From street thug to dharma punk

Noah Levine rejected the spiritual path of his father, Stephen, and then, many tattoos later, joined him.

Topics: Religion,

It’s Friday night in San Francisco and a crowd has gathered at the Justice League, a cavern on a dirty stretch of Divisadero Street, for an evening of punk rock, old (Slaughter and the Dogs) and new (the Belltones). The local scene, always less violent than L.A.’s and less arty than New York’s, wins points for endurance. Looking out over the river of mohawks, porkpies and D.A.s, you could swear it was 1977.

Among the faithful tonight are the Dharma Punx, a loose affiliation of friends who share a love of punk rock and a penchant for spiritual practice. In S.F., home to gay conservatives and pacifist policemen, spiritual punks hardly raise a pierced eyebrow. The Justice League doorman waves them in like the regulars they are. There’s Mike Haber, who was the leader of a rockabilly motorcycle gang in Santa Cruz, Calif., before sobering up and discovering meditation; and Lars Frederiksen, the clean-and-sober member of the stalwart S.F. punk band Rancid, as well as a new group called the Bastards; and Lars’ roommate, Noah Levine, a former drunk, drug addict and jailbird who now brings Buddhist teaching into jails and juvenile halls, when he’s not out seeing shows.

Levine is the glue that holds the crew together. With his shaved head, gold teeth and neck-to-navel tattoos he could be standard issue street punk — until you notice that among the images adorning his arms are those of Buddha and Krishna, and instead of “hate” and “love” tattooed across the knuckles of his hands, he’s got “wisdom” and “compassion.” (“Same thing,” he shrugs when I ask him about it later.) And despite his gentle manner, his drug-and-alcohol-free status, the locals don’t treat him like a wimp.

“Some of the people in the Dharma Punx are some of the oldest punks in the scene,” he tells me outside the club. “At 31, I’ve been coming to punk shows for 18 years. It’s not like some Buddhist guy coming in and trying to infiltrate a scene. This has been my scene my whole life.”

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Levine’s “whole life” did not promise to be a long-running show at first. Despite a privileged middle-class upbringing and a famous spiritual teacher (Stephen Levine) for a father, he seemed ready for an early grave in his teen years, or at best a life behind bars. “I had friends who had done time there,” he says of San Quentin, “so the first time I walked out in the yard there were all these kinds of images: This is what my brothers, my friends had to deal with.

“But I also felt like, this is my population, these are my peers. But for this interesting turn of fate — but for the grace of the universe, for lack of a better word — I ended up getting out of this. But I was headed on a nonstop train to prison for several years.”

Levine doesn’t spend all his time at punk clubs and prisons. Sometimes he can be found at spiritual retreats such as Marin County’s center for Buddhist study, Spirit Rock (where he has led teen and family meditation groups) or New York’s Omega Institute. These are familiar scenes for Levine, despite his brush with prison. His father is a star in these circles. His books on death and grieving (“Who Dies?” and “A Gradual Awakening”), often written in collaboration with his wife (and Noah’s stepmother), Ondrea, have sold over a million copies.

But like any good adolescent, Noah did not have time for his father or his “practice” when he was growing up. “As our youngest child, Noah, dutifully rebelled, he rejected ‘meditation and the lot,’” Stephen Levine wrote in a personal memoir, “Embracing the Beloved.” “Having mutinied with considerable energy and originality in our youth, we could not imagine how he might ‘get to us’ as we had ‘gotten’ our parents … Until the afternoon he came home from school with a tattoo and nailed me.”

Says Noah, “As soon as I heard punk rock, when I was 11 years old, I knew that I had found my tribe.” Bouncing around between his father’s home in a remote part of New Mexico and his mother’s place in Santa Cruz, Noah began to alienate himself to the tune of the Dead Kennedys and Black Flag. With his parents’ blessing, he declared himself “emancipated” at age 16, “with the intention to be on my own,” he recalls. “But I couldn’t get my shit together so I was still on my mom’s couch.”

He dropped out of high school and hit the streets of Santa Cruz to live the life of a full-time skate punk. He was arrested for numerous infractions — drugs, alcohol, hitting someone over the head with his skateboard — until the local authorities locked him up for serious time when he was 17. His folks had tried to warn him about the choices he was making, “But when I try to remember what they were saying, I have this impression of the adults in ‘Peanuts’: ‘Wah, wah, wah.’ Even though I probably knew they were telling the truth, I didn’t believe ‘em.”

Noah spent his last year as a teenager locked down. “They said, ‘You get arrested too much, we’re taking you off the streets.’” And while any parent would freak to see their kid behind bars, the experience had a particular resonance for Stephen Levine. “It must have been very difficult for him but interesting,” says Noah, “because he had also been in prison. He did time for pot in the ’60s on Rikers Island.” As Noah began a three-month stretch at Santa Cruz County Juvenile Hall (he served another three months in a halfway house), his father began to call him with personalized instructions.

“My father said, ‘Meditation is the only thing that ever worked for me.’ And that’s when I started practicing. The relationship was such that when I was vulnerable and in enough pain and ready to change and take responsibility, I was able to hear it from him.” Noah also was ready to deal with the addictions he had picked up over the years.

“Pretty much everything” is how Levine defines his drug consumption then. “My drug of choice, what really brought me to the bottom, was my addiction to crack cocaine. But I was using heroin and PCP and any kind of pills and booze I could get my hands on.” He began a 12-step recovery program, brought to him and the other juvies by young punks who worked with teen addicts. “They weren’t just adult wino recovering folks,” he says. In fact there was the whole clean-and-sober punk movement called Straight Edge brewing at the time, and Levine took to it like a convert, drawing X’s (the sign of Straight Edge) on his hands. “That was my real refuge,” he says. “Once I got sober, that was all I had — the punk scene.”

It was not enough. Though he attended college (studying psychology and, later, emergency medical technician training) and had a few jobs, he found new ways of misbehaving. At age 19 he was arrested in Santa Cruz for vandalizing property with graffiti. Mike Haber, leader of the United Rockers, a biker gang that favored British Triumphs and Nortons, recalls seeing graffiti all over Santa Cruz that Levine had left: “Noah Core,” “Just Say Noah.”

“A lot of his friends, the punks and the skins, just wanted to kick his butt about that,” says Haber. “They just wanted to give him the beat down.”

The “Noah Core” tags led to his arrest, not surprisingly. Though he avoided jail time, Levine could not avoid a spiritual lesson: “What I was looking for was not really going to be found in anything outside of myself; it was an inside job, or at least a spiritual job.

“I had been using meditation in those first couple of years the way people often use prayer,” he says: “‘Oh God, get me out of this one and I’ll never do it again!’” Combining more extended periods of reflection with a greater dedication to 12-step principles he found himself face to face with one of those ugly facts familiar to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.

“I began to see that all of my actions are very selfish, very self-centered,” he recalls. “I was still causing a lot of pain to myself and other people. As I began to see that in my meditation practice and my recovery practice, I began to start changing.” He was working then, making fairly good money at a hospital in Santa Cruz, and he put his salary to a new use.

“I started taking responsibility for all of my past actions and making amends, repaying tens of thousands of dollars, not only for the graffiti stuff but all the people I had stolen from, and really actively started seeking forgiveness.”

Levine was still a biker wannabe then and though Haber and the United Rockers tolerated him, they wouldn’t give him a patch because he wouldn’t drink with them. He talked to them about meditation then, but “everyone thought he was crazy,” says Haber.

Ten years later, when Levine “had traded in my motorcycle for a meditation cushion,” he ran into Haber in San Francisco. The ex-United Rockers leader had just quit drinking and was experiencing the roller-coaster effects of new sobriety. “He helped me with my 12-step work,” says Haber, “and I asked him, ‘What’s this other stuff you’re doing?’”

“He was a natural Dharma Punk,” says Levine, using the handle he coined — with a nod to Kerouac’s book “Dharma Bums” — to describe his fellow “spiritual revolutionaries.” “And for me it was such a wonderful full circle: to be able to offer something back to someone who I had looked up to in the past.”

The two remain close today and Haber’s spiritual practice is stronger than ever. He volunteers at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project, providing care and comfort to AIDS patients, many of whom are indigent. Like Levine, he was given the fisheye by some of the project’s other volunteers when he arrived — a reaction he could understand. “I used to hate hippies,” he says, “and I thought meditation was just for hippies. It’s all part of breaking down the walls.” Are there others following the Dharma Punx example? “More than I ever dreamed of,” says Haber. “The kids now are more interested in learning about spiritual practice than we ever were.”

In the 10 years since his second arrest, hundreds of young people have been turning out to hear Noah Levine’s story. After studying with renowned Buddhist teachers Jack Kornfield and Mary Orr, Noah began conducting classes himself, starting at Spirit Rock. He’s aware that his family connection has a lot to do with the attention he’s received. “I think if some other fully tattooed hooligan showed up and said, ‘I’m teaching meditation,’ he might not be as well received,” he says with a laugh. “But also my father has reminded me, ‘Your name, your lineage will open doors for you, it will get you invited in for tea. But if you don’t have anything interesting to say, if you’re not a good teacher, you won’t be invited back.’”

Though the young people at Spirit Rock and Omega are less desperate than the captive crowds he addresses in jail, Levine still feels a connection to them. He has billed his classes as “Buddhism for the Next Generation,” noting that for the most part Buddhist practice has been embraced in this country by boomers — ex-beats and hippies. He’s trying to connect with people in their 20s and 30s, even teenagers, though the song remains the same.

“I don’t think the dharma is any different,” he says. “The dharma — the teaching of the Buddha, the spiritual truths — is ageless. It’s survived now for 2,500 years and each generation maybe teaches it in a different way, but it’s a pretty set, simple tradition.” And Buddhism and its core concepts — that attachment causes suffering, and an end to attachment will end suffering — is something he’s happy to promote however he can.

What is the meaning of “Dharma Punx,” the slogan he has tattooed on his hands and the title of his forthcoming autobiography? “It’s taking that rebellion off the streets, and turning it into our own hearts and minds.”

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A fight breaks out in the Justice League after the Belltones’ set. Noah and I are in a doorway outside by then, catching up as kids come by to pay their respects and ask him what’s happening. “I hear you’ve taken up smoking,” a punkette says to him accusingly. “Yeah,” he admits. “I started smoking when I started writing. The whole Jack Kerouac thing.”

Right now, getting schmoozed by kids on the street, Noah Levine seems like some S.F. update of the teen preacher in the 1970 Christian flick “The Cross and the Switchblade.” Call it “The Mandala and the Skateboard.” With the trappings of materialism (he drives a ’64 Impala Super Sport, maroon with tan interior these days — “my dream car”) and adoration, does he worry about his ego getting in the way of his message? “The trick is not taking it personally. It’s not Noah inspiring people; it’s the dharma inspiring people,” he says.

Besides, adds Levine, “Whether I was doing Buddhist meditation teaching or I was doing nothing, I would still be saying hello to all those people.”

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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