The Buddhist Who Retreated-And Then Died
When Ian Thorson was discovered dead in a cave in 2012, an unflinching light was shone on the strange world of Tibertan Buddhists—especially its leader Michael Roach.
Three years ago, the Tibetan Buddhist community in America became mired in scandal when a longtime devotee died in the Arizona desert, after being expelled from the community’s nearby retreat center.
Many details surrounding 38-year-old Ian Thorson’s death were not unique to the spiritual community that had indoctrinated him.
Like other religious sects, the group was shrouded in secrecy, though rumors emerged of bizarre sexual practices and violent rituals. Its charismatic leader, Michael Roach, was known for his unorthodox and uniquely Americanized brand of Tibetan Buddhism.
In many ways it was a familiar story, except that it was incongruous with popular Western conceptions of Tibetan Buddhists with prayer flags and wise, chaste monks.
Roach was a monk by title, but he seemingly made up his own rules. And the more popular he became among neophyte devotees in America, the more traditional Tibetan Buddhists urged him to remove his robes.
Still, Roach’s oversimplified teachings appealed to Americans, particularly wealthy corporate types and lost souls looking for spiritual guidance. His power and influence—indeed his success—went largely unchecked until Thorson’s death in 2012.
In the year after the New York Times broke that story, Roach and Diamond Mountain became the subject of multiple investigative features, including one for this website. Rolling Stone and Playboy both published exhaustive stories.
Now, Scott Carney, who wrote the Playboy feature, has resuscitated the three-year-old saga surrounding Thorson’s death with his new book, Death on Diamond Mountain.
Carney thoroughly revisits Thorson’s life and death, and—through a series of meetings with Thorson’s mother—details how Thorson found Roach, Diamond Mountain, and the woman he would spend his final moments with, his wife Christie McNally.
Roach has only spoken obliquely about Thorson’s death, and has often implied that he was mentally unstable and had a rough childhood.
“Teachers and practitioners always blame the person,” says Carney, “never the practice.” It’s another way of absolving themselves of any responsibility. In his book, Carney points to a link between meditation and madness, and argues that Americans are particularly ill-equipped to embrace Eastern practices.
When Tibetans practice meditation, “the focus is on the practice,” Carney writes, while Americans “search for inner peace like they are competing in a sporting event.”
Carney also speaks from personal experience: in his 20s, he led an abroad program for American students in India and occasionally took them on 10-day silent retreats.
One went into retreat a mentally stable, 21-year-old girl, he says, and jumped off the dormitory roof one day. She had written “I am a Bodhisattva,” or “I am an enlightened being,” in her journal.
“I have the journals of six other people who committed suicide on meditation retreats,” Carney tells me. “We are wrong to say that meditation is in and of itself ‘good’ and not be skeptical of these techniques.”
Thorson was fresh out of Stanford when he got involved in Roach’s community in the East Village, The Three Jewels. Roach rose to prominence in the ‘90s as the first Westerner in more than 500 years to earn the honorific “Geshe,” or Master of Buddhism, at the Sera Mey Tibetan Monastery.
He was always surrounded by an entourage of young women, including McNally, who was his consort for more than a decade.
The two raised eyebrows in the Tibetan Buddhist community when, in 2003, they emerged together from a three-year silent retreat with Roach claiming that McNally was, quite literally, a goddess.
He wrote to his Tibetan teachers that he’d “seen emptiness,” the highest Buddhist meditative level (not even the Dalai Lama has made this claim) and realized McNally was the living embodiment of the Tibetan goddess Vajrayogini.
At this point many of his teachers and peers suggested he renounce his vows as a monk. (Later, it would emerge that he had long since broken them when he secretly married McNally in 1998, a union that stipulated the two would never be more than 15 feet apart.) The Dalai Lama’s office also issued a rebuke, but Roach carried on with McNally, making her his co-teacher.
They gave lectures around the world together, promising to speed up karma for devotees and help them achieve enlightenment through meditation and tantra, or “secret” teachings. They co-authored numerous books including The Diamond Cutter, which emphasized how good karma can result in material wealth. (Roach himself had made millions in the diamond business.)
Finally, they settled permanently at Diamond Mountain with a group of devotees, who were all taught to believe that McNally was Vajrayogini.
The gory details of their sexual relationship are still up for debate, though one of Carney’s Diamond Mountain sources said Roach frequently dressed up in drag and encouraged other men to do the same as a way of getting closer to the feminine Vajrayogini.
Others claimed Roach kept many lovers while married to McNally. These people were not surprised by their split in 2008, but it divided the community and left followers disenchanted. McNally would later chalk it up to Rolling Stone as infidelity on Roach’s part and the “other women he saw as angels.”
It was the first and only interview she has granted the press since Thorson’s death, in the form of a 44-page document.
Thorson, whose family had enlisted the help of cult deprogrammers to pry him away from the community, returned around their split and became romantically involved with McNally.
Roach then left McNally to lead Diamond Mountain through its second Great Retreat, another three-years of silence broken only by McNally’s sporadic lectures. She taught her own Hindi-Tibetan hybrid of fundamentalism that some claimed was even more removed from reality than Roach’s.
In one lecture, she recounted what sounded to some retreatants like an episode of domestic abuse between her and Thorson, though she would later defend it as a spiritual episode.
The two were expelled from Diamond Mountain in late February, after a local doctor had told community board members that she had stitched up a stab wound inflicted on Thorson by McNally.
On the morning of April 22, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department received an emergency call from a caretaker at Diamond Mountain, requesting a search-and-rescue operation for the couple.
The pair and had been living in a small, tepee-shape cave, where they had planned to spend the remainder of the retreat.
Paramedics rappelled from a helicopter to the site of the cave—a steep, three-hour hike on rough terrain from Diamond Mountain.
Inside, they found McNally dehydrated and delirious. Thorson was dead. The sheriff’s office found no indications of foul play, and a coroner’s report determined that Thorson had died of dehydration and “exposure to the elements.”
Also in the cave were an air mattress, sleeping bags, flashlights, a garbage bag, a tarp, and several water jugs, all of which were empty but one, which contained about a quarter cup of dirty water. There were bins of uncooked food outside the cave’s entrance.
Carney writes that the couple was too blinded by the quest for enlightenment to see the dangers of attempting to finish their retreat in the Arizona desert, instead of returning to the real world.
They fell into what Carney refers to as “the enlightenment trap.” He writes: “What are people supposed to do with the rest of their time on earth once they’ve gained the ultimate knowledge of the nature of reality? Revered gurus who teach that status and power are meaningless in the ultimate reality nonetheless still have to muck about in the mundane world. They gather followers, build institutions, and dispense knowledge from lofty thrones. Is it hypocrisy when enlightenment simply reproduces familiar hierarchies?
McNally disappeared to Kathmandu after Thorson passed away, before allegedly finding sanctuary at a Buddhist retreat in the Bahamas. Little is known of her whereabouts today. Sources close to McNally have told Carney that she currently lives in New York City, but she remains elusive.
Roach, meanwhile, resides in Phoenix, Arizona and teaches in the area, though he still travels regularly around the world, lecturing and teaching yoga.
He is particularly popular in China, Carney tells me, which has fueled speculation that Roach is being funded by the Chinese government (they, too, have a vested interest in undermining the Dalai Lama).
Many of Roach’s devotees still live at Diamond Mountain University. Diamond Mountain was never held legally accountable for Thorson’s death (McNally and Thorson refused offers from the board to help them leave the community after they were expelled) or for any other offense.
Since Thorson’s death, Roach has largely avoided the press, choosing only to contribute to stories that promote his spiritual status or various businesses, like this one from several weeks ago on Forbes.com.
Roach is quoted regurgitating Buddhist tips on accumulating wealth: “The basic idea is that I plant a seed for my own success by helping someone else be successful.”
The takeaway from Carney’s book is not that Roach is a con man or corrupt power-abuser, or that McNally had a nervous breakdown--though there is plenty of that in there.
“You could argue that Michael Roach’s experiences in the desert-- having sex with Christie, achieving enlightenment-- were just as valid as, say, the Beatles going to Rishikesh. I really believe Roach thinks he had a very valid, amazing spiritual experience. There is no way to argue with that.”
Carney describes himself as “a true agnostic,” but he is critical of people who declare themselves to be conduits to the divine. Or of modern Buddhists like Roach who claim they are teaching directly from the “original texts.”
“To say that these teachings come directly from the mouth of the Buddha is simply a lie,” he says, adding that it raises the question of authenticity in a bigger picture. “What is authentic anyway? Where do we get authenticity from? Does it matter if the teachings come from the Buddha’s mouth?”
Throughout history, there are millions of instances of people claiming to communicate with God. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Carney says, “a lot of people claim to be enlightened, but they don’t get together and say to each other, ‘Hey, God told me the same thing!’”
It’s a classic problem in every religion, he adds, though he thinks Americans are uniquely susceptible to the allure of enlightenment--not just because of our "quick-fix" mentality but because we work hard to achieve our earthly dreams. When we apply that principle to the realm of the spiritual, we work hard with the expectation that we'll be able to levitate.
“The reason Americans get sick from meditation is because we want to grasp it so much, we want to achieve this final state,” Carney says. “But if we actually did, everyone who says they’re enlightened would no longer be beholden to the rules of the world.”