I am very surprised that these guys have never made it onto this forum over the years.
Roach started as a Buddhist monk but was later censured by the Dalai Lama's office when he started a relationship with yoga teacher McNally. Subsequently, he started teaching a mixture of yoga and Hindu spirituality along with Tibetan Buddhist ideas in his Diamond Mountain University centre in the Arizona desert. McNally left him a couple of years ago and married but they still taught toether.
It appears McNally and her husband Ian Thorson were asked to leave a retreat at DMU earlier this year after concerns about mutual spousal abuse. The couple hid out in a cave near the property where Thorson died of suspected dehydration on 22nd April.
For fuller info on this tragic story and on Roach and mcNally see:
text of the elephant journal article
Quote:Via yoga 2.0 labon May 4, 2012
Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona
by Matthew Remski
Special thanks to Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad, and Michael Stone
for their help in the preparation of this article .
Ian Thorson, 1974-2012
Abstract for Media Outlets
Ian Thorson, 38, died on the morning of 4/22/12 of apparent dehydration in a cave in southeastern Arizona, after having been banished by the administration of nearby Diamond Mountain University, which is under the leadership of “Geshe” Michael Roach. Thorson’s wife, “Lama” Christie McNally, was rescued from the death scene by helicopter. Thorson had for years exhibited signs of mental illness and violence towards others, including McNally, who had recently stabbed him, presumably in self-defense. The failure to fully report the couple’s violence to local authorities, along with the subsequent banishment of the couple from Diamond Mountain property without adequate psychiatric, medical, and community care, all raise stark questions about the competency of this secretive and autocratic organization, and call into doubt whether its Board is qualified to protect the safety of the remaining residents of Diamond Mountain.
The Story and My Intention
A tragedy has occurred, and is continuing to unfold, amidst the mountains of southeastern Arizona. Thirty-eight year-old Ian Thorson died on Sunday, April 22nd, in a mountain cave at 6000 feet of elevation. The Cochise County Sheriff’s spokesperson has ruled out foul play so far, but the investigation is ongoing. The coroner’s report has yet to be released. The immediate cause of Thorson’s death is most likely exposure and dehydration. But I believe that a full investigation will show that the deeper causes involve cultish religious fanaticism, untreated psychosis, and the gross negligence, incompetence, and obstructionism of the Board of Directors of a neo-Buddhist retreat centre called Diamond Mountain University, headed by its founder and spiritual director, Michael Roach. This full legal and medical investigation is warranted immediately, because there are still 35 people in retreat on Diamond Mountain property who may well be in as much physical and mental danger as Thorson was.
Thorson was found dead in a 6-by-8 foot cave on federal reserve land, attended by his dehydrated wife, Christie McNally, 39, a former lover of Roach, known to the Diamond Mountain Community, and globally, as “Lama Christie.” She is recovering from her loss and exposure symptoms in an undisclosed location.
My intention in breaking this terrible story to the meditation and yoga community, and the public at large, is fourfold, and without malice. Firstly, I wish to encourage an immediate investigation into the physical and mental safety of the remaining Diamond Mountain residents. Secondly, I wish to amplify our ongoing discussion of what constitutes grounded, empathetic, and useful spirituality – as opposed to narcissistic and dissociative delusions of grandeur that may be harmful not only to practitioners, but to the larger culture. Thirdly, I want to put pressure (and encourage others to put pressure) on the Board of Directors of Diamond Mountain University to curb the obvious whitewashing of events that has already begun (characterized by Roach’s recent open letter). The events at Diamond Mountain evoke core questions of responsible leadership, democratic accountability and therapeutic qualifications that the directors should answer to, not only for the sake of their own students, but for the wider Buddhist community, and for spiritual seekers in general, many of whom come to ashrams and retreat centres with deep psychological wounds that are tragically salted by robes and prayers and authoritarian power structures. Lastly, I’m writing in the hope of softening the grip that I believe Roach has upon his followers, many of whom, including Thorson, were friends and acquaintances of mine, long ago, when I myself (full disclosure) was also in Roach’s considerable thrall. I acknowledge that many people around the world feel that their lives have been enriched by Roach’s enthusiastic idealism, and I do not wish to demean this. But my long-view concern is that the power structure that Roach has consciously or unconsciously fostered around his charisma depresses independent thought and growth, and is now protecting itself by flinging Thorson’s corpse, and the personhood of Christie McNally, into the outer dark of spiritual rationalization.
I have gathered as much information as I’ve been able to in the push to publish this story in time to mediate the danger to the remaining retreatants. Unfortunately, my attempts over the last few days to engage with my old community acquaintances about the events have been dead-ends, because, I believe, of the secrecy endemic to cults. Nonetheless, I do have a considered view on the documents that everyone can plainly access, and I hope my thoughts on these will encourage more skilled inquiry—both journalistic and legal—to follow. I will be careful to qualify my perceptions with the words “seem” and “presumably,” and my opinions with the phrase “I believe.”
My analysis of these events is in some areas speculative. I am quite sure that I will unintentionally render certain details incorrectly, and I hope that knowledgeable respondents to this post help me with factual errors, which I will correct in the text itself, in real time, as evidence is presented. I intend for this to be an open document, evolving towards greater clarity through the input of many. I will not let factual errors linger online, and will notify readers through social media of the edits I make.
There are two accounts of the events leading up to Thorson’s death. Neither come from disinterested parties, and the details of each have not be independently confirmed. One account is written by Roach himself, in this open letter that was “reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the University.” The other account is incomplete, published on April 19th by Christie McNally, three days before Thorson’s death. McNally’s letter is profoundly disturbing in many ways, showing what I believe to be the depth of her spirituality-induced delusions of grandeur, magical thinking, denial, and Stockholm Syndrome symptoms. The idea that this person in this state was teaching Buddhism or leading anyone through anything as extreme as a medieval-style three-year meditation retreat is absurd to me.
I’ll reconstruct the general history according to the available accounts, but also by drawing on my personal knowledge of this group, which is informed by my understanding of cult dynamics. This will involve my reading of incompetence, negligence, and buck-passing in Roach’s letter. I’ll end with a call for full disclosure from the Directors of Diamond Mountain University, and an appeal to the more grounded leaders of Western Buddhist culture to intervene on behalf of this community with the grace of good mentorship. Though I am admittedly antagonistic to extremist religious belief and behaviour, this article is not an anti-religious crusade. I repeat: there are about 35 people at this moment in deep seclusion in the Arizona desert under the influence of a woman who appears to have gone insane, and their guardians—the administration of Diamond Mountain—have shown themselves to be, I believe, unequal to the task of protecting and nurturing them.
Remainder of Elephant Journal article and comments
Roach and McNally
Background to the Tragedy
McNally has been a student of Roach since 1996. Roach himself had been a student of the late Khensur Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin, of Howell, New Jersey, since the mid 70s. In the mid-80s he took monk’s robes, and attained the Tibetan monastic degree of “Geshe.” By the time I became Roach’s student in 1998, McNally was at his side continually, ostensibly as a personal assistant to his extensive teaching appearances, and also as a co-worker in the translation of ritual Tibetan texts for Roach’s growing population of American and European students. Roach’s closeness to McNally raised eyebrows in more conservative wings of the westernizing Tibetan Buddhist community, and there were rumours that they were lovers, something that Roach’s monastic vows would have forbidden. It was utterly obvious to me that they were lovers, and this was confirmed in 1999 on a trip to India during which many community members expressed dismay at seeing McNally slink out of Roach’s cell before dawn every day. Because by nature I care little for tradition or propriety, the sexuality of their relationship didn’t bother me personally, until I became aware of the acute power imbalances that it projected into the social sphere of the group, and later, how the closeness seemed to contribute to the distortion McNally’s self-image and mental health. I also believed that their boundary-less merging stripped her of interpersonal presence, giving her the same vacant gaze with which Roach seemed to mesmerize his acolytes. It seemed that she took on the social dysfunction of all charismatics: brilliant in a group, but insufferable in person. Soon she began to parrot his speech: a strange mixture of English nouns and choppy Tibetan syntax. “Tiblish,” I used to call it. An essential skill, I believe, in her later rapid ascent as Diamond Mountain teaching star. I believe she quite literally lost her own voice as she became host to his.
It’s hard to remember Christy as-she-was. I suppose it’s because I never saw her except in Roach’s shadow, walking a few steps behind him always, carrying his shoulderbag with his 30-lb late 90′s laptop bumping on her tiny hip, fetching food for him at every communal meal, waiting outside the men’s room while he took a leak. She was my age, an English major like myself, someone I should have been able to talk to. But for Christy to even say hello to anyone besides Roach seemed to involve an intense effort to demagnetize herself from his gaze. I wondered if she was lonely with this strange man, twenty years her senior. I remember wishing a private life for her, of libraries and dance classes, graduate school and study carrels. A life not overdetermined by the dreams of a giant. Alone, but with autonomy, integrity. Perhaps this is a solitude she can can finally experience now, shorn of merging, shorn of fantasy, shorn of romantic violence. This would be my hope for Christy, once she recovers from this terrible amputation: a bright solitude. A room of her own.
In 2000, Roach, McNally, and five of his other female students entered a closed 3-year retreat on desert land close to the 960 acres of what has become Diamond Mountain University. While marketing the retreat during its fundraising period as “traditional,” “authentic,” and “ancient,” Roach neglected to disclose to his thousands of sponsors that he would be cohabiting with McNally in a shared desert yurt, a fact that became apparent to many during the several open teaching periods of the retreat, during which hundreds of students traveled to the desert to hear Roach teach blindfolded. Many were confused, some disappointed, and a few were outraged. The broader western Tibetan Buddhist community began shunning both Roach and his community, not only for his unconventional behaviour and lack of transparency, but also increasingly for his shoddy scholarship and new-age-thin interpretations of Middle-Way philosophy – the bedrock of Gelukpa metaphysics. It was primarily this latter weakness that prompted me to leave his instruction at that time, although I also had grave misgivings about how he seemed to manipulate his students, including myself, with make-work projects and student rivalries designed to stratify his power through grievances he would both provoke and resolve.
Roach and McNally emerged from retreat in 2003 as openly committed spiritual partners who engaged in “celibate intimacy,” a claim that mystified their married students, and outraged the pious. By virtue of her retreat completion, but also, I believe, to professionalize their relationship, Roach elevated McNally to teacherly status with the title of “Lama.” Luminaries in the Buddhist world as prominent as Robert Thurman implored Roach to renounce his monk’s vows if he wanted to continue in open relationship. Roach refused by publicly claiming saintly status through his constant verbal allusions to private revelatory experience, and by claiming he was beyond supervision, as he does in this 2003 interview. The relationship exposed their multiple challenges to Tibetan orthodoxy to full and tawdry view, and concretized the boundaries of their growing cult by forcing their devotees to separate themselves from the broader Western Buddhist culture, which now firmly rejected and criticized Roach’s titles and authority. By association, his rebellion separated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who through his Public Office, censured Roach in 2006. In what I presume to have been an attempt to heal the rift the Public Office left the door open for Roach’s followers to attend teachings of the Dalai Lama, and many did and still do. Many remain convinced that Roach’s teachings and those of the Dalai Lama are part of a coherent cloth, but there is much debate on the matter.
I hope that Diamond Mountain residents and Roach’s students around the world fully understand what this rupture means. It matters little that he had doctrinal differences with Tibetan hierarchy: Tibetan Buddhism has been invigorated by doctrinal debate for centuries. What matters is that Roach effectively extracted himself from the cultural oversight of the larger tradition. Over the years he has made many justifications for establishing himself beyond the pale: he’s a realized being, the old schools don’t understand the contemporary zeitgeist, etc., etc. But whatever the justification is, he has found a niche for himself with no supervision. And there is no human organizational structure in existence that remains functional and resists authoritarianism without its highest members being subject to the oversight of peers.
Not every rupture in Roach’s world is political or theological. McNally separated herself from Roach in 2008 or 2009, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally soon partnered with Thorson, and began making charismatic inroads into the New York yoga scene, teaming up to teach wholly fictional “ancient Tibetan asana practices for reaching spiritual goals using a partner.”
I remember Ian Thorson from perhaps two hundred classes and lectures across America, Europe, and India between 1998 and 2000. He was thin and wispy, underfed and protein deficient, perhaps anemic, with impeccable lotus posture, and distant, unfocussed, entranced eyes. He’d sit right up at the front of any teaching, his eyes rolled back, clothes unwashed, hair tousled, by turns elated and catatonic in his trance. I ate rice and dal with him at the same table at Sera Mey monastery in Bylakuppe for a month in 1999. We talked philosophy and the esoteric for the short spurts in which he could hold conversational attention. He complained that his family could never understand him. I had the impression he came from wealth—he graduated Stanford—but he was always bumming money and rides. I don’t remember him asking me a single question about my life, or lifting a finger to help any of the hordes of women devotees setting up the lecture halls or tea or whatnot. Altogether he seemed tragically self-absorbed. He had a girlfriend named Beatrice in those days. By the end of the India trip she was pregnant. I don’t know what happened to her. I think she ended up returning to Germany with the baby. Baby must be about twelve now, and I wonder if he or she has substantial knowledge of daddy, and whether and how his death will be known to them.
There was something strange going on with Ian. During every teaching he displayed severe and rattling kriyas—spontaneous bursts of internal energy that jagged up his spine, snapped his head back sharply, and made him gasp or hiccup or yelp or bark. At the time I took these tremors to be signs of kundalini openness, but now I see them as bursts of neurological misfiring induced by zealous meditative abstraction and cognitive self-referentiality. There were always a bunch of kriya-kids at Roach’s feet, with Ian at the centre. Roach seemed to pay them no mind, which normalized their jitterbugging to the rest of us, who I believe felt vaguely insecure that our own evolutionary prowess failed to bestow such outward signs. The kriya-kids all sat up front, and Roach looked over them to the more mundane sea of the hoi polloi, as if to say: Do you see the power I have over those who truly surrender to me? I occasionally felt my own mirror neurology shudder in Ian’s presence. But I put a lid on it, preferring to enjoy the conductivity of my inner body alone in the forests of Vermont, where I lived in between Manhattan or California or Galway intensives.
Apparently Ian’s tremors weren’t all light and grooviness. As Roach states in his open letter:
Ian was incredibly sensitive to outside stimulus—an accomplished poet, linguist, and spiritual practitioner who could “hear” the world in a way that most of us cannot. Sometimes those of us who spent time around him would see him get overwhelmed by this sensitivity and fly into windmills of unintended physical outbursts, which at times caused potentially serious physical harm to those close by.
This unqualified diagnosis by Roach is actually a crafty validation of his own spiritual power and authority. For if Ian is a sensitive jitterbugging waif under the power of the Holy Ghost, the teachings are working. But if Ian is actually suffering from psycho-somatic dystonia or neuropathy, or histrionic or somatization disorders resulting in aggression and assault, he’s in the wrong damned place, and Roach is out of his league as mentor. Further, Roach’s charisma may be provoking him towards deeper confusion, perhaps rage. Further: the students around Ian would be neglectfully endangered by a colleague’s unfortunate mental illness, instead of witnesses to some magical and incomprehensible transformation. In my opinion, Roach has negligently misdiagnosed a profoundly disturbed man, perhaps dissuading him and others from seeking proper treatment. But this is no surprise. The first rule of a cult is: turn everything oppressive or dysfunctional into a sign of the Greater Plan. The sick person is “spiritually sensitive.” A violent outburst is a “purification.” An assault is the “result of the victim’s karma.” Enduring an assault defenselessly is a high virtue. And of course all cultists have handy scriptures to back them up: As Shantideva says in the third chapter of Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (one of Roach’s favourite texts):
His the knife, and mine the body:
the twofold cause of suffering.
He has grasped the knife,
I my body.
At which is there anger?
Those who injure me are really impelled by my actions.
For this they will go to the realms of hell.
Surely it is they who are harmed by me?
I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness. But now I see how dangerous such poetry can be without existential grounding.
A Stabbing in the Desert
In 2010, after several years of increasingly grandiose claims and proselytizing around the globe on subjects as diverse as “Spiritual Marriage,” “Creating Your Own Buddha Paradise,” “The Secrets of Jesus and the Buddha,” and “Enlightened Business,” McNally was appointed Retreat Director for the second three-year retreat, and went into desert silence with Thorson and 39 of her own disciples on the University property. She was appointed by Board members that she herself had chosen, as she recounts in her letter of April 19th. But at some point (we won’t be sure until the Board does a thorough public inquiry) episodes of domestic violence erupted within the secluded house she shared with Thorson. Retreatants are sworn to silence by retreat protocol, so if any of them were aware of trouble, there would be pressure against reporting. But then, McNally reached out, consciously or not, for help.
Every six months or so, the Retreat Director and selected retreatants, and non-retreatant teachers gather publicly to give teachings. These are strange and austere events, as the retreatants are either blindfolded or separated from the public by a scrim. In early February of this year, McNally spoke at one of these events, attended by students and acolytes from around the world. As Roach reports:
During her public talk on the evening of Saturday, February 4, which I also attended, Lama Christie told a story which appeared to describe serious incidents of mutual spousal abuse between herself and her husband, Ian Thorson, on campus during the retreat.
Lama Christie described what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband, and also an incident in which she had stabbed Ian with a knife, under what she described as a spiritual influence.
Roach and the Board were of course deeply concerned, and they met the next day to deliberate. And this is where, I believe, we can begin to see years of authoritarian control, solipsistic philosophy, psychological shadow suppression, overt whitewashing, and subliminal scapegoating begin to snowball. It is important to know that most if not all of the Board members have been long-term students of both Roach and McNally, and that most have donated vast amounts of time and money to his vision. I believe that this power dynamic alone would suppress the democratic functions of such a body. The question to keep in mind as the story rolls onward is: “What would an independent and peer-reviewed process have looked like, in place of unanimous decisions being reached by those within a matrix of social control?” A simpler question for the lawyers might be: “With Roach in control of the Board, does Diamond Mountain forfeit its 501(c)(3) status?”
Roach reports that local police were made aware of the contents of McNally’s talk, but chose to take no further action. I hope further investigation reveals why. If the police reviewed a transcript or audio recording of the talk, I would be concerned that they might not have derived enough context from this alone to be sufficiently alerted to the potential for danger. I don’t imagine that anyone internal to the group would have been able to provide police with the full spectrum of concern, including Thorson’s history, the history of internal power dynamics, the philosophical zeitgeist of the group, and the violence-laden meditation visualizations of their Tantric practice.
McNally’s letter of 4/19 describes months of battery at the hands of Thorson (complete with delusional justifications). At Roach’s admission, this battery was coherent with a pattern that the staff at Diamond Mountain was well aware of for some time, from different contexts:
Members of the Board had previously received multiple formal and informal reports of partner abuse and assault of students and staff by Ian, including a written complaint of an incident which took place off campus, and another incident at the University which led to Ian being asked to leave the campus for a period of time.
Multiple formal and informal reports. And yes, McNally had indeed stabbed Thorson with a knife three times, I imagine in self-defense, as attested to by the retreatant who was a medical doctor. The doctor stitched him up and then was bound to silence not only by the rule of the retreat but also, I believe, by his spiritual subordination to the couple. One of the stab wounds was “deep enough to threaten vital organs.”
It comes as no surprise to me that knife-violence would characterize the psychosis of a deranged couple in this context. Why? Because the central tantric meditation practice of this group involves the fantastical visualization of oneself as a sexually aroused goddess, armed with a chop-knife, who dances on the corpses of foreign deities, and then ritually dismembers herself limb by limb for an auto-cannibalistic feast meant to represent egoic dissolution. The Vajrayogini Tantra reveals a horrific yet strangely beautiful poetics of embodied sacrifice to the present moment. When I practiced it I found it compelling for many reasons, but nobody asked me at the initiation: “Have you ever had suicidal mentation or violent thoughts or outbursts?” And no-one asked Thorson and McNally, either. What have we done in our new-age, neo-colonial appropriation of these arcane wisdom traditions, that we blithely overlook the potential for psychiatric trauma that they obviously contain? How can we play with fragile people in this way?
Tragically, McNally’s letter describes the events through a thick pall of what seems like Stockholm Syndrome confusion. She writes: “My Love’s temporary aggression in those first few months of the retreat didn’t ripen for me as a negative karma in the slightest. I saw the whole thing as a divine play. He taught me so much.” And in a stunning whitewash of her armed self-defense, she writes: “Well, there is this big knife we got as a wedding present… thus began our rather dangerous play. If I had had any training at all, the accident never would have happened. I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone. Neither of us even realized he was cut when it happened.”
A Board of Directors, Blinded by Dogma
From the discovery of the battery and stabbing onwards, I believe every decision the Board made has been (most likely unconsciously) designed to protect the hierarchy of the University and the sanctity of its dogma, rather than to nurture the physical and emotional health of these two critically troubled people, or anyone lower on the ladder of power.
The State of Arizona has a very liberal involuntary commitment law (Revised Title 36) which allows virtually anyone who had suspected that Thorson or McNally had mental problems and needed help could have filed an application to a state-licensed healthcare agency for a court-ordered evaluation. This point is crucial to remember. Because by not taking advantage of this power, the Board has protected itself from any outside intervention that might have questioned the competence of the entire University. In so doing, I believe they also actively presumed training and jurisdiction where they had none: deciding to treat two mutual batterers – one of whom was a stabbing victim – not as people in dire mental danger in need of assessment and perhaps medication, but as free-thinking, upright citizens who had made a few errors in moral judgment that they could correct, perhaps, with a change in philosophy.
The decision to not immediately invite outside law enforcement or mental health services to the property to examine the situation and interview the principles is, I believe, coherent with group’s general resistance to outside influence. On site, the sheriff or the shrink would be, I believe, as invasive to Diamond Moutain property as other Buddhist teachings or teachers would be to Diamond Mountain cosmology and lineage. The stakes in resolving the issue internally are very high for the Diamond Mountain infrastructure.
Instead of taking advantage of Title 36 or appealing to law enforcement for direct help, the Diamond Mountain Board, according to Roach’s own account, came up with what in my opinion was an incompetent, secretive, and punitive plan to oust the offending dyad from their Eden. This plan consisted of $3600 in cash, a rental car, two prepaid cell phones, a hotel booking by the nearest airport, and two flight tickets to the US destination of their choice: all to be made available to them once they had been served with a notice from the Board to vacate their residence. The plan did not provide for psychiatric assessment or support, nor qualified chaperoning, nor contacts for shelter services. It appears that not one single piece of help was offered to the couple from outside of the worldview and power dynamic of the cult. Not one mediating influence was allowed to intervene. Roach writes that he made attempts to persuade McNally to seek guidance, but the encouragement was towards guidance from other spiritual teachers – most probably also unqualified in the realms of psychiatric health. Most disturbing, perhaps, is that this plan did not consider the possibility that Thorson and McNally should at the very least be restrained from each other’s presence until it was verifiably clear that they posed no danger to each other. Let’s let this sink in: on some level, the entire Board felt that it was within Thorson and McNally’s personal rights as responsible adults to batter each other. But please—not on the University property!
In essence, I believe the Diamond Mountain Board and Roach unsafely banished two mentally ill and mutually violent people for whom they held communal (if not legal) responsibility to the mercy of their psychosis and the terrifying isolation of not only the surrounding desert, but also what they would have perceived as the closed door of the broader Buddhist and spiritual community. We have to remember that to follow an excommunicant like Roach is a self-isolating act. If Buddhism shuns Roach—okay: stick to Roach. But when Roach banishes you: where do you go? The stakes of banishment rise algorithmically for those who are incapable of self-authorization because of cultic influence. The cult leader is a life-raft in a stormy sea. Residents of Diamond Mountain routinely describe their acreage as “the end of the world,” in harmony with Roach’s my-way-or-the-highway metaphysics. So where do you go when you’ve been banished not only from the last place on earth, but also from the grace of the leader you depend on for your self-worth?
The Veil of Secrecy
The secrecy that kept the Board from reaching out for qualified help soon metastasized into confusion and uncertainty as Diamond Mountain carried out their decision to banish the couple. The Board hand-delivered letters to the couple’s tent, demanding they leave within the hour, to meet their assistant who would be standing by with the rented car. There was no answer, and the messengers failed to find the couple. After several days of uncertainty, the assistant e-mailed the message that the couple had left the grounds, but would refuse to disclose their location. Further requests for information from the assistant were ignored. The Board and Roach, according to Roach’s account, remain ignorant of the couple’s whereabouts between the date they deliver the letter (Roach doesn’t specify but it is before February 20th, which is when the assistant’s e-mail was received by the Board) and the day of Thorson’s death.
For sixty-one days, Roach and the Board claim that they had no knowledge of the couple’s whereabouts. What did they do in their uncertainty and professed worry? Roach sent emails to the assistant that went ignored. Roach asked other “spiritual teachers” of McNally to try to communicate with her as well. The requests were ignored. And what did they fail to do? File a Missing Persons Report. And why didn’t they? Because drawing law enforcement attention to the case would implicitly criminalize the events. I also believe that there would have been a strong motivation to avoid the public humiliation of the police finding them, and taking statements describing their experience. A cult cannot appeal to outside authority, as this would disrupt the self-generated logic and legitimacy of the group.
In perhaps the most cultish decision of all, Roach and the Board thought it best not to contact the couple’s families directly when it was clear that they had gone missing. Roach explains: “We felt that the decision of contacting relatives about the recent events and situation was only the couple’s to make.” I believe the likelihood that Thorson and McNally would have contacted their families of their own accord in this state of hiding and humiliation would be very low. I remember, somewhere back around 1999, asking McNally and Roach outright over lunch one day what her parents thought about her travelling the world on the arm of this weird monk. She laughed and said: “O they think I’m in a cult.” Roach smiled somewhat ironically and said “Well you are in a cult.” She giggled, I believe, nervously.
Secrecy is endemic to both the structure and the metaphysics of Roach’s organization. Buddhist knowledge was secret. His relationship with McNally was secret. Whether or not it involved intercourse was secret. The instructions for rituals were secret. The nature of his realizations was secret. The locations and identities of many of his teachers were secret. Tantric practices were secret. In the absence of physical coercion, secrecy was the key currency of Roach’s power.
And how’s this for secrecy? As of this writing, there are close to 7000 reads of the letter from the Venerables Chandra and Akasha, who are reportedly taking care of McNally in her seclusion, and close to 5000 reads of the letter from McNally. Only the first letter has been left open to comments, and after one week of exposure there are only 16 comments. This is akin to a blackout in social media culture. My personal social media network connects me to several old Diamond Mountain affiliated friends. None to my knowledge have shared these two letters. I have only seen four shares of Roach’s letter, and only a handful of comments upon it, all expressing condolence to McNally and the assistants, and none with any questions. I have reached out to several of these old friends to express my dismay at the events, to ask how they are handling the news, to ask about the health of the community, and to ask if there is any more to share, and I receive eerily similar responses: “Geshe Michael’s letter tells it all, dear,” and “Anything more I would have to say about it would be gossip, dear.” Everybody’s calling me “dear.”
Two things to note here: as an ex-member of this cult, I will not likely be a trusted confidante in a time of trauma and loss, unless it is to those who crave the empathy of an outsider. I understand this. But my friend’s comment about “gossip” reveals something deeper than any social exclusion. All students of Roach have taken initiation into the Bodhisattva Vows, one of which explicitly forbids criticism of the clergy. The Brahma Net Sutra gives a definition of this major vow. Stalinist bureaucrats would be proud:
A disciple of the Buddha must not himself broadcast the misdeeds or infractions of Bodhisattva-clerics or Bodhisattva-laypersons, or of [ordinary] monks and nuns—nor encourage others to do so. He must not create the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of discussing the offenses of the assembly. As a Buddha’s disciple, whenever he hears evil persons, externalists or followers of the Two Vehicles speak of practices contrary to the Dharma or contrary to the precepts within the Buddhist community, he should instruct them with a compassionate mind and lead them to develop wholesome faith in the Mahayana. If instead, he discusses the faults and misdeeds that occur within the assembly, he commits a Parajika offense.
It is now Friday. Last Saturday, when I came across the news, I thought that surely it would be widely known by now. But as the days have dragged on and I have pounded together these thoughts and memories, it has become clear that nobody from within the Diamond Mountain community, or perhaps those sympathetic to them, would be broadcasting these events, along with the cascade of questions they raise. So here I am, and here we are.
Requests to the Diamond Mountain Board: Rob Ruisinger, Nicole Davis, Jigme Palmo, Charae Sachanandani, Scott Vacek, Tim Muehlhausen, Evan Osherow.
Remove Michael Roach from the Board of Directors. His past intimacy with McNally and his current spiritual influence over you will make it impossible for you to perform your regulatory function under the articles of Diamond Mountain’s 501(c)(3) non-profit status. Surely you must also recognize that he is not fit to disinterestedly administrate any internal inquiry into the death of his former lover’s husband.
Disclose everything that you knew about the domestic violence, the stabbing, and the other retreatant’s reactions/responses, and how you have addressed their concerns. Show the transparency that will expose the effects of the power relationships you foster.
Invite full police, state, and medical official investigations. Bring in professionals to question all principles.
Explain why you thought it reasonable to allow two disturbed and mutually violent people to remain in each other’s presence after clear evidence of potentially mortal danger to both of them.
Explain why you did not call on local law enforcement and mental health officials to intervene in a circumstance for which you have no qualification.
Create an emergency fund for the residential mental health care of Christie McNally, in the eventuality that this is recommended by public health professionals. In the event that this episode destroys her professional teaching career, create an additional fund for her continuing education and career transition.
Describe the educational or work experience of the “assistant” who was assigned to chaperone the couple that would have qualified him or her to care for a mentally ill and mutually violent couple.`
Report the medical doctor referenced in Roach’s letter as having sutured Thorson’s wounds to the appropriate medical licensing board so that they can investigate why he/she did not report Thorson’s stab wounds to authorities.
Release the remaining retreatants from their ritual vow of silence, so they can say anything they need to related to the events, their leadership, and their concerns. Release them further from their long-term vow against disclosing grievances against their leadership.
Show publicly that the retreatants currently under your care have no history of mental illness that might endanger their health within the context of the severe isolation of your retreat property and the potentially provocative nature of the meditation practices that you advocate.
Disclose the protocol by which you evaluate the mental health of retreatants, and how you will update this protocol in view of this tragedy.
Disclose the qualifications of the replacement Retreat Leader, John Brady, and have him issue a statement detailing how he is specifically administering to the retreatants who have been disturbed by these events.
Publish the transcript of McNally’s February 4th talk, in which she made allusion to the domestic violence and the stabbing.
Provide the link on your website to McNally’s letter of 4/19, to both end the silencing of her point of view, but also to expose the clear psychosis at the very heart of your faculty.
Remove Michael Roach from the teaching schedule of Diamond Mountain University until he has shown that he has put himself under the supervision of his lineage, perhaps by submitting himself for monastic review to his home community of Rashi Gempil Ling, in Howell, New Jersey.
Requests to the Mentors of the Greater Buddhist Community, including the Office of the Dalai Lama
Modern Western Buddhism prides itself on being anti-authoritarian grounded in reason, and non-cultish. In the light of Thorson’s death, its time for the community mentors to step up and prove it.
There are many mentors I have in mind. All of them are either non-sectarian or have scholarly or secular backgrounds. I’ll name a few, but please suggest more: Robert Thurman, Pema Chodron, Sharon Salzberg, Michael Stone, Blanche Hartman, Bernie Glassman, Stephen Batchelor, Mathieu Ricard, Sylvia Boorstein, Jeffrey Hopkins. Also: the senior teachers of FPMT will probably be up to the task. Here are some things you can do to help both the safety of Diamond Mountain residents, but also the general movement towards responsible leadership in Buddhist and other spiritual organizations.
Please take time to investigate Roach’s history and teachings, and publish your thoughts on the broader Buddhist life to those students of Roach who are confused, in distress, and perhaps hungry for a more grounded cosmology. A series of calm, welcoming, non-judgmental open letters might be most helpful.
Please disclose any protocols for mental health and physical safety that you have designed as leaders or members of Buddhist communities that would be helpful to the Diamond Mountain Board as they go through a necessary review of their own practices.
Offer gratis counseling/conversation to any Diamond Mountain practitioner who might reach out for a broader view.
I also call on the Private Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to review these events and to consider reiterating and strengthening its censure of Michael Roach, first initiated in 2006.
In closing, for now…
I’m so grateful I grew up since my involvement with Roach ended in 2000—at least a little bit. I read The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, went into therapy, worked on my daddy/authority issues, and now I return to meditation only once in a while to touch the quieter parts of my experience: not to escape anything or fantasize about what’s not here. I have a good and meaningful job. I don’t fly around the world chasing bliss and approval, responsible to nothing but the wind of my thought, avoiding those who know me best. I am no longer, as Leonard Cohen sings, “starving in some deep mystery, like a man who is sure what is true.” Like Ian seemed to be.
Goodbye, Ian. A younger, thinner, sadder version of myself died with you in that cave, dry as dust. I send my love to your child, wherever he or she is.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga teacher, ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. Please check out his site for more writings on Ayurveda and Yoga.
The opinions expressed by the authors at elephant journal and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of elephant journal or any employee thereof. elephant journal is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in the article above.
CORRECTIONS (posted 5/6/12)
As I wrote above, I expected to get some details wrong. I invited corrections, and received several, for which I am grateful. I hope that crowd-sourcing this story helps to establish a clearer picture.
Most corrections are minor. I have a few dates wrong, and I misrepresented the housing situation for retreatants at DM. I’ve also taken out a few terms that are immaterial to the argument, but which some found offensive.
The correction of substance involves my omission of 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. I might be mistaken here. In any case, my omission created the impression that the Board did less than they did, and I have corrected it. My contention is that the strongest disclosure would have evolved from professional, on-site investigation at that point.
While I am grateful for the corrections, none of my critics have substantially engaged the core material of the article: the 15 suggestions I make to the Board.
Here are the corrections I’ve made so far:
Abstract: changed “…failure to report..” to “…failure to fully report…”
1st graph: changed “camped out” to “in retreat”
7th graph: changed “I’ll reconstruct the general history according to the available accounts, but also by drawing on my personal knowledge of this cult, and my understanding of cult dynamics in general.”
“I’ll reconstruct the general history according to the available accounts, but also by drawing on my personal knowledge of this group, which is informed by my understanding of cult dynamics.”
7th graph: changed “camping” to “in deep seclusion”
11th graph: changed
“His rebellion even alienated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who publicly censured him in 2006.”
“By association, his rebellion separated his followers from the Dalai Lama, the head of their own lineage, who through his Public Office, censured Roach in 2006. In what I presume to have been an attempt to heal the rift the Public Office left the door open for Roach’s followers to attend teachings of the Dalai Lama, and many did and still do. Many remain convinced that Roach’s teachings and those of the Dalai Lama are part of a coherent cloth, but there is much debate on the matter.”
Not every rupture in Roach’s world is political or theological. Ian Thorson was the retreat assistant for Roach and McNally. Sometime between 2003 and 2005, Thorson and McNally became lovers. She separated herself from Roach, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally and Thorson soon began making charismatic inroads into the New York yoga scene, teaming up to teach wholly fictional “ancient Tibetan asana practices for reaching spiritual goals using a partner”.
Not every rupture in Roach’s world is political or theological. McNally separated herself from Roach in 2008 or 2009, who was shortly thereafter seen swanked up in Armani and hitting the Manhattan clubs with Russian models. McNally soon partnered with Thorson, and began making charismatic inroads into the New York yoga scene, teaming up to teach wholly fictional “ancient Tibetan asana practices for reaching spiritual goals using a partner”.
graph 14: removed “probably vegan” from the description of Thorson, as one commenter found it offensive.
“This is all crazy-making. I believe.”
“I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness. But now I see how dangerous such poetry can be without existential grounding.”
“But at some point (we won’t be sure until the Board does a thorough public inquiry) the other retreatants began hearing episodes of domestic violence from within the secluded house she shared with Thorson. Retreatants are sworn to silence by retreat protocol, so of course nothing was reported – until McNally reached out, consciously or not, for help.”
“But at some point (we won’t be sure until the Board does a thorough public inquiry) episodes of domestic violence erupted within the secluded house she shared with Thorson. Retreatants are sworn to silence by retreat protocol, so if any of them were aware of trouble, there would be pressure against reporting. But then, McNally reached out, consciously or not, for help.”
“Roach and the Board interviewed the retreatants and their assistants and found out that yes, Thorson and McNally had been battering each other for some time, with Thorson probably being the majority aggressor. McNally’s letter of 4/19 confirms this (complete with delusional justifications).”
“Roach reports that local police were made aware of the contents of McNally’s talk, but chose to take no further action. I hope further investigation reveals why. If the police reviewed a transcript or audio recording of the talk, I would be concerned that they might not have derived enough context from this alone to be sufficiently alerted to the potential for danger. I don’t imagine that anyone internal to the group would have been able to provide police with the full spectrum of concern, including Thorson’s history, the history of internal power dynamics, the philosophical zeitgeist of the group, and the violence-laden meditation visualizations of their Tantric practice.”
“The decision to not immediately report the battering or stabbing to outside law enforcement or mental health services is coherent with general cultic resistance to outside influence. The sheriff or the shrink would be, I believe, as invasive to Diamond Moutain property as other Buddhist teachings or teachers would be to Diamond Mountain cosmology and lineage.”
“The decision to not immediately invite outside law enforcement or mental health services to the property to examine the situation and interview the principles is, I believe, coherent with group’s general resistance to outside influence. On site, the sheriff or the shrink would be, I believe, as invasive to Diamond Moutain property as other Buddhist teachings or teachers would be to Diamond Mountain cosmology and lineage.”
graph 33: “tent” to “residence”
“A common characteristic of many of Roach’s followers (including myself way back when) is familial alienation.”
removed: a commenter pointed out this was an unfair generalization
second last graph: changed “Like Ian was.” to “Like Ian seemed to be.”
Incorrect source, offensive, or found a typo? Want to write?
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331507167 Responseshttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.elephantjournal.com%2F2012%2F05%2Fpsychosis-stabbing-secrecy-and-death-at-a-neo-buddhist-university-in-arizona%2FPsychosis%2C+Stabbing%2C+Secrecy+%26amp%3B+Death+at+a+Neo-Buddhist+University+in+Arizona++2012-05-04+23%3A20%3A13yoga+2.0+labhttp%3A%2F%2Fwww.elephantjournal.com%2F%3Fp%3D331507 to “Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona”
« Older Comments dharma_citta says:
May 6, 2012 at 00:06
Thank you for this article. It is a courageous thing and a necessary document!
Say what you want about Michael Roach. The bottom line is: irresponsible.
My spiritual practice bears the scars of involvement with this group and I continue
to live with the realization that I nearly slipped right over the edge into a full blown
cult (in the worst sense of the word) simply because I wanted to learn more about
buddhism and meditation. When things started to get "weird" it was generally suggested that
"it's just your karma, your projections", etc… if you've been involved you know the script.
I've kept my mouth shut for the most part out of shame and out of insecurity, "maybe it's just me".
Your article is empowering and helps me feel much less alone. I say a prayer for those who are
still involved with this group. It's a hard road back from "self isolation" into the wider western spiritual
community, a road I'm still reluctantly crawling along if I'm honest.
Finally, I say a prayer for all those who have suffered from the misguidance of Michael Roach.
There is simply no excuse for what has gone down out there in the desert. RIP Ian Thorson.
lost time says:
May 6, 2012 at 00:29
Reading your article, oh wait, it was an op-ed piece, hmm, no wait, you refer to it as an article over and over, but then you say,’ oops, sorry to offend you, but I warned you it was just my opinion’… make up your mind please. Or is that how you try to justify you yellow journalism? Oh, sorry, not intended to offend you, just MY opinion. Fact: you wrote it, it wasted my time and it’s time I will never get back. And if as stated several times, you do anything to disagree with the FACT that my opinion is that you are a sad example of what is wrong with the internet, it will prove you are a wanna-be cult leader and trying to manipulate the opinions of the weak minded.
Your [article] [op-ed piece] is full of errors and now you want the public to do your research for you? Maybe your claims of having done a lot of research for this are opinions from a grandiose, power hungry person trying to become a power figure in the world of social media. I think (notice how I couched that with “I think”?) you are trying to establish yourself as a great writer and are basking in the glory of all the praise by the blind readers that think this is such a great article. It is clear (to me, sneaking my opinion in there again, just in case you missed it) that you are a psychologically troubled individual and need help. I know that these events are taking place in the USA, but freedoms be damned, we need to have you committed for an evaluation, just in case. We would hate to have you hurt yourself, or worse, anyone else with your poison pen. Hay, if you feel it’s ok to demand that the people in the retreat can be dragged out because you say so, just in case, than I think we can ask the same for you.
This is just my opinion and if you find anything wrong with what I have written, you are free to comment and then it will all be ok. But remember, if you say anything against me, it will be proof that you are trying to hide something. (I borrowed that argument from you, I hope you don’t mind.)
Since I was not at the retreat location when this happened I will not comment on the issues, only on your clearly biased writing and poorly veiled attempts to justify your failures at understanding the authentic teachings of Buddhism and set yourself up as an authority on religion. By the way, you still have not actually proven anything that Geshe Michael Roach has said is not accurate according to the original Buddhist scriptures. Nor have you shown that anyone in authority has “unequivocally denounced” Geshe Michael Roach. You seem to put some weigh in the FPMT so perhaps you should disclose what role they played in shutting down, not supporting the web site that was set up a few years back to try and slander and spin yarns that were so clearly a failed attempt to spread lies.
Thanks for the entertainment. If I want to waste my time with gossip again I will read a tabloid.
May 6, 2012 at 01:09
Matthew Remski : or Jaded Heart
Great Deal of bitterness and Envy in this writing , Kagyu Lineage is know for Crazy Wisdom , certainly not for many or All , but there is craziness everywhere especially in what is considered normal or ok. Lack of Compassion in the writing is sad and obviously there is much Healing to continue for the writer , OM AH HUm
To say , "now I return to meditation only once in a while to touch the quieter parts of my experience: not to escape anything or fantasize about what’s not here"– if this is the case then you should not be instructing anyone in any Yoga no matter how watered down , you are obviously an Intellectual so stick with that, perhaps Jnana Yoga
Balancing the Mundane and the Supra
The Yin and the Yan
everyday extraordinary carrying Fuel and chopping wood
the closing comments , "Like Ian was". and referencing his child in that way is highly unprofessional from someone who is touting himself as one nowadays with a "meaningful job" unless your job involves cleaning up or offering alms I doubt it is very meaningful to anyone but your own Ego and need for approval and Self validation and Worth . Your heart is hurt and if you do not face and heal that nothing you do write or say has any meaning or authority . One Hemisphere of you Brain works very Well , but the Heart is weak , Padma Sidhi Hum HUm HUm
Bow to your Sensei Padmasambhava Kwan Yin Compassionate Goddesses Tara om tare svaha
gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svah
Aham Prema Namah Shivay
May Truth BE Victorious OM
May 6, 2012 at 01:33
“this secretive and autocratic organization”
gosh, perhaps your old acquaintances didnt contact you because you are a pernicious troll looking for view counts?
there are NOT 35 people “camped out” at DM. they are living in houses and are not in danger of dying from exposure and dehydration. therefore they are not “in as much physical and mental danger as Thorson was” you horrible, godawful troll.
May 6, 2012 at 01:44
I am correcting the housing description.
I think it would be wise if the Board could somehow show that the remaining retreatants are all mentally healthy. My suggestion is that they disclose the protocol for retreatant approval, and show that participants are not in mental danger, which can lead to physical danger.
Ted Lemon says:
May 6, 2012 at 08:59
You changed "camping" to "in seclusion." Why didn't you change it to "living in houses in seclusion?" When you thought they were living in tents, you seemed to thing that the quality of their living quarters was relevant; now that you know otherwise, you seem to think it is not. Can you explain?
May 6, 2012 at 02:08
5/6/12 4am EST: corrections are now inserted into the article, and detailed at the bottom.
perhaps the word "piece" is best for this "piece".
I haven't called for anyone to be dragged out of retreat. I have suggested that the Board show a renewal of competence.
I claim no authority over religious matters. I have a strong interest in authentic personal development and social ethics, and I write from that standpoint.
Brad Yantzer says:
May 6, 2012 at 01:33
Matthew, as shocking it is not, my heart gasps at the truth and reality of the situation. My heart and wishes go to all those involved. To me this is more of the same as all the other BS out there parading as spiritual but under the facade lay sharp teeth dripping with saliva of desires and ego. It is often even hidden for the view of the one in the offense. John Friend is but another name and another target in the media. The scary thing is that it is everywhere constantly. I only trace the roots of this back to stepping out of the truth and into the mind. The spiritual community is filled with hyper jumping to the nondual with out the safety net of the knowledge leading to the experience that actually brings one there. What you are left with is exactly like your Yoga 2.0, someones take on how an ancient science needs to be changed because things are so different now. But remember this science has remained through out time, untouched and pure. It is only when either the uneducated and unexperienced get their hands on something or when the power hungry ego needs more that the purity is lost. This is what we have today. I don't see an end to it, it is gonna hurt. What are we gonna do, try to put any kind of template or formation of foundation down for those who are feeding off the irresponsible crutch of our narcissistic yoga/buddhism/spiritual movement? How do you stop a tidal wave?
The problem is not in how it is now, the problem is that it was never really taught.
May 6, 2012 at 01:39
Oh and Matthew, this happens everywhere that ignorance is fit. I am reminded just now of a time when i was a triathlete. Down in Santa Cruz during a triathlon, one of the participants die and washed up on shore. They told no one, covered it up and continued the race as nothing had happened. No surprise.
May 6, 2012 at 02:12
I am not sure if I would include Stephen Batchelor on a list of would be mentors. I don't think he considers himself a Buddhist anymore and he definitely no longer follows the Tibetan tradition in fact he has a very negative view towards it. I would recommend more Tibetan Buddhist to help integrate the DMU students back into the fold. There are many excellent teachers Gelek Rinpoche, Lama Kunga, Thubten Chodron to name a few.
Lastly I had some experience with this group and my prayers are with them during this time.
May 6, 2012 at 02:17
PAX: this is a good point. I don't think he provides enough "bridging language", now that you point it out. I don't know the Tibetans you mention, or else I would insert their names. But I hope your comment gets enough exposure to be useful to some.
Gyelten Jangchub says:
May 6, 2012 at 02:30
Personally, I never found Michael Roach to be charismatic. Actually I found him rather repulsive. However, he has contributed to making Buddhist teachings available to a Western audience. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that.
As to the author of this article, Matthew, it's clear you have an ax to grind. Describing Kriyas as "bursts of neurological misfiring induced by zealous meditative abstraction and cognitive self-referentiality" shows a great disdain and disrespect for a central aspect of tantric practice. Meanwhile, you clearly have quite a lot of respect for the standard unenlightened Western establishment mind. "Some unknown level of marital discord going on? Send in the cops and psychiatrists!" I suppose that Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree refusing to move, having visions of demons and past lives, would be considered delusional and suicidal today. Better put him on some Ritalin and file him away somewhere until he can be placed in a job, to function as a mildly retarded, yet harmless, cog in our society. There, it's all better now.
May 6, 2012 at 03:17
Before reading this, I never would have thought that anything could make me feel sympathy for Geshe Michael Roach and Lama Christie McNally (who have gotten under my skin for years), especially following such a tragic occurrence. And yet, this incredibly judgmental, prejudicial diatribe has done just that. I only wish I had stopped reading at the ridiculous vegan comment, or the creepy description of how the author remembered Christie to be.
There's also something rotten in all this about how Christie and her role seem to be defined in ways that they wouldn't be were she a man and/or older. Here she is, serving as the teacher for a serious retreat, with some presumably serious practitioners, and you're still writing about her as if she were an awestruck teenager who must be "mentally ill." How about holding her responsible for a situation that she herself took responsibility for? Or at least giving her a chance to comment on the death of her husband before calling her a mentally ill fraud?
And EJ, this is a new low. Seriously sleazy move. A few more like this and you'll find likely yourselves in the libel lawsuit that puts you out of business.
May 6, 2012 at 04:21
Part of this is an idea of living like milarepa did. Traditional Tibetan Buddhism has stories of yogis living in caves. Modern people find it appealing the idea of returning to nature . My question would be when they did this in Tibet were lots of dead bodies found also? And if so what did the Buddhist masters comment about it who knew how to do this lifestyle?
May 6, 2012 at 04:36
Im seeking former members of Geshe Michael Roach's organisation and current defenders. I have written a website about the dynamics of Tibetan Buddhism and the problems that various sects might have in common. I hope you will come and share your knowledge with me so we can all learn and understand these issues better. If mutliple sects are experiencing similar issues and we can see this perhaps we will come closer to understanding the causes [removingallobstaclestoflourishingnkt.blogs];
Sam Muglia says:
May 6, 2012 at 05:48
Dude, You need to relax.
May 6, 2012 at 08:41
Repeating myself…it is not safe out here (we live in the Last House on the Left(yikes) before you cross the property line and are retinking living out here because of the drug smuggling.
Living next door we have run into people that were not happy with friends or family being part of DM or were leaving themselves. Our view of Roach(who I've never spoken with) is colored by these meetings. A few years ago I went up to the Temple to retrieve my dog (they don't allow dogs or even pack animals..(.which might have both come in handy 2 sundays ago) and a girl kissed the tire tracks of a car coming from the big house that Roach lived in…".holly crap they are in trouble" I said to myself. I worry about a few people in the retreat I have met who stayed at a house in town I rented out I have heard the same thing from other townies…most were pretty together but.I just think some were going along with this as part of a group dynamic or for some sort of economic boost completing this gives them. One guy in retreat has given orders that even if his mom dies he should not be disturbed The first retreat drove the leader over the edge and some people just don't want to see more go too.
Why not just do 3 month retreats under new leadership?The cloud would be lifted……. no one seems to every answer this question..
(quote from comments)
"Anyone with the best of intentions can go nuts out in the desert somewhere. It is very, very easy to get dehydrated without realizing what is happening–when I lived in the Middle East for a year I had warnings over and over again to keep hydrating all day long. In any case, what a terrible shame."
Corboy note: We are given the same warnings every year on a week long endurance camping event that I have participated in for the past ten years. Dehydration affects judgement. You can lose track of your own status and go wandering off. One not only needs water, one needs electrolytes in the water or it wont do you much good.
Sad News From Arizona
Last week a man was found dead in a cave in Arizona. The local newspaper reported that the man was Ian Thorson, 38, who was the husband of Christie McNally.
If the names are not familiar -- Christie McNally was once the spiritual partner of Michael Roach, an American man who was ordained in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. I believe Roach still considers himself to be a monk, although Gelugpa would disagree. His Holiness the Dalai Lama considered Roach's relationship with McNally to be a breach of his monastic vows and barred Roach from further involvement with the order.
Not quite a year ago McNally's retreat center was threatened by wildfires, which is when I learned that McNally had left the much older Roach for Thorson, someone closer to her own age. Yes, this news possibly triggered my mother instincts -- I felt this was probably for the best and hoped the two young people would have a long and happy life together.
So I was sad to hear that Thorson had died. But what happened in the cave?
McNally and Thorson had been leading a three-year retreat, but they had left the retreat venue to live in a cave, apparently at the request of the other retreat participants.
McNally's attendants published a statement saying that the couple was asked to leave "After the events of Feb. 12th." The cave is on public property within the retreat boundary, but away from the area where the other retreat participants were spending their time. I'll come back to this in a bit.
They had run low on water and were too ill to get more. Thorson died of dehydration, they said. The news story linked above did not say how Thorson had died, but did say that McNally was treated for dehydration.
There had been an earlier incident in which McNally stabbed Thorson with a knife. This was accidental, she said. I infer this was part of "the events of Feb. 12th." If you read McNally's rambling post (written before the death) closely, it appears quite a lot of things were going on to cause disharmony in the retreat, plus (reading between the lines) Thorson had some aggression issues.
Finally, Michael Roach weighed in, and said that in a talk on February 12 McNally had described "what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband." This was reported to the local police, who declined to follow up. The couple were asked to leave the retreat center campus for one year.
According to Roach, the retreat center offered the couple transportation to anywhere they wanted to go. It was their own decision to hole up in the cave, apparently. It appears no one knew they were there.
That's all I know. I am too far away from any of this to offer an informed opinion. It's easy to say that people shouldn't be teachers until they get their personal acts together, but how many of us ever do that? I've known of great teachers who had messy personal lives sometimes. So for the moment I'm telling the mother in me to shut up and not offer advice until asked for it.
Quote:May 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm
(1) Mila says:
Condolences to all involved.
May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.
May 3, 2012 at 2:35 am
(2) Hein says:
What happened is sad. That is the events of 12 February and thereafter.
One thing I have learned is that human relationships can become quiet complex. Especially the romantic kind or relationships of the heart. Fortunately – it would appear – most relationships are relatively stable. I asked myself; what is the role of karma in all of this? The little I know about karma has taught me that what you do has consequences. My Taiwanese Ch’an teacher always said one should make vows if you wish your practice to grow. But one should not make strong vows if you would not be able to keep it as the effect of transgression of those vows is intense. Well, all of this was conveyed to us (a mix cultural bunch of South Africans) via a Swahili speaking Tanzanian interpreter whose second language is English and his third language Mandarin. I trust I got it right.
It appears that one should not take vows willy-nilly. And once undertaken one needs to stick to those vows religiously (no pun intended), even if it breaks your heart. In my own life I have for instance experience the strength of my and my wife’s marriage vows (married for 26 years). It can make or break a relationship, but serves as an anchor in most trouble waters. Perhaps those are the only vows I have ever taken up seriously.
May 3, 2012 at 3:07 am
(3) Michael says:
How very sad. I think many people have been concerned about the weirdness that has been going on around Michael Roach’s group for more than a while now. Not that one can lay any blame on him for what happened here. However, these Tibetan style long retreats need careful management and experienced supervision. People do go crazy in them – or at lease experience bouts of severe mental stress. If this retreat is continue they really should reach out to an established Drupon and get him to oversee it.
May 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm
(4) Yoyogi says:
I keep hearing about aggressive acts by Ian Thorsen and even the author of this articles jumps in and points the finger without any hard data. No one actually writes in any blog or report what exactly he did. The fact is , she stabbed him three times , once deep enough to be considered a threat to his vital organs. Michael roach in his open letter seems to do a lot of finger pointing towards Ian but remeber his lover left him for Ian who is much younger so there may be somewhat of an agenda there as well.
May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:
I keep hearing about aggressive acts by Ian Thorsen and even the author of this articles jumps in and points the finger without any hard data.
I have not pointed any fingers. I am simply relaying what information is coming out of the Diamond Mountain Center. I believe I was clear that I am far removed from this situation and have no personal knowledge of it. Everything said here is attributed to a source.
However … what “hard data” do YOU have that McNally stabbed Thorson enough to “be a threat to his vital organs”? My impression is that the only ones who even knew about the stabbing incident were McNally and Thorson until she spoke of it publicly on Feb. 12, while he was still alive. If her public statement was not true, he was still alive when she published it and could have refuted it himself. Where are you getting other information?
Note that I’m not saying you are wrong; I’m saying maybe you have information I don’t, and I want to see it. If this is information can be properly sourced I will report it. I can only go by what has been made public so far. I will not repeat every rumor that comes along, however.
I’m not a Michael Roach fan, and have publicly said he has no business teaching. Without knowing exactly what McNally told the group on Feb. 12, however, I have no way to know if Roach is being honest or not. However, he makes rather a point of saying that his open letter was “reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the [Diamond Mountain] University,” and I have to assume the Board of Directors are aware of what McNally said on Feb. 12.
May 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm
(6) David says:
What a story! I guess what all this shows is that, when dealing with powerful stuff such as meditative retreats, there must be visibility and oversight.
May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm
(7) yoyogi63 says:
This is from Michael’s letter posted on his website. he reports the medical information relayed to him by the medical staff who treated Ian Thorsen.
“During the same public talk of February 4, Lama Christie stated that the knife wound to Ian required sutures, which were administered inside the retreat valley. The Board requested and received a written statement from a professional medical practitioner inside the retreat, stating that they had sewn up wounds sustained by Ian that they had been told were the accidental result of playing with a knife. The medical person described three separate wounds to the torso, one of which was deep enough to threaten vital organs.”
That is the written statement as reported to the board by whoever attended to Ian’s wounds. I don’t know if he was violent or not , I’m just saying it’s being reported and repeated but know one actually elaborates on anything he did. While it’s true that Michael Roach could be less than honest in his account , what are the odds that the medical personnel and board members would all lie about what happened. I’m only putting questions out there because I think it’s too easy to assume that because he is a man and she is a woman that he was abusive and that’s why this happened. if it is true then they should report what he actually did instead of speaking vaguely about acts of aggression .
May 4, 2012 at 8:11 am
(8) X says:
yoyogi63 — Let me be clear — there are only two things that I personally believe to be true about this situation:
1. Ian Thorson is dead.
2. Whatever was going on in McNally’s and Thorson’s relationship was and is still being covered by a ten-foot thick blanket of psychological denial, and this denial was/is shared by McNally and Thorson as well as by the Diamond Mountain staff and members.
There’s a lot in McNally’s post that I linked in the article that shrieks of dissembling, but I don’t know her at all, and I have no way of knowing what her issues are and how able she is to be honest with herself about herself and her relationship. And if she is struggling with self-honesty, it may be that she was put into a teacher position way too soon, and that it would be better for her to stop teaching and to spend some years just being a student, until she gains a bit more self-insight and spiritual maturity. But, again, I don’t know her at all and I could be way off base about that.
However, a lot of this strikes me as being similar to what has gone on in some other sanghas in the West, where the teacher was engaging in destructive behavior — sexual abuse, improper use of sangha funds, etc. — and students remained in denial for a long time until something finally snapped. Nobody wants to believe that their revered holy teacher could be doing something destructive or selfish.
Likewise, it sounds as if there were signs something was out of whack with McNally’s and Thorson’s relationship, but the Diamond Mountain crew refused to see it until February 12, and then something snapped. I get the impression that the Diamond Mountain crew had a lot invested in that marriage, emotionally and psychologically, and they didn’t want to believe anything was going wrong with it.
However, the fact that the Diamond Mountain group voted to expel both McNally and Thorson, and not just Thorson, suggests that whatever was going on was something other than a simple abuser/victim pattern. But I suspect everyone involved is still dealing with a lot of denial, and so it may take years for the truth of the matter to come to light.
May 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm
(9) yoyogi63 says:
Thank you. You answered perfectly. You gave an honest and insightful outsiders view of the situation from your perspective. That is what I felt had been missing in all accounts. I’m sorry for them both because it’s clear that they suffered terribly. I met him over a course of days in NYC at an event they were having at a place I used to work. This was before he was married to Christie. He was incredibly sweet and absolutely in total happiness to be serving his teachers. Thank you again for taking the time to respond.
May 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm
(10) Y says:
What makes this unique, of course, is the fact that the “teacher” is a woman and the “student” is a man. Same general issues in relation to teacher/student sexual intimacy. But just when one might have concluded — in observation of a seemingly-endless series of “scandals” (Eido Shimano, Dennis Merzel, John Friend, etc. ad nauseam) — that a solution to the problem perhaps was something as simple as having testosterone carry a Surgeon General’s Warning — something like this, which kind of turns the whole thing inside out, happens ….. sigh.
May 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm
(11) X says:
Y — yes, human behavior is endlessly messy. Right now the people closest to this situation probably are not yet able to see it clearly, but I hope someday at least some of them can analyze it with some clarity. That may take a few years, of course. But there may be lessons to learn here.
What’s complicating this is that McNally and Roach lost their formal association with Gelugpa, which means there is no institutional authority or lineage tradition overseeing whatever they are doing. I know that institutions and traditions are not always perfect, but they do serve a useful purpose sometimes.
May 5, 2012 at 12:03 am
(12) X says:
No comments …………. May the departed R.I.P
May 5, 2012 at 11:54 am
(13) X says:
End the retreat now….3 other people were border line going in… attendants have been losing it all along,they are on a major drug smuggling route about to be contested by an outside cartel….I live next door and believe the rescue was delayed by not getting the “experienced hands like David Stump out of retreat and on the search….The board are not long time residents and should have a better emergency plan…just end it…
Wikipedia copied 8:27 PST May 6, 2012
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For other uses, see Michael Roach (disambiguation).
Geshe Michael Roach
Los Angeles, California, United States
Based in Diamond Mountain
Michael Roach (born 1952) is an American teacher of Tibetan Buddhism of the Gelugpa school, and was the first Westerner to qualify for the Geshe degree at Sera Monastery in India. He received the degree after twenty-two years of (part time) training in both India and abroad. He is a scholar in Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Russian.
He currently teaches Buddhism at ACI Phoenix, a branch of Asian Classics Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, which he founded in 2010. He also tours the world, teaching Buddhism and ethical business practices. He has founded several other endeavors, including Andin International, the Asian Classics Input Project, the Diamond Abbey in New York, and the Enlightened Business Institute.
1.1 Spiritual partnership and controversy
4 External links
Michael Roach was born in Los Angeles, California in 1952 to Episcopalian parents, and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. He was a choirboy at his local church. He received the Presidential Scholars Medallion following high school graduation from U.S. President Richard Nixon, then graduated from Princeton University in 1974. Shortly before his graduation, he lost both of his parents to cancer and then his brother to suicide. He then moved to a Buddhist monastery in New Jersey with a Tibetan Buddhist lama, Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin.
Roach traveled to Asia[clarification needed] and returned to the United States in 1981. In 1983 he was ordained as a Gelugpa Buddhist monk and received a Geshe degree in 1995.
Roach went on to found Andin International, a lucrative international jewelry retailer based in New York. He later left the company and relinquished his holdings, setting up financial endowments to fund various projects. He used these experiences as the basis for a book, The Diamond Cutter, in which he explains the practice of the Diamond Cutter Sutra in the context of business. From 1993-1999, Roach taught a series of academic courses on Tibetan Buddhism in New York City. Roach also founded the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP) which compiles important Buddhist texts on CD-ROM. ACIP has input over 8,500 texts—nearly half a million pages—which it has made available for free. ACIP also provides a means of earning income for many Tibetan refugees.
During the 1990s he hosted a television program on public-access television in Manhattan, as well as a weekly broadcast for Mongolia that garnered approximately 500,000 viewers. He founded Diamond Abbey in New York (a Tibetan training center for monks and nuns) and also the Enlightened Business Institute, a business school that concentrates on implementing Buddhist ethics. Roach also founded Godstow Retreat Center in Redding, Connecticut which is now Do Ngak Kunphen Ling Tibetan Buddhist Center for Universal Peace.
From 2000-2003, Roach engaged in a three-year silent retreat in the Arizona desert with five other retreatants.
In the Fall of 2004, Roach and his then partner Christie McNally established Diamond Mountain University, a Buddhist retreat center and seminary in Arizona.
 Spiritual partnership and controversy
Geshe Michael Roach and Christie McNallyIn 1996, Christie McNally, then a recent college graduate, became Roach's student. In time, they began what they referred to as an intimate yet celibate "spiritual partnership" in which they took vows that included never being 15 feet apart. Though kept secret for a number of years, they went public with their relationship in 2003. This disclosure led to controversy in the Tibetan Buddhist community. Famed Tibetan scholar, former monk and friend of Roach, Robert Thurman, urged him to renounce his monastic vows, and when he refused, stopped speaking to him; the Dalai Lama stated Roach's "unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practices" and forbid him from teaching in Dharamsala in 2006. Roach and McNally's partnership ended in 2009 when McNally began a relationship with one of their students, Ian Thorson, whom she later married, though Roach and McNally continued to teach together. McNally and Thorson also began to teach yoga together, and authored a book.
In February 2012, while Christie McNally was officially leading a 3 year retreat in Arizona for Roach's Diamond Mountain University, she stabbed her husband Ian Thorson three times; while she later issued a confusing public statement in which she minimized the event as a "game", the wounds required serious medical attention. In an inquiry by the Diamond Mountain board, there were allegations of violence and abuse from Thorson toward McNally and others. Refusing to cooperate with Roach or the board, the two were asked to leave Diamond Mountain University and its properties for at least one year. Unknown to the board, the couple retreated to a nearby cave on public land, supported secretly by some followers. In April, Thorson was found dead in the cave after a distressed McNally made a cell phone call for help to Diamond Mountain. McNally was hospitalized and treated for dehydration, the likely cause of Thorson's death (police did not suspect foul play.)
The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, Three Leaves, 2000. ISBN 0-3854-9791-1
The Essential Yoga Sutra: Ancient Wisdom for Your Yoga, with Christie McNally, Three Leaves, 2005. ISBN 0-3855-1536-7
The Garden: A Parable, Image, 2000. ISBN 0-3854-9789-X
How Yoga Works: Healing Yourself and Others With The Yoga Sutra, with Christie McNally. Diamond Cutter Press, 2005. ISBN 0-9765-4690-6
The Tibetan Book of Yoga: Ancient Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy and Practice of Yoga, Doubleday, 2004. ISBN 0-3855-0837-9
^ Prebish, Charles S (1999). Luminous Passage: The Practice and Study of Buddhism in America. University of California Press. p. 156. ISBN 0520216970.
^ a b c Paine, Jeffrey (2005). Adventures With The Buddha. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 369–373. ISBN 0393059065.
^ a b c Seager, Richard Hughes (2000). Buddhism in America. Columbia University Press. pp. 122, 160. ISBN 0231108680.
^ Smith, Houston;, Novack, Philip (2004). Buddhism: A Concise Introduction. HarperCollins. p. 168. ISBN 0060730676.
^ "About ACI Phoenix". 2010. [aciphx.org]. Retrieved 2011-07-15.
^ "Geshe Michael Roach". Diamond Mountain. [www.diamondmtn.org]. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
^ a b Ehlrich, Dimitri (March 2000). "Mission: Possible - activists celebrated - Brief Article". findarticles.com. Archived from the original on 2008-06-10. [web.archive.org]. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
^ a b Furber, Matt (2004-04-09). "Yoga and meditation mix to improve business acumen". Idaho Mountain Express. [www.mtexpress.com]. Retrieved 2008-01-02.
^ Roach, Michael (2009). The Diamond Cutter. Doubleday. ISBN 978-0-385-52868-9.
^ "The Principal Teachings of Buddhism". 1993. [www.theknowledgebase.com]. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
^ "The Great Ideas of Buddhism, Part 3". 1999. [www.theknowledgebase.com]. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
^ a b [|Ocheltree, Jessica]. "Global Village". [archive.metropolis.co.jp]. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
^ a b Wilson, Jeff (2000). The Buddhist Guide to New York. St. Martin's Press. p. 85. ISBN 0312267150.
^ "Overview—Asian Classics Input Project". [www.asianclassics.org]. Retrieved 2011-06-02.
^ a b Leslie Kaufman (May 15, 2008). "Making Their Own Limits in a Spiritual Partnership". The New York Times. [www.nytimes.com]. Retrieved 2008-05-29.
^ Beth Landman (Feb 11, 2010). "Monk-y Business: Controversial NYC guru Michael Roach". Page Six Magazine. [www.nypost.com]. Retrieved 2010-06-24.
^ Diamond Mountain University (2010-06-02). 2009-2010 School Year Course Catalog and Schedule. pp. 77, 78. [diamondmountain.org].
^ a b Michael Roach (April 26, 2012). "An Open Letter from Geshe Michael". Diamond Mountain University. [diamondmountain.org]. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
^ Ven. Chandra and Ven. Akasha (April 22, 2012). "Statement on LC by Vens". [www.scribd.com]. [www.scribd.com]. Retrieved 2012-05-04.
 External links
Diamond Mountain website
v t e Modern Dharma / Dhamma writers (1824 to date)
Buddhist Rahul Sankrityayan B. R. Ambedkar Stephen Batchelor Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche Pema Chödrön Edward Conze Lama Surya Das Alexandra David-Néel Henepola Gunaratana Kelsang Gyatso Dalai Lama Steve Hagen Thrangu Rinpoche Walpola Rahula C. A. F. Rhys Davids T. W. Rhys Davids Seongcheol Sogyal Rinpoche Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Robert Thurman Richard Gombrich Chah Subhatto Nanavira Thera Thanissaro Bhikkhu Bhikkhu Bodhi Nyanaponika Thera Jack Kornfield Gil Fronsdal Seung Sahn Kitaro Nishida Khyentse Norbu D. T. Suzuki Paul Reps Scott Shaw Yin Shun Hsuan Hua Hsing Yun Nan Huai-Chin Philip Kapleau Shunryu Suzuki Taizan Maezumi Han Yong-un Ole Nydahl Matthieu Ricard Lama Anagarika Govinda Daisaku Ikeda Shohaku Okumura Dainin Katagiri Reb Anderson Thich Nhat Hanh S. N. Goenka Lokesh Chandra
Hindu Dayananda Saraswati Bankim Chattopadhyaya Swami Vivekananda Mahendranath Gupta Mohandas K. Gandhi Sri Aurobindo The Mother Ramana Maharshi Swami Ramdas Bal Gangadhar Tilak Sivananda Yogananda Srila Prabhupada A. Coomaraswamy Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan Alain Daniélou Ram Swarup Sita Ram Goel Satsvarupa dasa Goswami Swami Krishnananda David Frawley Mata Amritanandamayi
Jain Satish Kumar Claudia Pastorino Yashodev Suri
Sikh Bhai Vir Singh Harjot Oberoi G. B. Singh G. S. Talib Sahib Singh Karam Singh Bhai Kahn Singh Harjinder Singh Dilgeer Jaswant Neki Randhir Singh Bhagat Puran Singh Khushwant Singh
Syncretic, etc. Annie Besant Ram Dass Eknath Easwaran Georg Feuerstein H. S. Olcott Meher Baba Osho Alan Watts Ken Wilber Sathya Sai Baba Red Pine
Name Roach, Michael
Date of birth 1952
Place of birth Los Angeles, California, United States
Date of death
Place of death
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[quoted from the text of 'An Open Letter from Geshe Michael']
I apologize that this note could not have been more immediate. For the past several weeks I have been travelling out of the country teaching, which has made communication difficult, and I felt that before writing it was important to wait for reliable reports of this situation from the local authorities to supplement the reports I received from the staff of the University.
A very good practice to do when someone that we love dies is the following. Every day in the evening, write down in a journal one single memory of them that we have which is beautiful, especially something that might reveal that they were an angel in disguise, meant to help us while we knew them in this world.
In Ian’s case, this is not difficult. For me, I remember one incident when another student came to me and said that he had heard a divine being singing off in the desert behind some trees. He was extremely thrilled that his practice was finally paying off, and ran to meet the Being. And then he found Ian in a small tent, singing to the gods.
If we keep this practice up over a number of weeks, we begin to see the real reason of our loved one’s visit to our lives, and also what they were trying to teach us by leaving[/quote]
Copied 8:30 PST May 6, 2012
This is an open letter by Geshe Michael Roach, spiritual director of Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center, concerning the events surrounding the recent tragic death of one of our students, Ian Thorson. The letter has been reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the University.
I write this letter at the request of many friends of the University around the world. It has been a very sad and difficult week for all of us, mourning and trying to understand the loss of one of our oldest friends; a dear, courageous, and dedicated spiritual seeker. I know the parents and other relatives of the affected families well, and I know that this has been a heart-wrenching time for them too. We are deeply sorry for the loss that they and Ian’s wife, Lama Christie McNally, are surely feeling.
I apologize that this note could not have been more immediate. For the past several weeks I have been travelling out of the country teaching, which has made communication difficult, and I felt that before writing it was important to wait for reliable reports of this situation from the local authorities to supplement the reports I received from the staff of the University.
I have also been very reluctant to make any statements which might make this sad and painful situation more so. I particularly have not wanted to say anything to hurt two people who have been my dear friends, students, and even teachers. But I believe that not making a public statement now would cause more pain and confusion for many people.
Diamond Mountain University is located in the desert mountains of southeastern Arizona. It is an unaccredited, free university with no fees charged to any of its students. It has been recognized as a legal, 501(c)(3) non-profit organization by both state and federal authorities. We offer what I believe is perhaps the most authentic and rigorous course of Buddhist study available outside of a traditional Tibetan monastery. We also offer retreat facilities, also for free.
The teaching and support staff of the University work without pay, as a service to the world. And so of course we depend upon hundreds of dedicated volunteers and small sponsors, all around the world. Everyone at the University works very hard, and is extremely dedicated.
The university is located on 960 acres of wilderness land. About 30 buildings on the land have been constructed by volunteers as facilities for education, retreat, and prayer. The University has zero debt for the land and facilities, which we believe results from our policy of offering classes for free.
The Great Retreat
In December of 2010, thirty-nine students of the University began a traditional “Great Retreat” of 3 years, 3 months, and 3 days.
Before the retreat, almost all of the retreatants completed a rigorous course of 7 years of study of advanced Buddhism on campus, consisting of more than 10,000 pages of instruction translated directly from ancient Tibetan sources, to prepare them. Most of the retreatants had also completed all or part of a series of 18 foundation courses in Buddhist practice.
This is the most thorough and detailed preparation that I am aware of—inside or outside of the traditional Tibetan monasteries—for a retreat of this kind. The Board of Directors appointed Lama Christie McNally, a longtime teacher at the University and one of the original group of founders, as the retreat director. As with all other appointed positions at the University, this director reports to the Board.
Care of Retreatants
The health and safety of the retreatants has been a priority throughout the retreat. Within the retreat itself there is an M.D., as well as one registered nurse and two physician’s assistants. Outside the retreat boundary we have a resident, full-time registered nurse. Inside of a central supply building in the retreat valley there is a special telephone system which the retreatants may use for calling help in an emergency. This system is checked by the retreat caretaker staff on a weekly basis. There is a system in place for “neighborhood” emergency medical assistance, where one retreatant helps another who is in need and may not be able to reach the emergency phone.
Emotional and spiritual care of the retreatants is overseen by the Retreat Director within the retreat, along with a “counselor” in each of the retreat “neighborhoods,” or clusters of retreat cabins. The neighborhood counselors are senior DMU teachers, each with more than 10 years of training, in one case including advanced degree education as a psychologist.
Physically, all retreat cabins have been approved by the county authorities and include heating, solar electricity, and fresh water from our dedicated water system, which draws from wells and the famous spring here, and stretches over two miles throughout the retreat valley.
As per Buddhist tradition for this kind of retreat, the retreatants are asked to maintain verbal silence, but can communicate by notes and can be spoken to during visits by family, teachers, or caretaking staff when necessary. The retreatants are on a schedule of either one or two months in deep personal retreat (during which they normally see no one), with a single “break” month between, during which there are opportunities to get together for prayers and other ceremonies. Twice a year during a break month, we hold Great Retreat Teachings by teachers both inside and outside the retreat. At these times, the Spiritual Director of the entire university (myself) meets individually and in small groups with retreatants who wish guidance; and in some cases family members and personal spiritual teachers of retreatants also meet with them during this time.
Retreatants correspond freely with family members as they choose, and any retreatant is free at any time to leave the retreat simply by walking out to the caretaker cabins. After almost a year and a half of intense retreat, only three retreatants have left the retreat, which is a testament to the care and dedication of the entire University community.
Retreat Teachings of February 2012
Great Retreat Teachings were held, as scheduled, in the first week of February. Teachers included myself and Lama Christie, among others. About 150 people attended, including parents, friends, and family of retreatants, as well as new students and old. During her public talk on the evening of Saturday, February 4, which I also attended, Lama Christie told a story which appeared to describe serious incidents of mutual spousal abuse between herself and her husband, Ian Thorson, on campus during the retreat.
Lama Christie described what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband, and also an incident in which she had stabbed Ian with a knife, under what she described as a spiritual influence.
These statements of course caused great concern to the Board of Directors, and we also received many expressions of concern and confusion from retreatants’ parents, families, students and friends of DMU. The Board immediately initiated an inquiry, and in my own public talk on the following day I stated that we had a moral and legal responsibility to conduct such an investigation. Our entire lineage is of course founded upon the principle of non-violence, and the sacredness of all life. I made it clear that such violence would not be tolerated in a place of spiritual light and happiness.
Request to Leave the Campus
Diamond Mountain University has an established policy prohibiting violence, and prohibiting the possession of weapons on campus (and of course prohibiting their use). Every student who attends this university is required, at the beginning of each semester, to sign an agreement stating that they understand and will abide by these and all other University guidelines.
If a student violates these guidelines, the Board of Directors investigates the violation carefully. Those involved are encouraged to explain their side of the incident, and anyone who witnessed the occurrence is asked to make a statement, so that the decision about any disciplinary action can be as fair as possible. Disciplinary action may range from a formal warning, to expulsion from the campus either permanently or for a specified period of time. If the action is documented to be a violation of local or federal law, local authorities should be informed. We have not been perfect, but we have done our best to keep these policies.
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.
The Board began the process of requesting statements from the parties involved. During the week of February 6, Lama Christie and her husband Ian were each supplied two separate letters from the board requesting further clarification of possible spousal abuse and violence. These requests were strongly rejected.
During the same public talk of February 4, Lama Christie stated that the knife wound to Ian required sutures, which were administered inside the retreat valley. The Board requested and received a written statement from a professional medical practitioner inside the retreat, stating that they had sewn up wounds sustained by Ian that they had been told were the accidental result of playing with a knife. The medical person described three separate wounds to the torso, one of which was deep enough to threaten vital organs.
The Board then began the process of deciding on an appropriate course of action from the University. Most members of the board are close spiritual students of Lama Christie, and this was a heart-rending exercise which continued over several meetings. In the end, we decided to ask the couple to leave the campus for one year. Here are some of the reasons for our decision:
1) Members of the Board had previously received multiple formal and informal reports of partner abuse and assault of students and staff by Ian, including a written complaint of an incident which took place off campus, and another incident at the University which led to Ian being asked to leave the campus for a period of time.
Reports of previous incidents, even those which occurred outside of our university, played a large part in our decision. Some of us felt that Lama Christie, by mentioning the abuse publicly at the only talk which I attended, was making a conscious or unconscious cry for help.
I think it’s important to mention here that I do not personally believe that these were acts of malice. Ian was incredibly sensitive to outside stimulus—an accomplished poet, linguist, and spiritual practitioner who could “hear” the world in a way that most of us cannot. Sometimes those of us who spent time around him would see him get overwhelmed by this sensitivity and fly into windmills of unintended physical outbursts, which at times caused potentially serious physical harm to those close by. The Board was deeply afraid that one of these could trigger further mutual harm by the couple.
2) The couple’s retreat cabin was very remote, and we felt that if there were further incidents, there was a chance that no one would hear and be able to help. If the couple were out in public, this chance might be lessened.
3) We were strongly hoping for some indication that the couple understood that the violence was wrong, and should not be repeated. But it seemed from the statements made that violence under some kind of spiritual influence was considered alright. We wanted to send a strong message to the couple, to our University community, and to the general public that as individuals, as caretakers of a university, and as spiritual practitioners we strongly condemned this point of view. We did not, and we do not, want this view or activity on the campus of this university.
Again I think it is very important to point out that each individual’s personal spiritual experience is unique, and very possibly valid to themselves. We have no way of judging how these events were viewed spiritually by either Lama Christie or Ian. Knowing both of them for years, knowing them both to be incredibly devoted practitioners, we can only assume that something important for them was occurring.
At the same time, our responsibility as a Board is to protect the wellbeing and safety of everyone who attends this University, and the University itself. It is our heartfelt hope, and it is the reason why we continue to sustain the University, that many generations of practitioners may use this place in the future. The actions of these individuals could well have resulted in the permanent closing of the University. And so although each individual has the right to their own spiritual experience, and this experience may be valid for them, we did not feel it was fair to take the risk to deny these same experiences for many others to come.
In the following days, the Board sought the opinion of a professional psychologist to try to understand what the couple might be feeling. We also sought legal counsel, and on February 9 held a meeting with an attorney, who strongly encouraged us to take action, saying that it was the absolute duty of the board of directors of an organization such as our own to do so, in order to protect the future of both the retreat and the University itself.
After much deliberation, the Board took a formal vote to ask the couple to leave the campus for one year. We also felt that this and other, unrelated incidents warranted the removal of Lama Christie as Retreat Director and any other leadership role in the University. We also felt of course that a serious injury to a retreatant should have been reported to the Board.
We felt that it was important to present this decision to the couple in a sensitive way which caused minimum disturbance to themselves and the other retreatants, but this was made difficult by Lama Christie’s sudden announcement on Wednesday, February 8—without the Board’s knowledge or approval—that effective immediately no retreatant was allowed to communicate with outside parties, even family or teachers, for a period of one year. In the days following this announcement, Board members received letters from a number of retreatants expressing concern and dismay at the decision, and asking for help.
Three board members were already on campus, and two more (including myself) made the trip down, to be present and give our support to the retreatants and staff. We decided that the request to leave the campus would be presented to the couple on Wednesday, which is the day that vehicles normally enter the retreat valley to deliver food, to minimize disturbance to the retreatants.
We made preparations to assure that the couple’s departure was as safe and gentle as possible. I have myself completed a 3-year retreat, and I know how difficult it is to come out of one. And so we took the following steps,
1) We asked one of the couple’s closest outside friends and assistants to be on campus, and to assist the couple in their departure.
2) We had already put in place a 3-month “transition” program for all retreatants, to kick in whenever they chose to leave the retreat. This included a total of $3,600 in cash for the couple. We confirmed with their assistant (who was keeping their bank accounts) that another, large sum was available in their account, partly through regular donations of royalties which I have made for them over the last five years.
3) We provided a rental car, with the assistant to drive, for several weeks.
4) We approved airplane flights for the couple and assistant to any destination in the US, and also reserved a hotel room near the closest airport, with an adjoining door to a room for the assistant. We reviewed with the assistant the need to be both gentle and watchful for any signs of domestic violence.
5) We purchased two prepaid cell phones, and loaded them with the telephone numbers of the couple’s parents, friends, and personal teachers.
6) We carefully reviewed with the assistant the need to try to get the couple to seek the guidance and comfort of these friends, parents, and teachers. We felt that the decision of contacting relatives about the recent events and situation was only the couple’s to make. We reviewed with the assistant other retreat facilities in this part of the country that the couple might be interested in.
We were very concerned that there might be an outburst of violence towards those delivering the request to leave the campus, or that if left alone after the request was delivered, the stress might result in Lama Christie or Ian hurting each other or themselves. We had to make sure that someone was with them constantly.
And so we took the following steps:
1) We chose two male board members who are very dear friends and students of Lama Christie to deliver a written request to leave the campus.
2) We checked with the local Justice of the Peace about the possibility of official backup in case of an outburst of violence, or refusal to leave. He reviewed the history of the case, and the written policies of the university, and confirmed that we still had for at least one of the retreatants a copy of the signed student agreement not to commit violence on the campus. He verified that all cabins on the land are property of the university, and concluded that we had legal grounds to ask them to leave.
He understood that an incident of violence was possible and contacted the county police to have a cruiser available nearby the campus during the day. One of our board members went to sit in the county police office for the day with the necessary court order which would be required for a response in the event of an incident following a request to leave the campus. At no time did police enter the campus property or the retreat valley.
3) We wrote a letter clarifying the university’s disciplinary action and requesting that the couple pack a suitcase and leave the campus within the hour, in the company of the assistant, who was standing by with the car, and said that their larger belongings would be packed and forwarded to them immediately. We felt that this would also keep the trusted assistant nearby them throughout the process.
The board members arrived in the early afternoon and knocked on the door to deliver the letters, but there was no answer. They knocked again and concluded that no one was home, or that they didn’t want to answer the door. The two letters were placed in a prominent position near the doorknobs. The two board members went to the cabin of one of Lama Christie’s most trusted assistants within the retreat, explained the situation, and asked if she would be willing to communicate this to the couple, who might open the door to her.
At this same time, a letter was delivered to all the other retreatants (except one who was still in deep retreat—the rest were on break) asking them to attend a mandatory meeting at the retreat supply cabin. This two-hour meeting was also attended by myself and the president of the Board, as well as one other board member and a staff person who were familiar faces to the retreatants as they make the weekly food deliveries.
We wanted to be available to explain the Board’s decision from our different viewpoints, and to answer any questions and concerns. There was also some concern that Ian might have an outburst, enter the meeting, and possibly harm someone.
Just prior to this meeting, we met with John Brady, a level-headed senior teacher who is well respected, and asked him to assume the role of Retreat Director, which he gracefully agreed to do. We outlined a plan for a Retreat Council of five senior retreatants, with John at their head, to guide the retreat, working closely with the Board of Directors of the University. The plan was agreed upon by assembled retreatants, who voted on their choices for the Council, and these choices were confirmed by the Board.
During the first, private meeting, John’s first recommendation was that the University allow Lama Christie and Ian an additional five days to leave the campus. We were concerned, but we agreed.
We continued afternoon meetings for two more days to give each retreatant a chance to express their opinion, or any question that came up in their mind, or any past grievance concerning the governance of the retreat. The retreatants were asked to write their questions on slips of paper and strongly encouraged not to break their vow of silence. I also met individually with all but two of the retreatants, to give them personal assurance and guidance in their continued practice.
Obviously, the retreatants were distressed by all that was going on; and while it is not possible to know exactly what they were all thinking and feeling, it seemed that they clearly understood why a decision like this had been necessary.
Lama Christie and Ian refused to meet with members of the Board or to indicate clearly when or if they would follow our request. On February 22, we were informed by email from their assistant that they had left the land at 5am on Monday, February 20, and that he had driven to a public road to pick them up.
The assistant informed the Board that the couple wished strictly no contact or knowledge of their whereabouts. They asked us not to make any attempt to discover their destination. We were asked for cash for hotels and airplanes, so that there would be no receipts, presumably so that we would not know their whereabouts.
We responded that as a non-profit organization we needed receipts but would strictly honor the couple’s privacy. We were subsequently presented with hotel receipts and asked to pay for them. The location of the hotels on the receipts were blacked out. Because of this, we could not reimburse these receipts, but receiving them led us to believe that the couple had safely left the area.
Subsequent Events on National Park Land, and Attempted Care for Lama Christie and Ian
In the following weeks we respected the couple’s request for privacy. Our offer of cellphones had been refused and these were not taken. We had only the email address of the assistant through which to communicate. The assistant informed us that he had promised to maintain secrecy and could not communicate information or the couple’s location to us. On March 26, Lama Christie’s father called and asked if she had left the retreat; we confirmed this and referred him to her assistant’s email and phone number so that he could hear the story from her directly.
Retreatants locked the doors of the couple’s retreat cabin, to prevent it from being broken into by illegal immigrants, who often cross our land and who had broken into the cabin before. No one else entered the cabin.
I began an effort to try to create communication between Lama Christie and four persons whom I thought she considered her personal teachers, and from whom she might accept guidance, which we all felt that she desperately needed. She had before leaving the campus refused to meet with members of the Board or myself, or to accept letters of advice which I sent in to the retreat for her, strongly urging her to contact her teachers and parents for guidance.
On Monday, March 5, I took a 5-hour flight to attend a teaching event and to speak directly with one of these personal teachers. We had a very long talk concerning the couple’s welfare, and the teacher agreed to reach out personally. On March 9, I sent an email about this to the assistant, who did not respond.
On March 9, I took a flight outside the US for another event and again had a very long direct meeting with another of Lama Christie’s personal teachers, who also agreed to help. There was still no reply from the assistant.
From March 5 to April 18, I communicated through their staff and by email with the other two of Lama Christie’s personal teachers, who said that of course they would help and offer personal guidance. It was not until April 14 that I received an email from the assistant, stating that they feared they would lose all contact with Lama Christie if people tried to contact her, but that sealed letters could be sent to a New York address and might be opened. I supplied this address to the two teachers on April 17.
On Thursday, April 19, Lama Christie posted a letter on the internet explaining from her point of view the events that had taken place. We don’t know from where or how she posted this.
At 6am in the morning on Sunday, April 22, Lama Christie made a call from a cellphone to a volunteer on the Diamond Mountain campus. She said that she and Ian were in a cave on federal lands southwest of the University campus, and that Ian had a serious medical problem. She described their location and Diamond Mountain staff were roused. They drove to the nearest road location, then hiked on. One staff member called 911, and the 911 staff asked that Lama Christie call 911 on her cellphone to try to get a location by triangulation. She did so, but the authorities were not able to identify the exact location using the cell phone. The county authorities dispatched an assistance team by helicopters.
The helicopter search teams located the couple and Diamond Mountain volunteers arrived shortly afterwards. Our staff were asked not to stay in the vicinity and made the 60-minute hike down to Fort Bowie, a large national park facility and rangers’ residence west of the University.
During the rescue operation, I was in Argentina at a teaching program. I established cell phone contact with Lama Christie’s assistant, determined that he knew about the rescue attempt, and asked him to inform me whether the couple were in the state of Arizona or elsewhere, and if he knew their location.
I was told that the assistant did not know their location and was bound not to tell me if he did know. I think everyone can understand then that it is frustrating that DMU has been asked to comment on where or in what condition the couple were during the period up to this incident. From the above, it should be clear that we had no knowledge of their presence in the state of Arizona, and still have no knowledge of whether they left the area and returned, or never left. No one connected with DMU has ever “searched” the area for them before the day of the rescue, nor did we have any reason or jurisdiction to do so on the thousands of acres of public land surrounding our University.
We learned that Ian had passed away, and that an autopsy to determine the cause of death was scheduled. We contacted the county sheriff and were told that an investigation was under way; a report was released online by the sheriff’s department on Monday, April 23, giving some information and saying that an investigation was still continuing. The local medical examiner informed us that no information could be released except to members of the family. One news report quoted an official as saying that no foul play was suspected.
On Tuesday, April 24, Lama Christie’s assistants posted a statement online concerning these events and the circumstances of Ian’s passing, describing serious dehydration. We have no reason to doubt this heartbreaking account and, like everyone else, we at DMU are waiting for any additional information that might be made public.
During the incident we learned that two volunteers at the University were aware that Lama Christie and Ian had been in the area, we still don’t know for sure how long.
These individuals may have been supplying the couple with food and water, apparently along with a charged cell phone. I had spent the entire day on Sunday, April 1, in a University meeting in Phoenix with one of these individuals, and they never mentioned anything at all about the couple. The individuals are now with Lama Christie helping her, and we have asked that they give us some information about their role once some healing has occurred.
Members of the Board of Directors have still not been allowed to speak with Lama Christie directly and have been asked not to disturb her privacy at this time, but according to her assistants she is well and healing rapidly. I have sent messages asking that she seek the guidance and support of her personal teachers, but have no way of confirming that she has. During this period I have also sent repeated offers to speak with her if that would help, or to provide other material assistance.
We have reports from friends that a private funeral was held in Willcox, Arizona, on April 26, and that it was attended by Ian’s mother, and Lama Christie’s also. We don’t have any information on Lama Christie’s plans, except that she intends to maintain privacy.
Ways of Healing
Friends and students have asked me how we can think about these events, and how they can help. Here are some of my suggestions.
In our tradition we also believe that a person is aware of others in the weeks after their death, and we can at times throughout the day speak out loud to them; things that we loved about them, things that we regretted.
How to think of the things our teachers do (including of course myself), that we don’t agree with? Or of our own teachers when they don’t seem to agree with each other? I like the story of the Lama who asked his three students to rob a bank; two of them did, but a third respectfully declined, saying that as far as he understood, stealing was a wrong thing to do. And then the Lama had said that it had all been a test, to see if the student would respect the most fundamental rules of morality—and that the student had passed the test. That is to say, I think we are bound forever to respect the foundational guidelines of not harming others, while at the same time maintaining our respect and love for all our teachers.
On a practical level, I think it is crucial that every one of us have a personal teacher to guide us day to day, and correct us when we go wrong. We all need someone above us who can love and help us, like a parent. We have an ancient “Ne-Lama” system in place at DMU where each member of the community is asked to have a personal mentor who can listen to their problems and guide them in their actions. As I have stated over and over for many years, I would like to ask that people continue to respect this system, and to make sure that they have someone they can turn to.
I would also like to repeat my request that all friends and students who grant advanced Buddhist teachings first complete all the 18 foundational courses and the 18 advanced courses themselves, preferably at a leisurely pace, in person with a teacher who holds the entire lineage. This applies even to the most senior teachers in the DM lineage; if you’re not sure what courses you have formally completed, please contact the Asian Classics Institute registrar.
I would also like to repeat my decade-long request that people maintain a spiritual diary, with brief notations six times a day. And I would like to repeat that no student who has not completed the 18 foundational courses should be granted the advanced courses.
I think that these advices, particularly about having a close teacher who can guide us, would prevent tragedies such as the one that just occurred.
On a community level, I feel that it’s important that we be kind to one another, and to recognize that—according to our Buddhist tradition—the problems that we see around us are coming from how we ourselves have treated others in the past. I think that this will help all of us to be forgiving of each other.
I and the other members of the Board of DMU are neither omniscient nor infallible. We definitely make mistakes, and we are very grateful for any advice and suggestions that everyone can send us to help us. As a teacher, I myself am to a large degree responsible, like a parent, for the behavior of my students, even when they behave in ways that the parent has asked them not to. And I accept this responsibility, along with the joys of parenting as well.
All of the board members, particularly those serving on the campus, have basically sacrificed their entire lives to the University and the Retreat—to the service of others, without pay, and with endless problems to deal with. We are trying to do what we think is best, and right, and—in my own case especially—to do so with feelings of reconciliation and love. These events have been a tremendous strain on all of us, and I would like to encourage everyone to send expressions of love and encouragement to the brave and committed individuals of the DM Board. I pray that they will not become discouraged, and continue steadfast in serving the retreatants and future generations of DMU students.
I will also be going down to Diamond Mountain University when I return to the United States next week, counseling retreatants, and organizing a small memorial service for Ian. In the early years, Ian often travelled with us on teaching tours, and the ten or so of us here on this trip have decided that to continue to finish the planned programs is what he would most want us to do right now.
Again, on behalf of the entire University, I would like to express our sorrow and condolences to Ian’s family, and to his partner Lama Christie. We live close to the city of Phoenix, named after the mythical bird which rose from the ashes, a symbol of a new life—and I pray that all of your family, and all of us in the extended Diamond Mountain family as well, will take this opportunity to feel the preciousness of our time here in this world together, and to make good use of it, by taking care of each other. Lama Christie, as one of the original founders of DMU and the driving force behind much of the building in the retreat valley, has shown us how much a person can do with strong determination. And we are determined that our University will be a place of refuge and enlightenment for many more generations of students to come.
The Herald Sierra Vista, Arizona
Thu, 04/26/2012 - 12:10am
A man found dead after living in a cave with his wife for three months has been identified by authorities.
Ian Thorson, 38, of New York City, was found by Cochise County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue volunteers on Sunday in a cave that he and his 39-year-old wife had been living in after apparently leaving a nearby Buddhist seminary, according to the sheriff’s office.
Inside the cave, authorities found sleeping bags and containers of water, which is being tested for potential harmful agents, said Carol Capas, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office.
A stash of food, including snack items, breakfast cereals and dried beans, was found outside the cave. The cave itself is thought to have been about 6 feet high and about 8 feet deep with a narrow entrance.
The victim’s wife was treated at the Northern Cochise Community Hospital in Willcox for dehydration and released.
Thorson’s body was transported to the Cochise County Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy. The office was still awaiting toxicology test results on Wednesday, Capas said.
Quote:Monk-y Business: Controversial NYC guru Michael Roach By Beth Landman
Michael Roach, a controversial Buddhist monk, lost his "spiritual partner" to another man—and started partying and dressing in Armani suits. Now his flock is struggling to keep the faith.
November, Mia*, a comely thirtysomething yoga instructor at a studio downtown, got a strange phone call. Geshe Michael Roach, an ordained Buddhist monk and guru to many in the Union Square spirituality scene, was in town. He wanted to hang out that night with her and some of her other yogi friends, but he didn't want to talk chakras or do vinyasas. He wanted to hit the clubs.
Later that evening, Mia met up with the 57-year-old monk at Cielo, a hip club in the Meatpacking District known for its house beats and tough velvet rope. He wasn't wearing his usual flowing monastic robes. "It was the strangest thing," recalls Mia. "He was in this Armani suit and with a model, and he was now saying that everyone should dress up"—strange indeed, given that thousands of years of tradition dictate that Buddhist monks live spartan, celibate lives.
With his heavily lined face and thin graying hair brushing his shoulders, the guru didn't quite blend with the Cielo scene, though he did his best, boogying down with a young Chanel-clad Russian girl. Erin Vaughan, another yoga teacher there that night, was shocked. "He was on the dance floor, and there was nothing enlightened about it," she says.
Photo: Courtesy Www.diamondcutterinstitute.com
Geshe Michael and ex-partner Christie speak to followers at an Arizona church.
With an unorthodox approach to finding enlightenment—Geshe Michael encourages his followers to couple up with spiritual partners and never stray more than 30 feet from each other—he has always moved to his own beat. But after his own spiritual partner left him last summer for a younger man, he started to behave oddly, and now even some of his most loyal devotees are having trouble following his moves.
A Princeton grad, Michael Roach came to Buddhism after his mother's death from breast cancer left him devastated. "It sort of destroyed me,'' he remembers. "I kept wondering what the meaning of life was, and I went to India to look for answers. In those days you could go to the Dalai Lama's house and knock on his door." He was ordained as a monk in 1983 and then spent another 12 years studying Tibetan Buddhism to earn the title of geshe, one of only a few Westerners to do so. While studying for the geshe degree, Michael also amassed a personal fortune working in the diamond business, the vast majority of which, he says, he gave away to aid Tibetan refugees. In 1996 he cofounded Three Jewels, a dharma, meditation and yoga center in the East Village. The following year, he met Christie McNally, a young blonde two years out of NYU and 20 years his junior. Geshe Michael recalls their first meeting with a mythic reverence. "A beautiful rainbow came out," he says.
She came to him as a student, but their relationship quickly blossomed into much more. The two became spiritual partners, vowing never to be more than 15 feet apart. They spent three years, from 2000 to 2003, living together in an Arizona yurt on a silent retreat, their relationship a secret. Soon after, they went public, flying in the face of tradition and prompting outcry.
Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/Ap Images
The Dalai Lama shunned Michael for his unorthodox practices.
His friend Professor Robert Thurman, father of actress Uma Thurman and a former monk, begged Michael to renounce his monastic vows and stop wearing robes. Michael declined, and the two stopped speaking. The Dalai Lama refused to see him when he traveled to India with a group of students in 2006. Despite such harsh criticism, Geshe Michael continued to live with Christie, though he says he's been celibate since he was 22. Of course, his definition of celibacy differs from the norm.
"We are not allowed to have sex, but in yoga there are practices that involve joining with a partner,'' he explains. "They are secret, and you are not allowed to disclose them. You might think of them as sex, but their purpose is to move inner energy. It takes very strict training. There would be penetration, but no release of semen." Sex or no sex, the two developed a unique bond, and their unorthodox message attracted thousands of followers around the world, including in New York and Arizona—where in 2004, they founded an unaccredited Buddhist University and retreat center called Diamond Mountain. When they spoke at St. Bartholomew's Church on the Upper East Side in 2007, some 800 New Yorkers came out to hear their talk on spiritual partnerships. They gave countless lectures, wrote half a dozen books together and helped couple off hundreds of followers into intensely close partnerships like their own. It was a relationship of mythical proportions, but that didn't mean it would last forever.
Last summer Christie left Geshe Michael for another man. Ian Thorson, a young student who had once served as the couple's attendant and delivered them food and robes, had come between them. After nearly a decade of eating off the same plate, reading the same book and never leaving one another's sight, the couple's spiritual partnership came to a dramatic end. Now both Geshe Michael and his followers are devastated and questioning what, and whom, they believe in.
Photo: Lyn Sims Photography
Michael and Christie in the Arizona desert in 2005.
"Everything is going into chaos. It's all exploding," says Erin, who's close to many of his followers. "People are switching partners, and some are leaving him." Christie has fled into silent retreat (where she was at press time and unavailable for comment), most likely with Ian at her side, while Geshe Michael has been hitting the clubs with the Russian blonde. He's also been seen around town holding hands with a yoga instructor. He's even talking about starting a line of women's dresses adorned with synthetic diamonds.
According to Mia, the guru has also been telling his followers that "everyone should dress up and look beautiful—it was the opposite of how he usually speaks." More accurately, it seems to be the opposite of how he used to speak. Other followers have noted that Geshe Michael seems to be espousing different beliefs, preaching that looking good and dressing well can help attract more followers. "It certainly has created confusion," sighs Bengal Shyam, a 28-year-old follower.
Rebuttal of Elephant Journal article
(printed 10:05 PST May 6, 2012)
Quote:Via elephantjournal.comon May 6, 2012Rebuttal: “Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona.”
Rebuttal by John Stillwell.
The below article is a rebuttal that is intended to provide a different point of view, and context, around a recent tragedy in a Buddhist community.
The original story, by Matthew Remski, was summed up by Matthew thusly:
“Abstract for Media Outlets
Ian Thorson, 38, died on the morning of 4/22/12 of apparent dehydration in a cave in southeastern Arizona, after having been banished by the administration of nearby Diamond Mountain University, which is under the leadership of “Geshe” Michael Roach. Thorson’s wife, “Lama” Christie McNally, was rescued from the death scene by helicopter. Thorson had for years exhibited signs of mental illness and violence towards others, including McNally, who had recently stabbed him, presumably in self-defense. The failure to fully report the couple’s violence to local authorities, along with the subsequent banishment of the couple from Diamond Mountain property without adequate psychiatric, medical, and community care, all raise stark questions about the competency of this secretive and autocratic organization, and call into doubt whether its Board is qualified to protect the safety of the remaining residents of Diamond Mountain.”
For the rest of Matthew’s article, click here.
It is our aim, of course, not to engage in the extremes of character assassination, nor of suppressing truth—but rather, simply to get at the facts and further uplifted, kind dialogue (rude comments will be deleted) in the interests of furthering enlightened, compassionate, sane society. ~ ed.
Here is Mr. Stillwell’s rebuttal.
Mr. Matthew Remski’s article uses inaccurate reporting of a sad human loss as an opportunity to engage in sensationalism and personal attack. An open letter describing events around Ian Thorson’s death is available at Diamond Mountain.
Mr. Remski begins by listing multiple questionable “facts” in his opening paragraph, which then become a basis for his extensive historical review and disapproval of how his former teacher lived his life. Professing that he is writing an article without malice does not make it true.
His statements are the basis for a scathing article, including: failure to report violence to local authorities; banishment of a married couple without adequate psychiatric, medical and community care; and a secretive autocratic organization.
An official letter openly describing the events around Ian Thorson’s death is used by Mr. Remski with incredible selective omission and bias. Facts are clearly established contradicting his yellow journalism accusations: a report was made to the county police upon discovery that a wife had stabbed her husband while in isolated retreat; the retreat center board sought the opinion of a professional psychologist, and there is a nurse, two physicians assistants and a doctor in residence; anyone may visit Diamond Mountain at any time and all finances are openly posted on that web site. It is easy to verify that the opening statements in this article are false—ask the police, look on the web site, and read the open letter.
Mr. Remski uses the following adjectives in his “agenda-free, malice-free” opinion piece: fanaticism, psychosis, gross negligence, incompetence, obstructionism, danger, whitewashing, delusions of grandeur, tragically, authoritarian power, considerable thrall, secrecy, cult, buck-passing, power imbalance, mesmerize acolytes, dysfunction, insufferable person, romantic violence, terrible amputation, confused, disappointed, shoddy scholar, manipulative, tawdry, forcing devotees, rebellion, beyond the pale, rupture, catatonic, tragically self-absorbed, underfed and protein deficient, zealous, insecure, crafty, histrionic, profoundly disturbed, grandiose, strange and austere, shadow suppression, subliminal scapegoating, authoritarian control, deranged, psychosis, arcane, neo-colonial, fragile, trauma, critically troubled, ladder of power, dogma, disturbing, banished, mentally ill, terrifying isolation, cult leader, stormy sea, metastasized, criminalize, public humiliation, alienation, physical coercion, power, and Stalinist bureaucrats. Wow, how’s that for being objective and without any agenda?
Further questionable statements by Mr. Remski, which contradict the open letter source he used, include the following, which are followed by accurate openly published details that are easily documented and verified.
“Ian Thorson and his wife were asked to leave retreat within the hour.” Untrue: they were given five days to depart the retreat.
“Retreatants are sworn to silence.” Untrue: they routinely send and receive letters from family and friends if they wish, and there is no restriction on their communications. Choosing not to speak is normal for long retreat, and this does not prevent free written communications.
“35 people are camping in the Arizona desert.” Untrue: they are not camping but living in retreat cabins built at great personal expense, and fully permitted by county authorities as permanent dwellings.
“Not one single piece of help was offered to the couple, and there was not assessment, support, or chaperoning of the couple as ‘they were banished into the terrifying isolation of the surrounding desert’.” Untrue: There is a 3-month transition program for all retreatants who leave retreat. The Justice of the Peace was consulted on their history, along with a psychiatrist. Their closest friends were enrolled to assist them and stay close as constantly as possible. They were offered a place to stay, transportation, support, financial resources, and communication with their friends, parents, and teachers. The couple left the retreat property with their assistant and strictly wished no contact, or for anyone to have knowledge of their whereabouts. Her father called and was put in touch with her assistant to try and locate her.
“Retreatants are in retreat under direction of an insane woman.” Untrue: the former retreat director was asked to leave upon discovery of her violence with her spouse.
All of this information is in the same letter that Mr. Remski quotes from so inaccurately and selectively to create a hyped-up tale of horrible, terrible, nefarious abuse. The truth is that many, many people are working without pay, while on vacation from their jobs, to help and support 35 courageous retreatants who are doing the hard work of being in isolation with themselves to touch the deep recesses of their mind in an effort to heal themselves and their world by becoming more virtuous, loving and compassionate people.
It is deeply saddening that a former student of 12 years ago who says he is over his issues goes so far out of his way to attack a former teacher and disrupt the hard work of sincere, dedicated practitioners who have in some cases spent ten years preparing for their present retreat. Of course facts must be evaluated and appropriate action taken to care for everyone.
Hyperbole, selective omission, and distortion of public information do not help anyone.
~ John Stillwell
Text of Duty To Report Statutes For Competant Adult Victims of Domestic Violence -Arizona
In certain states, medical personnel are required to report injuries caused by criminal conduct. Domestic violence that results in injury will generally be a crime; therefore, these statutes will almost always require that injuries caused by domesticviolence be reported.