Buddhism’s Young Turks

Review of books by young, rebellious Buddhists.

Marcia Nelson
1 September 2007

Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries
By Noah Levine
Harper SanFrancisco, 2007; 192 pp.; $13.95 (paper)

One City: A Declaration of Interdependence
By Ethan Nichtern
Wisdom Publications, 2007; 224 pp.; $15.95 (paper)

Sit Down and Shut Up: Punk Rock Commentaries on Buddha, God, Truth, Sex, Death, and Dogen’s Treasury of the Right Eye
By Brad Warner
New World Library, 2007; 256 pp.; $14.95 (paper)

A recent survey of 231 Buddhist centers in America found that most of their members are 48 or older.* But a new cadre of Buddhist teachers is on the rise, and it includes children of the first-wave Buddhists who came to the dharma in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these younger Buddhists came to the dharma kicking and screaming, like Noah Levine (son of Buddhist teacher Stephen Levine), who was a 17-year-old junkie in jail when he first began meditating. Ethan Nichtern was repelled by the ex-hippie practices of his Buddhist parents but writes in One City, his first book, that “like most well-intentioned rebellions, mine failed miserably.” The old man of this group, at age 43, Brad Warner came to Buddhism by way of 1980s punk rock rather than through his parents, but his punk lineage certainly qualifies him as a rebel against what went before.

These three constitute a cross-section of the varieties of Buddhism now transplanted in the West that have yielded homegrown practitioners who don’t have gray hair (at least, the ones who have hair). A student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Nichtern belongs to the Tibetan tradition. Levine has been taught by many of the major Insight Meditation teachers. Warner is a Zen priest.

So what does Buddhism look like with this turning of the wheel? One striking characteristic all three authors share is a deep engagement with popular culture. Forget monastic time-outs; this is high-def Buddhism on city sidewalks. Warner’s book is especially media drenched and marked by cultural references. From the indie band Flaming Lips to Doc Martens shoes, Warner draws on music, movies, TV, celebrities, food and drink, and books. This isn’t surprising, coming from an author who has a day job working for the company that put Japanese monster movies on the pop-culture map. It’s the more striking, then, that he mixes up these contemporary bits with a big hit of tradition. The thirteenth-century Japanese teacher Dogen and his influential work Shobogenzo are the real reason behind Sit Down and Shut Up. Having worked in Japan—a long way from his native Ohio—Warner knows Japanese and isn’t afraid to use it. He is intent on rendering in unvarnished twenty-first-century idiom Dogen’s insights, drawn from a time “when all Japan looked like the sets in The Last Samurai.”

Like Warner, Nichtern is immersed in the specifics of everyday life, from T-shirts to falafels. He opens One City with a day-in-the-life prologue, a litany of how many countries and lives he touches during a typical day by way of products and people—food, clothes, the sights in a busy Manhattan streetscape. Each person and object is an occasion to glimpse interdependence, the clarion theme of Nichtern’s book.

The culture Levine rebelled against was more central to the story he told in his 2003 memoir, Dharma Punx. In Against the Stream, his second book, Levine comes across as comparatively staid. What’s left from his hell-raiser days, though, is fierce punk energy, expressed in this book’s no-wimps-need-apply subtitle. Buddhism, Levine says, is socially and spiritually revolutionary. He calls Buddha the “original rebel” who saw through the status quo of suffering and delusion. Things haven’t changed much since then. Levine writes, “Our classist, sexist, and racist culture is quite similar to the ancient Indian society that the Buddha was born into.”

Levine, Warner, and Nichtern all see Buddhism as a rebuke to “the system,” an alternative approach that goes against the stream. Yet it’s not a countercultural alternative. All these teachers scorn utopian vision and none is terribly concerned with big-E enlightenment, except as a way of doing things rather than a way of understanding things. Freedom is hot; nirvana is not.

All this pop-cultural engagement and brand-name detail makes the focus of these teachers nonconceptual and day-to-day. They each have a lot to say about common activities: stress management, money, entertainment, and work. Sex is also an important topic, and Levine and Warner discuss at length the Buddhist precept barring sexual misconduct. Levine recommends that serious students of Buddhism observe prolonged periods of celibacy—uncommon cultural advice these days. Celibacy, he says, is a credible choice for a lay practitioner.

All life, these three say, is practice at the nitty-gritty level. Life involves seeing through—“defy the lies,” Levine advises—and choosing wisely. “Moment by moment, we are each voting with our minds,” writes Nichtern. “The actual practice of interdependence involves making specific choices throughout the day.” He lists three post-meditation practices intended to heighten awareness during the course of the day, including picking up somebody else’s garbage. The youngest of this group, at age 29, Nichtern is keenly aware of the consumer wallpaper of our everyday lives. For him, the myriad “stuff” that surrounds us presents so many occasions to realize what he calls “the real Internet”—the coffee from Central America poured in the French-press coffeepot that makes coffee out of water from Upstate New York reservoirs that is poured into the mug from China that sits on the table built in the Philippines. That is seeing things as they are, with ties to everywhere in the world through a long chain of cause and effect. We may be awash in the materialism that feeds desire, says Nichtern, but interdependence makes the planet one city.

None of these books is principally about meditation practice, although each author views it as essential. “Meditation is a requirement and a necessity for spiritual revolutionaries,” writes Levine, “but we are not meditating merely to become good at meditation.” Meditation is disciplined training, he says, so do it often and do it right. As a Zen practitioner, Warner is especially picky about the details of form. Meditation chairs are crap, he says bluntly. “When it comes to zazen, I’m pretty conservative,” he writes. “Proper posture is an absolute requirement of zazen practice.” Nichtern offers simple meditation instructions in an appendix to his book, and Levine compiles guidelines for practitioners who become progressively more committed to the Buddhist path.

Even if these young authors are blunt and irreverent, they’re in the company of other Buddhist teachers who have been crazy-wise or wacky-Zen. This is still serious Buddhism that calls for lots of right effort. Put in the time on the cushion, they say. Meditation requires the frank acknowledgement that thinking can be maddeningly persistent, and that many sentient beings in need of compassion can be “annoying, unskillful, violent, confused, and unkind,” as Levine puts it. So, practice some more.

The transformed and transforming life these teachers talk about puts a premium on nonviolence that flows from right seeing. Each presents a realistic discussion of anger, a topic made all the more interesting by Levine’s and Warner’s punk roots. The righteous anger many claim motivates an intention to bring abut positive change is a trick of the ego and ultimately a source of suffering, says Warner. His koan-like advice is to kill your anger. But Warner doesn’t say it’s easy, and his lengthy discussion of the subject suggests he’s given the matter thought and effort. “With practice this stuff gets easier,” he writes. “But you’ll never completely lose your desire to get mad at things.” Levine sees anger as a habitual mental reaction that can be transformed by meditation and service. He observes that much difficulty and confusion in life is impersonal, and so reflexive anger is neither justified nor skillful. A friend of Nichtern’s quit his job at Starbucks because people kvetched too often about the imperfections of their lattés. Latté suffering is petty, he says, but it’s also the basis for understanding the discomfort that triggers anger. Anger is easier to work with when it’s understood in the context of interdependence, says Nichtern, because it’s an occasion to examine who is angry instead of the object of anger.

“Kill the Buddha” continues to be appealing advice, and as far as these teachers are concerned, it might be wise to retire the term “master.” Levine is a little phobic about teachers and warns us to beware of them, echoing the Buddha’s guidance to be your own light. Warner mockingly concludes his book with a chapter titled “Ultimate Truth,” in which he makes it clear that Ultimate Truth isn’t in Sit Down and Shut Up. Likewise, Nichtern says One City isn’t a definitive handbook. “Develop your own insight,” he says.

If there’s one concluding observation to make regarding the next generation of Buddhist teachers, it’s the absence of women’s voices. Although Sumi Loundon’s Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists rounded up younger practitioners of both genders, young female teachers have yet to develop a high profile. This is ironic, given that a distinguishing characteristic of Western Buddhism is gender egalitarianism. So while plenty of first-generation Western female teachers have influenced students and made their mark on contemporary practice, on the matter of second-generation female Buddhist teachers, you’ll have to stay tuned.

* See “Variety in the Sangha: A Survey of Buddhist Organizations in America” by Buster G. Smith, Baylor University, March 2007.