Noah Levine Vs. Jack Kornfield

Noah Levine and Jack Kornfield in happier days.

On February 22, 2019, two days ago as I write this, Jack Kornfield and the Spirit Rock organization announced that, “(Noah) Levine is no longer part of the Spirit Rock teaching lineage, no longer enjoys the support of its teachers, and may no longer claim any association or connection with Spirit Rock or Dr. Kornfield. We further recommend that Mr. Levine cease all Buddhist or meditation teaching and dedicate his energy to the rehabilitation of his own heart. Mr. Levine’s repetitive and continued behavior, outlined by multiple sources, would be completely inappropriate for anyone, let alone an individual privileged to be an authorized Spirit Rock teacher.”

The following day, Noah put up a post on Instagram directing his Insta-followers to an article on a website called American Buddhist. The article is entitled, “Sorry Spirit Rock, We Don’t Buy It: What Did Noah Levine Do? Baby Boomer Buddhists Innuendo Filled Statement and Illegal Investigative Methods Add up to Nothing…” In that article, they speculate that, “there is nothing in the reports (about Noah by Against the Stream and Spirit Rock, which so far have not been made public) to implicate Levine in a financial or sexual crime. All accusation and no evidence. There is nothing of substance in the reports. No sexual harassment. No sexual assault. No rape. No theft. No misuse of funds.”

“How do we know that?” they ask. “Simple legal logic,” they answer themselves. “If the reports by either ATS (Against the Stream) or Spirit Rock contained any factual credible criminal accusations against Levine that rose to the level of sexual harassment, assault or rape Levine would be charged by now. Both ATS and Spirit Rock are obligated legally to report any credible accusations to the proper legal authorities. According to the LAPD investigator of the single police report filed accusing Levine ‘… no charges are being pursued’.”

They go on to say, “the verdict rendered against Mr. Levine was decided by teachers who may be friends, professional rivals or spurned lovers of the accused. These teachers may carry deep religious and generational biases about how buddhist teachers ‘should’ act”

In the comments section of Noah’s Instagram post someone says, “Dude, fuck Spirit Rock. That was never our scene. Just keep doing what you do.”

To which Noah replied, “Yep, agreed. And I plan on it.”

My first impression: This is some nutty stuff!

As I’ve said before, I don’t know Noah Levine. All I know about him is what I read in the funny papers, just like everybody else.

He’s apparently been accused of wrongdoing, both sexual and financial. But the details have never been officially released. The report by ATS was leaked and formed the basis for an investigative article published on the Internet. You can find that stuff pretty easily if you Google around. I don’t like taking a public stand on information I can’t personally verify, so I’ll let you find it yourself and draw your own conclusions. I’m gonna stick to what the parties themselves are willing to put their names to. I’ll assume, since Noah recommended the piece by American Buddhist, that it represents something close to how he would be inclined to defend himself.

The first line of defense the authors of the American Buddhist piece put up is that Spirit Rock’s statement is “fact-free, utterly vague and over-the-top.” Spirit Rock’s statement says that in March of 2018 they learned of, “allegations of rape, sexual harassment and other misconduct against Mr. Levine.” But that’s as specific as they get. So it’s correct to say that the Spirit Rock statement is vague and doesn’t add any facts.

But after that, their defense of Noah Levine gets really dicey, in my opinion.

The insinuation that Noah’s accusers may be professional rivals or spurned lovers is just weird. Talk about vague and fact-free! But it’s the American Buddhist article’s statement that, “These teachers may carry deep religious and generational biases about how buddhist teachers ‘should’ act” that really bugs me.

Noah says he plans to keep doing what he does. This is, of course, his prerogative.

No one needs the support of a Buddhist organization — or that of any institution in any religion — to be a teacher of deeper spiritual truths and a guide and friend to those who are seeking that sort of thing. There are plenty of highly regarded teachers out there with no connection to any religious order. I’m quite fond of Jiddu and U.G. Krishnamurti, who were never affiliated with any religious tradition but still said some very profound stuff.

But being a Buddhist teacher is a whole other thing.

Being a Buddhist teacher is, in fact, all about “deep religious and generational biases about how buddhist teachers ‘should’ act.”

I guess this statement was intended to make us feel like the Baby Boomer teachers at Spirit Rock are old and out of touch. But Buddhism is a very old tradition. Part of what you’re signing on for if you accept ordination as a Buddhist teacher is that you are going to uphold an ancient and rather conservative tradition. You’re signing on to a tradition that existed for over 2,500 years before the Baby Boom generation. Baby Boomers aren’t even babies as far as the Buddhist tradition is concerned.

As I said in my book Hardcore Zen, the difference between going it alone or signing up to be a Buddhist teacher is kind of like the difference between having your own burger stand or holding a McDonald’s franchise. If you choose to go it alone in the burger business, you may do very well or you may fail. Either way, you’ll have to do all of your own PR, design your own logo, pay for your own advertising, and so on. On the other hand, if you’re a McDonald’s franchise holder, you get all the benefits of the McDonald’s reputation and publicity machine. But, in order to take advantage of that, you have to do things the Mickey D way. You can’t be a “rebel McDonald’s” that serves char-grilled burgers on whole wheat buns instead of Big Macs and cherry egg creams instead of Shamrock Shakes.

I’ve struggled with this myself. I’ve had to find a way to uphold the Zen Buddhist tradition while somehow expressing my own unique understanding of what that tradition means to me. I’ve had to deal with older folks who think I’m not doing things the right way or I’m not saying what I ought to be saying. I’ve had to explain myself a lot.

So far, I’ve hung in there. Just barely, sometimes. On many occasions I’ve been tempted to burn my credentials and go it alone. Like Noah Levine, I’ve probably got enough of a fan base to do that by now. But I haven’t… yet.

The American Buddhist article defending Mr. Levine says, “If there were any factual, credible civil financial misconduct related to any of the organizations Levine founded, a lawsuit would have surfaced.” But a Buddhist teacher needs to be held to a higher standard than just the absence of lawsuits or of actual convictions for sexual assault, rape, and theft.

The fact that there are lots of accusations is enough evidence that something is terribly wrong. Even if the accusations all prove to be completely false, there’s gotta be a major problem if so many people are leveling them.

The folks at Spirit Rock say their investigations, “show a pattern of behavior that raise critical concerns regarding Mr. Levine’s adherence to the Spirit Rock Teacher Code of Ethics. The EAR Council investigation revealed repeated breaches of the precepts of non-harming by Mr. Levine; delusion about the accumulation of harms caused; a lack of willingness to accept responsibility for his actions; confusion regarding the ways his actions reflect cultural and systemic conditioning; and a failure to honor the explicit instructions of his respected mentors.” They conclude that, “Mr. Levine’s misapprehensions and delusion have led him away from the wisdom and compassion necessary to be a teacher of the Dharma.”

I wonder what I’d do if I was ever accused by lots of people of stuff I felt I had not done. If I lost my Zen teacher credentials, I’d be hard pressed to find another way to make a living. Maybe I’d do exactly what Noah’s doing. Maybe one of these days I’ll get Twitter mobbed over something I said twenty years ago and I’ll have to. Who knows?

Noah might not be part of the Buddhist tradition anymore. Then again, does that even matter? If he can offer something of real value to the people that like him, then he should do it. If he did bad things but then changes his ways, he deserves some credit. God knows we’ve all done things we regret, and that includes every single one of the great Buddhist masters.

If Noah can get people off drugs maybe that, alone, makes him a better teacher of Buddhism’s deepest ideals than some others who are still endorsed by Spirit Rock (Hi, Trudy! Or shall I say Mrs. Kornfield? Hi, Vince!). Honestly, I have deep doubts about Spirit Rock sometimes.

Still, I have to say, I am not at all impressed by the defense Noah seems to be endorsing. The article on the American Buddhist website is uncredited, although it criticizes the Spirit Rock statement for not being signed by its authors. But, regardless of who wrote it, it’s weak and unconvincing. It doesn’t sound like whoever wrote it really understands the Buddhist tradition.

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