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Zen and the art of slam dancing

Buddhist punks find enlightenment in the pit

IF YOU EVER FIND yourself at a punk rock show -- and are invested in self-preservation -- you will probably avoid what is generally known as "the pit." While the band plays a maniacal three-chord ditty set to a furious 4/4 beat, denizens of the pit engage in a venerable ritual that involves slam dancing, jumping, and thrashing around as much as their limited space allows.

But as two recent books and an increasing number of punk veterans attest, this is precisely the space that can prepare an individual to discover the same enlightenment that the Buddha did more than 2,500 years ago while sitting beneath a tree.

In "Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies & the Truth About Reality," published last year by Wisdom Books in Somerville, Brad Warner tells a lively story of his odyssey from living as a punk rocker in rural Ohio to making B-grade Japanese horror flicks to becoming a Zen priest in Tokyo. A veteran of punk bands Zero Defex and Dementia 13, Warner has practiced zazen (the Zen term for "sitting meditation") for over 15 years, and a couple years ago received Shiho, or Dharma Transmission -- formal acknowledgment that he has attained the same enlightenment as the Buddha. "Dharma Punx" (HarperCollins), a 2003 memoir by Noah Levine that recently appeared in paperback, traces a similar trajectory, describing Levine's passage from a West Coast punk childhood to becoming a meditation teacher in the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

The fundamental practices of punk and Buddhism -- thrashing in a pit versus sitting in quiet meditation -- might seem irreconcilable. And yet, Warner writes, "in its early days, punk had a lot in common with Zen," the strand of Buddhism that emerged in China around the seventh century and eventually flourished in Japan. "It wasn't just the fetish for shaved heads and black clothes, either. The attitude of not conforming blindly to society is an important aspect of Buddhist teaching."

For those who sit zazen, there is an old expression, "killing the Buddha," which comes from a traditional Zen story in which a Buddhist master tells a monk, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." Conventional Buddhist wisdom generally interprets the expression to mean that enlightenment lies within. Or, as Warner put it in an e-mail interview from Tokyo, it means "seeing that the Buddha is none other than yourself. You kill the idea that there can be a Buddha outside of your own body or mind." When Zen teachers advise their students to kill the Buddha, they are in fact demanding their own effacement as authority figures, empowering the students to discover enlightenment within themselves.

Warner went on to compare "killing the Buddha" to a popular punk slogan, "[Expletive] You Heroes." He explains: "When you don't have heroes, you can see everyone as they truly are." In one step, Warner and punk Buddhists like him thus connect the Buddhist idea of thoughtful nonconformity to society with the punk tradition of questioning authority figures.

Musically speaking, this connection leads to a punk revolt that targets the slick, ultra-commercialized pop music industry as well as the society that produced it (though some punk acts -- from the Clash to Green Day and Rancid -- have themselves become parts of that industry, selling millions of records). Punk bands who play on the floor (in small clubs that lack stages) are making a demand similar to Zen masters who speak of "killing the Buddha," inviting the audience and the chaos of the pit to efface the performers, who are, after all, the de facto leaders of punk culture.

Chris Raiche, bassist for the underground punk band Eulcid (that's the Greek geometry guru, purposely misspelled) and a Zen practitioner who lived at the Cambridge Zen Center before moving to North Carolina this past June, supports this idea of self-effacement in punk. "In the underground or punk scene," he says, "`rockstar' is really an insult."

John Malkin, a Santa Cruz radio host who is writing his own book on the convergence of punk and Buddhism, echoed this theme in the April/May issue of Ascent magazine. The Buddha proved that "any individual can wake up and be free from suffering," Malkin wrote. Almost 2500 years later, "the Sex Pistols proved that anyone could pick up a guitar and be in a band."

This past summer Noah Levine moved east, and now teaches a weekly meditation course to over 100 "punk-friendly" students at the Tibet House in Manhattan. Levine spent over a decade of his youth living on the more violent fringes of California's punk culture, boozing and drugging himself into oblivion. He believes that the suffering that resulted from his punk lifestyle gave him a head start in Buddhism. As he writes in "Dharma Punx," "to some extent the whole punk movement is based on the Buddha's first noble truth, the truth of suffering and the dissatisfactory nature of the material world."

But Levine implores his students to make a leap, he noted in a phone interview, that many punks resist. "The Buddha takes the punk argument a step further, to say that the reason for suffering isn't just out there, but in each of us," he says. What helped Levine, he adds, was the realization that the Buddha himself was a revolutionary figure, who considered his own teachings to be "against the stream" of the world around him.

Robert Thurman, professor of religion and Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University and one of America's leading authorities on Buddhism, thinks the Buddhist punks may be onto something. Already familiar with Levine's "Dharma Punx" when I asked him about it, Thurman was quick to explain that in the history of Buddhism, "the times of greatest creativity have arisen during moments when the routine answers to things weren't satisfying people, and people were looking for truth in their own mind and in their own experience." In that case, "the original drive of Buddhism would resonate very well with those members [of punk culture] who are seeking to understand, as they say, the truth about reality."

Yet the mindless chaos of the pit remains the most formative experience for punks who eventually find their way to Buddhism. Much like what Levine calls the "consensually violent dance" of a punk show, zazen and other types of Buddhist meditation can be disorienting and -- if you have ever attempted to fold your legs into the full lotus position, you will agree -- physically painful. Warner flatly writes that "zazen is tedious and awful" for anyone who hasn't mastered it. "Your brain is in constant motion like there's a hive of angry wasps in your head."

Following years of practice, however, the wasps begin to quiet down. Focusing so intently on the present moment gradually becomes less painful than it is empowering, which is the whole point. Buddhists, as Thurman explains it, "view the present moment as the time of being most alive."

Similarly, Eulcid's Chris Raiche sees a correlation between the most intense forms of meditation and musical performance. "As a musician you're searching for the moment when the music is occurring almost independent of you. The same thing happens in meditation. When you get your mind clear, the whole universe is happening and it's you -- a complete experience with yourself subtracted from it."

A freelance writer living in Cambridge, David F. Smydra Jr. also works in the marketing department at Shambhala Publications.

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