A Gradual Awakening and Dharma Punx

By Paul Liberatore ...Marin Independent Journal

WITH HIS SHAVED head and tattoos, Noah Levine is right at home on the Warped Tour with hard core punk bands like Rancid, Poison the Well and Suicide Machines.

But Levine is a punk rocker with a passion for more than angry, defiant music. A self-described "spiritual revolutionary," he has "wisdom" and "compassion" tattooed on his hands and images of Buddha and Krishna on his arms.

"When I met the Dalai Lama, he took my hands into his, looked at my tattoos and then into my eyes and exclaimed, 'Very colorful!', Levine said, laughing at the memory.

The 32-year-old Levine is the son of the renowned spiritual teacher and writer Stephen Levine, author of the best sellers "A Gradual Awakening," "Embracing the Beloved" and "A Year to Live."

That the younger Levine, a meditation teacher-in-training at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre with a new book of his own, would follow in his famous father's footsteps was hardly a given. Once a teen-age drug addict and street punk, Levine tells his story of youthful rebellion, self-destruction and redemption in his memoir "Dharma Punx" (HarperSanFrancisco, $23.95), the title inspired by Jack Kerouac's "Dharma Bums."

"This honest, page-turning confession is a measure of the adaptability and usefulness of the Asian tradition of Buddhism for the young and the restless of contemporary America," Publishers Weekly said in its review. Mike Ness, lead singer of the punk band Social Distortion, said in an endorsement, "This book is a great success story that shows that violence, negativity and self-destruction don't accomplish anything."

As part of his book tour, Levine is traveling with the Warped Tour to promote "Dharma Punx" and to talk to young people about the salvation he found in Buddhism and spirituality.

"I'm selling books and making myself available, maybe doing some meditation classes for the bands and production staff," he said by phone from a tour stop in British Columbia. "And I'm getting out there and talking to the kids."

Levine has a cautionary tale to tell. After his parents divorced when he was a child, he was shuttled between his mother's home in Santa Cruz and his father's in New Mexico. Hostile and outraged by his broken home and what he perceived as the hypocrisy of the '60s generation and of American society in general, he lashed out and acted out, turning to drugs, alcohol and the fury of punk rock bands like Black Flag and Suicidal Tendencies to relieve his unhappiness.

In "Embracing the Beloved," Stephen Levine wrote of his son: "As our youngest child, Noah, dutifully rebelled, he rejected 'meditation and the lot.' Having mutinied with considerable energy and originality in our youth, we could not imagine how he might 'get to us' as we had 'gotten' to our parents ...Until the afternoon he came home from school with a tattoo and nailed me."

Incorrigible, young Noah became a child of the criminal justice system, sent to juvenile hall, group homes, drug and diversion programs. He would be released on probation only to end up in jail again. When he was 17, he found himself locked in a padded cell after a suicide attempt, and only then did he begin to turn his life around.

"I had an extreme adolescence, for sure," he said. "I got into drugs and stealing and anger that was somewhat alleviated and somewhat fueled by my obsession with punk rock. It was both the solution for me for a long time and a problem. I just hit such a rock bottom place of demoralization, being institutionalized over and over, that at 17, I knew I had to try something else, that what I was doing wasn't working and that it was going to get me locked up in prison for the rest of my life."

When his father called him in jail, offering some simple meditation instruction, Levine was finally desperate enough to surrender and listen. Aided by a 12-step program to deal with his addiction and travels in India and Asia to study with the masters, he found a measure of peace, beginning what is now a 15 year spiritual practice.

"The first noble truth of the Buddha is that life is suffering," he said. "So that moved me and still moves me. I feel like I understand what are the real causes of suffering and what is the solution to get free, to end suffering. That's where the Buddhist path has inspired me and taught me."

Part of the solution for Levine has been to dedicate himself to serving others, particularly young people who may be as troubled and lost as he was. He notes in his book that most practicing Buddhists are aging baby boomers, and that people his age or younger are underrepresented in spiritual practice. That's one reason he's on the Warped Tour, to reach out to them.

"When I started practicing, I certainly felt like the only young person, and certainly the only tattooed punk rock person," he said. "That is slowly changing. As I get older, there are more thirtysomethings coming around to meditation. But you go to a retreat or a Buddhist center, the median age is going to be late 40s to 60s.

"A big part of my intention in writing the book was taking the baby boomer hippie stigma off of meditation and trying to make it accessible and applicable to my generation, saying this isn't just some mystical Asian tradition that's inaccessible. These are psychological, spiritual practices that lead to a greater sense of well-being, ease and happiness in our lives."

Seven years ago, Levine began teaching meditation in the very juvenile hall where he had been incarcerated. And for the past two years, he's led a weekly meditation group inside San Quentin Prison. Next month, he will finish his studies for a master's degree in counseling and psychology, and plans to work as a psychotherapist as well as a meditation teacher.

Spirit Rock in Woodacre has been an important part of his spiritual development. He has been Spirit Rock's director of family and teen programs and now studies under noted meditation teacher Jack Kornfield and leads daylong meditation classes and retreats. Kornfield describes "Dharma Punx" as "honesty and wildness that become transformed and inspiring."

In addition to his work at Spirit Rock, Levine leads a meditation group in San Francisco that he calls "Buddhism for the Next Generation."

"Honestly, I've connected personally with hundreds of young people who have been introduced through my efforts, I guess, through finally seeing a teacher of their own generation appear," he said. "I think I translate the Dharma in a way that's accessible for our generation. I speak a lot from how I directly practice with it and really bring in my life as an example ... the real nitty gritty."