Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Noah Levine's "Dharma Punx": Book Review

A dropout at fifteen, and by nearly thirty, a grown-up, Noah Levine shares his troubled journey. The son of a prominent American Buddhist teacher, Noah was raised in Taos and Santa Cruz, two not-exactly hardscrabble countercultural enclaves. Still, he seems to have spent little time with his father and stepmother, and early on became alienated from his mother and stepfather, turning to drugs by the age of ten or so, and then integrating hardcore (and then Straight Edge) punk and skating, tagging and panhandling, stealing and crack, into his lifestyle spent on the streets. He rails for much of his upbringing against hippie idealism and spiritual messages, but as the title indicates, he manages to survive stints in juvenile hall, twelve-step programs, and among many rebels in the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years who wind up in prison and/or dead.

He tells the story with lots of did-this, done-that detail for the first half of his narrative. He tends to fill pages with who he hung out with and what happened next which may be interesting if you were there with him, or were listening to his anecdotes now and then, but after a few chapters of similar-sounding mishaps, travels, parties, girlfriends, and concerts, it blurs as much for a reader as it must have for Noah back then. I sympathized with his torment, but it played like a long episode of MTV's "Behind the Music"--by a fan.

Halfway, the narrative lightens and widens. A solo camping trip to Big Basin park to see the redwoods he loved sounds predictable. But, the emotion invested in his sight of a deer, and the feelings evoked, demonstrate movingly, in his entrapment in temptations, how estranged from nature he has become.

His share of his mother's inheritance must have stood him in good stead, for he travels a long time across the US and all over Asia. To his credit, earlier (as with "My Name is Earl," I thought), he repays those he ripped off and makes amends to those he cheated, and he does put his fairly-earned income from medical and social work to good use, going off for stays to Hindu ashrams and Buddhist shrines, as well as a Sufi encounter. He follows his parents' model of acting as if he had a year to live, and he lives it up, and down, on his travels.

At Bodhgaya, where the Buddha sat under the bodhi tree, Levine seeks his own "intention to awaken in this lifetime" and to overcome his fears and mistakes and loneliness by "a victory over suffering." (161) Such self-surrender contrasts with his ornery past, and restless present, disdain as a punk for those who have chosen to play along with the system. Slowly, he realizes his own complicity with such a stable system, grateful for the safety it allows him as an American, compared to the assaults on the senses and body that much of India inflicts.

On his second trip to Bodhgaya, to see the Dalai Lama, he realizes his inconsistencies. "The day before I had taken a vow to be compassionate and there I was threatening some crazy Indian man with a stick. The absurdity of it made me laugh. I was very far from becoming a bodhisattva but at least I was trying." (205)

He tells of his on-again-off-again relationship with a girl named Lola, and of his gradual acceptance of their life that must be spent apart. He struggles with his desires, and despite his vegan, hardcore, purifying blend of dharma and punk ethos, he finds the practice as difficult as ever. But, he channels his rage and revolutionary idealism into a positive energy. "I had found the solution to my once-hopeless situation and lack of faith had been replaced by a verified understanding of the path to freedom from suffering. I knew that the path led upstream, against the current, and was the most rebellious thing I had ever done." (217)

As that last sentence of his shows, he can be a writer who struggles with a more fluent style, but the rawness, despite a typo or gaffe now and then, does reflect an honest account that surely has wide appeal for his audience, those who have come of age alongside him, and not the hippies of their parents' (or by now, grandparents') era. Levine can merge the discontent of punk with the First Noble Truth of Buddhism. By the end of his tale, he's finished college and started grad school in a program combining psychotherapy with spirituality, and he's serving the kinds of people he grew up with in Santa Cruz, with a Mind Body Awareness prison ministry, a safe-sex outreach program, and AIDS education.

He contemplates the funeral of one of his best friends, one who saw him both shoot up and meditate, and Levine resolves to keep doing better. He notes how few punks break through their anger at consumerism and conformity to get to "the causes and conditions of the suffering and falsehoods." (230) In dharma, personal freedom and a solution to the wrongs that fill society, he reckons, come together in his deeper, mature understanding. While this will not teach you much about what the Buddha taught, it's a nudge in the right direction. It's a rough ride over two decades, and the feeling that his father and his renowned colleagues intervene more than once to bail him out does persist. Still, the Buddha himself lived as a pampered prince before he saw the reality outside the palace gate.  The rich as well as the poor need guidance, the suburbanites along with those in the slums. Therefore, especially for younger readers turned off by musings from his father's generation, Noah's energetic, if rambling, memoir should prove a wake-up call.

P.S. The title may promise more dharma, but it gives you more punx. Here, Levine appends an overview of his father's meditation practice based on breathing but you'll need his 2007 "Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries" (see my review) as "a navigational chart" for that inner journey that returns to helping others along their own path. His 2011 book, "The Heart of the Revolution" shares his take on the Buddhist teachings of forgiveness, compassion, and kindness. For comparison, along the Zen path and amidst American hardcore punk and Japanese monster-movie culture, the similar memoirs and studies by Brad Warner (all four recently reviewed by me), are recommended. Like Levine, Warner mixes his own (sometimes repetitious, but entertainingly self-deprecating) punk saga into the Buddhist quest; unlike Levine, he's more insistent and more explanatory about how you can and should accept the regimen of Zen as a path to dharma. (Posted to Lunch.com 3-14-11 & Amazon US 3-11-11, the latter an attempt at balance among severely bipolarized reviewers; I've since reviewed his third installment, sign of his growing if delayed maturity: "The Heart of the Revolution" in 2011 for NYJB.)

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