Q: I am a lapsed Ch'an Buddhist and I have recently joined Alcoholics Anonymous. I was wondering how the teachings of Buddhism deal with addiction and craving?
A: I'm happy to hear that you've joined AA. This will be very helpful to you.
From a Buddhist perspective one can say that the dynamics of suffering are very similar to the dynamics of substance addiction. As a former Ch'an practitioner you know that suffering and delusion occur because we insist on seeing everything in terms of the ego-mind, that mind which insists that the so-called "self" is the center of existence and exists as an entity apart from all other phenomena. This insistence is continually reinforced by our thoughts, words and actions and manifests in what we know as "attachment to form." The more we want, the more we try to get; the more we get, the more we want, and so on. Craving then spirals out of control until it comes what can be accurately described as full-blown addiction; addiction to power, addiction to prestige, addiction to alcohol, addiction to drugs, addiction to sex, etc.
In order to get beyond this dynamic of suffering and ignorance we must discipline ourselves in order to gain calmness and insight. Meditative practice (Ch'an) and the vow to engage in enlightened behavior (Precepts) are crucial if we are to get beyond our cravings. The Buddha's first teaching was the fact that suffering exists in life and that this suffering is caused by our habituated craving, grasping and desire, and that it is possible to end this suffering by disciplining our thoughts, words and actions (Noble Eightfold Path).
The basis of craving is the mind itself, and unless the mind can be calmed and disciplined we are subject to the same habituated modes of thought that have caused us so much suffering in lifetime after lifetime. As a former Ch'an practitioner you know that by practicing with great energy and having great faith in your True Nature, it is possible to let go of the shackles that bind us to conditioned existence and to actualize who we really are.
I hope you will consider returning to your practice roots as an adjunct to your current course of alcoholism treatment.