Noah Levine is a punk rocker who found the dharma and now teaches meditation and Buddhism to a whole new generation of American rebels. He tells his story in his new book, Dharma Punx (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), and in the following conversation with baby boomer Wes Nisker, coeditor of Inquiring Mind.
Wes Nisker: Even though you and I are of different generations, I feel as though we have a lot in common as students of the dharma, and also as rebels against mainstream American culture. Your generation’s rebellion has its own fashions, and you may have been taking different drugs than we did, but we are in the same lineage.
Noah Levine: I think both generations were rebelling against their parents and the styles of the previous generation. The Boomers were trying to break out of the uptight, straight world of their parents, who came out of the Great Depression and World War II. Many of my generation were also rebelling against our parents, but some of them had been hippies. We were questioning the Boomers who had held a pseudorevolution, taken acid and dropped out, and in the end hadn’t achieved very much social change at all. Your attempts to create a world of peace and love led to Ronald Reagan, George Bush and the nasty current world situation.
WN: We stand accused! Most of our attempts at revolution do seem to have failed, except perhaps in the spiritual realm. But the idealistic flavor of my generation’s rebellion seems so different from the dark anarchy of your generation’s rebellion. The hippies were dressed in clothes of many colors, and we were celebrating life, having be-ins, optimistic about creating a new world, a new consciousness. If only everybody took acid . . .
NL: I think some of the punk ethic of my generation came out of our contempt for this oversimplified hippie LSD view that life was all about peace and love. Just put flowers in your hair and into the rifle barrels of the military and everything will be all right. My generation saw the first noble truth: that life was full of violence, oppression, suffering. And we saw that taking acid wasn’t going to solve anything. Our attitude was that you’ve got to fight against the system. It was all expressed by the rock and roll coming out of England in the late ’70s, by kids who were feeling the failure of capitalism and imperialism in that country and seeing the poverty and hopelessness.
WN: It’s interesting to note that both of our countercultural movements used rock and roll music as a primary means of expression. As a further parallel, the Beatles from England were instrumental in defining the hippie sensibility, and in your book you say that the Sex Pistols, also from England, really set the tone for the punks.
NL: Right, the Sex Pistols toured America in 1978, and their attitude, on and off stage, was: “We’re not here to entertain you. We’re playing this music because this is how we feel, and if you feel this way too then jump up and down.” Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols always used to say, “Do you ever feel like you’re being cheated?” And the answer from a lot of young people in this country was, “Hell, yes!”
WN: I saw the Sex Pistols when they performed at Winterland, and I could not believe my eyes or ears. The buzz-saw guitars were blasting out these three-chord songs with that intense, unvarying four-four drum beat, and the singer was snarling and sneering. The audience was throwing bottles and shoes at the band, and people were smashing into each other on the floor. It was all so violent and edgy. As an old hippie, I was completely shocked. Actually, I was appalled.
NL: [Laughter] I guess the Pistols were successful in their expression. This was not our parents’ rock and roll.
WN: The punk ethos, at least as expressed in the music, seemed to be saying, “Screw it all! To hell with the system!” It didn’t seem so much about fighting for social change.
NL: Maybe you never heard one of my favorite bands, called Crucifix, which played at my book release party. They have a song on their first recording, which I bought when I was fourteen years old, that begins with a poem: “From dehumanization to arms production, for the benefit of the nation or its destruction, power is power, it’s the law of the land. Those who live for death will die by their own hand. Life is no ordeal if you can come to terms and reject the system which dictates the norm. It’s your choice. Peace or annihilation.” That’s a song with a strong social message.
More importantly, just as with your psychedelic rock, the punk rock music was a focus of our community. There’s an old English punk rock song by Sham 69 that says: “I look out for my friend ’cause I know my happiness depends on his and he knows his happiness depends on me.” Another song by the hardcore band H2O says: “My friends look out for me like family ’cause my mom’s been struggling since I was three.” Our parents don’t understand us, but we understand each other. The music was saying that we are a community.
WN: Those sentiments sure sound familiar to me. As we used to say back in the late ’60s, “They can’t bust our music.” I guess I really didn’t know the content of punk rock because I could never understand the lyrics.
NL: Of course, a lot of the punk attitude was purely anarchistic. We saw what the world was like, and we were really angry, and we decided to express that anger and disgust. We weren’t going to buy into the capitalist dream that happiness comes from having a lot of money, and we rejected the hippie solution of dancing joyously in the sun. Instead, we got into this attitude of anarchy, a kind of rough, defiant nihilism fed by hopelessness. And for many of my generation this attitude led to suicide and overdoses—the fates of Sid Vicious, Darby Crash and many others.
WN: As you say in your book, a lot of your friends have already died, many from overdoses.
NL: Out of a group of six close friends who were in the punk scene with me in Santa Cruz, four of them are dead. Looking back at our larger group of fifty punks, probably fifteen of them are dead.
WN: And you could easily have been among them. In fact, in your book you describe a failed attempt to kill yourself, and reveal that what saved you in the end was the simple act of paying attention to your breath.
NL: I was on the phone from jail with my father, Stephen, and he told me to just be present with my breathing. I must have heard that a million times from him and others, but at that particularly difficult moment it made sense. That was the turning point. Remember, I had grown up around the spiritual scene and had rejected it. Spirituality was associated with my parents and hippies, and if that wasn’t enough to condemn it, my own rebellious attitude and outlook just didn’t include that aspect of life. But after a horrible struggle with addiction, lawlessness and incarceration, I had reached a depth of hopelessness that led to an attempted suicide. It was at that moment, when all other options had been exhausted, that I heard what was necessary for me. I didn’t come to spiritual practice because it sounded like a good idea. I came because I felt like there was nowhere else to turn.
WN: I’m interested in what it was like for you to sit in meditation, coming as you did from a punk milieu, with all of its stark, violent iconography. That world seems so antithetical to the ambience and flavor of Buddhism.
NL: Well, remember that the Buddha was once into mortification of the body. He realized that it wasn’t the right path, but during his period as a sadhu his earlobes got stretched way down from his piercings.
WN: I thought he was born with the long earlobes. But who knows, maybe there was a punk period in the Buddha’s life as well.
NL: He did spend seven years on the street, so to speak. [Laughter] But just the fact that the Buddha finally rejected all extremes and found a middle path, a balance between denial and indulgence, was very inspiring. I had just spent seven years on the street and had also been mortifying my body, so his lesson spoke directly to me.
WN: But it must have been strange for you to go to retreats and sit there with all us ex-hippies and yuppies.
NL: For sure. I was the only person in his early twenties, and the only person with tattoos and spiked hair. So I felt very separate. At first it didn’t matter much, because I had been lost at sea, and the life raft that came along was full of hippies. I was either going to get on that raft and save my life, or drown waiting for a lifeboat full of punks. So in the beginning I was just happy to have been picked up. But after several years of sitting with you old-timers, I started wondering if I had to hang out with you guys the rest of my life.
WN: Are you saying that you’d rather not hang out with us?
NL: Well, it really isn’t my cultural world, and even though the retreats gave me sustenance I felt somewhat alienated. There was even a period where I began to question my punk identity, thinking that being spiritual was somehow separate from being punk. Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I began to feel supported in my spiritual life when parts of the punk scene turned toward Hindu consciousness. There was a trend toward nonviolence and becoming vegetarian, and rock bands like Shelter and 108, which got its name from the Hindu-Buddhist mala with 108 beads. They played hard metal punk rock with spiritual lyrics, mostly in praise of Krishna and in defiance of the material world. At that time if you went to the Hare Krishna Temple in Berkeley you would find quite a number of punks living there.
WN: Well, the punks’ heads were already bald, so all they had to do was grow the little top knot.
NL: That’s right. Shave the top of the mohawk. [Laughter] But eventually that scene died out, and around the same time I realized that Buddhist practice was what resonated most deeply with me.
WN: In the early days of my practice, my mind used to insist on singing to me while I was meditating. Many people have commented on this phenomenon, which I call “jukebox karma.” I remember a few of the songs that ran through my head over and over again were “Proud Mary” by Creedence Clearwater Revival and “Strawberry Fields” by the Beatles—you know, “Rollin’ on a river . . . ” and “Nothing to get hung about . . . ” When you sit in meditation, do you get punk rock songs playing in your head?
NL: Sure, especially on retreats. On a recent three-month retreat a Black Flag song stuck in my head for a week, with the lyrics: “I’m about to have a nervous breakdown. My head really hurts. If I don’t get outta here, I’m gonna go berserk, ’cause I’m crazy and I’m wild, the head on my shoulders. I’m going insane!” I also got to hear my favorite childhood band from Santa Cruz, called Blast, which had a song that went, “It’s in my blood, it’s in my blood, it’s in my blood to try to make things change. I look out at this world and I can’t believe what I see. It’s in my blood, it’s in my blood to try to make things change.” And then as the lyric comes up, the memory of a show appears, and slam dancing and maybe getting drunk that night, and that’s what’s known in dharma language as papañca [proliferation].
During the three-month course I kind of went through a life review, and a Social Distortion song kept coming up, called “Story of My Life.” The lyrics go: “High school seemed like such a drag. I had never had much interest in sports or school elections. And the girl in the front of the class, who never knew I existed. I just couldn’t wait for the rock and roll weekend.” That was the story of my life, and during the retreat the song played whenever the appropriate mind-state was unfolding.
WN: Now that you’re into Buddhadharma, do you still look forward to the rock and roll weekend?
NL: Sure, but without the same intention to become unconscious, and without the same attachment to the event. I still enjoy the music and the community.
WN: Aside from teaching in correctional facilities and at Spirit Rock, you have also begun to create your own spiritual community—people of your generation who are practicing Buddhadharma. That must feel very gratifying for you.
NL: For sure. I organized a sitting group in San Francisco that attracts fifty or more people every week. My role is to simply make the practice accessible and applicable for my generation, who can’t hear about it from your generation. And maybe even “my generation” isn’t the right term, because the people I’m talking about are really members of the counterculture of my generation. They’re punks or skinheads or surfers or skaters, the ones who aren’t in the American mainstream. And one of the most important messages I can relay is that spiritual practice isn’t just for hippies anymore. I want to open the gates of Buddhadharma to the next generation.
WN: Perhaps your life experience and your identity as a punk is saying to people in your counterculture that spirituality and practicing meditation is not about selling out.
NL: What I’m trying to say is that spiritual practice is the ultimate defiance: refusing to be a slave to the dictates of your own mind; defiance of the greed, hatred and delusion within the self. I am asking people to defy the internal system of oppression, as well as the external. The Buddha said that his teaching went against the stream, and I’m saying that it’s the highest form of rebellion, even more rebellious than being a street punk. [Laughter]
WN: Are your counterculture friends going to meditation retreats, or interested in going?
NL: Yes, but they can’t afford them. We’re going to have to find some way to create our own retreats. If you had to pay the prices you are now charging at your retreat centers back when you were starting to practice, you couldn’t have afforded them either.
WN: Perhaps as more people of your generation get involved in dharma practice you’ll create not only your own retreat centers but also your own Buddhist symbols and special Buddha statues.
NL: We already have a ceramic Buddha statue with a Mohawk haircut, and some friends of mine are painting tattoos on him. That’s just spiritual materialism: unnecessary but fun. I also created “Dharma Punx” as a name for our movement, partly because it’s a play on Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums” and reveals that we are all in the same lineage of spiritual American rebels. But I think the name also relieves some of the pressure of being perfect, or even of being a Buddhist. The name “Dharma Punx” says: I love what I love, and I still get angry and have lust and all that stuff, and I dress funny and have funny hair and lots of tattoos, and I am intentionally offensive in punk ways—and beneath this disguise, this uniform, I’m deeply committed to personal growth and spiritual awakening and service to others.