What happens when your spiritual leader fails you? An SF group found out

By Michelle Villegas Threadgould Feb. 10, 2020 Comments 3


Kati Devaney of SF Dharma Collective meditates at the beginning of an event at the collective in January.
Kati Devaney of SF Dharma Collective meditates at the beginning of an event at the collective in January.Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle
Michael Taft, a teacher at SF Dharma Collective, leads a meditation before an event at the collective.
Michael Taft, a teacher at SF Dharma Collective, leads a meditation before an event at the collective.Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle
The SF Dharma Collective’s Kati Delvaney speaks at a recent event.
The SF Dharma Collective’s Kati Delvaney speaks at a recent event.Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

Growing up punk, you live by your own moral code. I was a vegetarian, I believed in anarcho-socialism, and I had strict rules about the businesses I supported. Then, in 2012, to pay my rent, I broke them: I worked as a copywriter for a tech startup run by Stanford bros in San Francisco. It was the type of company responsible for the displacement of artists and communities where I had grew up. My co-workers were the type of yes-men and bootlickers I despised. I felt like I had betrayed my community and myself.

That same year, I came across Noah Levine’s memoir, “Dharma Punx,” which chronicles how Levine, a Santa Cruz native, went from punk-rock drug addict to punk-rock meditation teacher. In the back of the book was the address of the San Francisco chapter of Dharma Punx: a weekly meditation group for punks, people in recovery and anyone who wanted to commune in silence over a shared sense of what we weren’t and who we wanted to be.

I went. In the small space in the Inner Richmond, I found people with tattoos and anti-authority attitudes — people who reminded me of the kids I grew up with. That was also the first time I heard the meditation teacher Vinny Ferraro speak. His style was old-school punk, and tattoos peeked out of his long-sleeve plaid shirt.

His subject that day was compassion and the Buddhist principle of loving kindness. He translated a lifetime of Buddhist scholarship into a 30-minute talk. I remember one line: No one has ever hated themselves into being a better f—ing person. Ferraro was saying exactly what I needed to hear, and I wasn’t alone — when he spoke, hundreds of people grew silent.

Seven years later, Ferraro is part of a Dharma Punx community that has had its faith and compassion tested in more ways than one. In 2018, Noah Levine was accused of sexual misconduct by several women.

What happens when a spiritual leader is accused of being morally bankrupt? Can you continue a spiritual practice without the very leader who taught you your precepts?

Teacher Erik Davis (standing) talks to a collective attendee. The group formed in the former Against The Stream space in S.F.Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

In September 2018, as news of the allegations became public, Levine initially wrote an open letter apologizing to “the women who have come forward and expressed a sense of suffering because of interpersonal experiences with me.” Since then, he has repeatedly denied all allegations. Following an investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department (in whose jurisdiction one alleged assault was said to have occurred) declined to bring charges against Levine.

But for the followers of the movement he helped to spark, the fallout was far from over. The meditation centers that had grown out of Dharma Punx — an international network of meetings and retreats that became known as Against The Stream — conducted an internal investigation, and ended their affiliation with Levine within a year.

Meanwhile, the Dharma Punx-inspired addiction and recovery support group Refuge Recovery has split into two factions: one that Levine still runs and one run by different facilitators who have distanced themselves from him. In 2019, Levine was stripped of his credentials by the Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre.

“I was just devastated,” says Leilani Clark, a writer and editor who was a member of a chapter of Refuge Recovery in Santa Rosa. She said that at first, all that was known was that Levine had slept with a student; slowly, a few murky allegations emerged. Eventually, four allegations were made public, which included rape and assault.

Members of Clark’s sangha, or meditation group, could no longer avoid dealing with the issue, especially since the group used the Dharma Punx-inspired workbook, Refuge Recovery, for those in recovery.

“Being in early sobriety, I just didn’t have the stomach to sit through” (readings of the workbook), Clark says. “And the book is heavily used (in the practice); Refuge Recovery has Noah’s name on it. I was like, is this a sexual predator who wrote these things? I don’t know.”

One reason that the destruction of Against The Stream and Refuge Recovery was particularly painful for meditation practitioners was because so many of them already saw themselves as outside traditional Buddhism. Dharma Punx was a refuge for those who had lost their community and no longer knew whom to trust or where to practice. Worse, for some Refuge Recovery members, losing faith in Levine meant losing faith in the very methodology Levine had developed — and therefore in the support group that kept them sober.

“People were scared and hurt and felt betrayed, and so much processing needed to happen,” says Cassandra Millspaugh, a Bay Area teacher in recovery. Millspaugh was a member of Against The Stream since its inception. “It’s a thing with power dynamics. It happens a lot with men in positions of power — this kind of stuff comes out.”

Many meditation teachers at Against The Stream felt a sense of personal responsibility in addressing the sexual misconduct allegations. But with the threat of lawsuits from Levine, those teachers legally could not make public comments.

A meditation session at SF Dharma Collective on Folsom in S.F.Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

Vinny Ferraro not only co-founded Dharma Punx, he led meetings at Against The Stream for over 15 years. “Trying to navigate the complexities of confidentiality, my role as the guiding teacher and a 28-year relationship (with Levine) was extraordinarily difficult,” he says. “As internal questions about loyalty arose, my work was to clearly know: What was I being loyal to … my friend, our community, my own knowing?”

In the aftermath of the allegations, Ferraro reached out to the members of his community. “I felt an immense amount of responsibility for the ways that I contributed to harm being caused,” he says. “When we started ATS we were so young and cocky — we wanted to create a dharma community for people like us, folks that swear and are tattooed and hurting. (A place where) we could be ourselves without the formality of traditional meditation groups. But we really had no idea that along with the energy of rebellion, we were also bringing unexamined toxic masculinity.”

Since the demise of Against The Stream, Ferraro and many of its teachers and community members have gone on to form their own meditation groups. Ferraro runs a group called Big Heart City that meets on Fridays at the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist, near 15th and Valencia in the Mission. And 16 months ago, the SF Dharma Collective formed in the former Against The Stream space on 23rd and Folsom, with dharma talks every night of the week.

I still practice what I learned in Dharma Punx. To this day, when I feel the beginning of an anxiety attack or I start to have self-hating, depressive thoughts, I remember a meditation Levine wrote:

May you learn to care about suffering and confusion.

May you respond to pain with mercy and empathy.

May you be filled with compassion.

But in the wake of the allegations, I don’t know if I should still use this prayer. I think of a time I felt deeply lost, of how many others have felt the same way, and what it means to take advantage of people at their most vulnerable. I also think about who is granted the luxury of redemptive narratives and who isn’t. In a practice rooted in compassion and forgiveness, what does self-preservation look like?

A statue inside SF Dharma Collective in S.F.Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

Reflecting on these questions, I revisited the former Against The Stream space at the end of last year. I attended a class based on a text by the Dalai Lama, led by the teachers Lopön Chandra Easton and Eve Ekman of SF Dharma Collective.

Easton and Ekman led their class differently from Dharma Punx. There was no swearing, less irreverent humor, and not as many punks in the crowd. Nevertheless, Easton and Ekman were engaging, asking the meditators questions and breaking down hierarchies between teachers and students.

“One of the conditions that permits sexual misconduct and abuses of power,” says Kati Devaney, a member of SF Dharma Collective, “is when one or a small group of people at the top of a hierarchy disconnect from feedback and accountability from folks at the bottom.”

With this in mind, the collective is run by 10 people who have a system of checks and balances to prevent abuses of power. The SF Dharma Collective is not the second coming of Dharma Punx, and it doesn’t want to be.

“We aim to be a place where everyone can experience the benefits of meditation,” Devaney says. “The idea is that, whether you’re just starting or you’ve been practicing for years, if you come here every day for a week, you’re going to … find something that really resonates with you.”

Ferraro, for his part, has found a new beginning since the decimation of Dharma Punx. “After leading the S.F. group for 15 years, I questioned what continuing actually meant — what should continue and what should be left behind,” he says, about starting his group with members of the Against The Stream sangha. “So I felt deeply inspired because I watched the folks that continued to show up. Sometimes when a community goes through some s— together, there’s a possibility of getting closer.”

In the reincarnation of Dharma Punx, there are no gurus. Removing an idol from the movement, as it turns out, may keep its spirit alive. As the zen koan states: If you meet the Buddha in the street, kill him.

Michelle Villegas Threadgould is a Bay Area freelance writer. Email: culture@sfchronicle.com

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