cover1
Cover Stories

The World’s First Buddhist Punk Band

Longtime Santa Cruz scenesters unite for perspective-shaking project

If one speaks or acts with a corrupt

Mind, misery will follow, as the wheel

Of a cart follows the foot of the ox …

If one speaks or acts

With a pure mind, happiness will follow.

Like a shadow that never leaves.

— The Buddha Dhammapada

 

As the hot Los Angeles sun beats down from above, Noah Levine takes a sip from an iced tea. He wipes his freshly shaved head and looks around the cafe at the other patrons staring in his direction. The tall, muscular Santa Cruz native definitely commands attention, from his black shades to his colorfully elaborate tattoos that stretch from neck to toe.

He looks like trouble.

Probably no one in the cafe would guess that Levine is the founder of a Buddhist meditation society, Against The Stream. With locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Against The Stream holds daily meditation and dharma education classes from which no one is turned away (donations are accepted to help pay for the space and the teachers, but are not required). It also works in conjunction with his Refuge Recovery rehab program.

“We’re going against greed, hatred and delusion,” says Levine. “And everyone is welcome.”

Levine is best known as the author of 2004’s Dharma Punx, named after the group of friends who would change Levine’s life and bring a radically atypical world view to the punk subculture. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the founding of the Dharma Punx, which they memorialized with a trip to India earlier this year.

More recently, however, Levine has partnered with another Santa Cruz native, Joe Clements—a local punk icon himself, thanks to his ’90s hardcore band Fury 66, which, while it may be remembered everywhere else merely because it shared bandmembers with breakout success story Good Riddance, had a huge impact on the scene at home. Together, the pair have formed the Deathless—the world’s first Buddhist punk band.

 

Wasted Youth

Born and raised in Santa Cruz, Levine spent most of his early years with his mother. His father, Buddhist teacher and author Stephen Levine (who is credited with helping bring Eastern religion and philosophy to the West in the 1960s, along with other notable teachers like Ram Dass) lived in New Mexico, where Noah would visit and spend a short time living. However, even at the tender age of 5 years old, it was apparent Levine was troubled.

“That was also the year I began stealing, at home, at school, and I even used to break into the neighbor’s house when they were away and eat their cookies,” he wrote in Dharma Punx.

A few years later, he was smoking weed, and by age 10, taking magic mushrooms. That was also the year he would discover a lifelong love: punk rock. The raging message of anger and change appealed to his nihilistic side.

“Punk is a critique,” says Levine. “It mostly points out what’s wrong, but there are people in the scene that are active with social and environmental issues.”

cover3 copy

NEVER MIND THE WORLDLY ATTACHMENTS Friends for three decades, Joe Clements (left) and Noah Levin started the Deathless to combine Buddhist philosophy with the punk sound they both love.

During his troubled teenage years, Levine met many like-minded punks who would later become staples in the Santa Cruz scene. People like Clements, with whom he became instant friends.

“Shit, I’ve known Noah for 30 years,” says Clements, who, besides singing in Fury 66 and now the Deathless, is also the founder of Compound Recording Studio. “I know that guy inside and out.”

By the time Levine was 17, he had been in and out of Juvenile Hall enough times to want to make a change. In fact, it was in Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall that he finally decided to listen to the advice of his father and take up meditation.

“Desperation led me to meditating and going to 12-step programs,” he remembers. “It made me realize I am responsible for my own actions and karma, which led me to change the relationship with my mind and body. It was an internal revolution.”

Throughout his 20s, Levine admits that he still struggled with the law, and with quieting the negative thoughts in his head. During that time, he continued the path of the dharma, quickly influencing many of his peers in the community. The Straight Edge punk movement was in full swing and helped him communicate the principles of sober living to friends with whom he formerly got high. In 1996, Levine began holding informal meditation classes in his living room with Clements, Vinny Ferraro and Micah Anderson. Thus the Dharma Punx were born, even if not everyone was ready.

“I’d be so bored I’d start pillow fights, or punch my friends,” says Clements of the early Dharma Punx meetings. “I was still searching for things outside of myself to fix me.”

 

Chakra Rock

All of this begs a reasonable question: How can a youth culture and music movement known for cynicism and anarchy fit with a 2,500-year-old religious philosophy that preaches love, compassion and understanding?

For that answer, it’s best to return to the original Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama.

“He was an anarchist of his time, if you think about it,” explains Clements. “He went against everything [his culture] was saying. Like punk, he wasn’t believing the lies.”

Legend says that when Gautama was born, sages predicted he would either be a great spiritual teacher or warrior king. His royal parents wanted him to ascend to the throne, and lavished him with every luxury available. It wasn’t until his 30s that Gautama learned that the world is filled with suffering—nobody escapes sickness or death—and searched for an alternative path.

“He was an anarchist of his time, if you think about it,” explains Clements. “He went against everything [his culture] was saying. Like punk, he wasn’t believing the lies.”

He renounced his material possessions, and attempted several failed spiritual awakenings with his culture’s leading religions. Legend has it, when he finally meditated for days beneath a Bodhi tree, Gautama realized the only escape from suffering is through detachment, and thus became the Buddha (or “Awakened One”). He would dedicate the rest of his life to teaching students the dharma (“truth”) of life, and that only through their own actions (“karma”) could they find happiness.

“Through mindfulness, you see everything is impermanent,” Levine explains. “Everything changes, and if you cling to things that change, you’ll experience stress and suffering.”

Dave Smith, a student of Levine who now teaches at Against The Stream (ATS) and works as a counselor at the L.A. Refuge Recovery, says Buddhism subverts the dominant view of spirituality.

“Buddhism rejects salvation,” he says. “Not only is external salvation not there, but the idea is a trap. [Buddhism] is about self-awareness. It’s an internal process that doesn’t fit comfortably in the world’s stage of religions.”

 

Beyond 12-Step

While its roots stretch to Levine’s Santa Cruz days, along with his Mind Body Awareness project that brings meditation and Buddhist practice to juvenile halls, his Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society officially began in 2007 after the publishing of Levine’s book of the same name. With daily classes in Los Angeles and San Francisco, ATS boasts 16 different teachers and facilitators in its roster, including original Dharma Punk Vinny Ferraro, who teaches at the San Francisco location.

“Through meditation I’ve learned not to take the mind so personally,” Clements enthusiastically claims. “‘Thoughts are just thoughts.’ I stole that from Vinny, and it’s so true. I can bring them to life, or just let them go.”

June marks the second anniversary of Levine’s latest book, Refuge Recovery, a non-theistic, Buddhist-based sobriety manuscript. After it was published, Levine received so much feedback and so many questions about it that he quickly started the Refuge Recovery program, where patrons seeking sobriety and peace can meet with licensed therapists to work through their addictions. Certain facilities, like the one in L.A., even include nearby housing for patrons who worry they’ll use again without 24-hour support.

The non-12-step program’s message resonated with so many people that there are now more than 200 meetings throughout the United States. Even punk rock celebrities have gone through the program to control their substance abuse, like Fat Mike from NoFX, who recently documented his stay via Instagram.

While it provides an alternative to traditional substance abuse programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Refuge Recovery counselors emphasize they are not in competition with them.

“I try to be an ally for AA,” explains Smith, who also founded the Nashville chapter of Refuge Recovery. “We want people to do both [if they want]. You don’t have to make a choice, whatever works for you.”

“But we step out and say, ‘This will totally work, too,’” emphasizes Levine.

 

Bodhichitta Bop

In Levine and Clements’ view, combining Buddhist philosophy with a counterculture movement that rejects its dominant paradigm makes perfect sense. So perhaps it was inevitable that they would come up with the idea to combine their love for punk with their spiritual path, as they did at an Esalen Buddhist retreat in 2014.

cover2

RISE AGAINST Levine’s Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society began in 2007, and now holds daily classes in both San Francisco and L.A.

“We had been talking about our favorite Krishnacore bands like 108 and Shelter,” Levine recalls. “And Joe said ‘Let’s do a Buddhist band.’”

“Noah said, ‘Fuck yeah, but I can’t sing and I don’t play anything,’” says Clements. “So I told him I’d do it, and he just needed to write the lyrics.”

After throwing around a few other Buddhist concepts for a name, they christened the new project the Deathless.

“It points to that part of you that becomes enlightened and stops the process of rebirth and reincarnation,” Levine says of the name. “Plus, it’s punk rock.”

Clements soon recruited Felix Lozano on guitar, Cory Atkinson on bass and Robert Scobie on drums. Each musician was a prominent member of the local punk community, with Lozano and Atkinson both from the infamous Watsonville band Los Dryheavers, and Scobie from Abhorrence. All had known Clements or Levine for years, recording at the Compound or releasing music through Clements’ label Lorelei Records.

“I was a big fan of Fury 66. Joe and Mickey [Dunegan] were great with the kids and made us feel a part [of the show],” remembers Lozano. “And I say ‘kids’ because that’s what we were!”

Atkinson immediately had a good feeling about the new project.

“It sounded like what I was looking for,” he says. “Get together with friends to play music and maybe a couple of shows.”

In September of 2015, the band released their debut EP, The Gates to the Deathless are Open, on local label Chapter 11 Records. The six-song CD (or seven-inch vinyl record) is an onslaught of brutal ’80s hardcore—complete with gang vocals, heavy beats and buzzsaw guitar riffs—set to insightful lyrics like “Be right, right now” and “We’re all perfect in our imperfections.” On a more personal track, “1985,” Levine and Clements recall their meeting and personal struggles with drugs and alcohol growing up. The EP ends with a spoken word teaching by Levine set to background music by the band.

“Punk has always been against the norm,” explains Clements. “We can be the change, but it starts from within. It begins with a change in our heart and mind, then has a ripple effect. That’s what punk has always talked about.”

Though the band is guided by Buddhist principles, actually being a Buddhist isn’t a requirement for playing in the Deathless.

“I’m not really into dharma,” Atkinson admits. “But things like ‘be a good person’ and ‘don’t over consume’ are good ideas I wish everyone shared.”

“And learning to just let go,” adds Lozano. “Let go of whatever routine you’re used to and whatever comes of it, comes of it. Enjoy life.”

With a second guitarist, Matt Spady, recently added to the lineup, the band plans to hit the studio in July to record their new EP, this time a split with Oxnard punks Stop Breathing. While they have no current plans to tour, the Deathless will be playing the Second Annual Refuge Recovery Conference Party at the Against The Stream meditation center in Los Angeles on June 25.

“We’re talking about doing more shows in Dharma centers, but nothing is planned,” Levine says.

 

I Wanna Be Elated

This year has been bittersweet for Levine. Recently divorced, his spiritual teacher and father Stephen Levine passed away in January. Stephen authored dozens of books in his life—many on the acceptance of death and dying—including bestsellers A Gradual Awakening and A Year To Live: How To Live This Year As If It Were Your Last. In his last conversation with his father, Levine told him, “Dad, I love you so much. I appreciate you and thank you for everything,” concluding with, “Safe travels.”

“He was a teacher, father and mentor … but I grew up normalizing death and dying and impermanence,” Levine says. “So in a way, he prepared me my whole life for his death.”

But this year has also brought elation, closer friendships and new memories. In March, the original Dharma Punx decided to travel to India to mark their double decade anniversary. For Levine, Ferraro and Anderson, it also marked a symbolic return to their past as all three previously traveled to India for the first time in the 1990s, as documented in Dharma Punx. For Clements, this was his first trip, and one not easily forgotten.

“I went with an open mind and an open heart,” he exclaims. “ It was awesome and way too short.”

The four traveled together for two weeks, visiting places like New Delhi and Varanasi, along the Ganges River. The latter is home to some of Hinduism’s holiest sites, such as the Manikarnika Ghat and Harishchandra Ghat, where modern-day practitioners still cremate their dead. Down the river, many of Varanasi’s impoverished search the water for jewelry or gold teeth.

“We watched the gas fire and a funeral where they burned the bodies,” Clements says solemnly. “It was pretty intense.”

“There’s a dichotomy between Eastern and Western cultures,” says Levine. “Here I am in my $50-shoes, and that’s more than some of the people I’m talking to make in a month.”

It’s introspective moments like these that reminded the old friends why they were there, through a 20-year lens of awakening.

“It was an awesome chance to hang out with my friends and talk about our journeys,” Clements concludes.

“[This trip] was much more about spending time with my friends,” agrees Levine. “It was definitely a reflective time.”

It’s obvious that friendship and community are important factors in Levine and Clements’ lives. The Buddhists term it “sangha.” The punks called it a scene.

And it is the core of the Buddha’s teaching that continues to drive Levine to help addicts become sober and inspire in others a more compassionate approach to their world and their own mind.

“It’s only in the here and now that you can choose how you’ll respond to what happens,” Levine teaches. “If you’re mindful, you can choose to meet pain with compassion. It’s the only time you have free will, because it’s the only time you have a choice. The here and now.”

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you an earthling? Prove it with logic: *

To Top