The spiritual rags-to-riches genre is an ancient and venerable one. The earliest example may well be St. Augustine’s Confessions, in which he writes of his misspent youth as a sexually active “pagan” (the Latin word meaning “redneck” or “country bumpkin”), and his conversions, first to the wrong brand of Christianity (Arianism), then, finally, to the correct brand, now known as Roman Catholicism.
Noah Levine’s Dharma Punx is a fascinating, if somewhat repetitive, account of growing up as a punk-rocking drug addict. As the son of Jack Kornfield, the noted Buddhist teacher, Levine was exposed early in life to the “dharma", the law of Buddhist spirituality and right living. But his early years were also marred by his parents’ divorce, his mother’s multiple and sometimes abusive boyfriends, and the drug use of all these adults. Levine, filled with anger as a boy, stole pot from the adults in his home, traded the pot for harder stuff, and just generally indulged in the “underworld that fill[ed]” his “dreams".
Levine isn’t a great writer, but he has a great story and he tells it competently and passionately. He doesn’t preach in Dharma Punx; he simply recounts the facts as he recollects them. Indeed, it’s amazing he remembers as much as he does, considering the variety and quantity of dope he’s done. From a dope-addled youth he headed downhill: he stole; he got busted several times; he spent time in jail. He nearly overdosed several times. Death is the great provocateur, he discovered. He found Narcotics Anonymous and began to bootstrap himself into sobriety. As so often happens to those of us of have fallen so far down it looks like up, Levine found religion. The amazing thing is that it was Buddhism he found. And that’s what makes Dharma Punx so compelling and unusual. Where so many recovering addicts become narrow-minded Christians, Levine found the dharma, the four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold Path.
The Buddha said that life is suffering because we are so attached to the things of this world. Chemical attachment is one of the hardest to let go of, but then, so is sobriety and the desire for spiritual attainment. Levine traveled to Asia looking for answers from the spiritual masters in the Buddhist monasteries of Thailand. But no one, he learns, can give us the answers: there are no answers, only the ongoing work of meditation and service.
Levine is now working for others who have fallen. He leads mediation groups, works in criminal facilities, and, to anyone who will or has a need to listen, tells his story of the depths of depravity and the heights of redemption. Through it all, he finds solace in his music, punk rock, and Levine’s story in some ways parallels that of punk. From anger and violence and nihilism to political and spiritual engagement, punk has matured, mellowed and come to serve the world it once so deplored. Hat’s off to Noah Levine for pulling it together and providing us with this account of the great elasticity of the human spirit.