far more liberal interpretation of the fifth lay precept than mine. Both of these issues led to my alienation from some passages. The editorial approach taken to the collection is democratic and non-judgemental. It provides a number of contradictory perspectives. This approach is admirable, but when many contributors seem ignorant of the nature of alcoholism, and current medical thinking on the topic, it meant that for me, inspiring passages were few and far between. Probably the unique gift this collection bestows on us, is clear evidence of how damaging naïve Buddhism can be to those in recovery, while at the same time being honest enough to mention how big a turn off AA can be to some Buddhists (with its God- driven language). An integration of Buddhism and AA is needed for some of us, and this integration must be undertaken with wisdom and a deep respect for both traditions. Note that I purchased a hard copy online, and some of the graphs and charts referred to in the text didn’t appear to have been included.

Michael –

The Sarpashana Sourcebook is indeed an eclectic mix, providing a number of at length interviews with both alcoholics and counselors within the Shambhala Buddhist community who assembled it, as well as numerous essays and writings from a wide variety of sources with various takes on addiction. I do enjoy their choice of name in Sarpashana, and Paul has already spoken of its meaning in the symbolism of the peacock transmuting the power of poison (peacocks eat snakes) into the beauty of its plumage. Meaningful indeed. Through the original Buddhist Alcohol Study Group which took on this name, it’s indeed pleasing to see that a number of Shambhala Centres now seem to offer such Buddhist Recovery groups an opportunity to meet. Shambhala is a network of meditation centres founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, providing secular training and instruction in Tibetan Buddhism.
These are very divergent and often even conflicting opinions in the Sourcebook, but I too feel that its been done in a very open, democratic and non-judgemental way. People are able to take what personally resonates with them, and leave the rest aside. Although there was more than enough here that did strongly resonate with me, there were also a number of areas which also greatly challenged (never necessarily a bad thing) and indeed in some cases worried me. For this reason I would indeed be reluctant to recommend this as a resource to any newcomer to recovery, but have no hesitation in suggesting it to those further along the path who are able to better make informed judgements for themselves. I feel there are some gems here, if one is willing to look.