Monday, March 16, 2015

A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment by Scott Carney

Is internal bliss at the expense of outward oblivion desirable? If we lived in a world reminiscent of that which Keanu Reaves faced in The Matrix, are we better off living in ignorance? And why does it seem that there is a fine line between religious fervor and religious fanaticism? Are they even mutually exclusive?

These questions and more are tackled in A Death on Diamond Mountain, the story of several people's search for enlightenment under the auspices of Tibetan Buddhism. Carney's background as an investigative reporter serves his readers well with this carefully researched book. If you don't know anything about Tibetan Buddhism, like me, (or Buddhism in general), you'll be, well, enlightened yourself on the subject after this 250-ish page book.

Carney opens with the suicide of one of his own students while they were in India on a ten-day silent meditation retreat. His student's journal held a declaration that Carney questioned as the bold pronouncement of a legitimate religious breakthrough or the ramblings of a mentally disturbed individual. His own search for enlightenment marred by this experience gave him not only an academic interest in, but also a personal stake in the story of Ian Thorson, who also died seeking spiritual truth.

Carney takes his reader through the history of Buddhism, specifically Tibetan Buddhism. You've probably heard terms like, yoga (...pants), dharma (remember LOST?), tantra (Finch from American pie...anyone?), and Nirvana (RIP Kurt Cobain). Words like these are amazingly ubiquitous and popularized. In fact, the reach of Buddhism and Tibetan culture is more pervasive than you probably realize (did you know the Ewoks speak high speed Tibetan?). Yet most people who aren't Buddhists don't really understand their true meaning. You'll get schooled in that by Carney.

He'll also introduce you to ancient holy places like Bodh Gaya, where Buddha acheived enlightenment, and help you understand how Tibetan Buddhism was born in India, took hold in Tibet, exiled back to India, and popularized in the west. This migration led to places like the Diamond Mountain University in Arizona, founded by Michael Roach.

Roach, a well-respected practitioner, who received the title of Geshe (basically the equivalent of a PhD in Buddhist parlance) started his spiritual journey traveling abroad. He took on a lama, or teacher, in the states and eventually began teaching others in a public park. His following grew and he rented a small commercial space for lectures. One thing led to another yada yada yada and he and his followers ended up in yurts in the Arizona desert for three years in contemplative silence.

Roach's brand of Buddhism, although supposedly Tibetan, slowly showed signs of divergence. His taking of a wife, his belief that she was a goddess, and the tantric, or secret teachings he espoused created a divide among his followers. But his education in religion at Princeton and a successful career in the diamond industry gave him important tools that fostered his influence in the Buddhist sphere. These also didn't hurt in enabling him to gain many well-funded sponsors for his cause.

While Carney takes us through Roach's evolution from spiritual pilgrim to guru, he also keeps track of Thorson, who has a tangential affiliation with Roach. Thorson too traveled the world on a spiritual pilgramage, and like Roach went to Tibet and sought a worthy teacher in the states to follow. The spiritual consensus in Tibet for both these men was to send them to the holy city of New Jersey.

So what brings this relationship from tangential to a more solid collision course? Well, like many good stories, it's a woman, namely the aforementioned resident goddess, Christie McNally. Together, she and Thorson set a path for themselves that clash not only with Diamond Mountain University, but with the sustainability of life in general.

From meditative visions, to a religious intervention, to conflict diamonds, to the Apache Indian wars in the southwest, this book is an epic journey. Like his first book, The Red Market, this is an intriguing read on some potentially obscure subjects. Carney's book may not provide the spiritual brand of enlightenment his subjects so desperately sought, but it illuminates in many other ways.

Full disclosure: I received this book free from Carney's publisher with a request for a review. But I liked it anyway.

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