Death in the Desert in an American Buddhist Cult

Photo courtesy/Cochise County Sheriff's Office via the local newspaper.

Matthew Remski emailed me today, bringing my attention to an article he has just published at Elephant Journal. In his article he discusses the recent death of Ian Thornson, a Buddhist practitioner in S.E. Arizona at Geshe Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain University.

The death is indeed a tragedy and it highlights again the need for some sort of oversight in Western Buddhist circles. For as small (numerically in adherents) as Buddhism is in the West, it conveys enormous social influence and provides, for most, a safe and comprehensive alternative to dominant Western ideologies of consumerism and Christianity. And because it is relatively small and ‘exotic’ to many in the West, a relatively small number of incredibly wonderful individuals have been able to give people a very good impression of Buddhism as a whole. But all of that could change quite rapidly if certain ethical issues in Buddhist traditions are not addressed.

My Own Ties to the Story

Geshe Michael Roach was one of my first teachers, first online through his ‘Geshe’ degree courses (a series of 18 lengthy courses designed to replicate the training program of a Tibetan Buddhist Geshe). ‘Geshe’ is a degree or title generally similar to the ‘phd’ in Western academia. I found Roach’s teachings (which were recorded in the 1980s and 90s to my knowledge) to be excellent, close to the sources, with careful attention to language and relying on examples and explanations that made sense to Western audiences.  In 2004 I came to England for my MA in Buddhist Studies, focusing on Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism in particular. When it came time to choose a thesis topic, at first I wanted to write about Geshe Michael Roach (I believe one of Richard Hayes’s students from his time at McGill did such a topic around this time).  When faced with the tedium of transcribing many of his talks – anyone who has done this knows how horribly slow and boring it is, and I had hours upon hours of material to look at if I wanted to pursue the topic – I switched my topic to another area close to my heart: comparative ethics.

In the meantime, though, I did travel in 2005 with two friends to Ireland to see Roach and Lama Christy McNally give talks on Buddhism and Christianity. Just before the trip I wrote a short piece called When all signs say…. ‘cult’, obviously expressing my reservations about the whole thing. I was traveling with two fellow Buddhists, one an ordained member of the WBO, now Triratna Buddhist Order, which has had its run-ins with cult accusations, and a woman very committed to the NKT – New Kadampa Tradition, a splinter-group from the Dalai Lama’s tradition, the Geluks. So I was well aware of both the fuzziness of Buddhist traditions and the irony of worrying about going to see a ‘cult’ leader with two people who were, to some people at least, happy and well-adjusted cult members.

Two other quick asides: 1) I have studied ‘cults’, or as we like to say in the PC world of academia, “alternative religions” with a remarkable sociologist, Robert Balch, and lived with one such group – Hare Krisnas (ISKCON) in Vancouver, BC for a few days to get the full experience of ‘alternative religious’ life. and 2) I continued to follow Roach with decreasing personal interest and increasing academic/sociological interest around this time and onward.

In any case, in Ireland we saw and met with Michael and Christy. They were nice, giving the somewhat flowery talks they were becoming known for. When I met and spoke with Ven. Jigme Palmo (now on the board of directors for Diamond Mountain U) she invited me to Arizona to what was then a very new establishment in the desert just outside the tiny town of Bowie. Over the summer, with just a couple emails, Ven. Palmo had connected me with a student of Roach – I forget his name now – who offered me one of his tickets to the private teachings of the Dalai Lama (when I say private, I mean 800 or so people in a hotel ballroom, as opposed to the ‘public’ teachings at the University of Arizona athletic center in front of 10-15,000 people). So, I flew to AZ, saw the Dalai Lama a couple times, and spent some time with a few of Roach’s students. Roach and his students had reserved a large section in the private talks and he and McNally were there in the midst of it.

That was about as ‘close’ as I got to it all. From there things looked relatively normal (whatever ‘normal’ is in Western Buddhism). Sure, Roach was breaking away in some ways from tradition, but no more, it seemed, than Chogyam Trungpa (founder of the Shambala Tradition and Naropa University) or Geshe Kelsang Gyatso (head of the NKT) or Sangharakshita (head/founder of the FWBO/TBO).  This was the ‘wild west’, both literally and metaphorically, where rules seemed to exist only to be bent. I didn’t wind up visiting DM University – about 2 hours out of Tucson, but only because of time constraints. And after all of that I fell back into a busy academic life in Montana and ‘sitting’ with a nice Vipassana community.

Buddhism in the West (and the world today)

I’m still interested in Roach, but just academically these days. Like Trungpa, Kelsang Gyatso, and Sangharakshita, I think he is both charismatic and brilliant. But the organizational structure built around that ‘figurehead’ is what worries me. Matthew’s article: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy and Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona does a great job of outlining the problems of that structure:

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.

This isn’t just a ‘Western’ or ‘Neo’ Buddhist issue, either. As I wrote last December:

And in much more controversial news, WH of The Masculine Heart broke the story (to me at least) about Kalu Rinpoche, a young Tibetan monk -and believed reincarnation of the previous Kalu Rinpoche, a highly revered Buddhist teacher -who posted a video with allegations of abuse and attempted murder at the hands of his elders. What caught my eye was the statement by WH: “It seems monastic systems are fundamentally flawed – we have seen it in Catholic history, and here we see it in a Tibetan tradition.”

While monasticism itself may not be flawed, it is clear that certain institutions have come to be flawed. And it is in the best interest of all of us to do what we can to fix them. As Matthew points out, there are vows that many Buddhists take which forbid them from criticizing their teacher:

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…. (From the Brahma’s Net Sutra)

Ironically, I remember Roach, in one of his pre-2000 teachings, imploring students to take a modern, open understanding of this and to actually be very critical of teachers -including himself- who may be teaching wrong views or practices. As elsewhere there is the warning that wrong views and acts by a teacher could lead both the teacher and students to many lifetimes in the hell realms. While we might take this literally if we wish, we can also look at what appears to be spiraling, physical abuse, and ultimately death by exposure and dehydration as a fairly graphic depiction of what we can imagine hell to be in this life.

Toward the future

Matthew Rimski makes two sets of requests in his article: one to the board of directors at Diamond Mountain and the other to the broader Buddhist community. Both deserve to be heeded in full. To the directors at DMU he implores that they invite law enforcement and other outside authorities to conduct a full investigation, that Roach step down from the board and stop teaching until further notice, along with several other well considered recommendations.

For the broader community, Matthew (naming many of the ‘pro tour’ Buddhists of the West today) asks:

  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.

I’ll go further to suggest an official global Buddhist oversight organization. A transparent clearing house of information and informed discussion on all aspects of Buddhism in the world today. Until now, especially in the West, students have had little to help them determine whether a Buddhist group they were visiting was legitimate or potentially dangerous. In the groups I mentioned above we have seen suicides, murder, massive sexual impropriety, and now the death of a man in the Arizona desert. Not all of this could necessarily be avoided, but we do have a responsibility to speak up. Right now, many who do speak up, such as those behind the New Kadampa Survivors network, have no legitimate forum to air their grievances.  So the internet has become a battle-ground of ‘survivors’ and defenders, which doesn’t bode well for the future of Buddhism in general.

Part of the problem with Roach and others is that in their breaks from previous traditions they stepped outside of all oversight. A general oversight association couldn’t eliminate the rise of future problems like this, but it could go a long way in terms of simply:

  1. requesting reports on activities, membership, and activities from Buddhist groups. Those that wish to be secretive would be listed as such. People new to Buddhism and unsure about their group could check it out, expecting fair information.
  2. encouraging people to report abuses or unsafe conditions and expect such reports to be taken seriously – whether internally or by alerting outside authorities.

Currently there is the Rick Ross Institute, which has some material on the FWBO and NKT, but it’s clearly out of date. In fact, a quick internet search finds absolutely no current list for potentially destructive religious groups., while it is a wonderful resource, also offers little help. In searching for “Michael Roach” we find only links to his teachings and Dharma centers associated with him.

In the past, Dharma teachers have suggested codes of ethics, such as Rev. James Ford’s here, and open letters were written en masse after the Shimano scandal a couple years ago, as compiled and discussed by NellaLou here.

If abuses continue with either no response or only late reactive responses, even in what look like small corners of the Buddhist world, we will no doubt here calls similar to those of academic Michael Ruse in regard to the Catholic church:

“Let me say at once that, unlike Dawkins, I don’t necessarily want to see this as the end of religion or even of the Catholic Church in some form. I stress that although I cannot share the beliefs of Christians, I respect them and applaud the good that is done in the name of their founder. But I do now think that as presently constituted, the Catholic Church is corrupt and should be eradicated.”



Here are three documents, reported to be from Lama Christy McNally (A Shift…) her attendants (Statement on…) and Geshe Michael Roach regarding recent events at Diamond Mountain. They are quite disturbing and, I believe, only reinforce the sense that things were out of control in an unhealthy and unsafe way for several months, if not longer, at Diamond Mountain.

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  • nate

    this is BS. If you are a buddhist than i pley with you to just work it out in your own mind. There is no reason to think that this sect of Buddhism is a cult. And if you are taking that route, then please reexamine what a cult is. There is a reason this shit is secret. I would be the same way. Because there are 100,000 of people who THINK that they want to explore this knowledge. But the point of enlightenment, and i think the point of being a SEARIOUS buddhist, it to hear the seriously baffling paradox to life. There just as odd and wierd and solipsistic as any other cult. So look within yourself. Because none of know WHY we exist here. But i argue that the ancient masters got closer than your ever be. Unless you drop your pridefull ego.

    • e double

      nate – please consider spelling words correctly

  • John Oines

    This is not an issue of a man being killed because he was a Buddhist. This the result of lousy US boarder security, caused by Obama blocking Arizona’s attempts to police their boarders. This was, very likely, caused by an armed drug runner who routinely cross the boarder, with impunity.

    • Ben Tremblay

      Interesting: you’re so motivated by hatred of Obama that the facts of the man’s death matter to you not at all.
      You obviously read none of the story. Ein died of dehydration. There’s nothing at all about border security here, except your rabid hatred.
      You have strong opinions, but care about facts not at all. I think that’s scary dangerous.

      • becky lyzen

        So what are the facts, and what defines a cult? Building temples and retreat centers are not unique to, or exclusive of, Buddhism, or the desert. Domestic violence isn’t unique to, or exclusive of, Buddhism, or the desert. Reporting violence to the authorities and having no charges or arrests made following investigation seems fairly common. Board members insisting a couple claiming domestic violence leave a retreat… for peace… seems hardly news worthy. People using poor judgement, such as camping on Federal land without proper provisions or ice fishing near open water and needing rescue is somewhat news worthy but a common occurrence. A married monk seems a bit un-orthodox, but fairly harmless and “unconventional” a term that can be linked to almost any religion… I don’t get it… and weary of irresponsible info-tainment or sensationalized news.

        • Justin Whitaker

          A lot of factors here do add up to our being reasonably suspicious of the group. A spiritual leader (Christie, who was leading the 3 year retreat) stabbed her partner 3 times. This is generally a big red flag in any spiritual community. The advisory board trying to secretively send away Christie and Ian with plane tickets and cash – also dodgy and reminiscent of other religious groups that have tried to simply ship away abusive leaders. The apparent lack of concern for the mental health of both of these people, who, with very poor judgment, simply went off into the desert to live. Luckily, a caretaker or two was trying to help and that cell phone in the end saved Christie’s life, but was unfortunately too little for Ian. The facts are many, and some are still hidden (the responses, discussions, and reasoning of the board and GMR for instance), but many are available in the links for you to view. Definitions of cult are also discussed in the comments.

  • John Oines

    Happy Vesak, by the way.

  • Matthew O’Connell

    I found your post interesting, in part because I started my Buddhist adventures with the NKT many moons ago. I would hardly describe Gyatso as charismatic though. Secretive and dogmatic, yes, driven to bouts of intense delusion, sure. Chogyam Trungpa was highly charismatic along with Richard Baker and Suzuki and they each found themselves in a tight sexual spot, I guess in part because of their magnetism and very direct contact with their students. Kelsang is more guilty of intense sectarianism and exaggeration as far as his credentials are concerned. He has almost no contact with students directly apart from his inner-circle and speaks very little English in spite of having lived in the UK for many years. The tendency towards secrecy and a superiority complex grips the organisation, like so many cults..NRMs, and I find that scarier than any form of sexual misconduct. They use an aggressive marketing campaign to spread the good word too rather like Soka Gakkai, which as you are probably aware is another organisation with a leader accused of sexual misconduct, this time rape.
    Your idea of having a Global Buddhist Oversight something is a nice thought, but sounds totally unworkable and impractical. Perhaps a loser structure based on collaboration between the main figure heads of Buddhism in the west could agree to act as a resource for those in difficulty and a website could be established with very open discussions and information about unethical behaviour from teachers could be made public? Buddhism has an image to protect though just like the Catholic Church , so again I’m not in anyway convinced that such a project could get off the ground.
    I think what we need instead it so continue to call out figures publicly who are guilty of misdeeds so that a culture of openness becomes the norm and there is better general understanding that secretive does not mean somehow special and worthy of all your money, blind faith, sexual favours, etc. Developing a culture of greater transparency and less mysticism wrapped up as secretive and powerful, mysterious teachings only available to the few from Master Jedi Horny bloke, would be a great move forward. The issues are really organisational and religious though and not explicitly Buddhist.

    • Justin Whitaker

      haha.. yes, Matthew, I agree to an extent with your pessimism about such an oversight organization. But if we have oversight boards for doctors, lawyers, and academics, why don’t/can’t we have something similar for Buddhist teachers (and Yoga teachers, as they’ve had issues as well lately)? Something loose sounds good, but how effective could that be? And calling out harmful teachers is good, but is always, sadly, ‘after the fact’.

      • kaminimira

        Hey Justin, I met Roach at a difficult transition time in my life and he was just what the dharma doctor ordered. I studied almost daily with him over 3 years in Manhattan, transcribed tedious and repetitive lectures–he is not a classically eloquent man as you must know, tho I found him bizarrely charismatic–wrote the first draft of an important teaching anonymously, and pretty much could not take my eyes off his languid figure slouching against the podium as he drilled the same stuff into us, over and over again. The thrall broke when I began to see how he was manipulating people in the sangha–for instance, one condition he made for those who wished to draw closer to him was that we all learn Tibetan. As an Indian with an appreciation for Siddhartha Gotama’s origins, I saw no need for this, or for many of the other strictures imposed upon the sangha. I also had no intention of not speaking my mind. So I served my time and got out in the nick of time. It has been 13 years since I last saw Roach around Christmas Eve in Bodhgaya. Today I feel no anger against him for breaking his vows as a teacher–because, despite my fascination with his personality and his simple but powerful way of getting the message across, I was always more into the Dharma than the teacher. (Principles before Personalities). And as time goes on, I continue to find myself very grateful to him for training me so diligently in eastern philosophical fundamentals that serve me well everyday, though I am now on a totally different path which makes sense to me in a way Tantric Buddhism (as Roach and the other lamas I later studied with in the Himalayas taught it) never did. I honestly feel that at the time I was his student (around 96-99), Roach taught pure dharma untainted by the ego and with good intentions. But like so many of immense potential who never make it to the top of the mountain, Roach fell–for the same old reasons that most teachers fall–sex and the ridiculous adulation of the naive and the ungrounded he attracted. By the way, some comments to your post indicate that some folks don’t understand why old sangha members are stirred by this whole sorry mess. Arrogant as it may sound, I say to them that it takes decades (in this lifetime alone) to acquire a decent foundation in eastern philosophy. Without this, no matter how many degrees you have, or how high your IQ is, you will never understand how important it is that the guru’s heart and mind stay pure, and that he keep his vows. As a modern American, there was nothing stopping Roach from taking off his robes and doing anything he wished; but he wanted everything — the dignity conferred by his title as well as all the goodies forbidden to such a one. Justin, thanks for your work!

        • Justin Whitaker

          Many thanks to you as well for sharing your story. It rings very true to my own experience and to the stories I’ve heard and read about from others who were one-time GMR students.

          • Flavia

            Hi Justin,
            In first place, sorry for my english!!!! I have a question for you…
            I’m argentinian, a few months ago, I discovered GMR through my yoga teacher, and began to study Buddhism by the ACI, I wonder if these teachings are good and respond to the original teachings of Buddhism or are used with great marketing for GMR to attract people for her own religion?
            Thanks for your job!

            • Justin Whitaker

              Dear Flavia,

              I do think the ACI courses are good. It’s been about a decade since I studied them, but at the time I really enjoyed them and felt that I was learning a lot. But more recent fans and foes of the courses might be able to give you better arguments for following or not following the teachings in them. As with anything in life, check the teachings against your own experience and, if possible, with a trained and trustworthy teacher of your own. I think the GMR of the ’80s and ’90s was pretty great, but, as they say, ‘something happened…’ and I would no longer suggest that people follow him or his recent teachings. But again, I welcome other views.

              Wishing you the best – jw

  • Jim Schwartz

    The western idea of Buddhism is a joke. This started with the beatnik interest in Buddhism back in the ’50s, as in semi-autobiographic novel, “The Dharma Bums”, of Jack Kerouac.

    Yet Buddhism tries to emulate the western ideation by embracing the western ideals of hedonism. For example, the Dalai Lama is fond of meat-eating; Chogyam Trungpa was fond of alcohol (until it killed him); his so-called “dharma heir”, Osel Tendzin, fond of sex with his students (male and female), died of AIDS.

    Western Buddhism is nothing more than cloaked atheism.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Jim, there’s definitely some of that going on, from the 50s on forward. But there are many other facets to what is becoming American Buddhism or Western Buddhism. For every odd-ball, there are probably 50 or 100 sincere and hard working practitioners. That’s my experience, at least – and what I have found in books on the topic from the likes of Prebish, Fields, Numrich, Tweed and others…

  • Kerberus of Styx

    The topic of cult psychology in American Buddhism is taboo; see the first response on this blog-post to see why. There is massive cult psychology in American Buddhism for a number of reasons, but there is also a good deal of very good Dharma teaching as well — it’s impossible to separate the two aspects from one another. Most if not all human organizations tend towards some type of cult psychology. The cult aspects of Mahayana Buddhism have many threads: the idea of a guru or teacher who has supernatural powers; a definition of enlightenment that is too far removed from actual, day-to-day human psychology; the tendency of Buddhist organizations to imagine that only the anointed few in the organization’s hierarchy have any realization; the confusion of the sangha who substitute organization for realization and whom have an exaggerated and over-compensatory veneration of the formal aspects of Buddhist tradition, especially Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. The bottom line is that if you are a Buddhist practitioner you are responsible for your own relationship to the lineage and the sangha; one person’s cult is another person’s refuge from suffering.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Well put, Kerberus. I agree about practitioner responsibility, but I want to suggest greater responsibility for experienced practitioners and for those with academic training (those who Prebish coined ‘scholar-practitioners’ – see link below). For those folks I’d think that the vow to save all beings or realization of interconnectedness would be impetus to make sure people aren’t injured by untrained or ‘astray’ Dharma teachers. Just who counts as untrained or astray is, of course, debatable, but just shedding light on what can be seen as dangerous or negligent behavior cannot but help.

      All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

  • David

    Hi Justin,
    I appreciate your thoughts here. I, too, am a bit pessimistic about how practical and workable such a body would be, and I fear it would be largely “after the fact” as well. Doctors and other professionals, even yoga teachers, are regulated to some degree by the government. Religion is not. Another problem is what to do about organizations who refuse to participate, not because they have something to hide, but because they disagree with the concept.

    Both teachers and students have a responsibility. Teachers should not take advantage of their positions and students should scrutinize more in order to protect themselves. The secrecy you mention is a huge factor. I think “secret teachings” in general should be avoided and as I always say, if you meet a teacher who claims to be enlightened, run for the hills.

    I was involved in the Soka Gakkai for many years. What at first seemed like an open organization, eventually was revealed to be a group with many secrets and skeletons in the closet. I was a “senior leader” in the Gakkai which is more or less a teacher/ministerial role. While I had plenty of opportunities to have sex with members, unlike some of my co-leaders, both male and female, I refrained from doing so. I don’t think there is anything particularly praiseworthy in that, it was simply a matter of having a sense of integrity and exercising self-control.

    How do we find teachers for the future who are both capable and responsible? I don’t know much about Michael Roach but I do know there are more than a few people out there with titles like “Geshe” and so on who cut corners to get them. If you have money and/or know the right people, it’s easy. If you want to do it properly, it’s hard. I’m not sure the traditional methods for ordination and qualifying teachers will continue to work in today’s society. I feel that addressing that problem might be a more valuable use of our time than setting up oversight committees.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks David. I didn’t know SG had such secrets and skeletons. Eventually I’ll have to do some real reading on them. I would wonder though, if we abandon the ‘traditional methods’ (which I doubt would happen widely), what do we have left?

      • David

        Everyone complains about teachers but then they are dismissive about finding ways to raise better teachers. Oh well. Teacher training is a constructive way to deal with the problem. It’s day will come . . . someday.

  • Tenzin

    Thank you for this Justin.

    I think we there must be an authority people can approach when they have concerns or need help. In Germany we try to establish an Ethical Council based on an Ethical Charter under the Umbrella of the German Buddhist Union which people can approach if they have complaints, concerns or need help.

    I summarized the development and another case which needs addressing here:

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Tenzin – those are excellent resources. Perhaps the German Buddhist Union charter could serve as a template for a wider, or similarly national or regional, groups elsewhere.

      • Tenzin

        Thank you Justin, I think it could serve as a template …
        But it needs an collective awareness among the majority of practitioners within national or regional groups that such an Ethical Council or Charter is needed and useful and the engagement of those who see a need for it is required too. We had certain cases in Germany where it finally became clear that something should be done, and that if a Buddhist Umbrella Organisation claims to be a Buddhist umbrella organisation but doesn’t care for the destructive developments within Buddhism, its only a Buddhist umbrella organisation in name.
        However, to come to the point that the members of the German Buddhist Union (DBU) gave at their congregation in April 2004 an unequivocal vote to establish an Ethical Council and an Ethical Charter was a long, a very long process. While in 2003 the DBU was still in a state of denial to those issues, gradually they opened up and in 2005 there was a first working group about so-called “cults”. The result of this group was a handout for people with signs of healthy and unhealthy groups. But this alone was obviously not sufficient …

  • NellaLou

    The Buddhist Channel had a good series on dealing with cults a few years back. Here’s one and it connects to others.,4410,0,0,1,0

  • Tenzin

    For a quick list or potentially destructive Buddhist Groups see Rudh’s list:

    • Justin Whitaker

      Ahh – perfect. This is the sort of list I was hoping for (and I know I’ve seen it before at some point). I think it’s a perfect start for a broader discussion. It looks to me to be fairly comprehensive and unbiased, but it’s still one person and I doubt he want’s to fulfill the role of clearinghouse on information and abuse claims. But in any case, a great start. Thanks.

      • Tenzin

        Sorry, I meant Rudy’s site not Rudh’s … Yes, it is a one person site and its impossible for one person and also questionable to fulfil the role of a clearinghouse on information and abuse claims. As far as I can see the best address so far is currently INFORM. They provide unbiased information, they are an academic institution, well established among researchers on New Religious Movements. I think you know them, don’t you? ; see also this small information:

      • Rudy

        Thanks for the heads up Justin! I’m the Rudy of the website, and I’d be more then curious if anything develops in the direction of some sort of critical Buddhist organization that can ring the alarms. At the same time though, I doubt that this is easy to organize as organizations can easily be attacked by ‘cult’ members who do not want to hear the truth about the groups they are in. People have more then once tried to intimidate me – without much success though :-)
        It is also often quite difficult to determine who to list and who to leave out. For example, what to do with people with good intentions but who lack the genuine understanding of the teachings? And how to verify whether claims of wrongdoings are justified or merely acts of ill-will towards individuals or an organization? For example, claims of sexual abuse often appear to be just as important as they are impossible to verify.
        If anyone else is seriously interested in these issues, I’d be very happy to exchange ideas.

        • Justin Whitaker

          Hi Rudy. So sorry for the long-delayed response. Life sort of took over for a bit and I missed some of these comments. Can you send me an email at Buddhistethics [at] I’m not sure what/if anything at the moment will come of all of this, but if/when something does form, if I’m involved I would love to be in touch with you. I’ve just written a short update (following up on the NYTimes coverage of this event):

  • Justin Whitaker

    Just rereading the blog post I wrote back in 2005 before seeing GMR and McNally – ‘”The fate of each [The NKT and FWBO / TBO] rests on the shoulders of its members as well as the educated public. We all share a bit of the responsibility for questioning things that don’t seem right and pointing out inconsistencies when we find them. The same goes for students of Geshe Michael Roach, including myself. His organizations are still outside of the public eye, but it will only be a matter of time before questions are raised, problems are pointed out, and it will be up to us all to treat such things openly and honestly.”

    …only a matter of time… A bit chilling.

  • Margaret Gouin

    Just a minor point, Justin: At one point you say: ‘I have studied ‘cults’, or as we like to say in the PC world of academia, “alternative religions” …’ ‘Cults’ and ‘alternative religions’ are NOT the same thing. ‘Alternative religions’ are just that, alternatives to the dominant Judeo-Christian religious dialogue which underlies Western culture. ‘Cults’ are a particular toxic form of organisation which exist (or have the potential to exist) withiin all forms of religion, including all the Abrahamic religions, all the Eastern religions, and all the alternative religions. To arbitrarily label all alternative religions–which would include all forms of paganism, for example–as ‘cults’, is simply wrong, not ‘PC’. Apart from that minor cavil, I find your article and the comments it has provoked very worthwhile reading.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks, Margaret. It’s a minor point, but certainly one that can get people riled up and deserves greater clarification. The course I took was called “Sociology of Alternative Religions” and the professor explained that “it used to be called “Sociology of Cults”, but people in cults don’t like being called that…” He explained that Christianity and, later, Mormonism both started out as ‘cults’ or ‘alternative religions’ and with time developed into mainstream religions. So ‘cult’ in these sociological terms didn’t have the negative connotations that later developed in popular culture. Once that happened it became helpful to establish new terminology, hence “alternative religion.”

      Some bits from the internet:
      “A number of alternatives to the term new religious movement are used by some scholars. These include: alternative religious movements (Miller), emergent religions, (Ellwood) and marginal religious movements (Harper and Le Beau).[12]” – via

      The book, America’s Alternative Religions (by T. Miller) seems to follow your definition of ‘alternatives to the dominant Judeo-Christian religious dialogue which underlies Western culture’ and as such both Buddhism and Hinduism in general are discussed.

      But Communities of Dissent: A History of Alternative Religions in America (by S. Stein) doesn’t discuss Buddhism except in the context of Henry Steel Olcott and the Theosophists. Here I don’t think Buddhism or Hinduism in the US would count as ‘alternative’ or a ‘cult’ unless it showed clear signs of breaking away from it’s parent teachings/practices as many branches of ISKCON did.

      So the terminology may still be somewhat contested and I’m in no place to say who’s right or wrong. As for Pagans, from what I remember, those who are Pagan in Nordic countries or elsewhere that Pagan practices survive probably wouldn’t be considered ‘alternative’, while Pagan or Neo-Pagan groups springing up in the US, depending on the group structure, practices, etc, could indeed fall under that label. And there’s plenty of grey area in between.

      For a range of meanings of ‘cult’ see here (I try to keep my use in the neutral range):

      And here’s Prof. Balch’s webpage (and syllabus for Soc of Alt Rel):

      And finally, a bit more on the church-sect-cult typology (similar to what I studied):
      “By sociological typology, cults are, like sects, new religious groups. But, unlike sects, they can form without breaking off from another religious group, though this is by no means always the case. The characteristic that most distinguishes cults from sects is that they are not advocating a return to pure religion but rather the embracement of something new or something that has been completely lost or forgotten (e.g., lost scriptures or new prophecy).”

      • Karen Conlin

        Just poking my head in here after having seen a link to this blog on my Google Reader gadget this morning. Very thought-provoking and interesting material, without a doubt. I’ve been self-identifying as Buddhist for several years now, but have yet to do any formal study with anyone. It’s all “book larnin’” for me at this point.

        I wanted to toss my opinion in here about “cult” versus “alternative religion.” In my experience (as an American white female in her early 50s), it seems to me much the same as “pornography.” Everyone knows it when they see it, but can’t necessarily define it for others. That being said, I find the last paragraph of the entry to which I’m replying to be one of the clearest differentiations I’ve seen.

  • lama

    As a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, I can assure you he did not ‘break away’ from his tradition in the least. He was the recipient of the Shambhala terma which was, many centuries ago, written for the people of this time. He fully transmitted the three lineages that he held: Nyingma, Kagyu, and Shambhala.

  • dpunx

    Stick to what the Buddha actually taught and a lot of these problems can be avoided. Is it mere coincidence that most of these problems involve Tibetan Buddhism?

    • Justin Whitaker

      Well, Zen and Theravadin communities haven’t been without scandals in recent years either.

      • Tenzin

        exactly …

  • Shusan Jizan

    a global Buddhist oversight organization? Are you nuts? That is the dumbest idea ever, for many reasons, not least of them because “Buddhism” itself doesn’t really exist! Would you propose a single organization to oversee all of “Christianity” or all of “Judaism” or all of “Hinduism”, “Islam”? Absolute stupidity. There are hundreds if not thousands of so-called Buddhist traditions, that may share NOTHING whatsoever in common beyond the vaguest appreciation of a historical man named Siddhartha Gautama, and often not a whole lot of that. Let us not forget (though everyone seems to have) that there was no word “Buddhism” until English imperialists needed a name for a bunch of traditions they needed to classify, and dismiss, while trying to convert their followers to their own religions and value systems.
    As a “Zen” follower, I would rebel against any organization that tried to speak for all of even just those many traditions, that are wildly disparate, and constitute a tiny fragment of all “Buddhists”.
    At a certain, quite fundamental, point, people are responsible for themselves. it is caveat emptor. While I am horrified and aghast at the events in Arizona, I would never have crossed the street to hear Roach speak, much less get sucked into what has every hallmark of a cult, long before this tragedy.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Well, perhaps global wouldn’t work and the German model discussed already could be expanded. But as often as I’m discussing ideas and problems with Thai, Tibetan, N. American, and European Buddhists, I see no reason why some ‘interconnection’ of more local groups couldn’t happen. As much as we can pride ourselves in our individualism and cling to labels that separate us from one another, so many of these problems show us just how similar we are. And part of our responsibility, as we advance in practice and certainly when we take on leadership roles, is to help others.

  • Ryan

    I appreciate your call to be careful and alert regarding unhealthy situations with charismatic leaders, but I would encourage everyone to think twice before trusting Rick Ross. This is a man who made his success with forced deprogramming sessions that he only stopped when litigated. He now endorces “exit counseling” that he insists follows the same principles. Furthermore, he did all of this with no credentials to perform any kind of counseling. That alone makes me leary of trusting his organization or using it as a souce of information.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Thanks for the words of warning, Ryan. I hadn’t heard that about Mr. Ross. And there’s little on his site to verify his own credentials. He does have an advisory board one could look into though (which looks okay to me on quick glance) and a discussion form (I’m allergic to those these days, but maybe worth viewing). And from looking at a few of the pages he has listed, it looks like mostly (or all/nearly all) of it consists of newspaper stories that can be cross-checked. So while he or his org may have faults, it seems useful, with a fair amount of leeriness…

  • Sheila

    While I understand the sentiment, I heartily disagree with the idea of a Global Buddhist Oversight organization. It would be just as problematic as a Global Religion Oversight committee or a Global Human Oversight committee.

    Unlike the Catholic Church, Buddhism is not centralized; there is no ultimate human authority, and far too many variations in doctrine for there ever to be. One of the great strengths of Buddhism, in fact (to me) is that it isn’t rigidly organized.

    I have read the rebuttal to the “press release” on this sad incident with the couple at Diamond Mountain, and I have to say that so far it does not strike me as a cult-related death, but rather a personal tragedy which is being spun by some as a “Buddhist problem.”

  • Sheila

    I also echo Ryan’s leeriness of Rick Ross – I made the mistake of trying to have conversations at his “cult awareness” forum.

    • Tenzin

      Hi Sheila, I don’t know about Rick Ross but a bit about the forum. Usually current members of criticized groups try to use the forum also to “whitewash” ex-members’ reports, thereby undermining an exchange that is needed for ex-members to come to clarity. Therefore obvious “pro-contributers” are restricted or maybe even sometimes banned. You might have made this experience with respect to Rigpa, as a “defender” of this organisation.
      As long as there is no-one one can approach if power is abused, abuse of power continues. An institution who helps those harmed or answers public requests, I think, would be very useful.

      • tenzin

        To differentiate a bit what I said about Rick Ross Forum: usually they seem to want that people can ask questions about controversial discussed groups. They allow people to post everything which is criticism about the group (without checking it) but they allow also positive things to be said. However, they are aware about tendencies that members of groups discussed there often try to “whitewash” criticism by playing it down, so they closely moderate the forum to avoid this. A good example how it works is the Rick Ross thread about NKT.

  • josh

    hi justin- we went to UM together, perhaps you remember me. i also have a little personal history w/ DM and posted this overlong recollection over at elephant, so i thought i might pass it along to you as well:

    As far as cults go, DM is probably small potatoes, BUT, here’s what I saw when I attended a couple of classes at the “university’s” first semester (2004? 3?), and had fairly close contact with the organization for about 6 months (and none subsequent to that time):

    -obsession with developing ‘light bodies’, immaterial and made of light. I remember a talk where GM claimed that in the monastery they used to put needles into their arms to check their progress.

    -promises of physical immortality as the end of buddhist and yoga practice

    -conviction that jesus had travelled to hemis monastery in ladakh and that the mahayana was the eastern form of christianity (those were his literal words- i remember a thai theravada monk in attendance being quite startled at that one!)

    -extremely literal teachings on karma that attached significance to literally everything, so that he had all his students go see the da vinci code to show that the world was catching on to his way of thinking, and that a sort of new era was about to dawn. the mood was that enlightenment was imminent for everyone if they would just get the higher teachings (from him). if they didn’t, then they would be missing the cosmic boat. a lot of public and semi-public tears from GM and Christie over this one.

    -from talking to students, the practice of the higher teachings involved literally hours of ‘canned’ reflections that came from his textbooks. meditation as i have learned and practiced in other settings was entirely absent, advanced students could barely sit still for a minute. the teachings were extended ‘reflections’ that involved tracing a line of argument or doctrine in detail. this isn’t without precedent in buddhism or necessarily a problem, but does give him a tremendous amount of power over his students’ inner lives.

    -DM makes a lot of claims that turn out to be sheer hype (“pure view”?) about members’ qualifications. the most egregious to me were in regards to the scholarship. i know translators who appreciate ACIP, but DM’s tibetan language and buddhist philosophy are so idiosyncratic as to be unintelligible to outsiders. GM and Christie’s yoga sutra stuff is especially bad and it hurts me to see it on the bookshelves from a reputable publisher.

    -anectdotally, a former student who had also lived with khen rinpoche, GM’s teacher, said that the rinpoche asked him not to read GM’s commentaries on valid cognition, that they were inaccurate. i don’t place a huge amount of value on this one, if it is true, on the basis that i think claims that western buddhists would be better off under asian, ‘traditional’ authority are misguided. they have their own unique problems and we have ours. remember that dilgo khyenste, a pillar of traditional authority, and spiritual authority as well if indeed such a thing exists, covered up for the vajra regent; from his perspective, that was the best thing to do. from mine? totally wrong.

    -i also remember GM once citing elizabeth claire prophet as an authority. her church universal and triumphant? now that was a cult! she stockpiled automatic weapons and thought grizzly bears were created by evil sorcerers. citing her in a talk doesn’t implicate GM or DM in any of that, but it shows a real naivete.

    -a student told me about having heard GM claim in a talk that bad things had happened to people who spoke out against him

    -i didn’t witness this, but i remember reading one of the talks from the first long retreat: GM brought up the accidental death of a little desert lizard that shared their tent. he’s absolutely inconsolable in the talk. i remember being touched the first time i read that, but now it just seems kind of crazy to me.

    -and it was so strange to me that he couldn’t just say he had a girlfriend. people have girlfriends, right? why make it so weird, publicly claiming that it’s strictly spiritual and all that? must we care what you do or don’t in the bedroom?

    i remember generally liking his students. they mostly seemed like the kind of cool, slightly new agey but not whacko folks you’d meet in any yoga class. there was a lot of creativity and fun, though i thought they were a bit puritanical sometimes. some seemed pretty far out, and often the most far out claims were either not brought up or left to pass without comment. the impression that i got was that they were trying to be open minded, and that questioning GM doctrine was kind of rude. the instructor of one of the courses i took (british i think, or australian. alistair? maybe he’s in retreat) said on different occasions that GM was:


    -the next jesus

    -the supreme being

    as far as the practice of “debate” goes, i can say that at DM it was not in my limited experience a socratic means of arriving at understanding through mutual inquiry, but instead a wholly scripted delivery system for predetermined conclusions. candrakirti’s “cup of water” (tho i think it comes from haribhadra originally? non-DM scholars feel free to correct) was brought up a lot, usually to the effect that if you see something bad, it’s your own badness. if you see something good, it’s your own goodness. this is not the only way to read this philosophical problem, tho i’m sure pangloss would be proud.

    i split quick from the scene, mostly because i didn’t feel that DM had practices or teachings that dovetailed with what i had learned before i came, and was by that time rather invested in. but there was a kind of group think that has made me deeply uncomfortable over time. every DM student that i knew personally had a nuanced view of the group in private conversation, but on the grounds of DMU in Bowie, or at official programs, there was a right and a wrong way to think and speak about things, and people generally played along. i didn’t see much outside reading. i don’t think anyone had time! they were a busy bunch.

    i guess in a free society people are allowed to think screwy things, but it does make one sad to see people using their freedom to limit it so thoroughly.

    best to all, whatever that may be,

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hia Josh – yes, of course I remember you. I recall at some point after you were gone talking with Dr. Sponberg and others to see if anyone had heard from you. That must have been 2003 or 4; maybe ’02 though. Time flies.

      Many thanks for sharing your experiences with Diamond Mountain, Geshe Michael Roach, and Christie McNally. I certainly agree that they’re small potatoes in many ways (no gun stockpiling!), but the lack of openness, right down to wiping McNally off of many DM webpages with no notice as to why, is still worrisome. So, while they’ve acknowledged the event, they don’t seem to have done much about the underlying causes and conditions.

      One of the things we learned in the Sociology of Alt religions course was that ‘cult’ members are usually very average, normal, well adjusted people. But things can escalate very quickly, especially when they’re living cut off from the world. If they can be led to believe that they are on the verge of something like heaven or awakening, without proper guidance, they can make horrible decisions (such as those that led to Ian’s death). It’s sad. And while for now I’m not too worried about the other people at DM, I can only see this as an incident that could repeat itself in some way the next time someone there has serious psychological issues.

  • Paisarn

    “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…. (From the Brahma’s Net Sutra)”

    This Brahma’s Net Sutra can’t be related in any way to the Theravada’s Brahmajala Sutta that I know! In Walsh’s translation, the Buddha said: “Monks, if anyone should speak in disparagement of me, of the Dhamma, or of the Sangha, you should not be angry, resentful or upset on that account. If you were to be angry or displeased at such disparagement, that would only be a hindrance to you. For if others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, and you are angry or displeased, can you recognize whether what they say is right or not?” “No, Lord.” “If others disparage me, the Dhamma or the Sangha, then you must explain what is incorrect as being incorrect, saying: ‘That is incorrect, that is false, that is not our way, that is not found among us.’”

  • Tenzin

    NYT article:
    »Mysterious Buddhist Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death« by Fernanda Santos

  • Mystic Mandy

    I think new-age spirituality and other disciplines warp things so that no one ever questions anything. I like Native Spirituality best and the ideas of the Rainbow Warriors who come and through action, not just words, make changes. Right now we are too mind oriented; all our spirituality is all mental thinking. People then think all they have to do is think about or not think about things in order to walk a life in alignment to spiritual truth. They can’t see they are still caving into everything that is self-destructive (through lifestyle and action–based in other thinking). They use spirituality to deny, suppress, to be all-positive, etc (which there is a mental disorder called “psychological splitting” which has these symptoms). So, its not surprising that people end up offering blind obedience to various beliefs and authorities that many mystics and masters wanted us to break free of.

    There has got to be a middle ground which goes back to SEEING the fruits of everything (both the bible and the Dhammapada mention this term of “fruits”). You can’t give up the flesh and illusions without understanding from the personal and collective fruits of our flesh oriented desires why it is beneficial to give up them up. Why would we when we are taught to view certain fruits as good even if they don’t really bring much contentment (how many ‘successful’ people are truly happy? and what has all our success created environmentally/collectively?)

    Even in the book of Galatians, it expressed to abandon following holidays and the law, to only obey Spirit. But people don’t because they don’t see why this would be required. We don’t know how to deal with contradictions in philosophy. We try harder to be a “friend” to the world and to never hurt or upset anyone (though scripture advises us not to do this). We heed one side of a contradiction within scriptures and try to abstain from the other side, instead of seeing the contradictions as offering us steps, i.e. we have to see/judge something first in order to realize what we have conformed to in order to see the value in not conforming to it and releasing it. We resort to denial a lot. But, I think denial has created enough negative fruits within our world for us to know there must be a middle path and consideration for the path the whole is taking.

    From what I have researched, while counseling Kalamas of Kesaputta, regarding the uncertainty and doubt they felt about which Brahmans and monks were speaking the truth within their doctrines and which were lying, Buddha gave his criteria for accepting or rejecting doctrine. In the Kālāma Sutta (as translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1994), Buddha tells Kalamas: “Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted and carried out, lead to harm and to suffering — then you should abandon them.’”

    This is all we really need to go on. But again, the first step is to actually see what qualities do lead to harm and suffering, personally and for the whole.