By Will Hall
The highly popular US Buddhist teacher Noah Levine was recently barred from teaching by the Spirit Rock Buddhist retreat where he trained, and his authorization as a teacher revoked by his mentor, Jack Kornfield, one of the world’s leading Buddhist teachers and leaders. Levine, author of Dharma Punx and celebrated for his work with addiction, was accused of multiple instances of sexual misconduct, including rape.
Levine’s organization Against The Stream initiated an investigation into the charges against him, and Spirit Rock conducted its own investigation. Spirit Rock’s investigating committee decision to bar Levine and revoke his authorization was unanimous; it found that “Mr. Levine’s repetitive and continued behavior, outlined by multiple sources, would be completely inappropriate for anyone, let alone an individual privileged to be an authorized Spirit Rock teacher.”
Spirit Rock writes that Levine is:
“deeply alienated from bedrock values of the Buddhist path: self-reflection, accountability, compassion, and wisdom… (and) cannot be trusted to uphold the minimal requirement of a Dharma teacher – to do no harm. Even in the absence of the initial allegations of sexual assault, Mr. Levine’s behavior has otherwise been so troubling that we would have reached this same conclusion.”
What is disturbing about this is not that revered Buddhist teachers can turn out to misuse their power; after the 1983 scandal with San Francisco Zen Center Abbot Richard Baker, along with many other scandals by Buddhists including Chogyam Trungpa, there is really no question: years of Buddhist practice do not somehow guarantee ethical behavior. Nor is there reason to question Against the Stream and Spirit Rock’s agreement with the allegations against Levine: the investigations seem to have have been careful and thorough. It sounds that Spirit Rock has done the right thing by barring Levine and revoking his teaching authority in the Theravada Buddhist lineage, and Spirit Rock is to be commended for taking prompt action where other organizations might have closed ranks and defended one of their own facing an ethics scandal.
No, there is a deeper problem here.
On February 20th Spirit Rock released a 1120 word public statement about Levine’s misconduct and their decisions in response; this statement deserves careful reading by anyone interested in the functioning of Buddhist and spiritual institutions which claim a higher ground morally, and where senior teachers have been found to violate ethical norms.
I found the statement deeply concerning for the following reason: Spirit Rock acknowledges that
“Noah Levine was authorized in 2006 by Spirit Rock Meditation Center and Jack Kornfield as a fully empowered Theravada Buddhist teacher “to teach the Dharma of Liberation, in the Lineage of the Elders.” … Jack Kornfield led Mr. Levine’s teacher training and is his authorizing teacher.”
And Spirit Rock goes on to “recommend that Mr. Levine cease all Buddhist or meditation teaching and dedicate his energy to the rehabilitation of his own heart.”
At the same time, Spirit Rock and Dr. Kornfield were the ones who trained and authorized Levine as a teacher, sponsoring and endorsing him for more than 13 years after the period of his learning and qualification to become a Buddhist teacher. Nowhere in their statement about Levine is there any self-reflection about Spirit Rock or Kornfield’s own role in misjudging Levine’s fitness. Nowhere do they apologize for their own obviously catastrophic mistake in authorizing him as a teacher and endorsing his work for more than a decade.
Spirit Rock and Dr. Kornfield set up a training center to certify and attest to the ethical character of Buddhist teachers. When a prominent teacher is judged to repeatedly and flagrantly violate ethical norms on the basis of the training center’s own investigation, why doesn’t Spirit Rock and Dr. Kornfield then ask themselves, What did we do to miss this? Surely something must have gone terribly wrong in their training of Levine, their original decision to approve him as a teacher, their ongoing affirmation and endorsement of his qualifications, and their repeated sponsorship of him as a Spirit Rock teacher? Doesn’t their own failure to correctly assess Levine’s fitness to be a Buddhist teacher in the first place also deserve scrutiny? He was a colleague and sangha member all these years: what went wrong?
Further, isn’t one of the Buddhist teachings to understand that when we look at the other we always see part of ourselves, that all of us are connected? Isn’t dependent co-origination, or pratītyasamutpāda, a key principle? What causes Levine to be who he is – is it within his own individual failing as an individual, separate from the people around him, as the Spirit Rock statement so strongly denounces? Or is he connected to us, and especially those close to him – such as those who taught him and are part of his community? Along with denouncing and barring Levine, isn’t there also a need for Levine’s teachers to look at the web of co-origination that connects all of us together? Reading the Spirit Rock response it looks to me that an opportunity to use Buddhist insight has been lost, an opportunity to look into what causes reality and individual action as interconnectedness. Instead we have a statement that sounds more like Catholic judgment of the sins arising from Levine’s soul, separating us from each other.
Instead of this self-reflection, the very teachers and that failed in their original judgment of Levine’s fitness now assume, without any irony whatsoever, that today their judgment is somehow immune to whatever mistakes they made to begin with. Isn’t their capacity of judgment itself worth reconsidering? We are told that Spirit Rock has conducted its own investigation and that we should trust it, putting the same institution that trained Levine in the role of now judging his failings. By elevating its own correctness as judges, Spirit Rock attempts to convey that the same institution that failed in its authorization of Levine is now to be invested with the moral high ground — at exactly the moment when that institution itself instead deserves scrutiny. What needs to happen is to recognize that Levine started as a student authorized by Spirit Rock, and Spirit Rock therefore needs to take a look at Levine’s teachers – themselves.
It is in no way meant to excuse Levine’s actions or to question Spirit Rock’s decision to bar him; again, this seems like the right thing to do. I have found Jack Kornfield’s teaching to be illuminating, know people who have benefitted from studying at Spirit Rock, and a dear friend teaches there. In responding to what is going on at Spirit Rock in all this, I don’t want to deny the light in pointing out the shadow. (Surely even as we denounce bad behavior we are beyond simplistic and rigid black or white thinking of good guys and bad guys – if Buddhism can’t teach moral nuance then it can’t possibly be a positive force in the world.) The authority to judge someone “fit” as a Buddhist teacher, to carry something as weighty as deciding who can and cannot teach the Dharma, the decision to set approved teachers up to the world as models to study and emulate as embodying ultimate truth and goodness – this is a huge power. Spirit Rock created the role and status for Levine that was then part of what was looked up to and trusted in him: this power, given by Spirit Rock, set the stage for the betrayal of that trust, the misconduct and abuse that Levine went on and perpetrated. For 13 years Levine was authorized as a teacher and for more than 13 years, it sounds like from the statement and reports, Levine was behaving unethically. Doesn’t Spirit Rock want to understand why, and how, someone they trained and stood by actually was doing this, right alongside them, a colleague part of their community?
The Spirit Rock statement reads between the lines as an attempt to affirm the righteousness of Spirit Rock. Clearly a community has failed, a teaching program has failed, a sponsorship has failed – but instead it is the Other, Levine and only Levine, who is to be held responsible. Where is the apology that says We, Spirit Rock, I, Jack Kornfield as his teacher, failed all of you by sponsoring this man who did so much harm? In the strong and unambiguous denunciation of Levine Spirit Rock seeks to take moral high ground as his judge. But as his teachers, Levine’s failings are to some degree theirs as well. And until Buddhist organizations learn the lessons of humility that scandals teach, we have to ask if these organizations are truly capable of preventing future misconduct. They trained and authorized Levine, after all. Spirit Rock revealed a much deeper problem than the failings of one teacher, it is, in this statement, raising the question of its own failings.
Buddhism, or at least the sort of Buddhism represented by Spirit Rock, is in part appealing in the West because it fits our individualism and our consumerism. I have a theory of why Spirit Rock takes this stance. Looking at their website, they have a brand to cultivate in the individual search for a commodity to consume. Instead of living community — a word used so widely and cheaply — what we see looks more like a product, a brand. Products and brands must be shiny, you can’t show a real, ambiguous, messy, complicated, realistic picture of products and brands. You have to show a shiny package to the public so you can compete for individual attention. And this emphasis on brand might not only mean Spirit Rock doesn’t look at itself, it may also be part of what allowed them to sponsor and promote Levine for 13+ years to begin with. By training and endorsing Levine, Spirit Rock was licensing him a shiny aura, the brand of “Noah Levine,” with its Spirit Rock and Jack Kornfield seal of approval – which contributed to people putting trust in Levine which led to being misled and mistreated. Now that one of their own turns out to be a bad product, allegiance to the brand means Spirit Rock’s statement about Levine can’t be a mutual reflection on partly shared failings, but has to continue the overall brand promotion. So the statement reads like an advertisement for it’s own shiny, donation-worthy righteousness. Perhaps there is more going on behind this statement, perhaps there is self-reflection at Spirit Rock, but by producing a statement where self-reflection is so glaringly absent, it appears Spirit Rock has not met its responsibility to the community to respond ethically to what happened.
In the Star Wars saga Han Solo’s son Kylo Ren is trained as a Jedi Knight but then turns to the Dark Side. Luke Skywalker was Ren’s teacher, and Luke’s terrible error of judgment and failure in teaching Ren so troubles him that he exiles himself on an island for decades and nearly repudiates the Force. The Jedi Council was similarly thrown into self-reflection when its apprentice Annakin embraced the Dark Side, turned into Darth Vader, and wrought havoc in the galaxy. For all its sophistication, the Buddhism of Spirit Rock failed to grasp the simple human lessons of hubris and shadow that Hollywood succeeds to understand in its Star Wars tale of spiritual awakening. It’s plain to see that the scandal of Noah Levine is also a calling for Spirit Rock, and everyone, to take a look at ourselves. We should be cautious about those who won’t heed that call.
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More by Will Hall
Will Hall, MA, DiplPW — is a therapist, mental health trainer, schizophrenia diagnosis survivor, and host of Madness Radio. Will trained in Open Dialogue at the Institute for Dialogic Practice and is author of Outside Mental Health: Voices and Visions of Madness and the Harm Reduction Guide to Coming Off Psychiatric Medication. He is a PhD Candidate at Maastricht University and lead researcher on Maastricht University’s antipsychotic withdrawal study.