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. Ted Lemon says:

    How is it rude to rent a facility to give a teaching?

  2. Ted Lemon says:

    You have asked leading questions that imply a conclusion. This is an indirect way of stating what you believe. And this belief is not based on knowledge. That is all I am saying.

  3. Ted Lemon says:

    I didn't say you were being excessively critical. You weren't critical at all. Criticism is when you point out some error that has been made, and give clear reasons why you think it was an error, and what ought to be done about it. You didn't do that.

    You just implied that several really excellent teachers are poseurs, precisely because they are so well respected. This is not criticism. It is innuendo of the worst sort.

  4. Ted Lemon says:

    You changed "camping" to "in seclusion." Why didn't you change it to "living in houses in seclusion?" When you thought they were living in tents, you seemed to thing that the quality of their living quarters was relevant; now that you know otherwise, you seem to think it is not. Can you explain?

  5. Ted Lemon says:

    Geshe Michael gave a lovely teaching on the Uttara Tantra right after the three-year retreat where he explains what the Tathagatagarba is. It's not "Original Mind." Indeed, in an ACI teaching, Proof of Future Lives, Geshe Michael explains the way in which "original mind" fails to accurately describe reality. The teaching on Rigpa that I think you are referring to is the one Sogyal Rinpoche talks about. Geshe Michael has never taught that—it's a Kagyu thing, I think.

    Hanging around with religious nuts is always a weird experience. I certainly found it to be so when I started. Over the years I've learned to see it as a process, though. Yes, sometimes new students act weird and say weird things when they first start learning the teachings. Why should this be surprising? The only difference between this and a physics class in that sense is that we tend not to be quite so impressed with our physics teacher. More's the pity.

  6. Ted Lemon says:

    You can't verify Geshe Michael's claims of realizations other than by observing his actions and seeing if they are consistent with the realizations he claims to have had. Even then, all you can conclude is either that he doesn't seem to be behaving in a way that's consistent with such realizations, as you understand them, or that he does. This is way too subjective to do anything with. It is generally considered to be improper to even discuss one's realizations; the only reason Geshe Michael has done so is because he and Lama Christie were now allowed to be private, and because his relationship with Lama Christie couldn't be kept confidential, he had to explain it. Whether you believe his explanation or not is up to you.

    I don't think you will have any trouble getting confirmation from more than a single monk about Geshe Michael's philanthropy. But that would be a good start. You have claimed that he made millions and kept them, despite evidence to the contrary. The burden is on you to show that this is the case. If you are going to claim that what you are doing is journalism, you need to act like a journalist and only write what you know to be true at least on the basis of reliable sources. Wikipedia has a pretty good description of what a reliable source is if you are not sure.

  7. matthew says:

    I don't have numbers or names, but she was their retreat leader. Are you implying there are no retreatants who are McNally's students?

  8. Ted Lemon says:

    "Not allowed to be private," not "now allowed to be private." Too bad we can't edit our comments here.

  9. matthew says:

    She was their retreat leader. Are you saying at least some of them are not her close students?

  10. matthew says:

    I can make your edit to "houses in seclusion". It does not change the overall point that there was a poverty of external oversight. This is especially true of the Board's eviction plan.

  11. Sid Johnson says:

    I am so grateful to Matthew for writing this. I was involved with this group from 1999 to 2005, and sat on the original board of directors at the beginning of the first 3 year retreat. I could write a book (and maybe someday I will) about the dysfunction and general madness that permeated every aspect of this bizarre organization. It is embarrassing now to admit that I willfully participated, and I sense it is this same embarrassment that keeps other former members from coming forward. At some point I will disclose more, like the details of the "initiation" I witnessed, including the infamous incident in which Mr. Roach stabbed himself in the hand in front of a room full of students, setting the precedent for magical interpretations of violence. I share Matthews concern that others may be in danger, although I am not really interested in getting into debates with the faithful who are still drunk on the koolaid. For those of you still involved but in doubt, I want you to know there are so many healthier options out there. Getting free from the dogma, superstition and dysfunction is where the real liberation lies.

  12. matthew says:

    Ted: I believe his substantial point is about oversight within a broader organizational context.

  13. matthew says:

    I think what this dialogue is showing is that knowledge emerges in pastiche. Between my presentation, the criticisms, my corrections, I think we're coming to a clearer picture. I do believe that there are dangerous aspects of authoritarian control and spiritual bypassing at work, and have called upon the Board to show otherwise in the wake of the tragedy.

  14. matthew says:

    Did the Private Office not cancel the booking? They found it rude, or inappropriate, or whatever noun expressing disapproval you choose.

  15. nathangthompson says:

    I am the current president of our zen center's board of directors, and have spent the last 5 years on our board, following the debacle I alluded to above. One thing to note about the board under our former teacher is that the entire group was handpicked by him, and they basically rubber stamped his ideas. Those who challenged him were ostracized, and more than a few prominent members and assistant teachers were forced out or left in the years prior to his downfall. I was part of a team that revised our governing structure a few years after or former teacher's ousting, and it was quite clear that he had stacked the by laws and other governing documents completely in his favor as well. We also had a grievance committee that was handpicked by the teacher. At every turn, the leadership was under his thumb. So, it's really not enough to say things like the board is dealing with these issues. Because they probably are, and yet, if the board's structure is anything like ours was, then the work they are doing is compromised.

  16. Anon says:

    I am so shocked to hear about Ian. I was also involved in the group from 1999-2003. Yes there was a lot of secrecy, and some revelations in late 2002, not mentioned here, that prompted me to leave. As well, I was going through enormous heartbreak and depression, which I won't bore you with. Your article is very thorough and alarming. But at the same time it helps me compartmentalise that unhappy period of my life. So thanks for that. I am not suggesting that Diamond Mountain was responsible, but as you suggest here, there was a lack of fundamental empathy for those who were vulnerable. I managed to extract myself quietly and dealt with my unhappiness surrounded by my loving family. I don't practice Buddhism any more but I respect the Dalai Lama, and always will. Thanks Matt.

  17. wakajawaka says:

    To the best of my understanding there is no bodhisattva vow that states:

    "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. "

    Which vow in particular were you referring to and where did you get that information?

  18. […] Rebuttal: “Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona.” Rebuttal by John Stillwell. […]

  19. Jerry says:

    From Christy who was forced to leave because she was losing it or because she was telling stories about the first retreat that were not the offical line "During the third month of the retreat, a woman left her husband, leaving him absolutely devastated. He came to me begging for help, because he was having thoughts to leave the retreat, and even thoughts of suicide"

    I hope this is the guy i heard about in town but regardless shouldn't an outside person talk to him…brother…….

  20. Greg says:

    I did not imply that at all. I pointed out that a situation has been created where there is very little oversight, and as we have seen that kind of a structure is always a serious cause for concern regardless of who is involved.

  21. Ekan says:

    There are 10 major precepts and 48 minor precepts listed in the Brahma Net Sutra.
    The sixth major precept quoted below. It deals with speech. The current phrases are things like, "I will not speak abusively" (Shingon), "I will refrain from divisive speech" (GMR), "I will not discuss the faults of others (Zen)."

    Below I have typed the translation by Master Hua

    THE SIXTH MAJOR PRECEPT PROHIBITS DISCUSSING OFFENSES OF THE MEMBERS OF THE FOUR ASSEMBLIES. A disciple of the Buddha must not himself discuss the offenses of any Bodhisattva Sanghan, Bodhisattva lay person, Bhikshu or Bhikshuni, nor may he encourage others to do so or involve himself in the causes, conditions, methods, or karma of speaking of the offenses of the Four Assemblies. Whenever a Bodhisattva hears an evil-hearted externalist or evil exponent of the small vehicles speak of practices which are not in accord with the Dharma and not in accord with the precepts within Buddhism, he should always feel pity for such detractors, instruct them, and lead them to a wholesome belief in the Great Vehicle. If, instead, a Bodhisattva discusses the faults of those within the Buddha-Dharma, he thereby commits a Bodhisattva Parajika offense.

  22. Warren Clarke says:

    The reason the police did not become involved is because they have no desire to enter into partner disputes, especially when knowledge of the incident comes six months after-the-fact and has been resolved. The board replaced McNally with John Brady as inside-the-tsam retreat director. He is older, capable, knowledgable and responsible. The retreatants are in no danger whatsoever. Supply lines are efficient. Communication by post is permitted, but not e-mail. No coercion or brainwashing occurs at DMU. I know. I am a rogue with a critical 'bad attitude' and everyone in the campground is aware of it. I do not agree with all of the decisions made by the Board of Directors. No. For unrelated reasons (summer travel season) I have just recently left DMU after seven months as a volunteer caretaker. I was there. My cactus garden is blossoming. I trust that this wave of crisis created will subside and that the retreatants will persue their practice for peace and spiritual profit, to benefit all, without scatalogical sectarianism.

  23. Shiva says:

    You actually can find somewhere that the Dalai Lama said something in an official capacity. From the New York Times in 2008:

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


  24. matthew says:

    Jim: a "concern troll" hides behind anonymity. I am not. Nor have I ever done anything like this before. Nor is there a shred of malice in my motivation.

  25. matthew says:

    Thank you Warren for weighing in. As I made clear in the post, I am waiting to hear why the Board thought it acceptable to evict them together, when they had a history of known mutual abuse, and for this eviction to be handled by inside helpers, rather than professional medical/law enforcement.

  26. Lobsang says:

    @Warren. You state that John Brady, the new retreat director is "older, capable, knowledgable and responsible". So please clarify — it read to me like Christie was a less-than-capable retreat director since you're implying that "older" could mean "more mature" or a "better choice" than Christie? Did you feel this way before the board took action? Should they have taken action sooner in your opinion?

    In corporate business terms, is Christie a CEO who must answer to their board so that there are checks and balances? Certainly when a CEO is removed in business by the board, it's traumatic to everyone (employees, the stock price, etc) — it's a big mess! And typically it means the CEO really screwed up! Fraud, Incompetence, Scandal, etc… A corporate board is typically selective of whom they bring in, and they are usually tolerant of mistakes like missing a quarter (or year etc) as well. At least as long as they believe in the CEO's plan to ultimately return profits. If the CEO doesn't deliver they're out!

    Just imagine if retreat directors had annual goals they must abide by such as "this many must become level one Buddha's" or "your percentage of retreat washouts must be less than 10%" lolol!

    But seriously, consider the scrutiny that businesses, where their own pure motivation is profit, must endure in the eyes of the public! Why is it where Spiritual matters are concerned, there is so little scrutiny? And something the Buddha always insisted we do!

  27. Lobsang says:

    As 501c3 are DMUs bylaws a matter of public record?

  28. Warren Clarke says:

    Last first: to invite the police into the tsam was literally unthinkable. Professional medical people were among the number of the retreatants Second to last, second: to here disagree with Geshe Michael, who felt that Christie was making an unconcious cry for help, as per his letter, I sensed that the incident had resolved sufficiently, that both literally and figuratively healing had occurred, that, self-chosen without a suspicion or foreknowledge of the repercussions that would follow, that Christie felt it was appropriate to acknowledge and share the nature of the incident with the community. Just so you know, the Board discussed the situation for long, trying hours for a full night, informing the community the next day. Personally (and I am indeed willing to state an opionion even though hindsight is worthless) I felt that the decision was actually too abrupt; that they should have let things gel and settle a little longer. And first last, no one except those aiding the pair knew that they had returned to continue the retreat together, where for over two months they were camped without cabin ammenites in their high cave, with only love and not abuse. The night before I left nine of us shared a quiet, powerful puja for Ian. Blessings.

  29. heynow says:

    yes, you did. you are part of the old diamond-cutter website and you are a troll.

    you better drudge up those Lama Zopa letters soon your view count is still under 10,000.

  30. Lobsang says:

    Sounds like you knew Christie and Ian pretty well… At least well enough to know that it would have been futile to carry out any type of serious intervention. Teachers and leaders are often very strong willed or stubborn. They often do what they want regardless of what anyone says or thinks. Pretty powerful stuff when we put our spiritual path in their hands.

    Do you think Christie warrants that level of trust? Should we assume everyone in retreat with her thoroughly checked out her qualifications?

  31. lobsang says:

    Where is the Diamond-cutter website? What does it teach us and I don't understand the view count — is this something like Buddhist wrong-view right-view and 10,000 lotuses? Please explain.

  32. heynow says:

    standard mind-only tenet system of indian buddhism asserts that all objects are ultimately a result of karmic seeds ripening in the storehouse consciousness.

    your theories and adherence to only abhidharma texts is meaningless.

  33. @bcgdzs says:

    Amen. Lots of cult psychology in American Tibetan Buddhism but I don't think the leaders care as long as the organizations flourishes.

  34. matthew says:

    heynow: you are both mistaken and hiding behind anonymity. I have no idea where to find the old diamond-cutter material. I was never involved with that in any way. I followed the postings with interest: that is all.

    Do you really think I would reveal my identity now, when the diamond-cutter site was completely anonymous?

  35. matthew says:

    I'm glad to read of the puja: I imagine it was very intense and bonding.

    I appreciate the on-site report. I find however that the decisions you describe are burdened by group-think dynamic that refers to no outside sources for advice or supervision. "To invite the police into the tsam was literally unthinkable", is indeed literally unthinkable unless there is the capacity to think independently, civilly, and democratically. The other example I'll point out is: "Professional medical people were among the number of the retreatants". Yes: and the doctor within failed to report the stabbing he sutured. Why? Allegiance? A culture of silence and obedience?"

  36. Ekan says:

    Dr. is a she.

  37. Warren Clarke says:

    Oh, Lobsang. you seem to be obsessed by the business aspect of Buddhism, not my forte. My practice is tara bhakti. Enlightentenment (may I presume) is beyond the realm where per centages hold sway. I say this with some years of professional marketing research under my belt. The day I got promoted to office manager (my third on the job) my boss told me, "We chart trends, gather statistics, measure and compare databases. All incidents are unique. Everything we do here is bullshit. Here is your work assignment."

    It was prearranged that there should be no communication between the retreatants and the community, the Board included except in case of life-threatening emergency. Early on one retreatant suffered a heart attack, was rushed to the hospital in Tucson, and recovering three days later elected (bless her!) to return.

  38. Lobsang says:

    @Warren — I was using the board/ceo as simply an analogy for board/retreat director. And by extension, suggesting that there's a ton of scrutiny in the financial business world, but so little in our spiritual world where the stakes are so much higher!

  39. Warren Clarke says:

    I got sewed up once by a doctor in the back country who didn't report it because I got sewed up. And if that's a solipcism, sew what! Deep retreat means just that, no outsiders. Ask a Tibetan. Yes, it is indeed a 'culture of silence.' It's called Buddhism. I learned that at the San Francisco Zen Center back in '67 when I got paddle-swacked for opening my mouth during zazen.

  40. Warren Clarke says:

    The great sadness is that it appears that it was first Lama Christie who became ill during the intense week-long heat wave, while Ian cared for her; then as she somewhat recovered he, too, contracted the ailment which put them both into a delerium, taking Ian. Again, we did not know they were nearby. Those that did kept their own silence and may speak for themselves. And, may I refer to my friend Jim Dey's comments earlier on this thread by way of the higher stakes.

  41. Ekan says:

    My understanding is that it was John Brady who is responsible for giving the couple five days to get out. Why did they need 5 days? Did they use that time to scout out the cave? It sounds like the board had a plan…get them off the property in one hour…and they should have stuck to it. That was probably his first decision as retreat director and things would likely be different without that decision.

  42. Lobsang says:

    Interestingly enough, when I went looking for background on the retreat teachings of the past, their site is now "offline" for all audio and transcripts.

    Are these available anywhere else?

  43. Brooks Singer says:

    I'm glad the factual corrections are being made. Greatly appreciated. It seems others have jumped in on those, so I won't write out the list. I also appreciate your keeping this an open forum.
    For the purposes of transparency, I should let you know that I've been a student of Geshe Michael's for about 18 years and also act as his subsidiary rights managerof books. I also have a Masters in Sociology of Religion from Drew University and studied religious/intentional communities to complete my thesis. I'm not sure of your educational background but I will assume that if you don't have a formal degree, you have done significant research to use as you write, "my understanding of cult dynamics" to analyze this situation and Geshe Michael's students as a whole. It may be helpful to let the readers know what makes you qualified to analyze and give opinions on religious group dynamics and cults.
    As I mentioned, I appreciate the questions you raise and also agree about the need for more transparency. The more information that is released the better. I agree it would be good for all involved. I also agree that it is a worthy endeavor to review the actions taken to make sure that any further issues are dealt with in a way that is most helpful and compassionate. Frankly, you should have stuck to that.
    The plethora of negative opinions you express about the DMU board, Geshe Michael, and the people around him are deplorable. For example, that Geshe Michael is "whitewashing" the tragic events that have taken place and that he has some sort of unhealthy 'grip" on those who call him their "Lama." Nothing could be further from the truth. The far majority of people I know in this sangha are free thinking, educated, smart and compassionate individuals fighting hard to make the world a better place.
    On a personal note, I didn't ask Geshe Michael to be my Lama until I watched him for 12 years. I looked for ethical behavior, wisdom and compassion in all that time. And I found it.
    I refer to Doug Veenhof's comments below for more on this topic.

  44. Jacob Kyle says:

    I think most people should appreciate that the spirit of skepticism that this piece embodies is fundamental to the life of any organic, healthy spiritual community. I commend Matthew for speaking out in the spirit of openness and transparency that marks the best in our culture. I swallowed Matthew’s words excitedly, feeling that they were in line with some of the discomfort I have had in the short time I have been involved in this community. However, not a day after reading his paper, I have questions for Matthew. I have questions regarding some of his own presuppositions, his seemingly unquestioned use of certain fear-mongering rhetorical devices and his complete dismissal of any discussion of this “neo-Buddhist” community at the level of their own truth, which would, of course, involve addressing specific tenets of their Buddhist worldview. The questions that I have should not be taken as a rebuttal of Matthew’s concerns but rather as contributing another layer to the overall discussion.

    My questions relate to two basic features of Matthew’s charges: that Geshe Michael Roach’s community is a “cult” and his pervasive appeal to “mental illness”. Both features, I think, relate to a presupposition about what constitutes “health” and “normality”, labels that bring to bear the notion of emptiness.

    From a young age, I can recall many instances when some community was referred to as a “cult”. I remember there being a community somewhere in the woods near where I grew up in the Northwest, a group of houses surrounded by a tall green wall. I drove by it one day with my family and my mother or some adult pointed out that this was a cult. I had been sufficiently indoctrinated to know that “cult” meant “bad”, meant “insane” and probably had something to do with demons and suicide. My point is that Matthew falls into the habit of so many political ideologues by appealing to a term of generalization so loaded with emotion that its use cannot be analytical, but rhetorical. It is a rhetorical device that does more to foster fear and divisiveness than it does the kind of novel understanding required to be true to the specific contextual conditions of a unique community. It tosses Roach’s community into the irrational bin of “mad cultists”, thereby subverting a more sophisticated understanding of the reasoning behind certain practices. And anyone familiar with Tibetan Buddhism—even the Roach “variant”—knows that there is usually a rich reasoning behind these practices. By not taking stock of the reasoning that might have manifested, for example, certain comments by McNally that Matthew quotes, he does something parallel to what conservatives do when they label Obama a “socialist”. Like the charge of “socialist” in American political discourse, “cult” stirs up the same kind of animosity and fear in American spiritual discourse. And if a label is this reductive and loaded with meaning, isn’t it better to analyze with a different vocabulary? All we are told are that certain characteristics are the defining characteristics of a cult, but we are not offered a critical appraisal of the very notion of a cult, which would do well to avoid unnecessary fear-mongering and give us an informed idea of what we are actually talking about.

    My second main concern relates to the first which, taken together, points to the elephant in the room: the Buddhist concept of emptiness. How Matthew can criticize using all these labels without even alluding to the concept of emptiness is something I find baffling, especially considering the fact that he claims to have been a part of the community himself at one time. But more on this in a minute.

  45. Jacob Kyle says:

    My second concern is regarding Matthew’s continuing return to a notion of the “mentally ill”. This concern relates to an overall one I have with contemporary culture, in that this culture, in its appeal to mental illness, endorses a historically contingent notion of “normality” that is both culturally and emotionally leveling. In other words, what is this supposedly objective notion of “normal behavior” that is serving as a ruler for the various points Matthew makes about McNally and Thorson‘s abnormal, red-flag behavior? Don’t get me wrong. I am not trying to imply that there are not certainly actions which point to an individual’s need to seek help from healthcare professionals (nor that ritualized stabbing isn’t one of them!). Obviously, people suffer from emotional imbalances that should be treated. But there is a difference between what should be properly considered as a mental illness and what should be addressed at the level of worldview. Of course, many statements by McNally that Matthew quoted, taken out of context, sound like the ravings of a mad women. But read within the larger context of a spiritual vocabulary and worldview, perhaps to some they are still disturbing, but they are nevertheless intelligible. Of course, everyone knows that the line is fine between spiritualized discourse and psychologically-questionable diatribe; some would even argue that what constitutes the difference is entirely ambiguous, for hasn’t the historically recent emergence of “psychology” and “psychotherapy” as disciplines in many ways supplanted religion and spirituality as the preferred vehicle for the working-through or transcendence of psychical issues? For example, were we to import this modern notion of Western mental health into a pre-invasion Native American community, our doctors would almost certainly diagnose shamans, medicine men, and like spiritual practitioners as mentally ill. All of them would almost certainly be considered as suffering from the kind of “delusions of grandeur” that Matthew takes to be characteristic of mental decline. The same applies to other current non-Western cultures. Furthermore, I don’t imagine it would be very difficult for a mental health advocate to make the case, if he/she were so determined, that a yogi’s claim to divinity is itself a delusion of grandeur. Should we then send all the om-ing, lotus-legged vegans to the loony bin for mental assessment? Well, perhaps.

    Again, my comments are not meant to say that McNally should not visit a mental health professional. Given all the things this poor woman has gone through, she no doubt should. But she should for the sake of a well-rounded, multi-faceted approach to life, not because the modern mental health industry is the only way to properly deal with psychological phenomena. And that is what distinguishes Matthew’s argument: he presupposes that there is something “objective”, “true”, and “real” about the concepts and worldview that he endorses. Of course, the problem is that, for those who meditate on emptiness, nothing is objective, so Matthew’s views can be seen by many Buddhists as no more than the subjective projections of an individual who speaks from a place of relative cultural indoctrination, at least when it comes to concepts like “cult” and the “mental”.

  46. Jacob Kyle says:

    I think that Matthew would have spear-headed a much more fruitful discussion if he had addressed Roach’s community not from a place of vilifying condemnation, but at the level of their own truth, which would have been to take the issue of emptiness seriously and to engage in a discussion of the potential ethical consequences of seeing things as empty. For if emptiness is interpreted from a place of emotional imbalance or ignorance, it could certainly lead to the sort of problematic consequences that took place at Diamond Mountain. I, for one, in my short time engaging with the notion of emptiness, have many times returned to this question of ethical ramifications, because, it seems to me, this is a territory that deserves much more consideration by the wider Buddhist community. Seeing the world as empty must be acknowledged as, yes, quite liberating, but also potentially dangerous to many. It is a far from innocuous concept, and, in my view, most who grapple with it are not approaching it with the kind of well-rounded philosophical and emotional sophistication that is required for enlightened understanding. For example, there are numerous reasons why the pen analogy so common to Geshe Michael’s teachings is a weak and problematic one, yet it is ceaselessly regurgitated by teachers in this lineage as the epitomizing analogy of emptiness. That a dog chews on what a human writes with is hardly radical or illuminating, yet it is packaged as if it is a life-altering realization. For some, perhaps it is, but my concern is that this reductive and simplistic notion of emptiness might lead to a certain kind of ignorance rather than enlightenment, and new students should be both skeptical and wary.

    There is much room for inappropriate interpretations when a tradition that arose in another historical cultural context is transplanted into a cultural context with its own particular history and sociological patterns. In their eagerness for the exotic East, Westerners on the path do a grave disservice to themselves by turning their backs on their own historical traditions. By doing so, they do not, of course, somehow relieve themselves from the influences of their heritage. Rather, they drive it underground, pushing it into the unconscious where it simmers and hisses like a sleeping serpent, waiting for the most inconvenient of times to awaken and shock us out of our fantasies.

  47. HighlySkeptical says:


    Of course the Board and the followers of Roach have all clammed up. Thorson’s death could still be ruled a negligent homicide, for which they could be criminally responsible. All we seem to firmly know is that McNally stabbed him and then he shows up dead weeks later. If everyone wasn’t so resolutely being defensive and “spiritual,” the authorities would have to take a good hard look at the case as a criminal matter. Which they should.

    I’ll take issue with your points above. Why do you call for various Buddhist leaders to get involved in this cult’s affairs? Why not the Arizona police? A man actually died, after all, under highly mysterious circumstances, while in the company of McNally’s who appears to have believed herself to have become a “different kind of Being.” People who believe themselves to be God are usually extremely mentally ill.

    Where is McNally, why isn’t she in the hospital or the custody of the police? Who is shielding her from these legitimate questions?

    Don’t back down before the followers of Roach – they have an obvious financial and legal interest in hushing the whole thing up. Although they are victims of his cult abusiveness, like most cult members, they will lash out to protect their group identity. The criminal aspects only raise the stakes for them.

    Keep up the pressure and pour the sunshine in. Good work so far.

  48. Allison says:

    With our thoughts we make the world.
    Speak or act with an impure mind
    And trouble will follow you
    As the wheel follows the ox that draws the cart.
    We are what we think.
    All that we are arises with our thoughts.
    With our thoughts we make the world.
    Speak or act with a pure mind
    And happiness will follow you
    As your shadow, unshakable.


    What is the logic of morality if the world does not come from what we say, what we do, and what we think. If it comes from somewhere else, why not do whatever we want?

    Gunnar – the Dalai Lama has also taught these five. I'm not sure what school they are attributed to.

    The Buddha taught karma. We don't have to look at schools that came later.He taught karma in the Agganna Sutta, Lakkhana Sutta, Payasi Sutta among other Pali Canon scriptures.

    How our holy teachers (meaning the heads of our lineages from hundreds of years ago) have selected from which texts to teach and pass down is a sweet mystery to me. The diversity of teachings from the Buddha alone is astounding, and seemingly contradictory. How else could we get such diverse schools of Buddhist thought? However, in the end, it's always going to be up to the individual practitioner to see if the teachings are working in his own life.

    Buddha states: 'Only I or someone like myself can judge another'. Without omniscience , I have no idea how anyone I see in the world sees themselves only how my seeds force me to see them. Death is part of suffering. But the Buddha died. Yet he was called the Conqueror, one beyond suffering. That is contradictory unless I apply karma, that it is because of my karmic seeds that I lose someone in my world. To stop losing people, I have to fix MY seeds.

    The one who gives a residence
    Is the giver of all.
    But the one who teaches the Dhamma
    Is the giver of the Deathless.

    Samyutta Nikaya

  49. Crapolla says:

    Excellent work "lost time"! A very well balanced insightful response to Matt's Piece.O.S. Honestly, I am so tired from reading the p.o.s. , and I hate when I waste my time, as well. My reply is "DITTO!"