The first thing I noticed about James Veliskakis was the serpentine tattoo running down his arm. We were sitting silently next to each other during a ten-day meditation retreat. We later met at other Buddhist events, and I chatted with him about his passion for bicycle racing, his devotion to Buddhist practice, and his work mentoring youths—but he told me nothing about his pre-dharma life.

At a recent sangha gathering, however, James explained that prior to his encounter with Buddhism, he had been someone none of us would have wanted to know, and he added with chagrin that he would not have wanted to know us either. My curiosity piqued, I cornered him and asked to hear his story. He then regaled me with the details of his earlier life as “Jimmy the Greek” with the Hell’s Angels, the outlaw motorcycle gang. James’s account fascinated me. As a psychotherapist and spiritual seeker, I am always curious about what makes people change and awaken. How does someone go from a lifestyle often characterized by brutality and violence to one with a bodhisattvalike commitment to helping troubled boys and girls? I also wondered in what ways his two paths have been similar. Was the freedom sought by the outlaw the same freedom offered by the dharma? I interviewed James Veliskakis by phone in February of 2003.

—Carla Brennan

Let’s start with some of the details of your past. How did you get involved with the Hell’s Angels? I remember the first time I laid eyes on the Hell’s Angels. I was probably about four years old. It was a bright summer day, but I heard this thunder, and I knew it was coming from the highway near my house, in Peabody, Massachusetts. The next thing I saw was gleaming chrome, and long beards and hair, and black leather. It was bizarre, otherworldly.

It turned out that the Hell’s Angels had a clubhouse right down the street. We’d drive by the clubhouse and we would see them out front. As a kid, I was always on my tricycle. I’d just take off and nothing could stop me. Then later, when I was about nine, I organized my own bicycle gang. I called it “Vel’s Angels.” 

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