Ethics and Safety


It was heartbreaking to read of the recent tragic events at Diamond Mountain University (DMU), the center run by Michael Roach in Arizona …

It is difficult to unravel the events which unfolded over the past year to result in bizarre spousal abuses and stabbings, followed by the death of Ian Thornson by dehydration in an Arizona dessert.   Matthew Remski gives a detailed account of what he is able to discern about the events and Michael Roach himself, in his open letter, gives a detailed account of efforts the DMU presumably made to handle the situation responsibly.  We probably will never know exactly what happened.  It is fairly evident, however, that the tragedy was the result of two individuals failing to receive the psychiatric care that they needed.

Like Matthew Remski, I want to ask how such tragedies can be prevented.  Many of us are feeling a lack of confidence in the safety standards even in mainstream dharma centers these days.  Tragedies such as this one give us a sense of urgency about the need to improve these standards.  The case here with DMU is most disturbing because Michael Roach has already been severely chastised by mainstream Tibetan Buddhists.  In fact, HH Dalai Lama censured Michael Roach in 2006.  Matthew Remski is asking that they do so again.  Indeed, this censure by His Holiness served as an important warning to students that Michael Roach could no longer be considered as acting within the boundaries of authentic Buddhism.  In that regard, it was a critical move and protected many potential students.  However, the censure also served to place Michael Roach in a position where he was no longer answerable to anyone in authority, if indeed he ever felt accountable to others in the first place.  I question whether further censure would serve any purpose.

Before reading of the events at DMU, I had personally been doing much writing and thinking about what would be critical ingredients of a safe dharma center.  I had concluded that a strong, supportive community and a strong program of study could be pillars of a dharma center that insured safety.  The irony is that it appears Michael Roach and the DMU board appear to have worked hard to cultivate a very strong community structure, with extensive support systems, as well as a rigorous study program.

However, most will agree that the community Roach has built and the program of study he has created are deeply flawed.  Can we probe deeper into these flaws and learn important lessons from the tragic events at DMU?  In my mind, it’s too easy and comfortable to say the word, “cult”, as if there’s a clear demarcation between cult and noncult—between DMU and our own, mainstream dharma centers.  I think we need to shake up that comfort a little and be very honest.

I would suggest that there are two key features of DMU which make it an unsafe and unhealthy community.  The central feature is that it lacks a sound ethical base.  Michael Roach, as an ordained monk who engages freely in sexual relations, has broken the vinaya in clear ways.  From this shaky foundation he has created teachings that justify, explain and make a high practice of his misconduct, such as calling his relations with women “spiritual unions”.  I suggest that the combination of his ethical infractions and the creation of a new age dharma to support it could be at the core of the couple’s dangerous psychiatric difficulties, at the core of what is clearly a psychologically unsafe community at DMU.

Of central concern is the relationship between ethics and safety in our own dharma centers.  HH Dalai Lama observes that a strong ethical outlook is an essential ingredient of a strong, healthy mental outlook because it is grounded on a valid cognition.  Surely then the same could be said of a healthy community.  A strong ethical outlook could be a critical component of a strong dharma community as well.

HH Dalai Lama also observes that unethical conduct and non-virtue are founded in an invalid cognition and so ultimately they are weak states of mind.  They have a shaky foundation.  Extrapolating from that viewpoint, I suggest that once members of a group are asked to accommodate non-virtue and unethical behavior as part of a higher purpose, then those members are living with a deep moral conflict within themselves.  Their mental states then become compromised.  This places their mental health at risk.

If you add high tantric practices to that mix, then you are placing them further at risk.  Matthew Remski suggests that one possible cause for Lama Christie stabbing her husband was the fact that they were practicing Vajrayogini, who was visualized as wielding a knife herself.  While this can never be verified, I would like to assume that it is nonetheless within the realms of a likely explanation.  Michael Roach’s sexual misconduct, breaking his root vow of celibacy and then heralding it as a spiritual practice, forced all of his followers to stuff their minds around an impossible mindset, calling his conduct virtue.  It is possible that this, combined with a lethal dose of high tantric practices, are primary causes of the psychological breakdowns in both Christie and Ian and the subsequent tragedy which unfolded in Arizona.

I am concerned that even in western, mainstream dharma centers, there is a dangerous lack of concern over ethics.  Even in mainstream dharma centers, ethics come second to the higher purpose, which is usually the lama.  Nine years ago, I sat in a Woodstock Town Board meeting and listened while officials of HH Karmapa’s upstate New York monastery lied to the town board about the numbers of guests we were housing for teachings.  They were applying for a building permit to place a large extension to the monastery.  The town was concerned that the extension would increase traffic, so monastery officials were doctoring the numbers of guests in order to fit in with the town’s demands.

Officials had been haggling with the town for months over the details of this permit, but this was the only board meeting I had attended.  I was registrar at the time and I knew the numbers the administrators were lying about.  I knew how we crammed people into the library, turning it into a dorm during big teachings.  I knew how frequently we went over the numbers officials were quoting.  I sat silently through that Town Board meeting, however, silently reciting mantra, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, listening to the lies and wondering if my lamas had approved them– but they were sitting quietly at the meeting as well.  So I chanted mantra and did something I had never done before in my life; I contorted my own mind in order to approve of an unethical deed.  It is no wonder to me today that my relationships with those lamas should eventually break down.  At 50, I was simply too old to change my moral code, although I did try and the effort to do so nearly killed me.

In the scriptures, we are advised to respectfully speak up when asked by the lama to do something that does not seem ethically correct.  While I am confident that I could not have been persuaded to lie myself, I nonetheless lacked the courage to speak up about the lie that I had witnessed.  This sits heavy in my heart.

At a teaching with a kagyu high lama during that time, I vividly recall the brave, local woman who did stand up and ask how it could be that our lamas could lie.  I wasn’t clear on the details she was referring to, but I know that they had something to do with the town, probably similar to my own experience.  There was a stunned, horrified silence in the room after the woman asked her question.  Then the high lama replied to her by relating the story of the bodhisattva who lied to the hunter in order to save the deer’s life.  The woman was clearly distressed both by the courage that it took to ask the question and by the lama’s response.  Later that day, I helped to organize an interview for her with her lama.  I was confident that he would resolve things for her and reassure her, comfort her.  However, she left that interview looking positively tormented.  I was to leave the monastery a few months later looking just as tormented, stumbling off like that woman, hoping only to find some way out of my confusion.

I have less fear and confusion today, but it’s taken me many years in exile to regain my dignity and my perspective.  I am deeply concerned about this readiness to compromise ethical standards for the higher cause of bringing a great lama to the west.  I suggest that perhaps this higher cause needs to be a beacon of truth, not a series of compromises.  I strongly suspect that the few ethical infractions which I saw during my time at the monastery were most likely just a glimpse of everyday occurrences there.  Certainly, I was not privy to any of the inner workings of the monastery.  In fact, I was told to transfer all calls from the town board to monastery officials and answer no questions myself.  Sometimes the atmosphere of fear and secrecy surrounding the higher corporate structure of the monastery was palpable.

Once while I was working in the front office, there was an amusing electronic error.  The statement of my boss’s salary was sent to my email account by mistake.  I was a volunteer and had no interest whatsoever in looking at this statement, no interest in nosing into his personal finances.  However, my boss was very worried about the statement being seen.  I told him to relax, I would delete it, I wouldn’t look at it.  However, when I entered the office the next morning, he was at my computer, making sure it was deleted.  He looked furtive, like a criminal, fumbling with my computer.  It was sad because his need for me not to see his salary far surpassed my need to ever see it. This nontransparent fear culture permeated the monastery and made lots of unnecessary trouble.  Surely in a transparent, open, honest dharma community, the salaries of every official would be made available.  Why not?  Why the secrecy?

At the time I was there, everything was about building the big new extension for HH Karmapa.  There was already a beautiful large, traditional Tibetan temple, with a large, attractive upstairs area for housing HH Karmapa and visiting lamas.  However, within the lovely temple, there was a fractured community, with members constantly bickering and gossiping.  Once I received a call from a long time member of the community.  She had hurt her back badly and needed help; she couldn’t walk.  I passed the word around, but I was the only one from the dharma community finally to come to her assistance and help get her to the doctor and shop and cook food.  Rinpoche’s wife came the next day and another day as well– but the attitude of the rest was largely indifferent.

I frequently wondered about all that hurry over the extensions.  Surely the building that already existed, with some renovations to the guest house, would suffice until the community grew stronger and His Holiness came and began creating his own vision for the West.  Two attitudes seemed to predominate.  One was clearly stated by the lamas, in fact: His Holiness would not come until the extensions were completed.  This was what we needed to do in order to bring His Holiness to the west.  The other attitude was that any infractions committed in this endeavor, any harm to the local community was far outweighed by bringing the blessing of HH Karmapa into their presence.

I question some of the unspoken assumptions underlying these attitudes.  The first is that material offerings to the high lama are more important than offerings of basic practices within the dharma community, such as generosity, kindness, honesty, patience and meditation.  Material offerings can occupy a community’s focus at the expense of focusing on supporting its members during times of need.  Another assumption is that the end justifies the means.  HH Karmapa’s presence in the community justifies any non-dharmic actions that are needed to bring him.  Still another assumption is that dharma is primarily about the high lama.  If an individual has the fortune of seeing or knowing HH Karmapa, then his/her fortunes are insured.  No further actions are needed.

I also question another assumption.  From my understanding of the Buddha’s teachings, if the obstacles which prevent a person or organization from undertaking an activity are so great that the only way to overcome them is to behave unethically, then surely this is a call to look more closely at the obstacles themselves.  The obstacles could be seen as valid indicators that now is not the time for the particular activity.  At one point while I was at the monastery, the trouble with the town over obtaining the permit was so great that corporate officials held a meeting with the lamas in order to seek advice.  The advice from the lamas came back loud and clear: continue with the plan to build the extensions.  Don’t give up.  I was not privy to those meetings, but I cannot help but wonder if that was the moment where officials decided to begin crossing ethical boundaries.

I suggest that if we want to draw a definitive line in the sand between mainstream dharma centers in the west and dangerous, fringe centers such as DMU, if we want to insure psychological safety for dharma students in the west, then we need to look more closely at all these assumptions.

We had an outbreak of bedbugs at the monastery during my last months there.  I was sharing the front office work with another staff member at the time.  He quit the job, however, because they asked him to lie to the guests about the bedbugs.  Then it was just me in the office and either they forgot to tell me to lie or they knew it was no use.  So I made sure that every guest knew about the problem and asked them to tell me if they were bitten so we could address the situation better.  I found that guests had no problem with this at all. In fact, it helped a little in community building because I was bringing guests on board to help with the problem; they felt a part of a common effort.

The plan to lie to the guests was not only unethical, but unskillful and unnecessary as well.  It seems that secrecy and deceit can become something of a way of life, without anyone stopping to look closely at what is really best for the situation.  Nothing disenfranchises members of a community more than non-transparency.  Within a transparent, ethical outlook, however, not only are community bounds strengthened, but problems are solved more skillfully as well.

I was fired from my jobs at the monastery shortly before the building permit was acquired so I have never seen the huge new monastery extension.  However, I do know that it was seen as an offense to the monastery’s closest neighbor, a small Christian group who worshipped at a tiny, historical monument which sat directly below the monastery.  During the time that the extensions to the monastery were being made, the leader of this group waged a campaign to stop the work.  He wrote:

“When this monstrous building project was proposed to the Town of Woodstock Zoning Board, the Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount had just received Federal and NY State historical Status. Why then, you might ask (as I do) did the Woodstock Zoning Board approve such a gigantic fortress-like monstrocity of a hotel, which if ever allowed to be completed, will completely overshadow one of Woodstock’s most cherished Historical Monuments to the Artistic Counter-Culture – Father Francis’ “Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount”?”

I remember once taking a call from this man. He complained to me that monastery officials had broken their promise to him about where new electricity lines would be placed as they crossed his church’s property.  I apologized to the man and then passed his complaints on to a monastery official, who was quite unconcerned.  In fact, he replied with sarcasm, “Was he drunk?”

Even at the time, I found his attitude alarming. Indeed, it is possible that this man’s personality posed difficulties.  Certainly, to a casual observer, the little building on the hill might seem insignificant.  Wikipedia describes this Christian shrine as “a modest, single-room, hand-built wooden church near the summit of Meads Mountain in Woodstock, New York, originally constructed c. 1891.”

However, I question the merit of any Buddhist project which deeply offends its neighbors, be they Christian or any other religion.  Surely, there should be a strong spirit of respect for mainstream, western religions and western culture in the means by which any dharma center is built in the west.  Building a huge, imposing, traditional Tibetan Buddhist monastery, on a hill above a Christian monument, dwarfing this small Christian community of worship, could be bordering on deep disrespect.

HH Dalai Lama says that he has two commitments in his life now: promotion of human values and promotion of religious harmony.  HH Karmapa stands poised to inherit HH Dalai Lama’s position of spiritual authority in the world.  I suggest that any project with the goal of establishing HH Karmapa’s work in the world might consider adhering to strong principals of ethics and respect for other religions.  Perhaps those two principles could be at least two of the pillars supporting HH Karmapa’s new monastery in the west.

There are many who will say that I should not speak out like this, that I cannot understand the actions of higher beings, that I am breaking samaya.  I say that my shame is in not speaking sooner.  At the time that I sat in the town board meeting, I believed that my lamas knew best, that the lies were indeed justified for the higher cause of HH Karmapa.  That may well be still true from the perspective of the lamas.  Indeed, I do not question the great blessings of His Holiness.  Nor do I question the motives of any of the lamas involved in bringing his lineage to the west.  It is possible that the greater community of Woodstock could feel honored and gladdened to have the monastery there, with HH Karmapa visiting regularly.  It is possible that monastery community members have made friends with their Christian neighbors.  It is possible that Woodstock, being of good hippie history, could be proud to have North America’s most authentic Tibetan temple.  All of this could be true.

However, I am still deeply concerned about western students in our dharma centers who are learning to compromise their ethics as they take their first steps on the Buddhist path.  Surely this is a dangerous practice.   Just as I raised my children to stay true to strong values and right, moral conduct, so surely our dharma centers need to be leading students in the same ways.  By sitting silent through the town board meeting, was I not complicit in the lying?  Was I not shaming my better self that I could never speak out and question?   Was devotion that asked me to remain silent a true practice of dharma?

So my karma now is my own responsibility. If young Kalu Rinpoche can find the courage to speak out about these distressing matters that lie heavy in his heart, then I will follow his example.  Certainly, after reading of the tragic events in Arizona, failure to speak out and question now would be a deep transgression of my vow to protect all beings.  Until we decide to shine a beacon of impeccable honesty and ethical discipline within our dharma centers, particularly those centers which are to house our highest examples of the Buddha’s teachings, I question whether there is safety for any being inside them.

Where are we to draw the line between mainstream dharma centers in which ethical boundaries are uncertain and fringe dharma centers with the same, uncertain boundaries?  Where?  This isn’t a rhetorical question; I would really like to know how we westerners can be confident that the line has been drawn somewhere.  How are we to judge the actions of those in power in our dharma centers, whether they be lamas practicing crazy wisdom or corporate enterprises manipulating local community concerns?  Where and how can we draw the line and know that dharma centers are truly safe for all?

The author of this essay, Drolma, wishes to be anonymous but is known to the blog owner.