The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
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Michael Roach (born 1952) is an American non-traditional teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. Ordained as a Gelugpa monk, he was the first American to receive the Geshe degree at Sera Monastery in India. He has started a number of businesses and organizations, written books about Buddhism, and translated Tibetan Buddhist teachings.
Roach has written and lectured that yoga, meditation, and a practice of helping others—even competitors—leads to financial prosperity. He has at times been the center of controversy for his views, teachings, activities, and behavior.
Michael Roach was born in Los Angeles, California in 1952 to Episcopalian parents, and grew up in Phoenix, Arizona. After his high school graduation, he received the Presidential Scholars Medallion from U.S. President Richard Nixon, then attended Princeton University in 1972. He traveled to India in 1973 to seek Buddhist instruction, while still in college. He returned to the United States and received a scholarship to return to study in India in 1974. While in India, Roach learned about a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in New Jersey led by a Mongolian-born lama, Sermey Khensur Lobsang Tharchin. Roach returned to Princeton, living at the monastery from 1975 to 1981. In the year before his graduation in 1975, both of his parents died due to cancer and then his brother committed suicide. In 1983 he was ordained as a Gelugpa Buddhist monk at Sera Monastery in South India, where he would periodically travel and study. In 1995, he became the first American to qualify for the Geshe degree.
Beginning in 1981, Roach helped found and run Andin International, a jewelry manufacturer based in New York. He used proceeds from his work to set up financial endowments to fund various projects, in particular the Sera Mey Food Fund.
In 1987, Roach founded the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP). He founded ACIP with the goal of producing a complete and electronically searchable version of the Kangyur and Tengyur, together with related philosophical commentaries and dictionaries. ACIP has input over 8,500 texts—nearly half a million pages—which it has made available for free. ACIP also provides a means of earning income for many Tibetan refugees.
From 1993 to 1999, Roach developed and taught 18 courses on Tibetan Buddhism in New York City. These courses were based on the training monks receive in Tibetan monasteries, but organized to be taught in a conventional western setting.
Marriage and controversy
In 1996, Christie McNally, then a recent college graduate, became Roach's student. They began a "spiritual partnership" in which they took vows that included never being more than 15 feet apart, eating from the same plate, reading the same books together, etc. They were secretly married in a Christian ceremony in Rhode Island in 1998 and kept their relationship secret until 2003. When news of the marriage emerged, Roach explained to the New York Times that they had wished to honor their Christian heritage and that he wanted McNally to be entitled to his possessions if something happened to him. In a 1996 Asiaweek cover story the Dalai Lama commented; "- a monk with a wife. This is wrong. A monk is celibate. Those who dress like a monk, with a wife, they are not monks. Of course, it's the individual's right. You can always give up a monk's vows, and then change your dress."
The controversy centers around a Buddhist practice in which two practitioners use sexual intercourse as a means of strongly focusing the consciousness in order to strengthen the realization of emptiness. According to the Dalai Lamas who have achieved a high level of the path and are fully qualified can engage in sexual activity, and a monastic with this ability can maintain all the precepts...Such a practitioner can make spiritual use not only of delicious meat and drink, but even of human excrement and urine. A yogi’s meditation transforms these into real ambrosia. For people like us, however, this is beyond our reach. As long as you cannot transform piss and shit, these other things should not be done!" Robert Thurman, a former monk and fellow Buddhist scholar, expressed skepticism that Roach was at such a level of practice, referring to it as "superhuman". Some Buddhist leaders, including Thurman, urged him to renounce his monastic vows and stop wearing his robes; Roach did not comply.
In addition, Roach's practice of appearing in public with McNally raised concerns. When Roach proposed to teach in Dharamshala in 2006, the Office of the Dalai Lama rebuffed his plan, stating that Roach's "unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness’s teachings and practices"; the teaching took place in nearby Palampur instead.
McNally left Roach in the middle of 2009 and Roach filed for divorce in September 2010.
McNally married one of Roach's students, Ian Thorson, on October 3, 2010. McNally entered a three-year retreat with Thorson at the Diamond Mountain Center in December 2010. Roach published an open letter stating that McNally admitted in February 2012 to a violation of the terms under which students are allowed to reside at the center, and the Diamond Mountain board of directors asked McNally and Thorson to leave the retreat. Thorson and McNally left the Diamond Mountain property, but secretly set up camp in a cave on Bureau of Land Management land nearby, within the retreat boundaries. Thorson died in April 2012 of dehydration and exposure. The incident received international attention in the news media, with a number of former students voicing criticisms of Roach.
- The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, Three Leaves, 2000
- The Essential Yoga Sutra: Ancient Wisdom for Your Yoga, with Christie McNally, Three Leaves, 2005
- The Garden: A Parable, Image, 2000
- How Yoga Works: Healing Yourself and Others With The Yoga Sutra, with Christie McNally. Diamond Cutter Press, 2005
- The Tibetan Book of Yoga: Ancient Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy and Practice of Yoga, Doubleday, 2004.