Noah Levine (is What This Article is About)

I was living in Japan when my first book Hardcore Zen came out. I went to visit my sister in Knoxville, Tennessee just a couple of weeks after it was released. While I was in Knoxville I suggested we go to the local Barnes and Noble and see if the book was there yet. I thought it would be fun to see it on the shelves at a store.

When I got to the Eastern Religions section at B&N, I did not find any copies of Hardcore Zen. But I did find a book called Dharma Punx by Noah Levine. I was flabbergasted.

I had no idea what to make of it. You know how whenever a big blockbuster movie comes out a bunch of imitations of that movie start showing up on Netflix — or, in those bygone days, at the video stores? Like a new Star Wars movie comes out and all of a sudden there’s a bunch of knock-offs with titles like Space Wars or whatever. After it was announced that Steven Spielberg was doing Jurassic Park, schlock producer Roger Corman rushed his own dinosaur movie into production and Corman’s film Carnosaur ended up being released before Jurassic Park.

I remember thinking, Did someone do that with Hardcore Zen? But why? There was no indication Hardcore Zen was going to be a major seller. Why would anyone rush out a knock-off of it? I didn’t really think that’s what happened, but there was no other explanation I could come up with at the time.

I had been practicing Zen for around twenty years by the time Hardcore Zen came out. In all that time, I had not met one single other person who was into both Buddhism and punk. Not one.

And yet here was this book with a similar looking cover to mine, a similar sounding title to mine, apparently it was new, so it came out at the same time as mine. What the f— was going on?

It turns out my book was Carnosaur and Noah’s book was Jurassic Park. I later discovered that the forthcoming release of Dharma Punx had been the talk of the Buddhist publishing world for about a year before it came out. Noah’s dad, Stephen Levine, was a very big deal in that world, apparently. His son, Noah, had gotten a hefty advance from HarperOne, a major publisher, who were banking on Dharma Punx to be a bestseller.

Wisdom Publications denies this, but here’s what I think happened. My book showed up in their slush pile just as all this Dharma Punx hype was heating up. And they saw a chance to put out a book to ride on the coattails of Dharma Punx. Come on. It’s just too damned obvious.

When reviews for Hardcore Zen started appearing, my book was constantly being compared to his. In fact, at least two times I found articles on the Internet in which pictures of Noah Levine were labeled as “Brad Warner.” So I started following Noah’s career from afar.

It became clear that someone was trying to start a movement based around Noah Levine and his book. Dharma Punx centers started appearing here and there. There was a lot of merchandise showing up.

Meanwhile I was still in Japan, not doing very much to promote my book. It did OK even so. It certainly sold more copies than I ever expected.

About a year after Hardcore Zen came out, I moved to Los Angeles. This had nothing to do with the book. The company I worked for in Tokyo decided they wanted to have a branch office in LA and that I would run it.

Maybe six to nine months after I moved to LA I met someone who told me about this place called Hill Street Center in Santa Monica. It was a non-denominational meditation center where several people taught weekly classes in different styles of meditation. I decided to take a chance and I started teaching Zen there on Thursday nights.

I was paying, I think, something like $250 a month to rent the space. I’d get between five and seven people each class. They’d drop between $10 and $40 a month into the little collection basket. But that was OK because I was getting paid a real good salary and I could afford to lose some money on an expensive hobby. After I lost that job, some other folks from our group got together picked up the tab for renting the space.

Around this time, the Hill Street Center invited Noah Levine to do a talk there. I had never met him at that point, so I decided to go see what was up. When I got there the place was packed.

The Hill Street Center could accommodate a maximum of about twenty people comfortably. You might’ve been able to pack thirty in there if you really pushed it. I’m probably recalling this wrong. But I remember thinking they must have had between 75 and 100 people shoved into the place to hear Noah Levine. It was definitely a fire hazard. I couldn’t even get inside the main room. I think I listened from the kitchen.

When Noah arrived he was accompanied by a bunch of dudes. I remember thinking it looked like the so-called “Memphis Mafia,” the boys who tagged along behind Elvis everywhere he went. Noah Levine was a star and he comported himself like one.

After a while, like after a few years, I started traveling around doing lectures and running retreats. More and more of those Dharma Punx centers started popping up. They changed their name to Against The Stream (ATS) at some point. Sometimes I’d get asked to speak at these centers. I spoke at Dharma Punx/ATS centers in Nashville, Houston, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and maybe a few others.

Noah moved from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles and pretty soon he had two centers in the LA area, one in Hollywood and one in Santa Monica. Now we were in direct competition, I guess. But whereas I usually spoke to audiences in LA of ten to fifteen people, Noah was packing ‘em in at his centers. Wherever he went it was an event.

For a while I did a regular monthly speaking gig at the ATS center in Hollywood. What was funny was, every time I did one of those talks at ATS Hollywood I’d get paid between $75 and $100. So there I was, still paying to run my own little meditation group in Santa Monica, but when I’d speak at Noah’s place I’d actually get paid. Which was nice. But weird.

I did OK in Europe, by the way. I did OK in other parts of the US and Canada too. A lot more people have always shown up when I’ve spoken anywhere else but Los Angeles. They still do. I have no idea why.

Even so, my audiences everywhere were always much smaller than Noah Levine’s anywhere he spoke. Noah was an A-lister on the spirituality scene, a major star. By comparison, I was like one of those guys you sometimes see doing bit parts on sitcoms. Noah Levine was Ross on Friends. I was the guy who sometimes showed up as a random customer at Central Perk and had two lines.

But my books still sold well. Not like Noah’s, but I did all right. I had a following. It’s been good. Overall I’m pretty happy with my status. Like the guys who play the occasional bit parts on sitcoms, I make a decent living without all the hassles of being actually famous.

So I still watched Noah’s career with some curiosity. Trying to figure out what the deal was. He started doing things I would never do.

For example, he did teacher training seminars. I think they call them “meditation facilitator” trainings. The course is advertised as being one year long. But students don’t really study together for a full 365 days. They actually meet about once every two months for around 3-5 days. The fee for this is something like $4500. That doesn’t include travel and accommodations, by the way. Apparently there’s a more advanced level of training available for graduates of that one. You pay more for the advanced class, I’m told. I’m probably getting the details of this all wrong, so please don’t quote me.

For a long time, I figured that was the thing that would end up bringing Against The Stream down one day. I could not imagine sending a bunch of people I barely knew out into the world to run centers under my authorization. What happens if the guy who runs Hardcore Zen Mombasa gets caught dealing drugs, or the guy who heads up Hardcore Zen Podgorica turns out to be a sex pest? There’s no way I’d want to franchise myself like that. I kept thinking that at some point the whole ATS thing was going to collapse when something like that happened. Instead, Against The Stream got brought down by a sex scandal involving Noah Levine and will close its doors later this month.

If you believe what you read on the Internets, Noah was pulling in $200,000 a year from ATS, as well as some more money in fees for the outside events he did at yoga festivals and what-not, plus his private consultations and so on. I can’t vouch for those claims. But I can tell you that my income does not come anywhere close to that. Not even in the same ball park.

But I guess that’s what happens when you franchise a spiritual center and franchise yourself as its public face. You make loads of money. And maybe you deserve loads of money. Because there’s got to be tremendous pressure on you when you run a thing like that.

I couldn’t take that kind of pressure. I’d collapse in a minute, no matter how much I got paid to do it. Which is one major reason why I wouldn’t do it. Believe me, I would not mind making 20 grand a year plus perks. Just think of the basses I could buy. I might even be able to afford a place I could fit them in! But I’m not up to dealing with the kind of stress involved in getting to that point.

Plus I’ve got no ambition. I don’t have any desire to be that famous or even that wealthy. I don’t feel like I’ve got any kind of burning message that the whole gosh darned world just needs to hear, or that much stuff I just have to buy. If the world needs to hear my message, they’ll find it themselves. And if they don’t need it, then they’re better off  without it. Plus, I’ve got too much stuff as it is.

I think the world actually needs what Against The Stream is offering more than they need what I’m offering. ATS has done tremendous things. I meet people all the time who’ve gotten off drugs and alcohol and have turned their lives around because of ATS. These are people who would never have been able to do that any other way.

The people who write big exposés about Noah on the Internets don’t seem to give a shit about that. They apparently couldn’t care less about all the people ATS has helped over the years. Hits are everything, as my friend Pirooz Kalayeh says. Frothy exposés about fallen spiritual masters always get the hits.

If it seems like I’m talking smack about Noah here, I’m not. I have no idea in the world if he’s guilty of whatever the hell he’s being accused of. I don’t even know what he’s being accused of. Nobody will say! But I do know that he put himself out there and took on a huge burden and, in doing so, he did a lot of people a lot of good. A lot more good than yet another lurid exposé on a spiritual teacher gone bad ever did anybody.

Maybe one day we’ll find out what he was accused of and maybe I’ll regret having said that. But for now, based on the information currently available, that’s my stance. I’m sure I might as well have painted a target on my back by saying that. But I already wrote my own exposé on myself years ago. So there.

I guess what I am trying to say is that, in spite of all the frequent comparisons between us — I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve seen on American Buddhism wherein my entire career is summed up as a half-sentence footnote to Noah Levine — Noah and I are not that much alike. We’re very different sorts of people who do very different things. Sure, we both came out of the American punk rock scene and got into Buddhism. But that’s about where the similarity ends.

Like, for example, I’ve been to a few lectures of Noah’s. And they’re all right. But I always wonder where the Buddhism is at. All I’ve ever seen him do is the equivalent of Buddha’s greatest hits. I’m more into the deep cuts and the bootlegs. I don’t want to hear Something or I Want to Hold Your Hand for the 151st time. I want to hear the unreleased version where George swears at Paul all the way through the solo — y’know? Like I don’t need yet another lecture on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

But, see, I’m not Noah’s audience. His audience has never heard that stuff before. It resonates with them. It surprises them! What they’re looking for isn’t the intricacies of deeper Buddhist philosophy. They want to know how to get their lives in order after they’ve spent years trashing everyone and everything around them.

And Noah can talk about that because he’s been there. I haven’t. I’m impotent in that area. I’ve got nothing to say to a guy who lost his kids and ended up in jail because he couldn’t stay away from cocaine. Noah can talk to that guy in that guy’s own language. And that’s important. We need people like that.

Maybe he’s kind of a dick too. Or maybe he’s worse than just kind of a dick. Again, I don’t even know what he is being accused of. But, for now, I’ll go with kind of a dick. Maybe being kind of a dick is part of what makes him able to do what he does for the people that need him. There’s no evidence, or even accusations that I’ve heard that indicates that he teaches other people to be dicks. On the contrary, he seems to be instilling good values, even if — allegedly — he doesn’t always practice those values himself.

With jerks like the Buddhist Geeks and others using the good name of Buddhism to push a twisted philosophy about getting stoned out of your mind on hard drugs, hell, I’d take Noah Levine any time over that. Even if he is a dick. Maybe if the Buddhist Geeks had a sex scandal someone in American Buddhism would complain about them. But for now, I am alone in calling them out. Same as I was with Genpo Roshi up until there was a sex scandal.

I think this latest development will probably turn out to be positive overall for the folks involved in ATS. Their thing was getting too big and it was always much too reliant on the personality of Noah Levine. That’s a very Christian way of doing things, actually. The 19th century Christian evangelist Harry Ward Beecher wrote that, “The Parsee (Zoroastrian) and the Buddhist believe in a system more than in a person. What Plato taught is more important than who Plato was… Not so Christianity. Christianity is faith in Christ.” Maybe now the former ATS teachers can focus more on Buddhism as a system rather than worry about Noah as a personal savior who they depend upon to be always kind and pure of heart.

 Smaller, more independent centers will be better able to cater to the specific needs of their immediate communities. That will also be an improvement, I think.

I wish all the folks at the former Against The Stream the best. If any of you are reading this and would like to talk to me, please write me an email at bw@hardcorezen.info. Noah included, of course.

ADDENDUM

Sometimes I think certain things are so obvious that they don’t even need to be said. But sometimes I’m wrong and I find out I need to say things that, to me, are obvious.

And if that sounds snarky, I’m sorry. I actually feel bad that this was not apparent from my other writings. So here goes.

I am glad to see that the accusations of sexual misconduct against Noah Levine were taken very seriously by the folks at Against The Stream. As soon as they heard these allegations, they suspended him from teaching. Then they launched an independent investigation, which, I’m sure cost them some serious money. There is also a police investigation. And finally, there was the outcome of all that stuff which ended in the dissolution of the organization.

That is folks taking allegations of sexual misconduct damned seriously!

This contrasts with the way stuff like this has been handled in the past. No one outside of the immediate circles of Joshu Sasaki’s organization was aware of the allegations against Sasaki until long after Sasaki ceased being able to grope anyone. No one heard about Eido Shimano’s abusive behavior until it was far too late to do anything much about it. Then there’s the Catholic Church! Don’t even get me started on that!

When I have expressed regret about the loss of ATS, it doesn’t have anything to do with wanting everybody to take it easy on Noah Levine. And even if I did want that, what difference would it make?

I stayed silent on the matter until very late in the game because 1) it was really none of my damned business and 2) it seemed like the folks whose business it was were on top of things.

I keep getting accused of being unsympathetic to the folks harmed by Noah Levine. But it’s hard to be sympathetic to anonymous people and to stories that are so vague they could just about be anything. I can’t find much in there to be sympathetic to.

I don’t waste my precious time looking at Internet forums full of rumors. I won’t publicly report vague allegations I hear from third or fourth parties as if they were facts or even aid in spreading such rumors. And, anyway, why would I need to? It’s being done very efficiently without my help.

I can say for certain that Noah headed up an organization that helped a lot of people. That is a significant thing. I have also publicly speculated that he acted like a dick. I don’t think these kinds of allegations would exist unless there was something behind them.

I trust that karma will take care of all of this. As it will take care of me for being so unsympathetic to people who I don’t know and whose stories I have not heard.

 

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