Every Tuesday and Thursday night, a growing group of New Yorkers gather on the formerly down-and-out Bowery, seeking to develop a spiritual practice with a punk-rock edge. These “Dharma Punx” meetings are based on Buddhism, but geared towards an edgy crowd that includes hippies, punks, hipsters and anyone seeking a spiritual solution to whatever ails them—which often is some form of addiction.
Dharma Punx NYC—where practitioners sit cross-legged on cushions and experience a 20-minute guided meditation, followed by a talk on Buddhist teachings and how to apply them to daily problems—is run by Josh Korda, a bald, soft-spoken Buddhist teacher with head-to-toe tattoos and 17 years of sobriety. If Buddha had been an addict and punk rocker, he might have looked a lot like Korda—whose talks can be found at dharmapunxnyc.podbean.com.
Raised by Buddhist parents, Korda has been meditating for over two decades. After getting clean in 1996, he began studying Theravada Buddhism, and he’s maintained his sobriety ever since, relying on a combo of Buddhist practice and AA to stay as clean, sane and serene as possible—all without becoming a “super-virtuous goody-two-shoes.” Funny to boot, Korda has plenty to tell The Fix about sobriety, heavy metal, banjos and “talking shit”—and how Buddhism and AA might just be like peanut butter and jelly when it comes to finding a balance in recovery.
May Wilkerson: What was your drinking like, and how did you finally get sober?
Josh Korda: I started using alcohol when I was 13 and I drank for 19 or 20 years. I started because I felt really uncomfortable around people and in my own mind. I had obsessive, worrying and self-centered thoughts—so using was always a form of self-medication. After my first hospitalization at 19, I had a number of hospital visits throughout the course of my drinking. I also had addictions to virtually everything else. Whatever you can imagine, I either used it addictively or did a lot of it. I think I had my last hospital visit when I was 34 and then I went to a long-term outpatient rehab. I’ve been sober now for about 17 years.
“The vast majority of people who come to Buddhist centers, it’s similar to why people wash up on the shores of AA: It is because they have hit bottom.”
Did you go to AA right from the beginning?
For the first five years I went to meetings every day, and I held as many service commitments as you could possibly hold. Then, when I had five years, I went through a severe clinical depression, and realized that while AA was capable of keeping me sober, it was not providing me with enough tools to stay happy. At that point I decided to really deepen my Buddhist practice. Eventually, in a sense, Buddhism became my higher power or my core program—and AA is now secondary.
What about AA compelled you towards Buddhism?
AA is really, really strong in a lot of different ways. For 60-plus years it was the only organization that treated alcoholics and addicts without the presence of a doctor. You were basically being treated by a community of your peers. That’s a very powerful environment where you can share honestly with others who will not be judgmental, because they are addicts like you. The problem is that AA certainly has a very strong “God” theme throughout the literature. Even more so, there’s a resistance to allowing people to talk about other addictions. And dealing with that stuff is a very, very important part of finding happiness. If you think of sobriety as finding happiness free of addictions in general—not just alcohol, but also shopping, gambling, sex addictions, love addictions, addictions to checking in with our iPhones every three minutes—in that way, Buddhist practice is taking the ball from AA and running with it.
How did Dharma Punx begin?
It was first started by Noah Levine, who grew up, like I did, in a family where there was a Buddhist practice—but he didn’t feel as a young punk very welcome in a Buddhist group made up of largely middle-class, middle-aged people. In his youth, he was a bit of a hooligan and an addict/alcoholic. So he started a community to reach out specifically to the very people that didn’t feel comfortable in those Buddhist centers—young, tattooed, often drug addicts, recovering people.
How do people usually end up in a group like Dharma Punx?
With the exception of a few students who are just interested in it philosophically, the vast majority of people who come to Buddhist centers, it’s similar to why people wash up on the shores of AA: It is because they have really hit bottom. The difference is, people in AA have hit bottom with drinking or drugs, and with Buddhism it’s because they’ve hit bottom with excessive thinking of some sort, or fear, or some form of behavior. The problem may include drinking or drugs, but often they just feel their mind is a really uncomfortable place to be. They suffer from what the Buddha calls papanca—thinking too much, proliferation of thought, worry, fear, anxiety. So the arc of recovery is, “How do I get to a place where I can be in my own mind, my own body—which carries so much stress—comfortably?”