Note: In 2018, allegations of sexual misconduct against Noah Levine led to the dissolution of the organization he founded, Against the Stream Meditation Society (ATS). The publication of this article on LionsRoar.com does not constitute an endorsement of Noah Levine as a teacher.
An extensive interview with author and Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, conducted by journalist John Malkin.
John Malkin: I’ve enjoyed reading “The Heart of the Revolution” and being reminded of Buddhist practices that you are emphasizing including compassion, forgiveness and sympathetic joy. You write about how there are two clear dead ends in trying to deal with suffering, worldliness and religion. Tell me more about those dead ends.
Noah Levine: There’s a couple of different ways to talk about it; there’s my own experiences, and [also] from ancient Buddhist scriptures. Buddhism has certainly become a major world religion and I feel pretty clear that the founder, Siddhartha Guatama, whom we refer to as The Buddha, was pretty clearly trying not to create a religion. He was trying to offer some practical tools. These things are called The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path as a way to live. Not a religion, not a faith, not a devotional practice. But just some really practical guidelines of how to live our lives if we wish to be happy, if we wish to end the extra difficulties and suffering that are possible to end. Then here’s a way to do it. This was the core of his message.
Now, of course, over the past couple thousand years that message has turned from a practical pragmatic philosophy into a major world religion that has many of the same problems that all world religions have. For me, someone who grew up in the punk scene and always had been very wary of religion, when I found out that the Buddha not only talked about his teachings and practice as a form of rebellion, but called it against the stream, it resonated.When he was defining Buddhism as being the middle path – at some point he was questioned; “The middle path of what?” He said, “Well, it’s the middle between these two dead ends.” One dead end is seeking your happiness from blindly following a religious tradition, of just accepting what the religion is teaching you and not critically analyzing it or using discernment. That is a dead end. It doesn’t lead to happiness. He said, “Likewise, looking for happiness in material things; looking to the world, looking to pleasure and to accumulation and material things and successes as a source of your well-being or happiness is also a set up for disappointment and failure and bound to end in suffering. This practice and path that he is laying out and that I’m practicing and teaching now is one that leads between that of worldliness and that of blindly following religion.
JM: In The Heart of the Revolution you write, “It is rare for Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, agnostics, scientists or whatever to be open-hearted. To be free from ill-will, resentment and ignorance.” You also write that some of the current schools of Buddhism are not necessarily teaching what the Buddha taught. Tell more about your frustration or feelings about that.
Noah: At the moment I don’t feel that frustrated about it, although at times I certainly have in my life felt frustrated about things that are calling themselves “Buddhism” but are clearly not in line with what I know of to be the Buddha’s teachings. At least right now I don’t feel frustrated about it but I do feel like it is a fact. There is this discernment. Having studied Buddhism for the last twenty-three years, studying a lot of the original scriptures and oldest documents, I feel pretty confident in understanding pretty close to what we can understand about original Buddhism. And then clearly seeing that much of what is presented as Buddhism, in the Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana and Zen – all of these different Buddhist traditions – much of what you find there is not in line with Siddhartha’s message, the original Buddhist teachings.
I don’t feel very frustrated about it. I think it makes sense. Just like Christianity, you have what Jesus Christ actually said and then you have The Pope! (Laughter) And then you have the Catholics and the Baptists. It just gets so far away from the message of the founder. Buddhism is like that, too. A lot of Buddhism is very far away from the message of the founder.
JM: This is always an interesting realm for me of how cultural movements and spiritual traditions evolve and become something completely different from, even in opposition to, the original. One of those things that I’m thinking about is punk rock. Punk started in particular ways and went into directions that we’re the opposite of that original. It was a movement of being free and some punk ended up being really restricted. That’s kind of what you’re touching on in terms of spiritual teachings.
Noah: For sure. There is a great parallel there with punk. I look at the founding of punk; The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. The origins of punk were actually a major label kind of 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 let’s start our own record labels. But if you actually look at the foundation and the first bands, all of the big bands were on major labels. Then it became, “If you’re on a major label, then you’re not punk! You’ve sold out!” (Laughter) It went to this, “You have to be Indie to be punk.”
There is a lot of that in Buddhism, too. There is the original and then there are the revisionists that say, “This is the right way. This is what the Buddha really meant.” (Laughter) This is what Johnny Rotten really meant when he sang, “God save the Queen.” (Laughter) Right? We love to re-interpret things and make them fit what we want them to fit. Religion is probably more guilty of doing that then anything in this world.
JM: We are now both fathers, around the same amount of time. I wonder if you have any thoughts on how Buddhist practice or punk rock are, if at all, informing your parenting?
Noah: I easily and clearly see how my Buddhist practice has so many influences over my parenting. My love of punk, I don’t see as many clear parallels, other than a tendency toward a rejection of mainstream media. I think it is a little too soon, with my daughter being just two and a half years old to see really how those influences are going to play out. Although, I’ll tell you that she loves some of the poppier punk bands when I play them. She loves The Ramones for instance. One of her favorites.
Buddhism really clearly affects my parenting because it’s not a philosophy to me; it’s a practice and its my way of life. It deeply affects how I am as a person, therefore how I am as a parent. I know for sure that the practice of mindfulness gives me the ability to be present and patient and tolerant with my daughter when things are difficult. The practice of mindfulness also gives me the ability to be present and appreciative when things are going well and we’re having a laugh and are dancing. When we’re enjoying what’s happening.
Because Buddhism has become so much the lens through which I see the world, it feels almost impossible for me to separate it as an influence over my parenting. It is just my way of life to be mindful and as compassionate as possible and not attached. That is a very interesting balance in parenting and in relationships and in a marriage; to find a way to be connected and present without trying to control. Without what we would call attachment or clinging. So often people get confused and think, “No, if I love my child I have to be attached to them.” It’s really not true. I’m seeing so clearly how I get attached and that it’s natural, but its not necessary. What’s necessary is to be connected, to be present. Connected is the best way to talk about it. And 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.
JM: I appreciate hearing that distinction between attachment and connection. There’s a section in your new book in which you discuss equanimity and write that, “We cannot force people to be free. Everyone has to do the work him or herself.” Earlier in the book you write that, “Freedom comes when we learn to accept what is and break our vain attempts to control the uncontrollable.” It seems like so much violence comes from us trying to control other people and, in fact, we are raised to believe that this is the way to have happiness. If we can just get other people to do what we want them to do, then things would be good. Tell me more about giving up control.
Noah: There is a very tricky balance that I’ve found of non-attachment and non-controlling but understanding that this doesn’t mean detachment or non-involvement. I think that giving up control and giving up attachment, in a lot of ways from the outside might not look any different. You might still be politically active and an activist, you might still be on the front lines of being of service. But just with an internal relationship, it doesn’t need the ignorance or the oppression or the injustice to go away in order for us to be happy or to be 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 trying to create a positive change. Understanding that, the trick with equanimity and kindness and compassion, this lovingkindness practice is; although we don’t have control and its not worth suffering about, we do have some influence. And though it is important to still support, educate, protect and radiate kindness and compassion and forgiveness, sometimes people hear, “I don’t have control” and they use that as an excuse or turn it into a nihilistic attitude that says, “Well I just won’t try anymore because it’s hopeless.” I don’t think that is at all what the Buddha was saying and what I’m saying in the book is to dedicate our whole life to compassionate action. But understand that our compassionate action is not going to change others! (Laughter) It will influence them, inspire them or educate them, but it doesn’t have a magic ability to get inside of anyone else and free them from their ignorance or their confusion.
JM: I was intrigued by a phrase that I think you made up in this book; situational ethics. This is in a section called “Kill ‘Em All With Kindness.” In this section you write that, “The word kindness is often used as sort of a general term. What is kind, colloquially speaking, depends on the circumstances. We could call it situational ethics. What is ethical and kind in each situation will depend on varying factors.” I’d like to hear more about that and the reality that there isn’t really a formula that we can have and use in every situation. We have to stay aware and use mindful discernment.
Noah: Yeah. It’s so complicated because every situation is different. I think that a lot of what I’m trying to point to is that the more we try to make kindness our intention and the more that we’re trying to come from a place of wisdom and compassion and kindness, then the more we intuitively know what the next right action is.
We will know what the kind response is in a situation. Part of what I’m critiquing in that chapter is when does kindness become enabling? When is kindness actually creating suffering rather than ending suffering? Like in the case of what appears to be a kind act of generosity towards a drug addict or an alcoholic who is asking you for money and you know that actually that money is going to perpetuate their suffering and their addiction. On the outside this might look like an act of kindness and generosity. “Look, I’m helping another person.” But actually this act of kindness isn’t helping them at all; it is hurting them by giving them money or continuing to enable them in one way or another!
I also reflect in that chapter on how often in my own life, some of the kindest things that I’ve done for myself have been some of the most unpleasant. For instance, taking on a serious and deep meditation practice, going into silent meditation retreats for weeks or months at a time, has often been really hard. Facing my own mind and having to be with all of the criticisms and fears and judgments; hat healing process is often incredibly painful. And what a deep and kind of the deepest and most abiding act of kindness of my lifetime has been to get my ass on that meditation cushion over and over and over. It hasn’t always been pleasant and it hasn’t always been easy but I would definitely call it an act of kindness to practice meditation.
That’s very different than what most people refer to as kindness. They think of kindness as something that feels good! (Laughter) That is pleasant. I’m just making a strong argument to say that it’s really not what is pleasant or what feels good. Its not always generosity or its not always softness but sometimes kindness comes as a fierce commitment to truth or to a boundary and that isn’t necessarily going to look kind, although it is an act of kindness.
I guess its connected to that old phrase — and I’m not even sure what their deal was — but I remember back when I was a kid and I was a drug addict and my Mom was throwing around and the psychologists were throwing around the term tough love and feeling at the time like, “I don’t know what the hell you guys are talking about!” But now looking back and going, “Okay, sometimes love and kindness needs to have an edge to it and a boundary to it.”
JM: Regarding forgiveness and lovingkindness practice, one of my teachers, Mary Orr at Vipassana Santa Cruz, would regularly talk about how its possible to let someone back into your heart and still not want to let them into your living room. I think she got that little picture from your father, Stephen Levine, with his idea that you can forgive someone and also have intellectual clarity that it’s not safe to let them back into your life. I think that’s what you’re pointing to, a bit.
Noah: Yeah. That’s a big piece of it. Its one of the situations that we face where forgiveness is important and necessary but it doesn’t always mean reconciliation with the person whom we are forgiving.
JM: Noah, tell me a little more about what’s going on with you. You’re now the author of three books and a prominent teacher of Buddhism. You’re coming home to Santa Cruz to present your latest book here. How is all of that going?
Noah: I feel great. Everything has unfolded in my life in a very organic way. From the outside, and I’ve had some conversations with some people, I may look ambitious! You know, writing three books by the time I’m forty years old, teaching and traveling all over the place; maybe I look ambitious, but it doesn’t feel from the inside like I have a lot of ambition. It feels very organic.
I committed to meditation practice over twenty years ago and then ten years ago my teacher said, “Hey, its time for you to start teaching.” Then I wrote Dharma Punx and that came out seven years ago and that sort of put me into a bigger, national arena. I mostly just sit back and wait for invitations to do things. For a long time I just said “yes” to whatever I was invited to do. Now these days I have to say “no” more and more because I have family and commitments here at home. Against The Stream and The Heart of the Revolution have felt like these very natural next steps of sharing the dharma that I’m practicing and teaching with the people that don’t get to make it to my weekly, free lectures. So, you write it down in a book and then it’s available to everyone, everywhere. It has all felt very natural and good.
I feel very happy and grateful. It’s always wonderful to come back to Santa Cruz and see people I’ve known my whole life. My mother still lives there, so I’m up there somewhat often. These days my life is full with family.
A couple of the things that I’m up to now is that in Los Angeles, where I’ve been living for the last six years, I now have two meditation centers called Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society. Full time running of two meditation centers, one on the Westside out by the beach in Santa Monica and one on the eastside in Hollywood near Silverlake. I’m teaching there a lot and I’ve started to train other people to teach. I’ve been mentoring and training dozens of people to take on the role of facilitating meditation classes. There in Santa Cruz I have mentored and trained Jason Murphy who runs a weekly class over at Vipassana Santa Cruz he calls “Rebel Dharma.” Up in San Francisco Vinny Ferraro runs a weekly group called “Urban Dharma.” We now have over twenty affiliated meditation groups around the country and now also in Canada and Europe.
What began as my own commitment to meditation and these little meditation groups that started in my living room in Santa Cruz thirteen years ago has grown organically into this national and international movement within Buddhism but also with a kind of an alternative to the mainstream Buddhist offerings. It may be a more punk Buddhism. (Laughter) Its great, John. I feel really grateful.
One of the things I’ve started to turn towards now that this book is done and its coming out is I’ve been putting more and more effort into creating a Buddhist approach to treating drug addiction and alcoholism. I’ve done a lot over the years and also being a recovering addict, on giving Buddhist perspective to the twelve steps. The twelve step program is a very theistic and Judeo-Christian based approach to addiction. A lot has been done around Buddhism and twelve steps and yet not much has been done in bringing a purely Buddhist approach to addiction. I’ve been working on that and I’ll probably do a book. We have been having meetings in Los Angeles and trying to start spreading. The next few years of my life feel clearly dedicated to creating more alternatives to the twelve steps and more Buddhist approached to recovery for people. [Related note: Against the Stream is in fact hosting an evening Intro to Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention workshop tonight (July 22nd.) Click here for details.]
JM: I’ve been interested in how meditation and other spiritual practices can play out in social change around the world, especially in the United States, a country that is constantly at war. So much of our resources, intelligence and resources is focused on creating violence. You mention this a little bit in The Heart of The Revolution. You write that, “There is hope for external transformation only if the internal revolution is firmly grounded in loving kindness. We must become the loving forces of a spiritual revolutionary front.”
As we were talking about giving up control earlier, my ideas about power and how things can change in our society have evolved over time. I used to see power as something that must be taken away from some people who have it and then redirected nonviolently and democratically. Now it seems to me that we all have energy and power inherently and its not so much about taking it from others but rather cultivating and honing our own power and to a great degree, letting those violent structures that are creating suffering, letting them fall away as we create more powerful structures that meet our needs for safety, community and peace.
Noah: It’s a big question. I have a couple of thoughts. One is, I remember an experience that I had fifteen years ago or so when I was at a Buddhist meditation retreat. I was walking through the parking lot and it felt like it was all luxury automobiles and I was a young poor working class kid at the time. I felt really judgmental of all of the wealthy, ruling class bourgeois Buddhists that were attending this somewhat expensive retreat, that I was also attending. At some point I went from judgment to a shift of, “Actually, this is quite good that these people who have money and have power are practicing mindfulness, are practicing the dharma. Because if anybody can create some positive change or really have some large influence in this society, it is the people with wealth and power. So the more of them that are practicing the dharma, the better! (Laughter) That is what I came to then, fifteen years ago.
Mostly I feel like from a very personal place, this part that you’re quoting about becoming the revolutionary force and that Mahatma Gandhi quote that says, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I look at my life and see that twenty-three years ago I was sitting in Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall addicted to crack and committing felonies and I wanted a revolution. I had anarchist ideals and I had punk rock rebellion in my heart. But I’d really become just become part of the problem. Not part of the solution at all; just more violence and more ignorance. I wanted to see a change. I started meditating and I started working the twelve steps and I slowly recovered.
I have been drug-free for almost twenty-three years now. From my own commitment to my practice and then eventually that developing to a place where others noticed and, like I was saying, thirteen years ago starting these meditation groups first in my living room in Santa Cruz, to an international movement of meditation groups that are connected and hundreds of thousands of people having read these books. It feels clearly to me that there has been a tremendous power – positive power for positive change – that has been created just from a simple commitment to practice, to healing, to recovering, to awakening.
In my life it feels very obvious how much power there is in committing to our own integrity and that part of that commitment to integrity – to wisdom and compassion – becomes being of service to others. Whether that was in my life, working in the health department in Santa Cruz doing HIV education and testing or working at Dominican or working at the Drop-In Center or doing street outreach; all of the different things that I got to do when I was in Santa Cruz. Or it’s giving a lecture to hundreds of people about mindfulness and Buddhism that I get to do these days. It all feels in-line with this power of the heart, of mindfulness, of compassion. It feels really clear to me that it has created a positive change in this world. It hasn’t ended war. I don’t have any delusions about world peace or ending the great ignorance. But almost on a daily basis for the last nine years I receive emails from people saying, “You have helped me. Your practice and the way that you’ve transmitted the Buddha’s teachings have helped me suffer less.” Just the ripple affects that this has in this world is amazing! I don’t know if this answers your question or not, but it just feels so powerful. It’s really clear to me that something is happening. Something is changing in a good way in this world through our practices.
JM: You mentioned anarchy as something that maybe was part of the past for you. I’m wondering if anarchist philosophy resonates with you and is important to you these days? And just from my point of view, this realm of giving up control is actually what I mean when I talk about anarchy; creating self-designed communities without controlling others.
Noah: It’s actually something that I’m struggling with a little bit right now, John. For years with these meditation groups and communities all over that have started, I’ve sort of had this anarchist, do it yourself model for them. People have come to me and said, “We’re in Austin and we want to start a group,” and I’ve said, “Go ahead. Do a Dharma Punx group.” And now I’m starting to get some pressure from others and myself like maybe I’m supposed to take a little more responsibility and have some kind of quality control. I feel really clear that if someone goes to a Dharma Punx or Against the Stream meditation group that I want to make sure that they’re getting a good presentation. But there’s that piece of control so it rubs up against my anarchist leanings which is; I don’t want to tell anybody else what to do. But I do want a quality presentation. I want trustworthy people with integrity to be in leadership roles, which doesn’t quite fit with some of my hands-off tendency. So, it’s something that I’m wrestling with a little bit and maybe beginning to land somewhere without a completely anarchist slant and also a not completely controlling dictator, but some loose organization of collective mentality that does have some democratic process and not completely anarchistic. It still feels in-process for me. I’m not quite clear about how to settle with that. I still have some inner turmoil about it because there is a big part of me that doesn’t want to have any control at all. And then there’s that other part that feels like that is maybe irresponsible of me.
JM: I grapple with these same questions and continue to find a balance. Thanks for speaking with me again, Noah. Congratulations on the release of this new book and best wishes to you and your family.
Noah: Thank you!