Teacher Profile: Noah Levine
By Felicia M. Tomasko
Noah Levine doesn’t promise that everything will be okay if you meditate. He doesn’t promise the elimination of doubt. But he does believe that meditation can be a powerful force in a person’s life, and he speaks from a place of familiarity with the process.
Levine may be one of the most unusual Buddhist teachers around. He sits in front of the room with tattoos creeping up his neck, adorning the palms of his hands and crawling up his arms, sporting a Black Flag t-shirt. In some ways, his status as deliverer of the dharma is unsurprising, as he is the son of well-known meditation teacher and author Stephen Levine.
But Noah did not follow a straight road to meditation practice and Buddhism. His tumultuous path has been well-documented in his autobiographical Dharma Punx. The book describes the teenage rebellion, drug use, addiction and jail time which led to his reexamination of the Buddhist teachings he formerly rejected. “We all sort of have a different doorway to dharma or spiritual practice. Suffering is a doorway. For me it was the suffering of addiction, violence and crime which opened me at a young age, 17 years old. I was incarcerated, looking at the rest of my life in prison and thought, ‘Maybe I will try dad’s hippie meditation bullshit.’ Suffering opened me to the possibility of trying meditation.”
While it may seem tempting to see him as a phenomenon or caricature, Levine is sincere and serious about transmitting the dharma, communicating the Buddha’s spiritual teachings. Although his father has been an unsurprising influence, one of Levine’s primary teachers is Buddhist monk, psychologist and author Jack Kornfield, one of the founders of Spirit Rock, where Levine completed training. Another ongoing influence is Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro, resident monk at Abhayagiri Monastery in Northern California.
Although Levine transmits the traditional, describing the five hindrances in a recent meditation class (craving, aversion, restlessness, sleepiness and doubt), he adds a modern, even punk sensibility to his discourse. When speaking to a collection of 60 of the multigenerational and oft-tattooed gathered at Hollywood’s Dancing Shiva, he poses the eternal question faced by spiritual aspirants: “Is it possible to be free of suffering?” Echoing the unspoken answer by those who doubt: “There is a level within us that says no way; it’s not possible; Buddhists are full of shit.”
But if Buddha could find the way, we all can, insists Levine. After all, as he says to the group, “Buddha said, ‘I’m just a dude who has freed himself from the causes of suffering.” Laughter accompanies Levine’s choice of descriptives. His casual vernacular, along with modern examples and reference to his own past, are intentional. “Rather than talk about the ox and the cart, the bow and the arrow, ancient analogies, let’s bring it into the Harley Davidson and the low rider and the modern analogies and direct experience of what we come into contact with every day walking down the street.”
Levine reports that this presentation is reaching people who may not otherwise be meditating, de-stigmatizing it from mysticism and association with hippies. Levine has been told that his group of punx is one of the youngest Buddhist communities in the country, and one of the most diverse. In part, Levine believes that he brings a unique voice to the tradition. He also cultivates a sense of community. During his talk, Levine asks everyone in the room to introduce themselves along with the hindrance they currently feel.
Exploring feelings is familiar territory for the meditation teacher. Off the cushion, Levine is a psychotherapist. He sees spiritual practice and therapy not as substitutes for each other, but mutually conducive for growth and happiness. In his own life and work with others, he emphasizes the importance of addressing personal difficulties through therapy and spiritual maladies through meditation.
The convoluted trip of Levine’s life is about to take another turn. His residence in Los Angeles is initiated by his effort to develop Dharma Punx into a screenplay, a project in which Levine is also working as producer. He hopes the film will communicate the transformative power of spiritual practice. From jail to Hollywood, Levine maintains a certain perspective. “It’s not about Noah. It’s about the dharma.”
For more information about Noah Levine and his meditation sangha, visit www.dharmapunx.com.
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