Punk Rock Tibetan Buddhism

Anita Marto

Thirty years ago, a teenage punk rocker was bleeding profusely from a deeply-cut chest wound. A faux fight had gone wrong outside of the infamous New York City nightclub CBGB’s, he really was hurt, and so passed another crazy night in the life of a budding star of the punk scene. These days he’s more into hardcore meditation than hardcore music. And besides all of that, David Scharff, now 47 and a Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, sure doesn’t look his age.

The study and practice of a spiritual discipline appears to have an anti-aging effect. That ageless quality seems to gently radiate from spiritually accomplished and evolved people like Eckhart Tolle and the Dalai Lama. Scharff, limber and unlined with an easy smile, of medium build and height, sparkly blue-gray eyes, and slightly thinning brown hair looked more comfortable than cosmic, and not the least bit punk as he sported a Doors t-shirt, baggy jeans and a sacred Tibetan bead necklace called a mala, used to count prayers and mantras.

His calm, soft-spoken composed manner emanated serenity. Another one of his students, Melanie Randolph, said it best. About their first meeting she said, “I thought he was great. I just loved his energy and his calm peacefulness and he had this smiling kinda buddhaesque way about him.”

Scarff grew up in the New York City suburb of Larchmont where he confessed that he was a “little bit of a king in my own mind.” His mother remembers, “Whenever people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he’d say King.” To this day he claims over-confidence as his worst character flaw.

From the get-go David was fearless and craved adventure and the otherworldly. “I think I always had kind of a magical view of things and I was looking for an explanation of the unexplained. So when I was a kid it was aliens, ghosts or whatever. It was all sorts of outside of the normal sphere information and research. I was reading the ‘Tibetan Book of the Dead’ when I was eleven.”

His off-the-beaten-track trek landed him at the tender age of 15 in punk rock clubs like CBGB’s, fronting a very successful band called the Student Teachers and opening up for such famous acts as Blondie, the Ramones and Iggy Pop.

The parallel between punk rock and spirituality was that both paths were full of people who were on the quest to discover the “other;” people who wanted to experience what’s out there almost to their own detriment. “I was a seeker looking for adventure, “explains Scarff, I was looking for excitement and a creative outlet.” While his older cohorts were investigating the “other” through such “ego-driven, power-based occult teachings as the Freemasons, the Rosicrusions and the Order of the Golden Dawn,” Scharff became interested in transcendental meditation by a practitioner who came to his school. “He was completely relaxed and very entertaining to me. He was wearing like a suit and wasn’t even a hippie. But he was unpredictably relaxed. You could tell he was improvising and I was impressed with that. He was able to really just be there.” In TM they teach you to meditate with a personal mantra. Scharff’s mantra was Ima, which is coincidentally the Hebrew word for mother. He is Jewish by birth.

Scharff worked in the music industry and meditated periodically for the next ten years, but really didn’t get serious about spirituality until he was 26. It was the time of the new-agey harmonic convergence, which supposedly was a moment in the Mayan calendar when “we could impress our intention into the fabric of the universe more fully and deeply for a period of two days,” explained Scharff. People gathered at sacred spots all over the world, from the pyramids to Central Park. David Scharff and his friends spent the two days in Central Park working with crystals, chanting and burning incense. Later he described the harmonic convergence as the main marketing event of the new age and as “spiritual performance art.” “Yet, it pointed people toward the power of their aspirations and,” he explains “what a beautiful thing to do. I didn’t think it was what it was advertised to be, this claymation moment of you being able to imprint your intention on the universe. I think every moment is that claymation moment and we are always creating our universe. We don’t need a harmonic convergence to do that. It’s happening all the time.”

Things really got moving when Scharff met his first spiritual teacher, a Native American woman named Ohshinnah. The story of how they met is quite astounding. Someone gave Scharff an article about programming crystals. He had no idea what this meant and imagined people with personal computers! The article talked about breathing one’s intention into the crystal until it vibrates with that intention. He decided to take a whole bag of crystals that he had collected to his parent’s backyard. He lined them all up facing the full crystal moon (the first moon of the astrological calendar) and programmed them toward the same objective; finding a spiritual teacher.

The next morning he suddenly woke up in agony and had to have emergency root canal surgery in New York City. On the train he noticed a woman in her late 50s wearing crystals with braids in her hair, adorned with turquoise and looking very “southwest” and a little unusual. He sat across from her and spied. She was reading a magazine that he happened to enjoy and decided he would talk to her if she seemed to like it. He called it “my little fifth grade girl test of the universe”. She seemed to hate the magazine until she got to the last page, which had a painting on it. She sighed pleasantly and smiled.

Scharff commented, “Nice painting, isn’t it?” They admired each other’s crystals and she told him she was Apache and from a long lineage of masters of that mystical tradition. He explained how he programmed his crystals and she asked, “Where did you learn that?” He pulled out the article he had used for that purpose and to his amazement it was an interview with Ohshinnah, the woman he was talking to. He knew right then that he had found his teacher and began taking her classes. He claimed, “She gave birth to my spiritual awakening.” Later in their student-teacher relationship she introduced him to the teachings of Padma Sambhava, the man who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Scharff ravenously read his books and felt that he had found his true spiritual home in Tibetan Buddhism.

In 1991, Scharff saw the Dalai Lama in New York and began his practice. A few years later he immersed himself in Buddhism by doing a two year retreat at a center called Chagdud Gonpa. He found his next spiritual mentor there, a man Lama Drimed Norbu, a westerner appointed by the Tibetan master H.E. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche.

When Scharff got back into the “real world” he learned how to integrate the Buddhist practice with life, working as a public relations person in the big city. It wasn’t easy. He said, “Even if you meditate every day and your mind’s pliant and you know how to work with it, and it’s flexible and it’s growing and it’s healthy and it isn’t protected or jarred or traumatized and is open. If your mind is in that state what comes up you’ll get through it more smoothly than you would’ve if it was contracted. But it doesn’t mean that getting through it isn’t still a challenge. Every human life is a challenge.”

What does he have to say about this crazy world? “The craziness is really what it is, craziness, illusion, people reacting to a dream and lashing out and punching into the air when there’s nothing there. That’s what we’re being fed through our society, television, publications and whatever’s on the web. But that isn’t reality, that’s something we create. The reality is what it’s like to “be” in each moment, your true self. To just be present.”

He cites the word “presence” as a key statement in his philosophy. “Presence is the crest of the wave of awareness, the moment rolling through the present. You can wander away from it by getting trapped in your memories, getting caught up in plans or opinions, thoughts and judgments. What you need to do is to let go of labeling, your internal reaction to what you see externally and not grasp at that phenomenon. All that is left is presence, which you can integrate with every moment in your day.” Scharff wants to point people in that direction. He wants to be the doorman who says “come into this party. It’s something you’d like. And of course I’m gonna go inside when it gets good too and enjoy that party.”

David Scharff’s Tibetan Buddhist meditation class meets on Tuesdays at Golden Bridge Yoga in Hollywood at 7:30 p.m.