Independent investigation found the punk rock Buddhist likely broke rules against “creating harm through sexuality.”
As a result of allegations of sexual misconduct against Buddhist leader Noah Levine, he is no longer affiliated with two nonprofit organizations he founded. But last week, Levine announced he will continue to lead and teach for two for-profit entities.
Levine’s 2003 memoir, Dharma Punx spawned a community of national gatherings by the same name. The New York Times reported in 2008, “Called Dharma Punx, the gathering is part of a nationwide Buddhism-based meditation network that is part Sid Vicious and part Dalai Lama.”
The gatherings birthed a nonprofit founded by Levine, Against the Stream(ATS), a Buddhist meditation organization with centers in several U.S. cities. Established as a nonprofit in 2008, ATS seemed to be thriving. According to their 2015 tax filing (most recent available), ATS’s total revenue for that year was about $1.3 million. Levine’s compensation for the same year was $138,576.
In March, as first reported by Buddhist publication Lion’s Roar, ATS announced that the organization retained an independent investigator to probe allegations of sexual misconduct against Levine.
At the time, Levine denied any wrongdoing. In a statement, he characterized claims as “an allegation made through a third party regarding a woman I was dating who has apparently made a claim that some of our consensual contact was somehow non-consensual. This never happened.”
As reported by Jezebel in mid-August, the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed that an investigation was open. On Tuesday, LAPD Officer Norma Eisenman emailed that “the investigation is ongoing.”
Sources told Jezebel that on a conference call “with Against the Stream teachers, facilitators, and trainees,” they were told “there were ‘between seven and 10’ accusers.”
Though no details of the allegations have been publicly disclosed, on August 25, ATS sent a letter to its community, announcing the findings from their investigation, conducted by attorney Roberta Yang.
Levine was found to have “more likely than not” violated the ATS code of ethics: “to avoid creating harm through sexuality,” as claimed by multiple women. ATS announced that the organization’s centers would be closing their doors.
In an open letter on September 1, Levine issued an apology to the women who raised claims against him. He first noted: “I feel that it’s important for everyone to know that none of this had anything to do with students of ATS or members of Refuge Recovery. These were issues that came from my personal life.”
Levine wrote: “To the women who have come forward and expressed a sense of suffering because of interpersonal experiences with me, I am sorry I caused you harm and I ask your forgiveness.”
In the letter, he also announced he would continue leading and teaching at two for-profit entities.
“I will continue my work,” Levine wrote, “at Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers providing addiction treatment to suffering addicts as well as teaching my weekly meditation group at our new location in Venice [California]. I will also be offering residential retreats through my friends at Rebel Saints Meditation Society.”
There has been some confusion around two entities founded by Levine — both are branded “Refuge Recovery.” As Levine noted, he will continue his work at a for-profit addiction treatment facility Los Angeles, Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers, where he’s listed as founder and CEO.
The other Refuge Recovery (RR) is a nonprofit organization, offering a Buddhist approach to recovering from addiction. It has grown into a nationwide network of communities, groups, and meetings.
Many people have gravitated to the alternative RR offers to traditional 12-Step addiction programs (which are based on the model of Alcoholics Anonymous). Nonprofit Refuge Recovery’s revenues are negligible, and neither Levine nor directors have received any compensation, according to their 2017 tax filing.
Nonprofit Refuge Recovery has separated from Levine, but is continuing to operate. Their website says: “Refuge Recovery is independent from any other organization or individual. Refuge Recovery recognizes Noah Levine, the author of the book Refuge Recovery and founder of Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers, as one of our founders. We are not affiliated with or organizationally tied to any other organization that shares a name similar to ours.”
Jean Tuller, executive director of nonprofit Refuge Recovery emailed: “Noah stepped down from his leadership role in our organization in April, and we are not aware of any allegations of sexual misconduct made by members of Refuge Recovery, the community we serve.”
While fallout from the allegations against Levine has mushroomed, in at least one instance, a charity supporting survivors of sexual violence will benefit.
As I reported for Lion’s Roar, leaders from the Camp Hess Kramer and Gindling Hilltop Camp in Malibu, the venue where Levine is scheduled to lead a retreat later this month, have announced that the camp will donate proceeds from their venue rental to a charity supporting survivors of sexual violence.
Douglas Lynn, Director of Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps, which rented out its Malibu venue for Levine’s September retreat, said his group asked the organizer, Seattle-based Rebel Saints Meditation Society, to cancel the event. But the organizer refused to scrap the retreat.
In an email, Lynn wrote:
“We reached out to the leader of the Rebel Saints Meditation Society (RSMS) and requested that they cancel the upcoming retreat at the camp in light of the recent censure and allegations that have surfaced. They declined to do so. Based on the contractual relationship between RSMS and the Camp, we are not in a position to unilaterally cancel the event.”
Lynn added that “the camp has decided to donate all income from this rental to [a] charity,” that supports survivors of sexual violence.
Rachael Savage is co-founder of Rebel Saints Mediation Society, the organizer of Levine’s Malibu retreat. Savage will assist Levine in Southern California, and also on Levine’s upcoming retreat on Vashon Island, Washington, in November, according to the site Refuge Recovery Retreats. The site appears to be an offshoot of Rebel Saints.
There had been an additional retreat shown on the Refuge Recovery Retreats site, also to be led by Levine and assisted by Savage, planned for March 2019 in Chappell Hill, Texas, at the Margaret Austin Center. The center said that retreat is now on-hold.
Giselle Ostman, the Texas center retreat manager, said she spoke with Savage and Savage’s associate, Joseph, after learning of the allegations against Levine. (More on Joseph in a moment.)
Ostman said, “They were very nice, and they agreed to remove the advertising on their website” for Levine’s Texas retreat. Ostman said the Texas center had not yet gone to contract for the retreat, and that the center would “wait and see what happens.”
In addition to running Rebel Saints Meditation Society, Savage also leads a Refuge Recovery community in Seattle. She owns a brick and mortar spiritual goods store there called The Vajra, which she has been operating since 1998. Nonprofit Refuge Recovery lists The Vajra as a location for RR meetings. One of the meetings is called “Noah It All’s.”
Candace Faber is a former member of the Seattle Refuge Recovery community. Named one of Seattle’s most influential people in 2014 by Seattle Magazine, Faber is a rape survivor and started attending meetings at The Vajra about a year ago.
In a phone call, Faber said, “Refuge Recovery had a tremendous positive impact on my life.” She said she “didn’t attend because of substance abuse,” but rather, the community had been “repackaged as a space to address difficult things, and build compassion.”
Faber said, “When I started working with my [Refuge Recovery] mentor, we talked about my history of trauma, and a lot of that included sexual violence — which I think is the case for a lot of people with addiction issues.”
Research supports Faber’s observation: As many as 80 percent of women who are seeking treatment for substance use disorders report a history of sexual or other physical violence. Likewise, sexual assault history is associated with higher risk of problem drinking in women.
After she learned about the allegations against Levine, Faber grew troubled by the response from her community leaders, Savage and Joseph. Faber said, “It was clear that he [Joseph] and Savage were managing the space and making core decisions about the community,” but said she didn’t know Joseph’s formal role.
Faber said, “I knew that he [Levine] was leading a residential retreat, and I was really grateful that I hadn’t signed up for it. They were always really pressuring people to sign up for retreats, knowing that’s a big part of their business model, and that the space has been struggling financially.”
She said, “I noticed people using their shares [in meetings] to talk obliquely about the Noah Levine issue.”
Faber said Savage responded to the oblique shares in a meeting. “Rachael said something like, ‘People are just f***ing cowardly, and if you’ve got a problem with me, say it to my face.’”
Faber said, “Their open hostility toward people who were seeking accountability in a compassionate and honest way was irresponsible.”
Faber said she shared in a meeting that she was thinking of leaving the community. Joseph took her aside and asked her why she was considering departing. Faber told him, “‘This isn’t a safe space anymore.’”
She said Joseph told her, “‘You don’t have the right to not feel safe,’ and ‘The only way we can protect women is through the courts.’”
Faber said on the phone, “There are so many things wrong with his statement. It’s dehumanizing to all women. Why don’t we believe the women? It’s irresponsible to say we’re not going to have accountability until some more egregious line is crossed.”
Faber said that after her conversation with Joseph, “It was clear that there was no accountability. So I just got up and said, ‘I’m done here, I can’t come back.’”
Savage has not responded to inquiries, but she told Jezebel, “I will continue to support Noah, or any other teacher, in teaching until there is evidence, from the professionals in our justice system, in the form of a charge or a civil trial. Until this occurs, I believe it is my duty as a citizen and community leader to treat Noah, or anyone else accused, as innocent until proven guilty.”
Anti-sexual violence experts argue against Savage’s premise, saying the criminal justice system is a poor mechanism for ensuring accountability.
Kristen Houser, spokesperson for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said, “Accountability is a powerful deterrent, and having those in his [Levine’s] own organizations hold him accountable and impose some kind of sanctions, future supervision, and management of his conduct could be beneficial to everyone. It’s important that our culture offer multiple kinds of accountability and not rely solely on criminal courts.”
Houser said, “If we keep our outrage only for the things that we’ve said are so egregious that they are criminal, that is how you perpetuate a culture that builds the scaffolding on which offenders justify their actions. This is exactly what we have been talking about for decades when it comes to how do you prevent sexual violence.”
The other for-profit business led by Levine, Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers in Los Angeles, has also not responded to inquiries. Their chief operating officer Mellissa Salazar told Jezebel, “The compassionate and positive energy that Noah reflects is definitely felt by staff and by the clients and those that visit the treatment centers and the property.”
Some Buddhist leaders have expressed concern about Levine’s intention to continue teaching.
Justin Whitaker, Ph.D., Buddhist ethics, messaged that Levine “continuing his teaching in a for-profit business when he has been removed from his teaching role elsewhere casts further doubt upon his character as well as his respect for the leadership and students at Against the Stream.”
Faber said, “It doesn’t matter if the women who came forward were in Noah Levine’s personal life and not members of the community. What matters is the impact on the women.”
She said, “I want other survivors of sexual or other trauma, or anyone who’s been gaslighted, to have a safe space to pursue their recovery. And that can’t happen if the space is committed to upholding a predator’s power. They’re being reckless with people’s lives and recovery.”
Faber added, “This isn’t really only about Noah Levine. The more essential and pernicious thing, and what we’re seeing with #MeToo, is the undeniable pattern of people abusing power because they know they can get away with it — because of how important it is for other people to keep them in power.”
UPDATE: The author of this article personally asked Wishire Boulevard Temple Camps -the venue- to cancel Noah Levine’s retreat, prompting the venue’s response. This article did not originally report that fact.
Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps has chosen to donate to a charity that supports survivors of sexual violence. There have been no verified allegations against Levine of sexual assault.
Nancy Levine is not related to Noah Levine. Mr. Levine did not respond to inquiries.