going against the stream

Noah Levine discusses the surprisingly complementary worlds of punk rock & Buddhism


Noah Levine has been going “against the stream” his whole life. Early on, punk rock mirrored his own desire to smash through personal and social patterns of ignorance and delusion. Later, Buddhism offered the internal tools to skillfully and gently engage in this upstream journey.

I invited Noah Levine to be a guest on the program I host on Free Radio Santa Cruz, a commercial-free, unlicensed radio station with roots in anarchist self-organization and nonviolent direct action. When I told Noah that I had interviewed a wide spectrum of people with views on social change and spiritual growth, from Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh to Greg Graffin, lead singer of the punk rock band Bad Religion, Noah laughed and said, “Well, now you have both in one!” Mindfulness in the slam pit, anarchy laced with compassion. I was thrilled to find another person who loved punk rock and Buddhism, and to realize that there is a whole community of “dharma punx” out there just like me!

Noah Levine is appealing to a new generation by blending the energy and action of punk with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhist dharma. Punk rock and Buddhism share the fundamental philosophy that each of us creates our own reality. Real freedom is available as we learn to be aware in each moment, to take notice when we are caught in habitual streams of destructive thoughts or actions, and to experiment with consciously choosing to change those patterns.

In 500 BCE, the Buddha taught that any individual can wake up and be free from suffering. 2470 years later, the Sex Pistols proved that anyone could pick up a guitar and be in a band. The Buddha taught the importance of discovering the truth for one’s self, through direct experience, not by simply taking someone else’s word for it. The last teaching given by Buddha was, “Be a lamp unto yourself.” A punk rock credo is “D.I.Y.” – Do It Yourself.

In his recent book Dharma Punx, Noah Levine illustrates his own transformation from serving time in jail to serving others who are suffering in jails and prisons. He tells the stories of his life with an urgency that reveals his deep intention to be of service to those who are suffering, to bring Buddhist practices to young people who are struggling as he did.

Noah currently teaches meditation in juvenile halls and prisons around the San Francisco Bay Area and is director of the family program at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in California. The son of author and teacher Stephen Levine, Noah lives in San Francisco, where he is still deeply involved in the punk rock scene. – JM

John Malkin    It is hard not to notice your arms and the artwork on your skin. You are covered in images of deities and spiritual teachers. Buddha, Krishna, Mary, Hanuman and Tara. Tell me about the tattoos on the tops of your hands that say “wisdom” and “compassion” with a lotus flower.

Noah Levine    A couple of years ago I was doing a long, silent meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. And during the retreat my mind was making its plans and fantasies and at one point I had this vision of: “I want to get wisdom and compassion tattooed somewhere on my body.” And since I already had sleeves and was pretty much covered in tattoos already, the tops of the hands were the optimal place, a very visual place to say, “This is what my intention for my life is and what my practice is. The cultivation of wisdom and compassion.”

JM  You went through a lot to come to this place, where you are devoted to service and developing wisdom and compassion. How have Buddhism and punk rock come together in your life?

NL   The simplest way to explain it, for me, is that both are about the desire for happiness, the desire for freedom, and seeing the truth about life. As a kid I saw the truth about life. I was in a lot of pain and there was suffering everywhere. Inequality and oppression and war and racism. Capitalist-driven media crap. I just knew that happiness couldn’t come from that.

My search for happiness, acceptance and freedom led me to punk rock. Punk had the energy, the information and the politics that I resonated with, but I took it to the nihilistic, self-destructive, drug-addicted, crime side of things. To that extreme. There definitely was an intense drive to escape from my own mind, from my emotions and my body. Drugs and alcohol offered that escape for a long time. To the point where I was so numb that I wasn’t even aware of the crimes and the pain that I was causing myself and others. And on a whole other level I just didn’t care, because I had really lost hope and wasn’t able to take responsibility for my actions. There came a point where I was strung out and locked up and I had even lost my punk ethic in the pursuit of oblivion.

But that same energy of dissatisfaction and suffering eventually led me to start meditating while I was in prison. At the time, I thought that doing spiritual practice would be like completely fucking selling out. That was for hippies and that was for my parents and brain-dead religious followers. That was the masses to me. But I had lost all other hope. I felt like I had nowhere else to turn.

Meditation was a profound experience for me. I was able to just be present for that moment in my cell, rather than in the terror of prison and shame and regret for the crimes I had committed. I had been looking for that experience of freedom in punk and drugs and sex and crime, but I hadn’t found it there, that real freedom.

JM  You wrote in Dharma Punx that the spiritual path described by the Buddha is one of being against the stream, against selfish desires and ignorance and that “this fits in perfectly with the punk rock ethic.”

NL  Yeah. As I began to meditate and it really worked, I thought, “Actually, most people aren’t doing this. This isn’t mainstream! This isn’t selling out. This is the punkest thing I’ve ever done.” To learn to tell the truth after living a life of lies, to learn how to be kind to myself and to other people, that was the most rebellious and difficult action I have ever taken. This isn’t buying in. This is waking up, waking up from this delusion that I have been in. And it is rebellious to do it.
I found a teaching where the Buddha said that practice is “against the stream,” or an act of rebellion. Most people are suffering and don’t even know it. They are so attached to pleasure and seeking pleasure all of the time that they will never wake up. So, I understood that teaching, because my whole life has been against the stream! There was a resonation, a deep knowing and reminder of something that I already knew. So I began integrating the punk ethic – that anti-establishment acknowledgement of suffering in the world – with the Buddhist philosophy that awakening, happiness and freedom are possible by acknowledging suffering and its causes, and cultivating awareness, morality and wisdom.

JM  Your father, Stephen Levine, is a prominent Buddhist teacher in America. Because he writes and teaches about healthy relationships, forgiveness, calmness and meditation, were there assumptions that he must have a happy family? Was this an extra burden you had to carry?

NL   Honestly, I didn’t feel that pressure. On some level, I think it is the nature of children to rebel against their parents, so maybe there was some of that natural anti-parent rebellion going on. But I didn’t really feel that. Really, I feel quite fortunate that I had this loving family. And on a whole other level, I may have had some karmic reincarnation. I might have come into this lifetime needing to exorcise these demons. I don’t hold much blame. Actually, I am incredibly grateful that I had my father there when I was seventeen, to support and love and encourage me to quit fucking around and start practising.

JM   You were in jail and you got a phone call from your dad. He offered you meditation instructions over the phone and that was maybe the first time that you practised meditation, there in jail.

NL   Yeah. In a gentle and supportive way, he just said, “Look, what you’re doing is just not working. Why don’t you try something else?”
It was the first time that I ever meditated. I had been around it since I was a kid, but I’d never tried it. That was the turning point for me, of having the direct experience of it. I am a pessimist. I am skeptical about everything, so until I experience something for myself I think it’s bullshit. And that was the first time I experienced it for myself. I was in enough pain that I was willing to even check out meditation. I thought, “Wow, this actually works to relax me a little bit. To calm me down a little bit.” For a half a breath at a time. Not for hours. Not for days. But just for that moment of awareness. So I feel incredibly fortunate that I had my father on that level. There is a way in which it did save my life.

JM   You emphasize how important direct experience is for you. Tell me more about your experiences with meditation.

NL   My experience is that meditation develops slowly, over years. In no way is it a good time, all of the time. It is not like every time I meditate I feel great. What it is, is that every time I meditate I get in touch with the truth. And I am very interested in the truth. I get in touch with the truth of how distracted I am, of how crazy my mind is and how much pain my heart is in. I begin to take it all less personally. I understand how impermanent all phenomena are. And that I don’t have to do anything, to push it away or hold onto it. And that when I do try to push it away or hold onto it, it creates this extra level of discomfort, of suffering, of dissatisfaction.

I certainly wasn’t someone who came to meditation peaceful, looking for more peace. I came to it in tremendous suffering, looking for freedom. And I’ve found that. And it is not freedom from pain. It is freedom from identification. Freedom from the dissatisfaction that is inherent in trying to control the uncontrollable – the mind, the body, the world.

Meditation has, in my experience, led to an incredible sense that everything is unfolding in its own way. And I can have total intention without expectation on the outcome for my happiness. I can have full acceptance of what is happening in the present moment, with the intention to go somewhere else. Which I think is a huge, yet subtle distinction. People come to spiritual practice, and I have done this myself a lot, and say, “It’s all about letting go, it’s all about acceptance, so I just have to accept how fucked up everything is.” But, it’s more about how, “I don’t accept how fucked up everything is and I want things to be better. I want to be happier, I want to be peaceful. I want to help other people.”

JM   There is a lot of suffering in this world that needs to be addressed. There is sometimes the view that if you are “working on yourself” or developing spiritual practice, then you are not addressing the suffering of others.

NL   In my mind, they go hand in hand. I think that engaged action in the world is the total integral part of any spiritual practice. We have this vision of the Buddha as a renunciate. He was a renunciate, but he renounced greed, hatred and delusion. He renounced his possessions. But he stayed incredibly engaged in the societal issues of his times. He spoke out against racism and sexism, war, hatred and violence.

So, my practice arises simultaneously through the intention to purify my own mind and heart and to find freedom, along with the intention of discovering how I can use the freedom that I find to serve others. These two things have to be married, in my mind, in any kind of mature spiritual life.

The Buddha pointed out that there is suffering. This is the credo of punk rock. There is suffering and we don’t like it; it sucks! The Buddha took it a step further and said, “Yes. And there is a cause of that suffering and there is a solution, an end to it, in the individual.” Ultimately, I believe that there always has been and always will be corruption and suffering in the world. And I am not waiting for that corruption and suffering to end before I end my personal struggles. Punk made me aware of political injustice and Buddhism has taught me how to respond to it skillfully.

JM   Many people committed to spiritual practice struggle with the ideas of living as a monk versus staying in the world, or celibacy versus having a family. I wonder where you are at in that. And do you think that it is a struggle that can be resolved?

NL   At one point, I thought I would become a monk, but I just wasn’t ready. Too much attachment, too much fear. Unresolved relationship issues in my life. So, I was in the monastery and it was just awful. It was painful to be there and not really be surrendered to being there. I may have been able to stick it out. I don’t know. But I didn’t.

I came home and felt very committed to being in the world and being of service. I started working in the jails and prisons, with my community and my generation. I thought, “This is it for me.” But then a couple of years ago, when I was on a three-month retreat, about halfway through the retreat, I was really getting a deeper and deeper sense of my spiritual experience. My mind went totally toward monasticism. I felt, “This is so great. Why would I want to do anything else with the rest of my life? Why not just live in robes? How can I organize my life to live in robes and practise full-time?”

So, no, I don’t think it is resolved within me. I will say that for the most part, I am leaning much more toward being a householder, living in the world, being in relationship.

I would like to speak to this question on another level, too, though. On the level that we have in the West, this delusion of Buddhist practice, of spiritual practice, as needing to be one of pseudo-renunciation. We have this idea that if I am going to do spiritual practice, I need to live incredibly simply and I can’t have money or nice things. I think that is really wrong. I have had that attitude a lot myself. One of my teachers told me recently that actually the Buddha said “Renounce everything and become a monk or a nun or if that is not your karma, if you’re going to live in the world and be a householder, don’t skimp to the point where you’re struggling all of the time. Where you don’t have anything extra to offer to anyone else.”

I don’t feel like I have all of the answers about this, but I feel pretty passionately that if you are not going to be a monastic and you’re in the world, work! And do something that is of service to others. And use your life’s energy to benefit other people. Use the money that you have in a skillful way. Don’t think that you have to be broke. Love what you love. Have enough to share.

JM   I would like to hear briefly your story about meeting the Dalai Lama.

NL   He came to a meeting of all of the Buddhist teachers in the West in 2000 at Spirit Rock. I was there as Ram Dass’s attendant, pushing him around in his wheelchair. You had to be teaching for ten years or something to be at the conference, so they kind of snuck me in as Dass’s attendant.

One day, when the Dalai Lama was leaving the room after teaching, I was standing there and he was walking by blessing people that he came to and I was bowed, with my hands together in the prayer position. I was excited, knowing he was going to come and bow to me. And actually, when he approached me, he grabbed my hands in his and he saw the tattoo of Buddha and the tattoo of Krishna and Tara and some Tibetan images that I have and he looked right back into my eyes. My whole body was vibrating as he looked back at my arms and back up into my eyes and then he just says, “Very colourful!” And I just start cracking up. And everybody is cracking up and I am kind of, almost, leaving my body. It is just an overwhelming experience – the Dalai Lama is grabbing my arms and talking to me and making a joke about my tattoos. It was a powerful experience for me. Just a beautiful gift.

JM   Like you said, most people don’t come to spiritual practice from a place of peace looking for more peace. Sometimes we have to face some very difficult things about ourselves. What would you say to young people who are starting to engage in some kind of practice?

NL   The Buddha said that this path is “against the stream.” It is not natural. It’s not easy. It takes tremendous effort and most people will never do it, because it is too subtle and difficult. But that is why we need to have the fellowship of the sangha, in the Buddhist term. Our generation has lived through the Cold War and Reaganomics and the birth, death and maybe rebirth of punk rock. To actually have a whole crew of punk rockers, or Generation Xers or Ys or whatever it is now…Wow!

There is something incredibly special about having a community of spiritual rebels. Spiritual revolutionaries. Being a punk rock Buddhist is really fucking lonely. I did it for ten years on my own. The only one, the only young person, the only tattooed person, the only punker at the meditation retreats. I wanted the teachings so bad that I didn’t care. But I must admit that I do care! I love the fact that I have a community. That is why I wrote the book. To take the hippy, peace-loving stigma off of spiritual practice. To say that punks can do this. Punks maybe even have a head start because they understand suffering so well. Buddhist practice is simple, but it takes the courage of a warrior.


John Malkin hosts a weekly radio program on Free Radio Santa Cruz (www.freakradio.org.) every Wednesday evening at 7 p.m. (PST). The program explores social change and spiritual growth, nonviolence and anarchy. Free Radio Santa Cruz is a commercial-free, all-volunteer radio station that has been broadcasting for nine years without a license from the US government. John is currently editing a book of interviews and writing a book on punk rock and Buddhism.

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