Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds /Milk Tea Alliance

Authoritarianism v. Anarchism in Western Buddhism

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.


10 comments on “Authoritarianism v. Anarchism in Western Buddhism

  1. Paul Acciavatti


    This is a powerful piece, and impressively well-informed for someone who hasn’t been in the center of the maelstrom like some of us have been for the past few weeks. We’re in a wild, uncontrolled experiment of whether a lay sangha can self-organize in a decentralized way without losing its cohesion as a sangha. I’d be lying if I said I knew how this is all going to play out.

    I hope you don’t mind if—as a member of the transition circle helping to get Recovery Dharma up and running as a peer-led org—I point out a couple things:

    1. Most of the “former directors of Refuge Recovery” aren’t involved with Recovery Dharma. Some are, and some, like me, never had any involvement with the Board.
    2. We haven’t (yet!) set up a structure where we’re “governed from the group level, who send group representatives to the democratically elected Board.” That’s an outcome I personally favor, but it’s not just up to me or anyone else on transition circle: governance will be decided by the community. Right now it’s more a general aspiration, not unlike the statement from London Shambhala.
    3. Refuge Recovery World Services has said they’re applying for 501(c)(3) non-profit status. At RefCon, Noah responded to a direct question by saying the treatment centers would be non-profit. It’s up to each person to use their own judgment about who and what to believe, but for me Wise Speech is about saying only what I know to be true. And right now, that’s what I *know.*

    I’m grateful for your passion, your incisiveness and your advocacy of an ethical, nonauthoritarian Buddhist movement for the West. It’s almost an overwhelming task, which is why it’s going to take as many of us as possible.

    • Shaun Bartone

      “1. Most of the “former directors of Refuge Recovery” aren’t involved with Recovery Dharma. Some are, and some, like me, never had any involvement with the Board.”

      So who made the decision to start Recovery Dharma? I posted the letter of June 6, 2019 from the then Board of Refuge Recovery (and Noah Levine et al) that they were planning to start a new non-profit organization called Recovery Dharma Collective. I’ll check that letter again.

      “The Board will foster a new grassroots movement by forming a non-profit organization called Recovery Dharma Collective to provide support to local recovery meetings based on Buddhist practices and principles. The Collective will be entirely peer-led and democratically run, will not be engaged in designating specific or approved teachers for retreats or study and will leave the provision of treatment options to others.”

      Ok so as of June 6, 2019, the then Board of Directors of Refuge Recovery had already decided to launch the new non-profit Recovery Dharma Collective. Now you’re saying since then, some of the former members of that Board are not involved in launching Recovery Dharma Collective. So I ask you again, who is involved? Who or what is launching Recovery Dharma Collective?

    • Shaun Bartone

      “2. We haven’t (yet!) set up a structure where we’re “governed from the group level, who send group representatives to the democratically elected Board.”

      Ok so if the Board of Directors of Recovery Dharma Collective is NOT elected by the membership, then precisely who will elect or appoint them? Another Board of Directors at another organization? Noah Levine? And if many of the former members of the Board of Refuge Recovery are not on this new Board going forward, then exactly who or what is going to elect or appoint members of the Board of Recovery Dharma? Who could else could it be BUT the membership of Dharma Collective?

      • Paul Acciavatti

        Shaun, the org is literally three weeks old. We just sent out a survey, and are starting to build lines of communication with the local sanghas so we can have an open conversation about how to elect a permanent board.

        Should we try and set up a worldwide one-person-one vote system, and how can we secure that? Should it be one-sangha-one-vote? How do candidates get nominated? This is going to take a little bit of time, and it should. It’s not going to be a handful of us in a room (or on Facebook) deciding it by fiat for the community. We’re adding sanghas literally every day, and we have to find a way to make sure they’re heard.

      • Shaun Bartone

        Granted, the organization is three weeks old. It seems like the best way forward is to spend the next 6 months adding members and groups and connecting everybody to the RDC website. (not facebook, I don’t have a facebook account). Once the RDC website has a significant contact list, then an email could be sent out to everyone (and notices on Facebook and Twitter, etc.) to go the RDC website and offer nominations for Board members, and then subsequently vote on the candidates. It will be a ‘sorting process’ at first, with new Board members being added frequently until the whole organization stabilizes.

        One resource might be to look at Extinction Rebellion’s ‘sortition process’ for its Citizens Assembly. I’m going to investigate that myself and see what it might have to offer.

        A sortition process is a bit different. Instead of people offering names of candidates for Board positions (their own or someone else’s), the people running the RDC site randomly select people from its contact list and invite those people to become Board members for a period of time (say six months). It’s the ‘random selection’ process that makes it a ‘sortition’ rather than an election. The idea behind it is that random selection allows for more diverse representation on the Board.

        Sortition also allows for demographic equity. Gender parity can be built in by selecting 45% male, 45% female, and 10% non-binary genders. “White” members can be restricted to no more than half the positions, so that People of Color make up at least half the Board.

        The downside is that sortition is not a traditional way of appointing board members, so people might have a problem with trusting the process. But it’s an interesting way to think about the process that might open up some new ideas for staffing the Board.

        Here’s a link to a page that explains sortition:

  2. Ken

    All other references to Refuge Recovery World Services indicate that it will be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, not a for-profit. Your article claims it’s a for-profit. You may want to fact check this.

    • Shaun Bartone

      Yes, thanks for the updated information. This is what was written in the June 6, 2019 letter, which was a joint statement of Noah Levine et al and the Board of Directors of Refuge Recovery:

      “The Refuge Recovery program and movement, as founded by Noah, are not ending. The existing Refuge Recovery non-profit will be dissolved.

      Noah’s team is creating a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, Refuge Recovery World Services, and will apply for 501(c)(3) non-profit status, to provide support services to all interested Refuge Recovery groups moving forward.”

      “To provide support services to all interested Refuge Recovery groups moving forward.” Those are the peer-led groups. That’s not (from this wording) the Retreats or the Treatment Facilities.

      So if Noah has decided since June 6 to run the Retreats and Treatment Facilities as non-profit ventures, that is new. Because only a year ago he owned a Refuge Recovery Treatment Center that was FOR-profit. It was a failure, apparently, so maybe that’s what changed his mind. So ok, as of this week, I stand corrected. We’ll see what actually transpires.

  3. So far you only show two models, 1) Noah the money grubber and 2) the blind leading the blind. Noahs ideas are totally western and have nothing to do with Buddhism, just western capitalism. Noah is no noble at all just a money grubber. He is NOT ” based on an authoritarian structure in Buddhism called ‘lineage’ in which the organization uses only authorized teachings by authorized teachers. ” You completely misunderstand Linage. I bet you have not spent years as a Buddhist monk so you know nothing of the relationships between the monks. Mixing Linage up with capitalism is just more western ignorance. Best to just Call Noah a fraud and con man and leave Buddhism out of it all together. In no time in history has Buddhism been reduced to what Noah wants it to be. If he were even a smidgen Buddhist he would offer his teaching for free. Buddha was not a Business man and Noah is not Buddhist. .

  4. 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.’ In other words Noah is just a con man a money grubber trying to profit off the Back of the back of the Buddha. He smells like Jack Kornfield the chief Money grubber of westren Buddhism. Please everyone avoid this Noah as he is pure dukkha.

  5. “We’re in a wild, uncontrolled experiment of whether a lay sangha can self-organize in a decentralized way without losing its cohesion as a sangha. I’d be lying if I said I knew how this is all going to play out.” When you use the word Lay sangha you mean a group of folks who are only mildly interested in Buddhism. with no one willing to make real life commitments. you use Buddhism like salt on food. when the only way is to make a meal of it, and a steady diet of it. A lay sangha will only survive in the west as a western capitalistic “bait and switch” operation. This is not a sangha it is a business. a Lay sangha is doomed to failure. But a Business can last and misuse the word “sangha” and not have one.

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This entry was posted on 2019/07/28 by .


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