There'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.
"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.