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Meditate and Destroy 

The punks and "terminal outsiders" using Buddhism to build a community and save their souls.

Wednesday, Nov 18 2015
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"If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him."

—Zen koan

Noah Levine looks like a man who's lived a hard life and survived to talk about it. His shaved head says "I don't give a fuck" more than "Zen monk," although the swirls of Buddhist iconography tattooed on his arms suggest a rebellious serenity. His voice, often punctuated by a mischievous laugh, has the tone of a man more interested in listening to his community than talking over it.

Levine has an irreverence that's rare among self-styled philosophical figureheads. He refers to Buddha as his homeboy, and likes to call Siddhartha, the Buddha's given name, "Sid," after the punk icon Sid Vicious. But this humor was hard-won. As a teenager, Levine spent time living on the streets, addicted to various drugs, and learning firsthand, as the Buddha did, the meaning of suffering. When you have wronged others — even members of your own family — to support a habit, and also feel wronged by society, you have no use for any religion that puts deities on pedestals.

But Buddha was just a man — a man who, like Levine, made mistakes. He was interested in changing his relationship with suffering, which is a philosophy that graduates of the school of hard knocks can get behind.

Now 44, Levine has practiced Buddhism for nearly 30 years and taught meditation for more than 15. He has written four books on Buddhism, addiction, and recovery: Dharma Punx, Against the Stream, Heart of the Revolution, and Refuge Recovery. He's a licensed psychotherapist who runs the Los Angeles rehab facility Refuge Recovery, and he is the founder and leader of Against the Stream, a nonprofit whose certified meditation teachers apply Buddhism to their own lives and stress the idea that no member is an authority.

Similar to the format of Alcoholics Anonymous, another peer-led group, the idea of community, or sangha, is paramount. Mastery and enlightenment are secondary. The point is to "be there" for your community, sit with what's in the room, and respond to what arises.

Buddhism taught Levine how to be self-aware and present, gifts that he hopes to share with others through his work at Against the Stream.

It's catching on. For 12 years, Against the Stream held weekly meetings in a rented room on Third Avenue and Fulton Street in the Richmond District. The space literally overflowed with people — so much so that meditators often had to stand in the hallway.

Having outgrown its previous digs, the organization now has a new home in the Mission — a spacious hall with hardwood floors, tall ceilings, and warm walls. The new center is the culmination of more than $500,000 in community fundraising, a successful Indiegogo campaign, and years of work. The center is community-run, so everything from cleaning to set-up is provided by volunteers. Meditation meetings or daily-sits are donation-based with a suggested $15 contribution, and on weekends there are dharma workshops and retreats offered at suggested-donation rates. This is where terminal outsiders feel supported by a community — a community consisting of similar outcasts.

On a recent visit in October, Levine gives a Dharma Talk (a teaching on a specific aspect of Buddhism) on the subject of impermanence. In some ways, the subject is ironic. Against the Stream has grown into a large group that is now a pillar of the San Francisco Buddhist community. And yet, Levine's talk about impermanence and attachment is rooted in his current experience of going through a divorce. As he talks about how his personal travails affect him, his family, and the emotional attachment or clinging that follows, you can almost feel the community at Against the Stream lean in, reach towards him, and say: I'm sorry for your suffering. This isn't a group that is put off by vulnerability; it's strengthened by it.

Against the Stream attracts a diverse crowd. There are the old-timers, men over 50 who've been practicing together for more than 20 years. (Some lead their own Insight meditation groups that focus on the body, the breath, and consciousness.) There are the "youngs," or people like me who dress straight, in different shades of Banana Republic, and have jobs in tech, law, or business, but who found spirituality missing from their lives. There are the "Eco-Sattvas," a group of Berkeley radicals who are protesting the government's response to climate change. There are the punks, many in recovery, some in hoodies that say "Meditate and Destroy."

In all, it's a hodge-podge of people who are more comfortable challenging authority rather than accepting it. So what accounts for Against the Stream's rise in popularity in such a diverse group of people?

Spirituality is complex. Levine breaks it down into a few simple questions to which he invites answers: What the fuck does this have to do with my life? How can I become a better person?

"There's something in our lineage and probably from the 12 Steps, and that's transparency," Levine says. "Tell the truth, be transparent about where you're at, be self-disclosing about your imperfections and struggles. Sometimes you go to a meditation group and they give a talk, and they're pretending like they're actually living this enlightened thing — and they're totally not. None of them are. But they're not telling you the truth of their struggles, or they're telling you their story from 1974, rather than, you know, 'Yesterday, I flipped someone off in traffic.'"

"That's one of the things that changes the culture, and people are responding to people being transparent, honest, irreverent — it's not very religious," he adds. "We're kind of Anti-Buddhist Buddhists."

Levine's father is Stephen Levine, a well-known Buddhist teacher and the author of A Year to Live, A Gradual Awakening, and Who Dies. The younger Levine grew up steeped in Buddhism and Eastern philosophy. While you could say that the Buddha was in his bones, he resisted it as a teenager because he saw the failures of his parents — including divorce and addiction — and didn't buy into their philosophy.


About The Author

Michelle Threadgould

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