Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
RefCon 5, the fifth Refuge Recovery Conference, was held in Chicago this month (July 2019). RefCon is an annual gathering of members of Refuge Recovery to celebrate progress for the movement, and discuss problems and solutions. This year the usually celebratory conference was overshadowed by the final resolution of the conflict between Noah Levine and the Board of Refuge Recovery, which was announced just weeks before the Conference.
As I posted in a previous article, the Refuge Recovery Board broke away from Noah’s plan to form a new not-for-profit Refuge Recovery World Services, directed by him as CEO and his select group of teachers, trained and authorized by himself. Some of the former directors of Refuge Recovery are forming a new non-profit entity called Recovery Dharma Collective, represented by Amy in this video. The video of this ‘State of the State’ of Refuge Recovery, featuring Noah and Amy, presents a sharp contrast between authoritarian and anarchist forms of governance of Buddhist organizations.
Recovery Dharma Collective is based on a peer-led community model where everyone who participates is a peer, there are no ‘authorized teachers’, and the governing boards are democratically elected representatives. The book is written by the community and all proceeds from sale of the book go to running the non-profit organization. Recovery Dharma will not run any addiction treatment facilities, only peer-led groups.
Refuge Recovery World Services, led by CEO Noah Levine, will train and authorize teachers to lead Refuge Recovery Retreats. His corporation will own and operate RR-branded addiction treatment facilities. Noah continues to own the book, Refuge Recovery, and all profits from sales of the book will accrue to him personally. Noah’s talk reveals that Refuge Recovery will continue to support Refuge Recovery groups that are peer-led, but the main focus of his corporation is the propagation of RR-branded retreats and treatment facilities.
So these are the two models presented in this video by Noah Levine of RRWS and Amy of Recovery Dharma Collective. Noah’s model is based on the traditional hierarchy of authoritarian Buddhism in a pyramid structure. At the top of the pyramid is the lead teacher or ‘guru’, which is Noah himself, who oversees the training and authorization (empowerment) of select teachers. (Not stated but assumed is that those who aspire to be teachers authorized by Noah will have to pay him for their training—more money for the guru). It is based on an authoritarian structure in Buddhism called ‘lineage’ in which the organization uses only authorized teachings by authorized teachers. The lineage that he is attempting to establish is not a generic Theravada lineage, but his own lineage based on his own version of Buddhism, of which he is the ‘root guru.’ The guru-CEO leads the Board of Directors of RRWS, and under the Board are the volunteer members who organize themselves in peer-led groups. Oversight of peer-led groups is conducted by the Board of RRWS. The RRWS corporation owns and operates the addiction treatment facilities and retreats. The whole pyramid scheme is designed to generate income for the guru at the top of the hierarchy and his select group of teachers.
To be more precise, what Noah Levine is promoting is a kind of neoliberal authoritarianism. He places himself at the top of a pyramid scheme as the hero-entrepreneur, (see Monbiot TED, @ minute 5), the CEO who claims to ‘innovate’ a system, when it was actually created by a community of people as a commons. He then encloses the production of the commons, in this case, Refuge Recovery, and makes it his own private property. Then he licenses others to use ‘his’ innovation by training and creating a select group to be his authorized (licensed) teachers. Only they can teach his ‘tech’, while the hero-entrepreneur reaps the financial benefits from this ‘tech.’ (The concept of dharma as ‘my tech’ was proffered by none other than Sakyong Mipham, who chided Shambhala teachers for “stealing his tech.”) This is yet another example of proprietary Buddhism that dominates the West.
The Recovery Dharma Collective model is a grassroots community-based model, which is anarchist in structure. There are only peer-led groups who govern themselves collectively. The organization is governed from the group level, who elect group representatives to regional and national governance committees. (Note: this procedure has not been finalized yet.) So the organization is governed literally ‘from the ground up’. No profits are generated for anyone, all proceeds from donations and book sales go to running the peer-led groups and the non-profit organization. Except for the democratically elected Board, it’s a flat organization that is governed by the Collective.
I’m not the least bit persuaded by Noah’s crocodile tears or his doleful appeals for ‘forgiveness’. He makes this plea at the very same moment that he is going ahead with his plan for turning Refuge Recovery into a giant pyramid scheme to make himself rich, built on an authoritarian structure of ‘guru’, ‘lineage’ and ‘authorized teachers.’ (That his new organization is a non-profit has no bearing on the amount of income he can make from it; there are non-profit CEOs who make millions in salary.) What’s worse, he is doing this by exploiting the vulnerability of addicts in early recovery who are willing to do whatever it takes to get well, including pay for treatment facilities and retreats, and if necessary, submit to a teaching hierarchy. Furthermore, he cannot fathom why the former Refuge Recovery membership doesn’t go along with his plan for ‘world services’ (which sounds vaguely like ‘world domination’) and hail him as the Dalai Lama of Buddhist recovery.
The split between Noah Levine and Recovery Dharma Collective, between authoritarianism and anarchism, represents the pivotal choice faced at this point in the history of western Buddhism. As an example of this moment, the London Shambhala Centre just announced an experiment to run their local centre democratically:
In London we are in the process of setting up a team-based governance system that eliminates the Pillars and has a Council made up of a democratically selected delegate from each team. All teams are open to any members who wish to participate. The traditional Director is proposed to be replaced with a purely ceremonial Director who represents the centre as a figurehead but has no personal power. Wish us luck! Looks like this will be run as a trial for a six month or year long period. And then reviewed.
I realize that many readers would not label the Recovery Dharma Collective as ‘anarchist’, but a kind of community-based, grassroots democracy; however, that is precisely my definition of Buddhist anarchism. Most people associate ‘anarchism’ with angry mobs dressed in black who throw bricks through the windows of retail stores at street protests. That is a tactic that some anarchists have used at street protests, but it has nothing to do with the governance structures developed by Buddhist anarchist collectives, which are more like Recovery Dharma Collective.
Ironically, the punk rock community that Noah grew up in and valorized in Dharma Punx, was saturated with anarchist politics. This is what Dharma Punx was supposed to be about, but that seems to have ended once Noah realized that he could get rich off the suffering of other people by becoming a recovery guru. Now ‘punk’ is just a style that he wears, symbolized by his chic street clothes and copious tattoos. Under Noah’s rock star appeal (he has called himself a ‘dharma-lebrity’), Buddhist anarchism has been reduced to a kind of Buddhist ‘cool’.
By contrast, Recovery Dharma’s foundation on flat organizations, collective governing structures, commons production, and self-empowerment, without teachers, gurus or authorized ‘lineages’, is what Buddhist anarchist governance is about. This, I propose, is the essential choice that western Buddhism faces in the coming decades: authoritarian or anarchist governing structures. And it’s precisely what Buddhist Spring 2020 is aiming for.