A decade has gone by and Geshe Michael Roach still fails to manage the fallout of his 2003 letter in which he claimed spiritual attainment, and disclosed a “spiritual partnership” with his student Christie McNally. Because physical relationships with women are inappropriate for monks, he became persona non grata among Tibetan and Buddhist communities. Refusing to give up his monk’s robes, Geshe Michael found new audiences among the yoga crowd, but he has become radioactive since the tragic death of his student Ian Thorson, who was doing a 3-year retreat with his wife Christie McNally. Geshe Michael’s credibility suffers further upon subsequent revelations of his secret marriage to Christie McNally back in 1998 and their secret divorce in 2010. It appears that Geshe Michael could now only acquire new fans and admirers among foreign, non-English speaking, and business audiences who are unaware of the scandals and controversies that brought him disrepute.
For someone who preaches “karmic management,” Geshe Michael failed miserably at mending relationships with his monastic tradition, and with Buddhist communities at large. Despite a supposed expertise in karmic management, Geshe Michael failed to hold his marriage together, and failed to provide a successful retreat. It is also apparent that his karmic management has failed to hold off negative press:
Since Thorson’s death, neither Roach nor McNally have spoken to the press. But both agreed to interviews with Rolling Stone – Roach on the condition that he would not answer questions about Thorson’s demise, and McNally responding with a sprawling 44-page document.
… The office of the Dalai Lama issued a rebuke, and Roach’s associates urged him to remove his robes to indicate that he was not celibate. When he refused, Robert Thurman, a former ordained monk, tried to reason with him. “I asked him to meet,” says Thurman, who is married and long ago resigned his robes. “He finally came with his consort to Columbia. I told him to go back to being a lay minister, to take off the robes. Bottom line is, he said he wouldn’t give up the robes. He said, ‘I have never consorted with a human female,’ and I said to Christie, ‘Are you human?’ And she didn’t say yes or no. She said, ‘He said it, I didn’t.'”
… At the tsechus, Roach encouraged male adherents to better access their feminine side and honor Vajrayogini by dressing as women. Roach himself turned up at the temple on these evenings dressed as a “preppy girl,” with eye shadow, eyeliner, skirts and blouses. One night, he dressed as a woman to go to dinner with a group of Diamond Mountain students at a Tucson restaurant.
… Relationships frayed in the isolation and also under the pressure of Roach and McNally’s “spiritual partnership” teachings. Couples who arrived together broke up and connected with different partners.
… McNally believes Roach has been vindictive in ostracizing her from her former community. “In addition to losing my husband, I had no home to go back to, no more job, and it seemed like almost every person I knew was somehow turned against me by the person I used to trust with my very life….I did not realize the intensity of GM’s bitterness toward me. He is a formidable enemy, especially when you do not even realize you have one”.
… As for his critics in Tibetan Buddhism, he says, “I don’t care. I don’t have much connection with American Buddhists anymore.”
… “I will talk about Diamond Mountain if you want, but in three months nobody will care about what happened there. In a year, everyone will have forgotten about it.” He spoke with the certainty of a man who believes he can make his own reality. He says that Diamond Mountain’s days as a school are numbered anyway. “We should just make it online.” McNally is sad to hear this but not surprised. Roach, she says, told her he hated the place” and used to call it “Demon Mountain” in private.
Rolling Stone, 6/2013
Robert Thurman, a professor of religious studies at Columbia University, met with Roach and McNally shortly after Roach published his open letter. He was concerned that Roach had broken his vows and that his continuing as a monk could damage the reputation of the larger Tibetan Buddhist community. “I told him, ‘You can’t be a monk and have a girlfriend; you have clearly given up your vow,’” Thurman says. “To which he responded that he had never had genital contact with a human female. So I turned to her and asked if she was human or not. She said right away, ‘He said it. I didn’t.’ There was a pregnant pause, and then she said, ‘But can’t he do whatever he wants, since he has directly realized emptiness?’” On the phone I can hear Thurman consider his words and sigh. “It seemed like they had already descended into psychosis.”
… By the middle of 2010, plans for the second great retreat were coming together, but Roach and McNally’s relationship was falling apart…. Michael Brannan remembers “a lot of people just sort of swapped partners,” including McNally.
… Under Roach and McNally’s direction they threw parties in the temple at which they served “nectar,” specially blessed booze they could drink despite their vows of abstinence.
… “It was a very sad event,” he said, “but why are people not interested in my teaching? One person dies in the desert and suddenly everyone pays attention. People should be talking about all the good works that I’ve done instead.”
He wasn’t violating his vows as a monk, he insisted—he was engaging in sex not with a mortal but with a reincarnated Hindu goddess, Vajrayogini. In other words, he decreed, there was nothing carnal about their coupling; both he and McNally had achieved enlightenment. Reportedly, when word reached the Dalai Lama, he dropped his teacup and issued a letter of reprimand. Prominent Western Buddhists urged Roach to acknowledge his apostasy. Enlightenment is not something one proclaims; it can only be lived.
… He told his followers that it was time to lie low for a while, as reporters were swarming around. By next year, he suggested, things would be back to normal; maybe they could even have their annual Cinco de Mayo party.
Psychology Today, 11/2012
It wasn’t until after Thorson’s death that Roach’s students discovered that Roach and McNally had been legally married and divorced, according to Michael Brannan, a former Roach student who lives in Bowie and still volunteers at Diamond Mountain…. Brannan said that when he learned that McNally and Roach had been married, he realized that Roach’s story that he and McNally were spiritual partners was a farce. “He broke his vows as a monk,” Brannan said, adding that he wrote to the Diamond Mountain board of directors and asked that it cut ties with Roach to help Diamond Mountain regain credibility. “The critical eye of American Buddhism is looking at Diamond Mountain. A young man died.” Brannan claims that in response, Roach told the board that Brannan was no longer welcome to attend teaching events, but Brannan continues to volunteer by relieving caretakers assigned to provide food and other needs for each of the people in silent retreat.
Tucson Weekly, 9/2012
“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.”
… 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.”
… 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 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.”
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.
New York Times, 6/2012
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.”
… Though Geshe Michael talks with only diplomatic grace about his former partner and maintains the relationship wasn’t romantic, he is clearly heartbroken. “It’s difficult to keep it spiritual,” he admits. “We were trained since childhood to think of a partner as romantic, and I don’t think anyone truly overcomes that. There’s still a little high school stuff going on, but it’s a good lesson.”
New York Post, 2/2010
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