elephant journal is an open forum. We believe in offering an uplifted forum to elevate important, sometimes difficult issues from gossip into discourse, and learning. We have also published a “rebuttal,” linked below. Matthew, the author below, has his own experience and views. Those views, and the views in the rebuttal, do not constitute an “official” view of elephant. Our official view is that we hope, again, to offer a forum for understanding, and, hopefully, real peace. ~ ed.
reporting and opinion by Matthew Remski
Two weeks after breaking this story, I thought it would be helpful to summarize the discourse around the Diamond Mountain tragedy as it has played out in these pages. In addition to collating the rich commentary and the further inquiry it suggests, I’d also like to disclose a little of my process, and earnestly address the many good and pointed criticisms that have been raised about my approach. Also, I’ll include fascinating input from the numerous personal e-mails I’ve received from around the world.
First Things First: The Law Enforcement Angle
On 5/10, I phoned the Cochise County Sherriff’s Office and spoke to a deputee who was involved with the retrieval of Ian Thorson’s body. Although the coroner’s report may not be released for another two months, the deputee was confident in saying that Thorson’s probable causes of death included dehydration, along with malnourishment, and possibly the drinking of contaminated water melted from the flash snowfall of 4/14. The deputee was also aware of the circumstances of Thorson’s isolation with McNally, but indicated that neither his relationship with Diamond Mountain nor his eviction from the property were the subject of any current investigation. With local authorities having nothing more to say about the death at this point, I believe it falls even more heavily to the Diamond Mountain Board to answer for the series of influences and decisions that form the heart of this tragedy.
Silence Still Reigns on the Mountaintop
In over 600 comments to my post, only one of my critics (Arly, who has not indicated he holds any official position with Roach’s group) has given any consideration to the 15 requests I make to the Diamond Mountain Board of Directors. As of this writing, there has been no public statement made by the organization to resolve the questions raised by their Open Letter of 4/26/12. As far as anyone publicly knows, 35 retreatants are still under the care of this non-profit Board, which is still under the leadership of Roach, and there is no public evidence that any of the power dynamics that have generated this failure in oversight and common sense have been corrected in any way.
As of this writing, the Diamond Mountain website has been periodically off-line for several days. (Roach’s letter will always be accessible through Google’s Cache.) Quickly and perhaps cruelly, McNally’s bio and other signs of her association with Diamond Mountain have been scrubbed from the site. And at least one off-shoot McNally project (http://ladylamas.wordpress.com/) has been deleted, only hours after it became the subject of criticism in this forum. That site is archived here.
The Elephant Journal Discourse on Diamond Mountain
In the two weeks since posting, my original piece has been “viewed” over 23K times. “Read”, I’m not so sure, given the accusations embedded in some of the comments. Of the more than 600 comments, approximately 170 are my own, as I’ve tried my best to remain present to the discourse and dialogue with the many valid points raised by the respondents. Unless people are posting under several pseudonyms, there would seem to be about 99 unique respondents. (These numbers are from an accounting I made on 5/11.) Of the 99, 24 are outright hostile to my implications and my tone: many of these engage in ad hominem attack. (It might be 25, if we count “Darth Vader”, who calls me a “self-righteous dick”, and challenges me to a fistfight. But I think Darth is joking.) The remaining 75 respondents are either strong supporters of the spirit of critical and independent inquiry that I propose, or they express various similar concerns to my own, along with appeals for greater objectivity and neutrality amongst all who dialogue, including me.
The level of upset from Roach’s students and devotees has been painfully sharp. I was fully expecting this, and this expectation plagued my ethical consideration in publishing as I did. I knew my opinions on the matter would hurt past friends and acquaintances quite deeply, and I didn’t take this lightly: these are relationships I’ll likely never enjoy again.
However. Diamond Mountain is a public institution with 501(c)(3) status, which makes regular public appeals for funding and continuous public claims about the necessity and beneficence of its mission, along with the qualifications of its leadership. Diamond Mountain is led by a man who claims that he is approaching full enlightenment, which in his metaphysics implies omniscience and the capacity to live simultaneously in an infinite number of bodies. (I’m not making this up.) As a public institution with public tax benefits, Diamond Mountain must be subject to public scrutiny, especially for possible religious excesses. Their charitable status comes with public responsibility. The same is true for Roach, who has no doubt become a public person (or perhaps an infinite number of public persons, which might complicate liability). My stance is not some petty matter of disapproving “of how [my] former teacher lived his life”, as John Stillwell accuses me in his rebuttal. Roach’s life is not a private bubble: he has influenced too many other lives to be shielded from scrutiny.
There was also considerable debate over the genre of the piece I published. Although I tried to be clear that I was reporting from the widely available documents and adding my personal opinions based upon my tenure with the group, many critics, including Stillwell, complained about my lack of objectivity or journalistic neutrality. I claimed neither. I was well aware of my emotional investment in the story throughout its writing. Thankfully, because we can use all of the perspectives available, more inquiry is on its way that will express varying degress of objectivity: I’ve been informed that there will soon be major newspaper coverage of the story.
My Relationship to John Stillwell, and His Rebuttal
I knew John middling-well from 1998 to 2000. He was the closest personal student to Roach with whom I was conversational. He has been an administrative leader for Roach’s teaching work from the mid-90s, although I don’t know how much work he does for Roach now. Back in the day, Roach constantly referred to John as his “right arm.” As I watched Roach unravel before my eyes, I remember asking John frankly over curries in the Lower East Side in 1999 whether he was concerned that his teacher was actually taking a harem of female student/lovers (including McNally) into his upcoming 3-year retreat. John refused to answer directly, but rather turned the question into a quasi-Buddhist teaching on subjectivity. It’s too long ago for me to attribute an exact quote, but I remember him saying something like: We have no idea what’s true. He may well be having sex with all of them. You have to make up your mind as to how best to see it. How you see it says more about you than about him. And so on. It was a deft display of metaphysical damage-control. But I don’ t think he realized that he was confirming my suspicions, patronizing my intelligence, and modeling a shrewdly rationalized secrecy, all at the same time. We split the bill, and never spoke of it again.
True to form, John’s rebuttal focuses more on my ungenerous perceptions of the group dynamics than on any of the action items I suggest, namely: the 15 requests to the Board. Most disappointingly, he actually misquotes me in his catalogue of my errors, which I’ve pointed out in the first comment you’ll see in the thread. I reached out to Waylon Lewis, EJ publisher, to ask him to correct the misquotes. Waylon didn’t get around to it soon enough for my liking, so I contacted John directly by email to ask him to revise. He gave leave for Waylon to revise, and then demanded by email that I change some of the language of my opening paragraph, which he felt made the Board look uncaring in general. I took his complaints to heart, and wrote back with a revised paragraph that addressed some of his concerns. My hope was that a behind-the-scenes dialogue would begin to enrich the discourse towards a more mutually acceptable narrative of events, so that the stark questions that shimmer beyond opinions (How could McNally have ascended to Retreat Leader status? etc.) might be addressed. But John refused to communicate about it. It feels like once again we’re splitting the bill, rising from the table, and surely on the verge of never speaking again.
John’s central complaint seems to be with my harshness with the Board. Many Board members are perhaps his friends, and I’m sure he has first-hand knowledge of their industry and care. My allegations of Board incompetence and negligence do not accord with what he feels, because they imply lack of concern. This is really sticky, because I have no doubt that the Board loved Thorson and McNally and deeply cared for their well-being. But as anyone who has been a member of a family knows, love and care do not always add up to clarity in action, especially when the love and care is obfuscated by power, shame, and emotional indebtedness.
The question of intentionality is the murkiest of all. Did John intend to railroad my probing curry-questions back in 1999, or did he intend to help me develop my own critical faculties? Probably a little of both. Does Roach intend to help people improve their lives, or does he intend to build a self-isolating kingdom of solipsistic bliss? Probably a little of both. Did he intend to help me overcome my clinical depression those many years ago, or to enlist me in his own grandiose dream? Probably a little of both. Does the Board want to justify its authority and competence, or reach for outside help? Probably a little of both.
As a student of literary theory, I’ve understood for a long time that we cannot definitively assess the intentionality of any author of a work. Likewise, I would never definitively attribute intentionality to Roach’s megalomania: the intentions of someone who really believes their own grandiosity are impossible to parse. If any group is going to hold and and help and heal the Diamond Mountain story, or any other story like it, it won’t be through amputating a bad-intentioned limb or extracting a tumour. It will come through an analysis (Greek for “unknotting”) of the vast web of relationships that weave it together: relationships in which intentions change and influence each other, and suffer from gaping blind spots. As much as Roach and his followers would probably like to think it’s all about him, it’s not. It’s about how our traumas, despairs, and wishes all coalesce into a psycho-social Ponzi scheme of tragic distraction.
But if really pressed, I would venture Roach’s intentionality to be more clean than dirty, if “clean” also implies “naïve”. Because while he does show many performative and Machiavellian talents (I’ll list a few select details below), he definitely lacks the shrewdness of a real crook. His Open Letter is certainly well-intentioned. But as the public relations disaster it has become clearly shows, it contains zero realpolitik. He could well have maintained complete silence on the matter, a move that would have likely strengthened his core support from those who crave a show of power more than transparency. If he had, I and tens of thousands of others wouldn’t have heard of Thorson’s death for months, if ever. His letter intended to clarify events for his students, but it plainly exposed his insular worldview to those who do not adulate him. I imagine that if he has retained lawyers since publishing the letter they are certainly wishing he had kept mum. You don’t admit to knowing of Ian’s psychiatric vulnerabilities for years before describing how you evicted him from a desert retreat without professional medical help, unless you truly believe you were doing the right thing. Naive self-disclosure is not a tendency of the malicious.
Addressing the Criticisms of My Post:
Finding the Facts amongst the Trees and Forest
My piece was a mixture of reporting on openly available sources (to which I linked for all to compare), and my interpretation of those sources, based upon my knowledge of the group. It’s important to remember that all sources so far are uncorroborated (including my own memories!), and that Roach’s Open Letter is a group effort made by a corporation under public and possibly legal pressure. I was aware from the outset that given these sources my reporting could not capture the absolute factual truth of the situation, and so I invited refinement via crowdsourcing. I appended corrections within 24 hours.
Most corrections were minor. I got a few dates wrong, and I misrepresented the housing situation for retreatants at Diamond Mountain. The retreatants are actually all living in houses built to county code. I confess here to being in thrall to my memory of Roach describing with great pride the camping austerities of the early days.
The main correction of substance involved including Roach’s statement that he and the Board alerted the police to the contents of McNally’s talk on 2/4/12. Roach doesn’t describe this in detail in his open letter, which led me to presume that the disclosure was not clear enough to provoke further law enforcement interest. In any case, this omission created the impression that the Board did less than they did, and this was a mistake. My contention had been that the strongest disclosure would have evolved from professional, on-site investigation at that point.
However, this recent story in the Phoenix New Times suggests that that may have actually happened. It reports that Board member Robert Ruisinger disclosed the talk to the Sheriff’s department on 2/13/12 — nine days after McNally’s talk. The article goes on to describe that deputies actually did come to Diamond Mountain property, and even questioned the retreatant-doctor who had sutured Ian’s stab wounds. This is not explicit in Roach’s simplified version:
The Board of course felt a moral and legal obligation to report the contents of the talk to the local county police department, who made a record of the report but decided not to follow up further.
Nor does it seem to accord with Roach’s later assertion that “At no time did police enter the campus property or the retreat valley”, although this assertion might only refer to the sequence of events surrounding the couple’s eviction, and might have been made for the benefit of sponsors wanting reassurance that the retreat boundaries had not been violated.
In any case, between the Open Letter, various news reports, and McNally’s letter (which wildly contradicts everything else), the nature of the trees remains unclear, and will remain so until there is a full investigative report with complete corroboration, which might take many months. The forest, however, is filled with many shadows.
Culture, or Cult?
By far the most heated complaint of my critics was my usage of the word “cult” to describe the group devoted to Roach and McNally. Many felt that it tainted the discourse unfairly from the outset. Commenter Jacob Kyle very astutely relates:
From a young age, I can recall many instances when some community was referred to as a “cult”. I remember there being a community somewhere in the woods near where I grew up in the Northwest, a group of houses surrounded by a tall green wall. I drove by it one day with my family and my mother or some adult pointed out that this was a cult. I had been sufficiently indoctrinated to know that “cult” meant “bad”, meant “insane” and probably had something to do with demons and suicide. My point is that Matthew falls into the habit of so many political ideologues by appealing to a term of generalization so loaded with emotion that its use cannot be analytical, but rhetorical. It is a rhetorical device that does more to foster fear and divisiveness than it does the kind of novel understanding required to be true to the specific contextual conditions of a unique community. It tosses Roach’s community into the irrational bin of “mad cultists”, thereby subverting a more sophisticated understanding of the reasoning behind certain practices.
In a personal e-mail I received from an acquaintance and fellow EJ writer, I was advised:
I do not find it useful to use loaded terms like “cult” in reference to such incidents. It stifles open communication and puts the other side on the defensive. Groups and individuals are complex and it is best to allow the “real story” to reflect that complexity.
I’m really grateful for this feedback. I’m aware of the consequences of the word-usage and the potential for over-simplification. But the reasoning of Kyle and others does not resolve the question for me, which is not a matter of definition so much as one of aesthetics, or, as Kyle would say: rhetoric. “Cult” is jarring and confrontational, and I think it has a balancing potential for the “it’s-all-good” tone of Diamond Mountain defenders. In a way, I use words in the same way I use herbs or food or daily routine changes with my Ayurveda clients: to directly and sensually address a given imbalance. Roach has been presenting his airbrushed and saccharine view of his organization with impunity from his soapbox for years, and has now issued a corporate apologia for Thorson’s death from within the logic of his circular metaphysics. I believe a completely different labeling of the situation can push all of us closer to clarity. My stridency might have therapeutic, if not definitional, value.
What I know for sure is that my own story of self-extraction from cultic environments and fascinations was speedily advanced on the day an outside friend who’d known me for years looked me in the eye and said: “You are in a cult. You know that, don’t you?” I protested, of course. But my friend didn’t back down. He repeated the word several times, spitting out the c and the t, and gripping his tongue around the l. The word broke through a particularly stubborn and neurotic defense, and made me look carefully at my dependency and fear of leaving.
For some scholars of religion and sociology, “cult” has a specific definitional threshold, but the jury is far from settled. Sociologists who argue for value-neutrality and advocate the analysis of groups according to their own terms wish we’d all replace the term with “New Religious Movement”. But others feel they can’t, because “New Religious Movement” is vanishingly vague when we started using it to designate both Heaven’s Gate and Anusara Yoga.
One of the more commonly quoted definitions of “cult” was articulated at an ICSA/UCLA Wingspread Conference on Cultism in 1985:
Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group’s leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community. (West & Langone, 1986, pp. 119-120)
How does this all apply to Diamond Mountain? Let’s take a look:
- Great/excessive devotion to a person or idea? Obviously.
- Manipulative techniques? Cf: Roach’s constant exaggerations and PR. And, for a future article: his gaze and bullying speech patterns.
- Isolation from former friends and family? Not overt, although obsessive meditation retreats in the Arizona desert might certainly isolate members from non-members. Then there are the countless awkward conversations over Christmas dinner between believers and non-believers.
- Debilitation? Not that I’m aware of, but I would be interested to know how many of Roach’s core students are B12 deficient after 15+ years of dietary restriction, and how many, regardless of constitution, might have been encouraged to regularly fast.
- Special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience? How about the virtual absence of open-ended inquiry meditation from Roach’s curriculum? As JOsh reports in the comments:
…from talking to students, the practice of the higher teachings involved literally hours of ‘canned’ reflections that came from his [Roach’s] textbooks. meditation as i have learned and practiced in other settings was entirely absent… the teachings were extended ‘reflections’ that involved tracing a line of argument or doctrine in detail. this isn’t without precedent in buddhism or necessarily a problem, but does give him a tremendous amount of power over his students’ inner lives.
- Powerful group pressures? I certainly felt from 1998 to 2000 a powerful and anxiety-ridden pressure to attend all of Roach’s teaching events, wherever they were in the world and regardless of how much they cost to attend, lest I should “miss” something. Roach had a very business-savvy way of leaving almost every topic “unfinished”, to up the ante for future attendance. A manufactured scarcity of knowledge is central to the charismatic economy. The leader’s power rises in conjunction with his inaccessibility, which I believe is one of the hidden purposes and effects of globe-trotting guru-ism.
- Information management? Insofar as DMU philosophy is self-isolating from other branches of Buddhism, I would say: yes. JOsh comments: “DM’s tibetan language and buddhist philosophy are so idiosyncratic as to be unintelligible to outsiders.”
- Suspension of individuality or critical judgment? Someday I’ll present a video-diorama of Roach-trained teachers, who down to the last one eerily mimic his jolly-bullying presentation style and even his speech patterns, while presenting what they have learned from him verbatim with zero critical overview.
- Promotion of total dependency? Obviously, radical forms of guru yoga are both taught and felt.
There are other measures of cultishness. According to the “Group Psychological Abuse Scale”, the current metric sociologists are using to assess cultic dynamics, we are instructed to look for, among other things:
- Members postponing personal, vocational, and educational goals in order to work for the group.
- Members being discouraged from displaying negative emotions.
- Members who feel like they are part of a special elite.
- Members who learn special exercises (e.g., meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues) to push doubts or negative thoughts out of consciousness.
- Raising money being the major goal of the group.
- Members who are incapable of independent critical thinking.
- Members who believe their leader is divine.
- Members who proselytize.
Every single one of these descriptions is arguably applicable to the devotees of Roach.
Still, the word is sticky, and I’m sure the argument will continue. I’ll leave the last word here to Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq., and Michael D. Langone, Ph.D. and their essay On Using the Term “Cult”:
Even though the term “cult” has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term’s limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitive manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously.
Was My Post Malicious?
I have a clear personal grievance against Roach, for which I feel no need to apologize, and for which I take responsibility. I met him when I was profoundly depressed and wayward, and I surrendered to his charisma and messianic exuberance. In my desperation and loneliness I bought his Pollyanna philosophy with my last intellectual penny, along with his continual assertions that every other therapeutic tool available to us through the hard work of our general culture was bankrupt. “Psychotherapy can’t help you, but Buddhism can”, he would say. And I nodded and wept, not understanding that my pain was interpersonal, not metaphysical. I needed to find authenticity, relationship and intersubjectivity. Roach, through a toxic combination of zeal and narcissism, threw me and many others off the hard trail towards integration. I spun my wheels in his dharma-mud, digging myself deeper, disrupting my home and family life, wasting years I’ll never get back. And not one person in his sangha ever looked me in the eye during all those years and asked: How are you feeling about all of this? Because being part of the group wasn’t about relationship. Being there was about Roach and his fantastical ideas, and, I suppose, eventually gaining enough moxy to mimic his grandiosity.
As many of my critics point out, I am definitely angry. Then they go on to patronizingly suggest that I haven’t done my healing work, or that anger is a sign of immaturity, something to be ashamed of, something unethical. I think they’re angry that I’m angry. But perhaps beneath the indignation they are unconsciously threatened by my freedom to be angry, my freedom to think and express exactly what they may be so painfully repressing.
I am angry about my lost years and Roach’s megalomania. But most of all I am angry at how what duped a younger and more vulnerable me so long ago has now spun itself into a corporate web of solipsism and power and self-justification, resulting in the appointment of an unqualified student/ex-lover as Retreat Director, and the untreated madness of her husband. I hope that being transparent about my anger models for Roach’s students who now teeter on the fence the fact that anger is usually necessary to bring about the rupture of any dysfunctional relationship.
I write with wrath, but not malice. It is my fervent hope that through this discourse Roach’s devotees may be exposed to the various tools of integration: skepticism, shadow work, the recognition of magical thinking. And most of all, I hope they heal their failure to develop ambivalence. As Melanie Klein showed: if we cannot see or accept the simultaneous light and dark within ourselves and others, we will divide our world into perfect Roaches who hold the keys to our salvation, and satanic Remskis out to destroy the good and the true. Neither really exist.
Dirty Jewels on the Comment Thread
In the more than 600 comments on the original post so far, several issues of note have arisen – some old, some new – that I think warrant further attention. Of course, online sources can’t easily be verified, but I’d like to give these commenters the benefit of the doubt, and collate their input here, along with the further questions that emerge.
Neighbouring rancher Jerry Kelly writes that one of the Emergency Rescue Team workers who found Thorson’s body said that he weighed less than 100 pounds. The Cochise County deputy I spoke to also said that malnourishment was probably a factor in his death. We hear from commenter Warren Clarke (and can presume from the letter of Venerables Chandra and Akasha) that Ven. Chandra was likely a key food supplier for Thorson and McNally as they were hiding in the cave. If he was their source, why was Ven. Chandra unable to procure enough food for the couple? Was there no-one to help him? Was he so bound by secrecy to the couple that he could not ask for help, even as he might have become aware that they were ailing? Was this the assistant assigned to the couple by the Board? Was the assignment of a devotee really the best choice in a situation fraught with dangerous devotion and secrecy? Was he so blinded by devotional perspective and emptiness theory that he may have interpreted the couple’s sickness and malnutrition as the continuation of a retreat with “great success and joy”, as he described it in his joint letter?
A Bomb from Sid Johnson, former Diamond Mountain Board of Directors Member:
I’ll just quote directly from commenter Sid Johnson:
I was involved with this group from 1999 to 2005, and sat on the original board of directors at the beginning of the first 3-year retreat. I could write a book (and maybe someday I will) about the dysfunction and general madness that permeated every aspect of this bizarre organization. It is embarrassing now to admit that I willfully participated, and I sense it is this same embarrassment that keeps other former members from coming forward. At some point I will disclose more, like the details of the “initiation” I witnessed, including the infamous incident in which Mr. Roach stabbed himself in the hand in front of a room full of students, setting the precedent for magical interpretations of violence. I share Matthew’s concern that others may be in danger…
Roach, stabbing himself in public?
Roach Apparently Broke DMU’s Weapon’s Prohibition Himself
Several respondents confirmed Johnson’s report of the self-stabbing, including one to me directly by personal e-mail.
In the comment thread, Greg reports:
I was there, but my memory is vague now. Christie and Roach were lecturing together at DM, and Christie said something about devotion to partners (Lamas?). Then, in a half joking sort of way, she said something about how she wouldn’t be surprised if Roach might hurt himself if she asked him to. Roach immediately picked up the knife with one hand and, despite faint protests from Christie, seemed to stab his other hand, which was placed flat on the ground (they were both seated on the floor). It was hard to see. Christie appeared distressed, and his hand was quickly wrapped in a kata, which then showed drops of blood. The lecture continued. I remember wondering at the time if it was a planned stunt.
I also thought of this and believe it is a solid reference point for this situation, especially considering Roach’s condemnation of possessing or using a weapon at DM in his public letter.
Scrutiny of Roach’s Metaphysics: Gelukpa or New-Age?
Many respondents to my piece focused on the philosophical teachings of Roach, fuelling the long-running controversy around whether or not what he presents can be held as coherent with Gelukpa orthodoxy. But at many points the discourse also explored whether his radical (I use the word “solipsistic”) interpretation of emptiness theory might play a role in the ungrounded self-referentiality that allows dangerous situations to be interpreted as spiritual opportunities, like Thorson’s violent outbursts as signs of “sensitivity” or McNally’s near-mortal swashbuckling as “divine play”.
Of particular dispute is Roach’s oft-claimed mantra of “everything comes from karma”, his simplified (or simplistic) interpretation of Madhyamika Prasangika theory, which he has claimed for 25 years is the “highest” view of Buddhist philosophy – meaning that the flaws of other views disqualify them as paths to authenticity and full evolution. Frank Jude Boccio, an ordained Zen priest, points out in the comment thread that not only is this rhetoric divisive “sectarian bullshit”, but that the Buddha also seems to have taught against such a narrow view. Referencing the Pali Canon, Boccio describes the five causal orders that comprise experiential reality: the inorganic, the organic, the karmic, the natural, and the psychic. Boccio is a good resource for the discussion of worldview at Diamond Mountain because he has experience of the sangha there as a visiting teacher, and can describe how its knowledge base has significant blinders. He writes:
When I first moved to Tucson, I was amazed at how when I started teaching, it seemed everyone I’d meet with any interest or curiosity in buddhism thought Michael Roach and his group WERE buddhism. As my wife once said, “It seems he has a monopoly on the dharma here in Tucson.” I sat in on a course given on The Diamond Sutra and was quite surprised to find that we’d not be reading the Sutra at all: the text was nothing but “commentary” from Roach! The others were equally surprised when I shared that in my zen training, reading/reciting the Diamond Sutra for myself everyday for almost a year PRECEDED any lectures from my teacher! As I told them, I was encouraged to think for myself and question what I studied.
Sometime last year, I was invited to give monthly talks at Three Jewels, because some of the students, aware that all they knew of buddhism was what they have learned from Roach, and curious to hear of other perspectives thought my non-sectarian style would provide some balance. These talks draw very few people, however. But those who do attend often express surprise at the divergence from what they have been taught. One profound point, I think relevant here, is the notion that EVERYTHING that happens is a result of “karma.” When I shared that the Buddha seems to have taught AGAINST this view, and offered five different forms of causality, only one of which is “karma” (based upon volition) I could see some major cognitive dissonance arising!
Another Diamond Mountain epithet (“Roachism”, as they are coming to be called) that deeply rankles more nuanced interpreters of Buddhist philosophy is first stated in the comment thread by Eric Brinkman, who says that he has been Roach’s student for twelve years and flies around the world to film Roach’s events. He writes: “What we teach is that if you are kind to others you can reach your wildest dreams.” I remember this claim from fourteen years ago, when Roach gave entire courses on the power of virtuous actions in “Creating Your Own Buddha Paradise”, which you could furnish with dancing girls and Crazy Horse jamming in your living room, if that was your thing. In further comments, Brinkman’s critics were clearly disgusted at the jingoism. (Integralhack suggested it sounds like “Buddhism meets The Secret”.) I personally think it’s a profoundly despairing position in the Kierkegaardian sense: a magical-thinking trauma-response lacking existential depth, which punishes good and decent people for “perceiving” the inevitable sorrow life brings.
Scrutiny of Roach’s Vows: Should He Have Disrobed When He and McNally Became Lovers? And What About Us Regular People Who Like Buddhism but Still Enjoy Sex and Want to Have Authentic Relationships?
After Roach and McNally came out of the yurt in 2003 and declared their partnership, their supporters (cued by their public statements) began to claim that spiritual partnership is common within Gelukpa tantric practice, and acceptable for qualified monks, although it normally remains hidden. Some supporters still claim that the Dalai Lama has spoken publicly about his own spiritual consorts, but none provide references to this point. Roach’s liberal interpretation of celibacy has been roundly criticized by the more orthodox, who reference Roach’s censure by the Public Office of the Dalai Lama in 2006 over this precise issue.
What Roach’s followers do with this dispute is a classic study in the resolution of cognitive dissonance: if a pillar of your leader’s credibility (his claimed celibacy) is found to be shaky, it is easier to re-invent the entire culture to accord with his behaviour than to admit that he is an opportunist or a liar. Because if he is a liar, your emotional and financial investments in him are a sunk-cost, and this is intolerable. Thus: Roach must have taken a consort because the Dalai Lama does, although the Dalai Lama of course would keep his own behaviour under wraps. I’ve even heard Roach’s students imply that the Dalai Lama may publicly disapprove of Roach’s consort practice because he is bound by tradition, but that secretly (always secretly!) he has given Roach his assent, and secretly (always secretly!) hopes that Roach’s liberality begins to change the stuffy and misogynistic Gelukpa culture from within. The investment of devotion can compel people to rationalize anything.
But honestly: the sexual intrigue aspect is ridiculous to me, and terribly sad. I for one would have hoped that Roach and McNally had had wildly fulfilling shrieking-out-loud yurt-bouncing sex, but I’m afraid that their own views, along with the spiritual culture they were appropriating, were too sex-conflicted for them to have any real orgiastic release. Whether he should have disrobed is a doctrinal issue of little importance to me as a non-believer, until I see that his refusal to disrobe begins to fit the general pattern of Roach always seeming to want it both ways. Monk but not a monk. Businessman and renunciate. Toe-the-line conservative and crazy wisdom provocateur. Good boy and bad boy. Even this is forgivable to me as one who appreciates a good public chameleon, except that with Roach, one persona is always lying to the other, probably so that the cash can continue to pour in. The most famous example of this outright lying is in Roach’s account, during the Retreat Teachings of 2000 (To the Inner Kingdom, October 2000), of his yurt-bound “aloneness”:
…We were alone, each person. The nights are very dark, and there are many, many strange sounds…
…Every kind of creepy, crawly, desert thing has crawled in people’s yards and yurts, and sometimes very frightening things, but I think, the hardest think is the loneliness, to be alone for month after month.
We see each other for the holidays, like Sojong, confession ceremony, twice a month. When we’re in deep retreat we don’t see each other at all, so for a month or maybe two months. Each person has been very strong, become strong, and they showed a lot of courage, and respected the retreat boundaries. They’ve worked very, very hard. They worked for, some of them years, to learn the meditations and visualizations that they have to do. We don’t allow ourselves any other kind of stimulation, there’s only meditation and some study of what to meditate about, and each person has done it very, very well.
Outsiders should understand that if in 2000 Roach were to have revealed that his solitude actually included a shared bed with McNally, his ambitious fundraising for various projects would have ground to a halt amidst general confusion and dismay. I don’t mind a guy who likes to play both sides of his identity when the purpose is aesthetic. But when the play is political-economic and seeks to colonize people’s enthusiasm and cash with a narcissistic philosophy that provides cold consolation for their despair, I get angry.
And what happens to a community comprised mostly of householders whose primary teachers are engaged in what they describe as non-sexual intimacy, the nature of which is shrouded in a radiant hush? Roach and McNally are intimate, but they don’t have sex. They are too elevated to be “sexual”. They have renounced desire so much that they can stoop to engage in the “dirtiness” of esoteric intercourse, but only to inflate their meditative grandiosity, so that they can end war in the Middle East and stop global warming. What I witnessed back in my day was a lot of couples devoting themselves to Roach, idealizing the celebrity relationship to the diminishment of their own, being confronted by this model of sexless sex, and becoming very confused in the bedroom. Should we or shouldn’t we? Is kissing and cuddling a faster way to enlightenment than woman-on-top? If I’m aroused, can I still be focused on the Tibetan alphabet?
After my tenure with the group, Roach and McNally began traveling the world teaching the spiritual practices they claimed would transform every relationship into a “spiritual partnership”. Forget the Gestalt prayer or intersubjectivity, or even simple presence: spouses now had to be angels to each other, heroes, gods – and the bedroom became a mandala-spaceship of super-sexy no-touchy transcendence.
To give an idea of how knotted up this all was and went on to be, I’ll quote from an old interview given by Roach and McNally back in 2003. Roach confesses:
…it’s completely wrong for an ordained person to have any form of sexual activity. It’s completely forbidden. It’s the first of all monks’ vows. And a monk can never engage in sexual activity at all. And I never have. I mean, I’ve masturbated, and things that are wrong, and I’ve gone to my lama and confessed them, and I think any ordained person who is honest will say it’s a struggle, and then over years of practice you become self- celibate. And if you’re honest, I heard that many great lamas have said that the only disciples they believe are the ones who come and confess things to them. Like, “I looked at a woman.” I never broke any of those vows in a major way. I never had any kind of sexual contact with a woman since I was 21 or 22. And then in very extraordinary rare cases, it’s important, it’s useful, to do special kind of physical yoga with a divine being. And in the vinaya texts, I think even in the Tsotik, which is the basic huge vinaya text for the monasteries, you don’t break your vows if you engage in high yoga with a divine being. It isn’t anything normal at all.
That’s the first part of the answer. The second part of the answer is in the actual practice of higher physical forms of tantric yoga, these are extremely difficult, physically, extremely – they are unpleasant, quite unpleasant for the physical body, and quite … [Christie: exhausting] difficult for the physical body. They are like doing yoga for four hours a day or five hours a day, and it’s not fun. And it’s not a joke, and it’s a life-or-death attempt to become a being who can serve all living creatures before you die, and I don’t perceive it in any other way. And it’s no fun. And people who truly want to learn those practices, unless they are extremely disciplined and dedicated, they would quit within a week.
So kiddies: be together, but don’t have sex. Or: have something like sex, but certainly don’t enjoy it. Because if you do enjoy it, you know it’s not working towards its ultimate purpose of saving the whole wide world. This sex-not-sex business is not fun. Okay? It’s really hard. It’s not fun! Most of you are wimps who would totally give up on this great holy sex-not-sex path on like the first night. Okay? So don’t get any sexy ideas. It’s not fun! Got it?
I can’t think of a more destructive message to share with people who genuinely struggle in their relationships to come towards deeper authenticity and embodied intimacy. It presents an impossible ideal based upon a metaphysics that takes the most common and tender of human interactions as a sign of debauchery. As if we all didn’t already have enough self-doubt and bodily self-hatred to deal with already.
Interestingly, statement #1 on the “Group Psychological Abuse Scale” (the current working metric sociologists are using to assess cultic dynamics) is “The group does not tell members how to conduct their sex lives.” Respondents are requested to gauge whether this statement matches their group experience on a scale of 1 (not at all characteristic of the group) to 5 (very characteristic of the group).
The sexuality-contortionism is one thing. But as a therapist, I see a deeper relational issue here at work: that of endless romantic projection and magical thinking displacing the will towards presence and communication within the love relationship. In Roach’s economy, the dyad does not relate to each other to mutually embody empathy and growth. Rather: each partner uses the other to improve their karmic bank balance.
Ben reports from the comment thread:
Another aspect of the teachings at DM is that if you see something undesirable in your partner, instead of dealing with it with them through discussion or counseling, you plant the karmic seeds to see a perfect partner and they will change. I’ve pointed out that this totally negates the thoughts, motivations and will of the other person and have been told that, no, the other person still has thoughts, motivations and will but they are all coming from you.
What is tragic about this self-focused approach is that counseling and conscious communication can be such a profound path to walk in our discovery of the other.
There are aspects of Roach’s relationship teaching that seem borderline autistic, insofar as autism-spectrum challenges often involve a failure to develop a “theory of other minds”. Roach and McNally missed the entire gift of relationship, it would seem. Instead of experiencing relationship as a way of truly encountering the insoluble mystery of the other and negotiating difference, they seem to have used it to mirror for each other the iteration of fantastical and desperate wishes.
I’m not surprised they didn’t last together. They were legally divorced December 1st, 2010 in Yavapai County, Arizona. Their legal marriage, of course, had also been a secret. Which is why, perhaps, no eyebrows were raised at McNally’s very public wedding to Thorson in Montauk, New York, on October 4th of that same year. (Two months before the divorce.)
Scrutiny of Roach’s Spiritual Claims
It is an insult to ones fellow humans to claim revelatory knowledge. No matter how it is dressed up, it is the ultimate nyah-nyah. It is particularly insulting within Roach’s appropriated Tibetan tradition. And yet he has done exactly this, continually by implication since at least the mid-90s, and then directly via public announcement in 2003. In recent years he is said to have upped the ante amongst his close personal students by claiming that his revelations have brought him to a state of “No-More-Learning”, an achievement in tantric metaphysics akin to saying: “I am on the verge of full enlightenment.” For those of you out of the loop, Tibetan Buddhist tantric enlightenment is not some chilled-out state of mind. It is divinity itself: omniscience, omnilocality, and immortality. Plus: not needing to eat or defecate, being able to fly anywhere in the universe instantly, and having bones made of diamonds.
Roach has built his brand on the fumes of a mystical experience he had in his early twenties. When I started with him, he would tell his story in the subjunctive mood at almost every gathering. Everyone knew the story wasn’t hypothetical: it was a thinly-veiled autobiographical tale, which the tradition couldn’t allow him to declare openly. He spoke of his meditative epiphany in the second person: “you’ve studied with your lama for many years, and you’re meditating for hours every day, and suddenly you become aware of how you are constructing and naming your world…”. The second person address preserved a veneer of anonymity, but also functioned to possess many of us with the captivating suggestion: this could happen to me.
His spiritual claims were a very sharp hook for his early-adopters. I myself longed for something similar, and was shaken to the core by Roach’s tears when he spoke of his memory so wistfully. It took me years to realize that I and almost everyone around me has had consistently similar epoches while entranced by art or nature or a lover. The difference is that it never occurred to me to mythologize and commodify my most private ecstasies.
But his coming-out with McNally in 2003 was a challenge to the Tibetan cultural orthodoxy that necessitated the dropping of his 90’s subterfuge and required a full-monty declaration of his spiritual powers. In his January 16th 2003 “Letter to My Lamas” he versifies:
I was born in America,
And from the age of sixteen
Up to the present day
Have always been under the care
Of the Diamond Angel, Vajra Yogini.
At the age of twenty,
I travelled to India,
Land of the Aryas, realized beings,
And first met the sages of Tibet.
And then at the age of 22,
Despite the fact that I myself
Had no good qualities at all,
A seed inside of me
Suddenly awakened, a seed
Which was planted by the many efforts
Of the me of my past lives,
And by the infinite blessings
Of my Lama.
And so I saw ultimate reality directly,
And I achieved bodhichitta,
The Wish for Enlightenment:
I entered the gate
To the first level
Of the bodhisattvas.
Well, the Buddhist world had conniptions over this one. And they’re still upset, if the comment-thread to my post provides a good sample. Not only because it is illegal to announce such realizations (because they are unprovable and therefore pedagogically useless, not to mention culturally embarassing), but because he goes on to directly utilize this claim to justify his heterodox behaviour:
I completed, as well as I could,
Many retreats in the tradition
Of the Diamond Queen;
And now for three years
In isolation, in the desert
Here in America,
In a small Mongolian yurt,
With a Lady, who is an emanation
Of the Angel of Diamond, a Messenger;
And I’ve undertaken the hardships needed
To try to complete the two stages
Of the secret teachings.
The takeaway here is that Roach claims continuous mystical insight that puts him on the verge of omniscience and allows him to publicly crown McNally not as his lover but as an actual deity. What is the cost of believing all of this? For many, it costs years of devotional service and millions of dollars in tax-deductible donations. For McNally, it initiates a spiral of seeming self-delusion. (Imagine your powerful lover, 20 years your senior, declaring you to be a goddess!) For some, it entails eventually following McNally into retreat. For Thorson, it entailed following even further, to the very end of his life-blood.
Scrutiny of Roach’s Geshe Degree and Relationship to Sera Mey Monastery
Roach has continually stated orally and in published bio notes since I met him in 1998 that his Geshe degree was granted at the culmination of 20 years of study at Sera Mey Monastery, which is currently located, in exile, in Bylakuppe, Karnataka province, South India. The details of these 20 years are interrogated by the writers of a now-defunct site (but handily web-archived) that was critical of Roach. When pressed for more detail, Roach refines the narrative to say that much of this education occurred in the New Jersey home of his root-teacher, Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin. Roach himself provides an extensive narrative of his education in this interview, in which he describes successfully fulfilling the six rigorous examination requirements, including publicly debating philosophy before the full assembly of doctoral candidates. But some dispute the authenticity of his account, and the degree itself. In the comment thread to my article, Tenpel writes:
BTW, a real Geshe from Sera, who studied with Roach in Sera, and who is teaching in Monastery Nalanda / France said, that Roach studied all together not more than 4 years at Sera monastery. His title was given as an honorific title for his financial sponsorship.
I am a fully ordained Buddhist monk and was in Nalanda monastery, France, in Dec. 2006. During the Vinaya teachings the question about Roach came up and Geshe Jamphal replied that he knows him from Sera, that they shared classes but that Roach were [sic] often absent and that he all in all might have studied only for four years there.
I asked (either him or another Geshe) why he has a Geshe title, and the reply was, that also cooks who didn’t study can receive a Geshe title as an honour to their work. Roach is known of having financed Sera very much…
If one understands the rigorous studies and the study content in the Gelug monasteries to attain a Geshe title for such a person it is clear that this cannot be accomplished under a single teacher in New Jersey.
I remember studying Gelukpa epistemology at Sera Mey for a month in the fall of 1999 with the scholar Geshe Thubten Rinchen, while Roach simultaneously translated. The monastery was like any bustling Indian city. I remember rising at 4am and walking amongst the barrack-like houses of chanting young men, and coming across the cookhouse where a score of burly monks would be stirring a great vat of bubbling dal with 10-foot-long wooden paddles. There were a thousand feral dogs, and courier-monks speeding by on farting auto-rickshaws, their robes flying. I remember the ragged and unwashed boys, the butter statues, the prayer wheels, the temples, and the clouds of dust rolling on the hot wind. I got deliriously sick there after dropping my room key into an open sewage toilet and having to fish it out with my bare hands – a Jungian moment if there ever was one. I remember vividly feeling that there were countless things I would never understand about this culture, its politics, its language, and its sentiments. It was one of those times in which the impenetrability of otherness provided a perfect mirror for the mystery of my own personhood. In the dust of Karnataka, I felt the exhaustion of my own journey.
Indeed, the inner workings of Sera Mey monastery are exceedingly complex. Financial sponsorship is necessary and pursued from multiple sources, especially as the monastery attempts to provide for its exile community a basic level of literacy and nutrition. The organizational structure is decentralized and nodal, with numerous administrators responsible for securing funding sources from familial and governmental patrons, as well as sympathetic benefactors from abroad. The economy seems to be a patchwork of bursting-at-the-seams and just-getting-by. Roach’s philanthropy did not likely involve handing poster-board-sized checks over to the monastery CEO in public ceremonies, or endowing a publicly-accountable trust or foundation. What is much more likely is that pockets of funding made their way to individual administrators, who through time became Roach supporters and validators.
In January of 2003, when Roach made his public declaration of mystical achievement, he sent his claims directly to his Sera Mey contacts, asking them for spiritual endorsements, which would, of course, attract more funding:
- Gyalrong Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Ngawang Thekchok
- Kongpo Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Jampa Donyo
- Gyume Khensur Rinpoche Geshe Trinley Tobgye
- Sermey Geshe Thupten Rinchen
- Sermey Geshe Lobsang Thardo
- Sermey Geshe Thupten Tenzin
All of these teachers and administrators, except for Sermey Geshe Lobsang Thardo, allegedly wrote back to Roach within a month with their endorsements. (I say “allegedly” because it should be noted that the originals of these letters have never been posted, and that Roach himself has translated them from Tibetan.) Roach also wrote to his root-teacher Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin in New Jersey, and to the Dalai Lama. He received no publicized response from either. He also sent his claims to Lama Zopa Rinpoche, the head of FPMT, from which Roach has been banned. Lama Zopa coyly rebuked Roach’s mystical claims with the ironic suggestion that Roach should prove his magic powers with some old-timey miracles, like showing his ability to urinate in reverse, for example. I’ve heard no reports of Roach reverse-urinating, although he does claim other miracles, like the mystical bilocation of a rosary in this interview.
A woman named Karen Visser wrote to me by e-mail last week. Though not an official spokesperson for Sera Mey, she says she is familiar with the monastery through her long-term relationships with two former abbots. In dialogue with her I’ve come to suspect that these florid endorsements (if they are authentic) did not likely emerge from Sera Mey officially, but from individual administrators acting from within the context of their own complex relationships with Roach, and may be obfuscated by layers of etiquette, cross-cultural misunderstanding, and acute financial need.
Visser tells a rich story of recent Tibetan history, hope, and hardship:
Much of what is happening now is simply a result of this unique moment in history. Having English speaking teachers of Tibetan Buddhism and having texts translated into English is a very new thing. Remember, we’re only 53 years into post 1959 Tibetan history. Compared to any other religion in the West that’s no time at all.
I have close ties to Sera Mey monastery and I’d like you to know that there was a lot of hope and good intentions at the beginning. Michael Roach is a renegade now and the despair of his teachers at Sera Mey. They parted ways a long time ago but it didn’t start out that way.
It’s important to remember that after walking out of Tibet in 1959 all the monks (the Rinpoches and Geshes too) were physically building monasteries throughout the 60′s and 70′s. They were hauling rocks and bags of cement, they weren’t teaching Westerners. My old lamas tell stories of working so long and hard to rebuild their monastery that they didn’t “untie their belts for 2 months” which means they fell asleep in their robes, under the stars, never having the luxury of relaxing.
Work, pray, sleep. They had almost no food and learned Hindi and Karnataka dialect depending on where their monastery was being rebuilt, not English. They only resumed their studies in the late 80′s and early 90′s. Even then virtually no Tibetans in the monasteries spoke English, only the monks who dealt with the money, donors and suppliers.
That’s why there simply aren’t enough qualified teachers who speak languages other than Tibetan at the moment, because this is all still new. It’s very frustrating for students looking for a teacher but it can’t be rushed – learning English takes some time, and learning Tibetan isn’t easy either.
And so – into this gap rush eager, well intentioned, but unqualified, teachers.
I don’t believe Michael Roach, Christie Mcnally or Ian Thorson ever thought of themselves as unqualified. But they are, they were. A monk friend at Sera Mey told me that the qualifications that Christie and Ian referred to as being “from Tibetan monasteries” consisted of a month-long teaching in 1999 on mind and mental factors or mental cognition.
A month as a guest in a monastery isn’t training, it’s a mini workshop. Without speaking Tibetan, or the more difficult ‘dharma language’ in which teachings are given (which is to Tibetan what Latin is to English) without years of training, without being able to ask questions of the lamas – they are well-intentioned amateur dharma tourists.
I’m sure they love their students. But a surgeon who has only watched surgery for a month is a danger to everyone he or she practices on, whether she loves them or not. There may have been a few more workshops but not enough to make them qualified teachers.
As to their own teacher, Michael Roach, the Tibetans were very naive when he was at Sera. At the time Michael was getting his Geshe degree the monks remembered Robert Thurman, who did so well after studying Tibetan and dharma. It was harder for the Tibetans to read Westerners then: they had no idea initially that anything was wrong.
Michael Roach did try to be a good student in the short time he was there. He couldn’t participate fully in the debates that are an essential and crucial part of Geshe training in the way a Tibetan Geshe student is expected to, but he worked on his translation skills. Everyone in the monastery understood that his language skills wouldn’t allow for him to come up to the tough standards of a Tibetan Geshe but they appreciated that he was doing so much. It was understood that his degree would be an honorary one, given with great joy to a Western student. The monks felt the world was changing. Westerners would come to study at the monasteries, and learn Tibetan. The monks would learn English: dharma would spread throughout the world.
The bitter, heart-wrenching disappointment the Tibetan monastic community felt when Michael Roach was found to be living in a yurt, in his monk’s robes, with a girl who thought she was Vajrayogini, while teaching Tibetan dharma is impossible to describe. His Holiness was said to have dropped his tea cup when he heard the news, it smashed on the floor. Unusual for someone who rarely loses his composure. The abbot of Sera Mey was devastated, absolutely gutted.
To put this into perspective – my very close friend, who walked out of Tibet in the 80′s, is a Lharampa Geshe. He was first in his year at the debates, hand picked by his abbot to come to the West to teach. He had to wait 10 years after graduating to be considered qualified to teach. The Sera Mey Geshes were horrified that Michael Roach went out and taught right away, he didn’t truly understand the stuff he was teaching. He hadn’t asked enough questions, hadn’t done the right retreats. In my own opinion he wasn’t a true Geshe, in the traditional sense, any more that a celebrity is a true Ph.D when they’re given the degree for helping a university.
At present there is absolutely no bond between Michael Roach and Sera Mey. If Michael Roach says there is a connection of any kind he’s drawing on stuff that happened more than a decade ago. He’s caused nothing but pain at Sera, they so regret having ordained him that it is virtually impossible for a Westerner to be given ordination at the Gelug monasteries in South India now.
Sera knows what’s going on, the office of HH knows, but he has defied them all. Short of finding him, holding him down and tickling him until he agrees to take off his monastic robes, it looks like there’s nothing anyone can do. There’s no legal basis nor cultural precedent to track down a Westerner and take the robes back forcibly. Or to ask him to stop teaching. And, frankly, HH and the abbots of Sera Mey have had so many knives in the air that they’ve had to let go of the idea of changing Michael Roach. The Chinese Communists for awhile were sending young men to Sera to take robes, then run wild in town in order to shame the monastery. There are always money problems: just feeding that many monks becomes the first priority.
Michael Roach has been instructed very firmly: “Take off your monk’s robes.” by his abbot and by HHDL, the lineage holder. He sees himself as beyond all that, I suppose. I don’t know what’s in his head. He really did set up a cult, to the despair of everyone who taught him. His former students must feel so disappointed and betrayed, sad probably.
None of this contaminates any of Michael Roach’s or Christie’s students. Those students went with a good heart and good intentions. No one saw this coming. The students are as innocent as the abbot who ordained Michael Roach. It needed everyone’s approval. Everyone made errors in judgment, right up the line.
If there is indeed a complex quid-pro-quo going on underneath Roach’s educational and cultural-validation narrative, it might signify deeper financial entanglements between a few opportunistic members of his order and his quest for legitimacy. The prolific commenter Phurba and others bring up an incident from Roach’s ill-fated Indian pilgrimage of 2006, during which he was barred from teaching in Dharamsala by the Public Office of the Dalai Lama, not only for appearing to flaunt his celibacy vows, but also for committing the dire cultural faux-pas of scheduling a presentation during the Dalai Lama’s own public teachings without permission. He relocated his teaching an hour away, but then allegedly arranged that a monk appear bearing certain ritual presents to him, which he pretended came from the Dalai Lama. The alleged show was an effort to paper over the rebuke and re-legitimize his status within the Gelukpa hierarchy. This revelation drove many students away.
Input from Other Buddhist Community Experiences
NathanGThompson writes of the necessity for a Board of Directors that is independent from the spiritual director of any sangha, to prevent the coalescence and abuse of power:
I am the current president of our zen center’s board of directors, and have spent the last 5 years on our board, following the debacle I alluded to above [an abuse of power by the spiritual director of his sangha] . One thing to note about the board under our former teacher is that the entire group was handpicked by him, and they basically rubber stamped his ideas. Those who challenged him were ostracized, and more than a few prominent members and assistant teachers were forced out or left in the years prior to his downfall. I was part of a team that revised our governing structure a few years after our former teacher’s ousting, and it was quite clear that he had stacked the by laws and other governing documents completely in his favor as well. We also had a grievance committee that was handpicked by the teacher. At every turn, the leadership was under his thumb. So, it’s really not enough to say things like the board is dealing with these issues. Because they probably are, and yet, if the board’s structure is anything like ours was, then the work they are doing is compromised.
In a similar vein, Michael Stone told me over the phone: “None of this can happen – the secrecy, the power inequities, and the spiritual obfuscation – if the Board is strong and independent of the teacher.”
The View of the Locals
Reading commenters Jerry Kelly (neighbouring rancher) and Warren Clarke (a recent Great Retreat assistant) banter back and forth about the local geography, characters, illegal migrations, drug gangs and Border Patrol guys is like reading a Zane Grey novel or eavesdropping on an outback CB. For men who know the area, they make it clear that most of the Diamond Mountain administration is “greenhorn”: unfamiliar with the topography, ignorant of the old-timer neighbours and their resources, and overly romantic about the land itself. These are the folks who know the Rescue Unit guys as neighbours, who hike the back-country regularly, and who, had they been enlisted into a search party for Thorson and McNallly, would have had a wealth of information and experience to draw on. One theme that Jerry and Warren consistently bring up is the disparity in power between the staff of assistants (overworked, underpaid) and the Board (aloof and unrealistic).
Lies, Self-Aggrandizement, and Solipsism. Thankfully, Not Oprah’s Cup of Tea
I’ve been grateful for the comment thread, but at the same time a little torn up by it. It has uncovered whole new layers of strangeness.
Like this bit: in 2010, Roach recorded a video audition for the Oprah Network to propose a new show that he would host called “The Karma Show”. Oprah didn’t go for it, despite 11,861 votes. I think this 3-minute clip pretty much sums up Roach’s entire pitch and method. He confabulates his educational story, brags about the commercial bravado of his students, oversells his matchmaking and medical powers, all while bastardizing the crown jewel of Gelukpa metaphysics. You can watch the video yourself, or skip it and just read the copy he wrote for it, which I reprint below.
Hi my name is Geshe Michael. When I was young, my mom got breast cancer and just before she died she put me into a Tibetan monastery. I stayed there for 20 years and became the first American geshe, or Buddhist Master. Nowadays a lot of people come to me with their problems and dreams and i help them figure out what karma they need to get things they want; I helped 2 women in New York start a billion dollar ad company, I help friends find partners, and how to fix their health problems and stay young and strong. I have an idea to have a Karma Show where people come and say what they’re looking for in life, and we figure out the karma or good thing they need to do for others, to make their dreams come true!
I myself have a dream that I’d really like to come true. I dream that one day Ian Thorson’s corpse rises up from the grave and says to his former guru: It’s time to wake up. What good karma do I need to do to make this happen, Michael? Am I doing it already?
Where the Story is Leading Us Now
I now feel that the Board’s failure to protect Thorson’s life are actually aftershocks at the end of a long row of tumbling dominoes that reach back into the community’s reification of the love relationship between Roach and McNally. Shortcomings in managing the last few months of Thorson’s and McNally’s safety pale in comparison to the slowly-unfolding scandal of nepotistic power dynamics that allowed her to ascend to a position of spiritual and administrative authority. At the deepest level, the Board must now face how it was possible for intelligent and kind people such as themselves to give their power away so completely to someone so tragically unqualified. The Board must face, in essence, the consequences of Roach’s charismatic leadership, and their support of it.
On a theological note, I would like to know why McNally references Kali and not Vajrayogini in her letter. It sounds like she is practicing Kali sadhana. Was she leading a retreat in one lineage while practicing another? Does the Kali mythos of apocalypticism influence the general anxiety the group holds about the attainment of mystical experience?
On the broadest socio-political note, I’ll end by quoting the commenter oz__, who quite succinctly sums up our shared global stakes in the Diamond Mountain incident:
Deeply disturbing, and tragic, but unfortunately, hardly surprising. We participate in and support a set of sociopolitical and economic systems that depend upon atomization and disconnection – from the natural world, other people, even ourselves – and in such a destabilizing environment, the false connection to community that charismatic leaders offer can be sufficiently appealing to override common sense, not to mention mostly non-existent critical thinking skills. This is modern thaumaturgy. Far from failing to teach our fellows how not to fall prey to it, we insist that they in fact do so – because this is what modern systems, from advertising to politics, depend upon to accomplish their objectives of achieving profit and control. I mean, in a world that is dominated by the incessant drumbeat of propaganda issued from hierarchical and authoritarian structures, why should we expect independent thinking to be widespread?
Why indeed. As Ian’s body dissolves, I’m convinced now more than ever that our spirituality must resist the toxic consolations of bypassing, over-certainty, and authoritarianism. It must wake up from the dream of perfection to work diligently, with eyes wide open, in the garden of relationship, drawing upon simple hopes and common tools.