Punk Rock Meets Spirituality: Noah Levine
Interview: Keli Lalita Reddy, Mantralogy
Keli Lalita Reddy: Tell us how you got into punk and hardcore music.
Noah Levine: My life set me up for listening to punk. When I was five years old, I was already feeling actively suicidal, and by the time I was seven I was taking drugs. I was smoking pot and I was drinking. By the time I was 10, I felt like I didn’t even want to exist because of the pain of existence. And it was then that I heard punk for the first time. It was mostly English punk, like the Sex Pistols. I had an older sister who was dating skate punk/surf punk guys in Santa Cruz, which is where I grew up. One of the guys turned me on to punk. When I heard punk for the first time, I felt like it was the expression of all the rage against injustice that I was feeling. Once I heard it, I was full on. There were great California hardcore bands too: Black Flag and Circle Jerks. As I said in my book Dharma Punx, hearing Johnny Rotten was like hearing the voice of God to me. Rage, dissatisfaction. That’s how I felt. I loved the Exploited and the Clash, the Damned, the Buzzcocks. All of that. Minor Threat and 7 Seconds. I was drinking along to the Straightedge bands. What also happened for me was that along with this punk rock rebellion came alcoholism, drug addiction, and self-destruction. I was supported by the community on some level. But by the time I was seventeen, I was completely strung out and in and out of juvenile hall, over and over. I realized I was an addict and that I somehow had to get clean. But there was the fear there. What will my community be? Who will be my friends? Where will I find a scene? When I finally did get sober, I realized that there was a scene out there. I remembered bands like 7 Seconds, and that there was a Straightedge scene that would support someone like me who was just getting clean, someone that wanted to stay involved in the punk/hardcore scene, but who didn’t want to do drugs anymore. That was in 1988, which was a pinnacle and resurgence of Straightedge led by Youth of Today. Right when I got sober, Schism, Revelation Records, and then a little later Equal Vision Records, all of these important labels were just getting established. I bought basically everything that Revelation Records ever did. KR: For me, Straightedge hardcore music was a refuge because I never got into drugs and alcohol. I felt so happy that I could still be a cool teenager and have a scene and a place to go and hang out, because the pressure to drink and take drugs was so intense. NL: I feel like Straightedge was mostly about that: a positive place where you didn’t have to feel pressure to do that. But it was also such a refuge for those of us that had done that and didn’t want to anymore. It gave us a scene to identify with.
KR: How did you leave the California hardcore scene and wind up in India?
NL: When I got sober and was going to the 12-step program, they told me that I needed a spiritual solution to stay sober. When I had been in juvenile hall in 1988, my father had given me some basic mindfulness Buddhist meditation instructions. And I was practicing meditation. When I went to the 12-step program and they told me that I had to believe in God, and that essentially God is going to remove your addiction and your defects of character, and that “you’re powerless” and only God can help, that didn’t make sense to me. I was an atheist punk rocker and I didn’t believe in any of that shit. But I also felt hopeless and I wanted to find my way. I became open-minded about finding out what the solution might be. I was comfortable with Eastern thought. My father was kind of Hindu/Buddhist, which is unique to the followers of Neem Karoli Baba. My dad sort of thought Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sufism were all good. As long as it wasn’t Judeo-Christian philosophy. But eventually, I read the Bible, I read the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita… like a World Religions study course. I wanted to find my own way and commit to a spiritual path. I was looking for the spiritual solution that was recommended to me in my recovery program and I wanted to find out which one of these philosophies I could get behind. Which one makes sense to me? Krishnacore was big in my world then; Shelter and 108 and that was good for me. All the Straightedge hardcore bands that I liked were now into Krishna Consciousness. It really influenced me. I chanted Hare Krishna, I meditated, I went to Sufi gatherings. I did all of that stuff. By the time I went to India in 1995, I was solidly in a place of knowing that Buddhism is what made the most sense to me. I wanted to go on a pilgrimage. On my first trip, I went to all the ISKCON temples. There was a big celebration that year and I ran into Vic/Vraja Kishor from 108 and I sat and spoke with him. But I was on my own. I was more Buddhist and I never got completely behind Krishnacore. I was always a little out of the loop. It never really happened for me. My path was a different one. The Buddhist world made the most sense to me. Looking back, what really led me to India was my search for spiritual life. I had a youthful idea that I was going to get enlightened. Maybe it’s part of being a recovering addict, but I went there with a ton of energy to answer the question: what will free me from suffering? And I’m going to immerse myself, chant over and over, meditate over and over, go on long retreats, and go to India and find the happiness that I was looking for in the drugs. I am going to find that in spiritual practice.
KR: It seems like you really knew your path all along, and that you searched in different places to come home to Buddhism again.
NL: When I went to India, I thought to myself, “Maybe I will find an enlightened guru.” I went to Ammaji. I went to Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram, Ramana Maharshi’s place. I went to a bunch of Hindu ashrams. Also went to a bunch of ISKCON temples. I had gone to Thailand and Burma and did the Buddhist circuit. By the time I got to India, I did want to go to Bodh Gaya. But what I really was looking for was an enlightened guru, because I felt like I didn’t really want to do the work myself. I loved the idea of some sort of grace and blessing of God doing it for me, some external source taking care of it all for me. I loved that idea. I thought, what if I could meet a guru that would wipe away my anger, hatred, and fear? Sign me up! I met so many people who told me that gurus could do that. I even had some amazing out-of-body experiences with some of the gurus I visited. But I guess I am too rational. I would always tell myself that it was just projection or just my excitement. I also have such a core distrust of authority, which is what drew me to the punk scene. So being in really hierarchical spiritual and religious communities was always really difficult for me. I just don’t trust easily. Also growing up with my father, who was part of the Neem Karoli community, and knowing all of the gossip about all of the gurus, all of the stories, good and bad, helped lead me to a place in Buddhism which says you are on your own, you have to do the work yourself, you have to train your own heart and mind. In Buddhism, there are mantras to chant, but they aren’t magic, they just train the mind to healthier neurological patterns. That just made more sense to me.
KR: What is the connection for those of you who made the journey to spiritual life from all of the loud, violent, aggressive dancing and music in the punk and hardcore universe to the Shanti practice of something like Metta meditation?
NL: We learn that the First Noble Truth of Buddhism is to turn towards the suffering and see it clearly and to face it and to break the denial about how difficult this human existence really is. We live with impermanence, greed, hatred, and delusion inside of us and outside of us. Punk and hardcore expresses that dissatisfaction, the First Noble Truth. Life is difficult. There is tremendous corruption and ignorance and people are making it worse. Punk and hardcore offer a cathartic release of fierce wisdom. If you are in the scene and you’re going to live shows, you also have the physical embodiment of expressing fierce wisdom. You’re throwing your body against other bodies. And there was variety in the way things were expressed. For instance, the Straightedge/Krishnacore scene also expressed fierce wisdom, but it was about positivity, devotion, truth, and renunciation. It had a core wisdom message being expressed. Hardcore music is a clear critique of the human condition, and of society and of culture, which I think is very important. But that got balance for us in spiritual life by being a devotee or a Buddhist. Because we knew there were problems, but what was the solution? The solution came for us in these spiritual practices.
KR: Advice for your 20-year-old self?
NL: Mostly, I feel like 20-year-old me did everything right. I was trying all different things, but it really worked out well for me. This was a really difficult year for me. I’m 45 and I got divorced this year and my father died. But somehow I landed in this place of, like, “I am totally ok,” mostly because of all of the practices I have been doing since I was 20. I know how to be sad, to feel grief, to experience sadness and loneliness without meeting it with hatred. I’ve learned compassion. I’ve learned forgiveness. My 20-year-old self set me on a path to be where I am now. Noah Levine is the founder of Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, with centers in Los Angeles and San Francisco and more than 20 affiliated groups in North America and Europe. Noah has created a process of addiction recovery based on the teachings of the Buddha, called Refuge Recovery. He is the author of Dharma Punx, Against the Stream, Heart of the Revolution, and Refuge Recovery.
Photos by Sarit Z. Rogers