Sunday, November 21, 2010

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine

Dharma Punx by Noah Levine is an autobiographic work detailing his early teenage life rife with drugs and punk rock and then his growing up search for spiritual meaning in life. It is both and interesting and a disappointing book.

The first half of the book is devoted to his life as a troubled teenager. He got into the punk scene at an early age and pretty soon into drugs. What was most interesting to me was the existence of these ‘scenes’. I don’t think I still quite ‘get’ why teenagers would build their identities around what sort of music they listened to and what kind of clothes they wore. I get the jocks vs. geeks divide, but I don’t get this one.

The second interesting thing was how each kind of music had certain ethos and ideologies. Punk, for example, was all about rebellion and anarchy. But then these ethos are completely without any context. Rebellion against what? Anarchy to achieve what? No wonder these kids felt completely lost and succumbed to drugs and alcohol.

The third interesting thing was the easy availability of drugs for these kids. Almost every adult around then seemed to be using drugs. Weed, acid, heroin, crack, all seemed to be just lying around the house. This is coupled with a nearly non-existent family structure. The author’s parents were divorced. His mother seemed to move from one bad boyfriend to another. His father was more stable. But the way the author as a kid kept moving places, I’m sure there was no place he could really call home.

All of this was a very interesting insight into a life and society that was completely alien to me.

But from there, the book starts getting disappointing. The author discovers as a late teen that he’s destroying his life with drugs and alcohol. Spirituality comes to his rescue and he gradually learns to find meaning in humility, service and gratitude. Which is all fine, until he starts having one spiritual experience after another. He gets involved with some megalomaniac cult guru and gets bitten. He then launches a several month long journey to the east where he continues to have more of these so called spiritual experiences.

And where does he keep getting the money to do all these crazy things?! He admits to stealing a lot but that still doesn’t account for the way he keeps flying around south East Asia on whim.

Given that the author identifies with Buddhism as his primary faith, he seems oblivious of the fact that several Buddhist traditions warn you against exactly these kinds of false spiritual experiences. In the Buddhist view, they are nothing but more thoughts, no more or less real than your desire to eat that lovely ice cream or your wish to own a hundred cars.

The author seems as lost as an adult as he was as a teenager. His personal philosophy is a comical potpourri of beliefs ranging from Christianity to Sufism to Buddhism to Hinduism – whatever he thought was cool. It’s utterly devoid of any context except that his life work is now focused on teaching meditation and helping others get out of addictions.

I can’t help but compare with ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’ by Brad Warner that I read before this. That book, while explaining the Shobogenjo by Dogen, got into real deep discussion about the nature of our mind and meditation. It warned repeatedly against the so called spiritual experiences. It was a learned book, knowing its place within the tradition and having a proper context. Incidentally, Brad Warner is a punk rock guitarist too.

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