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Dharma on Fire: Meet Noah Levine

Noah Levine is a renegade dharma teacher whose meditation practice was born not in the peaceful confines of an Eastern monastery but in a padded cell of Juvenile Hall, the endpoint of a self-destructive adolescence defined by violence, crime, and addiction. He is a revolutionary and a rule-breaker whose straight talk resonates with those who skirt the mainstream—much like the Buddha himself.    

Who he is:

Noah Levine knows suffering. He is the son of Stephen Levine, one of America’s most influential Buddhist teachers, but his own path, fueled by personal angst and disillusion with American mainstream culture, brought him to rock bottom before he awoke. Levine’s painful past served an invaluable purpose, however: Levine became a teacher who could talk from experience about addiction and spurred a movement that speaks to a diverse outlier crowd. Dharma Punx and Against the Stream, the punk-flavored meditation groups Levine founded, have a significant following in both New York and LA. He is the author of a memoir called Dharma Punx, as well as the Buddhist resource for addiction Refuge Recovery. Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries and The Heart of the Revolution are his two newest titles.

What he teaches:

Buddhism and punk share the same spirit of rebellion, Levine says, in that Buddhism rejects the mainstream qualities of greed, hate, and delusion. That’s the First Noble Truth in a nutshell—all of life is suffering, from birth to death and everything in between. However, punk dwells only on this fact and is consumed in the rebellion. Buddhism, on the other hand, offers practical instruction on what causes suffering and how to liberate ourselves from it. Levine’s teaching perspective is an alignment of punk ideology and Buddhist philosophy based on both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, and he holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology.    

Why you’ll love him: 

If you’ve ever felt a pull to explore Buddhism but didn’t quite align with the serene language of its teachers, Levine’s style might be for you. Or maybe you feel twitches of spiritual yearnings in church or synagogue but feel discord with the mechanics of organized religion—Levine’s words might echo your thoughts. He calls worldliness and religion the two dead ends in trying to deal with suffering and emphasizes that Siddhartha Gautama, the spiritual seeker who became the Buddha, was specifically not wanting to start a religion. Levine works to disseminate the words and teachings of the Buddha in their original form—not as beliefs or proclamations of faith, but as practical tools to navigate the reality of this existence. His approach sometimes receives pushback from other members of the Buddhist community. However, many of the people attracted to his work, particularly through the community of meditation groups, say they have found their tribe.  


How he found the spiritual path:

Noah woke up in a padded cell when he was 17, his wrists sore from a suicide attempt and his body aching for a hit of a crack pipe. He had been in jail several times before, but this time was different. There was nowhere else to turn, no further to descend. He was officially at rock bottom, convinced he had no reason to live, filled with despair. And there was nothing left to do than confront his own mind, the source of his turmoil and rage. His father called and gently suggested he try to meditate, as he had for many years. Until that point, Levine brushed off meditation as his father’s “hippie shit.” But he gave it a try. Although his mind continued to ricochet with thoughts, there were a few moments of peace. Meditation helped. And so he continued to meditate, his body began to heal, and both his interior and exterior life transformed. It was a slow process—after two and a half months in Juvenile Hall, Levine emerged clean but still crime-prone, and he meditated in private, as the practice didn’t easily fit in with his motorcycle-gang tough-guy image. A retreat with Jack Kornfield marked the turning point: Levine decided to go all-in to this new lifestyle.

This is the story Levine shares with a wide-reaching flock in varying stages of addiction and recovery. It lead him to create an innovative approach to recovery, a Buddhist version of the 12 Step program—invaluable for its focus on making amends and fostering community, but spiritually hollow for people who do not resonate with Judeo-Christian philosophy and the emphasis on rejoining a broken society. Ten years after he left, Levine returned to Juvenile Hall, teaching meditation to incarcerated youth. He co-founded directs the nonprofit Mind Body Awareness Project to continue the outreach, and he founded Refuge Recovery Centers, which offer professional mindfulness-based treatment. A diverse crowd meditates at Against the Stream, the community Levine started that’s based on the West Coast and has affiliated groups around the world. 

What he says:

“The Buddha isn’t a god or deity to be worshipped. He was a rebel and an overthrower, the destroyer of ignorance, the great physician who discovered the path to freedom from suffering. The Buddha left a legacy of truth for us to experience for ourselves. The practices and principles of his teachings lead to the direct experience of liberation. This is not a faith-based philosophy, but an experiential one. The point of the spiritual revolution is not to become a good Buddhist, but to become a wise and compassionate human being, to awaken from our life of complacency and ignorance and to be a buddha.”

Where you can find him:

Levine lives in Los Angeles and is a founding teacher at Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, which also has a center in San Francisco and is affiliated with more than 20 groups across the country. He regularly teaches workshops and retreats at Against the Stream, as well as Esalen, Spirit Rock, and other meditation centers. He is scheduled to lead events at several Wanderlust festivals this year. View Levine’s current teaching schedule here and connect with local ATS groups through its website. Josh Korda leads Dharma Punx NYC.

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