issue 22 Spring 04
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Dharma Punx

A Memoir
Noah Levine
Harper San Francisco 2003
$23.95/£19.95 h/b

Noah Levine has big shoes to fill. The son of 'conscious dying' figurehead Stephen Levine, Noah arrives on the literary scene to some measure of expectation. Many readers will wonder how his debut Dharma Punx will measure up to the now-classic works of his father. Certainly, those anticipating a junior version of A Year to Live will be surprised. But they will not be disappointed.

Similar in spirit to Brad Warner's often hilarious, also recently published Hardcore Zen, Dharma Punx takes on Buddhism from a punk rocker's perspective. But where Warner's book is somewhat light, tending toward the anecdotal, Noah Levine's is more epic in its scope, rising from much darker corners of a fascinating subculture. The author has been through drug abuse, crime, street violence, suicide attempts, and the loss of friends, coming out the other side as a meditation teacher with a unique insight into the lives of the troubled youths he now works with. The whole story is here, and Noah spares no detail in writing about his practice, which has taken many forms. 'It's a story about finding freedom and then spending the rest of our lives giving it away,' he writes.

Noah's journey to writing this book began with a terrific website (www.dharmapunx.com) and a remarkable essay ('A Dharma Punx Path') in Sumi Loundon's astonishing and essential book Blue Jean Buddha. His honesty about himself and his circumstances is bold, brave and often shocking, serving a great purpose: it seems likely that Noah's work, seeing full fruition now in Dharma Punx, will be helpful to members of its target audience who have been or are going through what the author has experienced.

But beyond what this book may offer specific readers, it is a pleasure in itself. Noah is a fine writer, wonderfully able to capture feelings, especially exchanges on the page, articulating them artfully and honestly. The chapters 'Fuck Authority', 'Teenage Wasteland', and 'Live Fast Die Young' are exceptional in the way they give us a glimpse of Noah's trajectory from happy-go-lucky punk to something else entirely. His genuine desire to find connections between Buddhist practice and punk culture is unique and exciting.

'They are both part of a single thread that has been stitched through every aspect of my life,' he writes. 'My search for happiness, which first led me to drugs and punk rock, is the same search that eventually brought me to spiritual practice.' Punk music enthusiasts like myself will appreciate Noah's thoughts here (as well as the acknowledgments page, which thanks everyone from Ram Dass to the members of Rancid). 'Love Sick', ostensibly about the author's experience of celibacy, is alternately touching and sad. And the closing 'Mindfulness Meditation Instructions' are lovely.

Dharma Punx is a Buddhist memoir of the highest order. It has all the inspirational and educational qualities of such Dharma classics as Melody Ermachild Chavis' Altars in the Streets, Robert Thurman's Inner Revolution, Natalie Goldberg's Long Quiet Highway, or Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Born in Tibet.

Pick it up. Noah Levine brings some much-needed 'revolution rock' to the contemporary western Buddhist canon.

Dan Fisher has written for several magazines and is working towards a Master of Divinity degree at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado