Yesterday someone sent me a link to a story in the New York Times about a guy who had died when he and his wife were expelled from a Buddhist retreat.
There is so much I could comment on this story that it’s hard to know where to begin. So I’ll begin with the title. If you look at the URL for the story it’s clear that the New York Times originally titled it “Mysterious Yoga Retreat Ends in Grisly Death” and then later changed it to “Mysterious Buddhist Retreat Ends in Grisly Death.” Which goes to show you just how much the mainstream media, and by extension the mainstream public, knows about Eastern religions. You fine folks who read this blog and follow the Buddhist magazines and websites and what-not know the difference. But like nerds of all kinds, we Eastern religion nerds often forget that there’s a whole wide world of people out there for whom Yoga and Buddhism and Hare Krishna and Zorastrianism and Sufiism and all the rest appear to be just one big very weird thing. It’s really important to keep in mind that those of us who do know the differences are a tiny, itty-bitty, teeny-weenie minority. To the rest of the world our pointing out that yoga and Buddhism are two different things seems about as relevant as the Godzilla geeks I used to know arguing about whether Godzilla is actually green or not (he’s not, by the way, except that recently sometimes he is).
This is important because it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone who participated in this retreat actually knew anything about Buddhism at all beyond what they heard from its leader, one Michael Roach Geshe. I would think that even a very cursory glance at some of the beginner’s level books about Buddhism would have alerted them to the fact that something rather odd was going on here.
For starters, the retreat these folks got expelled from was supposed to last three years, three months, and three days. That’s just too gosh darned long! The early Buddhists did three month retreats during the Indian rainy season when there wasn’t much else anyone could do. This tradition is carried on in many places in the form of what Japanese Buddhists call an ango, a retreat lasting around 90 days that typically occurs in the Summer (though spring, winter and fall angos are common these days too). Three months is pretty intense and there’s a good reason Buddha never recommended doing retreats any longer than that.
While reading the story I found myself wondering just how Mr. Roach Geshe justified such an excessively long retreat. A clue can be found on their website which says, “The word ‘enlightenment’ sounds vague and mystical, but the Buddha taught that it is quite achievable by deliberately following a series of steps. The three-year retreatants have been studying and practicing the steps very seriously for the last six or more years, and by going into the laboratory of solitary retreat they hope (to) realize the final goal taught by Lord Buddha.”
So they figured that if they went at it really hard for three years they’d get enlightened. Just like Lord Buddha. Lord Buddha? I’ve run across that designation for Gautama Buddha before and it always seems like a signal that something strange is afoot. I suppose whoever made it up thought that the designation Buddha (the Awakened One) wasn’t quite grand enough and chose to borrow the word “Lord” from Christianity in order to make Gautama seem more supernatural. Whenever I come across someone who talks about “Lord Buddha” I assume they want to make the point that Gautama Buddha is, to them, a kind of god.
Again, this flies in the face of what any introductory text will tell you about Buddha. It’s another clue that the folks who participated in this retreat were the same kinds of people who don’t know any more than the New York Times does about the differences between Buddhism and yoga and whatever else falls under the umbrella heading of Eastern spirituality.
I spend a lot of time on the Internets shaking sock monkeys around and poking fun at people who advance all sorts of incredibly obvious hookum as “Buddhism.” This story drives home the point that this stuff isn’t always funny. In fact it can be very serious and very, very sad.
Apparently Mr. Roach Geshe was one of a growing number of people trying to link Buddhism with so-called “prosperity theology.” This is something that first appeared in American Protestant Christianity in the 1950s and claims that the real teaching of Christ was that if you followed him you could get rich. Which flies in the face of pretty much everything Jesus is reported to have said in the Bible. But the folks who follow prosperity Christianity seem to know as little about what’s in the Bible as the people who follow prosperity Buddhism know about what Buddha taught.
I can see the appeal of prosperity theology. Look, I’m going to move to Los Angeles in a week. You best believe that if I thought I could pray my way to a higher income I’d be praying all the time! But I’m extremely skeptical of words like “prosperity” and “abundance” as they are used by middle class Westerners of the early 21st century. Compared to most of the rest of the world, we already start out with way more than we really need. Yet we still want more because our economically driven society continuously emphasizes the need to consume. If we can find some religious justification for greed we’ll grab it. It’s very attractive. I don’t think any of us are completely immune its charm. I certainly am not.
But, again, even a quick look through the most basic books about Buddhism — or, for that matter, a scan through any of the gospels — will tell you that Buddhism is definitely not compatible with prosperity theology — and neither is Christianity. Yet if these things are advanced by people who appear to be authorities, who wear the right robes and speak in the correct way, a lot of folks who really ought to know better will swallow them whole.
I’m not sure if it’s easier to dupe people into thinking any old spiritual sounding nonsense you make up is Buddhism than it is to dupe people about our more familiar religions. If people want to believe this kind of stuff they’re going to. But I feel like I’m going to have to keep pointing out that not everything that calls itself “Buddhism” has anything at all to do with Buddhism for quite a while.
Mr. Roach Geshe has posted a very long open letter on his website describing his take on what happened. Amidst a lot of ass-covering language there emerges a description of a retreat that was really far too intense for any of its members. Silent retreats with small groups of people often cause those among the group who may already have psychological difficulties to experience those difficulties even more intensely than they might experience them in a more “normal” setting. Of course people go off in the midst of straight society all the time. But there’s nothing like an intense spiritual retreat to really bring these things to the surface. The more intense the practice, the more likely it’s going to cause someone’s psyche to crash and burn.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, when you’re getting into meditation practice you’re dealing with some serious mojo. This is not to be taken lightly. And if you think you need a more intense or extreme practice to get you into the deeper stuff faster… you most assuredly do not. It’s absolutely crucial to take this stuff slowly. If you try to rush it, bad things will happen. We’re all full of lots of bad stuff. If you think you can push right through into the great enlightenment of Lord Buddha without first dealing with your own accumulated negative shit, you’re dead wrong.