A Murky Scandal Involving a Powerful Punk Rock Dharma Teacher Is Dividing a Major Buddhist CommunityIn DepthIn Depth
Illustration: Jim Cooke/GMG
On July 16, in the middle of a dharma talk in Venice, California—the kind of talk he’s been giving for decades, first across the country and then the world—Buddhist teacher Noah Levine’s mind was on revenge.
“I did a sweat lodge last night with a couple friends,” Levine, 47, told the room in response to a question from a participant, one of the several dozens who had gathered to sit in meditation with him and listen to his thoughts on Buddhism. A few dozen more were also tuned in online through a Facebook broadcast. “And I was talking about some deep feelings of betrayal that I’m sitting with right now. One of my friends afterwards who’s known me for a long, long time said, ‘I’m just amazed at your total lack of wanting revenge. I know if I was going through what you’re going through, I would want revenge. You don’t seem to.’”
Levine paused and smiled.
“I think Buddhism fucked up my wanting revenge,” he said. “I really want happiness more. I’m able to see it as, ‘Okay, maybe this is my own purification.’ I want to take full responsibility. But I don’t want to hurt anybody in response to feeling hurt. I don’t want to. And it’s because I’ve been doing this for a long time.” (He meant meditation and Buddhist practice.)
But Levine didn’t seem to mean he was going to just sit quietly with his feelings of betrayal.
“In my situation,” he added a few moments later, a little mysteriously, “I said no revenge, and I will take any appropriate steps that I can, not to cause harm but to rectify and to reconcile. I want to take full responsibility. I don’t want to hurt anybody. But if it’s, like, a work thing, I do need to take some action. Not out of anger but out of the appropriate next thing to do.”
Some of the people in the room and watching online likely knew what Levine meant. (Many apparently did not, judging by the confused yet supportive comments that filled the screen as he spoke). Levine is the founder of Against the Stream Meditation Society as well as Refuge Recovery, which is a for-profit drug and alcohol treatment center and, separately, Refugerecovery.org, an AA-like nonprofit program based on Buddhist principles with chapters and meetings across the country, where he’s the president. A large and influential presence in the Buddhist world, for the past several months, he has been in increasingly hot water over a series of sexual misconduct allegations that have still not become public.
In late July, Detective Kendra Browne of the Los Angeles Police Department confirmed to Jezebel that there is “an ongoing investigation” involving Levine, as she put it, though she declined to say how many complainants there are. There is also an internal investigation at Against the Stream, the meditation society he founded, and a long-delayed report that many people in the community hoped would clarify the allegations against Levine, and what actions ATS plans to take. The investigation has been underway since April; the report is still unreleased.
(In a brief phone call, Levine referred requests for comment from Jezebel to his lawyer, Joseph Leveroni. Leveroni ultimately declined to comment on the record.)
Levine has been on leave from Against the Stream since the allegations broke in late March, stepping back from its board and from teaching, as well as from the board of the nonprofit Refuge Recovery, the organization that oversees peer-led recovery groups across the country. But recently, he’s begun talking about the accusations more publicly, calling them as “false” in an Instagram post.
Even as the internal investigation at Against the Stream was ongoing, and without directly acknowledging the reasons for his leave, Levine resumed teaching his weekly meditation classes in June. They are now being held at Refuge Recovery, the for-profit treatment center, of which he owns a controlling share.
Levine has previously denied assaulting anyone: in a statement on March 30, he indicated that the accusations involved only one woman, someone with whom he had a consensual relationship, and that the allegations themselves were brought forward by a “third party.”
But insiders familiar with the workings of Against the Stream and Refuge Recovery tell us that in recent months, multiple women have stepped forward to accuse Levine of assault. Josh Korda and his wife Kathy Cherry, are, respectively, a Buddhist teacher and a dharma facilitator. (Korda is a longtime Buddhist teacher and friend of Levine’s who leads Dharma Punx NYC, a related group; Cherry is a facilitator there.) They were on a call about the allegations with Against the Stream teachers, facilitators, and trainees, about 30 people in all. Korda and Cherry both say the people on that call were told that there were “between seven and 10” accusers.
All of this is, to put it lightly, pretty awkward: Against the Stream has always been committed to a style of Buddhism that’s intricately tied with social justice, a place that seeks to drive out sexism, racism, and greed in all their forms from Buddhist practice.
“Much of traditional Buddhism, in both the northern (Mahayana) and southern (Theravada) is in an awful state of degradation, corruption, and delusion,” a section of their website reads. “We now have a chance to leave behind the problematic issues of the sexist, classist and racist politics that have corrupted the wonderful non-oppressive teachings of the Buddha.”
Their rules around sexual misconduct are also clear and uncompromising. Earlier this year, ATS publicly broke ties with a teacher after he was accused of sexual misconduct. (The teacher, Frank Uyttebroeck, was “empowered to teach,” in the parlance of Buddhism, by Noah Levine and Vinny Ferraro, another ATS-affiliated dharma teacher. Following the allegations, Levine and Ferraro rescinded that empowerment. Uyttebroeck is now living in Holland and no longer teaches dharma, he tells Jezebel via email: “I have not acted nor worked as a dharma teacher from January 2017 on—not in the Netherlands, nor elsewhere in the world—nor will I do so in the future.”)
“He’s like the banks: he’s too big to fail.”
What’s striking, in Levine’s case, is how an organization with clear and rigorous rules in place around sexual misconduct has still struggled to enforce them. There’s a clear disciplinary process in place at Against the Stream for teachers accused of misconduct, and a Grievance and Reconciliation Council that exists to mediate difficult community disputes. But the process of investigation and reconciliation seems to have been heavily bogged down in Levine’s case, due to his stature and how closely he’s tied to the identities of each organization.
Both the allegations and the investigations—the police one and the internal one at ATS—have created a complex, painful set of emotional impacts. Many people credit Levine and his programs for their recovery from addiction, their turn towards meditation, and the betterment of their lives. A scandal around him means that a lot of people’s spiritual homes, their recovery, and their life choices start to look very different in retrospect.
“Noah’s probably the single most gifted teacher I know in speaking the language of addicts across the board,” says Korda. “When Noah teaches, he reaches people of very diverse populations and people who’d never set foot in a Buddhist center unless he was giving the talk. He has an ability.”
The allegations have also set in motion a complicated financial and business-related chain reaction, and what could be beginnings of a nasty divorce. Even as Refuge and ATS debate Levine’s future, his books sit on their shelves, his image on their websites, and his fingerprints cover the entirety of what they’ve created.
“Here’s the thing about Noah,” one person who’s familiar with Against the Stream told me. “He’s like the banks: he’s too big to fail.”
“Frankly,” Josh Korda told Jezebel recently, “It does feel like the atmosphere now is a little…”
He pauses, looking for the right word: “Unresolvable.”
Before there was Against the Stream, there were the Dharma Punx, and before that, there was Noah Levine, a rebellious, furious, fucked-up teenager growing up between New Mexico and Santa Cruz, California in the ’80s, who found some measure of solace in the punk scene.
“I and countless others hit the streets,” Levine wrote in his 2003 memoir Dharma Punx. “Fueled by the music of revolution, anger, angst, fear, despair, hatred and a total dissatisfaction with the status quo.”
Levine is the son of Stephen Levine, a well-respected Buddhist teacher and author who died in 2016. But Noah, according to his memoir, struggled with addiction, periods of juvenile incarceration and years of feeling lost, even as he discovered meditation for himself and started to embrace Buddhism. In Dharma Punx, he writes frequently and frankly about struggling with lust and dysfunctional relationships, among his other addictions.
But Dharma Punx has a happy ending, to some extent: Levine lost friends and lovers to addiction and incarceration, but eventually, he thrived. He was empowered to teach by famed Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. A small group of Buddhist punks he gathered together—the Dharma Punx—grew into the more organized Against the Stream, based in Los Angeles, with a secondary location in San Francisco and affiliated groups all over the country. (The Dharma Punx NYC meditation group still operates under the original name, run by Korda and a group of other teachers and facilitators. It has a degree of autonomy from ATS and Refuge, though Levine does speak there once or twice a year, Korda tells Jezebel.)
In 2014, Levine founded Refuge Recovery, which describes itself as a “Buddhist-oriented path to freedom from addiction.” It is, again, two separate organizations: the for-profit treatment center in Los Angeles, and RefugeRecovery.org, a central resource for the Refuge-based recovery groups that have been created in many different states.
Both the treatment center and the recovery groups use Levine’s book, also titled Refuge Recovery, as a resource, similar to the Big Book in Alcoholics Anonymous. Levine also authored two more books, Against the Stream and Heart of the Revolution, and he’s been the subject of profiles and features in mainstream publications, including the New York Times, Vice, and the Daily Beast. In the past decade, Levine’s seemingly counterintuitive blend of hardcore attitude and Buddhist teachings—his heavily tattooed hands in a prayer position against his chest—have transformed him into a genuine celebrity (a “dharmalebrity,” as ATS has referred to him. That term is one that a former employee picked up on derisively, in a spoken-word piece where she alleged he was a nightmare to work for). Levine even coined an irresistible slogan, a mashup of the language of dharma and skate culture equally: Meditate and Destroy.
“He and I both grew up in punk circles,” Korda says. “And I liked the fact that he never concealed anything,” in contrast to previous generations of what he calls “emotionally blunted,” too-Zen-for-life dharma teachers.
“If he was angry, he would say ‘I’m angry,’” Korda adds. “The way he teaches, his whole personality is in no way emotionally neutered or completely blunted. You know exactly what mood he’s in. He uses profanity like I do. I liked the fact that he represented a different direction.”
A lot of other people liked it too: By all accounts, Levine brings in large audiences and a lot of revenue for any organization that hosts him, which has included most of the major Buddhist retreats and Zen centers in the U.S. and abroad.
Buddhists also commit to the principle of “right speech,” meaning they try to abstain from what they perceive as gossip, “divisive speech,” lying, or other kinds of harmful communication.
His main business dealings, his religious practices, and his friendships are also deeply intertwined. ATS and Refuge, though they’re separate organizations, share a lot of common DNA: some teachers from ATS are investors in the Refuge Recovery treatment centers, as well as longtime friends of Levine’s. Some of those ATS teachers also lead classes at Refuge. Both organizations, as well as Refuge Recovery.org, are intertwined with Levine’s identity. Dozens of people make some portion of their living in ways that are ultimately connected to Levine.
“He’s a conglomerate,” one person told me. “This is a complex system, the Noah empire.”
As a result, most of the people speaking critically about Levine in this story requested anonymity, saying they feared either retaliation from him, didn’t want to compromise anyone’s livelihood, or else didn’t want to create deeper divisions in a community already struggling to process what’s going on. Buddhists also commit to the principle of “right speech,” meaning they try to abstain from what they perceive as gossip, “divisive speech,” lying, or other kinds of harmful communication.
Those things left many people feeling conflicted over talking to a reporter about a community matter. But over the course of several weeks, Jezebel spoke with 14 people currently or formerly employed by Refuge Recovery or affiliated with Against the Stream. We also spoke to several other people in the broader Buddhist community with knowledge of the situation, looking at the meeting minutes of the nonprofit Refuge Recovery, and spoke to one woman making an allegation of harassment against Levine. (Another alleged victim didn’t respond to several emails and phone calls, and a third declined to comment through a friend.)
What Levine is alleged to have done is largely unclear; in the absence of the report, and given that there is an open investigation, there isn’t hard information to go by. The same rumors regarding the nature of these allegations were repeated to us by several people independently. Jezebel is not reporting them because they are not direct claims from people who say they were victims of misconduct.
It is undeniably true, though, that serious claims have widely circulated within the affected communities. The institutions that Levine is affiliated with are aware of that: At the end of March, the Refuge Recovery nonprofit board called an emergency meeting. According to the meeting minutes, executive director Jean Tuller wanted to make the board aware of the conversations around the allegations that were happening on social media. Per the minutes, she told the board that they were in the middle of “a painful matter and painful time for the organization and the Board.” Tuller added that she “recognized that the Refuge community includes survivors of trauma, including sexual trauma, and that the accusations against Noah have caused extensive discussions on Facebook and other social media.”
A few isolated details on the allegations against Levine can be reported out, though. For example: A woman who asked not to be named to protect her privacy—and who isn’t part of the Buddhist community—told us that she met Levine a year and a half ago on a dating app and went on two dates with him. The first date, she said, was “pretty appropriate.” The second, she says, was not.
A few hours into the second date, Levine “was trying to get me to go back to his house pretty aggressively,” the woman says. When she told him that wasn’t happening, they instead drove to a public place and had some coffee. They’d traveled together in Levine’s car, the woman says, and afterward, he was supposed to take her back to her own car.
Instead, she says, “He started kissing me, which was fine. But the next thing I know he’d climbed over the console on top of me and was getting really aggressive. I wasn’t scared, because I can take care of myself. But I was uncomfortable. I had to push him off me.”
Levine, she alleges, said, “Are you pushing me off?” with some amount of disbelief, and “pretty reluctantly” got off her. They didn’t go out again.
At the end of March, Against the Stream announced that it was investigating the sexual misconduct allegations against Levine. Several people told Jezebel that Against the Stream went public with some amount of reluctance, after pressure from Buddhist Recovery Network, another AA-like Buddhist group. (ATS leadership told Jezebel they were legally unable to comment for this story.)
Buddhist Recovery Network declined to comment at length; board secretary Calico Cook told us in an email, “We met and decided it best not to comment at this time. Like many we are letting it all settle till the upcoming statement from ATS.” He also shared, however, a link to a BRN newsletter, which writes that BRN did receive a letter from a Zen teacher about a student alleging sexual misconduct by an unnamed “key figure in the Buddhist recovery movement:”
On March 9, BRN received a letter from a Zen teacher that one of her students had filed a police report alleging sexual misconduct by a former BRN board member and a key figure in the Buddhist recovery movement. In the letter, she asked: “(does) the BRN ha(ve) a code of ethics, or any process for dealing with ethical transgressions by teachers in your network.”
In her own letter, BRN President Dr. Vimalasara Mason-John named Levine as the accused person, adding, “My heart’s release is one of empathy for the alleged victims and their families, also for the alleged perpetrator and his family. Whether these allegations are true or false, everyone who has been affected is suffering.” She also provided an email address and asked anyone “who has been harmed by sexual misconduct or any of the above unacceptable behaviours by a teacher, facilitator or peer leader, or a person in a meeting” to get in touch with her, with the goal of making Buddhist recovery spaces “safer and accessible,” she wrote.
“We are a vulnerable community,” Mason-John added, “with many still struggling in the hell realms of addiction. I hope we can re-educate ourselves about the things which are no longer acceptable behaviour in society, like racism, sexism, ableism, classism, genderism, homophobia, transphobia, misogyny and sexual harassment and assault.”
Josh Korda, the Buddhist teacher and Dharma Punx leader who was on the ATS call, tells us that he was under the impression that ATS felt pressured to announce their investigation. “ATS felt that they had to announce it because the other organization was going to announce it if they didn’t, and they didn’t want to be seen as hushing anything up.”
Korda and his wife Cherry, the Dharma Punx facilitator who was also on the call, both expressed frustration with how the announcement was handled.
“Nobody could answer how old [the accusations] were or where they were coming from,” Cherry says.
“I felt the first thing to do was to investigate,” Korda adds. “And if you believe a teacher has committed misconduct, announce it and ask him to step aside until you come up with a way to resolve the issue in a way that makes the community safe.”
Korda believes that ATS “felt pressured by the other organization saying they were going to release and they felt they need to get ahead of it.”
“Unfortunately, he adds, “I think that did an enormous disservice not only to Noah but to the entire community. They made this announcement and then no information was forthcoming and everybody for the subsequent months and months has been essentially guessing and trying to fill in the blanks.”
Refuge Recovery, the nonprofit, met for their emergency meeting on March 31. According to the minutes, both Levine and his lawyer Joseph Leveroni were present. Leveroni, whose name is misspelled in the minutes, is quoted as saying that the police investigation into Levine’s behavior had concluded. (That’s not accurate; the LAPD confirmed in July that the investigation was still open.)
“Joe, who represents Noah regarding the criminal aspects of the allegations and investigation, recapped Noah’s public statement that the allegations were false, that the relationship involved was consensual, and that Noah had and would continue to cooperate fully with the LAPD to resolve any questions,” the minutes read. “He stated that to his knowledge and belief, the investigation had ‘wrapped up’ and that no report had been referred to the Los Angeles District Attorney.”
Levine also spoke. According to the minutes, “He stated that it was his intention to continue to teach and that dishonesty by others should not prevent him from teaching. He also stated his preference to continue to serve as President of Refuge Recovery.”
The Refuge board agreed that there was, per the minutes, “no interest in pursuing an independent investigation by Refuge, and we were not tied to the actions of ATS, Spirit Rock, or any other of the various organizations pursuing their own investigations.” But they also reminded one another that Levine, despite his stature in the organization, wasn’t their ultimate focus: “Several members of the Board stressed that Refuge is not one person, and that what is best for the community as a whole should be of paramount concern in our actions.”
On April 18, according to the Buddhist publication The Lion’s Roar, ATS announced it had retained an outside investigator, who several people confirmed is Roberta Yang, an attorney in Los Angeles who’s a former deputy mayor. (Yang did not respond to requests for comment.) The investigation was estimated to take a month, Lion’s Roar reported; instead, it dragged into July. It was completed in late July, people at Against the Stream told us, but it’s still unclear who will actually get to see the report or whether it’ll be released publicly in any form.
Andre Hardy, Against the Stream’s executive director, indicated that while he was legally precluded from commenting on the investigation or the Levine situation more broadly, he hoped to share as much of Yang’s final report as he possibly could with the public.
“Exactly what gets released hasn’t been determined,” he wrote in an email. “I can tell you it is the desire of just about everyone to share the entire report with our community. Pending any legal restraints, that’s what will happen.”
Jean Tuller is the executive director of the nonprofit Refuge Recovery, the AA-like program with chapters across the country; she had a similar statement, telling Jezebel, “The board has committed to being silent on media during this period of time, until the matter is resolved. At that point, we’ll likely have a public statement.”
Some of this has become routine in the #MeToo era: powerful men coming under increased scrutiny, and religious institutions forced to grapple with behavior that allegedly doesn’t reflect their principles. But it’s a little different in Buddhism where codes of conduct around sexual misconduct are unusually frank and specific. The Buddha talked at length, and rather sternly, about sexuality, and the third of the Five Precepts that Buddhists live by is, “To refrain from committing sexual misconduct.” (Sexual misconduct is very broadly defined: most Buddhist lineages seem to agree that it includes both violent acts, like rape, and immoral acts, like adultery. There’s been considerable and heated debate over whether homosexuality, masturbation, or sex before marriage would qualify.)
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been abuse scandals in Buddhism: they have been, in fact, depressingly frequent.
Unethical sexual behavior, even if it wasn’t against a student or a fellow member of the sangha (the Buddhist word for their religious community), would likely disqualify someone from continuing to be a teacher. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been abuse scandals in Buddhism: they have been, in fact, depressingly frequent. Joshu Sasaki, a 105-year-old revered Zen teacher, was accused in 2013 of harassing female students for decades, and Eido Tai Shimano, the founder of the Zen Studies Society in New York, was accused of a similar, decades-long pattern of harassment and abuse in 2010, when he was 85. (Sasaki never publicly responded to the charges, which an independent panel found credible, and died the following year. Shimano resigned in disgrace from his position at the Zen Studies Society but continued to teach elsewhere until his death in February.)
Improper sexual relationships as well as outright sexual assault—most frequently between male teachers and female students—were so common that they were the subject of anguished conversations among Buddhists well before #MeToo. Recently, the Shambhala Buddhist community has been rocked by allegations that Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambhala International, sexually abused numerous female followers. The entire board of Shambhala International resigned, in a gesture that mixed protest and penitence. (Rinpoche issued a statement in July acknowledging that he’d had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, which he said impacted his leadership. He didn’t directly admit to sexual misconduct, but wrote that he supported an independent investigation into his behavior, adding, “I will be using this time of self-reflection to deeply listen and to better understand how the dynamics of power, gender, and my actions have affected others.”)
For its part, Against the Stream bars sexual contact and romantic relationships between teachers and students, and on its website, states that it requires at least three months should elapse before a former teacher and student have a relationship. Similarly, the ATS teacher code of ethics has strong prohibitions in place against stealing and false speech, as well as a detailed grievance procedure in place for a teacher suspected of breaking the rules.
Josh Korda and Kathy Cherry told us that Levine has himself rigorously enforced those rules in the past, suspending people from teaching for a period of time or requiring them to go to therapy.
Melissa McKay, a meditation teacher who’s taught at Dharma Punx and is a friend of Levine’s, concurred with that assessment. “I can’t speak about things or situations where I wasn’t present and I am not negating anyone’s experience,” she told us via email. “My personal experience with Noah was that he was very intent and sincere about keeping clear ethical lines with students. I also witnessed him and some other teachers wanting to make the code of ethics for student-teacher relationships even more strict than the one they follow now, which is the same one that Spirit Rock follows. I was always impressed in this regard by him. He set up a system where he and other teachers would give each other feedback so that they could check in and refine things when needed.” (McKay reached out to Jezebel of her own volition; she told us that Levine said that this article was forthcoming: “He just mentioned the article and that you spoke to Josh [Korda] and I said that I could.”)
Yet the ATS board was, by several accounts, already pondering an ethical lapse by Levine when the abuse allegations surfaced. He had allegedly reported to the board—of his own volition—that he had slept with a married woman, and someone who’d attended one of his classes. (Opinions differ on whether she could rightly be called a “student.”)
“I heard he told them he’d had a relationship with a woman who was married,” Korda says. “And he knew it was improper and he wanted to address it because he realized he’d crossed a boundary.”
ATS was considering what to do in that case when another report of misconduct surfaced, allegedly brought forth by someone on the board of Buddhist Recovery Network. At that point, Levine was expected to take a step back from teaching and other public roles during the ATS investigation, several people told us.
“He’s been asked by the Buddhist community to stop teaching,” someone previously affiliated with Against the Stream told us. “But he’s not respecting those wishes.” Levine resumed his teaching at retreats across the country as well as moving his regular Monday night meditation from ATS to the Refuge facility in Venice.
In June, according to the minutes of another meeting of the nonprofit Refuge Recovery board, Levine, who remains on leave from the board, made two requests. Those requests were relayed by executive director Jean Tuller: “[T]hat we ignore the ATS investigation, and that we make no major changes in Refuge Recovery during Noah’s voluntary suspension.”
In the meantime, another board member expressed concern that Levine’s position on the board represented a conflict of interest, even without the misconduct allegations or his leave, because he financially benefits from the oganization.
“Examples of benefit to Noah include royalties from the sale of the book Refuge Recovery,” the minutes read, “which is promoted on our website and in our meetings, and provision of opportunities for speaking engagements for which Noah is paid. This creates, according to the attorney, liability for potential penalties imposed by the IRS on Noah, the Officers of Refuge Recovery, and the Organization as a whole. Solutions are separation of Noah from the Board, or divestiture (giving up) of any financial gain by Noah.”
Those issues have apparently remained unresolved; while the board appears to have scheduled another emergency meeting to discuss them, there are no additional meeting records publicly available, and Levine is still listed as a member of Refuge’s board of directors.
Additionally, Levine appears to be expanding into a new business venture with a related name: A webpage for something called Refuge Recovery Retreats was created on June 30. It advertises two upcoming retreats for Levine, one in Texas and one on Vashon Island in Washington State’s King County. Both of them are to be co-facilitated by Rachael Savage, a dharma facilitator in Seattle who co-founded the Rebel Saints Meditation Society in that city, and who’s training to become a teacher.
Savage told us she’s proud to continue working with Levine. “I am looking forward to working with Noah, assisting on future retreats,” she wrote in an email. Her response to the sexual misconduct allegations was, she said:
[C]oncern and compassion for the accuser, the accused and the community. I believe these difficult situations call for a careful non-reactive response that does not cause more harm to anyone involved. The accuser gets taken seriously and investigations take place. This is an issue of civil rights. The livelihood and reputation of the accused is protected when due process is honored. This is also an issue of civil rights. Although challenging at times and calling for collective patience, as an American Buddhist I stand with the principle of civil rights for everyone. The principle that accuser and accused are treated equally.
Savage added: “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.”
Kathy Cherry, the facilitator at Dharma Punx NYC, told Jezebel that she absolutely doesn’t condone sexual harassment or assault. She and Korda stressed that they’re anxiously awaiting the results of the ATS investigation, to know what to do next.
But, Cherry adds, “It’s hard. He has to be able to make a living.”
The question of money is particularly weighing on several former employees of Refuge Recovery, who each independently told us that they felt Levine had used company funds in a way that was “extravagant” as one person put it, or “out of touch,” as another said. (Jezebel was told by several people who would be in a position to know that there is a financial element to what ATS is investigating and that several people interviewed by Yang have been asked if Levine “borrowed money” from them at any point.)
“He personally spent company money,” said Regan Webber, 22, one of the few former Refuge employees willing to use her name. Webber worked at Refuge, the for-profit treatment center, for a year between 2016 and 2017, first as an administrative assistant and then as the office manager. (The company appears to have a high turnover rate, and nobody we spoke to had been there longer than two years.)
Webber and other people familiar with the company’s operations allege that Levine was making north of $200,000 a year. They also allege that Levine charged the company for expenses unrelated to it: Refuge would, for example, pay for his flights to things like Wanderlust, the yoga festival. Webber and one other employee told us that Levine insisted on traveling first class, and charged the company for other questionable expenses, including Hamilton tickets for his family.
His salary was so high, one person familiar with Refuge’s operations told us, that it made it difficult to operate a functional business, with adequate salaries and healthcare benefits and software and equipment.
“It was like building on quicksand,” the person said. (Several people who recently worked for Refuge told us that the company has recently laid off several staff members and instituted pay cuts.)
“He liked to joke about his power and having all these women work for him”
Mellissa Salazar is Refuge Recovery’s current chief operating officer. She says, regarding Levine’s salary, “I can’t tell you exactly how much because it’s his personal information. I’d be violating certain federal regulations. What I can say is that former employees are no longer employees for a reason and some of them were before my time and some of them were not.” Further, she adds, “Unless the people who you’ve spoken to have seen the operating agreement or the bylaws or spoken to the shareholders and the attorneys and know exactly what those numbers should be, I would say that they have no clue.” (Salazar didn’t deny the layoffs, but said they are a routine part of any business.)
Webber and her husband, who also worked for Refuge, both resigned abruptly, she told us, finding the office atmosphere “toxic.”
Webber also says she found Levine to be “misogynistic” as a boss, although “in some ways jokingly.”
“He liked to joke about his power and having all these women work for him,” she says. “Or he’d be on Bumble [at the office] and talking about women’s appearances, saying things like, ‘I hope this girl has never come to one of my classes because I really want to fuck her.’ Even though everyone he’s been with recently he’s met in a teaching capacity.”
Salazar tells us that Refuge frequently holds events promoting their offerings, inviting local clinicians and people from within the recovery industry. “And one of the things that I hear very often is there’s such a positive energy working here, being here. 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.” She adds, “Treatment centers all around us are closing. We want to do everything the right way and provide quality treatment for our clients with loving kindness and compassion.”
Webber and her husband moved back to Nashville, where they’re from. They returned to Against the Stream Nashville, the local affiliate of the meditation society, where they were greeted with questions about what it had been like to work with the famed Levine.
“I didn’t want to come back to my community in Nashville and tell them what I knew about Noah Levine,” Webber says. “I didn’t want to ruin his guru image for people who found his book and found that it reduced their sufferings. But they’re not his teaching, they’re the Buddha’s teachings. It’s not the cup that the tea is in that matters. It’s the tea itself that matters.” (Against the Stream Nashville recently changed their name to Wild Heart Meditation Center.)
The response to the news of the allegations and the ATS investigation has been piecemeal, with individual organizations making different choices about how they want to treat Levine. Plenty of places, including the famed Esalen Institute, still have Levine scheduled to lead retreats this year. But some other organizations have suspended their ties with Levine, including Wanderlust, a kind of traveling Coachella for the glossy yoga set where Levine routinely led workshops.
Meanwhile, whether it’s for reasons of livelihood, his religious calling, or a mixture of the two, as mentioned, Levine started teaching his weekly meditation classes again this summer, the ones he taught for 13 years at ATS. There’s a reason he moved them to the Refuge Recovery facility, a former ATS affiliate told us: “Because nobody can tell him to stop. It’s his business. He owns it. There’s no dharma police who are going to go put a cease and desist on him.”
The only person who could, in fact, put a “cease and desist” on Levine is Jack Kornfield, the famed Buddhist teacher who empowered him. Spirit Rock, the meditation center Kornfield co-founded, issued a statement that Levine will be suspended from teaching there till the investigation is concluded. Beyond that, a Spirit Rock employee told me in a brief email exchange, “We aren’t commenting about this situation publicly.”
The Levine situation isn’t just a local scandal to the Los Angeles ATS community. The allegations themselves, as well as the extended length of the investigation and the lack of clarity about what’s being alleged, have impacted people across the country.
“There’s so much silence around it”
“There’s so much silence around it,” one woman, a facilitator for a Refuge Recovery women’s group in another state, tells us. “It’s a huge mystery. And the result has been a lot of confusion and sadness and people going up against each other.”
The facilitator, for her part, is struggling with the fact that Levine continues to teach.
“It makes me unbelievably angry,” she says. “There are so many women who end up having alcohol or addiction problems because of their own abuse.” She feared that even learning something was being alleged about the program’s founder could be triggering for some of the women in her group. “So many people have told him to take a step back,” she adds. “My disappointment comes from the lack of respect towards the investigative process and the healing process.”
She notes that the entire community was waiting, anxiously, for the ATS report, that it felt like the only thing that would allow anyone to start moving forward.
“A lot of friendships have been broken over this already,” she says. “It feels like it’s become that giant family secret at the dinner table that nobody’s addressing.”