Thursday, January 19, 2012

Noah Levine's "Against the Stream": Book Review

This "Buddhist manual for spiritual revolutionaries" may appeal to the tattooed and shaved crowd that the author and cover beckon. Levine sums up how not to be a Buddhist but a Buddha. He emphasizes actual experience, not book learning, so this is short on the usual history and cultural contexts other introductions provide, but this is not a shortcoming. He suggests a few sources, but Levine conveys dharma directly.


Good books by Buddhists tend to tell their message clearly and concisely. His 2003 memoir (summed up as a preface) "Dharma Punx" (see my review) narrated on his own rebellious quest and travels in Asia rather than give substantial content about the dharma. This 2007 follow-up covers little about his own struggles. Instead, Levine puts the knowledge he shares into action.

He distills the Buddha's message: "Pain is unavoidable. Suffering is self-created." (19) Levine demonstrates how we can overcome attachment to the cravings that inevitably arise that keep us tethered to things, people, and concepts that prevent us from growth and tempt us away from insight. He teaches, but free of jargon, Theravadin Southeast Asian-Sri Lankan "insight meditation/vipassana" traditions that he's studied for twenty years. He conveys them in calm, but forceful tones.


"Against the Stream" is counterinstinctual; this phrase from the Buddha means to go "against our very human instincts to accept pain and not chase pleasure." (100) As one in recovery, Levine conveys the difficulty of breaking patterns of how we react to pleasure and avoid pain. "Our conditioned tendency is to push or pull or grasp or run." (103) As a solution, he gives us three stages-- corresponding sort of to the "three jewels": the Buddha, the dharma teaching, the sangha of community-- that comprise the heart of his emphatic presentation.


He starts with the Buddha's life and his guidance. Levine offers helpful perspectives on "basic training" and his treatment of the Eightfold Path is free of jargon. Change being constant, dissatisfaction's inherent in us. Mindfulness (even if nearing pop-culture cliche now) regains its power when Levine provides this analogy: we need to let each moment die naturally. Attachment to or aversion from the passing moment means we try to "resuscitate or kill an experience. Mindfulness allows us to receive the experience directly and to respond more like a compassionate hospice worker than an aggressive ER doctor." (28)


Levine illustrates the complex idea of "dependent origination" and how karma's responded to with the example of craving ice cream, buying a triple-scoop hot fudge sundae, getting full after three bites, but scarfing it down anyway, before feeling queasy. He explains another tough concept, how the mind "experiences itself" so we realize we are not the mind or even its contents. (31) He advises that the reader learn to regard the mind as impersonal, so as to detach one's identification from its passing fancies. Letting go, as renunciation, helps to let the self separate from the causes of desire and suffering. It also helps us put into action "the intention to stop hurting ourselves and others." (32)

"Cognitive disobedience" makes this a difficult practice, for meditation rebels against the mind's defenses. As "the highest form of the inner revolution," Levine argues that this liberates the practitioner from the "dictates of the mind," for one can choose "for ourselves how to respond to the "thoughts, feelings, and sensations of being alive." (45) Throughout his book, he refers to easily understood instructions, compiled in an thirty-five page appendix, of "meditative trainings" keyed to these various stages on the path.

The second level enters "boot camp," as the practices emanate from the person outward, to get off the meditation cushion into one's livelihood, encounters, and activities. Compassion, loving-kindness, appreciation, and especially the often-overlooked quality of equanimity represent the goals for a spiritual revolutionary. (For more, see his 2011 "The Heart of the Revolution: the Buddha's Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion, and Kindness.")

No divine revelation enters, and no entreaties to a higher power need be sought. Instead, the experience of freedom, as the Buddha taught, comes not from books or observation, but from experience. Pain continues, and bliss does not descend for long, but the way people react to suffering, and the growing ability to detach from one's dissatisfaction and to create satisfaction for one and others, begins to tidy up some of the messiness of unpredictable reality as lived by the dharma practitioner.

Part three as "field guide" engages with our common reality. The "outer revolution" that follows the inner one will take time to transform society by positive change. Sexuality earns an extended reflection, and even if Levine's advice for celibacy may be surprising for some readers, and not an option for many whom I assume are in committed relationships, he does caution all of the need to accept the unavoidable presence of "the truth of impermanence" in intimacy, and the suffering that it does bring for all partners, eventually. (93)

As with the Brahma god's conversation attributed in legend with the Buddha after his enlightenment, the appeal of this rigorous approach may not be among the masses but the few, the elite, the renunciators "with but little dust in their eyes." I felt, as with "Dharma Punx," that this portion of Levine's regimen relates to those who can commit to celibate periods, extended residential retreats, financial independence, familial support, and distance from the chores, duties, demands which fill the hours of working folks with partners and children.

More discussion of how the renunciation of intimacy relates to many of us ("married with children") would have enriched this section. It's helpful for its reminders of what people do want to forget, but its lesson's directed more at those able at his most "radical" level to live as sort of on-off monks, not a realistic option for many Westerners after a certain age. Levine notes how temporary celibacy, as with his sexual relationships, remains "the most challenging realm of his practice and the cause of the most suffering in my life." (94) [For another p-o-v, see "hardcore Zen" Brad Warner's books, all reviewed by me, especially "Sex, Sin and Zen"]

Like Brad Warner, Noah Levine speaks as one in his forties to a crowd impatient with "the delusion of knowledge" vs. the nitty-gritty immersion of those raised with punk (or hip-hop) and after the 60s & 70s, the period when Noah's father Steven emerged as a noted American Buddhist teacher. For Noah, he shares his father's countercultural resistance to what culture creates as philosophies with all the right answers neatly packaged. Bliss cannot stay, and pleasure vanishes. Gurus in Levine's version of true Buddhism are not to be found: one cannot gain the magic mantra or dispensed wisdom secondhand. Insecurity and ignorance must be overcome by a constant battle inside one's self, as that self itself begins to be dismantled.

In its place, the "present-time experience" grounds a practitioner not in belief but in action. Freedom comes as one's awareness of passing desires and pains and pleasures diminishes their hold on one's conditioned tendencies to grasp or to flee. He closes with a "manifesto." By serving others with a renewed energy to better them and ourselves, we can "defy the lies" of material comfort and dogmatic oppression as the way to satisfaction; "serve the truth" with honesty and integrity, not violence and greed; "beware of teachers" as "no one can do it for you!"; and to "question everything" until one has experienced it for one's self. I found it sensible and worthwhile as a practical guide free of technicalities. (Posted to Lunch.com & Amazon US 3-14-11.)

2 comments:

Tony Bailie said...

As always John I'm picking up your trail of scattered books and I think this one is a must. Reading, slowly, Richard Causton's 'The Buddha in Daily Life' and, much quicker, Colin Thubron's 'To a Mountain in Tibet' (although I already had it before checking to see if you had reviewed it - quelle surprise). Also picked up a couple of times, though as yet refrained from buying as yet Ma Jian's Red Dust.
Still wading through various obscure tracts brought back from India, biographies and teachings of Krishnamurti - don't see any references to him on your blog, but I think you would 'get' him – and musings on the psychology of yoga. Oh yes and The Dalai Lama's 'Universe in a Single Atom'... now where did I read a review of that?

Fionnchú said...

Tony, I thank you and Sinéad for the surprising package that arrived two days ago. Now I can read "Submergence"! Thubron's book's the best I read last year, easily. Causton's is idiosyncratic but if you could handle "Luminous Emptiness," you can handle it. I reviewed Causton and related SGI books in background reading for a possible research project, if I can find time. Not being a sociologist, I have my weaknesses, but I am intrigued by studying religious behavior and assertions from varied p-o-v's.

Not knowing much about SGI until recently, as I wrote about in "Thinking Myself into Certitude" a few weeks ago, it sparked my academic and personal interest, overlapping.

Very interested in hearing your own reactions to the intricate SGI cosmology and "practical" applications: an offbeat combo.

What I want is an account about Big Bangs (and before them?) that takes in Eastern views of Big Splats or Crunches, and applies them to cosmology--of the latest type. Any such "serious" titles?

I look forward to your own Indian reports, and those "obscure tracts" will surely inspire you to more musings, and I bet more writing in longer form, hmmm? Keep being as idiosyncratic and synchronistic as me!