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Thread: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

  1. #1

    Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

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    New York Times
    Mysterious Buddhist Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The retreat is set to end on April 3, 2014. Of its original 39 participants, 34 remain.

  2. #2

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    I read about this recently -- it's quite disturbing.

    I didn't even know this place was here. Somehow Arizona never fails to get national/world attention for all the wrong reasons, doesn't it?

    This is an example of why I am very uncomfortable with the idea of formal teacher-student bonding where you invest every bit of your trust, the functioning of your mind -- even your life, apparently -- into this one person who is, after all, just a person and there is no way to really verify that they are qualified, even after a long time of contact with them.

    I had an interesting conversation recently with my counsellor, who is very pleased with my participation in Treeleaf and my undertaking this practice. She thinks it is very good for me. However, she did mention that she usually cannot make any recommendations to her clients about following spiritual paths, because she said that she identifies in many of the clients certain traits and psychological states that would propel them into cult situations. Most would not be able to see the red flags.

    But she does not think that way about my situation because she has found out enough about it to understand that it's more of a philosophy than a religion in the conventional sense.

    It's too bad people can get caught up in these things, because if that didn't happen, the cults and abusive situations wouldn't exist.


  3. #3

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    A sad story, to be sure. I suppose these things happen, but every time I read something like this I cringe.


  4. #4

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    It looks like a situation that could have been avoided with some vetting.

    Michael Roach, had previously run a diamond business worth tens of millions of dollars and was now promoting Buddhist principles as a path to financial prosperity,
    For me this has no bearing on the issues of trust and being open to teachers. Part of the Buddhist path, as I understand it, is devotional.. in the sense of opening the heart to the highest human values... and that means stripping off all the armor. That is dualistic, and makes people squirm, maybe because it reminds them of Mom and Dad's church... and getting burned one way or another. But through recognizing the highest values in my own heart of hearts... I can see it in others, and take off my suit of armor, my careful defensive cleverness, and be open. It doesn't mean handing over my brain to another person, but I can afford to be naked.

    so.. guess what I am saying is this is another sorrowful, whacky, story.

    Gassho, kojip.

  5. #5

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Being open is understanding the situation from more than one view point. Then action or non action appears (maybe but this is an art so there's no guarantees and sometimes you are wrong). People are always trying to manipulate other people to get what they want. Stabbing is a no no but she claims it was an accident (this sounds familiar but will withhold judgment on her credibility due to lack of evidence). Are 3 year retreats unusual in Tibetan Buddhism or are these people carrying on some tradition?? Sounds very extreme.

  6. #6

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Sounds fishy to me!
    On April 22 at 6 a.m., Ms. McNally sent a distress signal to Diamond Mountain from a portable transmitter she had been carrying.
    Ok so she had a portable transmitter the whole time and she never sent a signal of distress until AFTER her weak and sick husband(the one she previously stabbed 3 times mind you) dies???
    Oh well I guess we will never know what happened(no evidence) because she conveniently had the body cremated without an autopsy?! Hmmmm :?:

  7. #7

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death


    what a tragic story.

    Michael Roach has dedicated decades of his life to setting up some of the most wonderful teaching facilities (on and offline... a lot of them for free) for those wanting to follow the Gelugpa path. During the last ten years however, it seems he has been linked to a lot of rather strange developments...I don't know him personally, I'm just saying this so that people don't think him having been linked to the diamond trade means he was a complete lunatic from the word go. Looking at the media coverage of his life, he seems to have gone from being a highly respected Geshe (the Gelugpa equivalen of a Phd. ) to being viewed as someone shrouded in controversy and tragedy by the mainstream Gelugpa establishment.

    May Kanzeon shine her light of compassion on us all.


    Han Chudo Mongen

  8. #8

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Humans being human. A very sad story, though.

  9. #9

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Quote Originally Posted by Rich
    Are 3 year retreats unusual in Tibetan Buddhism or are these people carrying on some tradition?? Sounds very extreme.
    Hi Rich,

    In my understanding, such retreats are a very common and traditional practice in Tibetan Buddhism, and I would hesitate to call them "extreme" for everyone. Let us leave it as "different medicine for different people, different strokes". There are times for each of us to wrestle with the "me, myself and i" in a concentrated fashion, although retreats of a few weeks or 3 months are more typical of Zen Buddhism, and usually are in a group setting (not in isolation).

    That being said, we have had and have folks who will take to a mountain hut or cave for long periods (is not Bodhidharma claimed to have sat in a cave for 9 years?) The Tibetans may spend the time engaging in a variety of Practices, visualizing and summoning Buddhas and Deities and such, but that is their way. Soto folks may spend our time of intensive Practice striving very diligently to engage in various Practices and Rituals with "no place to go", but that is our way.

    While here we encourage daily sitting of but a few minutes a day if ... ... meeting each instant of sitting as an expression of All-Time and Being ...


    ... we also request, if at all possible, that folks join in with a group one longer residential "Sesshin" per year of from 3 to 7 days eacy year ...

    Now, someone might ask too, "if each moment is all time and space, what is the purpose of an intensive Sesshin?" Well, I often say that, sometimes, we need to practice a bit long and hard, morning to night ... sitting and wrestling with 'me, my self and I' ... all to attain Nothing to Attain! Going to Retreats, Sesshin and such is a powerful facet of this Practice and not to be missed.

    Here is a more positive report on a Tibetan 3 year retreat ...

    Gassho, J

  10. #10

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Jundo, thanks for the info. From the shambala link this was interesting.

    "Since September 2006, more than 3,500 other Rigpa students have been taking part in a ‘home retreat’ program, following teachings from the three-year retreat at a more gradual pace in centres around the world. They have been dedicating four hours each day to study and practice, while continuing to work and lead family lives."

    Maybe we could do something like this?
    or maybe we are already doing this in a less structured way?

  11. #11

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death


    thank you Jundo for the link regarding the Tibetan retreat. Such retreats are the common requirement for becoming a Lama (meaning teacher) in the four Tibetan schools.

    I think what might be confusing to some Zen people is the fact that when they hear the word "retreat" they assume that the rigours of Ango get prolonged almost indefinitely. While it is true that the common three year retreats in the different Tibetan traditions do involve a lot of intense meditation practise and tough schedules, there are also periods where participants just lead the life of a normal monastic practitioner.

    Just to put the three years into perspective:
    My grand-aunt (a carmelite nun) has been encloistered for more than 50 years and is in great physical and mental condition.

    As a general rule IMHO one should not comment on other people's traditions too much without having some proper understanding of their actual practises...I am only writing this since Brad Warner (whom I hold in high regard generally) so obviously has next to no substantial knowledge of the Tibetan traditions, which however didn't keep him from making some really ridiculous comments in his last blog posts related to this tragedy.


    Hans Chudo Mongen

  12. #12

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Quote Originally Posted by Hans
    May Kanzeon shine her light of compassion on us all.


  13. #13

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Mongen, May I add and I am sure it is what you meant ( I am just merely translating) : "May Kannon, kannon-in-everyone-of-us, cut our crap and allow the truth, joy and simplicity to be, just be.

    thank you Mongen for your teaching.

    I am looking to hear your voice more and more on this new Treeleaf!



  14. #14

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Hello Taigu,

    thank you for the translation

    Kanzeon inside, Kanzeon outside... when there is no "I" to shine her blessings on, all Kanzeons - we - just sparkle from within..though we're made of wonderful mud.

    Thank you for your encouragement.

    We have five beautiful water lilies in our little muddy pond here in the suburbs of Cologne this year. No hidden symbolism, just a beautiful flower inside the mud.


    Hans Chudo Mongen

  15. #15

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    My mud is plentyfull , no lotus to be seen

    You are very patient with me.

    Anyway, gassho!!!!!!!!! (kind of Japanese style)


  16. #16

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    Hi everyone

    This is a very tragic story. It is sad to think that a Buddhist retreat could lead to a tragedy such as this. I am sure that such retreats can be very helpful for people but when human beings are involved there is always the potential for things to go astray.



  17. #17

    Re: Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in a Grisly Death

    The details of this event have been running for several weeks now.

    McNally posted a long account which was very upsetting - apart from the death of her husband (traumatic in itself) she was very concerned
    about the other people on the retreat as she was their 'leader'.

    I do worry about the notion of breaking down the ego - not at all convinced that it is necessary. McNally's description of the levels of sensory
    overload that retreatants experience if suddenly thrown back into the external world (which she and her husband were - being forcibly expelled from the retreat)
    was upsetting.

    This is only my subjective/personal view - but to withdraw little and often into silence/contemplation feels more healthy than these extremes.

    But as Hans said - probably wise not to judge.



  18. #18

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