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

Via yoga 2.0 lab
on May 4, 2012
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Editor’s update: a post from Geshe Michael Roach describing his education.

Editor’s update: a rebuttal to the below, by John Stillwell, is offered here. As a reader-created open forum, we welcome all views: [email protected]

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Author’s update: I have since published a followup piece to this post, which attempts to collate and analyze the 660+ comments, opinions, and concerns generated in the thread below by both supporters and critics of Diamond Mountain and Michael Roach. MR

reporting and opinion by Matthew Remski

Special thanks to Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad, and Michael Stone

for their help in the preparation of this article .

 

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 fully 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 centre 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 in retreat 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 wish 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 group, which is informed by my understanding of cult dynamics. 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 mentorship. 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 in deep seclusion 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.

 

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. By association, his rebellion separated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who through his Public Office, censured Roach in 2006. In what I presume to have been an attempt to heal the rift the Public Office left the door open for Roach’s followers to attend teachings of the Dalai Lama, and many did and still do. Many remain convinced that Roach’s teachings and those of the Dalai Lama are part of a coherent cloth, but there is much debate on the matter.

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. McNally separated herself from Roach in 2008 or 2009, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally soon partnered with Thorson, and 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, 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 damned place, and Roach is out of his league as mentor. Further, Roach’s charisma may be provoking him towards deeper confusion, perhaps rage. Further still: 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.

There’s an old adage: “The devil quotes scripture.” A self-validating metaphysics will twist anything to its purposes. I remember Shantideva’s  Bodhisattva’s Way of Life being one of Roach’s favourite texts. In it the sage writes (as per Stephen Batchelor’s translation of 6:43):

Both the weapon and my body
Are the causes of my suffering.
Since the other gave rise to the weapon,
and I to the body,
With whom should I be angry?

I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness and the stickiness of private perspective. But now now I have to wonder whether Roach’s usage of this and similar passages, distorted by his solipsism, has been gasoline to his dangerous fire.

 

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) episodes of domestic violence erupted within the secluded house she shared with Thorson. Retreatants are sworn to silence by retreat protocol, so if any of them were aware of trouble, there would be pressure against reporting. But then, 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 reports that local police were made aware of the contents of McNally’s talk, but chose to take no further action. I hope further investigation reveals why. If the police reviewed a transcript or audio recording of the talk, I would be concerned that they might not have derived enough context from this alone to be sufficiently alerted to the potential for danger. I don’t imagine that anyone internal to the group would have been able to provide police with the full spectrum of concern, including Thorson’s history, the history of internal power dynamics, the philosophical zeitgeist of the group, and the violence-laden meditation visualizations of their Tantric practice.

McNally’s letter of 4/19 describes months of battery at the hands of Thorson (complete with delusional justifications). At Roach’s admission, this battery was coherent with a pattern that the staff at Diamond Mountain was well aware of for some time, 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 invite outside law enforcement or mental health services to the property to examine the situation and interview the principles is, I believe, coherent with group’s general resistance to outside influence. On site, 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. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Invite full police, state, and medical official investigations. Bring in professionals to question all principles.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.`
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Disclose the protocol by which you evaluate the mental health of retreatants, and how you will update this protocol in view of this tragedy.
  12. 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.
  13. Publish the transcript of McNally’s February 4th talk, in which she made allusion to the domestic violence and the stabbing.
  14. 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.
  15. 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, Jeffrey 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 seemed to be.

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.

 

 

 

 

~

The opinions expressed by the authors at elephant journal and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of elephant journal or any employee thereof. elephant journal is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in the article above.

 

___________

CORRECTIONS (posted 5/6/12, 5am)

As I wrote above, I expected to get some details wrong. I invited corrections, and received several, for which I am grateful. I hope that crowd-sourcing this story helps to establish a clearer picture.

Most corrections are minor. I have a few dates wrong, and I misrepresented the housing situation for retreatants at DM. I’ve also taken out a few terms that are immaterial to the argument, but which some found offensive.

The correction of substance involves my omission of Roach’s statement that he and the Board alerted the police to the contents of McNally’s talk on 2/4/12.  Roach doesn’t describe this in detail in his open letter, which led me to presume that the disclosure was not clear enough to provoke further law enforcement interest. I might be mistaken here. In any case, my omission created the impression that the Board did less than they did, and I have corrected it. My contention is that the strongest disclosure would have evolved from professional, on-site investigation at that point.

While I am grateful for the corrections, none of my critics have substantially engaged the core material of the article: the 15 suggestions I make to the Board.

Here are the corrections I’ve made so far:

Abstract: changed “…failure to report..” to “…failure to fully report…”

1st graph: changed “camped out” to “in retreat”

7th graph: changed “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.”

to

“I’ll reconstruct the general history according to the available accounts, but also by drawing on my personal knowledge of this group, which is informed by my understanding of cult dynamics.”

 7th graph: changed “camping” to “in deep seclusion”

11th graph: changed

“His rebellion even alienated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who publicly censured him in 2006.”

to

“By association, his rebellion separated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who through his Public Office, censured Roach in 2006. In what I presume to have been an attempt to heal the rift the Public Office left the door open for Roach’s followers to attend teachings of the Dalai Lama, and many did and still do. Many remain convinced that Roach’s teachings and those of the Dalai Lama are part of a coherent cloth, but there is much debate on the matter.”

graph 13: 

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”.

to

Not every rupture in Roach’s world is political or theological. McNally separated herself from Roach in 2008 or 2009, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally soon partnered with Thorson, and 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”.

graph 14: removed “probably vegan” from the description of Thorson, as one commenter found it offensive.

graph 19:

“This is all crazy-making. I believe.”

to

“I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness. But now I see how dangerous such poetry can be without existential grounding.”

graph 20:

“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 house 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.”

to

“But at some point (we won’t be sure until the Board does a thorough public inquiry) episodes of domestic violence erupted within the secluded house she shared with Thorson. Retreatants are sworn to silence by retreat protocol, so if any of them were aware of trouble, there would be pressure against reporting. But then, McNally reached out, consciously or not, for help.”

graph 23:

“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).”

to:

“Roach reports that local police were made aware of the contents of McNally’s talk, but chose to take no further action. I hope further investigation reveals why. If the police reviewed a transcript or audio recording of the talk, I would be concerned that they might not have derived enough context from this alone to be sufficiently alerted to the potential for danger. I don’t imagine that anyone internal to the group would have been able to provide police with the full spectrum of concern, including Thorson’s history, the history of internal power dynamics, the philosophical zeitgeist of the group, and the violence-laden meditation visualizations of their Tantric practice.”

 graph 30:

“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.”

to:

“The decision to not immediately invite outside law enforcement or mental health services to the property to examine the situation and interview the principles is, I believe, coherent with group’s general resistance to outside influence. On site, 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.”

 

graph 33: “tent” to “residence”

graph 35:

“A common characteristic of many of Roach’s followers (including myself way back when) is familial alienation.”

removed: a commenter pointed out this was an unfair generalization


second last graph:
changed “Like Ian was.” to “Like Ian seemed to be.”

____
CORRECTION (posted 5/18/12 6:30am)
section on Shantideva:

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?

I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness. But now I see how dangerous such poetry can be without existential grounding.

 changed, through dialogue with Phurba and others, to:

There’s an old adage: “The devil quotes scripture.” A self-validating metaphysics will twist anything to its purposes. I remember Shantideva’s  Bodhisattva’s Way of Life being one of Roach’s favourite texts. In it the sage writes (as per Stephen Batchelor’s translation of 6:43):

Both the weapon and my body
Are the causes of my suffering.
Since the other gave rise to the weapon,
and I to the body,
With whom should I be angry?

I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness and the stickiness of private perspective. But now now I have to wonder whether Roach’s usage of this and similar passages, distorted by his solipsism, has been gasoline to his dangerous fire.

70,544 views

About yoga 2.0 lab

Matthew Remski is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Yoga Teacher Trainer in Toronto. His latest book, Threads of Yoga, is gathering international acclaim. He’s teaching this online course starting 1/7/14. It’s currently full, but there is a reduced-tuition option for auditing. The 12 weekly lessons will be available online for six months following the course. Participants receive a 130-page manual of notes.

Comments

720 Responses to “Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona”

  1. Gloria says:

    I agree with most of your mentor list, but really?!?! Michael Stone…after that your article lost all credibility for me.

  2. Nicole Sanderson says:

    Also, when the DM board found out about the stabbing, it was reported to the county sheriff.

  3. Eric Brinkman says:

    I don’t know, as a member of this “cult”, of course I feel a little slighted here.

    This article is way too full of personal bias to be regarded as “objective”, although i appreciate that you have linked to Geshe Michael’s letter trying to give a better explanation of the events at Diamond Mountain.

    I guess I would say that, having studied intensely now with Geshe Michael for 12 years and having never met you, your criticisms are wide-ranging and seemingly uninformed. Most of your “evidence” comes from things you have found on the internet or personal experiences at least 14 years old. I see Geshe Michael every day, and see no hint in him of lusting after power, or seeking to wantonly control those around him.

    I have a job, am well-groomed, and travel all over the world teaching with Geshe Michael and shooting video of his events. What we teach is that if you are kind to others you can reach your wildest dreams. It is Mahayana Buddhism, in it’s highest form, as best as I can discern. Abhidharma/Theravadan Buddhism teaches that there are five “causes”, but that’s the lowest interpretation of the four Indian schools of Buddhist thought. The Madyamika Prasangika view is that the five conditions (mthun rkyen) are not causes (rgyu), and what you perceive in your world is dependently originated, which–depending on which school you follow–means that your experience of the world comes from your mental seeds. I offer you the example from Master Chandrakirti of the preta, the deva, and the hell being experiencing a “cup of water” (chum bab, in Tibetan).

    That being said, anyone will agree mistakes were made, which eventually lead to Ian’s tragic death. Changes were and are being made at Diamond Mountain. And his daughter’s name is Thea, and yes she was at the funeral, thanks for asking.

    Love, peace, happiness to all,

    Eric Brinkman (Lobsang Nyingpo)

  4. Allison says:

    This was an incredible article– beautifully written. Thank you.

  5. Eric Brinkman says:

    You mean the millions of dollars he gave away to Sera monastery? Why would he need to justify that?

  6. matthew says:

    Sky —

    Thanks for holding my feet to the fire here. Regarding DM's law enforcement and medical options, please re-read my paragraph on Arizona's Revised Title 36. This refers to involuntary commitment, which, admittedly, does not guarantee treatment or compliance as you point out, but it does present an intervention that counterposes the group mentality with a broader social will.

    While the Office of HHDL did invite Roach's followers to teachings, Roach's virtual excommunication from the lineage most certainly confused many of his followers. This is why I use the word "alienated".

    You are probably right that my characterization of familial alienation is an over-generalization. I will amend this. It was, however, prefatory to the description of how the DM board thought it prudent to not contact the couple's family when they went missing.

    In my opinion, the DM contact with the JP and the local police was under-requested given the gravity of the situation. And according to Roach they only contacted a lawyer to be advised on the protection of their property and institution.

    Read the list of demands carefully — they are directed at the Board, not the retreatants, so that the Board can re-establish credibility after what I feel to be terrible errors of judgment. I don't know what the retreatants should do: but I do think the Board now has to prove that they can take care of them.

    Hindsight is 20/20 if you get some glasses. I think the lenses are being ground right now on this page.

    I'm truly sorry that this is a hard time for you. I hope you find a lot of support, in whatever way you need it to show up.

  7. Kasia says:

    Thank you for telling us this story.

  8. Jack says:

    I am also kind of disappointed and amazed that EJ posted this, at all — and especially with the "help" of Michael Stone. It stinks of self-promotion, self-aggrandizement and a lot of projection.

  9. matthew says:

    I remember reading that they claimed to have fallen in love while Ian was serving the first 3-year retreat. Is that not correct?

    I will correct the yurt reference.

  10. Gunnar says:

    Utu Niyama – physical inorganic order, e.g. seasonal phenomena of winds and rains. The unerring order of seasons, characteristic seasonal changes and events, causes of winds and rains, nature of heat, etc., all belong to this group. (What seasons? What rain? what anything independent of a mind stream forced to witness it from passed thoughts and actions
    ?)

    Dhamma Niyama – order of the norm, e.g., the natural phenomena occurring at the advent of a Bodhisattva in his last birth. Gravitation and other similar laws of nature. The natural reason for being good and so forth, may be included in this group. (The natural reason for being good and so forth"!? Are we arguing here that there is an original cause, without any preceding it, to something which grants it "natural" status, in some sort of self-existent way?)

    I'm in no way a scholar of Buddhism by any stretch of the word…but to claim that these sub-divisions are somehow separate from one's karma perplexes me. I will have to read more perhaps.

  11. Eileen says:

    Young people who are in need of mental health evaluations and assistance, fall through the cracks in our society all the time. I have seen it in high schools, in universities, in families, and in religious organizations of all types. There still exists in our culture a great prejudice against people with mental instability and there is a stigma associated with suggesting they get help, committing people for evaluation, apporaching people and suggesting they might have a mental disease, etc. I know this to be a problem throughout our country and perhaps throughout the world. I feel saddened to think this also might have been prevented by the proper medical care. In my experience the general polulace is quite ignorant about these things and about mental disease in general and I have even seen many members of the medical community allow engaging and interesting young people walk away without getting the help they need. I really can't blame anyone here, but I can truly believe that a young person could go many years in many settings without anyone being clear enough and knowledgeable enough to direct them to the mental health support they needed. I think it is an ongoing problem for all of us. I

  12. matthew says:

    I'm quite sure that Michael Stone can speak strongly to the necessity for a strong independent board that is not wrapped around the finger of a spiritual teacher.

  13. matthew says:

    Roach says:

    "The Board of course felt a moral and legal obligation to report the contents of the talk to the local county police department, who made a record of the report but decided not to follow up further."

    I think we need to see the content of the report to gauge how transparently they conveyed the data of the talk. More clarity would have been brought to bear on the situation with professional investigators.

  14. Karen Ahern says:

    Good read. Power and worship corrupts humans. Common sense would instill the Temple is, indeed, within with much less drama and upkeep then seeking your Spiritual Life outside your self or allowing a charismatic teacher or group consciousness to manipulate you. It defeats the purpose of the evolution of self.

    After reading this I am so glad I quit looking for a spiritual leader in my 20s and choose my associates carefully. This was like reading a sordid novel that conveyed a parable of standing in your own light and not following the fragility of the human psyche corrupted by illness and self indulgence…the age old dance and precipice between enlightenment and mental illness. It should be required reading and a warning for any one seeking a spiritual community.

  15. matthew says:

    Eric — thanks for posting.

    I've been transparent about my sources: the available documents and my personal experience from 1998 to 2000. I don't claim objectivity, but I intend for my facts to be true.

    I would ask that other scholars of Tibetan Buddhism evaluate your 4th paragraph, beginning with: "What we teach is that if you are kind to others you can reach your wildest dreams." This is the kind of solipsism that I allege leads to ungrounded behaviours and magical thinking.

    Thea. I think I remember the name now. So glad she's connected.

  16. matthew says:

    Jack: Michael Stone helped me temper the tone of the article, actually. He has nothing to do with EJ or their editorial standards.

  17. Tara Jolie says:

    I actually had conversations to this group's followers about the Holiness's letter posted above. The consensus I received was that it was not written by the Holiness himself hence its does not mean its what he wanted. They actually suggested that the Holiness had lost control of his own private office and been forced to issue this statement/letter against his true will…I have to say the level of delusion among Geshe Michael's followers is extremely high and dangerous.

  18. Brooks Singer says:

    This article raises some important questions. Unfortunately, it's also filled with factual errors and so much conjecture that it disrupts and misleads. I can hear the axes grinding, Shame.

  19. joe says:

    outright lie: '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.'

  20. ccf says:

    HI Mathew,
    1 very important point that you should amend in your story asap , because it is not true and you are
    filling other people's minds with erroneous information which is bad news!! You could have waited to get more
    info before writing such a piece to ensure accuracy. Because as you know many will read this and if you amend
    things as you discover the truths , people may not re-read but only remember what you initially wrote, so this is poor
    writing/reporting !!
    Geshe M and DM board DID take this matter to the police after Lama C talk that night on the violence and the stabbing incident. They knew that they had to make full disclosure , they were not being secretive as you say they always are, they played the recording to the police to allow the police to decide if any legal action needed to be taken, the police chose not to take any action at that time. GMR did allude to this point although it was not in detail and I guess you didnt pick it up or chose not to. I am sharing more info as I was at Diamond Mountain at the time for the teachings and for a few weeks afterwards. I want you to have this info and amend your article to the fact that they did not with hold this serious incident from the police. You can ask anyone at diamond mountain board to verify this info. I can understand why they wont talk to you as your reporting is inaccurate, mis-informed, biased and personal. I do believe that this is a serious situation and I agree that there are questions that need to be answered and there are issues within this community and perhaps not enough was dont to protect them after they left retreat. But Lama C refused everything, hid, took off and did not accept any offer of assistance from anyone !! Which made if very difficult for anyone to reach her and help her and Ian!
    I do believe that things have to change and will change and that the other retreatants may need much better support, guidance and assistance if they stay in retreat.
    Please change your article and perhaps take out the projections and bias's and stick to the facts, as this type of reporting which could be useful and helpful to others appears to be hurtful and harmful to others.

  21. the bored says:

    We'll do #14 when you Provide the link on your website to expose the clear psychosis at the very heart of Matthew's mind.

  22. ccf says:

    they played the recording for the police , thats pretty darn transparent !! This is a fact that was shared with all living at DM caretaking !
    Also, yes they live in a home not a tent ! and no one would hear domestic violence, it was only through Lama C's talk that this all came out, she shared about the aggression/assaults by ian and about the stabbing freely to everyone truly believing that this was an important teaching to share, she wasnt trying to hide this at all. Because all of this happened approx 3 months into retreat, and then all violence stopped since then, so there had been no violence according to her for close to 8 months. Perhaps this is why the police chose not to intervene??
    Just some more info for you to correct your article.

  23. D Veenhof Part 1 says:

    Mr. Remski offers some thought provoking ideas and illustrates as well how difficult it is to offer meaningful insights from such a distant vantage. I studied with both Geshe Michael and Christie McNally at Diamond Mountain for the entire seven-year course of instruction leading to the current three-year retreat there, and was also a principle builder and designer of the retreat sector on about 500 acres of quiet, secluded land in the foothills of the Chiricahua mountains in Arizona.

    Mr. Remski is well within his scope to comment on the need to discuss and analyze how the therapeutic traditions of the west and the spiritual traditions of the east can and should support each other. But when he characterizes Diamond Mountain as a cult and expresses doubt that the caretaking staff and board of directors there are competent to protect the safety of the retreaters there, he pretends a greater knowledge than he has of the situation.

    All of the three-year retreaters are my long-time colleagues and many are among my closest friends. My concern for them on entering the retreat was that the cabins we built for them were too plush for a good retreat rather than too Spartan. All the cabins were built to the standards of the International Residential Code and inspected and approved by Cochise County Building authorities. Because of that, all the cabins have plumbing and septic systems, propane or DC electric refrigerators, solar electric systems with high efficiency lighting, and many other amenities specifically designed to provide as Geshe Michael insisted, “the perfect outer conditions” for long retreat.

    The volunteer caretaking staff, which includes the board of directors, works tirelessly to provide organic and wholesome food staples and fresh vegetables and fruit along with exotic special requests that the retreaters order.

    There are professional medical people among the group doing retreat, including an M.D., two nurses, a physician’s assistant, and a psychologist. The claim that this group of three-year retreaters is not well looked after is way off base, and any of the many volunteers who visit Diamond Mountain to help with the caretaking will attest to that.

    Tarring Diamond Mountain as “neo-Buddhist” and repeatedly terming it a cult is even more misleading. I’m not sure exactly what the minimum requirements to qualify as cult are, but I do know that the term can be used as broadly and with the same demonizing intent as McCarthy’s “reds.” As an award-winning investigative reporter, no one has ever accused me of being easily duped, and I believe that—as Justice Potter Stewart said in trying to define pornography in his Supreme Court opinion—I know it when I see it.

    Everyone at Diamond Mountain comes and goes as they please (unless, of course, they have been banned from the property). The Tibetan tradition of debating orthodox views was a requirement of the course work, and numerous outside guests from Blue Angels pilots to Manhattan dance choreographers visited frequently to present programs.

    Almost any group that coalesces around a charismatic teacher has probably been branded a cult by someone who becomes disillusioned with them. Geshe Michael is charismatic, and for me the source of his charisma is his ability to inspire his students with the belief that the highest goals described in the Yoga and Mahayana Buddhist texts are actually achievable by modern practitioners using the authentic practices of the Tibetan Buddhist canon.

    I’ve been practicing and studying with eminent Gelugpa lamas for more than twenty-one years and in my view Geshe Michael Roach is as far from being a “neo-Buddhist” as anyone teaching in America today. He teaches to wide variety of audiences around the world, and in many settings he deliberately popularizes the arcane concepts of karma and emptiness. However anyone who has sat through the four-years-and-counting series of classes in which he is translating on the spot one of the greatest commentaries on emptiness, Uma Chidun (Entering the Middle Way), or anyone who is attending the ten-year series of courses and retreats on the lamrim knows Geshe Michael’s scholarship is deep and penetrating.

  24. D Veenhof Part 2 says:

    The “neo-Buddhist” label seems even more misplaced when you consider that Geshe Michael used the proceeds of a business he developed in New York to endow the bankrupt monk’s food fund at Sera Monastery in south India, the monastery from which he was the first westerner ever to receive the Geshe diploma.

    He also has probably done more than anyone, with the exception of the late Gene Smith, to find rare copies of great scriptures that were lost when the Chinese invaded Tibet. Since 1988 his organization, Asian Classics Input Project, has scanned more than two million pages of texts, and about 250 Tibetan refugees in India are employed by ACIP to type the texts into a searchable data base to be used free of charge by generations of scholars around the world. ACIP has also republished lost monastic textbooks that are again in use in Sera Monastery.

    Ian Thorson was a friend of mine and I personally feel the tragedy of his death all the more because it seems that it could easily have been prevented. I know that everyone at Diamond Mountain is carrying a great weight of sorrow about all the events of the past months and a thorough analysis of policies and decision making needs to be and will be done.

    Mr. Remski offers a lot of suggestions, some of which should be considered. His analysis, however, became a diatribe, in my view, when he strayed into areas about which he has strong beliefs but insufficient background. His assertion that studying select passages of Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life—perhaps the greatest Mahayana text on the practices for developing great compassion—is “crazy-making” speaks for itself and is symptomatic of much of his polemic.

  25. ACM says:

    Yes, none of the retreatants are "camping," or "camping out" or are in tents as you repeatedly assert. (Not being much of a camper myself, it does conjure up 'crazy' in my mind… to think of people camping for 3 years!) They all have homes that they are doing their retreats in.

  26. Mike Morris says:

    For what it’s worth, I give Matthew Remski a lot of credit for closely monitoring these comments and replying thoughtfully and civilly. I don’t doubt his sincerity, and I respect what seems to be an unusual commitment to engaging openly in a lively public dialogue.

    I continue to wish that the article would have focussed more on raising questions about the specific series of events leading to the tragedy, and less on flaws in the organization. And, I continue to object to use of the word ‘cult’, which I think is so loaded and devalued that it detracts from meaning. Issues like abuse of power and self-serving secrecy are not unique to religious organizations. And, entering a guru/student relationship is not necessarily, nor in my opinion even usually, a bad thing. But, these are not relationships to be entered lightly or carelessly.

    To the degree that the piece serves to make people cautious before engaging with a religious organization or teacher – and encourages students to maintain enough of a positive sense of ‘self’ to know when things aren’t right and be able to help themselves and others – I think it is helpful. What concerns me is that it may also confuse people with little understanding of Tibetan Buddhism, further harden the positions of people with contempt for the Tibetan path, and provide lurid entertainment for others as the “Guru-gone-bad” story du jour.

    I’m very sorry that a young man has died, and that his wife and community have been traumatized. I hope ultimately, this can be transformed into a cause for greater wisdom and compassion. A difficult situation.

  27. matthew says:

    I will correct the yurt statement, as this has been referred to several times. Can you corroborate that they played the recording? I can make the correction to reflect differing points of view, or we can wait for the investigative reporting to discern it, but I'd like a few more confirmations of this if possible.

  28. matthew says:

    I will correct this. In the early days, Roach made many claims about the virtues of austerity at DM. But if there has been full home construction this should be correctly noted.

  29. matthew says:

    Brooks: many factual errors have been alluded to, many of which I intend to correct. Do you have anything specific to add?

  30. matthew says:

    joe: how is this a lie? "camping"? "insane"?

  31. matthew says:

    thank you, ccf. i will amend.

  32. matthew says:

    mike: once i correct the facts that seem to be in dispute, i'll have a sleep and then get up and figure out how to make the "cult" moniker a little more flexible and less inflammatory.

    i respect the concerns you raise in your second-last graph. i had hoped that my appeal to community mentors at the end, including western/Tibetan luminaries, would shed light on the possibilities for renewal.

  33. Jerry says:

    Why the retreat should end now:
    The retreat cabins are on a major smuggling route……7 man teams of "Mules" transport weed and coke in the area all the time (like much of the border) ..The local smugglers all along the border face pressure to pick a side in the Cartel wars (google El Gilo) and not lose loads.Hiking in a wash could lead a lone person to be in the wrong place at the wrong time…5 years in prison…family member killed for loss of load or kill the guy in the yoga pants?

    This retreat is tainted…. everyone that come out will carry this death with them.

    The board doesn't really know who among the whole group knew they were still back there….many of the people serving the retreat have mentally and emotionally struggled this year from what we hear in town.( "their all crazy up there" is often heard…just a fact… Someone need to rethink the rights of the workers too.

    Legal action could still happen…Ian weighed 90 friggin pounds I heard from a rescue guy.Does that sound like a good job was being done by the board?

    The person that led the retreat went crazy in the retreat!!!!! It doesn't work for westerners unless they cheat like Roach did in the first one (Doug… talk to Ben Brewer if you don't believe me)

    just out of pure decency it should be stopped.. Why chance another death?.iI you can't see that it looks like you wasted 20 years of your life

  34. Padma Kadag says:

    Point well taken Mathew. And i ask, "does gaining your wildest dreams benefit those less fortunate?"

  35. Padma Kadag says:

    Any one may read "Entering the middle Way", "Bodhicharyavatara", etc…merely listing them and reading them does not make one a mahayana practitioner nor does it qualify authentic practice.

  36. matthew says:

    Douglas: thank you for weighing in. It is true that I am far away, and I announced at the outset that some details would stand to be corrected. I'll be sure to correct the "tenting" impression that I have conveyed.

    I believe the "neo-Buddhist" moniker would be agreed with, especially by the within-the-pale organizations such as FPMT.

    "The source of his charisma is his ability to inspire" is a circular statement. I'm interested in the usage of charisma as a power currency that inevitably distorts equality and creates dependency issues, and I'd be interested to hear your views on this.

    "Anyone… knows that Geshe Michael's scholarship is deep and penetrating"… perhaps… until, as Frank Boccio points out above, they are exposed to different views. You're not offering anything in this statement that reaches beyond the self-referential.

    I am aware of the claims of philanthropy, but I can't recall them being independently verified. And when they come from a man who also claims openly to have achieved a mystical threshold beyond which he is on the "conveyor belt" to omniscience, I wonder. I would love to see verification for all of your numbers in paragraph 2. Roach has for years spoken about translating tens of thousands of pages of ancient texts. He also speaks of seeing angels. Do you see the difficulty?

    My background in various philosophical systems is not insufficient to allege that Shantideva's subject/object blurring of Chapter 3 could very well lead not to rich states of empathy, but wild states of solipsism.

    It is true that I was rough on old Shantideva, and am considering softening it. But you can't honestly say that such a passage isn't dangerous without more grounding than a retreat cabin built to code, and hundreds of acolytes loose in the world claiming that perception is metaphysically determined.

  37. ACM says:

    If you look at GMR's service projects world-wide, I believe you'll have a resounding YES to that question. He teaches VERY CLEARLY that reaching one's "wildest dreams" comes from helping others having what they need and want, helping others to become happy. It's always about service.

  38. @yogiprajna says:

    "He was thin and wispy, probably vegan, certainly underfed and protein deficient, perhaps anemic, with impeccable lotus posture, and distant, unfocussed, entranced eyes. "

    I don't know a lot about the facts of your article, but as a vegan of 16 years who is in amazing physical condition i think taking jabs at (the cult of veganism?) like this is just bad journalism and discredits what you are trying to say. I look forward to reading a well-written article about this series of events. I hope you find your way to a more constant meditation practice and compassionate state of mind.

  39. matthew says:

    yogiprajna: I'm sorry to offend. that wasn't my intention. i'll remove the offending word — it's not substantial to the article.

  40. Ted Lemon says:

    If the Dalai Lama said something in an official capacity, we would be able to find it somewhere. The fact that we cannot find it anywhere means that it wasn't an official statement. I never heard that Ben talked to the Dalai Lama; I'm curious to hear what he had to say, but only if it can be shown that he said it. A lot of words are put into His Holiness' mouth by people with axes to grind.

    If you are in communication with a retreater and are aware that he or she is contemplating suicide, it might be good to share that with someone. Are you a psychiatrist? If so, and if you have diagnosed someone as mentally ill and a danger to him- or herself, it's your duty to act. Don't put it on me. I haven't talked to any of the retreaters since they went in, and none of them of whom I am aware are mentally ill in a way that's obvious to a layperson.

    If you think that there is anything I could do to prevent Lama Christie or Ian from following the path that they chose, you don't know them very well.

  41. ACM says:

    Matthew. I am happy to see that you are agreeing to amend the article as your inaccuracies and biases are being pointed out. I wish that you were also able to notify everyone who already read the article, or who may not have read the comments, of these inflammatory inaccuracies as well.

  42. Ted Lemon says:

    Tara, the reason why I at least claim this was not written by the Dalai Lama is that it wasn't signed by him. It's also never been published anywhere official. As far as I can tell it's a private letter from someone who works for His Holiness to Geshe Michael. If it had been intended to be a public censure of Geshe Michael, it would have been made public. Instead, we have seen various copies of the letter published in various places, but never by the Tibetan Government. So I don't even know if the document is legitimate in the sense of having ever been composed by Tenzin Gyeche Tethong, as attributed.

    Furthermore, the letter itself does not censure Geshe Michael. It simply asks him not to appear in Dharamsala, to avoid giving the appearance that His Holiness is condoning his practice with Lama Christie. This is an entirely reasonable request, whether Geshe Michael's practice is in fact proper or is not. The letter itself admits to the possibility that the practice could be proper, and draws no conclusion that it is improper.

    So this letter can in no way be construed to mean that His Holiness publically censured Geshe Michael. Not only was the letter not public, it was not censure.

  43. Ted Lemon says:

    Matthew, your letter is rife with speculation. You don't know in detail what help was offered to Lama Christie and Ian, but you assert that the help they were given was essentially a kiss-off. As far as I can tell, you have taken what was written by Lama Christie and by Geshe Michael, woven it together with a bunch of stuff that Jimmy Wales asked you to remove from the Wikipedia article on Geshe Michael, and published it here as fact. You even cite a gossip column.

    I take it from your disgust at the idea of communicating on slips of paper that you have never actually done a group retreat. This is a standard practice in retreat. The notes get long. The situation described there was extraordinary: to interrupt a three-year retreat and call a meeting is extremely unusual. You construe the board's encouragement that the retreaters continue to maintain silence as an edict, but in fact it's the sort of thing that has to be made clear so that people don't feel pressured to break silence to talk about what happened. Nobody is preventing the retreaters from walking out of the tsam tomorrow if they want to go, and in fact several who went in at the beginning already have. Staying in a three-year retreat is hard.

    I have no interest in going through your article point by point and itemizing each error. I have pointed out a few; I think they are indicative of the quality of the whole.

    My main point here is that you are not a central character in this play. The reason for the astonishing lack of anybody else posting a note like yours is that the rest of us are trying to deal with the loss of someone dear to us. Could we have done something differently? Should the board not have asked Lama Christie and Ian to leave? Could we have anticipated that they would go camp in a cave on National Forest land? How will we live without Ian? How will we survive without seeing his smile again? What will happen with Lama Christie?

    We don't know the answers to these questions. We are bereft.

  44. @Suri_k8 says:

    The yurt thing and the Dalai Lama thing are also mentioned in a 2008 New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/15/garden/15buddhi

  45. integralhack says:

    Matthew,

    Thanks for sharing. Interestingly enough, I think I "get you" now as a result of this commentary. Initially, Yoga 2.0 seemed like overzealous demythologizing and I find that folks like Kramer and Alstad seem to overstate their case at times, so I found some of your writing hard to warm up to.

    Knowing more about your background and your exposure to Roach's teaching makes your work for more "reality" and less "crazy making" more understandable to me.

    So thanks for not only sharing your insight and experience with Diamond Mountain Community, but also your personal realization. As a writer, you have become much more interesting to me now–not that you require my validation, of course. 🙂

    Regards,

    Matt

  46. Ted Lemon says:

    I take it you are equally critical of Pema Chodron? She's certainly an amazing teacher, who also comes from the Shambhala lineage. I've only heard Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche speak once, but he seemed fairly humble at the time. Granted, that was probably ten years ago. I find all these generalizations puzzling. Why don't you just find a lineage you like and go practice there? Who cares what other people are doing?

  47. integralhack says:

    This is a much more thoughtful response. Perhaps if you initially said "Could not help but think of 'Obama' or 'Bush' when I read this . . ."

    The glibness did seem like an ideological comment based on the singular name dropping.

  48. integralhack says:

    What's wrong with Michael Stone? Serious question.

  49. @Suri_k8 says:

    Found some info on the letter from the Dalai Lama , cant verify the source tough. Part 1

    Geshe Michael Roach's Claims of Realization
    Geshe Michael Roach's Three Year Retreat

    Dalai Lama's Private Office Denounces Geshe Michael Roach

    Geshe Michael Roach's planned teachings in Dharamsala

    In late 2005, Geshe Michael Roach invited one of his teachers, Geshe Thubten Rinchen from Sera Mey, to give teachings to a group of students in Northern India in July 2006. Geshe Michael Roach was to translate the teachings for his students.

    Geshe Thubten Rinchen cancelled these teachings in early 2006, citing ill health, and Geshe Michael Roach then decided to give the teachings himself. The venue was changed from the Kulu Valley in Himachal Pradesh, to Dharamsala, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

    The teachings were planned to coincide with public teachings by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who was scheduled to teach during the day. Geshe Michael Roach therefore planned to teach in the evenings. This, in itself, breaches the traditional etiquette of not teaching in the same place and time as one's own Lama, without permission.

    Although the change of venue to Dharamsala was advertized on the Diamond Mountain web site, the
    Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama were not aware of the planned teachings at this stage.

    Finding a Venue in Secret

    Geshe Michael Roach, as well as students helping to organize the event in Dharamsala, understanding that the teachings might not be welcome, and thus reverted to stealth in order to book a venue. They sent an otherwise unknown Tibetan woman to offer a large deposit to the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) for use of their premises. She informed TIPA that that the teachings may be a little controversial, but did not inform them that Geshe Michael Roach would be teaching with his "consort". As nobody in the TIPA administration knew of the Geshe Michael Roach controversy, they accepted the deposit.

    Dalai Lama's Private Office tells Roach he is not welcome in Dharamsala

    News of the planned teachings then reached the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who immediately cancelled the booking at TIPA.

  50. @Suri_k8 says:

    Part 2

    The following correspondence then took place between the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Geshe Michael Roach:

    May 24 2006 – Chhime Rigzin from the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote to Geshe Michael Roach informing of the cancellation of TIPA as a venue, and requesting him to cancel his teachings in Dharamsala.

    May 30, 2006 – Geshe Michael Roach sends a long letter to the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in both Tibetan and English, explaining that his "realisations" qualify him to teach in such a manner and justify his behavior with Christie Mc Nally. The letter was signed Rev. Michael Roach.

    June 5, 2006 – Tenzin Geyche Tethong, Personal Secretary to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, replied to Geshe Michael Roach by email informing him that he was not welcome in Dharamsala, either to teach, or to attend the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

    Diamond-Cutter.org has been forwarded a copy of this letter, which is presented verbatim below. The letter speaks for itself. It is an unequivocal denouncement of Geshe Michael Roach, signed by the personal secretary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

    Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama
    Thekchen Choeling
    McLeod Ganj – 176 219
    Dharamsala, (H.P.)
    INDIA

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