Prosperity Buddhism and a grisly desert death

A few years ago, I read a fascinating story in the New York Times about Buddhist teachers Michael Roach and Christie McNally. A decade earlier, they’d taken vows never to separate, night or day. And yet, the article explained, they were celibate. It was one of those interesting, if a tad fluffy, stories written under the heading “Living Together.” The headline was “Making Their Own Limits in a Spiritual Partnership:”

Their partnership, they say, is celibate. It is, as they describe it, a high level of Buddhist practice that involves confronting their own imperfections and thereby learning to better serve the world…

But their practice — which even they admit is radical by the standards of the religious community whose ideas they aim to further — has sent shock waves through the Tibetan Buddhist community as far as the Dalai Lama himself, whose office indicated its disapproval of the living arrangement by rebuffing Mr. Roach’s attempt to teach at Dharamsala, India, in 2006. (In a letter, the office said his “unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practices.”)

The Dalai Lama’s statement against the teachings of Mr. Roach did not receive any of the opprobrium that, for instance, similar statements the Vatican issued this week against books that aren’t in accord with that church body’s doctrine have, but that’s just the way the media works with these things, I think. The article was favorable toward its subjects without being too imbalanced. And it had enough of an impact on me that I wondered if they were the same people who were discussed in a more recent New York Times piece. They were.

And boy is it a sad story. Datelined Bowie, Arizona, we’re told about a daring rescue attempt in a cave 7,000 feet up a rugged desert mountain. Inside the cave was a jug with an inch of water and McNally, delirious. Her husband, a man named Ian Thorson, was dead. And that’s just the beginning. They were expelled from a nearby retreat center run by Mr. Roach where adherents had pledged to meditate silently for three years, three months and three days:

The retreat — in which adherents communicate only with pen and paper — was designed to allow participants to employ yoga and deep meditation to try to answer some of life’s most profound questions. Mostly, though, it has only raised more questions.

Was it a genuine spiritual enclave? What happened to drive Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson out of the camp and into the wilderness? And just why, in a quest for enlightenment, did Mr. Thorson, a 38-year-old Stanford graduate, end up dead, apparently from exposure and dehydration, in a remote region of rattlesnakes and drug smugglers?

When Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson left the retreat on Feb. 20, after having participated for one year and one month, she had been its leading teacher. The monk who ran the retreat, Michael Roach, had previously run a diamond business worth tens of millions of dollars and was now promoting Buddhist principles as a path to financial prosperity, raising eyebrows from more traditional Buddhists.

He had described Ms. McNally for a time as his “spiritual partner,” living with him in platonic contemplation. What the other participants did not know is that before she married Mr. Thorson, Ms. McNally had been secretly married to Mr. Roach, in stark violation of the Buddhist tradition to which he belongs.

Even the manner in which Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson left the retreat adds a fresh turn to an already twisty tale. It came days after she made a startling revelation during one of her lectures: she said that Mr. Thorson had been violent toward her, and that she had stabbed him, using a knife they had received as a wedding gift.

It’s so odd to reread the more positive tale of McNally and Roach’s relationship from three years ago and fast forward to this story. Of course, it sort of made me wonder what both stories might be missing.

Critics are given more of a voice in this story, including some who claimed that the initiation ceremonies at the retreat center involved genital touching and drawing blood from fingers. It may seem obvious but I would have liked to know a bit more about why these practices are unconventional — to get a bit more information about why the orthodox communities disparage such practices.

There are some great quotes, however, such as this one:

Erik Brinkman, a Buddhist monk who remains one of Mr. Roach’s staunchest admirers, said, “If the definition of a cult is to follow our spiritual leader into the desert, then we are a cult.”

We do get some interesting information from Roach about how he justified the marriage and more details on how things went south:

In early February of this year, Ms. McNally and Mr. Thorson received a letter from Mr. Roach and the five other members of Diamond Mountain’s board of directors, demanding explanations for the violence and stabbing she had discussed in her lesson. There was no reply. In a letter she posted online — which she wrote after their departure from the retreat, though before Mr. Thorson’s death — Ms. McNally described it as an accident by a novice martial-arts practitioner rehearsing her moves.

This might be a good example of how the article fails to explain things as well as I needed. How did she post the letter online from her cave area? I read elsewhere that this letter was posted on April 19. We’re given other details about how they were just camping next to the retreat center and that other retreat participants left water for them but that at some point they fell ill. She had a portable transmitter that she used to send a distress signal on April 22. So how did she post that letter three days prior?

I had so many other questions, too. When did McNally fall sick? When did her husband fall sick? Why, specifically, do the police not suspect foul play given all the other problems leading up to the death? How do Buddhists handle those teaching contrary to more traditional strains? Even a bit more explanation of why we’re told that Roach believes in the Prosperity Buddhism — is that the reporter’s contention or is it Roach’s own claim? How do vows of silence work in an age when notes can be posted on the internet?

Sonoran Desert photo via Shutterstock.

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  • Barbara Hoetsu O’Brien

    Although my experience is in the Zen tradition, I’ve been following Roach and his group for a while and can answer some of your questions.

    Gelugpa (Roach’s former order) is an old tradition that presents increasingly esoteric levels of training. Beginning each level requires an empowerment/initiation ceremony that is done in a very precise, traditional way. Genital touching and blood drawing are not part of the tradition. In most Buddhist traditions these things would be just as odd and out of place as they would among, say, Lutherans.

    Tibetans generally are enormously conservative about their traditional practices; I’m using “conservative” in the dictionary sense of conserving, doing things the way we’ve always done them. There are exceptions to that, and very high lamas do sometimes change things around, within certain parameters. But even the Dalai Lama has some limits on his authority to make changes. Roach was never a very high lama, and I doubt he ever had the institutional authority to be innovative with the traditional rituals.

    Rituals in Buddhism are supposed to be upaya, or skillful means, to help one realize enlightenment. Over the centuries the many schools have come up with all kinds of stuff that at least some people have found to be helpful. They all look equally ridiculous to outsiders, I suppose, but with experience (I’ve been a Zen student since the 1980s) you start to pick up on what sorts of things work and what don’t. If anyone over the past 25 centuries had found that ritual blood drawing, for example, could get one closer to enlightenment, then probably you’d see it done occasionally. But I’ve never heard of such a thing, in any school.

    Also, per the example of the historical Buddha, extreme practices such as fasting or inflicting pain are discouraged. The practice is supposed to avoid extremes; not too hard, not too soft. This is not always followed, but the Buddha was clear enough on this point.

    Next question — everyone has been asking how McNally could have posted on her website and still not have been able to summon help sooner. Only McNally knows, I guess, and she isn’t talking.

    Next — I understand Thorson died of dehydration, which is why the police don’t suspect foul play. McNally had to be treated for dehydration also. It appears the two of them just lacked the sense to not camp out in the desert without a whole lot of water.

    Prosperity Buddhism — Roach has written a couple of books about how to manage your karma to be a success in business (look them up on Amazon), and he goes all over the world giving seminars on getting rich through Buddhist principles. From a Buddhist perspective, this is about as shocking as a Catholic priest promoting the wonders of abortion. It betrays Buddhist teaching on several levels.

    Vows of silence — the readers of my website tell me that in Tibetan three-year retreats people are only silent part of the time. But by all appearances Roach’s retreat is not following traditional format, so I don’t know what they’re doing. In Zen, when on silent retreat (sesshin) one does not use computers or phones, smart or otherwise, or even read newspapers. But Zen retreats usually last about a week.

    I hope that helps clear up some confusion.

  • Jerry

    Instead of a deep look at the history of Tibetan Buddhism, it’s practices and so forth, we were of course treated to a sensational set of charges and events.

    There are indeed a lot of questions that the story raised that were not answered. But I don’t think it’s possible to really answer them all in the context of a news story. There’s at least two important stories. First, the story of Mr. Roach’s practices and group. Second there’s a story about why the people were in the caves.

    It’s important to focus on Tibetan Buddhism, specifically Gelug-pa per It’s thus possible to compare what was going on at Diamond Mountain University with traditional Yellow Hat teachings.

    I also wonder if some form of tantra is involved. Tantra is a very easily abused arena because it involves sexual energy amongst other things.

    And knowing that Tibetan background and knowing the famous biography of Milarepa, I wonder if there was some emulation of Milarepa’s story of committing evil acts, repenting and practicing austerities including living in a cave and eating nettle soup.

    Once we have the right frame-of-reference, Yellow Hat, Tantra and Milarepa, we can start putting what happened into proper context. Without that we’re left with what was in the article: sensationalism and unexplored areas.