Following a months-long investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct, the Against the Stream Meditation Society (ATS) has removed its founder, Noah Levine, from their board of directors and from his teaching responsibilities, the organization said in a statement sent out on August 25. As a result of the investigation and the controversy surrounding it, the California-based ATS said it will also be closing its meditation centers.
While the independent investigation, conducted by attorney Roberta Yang at the request of ATS, did not determine if Levine had committed any criminal offenses, it did find that Levine likely broke ATS rules—specifically “the Third Precept of the Teacher’s Code of Ethics, namely, ‘to avoid creating harm through sexuality,’” the statement says.
“The standard for evaluating a Buddhist teacher’s actions are not the same as the criminal or even the civil standards of proof. Spiritual leaders are held to a higher ethical standard than the public at large and higher than other community leaders,” read the statement signed by ATS’s Board of Directors, Grievance Council, and Teachers Council.
Levine has denied the allegations, the details of which remain largely unknown to the public. In an August 14 article by the news site Jezebel, Dharma Punx NYC senior teacher Josh Korda and his wife and dharma facilitator, Kathy Cherry, said that Levine had been accused of misconduct by “between seven and ten” people. Korda and Cherry were both students of Levine; Dharma Punx is an offshoot of ATS.
The Los Angeles Police Department has reportedly opened an investigation but did not immediately respond to a request by Tricycle about the status of their inquiry. Levine announced his plans to discuss the situation via a Facebook livestream later Monday at 7:30 p.m. PDT. (See update below.)
ATS also announced in its statement that it will be shutting down its California centers in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and San Francisco on Sept 30, 2018, explaining that the controversy around the allegations against Levine resulted in a financial hit from which it was unable to recover.
ATS announced the accusations on March 27 and two days later suspended Levine from teaching. Since then, the statement explains, a major fundraising event was postponed, a grant was returned, and other donations fell. Meanwhile, it says, “four Board members resigned, a co-guiding teacher departed, two affiliate centers—Boston and Nashville—are dissociating from ATS, and our Executive Director is planning to depart at the end of his contract period. Each member of our Teachers Council has expressed a wish to dissociate themselves from Mr. Levine—to begin again and share teachings in a new form with students.”
For students who are left without a place to practice, the statement directs them toward the Meditation Coalition, a group in Los Angeles founded by Insight Meditation Society teacher JoAnna Hardy, who will be joined by senior ATS teachers Mary Stancavage and Cheryl Slean as well as other ATS facilitators. ATS guiding teacher Vinny Ferraro will continue his classes in a new space in San Francisco.
ATS Boston will be shutting down, guiding teacher Christopher Crotty told Tricycle, and “within the next couple of weeks, I will open a new dharma center, the Boston Meditation Center, with the support of students and a newly forming board of directors.”
Crotty said that he had been working on an official alliance between ATS Boston and the national group before the allegations came out, at which point talks of an affiliation were “paused.” Now he’s considering other ways to unite the larger community.
“Currently there is no plan for an overarching organization under which all ATS teachers will work,” Crotty explained. “However, many of us have established deep ties and friendships over the years, and this situation has aligned some of us more closely. There is quite a bit of discussion about future collaboration among ATS teachers.”
The ATS center in Nashville, which had been unofficially associated with the organization since 2010, decided to end its affiliation with the group in May and on June 10 changed its name to the Wild Heart Meditation Center (WHMC). On August 10, the center’s director of programming, Andrew Chapman, sent a message to members about the name changing, citing several reasons, including the allegations against Levine and a desire to be fully autonomous.
“We are very grateful to Against the Stream for creating a beautiful international Sangha, and inviting us to share in its many gifts of Dharma,” the message concludes. “We are forever grateful to the many teachers and for the vision of the larger community, as it has provided us shoulders to stand on.
Upon a request for comment on Monday, WHMC directed Tricycle to their previous statement.
Levine’s Buddhist-inspired addiction treatment organization, Refuge Recovery, has yet to say how they will react to the ATS decision. Christopher Kavanaugh, the interim chair of the Refuge Recovery Board of Directors, and executive director Jean Tuller sent a message to community members saying they would host an online video conference on the subject on August 28.
On the ATS Facebook page, members voiced outrage, calls for understanding, and confusion about the future of the community.
Korda, who was empowered to teach in the ATS training program, told Tricycle that he echoes these concerns.
“I’ve felt and heard a variety of responses to the ATS report, which includes concern for the women who experienced sexual misconduct in whatever shape it occurred, as well a mixture of shock, sadness, and disappointment, not only in regards to the findings related to Noah, but equally to the imminent closure of meetings and centers,” he said. “It’s my hope that practitioners in the ATS community will find new communities to connect to as swiftly as possible. Staying connected, as the Buddha taught, is the whole of the spiritual path, its prerequisite.”
Korda noted he’ll have more to say about the events after hearing Noah’s public statement on Monday evening.
In Boston, Crotty said that while some students took the news harder than others, “for all of us there is the shock and disappointment of hearing that a spiritual teacher may have caused harm. This is hard to integrate. In a world so prone to traumatic events it can be hard to develop trust. I think many people go to Buddhist communities seeking some sense of safety, a refuge from the lack of safety in the wider world. If that is compromised in spiritual communities then where do we go? For me as a teacher, the answer is to stay right where I am, within the community, and to make central to my own practice these same questions of safety and trust.”
Even the ATS statement took a moment to remind members that they can still find refuge in Buddhist teachings despite the ugliness of the current situation.
“Though ATS is ending, the dharma, as always, continues,” it read. “The ripples and resonances of goodness and sincerity continue.”
Update (08/28): Noah Levine spoke to a class in Los Angeles Monday night, where, following a meditation that touched on compassion and forgiveness, he discussed his ouster from the ATS board. While he explained that his lawyer urged him not to share the specifics of the allegations with the community, he denied that his actions amounted to sexual misconduct and claimed that none of the people who accused him of harm were students.
“This is very much from my personal life, and not from any of our communities,” he said. “From my perspective . . . there was no intentional harm caused. There was no misconduct. They weren’t students; these were people in my personal life. . . . [The investigators] tried very hard to find a student who said, “yes he was inappropriate with me,” and they weren’t able to find one . . . There were some people who said they didn’t always feel great in the way I interacted with them but not in the kind of sexual level.”
Levine also said that he brought the accusation to the attention of the teacher’s council and the ethics committee—“the whole situation, all of it. Before there were any complaints.” He added, “And then they did an investigation and the investigation came back with exactly what I told them.”
While concluding that his conduct was not in violation of the Third Precept of the Teacher’s Code of Ethics, he did acknowledge “some unskillfulness,” adding, “there’s definitely some stuff for me to look at about how this situation is unfolding in my life.”
“I can see a lot of wake-up calls,” he said. “One is a lack of awareness . . . a lack of taking full responsibility for my role as a founder of a Buddhist community . . . I’ve been a bit oblivious about the amount of power, the amount of projection, the amount of responsibility that comes with this.”
A recording of the talk is available on Levine’s Facebook page.
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