.NUZ: A Buddhist Guru’s Long Fall

Close your eyes and imagine a Buddhist. Do you picture a robed figure sitting on a mountaintop surrounded by clouds? Or maybe someone giving away their Earthly possessions with the goal of detaching from the material world and finding deeper meaning within?

Maybe, maybe not. What you probably don’t picture is a washed-up narcissist fighting tooth and nail over allegedly ill-gotten profits and his own reputation—or what’s left of it anyway, now that he’s been ostracized by the community for being a power-grabbing sleazebag.

But we digress…

On Jan. 28, Santa-Cruz-son-turned-L.A.-Buddhist-guru Noah Levine filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against the nonprofit Refuge Recovery, a Buddhist-based addiction treatment program he helped found. That same day, Refuge Recovery filed its own suit against Levine over trademark ownership, copyright issues and unfair business practices.  

The nonprofit claims that many of the issues stem from Levine’s use of the nonprofit’s name and imagery for personal gain through a web of similarly named ventures, like the now-defunct company Refuge Recovery Treatment Centers. Refuge Recovery, the original nonprofit, argues that the knockoffs could have confused people seeking addiction treatment from one of the group’s international meetings, of which there are 660 in the U.S. alone.

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The suit also alleges that Levine diverted $130,000 donated to the nonprofit to be used for treatment and rehab for people who could not afford it at another of his side hustles, the Refuge Recovery House. Levine used the money instead for businesses expenses, the nonprofit’s suit claims, including employee salaries.

“The more we dug, the more we saw these legal and ethical problems,” says Refuge Recovery Board Chair Christopher Kavanaugh. “It’s unfortunate. You have no idea how much energy was spent trying to avoid it coming to this.”

Kavanaugh says that it’s “just an odd coincidence” that the two parties ultimately filed lawsuits on the same day (although the timing wasn’t totally unexpected, given that eight days earlier, Kavanaugh notified Levine that Refuge Recovery’s suit would be imminent).

Levine did not respond to GT’s request for comment on the competing lawsuits.

The dispute comes on the heels of another battle Levine fought last year, when he faced allegations of sexual misconduct. A Los Angeles Police Department investigation did not find enough evidence to bring charges against Levine, but the allegations still sent shockwaves through Against The Stream (ATS), yet another nonprofit that the the Buddhist teacher founded. After an investigation, ATS determined that Levine had likely broken the group’s rules. The board dissolved and ATS closed its meditation centers on Sept. 30, 2018.

Refuge Recovery wants to be clear that the new lawsuit, however, “has nothing to do with the allegations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Levine,” according to a Jan. 28 statement on its website.

Regardless, the organization has been mindful of the whole mess for some time. In 2009, according to the Refuge Recovery lawsuit, ATS members began discussing how Buddhism could help with addiction—and began kicking around the name “Refuge Recovery.” Alcoholics Anonymous-style meetings were soon held under the name, followed by discussions of a collaborative book featuring personal stories from several founders. In 2011, the group created refugerecovery.org and filed a fictitious business name statement the following year.

Refuge Recovery, the book, was published in 2014—with Levine as its sole author, though he acknowledged the group’s collaborative nature—and became widely successful.

Things got more muddled when Levine opened Refuge Recovery House that same year, then created Refuge Recovery Clinical Services LLC in 2015. Both companies advertised under the Refuge Recovery name and logo. Over the next two years, Refuge Recovery House obtained the trademark for the Refuge Recovery name and logo to sell various merchandise, from bumper stickers to baseball caps.

Many directors of the Refuge Recovery nonprofit tried to get Levine to give up the trademark or the copyright, Kavanaugh says, but those talks broke down, which led to the lawsuits. In a Jan. 28 Facebook statement, Levine wrote that he gives licensing permission to the nonprofit to “use the Refuge Recovery name and logo for the purposes of your local meetings, local websites, and local social media accounts, consistent with the vision and program articulated in the Refuge Recovery book.”

After a long and confusing road, Kavanaugh says it’s little surprise the conflict has moved to the court system.

“If you work for the Red Cross, and then open up your own business using similar things and imagery as the Red Cross,” he analogizes, “it won’t be surprising if you have some conflicts with the Red Cross.”


  1. Thank you Noah for the good you have done. I was one of those freebies at the refuge recovery house. Noah’s generosity helped me become a better person.

  2. You may know a tree by the fruit it bears. My problems with Levine’s approach are many, starting with his insipid, purile nickname of “Sid” for Siddartha Gautama. He is notable for his attempt to turn the dharma into a business, although I confess it is the most American of interpretations. Buy the book! Go to the treatment center! Get the t-shirt! License the logo! Beware the guru who is concerned with his image.

  3. You may know a tree by the fruit it bears. My problems with Levine’s approach are many, starting with his insipid, puerike nickname of “Sid” for Siddartha Gautama. He is notable for his attempt to turn the dharma into a business, although I confess it is the most American of interpretations. Buy the book! Go to the treatment center! Get the t-shirt! License the logo! Beware the guru who is concerned with his image.

  4. Now isn’t this a biased over opinionated article! All I read was the first paragraph & I could tell how the article would read. Let’s see if I got it right, brand Noah an asshole from the beginning. Then throw in some of the biased shitty journalism from Jezebel magazine & crucify him. Lame. Noah has helped many people throw his teachings. The book Refuge Recovery has brought many addicts to meetings & recovery centers, me included. Got 3 1/2 years clean because of Refuge Recovery. Trust the teachings but not the teacher – The LAPD investigation came up with no criminal charges. I find it hypocritical that the one community who practices forgiveness can’t seem to forgive a person for being human.

    • The last sentence of the above comment (almost) says it all.
      It might bothers me even more that a person’s work would cease to have value, that their ‘reputation’ would go down the drain, in recovery circles of all places.
      If there’s one thing people in the vulnerable situation of early recovery (from any addiction) need to truly accept before they can make progress, it’s that we are not our mistakes. We are not our prior bad acts. We are all human and all fallible. We all cause pain and so we all feel pain. A new moment is always being born, and we can live and act with compassion and integrity within it. If you are in recovery, especially if you are new to it or just contemplating it, if you instead believe that your prior acts determine the value you can have going forward, you’ll never move on. Why should you?
      As an addict myself, if I thought my actions at the weakest or most disoriented and mistaken parts of my life determined whether or not my deeds are, or can be, of value going forward, I would never stop using drugs.
      If I believe I’ve already made myself a ‘sleazebag’ (or insert some other reductive insult here) for life, after all, then I may as well wallow in it.
      While I don’t know specifically what happened in the case of Noah Levine, in regards to the sexual allegations or the business’s allegations, and I don’t want to minimize anyone else’s actual suffering from their place in either situation, I think I feel a touch of hysteria these days when certain flavors of allegations come up-proven or not, repeated or not, extreme or less so. I know that is not a allowable opinion in many circles. But oh well.
      If it’s to the point that so much of the good (any type of good) an individual might have done with the rest of their lives gets lost to us all because of bad behavior in one situation or during one piece of time, then that price is too high.
      We are not our prior acts, good or bad. If a person does one magnificent, amazingly brilliant thing that changes many lives and maybe even the world for the better, then does said person become THAT act from then on? Does it mean they can be selfish destructive and malignant the rest of their days because their value is determined by their prior GOOD act?

      Buddhism, and how it relates to the issues around addiction and recovery, saved my mind if not my life. If not for Noah Levine and his writing, starting back when he published his first book, I quite likely would not have come to those ideas on my own, certainly not as early in my life as I did. I know I’m not alone in that. And that value is huge.
      That value, those good acts, do not excuse Noah to carelessly callously do whatever he will with impunity from then on.
      And so his harmful acts do not take the value out of any future acts of he might do for the benefit of the many.
      I, for one, reject that understanding of things.

  5. Read the Refuge recovery book, or “Against the Stream” and you will see this guy is not the “sleaze bag” this superficial name-calling writer dubbed him. Noah is a true buddhist yet also a fallible humanlike the rest of us. Getting clean with the help of his father Stephen Levine over the phone, by learning to meditate in jail while going through hellish withdrawal, is a piognant story, that inspired me to try ( a lot) harder and use the specific spiritual tools elegantly set out in his book . It helped me see we are all in this together and trying to live life by the principles make those around you happier, and yourself stronger and more at peace. ….. cultivating. kind, compassionate, grateful, humble human traits we all could do and benefit from. And using reflection and meditation as powerful tools.
    Oh yes he’s a buddhist , tattoos and all. He trained for years with some of the most prolific,famous, and awe inspiring teachers. Thats what makes us relate to his reiteration of the teachings ( put forth by the buddha) . The author of this smear article did not bother to dig deeper. Non AA/anglo christian god and sin/hell based dogma in AA style recovery has a 3% success rate, and we desperately needed Noah’s work as an alternative, or adjunct for recovery, His book alone has saved countless lives, Remember: Noah was found innocent of the (jilted girlfriends”?) accusations, and humbly and publicly apologized for any emotional harm he may have caused her to feel. He did it in a very “buddhist” . Yet these accusations unfortunately will stick with him for ever now.

  6. This seems to be an unfortunate hit piece on Noah Levine, which leaves out a lot of the people who have been helped by Noah Levines books and centers. I have read a few of his books and wanted to attend his meditation groups but was not near them. I’ve been a meditator since the 80s and know some of his teachers. None of them are considered “”gurus”, but good teachers. Apparently, the person who wrote the article really doesn’t know Noah, nor does he interview him, so taking it with a big grain of salt. I’m sad this is happening and feel badly for anyone involved in this situation.


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