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When Buddhism Goes Bad: How a Yoga and Meditation Retreat Turned Cult-Like and Deadly

March 18, 2015 in Blogs

By Laura Miller, Salon

How did a troubled follower of a charismatic, renegade American monk end up dead in a remote cave in Arizona?

When the public learned of 38-year-old Ian Thorson’s death in a cave in the Arizona desert three years ago, the details behind the tragedy were both jarring and ominously familiar. Thorson had belonged to a religious splinter group, headed by a charismatic leader, that had holed up in a remote, isolated enclave. There were rumors of sexual shenanigans, weapons and highly secretive practices. In that respect, it was an old story. This wasn’t even the first time that an insular, renegade sect had chosen that particular apocalyptic landscape for its refuge. In the early 1980s, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department got into a shootout with a fringe Christian group living in a compound called Miracle Valley. Three people died.

What startled many about Thorson’s fate, however, was that this time the group was not Christian but (ostensibly at least) Tibetan Buddhist. The leader of the sect, a former diamond merchant named Michael Roach, continued to wear the robes of a monk despite growing objections from traditional Tibetan Buddhists, who were pretty sure he’d departed from accepted doctrine and broken some of his monastic vows — particularly the vow of chastity. Even so, the idea of a Buddhist retreat turned cult-like and deadly is a far cry from the popular American view of Buddhists as wise, modest and gentle souls who warn us against attachment to the fleeting things of this world.

As Scott Carney recounts in his new book, “A Death on Diamond Mountain,” Roach had strayed far enough from orthodoxy, and had exhibited enough hubris, to earn a rebuke from the Dalai Lama. But he’d also collected an international following, especially among Americans and the Chinese, by preaching a maya-friendly spirituality that promised not just inner peace but also wealth and true love. At his side for over a decade stood his consort, Christie McNally, a willowy, pretty woman 20 years his junior. In the early 2000s, during a three-year silent retreat, Roach claimed to have realized that McNally was …read more


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