MADELEINE BRAND, host:
Punk rock and Buddhism, not a lot in common you'd think - except, well, maybe for the shaved heads. But a lot of punkers are becoming Buddhists. Anil Mundra has more from Denver.
ANIL MUNDRA: First, to settle the mind. Here's a koan, a Zen riddle. What is the sound of American Buddhism? Hmm. How about this?
(Soundbite of punk music)
MUNDRA: So, for anyone who doesn't believe that Buddhism is punk, here's proof. Brad Warner's hardcore band, Zero Defex. Well, besides being a bona fide punk rocker, Brad Warner is an ordained Zen master. He writes books with titles like "Sit Down and Shut Up," which is just what you do in zazen, Zen meditation. And that book promises punk rock commentaries on Buddha, God, truth, sex and death. But what does punk rock have to do with Buddhism?
Mr. BRAD WARNER (Musician, Author, Zen Master): There's a disdain for authority. There's a strong sense that the individual is responsible for herself or for himself.
MUNDRA: In Warner's first book, "Hardcore Zen," he shows that Buddhism and punk share an aspect of rebellion. Of course, Warner admits that, at some point in a Zen master's day, the punk rock needs to turn off.
Mr. WARNER: I have practiced zazen in punk rock houses full of filth and garbage. But it's much more difficult.
MUNDRA: That might be when the Buddhist punk reaches for one of those very zen little bells.
(Soundbite of bell ringing)
Mr. WARNER: That's Noah Levine doing the ringing. He doesn't quite fit the Buddhist stereotype either. At a glance, some might have him for a hooligan, with his shaved head, silver tooth and his tattoo-covered body. The left side of his neck says, dharma punx. That's punks with an X, and dharma, that's Sanskrit, and it means the truth. It's also the title of Levine's memoir of his journey from punk to Buddhist, to Buddhist punk.
Mr. NOAH LEVINE (Author): I came to meditation practice, to Buddhism, strung out on drugs, filled with rage.
MUNDRA: The other side of his neck says, against the stream. That sounds like the name of a punk band, but it's actually Levine's meditation society, and his second book, a Buddhist primer for the new generation.
Mr. LEVINE: Against greed, against hatred, against delusion.
MUNDRA: Levine's ethic is captured in a new film called "Meditate and Destroy." That method has attracted thousands of students all over North America and Europe. At a class in Denver, a hundred people pack onto cushions to meditate with him.
Mr. LEVINE: Bringing some awareness to your breath.
MUNDRA: There's two guys sitting cross-legged in front of me with seven piercings and yards of tattoos between them. Levine asks if anyone in the audience is in recovery, like he is.
Mr. LEVINE: It's actually my 20 years this week, sober.
(Soundbite of applause)
MUNDRA: Most of them, by a show of hands, are former addicts too.
Mr. LEVINE: How the hell did I get here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEVINE: From there?
MUNDRA: Levine was doing drugs by the time he was 10. Spent his teens as a crack addict, stealing and brawling. He started meditating when he hit rock bottom in jail. In the front row of Levine's class in Denver, 24-year-old Sam Cordle(ph) speaks up.
Mr. SAM CORDLE: In my whole life I thought doing what I wanted to do was free. Now it wound me up in prison and I did 18 months, and I'm in a halfway house right now. And then I realize that freedom was in me.
MUNDRA: Buddhism in America usually evokes hippies and yuppies. But Levine's group teaches meditation to, among others, convicts and homeless people like 53-year-old Todd David Schwartz. He lives out of a duffel bag in the gritty L.A. neighborhood where Levine's group has its center.
Mr. TODD DAVID SCHWARTZ: At the end of the session, I swear to God, I feel like a man who has been crawling around the desert. And I feel like, after spending some time meditating and listening to Noah, I feel like I've just been given this fresh, cold glass of water.
MUNDRA: Schwartz is quite a success story, really. Not everybody enjoys meditating so much. Levine says a bit of struggle with meditation is the norm, which is another thing that's kind of punk about it.
Mr. LEVINE: Right here in meditation we say, stop thinking, pay attention to the breath. And your mind says (bleep) you. I will do whatever I want.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LEVINE: We begin to understand that it is inner anarchy.
(Soundbite of song "Anarchy in the U.K.")
SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) I wanna destroy the passerby 'cause I wanna be anarchy...
MUNDRA: That's the classic punk band the Sex Pistols. They definitely weren't Buddhists but they might have liked what some Zen masters say, 'Our rule is no rule.' For NPR News, I'm Anil Mundra.
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