REFUGE RECOVERY AND FOUNDER NOAH LEVINE
As members of the new Refuge Recovery service board, we feel it is important to discuss our experience with, and our relationship to, Refuge Recovery founder and author Noah Levine.
This is important because in the last two years, there has been some controversy and misinformation about Noah. Our intention is to be as straightforward as possible.
We want to acknowledge that for some of you, this may be hard to read. We know that the truth about Noah’s situation will lead to different responses in our recovery community.
Our personal experience regarding Noah is that of witnessing a person dedicated to service, to study, to teaching, and to creating positive change in this world. We never have seen, or been aware of, Noah intentionally causing harm to anyone. We also have found Noah to be a person of unusual integrity — a person practicing radical honesty.
From Dharma Punx to Refuge Recovery, Noah’s writing and influence has been the cultural intersection of recovery and Buddhist practice. In twenty years of creating and leading meditation centers, creating the Refuge Recovery organization and related treatment programs, leading meditation retreats, teaching the dharma to groups and individuals, and training other dharma teachers, Noah has helped tens of thousands of people to heal and recover. Noah is speaking the language of addicts across the board. His work has reached people of diverse populations, including many addicts who normally would never set foot in a Buddhist center.
Noah’s book, “Refuge Recovery: A Buddhist Path to Recovering from Addiction” (the copyrights and royalties of which he has freely donated to the Refuge Recovery non-profit organization), created the foundation for our worldwide program.
In important ways, Noah Levine’s story is the RR story.
So why was there controversy around the RR founder? Here are what we understand to be the relevant facts:
In 2015, Noah and his wife divorced on amicable terms, agreeing on joint custody of their two children. Noah later started online dating — an experience that was new to him, even though it had become so prevalent among singles by that time.
In October of 2017, a woman Noah was dating, who was not his dharma student or a member of Refuge Recovery, but who was a Zen student who had her own teachers and lineage, text messaged him that she wanted to discuss consent with regard to an aspect of their sexual relationship. Noah did try to communicate with her about this, but after a couple of text messages, she did not return his calls or respond to his attempts to talk with her about what she was referring to. Noah immediately notified his colleagues at Against the Stream.
In February of 2018, there was a totally unrelated incident. Noah informed his ATS colleagues that he had fallen short with regard to the third precept of Buddhism, by having a one-time, consensual sexual experience with a married woman who, according to her subsequent statement, was not a dharma student or a member of Refuge Recovery.
Around the same time in February of 2018, Noah became aware that the woman he had been dating the previous October had filed a police report. He learned for the first time that her previous questions about consent had been turned into an accusation of sexual assault that she had reported to the Los Angeles Police Department. In particular, she claimed that one of the aspects of her multiple consensual sexual encounters with him was without specific consent. Noah has always made it clear that he never engaged in any sexual assault. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with the LAPD, conducted their own investigation of the matter. They concluded there was no basis for bringing charges against Noah.
ATS and Noah agreed upon a course of action that addressed both Noah’s admitted single breach of the Buddhist precept barring sex with a married woman and Noah’s self-reported concerns of the other woman in relation to specific consent. ATS and Noah agreed that the response should include a period of celibacy, therapy, and greater accountability in relation to his colleagues. Noah participated fully in this this process.
In March 2018, four months after Noah had notified his colleagues about the police report, a letter was sent from a Zen teacher to Refuge Recovery, Against the Stream, Spirit Rock, and to other non-profits Noah was associated with or had founded, telling these communities about the single accusation and requesting action.
After receipt of the letter, and even though the ATS leadership had been aware of the issues for four months and already had agreed to a process to address them, the ATS Teachers Council suddenly forced Noah to take a leave of absence from teaching, and from his position as President of the ATS Board of Directors, while they allegedly investigated the situation.
Noah issued a public statement addressing the situation, acknowledging that although he may have been unskillful in some ways, the accusation of non-consent was completely false.
In the process of the ATS investigation, which lasted for five months, there were several additional complaints solicited by ATS against Noah. Although there were no further accusations of assault, there were several complaints and judgments about his attitude and general behavior. For example, two women reported that they felt uncomfortable about their consensual sexual experience with him. However, both women reported that Noah honored all communicated boundaries.
The very public nature of this investigation, and the unusual length of time it took to complete, damaged Noah’s reputation. The resultant gossip and slander caused harm to the sanghas of Against the Stream and Refuge Recovery.
No women ever came forward publicly with any claims against Noah. No alleged investigation, whether by Spirit Rock or ATS or any other organization or person, has resulted in any conclusion that Noah ever has engaged in any sexual assault or sexual harassment. Instead, ATS and Spirit Rock concluded that it is more likely than not that Noah had caused some harm through his sexual conduct. This vague and undefined charge of likely having caused some harm is not something Noah could dispute. Harm is a vague term that could mean anything from offending to attacking. Buddhism asks us to look at the intention of our actions. This is what creates karma. Noah admitted to, and repeatedly apologized for, unintentionally causing harm, while maintaining that his conscious intentions and volitional actions were not unwholesome.
The former Refuge Recovery Board of Directors voted initially to refrain from taking action without any evidence of wrongdoing. However, the Executive Committee of the former board changed its mind and took action to convince Noah to take a leave of absence, without a board vote in favor of this, creating further perception of Noah’s guilt among some members of Refuge Recovery. The Chairman and Executive Director at the time both stated that they did not believe the accusations against Noah, but that it did not matter whether he was innocent or guilty, because in any case, the “optics” were bad.
The Executive Committee of the former RR Board waged a campaign against Noah, including removal of board members who disagreed with the committee’s actions, using RR official social media to spread false information about Noah (including a post on the RR Facebook page by the then-Chairman of RR, linking to a scandalous article from a notorious tabloid site), and censoring RR’s social media to delete and prohibit any comments or posts favorable to Noah. All of this had the plainly apparent goal of forcing Noah out of RR and pressuring him to turn over the legal rights to the Refuge Recovery book, name and logo to a board of directors not committed to the original vision and principles of Refuge Recovery.
In January 2019, this campaign culminated in a lawsuit brought against the Refuge Recovery founder by the then-current board, after the board refused to engage in mediation that Noah had proposed to take place the following month. As part of their decision to choose litigation, the former board incurred legal fees of at least $80,000. They used donations from the RR membership, who never were consulted about the lawsuit, and who had no idea that their donations to the sangha would be used to sue the founder of RR and the author of the RR book. The statements and accusations made against Noah by the former board were proven false in the litigation.
In February of 2019, one of Noah’s long-time teachers, Jack Kornfield, from the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, made a statement to the effect that he believed Noah had caused harm. Kornfield posted a statement that he was revoking Noah’s authorization to teach. Noah reported that in a conversation, Kornfield admitted that he had no specific information about alleged harm caused, and that his action was in part a political move to protect the Spirit Rock establishment and donor base. Kornfield also told Noah that it was partially motivated by resentment toward Noah and his long-standing critique of Spirit Rock teachers for their failure to adhere to the Buddhist precepts involving drugs and alcohol and sexuality with students. In any case, Noah never relied upon any teaching authorization from Kornfield, who himself was never authorized to teach. Jack Kornfield was only one of Noah’s teachers who had encouraged and supported him in teaching. Encouragement to teach had also come from his father Stephen Levine, Noah’s teachers in the Thai Forest tradition (who continue to encourage him to teach), and from his students (who continue to seek out his teaching).
By April of 2019, the former Refuge Recovery board was faced with substantial and valid counterclaims filed by Noah’s pro bono legal team, together with overwhelming evidence disproving the allegations in the board’s lawsuit. The evidence against the former board included 13 sworn statements submitted to the Los Angeles Federal District Court by three of the four original RR board members, a facilitator of two of the first three RR meetings, the Incorporator of RR, as well as members of the RR community from around the country.
To read the counterclaims and sworn statements filed by Noah’s lawyers:
The former RR board then dropped their lawsuit, gave up all of their claims, and headed for the exits. They disbanded the original non-profit that Noah had created, unlawfully absconded with financial and other assets belonging to Refuge Recovery, and used those assets to start a new organization. Noah had the option of re-opening the litigation to seek a court order against their theft of assets. He chose to move on instead, and to focus his efforts on helping Refuge Recovery.
Working together throughout this difficult experience has allowed each of us to witness Noah demonstrate strength of character in the face of unsubstantiated and undeserved attacks, while showing a steadfast refusal to allow gossip, lies, and pressure tactics to destroy Refuge Recovery.
It has been two years since what have turned out to be unsubstantiated accusations were made against Noah Levine. It has been over a year since Spirit Rock Meditation Center chose to place fear of public opinion over fair treatment. It has been ten months since overwhelming evidence against the former RR board’s lawsuit forced that board to abandon their campaign against the founder. As the Refuge Recovery World Services Board, we believe that, in standing with the RR founder, we chose the ethical path forward. In spite of pressures to punish anyone accused, without necessary evidence or process, this was simply the right thing to do.
As the new RR service board, we are taking action to prevent similar situations from arising again:
- RRWS by-laws and board policies are being written in order to take any allegation of misconduct seriously, while doing so in a manner that provides fairness to all concerned.
- Since August, our main social media pages and groups have been moderated according to the Refuge Recovery Guiding Principles.
- In May, the board issued clear social media guidelines for all RR groups.
- This month has seen the release of strengthened Guiding Principles. Included in the revised version are principles intended to help keep our groups free from controversy.
- As the service board we are dedicated to creating conditions that allow our groups to focus solely on helping each other recover.
We are honored to have Noah Levine as a part of our team and as a spokesperson for Refuge Recovery. We believe the goodwill extended to our fellowship by Noah, including his willingness to speak, to write, and to teach as the author of Refuge Recovery is invaluable. Noah’s ability to speak about his experience, and the benefits of the Refuge Recovery program, were the source of much of the enthusiasm for our initial four years of growth. As the truth surrounding the events of the last two years becomes more evident, we see this enthusiasm being re-kindled.
If you have been a part of Refuge Recovery, it is our hope that this full explanation of the events of the last two years is clarifying and offers reassurance. We are grateful for your understanding of our need to sort out a complex set of circumstances and your patience with the time it has taken to provide this more complete picture. If you are new to Refuge Recovery, please do not allow the fact that conflict occurred in the past to deter you from being involved and finding your recovery in our sangha. All successful recovery groups have gone through similar episodes in their early years. Those that responded with mature and principled policies and traditions are the programs we all know the names of today. Every member of Refuge Recovery can know that as a recovery program, we have not only survived a difficult episode, but that we have emerged stronger on the other side.
Refuge Recovery World Services Board of Directors