MJ Gibbs said:
“Here is something I will throw out there. What if Brad had a close public Zen relationship with a student and that student suddenly went bonkers during a retreat? How responsible is Brad for such a thing happening? Should he be criticized or should the student be criticized or both? Plus, what if that student used to be Brad’s lover and left him for another student, that would make their teacher/student relationship even stranger.”
I’ve been thinking along these lines myself and thinking that perhaps I was a little too harsh on Michael Roach. I know so little about him I actually had to go back and look at my previous blog posting just now to be sure I was remembering his name correctly. I feel like I might have been overly influenced by the NY Times’ portrayal of events.
It still appears to me that something pretty odd was happening at this retreat. People don’t usually wind up dead at Buddhist retreats. They’re generally not that dangerous. And that deal with Roach and his now ex-wife never being more than 15 feet apart? That’s just weird. That speaks to a whole level of generalized weirdness that I’m not sure I even want to know about. Just the mere fact that he did that and then decided to make a big PR event out of it. There’s something strange afoot.
On the other hand, every Buddhist teacher I’ve ever known (including me) has had to deal with mentally unstable people who are attracted to our practice. I think we all try to do our best with those people. We don’t want to just simply send them away. Some of us think we can help more than we actually can, and we go further than we really should. Sometimes it takes a big incident to make it very clear that we can’t handle certain people.
In Crooked Cucumber, David Chadwick’s magnificent biography of Shunryu Suzuki, there’s a story about how Suzuki’s first wife was murdered by a monk who was studying with Suzuki. This happened in Japan long before Suzuki came to America, by the way. Suzuki knew this monk was nutty. But he thought he could help and he really didn’t understand just how nutty the guy was. The end was tragic and Suzuki never really forgave himself for it.
Given that, it’s perhaps too much to simply blame Mr. Roach for the death of his ex-wife’s new husband. It is conceivable that something like this could happen even at a very standard Buddhist retreat. It’s difficult to know just how weird things were getting on this retreat simply by reading what the NY Times has to say and what Mr. Roach has to say in his defense. Both sources of information are less than ideal, to say the least. And I’m not interested enough to launch a thorough investigation into the matter. I’m sure that will be done by someone much more qualified anyway.
Furthermore, I was wrong in saying that three year retreats were unorthodox. I did not know until after I posted the article that such retreats are normal in the Tibetan tradition. Yet I still find the word “retreat” problematic. Because, to me, a retreat implies a rather intensive practice and I continue to believe that it’s better to limit the amount of time one does such intensive practices. From what I’m hearing, though, the usual practice on such three year retreats in mainstream Tibetan Buddhism isn’t all that intensive. It’s not like a three year sesshin (3, 5, or 7 day Zen intensives where one does zazen pretty much all day every day). They sound more like what is usually called a training period in Zen, where one lives in a monastery and devotes oneself to practice and study often for three years, but there are opportunities for more normal sorts of socialization and suchlike.
It appeared to me that what was being described in Mr. Roach’s case was a three year meditation intensive, which would be enough to make anyone go kind of buggy. Perhaps I was wrong about that. Though I still feel like something just doesn’t smell right here. The language Mr. Roach uses to describe the object of the retreat as a “laboratory of solitary retreat (where participants hope to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha” still sounds way off base. This, to me, implies a rather macho, go-getter attitude that I think can only lead to trouble.
On the other hand, I still feel that the bigger problem remains. Buddhism is becoming increasingly trendy in the West. As this happens, more and more people will jump on the bandwagon with their own oddball variations. I’ve been accused of doing so myself, though I’m also often accused of being too stodgy and conservative in my approach.
I’m not so sure anymore that Mr. Roach really does teach a kind of “prosperity theology” Buddhism. Although I do know for a fact that the prosperity theology philosophy is already being applied to Buddhism as well as other Eastern religions with a great degree of financial success. My friend Blake said, “Middle class white people who talk about ‘abundance’ and ‘prosperity’ make me want to laugh at and punch them at the same time.” I feel that way sometimes too. And if you hang out with the “I’m into Eastern spirituality” crowd for more than ten minutes you’ll hear those words a whole lot.
Anyway, the upshot of this post is to say that perhaps (perhaps) I spoke too soon about Mr. Roach. But I’m too busy packing for my cross country move on Friday to devote the amount of time and energy required to investigate it thoroughly.
Jeez. I really have to go pack.