If you missed last night's Nightline on ABC television, you can watch the segment on Ian Thorson's death online. The word "cult" crops up frequently. ABC News stops short of calling Diamond Mountain a cult, but the innuendo is laid on pretty thick.
Since I don't know anyone involved in Michael Roach's group personally I'm refraining from using the C word myself, but at the moment I have no quarrel with others who use it. My biggest concern is that this could be a black eye for all Buddhism in the West.
The bright light of media attention now turned on Michael Roach and his followers may -- probably, I would say -- be short lived. Or, if more newsworthy information comes to light, this may be just the beginning of media scrutiny. Right now I have just a few observations.
First, one hears a lot of griping about organized religion. It's said that religious institutions inevitably become corrupt and stodgy and self-protecting, and true spirituality can be found only outside of them.
Yes, religious institutions do become corrupt and stodgy and self-protecting. This is true of Buddhist institutions also. But that doesn't mean that what you find outside the institutions necessarily is any better.
In my lifetime the really destructive cults that turn up in the news generally involve some charismatic leader who is not part of any established religious institution. Someone may be able to think of some modern-era exceptions. But generally the leader is someone who has either dissociated himself from an institution or never belonged to one to begin with.
For example, David Koresh was "dis-fellowshipped" from the Seventh-Day Adventist church. Jim Jones had been ordained in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ, which I understand to be a mainline Protestant organization, but for several years Jones operated on his own, with no church supervision. Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo was strictly freelance from the beginning of his guru career. Michael Roach appears to be following that pattern, although the degree to which his organization is or isn't cult-like, I do not know.
Long-established religious institutions may tend to be rigid, but they also tend to squelch the kinds of cults of personality that can become dangerous. Again, there are exceptions, and history is full of examples of religious institutions doing some pretty nasty stuff. But religious institutions tend to swat down anyone who becomes dangerously extreme. From the traditionalist perspective, priests come and go; the tradition remains.
Also, I've been thinking about long meditation retreats. Silent meditation retreats can be intense, and three years is extreme. My understanding is that in the Tibetan traditions, three-year retreats are undertaken only by people who already have been nuns or monks for at least a dozen years. So they are already well acclimated to the discipline of monasticism and have experienced many other silent retreats. The three-year retreat is not going to be a complete shock to their systems.
I question the wisdom of encouraging laypeople to try the same thing. The Diamond Mountain website says that all of the participants in the ongoing retreat have "studied" Buddhism for at least 12 years, but that's far from the same thing as being immersed in monastic life.
Finally, Mumon makes an interesting point --
"The thing is, many practitioners, at a relatively small level of experience, get into thinking that what they're doing is going to have some rather grand results in terms of "universal enlightenment" or the "emerging Buddhism," or some utopian notions of re-making society or what-not. I too have had such notions from time to time in a time long ago. It's the kind of thing that makes one fodder for a spiritual huckster. These notions and wants encourage one to want to glue to a "teacher" one's notions of what they want their existence (and the existence of everyone they know) to be.
"But it is not the Way."
As Mumon says, you don't need to go anywhere to walk a spiritual path. You just need to take care of what you're walking right now.
Meditation retreats are useful, because they are an opportunity to drop everything. And "drop everything" includes your expectations, your hopes, your ideas about who you are and what you want the world to be. Practice that, for a few days, and take it back to the "regular" world with you. If you aren't committed to a monastic life, however, I question whether an extremely long retreat is any more helpful than a lot of little retreats.