elephant journal is an open forum. We believe in offering an uplifted forum to elevate important, sometimes difficult issues from gossip into discourse, and learning. We have also published a “rebuttal,” linked below. Matthew, the author below, has his own experience and views. Those views, and the views in the rebuttal, do not constitute an “official” view of elephant. Our official view is that we hope, again, to offer a forum for understanding, and, hopefully, real peace. ~ ed.
reporting and analysis by matthew remski
Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful! — Lorca
— Christy McNally’s letter, April 19th
— Michael Roach’s open letter, April 26th
— my original post, May 4th
— John Stillwell’s rebuttal, May 6th
— my followup, May 19th
— Michael Roach’s essay, June 2nd
— NYT article, June 5th
since I last posted: a brief synopsis…
There are reports that Christie McNally was last seen in Kathmandu, trying to secure a private audience with her first teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. She couldn’t. There is a report that Christie’s mother has quoted Christie as saying: “Michael Roach murdered my love.” The Thorson family is starting to talk to the media. The claim that Roach’s sexual partner practices are a legitimate aspect of Gelukpa tradition has been thoroughly savaged by several knowledgeable commentators. A Facebook page has been organized to croudsource letters of concern to the Dalai Lama, and to request that Sera Mey monastery – Roach’s putative alma mater – formally distances itself from Roach. Dozens of followers and ex-followers of Roach are beginning to come forward with their memories.
No one knows where this story is leading. But a close look at how it’s unfolding, and how Roach and others have chosen to respond so far, gives a dizzying view on how deep this rabbit hole goes.
There are now almost 48K views of my original May 4th piece about the circumstances under which Ian Thorson died after being expelled from Diamond Mountain by Michael Roach and the Diamond University Board. There are over 28K views of the follow-up. There are over 3200 comments between them in which over 200 supporters and critics of Michael Roach slug out the issues of his responsibility for McNally’s mental health and Thorson’s death, as well as his qualifications as a monk, his virtues as a philanthropist and cultural translator of Tibetan philosophy, and his credibility as a scholar and “realizer” of Buddhist attainments. The threads read like a collective doctoral study of Tibetan metaphysics and cross-cultural anthropology, as well as the twisting saga of present and ex-students navigating a swamp of devotion and trauma. Huffpo picked up the story on May 22nd.
When the New York Times reported on June 5th, the floodgates of global media opened. Fernanda Santos’ story – an account brief and elliptical enough to provoke many new questions – was broadcast throughout the English-speaking world, reinvigorating the source-threads with a slew of new commentary, and prompting an immediate followup by Nightline, in which Ian Thorson’s grieving mother called out Roach’s group point-blank as a cult. Lama Surya Das warned the world about him in HuffPo. Since June 6th, I’ve fielded calls from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Newsweek, CNN, and People Magazine. The story is getting louder. But on Diamond Mountain there is the silence of continued retreat, and tight lips.
Except for Roach, who has had plenty to say – mainly about himself. He’s published a 26-page self-report of his academic history. In recent public appearances he has compared himself to Jesus and Abraham Lincoln. He has bragged about his well-attended appearances all over the world, and about his book sales doubling on Amazon despite negative publicity. He has joked that “We need more scandals.” He has compared his critics to demons. And at the opening of his first public appearance on the American soil in which Ian Thorson’s flesh is dissolving, he held down the rhythm on double bass as a devotee sang “What a Wonderful World”.
The disjunction between Michael Roach’s bubble of obliviousness and consensus reality is being laid bare before our eyes, in real time. Thousands want to know why a frail young man meditated to death in the arms of his wife, in a cave without food or water. They want to know how his wife came to believe she was a goddess. They want to know what paroxysms of religious delusion and/or domestic violence led her to stab him months before he died. They want to know why her former lover and guru exiled them both from their home and community. Despite Roach’s claims to kindness and empathy and selfless service, it appears as though he is happy to laugh about a tragedy in his wake, and ignore these now-global questions that cut to the very heart of modern spiritual integrity. Perhaps we can chalk it up to his decades-long meditative rehearsal of a neo-Tantric mirage in which every calamity is a divine teaching moment, every criticism is proof of his virtue, and every call for transparency is an invitation to greater secrecy.
On a broader scale, Roach’s snubbing of consensus reality is a powerful display of irreconcilable worldviews: the collision of premodern tribal magicality with postmodern skepticism and inquiry. The public discourse around his intentions is a powerful display of the hostile barrier of mutual misunderstanding and distrust between religious insiders and outsiders. In an age in which progressive religiosity is at least attempting a dialogue between premodern faith and postmodern reason, the Diamond Mountain story shows what happens when this dialogue crashes and burns, or perhaps never gets started.
the endless Roach monologue that answers nothing
Roach’s public relations strategy is, as they say in the theatre, to “mark, park and bark”: hit your stage mark, stand your ground head-on, and deliver your lines to the nosebleeds. His first public “response” to the tragedy of Thorson’s death and the embarrassment of McNally’s delusions consists of a 26-page essay in which he self-reports his educational achievements. Of course, it’s not a response at all, but a massive deflection to counter a far less meaningful accusation that recent events have resurrected: that his monastic degree was less-than-honestly procured. Numerous sources both now and dating back to the old diamond-cutter.org website have charged that Roach’s academic credentials are honorary, and that his account contains gross exaggerations that play upon the cultural naiveté of his western students. Karen Visser reports that one of her current Sera Mey contacts, who remembers Roach’s visits in the 80s, describes Michael as a “cushion geshe”, someone who donated money to have his cushion reserved in the debate hall when he wasn’t there. This allegation has been supported by several commentators, but their anonymity cannot provide corroboration. Which is why some critics are seeking clarification from Sera Mey directly in a letter-writing campaign.
That Roach self-reports his achievements also does nothing to address his central credibility issue: he changes his story almost as often as he tells it. Honestly, I find this tragic, because buried somewhere within his look-at-me bluster is a story of amazing adventurousness, persistence, cross-cultural intelligence, devotion, and philanthropy. Even Roach’s harshest critics praise his work on the ACIP project and his considerable charitable contributions to Tibetan monasteries-in-exile. If he could simply restrain himself from exaggerating his educational story (time spent in Tibetan monasteries vs. time spent in Howell NJ) or his tenure with Andin International (implying he was still part of the company when Warren Buffett recently bought it), the uniqueness of his educational achievements (he is not, as he has claimed publicly for many years “the first Western geshe” – Georges Dreyfus was, as of 1985), his medical talent (“I’ve helped people with their health problems”), his singular insight into the historical Buddha (“On the night of his enlightenment he meditated all night with his consort”), his engineering skills (claiming to have “designed” and “built” the first wells and water lines for Sera Mey monastery), his self-portraits might inspire the broader sympathy he seems to desperately need. But such restraint is unlikely: his essay has to be read, after all, in light of his repeated claim to be on the verge of omniscience (self-reporting that he’s on the “Path of Seeing”). Michael Roach is not content to be a good guy. He really wants to be seen as a god as well, even as his fantastically twisted humanity is denuded before the world.
Beyond being utterly tone-deaf to the gravity of the Ian’s death, a number of structural aspects of this autobiogushical performance are worthy of note. Roach begins the essay with the faux-self-deprecating preamble common among the autobiographies of Tibetan saints:
Friends of mine have asked me to write some details about my life, partly to clarify information which appears online or in the press about me as my teachings become more prominent around the world, and partly because one of my Tibetan lamas has asked some of my students to write a biography about myself. These friends have been pestering me for some years—but I felt hesitant to respond, since it seemed a pretty self-centered thing to do. But as it may be helpful to my students and friends, I have decided to relent.
He “relents” with the device of question-and-answer, lending a teacherly “Ask the Expert” rhythm to his description, but ignoring the fact that these aren’t the questions that anyone is asking right now. Finally, the very title of the essay announces it’s written “for my friends”, indicating no intention of directly engaging outsider scrutiny, or anyone who would peal back the mask of his authority. Roach’s primary audience for his defensive screed consists of his own followers: at this dangerous juncture he must retain as many current devotees and sponsors for his expensive projects as possible, and to gain new adherents to replace those who are surely leaving. He seems to forget that as the director of a 501(c)(3) organization, we are all his sponsors.
story time for the clean-up crew
On the videos of his June 8 to 17th teachings in his new Phoenix meditation-and-media centre, you can watch Roach start out on the sound-stage in band formation, with double bass or sitar or guitar in hand, and then step aside faux-meekly for a scene change, as devotees build a teaching throne for him, complete with silks, flowers, and icons. Then he mounts the throne to read and give the oral commentary on sections from Pabongka Rinpoche’s Liberation in the Palm of Your Hands, the thick slab of a beginner’s practice manual for the Gelukpa tradition that so many feel he’s dragging through the mud.
The subject matter of these teachings was chosen long ago. But the timing of the subject provided an uncanny opportunity for Roach to kill several birds with one stone: launder his orthodox mantel, rally the faithful in the wake of the tragedy (never to be mentioned directly) with some “back-to-basics” pep, demean critical thinking and healthy skepticism, and reinforce the walls he has built between the 21st century and his pre-modern fiefdom. Pabongka Rinpoche’s book may be philosophically rich, but it is also culturally impenetrable, laced with the kind of monastic ephemera and medieval folklore that Roach constantly weaves into his discourse to romanticize his adopted tradition and amplify his other-worldly authority. In teaching this particular book at this particular time, Roach announces unambiguously: Daddy’s back in town.
The obviously hurt and confused students lap it up. Ani Chukyi (who I remember as Anne Lindsay back in 1998), spoke in her parallel teaching about what a relief it was to hear her lama (Roach) “start at the beginning” again, given the stress and scandal of Ian’s death. It would seem that the most effective rear-guard action a tottering authority figure can perform would be to remind his followers how good it felt to gambol in the age of innocence, before his ex-girlfriend went mad, before his most naïve protégé died in a cave, and to regress everyone to a warm and knowing place, untroubled by independent thought.
On the first night in Phoenix, during a section that describes the process for preparing for the ideal meditation session, Roach related Pabongka’s encouragement to clean your room prior to sitting down through a story that seems quaint enough, but which, given present circumstances, carries an ugly message. I’ll paraphrase:
Once there was very stupid monk. He was so stupid he couldn’t memorize a single sutra. So the Buddha told him to clean the temple with a broom. He said: when you sweep, recite: “Clean the dirt. Sweep the dirt”. Try as he might, the extremely stupid monk couldn’t even remember the two phrases together, or in order. Nonetheless, his faith in Lord Buddha was so great and his sweeping so ardent that he quickly attained levels of meditative equipoise and insight that rivaled those of the greatest scholars.
The moral is: you don’t have to think. You just have to believe. And sweep up the temple dirt. So the idiot monk sweeps himself right into heaven: a story that might give all of us idiots hope, until we realize that it’s also an ideal story for the reassertion of paternal (anal, in psychoanalytical terms) control amidst chaos.
Two suggestions hover beneath this story. Firstly, Roach is reminding students that he was the stupid temple-sweeping monk for his teacher, Khen Rinpoche Lobsang Tharchin (as per the anecdotes at the end of his blovathon). Secondly, he is implying that continued devotion in his students will obviate their cognitive failures. This suggestion is already an easy sell with most western adherents of Tibetan Buddhism, who will commonly say: “The Tibetans have been studying the truths of Lord Buddha for a thousand years: we shouldn’t presume to be able to understand anything”.
It is this tendency towards self-imposed ignorance that keeps Roach’s temple-soiling swept clean by insider brooms. The guru’s history is an incomprehensible hagiography: don’t scrutinize it too closely. Sweep, sweep. If you are troubled by his behaviours, the problem is your perception. Sweep, sweep. Roach and McNally’s relationship was a divine mystery: don’t interrogate its power/gender dynamics. Sweep, sweep. McNally’s delusions of grandeur are a display of karma that only a Buddha can understand. Sweep. We can’t really know why or how Ian Thorson died. Sweep. Given the possible confusion that recent events might provoke, it’s best to scrub McNally from all Roach-related websites. Sweep. “Don’t take it too seriously”, Roach reassures his crowd on the second night in Phoenix. Sweep, sweep.
“I’m not comparing myself to Jesus, but…”
The idiot-monk story is perhaps too subtle. Let’s skip right ahead to where Roach compares himself to Jesus. The transcript (6/9/12) is as follows:
In the last week there’s been a lot of crazy publicity about myself and Diamond Mountain. I haven’t actually seen that much of it. But I was in Guadalajara a few weeks ago, right?– who was there? [receives acknowledgement from students] yeah, and it was weird, because the last time I was in Guadalajara 20 people came, or something, not many people came, and then this last time a thousand people showed up, and it was one of the largest places you could have in Guadalajara to fit people. And that happened several times on this last tour, right? In… where was that? [looks to devotees again] Colombia, and then again in Mexico city, sold out in the museum of the wealthiest man in the world — Carlos Slim. It was strange. the tour was pretty strange. I don’t know about you, if you were in Guadalajara that night, it felt like the Mexican revolution was going to happen again. I actually got nervous. I felt very — especially when our friend got up [a student in the crowd apparently mimics the Mexican friend’s fist-pumping actions], I just felt this energy run through the crowd and thought: this could get out of hand, you know. Where do you go from here? To a soccer stadium or something? What’s going to happen next, you know. And I thought “Very powerful forces were being unleashed.” I felt like that. And it felt a little bit unsettling. I was a little nervous about it. And so then I thought “Something strong is going to happen.” In Buddhism they say when good forces are happening very strong, then there will be opposite forces will come. And you have to expect it. and I think personally, this is just my own opinion, we’ve done… many of you have done 20 years of work, 25 years of hard work, free classes, 25 years of free classes, the university is free, the classes have been free, and 20K pages of traditional scripture have been unleashed into the modern world in a modern way. And people are starting to respond: even in Moscow before that, 850 people came to the talks. First time I’ve ever been there. Things are happening, things are moving, great forces are being unleashed, I feel. And I just want you not to be nervous or afraid or like that, okay, it makes me a little, it’s overwhelming for me and stressful for me, all the attention, and a lot of the negativity. But I think it’s natural, when good forces get very strong, and it’s happened throughout history. Read the story of — I’m not comparing myself to Jesus — but there’s a story: he healed Lazarus, he brought Lazarus back from the dead, which I cannot do, and I don’t claim to be able to do. But then he got in trouble. Beginning from that day, he got targeted by the authorities. They said that he was wrong to bring back people to life without asking the authorities: something like that, you know. And then they said, “O we have to go to Jerusalem now.” And Peter said “I don’t think you should go, you know, stuff might happen.” and he went anyway you know, oh-wey [slight tearing in voice, touches face]. So just, I feel that powerful good forces are being released, and there will be a reaction. and don’t be disturbed, don’t be sad, and don’t take it too seriously. Bigger things are coming. Much much greater things are coming. And beautiful things, global things, globally-changing things, and naturally there will be some reaction in the world. The more we do, the more reaction there will be. And that’s just natural, in the whole world. So embrace it and ride it, and don’t be nervous, and don’t be, especially don’t be unkind to other people, okay. Be friendly, be kind, be understanding of their needs. Respond to them with kindness and grace, elegance. That’s your training, that’s what you do. So whatever comes, our job is to practice, to be kind to people, be good to people, do our daily meditation, do our daily yoga, study. Show that you are well-trained, by being kind and forgiving, and serve people. That would make me most proud. Okay?
Okay indeed. Let’s analyze the rhetoric a little:
— To Roach, the breaking news is “crazy publicity”. It’s not the report of a death of his long-term spiritual student in his care under conditions of religious delusion.
— In the same breath, Roach veers from the content of the publicity, and diverts to stories about his recent global renown.
— From his throne, he quizzically asks his students to remind him where he has been and where he is going. This pretends to dilute his personal agency, creating the impression of plural group-think. The interchange affects a modest tone of someone “just swept up” in something bigger than him. This is consistent with his general practice of affecting charming foreignness and naiveté, as though he were native neither to English speech nor to the postmodern world of horseless carriages, flying machines, and the interwebs. Repeatedly asking students to find simple words for him is a powerful rhetorical device that keeps the class engaged and gives an artificial sense of solidarity in shared discovery, as the commentator Cyn points out.
— Throughout, Roach uses two rhetorical keys to the obfuscation of responsibility: plural address and the passive voice.
— Roach also often uses the 2nd person address to allude to himself. The collusion of 1st and 2nd person addresses creates a powerful boundary porosity between charismatic leader and devotional follower, such that who is doing what becomes obscured. This makes it very easy for underlings to feel a false sense of equality with him, empowerment from him, and participation in his plan.
— Roach name-drops Carlos Slim (the world’s richest man!!!), as though he were the sponsor/endorser of his Mexico appearance. Really, Roach just rented a venue from the guy.
— Only the Dalai Lama could ever teach in soccer stadiums. An indirect comparison.
— Multiple elliptical references to “powerful forces being released”. Again, the passive voice detaches Roach from responsibility. When credit is due, this rhetorical gesture affects modesty. When blame is near, it affects disengagement.
— “We’ve done, many of you have done”: he colludes his own narrative with that of the group. In fact, nobody in the room has “done” what he has done, but this fits the pattern of Roach handing off his own grandiosity to others. Later, he says, quoting Jesus (in plural): “O we have to go to Jerusalem now.” The suggestion of collective movement is vague and apocalyptic.
— As per usual, Roach uses the word “free” to describe his teaching products. Access through the front door may be free, but it’s certainly not free inside. The organization floats on a pre-modern sponsorship model in which donors are continually pressured for major contributions. “Free” is a way of obfuscating/romanticizing the real costs of a megalomaniac vision.
— “I’m not comparing myself to Jesus” – and then he does, alluding especially to Jesus’ heterodox actions. Then comes a terrible irony that makes me throw up a little in my mouth: Roach reminds us that Jesus’ troubles began over raising Lazarus from the dead, but of course his own troubles have sparked global interest because he is administratively and perhaps spiritually responsible for a man’s death. Roach is colluding Lazarus with Ian. But Ian’s corpse is not rising, except perhaps in the imagination of those who believe that he died in ecstasy. “[Jesus] brought Lazarus back from the dead, which I cannot do…” says Roach. Is this helpless Jesus somehow even more sympathetic?
— Roach tears up as he alludes to Calvary, preprogramming pathos amongst his devotees for whatever storms of persecution may come. I find this particularly dangerous.
— “Greater things are coming” echoes John 14:12, in which Jesus says– “Truly, I tell all of you with certainty, the one who believes in me will also do what I am doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (International Standard Version) Faith is presented as the prime consolation and route to self-empowerment. Keep calm and carry on.
— Bring it home with an appeal to forgiveness, kindness, and service. Position universally unassailable sentiments at the end of outrageous deflections and narcissistic allusions, to make the “main message” seem sane.
— “Okay?” This transcript reveals a comparatively sparing use of this particular Roachian rhetorical interrogative. He’s given teachings in which almost every sentence is followed by a hasty bark of “Okay?”, which instigates a regular head-nodding rhythm amongst the crowd, making it more and more difficult to any individual to feel, much less express, dissent. It’s a pretense at dialogue that can bully the crowd into group assent. I believe the head-nodding itself is a kinetic cue for physical kriyas. (He might have to alter this rhetorical device as he becomes more popular in Latin America. “Okay?” can become “Olé!”, leaving even less room for doubt. Buenos dias, Geshe Olé.)
the anxious shaman-charismatic-nowhere-man
I’ve spoken with many who knew Roach in the early days of his ministry. One remembered that Roach quite obviously had an issue with regarding women as equal fellow students. Also: that it was impossible to have an adult conversation with him, because he couldn’t seem to temper his internal mystical reverie for long enough to see and feel another’s humanity, perspective, otherness. I remember this as well: a kind of conviction that impressed the doubtful at first, but slowly revealed itself as a lack of interpersonal skills and general failure of empathy. From a postmodern perspective, his neo-Tibetan world seemed simple to an infantile degree. From a psychoanalytic perspective, he was a narcissist who had failed to develop healthy ambivalence with regard to the complexity of the world.
But from his own markedly pre-modern perspective, he was simply walking the walk. By his lights, Khen Rinpoche was a Buddha, Manhattan was swarming with tantric deities, every good thing that happened to him was a divine blessing, every bad thing that happened to him was a divine teaching, and anyone who doubted any of this was obviously perverted by contemporary delusions or perhaps even demons, and couldn’t call themselves a real Buddhist.
To begin to read Michael Roach, one has to contemplate the extraordinary clash of pre-modern and postmodern cultures that constitutes much of the Tibetan-Buddhism-Comes-West experience. We might call it an “epistemic collision”, in which two descriptions of the world and existence are mutually exclusive, leading both to mutual distortion and/or romanticization. The Tibetans have not generationally waded through the scientific or humanistic revolutions that form the groundwork for postmodern life. How do we meet them? How do we understand their world of deity yoga and oracular possession? How can they understand our general democracy of thought? What do we create out of our mutual projections onto each other?
In my experience, Tibetan religions can speak powerfully to a wounded place in pomo folk that yearns for pre-modern simplicity, or perhaps even a renewed clarity of childhood power dynamics. This is not to demean the soaring complexity of Tibetan metaphysics, nor the therapeutic jewels in its meditation technology, but to suggest that its hierarchical and faith-soaked method of transmission runs counter to the secular-liberal-humanist neurology that most western acolytes bring to it. To take it on fully, we have to partition off about four centuries of culture in our brains. Like every split, there is price to a pay.
It is not surprising that someone with as much manic devotion to this otherness as Roach will refuse to engage in dialogue with postmodern consensus reality. Perhaps this is the root of his power over the postmodern-wounded. He is quite literally not like the rest of us. Not just because he thinks he is almost omniscient: this should simply land him in the psych ward. He is different because, in addition to his outrageous self-certainty, he lives in a neo-Tantric world in which thinking one is almost omniscient is an utterly rational possibility, and, in fact, the most intelligent thing that anyone can accomplish – perhaps because it is a world that predates dialecticism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, intersubjectivity, and neuroscience. At the root of Michael Roach’s leadership power is his adamantine refusal to participate in the complex, unresolvable, and evolutionary conversation of contemporary human adulthood. He trail-blazes a path out of the twisting and thorny garden of historical growth. He offers simplicity, and claims it is free of charge. But adherents must pay for it with the only coin of real value today – the very foundation of empathy and positive collective change in the postmodern era – the capacity to hold multiple complex perspectives in an uncertain, passionate, humble, loving heart.
Roach’s persona is haloed with his astounding transformation from someone we might have recognized as one of our own into someone out of a myth. He is not an inscrutable old Tibetan like his teacher Khen Rinpoche, who lived and died in relative obscurity except for those few New Jersey students who served him for decades, trying to catch a glimpse into his arcane world. Roach not only peered into Khen Rinpoche’s world; he seems to have died into whatever he imagined it to be, and then rebirthed himself out of it, back into postmodern life, as a transcultural, ahistorical shaman.
I remember thinking within the first few months of meeting Roach: “Here’s someone who is like me, who came from my culture and people, and then became someone entirely different. He excised every ambiguity I could not tolerate. He got rid of his cynicism: he hears god in Neil Young.” This was a profoundly consoling thought for someone as alienated from his culture, time and people as I was. I thought: “He’s really done it. He went there, and did it.”
But where did he go, really? He crawled back into the pre-modern womb he thought Khen Rinpoche lived in. And what did he do, really? He regressed himself not only backwards into our psychohistory, but energetically into the form of a doubtless child. Sometimes he even looks like a weird baby – a disproportionately large head tufted with thin strands of fine hair, a puffy neonatal face, and those mesmerizing, moist, unfocused eyes. And the constant crying of toddler-like separation anxiety, which always triggered an irrepressible fountain of my own tears. (My mirror neurons were particularly sensitive to his gestures, manner, eyes, and face. I responded to Roach in a way that I never responded to a Tibetan teacher. Are we simply more responsive to the apparently familiar?) My devotion to Roach fell apart when I realized that what I really wanted was to be a baby again, held once more in powerful arms I could trust. But because I saw, thankfully, that he was too wounded to hold me, I had to become my own father.
The shaman: Roach skinwalks many worlds. His terrain is not only flush with mandalas and deities, but with media kits and databases. He floats with ease between laptop and ritual implements. He is neither monk nor businessman, but can play both. Neither man nor woman, but can embody either. We love the shaman, even if we doubt his sanity. He can do anything: be everyone, be no-one, live everywhere, and be of no fixed abode. We allow the shaman to sing, dance, weep, lie, cross-dress, sleep with whomever he chooses or withdraw into self-satisfied celibate meditation, and generally perform all the actions that we ourselves suppress or cannot find strength to do. More importantly, we allow the shaman to do the one thing we know we can never really do ourselves: avoid the absolute confrontation we each face with our limitations, our smallness, the fact of being here, in this mess, now. The shaman carries the existential hall-pass, and we want it, badly. To get it, we leave our language, our homes, our families, our historical moment. Or so we think.
A commenter calling him/herself JOsh had a slightly different take on Roach’s skinwalking, from the perspective of his relationship to “traditional” or “renegade” Buddhism. S/he pointed out that the comment thread to my second piece displayed the political calculus of Roach’s indefinability. As apologists for Gelukpa orthodoxy attack his credentials, Roach claims revolutionary virtue: he is translating and modernizing, he is empowering women, he is healing the Sino-Tibetan cultural rift by teaching in China. As secular humanists attack how he is running a public institution or abusing his power over women, he can claim the impenetrability of his lineage tradition, enshrouding it in a foreign language and episteme. He is, of course, preserving pristine ancient knowledge and rebuilding the secret technologies of transcendence, which our postmodern alienation has thrown into the dustbin of the “archaic”. Roach squirts nimbly between these two attacks, and boards his plane to the next public talk, his suitcase folded with maroon robes and Armani.
Robes and suits are both disguises for the shaman-charismatic: his real power comes from the capacity to change between them and alter the meanings of both. The same holds true for his juggling of ancient and modern texts and cultures in general. The ability of the shaman-charismatic to shape-shift on a dime makes others feel that he is in contact with a greater sense of presence. He holds purchase on the “now”. In a very eerie way, Roach really does perform (if not practice) the instant-karma schtick he teaches: humans can be anything they desire in the present moment. And they should change, right now, for his version of the better. And they must change immediately: time is running out. Roach has insisted for decades that the only purpose we all should have in life is to experience the same meditative reverie that he did in his early 20s. This is a massive projection, worthy of a top-shelf narcissist. Roach is consciously telling his students: “You must be like me: my experience is the only worthwhile experience out there.” Perhaps unconsciously: “I need you to confirm that experience to sooth my anxiety over its meaning.”
Why all the pressure? Isn’t daily life filled with enough tension? Or is the threat of an ultimate anxiety (“I might not become fully enlightened in this lifetime”) the very distraction some of us need? In an early draft of my first article I characterized this pressure as “apocalyptic”, but Diana Alstad persuaded me to withdraw the word, in the absence of technical evidence. But I’ll bring it back here in limited form: Roach’s take on Buddhism promotes an intense personal apocalypticism, in which the follower feels as though his world is limited to a single choice while death stares him down.
“Personal apocalypticism” gives insight into the agonized pursuit of higher and higher meditative states. It gives insight into why Roach will not compromise in the face of public scrutiny: there are much greater things coming – don’t be distracted by Ian’s death. It gives insight into black-and-white and magical thinking, failures of ambivalence and existential immaturity. Personal apocalypticism outwardly projects all-consuming private desires motivated by an intense fear of irrelevance or death. Ironically, all of these tensions are the targets of a certain brilliant Axial age philosopher named Siddhartha Gautama, aka the Buddha, who challenged his fellow humans to face old-age, sickness, and death without flinching, to recognize that everything changes, and to understand that personal identity is a vanishingly small element of our grander shared story, and only has worth to the extent that it works for others.
Who is Michael Roach? Saint, charlatan, scholar, bullshitter, philanthropist, sociopath? Perhaps the most sophisticated answer is actually the one that funnels down through the Diamond Mountain talking points: Roach is the hallowed object of his own dumbed-down version of subjectivist Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, i.e.: an empty screen upon which we project our hopes and fears, and more ominously, the texture of our past behaviours. According to Roach’s own reasoning, his critics can’t help themselves: I myself am forever stuck in the samsaric loop of criticism, clearly. I am being manipulated like a puppet by the numberless cynical puppeteers of my past selves. Meanwhile, his supporters are simply enjoying the results of their past support. We revolve in mutually exclusive karmic bubbles. A part of me wants to endorse this empty-screen line of reasoning, if only to have it remove attention from Roach himself, so that we can look more clearly at the behaviour that surrounds him. Who is Michael Roach? might be exactly the wrong question, because what a narcissist really wants you to do is to puzzle endlessly over who he is, and to spend more time and money in his dream than in your life.
charisma as an autism-spectrum affectation
In 1922, sociologist Max Weber defined charisma as a “certain quality of an individual’s personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” What is this quality?
You could feel it rippling through the room. Roach built expectation masterfully, starting almost every public appearance woefully late, especially for those with babysitters. We sat and waited and meditated and prayed and studied. Then a murmur passed over the crowd and we stood in silence, turning to his looming frame, the extra-devout surging closer with flowers. His face was radiant, and he was flanked by floating seraphic women, like a transfigured saint in a Renaissance painting. (Christie, Ora, Elizabeth. Why wouldn’t he float into retreat with these women? They seemed bound to him in a gossamer web.) He stopped to accept every flower, but also randomly chose students to share a tender word, giving everyone the impression that personal and intimate attention from the guru was possible. But he never met anyone’s eyes for more than an instant.
The vata-types visibly trembled as he passed. I myself felt an upward rush of longing and fulfillment along my spine. I remember my face flushing and the swirl of rich and nameless emotions, feelings that I associated with every moment in my own Catholic childhood when absolute otherness was revealed in a ritual that brought me as close to god as it set me apart from people.
What’s strange about the shaman-charismatic is that you think you’re responding to his magical body, but this is only marginally true. To a far greater degree, you are actually responding to other’s responses to him in a snowballing feedback loop of shared expectation and wish-fulfillment. This became clear to me when I saw that the kundalini jolting through those beside me did far more to rattle my internal space than Roach ever did. I think that often what the charismatic does in a performance setting may be vanishingly small. His inaction in fact might be the source of his power: he might be doing nothing at all except showcasing his withdrawal into smiling internality, a radiant autism that stimulates the wishes of those around him for their own perfectly happy solitude. With all attention flowing towards him, he seems to functionally embody a vampiric lack of empathy. Showing the pretense of giving everything and empowering everyone, he doesn’t actually have to give anything or interact with anyone He merely has to affect the glowing receipt of adulation. He is removed from human concern, sanctified and smug, untouchably serene. He is not there to submit to the difficulty of interacting with people, except in the most abstract sense. He is there to be seen being better than others.
It comes down to this: the crowd sees a blissfully self-absorbed human, and they feel within themselves the intense wish to join him, all alone at the top of his invisible diamond mountain. Psychic and sensory data flow inward for the devotee: the kundalini shiver feels like light flashing through internal mirrors of infinite regress. And the most disconcerting thing of all in this kind of darshan is that while everyone is gazing at the guru, no-one is looking at each other. This explains the strange sight of devotees literally shoving each other out of the way in reception lines. He invites many to gather together to have an intensely private and isolating experience, which mirrors his own.
The charismatic draws his followers into his own absence of intersubjectivity while playing their emotions like a violin. Stimulating intense emotion is essential: without it, he has no power. As many sociologists of religion have pointed out, the charismatic attains his position through an overt challenge to tradition or law, creating a one-man vortex of attention, centered upon his body. Roach becomes Roach by challenging the boundaries, norms, and social structures of both Tibetan monastic culture on one hand, and the postmodern western episteme on the other. This is why he can no sooner give up his robes than his laptop. The double rebellion creates an inherently unstable structure: if Roach tumbles, neither world will have his back. There’s no desk job to fall back to, no farm team to coach.
The lack of institutional or traditional stability in Roach’s corporation demands from his students complete emotional investment in his persona. His position is dependent upon the kind of heart-devotion we see in Roach’s current personal assistant Mercedes Bahleda (among so many others). This emotional allegiance must actually strengthen in the wake of institutional or humanistic attacks upon his authority. Many followers find themselves in a zero-sum game of emotional dependence: the ring around Roach will get stronger, until it breaks. I also believe that the intensity of these conflictual, split, and isolating emotions is in turn a kind of fuel for the internal friction that causes kundalini to seem to rise.
many followers, leading themselves back
The shamanic-charismatic leader can hold power, but if his followers get in too deep, they lose their social place within consensus reality, and eventually have nothing to fall back on except the worn platitudes of libertarian freedom and individual responsibility. They will define their own bondage in terms of choice. This is painfully clear from some of the comments from Roach’s supporters in this forum and elsewhere. In response to criticism leveled at their guru, his worldview, and his administration, we’ve seen supporters argue self-reliance (Ian was an adult who made his own choices in a free country); marginally relevant facticity (The retreatants aren’t living in huts, but real houses, with real appliances!); diminishment (Sure, the Kali initiation of 2010 featured weapons and bloodletting, but it was really just theatrical); compensation (Don’t you recognize how much good this man has done in the world?); and retreat (Why can’t you all just leave us alone?).
But no true supporter can earnestly engage with any of the substantive criticism of Roach, precisely because it comes from the complex world they so much wanted to reject, in which he cannot be all things to all people, but is in fact a social and political leader like any other whose rise to prominence must attract requisite scrutiny. The scrutiny is intolerable because it presents an ambivalent picture that violates the radiance of the teacher-student bond. To acknowledge Roach’s many sides would require an act of integration and accomplishment of ambivalence (cf. Melanie Klein) greater than most true supporters would be able to bear. For many have split out their own capacity for certainty and all-goodness, and projected it onto Roach. The extent to which Roach Knows is the extent to which They Are Ignorant. There are many who don’t just live in his shadow. They are his shadow.
But how many true supporters are there, really? Not a lot, I suspect. One thing about even a pre-modern sangha in a postmodern world: no-one in Roach’s sphere of influence can remain unexposed to criticism for long. I have emails in my inbox forwarded to me from DMU insiders originally sent to DMU board members that link to my 5/4 piece. I’m sure this current post will itself be sent to other insiders from well-meaning outsiders. And through these links, the vast online discussion about Roach’s fitness for service will be turned over and over like steaming compost for the integrity garden.
One difficulty in gauging the level to which consensus reality has penetrated the true-support network is that true-supporter arguments will linger in form and content even as those who make them feel themselves fall away from Roach. They will continue to espouse self-reliance arguments (among others) but they will gradually shift away from defending Roach towards defending themselves. Because at a certain point upon leaving the thrall of a charismatic leader it is less important to defend his honour than it is to justify the time and money and emotional/familial capital you spent on him. What I hear beneath the arguments of many threshold-supporters is the pain of the sunk-cost: how can I have spent so much on a fraud? For some, the sunk-cost feeling becomes the sunk-cost fallacy. Turning back on their devotion would be intolerable. Many may feel their only option is to double-down.
The most tenacious self-justifying argument of the devotee backing his way out through the temple door (sweeping up all traces of his presence as he goes) is the libertarian argument, which unfolds in two stages. The first is hostile towards outside critics, or earlier-exiters who are casting blame: “It was always up to you, you know. Everyone was/is free to make their own choices. Geshe Michael isn’t doing anything from his own side. This is a free country. No-one forced you to be here. Don’t blame Roach for your vulnerability. Nobody made you believe anything you didn’t want to believe.” This stage is a basic abdication of responsibility for the social fabric, and attempts to quell the guilt of having watched fellow devotees being abused in one way or another.
The second stage softens, and turns inward: “Well – I really can’t say how other people experienced the man, but I got some good things out of my time with him, and I’m grateful for that. It might not have been right for everybody, but what can we say? Life is mysterious.” This stage takes what it can from a bad situation, and rationalizes the individual benefit. It gives a wistful air to the general narcissism of new-age spirituality.
This second stage is what I smelled in a personal email from Winston McCullough, the first old-timey Roach-devotee and colleague I reached out to back in late April, before I published anything. I remembered Winston from 1998-2000, not as a personal friend, but as a community leader, disciplined student, and all-round dharma-optimist with whom I’d play-debated our beginner’s understanding of emptiness theory on the debate ground when we were both dharma-tourists at Sera Mey in South India. I’d heard that he’d resigned as the first director of Diamond Mountain in 2004, and had moved with his family to the Northwest. Because his current online bio fails to reference his six (and perhaps more) years of intensive student-and-working relations with Roach (an omission increasingly common among former prominent Roach students, though none have come forward with the kind of public criticism that some standards of integrity might demand), I assumed that his move implied a window of philosophical and perhaps social space between himself and the guru.
I reached out to Winston to see if a prominent former student of Roach such as himself might be interested in providing a public mentoring voice to his former foundering community, perhaps by contributing to or tempering the content of my post. Looking back on this, I don’t exactly know what I imagined he could do, but I suppose I at least expected him to indicate that he wanted to do something. But he declined to involve himself. And in classic second-stage-withdrawal style, he wrote via e-mail that he was “sorry about whatever challenges people may be experiencing”. As in: they may be real challenges, or perhaps not (too hard to say, it seems, with psychosis and stabbing and death – it’s all a matter of perspective, no?), but in either case they were issues that he couldn’t comment on, because he has moved on.
For the first six or seven years after I parted ways with Roach I felt like I too had moved on. I pretended that I could frame my “lost years” in the most beneficial personal light, and be done with it. Psychologically, it was much easier to focus on “I got what I needed from the experience; if it wasn’t ideal for others, well, that’s unfortunate”. (June Campbell, author of Travellers in Space, describes this very well in this 1996 Tricycle interview, which also has much to offer to the discussion of the role of women in Tibetan tantric culture.) Faced with social trauma, we are, above all else, compelled to make things make sense. We will compromise our empathy to resolve cognitive dissonance. The rationalization of self-benefit often comes through turning a blind eye to those around us. After all, if it was bad for others, how good could it really have been for me? What makes me so special and so lucky that my life has generally come together, while Ian’s has been ripped apart?
What I would like Roach devotees and almost-ex-devotees to know is that withdrawing from charismatic control into renewed personal integrity is a long process with many stages. First you may feel hurt and disillusioned. You may suppress this in order to begin the rationalization process. You may be confused about how it was possible for so many people to have such different experiences. You may begin to doubt your doubt. You may feel some are being hysterical in their criticism – those guys like Remski who were always haters anyway. You may feel humiliated that others aren’t listening to your legitimate complaints. In my experience, all of these feelings will interweave without resolution until you finally allow yourself to be truly angry at the lost time and your vulnerability and not standing up for people you saw bullied and your guru’s incredible presumption and the general shortness of life, and in that anger begin to find yourself by resisting the river of power that has continually swept you downstream, and out to sea.
squeezing out of the bubble: dialogue with lama marut
Winston might have made a clean-ish break from Roach’s sphere, but others will find it much more difficult, because their professional lives and public personae are enmeshed in Roach-related endeavours. And some of them are burdened by the additional complication that their personal behaviour has mirrored key aspects of the Roach shadow-play. Consider Lama Marut, also known as Brian K. Smith, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at UC Riverside, and a protégé of Wendy Doniger and Mircea Eliade himself.
I knew Brian in 1999-2000. He’d been a surfer, biker dude, smoker and drinker, a rather footloose and roguish divorced father with a beautiful daughter of eight or nine years old. But by the time we were sitting across from each other in a Bodhgaya hotel restaurant between teachings by the Dalai Lama and commentaries by Roach, he’d seemed to have accepted Je Tsongkhapa as his personal lord and saviour. He went vegetarian and alcohol-free, softened his intellectual bravado and skepticism, and started talking about taking ordination.
I can’t say I knew Smith well at the time, but his desire for ordination puzzled me. There seemed to be something penitential about it. (Smith rejected this presumption in his email response to an earlier draft of this section, preferring to use the word “complex”.) But his path made more sense to me when he told me over rice and dahl that he was the son of a Baptist minister, and that his relationship with both his father and his birth religion was fraught with tension. I have since wondered – and still do – whether the oscillation between sin and redemption, as it is for many bred-in-the-bone Christians such as myself, is a key self-soothing rhythm of Smith’s psyche, as it was in my own.
I’m not sure what Smith did while Roach was in his first retreat from 2000 to 2003 – we fell out of touch – but I remember hearing that he was amongst the first students of the Diamond Mountain neo-Tantra programme beginning in 2004, and that he received novice ordination from Roach (and McNally) in 2005, and then full ordination in 2009 from the pair, who were then in the process of separating. Gelukpa traditionalists discount these ordinations, saying that Roach cannot give the monastic vows he has so clearly broken. And certainly for such vows to be co-administered with McNally, they say, who herself held no ordination office, surely invalidates the entire ritual. In a personal email, Smith defends his ordination as a private matter: “Taking these vows was an extraordinarily powerful and personal experience. As far as I’m concerned, no one can “invalidate” the vows I took.”
Ordained or not in the eyes of Tibetan tradition and culture, and clearly inspired by his teacher’s heterodox gumption, Smith put on his robes with gusto, and began teaching publicly as a neo Tibetan Buddhist monk. A catalogue of his work is available here. A good example of his recent teaching is this video, which he sent me directly during our correspondence. I’m not sure whether he sent it as an example of recent teaching qua teaching, or as a passive-aggressive suggestion to me: that I am presumably unhappy with Roach et al. because I take a “victim’s perspective”.
In either case, it confirmed for me Roach’s influence over his general message. In Smith’s hyper-subjectivist message of “You are not a victim of anything or anybody, and you are the creator of your own world”, he reifies the “adhyatmika bubble”, as Hart deFouw calls it: a particularly new-age devolution of karmic theory, more in tune with The Secret than the Pali canon or the Bhagavad Gita – a wholesale rejection of adhibautika (the actions of others) and adhidaivika (the general ecology). (Adhyatmika refers to self-generated willful actions, said to account for roughly 1/3 of the total action of which experience is made.) This criticism applies to Roachian metaphysics in general. Perception is far more complex than can be understood by the dichotomy of “coming from other” vs. “coming from self”.
In both Smith’s revised bio-note and his personal emails to me, he asserts he is not Roach’s puppet:
In the academic world, it is assumed that while you learn from your teachers and respect them for what they taught you, you also are to integrate what you’ve learned and then take it in your own new and independent direction. A good teacher teaches a student to think for themselves. I have tried to honor all my teachers by doing just this. In my spiritual teachings over the past several years I have drawn on my own material – mostly from my own original translations of Sanskrit texts – and taught them from my own perspective. I am not simply parroting GMR or anyone else… (personal email, 6/25)
But for someone so interested in intellectually distancing himself from Roach it is odd that he recycles Roach’s own myopic interpretation of Patanjali 1.2, positing vritti as “turning inside out”, instead of the accepted “fluctuations”. “Turning” can work as a translation if it refers to simple repetitive movement (of the gunas, etc), but not if it begins to imply cognitive reversal at the heart of Roach’s “Think-Method” version of emptiness theory. Patanjali isn’t asking for a reversal of perception, but for an end to it, such that the isolation (kaivalya) of purusha and prakriti can be re-established. Roach’s interpretation simply reifies cognition (pramana). For both Roach and Smith to use this text to suggest a kind of cognitive-behavioural-therapy fix for general human suffering is a gross simplification of Yoga and Buddhism. I’m not a Sanskrit scholar like Smith, but I am widely read enough to know that he is squeezing vritti through a Roach-sized window into a teleological agenda that the text will not support. As an academic, Smith well knows the broader interpretation of the term. Bending it for his purposes is as intellectually dishonest as his teaching beside a picture of the Dalai Lama – after claiming that lineage doesn’t matter.
Simplification can have its value. In general, we come to resolve our birth trauma with an overly-objectivist cognitive stance. To at least consider the absolute opposite — that experience is subjective alone — can have therapeutic value, in the sense of pattern-disruption. But it is a transitional teaching at most, and one which unfortunately steers seekers away from the intersubjective, from which empathy proceeds and to which it returns, in my experience. Experience is an ineffable weave of objective presentations and subjective stances: feeling the rich uncertainty of this condition is a dear treasure of the heart.
Philosophy aside, what gets really interesting about Smith is that he seems to have wrapped himself not only in maroon and in Roachesque “Buddhism-As-The-Secret” talking points, but also in key aspects of Roach’s performance as well. Within a short period of time, “Lama Marut”, as he is now known (the misappropriation of the “Lama” honorific by someone considered to be unqualified is deeply insulting to Tibetan culture, by the way) was attracting his own students and “fast-tracking” them into advanced practices through initiations that he had only recently received himself from Roach. One commenter on my second piece likened this to practicing surgery on the general public following a weekend “healthy lifestyles” seminar. He also took a spiritual partner, with whom he began teaching a pastiche of Mahayana Buddhism, Hindu devotionalism, and Indo-Tibetan Tantra, all under the philosophical umbrella of Roach. In other words, Smith seems to have mimicked many of his mentor’s choices that have drawn fire from both traditionalist and humanist critics.
Most strange of all, both his rhetoric and his Tiblish (Tibetan-English vocal rhythm, tone, and syntax) began to mirror that of Roach directly. Both affect a neo-oral-tradition teaching style of constant content repetition with minor variations, peppy filler, and pop-culture digression. Even his speaking posture seems to have merged with that of his teacher. Like Roach, Smith is a large man, and key staples of his performance are to loom forward with beneficent menace as he speaks, gesture emphatically with his large hands, and use the full force of his resonant voice almost constantly. It is not the communicational stance of the intersubjectively aware, or the therapeutically sensitive. The stances can make both Roach and Smith come off as self-certain bullies seemingly unconcerned with the intimate dialogue at the heart of evolution. They have the truth, and they’re going to mark it, park it, and bark it.
Smith’s imitation of Roach ends, however, at public relations and crisis management. Since the scandal broke, Smith has radically altered his public teaching persona in ways that sharply distinguish him from his free-falling guru. He announced that he was going to start teaching in civilian clothes. He wasn’t formally giving back his monk’s robes, but would now reserve them for those teaching circumstances in which they wouldn’t set him apart from the householder culture he primarily serves. This gesture was announced with a catchy tagline, which quickly went viral (Smith has a large social media following for his dharma tweets): “The purpose of a spiritual life is not to become better THAN others, but to learn how to be better FOR others.” Soon after, he published a clarification of his views on the issue of lineage purity, taking an essentially postmodern and deconstructive position of how power comes to be formed in spiritual cultures. In it, he foregrounds all of his academic influences, glosses over his Roach-affiliation, and erases what had been a cornerstone of his marketing as a dharma teacher through past years: that he is a “fully-ordained Buddhist monk in the lineage of the Dalai Lamas”. Both shifts happened to coincide with the release of his new book and its dedicated world tour: A Spiritual Renegade’s Guide to the Good Life. These are all very deft self-protective moves, and if his core students have enough gravol on hand to stomach the rolling, Smith may survive his self-extraction from the Roach bubble for long enough to attract new students who have never heard of his disgraced mentor. Brian Smith is like Michael Roach’s postmodern doppelganger, minus the premodern episteme: a mirror of form, content, and behaviour, but savvy enough to know when to take a new tack.
Smith’s ace in the credentials-hole is his academic background, although the disjunction between his professorial career and his Lamahood poses an interesting challenge. His titles are a keystone of his public credibility, but their professional meaning within his current role are strained. Scholarship in Comparative Religion demands either a strict non-sectarian viewpoint, or at the very least a refined sensitivity to the problems of insiders being able to theorize with transparency. Smith made his career in a field in which it is virtually impossible to be taken seriously as a scholar while making overt displays of religious faith. His credentials are in a discipline that specifically demands the opposite of what his allegiance to Roach displays. So: he is making an interesting and messy public epistemic shift, and using the academic paradigm to support the religious, when it does not. More accuracy in his self-representation would require more nuance, as in: “I’ve retired from academic life and culture to pursue the spiritual teachings that are closer to my heart…” followed by a statement about the clear difference between the two, and the value of each. His position here is not dissimilar to Roach’s with regard to being liminal to two traditions, yet claiming the authority of both. I’m sure he wants to do a better job than Roach does of navigating this thicket.
Luckily, Smith isn’t in as tight a corner as Roach is. He has never publicly claimed mystical realizations or powers. His own claims of Buddhist lineage reach back only to Roach, a known eclectic. Unlike Roach, he hasn’t bet the farm on asking people to believe he’s the only person in the world authentically blessed and trained to be somebody special. And an entire career spent in peer-review culture has evidently given him the capacity to respond to criticism, rather than to pretend it doesn’t exist. By displaying the capacity to change, Smith might be performing what he is teaching: liberality and adventurousness in spiritual life. The real test of his ability to avoid the Roach undertow will be to see whether it becomes clear that during those crucial seven years of his teacherly formation he only parroted Roach’s teaching style and content, and not Roach’s willingness to feed off of age and gender power imbalances, certify unqualified teachers, abuse his students’ emotions or trust, socially shun students who don’t defer to him, or put them at psychological risk through bizarre initiation practices.
One thing is clear: in direct statements at least, Smith is standing by his man. Here is our interchange about how he is relating to Roach in the wake of the scandal.
Me: Regarding having taken vows with Roach and McNally: is it not true that there are more than enough insider Gelukpas who assert that MR has broken samaya significantly enough to invalidate the ritual of his ordinations?
Smith: How Many “Insider Gelukpas” have asserted this? How many would be “more than enough”, and who would decide this?
Me: Is claiming ordination from someone who has been excommunicated and then going on to benefit from the authority of the robes conscionable within the broader context of Gelukpa monastic culture?
Smith: I am unaware of any such “excommunication”, or what “excommunication” would mean in the context of Tibetan Buddhism, or even which individual or institutional body within Tibetan Buddhism would have the power and authority to do such a thing.”
Me: Have your robes and lineage-clarification decisions been at all influenced by the tragedy at Diamond Mountain, and the controversy surrounding Roach’s continuing insistence on wearing robes, and his clear overstatement of Gelukpa adherence?
Smith: I have posted video and audio in which my reasons for not wearing robes while teaching are stated, and the purposes for putting up the lineage and influences statement on my website may be found within that very document.
In reading these semantic parsings of simple questions, it must be remembered that Roach is Smith’s Tantric Master, and to publicly or even mentally question him in any way carries an enormous religious penalty — countless lives in hell, for starters. The bonds between Tantric vow-givers and vow-takers will be psychologically overwhelming for some, and I imagine that we will see many similar responses, ranging from the uncomfortable to the downright tortured, from Roach’s students as they revision their identities and allegiances.
In my opinion, I think the smartest, most genuine, and truly “renegade” thing that Smith could do when the time is right would be to make his strange association with Roach an utterly transparent part of his spiritual autobiography. I heard the first part of it years ago, over dinner. Perhaps the fuller version would sound something like this:
I am the son of a Baptist minister. I became a scholar of religion to understand the nameless pressures and ecstasies of my childhood. But after many years I realized that my scholarship had stripped me of faith and wonder. I wandered through my middle years chasing empty consolations. And then I met a man my age, from my culture, who truly believed all of the things I remembered from childhood, but had since merely studied in books. I fell in love with his strange passion: I felt it rejuvenate a buried vitality and hopefulness. But gradually, I saw that like myself he was wounded, perhaps beyond repair, and that mirroring his life was not getting me any closer to the truth of my own. I realized that I had followed someone else’s dream in order to wake myself up. My entanglement with him showed me the necessity of finding my own path.
Now this would be a teacher I would listen to.
I don’t know how to love him
I’m asking for a lot transparency from Roach and Smith: far more than their public personae or personal pride – or in Roach’s case, grasp of reality – can likely bear. What transparency do I have to offer in return? A little more every day, I hope.
These past two months have provoked a rich stream of contemplation for me. I’ve had to revisit a strange and often dark time in my life and continue to uncover its meaning. I’ve wrestled with the ethics of outraging old friends and emotionally distressing thousands of people I’ve never met. I’ve been sleepless with the consideration that my reporting and opinions may contribute to profound changes in the paths of people I don’t know. I’ve wondered if these articles might cause damage far beyond my intentions: that not only will Roach’s halo tarnish and teeter, but that his charitable efforts will also be threatened, and that the Tibetan culture he has appropriated will suffer further by spotlighting this tragedy.
And yet I’ve felt compelled to pursue it. Not for fame or money, as some have accused. In this field, the former is of dubious value, and the latter is non-existent, except for a few professional journalists for whom I’ve provided a shitload of legwork. So: why? Not only because it’s my story as much as it’s anyone else’s who has crossed paths with Michael Roach, but also for a much deeper reason that I am just beginning to own. I loved him. In his apparent mystical ecstasy I felt the answer to my own terrible longing. I was obsessed with him, and in some ways I still am. There’s something about Michael Roach that pulls on all of my unintegrated threads at once, something that shows me where I am a scared and petulant child longing for comfort, where I demand certainty where none exists, where I am lost between cultures and millennia, and how easy it was to console myself by withdrawing into masturbatory religious sentiment.
Before Roach went into retreat in 2000, I sealed a strange bond with him in a public performance of a book he had just published and for which I had been an editorial assistant. It was called The Garden, and it consisted of a young seeker’s narration of encounters with Buddhist saints in a meditation garden on successive summer nights, co-ordinated by a suspiciously McNally-like high school girlfriend/angel. It was, like everything Michael did, quasi-autobiographical. He enlisted myself and my ex-wife to create a script of the book, and rehearse it for the launch. We wrote, memorized, blocked, and rehearsed for a month as a duet, with myself playing the young Michael Roach, and my ex playing the parade of teachers, from the saturnine logician Dharmakirti to the young prince Gautama himself. The launch was early in 2000: we had all just returned from the roll-over of the millennium in India, broke and feverish. It felt like the end of something big, both socially and personally: an entire community was about to lose their teacher for years, the book summed up many of his basic messages, the first great Roach diaspora was about to occur, and my ex and I, vagabonds since we met, were about to rebuild yet again our entire social and professional lives.
Even the performance venue was suggestive of an ending world. Harper Collins, Roach’s publisher, rented out an old Barney’s store that had gone bankrupt in the recent recession. We built our makeshift set around empty shelving emblazoned with the brand names of haute couture. Someone brought a few can lights with gels, someone else set up the video, and someone else brought vegan catering to set up beside the artful pyramid of new books. I don’t know how many people came; it felt like two hundred or so. We used the grand marble staircase in the centre of the main floor for the entrances and exits of the saints.
We began: I closed my eyes under the lights and listened for my ex’s step on the stairs. I molded my posture and mental space into what I imagined my teacher’s internality felt like: an upward pulse, a buoyancy, a radiant loneliness. I felt an ecstatic merging into the presence of a man I wanted to be. I felt my name and story vanish under the gaze of those who wanted to see their teacher’s life laid out before them, projected onto an empty screen. I’d been in music and theatre for years, but never had the form and content of performance intertwined so deeply with my own secret longing.
It was over before it began. Michael rushed towards me with tears streaming down his flushed face. He took me in his arms, and embraced me with crushing force. His body trembled with emotion and radiated intense heat. I began to weep as well, overcome by an abject wordlessness. I felt him love me in perhaps the only way he knew how: manically, desperately. I went limp in his arms, surrendering to him, having become him. It took years for me to shake the feeling of being gripped and held. Years to rekindle my own heat.
new rumours, which, if corroborated by the crowdsource, may continue to provoke therapeutic anger
Many ex-devotees of Roach are recovering from a merging similar to my own. They are coming forward, tentatively. Many have been silent and withdrawn for years, trying to make sense of having given their power away to a dream. In addition to the dozens brave enough to post their experiences online (though perhaps still too wounded to use their full names), about a dozen more, who have all expressed a wish to remain anonymous, have sent me heartbreaking e-mails recounting their psychological suffering and marginalization in the shadow of Diamond Mountain. I’ve been told that students have been pressured into sexual consort practice, that Roach-affiliate organizations have failed to pay administrative workers promised wages for over two years, that Roach’s senior students have spiritually terrorized newer initiates, that marriages have ruptured in the wake of bizarrely sexualized initiation rituals, and that other intimate relationships have crumbled under the weight of philosophically-provoked emotional abandonment.
I can’t corroborate these accounts by myself. Presenting them prematurely exposes me to the accusation of fabrication. How can I protect the anonymity of my sources while showing that I’m not rumour-mongering? I can’t. But I’m willing to take a risk. My experience so far with Roach-related stories is that they begin as frayed threads that dangle until pulled upon by the crowdsource, and are drawn out and woven together on a collective loom of resurrecting dignity. Prior to the publication of my second piece, an anonymous e-mail appeared in my inbox: “If people start talking about the Kali initiations of 2010, Diamond Mountain will implode.” I referenced this “rumour” in my post in the form of a leading question, and it led to several hundred comments exposing a nightmare of spiritual chicanery, psychological bullying and sexual harassment. So far in this story, smoke has definitely signaled fire. And the smoke keeps billowing.
The vast majority of Roach’s students have taken a set of vows – as I once did – associated with the Bodhisattva ideal, a rigorous code of compassionate ethics. One of these vows is the vow to “dispel rumours” that threaten the integrity of Buddhist teachings or teachers, or threaten the ardour of the faithful. By not responding to the many questions raised by the Thorson tragedy (and its Diamond Mountain context) that remain unanswered by his open letter, Roach and the entire DM board seem to be breaking this vow on an hourly basis. If the rumours are untrue, perhaps other students will show more courage, and address them directly.
Why do my correspondents wish to remain anonymous? Because uttering the story of trauma can be as painful as experiencing the trauma itself. It is not surprising that ex-members speak in layers of disclosure. They will only speak at first in the silence of their hearts, and then in whispers, from behind a scrim. Finally: encouraged by the voices of others, a more confident sound may emerge.
following Christie McNally back to where it all started
The voice we all want to hear most is that of Christy McNally. Not from behind a retreat blindfold, nor from a teaching stage, nor in an hallucinatory letter posted online from the middle of nowhere, trying to console confused devotees. With more than fifteen years at Roach’s side, she will know, more than anyone, how it all happened, how it all works, and exactly what he has done. But her authentic knowledge will be wrapped in the thick shadow of her complex self-perception. I imagine she is far more deeply split than anyone I see in therapy, with an unconscious part feeling she has been a slave to another’s dream, and a more conscious part actively rationalizing that slavery by assuming a false mastership role.
This is why I found it so moving to read of her travelling to Kathmandu and trying to meet Lama Zopa. It’s a classic story of a person returning to the site of her original trauma: the place where she began to change and split, to think she was becoming someone other than an East Coast photography and literature student with a bright and uncertain world before her. Perhaps a regular job, a family.
It was also very moving to read that she had to stand in the reception line like every other beginning student, that she received no special acknowledgement from this strangely luminous little monk she met in this very place in the mid-90s, at the beginning of her journey – before all the grandiosity, the thousand airplanes, the knives, and Ian’s malnourished eyes gleaming in the dark of the cave.
And perhaps most moving of all: to read that she offered a white silk kathak scarf to the old man, now so frail and sick, and that, as per the custom, he gave it back to her. Christie spent close to a decade wearing white silk “angel clothes” as she stood demurely beside her maroon-robed master. It is as though she offered Lama Zopa the rags of an old disguise. And the old Tibetan gave it back to her, placing it tenderly around her neck, as if to say: Own your life. Own your past, your path, your culture. It’s never too late. Start now, from the beginning.