Geshe Michael Roach Group Death hits the New York Times

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

The story of Ian Thornson’s  Buddhist retreat death has hit the mainstream. First it found its way the Huffington Post, and today it made its way to the New York Times.

As I wrote after the Huffpost article appeared, ‘This is the first major news outlet to cover the story that I have seen, but hopefully more will come. More light is still needed in this bizarre case which unfortunately led to the death of one man.’


Both articles give a much-needed journalistic neutrality (though imperfect as it may be) to what can easily sink into gossip and hearsay, so I’m happy for them both and hope more discussion of this type follows. That said, I also applaud the efforts of Matthew Remski for bringing the issue to light in thoughtful and detailed way that he did; and continues to do with his updated piece at Elephant Journal.

I have discussed this issue, and ‘ethical outliers’ in Buddhism in general, with a few academics here in the past few days (I have been at the International Association of Buddhist Studies Conference and sort of at a follow-up conference put on by the World Buddhist University; all in/near Bangkok, Thailand). When I first heard of the story I wrote, ‘The death is indeed a tragedy and it highlights again the need for some sort of oversight in Western Buddhist circles.’ The idea of ‘oversight’ didn’t seem to sit well with readers or people I have spoken with.

But in one conversation, a clarification was made as to what kind of oversight I had in mind: the kind of oversight that is provided by the Better Business Bureau, or Consumer Reports. I think people had in mind some sort of ‘Dharma police’ in ninja outfits interrogating old ladies. One commenter wrote, ‘a global Buddhist oversight organization? Are you nuts?’ and went on to conclude, ‘At a certain, quite fundamental, point, people are responsible for themselves. it is caveat emptor.’

Indeed, caveat emptor might be the right analogy. But while some people believe in a magical ‘free marketplace’ of religious ideas, I am quite certain that the same power imbalances and ensuing corruption that have led to countless global oversight organizations dealing with products also apply to religions. Again by analogy, there are laws that protect consumers from faulty or defective products, and many items require a 24-hour or longer ‘cooling off’ period in which the purchaser can return the item. So caveat emptor has a pretty restricted application. And likewise when teacher’s abuse becomes illegal, there are authorities there to step in and stop things.

But there is still a grey area, the land of hacks (to be overly pejorative) and innovators (to be a bit kinder). Those who sell snake oil or ‘meditation retreats to get rich and find love’ tend to fit into this area. Another commenter on the article suggested a page on the site ‘‘, which is an excellent starting point in terms of simply listing ‘who’s who’ and giving objective, pithy notes on what has been accused. It could be better, but as a one-man project, it’s outstanding.

There is a strong individualistic mentality running through the ethos of Western Buddhism – not strictly in a bad way, it is this individualism that led to a break away from following previous traditions or mindless consumerism. But it is also often an individualism which ‘goes within’ so much that it fails to see the interconnectedness of phenomena. First, it fails to see that the problems that many of the problems we have worked through are the same as those facing a younger generation and that we could actually do younger people a favor by talking about our experiences. And second, it fails to see that when each young person falls into the hands of a cult or abusive teacher and dies, commits suicide, or simply lives out a life reviling Buddhism, it effects us.

‘Buyer beware’ is a pretty callous response to those sub-prime borrowers who were cajoled into loans with hidden ‘balloon’ payments after so many years or sly assurances that the market could only go up; or to anyone harmed by using products that filled with cheap toxins. Similarly,  it is callous not to warn people if they are entering a religious community that may show signs of similarly destructive impulses. Things like community-splits, board-of-directors purges, sudden sweeping changes, as well as promises of quick enlightenment (or certain salvation), and so on, should all raise red flags. And they do for people who have been around the spiritual block, so to speak. But not the idealistic 20 year olds who think they’ve just found something new and wonderful that is going to change their lives forever. As we can see, in some cases it does, but just not in the ways they had hoped.

  • Justin Whitaker

    While I’d like to keep the comments here as much as possible (for ease of looking back in the future), there is a good discussion of this topic on my google+ page here:

    The post is public so you don’t need to be a G+ user to read it or, I believe, to comment.

  • Rae M.

    It can be a confusing world for a new Buddhist- looking for a tradition, teacher, and community to work with. As most traditions stress the student-teacher relationship as being an integral part of practice, I agree that some general guidance would be helpful. I think it is more important to protect young and/or new Buddhists than it is to promote ideals of individualism.

  • Jonas Dainius Berzanskis

    Last Sunday in Ann Arbor, Michigan Gelek Rimpoche spoke very clearly and emphasized Buddha’s advice – use your intelligence and do not follow on faith alone in this youtube clip

    • Justin Whitaker

      Great video from a great teacher. Many thanks, Jonas.

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  • Mr. Propter

    I couldn’t agree more with this. Oversight is badly needed at American Buddhist organizations. Teachers – especially in the Zen and Tibetan traditions – have great power over students, and while they rarely abuse it, sometimes they do. We shouldn’t need a man’s death to remind us of this. There’s no reason at all why Buddhist leaders shouldn’t teach at the behest and at the pleasure of independent boards to which they are accountable. I know that the SF Zen Center is already partly run on these principles. But many other organizations resist, apparently believing that ‘it won’t happen here’. Well, it may.

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  • tenpel

    CNN about Ian Thornson’s Buddhist retreat death :

    • Justin Whitaker

      Big thanks for this, Tenzin. I’ll put up a new post with a link right now :)

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  • kaminimira

    Hello Justin,
    I studied with Roach for 3 years in Manhattan, at a time when I considered him “pure” — in other words, the nonsense had not yet begun full-time, though it was certainly brewing. While I no longer consider him someone at whose lotus feet I can sit to hear the pearls of Dharma, at that time I worshiped him — for giving me (us) so freely what no one else had to offer–the richness of eastern wisdom in a manner easily digestible to us Manhattanites. Because I plunged into the teachings and applied them–not just Tib B, but all the esoteric eastern teachings I had been exposed to since childhood (I am Indian from India)–my life changed. The catalyst for my inner transformation was definitely Roach. I left him and his group in Bodhgaya one winter’s night on the eve of their three-year retreat. I started my own personal journey, which has led me to Ramana Maharshi. I now see Roach as a vital stepping stone back to my heart’s work, which is Vichara in the tradition of Advaita-Vedanta. All of this is to remind us all that the Buddha said we should be our own light. When the guru is good for our path, we follow him/her/it; when he/she/it turns rotten, we leave — it is we who decide. To blame Roach for Thorson’s death is something I cannot do — Thorson should have used his discrimination and left. In the end, it is the karmic pendulum swinging back that killed him. Roach was merely an indirect agent.
    And in the end, reality being empty, this is just my projected opinion. Mira

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  • Charles Sawyer

    “Similarly, it is callous not to warn people if they are
    entering a religious community that may show signs of similarly
    destructive impulses.”

    Wondering who will be that judge to what in a religious group is a “destructive impulses”?

    • justinwhitaker

      We can begin with what is said by wise people in our community; hoping that our community is large and diverse and open to input from other communities. Roach’s community once included HHDL and Robert Thurman as two wise friends, but both have condemned the direction his group has gone. Looking at the accounts of what was going on leading up to Ian’s death, I think most wise people – doctors, police, psychologists – would have seen a number of “destructive impulses,” or red flags. Some, on the ground there, also saw them and left. Others didn’t see them or didn’t see them as destructive or saw them as separate from the main direction of the community. Ultimately it’s up to each person, those near and those far away, to “be that judge” for themselves.