Last fall I found out that someone at NBC was trying to get in touch with me about the Geshe Michael Roach story (links to all of the background are below). It turns out that NBC NY producer Anna Schecter was piecing together a story for Dateline and had come across some of my writing here on Patheos.
She and I spoke for some time. I told her about my background, how I was sort of a student of GMR in the early ’00s and traveled with friends from the UK to Ireland when he and (then ‘Lama’) Christie McNally were speaking there in 2005. Roach was charismatic, both in person and on the hours of audio and video recordings that his students had collected and put on the internet.
And, as Professor Robert Thurman notes in the video below, there is a great deal of good teachings in Roach, even to this day. But there is a bit of something “off” as well. In the Tibetan Geluk school of Buddhism, the most important relationship a person can have is with his or her guru/teacher. So when Roach’s own teacher, Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin, died in 2004, Roach was set adrift. Perhaps consumed by his own intense popularity amongst his own students, Roach never endeavored to set himself back on a course within traditional Tibetan Buddhism.
What evolved over the years from 2004 (or a bit earlier) and the next five to ten years became something new, infused deeply with Roach’s Buddhist education along with Christianity, Hindu tantra, martial arts, and more. Syncretism is nothing new or non-Buddhist, however, as the religion has always borrowed from other traditions in one way or another and there have (pretty much) always been eccentric Buddhist masters.
The story, as I know it, has been told before. See the links below for that, and the videos here discussing some of Dateline’s piece. Yet it is a story worthy of telling and re-telling as American Buddhism develops.
Here Professor Robert Thurman describes Roach’s group as having “become a kind of cult,” adding that, “although there is a lot of good learning in it…” Thurman goes on to say that Roach may have got in over his head, lacking structure – a “reality check.” Following the brief discussion with Thurman you can also see Lama Lobsang Nyima speak about Ian Thorson (the man who died 2 years ago in the Arizona desert) and Nicole Sanderson, a former student of Geshe Michael Roach and Christy McNally, reflect on the people at Diamond Mountain and the fact that “this could happen to anyone.”
(Video from NBC Dateline)
Here is some of the background:
– Christy McNally’s letter (A shift in the Matrix), April 19th
– Michael Roach’s open letter (Acknowledging Ian’s death), April 26th
– Matthew Remski’s first critical analysis of the death, May 4th
– Death in the Desert in an American Buddhist Cult (ABP), May 5th
– John Stillwell’s rebuttal (of Remski), May 6th
– Remski’s followup, May 19th
– Michael Roach’s essay (defending his ‘Geshe’ title), June 2nd
– NY Times article, June 5th
– Geshe Michael Roach Cult Death hits the New York Times (ABP) – June 6th
– Dateline NBC interview discussed (ABP) – June 21st
– Further discussion, Remski’s third article (ABP) – July 9th
– CNN’s Anderson Cooper discusses the story – August 1st
– Diamond Mountain Death covered by Anderson Cooper (ABP) – August 7th
– Roach’s 3-year retreat update – Sept 1st
– Roach ’75 runs Buddhist retreat in the desert – October 15th
And we can add My Brief Rendez-vous with the Guru, by Anna Schecter – March 9, 2014.