Retreat for Peace

07.10.12

Buddhist Retreat’s Death Saga

A Buddhist ‘Retreat for Peace‘ in the rugged Arizona mountains has been less than peaceful lately, as a top student was expelled and later found dead in a cave. Lizzie Crocker looks for answers from the retreat’s charismatic founder.

In a carpeted auditorium in Phoenix last month, devotees of Michael Roach lined up in front of a stage to present him with bouquets of flowers, ambrosial peaches, coconut water, and other offerings. Each bowed his or her head, and Roach responded in turn with a warm, toothy smile. When the line was done, he climbed on the stage and sat cross-legged behind a podium, surveying his rapt audience. He settled his gaze on a student at the front of the room, signaling her to lead the opening prayers chanted before every course he taught.

About halfway through his two-hour lecture on the “Steps to Enlightenment,” Roach stopped and picked up a doughnut a woman had placed on the podium earlier.

“Desire is not always wrong,” he said, taking a bite. “It’s not wrong to like doughnuts. But if you’re with a group of people and take the last one without thinking of everyone else, that’s wrong. I got this doughnut here because I shared a doughnut with someone in the past.”

Such are the metaphysics of Roach’s brand of Buddhism—a “New World” philosophy, as he describes it, that has garnered him thousands of followers in the United States and abroad. Guru-seeking Westerners are drawn to his messianic zeal and accessible interpretation of an exotic Eastern religion; last month, 180 of them had come to participate in a 10-day teaching seminar held at the New Vision Center for Spiritual Living in Phoenix.

“When you do your meditation practice or your yoga practice, you’ve got to bring up some noble motivation,” Roach, 60, said to his students, who call him by his Buddhist honorific, Geshe Michael or Geshe-la. “I will look fantastic from doing yoga!” he said with flamboyant pretense. “I will be thin and strong and handsome or beautiful!” He paused. “That’s not wrong. It’s not wrong to wish to look good or to be smart or to be wealthy, if you use these motivations for the right reason.” He paused again. “What I’m trying to express to you is that you don’t have to be a saint to have the right motivation. You just have to expand on your own selfishness.”

Two months earlier, a much less blissful scene was unfolding in the rocky hills outside Roach’s Diamond Mountain University, a four-hour drive away in rugged Bowie, Ariz. On the morning of April 22, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department received an emergency call from a caretaker at Diamond Mountain, requesting a search-and-rescue operation for two of Roach’s leading students, Christie McNally and her husband, Ian Thorson. In late February, both had been expelled from a three-year, three-month, three-day silent retreat at Diamond Mountain, and had been living in a small, tepee-shape cave.

Paramedics had rappelled from a helicopter to the site of the cave—a steep, three-hour hike on rough terrain from Diamond Mountain. Inside, they found McNally, the retreat’s former director, dehydrated and delirious. Thorson was dead. The sheriff’s office found no indications of foul play, and a coroner’s report determined that he died of “exposure to the elements.”

Also in the cave were an air mattress, sleeping bags, flashlights, a garbage bag, a tarp, and several water jugs, all of which were empty but one, which contained about a quarter cup of dirty water. There were bins of uncooked food outside the cave’s entrance.

Sgt. Ursula Ritchie, a search-and-rescue coordinator with the sheriff’s department, found a cache of food and water roughly 50 feet below the cave, down a 60-degree slope, where caretakers from Diamond Mountain were occasionally dropping off supplies for the couple. “I had to scoot down on my rear to get there,” Ritchie said.

Roach’s Tibetan lamas thought he was crazy, Thurman said. ‘First of all, you just don’t go around saying you’re enlightened. It’s a secret teaching. It’s just not something you do.’

McNally and Thorson had retrieved their last food drop three weeks prior to the rescue, according to the sheriff’s department, and had shared their last meal—a bowl of split-pea soup—on April 20. They used the tarp to collect rainwater on April 14, but hadn’t had anything to drink for four days by the time rescuers arrived.

McNally, who refused medical treatment, told rescuers she and Thorson had been living in the cave for months, but had recently become too weak to make their way down and back up from the cache. McNally also said she and Thorson had lived at Diamond Mountain for nine years, but after being kicked out, they’d hoped to complete their silent retreat off of Diamond Mountain’s property.

According to Roach and several Diamond Mountain students, McNally and Thorson had been asked to leave after McNally revealed during a public talk that she had accidentally stabbed Thorson a year earlier. Roach and the DMU board determined that Christie had described mutual spousal abuse, and in an announcement the following day, Roach stated that violence of any kind wouldn’t be tolerated at Diamond Mountain.

On Feb. 9, the DMU board told McNally and Thorson they had five days to pack up their belongings and leave campus. They left the university grounds at dawn on Feb. 20 without notifying the board.

What actually happened that led to their expulsion? It depends on who is telling the story.

On April 26, four days after Thorson’s death, Roach posted a lengthy open letter on Diamond Mountain’s website explaining why the board had asked McNally and Thorson to leave, and mentioned that “multiple formal and informal reports of partner abuse and assault of students and staff by Ian” had factored largely in their decision.

The letter also detailed preparations the board made so that McNally’s and Thorson’s departure from the retreat would be “as safe and gentle as possible.” Roach wrote that the couple had refused to communicate with him or the board after they were asked to leave, so, through an assistant, DMU provided them with $3,600 in cash, a rental car, two prepaid cellphones, hotel reservations near the closest airport, and a promise of reimbursement for flights. The assistant told the board that the couple wanted no contact or knowledge of their whereabouts.

But just three days before the rescue mission, McNally, who could not be reached for comment for this story, appeared to post her own letter online (“we have no knowledge of when this letter was written, or how or by whom it was posted,” Roach wrote in an email). McNally’s letter offered a very different interpretation of the events that led to the “exile”: “there had been no kind of physical strife whatsoever” before the stabbing, she wrote, adding that she and Thorson “were simply fooling around, like children playing with their father’s samurai sword, unaware that eventually someone is bound to get hurt.”

She said she had written a separate letter to the DMU board and “tried to explain to them what they were doing wrong” in expelling them, and expressed disappointment that she and Thorson “were given no time to prepare a new place to continue our retreat.”

When she lost her role as retreat director, she wrote, she began to feel like she had “gotten the bad end of a divorce settlement!”

So where does the truth lie? More crucially, why were McNally and Thorson attempting to finish their years-long retreat in a remote desert cave? And how could Thorson's death have been avoided?

In June I traveled to Phoenix to meet with Roach in person. We had been in touch through email, and at his request I had sent him written questions beforehand. Still, he seemed surprised when I first introduced myself, and evaded my eyes when we sat down briefly during a break.

Roach was more willing to discuss the issue in writing, as seems to be his wont (he claims to have written eight books and translated more than 10,000 pages of ancient Tibetan texts).

When I wrote to ask what lessons Buddhism provided for him regarding the incidents surrounding Thorson’s death, he wrote: “In the Buddhist tradition, Rule #1 is that we need a personal teacher who can guide us, and correct our course when this is necessary. For me personally, watching this tragedy unfold, I have been reminded of the need for each of us to be accountable to someone whom we consider to be wiser and kinder than ourselves.”

Most of the people I spoke to in Phoenix also found spiritual explanations for both Roach’s and McNally’s actions surrounding the expulsion, and for Thorson’s death. Most, like Johnny Yozone, a 41-year-old recording engineer who moved out to Diamond Mountain six years ago, also absolved Roach of responsibility.

“Sometimes I see Geshe-la as a perfect being, and sometimes I don’t,” Yozone said. “But I trust him. And in the 12 years that I’ve known him, my morality has been perfected through him.”

But Roach’s own morality has been questioned by other Buddhists. Ex-devotee Matthew Remski has denounced Roach as a solipsistic spiritual leader and master manipulator in three lengthy critiques on the popular yoga website Elephant Journal. His analyses have created a forum where commenters continue to rabidly debate Roach’s philosophy and role in Thorson and McNally’s expulsion.

That role only becomes more complicated when one considers Roach’s personal history with McNally, whom he met in New York in 1996 when he was 44, 20 years her senior. She had graduated from NYU two years earlier and had just returned from studying meditation in India. In 1998 they took a secret vow to be lifelong “spiritual partners” and never to be more than 15 feet apart—a component of their relationship that they later discussed in an interview with The New York Times. In 2000 they entered into silent retreat at Diamond Mountain with three other women who were rumored to be Roach’s “dakinis,” or Tantric deities in the Tibetan tradition. His partnership with McNally wasn’t made public until they came out of retreat in 2003—and it was not welcome news to the Buddhist community in which Roach had trained.

“It was really frowned upon by the Tibetan Buddhists,” said Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University and former Buddhist monk. Thurman had worked with Roach in the 1980s on a database of ancient Tibetan manuscripts, which Roach ultimately completed without Thurman.

“I told him to renounce his monastic vows because under our tradition monks do not keep consorts,” Thurman said, recalling a meeting he had with Roach and McNally. But Roach insisted he was technically celibate, and told Thurman he’d never had genital contact with a mortal being. According to Thurman, McNally’s response was, “He said it, not me.”

In early 2003, shortly after coming out of retreat, Roach wrote a letter in verse to his teachers proclaiming that he was an enlightened being and that McNally was a goddess.

Thurman told The Daily Beast that Roach’s Tibetan lamas, or teachers, thought he was crazy. “First of all, you just don’t go around saying you’re enlightened,” he said. “It’s a secret teaching. It’s just not something you do.”

The concern over Roach’s unorthodox behavior came to a head while he was planning a trip with other Western Buddhists to attend teachings by the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Roach himself was trained in the same lineage as the Dalai Lama and is the first American to earn the title of geshe, the equivalent of a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhism. But in an email, the Dalai Lama’s office advised Roach not to come because of his “unconventional behavior,” including “keeping company with women,” which “does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practice.”

In a subsequent email, the Dalai Lama’s office also disapproved of Roach’s proclamations of enlightenment. “If you have reached the path of seeing, as you claim in your letter, you should then be able to show extraordinary powers and perform miracles like the Siddhas of the past,” the email said. “Only then will the followers of Tibetan Buddhists be able to believe and accept your claims.”

Still, Roach and McNally remained together—legally, at least—until late 2010, when an Arizona court granted Roach’s request for divorce. The circumstances surrounding their split are unclear. Some say he wanted to be with another woman; others claim it was because McNally had fallen in love with Thorson. Two months before Roach filed papers, McNally and Thorson married, and in December the couple entered into the second silent retreat at Diamond Mountain, where they lived together in a secluded cabin.

It was a provocative move. Those who knew Thorson over the years described him as quiet and bright, if socially awkward, and while he had followed Roach and his inner circle since the late 1990s, other students at DMU said Roach kept his distance.

“Before Geshe Michael went into retreat, there was a period of time when he was traveling around the country and abroad giving teachings, and he discouraged Ian from attending,” said Robert Chilton, who worked with Roach. “He could see that they didn’t have a productive relationship, that Ian wasn’t benefiting from being part of the community.”

Roach and McNally’s breakup also caused a rift among their disciples, according to Ekan Thomason, a Buddhist priest who graduated from Diamond Mountain in 2010 after a seven-year course on the higher teachings of Tantra.

“For years they had taught all around about being spiritual partners and told others that they, too, could reach enlightenment this way,” Thomason said. “Then suddenly they weren’t spiritual partners anymore, and they seemed to be competing for their students’ loyalty.”

But despite their split, Thomason and others said, McNally did not shed the deified persona Roach had cultivated in her for more than 10 years. People who knew them as a couple before and after their breakup said Roach’s perception of her as an angel distorted her grip on reality—and Thorson’s as well.

Thorson “swallowed the program hook, line and sinker, bolstering Christie's own sense of herself, and I believe this also made him wide-open to be driven, if not manipulated by her,” said Michael Brannan, a graduate of and current volunteer at DMU.

Other former students recalled feeling uncomfortable with the dynamic created by Roach’s relationship with McNally.

Sid Johnson, who first met Roach in 1999, moved out to Diamond Mountain in 2000 to help build a foundation for the University. He left a year later, but he returned for an initiation ceremony in 2005 with his wife, at which he recalled McNally kissing him on the mouth and touching his genitals, an experience he didn’t tell his wife about until years later.

“This was the last straw for me, but my wife had become smitten with the whole thing,” he said. McNally “was basically presented as the Buddha, and we were all supposed to see her as a holy enlightened being.”

In an emailed response to comments like these, Roach wrote, “Basically a student is responsible to evaluate what a teacher tells them and to follow it only if it helps other people and does not hurt them.”

During last month’s seminar, Roach did not mention McNally or Thorson, though he acknowledged recent events at Diamond Mountain that had caused suffering. Other students said he had encouraged them to reflect on what might have caused such “bad karma” to infiltrate the retreat.

One morning after meditation, Roach sought me out amidst commotion in the room. He had opted for loose-fitting maroon pants and a dark grey T-shirt, and seemed more approachable without his robes on. But when I asked if we could speak, he frowned and looked away distractedly. He didn’t think he could find the time, he said. “I just ask that you please focus on how hard the retreatants are working, not just on the one or two people that screwed up.”

But who really screwed up?

Some say McNally should take responsibility for the actions that led to her expulsion, and for the seemingly irrational decisions she made afterward.

“Her letter was a totally new fabrication of her teaching back in February,” Brannan told me in an email. “It demonstrates either an incredible act of purposeful evasion or self-deception.”

Others, like Thomason, who claimed her own ability to make judgments was impaired during the time she spent at Diamond Mountain, see McNally as a victim of brainwashing by Roach.

“It had to do with our mindset and the way we were taught to think, which is exactly how Christie had been taught to think,” Thomason said. “She had been fed information about how special she was since Geshe Michael first met her. She wore all this angel garb. She was a goddess and could do no wrong.”

Roach denies accusations that he leads a cult.

“I think of a cult as brainwashing followers in some kind of weird philosophy,” he wrote in an email. “In the case of almost every course I have ever taught at Diamond Mountain or elsewhere throughout the world during the last 20 years, I have only used direct translations of the ancient scriptures of Buddhist tradition. None of what I have ever taught is my own idea; all of it is backed up by the ancient classics, word for word.”

But ex-devotees and skeptics of Roach claim he has tweaked ancient teachings to fit his philosophy.

Thomason pointed to a temple at Diamond Mountain devoted to Kali, a traditional Hindu goddess, that housed crossbows, rifles, chainsaws, an AK-47, and a samurai sword.

“They were trying to manipulate Kali to represent some Tibetan deity, but it just didn’t make sense,” Thomason said. During an initiation ceremony conducted by McNally in 2009, Thomason said, she and other students were asked to draw blood from their fingertips as a sacrifice to Kali.

When I asked Roach if he approved of McNally’s ceremony, his response was vague.

“We had over 130 students graduate from our seven-year course in advanced Buddhism. Many of these students have granted their own initiations, in keeping with a tradition of over 1,000 years. I rarely have time to attend these,” he wrote, adding that he wasn’t present at McNally’s ceremony.

Thurman argued that Roach’s teachings from the text are difficult to verify because Roach himself operates in a self-justifying universe.

“Most of his followers have only studied with him and learned from his translations,” Thurman said.

Other ex-devotees, such as Sid Johnson, say the student’s blind faith in the teacher breeds cognitive dissonance, particularly if that teacher has a distorted understanding of the role his own desires and attachments play in his interpretation of traditional doctrine. 

“How can a student determine the truth in any situation when the teacher doesn’t have a grip on reality?”