Against The Stream: DIY Spirituality and Rebellion
Was Buddhism the first DIY spiritual path? According to Noah Levine, "Sid" (Siddhartha Gautama a.k.a. Buddha) was history's earliest punk. He went against the prevailing guruism of his day, eschewing the caste system by inviting women, criminals and the poor into the enlightenment camp. Like punk, Buddhism's user interface is decidedly personal and open source. Akin to the proverbial Sniffin' Glue punk dictum – "Here's a chord, here’s another, now go start a band" – Buddha said, here’s the Dharma, now go get enlightened.
Levine's new book, Against the Stream, is DIY boot camp for the spiritual revolutionary. Unlike his biography, Dharma Punx, Against… is a practical hands-on guide to getting your dharma on. I give Levine tremendous credit for branding the Dharma Punx idea. I don't mean that cynically, but in a zeitgeist kind of way, because when I first encountered Dharma Punx, and subsequently Noah in person, I found a kindred spirit who grokked the suffering of fellow punks and other social outcasts. I didn't know there were other spiritually oriented old school punkers like myself; in doing so it was like finding a lost brother. Many apparently share the feeling because Dharma Punx and its ever-expanding community of sanghas ("communities") have taken a life of their own. Noah gladly has let the inmates take over the asylum.
The attraction of Dharma Punx goes far beyond the Noah personality cult, something we half-joke about, but his charisma is definitely attractive to many – and a total turnoff to some. Admittedly it's a bit strange to hear a bald guy with tattoos on his neck and hands espouse a philosophy based on love, not fear. But I think he strikes the right tone, which is balanced delicately with the practical applications of Buddhism with the desire to radically change the world.
Like hardcore punk, which I consider to be the monochrome canvas of music, Theravada's mindfulness approach is a more minimalist approach to Buddhism, i.e. no shamanic renderings of the Dharma that were added later by other branches. Periodically Noah held debates at the NYC sangha with Shambhala practitioner Ethan Nichtern (author of another great book, One City: A Declaration of Interdependence), who also teaches at the same Bowery space across the street from the now-defunct CBGBs. It's fun to hear Noah slash and burn with three-chord Dharma to get to the essential: no astral glamour or speculative metaphysics. It's all about the here-and-now, literally, between you and the cushion or you and the skateboard, as the case may be. What makes Noah's take on Buddhism essential is that it's streetwise, partly from his experience from teaching in prisons, also in part because he's from the streets. You get a lot of that in Against the Stream, with doses of "homie" sprinkled about in his discussions of the suttas. In the Dharma Punx sangha, the language in his talks (and othrer teachers as well) is far more colorful.
In the sangha I have observed a really diverse demographic (young and old, multiethnic, assorted subcultural styles, etc.), but at the core I am attracted by a particular Gen X sensibility that's pissed off, ironic, and yes, highly dysfunctional and addicted. Having been there and done that, my theory is this: back in the old punk days we had created a tribe and surrogate family as a means for dealing with our alienation, both from the fucked-up system, but also from badly broken homes. Many of us who grew up in the '70s were dealing with a very bad '60s hangover. Divorce, drugs, free love, experimental therapy, cults, and abuse were common among us. Sadly, punk never overcame its nihilism and generally internalized to the extreme all the social dysfunction we railed against. This is why I found the documentary American Hardcore so depressing. Before viewing it, I had high expectations of seeing my youth displayed and documented authentically; I wanted to re-live the excitement and vibrant energy that I remember about punk. Instead I left the theater depressed. I had blocked out the violence, and the scene in which Henry Rollins, who was singing for Black Flag at the time, sucker-punched an audience member recalled the ugly side of our youth movement. It was a depressing reminder of the dark side of our generational aesthetic.
Sadly, some have "sold out" to market this lifestyle, best symbolized by the disembodied, postironic tone of advertising voiceovers. But not Noah. When he sits on the cushion with you it's because he's been through the shit; it's not some highfalutin gimmick espousing phony guru crap. If there is one thing you will glean from Against the Stream, it's the practicality of his approach and how it remains true to the spirit of rebellion. And if there is one bit of sage advice that springs from it, it's something that Noah repeats often: don't believe a word he says. Try it for yourself and see if it works for you. Because that's all that really matters. The rest is bullshit.
Admittedly before reading the book I had fallen of the Dharma wagon. This could mean a lot of things. Some might object to some of the precepts, in particular the ones against harmful sexuality or no intoxicants. The definitions are somewhat flexible, because we are lay people and these teachings are meant for householders, not monks. A lot of Dharma Punx are AA-ers. Some are uncomfortable with that aspect of the sangha, but like all punk communities (I use the term loosely here to describe an attitude, not a look), the slam pit is fairly large. In the years that I participated, everyone one of us blew it a few times, picked up old habits, fell of the wagon, etc, but we all supported each other when the time was right and returned to the cushion. This is not a scene where people are judged for their weaknesses or failings.
I realize that not all will share the same feelings I had when I first sat in the Dharma Punx sangha, but for me there was an intense feeling of coming home. Maybe Against the Stream will also offer you that sense of welcome.Tweet