Man's death clouds Buddhist enclave

June 6, 2012 at 10:12 PM
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BOWIE, Ariz., June 6 (UPI) -- A small band of Buddhists on a multiyear retreat in the Arizona mountains is under a cloud following the odd death of a key teacher's husband.

Rescuers found Ian Thorson, a 38-year-old Stanford University graduate, dead of exposure and dehydration, and his wife, Christie McNally, 39, delirious in a mountain cave in late April, about two months after they had been expelled from the retreat, The New York Times reported Tuesday. The couple had fallen ill and had only a little water when found, the newspaper said.

No foul play is suspected in Thorson's death but the unusual circumstances drew attention to the Buddhist enclave in Cochise County called Diamond Mountain University, where Princeton-educated monk Michael Roach is leading the participants through a three-year, three-month, three-day retreat during which they are communicating only by written word, living under rustic conditions, and practicing yoga and meditation, the Times said. Thirty-four of the original 35 members are still in the program, which is to run until April 3, 2014.

Thorson and McNally, the group's leading teacher who, it turns out, was once secretly married to Roach, had been at the retreat for 13 months when they left.

Thorson and McNally had married in October 2010 in Montauk, N.Y., a month after Roach had filed for divorce from her, and three months before they left for the retreat, the Times said. Roach and McNally had been married in Rhode Island in 1998.

The Times said the couple's Feb. 20 departure from the group was triggered by her revelation during a lecture that Thorson had been violent toward her and she had stabbed him with a knife they had received as a wedding gift.

The Times said Matthew Remski, a member who became disenchanted with Roach, who previously ran a large diamond business, described Roach as a "charismatic Buddhist teacher" he had respected until his popularity "turned him into a celebrity" whose inner circle was "impossible to penetrate."

The newspaper said others told of bizarre initiation ceremonies that included kissing, the touching of genitals and the drawing of blood.

Others, such as Buddhist monk Erik Brinkman, remain staunch supporters of Roach.

"If the definition of a cult is to follow our spiritual leader into the desert, then we are a cult," Brinkman told the Times.

A decade ago, Thorson's mother, Kay Thorson, had tried to get him away from Roach, but he rejoined the group. She recalled Roach "strange" and someone who "sometimes connects, sometimes doesn't, but who clearly connected with people who were ready to donate and adulate."

In her view, there was "a possible offshoot to over-meditation, or meditation out of balance, or the wrong guidance in meditation." She said she feared Roach's methods were to blame for her son's "compromised critical thinking, as far as making decisions and analyzing things."

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