By the time Sera Mey granted Roach the title Geshe, in 1995, some of his critics in the Buddhist community suspected that it was because of his money, not his holiness. According to one ranking monk, he "circumvented nearly 12 years of debate time. It is highly unusual. I have never heard of such an exception being made."
By the early Nineties, Roach was teaching his own brand of Tibetan Buddhism to a small group of New Yorkers. The essence of Roach's evolving approach – now available in 13 books and thousands of video and audio teachings over the years – is that to get what you want, you must first give it away. In his words, altruism will "sharpen" the "seeds" of your karma. If you want money, you must help a poor person start a business. If you want love, find a lonely elderly person and become a constant selfless companion. Traditional Buddhism preaches that it can take a lifetime, if not longer, to attain what one desires. But Roach teaches his followers that these desires can be fulfilled almost immediately – you can be rich and beloved as early as next week.
In addition to teaching that karma can be sped up if one knows how to do it, Roach also tantalizes followers with the promise of revealing the greatest esoteric secrets from inside the ancient monasteries – the tantra. Tantra is a mystical Buddhist practice that takes monks years to achieve, involving arcane ritual, mantras and mandalas; self-identification with deities; secret initiation ceremonies; and altered states of consciousness that can lead to out-of-body or extreme, even orgasmic, experiences. As Roach teaches it, tantra is the ultimate key to quickening the karma.
But Roach's easy-to-grasp teaching has a flip side. Good acts bring you good things, but negative thoughts or actions cause bad things to happen to a person. If your husband beats you up or you get cancer, it's a reflection of your bad karma. "Here in New York City, with all these people who want to think they are the smartest person in the room, you think on this and you can decide that you caused the war in Iraq by stepping on an ant," says Kelly Morris, a prominent New York yoga teacher who says she brought hundreds of acolytes to Roach. "He taught how everything experienced, be it a hangnail or cancer, is the result of one's own imperfect karma. It's the ideal worldview for a control freak – and insanity-inducing."
Roach dispensed with some of the orthodoxy, but one tenet he maintained was feudal-age lama reverence. To underscore the importance of one's teacher, Roach's acolytes consumed dutsi, pills that supposedly contain bits of symbolic scatological material going back to Buddha (a secretive practice among Tibetan Buddhist initiates). "People worked for free in order to catapult their karma out of the prosaic shitter," says Morris. "So you had a lot of people eating shit, literally and figuratively."
In the late 1990s, Christie McNally met Roach at one of his seminars in New York. In her early twenties at the time, she'd recently graduated from NYU and was fresh off a trip to India. Raised in L.A. by her mom, who was divorced from her lawyer father, McNally quickly became an important figure in Roach's growing spiritual empire, and she and GM – as he was known to followers – became inseparable. In fact, in 1998, they were secretly married in Rhode Island, breaking the cardinal rule forbidding monks to marry.
During their courtship, Roach invited McNally to join his inner circle, a small group of students he had invited to study the "secret teachings." "Tantra is a word that gets imaginations rolling, but in reality it meant we would get together somewhere and go through some highly secret Tibetan text," McNally recalls. "People would see us all sneaking off together and were very curious. I think all the drama was created so we would feel like it was a really special teaching. And it made other people jealous, which is one of GM's specialties."
McNally says she was the last one to be invited into the "secret society," but her presence changed the group dynamic. She could be stubborn, imperious and a diva, who by her own estimation attained such an exalted status that "a mere glance or tilt of my head could make things happen." As their relationship became closer and more intense, the two of them took a vow never to be out of each other's sight. "Not only did I stay with him for 12 years," she says, "I stayed right next to him for 12 years without a single break."
The vow "presented certain difficulties," McNally admits. Anyone with an appointment with Roach had a de facto appointment with her, too, so not only their own but other people's privacy was compromised. "There was a lot of complaining about that one," she says. For McNally, it also meant she was unable to come and go as she pleased, which limited visits to her mother in California. "Families were a useless distraction to his path," she says. "This was hard for my mom."
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