Geshe Michael Roach Group Death hits the New York Times

Geshe Michael Roach Group Death hits the New York Times June 6, 2012

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.

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