Yesterday I watched a video on Facebook in which Noah Levine dramatically tore up the dharma teacher certificate he received from Spirit Rock.
I’d provide a link to the video, but I’m too inept to figure out how. If you want to watch it for yourself go on Facebook, look up Noah Levine, then find the video that he posted on March 4, 2019.
It takes about an hour for him to get into the stuff about Spirit Rock taking away his authorization to teach. I watched the whole video just before writing this to be sure I hadn’t missed anything significant the first time I watched it yesterday, when I skimmed ahead to the end. I didn’t. You can skip everything up to about the one hour mark if you just want to know what I’m writing about here.
This video really bothered me. It bothered me worse the second time I watched it.
This is how cults begin.
I’m not saying Noah has started a cult or that he’s going to start a cult. This is just how they begin. There’s still plenty of room and time for things to go a completely different direction. But the fact that Noah is taking a major and very public step that strongly resembles what pretty much every cult leader does is really worrisome.
From the earliest days of the Noah Levine phenomenon there has been a group around Noah who, it seems to me, are very much into him specifically. I noticed this the first time I ever saw him speak, which must have been around 2005 or 2006. He was invited to give a talk at the Hill Street Center in Santa Monica where I ran a regular weekly class. I showed up to see what the deal was with the guy.
In those days my classes at Hill Street Center regularly attracted around ten people each week. When Noah Levine showed up, the Hill Street Center was totally packed. It was definitely a fire code violation. The center itself was just a single story, two bedroom house. I literally could not move from where I sat.
When Noah walked in, he was surrounded by a tight group of dudes that reminded me of Elvis Presley’s “Memphis Mafia.” It seemed to me that Noah was a star and that he liked it that way. It also looked like the Spirit Rock organization was promoting him as a star and that Spirit Rock liked it that way too. If Noah has now become too big for Spirit Rock to have any influence on, that’s their own damned fault.
I’ve only seen Noah speak two other times. But both times, there was that little core group around him who looked to me like they were basking in his glory while he, in turn, looked like he was basking in the glory of having that little group around him.
There was also a larger group who, as far as I could tell, weren’t part of the cult of personality. They looked to me like they were there for other reasons. Maybe they were seeking an addiction recovery group that was not based in Christianity like AA and its offshoots. Maybe they were interested in meditation but didn’t like the trappings of traditional Buddhism. Maybe some were just curiosity seekers.
After the events of the past year in which the groups Noah founded (Against the Stream and Refuge Recovery) have disbanded, he’s been denounced all over the Interwebs, and his certification has been taken away, many — maybe most — of the folks who came to Noah’s talks and events for reasons other than being dedicated to Noah himself seem to have gone away. I have to assume that the folks who are left are the ones who are loyal specifically to Noah Levine as an individual. They’re the folks whose main reason for coming was always Noah himself.
I am assuming a lot here. It is within the realm of possibility that I am incorrect about this. But the reason I am making these assumptions is because there is a pattern to these things that repeats itself again and again and again. It’s possible Noah represents a rare exception. Maybe it just happens to look exactly like yet another example of this very common pattern, but it’s not at all what it seems. I doubt that’s the case. But it’s not impossible.
As I say every time I address anything about Noah Levine and the groups he started, I have no inside information. Everything I know about Noah and the stuff surrounding him comes third hand, mostly from reading articles and watching videos.
What I saw on that video looked disturbingly like a cult leader taking control of his cult. After reading Spirit Rock’s announcement of the termination of his authorization as a dharma teacher, Noah takes the certificate he received from them and theatrically tears it up while making sarcastic statements about his appreciation for being given the certificate and how he returns it “while asking for forgiveness.”
The audience laughs and applauds.
Noah is now fully in command. Noah, and no one but Noah.
As he tosses the tattered remains of the certificate into a large metal Buddhist bell, Noah declares that he is now “officially a rogue, an outlaw, a dharma rebel.”
I don’t know where this stuff is going, but the direction it appears to me to be to be pointing is not a good one.
Maybe I’m taking this too hard. Maybe I’m reacting like this because all the time I have been doing what I do I have worked hard at not allowing myself to become the center of a cult of personality.
I remember being very concerned about this just after Hardcore Zen was accepted for publication. I had a long talk with Nishijima Roshi about Dogen’s many admonishments against pursuing fame and profit. I didn’t want to lose what I had been fortunate enough to receive from my teachers by getting seduced by money and celebrity. I did not want to turn into what Noah used to himself, a “dharmalebrity.”
One way I did this was to always keep in touch with my teachers and to try to remain receptive to advice and criticism from other older teachers who I respected. Nishijima Roshi is dead now, so I can’t ask him for guidance anymore. But my first teacher is still alive and I talk to him often. Along the way I’ve met some other teachers who I respect enough to listen to, like Tonen O’Connor, former head of the Milwaukee Zen Center and Zuiko Redding of the Cedar Rapids Zen Center.
I do not look upon any of these teachers as infallible or incapable of error. I never take anything they say as a directive that must be obeyed. But I do listen. I listen because I know that my own ego is powerful and that I can be easily taken in by it. I can even feel like I’m being completely honest and objective when it’s really just me believing what I want to believe and ignoring what’s actually happening.
I’ve seen it happen many times where someone gets some level of spiritual authority and then decides they have it all figured out, that they no longer need to listen to anyone anymore. Certain states you can get into in meditation seem to make a person especially susceptible to their own bullshit. When you notice that you and God are really not two different things, you can mistakenly begin to believe that you are God.
But it doesn’t even need to go that direction. It’s also possible to become deeply cynical. When you notice that nothing means what you used to think it meant, you can begin to believe there’s no meaning anywhere at all. You can start to believe that you can make up your own criteria. Why not?
The poem Harmony of Difference and Equality says, “Hearing the words, understand the meaning; don’t set up standards of your own.” It is vital never to set up standards of your own.
I sincerely hope that I am mistaken about Noah Levine. I think he has a lot that is valuable to offer to people who would not accept Buddhism from anyone else.
But if there is anything true in the allegations against Noah — and I suspect there must be — then him tearing up that certificate is something I cannot view as anything but another act of aggression against the people who have been harmed by his behavior. I also feel like Spirit Rock is a pretty messed up organization in light of their support of Vince Horn’s psychedelic Buddhist nonsense. It may be for the best for Noah to walk away from them. But I hope he finds someone else he can trust to call him on his own bullshit. If not, it’s gonna get really ugly.
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