Since its founding in 2000, the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS) has been a hard-to-miss feature of the American Buddhist landscape, frequently noted for its tattoo-covered teachers. In its brief history, however, ATS has quickly distinguished itself for reasons far more substantial than a gritty aesthetic. The community, started as the Dharma Punx in San Francisco by teacher and author Noah Levine, has quickly grown into one of the most well-attended and diverse sanghas in the country.
In the beginning, ATS tended to attract people from the punk and hardcore music scenes that Levine was a part of, but word quickly spread to other communities that it was a sangha where you wouldn’t be the only young or gay person, or person of color, in the room. The result is a sangha that is unusually young for a Western dharma community, with large numbers of LGBTQ and people of color.
Against the Stream has six main groups led by ATS-trained teachers. The three largest ones, in San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles, see average attendances of about one hundred people at regular weekly meditation sessions. In addition, ATS has thirteen affiliate groups in cities all over North America, from Montreal to Nashville. These groups are either led by ATS-trained facilitators or are peer-led, organized by ATS students. With its roots in the Theravada tradition, shaped by the Insight meditation communities of Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein, ATS emphasizes the four noble truths, the four foundations of mindfulness, and the brahmaviharas: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The teachers draw on non-Theravada resources as well, including clinical psychology and teachings from other Buddhist traditions.
Creating an accessible, inclusive sangha is important to ATS teachers, who themselves struggled to find a welcoming environment when they began to meditate. “I needed to bond with a community where I felt that I could talk openly and honestly about my experiences,” recalls Josh Korda, leader of the New York sangha. Vinny Ferraro, who has led the San Francisco sangha since 2004, echos the need for dharma communities where people feel a genuine personal connection. “At a bunch of groups, you just go there, sit, hear something, and then leave and never even have an interaction, or maybe just have a terrible one.” says Ferraro, “Maybe you don’t feel met, or maybe you don’t feel seen or acknowledged, or whatever.”
ATS groups take simple but meaningful steps to break the ice. “At the beginning of a group, I’ll say, now introduce yourself to three people in the room that you don’t know,” says Levine. “That way, even the people who have been coming for five years can look around and think, who’s new here, who don’t I know? They can reach out and say, ‘Hi, my name is _____. Welcome.’ That makes a difference to people.”
Indeed, one of the hallmarks of ATS is speaking from and about personal experience, an approach informed by the methodology of twelve-step groups. Levine, Korda, and Ferraro have all been through addiction recovery themselves, and they estimate that about 50 percent of the sangha is in recovery as well. “There’s a certain amount of disclosure that the [recovery] community is used to, a casualness of conversation, that eye-level thing,” says Ferraro. “It informs ATS in so many ways, like in people reaching out to each other.”
Against the Stream’s peer-led groups are another recovery-inspired element, making community an essential form of support on the path, with or without a teacher present. These groups began cropping up when people who had attended ATS retreats struggled to find sanghas at home. “It happened organically,” says Levine, “from me encouraging people to get the support they were seeking. ‘If it doesn’t exist, create it’ was my attitude, and I saw that maybe there was something I could do to help support them.” As more groups formed, Levine decided to create a training program for group facilitators and, later, a four-year program for training teachers, which is about to begin its second cycle.
Levine is now developing a Buddhist addiction-recovery program called Refuge Recovery as an alternative to the Judeo-Christian approach used in the twelve-step model, but it has been a reluctant undertaking. “I never really wanted to be typecast or pigeonholed as the Buddhist recovery guy,” he says. “I feel like Buddhism and the dharma are just so much bigger. Yes, it was the suffering of addiction that brought me into the dharma, but I want to serve everyone, not just the recovering people.”
This view is evident in the variety of ways ATS teachers present the dharma. Korda, for instance, grew up practicing Zen and is a self-identified “neuroscience geek” who regularly draws on scientific research in his teaching to explain how Buddhist practices directly engage or disengage different parts of the brain. “Hard facts really reach people,” he says. “I’m not just telling them to do it, but telling them why.”
In San Francisco, Ferraro, who trains in Tibetan Buddhism as well as the Theravada tradition, regularly invites outside teachers to the standing-roomonly Friday-night meetings. “We bring in as many voices as we can, just to show that this is not a cult of personality,” he says. These encounters can sometimes be intense for guests not used to the eye-level interaction of the ATS sangha. “We’ve kind of trained them to be an outspoken and challenging sangha,” says Ferraro. “It has that vibe, just on the ground.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Levine sees the growth of Against the Stream as a natural unfolding. “A lot of people have shown up and said, ‘We like it, we want to live it, and we want to support each other in it.’ ” And while ATS is still fairly new, it’s already helping transform the American Buddhist landscape. As for the teachers who are leading the way, they haven’t lost touch with the inspiration and enthusiasm that brought them to this point. “This whole vibe, that it ain’t Buddhism unless it’s boring—I think we really challenge that,” says Ferraro, “because we’re having a fucking blast doing it.”