June 03, 2011

Captain Karma vs. The One-Percenters: An Interview with Noah Levine

At the Tricycle Book Club we are discussing Noah Levine's new book, The Heart of the Revolution. Last week, I was very happy to get an opportunity to sit and talk with Noah,

Tricycle: What makes Buddhism revolutionary?

Noah Levine: There are so many levels to it. Perhaps the simplest way that it's revolutionary is that there's a norm in this world that seems to be created by the human evolutionary survival instinct; the norm of greed for pleasure and attachment to pleasure. There is a lot of resentment, anger, and violence that comes out of that. There’s a self-centeredness—a confusion that our human mind and body create of constantly thinking about ourselves. It happens in every single human being. Then human beings create culture and societies. What we have is the individual ruled by greed, hatred, and delusion, and then we have the world ruled by greed, hatred, and delusion. What makes Buddhism so revolutionary, as in trying to create a change, is that Buddhism is focused on alleviating the suffering caused by this confusion and self-centeredness.

The Buddha’s teachings, experienced through meditative discipline, inquiry, and ethical behavior, bring about a radical transformation to the human condition and the survival instinct, so that we're no longer ruled by greed, hatred, and delusion, and that we actually change our relationship to pleasure and pain. The sense of self and the delusion of self-centeredness is part of what the Buddha was talking about in anatta, the not-self doctrine of the dharma. It's incredibly radical, because it's counter to the norm that is internal in human beings, and external in societies.

Tricycle: So, the revolution is personal but the three poisons also manifest in society. Is the revolution that you're writing about something that you're hoping can change the world in a broader sense in terms of societies and governments?

Noah Levine: I'm not so sure, or so attached to how much we're going to change the world, as far as actual governmental changes. But I do feel fully confident that the more people that are practicing the dharma the better the world becomes. Each individual who is practicing the dharma, that's one person who is creating less harm and practicing more compassion. So it's obvious that the dharma practice has more than just a positive influence on the individual practitioner and does create a positive change in the world. Whether or not that's going to happen in the masses to the point where governments change, I have no idea. It pretty much feels unlikely that it's going to happen on a societal level like that, but then you have historical examples of deep practitioners, like the Buddha, who really did change the world. King Ashoka brought about a dharma society. There’s Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., individuals who, through their truthseeking, created positive change on a mass scale. There’s the example of Tibet, which became a very radical and compassionate culture for centuries.

Tricycle: What is a spiritual one-percenter?

Noah Levine: The one-percenter is something that I've been playing with from my involvement in outlaw biker culture. There is a patch that the bikers wear on their vests that says one-percenter, and it comes from this biker riot in the 1950s that happened in Hollister, California, which was later dramatized in the Marlon Brando movie, The Wild Ones. Since I was a kid I’ve been riding motorcycles, and I have had a fascination with outlaw bikers, and if I wasn't a dharma teacher, there's a good chance that I would be an outlaw biker. At some point, there was a choice of which direction am I going to go, and clearly I chose the dharma route. But the term “1%er” came from the aftermath of that riot when a journalist said, “most motorcyclists are law abiding citizens, and only one percent of the motorcyclists are outlaw rebels.” The outlaws said, fantastic, this is true.

Tricycle: They owned it.

Noah Levine: Yes, we own it. We are the one percenters. Now I'm taking that into a spiritual one percenter, based on parts of the Pali Canon, and the Theravadan tradition of the Buddhist teaching, where the Buddha said that he thought that only a handful of people in each generation would truly be willing to practice the dharma, those with little dust in their eyes, with only slightly obscured vision. He didn't think that the dharma would be practiced by everyone everywhere, but he did think it was going to be a small percentage, a small handful. So I'm taking that, the outlaw one-percenter, a handful in each generation, and saying, well perhaps there's a correlation here. The spiritual one-percenters are the handful in each generation. It takes such a deep commitment to dharma practice. It is those that say okay, I'm interested, and I really do want to be part of the temple, I really do want to commit my full life energy to awakening, service, and practice. Those that commit to the outlaw spiritual revolution, going against greed, hatred, and against delusion are the spiritual one-percenters.

Tricycle: In your book, you write about the Middle Way approach between seeking happiness in temporary worldly pleasures and seeking happiness and salvation in external forces and religions. Regarding the Middle Way, would you say one should completely abandon their worldly passions, or for people to completely turn away from theism? Or is there a Middle Way approach within that? What’s your advice for someone who's seeking to walk the middle path but doesn't quite know how to go about doing it?

Noah Levine: Well, it's tricky. There is also our cultural conditioning on what balance might look like to us. I think it's important to remember that the Middle Way of the Buddha, between the dead end of religion and this dead end of worldliness, was the practice of celibacy and the practice of non-participation in material goods. For us, the monastic Middle Way is what many of us would consider an extreme. Like, really? Not having sex? I've often reflected on celibacy as a Middle Way in comparison to ascetic practices where many of these Indian Sadhus were actually, like, torturing their genitals. The Buddha was saying, you don't have to torture your genitals, but you also don't have to use them. To us, that doesn't sound balanced, right? I think very few American Buddhists would even consider not having sex. I'm not saying that celibacy is necessary for practice at all. The Buddha had a different view of balance, compared to ours.

It’s not whether we participate in the world or not, but whether or not we hold the world hostage for our happiness. It’s not whether or not we participate in religion and spiritual circles, but whether or not we get the kind of blind faith fervor that many of the religions, and even forms of Buddhism ask for. So we don’t need to reject the world, but instead to say yes, I want to be a successful artist, cook, musician, banker, or lawyer, whatever our goals are, but we also need to understand the world's limitations. We must refuse the unrealistic expectations of delusion. We think, I will be happy when I get this worldly accolade, when I succeed in this way or that way, I will be happy, right? That's a delusion. We know that's a delusion, but that shouldn't stop us from engaging in good work, and passionate creative engagement in whatever it is that we're drawn to.

Tricycle: We practice the dharma while engaged in the world.

Noah Levine: Yeah. Likewise, regarding the dead end of religion, it doesn’t mean that we can't be kind and friendly to theistic people and religious people, or to Buddhists that have different ideas about Buddhism as a religion than we do.

There's that story about the person who comes home from retreat and says, “My family really hates me when I'm a Buddhist, but they love me when I'm a Buddha.” The dead end of religion is being this religious person while not being a kind, compassionate, loving, and forgiving person. That's not trying to say, “My path is the best,” but it is saying, “Kindness is my guide.” So yeah, I think that it is tricky to find balance and to live in the material world without getting drawn into the matrix of thinking that the material world is going to supply our happiness.

We must be able to participate in the spiritual and religious world without getting too stuck in views and opinions or turning it into an external refuge. If there's anything that I think the Buddha was clear about, it’s that there is no external refuge. There's nothing outside of yourself that's going to save you. I think that that's so much of what was being pointed to in his statements about the dead end of religion. Almost all religions and even many forms of Buddhism are saying that they are an external salvation, and the bodhisattvas are going to come and save you. That philosophy, and let's not be too judgmental about it, doesn't fit with original Siddhartha’s teachings. It can be a real trap, if you're waiting for someone or something else to do the work for you.

Tricycle: Hearing you say this, I am reminded that one of the things I really appreciate about your writing is that while it does a lot to introduce dharma to new practitioners, you also have this talent for keeping Buddhists on their toes.

Noah Levine: Thank you. I feel the same way about Buddhism as I do about being an American. I'm very happy to be American, and I quite enjoy my life in this country, but I'm always willing to critique it. I think it's patriotic to be in dissent against the ignorant policies of this country.
I feel the same way about Buddhism. I love Buddhism. It has saved my life. I live and breathe it, but I think that it is patriotic to have some dissent. It is important to critique, to have discernment about how sometimes even our spiritual paths get mixed with delusion.

Tricycle: We're living in such intense and volatile times, there's unending wars and systematized oppression and exploitation, and so on. A lot of people out there, and for very good reason, are very angry. What would you say to those that are downright mad at the world right now?

Noah Levine: There's that bumper sticker that says, "If you're not pissed off, you're not paying attention." I relate. If you're paying attention to all of the ignorance, oppression, violence, and injustice in this world, then being a little bit pissed off about it, being angry about it, is understandable. What dharma practice teaches us, and what I suggest to the angry revolutionaries and the angry activists and the frustrated people, is to look a little deeper. Through meditation practice look a little deeper into your own heart and mind and see what's underneath the anger. We see the injustice, and we have aversion to it, and it manifests as anger, but the reason we are angry is because we care, because we love, because we have compassion for those who are being oppressed.

Compassion is much more responsive and responsible than anger. Anger freezes us up, right? We get stuck in anger, we become part of the problem. We get stuck in the feeling, “I'm angry, I'm pissed off.” When we can touch into why we are angry, we see that we're angry because we're hurt. We're angry because we're scared, we're angry because we care. Then we can come to addressing the hurt, addressing the fear, and coming from a place of compassion that is fueling the anger. Connect to the compassion and work for positive change with the understanding and acceptance that this is also just the way the world is, and perhaps always has been.

The Buddha was saying this about 2,500 years ago and he was also in a generation of war and oppression. This is part of our practice. It all doesn't have to go away in order for us to be happy and at ease. Be of service, create a positive change in this world. Anger is not going to be part of the solution. It's an understandable place to start, certainly is where I started for sure, but then we move on. We continue forward.

Tricycle: Forgiveness is one of the themes of your new book. This is something we at Tricycle have been looking into recently—different takes on forgiveness. I'm just going to ask the million-dollar question, is anything unforgivable?

Noah Levine: I think that maybe the answer is yeah, there are actions that are unforgiveable, but there is no one, no person who is unforgivable. The whole process of forgiveness necessitates a wise discernment and separation of actor and action. There are some actions, some things that are unforgivable, but the person who is stuck in ignorance, fear, and hatred, or whatever it is that is motivating that harm that they're causing, they are forgivable. They can be redeemed. It's like the story of Angulimala, the mass murderer in the time of the Buddha.

Tricycle: Yes, the serial killer with a necklace of fingers.

Noah Levine: The serial killer, right. It's quite a story, and it's sort of the Buddha's Osama Bin Laden, or Hitler, George W. or whomever. Angulimala was a warlord serial killer murderer, right?  Yet the Buddha, in his time, is really clear that all beings are forgivable. He meets Angulimala with compassion, forgiveness, and kindness. I've been reflecting more and more, and I do in this new book, on how, in the Metta Sutta there's several different places where the Buddha points to forgiveness as a prerequisite for happiness. This is what should be done if you want to be happy, and you want to be free from suffering. There's a line where he says, “Do not despise any being in any state.” And there's a line that says, “not wishing harm upon any living being.”  How do we get to the place of not despising, not resenting? Forgiveness. Until we forgive, we're still wishing harm upon our enemies. I feel that it’s very clear that forgiveness is an integral part of dharma practice, and that there is no one who is unforgivable, but yes, there are unforgivable actions—we don't have to forgive the Holocaust or 9-11, the rape of the planet, animal cruelty, or environmental destruction. There's so many unforgivable things that happen every single day. Yet these unforgivable things happen out of people's ignorance and confusion and delusion. They are forgivable people.

Tricycle: I think you're right. I wrote a little piece a while back about Buddhism and evil, about how, as a Buddhist, I don't believe in evil at all, but that there is the term, klesha, which is often defined as “poison.” That greed, hatred and delusion can actually solidify into a poison within people. Essentially, you don't forgive the poison, but you understand that it arises out of causes and conditions in human beings.

Noah Levine: Studying the teachings on karma helps to understand this. I reflect on how the Buddha told Angulimala that he had to bear the karma of his actions. Angulimala would come to the Buddha over and over and say that he was seeking redemption, but that people kept attacking him. The Buddha's response was, “You have to bear it. This is the karma that you've created.” Just because you're practicing now, doesn't mean it's a get out of jail free card. You're still fully responsible for your actions. There is an aspect of forgiveness where we see we don't have to punish somebody who has already created the conditions for their own punishment. They are fully responsible for their action. It's not our job to play Captain Karma.

Tricycle: Yeah, Captain Karma. Sounds like we've got a new Tricycle Noah Levine comic book in the works!

Noah Levine: That's right, you might. The one percenters, versus Captain Karma.

Tricycle: Who inspires you?

Noah Levine: Stephen Batchelor and his wife, Martine Batchelor, inspire me. Jack Kornfield, Ajahn Amaro—there are several teachers that inspire me. Also, many of the younger teachers that are coming up in the scene inspire me. I feel very inspired by people like Vinny Ferraro, who Tricycle did a piece on. He’s an old friend of mine. I'm inspired by people who have a fresh take on the dharma.

Tricycle: Do you find inspiration in artists? For example, do you find inspiration in punk?

 Noah Levine: I don't know if I would call music inspiration. To me, inspiration has more of a sort of spiritual connotation to it. I find music and art to be energetic outlets, pleasurable ones, but I don't really refer to then as inspiring. Some people do though. I like loud, fast, angry music, which, maybe, we could say is fierce compassion.

Tricycle: Mahakala music.

Noah Levine: Yes, Mahakala music. I also like hip hop and reggae, and some music that has a little bit more of a positive vibe to it. I was talking to Vinny Ferraro recently and he's very inspired by music. He actually uses music, and he likes pleasant inspirational music, but that's just, that's not true for me. I don't tend to mix dharma and music, like many people do. I find what many people would consider inspirational music, to actually be quite boring.

Tricycle: Final question. What's the last tattoo you got?

Noah Levine: My daughter's name, Hazel. I'm so covered in tattoos at this point that I didn't really have any visible places to put it. It was going to end up on my thigh or somewhere. I’m sort of out of territory, out of real estate. So I ended up putting it on the palm of my hand beneath the thumb, on that pad there. We just kind of just jammed it in. It’s really nice, it's a place that I see all the time. Even when I'm meditating, as my hands are crossed in my lap, if I look down, I see my daughter's name. It's really quite beautiful.


Visit the Tricycle Book Club discussion of The Heart of the Revolution here.

Order The Heart of the Revolution here.


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micko's picture

T) What would you say to those that are downright mad at the world right now?

Noah Levine: There's that bumper sticker that says, "If you're not pissed off, you're not paying attention." I relate. If you're paying attention to all of the ignorance, oppression,......
I found this question and answer just what I've been looking for,as the injustices we are bombarded with on a daily basis become overwhelming at times.

Michael Jaquish's picture

Thank you for conducting this interview, Monty. I found the piece very thought-provoking. Noah appears to be a tattooed, edgy dharma teacher who is doing an excellent job of connecting Buddhist philosophy with contemporary, western society in a way that makes it attainable and understandable to those who might otherwise find the philosophy rather unrealistic. We need more teachers like him in our world. Keep up the wonderful work, Noah!

Monty McKeever's picture

Thanks Michael! It was great talking to him.

richard.murden7's picture

You lost me when you included George W. in the same sentence with Angulimala, Osama Bin Laden, and Hitler in the same sentence. Please forgive me.

paul6316's picture

George Bush is a wonderful gift to Levine, and to all "progressives:" merely mention the name, and the mob howls with anger and hatred; follow up with an exhortation to "forgive," smile beatifically, and all congratulate yourselves on your own tolerance and munificence. It's an old rhetorical technique, but the old tricks are always the best. Of course, this type of conditioned response is exactly what Buddhism is supposed to liberate us from, but who wants give up that self-righteous, guilt-free loathing? It's better than heroin.

srlasky's picture

Paul, you said; "George Bush is a wonderful gift to Levine" and I understand why you say that. My first, leftist, reaction of hatred of GW was the place where I started to understand "equanimity" and "exchanging self with others". Its not about forgiving GW or using some group-speak rhetoric to say how cool I am. For me, at least, those are principles that are a basic part of Buddhist doctrine, and they don't elevate me to the place where I could forgive GW (or anyone else) for his actions. That is way to dualist a reaction and not as good as heroin.

Monty McKeever's picture

While conducting this interview I really didn't pick up on any hidden rhetorical agenda like that. Also, the responses to that line seem to be quite diverse and measured, not a "howling mob."

SAH-RB's picture

There is a simple explanation: George W. Bush is directly responsible, as the Commander in Chief of the US Military, for far more deaths than either Osama bin Laden or Angulimala. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have died; their only fault was being ruled by a US supported dictator who'd become unmanageable. No WMD; no involvement in 9/11. The US government does not release statistics on these deaths to the public, having learned not to from Vietnam. But I found this in a Congressional Research Service report: "In an interview with the Boston Globe, Rear Admiral Gregory Smith, the chief U.S. military spokesman, said Iraqi ministry civilian death tolls estimates have risen from a low of 568 in December 2007 and 541 in January 2008 to roughly 721 in February 2008 and 1,082 in March 2008." This is per month, not cumulative , and these statistics are for only a few months of the war. The dying continues still.

foggedin's picture

Simple explanations apply only to simple situations and I think your simple explanation is, at its core, wrong. That GWB's hands drip with blood, I don't argue (and I do come from the rightish end of the political spectrum). But, the ultimate guilt rests not with him but the American people who, instead of saying "Hell, no!", eagerly grabbed our popcorn, sat down in front of the big screen and watched us blow the crap out of yet another 3rd world country. Remember, the drama of the tanks moving through the howling sandstorms, the outnumbered Marines fighting it out under a highway overpass - hey, this is better than pay tv! We love war, we are addicted to war and we revel in and wallow in the blood, so long as its the blood of someone else. But we're ever so sad and respectful as they bring home the bodies of our children, each one a hero and members of the cast of characters we continually send to every corner of the world to provide our entertainment.
I'm a Vietnam veteran and wasn't aware of what I was really doing until years too late - I pay for that daily. I don't know if there's such a thing as "collective karma" but if there is we, as a nation, can no longer avoid "collective hell" for what many of us not only allow but encourage.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Alas, all our hands are dripping with blood.

It hurts terribly to find that out that about ourselves. I feel compassion for the perpetrators who must suffer greatly from their sense of guilt, as well as the bleeding people who are feeling physical suffering. The proximate causes are different but the capacity to suffer is the same.

My experience has been that until I recognize the pain of discovering oneself to be the oppressor, until I forgive the oppressor and help the oppressor to forgive him or her self, the person oppressing feels too threatened to easily let go of their aggression.

Through Buddhist practice I have learned that I can sometimes unilaterally let go my resentment, if that is what it takes to reverse the cycle of violence.

With hope for us all, Linda

cweb26888's picture

Yes, that comment caught me by surprise.
Strikes me as unbalanced and unfair.
And for the record I am not a supporter of G. Bush or the right.

Melbourne77's picture

I am not American and am not involved in American politics but I can see how someone who supported George Bush wouldn't want him mentioned alongside them. But I do know that he is a man many many people feel lots and lots of anger and even hatred towards so in that way he does fit. Noahs point is to look for the compassion beneath our anger.

sallyotter's picture

Anger at the politically ignorant has long been a discussion topic in our group. Someone pointed out that anger can be ego boosting without any effective action...sitting around saying "Ain't they awful? Aren't we wonderful?" I appreciate the idea of looking under the anger at the fear and compassion as a basis for positive action without expectations. Political activism without burnout.

aewhitehouse's picture

In reading the comment section, I am compelled to quote Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh #1 out of "Fourteen Precepts of Engaged Buddhism":

"Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth."

Richard Dillon's picture

And if you meet a guru on the road, compost it ;-)

Richard Dillon's picture

We build the road, and the road builds us.

Richard Dillon's picture

For me, the real Buddhist revolutionaries are Dr A.T. Ariyaratne and all the members of the Sarvodaya Movement, they have dissolved the dualism of individual and collective liberation, and manifest a just and life sustaining community in the here and now. So many Western Buddhist "teachers" appear to be culturally bound to being incapable of breaking through the event horizon of individualism.