Dharma Punk Noah Levine comes home to Santa Cruz to celebrate his new book on the Buddha’s radical teachings
Twenty-five years ago you could’ve run into Noah Levine leaving your house or apartment with your stereo or jewelry tucked under his arm, stolen to trade or sell for crack cocaine. These days you’ll bump into him sitting on a meditation cushion, practicing and teaching compassion and loving kindness. To say that he’s come a long way might be an understatement. Though he claims to lack ambition, Noah’s third book has just been released; “The Heart of The Revolution: The Buddha’s Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion and Kindness” (HarperOne, 2011). This follows up on “Dharma Punx” and “Against The Stream.” Noah will return home to Santa Cruz for a free book event on Saturday, April 30 at Bookshop Santa Cruz at 7:30 p.m. GT recently spoke with the original punk rock Buddhist about ending suffering, giving up control and being a parent.
Good Times: In “The Heart of The Revolution” you write that there are two dead ends in trying to deal with suffering: worldliness and religion.
Noah Levine: I feel pretty clear that The Buddha, was trying not to create a religion. He was trying to offer some practical tools. The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path are a way to live; not a religion, a faith, and not a devotional practice. Just some practical guidelines of how to live our lives if we wish to be happy, if we wish to end the extra suffering that is possible to end. Over the past couple thousand years that message has turned from a pragmatic philosophy into a major world religion that has many of the same problems that all world religions have.
One dead end is seeking happiness from blindly following a religious tradition and not critically analyzing it or using discernment. Likewise, Buddha said that looking for happiness in material things—pleasure, accumulation and successes—as a source of happiness is also a set up for disappointment.
You’ve written that some contemporary Buddhist teachers are not conveying what the Buddha taught.
Just like Christianity; you have what Jesus Christ actually said and then you have The Pope! (Laughter.) It just gets so far from the message of the founder. A lot of Buddhism is very far away from the message of the founder.
I’m exploring the ways that movements and philosophies evolve away from the original message, even in opposition to the original. One realm I’m considering is punk rock. It was a movement of being free and then some punk ended up being restricted. You’re touching on this evolution in terms of Buddhism.
There is a great parallel there with punk. The origins of punk were actually a major label, big business movement. But pretty quickly there was a revisionist movement within the punk scene that was based in ‘let’s do this ourselves.’ Let’s reject the big business model and start our own record labels. There is a lot of that in Buddhism, too. There is the original and then there are the revisionists that say, “This is what the Buddha really meant.” We love to re-interpret things and make them fit what we want. Religion is probably more guilty of doing that than anything in this world.
I wonder how Buddhist practice and punk rock are influencing your parenting?
I easily see how Buddhist practice influences my parenting. My love of punk; I don’t see as many parallels other than a tendency toward a rejection of mainstream media. I think it’s too soon, with my daughter being two-and-a-half, to see how those influences are going to play out. Although, she loves The Ramones.
Buddhism deeply affects how I am as a person, therefore how I am as a parent. The practice of mindfulness gives me the ability to be present, patient and tolerant with my daughter when things are difficult.
There is a very interesting balance in parenting and in a marriage; to find a way to be connected and present without trying to control. Being connected is very different than being attached. Attached has a need to control the outcome of what is happening. Connection is just being with what is.
My sense is that so much violence results from trying to control others. In fact, we’re taught that the way to happiness is to get other people to do what we want. Tell me more about giving up control.
Non-attachment and non-controlling doesn’t mean detachment or non-involvement. You might still be politically active but you don’t need the oppression or injustice to go away in order to be happy or at ease. So, we’re no longer placing our well-being at the will of circumstances that are outside of our control, but still being fully engaged with positive change.
Sometimes people hear, “I don’t have control” and they turn it into a nihilistic attitude, “I won’t try anymore, because it’s hopeless.” What I’m saying is to dedicate our whole life to compassionate action. But understand that our action is not going to change others! (Laughter.) It may influence or inspire them, but it doesn’t have a magic ability to get inside and free them from ignorance or confusion.
you’re now the author of three books and a prominent teacher of Buddhism. How’s all of that going?
I feel great. Everything has unfolded in a very organic way. From the outside, I may look ambitious! Writing three books by the time I’m 40 years old, teaching and traveling all over the place. But it doesn’t feel from the inside like I have a lot of ambition; it feels very organic.
It’s always wonderful to come back to Santa Cruz and see people I’ve known my whole life. I’ve been living in Los Angeles the last six years and have two meditation centers called Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. I’m mentoring dozens of people to take on the role of facilitating meditation classes. In Santa Cruz, I mentored Jason Murphy who runs a weekly class at Vipassana Santa Cruz he calls “Rebel Dharma.” We now have over 20 affiliated meditation groups around the country, Canada and Europe.
What began as my own commitment to meditation and little meditation groups in my living room in Santa Cruz 13 years ago, has grown organically into this international movement within Buddhism with kind of an alternative to the mainstream of Buddhist offerings. It is maybe a more punk Buddhism!
One of the things I’ve been creating is a Buddhist approach to treating drug addiction and alcoholism. The 12 step program is a very theistic and Judeo-Christian-based approach. The next few years of my life feel dedicated to creating alternatives to the 12 steps and creating a more Buddhist approach to recovery.
In the past you’ve mentioned anarchy as a way that resonates for you. I wonder if this still seems valuable?
It’s something I’m struggling with right now. With these meditation groups I’ve had this anarchist, do it yourself model. People have come to me and said, “We want to start a group,” and I’ve said, “Go ahead.” And now I’m starting to get some pressure from others and myself to take more responsibility and have some quality control. If someone goes to a Dharma Punx meditation group I want to make sure they’re getting a good presentation. But there’s that piece of control [that] rubs up against my anarchist leanings which is: I don’t want to tell anybody else what to do.
Join Jason Murphy for meditation at the Dharma Punx affiliated group Rebel Dharma Sundays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Vipassana Santa Cruz, 1010 Fair Ave. For more about Noah Levine, visit againstthestream.org and dharmapunx.com.