One of the earliest efforts to popularize Buddhism in the United States was led by Jack Kornfield, a renowned lecturer and the author of several books. Kornfield trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma and India, and has a PhD in clinical psychology. In 1975, he co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Massachusetts, along with Sharon Salzburg and Joseph Goldstein. In 1987, he founded Spirit Rock Meditation Center in the San Francisco area. Kornfield’s group of pioneering teachers included Stephen and Ondrea Levine, who taught meditation to the sick and dying in a program that included Ram Dass and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. Noah Levine, Stephen’s son, spent some of his childhood in the company of these famous spiritual leaders, but initially showed little interest. At an early age, Noah became addicted to drugs and alcohol (his drug use began at age 6). Noah Levine’s youth was characterized by hard drugs, violence, multiple incarcerations, and suicide attempts, but he ultimately found recovery in a padded cell at age 17. Noah then embraced both the Twelve Steps and the Buddhist teachings of his father. He trained under Jack Kornfield, became a meditation teacher, and with his experience he naturally ended up working with many patients of drug and alcohol treatment centers, as well as prison inmates. Noah’s story is detailed in his best-selling book Dharma Punx, published in 2004, and also in a 2007 feature film documentary called Meditate and Destroy. Noah has published three additional books: Against the Stream: A Buddhist Manual for Spiritual Revolutionaries, 2007, The Heart of the Revolution: The Buddha’s Radical Teachings on Forgiveness, Compassion, and Kindness, 2011, and Refuge Recovery, 2014.
In 2008, Noah opened his own meditation center in Los Angeles called Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS). It has grown dramatically and there are now two ATS centers in the Los Angeles area, one in San Francisco, and an amazing number of affiliated programs in other cities. In six years, affiliated centers – started by teachers trained by Noah – have been established in San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Redlands. Outside California, affiliates have sprung up in New York, Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, Denver, and Nashville. ATS has become way more than a meditation center. It is a driving force in American Buddhism.
From the start, Against the Stream has attracted lots of people with histories of substance abuse and other forms of addiction. Many are well established in a 12-step recovery program, having found relief from their addictions through the 12-steps, years or even decades ago. They are attracted not only by the opportunity to receive guidance with the ongoing practice of The Eleventh Step (which advises meditation) but by the unique experience of meditating in a group setting, especially when the group includes friends in recovery. Others are much earlier in the recovery process or still trapped in their addictions. For them, Buddhism enriches the whole recovery experience, offering a deeper understanding of the nature of addiction and broadening the set of tools available to combat mental and physical cravings.
ATS began hosting recovery focused meetings, initially led by trained instructors who, like Noah, had personal experience with addiction. They would share in their talks about how practicing the Buddhist principals of The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path has aided in their personal recovery. It quickly became clear that this approach has severe limitations. Inspired by the success of peer-led programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Noah Levine set out to write a book that would enable people with little or no training to establish and facilitate effective Buddhist-recovery groups, and to offer a purely Buddhist recovery experience. Noah also took on the task of building an independent non-profit organization to support the effort. The book, Refuge Recovery, was published June 10, 2014, and the organization’s home on the web is RefugeRecovery.org.
Refuge Recovery OKC was one of the first groups to be established in a community that didn’t have an ATS, or ATS affiliate. It began in April, 2014, months before the book’s publication, thanks to the kind assistance of Mary Stancavage and Dave Smith, two ATS teachers. As of March 1, 2017, there were 260 registered Refuge Recovery groups in 41 states and 11 foreign countries.