Dharma Punx

Buddhism is famed for its ability to adapt its universal truths to the concerns of new cultures. So it must be with new generations.

David Swick
1 May 2010


Buddhism is famed for its ability to adapt its universal truths to the concerns and styles of new cultures. So it must be with new generations. David Swick reports from New York.

The lingerie store window features three mannequins, shiny black leather, and strings of pink binding wire. Bondage fits this gritty New York City neighborhood. The Bowery is notorious: the poor, the addicted, and the insane have long called it home. So have the artistic young, drawn by cheap rent and the marginal vibe. It’s a place where many turns have been taken in the pursuit of happiness, with little relief from suffering.

Open the door beside the lingerie store, and walk up two flights of stairs. Push through a heavy door with three locks, squeeze past a shelf packed with yoga mats, and you enter a large room with a gleaming hardwood floor. Every Tuesday and Thursday night close to a hundred people come here to sit together in silence.

If you are a longtime meditator this space will feel familiar, until it doesn’t. Take a good look around. Inspirational features include a small statue of the Buddha with his hair in a mohawk. There is a painting of a heart draped with the name Dharma Punx. Eighty percent of the crowd is under thirty-five, and many are in their early twenties. In the back of the room, before the sitting begins, one young couple is necking. This is not their parents’ meditation hall.

Which is to say it’s not a “normal” meditation hall for the first wave of North American-born meditation practitioners. I’m talking about m-m-my generation, which turned away from a narrow mainstream culture based on capitalism, amusement, and fear to explore the dharma. Now middle-aged and older, we are gaining intimate awareness of the first noble truth as our parents and a few peers die. Death is coming into focus, moving from something vague and hypothetical, to reasonable possibility, to inevitable reality. The world will go on without us, but what kind of world will it be? And so we look at the evolving mandala, and especially at new and unexpected tangents of the teachings and practices, with concern.

Questions arise. Which practices are good? Which speech is true? Is the dharma in safe hands?

Noah Levine is counting his Buddhist tattoos. “One, two, three, four, five, six…” To find them all he has to look from his ankles to neck, and it’s hard to see your neck. “Fifteen to twenty different Buddhist images,” he finally says, and giggles.

This is a surprise. Like most people my age I grew up believing that tattoos were the mark of pirates, convicts, and potential juvenile delinquents. You rarely saw tattoos outside pool halls and the bleakest bars. Yet Levine’s chuckle is lovely and light. I have never before heard a tattooed man giggle.

A large sitting Buddha on his stomach. A standing Buddha on his right forearm. The eye of the bodhisattva on the palm of each hand. And Levine’s whole back is a Buddhist wheel of existence he describes as “a sort of Tibetan iconography, with a punk rock reinterpretation.”

The tattoos, while distinctive, can distract from what is more interesting: the evolution of Levine’s mind. As a teenager Levine was the kid you warned your kids about. Angry and sad, he became hurtful and violent, racking up felony charges as a crack addict stealing from family, friends, and strangers. Bottom was hit before the age of twenty, with the leather-clad punk weeping in the hard, cold emptiness of prison. That’s where he finally decided to try the meditation “hippie bullshit” practiced by his father, the renowned author of books about death and dying, Stephen Levine.

That was almost twenty years ago. Today Noah Levine, at thirty-eight, is one of the most prominent American Buddhists of his generation. His embarrassment at turning to meditation changed when it worked; he became less angry and more able to take an honest look at himself and the source of his misery. He spent years asking forgiveness of everyone he had hurt, paying off everyone he had ripped off, and stayed clean of drugs. He became a serious dharma student and meditator, devouring dharma books, and began working under the guidance of renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. It was while attending a talk by the Dalai Lama that Levine realized he, too, would become a dharma teacher.

Except he would not talk to the same audience as his father. He would talk to his own people: punks and toughs and angry youth, people who might not find the dharma in its more conventional forms. Levine spent years traveling and teaching, tuning his message to suit his dejected subculture. Many of his fellow travelers were attracted by his 2003 memoir, Dharma Punx, a compelling account of his terrifying-turned-insightful youth. The book is honest and aggressive, self-important and naive. Dharma Punx resonates, Levine says, with the kind of people who are attracted rather than turned off by tattoos.

In many cities where he has given talks, and in some he has not, people have asked to set up Dharma Punx sitting groups, and usually Levine says yes. Together they form what he calls a “loose” community, a new offshoot of Theravadan Buddhism. There are about twenty groups in all, anchored by three main ones. Above the lingerie store in New York, in a space local legend holds was once Keith Richards’ apartment, is the Rebel Saint Buddhist Meditation Center, managed by Josh Korda. In San Francisco the Urban Dharma meditation group is run by Levine’s second-in-command, Vinny Ferraro. And the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society headquarters is in Los Angeles, where Levine, newly married and with a baby daughter, now lives. Together the centers have taught thousands of people to meditate.

The high-profile teachers—Levine, Ferraro, and Korda—are striking to look at, bald and heavily tattooed. Levine and the teachers he trains tell everyone who comes to their centers that meditation is essential, because it can show you the roots of your troubles. Drugs and alcohol only do damage, and do not help.

Punk rock, however, is regularly referenced and loudly praised. The music is angry, powerful, and often articulate. It focuses on the unsatisfactory nature of existence, on how society’s promises of success will not make you happy. “Punk rock,” Levine says, “is the voice of the first noble truth.”

Word is being passed by email and text-messaging, on Facebook and blogs. The word is: Dharma Punx helps. The teachers are not staid and churchy, but streetwise, friendly, nonjudgmental, and on your side. You learn to meditate, to see your mind in a new way. You can become its master rather than its slave.

Shortness of breath. Pain in the chest. A desperate need to run, to hide, to make this stop. It’s a panic attack, and it’s happening—again—on the street. What do you do?

Jean Maire Martin, a twentysomething Irish immigrant now living in New York, didn’t know where to turn. She was suffering under life’s busyness and confusion, with a terrifying result: panic attacks in public places. After a particularly painful relationship breakup, Martin bumped into Josh Korda, the man Levine appointed to lead Dharma Punx in New York. She had zero interest in Buddhism or meditation, but was desperate and had heard from friends that Korda was known as someone you could talk to. So she introduced herself, and the two began to talk. Korda helped her, she says, to see how her thought patterns were causing her misery.

Martin is now a regular at Punx meetings, and works to keep up a daily practice as well. She says meditating is helping to change the shape of her mind. “I used to be a very jealous person, and would just react and react. Now I go into my stomach and say, ‘Oh, this is what jealousy feels like.’ I sit with it. I get out of my mind, into my body, and it loses its power. It’s still there, I still get jealous. But I don’t react to it.”

Other students edging their way through the crowded doorway of the Rebel Saint Meditation Centre have similar stories. Drea Bernardi moved to New York hoping to become an actress, but since learning to meditate has returned to school. She’s doing media studies, and hopes to find a way to use new media to spread loving-kindness. “I needed to learn about my head. My whole life until a couple of years ago I was looking outside myself for happiness. This job, that person, drugs, alcohol, whatever. I came here and it was, ‘Oh, you find happiness within!’”

With some exceptions, the Bowery Dharma Punx crowd could pass for a graduate class at nearby NYU: most appeared to be young, white, and middle-class. Of course, being young, white, and middle-class does not mean you are free of serious troubles; Noah Levine is Exhibit A. Still, the vibe in the room was so cool, so cultured, so exquisitely counterculture, that I wondered if Dharma Punx might be this year’s fad. When questions were called for, though, the meditators revealed seriousness and depth. Their questions were nuanced and important. They know that life is suffering and, like all of us, are struggling with that knowledge.

In the past few years Levine has been working to build this community. He and it are learning and growing together. His 2006 book Against the Stream was not just about him, but made space to consider other people’s problems. He was becoming a teacher.

Still, punk rock remains an important part of his life and thinking. And just as his music has stayed raw, the conversation has remained uncensored. Swearing is a regular feature of Dharma Punx meetings, including dharma talks by teachers. Levine says his audience can “hear the dharma better because of the rawness or realness of that language … Saying ‘fuck you’ in a harsh way is harsh language and wrong speech. But saying, ‘My meditation practice has been really fucking challenging lately’ is not wrong speech. It’s just an expression of what’s happening.”

Anyone who criticizes this approach, Levine says, is not part of the Dharma Punx subculture.

In many North American Buddhist communities people in their twenties and thirties are being trained to uphold the traditions and to teach, and will inherit the legacy from their elders. This usually happens quietly, without fanfare or fuss. At the same time there are other young teachers who, like Levine, are not keeping to the path laid out by previous generations.

Another next-generation Buddhist making a name for himself by inspiring others is Ethan Nichtern. Like Noah Levine, Nichtern has a father who is renowned in Buddhist circles. David Nichtern, a senior teacher in the Shambhala tradition, is a former co-director of the L.A. Shambhala Center and has worked to establish meditation/yoga workshops with his wife, Cyndi Lee, of OM Yoga. Ethan Nichtern turned his back on meditation as a young teenager, but by the end of high school he was meditating regularly.

Nichtern studied under Levine, and while they remain friends Nichtern is focusing on his own effort, the Interdependence Project (ID Project for short). Based in New York, the ID Project meets in the same Bowery space above the lingerie store. It’s a nonprofit working to bridge the gap between the inner work we do in meditation and the outer transformation of society. The ID Project regularly stages new efforts, including responsible consumption month, and a lecture on complementary currency systems and social interdependence. Another event, a fund-raiser, was a meditation marathon for twenty-four hours in the display windows of a carpet store on Broadway. These aim to help people recognize the interconnectedness of all things and the community inherent in that realization.

Early on a Monday morning, in a diner near Union Square, Nichtern, thirty-one, is full of ideas and questions, wondering out loud. He believes there’s a natural interaction between spiritual practice, art, and social activism, that Buddhism and social action should flow seamlessly together. Buddhists who don’t want to become politically active frustrate him; to Nichtern, a Shambhala teacher and student of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, a responsible life requires activism. “We meditate to develop more mental sanity and awareness, and this leads to more generosity,” he says. “How can this not lead to being involved with the problems of the world?”

Nichtern doesn’t have Levine’s magnetic, abrasive charm or an eyebrow-raising bio, but he is smart and thoughtful. His ideas are expressed in the 2007 book, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence. Of the dangerous inclination to dwell on the past, he says, “We escape into rehashed moments of fantasy, falsified memories of what could or might have been that are more mentally photogenic than this present moment.” Fear he describes as “the awkwardness of stepping into a new neighborhood of our mind. If we don’t investigate our own life and place in the world we get buried alive in a coffin of unexamined fear.”

Nichtern talks the talk of his generation, of people who grew up surrounded by computers and other electronic gadgetry, whose consciousness was formed during the all-about-me, greed-is-good Reagan years. He dissects his generation’s “normal” mindset to offer clarity to other young people trying to find their way.

“Practicing interdependence is an ongoing practice of getting and staying connected to the real internet,” he writes, “getting connected to both ourselves and those around us. We have to practice it, not just think about it, because our habitual tendency to disconnect from ourselves and others—both personally and culturally—has enormous momentum.”

Another youthful Buddhist earning a national voice is Waylon Lewis of Boulder, Colorado. He’s a columnist with Huffington Post and other online sites, and the founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine “Elephant.”

The magazine, Lewis says, focuses on “anything that helps us live a good life, a fun life, good for other people and our planet.” Elephant’s contents—appearing under the headline “Mindful Life”—include yoga, organics, active citizenship, conscious consumerism, adventure, the arts, wellness, and “non new-agey spirituality.” The site’s Buddhist philosophy is not so much proclaimed as marbled throughout. Video links include Pema Chödrön teaching, birthday greetings to the Dalai Lama, and an examination of the Ten Worst Buddhist Movie Characters. The site receives 69,000 unique visitors a month.

Lewis, thirty-five, says Buddhism is “the root inspiration of everything I do,” and he’s concerned that it is perceived as being “for really well-off white people.” Too many Buddhist communities, he believes, are missing a golden opportunity to reach out to young people, by ignoring Twitter and other new media. “If we want to cut through samsara and offer something valuable to people—like meditating for a few minutes morning and evening—we need to be in the world.”

The ecological crisis, he says, gives Buddhists a huge opportunity to express the principle of karma, and seizing this opening could lead to a more widespread practice of mindful behavior. Elephant’s mission “is to bring people working and playing to create enlightened society … Riding a mountain bike can bring people to the present moment, because otherwise they could run into a tree.”

Noah Levine makes part of his living from teaching and writing, and part from practicing psychotherapy. He holds a masters degree in psychology and has fulfilled the internships required to be licenced, but feels no need to be certified. The rebel instinct holding true, the question becomes: should I turn away from helping people merely because of a lack of official sanction?

With a baby at home he is traveling less than he used to, but the pace is still daunting. His recent schedule included talks in New York, Massachusetts, Idaho, Colorado, California, Oregon, British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario. He also talks to some media, but does not particularly like doing so, having been “burned” in the past.

I hope he doesn’t feel burned this time, but suspect he might. The first time we talked, Levine became angry. He wanted to know the plan for this article, and when told that it would mention other up-and-coming Buddhists, he strongly objected. That would be lumping them all together, he said. “You wouldn’t do that to women Buddhists.” When I pointed out that the magazine had indeed published articles about “women Buddhists” he held to his view: his movement deserved its own story, one that did not mention other leaders of his generation.

In his memoir Dharma Punx, anger, the blaming of others, is almost constant. Readers of the online forum goodreads.com tend to like the book enormously or not at all. One offered this assessment: “His message is great—he transformed his life and began to help others… he got sober, got a teacher, and is now himself teaching Buddhism. But he’s still kind of a dick.”

Asked if anger is an issue for him today, Levine said no. His biggest issue, he said, is balance. He also said that “we need to change our relationship to anger, even if it’s justified.”

He does sound at peace when considering his old crew and its nemesis. He no longer sees punks and hippies as rival forces struggling for counterculture supremacy. Now he sees different groups of people sharing similar troubles.

The hippies, he says, had “an unrealistic view about peace and love being easy to come by. Not acknowledging how much hard work it takes to truly come from a place of love. Not acknowledging the great suffering in this world, and the great work it takes to come from a place of freedom.” Punks, on the other hand, are far too centered on suffering. They are too focused on negativity and hopelessness, and not enough on love and compassion. Punks are “so busy pointing out and critiquing the problem” that they wind up lacking the “willingness to work toward peace.”

If you or I said this to a roomful of punks, or convicts, or drug addicts, would it make a difference? When Noah Levine says it, some listen. With great courage and conviction he is teaching peace to people accustomed to violence. He is teaching internal rebellion to people used to thinking that the fight is outside.

Is this right speech and action? Is the dharma in safe hands? These questions are only asked by people no longer young, who have reached an age where many choices of the younger generation may seem odd, mistaken, or inexplicable. So it’s important to focus on the essence.

Levine—like Nichtern and Lewis too—is bringing people to the dharma. In many cases people who otherwise may never have come near. The visuals and tone and word choice might be new, but then Buddhism has been made fresh countless times, by countless teachers. Buddhism is still in its infancy here, and it can be argued that a genuine North American variety is yet to emerge. What these teachers offer is dharma for their own generation, based in the ancient and Earth-shaking wisdom of compassion and mindfulness. Their teachings are part of the solution.

“Anyone who is teaching Buddhism is teaching radical, revolutionary philosophy and action,” Noah Levine says. “I think Buddhism is radical. I don’t think I’m radical.”

David Swick

David Swick

David Swick teaches journalism at King’s College in Halifax and is the author of Thunder and Ocean, a book about Buddhism in Nova Scotia.