Sex and Death on the Road to Nirvana

One of America's most controversial gurus had a plan to take Tibetan Buddhism mainstream. Then one of his converts died in the Arizona desert and the secrets started spilling out

Geshe Michael Roach, right, and his partner Lama Christie, left, at their yurt on a mountain top near Bowie, Arizona. The two practicing buddhists have a vow to always be within 15 feet of each other.
David Sanders/"The New York Times"/Redux
June 6, 2013

The call came into the Cochise County Sheriff's Office early one Sunday morning in April. The female voice explained that a couple camping in a remote spot in Arizona's Apache Highlands were in severe distress. Two days earlier, they had been quarreling and the husband had struck himself in the head and now he was unconscious.

For the past two months, Christie McNally and her husband, Ian Thorson, who had both recently been kicked out of a nearby Buddhist retreat she was leading, had been on their own, living in a cave, imitating the Indian and Tibetan sages in the ancient stories they had studied. They slept curled together on a futon he had dragged up the mountainside so that his wife wouldn't have to lie on the earthen floor. Between them, they had one sleeping bag to protect them from the howling winter winds. They meditated for hours each day, believing they'd made a deep connection with the sudden storms and the wild animals, especially a family of coatimundi that visited and shared their meals. The sun heard their thoughts, too. McNally felt it rise in response to her pre-dawn meditations, and she woke in the dark to bring on the light. For sustenance, they sipped a little of the rainwater they collected and nibbled canned food they'd hauled uphill.

The Hugging Saint

In the days before the sheriff's office was notified of their plight, McNally, 39, had been worried that her body was not in harmony with nature. She'd been violently sick to her stomach and couldn't eat. But as she recovered, her husband grew ill. For more than a week, neither could muster strength to clamber down the steep slope to fetch water. They took their suffering to be another karmic lesson.

When the EMTs finally showed up, helicoptering in from an Air Force base in Tucson and rappelling down into their cave, Thorson was already dead. Though he was only 38, he looked like an old man; over six feet tall, his corpse weighed barely 100 pounds. McNally was severely dehydrated, but she survived. The couple's water jug was empty except for about a cup of brownish liquid. Bins of dried peas were stashed outside another cave. Among their few modern conveniences were a cellphone and a tracking beacon.

Everything about the case astonished authorities. This was a wilderness so forbidding, so haunted by angry spirits and infested with rattlesnakes, that even the local Navajo refused to spend the night here. But as the details emerged, it became clear that the way Thorson died was just the tragic conclusion of a saga of obsessive love and religious fervor run amok.

The story of how two educated people ended up living – and one dying – alone in a spiritual retreat in a tiny Arizona cave, like the ancient hermits, begins and ends with a man named Michael Roach. A 60-year-old boyish, impermeably cheerful one-time diamond merchant, Roach claimed to have achieved the highest levels of Tibetan Buddhism and had adapted the principles of that tradition into a uniquely American practice.

The ideal of Mahayana Buddhism – the branch of Buddhism that Roach has studied and teaches – is a spiritual hero called the Bodhisattva. He can be divine or human, but a hallmark of the Bodhisattva is that while he attains a level of enlightenment enabling him to exit the cycle of birth and death, he chooses to remain behind and help others.

To his followers, who know him as Geshe Michael (a Geshe degree is one of Tibetan Buddhism's highest academic achievements and often takes decades to acquire), Roach is one of these rare beings. They speak of a man who can walk through walls, see into the future and, some believe, cast powerful spells against those who cross him. He is also a highly controversial figure, who has rejected some of the orthodoxy of Tibetan Buddhism and molded the practice to suit his own private purposes and goals, selling the notion that meditation is not simply the path to enlightenment but to earthly love and worldly riches. He travels the world as a business consultant often draped in robes, teaching karma to Chinese businessmen, Russian oligarchs and their employees, and European and American entrepreneurs who want to know how Buddhist precepts can help them get and stay rich. "Ancient wisdom, modern success" is his motto.

He has also broken his monastic vows by getting married. He has saved and translated ancient texts into simple English, but he has also fashioned a new lifestyle religion by incorporating yoga into his teaching and made what many in the world of Tibetan Buddhism see as a devil's bargain with the Chinese. In 2006, the Dalai Lama's office admonished Roach, saying that his "unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness' teachings." American Buddhist scholars veer between scorn and horror.

Robert Thurman, a Columbia University religion professor and a leading expert on Eastern religions, calls Roach's version of Tibetan Buddhism "an American pop-religion knockoff."

Since Thorson's death, neither Roach nor McNally have spoken to the press. But both agreed to interviews with Rolling Stone – Roach on the condition that he would not answer questions about Thorson's demise, and McNally responding with a sprawling 44-page document.

Nothing about Roach's upbringing suggested he was headed for spiritual greatness. Born in 1952, he grew up an Episcopal altar boy in midcentury Glendale, Arizona. He was the second of four crew-cut brothers, whose builder dad and schoolteacher mom divorced when Roach was in the sixth grade. Both parents were hard drinkers – "killed by alcohol," he says.

As a teen, he grew out his hair, opposed the Vietnam War, did mescaline in the desert and played Crosby, Stills and Nash covers in a band with his brothers. Precociously smart, especially with languages, he won a scholarship to Princeton. There, studying religion, he found the path to Buddhism. During his junior year, his mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. Roach was devastated. He took a semester off to go to India, where he met Tibetan Buddhists in exile and eventually was able to take his dying mom to meet the Dalai Lama himself. "A lama told me to bring my mother to India, to let them teach her how to die," he says. "It was very beautiful."

It was on that trip that he decided to devote his life to Tibetan Buddhism, both as a way to come to grips with the tragedies that would envelop his life (soon after his mother's death, one of his brothers committed suicide, and not long after that, his father died of lung cancer) and as a vehicle for his intense worldly ambitions.

After Princeton, Roach moved into a house in Howell, New Jersey, with a high-ranking Tibetan monk named Khensur Rinpoche Tharchin, who would help him gain entree to Sera Mey, a college at one of the three main Tibetan monasteries in India. Roach's branch of Tibetan Buddhism is the most conservative of the four main lineages. Tibetan monastic training is medieval in its rigors, requiring thousands of hours of self-denial, study and debate. Out of a handful of non-Tibetan students at the monastery, Roach claims he was the only American who survived the course. "And it was very hard on me."

In 1983, Roach was ordained as a monk and received his robes. He says that his lama took the unusual tack of ordering him to go to work in the business world. (Roach's lama died in 2004, without ever commenting on Roach's stories.) Roach spent the next two decades living with monks in New Jersey and commuting to New York's diamond district, working at a company started by two Israelis that grew into a $250 million manufacturer of mass-marketed jewelry. At his busiest, he says, he was in charge of "processing 30,000 stones a day." He donated half of his salary to Sera Mey and to a program he founded, the Asian Classics Input Project, which has, for 25 years, been transferring the decaying texts of Tibetan theology into digital files.

But as the Tibetans welcomed his money and honored him with ordination, he began to openly flout their ancient teachings. Over the years, he has suggested he achieved the highest Buddhist meditative level possible for human beings, called "seeing emptiness." For a monk to publicly state he saw emptiness is a breach of vows; not even the Dalai Lama will make this claim.

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