The Buddha Was a Punk Rocker
The Satya Interview with Noah Levine

Now he's got questions?

Noah Levine

The book title characterizes its author well: Dharma Punx (HarperCollins), the story of Noah Levine, who spent years of his youth in prison for his involvement in crime, drugs, and violence—a path shaped in part by his rebellious nature and affinity for punk rock, and sometimes getting caught up in the ‘wrong crowd.’

At 17, after multiple suicide attempts and having hit an emotional rock bottom, he gave meditation a shot, with instructions from his father, bestselling author and Buddhist meditation teacher Stephen Levine. Noah has now been practicing Buddhism for 15 years, and he teaches meditation classes in prisons and juvenile halls, in some cases combining meditation with individual psychotherapy to help inmates work through the experiences that got them there, and/or the obstacles keeping them there.

Ready to share his story, he wrote Dharma Punx with the hope that others will find inspiration to transform negative, destructive emotions and anger into positive energy, and steer their lives toward being more compassionate.

While in New York for a brief visit, Noah Levine sat down with Rachel Cernansky to talk about his life’s path leading up to and following his ‘transformation’ 15 years ago, the prison meditation programs he’s co-founded with friends and, of course, his book.

Can you describe what experiences led you to Buddhism, and to writing Dharma Punx?
I was incarcerated as a teenager, and was introduced to Buddhist meditation while I was incarcerated; I’ve now been practicing for a little over 15 years. Although I had grown up with Buddhist and spiritual practitioners (my dad’s a meditation teacher), I was totally not interested in it. And then, out of a place of extreme drug addiction and violence—feeling pain and hopelessness—I came to start opening my mind to the possibility of meditation. I started practicing, and it was very powerful. I was shocked that meditation practice worked, for momentary relief from the craziness of my mind and the pain that I was experiencing, based on fear of the future, prison and court, and regret of the past.

Simultaneously, I realized—admitted—that I was a drug addict, and got into 12-step recovery. I was 17 at the time. Over the years my practice developed, and my teachers encouraged me to start teaching, working with teenagers. So I ended up going back to the same juvenile hall that I had been incarcerated in 10 years earlier.

People that knew me [were saying], “Wow, something happened to you over the years—you used to be so angry, and you’ve been doing this spiritual practice and it seems to have worked. Maybe you can teach us about it.” So that’s part of why I wrote the book, to inspire other young people; to take some of the stigma off of Buddhism as being for hippies or some Asian mystical, unacceptable tradition. I had a lot of other intentions as well—to give some hope to the older generation that there are reasons for all this rebellion and dissatisfaction. And also, having been involved in a 12-step recovering community for so long, I hoped to inspire my peers in recovery to take meditation more seriously, to find a greater spiritual freedom.

Can you characterize how you integrate Buddhism and your punk ethic?
Over the years I’ve come to see the intention or foundation of both punk rock and Buddhism as so similar, as being this energy of dissatisfaction. The Buddha was dissatisfied with the ordinary suffering of life and wanted to find freedom from that suffering. I think that the punk movement is founded on that same dissatisfaction—that all of this oppression and inequality and political corruption sucks!

So the first part of my life was focused on rebelling outwardly. As I’ve gotten involved in spiritual principles it feels very much like this inner rebellion—that outward dissatisfaction is a core dissatisfaction that’s in me—is turning that energy inward, to purifying the greed and hatred and delusion within myself, and doing what I can to alleviate it in the world and help others find the tools and practices. Buddhism definitely helps much more towards the solution than punk rock does, which is one of the reasons why I’m doing my best to popularize that.

The Buddha said question everything, all the time. It’s not based on blind faith. Find out for yourself if it’s true. He was anti-racist, anti-sexist, letting women in when other spiritual traditions weren’t; breaking down the caste barrier. There were a lot of ways he was doing this revolutionary thing that punk, in its own confused way, is also trying to point towards—breaking down racism and sexism and oppression. The Buddha said the path that brought him to enlightenment was against the stream. I’ve gone against the current of greed and delusion. I’ve purified my own mind through mindfulness and concentration. I doubt that others will do it because it’s so counter-instinctual. People are so attached, so confused, so deluded; who is going to really go for it? And so there was a period of doubt—do I really want to bother myself with trying to teach people this simple and profound path?

What kind of responses have you gotten from different audiences?

It’s been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been contacted a lot by my peers—punk rockers in their 30s, 40s—who’ve said, “This is incredible, I’ve been looking for some way to channel this.” And, somewhat surprisingly, a lot of teenagers have been writing me, saying, “I can see myself going down the path you went down, and I realize that I have a choice to not blindly rebel, and actually channel some of this energy in positive directions.”
Even the Buddhists for the most part have been really pleased, it seems, with hearing Dharma offered through a personal experience.

They don’t feel you’ve compromised the traditional values or belief system?
I haven’t gotten that feedback—I’m sure some people feel that way, that this kid is going to corrupt it—but most of the book reviews and the Buddhist magazines have been fairly positive.

The truth is, I don’t want to change Buddhism. If anything, I get a little adversarial with some of the Buddhist traditions that I feel have changed the teachings of the Buddha. I’m somewhat of a traditionalist, I say the Buddha’s Dharma is perfect. But I feel the way it is offered and taught is inaccessible to a lot of Americans, a lot of westerners, so I feel passionate about making the four truths of the Buddha accessible, without changing or watering it down. It’s almost like being a translator.

Do you think kids listen because you have the history that you do?
I do think that, but I also see other people doing the same classes who don’t have that personal history and getting similar responses. I think maybe it’s a little easier for me to tap in, the way I look—with all the tattoos, etc.—they trust me a little more quickly. But I think it’s the meditation practice itself they respond to, when they see, I don’t have to live in fear of the future, I don’t have to live in regret of the past. I can be in the present.

It seems like prison meditation programs have been catching on, which is surprising, to me at least.
Yeah, it is a bit surprising. For the last couple of years, I’ve been shifting my focus from the juvenile program to working at San Quentin Prison, and with adult inmates, again with several intentions—one, knowing with my own life experience that the institutions are one of the best places for me to be of service, because I can connect with inmates in a way not many people can. Also, you usually get really limited contact in the juvenile facilities before they’re shipped off to another facility. But working in the prisons, I can have more long-term relationships with the guys. That’s been incredible, I’ve worked with some guys for a couple years and they’re really serious about their meditation.

Recently, I was also in the process of finishing my Masters degree in counseling and psychology, and I started doing individual psychotherapy with inmates. That was really powerful: going from the group setting to doing one on one, with both the meditation techniques and psychotherapy—exploring how they can have a deeper understanding of what has happened and what they need to do in order to be free, on many levels—free from prison, free from the trauma of the past.

You’ve mentioned the future several times and looking ahead, whereas meditation is based on the now, keeping focus on the present moment. How do you integrate these?
Definitely meditation is focused on the now, the practice is cultivating present-time awareness. But the second factor on the eightfold path of Buddhism is ‘right intention;’ to be aware of what’s arising in our mind and body in the present, there also has to be the right intention, which points towards intentions for the future—which direction are we steering our lives—which is incredibly important.

Are there one or two specific stories of kids who you’ve witnessed a real transformation in, or cases that illustrate the efficacy of the program?
This guy from San Quentin comes to mind, Patrick, he’s been incarcerated [on and off] since he was a teenager—he’s in his late 30s. We had 11 months of meditation and psychotherapy together. He got really into it—looking at purification of his karma, understanding the dynamics in his childhood that created the anger and fear that led him to crime. He got out of prison about four months ago—he wasn’t done with his work on any level, but had a really good start at being involved in meditation and yoga, psychology—and continued to do his own classes. When the Dalai Lama came to New York this year, he wanted to meet with people doing prison work and some inmates, and Patrick was chosen.

That was amazing to him. He’s totally inspired. He’s an African American guy from the projects in San Francisco and has never had that kind of experience. So it makes me feel great about the work that I do, how important it is, even though I only connect with about 100 people out of the 6,000 in San Quentin.

Do you have ideas for how this can be implemented on a bigger scale?
No. I don’t really think in those terms. I mean I do, but broader scale change is really about empowering and inspiring individuals to use all their life’s energy to benefit the self and others; to do their own practice and then say, how can I also be of service with my life. The more people start doing this kind of work rather than pursuing their own wealth, then the broader scale changes. But it has to happen inside, with each person.

The Dalai Lama talked about that in a panel discussion here in New York—“Ethical Revolution and Communications”—saying that compassion has to start with the individual and that society isn’t going to change unless people themselves change first. And in response, Susan Sarandon made a great comment: if people were told they’d lose weight by being compassionate, it would really catch on—the Compassionate Diet.

Yeah, just how self-centered we are, how we have to get something out of it physically, monetarily, something.

I guess what that points to is that people don’t understand just how much they will get out of it, how important it is to care about others, to be compassionate.

I think that is one of the greatest lessons meditation has to teach.
For sure. And the more we understand ourselves and can respond more compassionately towards our own suffering, then naturally we feel that this is universal, I’m not the only one with a judgmental mind, the only one that has all of this desire—everybody’s like that.

What does your father think of the work you’re doing?
He’s totally supportive, encouraging, and really proud. He once said to me something like, “I know pride isn’t really the healthiest emotion”—you know, from our spiritual conditioning—“but I definitely have an unhealthy sense of pride for the work that you do.”

Prisons aren’t known for being tranquil or relaxing, and conditions are not conducive for meditation—especially when you’re first learning the practice. How do you create an environment in your classes to counteract that?
One of the things I do is set down ground rules. The groups that I do are always multiracial, even though the prisons are very segregated. Right away, I set up that you leave the racism and the political structure of prison life outside when you come into the meditation group, that it’s nonviolent.

Prison is not a safe environment. And me coming in to teach meditation isn’t necessarily going to make it a safe environment. Guys come into the meditation class concerned that if they get spiritual, they’re going to be vulnerable to attack, that someone’s going to get them if they commit themselves to nonviolence. When it comes down to it and there’s a race riot, if you don’t fight for your race, your race is gonna kill you. You’re going to have to make your own decision. Understand the consequences of those decisions—you’ve gotten yourself into hell, and now you’re trying to practice spirituality in hell. I don’t go in there saying I have all the answers. I say that I know how to meditate, and it helps me a lot. They try it and they say it helps them too. We try to be realistic: what if you stay in the back during the riot, etc.—kind of a harm reduction model—how can you reduce the harm you do to yourself and others? And how can you find what you’re looking for and save face?

Yeah, it’s tough. The answer seems so easy, in theory—there should be a simple way for a guy to get himself out of that cycle.

Yeah. But actually what happens is the one guy adopts it and then the gang says, you’ve gotta stop, rather than, oh, you found the light, brother. And they kill him. So who knows. No easy solution.

Have you seen relationships improve within the prisons as a result of the meditation classes, people being more at ease with themselves?
Definitely on a one-to-one basis. Some individuals come into the room angry and racist and that starts to break down. As far as actual dynamics within the prison political structure, no. But definitely on a small scale, individuals transforming—becoming kinder, more understanding.

Do you have any regrets?
You know it’s so mixed. I can say no, it was all perfect because it got me to where I needed to be; and then I can reflect on how many people I hurt to get to where I needed to be, and really regret that—causing so much pain, to my family, to friends, to strangers. So it’s both—no I don’t regret it, and yes I totally regret it.

Who are some of your favorite bands?
There’s so many. As I get a little older, I’m much more into early English stuff. I listen to the Clash all the time, it’s a little bit mellower, it’s also got the rock steady reggae influence. A lot of the Ramones. Not a lot of the new bands. In the mid-80s I got really into the hardcore, straight-edge, because it was drug free. Of course there’s always been Minor Threat, Dischord Records, that kind of thing.

We’ve been saying for 15 years that punk’s dead. My perspective on it is that there’s a lot of good bands coming out that are influenced by punk, so it’s not that punk is dead—it’s just not punk anymore. These bands on MTV that call themselves punk rock bands, they’re great music—some of them—but it’s not really punk rock. There’s a few, but very few [laughs]. But that’s what the ‘77 guys were saying about us in ’82, when we were kids. So of course, the old guys always get to say that about the young guys.

Do you have a favorite saying or quote?
There’s a couple that I like: Serve the truth, defy the lie. Kind of like, what am I in service of? What am I in defiance of? There’s a mantra that I call ‘meditate and destroy’ (kind of like the ‘agitate and destroy’ ethic of my childhood): meditate to destroy the confusion. Then there’s this beat that I often use during my walking meditation: “There’s nowhere to go, there’s nothing to do, and there’s no one to be.” And then of course there’s the intention to free all sentient beings.

That’s my next question. Are you a vegetarian?
I was a vegetarian, but almost a year ago I started eating meat again. I was vegetarian for 13 years, vegan for most of it, out of an intention to be compassionate and not cause harm. I was actually very pissed that most of the Buddhists aren’t vegetarian, the majority—the Dalai Lama on down. The Buddha wasn’t, he was a wandering man and took whatever was offered. I started to see that it’s not possible to exist without harming living beings. Now there’s the intentional cruelty of torturing and slaughtering an animal, or there’s the unintentional cruelty of stepping on a bug, or eating a head of broccoli that [caused] maybe a hundred ants [to be] killed. I sort of feel like there’s no such thing as what we know in Hinduism or Buddhism as a karma-free diet; every diet has karma. Every being that lives is based on another being.

That having been said, I think that obviously factory farming is unnecessary cruelty. I feel really awful about whatever level I’ve chosen to participate, with the understanding there’s negative repercussions for participating in anything that you know causes harm. In Buddhism, it’s your own direct action that creates karma, so if you kill an animal, you get that; if somebody else kills it and you eat it, you’re not responsible for their actions. But of course, we know that it’s a lot different now than a thousand years ago when people were raising their own animals. For many of those different reasons and rationalizations I’ve chosen to eat meat again.


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