Death by Buddhism?

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.

66 Responses

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  1. Harry
    Harry June 9, 2012 at 11:59 am |

    Cool blog and… erm… 1!

  2. Seagal Rinpoche
    Seagal Rinpoche June 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm |

    Not always so.

  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 9, 2012 at 12:26 pm |

    Good to see that you’ve weeded out the Anonymi.

    Is it too early to discuss penis size, shape and odor?

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 9, 2012 at 12:30 pm |

    I’ve never been to a sesshin that lasted longer than 3 days and I never will. In fact, 3 days is too much for me in terms of what it does to me the next 5 days (or so) following. I’m taken totally out of my sleep pattern and I’m sore and achy from sitting and sleeping at the zendo.

    “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.”

    Well said. And for me, the added intensity manifests physically, as I’ve described above.

  5. bradwarner
    bradwarner June 9, 2012 at 12:57 pm |

    My friend Judy Roitman pointed out that 3 year retreats are a standard part of Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I’m sorry for being ignorant on that point. But still, it’s too much. Probably always has been.

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 9, 2012 at 1:04 pm |


    I seem to remember that some Soto teachers are against retreats in general. Is that just my shaky memory or is this correct?

    After my second 3-day retreat, I came to the conclusion that they’re no good for me, at least at this point in my life. I swear to God (and there is no God!), the entire work-week following these retreats are miserable. My back is sore and I’ve not gotten enough sleep.

    I’m against anything more than one-day zazenkai.

    1. david
      david June 11, 2012 at 8:21 am |

      I’ve sat a lot of seven day sesshins. In my experience, as well as what I have heard from others, the first three days range from difficult to hellish, but after the fourth day your mind and body adjust. Then your zazen becomes deeper and more settled. If I only had ever sat for 3 day sesshins, I think I would hate them as well! After sesshin, its important to reenter the world carefully- there is a tendency for people to blow it by talking too much and so forth, and then you crash.

  7. LinnieX
    LinnieX June 9, 2012 at 1:05 pm |

    3 days will be the most i’ll ever be do again. Its easy to be a holy man on the mountain….yadda yadda yada…..

  8. Fred
    Fred June 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm |

    If you go on a 3 year retreat, you are breaking with everything from your past,
    including the supports for your ego and the conditioning that got you to this
    point. It’s like being thrown into a lake for your first swimming lesson.

    It’s more like brainwashing or a conversion program, where you put yourself
    totally into the hands of a leader. What if that leader is like Adi Da or Osho?

  9. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 9, 2012 at 1:58 pm |

    That article, by the way, is bizarre and creepy.

    The lady found with the dead guy is also featured in this article:


  10. Jeff
    Jeff June 9, 2012 at 2:26 pm |

    I agree that something seems to be off about the community in question. But while they may not float your own boat, the things you chiefly highlight as warning signs are totally normal for other Buddhist communities. You’ve already been corrected about the central, mainstream place of three-year retreats in Tibetan Buddhist monasticism. Here’s a very reliable link:

    Use of “Lord Buddha” is also totally normal.

    Here is someone using such language on the official Soto Shu website:

    Here it is again, at a Soto temple:

    It is common in Tibetan and Indian Buddhism. For example, no one blinks when the Dalai Lama receives an honor in the name of the Lord Buddha:

    It is also mainstream in Theravada Buddhism:

    Plus, if Lisa Simpson uses that kind of language, you know it must be correct:

    You’re right on the money with to link this community to the prosperity gospel, though, which is a much more serious issue than retreat lengths or word choices. It’s a whole orientation that turns Buddhism from insight-based into a factory for getting the material goods you want.

  11. semilano
    semilano June 9, 2012 at 2:32 pm |

    In my opinion, Michael Roach is just another of many manipulators of vulnerable followers. I know guys calling themselves “Roshi” who are just as manipulative and self-centered. It still amazes me that some guy can allegedly receive “Dharma Transmission” from some other guy, and call themselves clergy…(No licencing committee, or verification of anything)

    Just like any religion I have ever been involved in, It’s all about the money for many “Teachers” and retreat centers. Think not? Just check into retreat prices for many large retreat centers, and tell me I’m wrong.

  12. mark
    mark June 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm |

    Here in Holland they ask 900euros for one week sesshin. 10days vipassana is free… Am I too attached to my hard earned euros or what?

    1. david
      david June 11, 2012 at 8:25 am |

      Theravada Buddhists have a major issue with any semblance of charging money for Dharma activities, though they welcome donations to support their temples and so forth. Monks are strictly forbidden from handling cash- lay people have to do all the financial work. They even tend to give away books for free.

  13. saikat
    saikat June 9, 2012 at 3:00 pm |

    I believe 3 year retreats, referring to Buddha as the Lord (in addition to falling flat at the feet of the high lamas, and always remain bend at the back in their presence) are accepted or even integral features of Vajrayana (now tibetan buddhism). Was this a tibetan buddhist retreat by any chance? 🙂

    I am not a buddhist per se, but I accept Gautama the Buddha’s insight into reality to be genuine and find your’s presentation and Chan/Zen’s direct approach very refreshing. I do spend some time with Vajrayana teachers (even though I can’t understand its approach to Buddhism, I don’t believe it to be true Buddhism, oops! sorry Dalai Lama) mainly because I believe many of the general yogic elements & knowledge (which have precious little to do with Buddhism) now lie with Vajrayana which survived the cultural wipeout of Islamic India by dumping things into tibet, wherein lies my main interest.

    Didn’t actually meant to go off topic to give my introduction, but some intro in the 1st post may be good to start with.


  14. Eisho
    Eisho June 9, 2012 at 3:54 pm |

    In the Vajrayana tradition a three year retreat is done to become a novice Lama, under the guidance of a very highly regarded Lama. A Rinpoche, usually guides the retreat. Lord Buddha is common way of reverencial respect to Budddha in South East Asia.

  15. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner June 9, 2012 at 4:41 pm |

    Thanks for the links Jeff. As I said, I didn’t know about the 3-year retreats. Although that still strikes me as unorthodox in terms of the older Buddhist tradition. And the use of the term “Lord Buddha” weirds me out, even when used by Soto-shu teachers. Having said that, though, Gudo Nishijima insisted upon calling Dogen “Master Dogen.” Which, honestly, weirded me out too. But he used it as a way of signalling deep respect for Dogen. Perhaps the use of the word “Lord” in front of Buddha signals the same thing. But it’s still a bad choice, if you ask me. The word “Buddha” is already a high honorific.

    I think the key problem is the whole “prosperity theology” business. And I also think that goal-seeking behavior is a huge part of the problem here as well. These people are spending their three years openly in pursuit of a specific goal. They say so quite clearly. When you pursue a goal you train the mind to think in terms of attaining something different from what is here right now. Forgive me for sounding sectarian, but I don’t think that was ever what Buddhism was about.

  16. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 9, 2012 at 6:00 pm |

    I read the Times article yesterday and most of the comments. Roach is an unusual case. He’s a very intelligent scholar of Buddhism who’s done a lot of great work on translation projects and other scholarly work on ancient Tibetan texts. He had connections up the wazoo, including relationships with the Dalai Lama and many highly respected teachers in Tibetan Buddhism. He’s not some dilettante. And yet, about ten years ago, he just went off the rails. No one knows quite why. All his former teachers have distanced themselves from him and repudiated his approach. The Dalai Lama himself denounced the guy and made it clear that he’s not a legitimate teacher of genuine Buddhism, Tibetan or otherwise.

    He went off on his own and established this retreat center in the desert for his followers. It’s a very strange mix of things, and clearly a cult, but it also blends in a lot of legitimate stuff, so that for some it’s hard to tell the difference. The guy has charisma, and is very knowledgeable about the dharma, but he puts it to a questionable purpose with a strange slant. I suspect some kind of underlying psychological or even biological mental disorder came up and took over. This can happen to almost anyone, I’m sorry to say. There but for the grace of whoever goes a lot of other spiritual teachers.

    It’s clearly a case of megalomania, but how or why it developed in a guy with his level of training and intelligence and oversight is hard to say. Shit like this does happen. Spiritual life is dangerous, regardless of what everyone likes to think. I feel for the guy in a lot of ways. And for his followers.

    Three year retreats are fairly common in Tibet among monks in training, but not with the severity he seems to require. They don’t take vows of silence for the whole three years, it’s just a period of greater intensity of practice in a monastic setting, with oversight by many trained and experienced older monks, not a bunch of hippies just trying to figure themselves out and winging it.

    Roach went off the deep end. Too bad. Some friends of mine told me about him when he began his Arizona thing. I read his book on prosperity, and it wasn’t bad, it was just a look at the issue of how to balance making money with a Buddhist practice in the world. Seemed rather non-controversial, really, sort of like Brad’s attempts to deal with money while being a Zen teacher. People do need money in this world, even Brad. It ain’t like the old days. I didn’t bother looking up anything more about the guy, he wasn’t really all that interesting. And then this comes along, and we find out the guy really went over the edge long ago, and virtually no traditional teachers support the guy anymore.

    It’s kind of sad, really.

  17. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 9, 2012 at 6:53 pm |

    Also, it’s important to note that the death didn’t occur as a result of the retreat process. The couple admitted to having a violent relationship, and the retreat staff asked them to leave, giving them money for travel and accommodations. Instead of leaving the area, however, the couple decided to camp out on neighboring lands and continue their “retreat” on their own. The retreat people tried to help them out and give them food and water, but the couple was uncooperative, until the man died and the woman called for help.

    Now, one could blame Roach and the retreat people for cultivating a very weird sensibility and aberrated mentality among these people (the woman was previously married to Roach, who claimed she was a vajrayogini of some magical kind), but they’re not really responsible for the man’s death, or their decision to live out in the wilderness on their own. Again, some mental health issues seem to be in play here.

  18. Jinzang
    Jinzang June 9, 2012 at 8:26 pm |

    Not too much too add to what’s already been said, but the Sanskrit word bhagavant is usually translated as lord or blessed one.

    The three year, three month retreat is traditional in Tibetan Buddhism. No doubt it’s intense, but many Westerners have done it, some two or three of them. I’ve met some who have done one and all have survived with their sanity intact.

    Geshe Michael Roach has been an outcast from Traditional Tibetan Buddhist circles for several years, since he took a girlfriend without first disrobing. (Tibetan monks are celibate, unlike Japanese monks.) When the news about this event first came out, the attitude among the traditionalists was, “See, I knew something bad like this was going to happen.”

  19. Fred
    Fred June 9, 2012 at 8:50 pm |

    ” We are careful to go into breaks gradually, not to do too many activities, because otherwise the mind will be thrown into a special state of anxiety called lung, a condition only people who have done retreat can understand.” – Lama

    The Board set the stage for this man to die.

    If you gave someone 5 hits of acid and they wandered into traffic, you would be
    liable for their death.

    When you create a 3 year retreat from the world and someone’s mind is ripped to
    shreds, and you throw them back into reality without a slow transition and
    without supports, you are liable for their psychological disarray and subsequent

  20. lcrane1
    lcrane1 June 9, 2012 at 9:26 pm |

    Dharma is just “the way things are.” it is not ‘taught’, it is something we come to see….hopefully. It is not a mystery, it includes a good shit in the toilet.

    There is no ‘spirituality’ in the dharma. If you think you are doing, headed towards, or being taught ‘spirituality’, stop. Unless spirituality for you is cleaning your bowl after eating the rice, or hanging you shirt up when getting ready for bed.

  21. Tattoozen
    Tattoozen June 9, 2012 at 9:35 pm |

    gong on a 3 year retreat, like lama led Buddhism , sounds like a way to give up ones personal responsibility. I believe that at its heart buddhism is learning to take ones role as a part of the universe very seriously and to not expect any other part of that whole to do the job for you.

    Teaching Buddhism by giving folks a way to foist their personal responsibility onto the teacher is like trying to teach someone baseball using a hockey rulebook.

  22. Zenleo
    Zenleo June 9, 2012 at 10:48 pm |

    Sitting Zazen for more than a few days is like recovering from shoulder surgery, except you have no pain killers or therapy afterwards and a bunch of stuff besides your shoulder feels all goofy like. In the meantime I will test the ability to just paste a link on this new blog site.


  23. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs June 10, 2012 at 1:25 am |

    Like others already have mentioned, three-year retreats are common in the Tibetan Tradition. I have had teachings from Lama Kathy Wesley, who has completed the three-year retreat, and she is very sane and down to earth teacher. I think Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche has done like two three-year retreats (and is currently doing another in which he went into the mountains alone…old school style) and he seems quite sane to me. However, I do think many people could go bonkers doing such long intense practice, and I myself would not even attempt such a thing.

    I actually saw Geshe Michael Roach speak (Lama Christy was also there) at a Barnes & Nobles shortly after they came out of their first three-year retreat. It was an interesting talk. He presents Karma and Emptiness together. Something like.. if Justin Beiber’s CD existed inherently from it’s own side, then everyone would see the same characteristics in his music. But some people love the Beib’s music, some people hate the Beib’s music, and some people don’t have an opinion at all about the Beib’s music. So if the qualities are not inherent in the music, meaning things don’t exist from their own side (emptiness), the qualities are projections of peoples minds. Why do people project different qualities? Because the karmic seeds that ripen in their minds force them to see things in a particular way. So if you can plant the right karmic seeds in your mind, you can create and project your own paradise for things are empty of inherent existence and karma creates the universe you experience. That pretty much sums it up.

    I feel bad for the people still in the three-year retreat, because they have been in their retreat for a year and Lama Christy was leading their retreat. It’s probably fucking with them pretty badly.

    About “prosperity theology,” I like what Brad said about goal-seeking behavior. I have done practice with goal seeking behavior and no goal. I personally feel better with the no goal practices. Dzogchen in the Tibetan Tradition is more no goal practice. Matter of fact, based on my own studies, Shikantaza and Dzogchen are damn near the same thing.

    However, when it comes to Buddhist philosophy and every day action, don’t all Buddhist have a little prosperity theology when it comes to doing right action and refraining from wrong action? Don’t all Buddhist believe in an idea called karma that says if you commit wrong action there will be negative consequences, if you commit right action there will be positive consequences? What do you think people?

  24. A Lump of Green Slime
    A Lump of Green Slime June 10, 2012 at 1:38 am |

    Wasn’t a kind of prosperity theology promoted within Soka Gakkai? Around 20 years ago I got to know some UK members of this Japanese movement which takes inspiration from the teachings of Nichiren (a contemporary of Dogen). Nichiren taught that by chanting “Nam-My?h?-Renge-Ky?”, which means, “Devotion to the Mystic/Wonderful Dharma/Law of the Lotus Flower Sutra”to the Gohonzon , a mandala he inscribed with Chinese and Sanskrit characters representing the enlightened life of the True Buddha, anyone can bring forth their inherent Buddha nature and become enlightened. The guys I knew were certainly pursuing this aim quite sincerely as far as I could tell but were also chanting for relationships and more fulfilment in the workplace. This added a materialistic flourish to Nichiren’s teachings and I seem to recall that the movement itself was caricatured as ‘chanting for Porsche’s Buddhists’ because it was considered that one’s worldly desires could physically manifest if they were meant to. There’s even a cool 60’s psychedelia track that celebrates the aforementioned chant by the band ‘Music Imporium’:

  25. A Lump of Green Slime
    A Lump of Green Slime June 10, 2012 at 1:43 am |

    For some reason, a part of my previous comment got scrambled. The chant favoured by Nichiren was ‘Nam myoho renge kyo.’

  26. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel June 10, 2012 at 3:38 am |

    Sawaki is known to have made a three years retreat dedicated to studying the Shobogenzo. “Lord” is a word that is still used today in Great Britain and Canada, when adressing a judge (or a Peer of the House of Lords…). It’s probably the American culture that prevents you from seeing “lord” as a normal honorific word.
    To me, the gist of it was clearly the sex thing without previously disrobing. Sex is probably the stickiest of attachments, and so said even the Buddha (that if he had had to do it again, viz. get rid of it, he just couldn’t do it). I don’t mind consensual sex. But if it has to be hidden, with the woman leaving in the wee hours of the morning, that’s plainly sick.

  27. Andrew
    Andrew June 10, 2012 at 3:52 am |

    “The medical person described three separate wounds to the torso, one of which was deep enough to threaten vital organs’

    in other words he had an unhealed internal wound, being tossed out into the desert killed him

    totally brainless

    i don’t think a bunch of couples is a good retreat dynamic too!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  28. Dave Samsara
    Dave Samsara June 10, 2012 at 5:30 am |

    Sitting a silent retreat every now and then is an essential part of practice. Whether you are ready for a 5, 10 or 30 day retreat is down to the individual’s level of experience, as Brad said, shit can come up. Regarding sore backs, etc – try alternating between a stool and burmese position and (sorry Brad) even a chair for the occasional sit if things get too painful. Half or full lotus can screw your knees up if you force it over long periods. I’ve managed to damage my knees after too much half lotus over the years. Dont get too attached to any particular sitting form, swap and change over the week, get out and do walking meditiation and yoga to keep things flexible. But more than anything else be mindful (I hate that word) of your body and what it’s telling you.

  29. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 10, 2012 at 9:24 am |

    “Sitting a silent retreat every now and then is an essential part of practice.”

    Maybe for YOUR practice, but I wouldn’t take it any further than that. I’ve already said that it’s no longer a part of mine. That’s that.

    I always get a small kick out of online Buddhas doling out advice willy-nilly.

  30. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner June 10, 2012 at 9:49 am |

    Hey Tattoozen! How did you get a photo next to your comments? I’ve been trying every way I can think of and can’t figure it out. The guy who set up the site is out of town this weekend.

  31. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner June 10, 2012 at 9:57 am |

    “Sitting a silent retreat every now and then is an essential part of practice.”

    Maybe for YOUR practice, but I wouldn’t take it any further than that. I’ve already said that it’s no longer a part of mine. That’s that.

    I wouldn’t go as far as saying sitting a silent retreat every now and then is essential. But it is highly recommended. Once a year is a very good thing.

    As far as three years of retreat, it kind of depends how you define “retreat.” Three years of retreat doesn’t have to mean living in a yurt in the Arizona desert for three years. It could mean a three year intensive commitment while living a more standard lifestyle. It could mean three years of living in a monastery training, but otherwise maintaining a connection with the outside world. That sort of thing is common in Zen.

  32. Brad Warner
    Brad Warner June 10, 2012 at 10:02 am |

    Sawaki is known to have made a three years retreat dedicated to studying the Shobogenzo.

    Thanks Michel. I suppose I should be more clear on what I meant. The nature of this blog is to be spontaneous. So I’m sorry if I’m unclear sometimes.

    I doubt that Sawaki completely sequestered himself from society for three years. I would imagine his retreat to be more in the nature of a sabbatical, where he chose to focus on study for a specific period of time. What these folks did in Arizona sounds like a very intense push for some kind of grand experience.

    Remember in the movie Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle where they made fun of white people for being into anything that was EXTREME? It sounds to me like this Arizona group was into EXTREME Buddhism.

  33. Hardcore-Ben
    Hardcore-Ben June 10, 2012 at 10:18 am |

    Ok, I never was on a retreat since now. But learned be reading:
    Retreat – as far as I learned – was all between
    – a one day silent retreat
    – the “common known” three year and three months retreat, often to become a Buddhist monk.

    But one of the hardest retreats seems to me the “Goenka” style vipassana retreat:
    – 10 days long sitting meditation of about 10 to 12 hours a day, possibly some walking meditation in between
    – you have to give off cell phone, books, paper and pencils, all, what might detract from the meditation
    – no communication (also non verbal communication as for example looking/smiling to each other; you may have some talks to the maditation staff to discuss possible meditation problems)
    – stand up at 4.30 in the morning, go to sleep at 10 in the evening
    – only breakfast and lunch and some “snack” at the afternoon

    So you’re >>>alone with yourself<<<, 9 and a half days, at the last day you're allowed to speak again. But all people I talked to were happy, when they had done it – not because it was finished, but as they learned much of themselves.

  34. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel June 10, 2012 at 10:26 am |

    Oh, I quite agree with the “extreme” bit. Actually, for me, one of the tell-tale indications, is the guy’s long hair. I mean, if you are to don robes, then you may as well shave your head. That’s part of the deal.
    When I see some “Zen” girl going around with shaven head and earrings and make-up, I feel there is something amiss. Just the same with a so called “lama” with carefully combed long hair. Reeks of vanity.
    Problem with sex, here: if you want to indulge into sex (despite calling it with such gibberish as “tantric intercourse”) and keep your robes, you’re clearly trying to escape something. From the moment you’ve fallen, all the rest follows naturally. Period.

  35. Dave Samsara
    Dave Samsara June 10, 2012 at 11:21 am |

    Apologies Anonymous, I probably sounded a bit evangelical. As Brad said, its advantageous, but not essential.

    On-line Buddha? I am not worthy of your praise. Just concerned people are unnecessarily being put off retreat due to avoidable physical discomfort.

  36. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs June 10, 2012 at 12:18 pm |

    I’m really interested in what the difference is between prosperity theology and karma in relation to Buddhist morality.

    Brad — would you agree that the Buddhist view of Karma is that unmoral actions have negative effects and moral actions have positive effects. For instance, in Sex, Sin, and Zen, you say “The karma of sex also comes from your past. A lot of people stress out big-time over how to find true romance or at least how to find some quick nookie. They do all kinds of things to try and make it happen. But your past actions determine to a large degree whether or not that will be possible.”

    So are you saying that because the way you behaved in the past effects you ability to currently find romance or nookie and if so, are you also implying you can create the right karmic actions to receive more romance or nookie in the future?

    Aren’t Buddhist acting moral based on karma, so they will suffer less and be more happy in the future? Could you explain your view of karma in more detail?

    I also feel this relates to the no goal topic? Though Zazen has no goal and one may just sit with no goal during Zazen. There is still something motivating someone to sit their ass on the cushion and stare at the wall everyday with not goal. Whether that motivation is to maintain balance or balance the atomic nervous system, the motivation to sit with no goal is still based on a goal?

    If I recall correctly, Shohaku Okumura said something like you may be trying to get somewhere, but you can’t get there just by thinking about where you are trying to go and actually get there. You have to take one step after another. You need to concentrate on each step to get there. I might have butchered what he said, but that is how I remember it. Daily Zazen is concentrating on each step as you take it. It does no good to fantasize what it would be like when you get there, and I will add, because what it will be like when you get there will probably look nothing like what you thought it would look like.

    So it seems to me Zazen is a goalless practice that will lead to balance, but you can’t have balance as a goal to be balanced, and the more balanced you are the more you will understand karma and morality, and the better you understand karma and morality, the better you can do the right action in the present moment to have a life of less suffering and be more happy.

    Isn’t there still a hint of prosperity in that?

    Why does Buddhist philosophy have to be so damned complicated? lol.

  37. Hoetsu
    Hoetsu June 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm |

    I had the same concerns about a three-year retreat. But from what I’m being told by people in the Tibetan traditions, the three-year retreat is not like a three-year sesshin. They sound more like finishing school for advanced practitioners. Participants are only silent part of the time, and a lot of the time is taken up with training in rituals and study of texts, I am told.

    The issue with Roach’s group is that it appears no one with any advanced experience with any of this is running it. Roach is not running the retreat; he is off selling books somewhere. McNally was the retreat leader, but now she’s out. One suspects that a bunch of laypeople who were not properly prepared are now stuck out in the desert with leaders who don’t know much more than the non-leaders. Let’s hope the rest of them survive with their lives and sanity.

    Regarding yoga — that wasn’t really a mistake on the Times’s part. Roach has been mixing yoga and Buddhism together for awhile. Frankly, a lot of his shtick in recent years has been more New Age than Buddhist.

  38. Broken Yogi
    Broken Yogi June 10, 2012 at 1:58 pm |

    As far as “prosperity” goes, Right Livelihood is one of the central arms of the Noble Eightfold path, so it’s not exactly out of the realm of Buddhist tradition to figure out an honest and decent way to make a living, and thus “prosper”, according to Buddhist philosophy and practice. I don’t remember Roach’s book on Buddhist prosperity very well, but as I recall it was along the lines of trying to figure out how to live by Right Livelihood in the modern world. It wasn’t about chanting in order to get millions. In some respects it was about how one can engage the world of business and commerce in a way that isn’t in conflict with Buddhist principles, and yet isn’t ascetical or anti-wealth also. In other words, it wasn’t the usual crazy, desire-driven book about how to use religion to get rich and fulfill all one’s desires.

    Now, whether Roach went off the trail as far as money goes, I don’t know. But the idea that Buddhists don’t need to put any attention on money is just nonsense, and it’s even against the core teachings of Buddhism on Right Livelihood to suggest that. Like everyone else, Buddhists need to make money, and they need to shed a lot of illusions about money, and not just their desires for money, but their inhibitions about making money in an honest and ethical fashion. No need to pile on Roach and assume the worst about everything he touched. I don’t hear reports of his charging exorbitant rates for these retreats or financially gouging his students. From what I gather, he made a lot of money in the diamond business, and is more than able to support himself on his own.

  39. Fred
    Fred June 10, 2012 at 3:14 pm |

    “TEN years ago, Michael Roach and Christie McNally, Buddhist teachers with a growing following in the United States and abroad, took vows never to separate, night or day.

    By “never part,” they did not mean only their hearts or spirits. They meant their bodies as well. And they gave themselves a range of about 15 feet. ”

    Co-dependent Zen Yogic Buddhism

  40. Hoetsu
    Hoetsu June 10, 2012 at 3:42 pm |

    Fred — Yes, and when I learned a couple years ago that McNally had dumped Roach for Thorson I wanted to know how she pulled that off. Roach must have left her alone for a couple of minutes, at least.

    I also want to point out that when Roach filed for divorce from McNally, he declared the couple’s assets to be “an old Dodge Durango, $30,000 in credit card debt and little else,” according to the NY Times. So either the prosperity Buddhism thing isn’t going so well, or Roach has his money very well sheltered. He could at least paid off the credit cards.

  41. Tattoozen
    Tattoozen June 10, 2012 at 4:08 pm |

    Brad- its the picture i uploaded when i signed up with wordpress a long time ago, so Im guessing it just grabbed it when I registered?

  42. jayce
    jayce June 10, 2012 at 4:34 pm |

    Yes, Tattoozen is right. If you sign up for a account using the same email address used for this site, and select an image for your profile, then that image will appear here.

  43. MJGibbs
    MJGibbs June 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm |

    One interesting thing about Roach is he became a millionaire running the diamond business, claiming their success was due to using Buddhist principles, and then he gave it all away. If I recall correctly he used the money to set up a fund to where monks at Sera Monastary would be fed from the compound interest indefinitely or something like that. So I personally don’t think he is one of the scammers out there using spirituality just to make a buck.

    I read Roach’s first two books and had listened to his online teachings awhile back. I thought they were pretty insightful at the time. He did seem to develop some of this Trumpa-Style “Crazy Widsom” after his last retreat.
    I remember asking myself is this guy crazy or have some insight? I sort of feel about him the same way I do Chogyam Trungpa. Trumgpa seemed crazy, but he seemed to have some insight too.

    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 use to be Brad’s lover and left him for another student, that would make their teacher/student relationship even stranger.

    Maybe it’s the weird student-relation setup in Buddhism that is the problem. Which is why I think Brad is onto something when he talks about teaching Buddhism like an art teacher would teach a painter.

    I just like looking at the various sides of an argument. I’m not trying to defend Roach or anything. I don’t know if he is crazy or not. As far as Buddhism goes, I still like aspects of both Tibetan Buddhism, Soto Zen, dabbling in a little bit of Sam Harris atheistic philosophy, etc. Sometimes I feel like saying, fuck all this shit lol. I’m not sure what the hell I believe in. I do like to sit though (sort of).

    1. Brad Warner
      Brad Warner June 11, 2012 at 1:19 pm |

      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 use 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 the article 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.

      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. Suzuki knew this guy 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.

      Y’know what? I’m gonna turn this into a whole post instead of just a comment.

  44. Anonymous
    Anonymous June 10, 2012 at 6:45 pm |

    <i<"Just concerned people are unnecessarily being put off retreat due to avoidable physical discomfort."

    You’re seriously concerned about that? My friend, go help the homeless or abandoned animals.

    I don’t believe you’re that concerned. I believe that you’re a person who wants to get the last word in.

    There. I got the last word in.

  45. Andrew
    Andrew June 10, 2012 at 8:50 pm |

    the whole retreat question is very interesting, i am starting to appreciate that you all have family commitments etc. and really only have ever had a limited exposure to solitude

    even going for a walk i bet you have to take the dog!

    now, come on, be real !

    i think sitting is used as some sort of facsimile for solitude, but it’s not and actually seems to have worked in a contrary way, digging deeper ruts in ill thought out concepts and entraining certain maladaptive ways

    if the sun shines out of dogen’s arse (it doesn’t imo, but you lot take it that way) then as a celibate monk with limited personal attachments he was in quite a different space to yours (plus the TB of course)

    where you and buddhism (and i include brad warner) have gone appallingly wrong is you don’t read around enough and there is no attempt to include what is called ‘wisdom literature” like the wisdom of jesus son of sirach and sa’di’s “the rose garden”

    which is basically smarts or some coherent overall philosophic view apout life and since you lot are so short on solitude (following the fictious remedy of zazen) you are actually missing out on the part that is really accessible to you so you end up like crippled pigs blathering on about this and that in a truely waste of time way !

  46. buddy
    buddy June 11, 2012 at 2:23 am |

    Thanks once again Andrew for taking the time out of what I’m sure is an incredibly busy day of doing so many fantasticlly wonderful things to enlighten us poor deluded zazen losers. I preferred it though when you wrote in that clever one word per line way- much easier to avoid the stinging humiliation of realizing my inadequacy in the face of your stunning rebukes.

  47. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel June 11, 2012 at 4:18 am |

    I just fell upon this:

    “Recently many people who have borrowed the name of the Patriarch’s truth randomly wear the Dharma robe and like [to have] long hair, and they sign their name with the title of master as a vessel for promotion. They are pitiful. Who will save them?” (Dôgen Shobogenzo Shisho)

  48. Dave Samsara
    Dave Samsara June 11, 2012 at 4:36 am |

    Im pretty sure Sa’di of “the rose garden” fame sat something pretty similar to zazen/meditation, as did/do possibly all mystics of christian, sufi and hindu etc traditions….. ‘Solitude’ is not reached through meditation or retreat, that would be missing the point. Any meditation mystics perform are merely tools or excercises in order to realise union with the divine, the unborn, uncreated.

  49. Andrew
    Andrew June 11, 2012 at 4:57 am |

    dave of “samsara”

    i appreciate your taking thirty seconds to rattle off an opinion that you are “pretty sure” of

    i mean it’s not like you have actually read any of these works is it?

    when in doubt reach for the cliches and you have excelled here, taking a word like solitude which previously i had understood to mean being alone and giving it some new “high wank” spiritual import

    its so wonderful to be among so many talented people in their own eyes that have so little experience of life that they are confident that you can address any subject in a satisfactory manner without doing any work

  50. Andrew
    Andrew June 11, 2012 at 5:10 am |

    proulx michel, while as seventh patriarch i have specifically sacked brad warner because i feel other life directions would be more useful to him, i’m not going to single you out for specific sacking because you are a nondescript , one hesitates to say “has been” because you have never been

    you are just among the many thousands i have “deregistered” as incompetent and that i am afraid is your fate : o )

    dogen and the sixth patriarch are my peers, i am that in fact so what do i care for the need to sign oneself as master, wear robes or any of that waste of time crap

    when dogen refers to when he says pitiful he means you, all these years of attention to what? “wanking zen” ; o )

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