Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona

Via yoga 2.0 lab
on May 4, 2012
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Editor’s update: a post from Geshe Michael Roach describing his education.

Editor’s update: a rebuttal to the below, by John Stillwell, is offered here. As a reader-created open forum, we welcome all views: [email protected]


Author’s update: I have since published a followup piece to this post, which attempts to collate and analyze the 660+ comments, opinions, and concerns generated in the thread below by both supporters and critics of Diamond Mountain and Michael Roach. MR

reporting and opinion by Matthew Remski

Special thanks to Joel Kramer, Diana Alstad, and Michael Stone

for their help in the preparation of this article .


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.


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 still: 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.

There’s an old adage: “The devil quotes scripture.” A self-validating metaphysics will twist anything to its purposes. I remember Shantideva’s  Bodhisattva’s Way of Life being one of Roach’s favourite texts. In it the sage writes (as per Stephen Batchelor’s translation of 6:43):

Both the weapon and my body
Are the causes of my suffering.
Since the other gave rise to the weapon,
and I to the body,
With whom should I be angry?

I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness and the stickiness of private perspective. But now now I have to wonder whether Roach’s usage of this and similar passages, distorted by his solipsism, has been gasoline to his dangerous fire.


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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Invite full police, state, and medical official investigations. Bring in professionals to question all principles.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.`
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. Disclose the protocol by which you evaluate the mental health of retreatants, and how you will update this protocol in view of this tragedy.
  12. 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.
  13. Publish the transcript of McNally’s February 4th talk, in which she made allusion to the domestic violence and the stabbing.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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, 5am)

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.”

graph 13: 

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.

graph 19:

“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.”

graph 20:

“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.”

graph 23:

“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.”

 graph 30:

“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”

graph 35:

“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.”

CORRECTION (posted 5/18/12 6:30am)
section on Shantideva:

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.

 changed, through dialogue with Phurba and others, to:

There’s an old adage: “The devil quotes scripture.” A self-validating metaphysics will twist anything to its purposes. I remember Shantideva’s  Bodhisattva’s Way of Life being one of Roach’s favourite texts. In it the sage writes (as per Stephen Batchelor’s translation of 6:43):

Both the weapon and my body
Are the causes of my suffering.
Since the other gave rise to the weapon,
and I to the body,
With whom should I be angry?

I remember being enthralled by Shantideva’s breathtaking and poetic subject/object blurring: it taught me a lot about consciousness and the stickiness of private perspective. But now now I have to wonder whether Roach’s usage of this and similar passages, distorted by his solipsism, has been gasoline to his dangerous fire.


About yoga 2.0 lab

Matthew Remski is an Ayurvedic practitioner and Yoga Teacher Trainer in Toronto. His latest book, Threads of Yoga, is gathering international acclaim. He's teaching this online course starting 1/7/14. It's currently full, but there is a reduced-tuition option for auditing. The 12 weekly lessons will be available online for six months following the course. Participants receive a 130-page manual of notes.


720 Responses to “Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona”

  1. integralhack says:

    Great analysis, Matthew. Is this Tibetan Buddhism meets The Secret? Maybe Eric can clarify . . .

  2. Ted Lemon says:

    The culture of secrecy you talk about isn't something I really get. When this happened, it was talked about. Nobody had much information, not because of any intention of secrecy, but because we weren't there. As you can see, people do like to speculate, but the fact is that the involved parties did in fact write about their experiences, and that's what Matthew is basing his article on.

    The in-group/out-group thing is something I've experienced too. My experience of it is that some students really feel that they have to be close to the Lama, and they make that their practice, instead of doing what the Lama tells them to do (which is mostly to meditate, and keep their vows). This happens in every spiritual group I know of, and while it's convenient to blame it on the Lama, I think you should blame it on the bell curve. The people who are not in the in group are simply the ones who don't feel the need to be in the in group; I count myself among that number. I live in Vermont, and am happy to see Geshe Michael when it's possible, without trying to force the issue.

    The practice of seeing everything that comes to us as a teaching is a practice. Things are neither "teachings" nor "not teachings." This is true of every experience we have. The advice to turn our experiences into a path is not one that is unique to Geshe Michael—you will find it in His Holiness' teachings, in Lama Zopa Rinpoche's teachings, and in Lama Yeshe's teachings. Like any practice, it is not always used wisely. When someone brandishes a knife at you, it may well be a teaching, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't run.

    The idea that everything is the result of karma is expressed in one of the three turnings of the wheel. The other two turnings of the wheel treat the question differently. Some schools of Buddhism deny the second turning of the wheel, but it is in fact widely accepted. The Buddha said many things that, taken literally, contradict each other. Je Tsongkhapa explains this problem in detail in the Essence of Eloquence. My point being a particular Buddhist sect's explanation of exactly what suchness or emptiness is, and how it relates to karma, is in fact what distinguishes the various sects of Buddhism, so to say that one sect disagrees with another is not to say that either sect is definitively wrong. That is what you are doing in your point 4.

    Guru Yoga means deciding that the Lama is the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This too is not a teaching unique to Geshe Michael—it's taught by Lama Zopa Rinpoche, and was taught by Lama Yeshe, and as far as I know has been taught this way for millenia. And yes, it is absolutely ripe for exploitation by an unscrupulous Lama. This is the source of the advice Lord Atisha followed on how to choose your Lama: observe them for ten years before making any decisions.

    I've heard the "crush the student's ego" thing before, but never from Geshe Michael or Lama Christie. Neither of them adhere to the mistaken translation of "no self" as "eliminating the ego." This is in fact a key point that Geshe Michael teaches essentially every time he teaches, because he considers it so important. So if someone is saying that this is a Diamond Mountain tradition, it's news to me.

  3. @Suri_k8 says:

    Part 3

    June 5, 2006

    Dear Rev. Michael Roach,

    This is to thank you for your letter of May 30, addressed to Chhime Rigzin-la both in English as well as Tibetan. Chhime-la is presently away with His Holiness and I am responding to your letter on behalf of our Office here.

    We have gone through your long explanation but still do not support your coming to Dharmsala. If you have reached the path of seeing, as you claim in your letter, you should then be able show extraordinary powers and perform miracles like the Siddhas of the past. Only then will the followers of Tibetan Buddhists be able to believe and accept your claims.

    Otherwise, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is the Spiritual and Temporal leader of Tibet having responsibility over the welfare of Tibetan Buddhism many have often complained to Him that He should be strict with those who are not adhering to the general norms of discipline according to our tradition. And your coming to Dharmsala will be seen by many as His Holiness condoning your behavior and practice.

    In view of all these we advise you not to visit Dharmsala in the greater interest of the purity of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as clearly indicated in the letter of Chhime Rigzin-la dated May 24, 2006. However, as for the other members of your group those who are interested are welcome to attend the teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

    Tenzin Geyche Tethong
    Secretary to H.H. the Dalai Lama

  4. @Suri_k8 says:

    Part 4

    From: [email protected]
    Subject: Mr. Chhime R. Choekyapa <[email protected]…>
    Date: June 12, 2006 5:22:00 AM CDT
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    Dear Todd Marek,

    Thank you for your email of June 10, 2006. The letter dated June 5,
    2006 addressed to Rev. Michael Roach has indeed been sent by me. I am
    also giving below a copy of the letter that was earlier sent to Rev.
    Michael Roach by my colleague, Mr. Chhime Rigzin Choekuapa.

    Date: Wed, 24 May 2006 11:38:51 +0530
    To: —@…
    From: "Chhime R. Chhoekyapa" <[email protected]…>
    Subject: Teachings in June
    Cc: —@…, —@…, —@…

    Dear Rev. Michael Roach,

    We have recently learnt that you are planning to come to Dharmsala
    during the June teachings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama with a large
    group of Western Buddhists. We also understand that you plan to give
    separate teachings on the "Essence of Eloquence" to this group in the
    evenings following His Holiness's teachings in the afternoons.

    On your Diamond Mountain website it is stated "that Geshe Thupten
    Rinchen is ill. As you may already know, he has tuberculosis in the
    past, and now he is having a recurrence, which is likely to require
    surgery. Geshe Thupten Rinchen has strongly encouraged Geshe Michael
    to conduct these teachings himself. Geshe Michael, knowing how many
    of you had already made their travel plans, has graciously agreed to
    do so."

    We have made inquiries about what you have said and find that it is
    not strictly true, because Geshe Thupten Rinchen did not ask you to
    give the teachings on his behalf. Moreover, we have become aware that
    there is an unresolved controversy over your current observation of
    the Vinaya vows and your keeping company with women. We have received
    inquiries and letters of concern about your status and conduct from
    many people.

    We have seen a photograph of you wearing long hair, with a female
    companion at your side, apparently giving ordination. This would seem
    to conflict with the rules of Vinaya, and as you know, the Gelug
    tradition makes a point of upholding these very strictly.

    This unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness's
    teachings and practice.

    Under the circumstances, keeping the greater interest of the purity
    of Buddhist tradition in mind, we advise you not to come to
    Dharamsala on this occasion.

    Chhime R. Chhoekyapa
    Joint Secretary

    Cc: Department of Religion and Culture, Dharamsala
    Office of Tibet, New York
    Cc: Geshe Thupten Rinchen

    Office of H.H. the Dalai Lama
    Thekchen Choeling
    McLeod Ganj – 176 219
    Dharamsala, H.P.

    Ph.: 91 (1892) 221343, 221879, 221210
    Fax: 91 (1892) 221813
    Email: [email protected]

    With best wishes,

    Tenzin Geyche Tethong
    Secretary to H.H. the Dalai Lama

    Office of H. H. the Dalai Lama
    Thekchen Choeling
    McLeod Ganj – 176 219
    Dharamsala, H.P.

    Tel.: +91 (1892) 221343, 221879, 221210
    Fax: +91 (1892) 221813
    Email: [email protected]

  5. integralhack says:

    I agree completely about the sectarian nature of criticizing Theravada as a lower teaching (which is usually a confused misidentification with "Hinayana"), but hopefully you're just criticizing a particular Tibetan Buddhist sect and not all of Tibetan Buddhism. There might be innovation but it ain't all bad. 🙂

    Besides, just yesterday I found this terma . . . I kid, I kid.

  6. Ted Lemon says:

    Ian didn't serve the first three-year retreat. He left pretty soon after the retreat started, although he did do a retreat at DM outside of the three-year retreat tsam (I know because I delivered for him). So whatever may be true, it is definitely not true that this particular sequence of events occurred. I was there at the time, so I can speak from personal experience—the opportunity simply wasn't there. I think you may be thinking of Trisangma and Brian. But this is why it doesn't pay to speculate about this stuff. If Lama Christie wants to clarify at some point, she can certainly do so, but I can't think why she would. It's not really our business.

  7. Ted Lemon says:

    So go get a copy of the report. You are supposedly writing an article about what happened. Why are you speculating about what is in the report rather than getting a copy and reading it?

  8. Ted Lemon says:

    There are three motivations for practicing Buddhism: to benefit yourself, to free yourself, and to help others. Each builds on the one before. Gaining your wildest dreams through Buddhist practice does benefit others at each of the three levels:

    If you avoid the ten negative deeds, you stop hurting others, at least as long as you continue to do so. This is clearly of benefit to others.

    If you practice the vows of individual freedom, and reach that freedom, then you eliminate the possibility of ever again falling into a state of mind where you might harm others.

    If you practice the vows of the Bodhisattva, and one day actually reach the matchless state of a totally enlightened Buddha, then you will not only have forever stopped harming others, but you will also have turned yourself into a person who can only help others, and who never stops helping others.

    Now, if you try to gain your wildest dreams through some practice other than Buddhism, that might well not benefit others. But that is not what Geshe Michael teaches. So in the context of your question, the answer is unequivocally "yes."

  9. Ted Lemon says:

    Frank, you just essentially said that a school of Buddhism that you don't consider to be a school of Buddhism is not as good as your school of Buddhism. You didn't call it lower, but you might as well have done. I tend to agree that calling different school of Buddhism "higher" and "lower" isn't constructive when you are discussing Buddhism with people who aren't members of your own sect. Unfortunately, it is a useful abbreviation for a much longer concept, and so as the teaching draws out, even the best teacher may resort to such shortcuts so as to avoid putting his or her students to sleep. Nevertheless, your criticism of the way Eric made his point is valid, and I don't mean to say otherwise.

  10. Ted Lemon says:

    They are living in houses—even if they wanted to camp, the county won't allow it. As far as we know Lama Christie is no longer in Arizona. I don't know where she is, TBH, so I could be wrong, but the very article you quote says that she's no longer in charge of the retreat, and that John Brady is. So saying that 35 people are at this moment camping in the Arizona desert under the influence of a woman who appears to have gone insane is incorrect in every detail.

  11. Ted Lemon says:

    Why don't you ask Geshe Lotar whether or not Geshe Michael paid for buildings at Sera Mey. Why not ask him about Geshe Michael's involvement in the Sera Mey Food Fund? Why speculate?

    Also, what does "perception is metaphysically determined" mean? I've certainly never made such a claim!

  12. ccf says:

    you can ask any of the DM board members or some of the DM community that are serving there. This was communicated to us about the various actions that the Board took right after learning of the stabbing. They have no reason to lie and they have vows against lying and they understand the karmic implications if they do lie !!!! They gave full disclosure to the police. They were as concerned for the safety of everyone, the DM board are very compassionate, caring buddhists !! ANd this is and has been a very difficult time and your article that has so much projection and speculation without facts does not help anyone anywhere. I understand your concern and questions and having open discussions about this is good, but not with so much conjecture, speculation and bias', that can be for a gossip column if you please. So perhaps keeping to the facts would be most beneficial, as you can see from many posts, you have many things wrong, and it would be most helpful to correct them all and or take out the ones that you cant substantiate with facts so as not to mislead so many readers. Again, I do understand your concern and that is well placed but the way you are going about it, may not really be that helpful. I am new to GMR and DM and am feeling much confusion about all of what has transpired, so I am not speaking from having a lot of experience in the community but as someone who spent some time at DM during and after the great retreat teachings and experienced things from a more objective perspective and less emotional since I had never met Lama C or any of the retreatants before. I do have first hand knowledge of what Lama C said in the teachings and from meetings that were held with the board and GMR with the rest of the care takers at DM.
    Your speculation is a dis-service, your personal bias' belong in a gossip column if that is the kind of writing that you wish to do. Please re-write your letter with a purer motivation and intention which would be more helpful to all. thanks

  13. Andrea says:

    I am so sorry to hear this incredibly troubling news, and sorry for the loss of your friend in the most terrible way. Whistle blowing in the realm of spiritual communities or cults is mostly absent: thanks for your courage. Any decent spiritual practice MUST encourage us to cultivate our own internal whistle blower on events large and small. To recoil in horror upon realizing trust misplaced must be possible within us. An ocean of bliss must not dull a sharp and keen sense of judgement. My heart breaks to think of the incredible power imbalances of what you describe, may cults end, and may our society take seriously the vulnerabilities of those in our community. I wanted to share this talk by Rex Weyler about journalism and exposure, the theme being that "the status quo protects itself"…

  14. Ted Lemon says:

    Do you know all the ways karma has been taught? That's actually a pretty tall order. I think the point of teaching a practice is to teach a practice that can be followed and that produces some kind of result. Academics are great, but they have their place.

    There are indeed some students who have come out of DM who have been known to say things that I think are inappropriate. I am fairly sure that some of them do indeed believe the "crushing of the ego" thing you mention. But it's not something that Geshe Michael taught, or that Lama Christie taught. It's something they brought in with them.

    Your Lama has a different teaching style than mine, but it's clear that what is being taught is different. I think it's difficult to teach Guru yoga without risking the pedestal thing you're talking about, and without risking some students coming away with the idea that, like their Lama, they are also infallible (when their Lama never claimed to be infallible!). Perhaps for this reason Guru yoga shouldn't be taught. Perhaps for one of the other reasons you give, Guru yoga also shouldn't be taught. But it is a central part of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings, so it's going to get taught, and people who study it will in fact behave differently than people who study what your Lama teaches, which is also valid.

    The point is that it's because the teaching is different that you are seeing these things that bother you. They should bother you. You should speak out against them. But be prepared for debate if you assert that the teaching that is triggering them is wrong, and should not be taught.

  15. Lobsang says:

    Cult or no cult, the problems started from the beginning of the very first retreat when GM Roach obfuscated (lied, misspoke, misrepresented; pick your preferred verb flavor) and failed to disclose he was actually sharing a yurt with Christie the whole time.

    From such shaky foundations, is it hard to believe that there have been continued issues surrounding transparency and truth?

    Source: Retreat Teachings, To the Inner Kingdom, Oct 2000

    ” …We were alone, each person. The nights are very dark, and there are many, many strange sounds…”

    “…Every kind of creepy, crawly, desert thing has crawled in people’s yards and yurts, and sometimes very frightening things, but I think, the hardest think is the loneliness, to be alone for month after month.”

    “We see each other for the holidays, like Sojong, confession ceremony, twice a month. When we’re in deep retreat we don’t see each other at all, so for a month or maybe two months. Each person has been very strong, become strong, and they showed a lot of courage, and respected the retreat boundaries. They’ve worked very, very hard. They worked for, some of them years, to lean the meditations and visualizations that they have to do. We don’t allow ourselves any other kind of stimulation, there’s only meditation and some study of what to meditate about, and each person has done it very, very well.”

  16. Greg says:

    Why are you so defensive Ted? Why do you assume that I am talking about "other people?" I am talking about my concerns about a lineage that I found, that I liked, that I joined, and where I have spent a dozen years of my life "practicing there." And where I still practice. If Pema Chodron was a queen and a pope I would be worried about her too.

    If expressing concerns like this strikes you as being excessively critical, then I am all the more worried about the state of vajrayana Buddhism in the west. It seems to breed a class of sycophants who get hysterical at the slightest suggestion of concern.

  17. Ekan says:

    Are you talking about the other three people who left the retreat?

  18. Surya says:

    I think the writing is on the wall for Diamond Mountain. As more people read articles like this one and start speaking out, Diamond Mountain's days will begin and are already beginning to draw to a close. As in any cult those who drank the cool aid will begin railing against any one who speaks the truth and fight for dear life to protect their institution while the walls come crumbling down all around them. I think it can be seen already by some of the postings of the Michael Roach and Christie Mcnally defenders in this comments section.

  19. matthew says:

    Ted: I will publish factual amendments soon, and hope that this draws the attention back to where it's due: the questions of competency and suggestions for full disclosure that I end the piece with. My original text gave me room to do this: I didn't claim that the narrative would be air-tight, and it won't be until there is a full professional investigation.

    Has anyone disputed the truth of the New York Post article?

    Nowhere do I claim that retreatants are being encouraged to stay against their will.

    I am not a central character anymore. But I have an eye and the heart for what is the central story of contemporary radical-idealist spirituality: we are in such pain and trauma that we are all vulnerable to charisma, magical thinking, group narratives, and the wish to disappear into the reassuring paternal gaze of someone who says they know everything.

    Your last questions are good ones: Roach's letter raises many of them on its own. I have shone a public light on them in a terrible time. I do hope that your bereavement is well supported by broad community.

  20. Phurba says:

    Ted, you clearly don't have much experience with the way Tibetan Buddhist culture and politics work. Explicit public denouncement is just not part of the cultural territory. This letter is the equivalent. To try and raise doubts that HH the DL and his office did not compose this letter or deliver it to GM is just absurd. We all know how the history unfolded: clearly, GM did not go as planned to Dharamsala to give the teachings he scheduled there precisely because of this letter. Otherwise to say that GM was duped by a false letter is then also to admit that he couldn't possibly be on the path of seeing.. you can't have it both ways.. Likewise, we also know about the lies exposed by GM subsequently while teaching in the secondary location, to try to prove HH the DL was secretly supportive.. using a rogue Tibetan monk who had financial ties to GM. It is a fools errand to try to deny documented history like this. I know people who left the cult precisely at this point, who were very close and devoted students, because they could not bear this denouncement or the lies told by GM to pretend it away.

  21. dharma_citta says:

    Mr. Remski,
    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.
    – DC

  22. matthew says:

    I think you can let this go, Ted. It's pretty clear that there is a rift between Roach and the Tibetan hierarchy, and Tibetan culture on the whole. It arises from Roach's public claims of aryahood following the first retreat, and his rudeness in Dharamsala in trying to rent TIPA to give a heterodox teaching. The point is, he is isolated. By association, this isolates his community from broader perspective.

  23. matthew says:

    Jim: I have not suggested anything be shut down. I have suggested that the Board can restore its credibility by addressing the 15 requests at the end of the article.

  24. lost time says:

    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.

  25. matthew says:

    Thank you Ted. I'll correct this.

  26. matthew says:

    Thanks for the source, Lobsang. There's so many materials to keep track of…

  27. matthew says:

    I will try to verify the philanthropic claims some day, or someone else will. Evidence would have to come from more than the reports of a single monk, however.

    But to whom will I turn to verify Roach's claims of realization? Roach?

    "Perception is metaphysically determined" is one of many paraphrases for "Your karma creates your world." But I'll let you debate philosophy with Frank. My main point is, Roach's metaphysics is a perfect fit for an authoritarian group-think.

  28. matthew says:

    Many retreatants have been close personal devotees of McNally for several years. I think this constitutes "influence", whether she is there or not presently.

    I got the houses thing.

  29. matthew says:

    I don't need to figure it all out. I have raised the questions obvious from Roach's own account.

  30. heynow says:

    1) Geshe Michael Roach was not CENSURED. the note was NOT even made public by the Office, it was a private request sent privately, and at no point is there vehement rebuking. what sort of censure is that? it was simply an appeal for appearance's sake, so as not to make it look as though GMR is being actively endorsed

    2) the letter contradicts His Holiness' own position on the matter:
    "Yogis who have achieved a high level of the path and are fully qualified can engage in sexual activity, and a monastic with this ability can maintain all the precepts."
    -The Essential Dalai Lama: His Important Teachings by The 14th Dalai Lama

    good luck trying to get western scholars to speak negatively against GMR.
    perhaps you will lie and claim to have negative quotes from scholars again, as you have done in the past with Dr Berzin and Dr Thurman regarding GMR and the ACI Courses. of course the downside with that is, just like last time, hours after making the claims you will be CENSURED, which contrary to what you think, does mean being publicly rebuked

  31. OM says:

    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

  32. matthew says:

    I haven't claimed anything in the past about Berzin and Thurman. I've never written about that at all.

    Do you remember the public letters from Lama Zopa and others regarding Roach's claims to aryahood? I hope someone can dig those up.

  33. urya says:


    The article is a very good one. thes epeople are baiting you. Please stop deferring to them and defending yourself. it's just part of their tactic to discredit you. Stand your ground. again, they are baiting you. Do not bite.

  34. heynow says:

    “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.

  35. Brad Yantzer says:

    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.

  36. Brad says:

    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.

  37. matthew says:

    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.

  38. matthew says:

    I'm replying with necessary corrections because I am crucially concerned that the article be as accurate as possible. I don't feel discredited: thank you kindly for your concern.

  39. matthew says:

    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.

  40. PAX says:

    Hi Matthew,

    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.

  41. matthew says:

    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.

  42. Gyelten Jangchub says:

    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.

  43. nrfd says:

    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.

  44. anonymouswone says:

    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?

  45. anonymouswone says:

    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 http://removingallobstaclestoflourishingnkt.blogs

  46. Sam Muglia says:

    Dude, You need to relax.

  47. integralhack says:

    Thanks, Frank. I'm an admirer of your writing, so this was something of "say it ain't so, Frank" type of question. Because Tibetan Buddhism by itself is a huge and varied branch there is plenty to take issue with (and areas where different schools disagree and even contradict each other), so it is fair game.

    I agree completely.

  48. Jerry says:

    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..

  49. Ted Lemon says:

    There are no Zen stories of students seeking out masters, who beat them with a stick to drive them off? In any case, I think this is a red herring. You would need to show that the guru/disciple relationship was in fact inappropriate before it would make sense to reject it. And you would probably want to explain the sense in which the five ascetics who practiced with the Buddha prior to his enlightenment did not have such a relationship with the him both before and after his enlightenment.

  50. Ted Lemon says:

    Two points. First, His Holiness has in fact publicly denounced at least one prominent teacher, and there is a huge controversy surrounding this. So we have an example that contradicts your claim about how Tibetan Buddhist culture and politics work.

    Secondly, His Holiness is no chump. He knows what he is doing when he does something, and he speaks very carefully. He has historically been quite willing to go against both Tibetan cultural tradition and against Tibetan politics when he feels that it is misguided.

    So to suggest that he would hesitate to denounce someone he felt needed to be denounced in terms that would be unequivocal is actually disrespectful to His Holiness, and matches neither his reputation nor his past actions.

    The reality is that His Holiness would be in an awkward position if he were to either approve of or denounce Geshe Michael publicly. He has stated quite clearly in his own writing that the practice Geshe Michael was doing with Lama Christie is proper if the monk doing the practice is qualified. But he can't simply say "what Geshe Michael is doing is okay," because some subset of his monks might misinterpret this to mean that they should follow suit, despite lacking qualification to do so. On the other hand, unless he knows that Geshe Michael is not qualified to do the practice, he can't formally denounce him.

    And this is why we see him doing what he has in fact done: say nothing, but allow his secretary to protect the minds of his disciples by asking Geshe Michael not to appear openly with his partner at his teaching.