INTERVIEW: WE TALK THE BUDDHA, SPIRTUAL REBELLION AND A LITTLE BAD RELIGION WITH SOFLA’S DHARMA PUNX

Buddhism has always been kind of a counterculture calling card in American society. Unconventional thinkers seem to find themselves drawn to Eastern religions masquerading as philosophical ideas. Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism often encompass nontraditional beliefs that appear revolutionary in a society as vanilla and repressive as ours.

The Beat Generation of the ’40s and ’50s searched out alternative ways of expressing spirituality and the lack thereof, which they wrote plenty about. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg intertwined Buddhist analogies within their poems and essays. Kenneth Rexroth’s poems have Buddhist symbolism dripping from every stanza. The iconic Jack Kerouac even titled one of his books Dharma Bums.

The ’60s brought us the Hippies as our counterculture protagonists. Some Hippies searched for newer paths to follow other than dropping acid and fucking in Central Park. Buddhism quickly rose to popularity in this scene. Many of these Lovecats became highly sought after elders in the Western Buddhist movement. Stephen Levin, Alan Watts and Jack Kornfield are a few examples.

Having Buddhism draw in Punks in this new millennium makes a lot of sense. Revolution and rebellion were a lot of what the Buddha taught. The Dharma is filled with many stories of resistance and protest.

Hell, even the Buddha’s name is punk royalty. It was Sid, short for Siddhartha.

SEARCH AND DESTROY

My experience with the Dharma Punx was by chance. About 10 years ago, I had one of those Red Bull and Marlboro sleepless nights where Wikipedia and YouTube hyperlinks kept me falling down the rabbit hole. By 6 a.m., I knew the complete history and family tree of every D.C. punk act since 1977.

A search for Ian MacKaye interviews led me to some YouTube playlists of Minor Threat. After a watching a few live clips of barely audible “we’re just… a minor threat” and “I don’t wanna hear it… no bullshit!” I clicked on some Fugazi videos. I’m digging in now and digging in deep. I stream some early shows from D.C. I play the clip for Waiting Room.

Noah Levine, founder and spiritual leader of the Dharma Punx. Photo courtesy of the Dharma Punx Website

Up pops Pailhead, the collaboration from Ian and Alain Jourgensen from Ministry. I’m hammering away on YouTube, going from epic ‘80s skate videos to old Flipside compilations.

By this time, I’m riding high on caffeine, taurine, nicotine and nostalgic hardcore. Somewhere in all these playlists, I come across a trailer for a documentary called Meditate and Destroy.

A guy wearing a Rancid shirt, all tatted up and swearing his ass off while lighting up a cigarette, is talking about inner revolution while the Good Riddance song “Dubious Glow of Excess” plays over his dialogue

All of a sudden, this cat is in front of a room full of punks and he’s talking about the Buddha, the Dharma, punk rock and spiritual revolution in general.

It wasn’t confusing to me putting punk rock and Buddhism together. A Buddhist teacher looking like a punk rock drummer absolutely was. I mean, this wasn’t a bunch of hippies lighting incense and bowing to Jerry Garcia. It certainly wasn’t the lonely and regretful Yuppies listening to Yanni while whining about their third failed marriage.

This was Noah Levine and these were the Dharma Punx.

YOU’RE FULL OF RELIGION, YOU’RE FULL OF SHIT

Growing up in the ’80s punk scene, most of my friends were agnostic or Atheists. I never bought into the blackness and bleakness of that existential scene. I read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness without any particular epiphany exploding inside of me. The world still made no sense and there was only so much insight I could glean from the likes of Jello Biafra.

Let me be very clear: I’m not a fan of the self help industry. I find new age bookstores creepy as fuck. Patchouli oil makes me want to punch the air it permeates. Yes, I dig that Whole Foods has some really nifty responsibly raised protein aisles but I still feel like knocking down a vegan candy shelf and spraying goat milk on everyone while I’m there.

Sure, maybe you think to throw a copy of I’m Ok, You’re OK in your shopping cart while buying some organic dog food will make you a better person. To me, it just seems cosmetic at best.

Desiring motivation to help us make healthier choices in life is a just cause. I understand that some of us, myself included, might need that.

If I am to be honest… I feel that once any subculture or underground movement gets co-opted by big corporations, everything gets watered down.

Suddenly, 1992 rolls around and I look like an extra in the movie Singles. My flannels get burned in effigy and I gotta start hating Nirvana.

AGAINST THE STREAM

Through the years, I’ve had my fair share of conflict within the Buddhist Community.

I’m an elitist towards elitists. I spent many Thursday nights walking through parking lots full of BMW’s to get to the meditation center. I was convinced that high society had co-opted Buddhism. So I bailed out of that scene for a very long time.

It wasn’t until that night coming across Meditate and Destroy that Buddhism excited me again. A well-worn copy of Noah’s first book the Dharma Punx was always within my reach. The day that his second book, Against the Stream, was released I was proudly standing inside Borders on University Drive and Atlantic Blvd. with cash in hand. The Heart of the Revolution was a companion for me while on the road.

Unfortunately, at the time when the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society could only be found in larger cities like L.A. and NYC, I never found the time to search for other punks that I could turn this on to. As interested as I was in this spiritual enlightenment gig that I found myself in, I was way more into playing music. I always had delusions that I was much cooler than I ever really had been (as the years go by, it seems my former self has become much more cool with every story I tell).

I eventually put Noah’s books on the shelf where old philosophies go to die.

INTERCONNECTED INTERGALACTIC

I have the Facebook app on my phone. Big middle fingers to you judgemental bastards… I’m a boring and broke punk rock dad in midlife crises. My phone keeps me sane… except Words with Friends. That actually gives me anxiety.

Anyway, I’m on my news feed one afternoon and a Dharma Punx symbol pops up. I click on the link and it directs me right to the SoFla Dharma Punx page. It seemed that someone had taken the time to bring the Dharma Punx here.

I clicked and chatted and messaged and tried to friend the people who seemed to be heading this group. Unfortunately, requesting friendships and using direct messaging when you don’t them personally sets off all sorts of stranger danger alarms.

Thankfully, these critters were super cool and replied back to me.

Staisha Grosch and Chaim Bryski are the two folks who brought an amazing community to our backyard. The both of them were kind enough to take time out and give me some of their insight and personal experience with Buddhism as well as how they were able to bring the Dharma Punx to South Florida.

Mark Dubin: Explain how Dharma Punx differs in the conventional applications of what people have experienced with Buddhism in the past?

Staisha Gorsch, co-founder of SoFla Dharma Punx. Photo Courtesy of Staisha Gorsch

Staisha: Honestly, the difference of what’s being taught isn’t too much. We’re not offering watered down Buddhism or anything like that. It is inspired by the punk rock scene Noah Levine was part of in Santa Cruz as well as his own journey to the Buddhist path.

By embracing and practicing the core teachings of the Buddha, we are learning to go against the stream of our minds and conditioned societal and behavioral norms.

There’s a quote from Greg Graffin, the singer from Bad Religion. You could pretty much replace the word punk with Buddhism in this quote and I think you might get it.

“Punk is: the personal expression of uniqueness that comes from the experiences of growing up in touch with our human ability to reason and ask questions; a movement that serves to refute social attitudes that have been perpetuated through willful ignorance of human nature; a process of questioning and commitment to understanding that results in self-progress, and through repetition, flowers into social evolution; a belief that this world is what we make of it, truth comes from our understanding of the way things are, not from the blind adherence to prescriptions about the way things should be; the constant struggle against fear of social repercussions.” –Greg Graffin

How would you describe the philosophies behind the teachings of the Buddha and its practices?

Chaim Bryski, co-founder of the SoFla Dharma Punx. Photo Courtesy of Chaim Bryski

Chaim: Buddhist practice offers a very pragmatic approach to training our hearts and minds to relate more wisely and compassionately to the conditions of our lives.

One of the Buddha’s core insights is that we tend to be really great at self-generating a lot of misery for ourselves. Through our habitual reactions to life, we wage an unwinnable war on experiences that the mind loves to wage. These ultimately end up backfiring and perpetuating the cycle.

It’s not really our fault. Always wanting to feel good and avoid any discomfort is a totally natural and understandable human instinct but it’s not a sustainable plan for happiness.

Buddhism’s premise is that true happiness has to come from within. As we bring more mindfulness, compassion and understanding to all areas of our lives, we can begin to transform our relationship to experience. We can develop internal resources for ease and well-being that aren’t so dependent on unpredictable external circumstances.

What was your journey like towards finding Buddhism and how was it that you came across the Dharma Punx?

Chaim:  I came to Buddhist practice around the same time I entered recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. All that mental, emotional and spiritual suffering brings chaos. I knew if I were to find any relief from that chaos than I was going to have to find a radically new way of relating to my inner experience.

Buddhist practice seemed to tackle that head on. I began attending meditation retreats with the Dharma Punx communities up in NYC and Boston. I experienced firsthand how critical it was to have a Sangha to practice with but at the time there was nothing of the sort down here in South Florida.

Noah Levin, Staisha Gorsch, Chaim Bryski. Photo courtesy of Staisha Gorsch

I strongly considered just leaving Florida for NYC to join their Dharma Punx community. I knew that there were probably others down here that were looking for the same thing. Being inspired by one of Noah Levine’s credos If it doesn’t exist, create it, I shot Staisha an email and here we are.

Staisha: I came to the practice by chance. I already had a daily sitting practice since meditation was already a huge part of my recovery from addiction. Seeking out new ideas was definitely something I had done early on in my recovery. Upon hearing a recorded lecture by Robert Thurman at Columbia University on Buddhism that resonated with me so strongly, I began investigating the practice more.

In the beginning of my practice, my main teachers were Robert Thurman and Chögyam Trungpa. When I later discovered Noah Levine’s books it consequently all came together for me. I was pretty much exclusively listening to talks offered by Noah or other teachers at Against The Stream from that point on.

Two years ago, I attended a 7-day silent retreat with Noah at Joshua Tree. I asked Noah about how I could find a sangha to practice with. Would it be possible to start my own?

He had been to Florida the previous month and met with Chaim who had also expressed an interest in growing a community in South Florida. Noah gave me Chaim’s contact information and I ended up attending a Refuge Recovery meeting Chaim was chairing.

Meditation is a huge part of Buddhism yet a difficult practice to keep up with. Do you have any advice that might help motivating people beyond the initial introduction to it?

Staisha: If I have 20 minutes to waste scrolling through Facebook posts or liking photos on Instagram then I know have time to meditate every day.

Making the effort to sit with our minds takes a lot more work than picking up my fucking phone or reaching for the remote. What I get out of meditation is far more insightful and rewarding than anything I could find on social media.

Time management can definitely be an issue for many of us. We could start building our practice by making good choices. Putting our phones down and closing the laptops is a great start. If we stop staring at the TV screen for another episode of that show we’ve been binge-watching all weekend. No matter how long or short it might be, just try spending that extra time practicing.

Start once a day and build up to twice a day. You’ll see the difference and you’ll see that it’s worth the effort.

What are some misconceptions about the Buddhist community and individual Buddhists in general?

Chaim: I think there tends to be a common conception of the Buddhist as some solitary contemplative. Someone who sits in the silence of the meditation hall seeking personal enlightenment becoming detached from worldly concerns.

I feel that the Buddha’s vision of interdependence is very much a call to action. It’s to summon the courage and compassion to confront greed, hatred and delusion. Buddhist practice isn’t an escape from the world but a way to more fully engage the world.

Staisha: I’m always confronted with the misconception that Buddhist teachings are dogmatic in some way.

The Buddha was a man and not a deity. He was offering pragmatic tools for how to live a life of ease and freedom from self-imposed or unnecessary suffering. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are not intransigent or black and white.

Everything the Buddha taught was what he had learned through his own experiences. He is asking us to do the same. As a result of making the effort to be more skillful in our thoughts and actions, we may know the kind of freedom that he knew.

The only person I ever truly have to answer to is myself when I fuck up. The more I begin to gather my mind and put the teachings into practice the more I find that I suffer a whole lot less.

The Buddha asks come and see for yourself to discover your own truth. We need to learn how to free ourselves from the habits of the mind and to not dwell in thought.

Most of all, it’s not a religion or new age BS. It’s just a very practical approach to living life.

SoFla Dharma Punx have weekly meetings throughout the tricounty area. To find out more, click here. Noah Levine will also be making an appearance in South Florida for a speaking engagement in Ft. Lauderdale on Friday February 24th. For more info on this, click here.

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Mark Dubin

Mark spent 25 + years fronting punk and alt.country bands such as the Johnsons, the Hang Ups, and Los Diablos but now wreaks havoc as a Suburban punk rock dad. You can follow him and his misadventures on various sites by clicking on any of those nifty little boxes to the left and begin to amaze yourself at his undeniable ability to stumble over everything around him.

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