Not just one story ...
This is another book coming into my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewers” program. Due to the number of Buddhist books in my collection, it was hardly surprising that the LTER “almighty algorithm” opted to hook me up with this, but I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm not sure exactly what I was expecting this to be when I clicked “request” on Scott Carney's A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment
, but I'm sure, in retrospect, that I'd have been off in my expectations. It's a very odd book … not so much in its subject matter (although I'm sure many would find that odd enough), but how that's structured
, and approached. From the title/subtitle, you might expect it to be a basic non-fiction tale of somebody who ended up dying on “Diamond Mountain”, and it is
that in the widest arc here, and that trajectory gives the book its basic skeletal outline, but that in and of itself would be fairly thin, as the implied protagonist is a fairly minor (although sufficiently connected to allow his tale to suffice for the “story”) character in the over-all world of the book.
For regular readers of my reviews, the fact that I ended up without a single little bookmark
should give you pause. The lack of these meant that there were never any particular points in the narrative that I stopped to say “hey, that would be a good way to illustrate this aspect of the book”, or to generally highlight something that I might want to eventually get back to. This also means that I'm “working without a net” in writing this, having to play off of raw recall, rather than having juicy quotes to fall back on (although I may end up pulling some stuff out of the book if it catches my eye tonight).
It might be useful to quote the book jacket's blurb about the author, as this leads well into the obvious question, “what's the book about?” … “Scott Carney is an investigative journalist who blends narrative nonfiction with ethnography.”
… roll that around in the folds of your grey matter for a bit. What you're imagining from that statement in terms of what the book's about is probably pretty close. It's got a journalistic narrative feel to most of it, and deep dives into ethnographic waters, albeit in terms of Buddhism and Cults and Megalomania, and assorted relatively damaged or delusional people.
While the “spine” of the story is how Ian Thorson ended up dead on that mountain, most of the “meat” of the book deals with Geshe Michael Roach, a Princeton grad who made his way to Tibet, and was able to study at the Sera Monastery, returning to the U.S., on the recommendation of the Dalai Lama, to work with a New Jersey based teacher, Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tarchin. Working with this Lama, in 1976, he had a moment of enlightenment and based most of his subsequent career on that experience.
Now, Roach's background sounds very solid … doing a lot
of dharma work over a lot
of years ... and his enlightenment experience sounds perfectly legit, but his “take” on the Gelugpa form of Tibetan Buddhism is idiosyncratic at best, and “heretical” (he was eventually in trouble with various more traditional elements) at worst. While, I am hardly an expert
on the subject, I did spend a number of years studying (and, to be very clear, not practicing
- mine is an “outsider's view” certainly) Tibetan Buddhism, including attending the Avalokitesvara initiation twice and the Kalachakra three times. Back then, I never heard of Roach nor encountered mention of his “personal deity form” of Vajrayogini, who is very similar to the Hindu goddess Kali in her descriptions. While my lack of experience with this is likely to have been from rarely having the opportunity to have complex iconographies of thangkas, etc., specifically explained to me, it is my impression that Geshe Roach had focused his practice (and subsequent teachings) on a particularly esoteric corner of the Tibetan Buddhist cosmos, and as his work developed, he moved farther and farther away from Gelugpa orthodoxy, and closer and closer to a classic American “Cult”.
As I likewise spent a number of years in the orbit of one such cult in my youth, I have a pretty good radar for the sorts of things that come with that, and Carney's descriptions of Roach's organization certain have that vibe … right down to running off to the desert to have an environment of isolation where the group's teachings and practices wouldn't have to run into the cognitive dissonances of friction with the “common world” – such as enveloped Roach's center in New York. However, Roach has so many things in the “plus column” (his work, at the behest of his teacher, as a diamond merchant in New York – in which he was remarkably successful, and helped fund numerous Buddhist outreaches and institutions – is a substantial one, plus the work he did to make a vast amount of Tibetan documents available via scanning and releasing on CD) that is impossible to write him off as an insignificant figure.
The book spends a lot of time backgrounding Buddhism, the various characters involved in the tale, and even the geography and history of key locations … at times to the virtual abandonment of the narrative. Aside from Michael Roach and Ian Thorson, the other “key player” in the story is Christie McNally (later Lama
Christie McNally), who started out as an eager follower of Roach, then became his lover (tantra partner), inspriational embodiment of Vajrayogini, main organizer, and eventual partner of Thorson. Each of these characters is essential to the story, but it is Ian Thorson whose life tracks the over-arching flow of the book. Thorson was a seeker, who was noted as having been suspected of being neurologically damaged, his manifestations of spiritual exuberance often appearing more “clinical” than “mystical”. He had a similar passion of esoterica such as Vajrayogini, and a history of being willing to “go all in” for his metaphysical pursuits. His path leads him to latching onto Roach and his organization, and is in place when Roach and McNally eventually have a parting of the ways.
The main reason that Roach's group ran off to the desert was to have major multi-year retreats, and it was in a second of these that McNally and Thorson were evicted, and ended up sneaking back into the area (in a cave up on the mountain), to still carry out the retreat in the presence of the rest, if in secret. This is, essentially, what causes Thorson's eventual death, as the couple is living without any dependable food or water or fuel or pretty much other creature comforts, and Thorson ends up succumbing to the privations before McNally is able to summon any outside help (also not aided by their well-secluded cave location).
I'm giving short shrift to a lot here (perhaps McNally most of all), but it is a complicated story that keeps jumping into different contexts … from Thorson's family's attempts to have him “deprogrammed” at points, to the interesting conflicts between Roach's organization and the orthodoxy. There is one bit here which sort of frames the rest, at least at what was the arc of Roach's teaching:
The Great Retreat broke the hierachy between Roach and Tibetan authorities. Now that he was under the direct guidance of angels, there was no need to appeal to the Dalai Lama. With Lama Christie by his side, he promised they would breathe new life into Tibetan Buddhism. They would forge a faith that shucked off anachronistic Tibetan traditions and make their interpretation of ancient Buddhist wisdom relevant for modern-day America.
Thorson was pretty much just a damaged seeker caught up in that maelstrom, but it's a fascinating read.
Again, A Death on Diamond Mountain
is not the most linear
of tales, but it is more informative than most narratives would be, largely from the journalistic chops of the author. This book, while basically a story (or, is that a history?), is hardly a “thriller”, but more a telling set out on which to hang bits of research, creating a work with unexpected depth, if not a simple synopsis. This just came out a few weeks ago, so should be widely available in the brick-and-mortar book vendors, and the on-line big boys have it for the usual discount. While I found writing about
the book very frustrating, reading it was a pleasure. Whether this was due to my familiarity with a lot of the component elements (leading to it being quite engaging for me), or not is something you may want to consider, but I liked it, and you might too.