Dive-bar dharma

To attract a new generation of Buddhists, two teachers are replacing the old hippie trappings with a tattooed aesthetic and references to Jay-Z.


Whitney Joiner
February 20, 2008 5:17PM (UTC)

Sitting cross-legged on a meditation cushion on the floor of a Bowery yoga studio, 29-year-old Ethan Nichtern -- a community organizer, writer and Buddhist teacher -- looked around at the roomful of 20- and 30-somethings.

"Remember the Road Runner versus Wile E. Coyote cartoons? In New York we often feel like a drugged-out version of Road Runner -- running all over the place, but not getting anything done, right?"

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The room nodded. What New Yorker doesn't feel like Road Runner?

"We're constantly looking three or five years ahead, waiting for that moment when you finally achieve what you set out to achieve, and it's like everything in between is just commuting," he continued. "Then it arrives, and it's kind of depleted, so you move on to the next goal." More nodding, and hands went up to describe moments of glory (the grad school acceptance letter, the coveted job, the relationship you fantasized about for ages) that eventually faded: a lesson in the classic Buddhist teaching of impermanence.

"As usual," Nichtern announced at the end of the evening, "we'll continue this conversation at the bar downstairs."

Dharma in dive bars: As the founder of the Interdependence (ID) Project, an East Village-based Buddhism meets activism nonprofit, Nichtern is used to translating the 2,600-year-old spiritual tradition of Buddhism -- sometimes still perceived in the U.S. as a throwback to the cultural exoticism of the '70s counterculture -- to the 21st century.

He's not the only one. Thirty-six-year-old Noah Levine, author of "Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries" and the memoir "Dharma Punx," which spawned a 1,000-member contemplative community with the same name, is also trying to give the tradition a cultural face-lift.

Nichtern and Levine, both "dharma brats" -- a term used for children of the first generation of American Buddhists -- are working to inaugurate a more contemporary and secular tradition than has previously been available, making Buddhism less about co-opting Asian cultures and more about the practical benefits of meditation and its teachings of mindfulness and compassion. These days, people aren't necessarily as interested in the mysterious Asian trappings that attracted spiritual seekers in the '60s and '70s. By tossing aside the rituals, chants and bowing that might make Buddhism seem impenetrable or alien, peppering their talks with pop-culture references to explain Buddhist concepts, encouraging political activism, emphasizing the practice of meditation and teaching in a way that Levine describes as "peer based" -- "It's not like, 'I'm the teacher, so I have all the answers and you don't have any,'" he says -- they're both attempting to distance Buddhism from its lingering hippie ethos.

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They aren't the only Buddhist teachers under 40, but the casual friends and colleagues are the first to start their own independent communities based on meditation. And while attracting younger practitioners isn't necessarily a life mission for either Levine or Nichtern, their teaching styles definitely resonate with a younger generation. Between them, they're reaching people -- most of them 35 or under -- who might never walk into a traditional Buddhist center.

It might be just what American Buddhism needs. Ever since Buddhism gained a foothold during the late '60s and early '70s, when Asian teachers emigrated to America, the American face of the tradition hasn't really changed. It's just grown older. Most members of the 230 or so American Buddhist centers are over 48 years old, according to a 2001 Baylor University survey quoted in a recent article in the pan-Buddhist magazine Shambhala Sun. (Numbers are sketchy for "convert" Buddhists, ranging anywhere from 100,000 to 800,000.)

"I'm really interested in getting Buddhism out of the 'Eastern religion' section of the bookstore," says Nichtern, whose book "One City: A Declaration of Interdependence" -- which he calls "Buddhist philosophy meets 'An Inconvenient Truth' meets a pop culturally interested urban survival guide" -- was just released by Wisdom Publications. "Buddhism is about a practice of meditation, so that an individual can develop more mental sanity and awareness of the world around her. And it's about interdependence -- which is saying that nothing on any level of our experience is happening in a vacuum. Which of those two things are either Asian or religious?"

"A lot of people think of meditation in the same stratosphere as psychedelics," he continues. "It still has somewhat of a tie-dye sheen to it in the collective consciousness. That's definitely keeping some people away. But the main thing keeping people away is that it's hard to look at yourself and your place in the world. Meditation practice is hard. And we don't make it any easier by making it culturally exotic or inaccessible. What people like Noah and I are trying to do is to say, this is not about 'Free Tibet.'"

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"It's not about feel-good, peace, love and granola," says Levine. "It's about an inner revolution."

When I first learned to meditate five years ago, at 24, it didn't matter to me that I didn't see many young practitioners at the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York. I mean, I wasn't going to become a Buddhist or anything crazy like that. I'd just read a lot about meditation, and it seemed like a new way to deal with my insanely busy mind and lifelong battle with anxiety.

I was surprised I'd even walked into the center in the first place. I liked reading about meditation, but actually go into a center? I assumed there'd be some kind of shared language or way of behaving that would automatically render me a foreigner. Wouldn't everyone immediately notice I wasn't a Buddhist? (Plus, Buddhism seemed so lame anyway: I was a diehard atheist and rolled my eyes at people who embraced Asian spirituality because they thought it made them seem deep or cool.) But my then roommate and her boyfriend at the time were both practitioners, and kept suggesting I go. "It's no big deal," she would say. "You don't have to do anything. You just sit on a cushion and breathe."

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She was right: It wasn't a big deal. Around 100 people were at that Tuesday night dharma talk -- half of them raised their hand when the teacher asked who was new -- and suddenly my paranoia seemed ridiculous. I didn't understand why some people bowed at the door, and I certainly didn't understand the intimidating shrine on the right side of the room, covered with tapestries and photos and bowls and incense. But sitting still for half an hour was something I never thought my restless brain would be able to do, and when the teacher, a middle-aged man, spoke, it just made sense.

I don't remember what his talk was about, but I kept going back. I'd never heard people talk about the shared experience of humanity like this before -- that upsetting, frustrating, traumatic, terrifying things happen to everyone, but we don't have to freak out about them, and that settling our mind is the first step to dealing with our lives, and ourselves and everyone else. And when other practitioners my age started arriving, it was a relief to have a group of friends who were traveling the same path together, who supported one another. We weren't doing it alone. (Ethan, whom I met when I first came to the center in New York, is one of these people.)

But we're a small group, and off and on we wonder what the American Buddhist future will look like. What's going to happen when our teachers -- part of the generation that launched the spiritual tradition in the '60s and '70s -- grow too old to teach and we don't yet have a new crop ready to take their place? And while I eventually felt more comfortable with Buddhism -- now, the rituals and the chanting in my practice seem necessary, not foreign -- what if some people who might connect with the teachings feel too intimidated by the window dressing to walk through the door?

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"Buddhism tends to draw people with more life experience," says Sumi Loundon, 32. "It's like, How can I find meaning in my life? My friend just died. I've been though a terrible divorce." Loundon, another dharma brat, has edited two anthologies of writings by young American Buddhists, "Blue Jean Buddha: Voices of Young Buddhists" and "The Buddha's Apprentices: More Voices of Young Buddhists." "The books came out of my experience of feeling isolated as a young Buddhist," she says. "I was going in and out of meditation centers -- I was often the youngest person there -- and it led me to wonder if I'd be the last Buddhist 50 years from now. I mean, who would I date?"

Like Loundon, when Nichtern started formally studying meditation at 18, he was the youngest person in the room by far. "My thought was, the only reason that there aren't more young people doing this is that something's not speaking to their everyday cultural experience," he says. So when he began teaching, he says, "I wanted to present Buddhism in an environment that's more pop-culturally savvy, where I could talk about Jay-Z and include that in an understanding of the principles of mind and our culture." And he does refer to Jay-Z, and Mos Def, and iPhones, CrackBerries, Wallace and Gromit cartoons, Williamsburg falafel stands, Paris Hilton and the wisdom to be found in a crowded subway car, in "One City" and in his ID Project talks. Cultural detritus from New York life: not your typical dharma-talk language.

"Just as the Buddha talked about the potter's wheel, Ethan and Noah are carrying on the tradition of using the culture to make things current and accessible," says Loundon.

Many senior Buddhist teachers in the U.S. don't see a pressing need for a younger, hipper teaching style. But Reginald Ray, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who leads a community called Dharma Ocean, argues that his generation has failed the younger Buddhists.

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"Buddhism will never survive in the West until it separates itself from the cultural forms that are specifically Tibetan or Japanese or whatever," he said. "In the '70s, we had a whole generation of people who tried to be Tibetans, and the young people now see that not that much happened with an awful lot of those people. We should have a bunch of enlightened teachers, and we don't. Young people look at that and say, 'Huh, I don't think this is what I want to spend my life doing.' The lazy hippie dharma isn't going to work anymore."

The heavily tattooed Levine, the more seasoned of the two young teachers, initially eschewed his parents' spiritual tradition, precisely because he saw it as lazy. "My political education was from punk rock," he said. "It was a rebellion against what the early punks saw as the failure of the hippies -- this unrealistic peace-and-love attitude and lack of real engagement."

But at 17, addicted to drugs and alcohol and locked in a juvenile hall cell, he started to meditate. In turn, Levine taught his friends, and then took the groups outside his living room and invited the public, teaching that the Buddhist path is one of radical rebellion against the mainstream consumerist, ego-driven society.

"Noah would talk about issues that were relevant to younger people," said Josh Korda, one of the two main teachers in the New York Dharma Punx community. "Anger with your boss, sex, alienation, feeling powerless, whatever."

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"Noah is actually very rooted in traditional Buddhism," says Diana Winston, author of "Wide Awake: A Buddhist Guide for Teens," who works with Levine on occasion. "But the population that he appeals to is not the typical one you see coming to Buddhist centers."

True. Walk into many American Buddhist meditation centers, and you'll see a majority of white, middle-aged faces. That's not the case with a Dharma Punx gathering. On a Tuesday night meeting last fall, Korda sported a trucker's cap, long plaid shorts, a bowling shirt and massive Buddhist tattoos. After a 20-minute guided meditation, many in the audience -- arty hipster types in their 20s, 30s and early 40s -- sprawled casually across the cushions while Korda and his co-teacher, Craig Swogger, gave a classic Buddhist teaching on the origin of suffering (using the word "stress" instead of "suffering," though, and punctuating their points with a few expletives).

Nichtern's ID Project gatherings don't have the punk component of Levine's groups, but the freewheeling nature of his talks, and the emphasis on social action rather than the reflexive self-help '70s lingo, reflect the same contemporary sensibility.

"Ethan talks about pop culture and formal Buddhism," says 22-year-old Stillman Brown, a yearlong ID Project member. "And here I have that sense of community -- other young people who are interested in the same thing."

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Levine and Nichtern say they haven't experienced much resistance to their teaching styles among more senior teachers, but there have been some raised eyebrows. "I've heard, '[Noah] doesn't look like a teacher should look! He swears! Oh my God!'" says Jack Kornfield, founder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, Calif., and a teacher of Levine's.

And some argue that the tradition and lineage of a rich culture is lost when taken out of a formal meditation hall. "When my generation is history, if all we have is hip Buddhism that's nonconventional, just people who went through some training, but no years in retreat, then that's really sad," says Alan Wallace, founder of the Santa Barbara Institute for Consciousness Studies.

Nichtern counters, "One of the things that Buddhism has historically lacked is a strong tradition for how not to spend 10 years in a monastery -- how to really bring these principles into our life and the world."

And the way to do that, say both Nichtern and Levine, is to strip away the exotic layers and show how meditation and Buddhist principles are relevant to contemporary American life. "Buddhism is a practice," says Levine. "It's not a bumper sticker. It's not about attending the Dalai Lama's teachings with 10,000 other people. It's about practicing generosity in your daily life. It's getting on your ass and training your own mind on your meditation cushion."

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Whitney Joiner

Whitney Joiner is an editor at Seventeen magazine and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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