Shouts and Whispers

The next generation of American Buddhism steps up—and looks back.

Marcia Z. Nelson

Silence and Noise: Growing Up Zen in America
Ivan Richmond
New York: Pocket Books, July 2003
160 pp.; $12.00 (paper)

Dharma Punx
Noah Levine
HarperSanFrancisco, June 2003
256 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)

Both are young, male second-generation American Buddhists. Both have written memoirs recalling early exposure to the dharma. That aside, Ivan Richmond and Noah Levine sound about as much alike as a temple bell and a punk rock band.

Richmond’s story, Silence and Noise: Growing up Zen in America, is steeped in the monastic calm of Green Gulch Farm, the sylvan outpost of the San Francisco Zen Center where the twenty-eight-year-old spent his youth while his father, author-businessman Lewis Richmond, served as head priest. In Dharma Punx, Levine, the thirty-one-year-old son of author-meditation teacher Stephen Levine, blasts out quite another story. Rejecting the Sixties’ “hippie spirituality” of his parents, Levine embraced anarchy and addiction, self-destructively head-banging himself into a gradual awakening. One rebelled, the other did not. But both ended up on the Buddhist path.

Ivan Richmond arrived at Green Gulch in 1977 when he was three and a half, and left with his family in 1984, after scandal forced Richard Baker Roshi out of Zen Center. (Richmond recounts that event from the peripheral perspective of a child beholding something he knows is important but doesn’t fully understand.) Green Gulch was the archetypal garden, familiar and familial. Richmond’s departure at age ten—“the single most pivotal moment of my life”—is recounted with an exile’s mournful disorientation:

I didn’t have the zendo, the communal dining room, the sound of the gongs reverberating through the valley, or the silence. . . . I felt as if my whole world had been blown to pieces.

In reassembling the pieces into a post-Green Gulch life, Richmond experienced “an ongoing inner tug-of-war” between the Buddhist values of his childhood and the consumerist culture of mainstream America. “I am not like most Westerners,” he declares at the outset, in what proves to be an understatement. Faced with conflicts—materialism versus nonmaterialism, violence versus nonviolence—Richmond makes fumbling attempts to resolve them via the Middle Way. How, he wonders, does a Buddhist ask a noisy, burly neighbor to turn down his music? How long should he wait for a girlfriend in a coffee shop? The result of his deliberations, we discover, is a low-key life informed by a karmic moral view.

Not that the primordial garden was without flaws. Richmond never learned much about conflict resolution, he admits, and the ascetic life at Green Gulch left him ill-equipped for the hypersensual, multimedia world of his peers. Ironically, the greatest flaw he finds in his Zen upbringing is a lack of religious instruction. Richmond urges convert-Buddhist parents to make sure their offspring receive formal training.

If leaving the garden was the pivotal event of Richmond’s life, attempting suicide while detoxing in a padded cell in juvenile hall was Noah Levine’s unravelling; it drove him to meditation, literally kicking and screaming. Dharma Punx opens as Levine hits bottom at age seventeen, then backtracks to chronicle a childhood marked by violence and upheaval. We meet five-year-old Noah playing with a steak knife he has hidden from his stepfather—“an evil Buddhist” prone to explosive rages. Levine’s restless energy finally finds an outlet when he attends his first punk rock concert at age twelve: “I knew from that night on that this was where I belonged. I had found my place in this fucked-up world.” Fueled by drugs, booze, and rock ’n’ roll, Levine’s adolescence is a low-life version of the classic spiritual quest, as he spurns the efforts of his father, his stepmother, and others to offer direction.

The first systematic step in Levine’s transformation is joining Alcoholics Anonymous, where he finds a spiritual foundation in the Twelve Step program. Perhaps his most sobering moment, however, comes when his closest childhood friend dies of a heroin overdose.

A natural though unpolished storyteller, Levine has a gift for plunging readers into the belly of his experience, from a foray into car theft to befriending a Western spiritual seeker on a pilgrimage to Asia. His deep and wide life tale is an affecting teaching, conversationally told.

Together, Ivan Richmond and Noah Levine represent two very different faces of the dharma, as it threads its way through a new generation in America. From their stories we see how adaptable, yet enduring, Buddhism proves to be.

Marcia Z. Nelson, author of Come and Sit: A Week Inside Meditation Centers, writes book reviews and features for Publishers Weekly.

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