Sage Against The Machine (Willamette Week: May 31, 2006)

Sage Against The Machine

Noah Levine brings punk Buddhism to Portland’s hinterlands.


“Getting into Straight Edge probably saved my life,” writes Noah Levine somewhere toward the middle of his 2003 memoir, Dharma Punx. He’s referring to the hardcore punk movement sired by bands such as Washington D.C.’s Minor Threat. That seminal band’s leader, Ian MacKaye, made the case for a chemically independent lifestyle by shouting anti-drug sentiments like “I’ve got better things to do/ Than sit around and smoke dope/ ’cause I know that I can cope.”Early in his life, Levine wasn’t listening to people like MacKaye. Rather, he was smoking pot, stealing bikes and contemplating self-mutilation with a steak knife—all treacherous territory the author says he explored before the age of 10.Dharma Punx, the book (a film version is in preproduction in L.A.), opens with the mohawked writer at age 17, locked in a padded cell, crashing down hard after a crack-induced suicide attempt. In desperation, the California skate punk makes a phone call to his dad, who lets him in on some “hippy shit”: simple meditation instructions that involve nothing more than sitting down and breathing. Listening to his own breath, Levine stumbles upon brief respite for “at least a few seconds here and there…. I feel better and forget that I’m locked up.”

Levine, now 35 and living in Los Angeles, has since become a practicing psychotherapist, a Buddhist who has studied with the Dalai Lama, and the instructor of something called insight meditation. It didn’t hurt that his father was the world-renowned meditation guru and prolific author Stephen Levine, but Noah Levine does credit much of his transformation to punk.

The memoir recounts the years that followed Levine’s suicide attempt, with the author cleaning up using a mixed method of commitment to the punk scene and to educating himself in the ways of the Buddha. He shuttles back and forth between Santa Cruz punk shows and Thai monasteries, between falling in love and committing to celibacy, between self-hatred and inner peace.

The results of all those years of soul-searching are plentiful, and not just in the spiritual sense. They come in the form of publishing deals and extensive tours of the country to teach his unique coping mechanism. It’s a life that doesn’t lack in opportunities to proselytize, but Levine insists, “There’s no missionary work going on. I’m not interested in going out to punk shows trying to convert or to push my beliefs on people…it’s more like people are seeking me out.”

Those seeking Levine out have a lot of places to look. In 2003 he travelled with giant punk festival the Vans Warped Tour, promoting his book and teaching meditation to the bands and crew. In 2007 he’ll reach out again, when his next book, Against the Stream: Buddhism as Rebellion, is published by Harper San Francisco. In the meantime, his work brings him to places like Portland; he’s read and taught at Powell’s, New Renaissance and Breitenbush Hot Springs, where he will soon be in residence for a week. The clothing-optional thatch of Oregon wilderness less than two hours from Portland will host a week of meditation programs led by Levine, starting this Friday, June 2.

At first glance, there’s little similarity between punk rock and Buddhism, even in a town with as many mix-and-match subcultures as Portland. It’s hard to imagine a group of bald, muscular dudes in black hoodies sitting in front of an altar in total silence, and there’s nothing still or peaceful about a Poison Idea show. But Levine sees a connection.

“The foundation of both Buddhism and punk is dissatisfaction,” he explains. “Many punks are very much engaged in trying to create positive change in the world but fail to understand that we have to start internally, with our own confusion, before we can effectively create positive change in the world.”

Levine practices what he preaches. The tattooed bruiser says his years of drug abuse have given him wisdom to spare when it comes to the battles of addiction recovery. At bookstore readings of Dharma Punx, he says, “Maybe 50 percent of the people in the room are in recovery.” He gives meditation workshops at prisons like San Quentin, using his own jail experience “in the service of empowering people to change their lives.” Levine’s own run-ins with the law started as early as eighth grade. He writes in his memoir, “I barely graduated. I was arrested five times that year for pot and once for an assault.” In Dharma Punx, Levine describes teen years spent in and out of the Juvenile Detention Center in Santa Cruz, and being shipped to group homes, before stumbling upon the two main interests that would change the course of his life: meditation and the 12-step scene.

“Basically, addiction is out-of-control craving,” says Levine, who still attends 12-step meetings occasionally. “It’s not realistic to think that you’re not going to have cravings—for pleasure, drugs, sex, to escape pain—but mindfulness meditation teaches you to respond with skills, not to just react.”

The most telling differences between traditional 12-step programs and meditation centers and a Dharma Punx group event is the dogma-free approach to instruction—group talks veer off into music and anarchist politics—and, of course, the tattoos.

Levine says the events are also different because he tries to stay outside the business-driven mentality that has seen the cost of alternative spirituality rise out of reach for many of those who most need it. New Age is a booming industry, with yoga classes averaging $15 at such Portland studios as Yoga in the Pearl and weekend retreat prices shooting up as well—a meditation program at Watsonville, Calif.’s popular destination ashram, Mount Madonna Center, costs $678 with the privilege of private sleeping quarters. “There are people charging exorbitant amounts for these spiritual teachings that should be accessible to everyone,” says Levine. “The majority of the teaching I do is by donation, to take it out of that consumer exclusivity.” Apparently that conscientious approach to inclusivity can’t keep the price down all the time: Aspiring rebel Buddhhists will have to cough up anywhere between $65 and $115, not including the cost of room and board, to get enlightened at Breitenbush.

Offshoots of the Dharma Punx meditation group are popping up all over; thriving in New York City, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C., with fledgling groups in Austin, Portland, Seattle, Atlanta and Chicago. Certified instructors lead some, while others were created by small groups of people who met at one of Levine’s readings and wanted to keep up a practice with others they could relate to.

As a punk, Levine sees Portland through a fan’s eyes: Though he declares music tastes that tend toward the early ’80s, he offers a shout-out to one of his local favorites, Science of Yabra. Portlanders trekking out to Breitenbush next week should expect more “sitting and walking meditation, and lectures on basic Buddhist philosophy and practice,” than talk of the local music scene, though. For those still on the fence, Levine adds another enticement to the retreat menu: “lots of naked hippies.”


Theravadin Buddhism, the school of thought that Levine immersed himself in during travels to Thailand, is predominantly practiced in Southeast Asia. Like most of the differing forms of Buddhism, Theravada roots itself in a concept called the Four Noble Truths, a belief that desire causes suffering and that certain practices (like meditation) can allow people to master their desires and enter into a more peaceful state. In Portland, this Sri Lankan tradition is practiced at monasteries like Oregon Buddhist Vihara on Southeast Walnut Street in Hillsboro, where Sri Lankan monks live and instruct newbies in meditation on Sunday afternoons. But the options for exploring different Buddhist styles are endless. Local teachers practice everything from silent Vipassana to Japanese Zen philosophy. The following are some examples.

Buddhist Group Portland Tibetan, Karma Kagyu

2410 NE Dunckley St., 281-3631,

Center for Tibetan Buddhism Non-sectarian Tibetan Buddhism

6225 NE Stanton St., 222-7172,

Dharma Rain Zen Center Soto Zen

2539 SE Madison, 239-4846,

Daihonzan Henjyoji Buddhist Temple Shingon

2634 SE 12th Ave., 232-6352

Kagyu Changchub Chuling Vajrayana

73 NE Monroe St., 284-6697,

Mahasiddha Buddhist Center Tibetan, New Kadampa

3144 SE Franklin St., 233-6747,

Miao Fa Chan Temple Chinese, Pureland

1722 SE Madison Ave., 239-5678,

Oregon Buddhist Temple Jodo Shinshu Buddhism

3720 SE 34th Ave., 234-9456

Portland Buddhist Priory Soto Zen

3642 SE Milwaukie Ave.,


Portland Insight Meditation Community Theravada

6536 SE Duke St., 223-2214,

Portland Insight Meditation Community: Heart Song Sangha Theravada

2311 East Burnside St., 293-4177,

Portland Nichiren Buddhist Temple Nichiren Shu

2025 SE Yamhill St., 232-8064,

Portland Shambhala Center Tibetan, Shambhala Buddhism

1110 SE Alder St., Suite 204, 231-4971,

Noah Levine’s meditation workshop, “Mindfulness in Daily Life” takes place at Breitenbush Hot Springs, off Highway 22, Detroit, Ore., 854-3320 or Workshops run Friday-Thursday, June 2-8 ($115); Friday-Sunday, June 2-4 ($65); or Sunday-Thursday, June 4-8 ($95). Fees for lodging and meals are separate. All ages.