When Buddhism goes bad: How a yoga and meditation retreat turned cult-like and deadly

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 in fact a goddess — specifically, the embodiment of the Tibetan goddess Vajrayogini. In time, McNally became Roach’s co-teacher, and gained a following in her own right.

Roach and McNally’s shtick, so when the couple split up in 2008, many of their disciples were disillusioned. McNally would later tell Rolling Stone magazine that they separated over the banal matter of fidelity; it turned out that McNally wasn’t the only woman who could embody a goddess. In fact, Roach himself could do it and, voicing a desire to embrace his feminine side, would occasionally appear before the faithful in drag — including, on at least one memorable occasion, the togs of a “preppy girl.” Although the exact nature of Roach’s sexual activity with McNally remains a subject of debate, whatever it is he did with her he also did with other women in the sect.

Still McNally remained within the group. Roach found out, as Carney puts it, “that it is a lot easier to make a goddess than to unmake one.” She took up with Thorson, a former attendant of her own age, and the pair even produced an illustrated book about the yoga techniques they’d developed for couples. McNally planned for Thorson to join her in a repeat of the three-year silent retreat she’d done with Roach, accompanied by a cadre of 40 devoted followers who paid for the construction of their own retreat housing in a sequestered corner of Roach’s Diamond Mountain Center. Other members of the sect would supply them with food and other necessities, but retreatants would only emerge on rare occasions, blindfolded, to speak of what they’d learned during extended bouts of meditation.

So how then did Thorson and McNally end up sick and dehydrated in a cavern up on a hill overlooking the center, so weakened that Thorson would ultimately succumb to exposure? Taking the long view, Carney blames a reckless American propensity for spiritual shortcuts and a failure to grasp that meditation and other Eastern practices “are neither good nor bad but like a drug that could save someone’s life when administered by a doctor, [and] they also have the potential for great harm.” In the lead-up to her retreat, McNally became enamored of the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali, and her teachings turned aggressive. Not long into the three-year stint, it came out that a local doctor had treated Thorson for stab wounds the couple said McNally had inflicted “by accident” while the pair were engaged in some kind of martial arts exercise. Thorson had a history of anger-management problems and had been known to exhibit the occasional outburst of violent rage. Roach and the board in charge of Diamond Mountain freaked out and told the pair to leave.

McNally and Thorson decided they could keep their retreat vows by moving into a cave on a nearby mountain. Two loyal retainers agreed to leave supplies at a nearby drop-off point. Nevertheless, the couple ran out of clean water and seem to have gotten sick drinking snowmelt. At that point, they didn’t even bother to use the water-purification device their retainers had supplied. They believed they had the power to clean the water with their minds. Both got dysentery; only McNally survived it, although she did finally resort to activating a satellite device when she realized that neither she nor Thorson could conquer nature with the force of their own enlightenment.

The story would be told in several scandalized magazine feature articles. (Carney wrote one for Playboy.) Thorson’s mother accused Roach of leading a “cult.” But as Carney’s reporting reveals, Roach’s group differs in several significant respects from groups like the People’s Temple or even the apostate Amish community in Bergholz, Ohio, whose leader is currently serving a 15-year sentence for ordering members of his flock to commit hate crimes. Roach doesn’t exercise a totalitarian authority over his followers. He doesn’t seek to isolate them from their families and the outside world. (Only a select few are allow to participate in the retreats.) And while Roach now mostly refuses to answer questions about McNally and Thorson in the press, it’s hard to blame him. “Put yourself in his place,” Roach’s representative told Carney. “You might try to set the record straight for a while, but if that does no good, why continue to waste your energy?”

Certainly, Roach preaches a load of mumbo jumbo, expertly calibrated to flatter and soothe the mostly affluent clients he seeks. Of special appeal to such fat cats as Michael Gordon, founder of the Bumble and Bumble line of beauty products, is Roach’s claim that success in one’s current life is clearly a reward for good deeds in the past. Karma, it seems, isn’t always a bitch. Although most Tibetan Buddhists consider it ludicrous to mix their faith with yoga and the worship of Hindu deities, the result is a highly marketable version of what could be called “spa Buddhism,” peddled in fancy resorts and wellness centers to wealthy clients who want to feel spiritual without making any uncomfortable alterations to their material circumstances. By continuing to present himself in monk’s robes while celebrating his bond with McNally (at one point the couple vowed never to be more than 15 feet apart), Roach even managed to fold the secular American religion of True Love into the mix. As he taught it, the Tibetan ideal of “emptiness” could be attained without having to give up any of your stuff.

The individual who did manifest cult-leader behavior in this story was not Roach but McNally. She introduced violence, in act and thought, by espousing Kali and kitting up her quarters with knives and guns. When the board of Diamond Mountain expelled her, she became paranoid, sending secret messages to the remaining retreat participants and treating her choice to set up housekeeping in the cave as something Roach had forced on her. She knew Thorson was psychologically fragile. “Now I will be in retreat alone with Ian with no one to run to,” she wrote to her followers, as if she had no choice in the matter “— how is that ‘protecting’ me?” Perhaps, as Carney suggests, it was irresponsible of the board to eject McNally and Thorson without securing someone to oversee the inevitably disorienting transition from silence and isolation to the outside world. But it’s also hard to see how they could have done so without McNally’s consent. Protecting the rest of the group from the escalating craziness of the couple, however, was manifestly the right move.

Carney thinks everyone involved underestimated the power of practices like extended meditation and vows of silence. Leading an abroad program for American students in India in his postgraduate years, he took his charges on a 10-day silent retreat in the sacred town of Bodh Gaya. One of them, an apparently stable 21-year-old named Emily, jumped off the roof of the dormitory after writing “I am a Bodhisattva” in her journal. The experience left Carney with a healthy respect for the slower paths to enlightenment recommended for most students of Buddhism, and the rules laid down by Tibetan lamas and observed by the many generations who have passed down the faith.

By contrast, Roach and McNally, like many Westerners infatuated with Eastern spirituality are “particularly susceptible to grandiose expectations.” They talked of supernatural powers and of embodying divine beings, or of completely reshaping one’s lot in life by performing simple karmic gestures. Their followers gobbled up these extravagant quick-fix testimonials. “For Tibetans,” Carney writes, “the focus is on the process. For whatever reason, Americans search for inner peace like they are competing in a sporting event.”

It must be said that Carney himself seems unusually susceptible to superstition. At one point, working on this book at a writer’s colony, he became convinced that he’d been cursed, presumably by Roach. The evidence included wasps that hovered over his pillow, trouble in his marriage, “a strange tingling at the base of my skull” and a “human-size black oblong object that resembled a large hairy amoeba that always seemed to be just outside my field of vision.” Disturbed, he agreed to purchase a counterspell from some monks and worked up his own form of meditation to squash the malevolent influence. Sure enough, “I breathed in positive energy and expelled the muck that had been collecting at the bottom of my skull.” OK.

Carney allows for the power of suggestion in such situations, and to be fair, “A Death on Diamond Mountain” is mostly quite grounded in reality, without too much palaver about phantom energies. In some eyes, the author’s willingness to believe in a certain amount of hooey might disqualify him from credibly addressing the dangers of said hooey. But think about it: Who grasps the dangers of alcohol more completely than a drunk? By tipping, however briefly, over the edge of spiritual seeking into delusion, he could not offer better proof that that edge most definitely exists.