Obsession and Madness on the Path to Enlightenment
In pursuit of a story about the enigmatic death of a Buddhist retreatant, a writer risks his own mind as he digs into the heart of the mystery. Scott Carney
How much should someone strive to know their own soul?
It is a question I have struggled with for the better part of a decade after an incident that taught me that intensive meditation has the potential to unleash unexpected consequences. In 2006, I took a job leading American college students on an abroad program through holy sites in North India. The highlight of the program was a ten-day silent meditation retreat in Bodhgaya: the spot where Buddha achieved enlightenment almost three millennia ago. When the meditations were over, I had a conversation with one of my students—a whip-smart 21-year-old Southern belle named Emily O’Conner (not her real name)—about her retreat. She said it was the most profoundly moving experience of her life.
That night, while the other students chatted enthusiastically in the temple, Emily climbed to the roof of one of the dormitories, wrapped a khadi
scarf around her face, and jumped. A student on his way to bed found her facedown on the pavement. According to the coroner’s report, she had died on impact.
I was charged with returning her remains to America. Somewhere along the way, the Indian police gave me her journal. On the eighth day of the retreat, she’d written in flowery cursive, “Contemplating my own death is the key.” Then, a few paragraphs later, “I’m scared that I will have this realization and go crazy.” One of the last things Emily wrote, in the same steady hand, was “I am a Bodhisattva.” She believed she was well along the road to transcendence.
There are many explanations for why Emily decided to take her own life. Maybe she had misunderstood the meaning of “enlightenment.” Maybe she had underlying mental instabilities that just happened to manifest themselves during intensive meditation. For all I knew, she was
a Bodhisattva and continuing on her journey in another realm. However, here on earth I worried that enlightenment might not be all that it promised.
The death of a second meditator, Ian Thorson, this time in the mountains of Arizona, made me suspect that there was an unspoken mystery at the heart of these transformational techniques. The story of Thorson’s death is complicated, but to recount it briefly: Geshe Michael Roach, the first American to receive a Geshe degree (the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a PhD), spent years studying in India as a monk before eventually becoming a controversial guru who had made millions in the diamond industry in New York. Roach soon acquired a large following of students who saw value in the belief that great wealth could be a sign of good karma. Ian Thorson joined Roach’s retinue in the late 1990s, a few years before Roach planned to start a three-year silent meditation retreat along with a handful of his most attractive female students. Thorson soon became one of Roach’s most dedicated followers.
When Roach emerged from his retreat in 2003, he announced that he was on the way to enlightenment, had performed miracles, and that his girlfriend and student, a woman half his age named Christie McNally, was an earthly incarnation of the goddess Vajrayogini. They had spent the retreat together inventing tantric rituals based on their own idiosyncratic readings of ancient texts. Roach and McNally began touring the world, giving lectures on the spiritual realizations they had during their great retreat in the desert.
On a trip to Germany the holy couple hooked up with Thorson, who was living there with his girlfriend, and inspired him to leave her and return to America, where he could help build Diamond Mountain University—an unaccredited institute of higher learning dedicated to Roach’s and McNally’s neo-Buddhism. There, in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona, McNally and Roach planned to lead a second silent retreat together, this time with more than 40 students in tow. But as plans for the endeavor were underway, the couple’s relationship began to deteriorate. Soon the two split, and each found a new partner. A few years later, Christie McNally married Ian Thorson.
Rather than spend the next three years in silence with his ex-wife, Roach gave control of the retreat over to McNally, who took even more liberties with the Buddha’s teachings than Roach had. She began to teach Hindu tantra, invoking the goddess Kali as a protector of the retreat. The retreatants delved into silence, trusting as they did so McNally’s leadership and spiritual mastery. But all was not well in their meditative paradise.
In March 2011, just three months after the retreat began, Christie and Ian descended from their house on the hill, Ian limping and holding a [banned term] cloth to his side. Together they knocked on the door of a nurse-practitioner who was on the retreat with them and asked for help. Blood oozed out around the cloth from three separate stab wounds.
No one offered an explanation for how the cuts got there, but they sank deeply into Ian’s skin between his ribs and across his shoulders and seemed serious enough to have threatened vital organs. The nurse turned Ian and Christie away, worried the damage was beyond her abilities—or that she might be viewed as an accomplice to a crime. Afraid the wounds might result in a police report if they went to a hospital, the couple hobbled to their second choice: a dermatologist named Renee Miranda, who reluctantly tended to the slashes and stab wounds with precise stitches. The wounds were supposed to be a secret, but rumors of domestic abuse still circulated. A sense of unease permeated the retreat valley.
A year later, McNally finally explained what happened at one of her few public appearances during the silent retreat. She told the assembled crowd how she had been possessed by Kali. “[Ian] hands me a knife, a big knife, and was daring me, ‘Go for it,’ you know. I came toward my partner with this knife because that’s what I was supposed to do. He was supposed to stop me. He was supposed to grab my wrist, but for some strange reason he just let go and stopped fighting. Then the knife came down, and it actually cut into his flesh. I didn’t notice at first. And he grabs me in some kind of embrace and the knife accidentally comes down again—accidentally, I don’t know. He falls to the floor. Then she [Kali] leaves and the blood starts to come and I dropped the knife.
When the fight between Christie and Ian went public, Roach and Diamond Mountain’s board of directors decided to remove McNally from her leadership position. The couple headed off into the mountains together alone, where they settled into a cave above the retreat valley, intent on continuing their search for enlightenment. Three months later, Ian fell sick with dysentery. Rather than activate a Spot Locator beacon that would have called in a search and rescue team, McNally waited for three days—presumably trying to heal her husband with her advanced powers—as Thorson grew sicker and turned a ghostly white. Then his skin turned purple. He was dead by the time McNally called for help.
There is no doubt that Ian’s and Emily’s deaths, as well as the deaths of other meditators on retreats, were rare events—perhaps even within the statistical norms for suicide or murder in a given population. But there were eerie similarities that made me wonder: Was there something in the teachings that drives some people to madness? Could silence itself be damaging? Or was it something about the way Westerners think about Eastern spirituality that makes us particularly susceptible to grandiose expectations? When not tempered, perhaps that search for something greater than ourselves is enough to push some people past a breaking point.
I began my investigation into the events at Diamond Mountain expecting to uncover a hidden dark side of meditation that gets swept under the rug. People who adhere to Eastern teachings might be inclined to explain away negative events as the fault of the individual and not of the techniques. To some degree, that is
what I found. But I also found something stranger. Maybe instead of thinking of spiritual practices as something in and of themselves good or bad, it is more fruitful to think of them as potentially powerful—even for people who aren’t actually doing them. As I found out, just the attempt of getting into the mindset of the Diamond Mountain community turned out to be a dangerous undertaking in its own right.
There is no trail to the cave where Ian Thorson died. When I first reported the story of Thorson’s death for Playboy
, it took me three hours scrambling upward over a steep slope and loose rubble and past mean-looking cacti and poison-tipped yucca to reach it. The journey almost killed me. When I ran out of water, something just shy of heatstroke made my movements sluggish. I spent the bulk of the day recovering from the climb. That night I crawled into the tent that I’d pitched in one of the washes around Diamond Mountain. It was a hot and windless night, so I removed the fly so I could see the sky through the mesh roof.
A million twinkling points of light pierced through the dark blue ether above me. Perhaps I was simply exhausted by the long day, but as I sat there looking at the sky, it seemed to me that the colors began to shift. The sky turned from a deep darkness into a deep pink and finally a red hue as if it were an organic thing with its own will. I wondered if my eyes were playing tricks on me. But, I have to admit, part of me also wondered if there was more to Roach than showmanship. The people at Diamond Mountain spent their lives trying to bend the material world to their own will. Descriptions of siddhis
have filled sacred texts for more than two thousand years. Several of my sources claimed that Roach could work miracles, and now I was on Roach’s turf, writing a story that might not be very flattering. I wondered what it would mean if Ian had died not because of ignorance and dysentery, but because Roach had planted a bad seed into his karmic stream. The thought was crazy, so I let it go.
Nine months later I had started to work on turning the article I had written into a book. Things were changing rapidly at Diamond Mountain. The media attention had made the group cautious about speaking publicly. At the same time that Diamond Mountain seemed to close off, estranged members were contacting me in droves. Several ex-members were convinced that the cause of Ian’s death wasn’t only his encounter with the elements, but that he was a victim of black magic. Among my correspondents were monastics at Roach’s former home base in New Jersey, people living on the land near Diamond Mountain, and a former attendant to the Buddhist teacher Lama Zopa, named Karen Visser, who claimed that I and other journalists were targets of spiritual warfare.
Visser was a tenacious correspondent with journalists, sending me more than two hundred messages, and countless more to the other reporters as they observed the decline of Diamond Mountain. Shortly after I first started reporting on Roach in 2012, she called me to say that the highest lamas at Sera Mey had offered to cast a protection spell that would protect journalists and their friends from Roach’s karmic meddling. I declined the offer for two reasons. First, I worried that it might unduly bias my reporting. And, second, I wasn’t inclined to think that anyone, let alone Roach, had special powers. Visser was surprised I said no; other journalists accepted.
In July 2013 I accepted a spot at a writer’s retreat in upstate New York to work on the manuscript, and my first action was to send an email directly to Roach, asking him to reconsider his policy of not talking to me. I told him that my drive to understand Ian Thorson’s life was also a way of making sense of my former student who took her life in Bodhgaya. I wrote, “I have often puzzled over the meaning of [Emily’s death], wondering if I should take the last words she wrote in her journal—I am a Bodhisattva—as a serious spiritual revelation, or whether they were a sign of madness. Perhaps it could have been a little of both.” The email went unanswered, and I could only wonder what Roach might have thought of it.
After I reached out to Roach, everything in my world suddenly began to come unglued. The picturesque grounds of the retreat—the place where I finished my first book three years earlier—took on an ominous air. My small room painted gray with a double bed was a simple writer’s space, with a desk and a place to stash my clothes. There were two windows: one above the bed and another that looked out over the driveway. Within a day or two of sending the email to Roach, I noticed that a single wasp had taken a habit of hovering over my pillow. Since I don’t much like killing insects, I would get up from my chair and shoo it out the window. But whenever I closed the window, another wasp would show up within 10 or 20 minutes. An insect was always over my pillow. Never anywhere else in the room. Their persistence was commendable. There must have been 30 or 40 of the bugs over the course of the two-week retreat (or perhaps it was just one very indefatigable wasp, circulating from outside to in). I got into a routine where I would begin working and look up to see a recently expelled wasp watching me.
In Tibetan Buddhism, different deities are often associated with the presence of animal or insect life. For instance, the deity Dorje Shugden, whom the Dalai Lama calls an “evil spirit,” is said to send spiders out to people he is interested in. I wasn’t sure if wasps represented any specific deity, but once they started showing up regularly, I felt what I can only describe as a presence. For me, writing is an immersive experience and I knew that I had to get deep and inhabit, as much as possible, the mental space of my characters. To do that, I transcribed my former student Emily’s journal, transmuting her bubbly script into the digital files native to my computer. As I typed, I played various talks that Michael Roach had posted freely online. The process connected me to the material in a way that was probably not healthy. I was getting paranoid. The constant presence of wasps rankled my nerves.
And it got worse with time. There was a strange tingling at the base of my skull, and a sort of heaviness not unlike a clogged sinus, only it was in the wrong area of my head. Writing was difficult. A slew of grants that I had applied for months earlier to help me finish the book came back with rejection letters. I checked the balance of my bank account only to discover that cyber thieves based in Nigeria had gotten hold of my debit card and bought more than a thousand dollars’ worth of swag. When I called my wife in California, things were not going well. My marriage was deteriorating. None of this was, of course, something I could blame on Michael Roach in any sort of rational way. But I was becoming a student of the irrational. I sent Visser an email saying that I had reconsidered her offer for protection. It was probably all just bad luck and paranoia, but I was seeing a pattern in the coincidences, and a little extra mojo couldn’t hurt.
The most worrisome aspect for me was that I planned to visit Diamond Mountain’s upcoming quiet retreat teaching roughly a year after Thorson had died. The event was coming up in a few weeks. While I didn’t think Diamond Mountain was going to turn into Jonestown or Waco, it was impossible to predict how some members might react to a threat to their community. One of the most important vows in the pink books that people at Diamond Mountain carried around was to prevent threats to the sangha. According to several accounts, there were automatic weapons at Christie McNally’s Kali initiation.
Certainly they would be praying that whatever bad press I might cause would go away. I knew that if I were ever going to be in spiritual trouble, it would be then. So I agreed to buy tsampa—a sort of barley flour—for the monks at Sera Mey as an offering. In return they would conduct a powerful ceremony known as the white umbrella protection puja. Visser told me that the spell would permanently forge a connection between me and their highest lama, a very old and spooky gentleman named Khensur Rinpoche Rabga. It seemed good enough for me to justify the $210 it would cost for 80 monks to chant a protection spell in my name for a few hours.
Diana Alstad, an author and expert on cult psychology, once explained to me that the nature of a guru’s power works like hypnosis: You can be affected by it only if you have already invited the guru into your mental space. It’s a notion akin to the old myth of vampires being able to enter someone’s house only if they’ve received an invitation. Although they don’t tend to comment on what might happen in the divine world, anthropologists have long known that magic has real-world effects even if the underlying causes could be purely psychological. Fetishistic magic and shamanism alter people’s behavior and can serve to explain complex cultural structures. A person who thinks he is cursed might indeed experience a bout of negative events. Whatever was causing my symptoms—paranoia or the hidden weave of karma—I knew I had to kick Roach out of my head. So I made up my own meditation. There was no real method except focusing my mind with the intention of booting out bad juju.
A wasp buzzed over my head as I faced the window. I took long deep breaths, imagining that every inhale was positive light filling my body, and I exhaled the black mist of Roach’s influence. I began to rock back and forth in my chair for no discernible reason. Almost immediately, I felt a rush of energy coming up from my stomach to my head. It was like a heaviness being lifted. I breathed in positive energy and expelled the muck that had been collecting at the bottom of my skull. The relief was remarkable. As the meditation came to a close, my computer pinged an announcement of a fresh email. I looked up and glanced at it; it was from another journalist who had been working on a story about Roach. She said that she had given up on her project and wanted to send me the notes she had in case I wanted to make sense of it all. It seemed that obstacles were clearing up.
Soon I was on my way to Diamond Mountain. After I landed in Long Beach, I jumped into my car and flew past endless miles of stately saguaro cacti and empty desert valleys. When I was on the road, Karen Visser sent me another email: The monks had completed the puja, and she sent me a long protection mantra. I scrolled through the ancient syllables.hrih benza krodha hayagriva hulu hulu hum phat
I parsed the words slowly over my lips and worked them around my mouth. They were foreign, and strange, but saying them helped calm my nerves as I bolted down the highway. I committed them to memory and repeated them a half day later when I rolled down the long dirt road to the Chiricahua Mountains. I parked in the lot amid a couple dozen other cars. Standing off to the side was a security man with a buzz cut and a poorly fitted suit. He stayed by his car with a wire arched up, over, and around his ear. The first person I saw whom I recognized was Scott Vacek, the man who had become the public face of Diamond Mountain and was responsible for day-to-day public relations. He said I was welcome to attend the event and offered me a smile that seemed genuine. But the era of open access was clearly over. The members of the so-called inner circle who had known Thorson avoided me and frowned when I got near. It was uncomfortable to be there, but I didn’t feel I was in danger. If anything, they were scared of me and what I might write.
In the evening, after Roach arrived in a white minivan, the group shuffled into the temple and sat down for the normal ceremonial rounds of meditations and floral dedications that were part of the routine at Diamond Mountain. The talk seemed to go on endlessly. One speaker after another ranged over mundane administrative topics. The board of directors fund-raised for a new expansion for a kitchen and student center. Eventually, Roach took the stage, exactly one year and one week after Thorson died. He didn’t acknowledge the anniversary. Instead, his talk seemed to verge on the apocalyptic. Diamond Mountain wasn’t the only place under stress, he said; the world itself was in trouble.There will be major social problems. There will be violence, there will be wars, there will be starvation. . . . Everyone else is crazy. You are the only sane ones. When I see this university I see something totally different than what the rest see. You are a shining light in the world. . . .
He seemed to swell on the stage. A hint of anger crossed his face as he examined the way Diamond Mountain was getting a reputation as a dangerous fringe group. At one point he turned back to the importance of maintaining an altar every day in order to keep a focused mind.Putting out an altar isn’t a hippie thing to do, it is an advanced thing to do; you are extremely intelligent. I don’t care what anyone else says. They are crazy. They will live and die without any meaning to their life.
Roach’s was the last lecture of the evening, and it was pitch-black outside when his talk was over.
I spent much of the next morning hiking in the foothills around the valley until I saw the retreatants enter the back door of the temple for morning meditation from my perch on a nearby round-top. I descended from the hillock in silence and waited in the room for the retreatants to come from behind the curtain where they usually sat. It was the first time any of them would have used their voice in more than a year. There were several speakers—the retreat leader who had taken over for McNally as well as people who had once sat on the board of directors. Most were circumspect. None offered thoughts on what happened to Thorson.
Then Lobsang Gyeltse—a fifty-ish woman in maroon nun’s robes—climbed onto the stage. She took a seat on the same throne that Christie McNally had occupied when she disclosed the way she had stabbed her husband. The nun’s voice was careful and contemplative, if also a little sad.
She said that in the retreat, she had begun to see her mind as a sort of movie camera that conjured up images of the world that were both essential and meaningless. What the mind did best was to organize those images and create a narrative. “The story we are most fascinated with is our own story. But what is this story? Am I my story?” she asked. “These projections are responsible for my physical world, but also my mental world. I see pictures of myself interacting with the world. Our goal is to find the cause of suffering and pain. In retreat I’m trying to change the pictures.” She then quoted the poet Muriel Rukeyser: “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”
Part of me scoffed at the disassociation with material reality. At the same time, I knew she was also partially right. I had come here to tell the story of Ian Thorson and, to some degree, Emily O’Conner. Telling their stories had changed me. I took on their traits. Their lives instructed the way I saw the world. Did it matter whether it was paranoia or karma that made me so nervous? Did it matter that I felt better after I’d prayed in a language that I did not understand? Roach sat on a cushion in the front of the speaker, and I thought about how most of the people here saw him as a man on the cusp of enlightenment. Around the country many people saw him as a charlatan bent on manipulating his followers for his own gain. Could he be both at the same time?
I thought back to the only time that Roach had ever truly addressed me. It was a year earlier, when Thorson had been dead for only a month and the community was still grappling with the loss. I’d come off the mountain wondering how it was possible that Christie McNally hadn’t simply pressed the button on the beacon a day earlier and saved Ian’s life. I wanted to ask him what he thought. Roach was teaching lamrim
that evening. It was the same series of texts I had listened to in Bodhgaya before Emily took her own life. That evening’s talk was on the importance of mindfulness. It lasted three hours, and when he was done, I got in line behind a middle-aged Indian woman who was carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag. She chatted with other people in the line, examining a necklace of beads that she hoped her guru 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. He began to talk. “It was a very sad event, 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.” He then waved me away and promised to respond to me in writing, though I knew he never would.
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.
From A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment
, by Scott Carney. Reprinted with permission of Gotham, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Scott Carney.Image 1: Photograph courtesy of the author.
Image 2: Photograph by David Sanders / NY Times / Redux.
Reply by Stitchintime on May 4, 2015, 11:58 pm
Some of the points the author makes are not accurate. For instance most of Michael's students had no idea that he and Christi were sharing a yurt and a bed. There was a huge change in Michael after he was in retreat for 2 yrs. His teachings became disorganized and were not accurate. He clearly had what is call rlung or wind disease. Michael gave away the money he made.None of his students were motivated by money or thought they would get rich. In fact Michael was insistent that teachings were free.People gave what they could afford. Michael was not honest. Dishonesty on any spiritual path is fraught with danger. "Straight is the path, narrow is the gate, few find it."
While it is not known to Westerners, it is well know in spiritual circles that people can go crazy doing protracted spiritual practices or even being in places with intense spiritual energies. Check out Jerusalem syndrome. Geshe Michael's location is where there was an Indian massacre. There is very bad energy there. Yes siddhis exist and black magic exists. Neither of them are indications of enlightenment. Your student who committed suicide may well have thought she could fly.., one of the Siddhis that some Bodhisattvas may attain.
Michael Roach is a talented brilliant man. Before the retreat he was a brilliant teacher. He went into retreat and had no teacher for guidance. He started to believe his own fairy tale. Everything that followed came out of that. It is a sad cautionary tale.