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 Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Sat May 05, 2012 10:24 pm

This whole situation sounds quite bizarre, the cautionary tale of isolation and religious mania. I have no first hand knowledge of this group or Roach, but i thought it was worth posting. If you want to read the links to the other letters or articles, go directly to the elephant journal site.

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/05/psychosis-stabbing-secrecy-and-death-at-a-neo-buddhist-university-in-arizona/


Via yoga 2.0 lab - on May 4, 2012

Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona

by Matthew Remski

Special thanks to Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad, and Michael Stone - for their help in the preparation of this article .

Ian Thorson, 1974-2012

Abstract for Media Outlets

Ian Thorson, 38, died on the morning of 4/22/12 of apparent dehydration in a cave in southeastern Arizona, after having been banished by the administration of nearby Diamond Mountain University, which is under the leadership of “Geshe” Michael Roach. Thorson’s wife, “Lama” Christie McNally, was rescued from the death scene by helicopter. Thorson had for years exhibited signs of mental illness and violence towards others, including McNally, who had recently stabbed him, presumably in self-defense. The failure to report the couple’s violence to local authorities, along with the subsequent banishment of the couple from Diamond Mountain property without adequate psychiatric, medical, and community care, all raise stark questions about the competency of this secretive and autocratic organization, and call into doubt whether its Board is qualified to protect the safety of the remaining residents of Diamond Mountain.

The Story and My Intention


A tragedy has occurred, and is continuing to unfold, amidst the mountains of southeastern Arizona. Thirty-eight year-old Ian Thorson died on Sunday, April 22nd, in a mountain cave at 6000 feet of elevation. The Cochise County Sheriff’s spokesperson has ruled out foul play so far, but the investigation is ongoing. The coroner’s report has yet to be released. The immediate cause of Thorson’s death is most likely exposure and dehydration. But I believe that a full investigation will show that the deeper causes involve cultish religious fanaticism, untreated psychosis, and the gross negligence, incompetence, and obstructionism of the Board of Directors of a neo-Buddhist retreat center called Diamond Mountain University, headed by its founder and spiritual director, Michael Roach. This full legal and medical investigation is warranted immediately, because there are still 35 people camped out on Diamond Mountain property who may well be in as much physical and mental danger as Thorson was.

Thorson was found dead in a 6-by-8 foot cave on federal reserve land, attended by his dehydrated wife, Christie McNally, 39, a former lover of Roach, known to the Diamond Mountain Community, and globally, as “Lama Christie”. She is recovering from her loss and exposure symptoms in an undisclosed location.

My intention in breaking this terrible story to the meditation and yoga community, and the public at large, is fourfold, and without malice. Firstly, I wish to encourage an immediate investigation into the physical and mental safety of the remaining Diamond Mountain residents. Secondly, I wish to amplify our ongoing discussion of what constitutes grounded, empathetic, and useful spirituality – as opposed to narcissistic and dissociative delusions of grandeur that may be harmful not only to practitioners, but to the larger culture. Thirdly, I want to put pressure (and encourage others to put pressure) on the Board of Directors of Diamond Mountain University to curb the obvious whitewashing of events that has already begun (characterized by Roach’s recent open letter).

The events at Diamond Mountain evoke core questions of responsible leadership, democratic accountability and therapeutic qualifications that the directors should answer to, not only for the sake of their own students, but for the wider Buddhist community, and for spiritual seekers in general, many of whom come to ashrams and retreat centres with deep psychological wounds that are tragically salted by robes and prayers and authoritarian power structures. Lastly, I’m writing in the hope of softening the grip that I believe Roach has upon his followers, many of whom, including Thorson, were friends and acquaintances of mine, long ago, when I myself (full disclosure) was also in Roach’s considerable thrall. I acknowledge that many people around the world feel that their lives have been enriched by Roach’s enthusiastic idealism, and I do not with to demean this. But my long-view concern is that the power structure that Roach has consciously or unconsciously fostered around his charisma depresses independent thought and growth, and is now protecting itself by flinging Thorson’s corpse, and the personhood of Christie McNally, into the outer dark of spiritual rationalization.

I have gathered as much information as I’ve been able to in the push to publish this story in time to mediate the danger to the remaining retreatants. Unfortunately, my attempts over the last few days to engage with my old community acquaintances about the events have been dead-ends, because, I believe, of the secrecy endemic to cults. Nonetheless, I do have a considered view on the documents that everyone can plainly access, and I hope my thoughts on these will encourage more skilled inquiry – both journalistic and legal – to follow. I will be careful to qualify my perceptions with the words “seem” and “presumably”, and my opinions with the phrase “I believe”.

My analysis of these events is in some areas speculative. I am quite sure that I will unintentionally render certain details incorrectly, and I hope that knowledgeable respondents to this post help me with factual errors, which I will correct in the text itself, in real time, as evidence is presented. I intend for this to be an open document, evolving towards greater clarity through the input of many. I will not let factual errors linger online, and will notify readers through social media of the edits I make.

There are two accounts of the events leading up to Thorson’s death. Neither come from disinterested parties, and the details of each have not be independently confirmed. One account is written by Roach himself, in this open letter that was “reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the University.” The other account is incomplete, published on April 19th by Christie McNally, three days before Thorson’s death. McNally’s letter is profoundly disturbing in many ways, showing what I believe to be the depth of her spirituality-induced delusions of grandeur, magical thinking, denial, and Stockholm Syndrome symptoms. The idea that this person in this state was teaching Buddhism or leading anyone through anything as extreme as a medieval-style three-year meditation retreat is absurd to me.

I’ll reconstruct the general history according to the available accounts, but also by drawing on my personal knowledge of this cult, and my understanding of cult dynamics in general. This will involve my reading of incompetence, negligence, and buck-passing in Roach’s letter. I’ll end with a call for full disclosure from the Directors of Diamond Mountain University, and an appeal to the more grounded leaders of Western Buddhist culture to intervene on behalf of this community with the grace of good mentor-ship. Though I am admittedly antagonistic to extremist religious belief and behaviour, this article is not an anti-religious crusade. I repeat: there are about 35 people at this moment camping in the Arizona desert under the influence of a woman who appears to have gone insane, and their guardians – the administration of Diamond Mountain – have shown themselves to be, I believe, unequal to the task of protecting and nurturing them.

Roach and McNally - Background to the Tragedy

McNally has been a student of Roach since 1996. Roach himself had been a student of the late Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin, of Howell, New Jersey, since the mid 70s. In the mid-80s he took monk’s robes, and attained the Tibetan monastic degree of “Geshe”. By the time I became Roach’s student in 1998, McNally was at his side continually, ostensibly as a personal assistant to his extensive teaching appearances, and also as a co-worker in the translation of ritual Tibetan texts for Roach’s growing population of American and European students. Roach’s closeness to McNally raised eyebrows in more conservative wings of the westernizing Tibetan Buddhist community, and there were rumours that they were lovers, something that Roach’s monastic vows would have forbidden. It was utterly obvious to me that they were lovers, and this was confirmed in 1999 on a trip to India during which many community members expressed dismay at seeing McNally slink out of Roach’s cell before dawn every day. Because by nature I care little for tradition or propriety, the sexuality of their relationship didn’t bother me personally, until I became aware of the acute power imbalances that it projected into the social sphere of the group, and later, how the closeness seemed to contribute to the distortion McNally’s self-image and mental health. I also believed that their boundary-less merging stripped her of interpersonal presence, giving her the same vacant gaze with which Roach seemed to mesmerize his acolytes. It seemed that she took on the social dysfunction of all charismatics: brilliant in a group, but insufferable in person. Soon she began to parrot his speech: a strange mixture of English nouns and choppy Tibetan syntax. “Tiblish”, I used to call it. An essential skill, I believe, in her later rapid ascent as Diamond Mountain teaching star. I believe she quite literally lost her own voice as she became host to his.

It’s hard to remember Christy as-she-was. I suppose it’s because I never saw her except in Roach’s shadow, walking a few steps behind him always, carrying his shoulderbag with his 30-lb late 90′s laptop bumping on her tiny hip, fetching food for him at every communal meal, waiting outside the men’s room while he took a leak. She was my age, an English major like myself, someone I should have been able to talk to. But for Christy to even say hello to anyone besides Roach seemed to involve an intense effort to demagnetize herself from his gaze. I wondered if she was lonely with this strange man, twenty years her senior. I remember wishing a private life for her, of libraries and dance classes, graduate school and study carrels. A life not overdetermined by the dreams of a giant. Alone, but with autonomy, integrity. Perhaps this is a solitude she can can finally experience now, shorn of merging, shorn of fantasy, shorn of romantic violence. This would be my hope for Christy, once she recovers from this terrible amputation: a bright solitude. A room of her own.

In 2000, Roach, McNally, and five of his other female students entered a closed 3-year retreat on desert land close to the 960 acres of what has become Diamond Mountain University. While marketing the retreat during its fundraising period as “traditional”, “authentic”, and “ancient”, Roach neglected to disclose to his thousands of sponsors that he would be cohabiting with McNally in a shared desert yurt, a fact that became apparent to many during the several open teaching periods of the retreat, during which hundreds of students traveled to the desert to hear Roach teach blindfolded. Many were confused, some disappointed, and a few were outraged. The broader western Tibetan Buddhist community began shunning both Roach and his community, not only for his unconventional behaviour and lack of transparency, but also increasingly for his shoddy scholarship and new-age-thin interpretations of Middle-Way philosophy – the bedrock of Gelukpa metaphysics. It was primarily this latter weakness that prompted me to leave his instruction at that time, although I also had grave misgivings about how he seemed to manipulate his students, including myself, with make-work projects and student rivalries designed to stratify his power through grievances he would both provoke and resolve.

Roach and McNally emerged from retreat in 2003 as openly committed spiritual partners who engaged in “celibate intimacy”, a claim that mystified their married students, and outraged the pious. By virtue of her retreat completion, but also, I believe, to professionalize their relationship, Roach elevated McNally to teacherly status with the title of “Lama”. Luminaries in the Buddhist world as prominent as Robert Thurman implored Roach to renounce his monk’s vows if he wanted to continue in open relationship. Roach refused by publicly claiming saintly status through his constant verbal allusions to private revelatory experience, and by claiming he was beyond supervision, as he does in this 2003 interview. The relationship exposed their multiple challenges to Tibetan orthodoxy to full and tawdry view, and concretized the boundaries of their growing cult by forcing their devotees to separate themselves from the broader Western Buddhist culture, which now firmly rejected and criticized Roach’s titles and authority. His rebellion even alienated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who publicly censured him in 2006.

I hope that Diamond Mountain residents and Roach’s students around the world fully understand what this rupture means. It matters little that he had doctrinal differences with Tibetan hierarchy: Tibetan Buddhism has been invigorated by doctrinal debate for centuries. What matters is that Roach effectively extracted himself from the cultural oversight of the larger tradition. Over the years he has made many justifications for establishing himself beyond the pale: he’s a realized being, the old schools don’t understand the contemporary zeitgeist, etc., etc. But whatever the justification is, he has found a niche for himself with no supervision. And there is no human organizational structure in existence that remains functional and resists authoritarianism without its highest members being subject to the oversight of peers.

Not every rupture in Roach’s world is political or theological. Ian Thorson was the retreat assistant for Roach and McNally. Sometime between 2003 and 2005, Thorson and McNally became lovers. She separated herself from Roach, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally and Thorson soon began making charismatic inroads into the New York yoga scene, teaming up to teach wholly fictional “ancient Tibetan asana practices for reaching spiritual goals using a partner”.

I remember Ian Thorson from perhaps two hundred classes and lectures across America, Europe, and India between 1998 and 2000. He was thin and wispy, probably vegan, certainly underfed and protein deficient, perhaps anemic, with impeccable lotus posture, and distant, unfocussed, entranced eyes. He’d sit right up at the front of any teaching, his eyes rolled back, clothes unwashed, hair tousled, by turns elated and catatonic in his trance. I ate rice and dal with him at the same table at Sera Mey monastery in Bylakuppe for a month in 1999. We talked philosophy and the esoteric for the short spurts in which he could hold conversational attention. He complained that his family could never understand him. I had the impression he came from wealth – he graduated Stanford – but he was always bumming money and rides. I don’t remember him asking me a single question about my life, or lifting a finger to help any of the hordes of women devotees setting up the lecture halls or tea or whatnot. Altogether he seemed tragically self-absorbed. He had a girlfriend named Beatrice in those days. By the end of the India trip she was pregnant. I don’t know what happened to her. I think she ended up returning to Germany with the baby. Baby must be about twelve now, and I wonder if he or she has substantial knowledge of daddy, and whether and how his death will be known to them.

There was something strange going on with Ian. During every teaching he displayed severe and rattling kriyas – spontaneous bursts of internal energy that jagged up his spine, snapped his head back sharply, and made him gasp or hiccup or yelp or bark. At the time I took these tremors to be signs of kundalini openness, but now I see them as bursts of neurological misfiring induced by zealous meditative abstraction and cognitive self-referentiality. There were always a bunch of kriya-kids at Roach’s feet, with Ian at the centre. Roach seemed to pay them no mind, which normalized their jitterbugging to the rest of us, who I believe felt vaguely insecure that our own evolutionary prowess failed to bestow such outward signs. The kriya-kids all sat up front, and Roach looked over them to the more mundane sea of the hoi polloi, as if to say: Do you see the power I have over those who truly surrender to me? I occasionally felt my own mirror neurology shudder in Ian’s presence. But I put a lid on it, preferring to enjoy the conductivity of my inner body alone in the forests of Vermont, where I lived in between Manhattan or California or Galway intensives.

Apparently Ian’s tremors weren’t all light and grooviness. As Roach states in his open letter:

Ian was incredibly sensitive to outside stimulus—an accomplished poet, linguist, and spiritual practitioner who could “hear” the world in a way that most of us cannot. Sometimes those of us who spent time around him would see him get overwhelmed by this sensitivity and fly into windmills of unintended physical outbursts, which at times caused potentially serious physical harm to those close by.

This unqualified diagnosis by Roach is actually a crafty validation of his own spiritual power and authority. For if Ian is a sensitive jitterbugging waif under the power of the Holy Ghost, the teachings are working. But if Ian is actually suffering from psycho-somatic dystonia or neuropathy, or histrionic or somatization disorders resulting in aggression and assault, he’s in the wrong [banned term] place, and Roach is out of his league as mentor. Further, Roach’s charisma may be provoking him towards deeper confusion, perhaps rage. Further: the students around Ian would be neglectfully endangered by a colleague’s unfortunate mental illness, instead of witnesses to some magical and incomprehensible transformation. In my opinion, Roach has negligently misdiagnosed a profoundly disturbed man, perhaps dissuading him and others from seeking proper treatment. But this is no surprise. The first rule of a cult is: turn everything oppressive or dysfunctional into a sign of the Greater Plan. The sick person is “spiritually sensitive”. A violent outburst is a “purification”. An assault is the “result of the victim’s karma”. Enduring an assault defenselessly is a high virtue. And of course all cultists have handy scriptures to back them up: As Shantideva says in the third chapter of Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (one of Roach’s favourite texts):

His the knife, and mine the body:

the twofold cause of suffering.

He has grasped the knife,

I my body.
 At which is there anger?

Those who injure me are really impelled by my actions.

For this they will go to the realms of hell.

Surely it is they who are harmed by me?

This is all crazy-making. I believe.

A Stabbing in the Desert


In 2010, after several years of increasingly grandiose claims and proselytizing around the globe on subjects as diverse as “Spiritual Marriage”, “Creating Your Own Buddha Paradise ”, “The Secrets of Jesus and the Buddha”, and “Enlightened Business”, McNally was appointed Retreat Director for the second three-year retreat, and went into desert silence with Thorson and 39 of her own disciples on the University property. She was appointed by Board members that she herself had chosen, as she recounts in her letter of April 19th. But at some point (we won’t be sure until the Board does a thorough public inquiry) the other retreatants began hearing episodes of domestic violence from within the secluded yurt she shared with Thorson. Retreatants are sworn to silence by retreat protocol, so of course nothing was reported – until McNally reached out, consciously or not, for help.

Every six months or so, the Retreat Director and selected retreatants, and non-retreatant teachers gather publicly to give teachings. These are strange and austere events, as the retreatants are either blindfolded or separated from the public by a scrim. In early February of this year, McNally spoke at one of these events, attended by students and acolytes from around the world. As Roach reports:

During her public talk on the evening of Saturday, February 4, which I also attended, Lama Christie told a story which appeared to describe serious incidents of mutual spousal abuse between herself and her husband, Ian Thorson, on campus during the retreat.

Lama Christie described what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband, and also an incident in which she had stabbed Ian with a knife, under what she described as a spiritual influence.

Roach and the Board were of course deeply concerned, and they met the next day to deliberate. And this is where, I believe, we can begin to see years of authoritarian control, solipsistic philosophy, psychological shadow suppression, overt whitewashing, and subliminal scapegoating begin to snowball. It is important to know that most if not all of the Board members have been long-term students of both Roach and McNally, and that most have donated vast amounts of time and money to his vision. I believe that this power dynamic alone would suppress the democratic functions of such a body. The question to keep in mind as the story rolls onward is: “What would an independent and peer-reviewed process have looked like, in place of unanimous decisions being reached by those within a matrix of social control?” A simpler question for the lawyers might be: “With Roach in control of the Board, does Diamond Mountain forfeit its 501(c)(3) status?”

Roach and the Board interviewed the retreatants and their assistants and found out that yes, Thorson and McNally had been battering each other for some time, with Thorson probably being the majority aggressor. McNally’s letter of 4/19 confirms this (complete with delusional justifications). At Roach’s admission, the battery confirmed pattern that the staff at Diamond Mountain was well aware of, from different contexts:

Members of the Board had previously received multiple formal and informal reports of partner abuse and assault of students and staff by Ian, including a written complaint of an incident which took place off campus, and another incident at the University which led to Ian being asked to leave the campus for a period of time.

Multiple formal and informal reports. And yes, McNally had indeed stabbed Thorson with a knife three times, I imagine in self-defense, as attested to by the retreatant who was a medical doctor. The doctor stitched him up and then was bound to silence not only by the rule of the retreat but also, I believe, by his spiritual subordination to the couple. One of the stab wounds was “deep enough to threaten vital organs.”

It comes as no surprise to me that knife-violence would characterize the psychosis of a deranged couple in this context. Why? Because the central tantric meditation practice of this group involves the fantastical visualization of oneself as a sexually aroused goddess, armed with a chop-knife, who dances on the corpses of foreign deities, and then ritually dismembers herself limb by limb for an auto-cannibalistic feast meant to represent egoic dissolution. The Vajrayogini Tantra reveals a horrific yet strangely beautiful poetics of embodied sacrifice to the present moment. When I practiced it I found it compelling for many reasons, but nobody asked me at the initiation: “Have you ever had suicidal mentation or violent thoughts or outbursts?” And no-one asked Thorson and McNally, either. What have we done in our new-age, neo-colonial appropriation of these arcane wisdom traditions, that we blithely overlook the potential for psychiatric trauma that they obviously contain? How can we play with fragile people in this way?

Tragically, McNally’s letter describes the events through a thick pall of what seems like Stockholm Syndrome confusion. She writes: “My Love’s temporary aggression in those first few months of the retreat didn’t ripen for me as a negative karma in the slightest. I saw the whole thing as a divine play. He taught me so much.” And in a stunning whitewash of her armed self-defense, she writes: “Well, there is this big knife we got as a wedding present… thus began our rather dangerous play. If I had had any training at all, the accident never would have happened. I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone. Neither of us even realized he was cut when it happened.”

A Board of Directors, Blinded by Dogma

From the discovery of the battery and stabbing onwards, I believe every decision the Board made has been (most likely unconsciously) designed to protect the hierarchy of the University and the sanctity of its dogma, rather than to nurture the physical and emotional health of these two critically troubled people, or anyone lower on the ladder of power.

The State of Arizona has a very liberal involuntary commitment law (Revised Title 36) which allows virtually anyone who had suspected that Thorson or McNally had mental problems and needed help could have filed an application to a state-licensed healthcare agency for a court-ordered evaluation. This point is crucial to remember. Because by not taking advantage of this power, the Board has protected itself from any outside intervention that might have questioned the competence of the entire University. In so doing, I believe they also actively presumed training and jurisdiction where they had none: deciding to treat two mutual batterers – one of whom was a stabbing victim – not as people in dire mental danger in need of assessment and perhaps medication, but as free-thinking, upright citizens who had made a few errors in moral judgment that they could correct, perhaps, with a change in philosophy.

The decision to not immediately report the battering or stabbing to outside law enforcement or mental health services is coherent with general cultic resistance to outside influence. The sheriff or the shrink would be, I believe, as invasive to Diamond Moutain property as other Buddhist teachings or teachers would be to Diamond Mountain cosmology and lineage. The stakes in resolving the issue internally are very high for the Diamond Mountain infrastructure.

Instead of taking advantage of Title 36 or appealing to law enforcement for direct help, the Diamond Mountain Board, according to Roach’s own account, came up with what in my opinion was an incompetent, secretive, and punitive plan to oust the offending dyad from their Eden. This plan consisted of $3600 in cash, a rental car, two prepaid cell phones, a hotel booking by the nearest airport, and two flight tickets to the US destination of their choice: all to be made available to them once they had been served with a notice from the Board to vacate their residence. The plan did not provide for psychiatric assessment or support, nor qualified chaperoning, nor contacts for shelter services. It appears that not one single piece of help was offered to the couple from outside of the worldview and power dynamic of the cult. Not one mediating influence was allowed to intervene. Roach writes that he made attempts to persuade McNally to seek guidance, but the encouragement was towards guidance from other spiritual teachers – most probably also unqualified in the realms of psychiatric health. Most disturbing, perhaps, is that this plan did not consider the possibility that Thorson and McNally should at the very least be restrained from each other’s presence until it was verifiably clear that they posed no danger to each other. Let’s let this sink in: on some level, the entire Board felt that it was within Thorson and McNally’s personal rights as responsible adults to batter each other. But please –not on the University property!

In essence, I believe the Diamond Mountain Board and Roach unsafely banished two mentally ill and mutually violent people for whom they held communal (if not legal) responsibility to the mercy of their psychosis and the terrifying isolation of not only the surrounding desert, but also what they would have perceived as the closed door of the broader Buddhist and spiritual community. We have to remember that to follow an excommunicant like Roach is a self-isolating act. If Buddhism shuns Roach – okay: stick to Roach. But when Roach banishes you: where do you go? The stakes of banishment rise algorithmically for those who are incapable of self-authorization because of cultic influence. The cult leader is a life-raft in a stormy sea. Residents of Diamond Mountain routinely describe their acreage as “the end of the world”, in harmony with Roach’s my-way-or-the-highway metaphysics. So where do you go when you’ve been banished not only from the last place on earth, but also from the grace of the leader you depend on for your self-worth?

The Veil of Secrecy

The secrecy that kept the Board from reaching out for qualified help soon metastasized into confusion and uncertainty as Diamond Mountain carried out their decision to banish the couple. The Board hand-delivered letters to the couple’s tent, demanding they leave within the hour, to meet their assistant who would be standing by with the rented car. There was no answer, and the messengers failed to find the couple. After several days of uncertainty, the assistant e-mailed the message that the couple had left the grounds, but would refuse to disclose their location. Further requests for information from the assistant were ignored. The Board and Roach, according to Roach’s account, remain ignorant of the couple’s whereabouts between the date they deliver the letter (Roach doesn’t specify but it is before February 20th, which is when the assistant’s e-mail was received by the Board) and the day of Thorson’s death.

For sixty-one days, Roach and the Board claim that they had no knowledge of the couple’s whereabouts. What did they do in their uncertainty and professed worry? Roach sent emails to the assistant that went ignored. Roach asked other “spiritual teachers” of McNally to try to communicate with her as well. The requests were ignored. And what did they fail to do? File a Missing Persons Report. And why didn’t they? Because drawing law enforcement attention to the case would implicitly criminalize the events. I also believe that there would have been a strong motivation to avoid the public humiliation of the police finding them, and taking statements describing their experience. A cult cannot appeal to outside authority, as this would disrupt the self-generated logic and legitimacy of the group.

In perhaps the most cultish decision of all, Roach and the Board thought it best not to contact the couple’s families directly when it was clear that they had gone missing. Roach explains: “We felt that the decision of contacting relatives about the recent events and situation was only the couple’s to make.” I believe the likelihood that Thorson and McNally would have contacted their families of their own accord in this state of hiding and humiliation would be very low. A common characteristic of many of Roach’s followers (including myself way back when) is familial alienation. I remember, somewhere back around 1999, asking McNally and Roach outright over lunch one day what her parents thought about her travelling the world on the arm of this weird monk. She laughed and said: “O they think I’m in a cult.” Roach smiled somewhat ironically and said “Well you are in a cult.” She giggled, I believe, nervously.

Secrecy is endemic to both the structure and the metaphysics of Roach’s organization. Buddhist knowledge was secret. His relationship with McNally was secret. Whether or not it involved intercourse was secret. The instructions for rituals were secret. The nature of his realizations was secret. The locations and identities of many of his teachers were secret. Tantric practices were secret. In the absence of physical coercion, secrecy was the key currency of Roach’s power.

And how’s this for secrecy? As of this writing, there are close to 7000 reads of the letter from the Venerables Chandra and Akasha, who are reportedly taking care of McNally in her seclusion, and close to 5000 reads of the letter from McNally. Only the first letter has been left open to comments, and after one week of exposure there are only 16 comments. This is akin to a blackout in social media culture. My personal social media network connects me to several old Diamond Mountain affiliated friends. None to my knowledge have shared these two letters. I have only seen four shares of Roach’s letter, and only a handful of comments upon it, all expressing condolence to McNally and the assistants, and none with any questions. I have reached out to several of these old friends to express my dismay at the events, to ask how they are handling the news, to ask about the health of the community, and to ask if there is any more to share, and I receive eerily similar responses: “Geshe Michael’s letter tells it all, dear”, and “Anything more I would have to say about it would be gossip, dear.” Everybody’s calling me “dear”.

Two things to note here: as an ex-member of this cult, I will not likely be a trusted confidante in a time of trauma and loss, unless it is to those who crave the empathy of an outsider. I understand this. But my friend’s comment about “gossip” reveals something deeper than any social exclusion. All students of Roach have taken initiation into the Bodhisattva Vows, one of which explicitly forbids criticism of the clergy. The Brahma Net Sutra gives a definition of this major vow. Stalinist bureaucrats would be proud:

A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns — nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of discussing the offenses of the assembly. As a Buddha’s disciple, whenever he hears evil persons, externalists or followers of the Two Vehicles speak of practices contrary to the Dharma or contrary to the precepts within the Buddhist community, he should instruct them with a compassionate mind and lead them to develop wholesome faith in the Mahayana. If instead, he discusses the faults and misdeeds that occur within the assembly, he commits a Parajika offense.

It is now Friday. Last Saturday, when I came across the news, I thought that surely it would be widely known by now. But as the days have dragged on and I have pounded together these thoughts and memories, it has become clear that nobody from within the Diamond Mountain community, or perhaps those sympathetic to them, would be broadcasting these events, along with the cascade of questions they raise. So here I am, and here we are.

Requests to the Diamond Mountain Board: Rob Ruisinger, Nicole Davis, Jigme Palmo, Charae Sachanandani, Scott Vacek, Tim Muehlhausen, Evan Osherow.

Remove Michael Roach from the Board of Directors. His past intimacy with McNally and his current spiritual influence over you will make it impossible for you to perform your regulatory function under the articles of Diamond Mountain’s 501(c)(3) non-profit status. Surely you must also recognize that he is not fit to disinterestedly administrate any internal inquiry into the death of his former lover’s husband.
Disclose everything that you knew about the domestic violence, the stabbing, and the other retreatant’s reactions/responses, and how you have addressed their concerns. Show the transparency that will expose the effects of the power relationships you foster.
Invite full police, state, and medical official investigations. Bring in professionals to question all principles.
Explain why you thought it reasonable to allow two disturbed and mutually violent people to remain in each other’s presence after clear evidence of potentially mortal danger to both of them.
Explain why you did not call on local law enforcement and mental health officials to intervene in a circumstance for which you have no qualification.
Create an emergency fund for the residential mental health care of Christie McNally, in the eventuality that this is recommended by public health professionals. In the event that this episode destroys her professional teaching career, create an additional fund for her continuing education and career transition.
Describe the educational or work experience of the “assistant” who was assigned to chaperone the couple that would have qualified him or her to care for a mentally ill and mutually violent couple.`
Report the medical doctor referenced in Roach’s letter as having sutured Thorson’s wounds to the appropriate medical licensing board so that they can investigate why he/she did not report Thorson’s stab wounds to authorities.
Release the remaining retreatants from their ritual vow of silence, so they can say anything they need to related to the events, their leadership, and their concerns. Release them further from their long-term vow against disclosing grievances against their leadership.
Show publicly that the retreatants currently under your care have no history of mental illness that might endanger their health within the context of the severe isolation of your retreat property and the potentially provocative nature of the meditation practices that you advocate.
Disclose the protocol by which you evaluate the mental health of retreatants, and how you will update this protocol in view of this tragedy.
Disclose the qualifications of the replacement Retreat Leader, John Brady, and have him issue a statement detailing how he is specifically administering to the retreatants who have been disturbed by these events.
Publish the transcript of McNally’s February 4th talk, in which she made allusion to the domestic violence and the stabbing.
Provide the link on your website to McNally’s letter of 4/19, to both end the silencing of her point of view, but also to expose the clear psychosis at the very heart of your faculty.
Remove Michael Roach from the teaching schedule of Diamond Mountain University until he has shown that he has put himself under the supervision of his lineage, perhaps by submitting himself for monastic review to his home community of Rashi Gempil Ling, in Howell, New Jersey.

Requests to the Mentors of the Greater Buddhist Community, including the Office of the Dalai Lama

Modern Western Buddhism prides itself on being anti-authoritarian grounded in reason, and non-cultish. In the light of Thorson’s death, its time for the community mentors to step up and prove it.

There are many mentors I have in mind. All of them are either non-sectarian or have scholarly or secular backgrounds. I’ll name a few, but please suggest more: Robert Thurman, Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Michael Stone, Blanche Hartman, Bernie Glassman, Stephen Batchelor, Mathieu Ricard, Sylvia Boorstein, Jeffery Hopkins. Also: the senior teachers of FPMT will probably be up to the task. Here are some things you can do to help both the safety of Diamond Mountain residents, but also the general movement towards responsible leadership in Buddhist and other spiritual organizations.

Please take time to investigate Roach’s history and teachings, and publish your thoughts on the broader Buddhist life to those students of Roach who are confused, in distress, and perhaps hungry for a more grounded cosmology. A series of calm, welcoming, non-judgmental open letters might be most helpful.
Please disclose any protocols for mental health and physical safety that you have designed as leaders or members of Buddhist communities that would be helpful to the Diamond Mountain Board as they go through a necessary review of their own practices.
Offer gratis counseling/conversation to any Diamond Mountain practitioner who might reach out for a broader view.

I also call on the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to review these events and to consider reiterating and strengthening its censure of Michael Roach, first initiated in 2006.

In closing, for now…

I’m so grateful I grew up since my involvement with Roach ended in 2000 – at least a little bit. I read The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, went into therapy, worked on my daddy/authority issues, and now I return to meditation only once in a while to touch the quieter parts of my experience: not to escape anything or fantasize about what’s not here. I have a good and meaningful job. I don’t fly around the world chasing bliss and approval, responsible to nothing but the wind of my thought, avoiding those who know me best. I am no longer, as Leonard Cohen sings, “starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true.” Like Ian was.

Goodbye, Ian. A younger, thinner, sadder version of myself died with you in that cave, dry as dust. I send my love to your child, wherever he or she is.

Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. Please check out his site for more writings on Ayurveda and Yoga.
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Sat May 05, 2012 10:46 pm

May 15, 2008 - NYT

Living Together
Making Their Own Limits in a Spiritual Partnership
By LESLIE KAUFMAN


Bowie, Ariz.

TEN years ago, Michael Roach and Christie McNally, Buddhist teachers with a growing following in the United States and abroad, took vows never to separate, night or day.

By “never part,” they did not mean only their hearts or spirits. They meant their bodies as well. And they gave themselves a range of about 15 feet.

If they cannot be seated near each other on a plane, they do not get on. When she uses an airport restroom, he stands outside the door. And when they are here at home in their yurt in the Arizona desert, which has neither running water nor electricity, and he is inspired by an idea in the middle of the night, she rises from their bed and follows him to their office 100 yards down the road, so he can work.

Their partnership, they say, is celibate. It is, as they describe it, a high level of Buddhist practice that involves confronting their own imperfections and thereby learning to better serve the world.

“It forces you to deal with your own emotions so you can’t say, ‘I’ll take a break,’ ” said Mr. Roach, 55, who trained in the same Tibetan Buddhist tradition as the Dalai Lama. After becoming a monk in 1983, he trained on-and-off in a Buddhist monastery for 20 years, and is one of a handful of Westerners who has earned the title of geshe, the rough equivalent of a religious doctorate. “You are in each other’s faces 24 hours a day,” he said. “You must deal with your anger or your jealousy.”

Ms. McNally said, “From a Buddhist perspective, it purifies your own mind.” Ms. McNally is 35 and uses the title of Lama, or teacher, an honor not traditionally bestowed on women by the Tibetan orders.

Their exacting commitment to this ideal of spiritual partnership has been an inspiration to many. In China and Israel, and in the United States, where they are often surrounded by devotees, their lectures on how laypeople can build spiritual partnerships are often packed with people seeking mates or ways to deepen their marriages. They hope their recently published book, “The Eastern Path to Heaven,” will appeal to Christians and broaden their American audience.

But their practice — which even they admit is radical by the standards of the religious community whose ideas they aim to further — has sent shock waves through the Tibetan Buddhist community as far as the Dalai Lama himself, whose office indicated its disapproval of the living arrangement by rebuffing Mr. Roach’s attempt to teach at Dharamsala, India, in 2006. (In a letter, the office said his “unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practices.”)

“There is a tremendous amount of opprobrium by the Tibetan monks; they think they have gone wacky,” said Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University.

Professor Thurman, a former monk himself, describes himself as a friend and admirer of Mr. Roach, and said that after the geshe made his relationship with Ms. McNally public in 2003, he begged him to renounce his monastic vows and to stop wearing the robes that mark him as a member of a monastic order. Mr. Roach declined, and the two have not spoken since.

“He is doing this partnership thing and insisting on being a monk,” Professor Thurman said. “It is superhuman. He says he is staying celibate, but people find it hard to believe.”

The yurt in which Mr. Roach and Ms. McNally live when they are not traveling the world (which is often about half the year) sits in the high desert some 100 miles east of Tucson, on a platform overlooking a rift in the cactus-speckled hills. For 100 acres around, the land is the property of Diamond Mountain University, an unaccredited school that Mr. Roach founded with Ms. McNally in 2004 to teach Buddhist principles and translation skills.

Although devoid of modern conveniences, the yurt they live in, which is 22 feet in diameter, feels almost luxurious compared with the spare, desiccated landscape around it. On one side of the tent is their double bed, and beside it a commode elegantly disguised as a wood side table. The floor is covered with carpets. A few carved wooden chests hold clothes and pillows.

Light streams in from a hole at the center of the tent’s roof, illuminating its poles, which were imported from Mongolia. The closeness to nature means that the indoor temperature is essentially the ambient one — beyond baking in the summer and freezing in the winter. (Their one attempt to battle the elements is a wood-burning stove.)

The couple did a three-year silent retreat in this yurt from 2000 to 2003, while their relationship was a secret to all but the few people who brought them food. Soon afterward, Mr. Roach determined it should be public, even if it flew in the face of two millenniums of Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

He acted for two reasons, he said. One, he felt that it was impossible to keep secrets in this age of Google Earth. Two, he decided that if Buddhism was really going to succeed in America, it would have to be more inclusive of women.

“If these ideas that will help people are going to make it in the West,” Ms. McNally said, “it can’t be a male-dominated culture, because people are not going to accept that.”

Ms. McNally’s path from student to co-teacher and constant partner has been a hard one, they both say. When she met Mr. Roach in 1996, two years out of New York University, where she majored in literature, he was a learned Buddhist. Two decades her senior, he was a Princeton graduate who in his years studying for the geshe degree also built a personal fortune by helping to grow Andin International, a designer, manufacturer and distributor of fine jewelry, from a start-up to a $100 million-a-year business.

She went to a seminar he was teaching in New York, where he lived at the time. She was just back from India, where she had studied meditation. It was not long before they fell in love, although they do not describe it that way. They say they began to see each other as angels.

In front of others, she was his acolyte. Otherwise, she was studying the principles of karma and emptiness so that she could eventually teach with him. In private, however, she said, they lived together and he bent over backward to listen to her and to defer to her wisdom.

Over time the two grew toward each other, according to friends — he even visibly. He let his hair grow long like hers and became taut and lean in a way he was not before.

But Anne Lindsey, a teacher at Diamond Mountain who now goes by the Buddhist nun’s name Chukyi and has known the couple almost from the start (she was one of those who brought them their food), said Ms. McNally had changed even more. “She has totally transformed,” she said. “For him it was a difference in appearance. For her, she was giggly, she was shy. She never talked. She only focused on Geshe Michael. Now she is this powerhouse of a teacher.”

There have been serious sacrifices, of course. When she agreed to join his life, two years before the spiritual partner vows, she accepted the rigors of his training, including, at the tender age of 24, celibacy. (He had been celibate, he says, since age 22 when he became a candidate for monkhood.) Even though she now considers sexual touching a “low practice,” she said, she still clearly remembers the July day when she gave it up.

But if they have renounced sex, they have replaced it with a level of communion that few other people could understand, much less tolerate.

They eat the same foods from the same plate and often read the same book, waiting until one or the other finishes the page before continuing. Both, they say, are practices of learning to submit one’s will to that of another.

They also do yoga together, breath for breath. “We are always inhaling at the same moment and we are always exhaling at the same moment,” Ms. McNally said. “It is very intimate, but it is not the kind of intimacy people are used to.”

The couple also admit to a hands-on physical relationship that they describe as intense but chaste. Mr. Roach compares it to the relationship his mother had with her doctor when she was dying of breast cancer. “The surgeon lay his hand on her breast, but there wasn’t any carnal thought in his mind,” he said. “He was doing some life-or-death thing. For us it is the same.”

This insistence that they share both purity and intimacy drives traditionalists to distraction. Buddhism has many different branches, most of which allow partners, spiritual or otherwise, in some form — but not for monks. Experts say the lineage of Mr. Roach’s branch of Buddhism clearly demands that you renounce monastic vows to have a partner. And many teachers have done just that.

There are very rare instances in the Indo-Buddhist tradition of an individual’s being considered holy enough for a chaste spiritual partnership, said Lama Surya Das, an American Buddhist who studied in Tibet and wrote “Awakening the Buddha Within,” published in 1997. But Mr. Roach, Lama Surya Das said, has not convinced colleagues that he has reached that level.

“He is a good guy and learned person, but the Bill Clinton question lingers over him,” he said of Mr. Roach. “He is with a much younger blond bombshell. What is a deep relationship that is not sexual? It is hard to understand.”

Mr. Roach and Ms. McNally, however, see their actions as in line with those of a wave of reformers, including the current Dalai Lama, who are taking an ancient, largely monastic and male-dominated tradition and modernizing it to make it more accessible to laypeople and the West.

They understand that their practice is far too extreme for most couples, but they make a point, they say, of doing mainstream things, too. They go to the movies, for example. They tend to like films with visions of alternative realities, like “The Matrix” (her) and “The Truman Show” (him).

They also talk about how they continue to struggle with each other’s wills. It is not an easy practice, even now. But they believe that the basic principles of karma and emptiness at the heart of Buddhism can improve any relationship.

“We are not saying people should live in a tent or 15 feet away from each other,” Mr. Roach said. “What we are teaching is that there is a direct karmic relationship between every incidence of anger you have in the day and how you see your partner.

“If you are consciously patient with people during the day, you will see more beauty.”
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Wed Jun 06, 2012 9:33 am

Worth reading. Any organization that isolates itself can descend into cultic behavior and all kinds of mental / spiritual /religious mania. With no feedback or checks and balances, leaders and their followers can get lost in their own imagination, dreams, illusions, grandiosity. This is one extreme and strange example. But what I experienced at Shasta that last year or two was also quite bizarre and unhealthy.

June 5, 2012 - NYTimes
Mysterious Yoga Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death
By FERNANDA SANTOS


BOWIE, Ariz. — The rescuers had rappelled from a helicopter, swaying in the brisk April winds as they bore down on a cave 7,000 feet up in a rugged desert mountain on the edge of this rural hamlet. There had been a call for help. Inside, they found a jug with about an inch of water, browned by floating leaves and twigs. They found a woman, Christie McNally, thirsty and delirious. And they found her husband, Ian Thorson, dead.

The puzzle only deepened when the authorities realized that the couple had been expelled from a nearby Buddhist retreat in which dozens of adherents, living in rustic conditions, had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days. Their spiritual leader was a charismatic Princeton-educated monk whom some have accused of running the retreat as a cult.

Strange tales come out of the American desert: lost cities of gold, bandit ambushes, mirages and peyote shamans. To that long list can now be added the story of the holy retreat that led to an ugly death.

The retreat — in which adherents communicate only with pen and paper — was designed to allow participants to employ yoga and deep meditation to try to answer some of life’s most profound questions. Mostly, though, it has only raised more questions.

Was it a genuine spiritual enclave? What happened to drive Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson out of the camp and into the wilderness? And just why, in a quest for enlightenment, did Mr. Thorson, a 38-year-old Stanford graduate, end up dead, apparently from exposure and dehydration, in a remote region of rattlesnakes and drug smugglers?

When Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson left the retreat on Feb. 20, after having participated for one year and one month, she had been its leading teacher. The monk who ran the retreat, Michael Roach, had previously run a diamond business worth tens of millions of dollars and was now promoting Buddhist principles as a path to financial prosperity, raising eyebrows from more traditional Buddhists.

He had described Ms. McNally for a time as his “spiritual partner,” living with him in platonic contemplation. What the other participants did not know is that before she married Mr. Thorson, Ms. McNally had been secretly married to Mr. Roach, in stark violation of the Buddhist tradition to which he belongs.

Even the manner in which Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson left the retreat adds a fresh turn to an already twisty tale. It came days after she made a startling revelation during one of her lectures: she said that Mr. Thorson had been violent toward her, and that she had stabbed him, using a knife they had received as a wedding gift.

The authorities do not suspect foul play in Mr. Thorson’s death. Still, the events at Diamond Mountain University, as the place that hosts the retreat is known, have pried open the doors of an intensely private community, exposing rifts among some of Mr. Roach’s most loyal followers and the unorthodoxy of his practices.

In an interview, Matthew Remski, a yoga teacher from Toronto who unleashed a storm online after posting a scathing critique of Mr. Roach after Mr. Thorson’s death, described Mr. Roach as a “charismatic Buddhist teacher” whom he used to respect until his popularity “turned him into a celebrity” whose inner circle was “impossible to penetrate.”

Others spoke of bizarre initiation ceremonies at Diamond Mountain. Sid Johnson, a former volunteer who also served on its board of directors, said his involved “kissing and genital touching.” Ekan Thomason, a Buddhist priest who graduated from a six-year program there, said hers included drawing blood from her finger and handling a Samurai sword, handed to her by Ms. McNally.

“Should a Buddhist university really be doing such things?” Ms. Thomason asked.

Erik Brinkman, a Buddhist monk who remains one of Mr. Roach’s staunchest admirers, said, “If the definition of a cult is to follow our spiritual leader into the desert, then we are a cult.”

Mr. Thorson’s mother, Kay Thorson, hired two counselors about 10 years ago to pry her son away from Mr. Roach, who was trained under the same monastic tradition as the Dalai Lama. She recalled him as “strange,” someone who “sometimes connects, sometimes doesn’t, but who clearly connected with people who were ready to donate and adulate.”

The intervention — the term she used to describe it — offered only temporary relief. Mr. Thorson left for Europe for a time, but eventually rejoined the group.

“We learned of a possible offshoot to over-meditation, or meditation out of balance, or the wrong guidance in meditation; I don’t know the right word here,” Mrs. Thorson said in an interview. She recalled her son’s “compromised critical thinking, as far as making decisions and analyzing things,” and she feared Mr. Roach’s technique and guidance had pushed him there, but could not get him back.

Mr. Thorson and Ms. McNally, 39, married on Oct. 3, 2010, by the sea in Montauk, N.Y., almost three months before they left for the retreat and a month after Mr. Roach had filed for divorce from her. Ms. McNally and Mr. Roach had an old Dodge Durango, $30,000 in credit card debt and little else, according to the filing, in Yavapai County Superior Court.

Ms. McNally and Mr. Roach had shared a yurt in an earlier three-year retreat he promoted, in 1999, but swore they were celibate. The relationship nonetheless stirred reproach by Buddhist scholars, who urged him to renounce his monastic vows, and the Dalai Lama, whose office decried his “unconventional behavior.”

The marriage was a closely held secret. In writing, the only way he agreed to answer questions, Mr. Roach, who uses the title “geshe,” a type of doctoral degree in theology in the Buddhist monastic system, said he and Ms. McNally “come from strong Christian backgrounds” and “wanted to do a Christian partnership ritual at the same time we did the Buddhist one, at the beginning of our partnership.” (They were married on April 16, 1998, in Little Compton, R.I.)

He also said he wanted her to be “legally entitled” to his possessions if something happened to him. Their success seemed interdependent: They had written books together, given lectures around the world and were the forces behind Diamond Mountain.

In early February of this year, Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson received a letter from Mr. Roach and the five other members of Diamond Mountain’s board of directors, demanding explanations for the violence and stabbing she had discussed in her lesson. There was no reply. In a letter she posted online — which she wrote after their departure from the retreat, though before Mr. Thorson’s death — Ms. McNally described it as an accident by a novice martial-arts practitioner rehearsing her moves.

The board’s president, Rob Ruisinger, said in an interview that Mr. Thorson had been stabbed three times in the torso, and that one of the wounds had been sutured by a medical professional who is among the retreat’s participants.

Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson were given five days to leave. Instead, they departed without notice.

In her letter, she said they simply were not ready to go back into the world, so they decided to “go camping in the cow-herding land” next to Diamond Mountain “to get our thoughts settled.” When people came looking for them, they clambered uphill, she wrote, to the cave where Mr. Thorson would die. Some of the retreat participants would leave water for them, knowing they were still around. She told the authorities that at some point, she fell ill, he fell ill and they grew too weak to fetch it, said Sgt. David Noland, the search-and-rescue coordinator for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.

On April 22 at 6 a.m., Ms. McNally sent a distress signal to Diamond Mountain from a portable transmitter she had been carrying. Three of Diamond Mountain’s caretakers set out to look for her and Mr. Thorson, but could not find them. Around 8 a.m., the caretakers called 911.

Mr. Thorson was cremated in nearby Willcox on April 26. His mother said it was the last time she saw Ms. McNally, who could not be reached for comment.

The retreat is set to end on April 3, 2014. Of its original 39 participants, 34 remain.
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Fri Jun 08, 2012 10:08 pm

Buddhist Yoga Retreat Death Raises Questions on Ariz. Monk's 'Enlightenment' Preaching

By DAN HARRIS (@danbharris) and DAN PRZYGODA
June 8, 2012
- ABC Network News - Good Morning America and Nightline

An Arizona man who was a member of a Buddhist yoga retreat that his family compared to a cult was found dead in a mountain cave in Bowie, Ariz., Tuesday, weeks after being asked to leave the sect with his wife.

When rescuers found 38-year-old Ian Thorson, he was dead, apparently from exposure and dehydration, and his wife, Christie McNally, 39, was delirious.

The two were followers of the controversial spiritual leader Michael Roach, a Princeton-educated Buddhist monk, and they had entered a mysterious descent into darkness in recent weeks that would change their lives forever. In Dec. 2010, Thorson, McNally and about 35 other people hugged their families goodbye and entered into a three-year silent meditation retreat. Thorson's family never saw him alive again.

This strange story starts more than a decade ago when Thorson, then a recent Stanford graduate, found his way into the orbit of the charismatic Roach, who made millions in the diamond business and then became a Buddhist monk.

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET/PT

Thorson's mother Kay and his sister Alexandra said they were immediately suspicious of Roach. Kay Thorson said she believes Roach's group is a cult and that he promised her son "enlightenment in one lifetime," asking for "total dedication" in return.

"He always seemed a little creepy to me," said Alexandra Thorson.

Roach is a highly-trained monk in the same tradition of the Dalai Lama. However, in recent years, the Dalai Lama and other Buddhists have been very critical of Roach's decisions, such as living with women when he was supposed to be celibate, growing out his hair when monks traditionally shave their heads, and building a global following of adoring acolytes.

Under the sway of Michael Roach, Ian Thorson changed dramatically, losing weight and his spirit, his family said.

"He was not his person anymore," Kay Thorson said. "He was a very independent and deep, good thinker before and he was tending to follow the group think, which is what happens gradually in a cultic situation."

"I felt like I lost a brother," Alexandra Thorson said. "He was totally changed. Before he was a frat boy, he was a surfer, he was a partier, he had jobs, he was a student. His focus just changed, I guess, like even his hugs weren't hugs. They were like shells of hugs."

Thorson's family said they called in cult deprogrammers to work with Ian after he had been with Roach's group for several years, but he ultimately returned to Roach.

Then in 2010, Thorson married Christie McNally. It was a tricky romantic decision for him because McNally was formerly Roach's spiritual companion.

"There are so many women, why would you take that one?" Alexandra Thorson said of her brother's relationship with McNally. "That was not, in my opinion, a smart move."

McNally and Roach were profiled in the New York Times, talking about how they lived together in a yurt for years and were never more than 15 feet apart at all times. They said their relationship was platonic, but public records show they were married.

When McNally and Roach later split up, Roach was reported to have been distraught.

In her relationship with Thorson, McNally continued some aspects of the extreme intimacy she had shared with Roach. For starters, she and Thorson wrote a book together about partners yoga.

"Once we do this kind of yoga together, then the next day, when we try to do a series alone, it's really, really lonely," Ian Thorson said in a 2010 video posted on Youtube.

McNally was by his side. "It's really, really lonely, yeah," she said.

Thorson's sister said the pair was always at each other's side, and they would even share the same plate at meals and read books simultaneously.

"Reading the same book, slowly, same page, waiting, and then turning the page," Alexandra Thorson said. "I don't know if you could call it intimacy. It was almost invasive. They had no personal space."

In 2010, Ian Thorson and McNally went off for a retreat at Roach's "university" in the remote Arizona desert. After saying goodbye, they settled in for three years, three months and three days of silent meditation. However, after a year and a half, the couple was asked to leave.

According to a letter Michael Roach posted on his website, Thorson and McNally were the subject of a "mutual spousal abuse" investigation after a medical practitioner at the "university" allegedly treated Thorson for three stab wounds inflicted by McNally. The letter said McNally claimed it was an accident and it happened when she was playing with a knife.

After leaving, the couple went to live in a cave in the Arizona desert mountains close to Roach's group.

But six weeks later, McNally called 911, saying she had an emergency. When medical crews arrived, Thorson was dead. Police did not suspect foul play. An autopsy revealed that Thorson died of dehydration and exposure and there was no evidence of stabbings. Police are not conducting a criminal investigation.

"This is a very inhospitable environment," said Sgt. David Noland, the Search and Rescue coordinator for the Cochise County Sheriff's Office. "The Indians did it thousands of years ago, but I haven't heard of anybody living out off the land in this area."

Thorson's mother said she is still in shock over her son's death and that Michael Roach's allegations of spousal abuse are exaggerated. She and Thorson's sister believe his death would not have happened if Roach had not asked the couple to leave the retreat.

"Getting them geared up for this retreat and then kicking them off is setting them up for a problem," Alexandra Thorson said. "That was irresponsible, I felt."

On his website, Roach wrote that he took the appropriate precautions before sending the couple off, offering them money, an assistant and a rental car to ease their transition. He said they refused his help and refused to tell anyone where they were going. Roach also wrote that he is deeply sorry for the family's loss, but Thorson's mother said this case should be a wake-up call for parents about the dangers of extreme religious groups.

"There's nothing good that can some for me personally because my son is dead," Kay Thorson said. "I certainly don't want this to happen to someone else."

Roach declined to grant "Nightline" an interview. He is holding a seminar on reaching enlightenment this weekend.

ABC News' Lauren Effron contributed to this report
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Sat Jun 09, 2012 10:47 am

So much sadness in this, and waste. Matthew Remski's article was esp. compelling, I think, in his call to Buddhist community mentors to "step up" and show their support for a "movement to responsible leadership".

The comments from Ian Thorson's mother and sister struck deeply for me. I can't imagine watching a loved one lose themselves, their vitality, strength of mind, physical health.

"He was not his person anymore," Kay Thorson said. "He was a very
independent and deep, good thinker before and he was tending to follow
the group think, which is what happens gradually in a cultic situation."


How do you reach someone who has gotten in that far? Is there nothing to do but hope they find their own way out?
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Sat Jun 09, 2012 11:35 am

reaching someone in this situation is often very difficult, sometimes not possible. You have to hope they wake up from the enchantment, from the trance, that something clicks back on.
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Sat Jun 09, 2012 3:45 pm

I don't know how these families cope.

To anyone who is concerned about a loved one inside a religious group. I would like to invite you to join this forum, talk about your experiences if you want to, doesn't matter whether it's Diamond Mountain, Shasta Abbey, whatever. You can send a private message too of you don't want to post publicly. We may not be able to do much besides listen, and try to connect you with resources, but the effort will be made.

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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Wed Jul 04, 2012 11:22 am

The Elephant Journal, based in Boulder, Colorado, has been extensively covering the Michael Roach, death in the desert story - both writing about it and posting many different opinions and accounts. It continues to be my position that it is of great value to share all the points of views, experiences, opinions - openly, honestly, setting aside all the risk averse feelings and concerns that talking about these issues will "hurt the Dharma." Dharma is not harmed by people sharing their stories, feelings, concerns and airing them. Welcome to the West. Welcome to the 21st century. Asian traditions can teach us absolutely nothing about honest communication or accountability. That would be the last place to go to learn about accountability of any sort.

Here is a link to a rather extensive account of what went on and is going on. Probably way too much to insert here. Sometimes you can access stories from the Elephant Journal for free, and sometimes they ask for a yearly subscription fee. I think you can access one story a month fo for free, then they ask for a subscription.

http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/06/the-michael-roach-bubble/

All of this may be "way too much information" for many readers here, but in case it is of interest, here it is. Also, I am assuming that new developments will come out, so this site will be updated.

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Anne

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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Wed Jul 04, 2012 4:26 pm

:-) Thanks Josh. I managed to read some of the story but, when I tried to return to it after accessing one of the embedded links, I got only the subscription page and couldn't re-enter the story (even from your post). So, I'd advise anyone who doesn't have a sub to wait till you've finished reading what you want of the story before trying one of the embedded links...it may be your last! (-:
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Thu Jul 05, 2012 9:04 am

The Michael Roach Bubble.

this is an open forum. We believe in offering an uplifted forum to elevate important, sometimes difficult issues from gossip into discourse, and learning. We have also published a “rebuttal,” linked below. Matthew, the author below, has his own experience and views. Those views, and the views in the rebuttal, do not constitute an “official” view of elephant. Our official view is that we hope, again, to offer a forum for understanding, and, hopefully, real peace. ~ ed.

reporting and analysis by matthew remski

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful! – Lorca

important background:

– Christy McNally’s letter, April 19th
– Michael Roach’s open letter, April 26th
– my original post, May 4th
– John Stillwell’s rebuttal, May 6th
– my followup, May 19th
– Michael Roach’s essay, June 2nd
– NYT article, June 5th

since I last posted: a brief synopsis…

There are reports that Christie McNally was last seen in Kathmandu, trying to secure a private audience with her first teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She couldn’t. There is a report that Christie’s mother has quoted Christie as saying: “Michael Roach murdered my love.” The Thorson family is starting to talk to the media. The claim that Roach’s sexual partner practices are a legitimate aspect of Gelukpa tradition has been thoroughly savaged by several knowledgeable commentators. A Facebook page has been organized to croudsource letters of concern to the Dalai Lama, and to request that Sera Mey monastery – Roach’s putative alma mater – formally distances itself from Roach. Dozens of followers and ex-followers of Roach are beginning to come forward with their memories.

No one knows where this story is leading. But a close look at how it’s unfolding, and how Roach and others have chosen to respond so far, gives a dizzying view on how deep this rabbit hole goes.

There are now almost 48K views of my original May 4th piece about the circumstances under which Ian Thorson died after being expelled from Diamond Mountain by Michael Roach and the Diamond University Board. There are over 28K views of the follow-up. There are over 3200 comments between them in which over 200 supporters and critics of Michael Roach slug out the issues of his responsibility for McNally’s mental health and Thorson’s death, as well as his qualifications as a monk, his virtues as a philanthropist and cultural translator of Tibetan philosophy, and his credibility as a scholar and “realizer” of Buddhist attainments. The threads read like a collective doctoral study of Tibetan metaphysics and cross-cultural anthropology, as well as the twisting saga of present and ex-students navigating a swamp of devotion and trauma. Huffpo picked up the story on May 22nd.

When the New York Times reported on June 5th, the floodgates of global media opened. Fernanda Santos’ story – an account brief and elliptical enough to provoke many new questions – was broadcast throughout the English-speaking world, reinvigorating the source-threads with a slew of new commentary, and prompting an immediate followup by Nightline, in which Ian Thorson’s grieving mother called out Roach’s group point-blank as a cult. Lama Surya Das warned the world about him in HuffPo. Since June 6th, I’ve fielded calls from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Newsweek, CNN, and People Magazine. The story is getting louder. But on Diamond Mountain there is the silence of continued retreat, and tight lips.

Except for Roach, who has had plenty to say – mainly about himself. He’s published a 26-page self-report of his academic history. In recent public appearances he has compared himself to Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. He has bragged about his well-attended appearances all over the world, and about his book sales doubling on Amazon despite negative publicity. He has joked that “We need more scandals.” He has compared his critics to demons. And at the opening of his first public appearance on the American soil in which Ian Thorson’s flesh is dissolving, he held down the rhythm on double bass as a devotee sang “What a Wonderful World”.

The disjunction between Michael Roach’s bubble of obliviousness and consensus reality is being laid bare before our eyes, in real time. Thousands want to know why a frail young man meditated to death in the arms of his wife, in a cave without food or water. They want to know how his wife came to believe she was a goddess. They want to know what paroxysms of religious delusion and/or domestic violence led her to stab him months before he died. They want to know why her former lover and guru exiled them both from their home and community. Despite Roach’s claims to kindness and empathy and selfless service, it appears as though he is happy to laugh about a tragedy in his wake, and ignore these now-global questions that cut to the very heart of modern spiritual integrity. Perhaps we can chalk it up to his decades-long meditative rehearsal of a neo-Tantric mirage in which every calamity is a divine teaching moment, every criticism is proof of his virtue, and every call for transparency is an invitation to greater secrecy.

On a broader scale, Roach’s snubbing of consensus reality is a powerful display of irreconcilable worldviews: the collision of premodern tribal magicality with postmodern skepticism and inquiry. The public discourse around his intentions is a powerful display of the hostile barrier of mutual misunderstanding and distrust between religious insiders and outsiders. In an age in which progressive religiosity is at least attempting a dialogue between premodern faith and postmodern reason, the Diamond Mountain story shows what happens when this dialogue crashes and burns, or perhaps never gets started.

the endless Roach monologue that answers nothing

Roach’s public relations strategy is, as they say in the theatre, to “mark, park and bark”: hit your stage mark, stand your ground head-on, and deliver your lines to the nosebleeds. His first public “response” to the tragedy of Thorson’s death and the embarrassment of McNally’s delusions consists of a 26-page essay in which he self-reports his educational achievements. Of course, it’s not a response at all, but a massive deflection to counter a far less meaningful accusation that recent events have resurrected: that his monastic degree was less-than-honestly procured. Numerous sources both now and dating back to the old diamond-cutter.org website have charged that Roach’s academic credentials are honorary, and that his account contains gross exaggerations that play upon the cultural naiveté of his western students. Karen Visser reports that one of her current Sera Mey contacts, who remembers Roach’s visits in the 80s, describes Michael as a “cushion geshe”, someone who donated money to have his cushion reserved in the debate hall when he wasn’t there. This allegation has been supported by several commentators, but their anonymity cannot provide corroboration. Which is why some critics are seeking clarification from Sera Mey directly in a letter-writing campaign.

That Roach self-reports his achievements also does nothing to address his central credibility issue: he changes his story almost as often as he tells it. Honestly, I find this tragic, because buried somewhere within his look-at-me bluster is a story of amazing adventurousness, persistence, cross-cultural intelligence, devotion, and philanthropy. Even Roach’s harshest critics praise his work on the ACIP project and his considerable charitable contributions to Tibetan monasteries-in-exile. If he could simply restrain himself from exaggerating his educational story (time spent in Tibetan monasteries vs. time spent in Howell NJ) or his tenure with Andin International (implying he was still part of the company when Warren Buffett recently bought it), the uniqueness of his educational achievements (he is not, as he has claimed publicly for many years “the first Western geshe” – Georges Dreyfus was, as of 1985), his medical talent (“I’ve helped people with their health problems”), his singular insight into the historical Buddha (“On the night of his enlightenment he meditated all night with his consort”), his engineering skills (claiming to have “designed” and “built” the first wells and water lines for Sera Mey monastery), his self-portraits might inspire the broader sympathy he seems to desperately need. But such restraint is unlikely: his essay has to be read, after all, in light of his repeated claim to be on the verge of omniscience (self-reporting that he’s on the “Path of Seeing”). Michael Roach is not content to be a good guy. He really wants to be seen as a god as well, even as his fantastically twisted humanity is denuded before the world.

Beyond being utterly tone-deaf to the gravity of the Ian’s death, a number of structural aspects of this autobiogushical performance are worthy of note. Roach begins the essay with the faux-self-deprecating preamble common among the autobiographies of Tibetan saints:

Friends of mine have asked me to write some details about my life, partly to clarify information which appears online or in the press about me as my teachings become more prominent around the world, and partly because one of my Tibetan lamas has asked some of my students to write a biography about myself. These friends have been pestering me for some years—but I felt hesitant to respond, since it seemed a pretty self-centered thing to do. But as it may be helpful to my students and friends, I have decided to relent.

He “relents” with the device of question-and-answer, lending a teacherly “Ask the Expert” rhythm to his description, but ignoring the fact that these aren’t the questions that anyone is asking right now. Finally, the very title of the essay announces it’s written “for my friends”, indicating no intention of directly engaging outsider scrutiny, or anyone who would peal back the mask of his authority. Roach’s primary audience for his defensive screed consists of his own followers: at this dangerous juncture he must retain as many current devotees and sponsors for his expensive projects as possible, and to gain new adherents to replace those who are surely leaving. He seems to forget that as the director of a 501(c)(3) organization, we are all his sponsors.

story time for the clean-up crew

On the videos of his June 8 to 17th teachings in his new Phoenix meditation-and-media centre, you can watch Roach start out on the sound-stage in band formation, with double bass or sitar or guitar in hand, and then step aside faux-meekly for a scene change, as devotees build a teaching throne for him, complete with silks, flowers, and icons. Then he mounts the throne to read and give the oral commentary on sections from Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hands, the thick slab of a beginner’s practice manual for the Gelukpa tradition that so many feel he’s dragging through the mud.

The subject matter of these teachings was chosen long ago. But the timing of the subject provided an uncanny opportunity for Roach to kill several birds with one stone: launder his orthodox mantel, rally the faithful in the wake of the tragedy (never to be mentioned directly) with some “back-to-basics” pep, demean critical thinking and healthy skepticism, and reinforce the walls he has built between the 21st century and his pre-modern fiefdom. Pabongka Rinpoche’s book may be philosophically rich, but it is also culturally impenetrable, laced with the kind of monastic ephemera and medieval folklore that Roach constantly weaves into his discourse to romanticize his adopted tradition and amplify his other-worldly authority. In teaching this particular book at this particular time, Roach announces unambiguously: Daddy’s back in town.

The obviously hurt and confused students lap it up. Ani Chukyi (who I remember as Anne Lindsay back in 1998), spoke in her parallel teaching about what a relief it was to hear her lama (Roach) “start at the beginning” again, given the stress and scandal of Ian’s death. It would seem that the most effective rear-guard action a tottering authority figure can perform would be to remind his followers how good it felt to gambol in the age of innocence, before his ex-girlfriend went mad, before his most naïve protégé died in a cave, and to regress everyone to a warm and knowing place, untroubled by independent thought.

On the first night in Phoenix, during a section that describes the process for preparing for the ideal meditation session, Roach related Pabongka’s encouragement to clean your room prior to sitting down through a story that seems quaint enough, but which, given present circumstances, carries an ugly message. I’ll paraphrase:

Once there was very stupid monk. He was so stupid he couldn’t memorize a single sutra. So the Buddha told him to clean the temple with a broom. He said: when you sweep, recite: “Clean the dirt. Sweep the dirt”. Try as he might, the extremely stupid monk couldn’t even remember the two phrases together, or in order. Nonetheless, his faith in Lord Buddha was so great and his sweeping so ardent that he quickly attained levels of meditative equipoise and insight that rivaled those of the greatest scholars.

The moral is: you don’t have to think. You just have to believe. And sweep up the temple dirt. So the [banned term] monk sweeps himself right into heaven: a story that might give all of us [banned term] hope, until we realize that it’s also an ideal story for the reassertion of paternal (anal, in psychoanalytical terms) control amidst chaos.

Two suggestions hover beneath this story. Firstly, Roach is reminding students that he was the stupid temple-sweeping monk for his teacher, Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin (as per the anecdotes at the end of his blovathon). Secondly, he is implying that continued devotion in his students will obviate their cognitive failures. This suggestion is already an easy sell with most western adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, who will commonly say: “The Tibetans have been studying the truths of Lord Buddha for a thousand years: we shouldn’t presume to be able to understand anything”.

It is this tendency towards self-imposed ignorance that keeps Roach’s temple-soiling swept clean by insider brooms. The guru’s history is an incomprehensible hagiography: don’t scrutinize it too closely. Sweep, sweep. If you are troubled by his behaviours, the problem is your perception. Sweep, sweep. Roach and McNally’s relationship was a divine mystery: don’t interrogate its power/gender dynamics. Sweep, sweep. McNally’s delusions of grandeur are a display of karma that only a Buddha can understand. Sweep. We can’t really know why or how Ian Thorson died. Sweep. Given the possible confusion that recent events might provoke, it’s best to scrub McNally from all Roach-related websites. Sweep. “Don’t take it too seriously”, Roach reassures his crowd on the second night in Phoenix. Sweep, sweep.

“I’m not comparing myself to Jesus, but…”

The [banned term]-monk story is perhaps too subtle. Let’s skip right ahead to where Roach compares himself to Jesus. The transcript (6/9/12) is as follows:

In the last week there’s been a lot of crazy publicity about myself and Diamond Mountain. I haven’t actually seen that much of it. But I was in Guadalajara a few weeks ago, right?– who was there? [receives acknowledgement from students] yeah, and it was weird, because the last time I was in Guadalajara 20 people came, or something, not many people came, and then this last time a thousand people showed up, and it was one of the largest places you could have in Guadalajara to fit people. And that happened several times on this last tour, right? In… where was that? [looks to devotees again] Colombia, and then again in Mexico city, sold out in the museum of the wealthiest man in the world — Carlos Slim. It was strange. the tour was pretty strange. I don’t know about you, if you were in Guadalajara that night, it felt like the Mexican revolution was going to happen again. I actually got nervous. I felt very — especially when our friend got up [a student in the crowd apparently mimics the Mexican friend's fist-pumping actions], I just felt this energy run through the crowd and thought: this could get out of hand, you know. Where do you go from here? To a soccer stadium or something? What’s going to happen next, you know. And I thought “Very powerful forces were being unleashed.” I felt like that. And it felt a little bit unsettling. I was a little nervous about it. And so then I thought “Something strong is going to happen.” In Buddhism they say when good forces are happening very strong, then there will be opposite forces will come. And you have to expect it. and I think personally, this is just my own opinion, we’ve done… many of you have done 20 years of work, 25 years of hard work, free classes, 25 years of free classes, the university is free, the classes have been free, and 20K pages of traditional scripture have been unleashed into the modern world in a modern way. And people are starting to respond: even in Moscow before that, 850 people came to the talks. First time I’ve ever been there. Things are happening, things are moving, great forces are being unleashed, I feel. And I just want you not to be nervous or afraid or like that, okay, it makes me a little, it’s overwhelming for me and stressful for me, all the attention, and a lot of the negativity. But I think it’s natural, when good forces get very strong, and it’s happened throughout history. Read the story of — I’m not comparing myself to Jesus — but there’s a story: he healed Lazarus, he brought Lazarus back from the dead, which I cannot do, and I don’t claim to be able to do. But then he got in trouble. Beginning from that day, he got targeted by the authorities. They said that he was wrong to bring back people to life without asking the authorities: something like that, you know. And then they said, “O we have to go to Jerusalem now.” And Peter said “I don’t think you should go, you know, stuff might happen.” and he went anyway you know, oh-wey [slight tearing in voice, touches face]. So just, I feel that powerful good forces are being released, and there will be a reaction. and don’t be disturbed, don’t be sad, and don’t take it too seriously. Bigger things are coming. Much much greater things are coming. And beautiful things, global things, globally-changing things, and naturally there will be some reaction in the world. The more we do, the more reaction there will be. And that’s just natural, in the whole world. So embrace it and ride it, and don’t be nervous, and don’t be, especially don’t be unkind to other people, okay. Be friendly, be kind, be understanding of their needs. Respond to them with kindness and grace, elegance. That’s your training, that’s what you do. So whatever comes, our job is to practice, to be kind to people, be good to people, do our daily meditation, do our daily yoga, study. Show that you are well-trained, by being kind and forgiving, and serve people. That would make me most proud. Okay?

Okay indeed. Let’s analyze the rhetoric a little:

– To Roach, the breaking news is “crazy publicity”. It’s not the report of a death of his long-term spiritual student in his care under conditions of religious delusion.

– In the same breath, Roach veers from the content of the publicity, and diverts to stories about his recent global renown.

– From his throne, he quizzically asks his students to remind him where he has been and where he is going. This pretends to dilute his personal agency, creating the impression of plural group-think. The interchange affects a modest tone of someone “just swept up” in something bigger than him. This is consistent with his general practice of affecting charming foreignness and naiveté, as though he were native neither to English speech nor to the postmodern world of horseless carriages, flying machines, and the interwebs. Repeatedly asking students to find simple words for him is a powerful rhetorical device that keeps the class engaged and gives an artificial sense of solidarity in shared discovery, as the commentator Cyn points out.

– Throughout, Roach uses two rhetorical keys to the obfuscation of responsibility: plural address and the passive voice.

– Roach also often uses the 2nd person address to allude to himself. The collusion of 1st and 2nd person addresses creates a powerful boundary porosity between charismatic leader and devotional follower, such that who is doing what becomes obscured. This makes it very easy for underlings to feel a false sense of equality with him, empowerment from him, and participation in his plan.

– Roach name-drops Carlos Slim (the world’s richest man!!!), as though he were the sponsor/endorser of his Mexico appearance. Really, Roach just rented a venue from the guy.

– Only the Dalai Lama could ever teach in soccer stadiums. An indirect comparison.

– Multiple elliptical references to “powerful forces being released”. Again, the passive voice detaches Roach from responsibility. When credit is due, this rhetorical gesture affects modesty. When blame is near, it affects disengagement.

– “We’ve done, many of you have done”: he colludes his own narrative with that of the group. In fact, nobody in the room has “done” what he has done, but this fits the pattern of Roach handing off his own grandiosity to others. Later, he says, quoting Jesus (in plural): “O we have to go to Jerusalem now.” The suggestion of collective movement is vague and apocalyptic.

– As per usual, Roach uses the word “free” to describe his teaching products. Access through the front door may be free, but it’s certainly not free inside. The organization floats on a pre-modern sponsorship model in which donors are continually pressured for major contributions. “Free” is a way of obfuscating/romanticizing the real costs of a megalomaniac vision.

– “I’m not comparing myself to Jesus” – and then he does, alluding especially to Jesus’ heterodox actions. Then comes a terrible irony that makes me throw up a little in my mouth: Roach reminds us that Jesus’ troubles began over raising Lazarus from the dead, but of course his own troubles have sparked global interest because he is administratively and perhaps spiritually responsible for a man’s death. Roach is colluding Lazarus with Ian. But Ian’s corpse is not rising, except perhaps in the imagination of those who believe that he died in ecstasy. “[Jesus] brought Lazarus back from the dead, which I cannot do…” says Roach. Is this helpless Jesus somehow even more sympathetic?

– Roach tears up as he alludes to Calvary, preprogramming pathos amongst his devotees for whatever storms of persecution may come. I find this particularly dangerous.

– “Greater things are coming” echoes John 14:12, in which Jesus says– “Truly, I tell all of you with certainty, the one who believes in me will also do what I am doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (International Standard Version) Faith is presented as the prime consolation and route to self-empowerment. Keep calm and carry on.

– Bring it home with an appeal to forgiveness, kindness, and service. Position universally unassailable sentiments at the end of outrageous deflections and narcissistic allusions, to make the “main message” seem sane.

– “Okay?” This transcript reveals a comparatively sparing use of this particular Roachian rhetorical interrogative. He’s given teachings in which almost every sentence is followed by a hasty bark of “Okay?”, which instigates a regular head-nodding rhythm amongst the crowd, making it more and more difficult to any individual to feel, much less express, dissent. It’s a pretense at dialogue that can bully the crowd into group assent. I believe the head-nodding itself is a kinetic cue for physical kriyas. (He might have to alter this rhetorical device as he becomes more popular in Latin America. “Okay?” can become “Olé!”, leaving even less room for doubt. Buenos dias, Geshe Olé.)


the anxious shaman-charismatic-nowhere-man

I’ve spoken with many who knew Roach in the early days of his ministry. One remembered that Roach quite obviously had an issue with regarding women as equal fellow students. Also: that it was impossible to have an adult conversation with him, because he couldn’t seem to temper his internal mystical reverie for long enough to see and feel another’s humanity, perspective, otherness. I remember this as well: a kind of conviction that impressed the doubtful at first, but slowly revealed itself as a lack of interpersonal skills and general failure of empathy. From a postmodern perspective, his neo-Tibetan world seemed simple to an infantile degree. From a psychoanalytic perspective, he was a narcissist who had failed to develop healthy ambivalence with regard to the complexity of the world.

But from his own markedly pre-modern perspective, he was simply walking the walk. By his lights, Khen Rinpoche was a Buddha, Manhattan was swarming with tantric deities, every good thing that happened to him was a divine blessing, every bad thing that happened to him was a divine teaching, and anyone who doubted any of this was obviously perverted by contemporary delusions or perhaps even demons, and couldn’t call themselves a real Buddhist.


To begin to read Michael Roach, one has to contemplate the extraordinary clash of pre-modern and postmodern cultures that constitutes much of the Tibetan-Buddhism-Comes-West experience. We might call it an “epistemic collision”, in which two descriptions of the world and existence are mutually exclusive, leading both to mutual distortion and/or romanticization. The Tibetans have not generationally waded through the scientific or humanistic revolutions that form the groundwork for postmodern life. How do we meet them? How do we understand their world of deity yoga and oracular possession? How can they understand our general democracy of thought? What do we create out of our mutual projections onto each other?

In my experience, Tibetan religions can speak powerfully to a wounded place in pomo folk that yearns for pre-modern simplicity, or perhaps even a renewed clarity of childhood power dynamics. This is not to demean the soaring complexity of Tibetan metaphysics, nor the therapeutic jewels in its meditation technology, but to suggest that its hierarchical and faith-soaked method of transmission runs counter to the secular-liberal-humanist neurology that most western acolytes bring to it. To take it on fully, we have to partition off about four centuries of culture in our brains. Like every split, there is price to a pay.

It is not surprising that someone with as much manic devotion to this otherness as Roach will refuse to engage in dialogue with postmodern consensus reality. Perhaps this is the root of his power over the postmodern-wounded. He is quite literally not like the rest of us. Not just because he thinks he is almost omniscient: this should simply land him in the psych ward. He is different because, in addition to his outrageous self-certainty, he lives in a neo-Tantric world in which thinking one is almost omniscient is an utterly rational possibility, and, in fact, the most intelligent thing that anyone can accomplish – perhaps because it is a world that predates dialecticism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, intersubjectivity, and neuroscience. At the root of Michael Roach’s leadership power is his adamantine refusal to participate in the complex, unresolvable, and evolutionary conversation of contemporary human adulthood. He trail-blazes a path out of the twisting and thorny garden of historical growth. He offers simplicity, and claims it is free of charge. But adherents must pay for it with the only coin of real value today – the very foundation of empathy and positive collective change in the postmodern era – the capacity to hold multiple complex perspectives in an uncertain, passionate, humble, loving heart.

Roach’s persona is haloed with his astounding transformation from someone we might have recognized as one of our own into someone out of a myth. He is not an inscrutable old Tibetan like his teacher Khen Rinpoche, who lived and died in relative obscurity except for those few New Jersey students who served him for decades, trying to catch a glimpse into his arcane world. Roach not only peered into Khen Rinpoche’s world; he seems to have died into whatever he imagined it to be, and then rebirthed himself out of it, back into postmodern life, as a transcultural, ahistorical shaman.

I remember thinking within the first few months of meeting Roach: “Here’s someone who is like me, who came from my culture and people, and then became someone entirely different. He excised every ambiguity I could not tolerate. He got rid of his cynicism: he hears god in Neil Young.” This was a profoundly consoling thought for someone as alienated from his culture, time and people as I was. I thought: “He’s really done it. He went there, and did it.”

But where did he go, really? He crawled back into the pre-modern womb he thought Khen Rinpoche lived in. And what did he do, really? He regressed himself not only backwards into our psychohistory, but energetically into the form of a doubtless child. Sometimes he even looks like a weird baby – a disproportionately large head tufted with thin strands of fine hair, a puffy neonatal face, and those mesmerizing, moist, unfocused eyes. And the constant crying of toddler-like separation anxiety, which always triggered an irrepressible fountain of my own tears. (My mirror neurons were particularly sensitive to his gestures, manner, eyes, and face. I responded to Roach in a way that I never responded to a Tibetan teacher. Are we simply more responsive to the apparently familiar?) My devotion to Roach fell apart when I realized that what I really wanted was to be a baby again, held once more in powerful arms I could trust. But because I saw, thankfully, that he was too wounded to hold me, I had to become my own father.

The shaman: Roach skinwalks many worlds. His terrain is not only flush with mandalas and deities, but with media kits and databases. He floats with ease between laptop and ritual implements. He is neither monk nor businessman, but can play both. Neither man nor woman, but can embody either. We love the shaman, even if we doubt his sanity. He can do anything: be everyone, be no-one, live everywhere, and be of no fixed abode. We allow the shaman to sing, dance, weep, lie, cross-dress, sleep with whomever he chooses or withdraw into self-satisfied celibate meditation, and generally perform all the actions that we ourselves suppress or cannot find strength to do. More importantly, we allow the shaman to do the one thing we know we can never really do ourselves: avoid the absolute confrontation we each face with our limitations, our smallness, the fact of being here, in this mess, now. The shaman carries the existential hall-pass, and we want it, badly. To get it, we leave our language, our homes, our families, our historical moment. Or so we think.

A commenter calling him/herself JOsh had a slightly different take on Roach’s skinwalking, from the perspective of his relationship to “traditional” or “renegade” Buddhism. S/he pointed out that the comment thread to my second piece displayed the political calculus of Roach’s indefinability. As apologists for Gelukpa orthodoxy attack his credentials, Roach claims revolutionary virtue: he is translating and modernizing, he is empowering women, he is healing the Sino-Tibetan cultural rift by teaching in China. As secular humanists attack how he is running a public institution or abusing his power over women, he can claim the impenetrability of his lineage tradition, enshrouding it in a foreign language and episteme. He is, of course, preserving pristine ancient knowledge and rebuilding the secret technologies of transcendence, which our postmodern alienation has thrown into the dustbin of the “archaic”. Roach squirts nimbly between these two attacks, and boards his plane to the next public talk, his suitcase folded with maroon robes and Armani.

Robes and suits are both disguises for the shaman-charismatic: his real power comes from the capacity to change between them and alter the meanings of both. The same holds true for his juggling of ancient and modern texts and cultures in general. The ability of the shaman-charismatic to shape-shift on a dime makes others feel that he is in contact with a greater sense of presence. He holds purchase on the “now”. In a very eerie way, Roach really does perform (if not practice) the instant-karma schtick he teaches: humans can be anything they desire in the present moment. And they should change, right now, for his version of the better. And they must change immediately: time is running out. Roach has insisted for decades that the only purpose we all should have in life is to experience the same meditative reverie that he did in his early 20s. This is a massive projection, worthy of a top-shelf narcissist. Roach is consciously telling his students: “You must be like me: my experience is the only worthwhile experience out there.” Perhaps unconsciously: “I need you to confirm that experience to sooth my anxiety over its meaning.”

Why all the pressure? Isn’t daily life filled with enough tension? Or is the threat of an ultimate anxiety (“I might not become fully enlightened in this lifetime”) the very distraction some of us need? In an early draft of my first article I characterized this pressure as “apocalyptic”, but Diana Alstad persuaded me to withdraw the word, in the absence of technical evidence. But I’ll bring it back here in limited form: Roach’s take on Buddhism promotes an intense personal apocalypticism, in which the follower feels as though his world is limited to a single choice while death stares him down.

“Personal apocalypticism” gives insight into the agonized pursuit of higher and higher meditative states. It gives insight into why Roach will not compromise in the face of public scrutiny: there are much greater things coming – don’t be distracted by Ian’s death. It gives insight into black-and-white and magical thinking, failures of ambivalence and existential immaturity. Personal apocalypticism outwardly projects all-consuming private desires motivated by an intense fear of irrelevance or death. Ironically, all of these tensions are the targets of a certain brilliant Axial age philosopher named Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha, who challenged his fellow humans to face old-age, sickness, and death without flinching, to recognize that everything changes, and to understand that personal identity is a vanishingly small element of our grander shared story, and only has worth to the extent that it works for others.

Who is Michael Roach? Saint, charlatan, scholar, bullshitter, philanthropist, sociopath? Perhaps the most sophisticated answer is actually the one that funnels down through the Diamond Mountain talking points: Roach is the hallowed object of his own dumbed-down version of subjectivist Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, i.e.: an empty screen upon which we project our hopes and fears, and more ominously, the texture of our past behaviours. According to Roach’s own reasoning, his critics can’t help themselves: I myself am forever stuck in the samsaric loop of criticism, clearly. I am being manipulated like a puppet by the numberless cynical puppeteers of my past selves. Meanwhile, his supporters are simply enjoying the results of their past support. We revolve in mutually exclusive karmic bubbles. A part of me wants to endorse this empty-screen line of reasoning, if only to have it remove attention from Roach himself, so that we can look more clearly at the behaviour that surrounds him. Who is Michael Roach? might be exactly the wrong question, because what a narcissist really wants you to do is to puzzle endlessly over who he is, and to spend more time and money in his dream than in your life.
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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Thu Jul 05, 2012 9:06 am

More from this forum:

charisma as an autism-spectrum affectation

In 1922, sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as a “certain quality of an individual’s personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” What is this quality?

You could feel it rippling through the room. Roach built expectation masterfully, starting almost every public appearance woefully late, especially for those with babysitters. We sat and waited and meditated and prayed and studied. Then a murmur passed over the crowd and we stood in silence, turning to his looming frame, the extra-devout surging closer with flowers. His face was radiant, and he was flanked by floating seraphic women, like a transfigured saint in a Renaissance painting. (Christie, Ora, Elizabeth. Why wouldn’t he float into retreat with these women? They seemed bound to him in a gossamer web.) He stopped to accept every flower, but also randomly chose students to share a tender word, giving everyone the impression that personal and intimate attention from the guru was possible. But he never met anyone’s eyes for more than an instant.

The vata-types visibly trembled as he passed. I myself felt an upward rush of longing and fulfillment along my spine. I remember my face flushing and the swirl of rich and nameless emotions, feelings that I associated with every moment in my own Catholic childhood when absolute otherness was revealed in a ritual that brought me as close to god as it set me apart from people.

What’s strange about the shaman-charismatic is that you think you’re responding to his magical body, but this is only marginally true. To a far greater degree, you are actually responding to other’s responses to him in a snowballing feedback loop of shared expectation and wish-fulfillment. This became clear to me when I saw that the kundalini jolting through those beside me did far more to rattle my internal space than Roach ever did. I think that often what the charismatic does in a performance setting may be vanishingly small. His inaction in fact might be the source of his power: he might be doing nothing at all except showcasing his withdrawal into smiling internality, a radiant autism that stimulates the wishes of those around him for their own perfectly happy solitude. With all attention flowing towards him, he seems to functionally embody a vampiric lack of empathy. Showing the pretense of giving everything and empowering everyone, he doesn’t actually have to give anything or interact with anyone He merely has to affect the glowing receipt of adulation. He is removed from human concern, sanctified and smug, untouchably serene. He is not there to submit to the difficulty of interacting with people, except in the most abstract sense. He is there to be seen being better than others.

It comes down to this: the crowd sees a blissfully self-absorbed human, and they feel within themselves the intense wish to join him, all alone at the top of his invisible diamond mountain. Psychic and sensory data flow inward for the devotee: the kundalini shiver feels like light flashing through internal mirrors of infinite regress. And the most disconcerting thing of all in this kind of darshan is that while everyone is gazing at the guru, no-one is looking at each other. This explains the strange sight of devotees literally shoving each other out of the way in reception lines. He invites many to gather together to have an intensely private and isolating experience, which mirrors his own.

The charismatic draws his followers into his own absence of intersubjectivity while playing their emotions like a violin. Stimulating intense emotion is essential: without it, he has no power. As many sociologists of religion have pointed out, the charismatic attains his position through an overt challenge to tradition or law, creating a one-man vortex of attention, centered upon his body. Roach becomes Roach by challenging the boundaries, norms, and social structures of both Tibetan monastic culture on one hand, and the postmodern western episteme on the other. This is why he can no sooner give up his robes than his laptop. The double rebellion creates an inherently unstable structure: if Roach tumbles, neither world will have his back. There’s no desk job to fall back to, no farm team to coach.

The lack of institutional or traditional stability in Roach’s corporation demands from his students complete emotional investment in his persona. His position is dependent upon the kind of heart-devotion we see in Roach’s current personal assistant Mercedes Bahleda (among so many others). This emotional allegiance must actually strengthen in the wake of institutional or humanistic attacks upon his authority. Many followers find themselves in a zero-sum game of emotional dependence: the ring around Roach will get stronger, until it breaks. I also believe that the intensity of these conflictual, split, and isolating emotions is in turn a kind of fuel for the internal friction that causes kundalini to seem to rise.

many followers, leading themselves back

The shamanic-charismatic leader can hold power, but if his followers get in too deep, they lose their social place within consensus reality, and eventually have nothing to fall back on except the worn platitudes of libertarian freedom and individual responsibility. They will define their own bondage in terms of choice. This is painfully clear from some of the comments from Roach’s supporters in this forum and elsewhere. In response to criticism leveled at their guru, his worldview, and his administration, we’ve seen supporters argue self-reliance (Ian was an adult who made his own choices in a free country); marginally relevant facticity (The retreatants aren’t living in huts, but real houses, with real appliances!); diminishment (Sure, the Kali initiation of 2010 featured weapons and bloodletting, but it was really just theatrical); compensation (Don’t you recognize how much good this man has done in the world?); and retreat (Why can’t you all just leave us alone?).

But no true supporter can earnestly engage with any of the substantive criticism of Roach, precisely because it comes from the complex world they so much wanted to reject, in which he cannot be all things to all people, but is in fact a social and political leader like any other whose rise to prominence must attract requisite scrutiny. The scrutiny is intolerable because it presents an ambivalent picture that violates the radiance of the teacher-student bond. To acknowledge Roach’s many sides would require an act of integration and accomplishment of ambivalence (cf. Melanie Klein) greater than most true supporters would be able to bear. For many have split out their own capacity for certainty and all-goodness, and projected it onto Roach. The extent to which Roach Knows is the extent to which They Are Ignorant. There are many who don’t just live in his shadow. They are his shadow.

But how many true supporters are there, really? Not a lot, I suspect. One thing about even a pre-modern sangha in a postmodern world: no-one in Roach’s sphere of influence can remain unexposed to criticism for long. I have emails in my inbox forwarded to me from DMU insiders originally sent to DMU board members that link to my 5/4 piece. I’m sure this current post will itself be sent to other insiders from well-meaning outsiders. And through these links, the vast online discussion about Roach’s fitness for service will be turned over and over like steaming compost for the integrity garden.

One difficulty in gauging the level to which consensus reality has penetrated the true-support network is that true-supporter arguments will linger in form and content even as those who make them feel themselves fall away from Roach. They will continue to espouse self-reliance arguments (among others) but they will gradually shift away from defending Roach towards defending themselves. Because at a certain point upon leaving the thrall of a charismatic leader it is less important to defend his honour than it is to justify the time and money and emotional/familial capital you spent on him. What I hear beneath the arguments of many threshold-supporters is the pain of the sunk-cost: how can I have spent so much on a fraud? For some, the sunk-cost feeling becomes the sunk-cost fallacy. Turning back on their devotion would be intolerable. Many may feel their only option is to double-down.

The most tenacious self-justifying argument of the devotee backing his way out through the temple door (sweeping up all traces of his presence as he goes) is the libertarian argument, which unfolds in two stages. The first is hostile towards outside critics, or earlier-exiters who are casting blame: “It was always up to you, you know. Everyone was/is free to make their own choices. Geshe Michael isn’t doing anything from his own side. This is a free country. No-one forced you to be here. Don’t blame Roach for your vulnerability. Nobody made you believe anything you didn’t want to believe.” This stage is a basic abdication of responsibility for the social fabric, and attempts to quell the guilt of having watched fellow devotees being abused in one way or another.

The second stage softens, and turns inward: “Well – I really can’t say how other people experienced the man, but I got some good things out of my time with him, and I’m grateful for that. It might not have been right for everybody, but what can we say? Life is mysterious.” This stage takes what it can from a bad situation, and rationalizes the individual benefit. It gives a wistful air to the general narcissism of new-age spirituality.

This second stage is what I smelled in a personal email from Winston McCullough, the first old-timey Roach-devotee and colleague I reached out to back in late April, before I published anything. I remembered Winston from 1998-2000, not as a personal friend, but as a community leader, disciplined student, and all-round dharma-optimist with whom I’d play-debated our beginner’s understanding of emptiness theory on the debate ground when we were both dharma-tourists at Sera Mey in South India. I’d heard that he’d resigned as the first director of Diamond Mountain in 2004, and had moved with his family to the Northwest. Because his current online bio fails to reference his six (and perhaps more) years of intensive student-and-working relations with Roach (an omission increasingly common among former prominent Roach students, though none have come forward with the kind of public criticism that some standards of integrity might demand), I assumed that his move implied a window of philosophical and perhaps social space between himself and the guru.

I reached out to Winston to see if a prominent former student of Roach such as himself might be interested in providing a public mentoring voice to his former foundering community, perhaps by contributing to or tempering the content of my post. Looking back on this, I don’t exactly know what I imagined he could do, but I suppose I at least expected him to indicate that he wanted to do something. But he declined to involve himself. And in classic second-stage-withdrawal style, he wrote via e-mail that he was “sorry about whatever challenges people may be experiencing”. As in: they may be real challenges, or perhaps not (too hard to say, it seems, with psychosis and stabbing and death – it’s all a matter of perspective, no?), but in either case they were issues that he couldn’t comment on, because he has moved on.

For the first six or seven years after I parted ways with Roach I felt like I too had moved on. I pretended that I could frame my “lost years” in the most beneficial personal light, and be done with it. Psychologically, it was much easier to focus on “I got what I needed from the experience; if it wasn’t ideal for others, well, that’s unfortunate”. (June Campbell, author of Travellers in Space, describes this very well in this 1996 Tricycle interview, which also has much to offer to the discussion of the role of women in Tibetan tantric culture.) Faced with social trauma, we are, above all else, compelled to make things make sense. We will compromise our empathy to resolve cognitive dissonance. The rationalization of self-benefit often comes through turning a blind eye to those around us. After all, if it was bad for others, how good could it really have been for me? What makes me so special and so lucky that my life has generally come together, while Ian’s has been ripped apart?

What I would like Roach devotees and almost-ex-devotees to know is that withdrawing from charismatic control into renewed personal integrity is a long process with many stages. First you may feel hurt and disillusioned. You may suppress this in order to begin the rationalization process. You may be confused about how it was possible for so many people to have such different experiences. You may begin to doubt your doubt. You may feel some are being hysterical in their criticism – those guys like Remski who were always haters anyway. You may feel humiliated that others aren’t listening to your legitimate complaints. In my experience, all of these feelings will interweave without resolution until you finally allow yourself to be truly angry at the lost time and your vulnerability and not standing up for people you saw bullied and your guru’s incredible presumption and the general shortness of life, and in that anger begin to find yourself by resisting the river of power that has continually swept you downstream, and out to sea.

squeezing out of the bubble: dialogue with lama marut

Winston might have made a clean-ish break from Roach’s sphere, but others will find it much more difficult, because their professional lives and public personae are enmeshed in Roach-related endeavours. And some of them are burdened by the additional complication that their personal behaviour has mirrored key aspects of the Roach shadow-play. Consider Lama Marut, also known as Brian K. Smith, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at UC Riverside, and a protégé of Wendy Doniger and Mircea Eliade himself.

I knew Brian in 1999-2000. He’d been a surfer, biker dude, smoker and drinker, a rather footloose and roguish divorced father with a beautiful daughter of eight or nine years old. But by the time we were sitting across from each other in a Bodhgaya hotel restaurant between teachings by the Dalai Lama and commentaries by Roach, he’d seemed to have accepted Je Tsongkhapa as his personal lord and saviour. He went vegetarian and alcohol-free, softened his intellectual bravado and skepticism, and started talking about taking ordination.

I can’t say I knew Smith well at the time, but his desire for ordination puzzled me. There seemed to be something penitential about it. (Smith rejected this presumption in his email response to an earlier draft of this section, preferring to use the word “complex”.) But his path made more sense to me when he told me over rice and dahl that he was the son of a Baptist minister, and that his relationship with both his father and his birth religion was fraught with tension. I have since wondered – and still do – whether the oscillation between sin and redemption, as it is for many bred-in-the-bone Christians such as myself, is a key self-soothing rhythm of Smith’s psyche, as it was in my own.

I’m not sure what Smith did while Roach was in his first retreat from 2000 to 2003 – we fell out of touch – but I remember hearing that he was amongst the first students of the Diamond Mountain neo-Tantra programme beginning in 2004, and that he received novice ordination from Roach (and McNally) in 2005, and then full ordination in 2009 from the pair, who were then in the process of separating. Gelukpa traditionalists discount these ordinations, saying that Roach cannot give the monastic vows he has so clearly broken. And certainly for such vows to be co-administered with McNally, they say, who herself held no ordination office, surely invalidates the entire ritual. In a personal email, Smith defends his ordination as a private matter: “Taking these vows was an extraordinarily powerful and personal experience. As far as I’m concerned, no one can “invalidate” the vows I took.”

Ordained or not in the eyes of Tibetan tradition and culture, and clearly inspired by his teacher’s heterodox gumption, Smith put on his robes with gusto, and began teaching publicly as a neo Tibetan Buddhist monk. A catalogue of his work is available here. A good example of his recent teaching is this video, which he sent me directly during our correspondence. I’m not sure whether he sent it as an example of recent teaching qua teaching, or as a passive-aggressive suggestion to me: that I am presumably unhappy with Roach et al. because I take a “victim’s perspective”.

In either case, it confirmed for me Roach’s influence over his general message. In Smith’s hyper-subjectivist message of “You are not a victim of anything or anybody, and you are the creator of your own world”, he reifies the “adhyatmika bubble”, as Hart deFouw calls it: a particularly new-age devolution of karmic theory, more in tune with The Secret than the Pali canon or the Bhagavad Gita – a wholesale rejection of adhibautika (the actions of others) and adhidaivika (the general ecology). (Adhyatmika refers to self-generated willful actions, said to account for roughly 1/3 of the total action of which experience is made.) This criticism applies to Roachian metaphysics in general. Perception is far more complex than can be understood by the dichotomy of “coming from other” vs. “coming from self”.

In both Smith’s revised bio-note and his personal emails to me, he asserts he is not Roach’s puppet:

In the academic world, it is assumed that while you learn from your teachers and respect them for what they taught you, you also are to integrate what you’ve learned and then take it in your own new and independent direction. A good teacher teaches a student to think for themselves. I have tried to honor all my teachers by doing just this. In my spiritual teachings over the past several years I have drawn on my own material – mostly from my own original translations of Sanskrit texts – and taught them from my own perspective. I am not simply parroting GMR or anyone else… (personal email, 6/25)

But for someone so interested in intellectually distancing himself from Roach it is odd that he recycles Roach’s own myopic interpretation of Patanjali 1.2, positing vritti as “turning inside out”, instead of the accepted “fluctuations”. “Turning” can work as a translation if it refers to simple repetitive movement (of the gunas, etc), but not if it begins to imply cognitive reversal at the heart of Roach’s “Think-Method” version of emptiness theory. Patanjali isn’t asking for a reversal of perception, but for an end to it, such that the isolation (kaivalya) of purusha and prakriti can be re-established. Roach’s interpretation simply reifies cognition (pramana). For both Roach and Smith to use this text to suggest a kind of cognitive-behavioural-therapy fix for general human suffering is a gross simplification of Yoga and Buddhism. I’m not a Sanskrit scholar like Smith, but I am widely read enough to know that he is squeezing vritti through a Roach-sized window into a teleological agenda that the text will not support. As an academic, Smith well knows the broader interpretation of the term. Bending it for his purposes is as intellectually dishonest as his teaching beside a picture of the Dalai Lama – after claiming that lineage doesn’t matter.

Simplification can have its value. In general, we come to resolve our birth trauma with an overly-objectivist cognitive stance. To at least consider the absolute opposite — that experience is subjective alone — can have therapeutic value, in the sense of pattern-disruption. But it is a transitional teaching at most, and one which unfortunately steers seekers away from the intersubjective, from which empathy proceeds and to which it returns, in my experience. Experience is an ineffable weave of objective presentations and subjective stances: feeling the rich uncertainty of this condition is a dear treasure of the heart.

Philosophy aside, what gets really interesting about Smith is that he seems to have wrapped himself not only in maroon and in Roachesque “Buddhism-As-The-Secret” talking points, but also in key aspects of Roach’s performance as well. Within a short period of time, “Lama Marut”, as he is now known (the misappropriation of the “Lama” honorific by someone considered to be unqualified is deeply insulting to Tibetan culture, by the way) was attracting his own students and “fast-tracking” them into advanced practices through initiations that he had only recently received himself from Roach. One commenter on my second piece likened this to practicing surgery on the general public following a weekend “healthy lifestyles” seminar. He also took a spiritual partner, with whom he began teaching a pastiche of Mahayana Buddhism, Hindu devotionalism, and Indo-Tibetan Tantra, all under the philosophical umbrella of Roach. In other words, Smith seems to have mimicked many of his mentor’s choices that have drawn fire from both traditionalist and humanist critics.

Most strange of all, both his rhetoric and his Tiblish (Tibetan-English vocal rhythm, tone, and syntax) began to mirror that of Roach directly. Both affect a neo-oral-tradition teaching style of constant content repetition with minor variations, peppy filler, and pop-culture digression. Even his speaking posture seems to have merged with that of his teacher. Like Roach, Smith is a large man, and key staples of his performance are to loom forward with beneficent menace as he speaks, gesture emphatically with his large hands, and use the full force of his resonant voice almost constantly. It is not the communicational stance of the intersubjectively aware, or the therapeutically sensitive. The stances can make both Roach and Smith come off as self-certain bullies seemingly unconcerned with the intimate dialogue at the heart of evolution. They have the truth, and they’re going to mark it, park it, and bark it.

Smith’s imitation of Roach ends, however, at public relations and crisis management. Since the scandal broke, Smith has radically altered his public teaching persona in ways that sharply distinguish him from his free-falling guru. He announced that he was going to start teaching in civilian clothes. He wasn’t formally giving back his monk’s robes, but would now reserve them for those teaching circumstances in which they wouldn’t set him apart from the householder culture he primarily serves. This gesture was announced with a catchy tagline, which quickly went viral (Smith has a large social media following for his dharma tweets): “The purpose of a spiritual life is not to become better THAN others, but to learn how to be better FOR others.” Soon after, he published a clarification of his views on the issue of lineage purity, taking an essentially postmodern and deconstructive position of how power comes to be formed in spiritual cultures. In it, he foregrounds all of his academic influences, glosses over his Roach-affiliation, and erases what had been a cornerstone of his marketing as a dharma teacher through past years: that he is a “fully-ordained Buddhist monk in the lineage of the Dalai Lamas”. Both shifts happened to coincide with the release of his new book and its dedicated world tour: A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life. These are all very deft self-protective moves, and if his core students have enough gravol on hand to stomach the rolling, Smith may survive his self-extraction from the Roach bubble for long enough to attract new students who have never heard of his disgraced mentor. Brian Smith is like Michael Roach’s postmodern doppelganger, minus the premodern episteme: a mirror of form, content, and behaviour, but savvy enough to know when to take a new tack.

Smith’s ace in the credentials-hole is his academic background, although the disjunction between his professorial career and his Lamahood poses an interesting challenge. His titles are a keystone of his public credibility, but their professional meaning within his current role are strained. Scholarship in Comparative Religion demands either a strict non-sectarian viewpoint, or at the very least a refined sensitivity to the problems of insiders being able to theorize with transparency. Smith made his career in a field in which it is virtually impossible to be taken seriously as a scholar while making overt displays of religious faith. His credentials are in a discipline that specifically demands the opposite of what his allegiance to Roach displays. So: he is making an interesting and messy public epistemic shift, and using the academic paradigm to support the religious, when it does not. More accuracy in his self-representation would require more nuance, as in: “I’ve retired from academic life and culture to pursue the spiritual teachings that are closer to my heart…” followed by a statement about the clear difference between the two, and the value of each. His position here is not dissimilar to Roach’s with regard to being liminal to two traditions, yet claiming the authority of both. I’m sure he wants to do a better job than Roach does of navigating this thicket.

Luckily, Smith isn’t in as tight a corner as Roach is. He has never publicly claimed mystical realizations or powers. His own claims of Buddhist lineage reach back only to Roach, a known eclectic. Unlike Roach, he hasn’t bet the farm on asking people to believe he’s the only person in the world authentically blessed and trained to be somebody special. And an entire career spent in peer-review culture has evidently given him the capacity to respond to criticism, rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist. By displaying the capacity to change, Smith might be performing what he is teaching: liberality and adventurousness in spiritual life. The real test of his ability to avoid the Roach undertow will be to see whether it becomes clear that during those crucial seven years of his teacherly formation he only parroted Roach’s teaching style and content, and not Roach’s willingness to feed off of age and gender power imbalances, certify unqualified teachers, abuse his students’ emotions or trust, socially shun students who don’t defer to him, or put them at psychological risk through bizarre initiation practices.

One thing is clear: in direct statements at least, Smith is standing by his man. Here is our interchange about how he is relating to Roach in the wake of the scandal.

Me: Regarding having taken vows with Roach and McNally: is it not true that there are more than enough insider Gelukpas who assert that MR has broken samaya significantly enough to invalidate the ritual of his ordinations?

Smith: How Many “Insider Gelukpas” have asserted this? How many would be “more than enough”, and who would decide this?

Me: Is claiming ordination from someone who has been excommunicated and then going on to benefit from the authority of the robes conscionable within the broader context of Gelukpa monastic culture?

Smith: I am unaware of any such “excommunication”, or what “excommunication” would mean in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, or even which individual or institutional body within Tibetan Buddhism would have the power and authority to do such a thing.”

Me: Have your robes and lineage-clarification decisions been at all influenced by the tragedy at Diamond Mountain, and the controversy surrounding Roach’s continuing insistence on wearing robes, and his clear overstatement of Gelukpa adherence?

Smith: I have posted video and audio in which my reasons for not wearing robes while teaching are stated, and the purposes for putting up the lineage and influences statement on my website may be found within that very document.

In reading these semantic parsings of simple questions, it must be remembered that Roach is Smith’s Tantric Master, and to publicly or even mentally question him in any way carries an enormous religious penalty — countless lives in hell, for starters. The bonds between Tantric vow-givers and vow-takers will be psychologically overwhelming for some, and I imagine that we will see many similar responses, ranging from the uncomfortable to the downright tortured, from Roach’s students as they revision their identities and allegiances.

In my opinion, I think the smartest, most genuine, and truly “renegade” thing that Smith could do when the time is right would be to make his strange association with Roach an utterly transparent part of his spiritual autobiography. I heard the first part of it years ago, over dinner. Perhaps the fuller version would sound something like this:

I am the son of a Baptist minister. I became a scholar of religion to understand the nameless pressures and ecstasies of my childhood. But after many years I realized that my scholarship had stripped me of faith and wonder. I wandered through my middle years chasing empty consolations. And then I met a man my age, from my culture, who truly believed all of the things I remembered from childhood, but had since merely studied in books. I fell in love with his strange passion: I felt it rejuvenate a buried vitality and hopefulness. But gradually, I saw that like myself he was wounded, perhaps beyond repair, and that mirroring his life was not getting me any closer to the truth of my own. I realized that I had followed someone else’s dream in order to wake myself up. My entanglement with him showed me the necessity of finding my own path.

Now this would be a teacher I would listen to.

I don’t know how to love him

I’m asking for a lot transparency from Roach and Smith: far more than their public personae or personal pride – or in Roach’s case, grasp of reality – can likely bear. What transparency do I have to offer in return? A little more every day, I hope.

These past two months have provoked a rich stream of contemplation for me. I’ve had to revisit a strange and often dark time in my life and continue to uncover its meaning. I’ve wrestled with the ethics of outraging old friends and emotionally distressing thousands of people I’ve never met. I’ve been sleepless with the consideration that my reporting and opinions may contribute to profound changes in the paths of people I don’t know. I’ve wondered if these articles might cause damage far beyond my intentions: that not only will Roach’s halo tarnish and teeter, but that his charitable efforts will also be threatened, and that the Tibetan culture he has appropriated will suffer further by spotlighting this tragedy.

And yet I’ve felt compelled to pursue it. Not for fame or money, as some have accused. In this field, the former is of dubious value, and the latter is non-existent, except for a few professional journalists for whom I’ve provided a shitload of legwork. So: why? Not only because it’s my story as much as it’s anyone else’s who has crossed paths with Michael Roach, but also for a much deeper reason that I am just beginning to own. I loved him. In his apparent mystical ecstasy I felt the answer to my own terrible longing. I was obsessed with him, and in some ways I still am. There’s something about Michael Roach that pulls on all of my unintegrated threads at once, something that shows me where I am a scared and petulant child longing for comfort, where I demand certainty where none exists, where I am lost between cultures and millennia, and how easy it was to console myself by withdrawing into masturbatory religious sentiment.

Before Roach went into retreat in 2000, I sealed a strange bond with him in a public performance of a book he had just published and for which I had been an editorial assistant. It was called The Garden, and it consisted of a young seeker’s narration of encounters with Buddhist saints in a meditation garden on successive summer nights, co-ordinated by a suspiciously McNally-like high school girlfriend/angel. It was, like everything Michael did, quasi-autobiographical. He enlisted myself and my ex-wife to create a script of the book, and rehearse it for the launch. We wrote, memorized, blocked, and rehearsed for a month as a duet, with myself playing the young Michael Roach, and my ex playing the parade of teachers, from the saturnine logician Dharmakirti to the young prince Gautama himself. The launch was early in 2000: we had all just returned from the roll-over of the millennium in India, broke and feverish. It felt like the end of something big, both socially and personally: an entire community was about to lose their teacher for years, the book summed up many of his basic messages, the first great Roach diaspora was about to occur, and my ex and I, vagabonds since we met, were about to rebuild yet again our entire social and professional lives.

Even the performance venue was suggestive of an ending world. Harper Collins, Roach’s publisher, rented out an old Barney’s store that had gone bankrupt in the recent recession. We built our makeshift set around empty shelving emblazoned with the brand names of haute couture. Someone brought a few can lights with gels, someone else set up the video, and someone else brought vegan catering to set up beside the artful pyramid of new books. I don’t know how many people came; it felt like two hundred or so. We used the grand marble staircase in the centre of the main floor for the entrances and exits of the saints.

We began: I closed my eyes under the lights and listened for my ex’s step on the stairs. I molded my posture and mental space into what I imagined my teacher’s internality felt like: an upward pulse, a buoyancy, a radiant loneliness. I felt an ecstatic merging into the presence of a man I wanted to be. I felt my name and story vanish under the gaze of those who wanted to see their teacher’s life laid out before them, projected onto an empty screen. I’d been in music and theatre for years, but never had the form and content of performance intertwined so deeply with my own secret longing.

It was over before it began. Michael rushed towards me with tears streaming down his flushed face. He took me in his arms, and embraced me with crushing force. His body trembled with emotion and radiated intense heat. I began to weep as well, overcome by an abject wordlessness. I felt him love me in perhaps the only way he knew how: manically, desperately. I went limp in his arms, surrendering to him, having become him. It took years for me to shake the feeling of being gripped and held. Years to rekindle my own heat.

new rumours, which, if corroborated by the crowdsource, may continue to provoke therapeutic anger

Many ex-devotees of Roach are recovering from a merging similar to my own. They are coming forward, tentatively. Many have been silent and withdrawn for years, trying to make sense of having given their power away to a dream. In addition to the dozens brave enough to post their experiences online (though perhaps still too wounded to use their full names), about a dozen more, who have all expressed a wish to remain anonymous, have sent me heartbreaking e-mails recounting their psychological suffering and marginalization in the shadow of Diamond Mountain. I’ve been told that students have been pressured into sexual consort practice, that Roach-affiliate organizations have failed to pay administrative workers promised wages for over two years, that Roach’s senior students have spiritually terrorized newer initiates, that marriages have ruptured in the wake of bizarrely sexualized initiation rituals, and that other intimate relationships have crumbled under the weight of philosophically-provoked emotional abandonment.

I can’t corroborate these accounts by myself. Presenting them prematurely exposes me to the accusation of fabrication. How can I protect the anonymity of my sources while showing that I’m not rumour-mongering? I can’t. But I’m willing to take a risk. My experience so far with Roach-related stories is that they begin as frayed threads that dangle until pulled upon by the crowdsource, and are drawn out and woven together on a collective loom of resurrecting dignity. Prior to the publication of my second piece, an anonymous e-mail appeared in my inbox: “If people start talking about the Kali initiations of 2010, Diamond Mountain will implode.” I referenced this “rumour” in my post in the form of a leading question, and it led to several hundred comments exposing a nightmare of spiritual chicanery, psychological bullying and sexual harassment. So far in this story, smoke has definitely signaled fire. And the smoke keeps billowing.

The vast majority of Roach’s students have taken a set of vows – as I once did – associated with the Bodhisattva ideal, a rigorous code of compassionate ethics. One of these vows is the vow to “dispel rumours” that threaten the integrity of Buddhist teachings or teachers, or threaten the ardour of the faithful. By not responding to the many questions raised by the Thorson tragedy (and its Diamond Mountain context) that remain unanswered by his open letter, Roach and the entire DM board seem to be breaking this vow on an hourly basis. If the rumours are untrue, perhaps other students will show more courage, and address them directly.

Why do my correspondents wish to remain anonymous? Because uttering the story of trauma can be as painful as experiencing the trauma itself. It is not surprising that ex-members speak in layers of disclosure. They will only speak at first in the silence of their hearts, and then in whispers, from behind a scrim. Finally: encouraged by the voices of others, a more confident sound may emerge.

following Christie McNally back to where it all started

The voice we all want to hear most is that of Christy McNally. Not from behind a retreat blindfold, nor from a teaching stage, nor in an hallucinatory letter posted online from the middle of nowhere, trying to console confused devotees. With more than fifteen years at Roach’s side, she will know, more than anyone, how it all happened, how it all works, and exactly what he has done. But her authentic knowledge will be wrapped in the thick shadow of her complex self-perception. I imagine she is far more deeply split than anyone I see in therapy, with an unconscious part feeling she has been a slave to another’s dream, and a more conscious part actively rationalizing that slavery by assuming a false mastership role.

This is why I found it so moving to read of her travelling to Kathmandu and trying to meet Lama Zopa. It’s a classic story of a person returning to the site of her original trauma: the place where she began to change and split, to think she was becoming someone other than an East Coast photography and literature student with a bright and uncertain world before her. Perhaps a regular job, a family.

It was also very moving to read that she had to stand in the reception line like every other beginning student, that she received no special acknowledgement from this strangely luminous little monk she met in this very place in the mid-90s, at the beginning of her journey – before all the grandiosity, the thousand airplanes, the knives, and Ian’s malnourished eyes gleaming in the dark of the cave.

And perhaps most moving of all: to read that she offered a white silk kathak scarf to the old man, now so frail and sick, and that, as per the custom, he gave it back to her. Christie spent close to a decade wearing white silk “angel clothes” as she stood demurely beside her maroon-robed master. It is as though she offered Lama Zopa the rags of an old disguise. And the old Tibetan gave it back to her, placing it tenderly around her neck, as if to say: Own your life. Own your past, your path, your culture. It’s never too late. Start now, from the beginning.

_________

Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. Please check out his site for more writings on Ayurveda and Yoga.
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Thu Jul 05, 2012 2:44 pm

:-) Thanks for posting the full Elephant Journal article, Josh. (-:

(As I've mentioned the sweeping monk elsewhere on the forum, I will just add here that Buddhism traditionally acknowledges faith or confidence as one of the faculties by which someone may enter the supramundane path. Having confidence in the Buddha's advice enabled the monk to have confidence in himself; nothing in the original story implies giving control to a father-figure. Monk Kśūdrapathanka* found his sweeping-practice a source of inspiration, and his reflections brought him insight and furthered his inner practice.

* Previously I quoted the his name as "Small Road". Checking online dictionaries, I think this Sanskrit epithet means something like small or lowly traveller/wayfarer; I think the Pali might be something like Khuddapanthaka.)
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Thu Jul 05, 2012 9:35 pm

Jcbaran wrote:
Dharma is not harmed by people sharing their stories, feelings, concerns and airing them. Welcome to the West. Welcome to the 21st century. Asian traditions can teach us absolutely nothing about honest communication or accountability. That would be the last place to go to learn about accountability of any sort.


The Dharma, as the true dharma, the realm of truth, can never be harmed, obscured perhaps but never harmed which is why some schools have refered to it as the Adamatine Dharma.
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Fri Jul 06, 2012 9:37 am

Matthew Remski wrote:
In Smith’s hyper-subjectivist message of “You are not a victim of anything or anybody, and you are the creator of your own world”, he reifies the “adhyatmika bubble”, as Hart deFouw calls it: a particularly new-age devolution of karmic theory, more in tune with The Secret than the Pali canon or the Bhagavad Gita – a wholesale rejection of adhibautika (the actions of others) and adhidaivika (the general ecology). (Adhyatmika refers to self-generated willful actions, said to account for roughly 1/3 of the total action of which experience is made.) This criticism applies to Roachian metaphysics in general. Perception is far more complex than can be understood by the dichotomy of “coming from other” vs. “coming from self”.

Isn't this pretty much a version of karmic theory unfortunately quite rife in Tibetan Buddhism? I note that the author referred to the Pali canon rather than a Tibetan text for acknowledgement of "adhibautika (the actions of others) and adhidaivika (the general ecology)" as contributing to "the total action of which experience is made".

I realise that this post may not belong here--Lise, feel free to do your thing! (-:
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Fri Jul 06, 2012 1:48 pm

Dear Anne or anyone else, please, that may be able to explain the above posts a little further. I came to Buddhism rather late in life and for one reason or another did not study the Pali Canon in detail as many of you did. Am I correct in understanding that the work of Dependent Origination directly refers to this "adhibautika" (the action of others) of the Pali Canon ? Also, am I correct in my understanding that these two opposing theories (Adhibautika versus Adhidaivika) are akin to having "free will" or not? or am I completely off? Or, is there something thats even beyond these two and as Remski says "perception it far more complex than can be understood by the dichotomy of "coming from other" versus "coming from self"?
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Fri Jul 06, 2012 3:27 pm

:-) Hi Brigette!

The trio of 1) actions that are self-willed, 2) actions of others, and 3) the activity of ones environment are whence effects upon oneself can come (I am not sure about the Sanskrit words Matthew Remski uses).

If one person set out to murder another, the would-be killer is not a puppet of their would-be victim, and if they succeed in their plan, the victim would experience this effect as the result of the "action of another". If (I must be too into sci-fi...) our planet were whacked out of orbit by a comet (...think big!), we would experience this effect as a result of the "activity of our environment".

I think that the approach of taking everything that happens to one as solely the result of ones own skillful or unskillful actions may function as a temporary 'therapeutic device' to lessen automatic and exaggerated blame being laid on others, or belief that one is without any power but is under sole control of 'nature' and general external conditions. But I am under the impression that this perspective may be dominant in Tibetan Buddhism as a view of 'the way things really are'...I hope I'm wrong. (-:
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Fri Jul 06, 2012 5:49 pm

Thanks Anne, for the reply. Hmmm...., I was always a bit wary of the Tibetan thing, what with all the magic practices etc., yet perhaps I need to go back a bit and re read Je Tsongkhapa as well as a few others though, it's been a long time, and perhaps with all the latest speculation of particle theories in Physics, we may be on to something:)............. Just kidding, the Buddha had it all figured out long ago, and I need to go back to my corner and sit
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Tue Jul 10, 2012 3:00 pm

Buddhist Retreat’s Death Saga
A Buddhist ‘Retreat for Peace‘ in the rugged Arizona mountains has been less than peaceful lately, as a top student was expelled and later found dead in a cave. Lizzie Crocker looks for answers from the retreat’s charismatic founder.


by Lizzie Crocker | July 10, 2012 4:45 AM EDT - the Daily Beast

In a carpeted auditorium in Phoenix last month, devotees of Michael Roach lined up in front of a stage to present him with bouquets of flowers, ambrosial peaches, coconut water, and other offerings. Each bowed his or her head, and Roach responded in turn with a warm, toothy smile. When the line was done, he climbed on the stage and sat cross-legged behind a podium, surveying his rapt audience. He settled his gaze on a student at the front of the room, signaling her to lead the opening prayers chanted before every course he taught.

About halfway through his two-hour lecture on the “Steps to Enlightenment,” Roach stopped and picked up a doughnut a woman had placed on the podium earlier.

“Desire is not always wrong,” he said, taking a bite. “It’s not wrong to like doughnuts. But if you’re with a group of people and take the last one without thinking of everyone else, that’s wrong. I got this doughnut here because I shared a doughnut with someone in the past.”

Such are the metaphysics of Roach’s brand of Buddhism—a “New World” philosophy, as he describes it, that has garnered him thousands of followers in the United States and abroad. Guru-seeking Westerners are drawn to his messianic zeal and accessible interpretation of an exotic Eastern religion; last month, 180 of them had come to participate in a 10-day teaching seminar held at the New Vision Center for Spiritual Living in Phoenix.

“When you do your meditation practice or your yoga practice, you’ve got to bring up some noble motivation,” Roach, 60, said to his students, who call him by his Buddhist honorific, Geshe Michael or Geshe-la. “I will look fantastic from doing yoga!” he said with flamboyant pretense. “I will be thin and strong and handsome or beautiful!” He paused. “That’s not wrong. It’s not wrong to wish to look good or to be smart or to be wealthy, if you use these motivations for the right reason.” He paused again. “What I’m trying to express to you is that you don’t have to be a saint to have the right motivation. You just have to expand on your own selfishness.”

Two months earlier, a much less blissful scene was unfolding in the rocky hills outside Roach’s Diamond Mountain University, a four-hour drive away in rugged Bowie, Ariz. On the morning of April 22, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department received an emergency call from a caretaker at Diamond Mountain, requesting a search-and-rescue operation for two of Roach’s leading students, Christie McNally and her husband, Ian Thorson. In late February, both had been expelled from a three-year, three-month, three-day silent retreat at Diamond Mountain, and had been living in a small, tepee-shape cave.

Paramedics had rappelled from a helicopter to the site of the cave—a steep, three-hour hike on rough terrain from Diamond Mountain. Inside, they found McNally, the retreat’s former director, dehydrated and delirious. Thorson was dead. The sheriff’s office found no indications of foul play, and a coroner’s report determined that he died of “exposure to the elements.”

Also in the cave were an air mattress, sleeping bags, flashlights, a garbage bag, a tarp, and several water jugs, all of which were empty but one, which contained about a quarter cup of dirty water. There were bins of uncooked food outside the cave’s entrance.

Sgt. Ursula Ritchie, a search-and-rescue coordinator with the sheriff’s department, found a cache of food and water roughly 50 feet below the cave, down a 60-degree slope, where caretakers from Diamond Mountain were occasionally dropping off supplies for the couple. “I had to scoot down on my rear to get there,” Ritchie said.

Roach’s Tibetan lamas thought he was crazy, Thurman said. ‘First of all, you just don’t go around saying you’re enlightened. It’s a secret teaching. It’s just not something you do.’
McNally and Thorson had retrieved their last food drop three weeks prior to the rescue, according to the sheriff’s department, and had shared their last meal—a bowl of split-pea soup—on April 20. They used the tarp to collect rainwater on April 14, but hadn’t had anything to drink for four days by the time rescuers arrived.

McNally, who refused medical treatment, told rescuers she and Thorson had been living in the cave for months, but had recently become too weak to make their way down and back up from the cache. McNally also said she and Thorson had lived at Diamond Mountain for nine years, but after being kicked out, they’d hoped to complete their silent retreat off of Diamond Mountain’s property.

According to Roach and several Diamond Mountain students, McNally and Thorson had been asked to leave after McNally revealed during a public talk that she had accidentally stabbed Thorson a year earlier. Roach and the DMU board determined that Christie had described mutual spousal abuse, and in an announcement the following day, Roach stated that violence of any kind wouldn’t be tolerated at Diamond Mountain.

On Feb. 9, the DMU board told McNally and Thorson they had five days to pack up their belongings and leave campus. They left the university grounds at dawn on Feb. 20 without notifying the board.

What actually happened that led to their expulsion? It depends on who is telling the story.

On April 26, four days after Thorson’s death, Roach posted a lengthy open letter on Diamond Mountain’s website explaining why the board had asked McNally and Thorson to leave, and mentioned that “multiple formal and informal reports of partner abuse and assault of students and staff by Ian” had factored largely in their decision.

The letter also detailed preparations the board made so that McNally’s and Thorson’s departure from the retreat would be “as safe and gentle as possible.” Roach wrote that the couple had refused to communicate with him or the board after they were asked to leave, so, through an assistant, DMU provided them with $3,600 in cash, a rental car, two prepaid cellphones, hotel reservations near the closest airport, and a promise of reimbursement for flights. The assistant told the board that the couple wanted no contact or knowledge of their whereabouts.

But just three days before the rescue mission, McNally, who could not be reached for comment for this story, appeared to post her own letter online (“we have no knowledge of when this letter was written, or how or by whom it was posted,” Roach wrote in an email). McNally’s letter offered a very different interpretation of the events that led to the “exile”: “there had been no kind of physical strife whatsoever” before the stabbing, she wrote, adding that she and Thorson “were simply fooling around, like children playing with their father’s samurai sword, unaware that eventually someone is bound to get hurt.”

She said she had written a separate letter to the DMU board and “tried to explain to them what they were doing wrong” in expelling them, and expressed disappointment that she and Thorson “were given no time to prepare a new place to continue our retreat.”

When she lost her role as retreat director, she wrote, she began to feel like she had “gotten the bad end of a divorce settlement!”

So where does the truth lie? More crucially, why were McNally and Thorson attempting to finish their years-long retreat in a remote desert cave? And how could Thorson's death have been avoided?

In June I traveled to Phoenix to meet with Roach in person. We had been in touch through email, and at his request I had sent him written questions beforehand. Still, he seemed surprised when I first introduced myself, and evaded my eyes when we sat down briefly during a break.

Roach was more willing to discuss the issue in writing, as seems to be his wont (he claims to have written eight books and translated more than 10,000 pages of ancient Tibetan texts).

When I wrote to ask what lessons Buddhism provided for him regarding the incidents surrounding Thorson’s death, he wrote: “In the Buddhist tradition, Rule #1 is that we need a personal teacher who can guide us, and correct our course when this is necessary. For me personally, watching this tragedy unfold, I have been reminded of the need for each of us to be accountable to someone whom we consider to be wiser and kinder than ourselves.”

Most of the people I spoke to in Phoenix also found spiritual explanations for both Roach’s and McNally’s actions surrounding the expulsion, and for Thorson’s death. Most, like Johnny Yozone, a 41-year-old recording engineer who moved out to Diamond Mountain six years ago, also absolved Roach of responsibility.

“Sometimes I see Geshe-la as a perfect being, and sometimes I don’t,” Yozone said. “But I trust him. And in the 12 years that I’ve known him, my morality has been perfected through him.”

But Roach’s own morality has been questioned by other Buddhists. Ex-devotee Matthew Remski has denounced Roach as a solipsistic spiritual leader and master manipulator in three lengthy critiques on the popular yoga website Elephant Journal. His analyses have created a forum where commenters continue to rabidly debate Roach’s philosophy and role in Thorson and McNally’s expulsion.

That role only becomes more complicated when one considers Roach’s personal history with McNally, whom he met in New York in 1996 when he was 44, 20 years her senior. She had graduated from NYU two years earlier and had just returned from studying meditation in India. In 1998 they took a secret vow to be lifelong “spiritual partners” and never to be more than 15 feet apart—a component of their relationship that they later discussed in an interview with The New York Times. In 2000 they entered into silent retreat at Diamond Mountain with three other women who were rumored to be Roach’s “dakinis,” or Tantric deities in the Tibetan tradition. His partnership with McNally wasn’t made public until they came out of retreat in 2003—and it was not welcome news to the Buddhist community in which Roach had trained.

“It was really frowned upon by the Tibetan Buddhists,” said Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and former Buddhist monk. Thurman had worked with Roach in the 1980s on a database of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, which Roach ultimately completed without Thurman.

“I told him to renounce his monastic vows because under our tradition monks do not keep consorts,” Thurman said, recalling a meeting he had with Roach and McNally. But Roach insisted he was technically celibate, and told Thurman he’d never had genital contact with a mortal being. According to Thurman, McNally’s response was, “He said it, not me.”

In early 2003, shortly after coming out of retreat, Roach wrote a letter in verse to his teachers proclaiming that he was an enlightened being and that McNally was a goddess.

Thurman told The Daily Beast that Roach’s Tibetan lamas, or teachers, thought he was crazy. “First of all, you just don’t go around saying you’re enlightened,” he said. “It’s a secret teaching. It’s just not something you do.”

The concern over Roach’s unorthodox behavior came to a head while he was planning a trip with other Western Buddhists to attend teachings by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Roach himself was trained in the same lineage as the Dalai Lama and is the first American to earn the title of geshe, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. But in an email, the Dalai Lama’s office advised Roach not to come because of his “unconventional behavior,” including “keeping company with women,” which “does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practice.”

In a subsequent email, the Dalai Lama’s office also disapproved of Roach’s proclamations of enlightenment. “If you have reached the path of seeing, as you claim in your letter, you should then be able to show extraordinary powers and perform miracles like the Siddhas of the past,” the email said. “Only then will the followers of Tibetan Buddhists be able to believe and accept your claims.”

Still, Roach and McNally remained together—legally, at least—until late 2010, when an Arizona court granted Roach’s request for divorce. The circumstances surrounding their split are unclear. Some say he wanted to be with another woman; others claim it was because McNally had fallen in love with Thorson. Two months before Roach filed papers, McNally and Thorson married, and in December the couple entered into the second silent retreat at Diamond Mountain, where they lived together in a secluded cabin.

It was a provocative move. Those who knew Thorson over the years described him as quiet and bright, if socially awkward, and while he had followed Roach and his inner circle since the late 1990s, other students at DMU said Roach kept his distance.

“Before Geshe Michael went into retreat, there was a period of time when he was traveling around the country and abroad giving teachings, and he discouraged Ian from attending,” said Robert Chilton, who worked with Roach. “He could see that they didn’t have a productive relationship, that Ian wasn’t benefiting from being part of the community.”

Roach and McNally’s breakup also caused a rift among their disciples, according to Ekan Thomason, a Buddhist priest who graduated from Diamond Mountain in 2010 after a seven-year course on the higher teachings of Tantra.

“For years they had taught all around about being spiritual partners and told others that they, too, could reach enlightenment this way,” Thomason said. “Then suddenly they weren’t spiritual partners anymore, and they seemed to be competing for their students’ loyalty.”

But despite their split, Thomason and others said, McNally did not shed the deified persona Roach had cultivated in her for more than 10 years. People who knew them as a couple before and after their breakup said Roach’s perception of her as an angel distorted her grip on reality—and Thorson’s as well.

Thorson “swallowed the program hook, line and sinker, bolstering Christie's own sense of herself, and I believe this also made him wide-open to be driven, if not manipulated by her,” said Michael Brannan, a graduate of and current volunteer at DMU.

Other former students recalled feeling uncomfortable with the dynamic created by Roach’s relationship with McNally.

Sid Johnson, who first met Roach in 1999, moved out to Diamond Mountain in 2000 to help build a foundation for the University. He left a year later, but he returned for an initiation ceremony in 2005 with his wife, at which he recalled McNally kissing him on the mouth and touching his genitals, an experience he didn’t tell his wife about until years later.

“This was the last straw for me, but my wife had become smitten with the whole thing,” he said. McNally “was basically presented as the Buddha, and we were all supposed to see her as a holy enlightened being.”

In an emailed response to comments like these, Roach wrote, “Basically a student is responsible to evaluate what a teacher tells them and to follow it only if it helps other people and does not hurt them.”

During last month’s seminar, Roach did not mention McNally or Thorson, though he acknowledged recent events at Diamond Mountain that had caused suffering. Other students said he had encouraged them to reflect on what might have caused such “bad karma” to infiltrate the retreat.

One morning after meditation, Roach sought me out amidst commotion in the room. He had opted for loose-fitting maroon pants and a dark grey T-shirt, and seemed more approachable without his robes on. But when I asked if we could speak, he frowned and looked away distractedly. He didn’t think he could find the time, he said. “I just ask that you please focus on how hard the retreatants are working, not just on the one or two people that screwed up.”

But who really screwed up?

Some say McNally should take responsibility for the actions that led to her expulsion, and for the seemingly irrational decisions she made afterward.

“Her letter was a totally new fabrication of her teaching back in February,” Brannan told me in an email. “It demonstrates either an incredible act of purposeful evasion or self-deception.”

Others, like Thomason, who claimed her own ability to make judgments was impaired during the time she spent at Diamond Mountain, see McNally as a victim of brainwashing by Roach.

“It had to do with our mindset and the way we were taught to think, which is exactly how Christie had been taught to think,” Thomason said. “She had been fed information about how special she was since Geshe Michael first met her. She wore all this angel garb. She was a goddess and could do no wrong.”

Roach denies accusations that he leads a cult.

“I think of a cult as brainwashing followers in some kind of weird philosophy,” he wrote in an email. “In the case of almost every course I have ever taught at Diamond Mountain or elsewhere throughout the world during the last 20 years, I have only used direct translations of the ancient scriptures of Buddhist tradition. None of what I have ever taught is my own idea; all of it is backed up by the ancient classics, word for word.”

But ex-devotees and skeptics of Roach claim he has tweaked ancient teachings to fit his philosophy.

Thomason pointed to a temple at Diamond Mountain devoted to Kali, a traditional Hindu goddess, that housed crossbows, rifles, chainsaws, an AK-47, and a samurai sword.

“They were trying to manipulate Kali to represent some Tibetan deity, but it just didn’t make sense,” Thomason said. During an initiation ceremony conducted by McNally in 2009, Thomason said, she and other students were asked to draw blood from their fingertips as a sacrifice to Kali.

When I asked Roach if he approved of McNally’s ceremony, his response was vague.

“We had over 130 students graduate from our seven-year course in advanced Buddhism. Many of these students have granted their own initiations, in keeping with a tradition of over 1,000 years. I rarely have time to attend these,” he wrote, adding that he wasn’t present at McNally’s ceremony.

Thurman argued that Roach’s teachings from the text are difficult to verify because Roach himself operates in a self-justifying universe.

“Most of his followers have only studied with him and learned from his translations,” Thurman said.

Other ex-devotees, such as Sid Johnson, say the student’s blind faith in the teacher breeds cognitive dissonance, particularly if that teacher has a distorted understanding of the role his own desires and attachments play in his interpretation of traditional doctrine.

“How can a student determine the truth in any situation when the teacher doesn’t have a grip on reality?”
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Tue Jul 10, 2012 6:25 pm

Tenzin Geyche Tethong, Secretary to H.H. the Dalai Lama, wrote:
If you have reached the path of seeing, as you claim in your letter, you should then be able show extraordinary powers and perform miracles like the Siddhas of the past. Only then will the followers of Tibetan Buddhists be able to believe and accept your claims.
The first sentence is untrue, unless meaning along the lines of, "As you can't take out your liberative insight to show 'the followers of Tibetan Buddhists' you'd better have something flashy that can inspire confidence if you want them to believe you." What concerns me is that this apparent insistence--that "extraordinary powers and...miracles" arise automatically with the path of seeing (i.e with the arising of first full kensho/stream-winner stage)--coming from the Dalai Lama's office, will be taken as true...I have seen indications that this has happened where it has been quoted elsewhere online. It may only be the personal belief of the secretary, and he is doing himself no favours with it...but now it is also doing many other people no favours either. I did post polite refutation of this notion in several places on michaelroachfiles.wordpress.com but it seems to have disappeared.* Is there no end?!? wah

(I'm getting cranky...I need sleep...;-)

* I don't think I was selectively "disappeared", as no other viewers' comments appear either.
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Wed Jul 11, 2012 5:27 am

:-) Some bits further to my entry above...

1) From an interview of Geshe Michael Roach by T Monkyi in spring, 2003:
Quote :
GMR: When you achieve the path of seeing, when you see emptiness directly, I think a minor realization is that you could control the elements. And it happened that my lama asked me to turn a brick into gold, just after that. And it was a funny statement, because I knew that if I trained further I could do it. You know what I mean? But I couldn’t do it then. He just said that right after the experience. He pointed to a brick and said that, and so I understand that it can be done, and I see how it could be done, but I’m not at that level, and I can’t do those kinds of things.
To me, this seems a realistic statement concerning perceptions at that stage. Michael Roach has claimed experiencing this in 1973/4.

2) Abridged letter to Michael Roach from Lama Zopa, spiritual director for the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, earlier in 2003 (copied from http://michaelroachfiles.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/lamas-replies.pdf). The first paragraph concerns statement by Michael Roach, in a letter sent to several lamas, that he was practising with a human consort and had grown his hair and was wearing "her bracelet and other accoutrement together with my robes":
Quote :
Dear Geshe Michael,

This is my response to your letter. This is what I think if I can express. If your conduct will be the way you explained in the letter then it will not be normal from the monasteries' point of view or according to the monasteries' point of view.

Where the need is more important than what is to abandoned (gagcha le skyang gopa chewa), along with that one should be able to perform other miracle powers, show control or freedom like Milarepa or like any of those yogis such as Dukpa Kunleg. Then, in this way, people can see the realizations and power and so devotion grows in them.

Even if they have mistaken appearance, people see their special qualities of showing control and high realizations, in this way seeing the mistakes does not destroy peoples' faith and instead they see only qualities.

An example is Gelongma Palmo -- she had leprosy in her left hand and it was about to fall off, then she was advised by King Indrabodhi to go to the place where om mani padme hum naturally appeared on the rock. After she achieved Chenrezig [Avalokiteśvara] she had the appearance of a 16 year old girl with a very beautiful body, and she stayed close to the monastery so a lot of people thought she didn't have her vows and she received a lot of criticism from the people in the city. [...]

Gelongma Palmo in order to destroy the heresy of the people of the city who believed she had broken her vows and to inspire them and bring them to enlightenment, she cut off her head and put it on a spear and danced in space and said “if it is true that I am not pure, not a fully ordained nun then my head should not come back, if it is true that I am pure then my head should come back”. Then her head came back on her body, like before, and that proved to the people in the city the words of the truth. The head from the spear came back to her body as before, so everybody completely believed that she did not have any mistakes and is pure, destroying all their wrong views and heresy and this caused them to have incredible devotion to her. [...]

Just to clarify I don’t mean you have to be enlightened to do that kind of conduct. It might seem that way from the story but all it means is having high realizations and showing to others through external miracle powers. [...]

By showing miracle powers then other people can generate devotion and non heresy. By seeing the miracle power, something external, then they can have faith in high realizations, seeing that you have control and are free and whatever conduct you do does not have the stain of samsara.

If one performs those behaviors to develop people’s devotion then it is not just an ordinary miracle that is needed, one needs to do a special kind of miracle, for example the 6th Dalai Lama pee-ed from the top of the Potala and just before the urine hit the ground he drew it back again inside his vajra. Also there is the story of the previous incarnation of Gonsar Rinpoche, he pulled in mud through his vajra. [...]

With much love and prayers,

Lama Zopa
Lama Zopa seems to display a sense of humour!

3) From the spring 2003 interview:
Quote :
T Monkyi: Many of us understood [Lama Zopa's letter] to say, “Look if you’re at that level of practice really, put your cards on the table. Let’s see some tricks. Show that you have power, realization, control over the elements. Give your students a little cookie so that they don’t lose their faith.” Can we expect some miracles, flying in the air, walking on water or anything coming?
Part of Michael Roach's reply referring to the lama's letter:
Quote :
I understood Lama Zopa Rinpoche’s comment in two ways. One was, “You should now push on and try to learn to do those things, “ and I appreciate that.

And then secondly, you know when I read the stories of Jesus or Marpa in particular, I think their showing miracles was a reason for many people to believe in them. I think it can be very valuable. I thought Lama Zopa Rinpoche was, when I reflected on what he had said, and when I read the stories of Jesus, a lot of what’s written is about the miracles he did. And I think over the centuries that it did help some people to perceive him as special. In our tradition, in Buddhism, in the scriptural tradition, miracles are considered to be … you are advised not to do miracles if you can do them, because that kind of faith doesn’t last. The faith that comes from years of training and study lasts, and it’s strong, and the faith that comes from seeing a miracle is not stable and people rationalize it. A miracle is that Lama Zopa lives in our world, and we don’t think that way. So I have that. And of course the last thing would be, I said many times in classes I think that you have to be very close to being able to perform a miracle yourself to see a miracle happen. And even Jesus’ closest disciples, some said he walked on water and when they lost faith and they tried to do it themselves they fell in. They started to walk on water and then they fell in the water. And so a lot of the perception of a miracle… everything. If things are empty, you can only see a miracle if your own mind is producing that miracle. But I took it as a beautiful advice to me from one of my lamas, and I’ll try. But I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to tell if I have done miracles. But I think it’s a wise advice in that letter, and I think it would be very useful on special occasions to do miracles. I think it could help people.

It was a beautiful letter though. The way his mind works is so unusual. You would expect a person to address A, B, or C, and he goes to Z, and he tells you this long story about this yogini, and you can sit with it for days, and it’s a blessing. His mind is so beyond us, it’s totally beyond us. I think I’ll be absorbing that letter for years.
In the interview, Michael Roach and Christie McNally both remarked on spontaneous unusual events (e.g "We were doing this meditation, and he had a mala around his neck and at the end of the meditation it was around my neck and I didn’t even know how it got there, and he hadn’t moved." -- Christie McNally) but there is no claim by Michael Roach of performing miracles at will.

(Note: I have re-found my comments on the michaelroachfiles.wordpress.com website but, despite remaining mystified why I did not find them yesterday, I suspect no miracle on this occasion. :-)
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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Fri Aug 03, 2012 12:53 pm

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PostSubject: Re: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona   Wed Jun 05, 2013 1:06 pm

Death and Madness at Diamond Mountain
from Playboy South Africa


People come from all over the world to Arizona’s Diamond Mountain University, hoping to master Tibetan teachings and achieve peace of mind. For some, the search for enlightenment can go terribly wrong.

Ian Thorson was dying of dehydration on an Arizona mountaintop, and his wife, Christie McNally, didn’t think he was going to make it. At six in the morning she pressed the red SOS button on an emergency satellite beacon. Five hours later a search-and-rescue helicopter thumped its way to the stranded couple. Paramedics with medical supplies rappelled off the hovering aircraft, but Thorson was already dead when they arrived. McNally required hospitalization. The two had endured the elements inside a tiny, hollowed-out cave for nearly two months. To keep the howling winds and freak snowstorms at bay, they had dismantled a tent and covered the cave entrance with the loose cloth. Fifty yards below, in a cleft in the rock face, they had stashed a few plastic tubs filled with supplies. Even though they considered themselves Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition, an oversize book on the Hindu goddess Kali lay on the cave floor. When they moved there, McNally and Thorson saw the cave as a spiritual refuge in the tradition of the great Himalayan masters. Their plan was as elegant as it was treacherous: They would occupy the cave until they achieved enlightenment. They didn’t expect they might die trying.

Almost irrespective of the actual spiritual practices on the Himalayan plateau, the West’s fascination with all things Tibetan has spawned movies, spiritual studios, charity rock concerts and best-selling books that range from dense philosophical texts to self-help guides and methods to Buddha-fy your business. It seems as if almost everyone has tried a spiritual practice that originated in Asia, either through a yoga class, quiet meditation or just repeating the syllable om to calm down. For many, the East is an antidote to Western anomie, a holistic counterpoint to our chaotic lives. We don stretchy pants, roll out yoga mats and hit the meditation cushion on the same day that we argue about our cell phone bill with someone in an Indian call center. Still, we look to Asian wisdom to center ourselves, to decompress and to block off time to think about life’s bigger questions. We trust that the teachings are authentic and hold the key to some hidden truth. We forget that the techniques we practice today in superheated yoga studios and air-conditioned halls originated in foreign lands and feudal times that would be unrecognizable to our modern eyes: eras when princely states went to war over small points of honor, priests dictated social policy and sending a seven-year-old to live out his life in a monastery was considered perfectly ordinary.

Yoga, meditation, chakra breathing and chanting are powerful physical and mental exercises that can have profound effects on health and well-being. On their own they are neither good nor bad, but like powerful lifesaving drugs, they also have the potential to cause great harm. As the scholar Paul Hackett of Columbia University once told me, “People are mixing and matching religious systems like Legos. And the next thing you know, they have some fairly powerful psychological and physical practices contributing to whatever idiosyncratic attitude they’ve come to. It is no surprise people go insane.” No idea out of Asia has as much power to capture our attention as enlightenment. It is a goal we strive toward, a sort of perfection of the soul, mind and body in which every action is precise and meaningful. For Tibetans seeking enlightenment, the focus is on the process. Americans, for whatever reason, search for inner peace as though they’re competing in a sporting event. Thorson and McNally pursued it with the sort of gusto that could break a sprinter’s leg. And they weren’t alone. More than just the tragedy of obscure meditators who went off the rails in nowhere Arizona, Thorson’s death holds lessons for anyone seeking spiritual solace in an unfamiliar faith.

Until February 2012, McNally and Thorson were rising stars among a small community of Tibetan Buddhist meditators and yoga practitioners who had come to the desert to escape the scrutiny and chaos of the city in order to focus on spiritual development. McNally was a founding member of Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center – a small campus of yurts, campers, temples and retreat cabins that sprawls over two rocky valleys adjacent to historic Fort Bowie in Arizona. In the past decade Diamond Mountain has risen from obscurity to become one of the best known, if controversial, centers for Tibetan Buddhism in the United States. Its supreme spiritual leader is Michael Roach, an Arizona native, Princeton graduate and former diamond merchant who took up monk’s robes in the 1980s and remains one of this country’s most enthusiastic evangelists for Tibetan Buddhism. McNally was Roach’s most devoted student, his lover, his spiritual consort and, eventually, someone he recognized as a living goddess. For 14 months McNally led one of the most ambitious meditation retreats in the Western world. Starting in December 2010 she and 38 other retreat participants pledged to cut off all direct contact with the rest of the planet and meditate under vows of silence for three years, three months and three days. Unwilling to speak, they wrote down all their communications. Phone lines, airconditioning and the Internet were off-limits.

The only way they could communicate with their families was through postal drops once every two weeks. The strict measures were intended to remove the distractions that infiltrate everyday life and allow the retreatants a measure of quiet to focus on the structure of their minds. Thorson’s death might have gone unnoticed by the world if, days after, Matthew Remski, a yoga instructor, Internet activist and former member of the group, had not begun to raise questions about the retreat’s safety on the well-known Buddhist blog Elephant Journal. He called for Roach to step down from Diamond Mountain’s board of directors and for state psychologists to evaluate the remaining 30-odd retreatants. His posting received a deluge of responses from current and former members, some of whom alleged sexual misconduct by Roach and made accusations of black magic and mind control.

Roach rose to prominence in the late 1990s after the great but financially impoverished Tibetan monastery Sera Mey conferred on him a geshe degree, the highest academic qualification in Tibetan Buddhism. Conversant in Russian, Sanskrit and Tibetan, he was an ideal messenger to bring Buddhism to the West and was widely acclaimed for his ability to translate complex philosophical ideas into plain English. He was the first American to receive the title, which ordinarily takes some 20 years of intensive study. In his case, he was urged by his teacher, the acclaimed monk Khen Rinpoche, to spend time outside the monastery, in the business world. At his teacher’s command, Roach took a job at Andin International Diamond Corporation, buying and selling precious stones. According to a book Roach co-authored with McNally, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, in 15 years he grew the firm from a small-time company to a giant global operation that generated annual revenue in excess of $100 million. The book cites a teaching called “The Diamond Sutra,” in which the Buddha looks at diamonds, with their clarity and strength, as symbolic of the perfection of wisdom. But the diamond industry, particularly during the years Roach was active in it, is one of the dirtiest in the world – fueling wars in Africa and linked to millions of deaths.

During a lecture Roach gave in Phoenix last June, I asked him how he could reconcile his Buddhist ethics with making vast sums of money through violent supply chains. Roach stared at me with moist, sincere- looking eyes and avoided the question. “If your motivation is pure, then you can clean the environment you enter,” he said. “I wanted to work with diamonds. It was a 15-year metaphor, not a desire to make money. I wanted to do good in the world, so I worked in one of the hardest and most unethical environments.” It was the sort of answer that plays well with business clients. Rationalizations like this are not uncommon in industry, but they are for a Buddhist monk. If Roach was unorthodox, he was also indispensable. His business acumen might have been enough for some early critics to look the other way. His share of Andin’s profits was ample enough that he could funnel funds to Sera Mey to establish numerous charitable missions.

His blend of Buddhism and business made him an instant success on the lecture circuit, and even today he is comfortable in boardrooms in Taipei, Geneva, Hamburg and Kiev, lecturing executives on how behaving ethically in business will both make you rich and speeding the path of enlightenment. Ian Thorson had always been attracted to alternative spirituality, and he had a magnetic personality that made it easy for him to win friends. Still, “he was seeking something, and there was an element of that asceticism that existed long before he took to any formal practice of meditation, yoga and whatnot,” explains Mike Oristian, a friend of his from Stanford University. Oristian recounts in an email the story of a trip Thorson took to Indonesia, where he hoped a sacred cow might lick his eyes and cure his poor eyesight. It didn’t work, and Thorson later admitted to Oristian that “it was a long way to go only to have the feeling of sandpaper on his eyes.”

Roach gave Thorson a structure to his passion and a systematic way to think about his spiritual quest. After Thorson began studying Roach’s teachings in 1997, Oristian remembers, some of his spontaneous spark seemed to fade. Kay Thorson, Ian’s mother, had a different perspective. She suspected he had fallen under the sway of a cult and hired two anti-cult counselors to stage an intervention. In June 2000 they lured him to a house in Long Island and tried to get him to leave the group. “He was skinny, almost anorexic,” she says. They tried to show him he had options other than following Roach. For a time it seemed to work. Afterward he wrote to a friend about his family’s attempt to deprogram him: “It’s so weird that my mom thinks I’m in a cult and so does Dad and so does my sister. They talk to me in soft voices, like a mental patient, and tell me that the people aren’t ill-intentioned, just misguided.” For almost five years he traveled through Europe, working as a translator and tutor, but he never completely severed ties. Eventually he made his way back to Roach’s fold. In 1996, when she was only two years out of New York University, Christie McNally dropped any plans she’d had to pursue an independent career and became Roach’s personal attendant, spending every day with him and organizing his increasingly busy travel schedule. And though his growing base of followers didn’t know it, she would soon be sharing Roach’s bed.

The couple married in a secret ceremony in Little Compton, Rhode Island in 1998. As had many charismatic teachers before him, Roach established a dedicated following. As it grew he planned an audacious feat that would take him out of the public eye and at the same time establish him in a lineage of high Himalayan masters. He announced that, from 2000 to 2003, he would put his lecturing career on hold and attempt enlightenment by going on a three-year meditation retreat along with five chosen students, among them Christie McNally. In many ways, Roach’s silence was more powerful than his words. Three years, three months and three days went by, and Roach’s reputation grew. Word of mouth about his feat helped expand the patronage of Diamond Mountain and the Asian Classics Institute, which distributed his teachings through audio recordings and online courses.

Every six months he emerged to teach breathless crowds about his meditating experiences. At those events he was blindfolded but spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness. Finally, on 16 January 2003 he dropped two bombshells in a poem he addressed to the Dalai Lama and published in an open letter. In his first revelation he claimed that after intensive study of tantric practices he had seen emptiness directly and was on the path to becoming a bodhisattva, a sort of Tibetan angel. The word tantra derives from Sanskrit and indicates secret ritualized teachings that can be a shortcut to advanced spiritual powers. The second revelation was that while in seclusion he had discovered that his student Christie McNally was an incarnation of Vajrayogini, the Tibetan diamond-like deity, and that he had taken her as his spiritual consort and wife. They had taken vows never to be more than 15 feet from each other for the rest of their lives and even to eat off the same plate. In light of her scant qualifications as a scholar, Roach legitimized McNally by bestowing her with the title of “lama,” a designation for a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.

These revelations severely split the Tibetan Buddhist community. The reprimands were swift and forceful. Several respected lamas demanded that he hand back his monk’s robes. Others, including Lama Zopa Rinpoche, who heads the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, a large and wealthy group of Tibetan Buddhists, advised that he prove his claims by publicly showing the miraculous powers that are said to come with enlightenment – or be declared a heretic. That Zopa Rinpoche was one of Roach’s greatest mentors made the criticism all the more pertinent and scathing. Robert Thurman, a professor of religious studies at Columbia University, met with Roach and McNally shortly after Roach published his open letter. He was concerned that Roach had broken his vows and that his continuing as a monk could damage the reputation of the larger Tibetan Buddhist community. “I told him, ‘You can’t be a monk and have a girlfriend; you have clearly given up your vow,’” Thurman says. “To which he responded that he had never had genital contact with a human female. So I turned to her and asked if she was human or not. She said right away, ‘He said it. I didn’t.’ There was a pregnant pause, and then she said, ‘But can’t he do whatever he wants, since he has directly realized emptiness?’” On the phone I can hear Thurman consider his words and sigh. “It seemed like they had already descended into psychosis.”

Intensive retreats where monks meditate in isolated caves are mainstays of Buddhism in Tibet, where they are typically used to establish the credentials of an important teacher. However, such retreats make less sense outside Tibet’s historically feudal world. The human mind is reasonably fragile, and isolation can act like an echo chamber. For the retreatants, Diamond Mountain was a ritualized place where they could try to sharpen their minds to see as little of the ordinary world as possible and allow their visualizations to be the focus of their daily life. For better or worse, Roach and McNally emerged from their first great retreat as different people than when they began. Much of the explanation for this comes down to physical changes in the brain. In its purest form meditation is a way to look at the mind in isolation. By calming the body and watching thoughts come and go, an experienced meditator can uncover astonishing things in his or her physiology and psychology. Meditation is a little like putting your mind in a laboratory and seeing what it does on its own. Although everyone’s experience is different, it is common to see walls shift, hear noises that aren’t there, observe changes in the quality of light or have time inexplicably speed up or slow down. Neuroscientists have discovered that over the long term meditating can cause changes in the composition of brain matter, and even short stints can create significant physical alterations in one’s neurological makeup.

Whatever changes occur during short, daily meditations are only amplified on silent retreats. Although comprehensive clinical studies on the potential adverse side effects of such retreats are just getting under way (one led by Willoughby Britton, a neuroscientist at Brown University, is in its second year), it is clear that some people find the isolation and mental introspection too intense. Some lose touch with reality or fall into psychotic states. The world generally embraces meditation as a method of self-help, but a 1984 study by Stanford University psychologist Leon Otis of 574 subjects involved in Transcendental Meditation (one of the more benign forms)showed that 70 percent of longtime meditators displayed signs of mental disorders. Another explanation is that our expectations for meditation are often too grand. From a young age we are steeped in tales of superheroes and jedis who are able to perform great feats through their innate specialness and intensive study. We hear stories of levitating yogis and the power of chakras, tai chi and badass Shaolin monks, and quietly think to ourselves that maybe anything is possible.

McNally’s speedy elevation to Vajrayogini and lama mirrors those nascent desires. For those who aren’t instantly anointed, the religion offers a clear method: Meditate often, keep your vows and, if you’re in a hurry, start practicing tantra. From a certain standpoint Roach’s approach was a success. Members of the group noted that during the period when Roach and McNally were in a relationship, attendance at events and lectures was never higher. They taught together, and their mutual confidence and earnestness seemed to be an open door to enlightenment. If it was okay to take a spiritual partner along for the ride, couples could join and work on their spiritual practice together instead of following the more orthodox custom of practicing alone.

After the 2003 retreat, Roach and McNally continued to forge a spiritual path that, to outside observers, looked less like Tibetan Buddhism and more like a new faith that mixed elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and good oldfashioned showmanship. They co-authored half a dozen books on Tibetan meditation, yoga and business ethics, one of which attained best-seller status. Sid Johnson, a musician who was briefly on the board of directors of Diamond Mountain, worried that the group was becoming too focused on magical thinking. His concerns came to a head in 2005 during a secret initiation into the practice of the bull-headed tantric deity Yamantaka, whose name translates as “destroyer of death.” As part of a four-day ritual, all the initiates had to meet privately with Geshe Michael and Lama Christie, as their students called them, in a yurt for their final empowerment, which would help them conquer death. Johnson was nervous when he entered the room wearing a blindfold and heard Roach ask him to lie down on their bed. When he did so, McNally started to massage his chakras, starting with his head and ending at his penis. “I’m not sure who undid my pants, but it was part of the blessing,” says Johnson. When they were done, he sat up – still wearing the blindfold – and felt McNally’s lips pressing against his. They kissed. “There is a part of the initiation when your lama offers you a consort, and the way Geshe Michael teaches it, the things that happen in the metaphysical world also have to happen in the real one,” says Johnson. Afterward, he says, they all giggled like children at a summer camp, as though they were breaking taboos and no one else would know. Ten minutes later Johnson left and they asked Johnson’s wife to come in alone. Altogether, almost 20 students had private initiation by the couple that night.

By most accounts McNally began to take center stage in the spiritual road show. It was as though Roach was stepping back and allowing his partner to teach philosophy and meditation in his stead. “He seemed distracted and unengaged whenever she would speak, just staring at the ceiling while she was talking, as if distancing himself from whatever Christie was saying,” says Michael Brannan, another longtime student and current full-time volunteer at Diamond Mountain. “He called her Vajrayogini. Can you imagine being promoted to deity by your spouse and guru?” Even though she was a lama, McNally wanted to prove she could be a leader on her own. She pressed for a second great retreat, this one even more ambitious than the first. Instead of only a few humble yurts on a desolate property, they would build dozens of highly efficient self-cooling solar-powered structures – permanent infrastructure on Diamond Mountain property that could host scores of retreatants for long periods. Roach and McNally planned to lead 38 people into the desert on a quest to see emptiness directly. They had no problem finding followers to foot the bill. Participants were required to build and pay for their own cabins, with the expectation that when they were done with their retreat, ownership of the cabins would revert to Diamond Mountain. Modestly priced cabins cost around $100,000, while more lavish spaces hovered closer to $300,000. Volunteers and contractors labored on the designs for several years while Roach and McNally prepped the spiritual seekers with philosophy and meditation techniques.

By the middle of 2010, plans for the second great retreat were coming together, but Roach and McNally’s relationship was falling apart. The reasons for the split are unclear. Members of the group speak about illicit sexual liaisons between Roach and other students and covert theological power struggles. No one knows for sure, and neither Roach nor McNally commented on the split for this story, but the fallout reverberated through the community. Michael Brannan remembers “a lot of people just sort of swapped partners,” including McNally. Former member Ekan Thomason remembers that Thorson dropped off his then girlfriend at her house with a sleeping bag and disappeared into the desert. The next time Thomason saw Thorson, he and McNally were dancing under a disco ball at a party at the Diamond Mountain temple. In October 2010 McNally and Thorson married in a Christian ceremony in Montauk, New York. Faced with being confined on a silent retreat with his ex-wife, Roach quietly backed away from his commitment to participate and gave over leadership of the affair to McNally. For McNally the second great desert retreat would be a major testing ground for her as a spiritual leader. At its conclusion she would have had almost seven years of silent meditation under her belt, a qualification few Buddhist practitioners – even in Tibet – can claim. With 38 people looking to her for spiritual guidance, including a new husband for whom she was guru, goddess and wife, she needed to impart something special. She found her answer outside Tibetan Buddhism, in the Hindu goddess Kali.

Kali isn’t an ordinary member of the Hindu pantheon. Although a few major temples, including the famous Dakshinewar Kali Temple in Calcutta, are devoted to her worship, most mainstream Hindus invoke her name only in times of violence or war. In the 1700s British colonialists popularized and exaggerated stories of Kali worshippers called thuggee (from which we get the English word thug), who murdered unsuspecting travelers on isolated roads and used their bodies in sacrifices to the goddess to gain magical powers. The few Hindus steeped in tantric practice – usually quite different from Buddhist tantra – will sometimes appeal to Kali for female spiritual power, called Shakti. Although Kali is considered untamable, wild and dangerous, it seems McNally wanted to add the goddess to her tantric meditation in order to speed her journey to enlightenment.

In October 2009 McNally staged a 10-day Kali initiation with more than 100 prospective devotees. She decorated the temple with weapons: swords, guns, crossbows, chain saws and menacing-looking garden implements meant to show the violent side of the deity. In a symbolic rite reminiscent of India’s now-banned thuggee cult, members were “kidnapped” on the road between holy sites and stuffed into a small wooden box to heighten their fear. Roach held his own version of the ritual nearby as Ekan Thomason met Lama Christie in a structure called Lama Dome. There, McNally gave her a medical lancet. “Kali requires something from you. She requires your blood,” McNally said, reminding Thomason of a beautiful swashbuckling pirate as she ran a finger across the sharp edge of the knife. The ceremony was designed to be terrifying, and participants were split in their reactions. Some had accepted McNally as an infallible teacher and hoped to learn despite the theatrics. Others worried that Diamond Mountain was turning toward a dark, occult version of Hinduism. But a year later almost 40 retreatants would lock themselves in a valley under Lama Christie’s sole spiritual direction. In the months leading up to the retreat in 2010 the group showed signs of stress as members became increasingly confused between the spiritual world they were trying to access through meditation and the real world, where actions had predictable consequences.

Under Roach and McNally’s direction they threw parties in the temple at which they served “nectar,” specially blessed booze they could drink despite their vows of abstinence. At one of these parties some members, who wish to remain anonymous, say they saw Roach and McNally perform miracles – allegedly walking through a wall of the temple building by bending the laws of space and time. Such stories became commonplace around the camp, and the communal hysteria vaulted Roach and McNally to godlike status. Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, co-authors of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, explain these perceived miracles on a psychological level. Kramer says, “People can convince themselves they have seen many things that are really just projections of their own mind.” Alstad adds that disciples give their mental energy to a guru and the guru reflects the energy back to them. It seems likely that McNally learned to see the world through Roach’s lens. “Roach took her mind over – or she gave it to him,” says Alstad. “That’s what followers do: They totally surrender. She surrendered to him as a young, unformed woman. And a similar process was probably reversed between Thorson and McNally. She was his lama, his guru and his wife.”

When the retreat started, no one had much of an idea how their relationship would hold up. Then, in March 2011, after three months of silence, Thorson knocked on the door of a retreatant who was a nurse practitioner. He was bleeding profusely from three stab wounds. She was afraid to treat him and recommended he go to a hospital. But the second person to see him, a doctor on retreat, reluctantly tended to the slashes on his torso and shoulder. The wounds were so deep, the doctor said, they “threatened vital organs.” At the time, McNally and Thorson gave no explanation for how it happened, but soon rumors of domestic abuse began to circulate in the same hushed whispers as the talk about Roach’s supposed sexual liaisons with various students. With most people under vows of silence, it is no surprise that almost a year passed before the event became publicly known. In February 2012, Lama Christie recused herself from her vow of silence to give a public lecture on her realizations during meditation. Wearing her trademark white robes and with a silken blindfold across her eyes, she sat on a throne and talked about the spiritual lessons she had learned while grappling with an increasingly unstable and violent relationship.

In an act she described as playful, McNally said she stabbed Thorson three times with a knife they had received as a wedding present. He could have died in the exchange, and few people in the crowd could grasp what the lesson was supposed to mean. Could violence be a route to their ultimate spiritual goals? Had their teacher gone crazy? Referencing her newfound grasp of the goddess Kali, she asked the crowd to learn from her experience with violence. Although the original recording of her talk has been taken off the Internet, she later explained the incident in a public letter: “I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone… I was actively trying to raise up this aggressive energy, a kind of fierce divine pride… It was all divine play to me.” She went on to write about the tantric lessons Kali had taught her through the event and how she was trying to cope with occasional violence in her relationship with Thorson.

Jigme Palmo, a nun who sits on Diamond Mountain’s board of directors, stated later that the board was worried the focus on violence might spur other meditators down a dangerous path. The directors immediately convened emergency meetings and discussed various plans of action. “It was an impossible situation,” says Palmo. “We didn’t know what was happening inside the retreat, and yet the board was ultimately responsible if something went wrong.” They consulted a lawyer and sent urgent written messages to McNally asking for more information about domestic violence and her increasingly erratic decisions. Suddenly aware that her teachings had created a rift in the community, McNally tried to shore up her control of the meditators by banning all correspondence with the outside world. She ordered that all mail deliveries cease and instructed the retreatants to refuse contact with their families. The board members decided they had no choice but to act unilaterally to remove McNally from her role as teacher and to remove McNally and Thorson from the retreat itself. The board sent them a letter explaining their decision and gave McNally and Thorson an hour to pack their things and leave, offering to cover their relocation expenses, including hotel costs, a rental car, prepaid cell phones and $3,600 cash. The message was clear: Get out now.

But McNally and Thorson had taken vows to stay in Diamond Mountain’s consecrated area, and they had a different plan. Instead of leaving, McNally and Thorson planned to find a nearby cave where they could continue to meditate and still have contact with some of McNally’s students. Before they made their final arrangements to leave, McNally met privately with Michael Brannan to discuss the board’s decision. McNally kept her vow of silence, and the two passed notes back and forth, creating an effective transcript of her thoughts at the time. The document, which Brannan shared with me, sheds light on McNally’s state of mind. In it she mentions ordinations that took place and the pressure that people – especially Thorson – felt while they were “locked up” on retreat. But it all also fit into a broader plan. “Everything is perfect, you’ll see” she begins, adding, “I have inherited my holy lama’s [Roach’s] style of pushing people past their breaking point.” She blames her former husband for having “stoked the fire” and making people fear her as a teacher.

Perhaps the real problem was her former lover’s jealousy over her current husband. She then disappeared without any further communication with the board of directors or most of the other retreatants. She, Thorson and two attendants hauled gear up a rugged mountainside. They found an ancient cave just out of sight of the retreat valley where they could finish their three years of silent meditation unobserved. The few people they let in on the secret promised to ferry them supplies as needed. Water would be placed at strategic points where one of them could retrieve it without being seen. Objectively, the decision to live out the rest of the retreat on an Arizona mountainside was fatal from its inception. Sergeant David Noland, who coordinated the rescue effort, has seen 36 people die of dehydration or exposure to the elements in his county in the past three years. “At that point a death was inevitable,” he says. The cabins at Diamond Mountain were built with the environment in mind, but the pockmark in the rock where McNally and Thorson laid their sleeping bags was exposed. For two months the couple was battered alternately by rain, wind and snow. Though their decision proved to be fatal, McNally and Thorson weren’t suicidal. They thought they were exceptional and the rules for ordinary humans didn’t apply anymore. They were on the cusp of greatness. Enlightenment was within reach.

Three days before Thorson died, McNally’s supporters published a 31-page manifesto she had written, titled “A Shift in the Matrix,” in which she explains their spiritual lessons over the past year. She writes: “One of the highest tantric vows there is is the vow of how you should see your lama and how to behave toward them. When you are with a partner, your partner becomes your highest lama. So I have been [Ian’s] lama for many years, but he recently became mine as well. Your lama is unquestionably a divine being and your job at all times is to fight any desire to see them in a lesser way. You should trust your lama with your life, and totally surrender to them”. To them their cave was a challenge they would overcome together, a sacred location in the tradition of the high Himalayan lamas, whose asceticism and hardships were a path to greatness. McNally and Thorson had been running low on water and began to drink brown, polluted runoff rainwater. On the morning of 22 April 2012, Thorson wouldn’t wake up, and McNally activated the emergency distress beacon she had packed. Thorson was barely breathing. It would take another seven hours for the search-and-rescue team to bring them down off the mountainside. An autopsy would eventually attribute Thorson’s death to dehydration. His corpse weighed only 100 pounds, but McNally did not want to be separated from it and fought the police and mortician with fists and tears when they tried to take it into custody.

McNally recuperated in a hospital in nearby Wilcox, Arizona. Several days later she vanished. Rumors have flown that she is on another silent retreat, meditating on the meaning of her husband’s death. According to various accounts, she is in the Bahamas, South America, Colorado, Kathmandu or California, but no one really knows what she is doing or if she is safe. I saw Roach one more time, during a one-day stopover in Phoenix on my way back to California. He had avoided my emails and requests the entire time I was in Arizona, and this was my only chance to have a private word with him. His lecture that night, on the importance of mindfulness, lasted three hours, and when he was done I got in line behind a 50-ish Indian woman carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag. She chatted with other people in the line and examined a beaded necklace she hoped Roach would bless. “I can’t believe I’m going to meet the enlightened one,” she said excitedly. When it was my turn I stood in front of his throne and introduced myself. I tried to phrase a question about how he was dealing with Thorson’s death. “It was a very sad event,” he said, “but why are people not interested in my teaching? One person dies in the desert and suddenly everyone pays attention. People should be talking about all the good works that I’ve done instead.” It wasn’t a satisfying answer. It was as if Roach couldn’t take a minute to reflect on the profundity of what had happened. To him it may just have been karma ripening, and perhaps the story didn’t end when someone died in the desert. It might have just begun.

by Scott Carney
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