My name is Rachael Savage.
Since I stood up for our shared civil liberties by posting this image on social media in May of 2018, I have been called an ignorant, insensitive, misogynist, rape apologist and accused of slut shaming, harming women and idol worship, mostly from inside the Buddhist community. I am none of those things. I am an American Buddhist feminist.
We live in a world ruled by greed, hatred and delusion, our human default. the Buddhas 2,600 year old teachings guide us to practice non reactivity to these instincts.
Over the past eight months I have seen evidence of this reactivity and increased suffering in the actions of those who would incite others on social media in an attempt to discredit Buddhist teacher Noah Levine, author of Dharma Punx, Against the Stream and Heart of the Revolution, founding teacher of the Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Societies and leader of the Refuge Recovery Buddhist recovery community.
In October of 2017, an allegation of sexual assault was made against Noah Levine. This accusation, filed with the Los Angeles Police Department, was investigated. Levine informed Against the Stream (ATS) leadership in January immediately after being made aware of the investigation. At that point the ATS teachers council deemed the accusation not strong enough to suspend him from teaching. Levine stated both to the ATS teachers council and later in an open letter that he did have a relationship with the woman making the accusation, describing the situation this way… “All of our interactions were mutual with clear and open communication. The breadth and clarity of our conversations makes this accusation all the more surprising to me and those who know me. I have made myself available to all involved parties to discuss the matter – not just to deny the allegation, but to make sure that every concern, every question, and every fact is addressed openly and truthfully.…”. In March six months after the initial police report and investigation, and with no charges filed, ATS received a letter informing them of the allegation from San Francisco Zen teacher, Tova Green. In the same month, Buddhist teacher Valerie Mason-John sent a letter to Against The Stream, informing them of her knowledge of the report and demanding action from the board.
When faced with this situation, what did the leadership of Against the Stream do?
They made the worst of it. They hired a private investigator instead of relying on the independent justice system. The teachers offered assurances of “transparency” and “safety to vulnerable communities”. They allowed the investigation to go on for months, leaving the community to speculate. They kept the resulting report secret, denying public access to the facts. Instead of leading the Sangha with wise Buddhist practices and encouraging the observation of due process, they reacted.
How much benefit and so-called “safety” has come from this reactivity? The vibrant Sangha of Against the Stream has been officially dissolved and scattered to the winds as a result. If the principles of due process had been recognized by ATS as Buddhist principles, and applied to this situation, we would likely still have ATS.
I speak out now in hopes of preventing the same tragedy from being replayed in the life saving Buddhist addiction recovery community of Refuge Recovery and any other American Sangha.
When I say I stand with Noah Levine, I am saying I stand for the principals of due process for all. I am also saying I stand by the principles of my Buddhist practice.
I believe they are one and the same.
Noah Levine built a life of service over the last 20 years. Bringing the dharma to many who have never heard, or who would otherwise have dismissed the teachings.
First with Dharma Punx, the book. Then Dharma Punx the communities. From Dharma Punx groups sprang the Against The Stream Buddhist Meditation Societies in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, and Nashville. From Against The Stream LA, came Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist-inspired approach to addiction (now with roughly 650 groups worldwide). Refuge Recovery the book, and Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers followed. All written by, founded by, or originally led by Levine.
What happened? How did Levine go from leading multiple buddhist organizations, teaching meditation to audiences of thousands at the Wanderlust Festivals, receiving a Heroes in Recovery award for his work helping those suffering from addiction, and teaching meditation retreats worldwide, to having his reputation severely questioned and livelihood threatened in a matter of months?
On March 27th, Valerie Mason-John, author of 8 Step Recovery, and leader of the 8 Step Recovery Buddhist recovery group, sent a letter to Against The Stream informing them of the October police report and demanding action by the ATS Board. ATS opened an investigation on March 29th. This was followed by an open letter from Mason-John soliciting further complaints from the Buddhist community against Levine. Some additional complaints were made. None approached the level of even a misdemeanor and turned out to range from the vague; he made me “uncomfortable” to the irrelevant; I don’t like how he handled his business affairs. These secondary complaints were later grouped together, by ATS guiding teachers, with the single allegation, in phone conferences with teachers-in-training and in public statements which discussed only the number of complaints without the specifics. Leaving the community to imagine the worst. Encouraging speculation and harming Levine’s reputation. In a matter of weeks, Against The Stream could have determined that the accusations made against Levine did not rise to the level of a crime, and that additional complaints were not serious in nature. Instead the private investigation lasted until mid-August.
In the months between April and September, ATS Board members and teachers defaulted to corporate strategies of “distancing” and concern with “optics,” failing to defend their longtime teacher, friend, and colleague. All without the barest evidence required by a court to even press charges, much less determine guilt, and even after it had become clear that the ATS investigation was being conducted in the now-discredited method of a Title IX campus trial.
After Against The Stream issued a statement on August 25th stating that the private investigators report “ concluded that with multiple women, Mr. Levine violated the Third Precept of the Teacher’s Code of Ethics, namely, “to avoid creating harm through sexuality.”, Levine responded with this statement…“From my perspective . . . there was no intentional harm caused. There was no misconduct. They weren’t students; these were people in my personal life. . . . [The investigators] tried very hard to find a student who said, “yes he was inappropriate with me,” and they weren’t able to find one . . . There were some people who said they didn’t always feel great in the way I interacted with them but not in the kind of sexual level.” Levine also said that he brought the accusation to the attention of the teacher’s council and the ethics committee—“the whole situation, all of it. Before there were any complaints.” He added, “And then they did an investigation and the investigation came back with exactly what I told them.”
Some official word came from the Los Angeles Police Department in October 2018, when Detective Kendra Browne wrote to a reporter saying the District Attorney “has declined to file criminal charges at this time.”
The secret report has not been released by ATS leadership.
Unsurprisingly, the chaos did not inspire donors to keep contributing to ATS. The LA and San Francisco centers closed on September 30. The Nashville and Boston centers “distanced”, changing their names. Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers is now the latest piece of collateral damage, closing its doors last month, after over 500 addicts had received treatment based on Buddhist teachings and practices in 4 the years the treatment center was open.
Is this the society you want to live in? A society where anyone’s reputation and livelihood can be ruined by allegations alone, without criminal charge or conviction? Where a meditation society that helped so many, and took years of group effort and energy to build, can be destroyed in a matter of months?
Allegations alone are not enough. I present a case for a wise response: Due process is Buddhism in action.
In the teachings of Buddha, we are asked to engage in a non-judgemental, investigative awareness of the reality of our current experience. What does this mean in real life? In real time? Not the way we want it to be. Not the way we wish it would be. The way it is.
This is a challenge when our all of our instincts call out for justice. When the drive for vigilantism, tribalism, and mob rule scream. When urgency causes us to campaign against, to discredit, and to call out for the accused’s head. We ruin livelihoods and reputations. We resort to intolerance and revenge.
Yes, it’s difficult from every perspective. As meditators, we turn toward difficulty, committed to practicing the middle way, free from extremes. We train for these challenging situations when our emotions and primal urges come forward, aiming for a skilled response based on the ancient principles and practices of meditative investigation, loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity. Our society strives toward these principles in the form of due process.
The principles are practiced when we believe all accusations and investigate all allegations equally. They are practiced when we hold the accused innocent until proven guilty so we can take the time to investigate and understand the facts. They are practiced when we entrust the process to people who have dedicated their lives to ensuring justice is as impartial as humanly possible. They are practiced when we ensure anyone accused has the right to face their accuser in an open court. These are all fundamental civil rights— as well as expressions of the Buddha’s teachings.
Our due-process principles are based on fairness, the aspiration to equal treatment for all under the law. Who do you believe? A private investigator hired by a religious organization that has an obvious conflict of interest or the publicly funded impartial independent detectives? Although traditional to Buddhism, secret, precept-base councils offer no independence or impartiality. The council members deciding guilt or innocence have careers and personal income at stake in the decision. In the current climate any other outcome besides the finding of “harm” is certain to put the personal reputations and livelihood of those council members who would exercise humility and mercy at risk to virtual vigilantes. How can this be called a “higher” standard? The California criminal-justice system offered Levine and his accuser fair treatment under due process — yet the Buddhist community did not follow the practices of the Buddha that align with these same due-process values.
Of course there have been many cases of misuse, corruption, and error in our criminal-justice system. The drug war, mass incarceration and the privatization of prisons are clear examples of the injustices that need to be addressed in our society.
I believe in the goal of #metoo to increase reporting rates for sexual harassment and assault. The movement has brought attention to the lack of reporting and convictions of sex crimes. Now more than ever women are likely to report these difficult to prove crimes. The justice system is under more scrutiny and more care is being taken by investigators in the pursuit of ensuring the protection of women. If as women, we report all crimes, while demanding proper funding for our courts and police forces, we can raise the level of convictions as well. There will never be human perfection in any human system. Together, as a society, we strive for improvement.
As the teachings point out, we must exercise vigilance in our mindfulness practice. Without it, we risk reverting to greed, hatred, and delusion. Concern with “optics,” magical thinking, utopian ideas, the encouragement of hysteria in the name of justice, the prioritizing of individual identity and emotions over the common good, and the acceptance of corporate values such as the protection of an organization at all costs are expressions of collective delusion.
Online mobbing, vigilantism, blacklisting, character assassination, gossip, rumor, and speculation fuel witch hunts that ruin lives and livelihood based on accusations alone. All are examples of justified hatred.
Using the misfortune and tragedy of others (accusers and accused) as opportunities for careerism, political gain, prestige, status, and moralizing are manifestations of self-righteous greed.
To respond wisely in the Buddhist tradition, we are encouraged to: (1) engage in mindfulness, a non-judgemental, investigative awareness of the reality of our experience as it is; (2) take an attitude of unconditional friendliness toward everything and everyone; (3) practice compassion when faced with both our pain and the pain of others; (4) respond with the non-reactive quality of equanimity to our moment-to-moment experiences.
First: Mindfulness shows up in the principles of due process as we, as a society, take time and practice the non-judgemental attitude necessary to find the truth. Holding ourselves to the standards of due process is an exercise in restraint and humility. We have, as a society, put our trust in professionals to make independent investigations. We trust this investigative process will be impartial, avoiding our personal reactivity. This patient attitude of suspending judgement prevents us from being derailed by our feelings while searching for objective facts.
Second: The practice of unconditional friendliness, or metta. Practicing metta is a tall order when we believe someone has harmed another. This is the very challenge we must face when one has been accused of something terrible. We are asked to practice loving-kindness to all parties. Loving-kindness is the revolutionary equality that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and so many others, fought and died for. It is the equality the first-wave feminists spoke of, for all (regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or position in society) to be treated with fairness under the law. In fairness, you and I are able to report and be taken seriously. In fairness, you and I have the right and the opportunity to see all the evidence against us and face our accusers publicly. In fairness, we wait. Not rushing to judgement or punishment, but treating the accused as innocent until proven guilty — treating those accused in the same way we did in our personal and business relationships the day before the allegations were made. All are examples of exercising the Buddha’s principle of unconditional friendliness in our contemporary society.
Third: Compassion and mercy. Compassion is the practice of meeting pain and difficulty with care, rather than hatred, as our instinctual reaction to pain. In the current “call-out” culture, intolerance expressed as justified hatred becomes the prevalent reaction to those who are accused of harming, with no regard for their intention. Both our justice system and Buddhist teachings pass judgement based far more on intention than impact. If mercy is not causing more harm when we have the power to refrain from doing so. Then we have abandoned the goodwill, the mercy of giving each other the benefit of the doubt as a basic human right.
We must ask ourselves: Are my actions causing more harm? In the Metta Sutta, the instructions are clear: “Let none deceive another, or despise any being in any state. Let none through anger or ill-will wish harm upon another” (see footnote).
How do you want to be treated if you are ever accused? The response of compassion and mercy asks us to rise to the highest level of our human potential, even when faced with the worst of human nature.
Fourth, and finally: The practice of non-reactivity is equanimity — the supreme teaching, known as the middle way, free from extremes. This is the ability to respond appropriately to life on life’s terms in real time. This is the goal of Buddha’s teachings as I understand them. We train by listening, studying, contemplation, and meditation to respond to all conditions wisely, in a way that does not cause suffering by succumbing to greed, hatred, and delusion. With a commitment to practice, we can learn to respond to all the pain we witness and experience with compassion and mercy. We can learn to appreciate rather than clinging to and suffering from attachment to our ideas about the way things “need” to be in order to be happy. We learn to meet all beings and situations with unconditional friendliness and an open and curious attitude.
To respond wisely, in the Buddhist tradition, the instructions are clear. To practice mindfulness. To be non reactive. To respond with unconditional friendliness. To respond with compassion and mercy. To respond with equanimity.
Due process is in alignment with the principles and practices of our Buddhist path, offering us a peaceful way through the strong emotions that can arise when attempting to find the truth. I believe it is my duty and responsibility as an American Buddhist feminist to uphold and practice both the Buddha’s teachings and due process. I believe this will lead to a stable, interdependent society that strives to offer fair and equanimous treatment for all.
I will continue to devote my life’s energy to living by these principles — as they say in the 12-step tradition, in all of my affairs. Even when it is difficult, even when it is not popular. And, as the Mahayana tradition encourages, for the benefit of all.
Rachael Savage is an American Buddhist and co-founder of Rebel Saints Meditation Society in Seattle. She can be found leading weekly classes at Rebel Saints in the heart of the city and assisting meditation retreats around the country. Proud to be a serious practitioner of the radical, subversive teachings of the Buddha since 1995, first in the Tibetan tradition and currently in the Theravada tradition. In long-term recovery since 1990, she remains dedicated to helping addicts, both in the 12-step tradition and in the program of Refuge Recovery.
Footnote: “Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness” (Sn 1.8), translated from the Pali by The Amaravati Sangha. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/kn/snp/snp.1.08.amar.html.