On a Monday night in March, Noah Levine was sitting in an easy chair, one wounded leg propped up before him as he addressed dozens of followers in a meeting room in Venice Beach and hundreds more who tuned in to Facebook Live to see what this Buddhist teacher had to say about a scandal that threatened to sink his career. The #MeToo movement is blowing up the world of Buddhism, and Levine, one of its brightest if most unconventional stars, is the latest casualty.
A recent dirt-bike accident had shredded Levine’s knee and left him hobbling on crutches. Within a few weeks he’d have a new way to get around, a customized golf cart, tricked out with slogans familiar to the Levine faithful: “Against the Stream,” which is the name of both one of his books and the sangha (Buddhist community) that he founded, and “FTW,” which Levine translates as both Buddha’s admonition to “Forsake the World” and the more colloquial “Fuck the World.” Cool rides and punk-skater threads are integral to the heavily tattooed 48-year-old’s image (who often flips the bird) as well as his message that has brought many young people into the fold. Beneath a Facebook photo of Levine—Vans, shades—tilting his new ride on two wheels, a young woman wrote, “I’m keeping this picture for when people ask me how I got into meditation.”
Levine founded Against the Stream more than ten years ago on antisexist and antiracist principles, with great emphasis on ethical practices—an irony Jezebel noted when it broke the story last summer that a woman Levine had dated accused him of sexual assault. That incident, and another alleged affair, led to an independent investigation that reported complaints against him from as many as ten women, inside and outside the organization. “There were the two women I’d been on dates with,” he told me, “and the other seven [said], ‘I think Noah’s a jerk.’ ”
That report, written by certified workplace investigator Roberta Yang, concluded that Levine had “more likely than not” violated Buddhism’s Third Precept, “to refrain from committing sexual misconduct.” In August the grievance council of the Against the Stream Meditation Society (ATS) announced it would shutter its centers in L.A. and San Francisco (affiliated centers in Boston, Nashville, and Seattle either changed their names or closed) and dissolve the sangha. Another center might have simply pushed its leader out, but ATS is so closely associated with Levine that it deemed a divorce impossible—it was his name, after all, and his concept; he personally trained the teachers and facilitators. Shortly thereafter, Refuge Recovery, a drug-and-alcohol rehab group Levine founded, announced his expulsion, and Spirit Rock, the Northern California mediation center, revoked his authorization to teach. All told, Levine’s following, online and off-line, has dropped by about half since the scandal erupted.
It was Spirit Rock’s rejection that was on Levine’s mind that March evening in Venice. Lineage is an important concept in Buddhism, not just which tradition you come from (Mahayana, Theravada) but who your teacher is, and what gives you the right to teach the dharma, Buddha’s teachings and path to wisdom?
“I grew up with all these famous dharma teachers and know how imperfect they are,” Levine told the room and the internet. “My father was my first meditation teacher.” The late Stephen Levine was a pioneer in Western Buddhism whose teachings introduced many Americans to vipassana (insight) meditation.
It was Stephen’s friend and Spirit Rock founder, Jack Kornfield, who trained Noah as a dharma teacher, and the letter of authorization he wrote in 2004 was a formal blessing. Noah’s story, as told in his best-selling 2003 memoir, Dharma Punx, is extreme. Growing up in Santa Cruz, he was arrested seven times on charges ranging from strong-arm robbery to possession of controlled substances. At 17, locked up and addicted to crack and heroin, the street punk faced his suffering with the help of his father, who gave Noah meditation instructions over the pay phone at juvie. “Meditation is the only thing that ever worked for me,” Stephen told him.
Like his father before him, Noah had an awakening. In the 1990s he began visiting juvenile halls and prisons, preaching the virtues of a drug-free life and the power of meditation. With his Mohawk and myriad tattoos, Noah became a walking advertisement for his punk brand of Buddhism. No one had combined those flavors before, and his message came at a time when some American Buddhist centers were bemoaning the lack of young people in their sanghas. Noah made the most of the difference, crowing, “Buddhism isn’t just for hippies anymore!”
Now, sitting in the room where Refuge Recovery began years ago, some of those “hippies”—seekers like his father who started teaching meditation in the ’70s—were back in Levine’s sights. Though he credited them in the 2007 documentary Meditate and Destroy (“I felt like I was drowning, and I wasn’t so concerned that it was a bunch of hippies that were saving me”), he was questioning their right to censure anybody. Many of them used drugs and alcohol in violation of Buddhism’s Fifth Precept, he said, and some had affairs with their students, something he denies having done. He read from the letter defrocking him, adding, “It’s important that you guys have informed consent [about] who you are sitting with.” That line got a big laugh.
Consent is something Levine’s accusers say he fails to understand. “He’s very divisive,” former ATS instructor Vinny Ferraro has said of his friend. Which was why, after Levine told his audience in Venice, “I want to return this authorization with gratitude,” he began to rip up Kornfield’s empowerment letter, adding that he was “asking for forgiveness for any harm I’ve caused.” Then Levine dropped the pieces in a bronze Tibetan singing bowl, the kind used in healing ceremonies.
“If it’s important to you that I’m an authorized teacher by the insight establishment, that’s no longer the case,” he announced to a smattering of applause. “I’m now officially a rogue outlaw dharma rebel.” Reactions online ranged from “Fuck ’em, Noah!” to a more wistful “The tearing up of the doc…that part bummed me out.”
The idea of an “insight establishment” would probably seem funny to Stephen Levine (who died in 2016) as well as Kornfield, Ram Dass, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, and the other Buddhist converts who brought mindfulness to the West. Though a generation older than Noah, they are not part of a governing body; Buddhism doesn’t have one, which is part of Noah’s complaint. “These guys had no authorization to teach,” he said about two months after he tore up his credentials. “They just gave it to themselves.”
Levine had just met with Kornfield for the first time since receiving the letter. He claimed that his former teacher had seen the shredding video (“He said he had a laugh”) but told Levine that everyone wanted him out because he doesn’t have the composure of a dharma teacher.
“Basically, they didn’t like the irreverence, the swearing, the smoking, the motorcycles,” Levine said. He said that Kornfield didn’t know the specifics of the charges against him but trusted the independent investigator’s report. Kornfield declined to comment for this story, citing Spirit Rock’s committee investigation, which spoke to Levine, ATS staff, and several of the women who accused him. The committee wrote that the investigation “revealed repeated breaches of the precepts of nonharming by Mr. Levine; delusion about the accumulation of harms caused…a lack of willingness to accept responsibility for his actions; and a failure to honor the explicit instructions of his respected mentors.”
“Basically, they didn’t like the irreverence, the swearing, the smoking, the motorcycles,” Levine says of the traditional Buddhists who forced him out.
Levine disputes some of the accusations; the woman who brought the initial complaint against him has not gone public. According to Levine they had been dating for a couple of months. (Levine divorced his wife four years ago and shares custody of their two children.) They had sex a few times, he said, but after their fourth date in October 2017 she texted him to say she did not feel good about the previous evening and wanted him to see her counselor with her to talk about consent—an invitation that he declined.
“She never told me that she was unhappy during our intercourse,” Levine told me. “She had no sign of, you know, distress or displeasure after sex. We cuddled. She had made me cookies; we ate the cookies. There was no sign of unhappiness. So when she said, ‘You want to talk about consent?’ I was like, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’”
Levine got some clarification on that last point when in February 2018 a Los Angeles Police Department detective informed him that the woman had accused him of sexual assault. Levine got a lawyer and informed the teachers council at ATS of the accusation but said on advice of counsel that he could not talk about it in detail.
“We stood by for a few weeks,” recalled JoAnna Hardy, the guiding teacher at ATS, “and then he came to us saying, ‘I slept with a student.’”
This is where the tale gets murky, as stories involving unsubstantiated sexual allegations often do. After a months-long investigation, the LAPD did not charge Levine. The question of who was and wasn’t a student is not a small one; most scandal involving leaders in Buddhist communities have centered on teachers taking advantage of students. Last year the head of Shambhala International, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, resigned amid allegations of sexual misconduct involving students; attendance and donations at its 200 centers have reportedly since fallen 50 percent.
Levine maintains that the student who did not accuse him of assault came to his classes after they dated. They met at a Misfits concert. Oh, and she was married.
“But, you know, she was in my house, and she took her clothes off and had every intention to sleep with me. … [She] was kind of like saying, you know, ‘I’m kind of in an open thing.’ And I was like, I’m not going to do it. And then I did it anyways. I took full responsibility for that I slept with a woman who’s not really single. But it’s totally not my student, because that’s not how I met her.”
After a Zen teacher who knew the woman who had accused Levine of assault wrote ATS and accused it of harboring a rapist, the group hired Yang and told Levine not to teach until the investigation was complete. In the wake of the scandal, other teachers and staff came forward with complaints. Like her fellow teachers (there were five members of the teachers council), Hardy had been hired and trained by Levine. Their relationship was harmonious at first, but she claims she was already alienated from him before the accusations. “I didn’t like him anymore,” she said. “I didn’t like who he was becoming, his arrogance. And he and I were always in battle.”
Levine says that Hardy, who is biracial, wanted to “get rid of the white guy. … She got the support of the rest of the teachers to do it, you know, because nobody’s going to say no to the angry black woman in charge.”
Hardy denies Levine’s charges of racism (“I teach at Spirit Rock”—a bastion of Marin County whiteness—she offered as proof). “Noah has this thing where he thinks transparency trumps all poor behavior,” she said. “He has a tendency to overspeak and give himself away.”
Levine might be overspeaking when he plays the race card and blames the #MeToo movement for his predicament (“This is like a cultural hysteria that’s happening that I’m caught up in”), but he firmly believes that much of what has happened to him is the result of jealousy and resentment.
“My tent got too big,” he said. “Against the Stream became the largest new Buddhist movement. I think it was OK when I was the Buddhist punk rock guy with a meditation group in San Francisco.”
Over the years, Levine has touched countless lives with his determination to bring Buddha’s message to a younger crowd. But now he has been barred from teaching at many Buddhist centers. He’s also in a lawsuit with Refuge Recovery, the addiction recovery center he founded, over the trademark of the name. Ben Affleck, whom Levine treated at Refuge, recently filed a declaration in the case, saying, “Working with Noah and his Refuge Recovery program has, quite literally, turned my life around…Today I am sober, happy, healthy and have custody of my three children. All of those things are a result of having Noah in my life. I don’t know what I would have done without him.” On top of the lawsuit, Levine is unsure if his next book will find a publisher. And he blames Hardy and others he hired for demolishing ATS.
“Why destroy this thing that I spent 15, 20 years building?” he said. “If you guys don’t want to have anything to do with me, go away, but don’t destroy my organization.” Hardy claims ATS was on the verge of financial collapse when the scandal broke, and it caused one pledge of $60,000 to be rescinded and other donations to vanish. But the vibe had also changed.
Sleeping with a married student was, as Hardy put it, a double bad. “If you are a rock star, people would just be like, yeah, that’s what they do. But you’re a dharma teacher.” The implication is that Levine still has much to learn. The last time we spoke he insisted, “I take full responsibility for any ways that I caused harm and wasn’t being careful with my sexuality.” But the words sounded rote and his tone hurt and resentful. Maybe he was brought down by a false accusation—but maybe he was a part of his own undoing.
There’s a saying in Zen: “The teaching of Buddhism is like a finger pointing at the moon. Do not mistake the finger for the moon.” They say the same of teachers, and Levine has no doubt heard it before.
But he’s raising a different finger.
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