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Death at Buddhist Retreat Reveals More Grim Details of Cult-like Followship

in YD News

The huts 39 retreaters stayed in. photo: Joshua Lott for The New York Times

Another troubling story about cult-like followings, this time with a grim and deadly ending. Though it’s really not over yet. Today The New York Times takes a look at the death of retreat go-er Ian Thorson who died on April 22nd while in the midst of a 3 year silent Buddhist retreat run by Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain University in Arizona.  Thorson’s death, apparently caused by dehydration, has blown the curtain wide open on the supposed cultish and mysterious underworkings of a Buddhist leader and his followers gone bad.

It’s kind of a crazy story, and admittedly we haven’t been in the trenches on this one, but here’s what we’ve gathered:

Michael Roach, who studied the same tradition as the Dalai Lama, established Diamond Mountain a Buddhist university and retreat center after successfully running a diamond business worth tens of millions of dollars. He built a swarm of followers and “spiritual leader” status.

Devout follower and “spiritual partner” Christie McNally and Roach joined forces in teaching and soon involved themselves in questionable activities like secretly marrying and having sex despite their claims of being platonic, not surprisingly which causing an uproar in the community and from the office of the Dalai Lama himself due to violation of the Buddhist tradition.

Somewhere along the line, Ian Thorson entered the picture and became immersed in the teachings, despite the several attempts of “intervention” by his mother. He also became immersed in a relationship with Ms. McNally even while she was still married to Roach.

Mr. Thorson and Ms. McNally, 39, married on Oct. 3, 2010, almost three months before they left for the retreat and a month after Mr. Roach had filed for divorce from her, to add to the twistedness.

In December 2010 39 people, including Thorson and McNally, set off on the “Great Retreat” of 3 years, 3 months and 3 days.

Earlier this year, Thorson was stabbed 3 times in the torso by McNally which she mentioned during one her lectures on the retreat. Whether it was self-defense or an accident as she described in a letter she wrote, is yet to be determined. Diamond Mountain’s board of directors demanded answeres and McNally and Thorson were voted off the island and ordered to leave the retreat.

McNally and Thorson hid from the others before giving in and finally leaving on their own. Not ready to return to the real world (aren’t they in Arizona?) they decided to “go camping in the cow-herding land” next to Diamond Mountain “to get our thoughts settled.”

This did not go well.

Although some water was left for McNally and Thorson by retreaters who figured they were still nearby, the two grew weak from dehydration and assumingly no food, and could no longer retrieve the help.

At 6am April 22nd, McNally radioed in to Diamond Mountain HQ who then responded by trying to locate them in the desert, but failing. By 8am Diamond Mountain staff called 911. It was too late. When help arrived Ian was already dead, and Christie in bad shape.

Not only is this a creeptastic and tragic story, it brings up all these other disturbing and alarming revelations from behind the scenes about the antics of a smart, power-fueled and potentially disillusioning guru:

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.”

“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.

And strange initiation ceremonies:

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.

But adoration and devotion die hard.

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.”

As disturbing as this is, what seems to be especially perplexing and frustrating is how tools we see as personally empowering like mindfulness, meditation and yoga are used instead to strip people of their autonomy.

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7 comments… add one

  • Liza

    How is the NYC yoga community reacting to this? So many of my teachers in NYC were connected to Roach. Hell, Sharon Gannon and David Life were Christy and Roach’s yoga teachers on their 3 year retreat. One of my favorite teachers (who gave great Dharma talks) was a Lady Lama with Christy.

  • Curious

    Is one of your favorite teachers, KM by chance?

  • Liza

    God no! That woman is terrifying! I’ve taken classes from/with her students and they are super-well-trained though.

  • weirdddddddd……….

  • Earth Energy Reader

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, any “teacher” or guru that takes you further away from yourself by either stripping you of your decision-making ability, takes all your money or autonomy is exactly the type to avoid at all costs.
    Real teachers bring you back to yourself. There’s no other way.

  • Wow. How screwed up is this story??

    I’ve had a couple non-yoga friends ask if this is ‘normal’ retreat/yoga stuff. Haha, no. No this is not normal. This is messed up and twisted. Honestly. Whether doing yoga, learning about Buddhism or investigating any other religion it always pays to try to stay rational, always stay sceptical and question everything. Also, maybe don’t follow some guy into a desert for a three year silent retreat just after you’ve married his ex-wife. Just sayin.

  • Patricia Juarez

    I am not surprised. Look at the Sedona sweat lodge “guru”….. Vulnerable people, unfortunately are attracted to “cults”, that appear to show caring and interest in them. Unfortunately they care about the $ most of all….
    Go to a qualified reputable psychotherapist to deal with personal issues… A friend of mine just went to a PSI seminar, which sounds cult-like…. ANybody have any info on PSI?

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