By Daniel Scharpenburg
Michael Stone was a pretty famous Buddhist teacher from Canada.
I’m not going to lie to you and say I was a fan, as people often do when celebrities die. I had heard his name, but I didn’t really know anything about him, to be quite honest. I know that he taught Buddhism and Yoga.
He was a non-traditional Buddhist teacher. He studied with Zen and Insight meditation teachers. He believed Buddhism didn’t have to be held back by tradition. He famously said on his website “I don’t wear robes.”
From his website:
“And I believe in depth without dogma. I’m interested in an ethics-based spirituality that is sophisticated and accessible for contemporary, urban people. The majority of people who study with me don’t consider themselves to be spiritual. They have likely read about meditative practices, but have never studied with a teacher. The thing they have in common is the desire to actively respond to personal, environmental, and economic challenges. They’re also interested in learning how to work with their minds rather than adopting a new belief system.”
He was passionate about taking Buddhism out into the world. He believed in engagement, and actively trying to make the world a better place. He was a true Bodhisattva.
It was shocking when he went into a coma. It was shocking when he died. It was shocking when his family announced that he had bipolar disorder and that he had opioids in his system.
He was 42 years old and he left behind a family.
His story speaks to me for a couple of reasons. I’m a father, just like him, and I’m 37—only a few years younger than he was when he died. And, of course I think of myself as a non-traditional Buddhist teacher too, but I’m not nearly at his level.
And the nature of his death is important too.
After he passed his family released a statement that he had bipolar disorder and that he had opioids in his system at the time of his death. These are two things we don’t talk about as a society, very much.
The first is mental illness. People are afraid to talk about it. In some circles people still think of mental illness as a weakness, or something to get over. But, a lot of us have mental illnesses. They are everywhere and they are real, and having a mental illness certainly doesn’t make you weak. We can see very successful people who struggle with mental illness, just like Michael Stone did. Like so many others.
There’s a huge tendency to think that Buddhist teachers are better than us (especially really talented teachers like Michael Stone) or that they’re somehow beyond the problems that all human beings have. But they aren’t.
We’re all human and we all have these frailties.
And then there are the opioids. I don’t know if he was an addict or not. I think that word gets thrown around too often sometimes. But I do know that opioids are increasingly a problem and we aren’t talking about it much. What they found in his system was a drug called fentanyl, which is said to be 50 times more potent than morphine. That sentence blows my mind: 50 times more potent than morphine.
According to Canadian news sources, fentanyl overdoses are on the rise, and it’s on the rise here in America too. It’s something going on all over the place and we just aren’t talking about it much (or maybe not talking about it enough).
I don’t know if he was a drug addict or not, but I know that there’s a stigma around drug addiction and that’s something that we, as a society, have to figure out how to deal with. People are afraid to get help because they’re afraid of being judged or criticized.
We need to move beyond the belief that mental illnesses and drug addictions are weaknesses, or that the people having these experiences are losers. Michael Stone is not who you imagine when you think of someone dying from opioids—not by a long shot. He was a very successful spiritual teacher and the world is a worse place without him.
It just shows that this can happen to anyone, even those we least expect.
if you want to help Michael Stone’s family, you can donate here. It’s a good cause.
Editor: Dana Gornall