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Lions Roar : May 2010
SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2010 40 the Buddha with his hair in a mohawk. There is a painting of a heart draped with the name dharma Punx. eighty percent of the crowd is under thirty-five, and many are in their early twenties. in the back of the room, before the sitting begins, one young couple is necking. This is not their parents’ meditation hall. which is to say it’s not a “normal” meditation hall for the first wave of north american-born meditation practitioners. i’m talking about m-m -my generation, which turned away from a narrow mainstream culture based on capitalism, amusement, and fear to explore the dharma. now middle-aged and older, we are gaining intimate awareness of the first noble truth as our parents and a few peers die. death is coming into focus, moving from something vague and hypothetical, to reasonable possibil- ity, to inevitable reality. The world will go on without us, but what kind of world will it be? and so we look at the evolving mandala, and especially at new and unexpected tangents of the teachings and practices, with concern. Questions arise. which practices are good? which speech is true? is the dharma in safe hands? noah levine is CounTing his Buddhist tattoos. “one, two, three, four, five, six...” To find them all he has to look from his ankles to neck, and it’s hard to see your neck. “Fifteen to twenty different Buddhist images,” he finally says, and giggles. This is a surprise. like most people my age i grew up believing that tattoos were the mark of pirates, convicts, and potential ju- venile delinquents. You rarely saw tattoos outside pool halls and the bleakest bars. Yet levine’s chuckle is lovely and light. i have never before heard a tattooed man giggle. a large sitting Buddha on his stomach. a standing Buddha on his right forearm. The eye of the bodhisattva on the palm of each hand. and levine’s whole back is a Buddhist wheel of existence he describes as “a sort of Tibetan iconography, with a punk rock reinterpretation.” The tattoos, while distinctive, can distract from what is more in- teresting: the evolution of levine’s mind. as a teenager levine was the kid you warned your kids about. angry and sad, he became hurtful and violent, racking up felony charges as a crack addict stealing from family, friends, and strangers. Bottom was hit before the age of twenty, with the leather-clad punk weeping in the hard, cold emptiness of prison. That’s where he finally decided to try the meditation “hippie bullshit” practiced by his father, the renowned author of books about death and dying, stephen levine. That was almost twenty years ago. Today noah levine, at thirty-eight, is one of the most prominent american Buddhists of his generation. his embarrassment at turning to meditation changed when it worked; he became less angry and more able to take an honest look at himself and the source of his misery. he spent years asking forgiveness of everyone he had hurt, pay- ing off everyone he had ripped off, and stayed clean of drugs. he became a serious dharma student and meditator, devour- ing dharma books, and began working under the guidance of renowned Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield. it was while attend- ing a talk by the dalai lama that levine realized he, too, would become a dharma teacher. except he would not talk to the same audience as his father. he would talk to his own people: punks and toughs and angry youth, people who might not find the dharma in its more conventional forms. levine spent years traveling and teaching, tuning his mes- sage to suit his dejected subculture. Many of his fellow travelers were attracted by his 2003 memoir, Dharma Punx, a compelling account of his terrifying-turned-insightful youth. The book is honest and aggressive, self-important and naive. Dharma Punx resonates, levine says, with the kind of people who are attracted rather than turned off by tattoos. in many cities where he has given talks, and in some he has not, people have asked to set up dharma Punx sitting groups, and usually levine says yes. Together they form what he calls a “loose” community, a new offshoot of Theravada Buddhism. There are about twenty groups in all, anchored by three main ones. above the lingerie store in new York, in a space local legend holds was once Keith richards’ apartment, is the rebel saint Buddhist Meditation Center, managed by Josh Korda. in san Francisco the urban dharma meditation group is run by levine’s second-in- command, vinny Ferraro. and the against the stream Buddhist Meditation society headquarters is in los angeles, where levine, newly married and with a baby daughter, now lives. Together the centers have taught thousands of people to meditate. The high-profile teachers—levine, Ferraro, and Korda—are striking to look at, bald and heavily tattooed. levine and the Punk hairstyles: Josh Korda (shaved), the Buddha (mohawk).