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Lions Roar : January 2017
PHOTOBYKIMHUYNH Francisco, has been involved with MBA Project almost since the beginning. “Most programs in institutions are subpar,” he says. “They’re government-mandated, just-say-no Reagan bullshit. They’re mandated by people who have no idea what it’s like to sit on the other side of the desk and be talked at.” Ferraro remembers when he was locked up. “People would come in screaming at me, talking about what I did and why I needed to change. I was like, you have no idea about my life experience.” MBA Project instructors take a different tack. They ask kids questions about themselves and get them to tap into their own wisdom. When kids have been through homelessness, drug addiction, and incarceration, says Ferraro, “It’s our duty to help them cultivate any shred of dignity or self-respect they’ve got. So let’s start there. Stand at the door of the unit and welcome them in, look them in the eye, get to know their names, build a relationship with them.” What’s critical, Ferraro continues, “is saying, ‘I see you, man, and even though we’ve been through a lot of shit, that ain’t all of who we are. But that makes us survivors, and we can trans- form that into something powerful. Let’s get into alchemy here. Instead of hiding what happened to us and leaving it shrouded in shame, let’s claim that shit and then stand up on top of it.’” When they practice mindfulness, the kids learn that they don’t have to give up control and take the bait just because somebody else isn’t happy. Ferraro offers this example: “Somebody says something about my mother. If I smack him, I’ll just get time tacked onto my bid. But what if I flashed my basic goodness instead of flashing my fists?” Maybe, says Ferraro, that would remind this other guy of who he really is—that he too is basically good. According to statistically validated measures, youths who complete MBA Project’s ten modules experience a 31.7 percent increase in self-regulation of and a 24.1 percent increase in school attachment. They experience decreases of 33.2 percent in stress, 20.1 percent in impulsiveness, and 28.4 percent in violent conflict. “MBA Project gives kids a choice in neighborhoods where they don’t have choices,” says Ferraro. “In my neighborhood, my choice was whether I was going to become a crackhead or a dope fiend. My whole family was dope fiends, so I went crack. At MBA Project, we’re giving kids some different options.” IN BUDDHISM, there are five precepts: abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual mis- conduct, lying, and consuming intoxicants. The last is interpreted in different ways, and Noah Levine finds it perplexing that many Buddhists take a more lenient approach to the fifth precept. “Everybody agrees that the first four precepts are about abstaining,” he says, “but then somehow we get to the fifth precept and people start saying, ‘Oh, no, this doesn’t mean abstinence. This means moderation.’ Are we going to start saying, ‘It’s okay to kill in moderation’ and ‘It’s okay to steal in moderation’ as long as you’re balanced about it? The Buddha was quite clear about abstinence as the foundation for the abil- ity to be mindful.” For many dharma practitioners, Levine’s approach to intoxi- cants and the dharma in general is hardline—even old-fash- ioned. And maybe to them his point of view sits oddly with his many innovations, his rebellious streak, his punk styling. But Levine doesn’t see any contradiction. “I’ve always been inter- ested in going right to the roots of what Siddhartha Gautama taught and how to apply it,” he says. One thing Siddhartha had no beef with—as far as we know— was tattoos. At the end of our interview, Levine describes his: There’s the huge Buddha on his stomach, “a Buddha belly,” which is flanked by two dragons. There’s the Tibetan laughing skull and eternal knot on his biceps. And then there’s his back wholly cov- ered in the wheel of existence held in the mouth of Mara. For Levine, his tattoos are reminders. “You look down at your arm,” he says, “and you’re like, oh yeah, Buddha! They’re a reminder to be ethical and kind, compassionate, generous, and mindful. To live with integrity.” One of these days soon, says Levine, he’s going to get his thighs inked. At that point, his bodysuit will be complete. He will be covered in reminders. ♦ LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2017 45