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Barbara O'Brien

Unspiritual Secrets

By May 7, 2012

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© Nikolai Sorokin | Dreamstime.comThere's been no media coverage of the death of Ian Thorson, which surprises me. Someone asked if there's a news embargo on the story. I can't imagine how there could be. It's more likely the story just hasn't caught anyone's attention outside of American Buddhist circles.

A long article at Elephant Journal provides the perspective of someone who studied with Michael Roach and knew Thorson and McNally years ago. I'm not necessarily endorsing this perspective as the "true" one, although I respect the author's opinion. I have no personal knowledge of what happened, so I'm trying to keep an open mind until more facts come out.

However, the article brings up issues that apply to spiritual practice generally, and these are worth discussing. One of these is the issue of secrecy. When does secrecy serve a useful spiritual purpose, and when does it serve to enable abuse?

The author of the Elephant Journal article, Matthew Remski, asks if a culture of secrecy at Diamond Mountain got in the way of appropriate responses to McNally's and Thorson's disappearance. No one filed a missing person's report, Remski said. No one checked with McNally's and Thorson's parents.† Based on what second-hand information has trickled out of Diamond Mountain, there does seem to have been a weird incuriosity about what might have happened to the couple after they were locked out of their retreat residence.

Remski writes,

"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."

If this is true, it does raise a number of red flags. Yes, Tibetan Buddhism is esoteric. My understanding is some teachings and practices are not made public because most people would misunderstand them. Practitioners go through a series of initiations and empowerments to receive an increasingly esoteric progression of teachings, and this is to insure students are properly prepared for those teachings. This has been true in Tibetan Buddhism for many centuries.

However, I can think of no legitimate reason for a dharma teacher to keep the identities of any of his or her teachers a secret. If any of you have heard of such a thing before, do speak up. I say that students have an absolute right to know how their teacher received his training.

Also, I would keep a generous distance from anyone who claims teaching authority by means of personal revelations, unless those alleged revelations have been verified or approved by a senior lineage holder. The spiritual path is littered with false insights that can't stand up to the probing of a master.

In Zen, a student who believes he has realized something profound tests the realization by taking it to the teacher. False insights thrive on being kept hidden. They don't survive long if presented to someone with a clear dharma eye.

We've seen elsewhere that secrets can be a source of power. In the wake of some of western Buddhism's worst scandals -- Osel Tendzin Rinpoche; Richard Baker Roshi -- people close to the situations admitted that they'd fallen into classic dysfunctional family behavior. Families of alcoholics or sexual abusers often develop an unspoken code of shame and secrecy that keeps them from acknowledging -- even to themselves -- the abuse going on right in front of them.

In Baker Roshi's case, it is said that Baker encouraged students to divulge intimate and personal secrets with him, which is not normally done in Zen. But the sharing of those secrets created many subtle co-dependencies that made acknowledging Baker Roshi's misbehaviors all the more unthinkable.

From what little I know of tantric sexual relations, in the earlier days of Tibetan Buddhism such relationships were openly acknowledged. At least one modern critic of Vajrayana has charged that patriarchy and secrecy eventually created a system that enables abuse and protects abusers.

So, while the esoteric schools may have skillful reasons to keep some teachings and some rituals out of public view, other kinds of secrecy may be a symptom of spiritual malpractice. Watch out for it.

May 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm
(1) Michael says:

Your understanding the role of secrecy in Tibetan Buddhism seems correct to me. As regards secrecy about one’s teacher – that is unheard of. You can only know if a teacher is worth listening to by his pedigree – who his teachers and peers are. The lineage system is not fool-proof but it does offer some protection and recourse against bad teachers. You have somewhere to go and second opinions you can seek if things start looking weird to you. It is central to how Tibetan Buddhism works.

Roach is not a Buddhist I think at this point, more of a new age yoga teacher. His students have nowhere to go. He has been repudiated by his Tibetan teachers and if his students are not bothered by that they have thrown away a valuable lifeline.

May 8, 2012 at 7:57 am
(2) Hein says:

Again I wish to reiterate; the events (stabbings, dehydration and death) that occurred in Arizona – if narrated correctly – is something that saddens me. Like Barbara I am at this stage unable to form any opinion about the events that occurred or might have occurred at Diamond Mountain. What surprise me is that the authorities are not taking an interest in the matter? If there are complains then it should be investigated. Perhaps the hands of the authorities are tied in the sense that there are insufficient grounds to investigate matters? What I also find surprising is that Matthew Remski Ė seemingly a person quiet knowledgeable about circumstances at Diamond Mountain – is not assisting the Police with investigations or bringing charges?
There might in some instances be grounds for secrecy, but in a modern, democratic and open society (like the USA) authorities should perhaps just be aware of the nature of the practices involved and what safeguards there are to protect people. The human mind is a very fragile organ and can easily be damaged. That might perhaps be the reason why tantric practices do not resonate with me; my mind is too weak.
I was fortunate enough to have met one of the experienced hands (ala Jerry) of Diamond Mountain and received some very helpful teachings from him. That I did not continue the practice and studies is because it simply did not resonate with me. To Diamond mountain I have never been.

May 8, 2012 at 8:28 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — Matthew Remski was far, far away from Diamond Mountain when these events occurred, and he hasn’t been directly involved with Roach’s group for a few years now. His recollections of Roach, McNally and Thorson mostly are from the 1990s and early 2000s. His article is an opinion piece, not an eyewitness account. I can’t imagine how he could help authorities.

May 8, 2012 at 12:28 pm
(4) Hein says:

Barbara – fair enough (i might have lost sight of those facts), but I will still be slow to question the practices at Diamond Mountain or attribute Thorson’s death to anything untoward at Diamond Mountain. It seems the police is investigating the matter. Being somewhat conservative in my approach to life I might doubt the practices of Roach to be useful for me (tantra and sex) as a spiritual practice. But as long as it are consenting adults and nothing harmful is done then I fail to see the difficulty, except insofar as my reservations in respect of the people’s minds are concerned.

May 8, 2012 at 1:22 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

But as long as it are consenting adults and nothing harmful is done then I fail to see the difficulty, except insofar as my reservations in respect of the people’s minds are concerned.

I don’t think anyone was criticizing sexual practice between consenting adults. That’s among the least of the issues going on at Diamond Mountain, as far as I can see. Did you read Remski’s article?

May 9, 2012 at 1:25 am
(6) Hein says:

Did you read Remskiís article?
I thought I did, but perhaps I am missing the point?

May 9, 2012 at 8:24 am
(7) Barbara O'Brien says:

I thought I did, but perhaps I am missing the point?

The current situation doesn’t have anything to do with sexual relations between consenting adults. McNally and Thorson were laypeople married to each other.

This may be what you are seeing: Before she married Thorson, McNally had been in a long-term relationship with Michael Roach, an ordained Gelugpa monk. When the relationship began she was about 20 and he was abut 40. They kept their relationship secret for many years, in spite of the fact that they’d made a vow to never be more than 15 feet away from each other. Per Remski’s article they weren’t fooling anyone close to them, although nobody blabbed to Roach’s superiors. But when their relationship was finally revealed, His Holiness the Dalai Lama in effect cut Roach off from the Gelugpa order, for breaking his celibacy vows.

Roach could have dis-robed and reverted to being a layperson, and remained in the relationship, and still been part of Gelugpa. He could still have been a dharma teacher. But instead he continued to wear the robes and call himself a monk, even though he was no longer in the order, and he insisted that he and McNally were not really having sex, although nobody believed that. I wrote about this about four years ago.

Apparently Roach’s story now is that Gelugpa monks enter into “spiritual partnerships” all the time, and that it’s OK as long as it is kept secret. I say that’s BS. First, my understanding is that a genuine tantric spiritual partnership involves two people who are both advanced practitioners, not an older teacher and a 20-something new student. Further, I doubt very much that it’s OK for monks to keep secrets from their gurus.

IMO Roach was being grossly dishonest by trying to cling to his relationship with McNally and his monk’s robes at the same time. And IMO I suspect any psychologist will tell you that secret, illicit sexual relationships can really mess up your head. And IMO there is nothing that will poison group harmony more than having a bunch of illicit, secret sexual relationships going on.

In western Buddhism there already have been several circumstances in which younger female students become secret lovers of their teachers, and we’ve seen it doesn’t end well. The young woman nearly always is very damaged by this and usually ends up dropping out of the sangha. The one exception I know of personally involved a senior female student who was in her 40s and a teacher in his 60s, and these two weren’t keeping it a secret. They let the sangha know they were in love and in a relationship. And this was in a Japanese Zen order, so celibacy was not an issue. This doesn’t seem to have had any harmful effects that I’m aware of.

It’s not the sex; it’s the secrecy and dishonesty that is a problem.

HOWEVER — the Roach-McNally relationship has been over for a while. Fast forward to the death of Ian Thorson. Again, McNally and Thorson were married, everybody knew it, and their sexual relationship was not an issue. However, Rimski describes Roach as playing all kinds of mind games with his students — not of a sexual nature — and claims Thorson and McNally had both been psychologically damaged by this.

I can’t say if that’s true or not. But Roach seems to thrive on a culture of secrecy, keeping secret things such as the identity of his teachers that should not be kept secret. My point is that a teacher who is secretive about things that shouldn’t be secret is not a good teacher. Your comment about “consenting adults” struck me as missing the point entirely.

May 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm
(8) Cuong says:

The Buddha never teaches this esoteric crap. The Dharma is something publicly accessible. It’s like calculus. If you have the intelligence and desire you can learn it. It’s a shame that many moderns still think that secrecy, tantra and so on is cool. To think that some gurus own the truth is the same as thinking that physicists own physics.

May 13, 2012 at 10:49 am
(9) paige says:

Cuong. You are so….right. I’ve been telling one of my friend that. She didn’t listen. Now, she has already severe our friendship because I commented on her buddhist teacher.

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