Silence and Noise: Growing Up Zen in America
New York: Pocket Books, July 2003
160 pp.; $12.00 (paper)
HarperSanFrancisco, June 2003
256 pp.; $23.95 (cloth)
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.
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