12 & Zen – Where the 12 Steps Meet Zen Koans

12 & Zen – Where the 12 Steps Meet Zen Koans

12 & Zen by Bill Krumbein, Bill Krumbein, author of 12 and Zen, an examination of the 12 steps, zen, zen koans, recovery, and spirituality

A great recovery book by Bill Krumbein. Available at Amazon

Foreward by Jane Derry

Bill Krumbein first made email contact with me in May of 2010. He wrote: “I’m very intrigued how you came about using Zen koans at your recovery center. This is how I found your page, by typing in ‘koan’ and ‘recovery’.” Bill told me about the Pacific Zen Institute, his connection with it, and their plans for implementing a combination of the 12 Steps and Zen. He also was curious about my own connection with Zen koans, and how they were used at our center.

1997 found me in the very early stages of a new way of life, following a sincere and passionate desire to improve my conscious contact with ‘God’. I was working on my understanding of Him/Her/It or Them by pursuing a degree in Religious Studies, and came across a tattered, falling apart copy of the 1957 book Zen Flesh Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. Careful with the loose pages, I read them over and over. I was intrigued by how koans are sparse, short, and clean, with nothing superfluous, like a Haiku or 12 Step slogan. 10 years later, when I found myself as the Spiritual Counsellor/Facilitator at our own addiction recovery treatment center I began using the koans with our guests as a vehicle to demonstrate the lack of a linear, common sense answer to spirituality. Recovery and Zen are very similar. They make no logical sense. You have to let go to hang on, surrender to win, and die to live.

Bill has written this book out of his passion for koans and the 12 steps. In recovery one of the first things we learn is that we cannot keep what we have unless we give it away, and Bill is very generous. You may or may not be in recovery, and you may or may not have any experience with Zen, or with koans. But if you find yourself with this book in your hands, maybe 12 and Zen is the teacher that has appeared for you. 12 and Zen is fun, challenging, easy to read and may cause great upheaval when and where you least expect it. The relationship between the 12 Steps and Zen koans can be a very healthy one, based on respect, vulnerability and mutuality. This marriage of Western and Eastern spiritual traditions may be very prolific. Illustrated with Bill’s own keen Zen photos, the entire book reminds us to stop, ponder, and renew our commitment to the study of what is called in AA, the Language of the Heart. Koans are written in that same code, deciphered only when the mind is not invited, actually excluded from the party.

By connecting one koan to each of the 12 Steps, Bill has created a framework for community to share in the koan/step experience. The book can be used by an individual, but there is a greater opportunity here for a meeting of hearts to share the adventure. Wherever two or more are gathered, we see that ‘we’ can do what ‘I’ cannot. The book also becomes a structured guide for facilitators and leaders of small groups. There is something especially appealing about these combinations, ancient and contemporary, that have no right or wrong answer. They should be approached with curiosity and even better, bewilderment.

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the koans of Zen have been infiltrating my own life and journey for some 15 years now. Bill, on his own unique path, has generously shared this marriage of 12 and Zen through his work with individuals, through his blog and through his small groups at Pacific Zen Institute for several years. Having an opportunity to be a part of Bill’s gift to the world is an honour. These are some amazing peach blossoms (see Step 12), and I encourage you to go ahead and meet the teacher.

Jane Derry, Serenity Vista Addiction Recovery Retreat and Treatment, Boquete, Panama

Bill Krumbein, author of 12 and Zen, an examination of the 12 steps, zen, zen koans, recovery, and spirituality

Bill Krumbein


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