Murder at a Zen Retreat? Yikes!
This week my second book and first novel had its official release. It’s called Murder at Sleeping Tiger and appears under a pen name, C. R. Koons. The book is set in a fictionalized version of Taos County, New Mexico, where Ulysses Walker, a young Anglo man who is married with two children, has recently been elected sheriff. Ulysses and his friend, Ray Pando, War Chief of the nearby Picuris tribe, go to investigate the suspicious death of a Picuris man on federal lands adjoining both Picuris land and Sleeping Tiger Zen Center. Their investigation leads them to the retreat center, which is about to host Rohatsu, an eight day long sesshin celebrating Buddha’s enlightenment and also the tenth anniversary of Sleeping Tiger’s founding. As attendees are gathering, a huge snowstorm strikes the mountains of northern New Mexico, closing roads and airports and trapping attendees in the remote former Benedictine monastery. What follows is a tale of murder, mayhem, intrigue, retribution, disillusionment and realization. Along the way spiritual and psychological truths are revealed and the key characters are transformed.
Over the past twenty years I have participated, often as a leader or co-leader, in silent retreats in New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon and Washington. These retreats have been profoundly inspiring in my own personal journey, strengthening my meditation practice, placing me in beautiful locations with amazing people and increasing my appreciation of silent communion in a non-religious structure. So, it may puzzle you as to why I’d choose the setting of a retreat for a murder mystery.
Writers are told to write what they know. Retreats and spiritual groups are part of what I know. I know about secluded settings, dark walks back to your sleeping cottage, being in the silent company of complete strangers, even wondering if someone present in the meditation room is entirely sane. Once my assigned sleeping quarters were apart from everyone else in a cavernous meditation room which had no locks on the doors. To make matters worse, one of the attendees was having a psychotic episode! Nothing happened, but I didn’t get much sleep. Perhaps these are a few reasons I might think about this kinds of plot.
Murder at Sleeping Tiger also deals with child sexual abuse and the exploitation of lay persons by powerful religious leaders. Sadly, these are also part of what I know, based in part on my upbringing in the Catholic church, but also in over thirty years as a psychotherapist. In the early 1990’s a former assistant pastor of my church Holy Spirit in Louisville, Kentucky, was found to have sexually abused over 140 boys and girls during the ‘50’s and 60’s including people with whom I had been good friends. The pastor, a man whom I had respected as a child, knew about the abuse and did nothing. He simply transferred the priest to another parish where his abuse continued. As a therapist I heard story after story of priests, brothers, nuns, ministers, rabbis, gurus, swamis, teachers, doctors, coaches, psychotherapists and other authorities who exploited or abused those in their trust. And it still goes on.
Exploitation of lay persons by religious authorities is a reality many true seekers fear. People who want to explore spiritual practice have to consider the possibility that those instructing and inspiring them might also seek to exploit them. This is a topic I discussed in my book, The Mindfulness Solution for Intense Emotions: Take Control of BPD with DBT (New Harbinger, 2016). I talked about the importance of using discernment when choosing to follow any teacher and to pay attention to signs that moral, ethical or good sense boundaries are being breached in the name of spiritual advancement. Again, it is not surprising that this topic would influence me as a mystery writer. One of my main characters, Jo McAlister, struggles with her faith in her teacher, Roshi Melanie Hirsh, creating an important subplot.
Overall, Murder at Sleeping Tiger can only offer what any murder mystery worth its salt provides: a compelling story, a believable detective, a colorful locale, interesting characters and a few surprises. But because of my background as a mindfulness teacher I wanted to address concerns that people might have about the story. As Roshi Melanie might say, “No place in this world is safe from the designs of Mara, not even the quietest zendo.” I hope you will enjoy the book!