Noah Levine Tells The Whole Story, Part 1: MeToo or Et Tu?
TAB: Okay. So what happened? How did you go from teaching meditations to thousands on the Wanderlust tour, being a keynote speaker to doctors and treatment professionals at conferences, founding a Buddhist treatment center and the fellowship of Refuge Recovery to where you are now?
Well, there's so many factors involved that it's not an easy this happened or that happened. Almost none of this had to do with my role as a Dharma teacher. I didn’t sleep with any students or misuse my position or authority for personal gain.
It's a big question. Some of it was personal, my own behavior that was unskillful. I think the biggest piece that was based on something I actually did was that I broke the third precept (sexual misconduct) by getting involved with a married woman. It happened one time. I regretted it immediately. I called it off, took full responsibility and confessed to my colleagues at Against The Stream. Around the same time, one of the women that I had been dating came forward and said something about the last time we had sex was non-consensual. I brought that accusation to ATS immediately.
So the accusation, plus my admission of breaking the third precept, then just the cultural wave of let’s get rid of all men who are abusing their power. All of that led to this.
I also believe that my confession of breaking the third precept brought out a lot of underlying resentment held by people who had been my students, who I had trained to teach, and who I had empowered to guide the community with me.
When news of the accusation went public, my colleagues at ATS suspended me from teaching in the community that I created and announced their investigation. A six-month process that came out with me saying very clearly there was zero coercion.
So many different pieces came together to lead to all of this. It seems to have been the perfect storm of accusations, reactions to those accusations,...resentments. Fear. Greed. Hatred. Samsara. (laughs...)
TAB: So what is the third precept and how do you believe you broke it? I mean you spoke to this, but did you break it?
I did. The third precept in Buddhism states very clearly that it is sexual misconduct to engage sexually with somebody who's committed. Married and or committed to someone else. So basically any form of cheating, whether you're cheating on your partner or your engaging in sex with somebody who's cheating on their partner. So that's one of the core values of Buddhist sexuality for householders. It's honesty, integrity and honoring vows and commitments. When I became physically, sexually intimate with a woman that I knew was in a relationship, was married, I broke my third precept.
TAB: In a recent article, (Tricycle magazine, January 28th) Mary Stancavage, who was a teacher at ATS, said that you confessed to breaking the third precept to the ATS Teachers Council and she claimed it was with a student. This is the person that you're referring to?
Yes, and she was not a student from my perspective. There are many different perspectives on what constitutes a student and it goes everywhere from; if they have ever heard of you, they're a student. Someone like me who's written a bunch of books and been teaching for decades, a lot of people know who I am. The most conservative view would be, hey if they know you're a Dharma teacher, they are a student. Which in my mind is bullshit. It's a way too narrow a definition. My own perspective of what defines a student, is how you meet someone. If you meet someone who's coming to you to learn Buddhism from you, that's a student. Especially if they come more than once and seek your guidance. If some one just comes once and doesn’t show much interest, they clearly don’t want to be your student.
The two of us met outside of the role (of Dharma teacher). We met at a concert. She knew who I was, but I was not her teacher. We developed a friendship. She then attended one teaching that I was doing, a workshop at Esalen. That's why Mary is saying well, she attended something, she’s your student. No, because we already had a friendship outside of that. So in my mind we had already established the relationship out side of the teacher student dynamic. Once you've established a friendship, of course people want to come and meditate with you, and develop that, and it doesn't put them in the student role. It's a friend coming to meditate with you.
TAB: Then when you told the ATS Teachers Council what happened, what did they recommend? Did you do what they recommended?
They said okay, you've broken your precept here and I said, yep, I'll take full responsibility for that. You’ve become a little bit reckless with your sexuality and I said, yeah, I can admit to that. I was in a lot of regret about it. I couldn't justify it, I was surprised at my own action. I knew this woman wanted to be sexual with me. I thought I had the strength of, “I'm not going to sleep with her, yet, I ended up doing it”. I was feeling deep regret, guilt and remorse. I live my life by the Five Precepts and this was the first time in decades I had broken the 3rd precept.
The council said we want you to do a few months of celibacy and see your therapist more regularly. I have this wonderful intimacy, sexuality and love therapist that I started seeing after I got divorced a few years ago. Going back and seeing my therapist and really looking at; are there some impulsive or addictive tendencies here? How did I allow myself to be seduced by somebody when I didn't really want to? I was committed not to, based on the third precept, and I did it anyway. I did that, and there was also a commitment to the Teachers Council, actually Mary and Matthew were supposed to be checking in with me every month or every couple weeks to support me through it.
TAB: At that point it was not public that you had broken the third precept. It was just in house, ATS Teachers Council were taking care of it. They didn't think you were a danger to the community. Then the single assault accusation became public. Is that when ATS went public?
They already knew about the accusation. As soon as I heard about any of this, I told them. They knew about the single accusation against me and they knew I had broken my third precept all at the same time. As soon as I heard about any of this, I told them. They had given me the agreement calling for celibacy, therapy, reconnect with your teachers and do some retreat. I had already agreed to it and was doing it. Then the accusation became public. They (ATS) already knew. The Against The Stream teachers knew and they didn't make it public. They did not make it public until a letter came from the San Francisco Zen Center saying we heard this and we're telling everybody. So my colleagues at ATS already knew all of this, and were already working with me on it, but now were afraid of the bad press.
The false accusation of assault became public and the ATS teachers silenced me and wouldn't speak to me at all when I tried to reach out to them. I maintained celibacy for about six months and continued to see my therapist and connect with my teachers, with Jack Kornfield and with Ajahn Amaro. I stayed consistent on my side of the agreement, but the ATS teachers completely abandoned their commitment to support me through it and just walked away.
I think that one of the things that is important here, is that not only did they (ATS teachers) know about the accusation itself, but they knew the woman making the accusation. Vinny Ferraro used to date the woman. The guiding teacher of San Francisco ATS. Vinny himself said to me to “be careful...”. The ATS teachers knew that the accusation was really unlikely to be true.
Because of the public accusation, and based on information they already had, they suspended me. I said wait a minute. How does this make sense? We're already addressing this. Let me stay and be part of this conversation. Their thinking was, no, the best thing for the optics, for the public perception, is that we look like we are getting rid of you and investigating this. My question to them was, what's there to investigate? You already know everything. Against The Stream knew all of that going into the investigation and knew that I was saying it's not true. ATS did a six-month investigation and didn't find anything that they didn't already know.
So, one woman I had been being sexual with for some months, who never really told the whole story but actually accused me of assault, who said, hey, we were having sex and something was not consensual. Now, she never told me that, but she told the police that. She never told me what was not consensual about us having sex for the fourth time. I've never heard what it was that was wrong, but to her something was wrong and I don't know..., I've of course racked my brain about that. If something was wrong... why didn't I notice... why didn't she tell me... I still don't know to this day. I have no idea why she walked away feeling unhappy and why she didn't tell me until after the fact. Why she didn't tell me that something was wrong until days later? I continue to look back and it felt consensual, the communication between us had always been clear.
Then, during the (ATS) investigation, two other women came forward, to say, I went out on a date with Noah, or a couple of dates, and during our consensual making out it didn't feel good to me. I asked him to stop and he stopped.
Now, were there moments of communication where it’s like hey, we're at second base. Did I stop in the midst of our sexual encounter and say, Would you like to go to third base? Do you consent to going to third base? I didn’t do that. That’s not how I've traditionally communicated. Even the two women who reported an unpleasant experience with me to ATS, admitted that when they gave me a boundary I honored it. When they said stop, of course I stopped. I never push past anybody's boundaries.
ATS came out from the investigation saying well, we couldn't find any proof but we are going to say “it's more likely than not” that Noah has caused some harm.
I'm sure I've caused some harm. I didn't coerce or force anybody to do anything. But have I been unskillful at times? Yes, of course. Should I have been more careful with my sexuality? Probably should have been more careful. I was divorced. I was dating. I was being promiscuous. I personally don't think there's anything against the third precept for being promiscuous. I think it's just part of human sexuality. Consenting adults. I believe in my heart, a hundred percent, that every sexual encounter that I had was consensual.
So those accusations were the beginning of it. Then how it was handled by people who had some personal or professional resentment against me, some desire to take me out, take me down. All of that culminating in a process of okay, he's been silenced, now we can say whatever we want. We can spread all of this in a vague way and allow people to think the worst. Much of it, wasn't true. There's a little bit of truth to it and I've repeatedly taken responsibility for what's true. I did really break the third precept one time.
So those accusations, combined with the cultural energy of MeToo, which for the record I think in many ways is a great thing. So many people have abused their power. I really don't believe it applies to me in this situation because this wasn't about me using my power with students or anything like that. It's not a real MeToo. This was really about my personal life.
But it didn't seem to matter, the fact that at the end of the ATS investigation the damage was already done. Damage to my reputation which I think comes from, and is based on, the fact that my colleagues suspended me from teaching at the organization (ATS) that I created. Damage further perpetuated by the RefugeRecovery.org board’s attempts to distance themselves from the bad press. Actually filing a law suit against me, as the non-profit’s founder and president. Using the bad press as an excuse to try and take control of the RR trademarks and copyrights I hold.
So, my suspension by ATS and the Refuge Recovery Board’s lawsuit had an influence over the decision by Spirit Rock. Spirit Rock just basically followed along with the cultural wave of let's get rid of this guy because he's bad for business. Everybody really wanted me to say I'm guilty. In good conscience I had to say yes, I have been unskillful in some ways, but this assault accusation isn't true at all.
TAB: And that leads into my other question, which I think is given a lot of people doubt about your character. Why did these long-term colleagues, friends, teachers and now what's happened with Spirit Rock, seem to turn on you and not have your back in the moment when you really needed it?
Yeah, it's hard to say, I don't completely know why. They still haven’t told me. I mean I can look at each individual relationship and see some resentment there, some ambition, some jealousy, some judgments of me and my attitudes. Something about not wanting to get caught up in the criticism.
I would love to know what was really motivating the folks at Against the Stream, Vinny and Joanna and Matthew and Mary to do what they did? They probably believe they were coming from a wholesome place, but it is quite easy to see some career building and some fear-based, “We don't want to be associated with somebody who has been accused of something”, fear for their own careers,.…distancing.
What we saw in this whole thing was that anyone who defended me got brutally attacked. Anyone who said we believe Noah, got brutally attacked. It might have been that simple... we can't align ourselves with somebody who's been accused because of how much shit we’ll get for it.
I think a lot of it was about public perception and was really driven by internal fear of those perceptions and then some ambition. It sort of blew my mind. Why are you guys doing this? You're destroying our community and in the process of, in the name of, trying to protect our community. To the point where at the end they destroyed the whole community.
I recently spoke with Jack Kornfield and he told me that many of the Spirit Rock people wanted me gone anyway. That there was long held judgment about me and behaviors and attitudes. They didn’t like that I play poker. That I am sex positive and into kink. Jack said it was about my “composure”. Basically that I was too irreverent. Jack also brought up that I had been too outspoken against some of the senior teachers lack of ethics. So, all of this was just an excuse to get rid of me. I was too loud, too punk, too recovery, too attached to buddhist ethics and too radical for the conservative and more and more puritanical Insight establishment.
Now, I would respect that if they were truly renunciates themselves, but the fact is those who are casting the stones are merely hypocrites hiding behind religious dogma they do not actually adhere to themselves.
TAB:There's been a lot of talk about Dharma teachers being held to a higher standard. And my question is if you had a teacher that you had trained that was in this situation. How would you have handled it? What do you think, would have been a skillful way?
I think if I was dealing with a teacher that was in this kind of situation around sexuality, I would encourage someone else to do a period of celibacy, retreat practice, therapy, that sort of inner work which I've been deeply engaged in myself. I have been in this position, of course because I've trained teachers and when somebody has used their position to seduce students,I've come down pretty hard. That's why this whole thing has been so confusing for me. If I had been using my position to seduce students, then this would make sense, but I wasn't. I was very clean about that. I was not engaging with my students.
It's tricky but I feel like I would have been able to support somebody in this situation. To take responsibility for what they had done but also to say the truth is the truth and some of this is just not that true. I hope I would have. All hypotheticals are hard to tell but I hope I would have been able to be much more supportive.
A little taste of this was, right before this happened with me in January of last year, 2018, Vinny Ferraro gave a talk at the San Francisco Against the Stream about sex. He talked about his exploration of sexuality and his discovering masturbation and when he realized his penis could ejaculate. It was a bit graphic but really in the service of human sexuality and how do we practice Dharma with craving, with lust, all of that stuff that the human body has that we experience.
Vinny was then attacked for weeks by people who thought that his talk was inappropriate, that it was misogynistic, that it was too hetero, too cis-gendered male. He was really criticized and Vinny suffered a lot. We were teaching together just after that and he was suffering. He couldn't sleep. He was in a shame spiral. People were calling for his head just for this Dharma talk that he'd given. What I did with him was I supported him and said, you know what? Maybe a little bit unskillful. Maybe...I don't know. Let me listen to the talk. But it's also okay to be a little unskillful. And it's okay that you're going to offend people sometimes. I'd imagine that, ninety five percent of the people in the room really appreciated your vulnerability and your willingness to talk about sexuality and you offended a handful of people in the room. My sense is that that's just part of the role. There's going to be praise and blame.
You know, it kind of brings it back to myself in this case where, I've been teaching the Dharma for at least 20 years, longer really, to thousands of people. With my life under the microscope of an investigation, they were able to find 10 people that had criticism of me.
Ten people...three of them were sexual relationships. The other seven were just criticisms. Like Noah's a jerk or I think he's biased toward men, or I think he only pays attention to attractive women. Personally, I think 10 people after 20 years. Not that bad. Show me a Dharma teacher that doesn't have 10 people that have criticisms of them. Right? A Dharma Teacher that doesn't have people say, I was offended, I was harmed. All Dharma teachers have that. All human beings have that. Nobody's perfect. What we know is that even those who are incredibly careful and skillful and ethical and wise, still get plenty of criticism.
So that's where this whole thing is so hypocritical. So bigoted. Such a corrupt, puritanical, religious, fucking power move. It's ridiculous that it's come to this, because we're all imperfect. Including the people who are calling me out. Of course, I'm trying to take full responsibility and offering transparency for how I've been imperfect. Are they?
TAB: What is your personal practice looking like these days?
I've been very motivated by all of this. It’s all my practice. I'm sitting anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour a day. I've been doing a lot of forgiveness, of course because of all of the resentments that all of this brings up, but also just mindfulness, just watching the mind and watching the unpleasant feeling tones that arise.
A month ago or so I injured myself. So not only am I doing meditative practice. I'm also just sitting around a lot and being with the discomfort of the surgery. I've been doing a lot of practice this year all through this and did some retreat time, went and spent some time with my teacher, Ajahn Amaro. Planning a retreat this summer to go sit and motivated to practice. My practice is both formal and informal. A lot of my practice is watching the resentful mind and the judging mind and not retaliating, just sitting with and letting those feelings play themselves out. I've been talking a lot with friend and colleague Jason Siff who's a Dharma teacher... probably the only Dharma teachers really being supportive of me at all are Jason and Ajahn Amaro. He gave me an interesting perspective because he has little bit of a different perspective on practice. He said rather than doing compassion and forgiveness, what if you just are mindful of all of the resentments and let them arise and pass and just see the impermanent impersonal nature of what the mind is doing rather than hitting it with the antidote to the unwholesome thought patterns? So I’ve been doing some of that. I've been training my mind to do forgiveness and compassion for 30 years. So it's a little bit of a hard habit to break and it's just that line between a little bit of volitional replacing or just letting it go and letting the compassion arise by its own volition without encouraging.
TAB: What would you say to the women who accused you of harm if you could speak with them today?
Simply, I'm sorry for any harm I caused you. Please forgive me.
I have actually reached out to the women. Two of the three. The third, I don't think I can because of legal stuff, but the other two I reached out to and I said, are you open to a communication? I texted. I want to make amends. I want to say, I'm sorry that I caused you any harm. It certainly wasn't my intention. I'd like to communicate with you and hear what didn't feel good about our interactions.
So I've reached out and had some communication. What one woman said to me was “ I will only accept your amends if you're actively working a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous program”. I said, well the truth is I've been to a couple of SLAA meetings but it doesn't resonate because I'm not actually a sex addict. I am very engaged in my recovery, but I don't approach my recovery from a 12-step perspective. I approach it from a Buddhist perspective. So I'm not actively engaged in SLAA. I'm actively engaged in Refuge Recovery and Buddhist practice and I still go to 12-step meetings, to AA. So she didn't really accept it.
All I want to say is, I'm sorry that, what I thought was going to be connection and consensual, playful contact didn't feel good to you in some way. A general sense of regret. I want to express regret for any harm that I've caused, to anyone, anywhere and take full responsibility for my actions.
I want to ask for forgiveness for any ways that I have offended or harmed people and I also want to offer that forgiveness to the people who I feel harmed and betrayed by.
I also want to ask for and offer forgiveness outward in all directions to all beings and express gratitude to all the people who have supported and encouraged my dharma practice over the years, even the ones who have now shunned me.
END OF PART 1