Even though I have a nice house, a wonderful wife, several jobs, and a decent car, I’ve always felt like a homeless Buddhist.
I mean “homeless” in a metaphorical sense. It’s less about abandoning the world and more that I’ve never found my place in any of Buddhism’s mainstream approaches. I’ve tried numerous established groups and haven’t ever fit in.
I was with Shambhala for over five years, but that was more out of convenience than comfort. It had far too many multi-colored deities having vigorous sex and waving weapons around while on fire. I’m also a long-time lurker on the fringes of a local Zen group. They’re lovely people, and I like Zen, but I can’t fully get into its groove. It can feel too cold and austere.
But when I discovered Noah Levine’s book Dharma Punx shortly after it was published in 2003, it changed my outlook and practice forever. It was like a suitcase bomb dropped under my meditation cushion. Up to that point, almost every dharma teacher I’d come across was either a well-aged white guy or an Asian dude swathed in a fancy brocade bathrobe. Their messages were all unfailingly polite, earnest, and rank with the stink of bohemian peace and love.
Now here was this young guy Noah—with his shaved head and extensive tattooing—who looked like me. He loved the same aggressive music I did, and played it in his car at an unreasonable and possibly illicit volume. His book detailed how he rejected the cloying hippie approach that has shaped American Buddhism since it was imported here. And yet, he was a Buddhist teacher himself, authorized through a deeply respected and traditional Asian lineage. He cursed in his dharma talks, ignored chanting and goofy outfits, and spoke directly to my twisted little rebel’s heart.
Noah was hardcore, yet he was obviously soft, too. He believed metta [lovingkindness] meditation and compassion were integral to the path. His book taught me that I didn’t have lose my edge and become a vacant-eyed flower child to be calm, happy, and kind.
There was only one problem: I was still a reluctant Shambhala member, and Noah practiced in the Theravada tradition. It was like he was a Shark and I was a Jet. I eventually snuck out of Shambhala like a drifter leaving a small town in the middle of the night. I didn’t announce that I was done; I didn’t send out any “It’s not you, it’s me” notes. I went to the center less and less until I just faded away.
Then, I was on my own. Single and ready to mingle. Trouble was, Noah lived and taught in Los Angeles and I was in Kentucky. I couldn’t afford to travel to California once a year to study with my spiritual hero. Between plane tickets, accommodations, and taking time off work, it was impossible. I emailed Noah several times about it, and he suggested I quit whining and get to it on my own.
I found basic samatha/vipassana [concentration/Insight meditation] instructions online and read a variety of books on Theravada Buddhism. Despite being a shitty group member, I still sort of wanted some other people around to be Buddhist with. Was I doing this right? Was I even on the right track? How long till I could read minds?
When I found meditation instructor Shinzen Young’s teachings, they seemed right on. His methods encompassed Vipassana, Zen, and Vajrayana but were streamlined and maxed out for efficiency. Young was almost as well-versed in science as he was meditation, and was committed to joining the two into a modern secular super system of awakening. I loved it. Plus, students could work with teachers over Skype, which was handy given my geographical location.
I’d been doing just that for about six weeks when I learned Noah was coming to Against the Stream in Nashville to lead a half-day retreat. Against the Stream is the Buddhist meditation society that Noah founded in L.A., which now had several other branches. Nashville was the only one anywhere near me, about a four-hour drive away.
I instantly decided I had to go. I considered Noah to be my main teacher, and after years of email contact I would finally have my chance to meet him face-to-face.
After paying the modest retreat fee online, I was immediately flooded with buyer’s remorse. I’d admired Noah for years. What if he was a huge disappointment? I didn’t have any warped or unrealistic expectations about his heavenly perfection, but what if, as a human being, he was just a piece of shit? Millions of people have been crushed after meeting their idols and realizing that they’re reprehensible scumbags.
I started worrying that Noah’s whole punk attitude and appearance might be contrived. He seemed to put a lot of effort into looking a certain way and being definitely this and not that. What if it was all an act? Worse, what if he just wasn’t genuine? Plenty of dissembling gurus don’t live in accordance with their own teachings. They abuse their students, steal their cash, act like entitled pigs, and live like pimped-out spiritual royalty.
“Dear little baby Buddha,” I thought, “please don’t let him be like that.”
But pulling into ATS on the morning of the retreat, I was way more excited than worried. My concerns were dwarfed by the sudden enthusiasm that came from knowing Noah was right there in the building. I tried to play it cool for the friend who’d come with me but she wasn’t buying it. I was clawing at the door handle before the car had stopped.
I managed to walk up to the door like an adult instead of a toddler rushing to meet Santa Claus. Stepping into ATS Nashville was unlike any other experience I’ve ever had at a dharma group. Usually I’m greeted with a fairly quiet space filled with fairly quiet people in a fairly specific age bracket. If they’re milling around pre-meditation, they’re doing it politely, conversing softly and arranging their designer shawls.
ATS was jammed with people of all ages talking loudly, laughing, and jostling around like they were at a concert. About half the crowd was tattooed, and not just the young rabble-rousers, either. The ink was spread out evenly from the 20-somethings all the way up to the 70-somethings. Practitioners wore flannel, football jerseys, band T-shirts, and Dharma Punx hoodies. Some people were barefoot in the shrine room, while others wore their shoes. I was told to do whatever I pleased in that regard. It felt like that was probably the motto for just about everything there.
I was greeted by a lot of friendly folks. It was obvious this was a pretty tight-knit community; we stood out as newcomers but were cheerfully welcomed. I met Andrew, the ATS facilitator, who showed us around, helped us find seats, and generally made us feel all warm and snuggly.
In 10 minutes, I felt more comfortable there than any other place I’d been to meditate. The place was rough around the edges and filled with a weird assortment of meditation cushions, folding chairs, and couches that may have been stolen from a crack house. The crowd was deeply diverse, obviously freaky, and didn’t come across so much “spiritual” as just plain real. I loved it. I knew I’d found my home.
Noah was chatting with some people a couple rows in front of us. I watched him like a stalker, waiting for my moment. He moved around the room, saying hello and hanging out. Finally, he ended up in front of me.
“Hi, I’m Noah.”
I stood up and introduced myself like a regular person and not a lunatic. He squinted, thinking for a moment.
“Have we met?” he asked.
My stomach quivered a little. “We’ve emailed.”
He smiled. “Oh, yeah. I remember now.”
My stomach did a somersault. He remembered me.
What’s more, he remembered exactly what we’d last talked about. “Did you ever start a meditation group?”
“I did. We’ve been meeting for several months now.”
And so on. You know how conversations work. What was different about this conversation was that I could tell immediately that Noah Levine was the real deal. He was bona fide turned up to 11. There was an undeniable peace and saccharine-free kindness humming around him. He was calmly focused and present; he was fully there. I understood in a visceral, nonintellectual way that he represented exactly what he taught.
I’d read about students meeting their teacher for the first time and feeling an instantaneous connection, the inexplicable but overwhelming certainty that “this is the one.” Those stories always seemed suspicious to me, like the expectation of mystical communion forced a confirmation bias. Now, somewhat abashedly, I had to concede those dubious stories may be true, because it had just happened to me. I fucking knew.
After leaving me thunderstruck with hackneyed guru devotion, Noah settled onto a cushion at the front of the room to teach. He did it the same way he’d spoken to people individually: casually, affectionately, wisely, with plenty of humor and no affectation. After he talked for a bit, we all meditated for 30 minutes. Noah talked a little more, answered some questions, and we sat again. The atmosphere remained relaxed and spontaneous, without any stiff-necked formalities.
Eventually, we were turned loose outside for walking meditation. ATS is right next to a major road in Nashville, and I’m sure the Southerners driving by enjoyed seeing us damn Buddhist weirdos moseying around the parking lot.
I snuck back inside early to use the restroom. I passed Noah on the way, and he caught my eye and smiled. It was a sweet and serene little reminder that I was exactly where I needed to be.
As I was washing my hands, a woman came in. She politely waited until I walked out before going into the stall. That’s cool, I thought. A unisex bathroom. As I walked away I saw another bathroom 10 feet away labeled “Men.” When I turned around, the one I’d just left was clearly marked “Women.” Oh. This mindfulness shit was really paying off.
In the afternoon, I sank into my familiar post-lunch retreat fog. It was brutal trying to stay awake during the meditations. When the Q&A came around again, I raised my hand. Noah called on me by my name, which sent my inner spiritual fanboy into a giddy squealing fit.
“What are some techniques for staying awake and alert during meditation? Asking for a friend.” The room tittered, which reinforced the notion that I was with my people. Noah laughed, too, and then doled out some methods to combat my aggressive somnolence.
The retreat was over way too early, and it was time for us to drive back to Lexington. I couldn’t believe it. I’d finally found a place that felt exactly like home, and I had to leave just hours after discovering it.
A few people lined up to thank Noah and say goodbye. He talked to them each for a few minutes and hugged every one of them. They guy ahead of me gave his cell phone to a pal and got a picture with Noah.
That’s an option? Fuuuuuuuck, yes. I fumbled my cell phone out and looked for a partner. My friend was out of reach, so I grabbed a random guy. “Hey, man. Do you mind taking a picture of me and Noah in a second?” Even though I sounded like a little boy meeting his favorite wrestler, that guy didn’t bat an eye.
Noah and I had a wonderful conversation. His presence washed over me and made me feel like I was the only other person in the room. It filled me with a new dedication to wake up and serve others. In that moment, I’d lost most of the sneering cynicism that usually dominates me. I felt peacefully authentic, like a more genuine me was tentatively emerging.
When Noah and I hugged, it was like I was saying goodbye to a best friend I’d just met. That’s how he makes you feel: up close and very personal. It wasn’t sad, though. Whatever bizarre thing he’d done to me that jarred loose my protective bitterness had replaced it with raw vulnerability and a strange new strength. Temporarily, at least.
In one half-day retreat, capped off by a big, manly, massively tattooed embrace, Noah wiped away more of my calcified self-defenses and sarcastic weaponry than I had accomplished in two years of serious Vipassana practice. My breathing was easier. My head was lighter. My path was clearer.
My friend and I got in the car and drove away from the first Buddhist home I’ve ever had. I was fine. Just knowing it existed was enough. And I would be back.
“I was talking to one of the chicks there before we left,” my friend said. “When you were busy swooning in Noah’s arms.”
“Yeah. She said she walked into the women’s restroom just before lunch and there was a guy in there.”
“What’d he look like?”
“Shaved head. Earrings. Lots of tattoos.”
“Man, that could’ve been anyone.”
Read more from Brent R. Oliver
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