[CONTENT WARNING: this post contains general references to acts of sexual assault]
On Saturday August 25, 2018, the leadership of Against the Stream Meditation Society sent a letter to its community announcing that it was “more likely than not” that founder Noah Levine had “violated the Third Precept of [ATS’s] Teacher’s Code of Ethics,” (calling on teachers ‘to avoid creating harm through sexuality’) with multiple women, and that the organization’s centers would be shutting down. Noah denies the allegations.
On January 28, 2019, the Refuge Recovery non-profit filed suit against Noah Levine and three of his business entities in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, in order to “clearly delineate the separation between the non-profit organization that serves the Refuge Recovery community and Noah’s businesses” and “to secure our rights to the literature.” At the same time, Noah filed suit for trademark infringement against the non-profit. Noah made a statement on Facebook explaining his action, stating that members of the non-profit board “do not respect or understand the original vision of Refuge Recovery.” It’s believed that both suits will be consolidated into a single action.
On February 13, 2019, Noah Levine’s authorization to teach was withdrawn by the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Separately, his teacher Jack Kornfield also withdrew his personal authorization, which means that Noah may no longer present himself as an empowered Buddhist meditation teacher. You can read the statement of the Spirit Rock Ethics and Reconciliation Council here.
Against the Stream (ATS) had received allegations of sexual impropriety involving Noah on March 27, 2018. On March 29, ATS announced that it would launch an investigation. Noah’s teaching activities were suspended within ATS, though he continued to teach elsewhere. On August 14, Jezebel reported additional allegations of misconduct by Noah. The center founded by Jack Kornfield (the Buddhist leader who empowered Noah to teach), suspended Noah’s teaching privileges and still have a statement on their website promising they will “soon” announce a response which could include revoking his status as an empowered Buddhist teacher. There has been no update from Spirit Rock since August 28, 2018.
The report of the ATS investgator was leaked to Jezebel on November 8. The leak, which Jezebel’s Anna Merlan believes to be authentic after having taken steps to verify it, details accusations of rape by one woman and sexual assault by two others.
Following the release of the ATS statement, the Refuge Recovery board of directors immediately began working on their own response, but held off when they received news that Noah would be giving a public talk addressing the situation, and again when he sent an open letter to his email list. Refuge Recovery director Jean Tuller and interim board chair Chris Kavanaugh held a call August 28 with the Refuge community worldwide to discuss the issues raised and the future of Refuge. Chris gave a brief clarification of the different organizations started by Noah Levine: Against The Stream, Refuge Recovery, the Treatment Centers and the Retreats. The Refuge nonprofit has been separate from Against The Stream for about a year. Noah was on the Refuge board but voluntarily stepped down. The Refuge Recovery Treatment Center is a separate for-profit business, with Noah is the CEO, and Refuge Recovery Retreats is a new for-profit Noah is doing with Rebel Saints out of Seattle.
Chris talked about ongoing discussions with Noah to transfer the “intellectual property” of the RR book to the nonprofit, and have been meeting with him and his attorney to discuss this. The board has consulted with four intellectual property attorneys and Chris said the top priority of the board is “taking control of the Refuge Recovery brand.”
The Board of Directors of Refuge Recovery released a statement on September 6, re-affirming its commitment that RR be a “peer-led” community, which “means we do not rely on the teachings or reputation of any one person for our strength.”
The ATS statement had acknowledged that the allegations have been “devastating” — with large donations and grants lost — and that ATS’s centers will shut down on September 30. Four board members, a co-guiding teacher, and the organization’s executive director have announced departures from the organization, and the affiliate centers in Boston and Nashville have dissociated from ATS. The statement also says that “Each member of our Teachers Council has expressed a wish to dissociate themselves from Mr. Levine – to begin again and share teachings in a new form with students.”
Chris Crotty of Against The Stream Boston has told Tricycle that “within the next couple of weeks, I will open a new dharma center, the Boston Meditation Center, with the support of students and a newly forming board of directors.” Chris said that he had been working on an official alliance between ATS Boston and the national group before the allegations came out, at which point talks of an affiliation were “paused.” Now he’s considering other ways to unite the larger community.
“Currently there is no plan for an overarching organization under which all ATS teachers will work,” Chris explained. “However, many of us have established deep ties and friendships over the years, and this situation has aligned some of us more closely. There is quite a bit of discussion about future collaboration among ATS teachers.”
The ATS center in Nashville, which had been unofficially associated with the organization since 2010, decided to end its affiliation with the group in May and on June 10 changed its name to the Wild Heart Meditation Center (WHMC). On August 10, the center’s director of programming, Andrew Chapman, sent a message to members about the name changing, citing several reasons, including the allegations against Noah and a desire to be fully autonomous.
“We are very grateful to Against the Stream for creating a beautiful international Sangha, and inviting us to share in its many gifts of Dharma,” the message concludes. “We are forever grateful to the many teachers and for the vision of the larger community, as it has provided us shoulders to stand on.
But the situation isn’t just affecting the ATS sangha. The allegations themselves, as well as the extended length of the investigation and the lack of clarity about what’s being alleged, have impacted people across the country.
“There’s so much silence around it,” one woman, a facilitator for a Refuge Recovery women’s group in another state, told Jezebel. “It’s a huge mystery. And the result has been a lot of confusion and sadness and people going up against each other.”
The facilitator, for her part, is struggling with the fact that Noah continues to teach.
“It makes me unbelievably angry,” she said. “There are so many women who end up having alcohol or addiction problems because of their own abuse.” She feared that even learning something was being alleged about the program’s founder could be triggering for some of the women in her group. “So many people have told him to take a step back,” she adds. “My disappointment comes from the lack of respect towards the investigative process and the healing process.”
She notes that the entire community was waiting, anxiously, for the ATS report, that it felt like the only thing that would allow anyone to start moving forward.
“A lot of friendships have been broken over this already,” she says. “It feels like it’s become that giant family secret at the dinner table that nobody’s addressing.”
According to the leaked report, Noah interpreted some of the allegations against him as a side effect of the MeToo movement. Vinny Ferraro, a longtime ATS teacher and friend of Levine’s, told the investigator that in both private conversations and in communications with the ATS Teachers Council, Levine implied that the women accusing him of assault were overreacting to interactions they’d had because of MeToo.
Another unnamed person, identified as Witness C, told the investigator that when Levine was first suspended by ATS after the allegations surfaced, he told them “that it was a terrible decision for the sangha and an overreaction to the MeToo movement.”
We are writing to inform you of the outcome of the investigation into Noah Levine’s conduct and the future of Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS). We regret the delay and lengthy period of silence that contributed to uncertainty, confusion and pain. We have worked hard to conduct the process thoroughly and in a manner that protected the rights of all involved, including strict requirements for confidentiality required by the Grievance Council Procedures. Members of ATS governance have been deliberate and volunteered hundreds of hours to ensure the trustworthiness of the investigation. We retained expert consultants and an attorney to guide us. All of this has taken time. We ask for your understanding for the ways in which the process has been painful for you.
The ATS Grievance Council received allegations of sexual assault involving Noah Levine on March 27th 2018. Pending an investigation, Mr. Levine was temporarily suspended from teaching at ATS on March 29th. Soon thereafter, Roberta Yang, an experienced attorney and investigator of workplace harassment, was hired to conduct an independent investigation of the initial allegation and other allegations of misconduct that surfaced shortly thereafter.
Ms. Yang’s task was to determine if the ATS Teachers Code of Ethics was violated by Mr. Levine and convey her conclusions to the ATS Grievance Council. The standard Ms. Yang used was the preponderance of evidence, which means that she considered if the allegations were more likely than not to be true based on her evaluation of statements from witnesses and other evidence. Ms. Yang interviewed, or offered to interview, all affected parties and reached her conclusions independently and without any influence by ATS. Ms. Yang 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.” That is to say, Ms. Yang concluded that, based on her evaluation of the evidence she reviewed, the preponderance of that evidence showed such violations.
These findings were carefully considered by the ATS Grievance Council and recommendations were made to the ATS Board of Directors in consultation with an independent ethics consultant. The standard for evaluating a Buddhist teacher’s actions are not the same as the criminal or even the civil standards of proof. Spiritual leaders are held to a higher ethical standard than the public at large and higher than other community leaders. However, ATS’ conclusion is not a finding of guilt or liability by a court; it is our conclusion based on our own evaluation of the evidence presented to us. Mr. Levine denied, and continues to deny, wrongdoing.
At the conclusion of the process, the Board decided to remove Mr. Levine from the Board and from teaching at ATS. The Board further recommends that he seek all necessary support to transform his understanding and conduct, especially as it relates to his relation to power dynamics.
Firstly, to the women directly impacted, we wish to remain available to you and to provide whatever support we can that you might find helpful. We consider this another critical moment to study the way that different treatment based on gender constellates in the ATS community specifically, and society more generally. Events such as this have the power to shake one’s confidence in the refuge of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We hope that the pain of this moment actually leads us back towards the heart and that we might all find true refuge.
Effects on Organization and ATS Future
The effect of the controversy arising from these events has been devastating for ATS. While ATS has previously experienced precarious financial moments, this period has eroded core capacities of the organization. Fiscal impacts were immediate. A 10th anniversary fundraiser was postponed; a large foundation grant was returned because we could not meet our objectives; other forms of giving contracted. Monthly expenses significantly outpace revenue and our savings have been drawn down. Four Board members resigned, a co-guiding teacher departed, two affiliate centers – Boston and Nashville – are dissociating from ATS, and our Executive Director is planning to depart at the end of his contract period. Each member of our Teachers Council has expressed a wish to dissociate themselves from Mr. Levine – to begin again and share teachings in a new form with students.
During the course of the investigation, the Board of Directors, Teachers Council and Executive Leadership explored a number of financial models and collaborative arrangements that would allow ATS to remain a viable, healthy organization. We were unable to find a solution.
With deep sadness, we announce that ATS will close the doors to its Melrose, Santa Monica and San Francisco centers on Sept 30, 2018. Know that the impact of losing a spiritual community has been given every possible consideration. We understand that many of you have been sangha members from the very beginning. Our commitment moving forward is to be available and be present for the grief or anger or confusion that may arise.
While we have tried to navigate this time with as much skill as we have, we know that these events are a lot and land in different ways for you. To the extent that we can be of support, we wish to be available for you. We will be holding community sessions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and the teachers will use class time, when appropriate, to help digest all of this. Please know that we’re also part of the sangha – none of this has been easy and we’re experiencing our own forms of loss.
The refuge of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is supported by people and places, but is never dependent on a person or a place. Though ATS is ending, the Dharma, as always, continues. The ripples and resonances of goodness and sincerity continue.
Our teachers and facilitators are actively transitioning to new offerings, groups and spaces to ensure that former ATS communities across the country are supported going forward. In Los Angeles, JoAnna Hardy has announced the formation of the Meditation Coalition, which Mary Stancavage, Cheryl Slean and some ATS facilitators will be joining. In San Francisco, Vinny Ferraro is in process looking to rent space for the Friday night class. Matthew Brensilver will remain accessible and is committed to serving the sangha in a sustained way. Nashville ATS will continue in the same location as Wild Heart Meditation Center. In Boston, Chris Crotty is committed to ensuring long-term sustainability of sangha in that city and on the east coast. We will announce more details as they come.
For the next months, Vinny Ferraro’s September weekend retreat will continue as planned, the New Years’ retreat with Cheryl Slean and Dave Smith will be held again in Malibu, and the Women’s Retreat with Mary and JoAnna will be held once again at Joshua Tree in January 2019.
We will update you as details are finalized.
To our beloved community, we are humbled, we are heartbroken, and we grieve with you.
ATS Board of Directors
ATS Grievance Council
ATS Teachers Council
This is a complicated letter to write because I am essentially writing three groups of people in one open letter. I have a completely different perspective of my experiences with each of you individually and as groups of people. I’m going to approach this with compassion, willingness to listen and attempt to make sense of what is a layered, messy, painful situation.
I feel that it’s important for everyone to know that none of this had anything to do with students of ATS or members of Refuge Recovery. These were issues that came from my personal life.
I take full responsibility for anything that I have actually done. And will continue to be honest and cooperative with the process and anyone seeking the truth. That said, I will likewise also continue to tell the truth about what never happened, such as the accusation that I assaulted someone.
To the women who have come forward and expressed a sense of suffering because of interpersonal experiences with me, I am sorry I caused you harm and I ask your forgiveness. I wanted to connect and to explore a relationship. This has been a deeply painful learning experience. I want to take full responsibility for any harm I caused to anyone and everyone with whom I have had a dating relationship. I want to make amends for my behavior if it didn’t feel good to them. I don’t want to defend or minimize. It is important to me that any woman who felt harmed, now feels heard. I want to understand. It matters. I was shocked to hear (months later) that someone was unhappy in any way with our interactions. I was not aware at the time that anything was amiss with how we connected. Whenever a boundary was stated – physical, emotional, or otherwise – I always honored it.
This is part of the learning for me in all of this – that just because someone doesn’t say “No” or express displeasure at the time, doesn’t always mean they are happy about it. I can also see that I wasn’t taking into account my power/privilege and status as a dharma teacher in my personal dating life. Perhaps I’ve had some denial or dismissive tendencies around my role as the founder of these two communities (ATS and RR). This has been a very painful way to wake up to the reality of who I am and how I’m seen by others.
For my communities, my heart breaks that intimate experiences from my personal life have caused a ripple effect that has made our community fragment. I can’t explain to you the depth of my sadness as I think of each of you and what has come to be a community trauma. I am especially sensitive to the needs of the recovery community and I encourage you to lean on each other. Against the Stream may not exist in name, but the community still exists in each other. Refuge Recovery meetings are a peer-led process, support each-other and continue the necessary work of your own healing and recovery. In moments like this we must remember even more to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
For my colleagues, I feel betrayed and abandoned. You were my family. We taught compassion and forgiveness together. I feel you did the opposite. You silenced me. You isolated me. You did not give me the benefit of the doubt, and you offered me no path to forgiveness and healing.
As a community we face the painful reality of all that has taken place and we now have the task of beginning the process of grieving the losses, navigating the changes and rebuilding the trust and connection that we once had. I have every intention of carrying on with my calling and mission, that is to practice the Dharma, to embody wisdom and compassion as best I can and to share the teachings of the Buddha with all who are interested to receive it.
I will continue my work at Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers providing addiction treatment to suffering addicts as well as teaching my weekly meditation group at our new location in Venice. I will also be offering residential retreats through my friends at Rebel Saints Meditation Society. For now it looks like all of the other organizations and retreat centers that I have been teaching at for the past many years will cancel my events out of fear of the criticism they will receive if they continue to have me as faculty.
I am continuing to process all of this with my psychotherapist who specializes in Sexuality, and staying in contact with some of my Buddhist teachers.
I will end with my meditation phrase-
Please forgive me for any harm I have caused, intentionally or unintentionally.
Dear Refuge Recovery Community,
Last week, Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society (ATS) sent out an email to its mailing list reporting on their investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct made against Noah Levine. ATS concluded it was likely that Noah had violated the ethical code for Buddhist teachers against causing harm with sexual conduct. At the same time, ATS announced that, for financial reasons, it was ending operations.
ATS did not release their investigator’s report to us or to the public. Noah responded with a public statement directed to both the communities of Refuge Recovery and ATS. A link to both statements can be found below.
Refuge Recovery is a California Public Benefit corporation organized as tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the IRS Code. It exists to support the worldwide community of Refuge Recovery groups through training and education, sharing resources, and fostering collaborative projects. While it has been a source of much confusion, Refuge Recovery is not affiliated with the Venice, California based Refuge Recovery House, LLC, doing business as Refuge Recovery Centers or any other enterprise that may use a similar name.
Though Refuge Recovery began as a special project of ATS, it has operated independently for over a year. While we are deeply saddened to know that ATS will soon be closing, this decision does not affect our organization financially or threaten our viability. Our growth has been unabated. As of today, we have 618 registered weekly meetings, with 18 meetings alone added in the last seven days.
Last March, the board was informed that a police report had been filed alleging that Noah had committed sexual assault, and that ATS was launching an investigation. Our board’s Executive Committee asked Noah to step down from the board and he agreed. We lacked the resources to conduct our own investigation, so our board decided to take no further action at that time. Subsequently, the board’s Executive Committee made the additional request that Noah not participate in our annual convention in June and again he agreed.
None of the complaints were brought directly to the Refuge Recovery Board of Directors and, to the best of our knowledge, none of the allegations were raised by a member of the community. We know, however, that many people in our community have felt deeply affected by the allegations, the investigations and ATS’ findings. We cannot and will not ignore or minimize the impact they have had on our community.
The board believes it is vitally important to encourage the expression and processing of many diverse perspectives and experiences within our communities. We hope you as individuals and as communities will listen directly to the perspectives and the requests of those who have felt harmed or for whom these events have triggered emotional trauma.
Refuge Recovery is a peer-led recovery community. Our principal concern is the well-being of those seeking freedom from the suffering of addiction. We believe that part of our practice is to meet this painful experience as it is with compassion and to continue on in nobility. We further believe that this can, in the long run, be a catalyst for growth in our community. We hope all of us will see this as an opportunity for self-reflection and examination of ways the groups can become safer and more welcoming for all our members.
From the outset, our board has been tasked with managing Refuge Recovery’s transition from being entirely driven by one person to being peer-led such that all major decisions can occur democratically at the group level. Being peer-led means we do not rely on the teachings or reputation of any one person for our strength. Ultimately, we anticipate that much of our board’s role will be shifted to the regional and local levels, leaving our board to focus exclusively on supporting the groups, producing literature and working to ensure that our name is not misused.
Part of this process involves obtaining licenses or transfers from Noah of certain intellectual property rights involving the book Refuge Recovery, the trademarked name, and the three-jewels logo. We were already working on this in March, but the allegations around Noah created a sense of urgency. The issues are very complex. Over the past few months, our board has consulted with no fewer than four intellectual property attorneys. This is the topic of our next board meeting scheduled for September 9, 2018. Noah will be participating. We see tremendous value in the name recognition that has been built since 2014, and we think that, as long as Noah continues to negotiate with us in good faith, securing rights and protections best serves the interests of our community.
As we move forward, we will continue to keep the community apprised of our activities and do what we can to help this community come together and heal. Toward this end, Jean Tuller, our Executive Director, and Chris Kavanaugh, our Interim Board Chair, hosted two community video conferences last week and we plan to do more of these in the coming months. In addition, our board minutes are available for your review on our website and you can email Jean or Chris directly with any comments or concerns you have. Finally, Refuge Recovery is organized around regions, each of which has elected representatives whose role is to make sure the voices of our local communities are heard, considered, and acted upon. The list of regional representatives is available on our website. We believe that only by keeping the lines of communication open with the community at large can we be of maximum service.
This has been a hard few months. Thankfully, the Dharma and this program teach us how to navigate difficult times and the value of perseverance. We’ve done our best to adhere to these core principles. We will continue our important work, you will continue to inspire us with your selfless service to our thriving community and together we will continue to build a place of Refuge for all.
The Board of Directors of Refuge Recovery
Brooklyn, New York
Asheville, North Carolina
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Brooklyn, New York
Jean E. Tuller
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
This post incorporates content from articles previously published in Lion’s Roar, Jezebel and Tricycle that is included here, under the principle of fair use, for the sole purpose of informing our community.