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
by Nina Burleigh
JUNE 06, 2013 - Rolling Stone
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.
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.
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 [banned term], 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."
In 2000, Roach surprised many in New York by announcing that he was quitting the diamond business and embarking on an ambitious spiritual project. With McNally and four other female followers, he would be moving to the Arizona desert, and for the next three years, three months and three days, they would dedicate themselves to a silent retreat, like the storied Buddhist monks of yore.
They moved to a 10-acre piece of land near Tombstone, Arizona, given to Roach on loan. He recruited a group of his students as unpaid volunteers to move to the ranch as support staff and keep everyone fed, while he and his silent followers meditated 12 hours a day, never spoke and communed with birds, snakes and the stars.
The first retreat, as it came to be known among the followers, raised Roach's spiritual credibility in parts of the greater American Buddhist community. Though many Buddhists engage in silent retreats, few do so for more than a short period of time. When he emerged in 2003, he gave interviews to Arizona papers who reported on the curiosity of a reallife Rip Van Winkle who was saying he had only just learned about 9/11. But inside the retreat, which they'd dubbed "Diamond Mountain," the truth was murkier. According to one volunteer, there were complaints that Roach was having sex with some of the women. (Roach's camp states, "In the three years, there was not a single occasion when Geshe Michael was alone with any retreatant other than his partner.")
That volunteer eventually decided the retreat itself was a sham. He says he saw a radio in one of the yurts and believed that Roach and his followers actually knew about the 9/11 terrorist attacks within hours. Contrary to the ascetic veneer, he says Roach also flew in New York yogis to teach private classes and ordered lavish vegan meals, prepared by the band of volunteers who had forsaken their own bank accounts and careers to serve the retreat. One of the original silent followers, now a California-based Buddhist nun, says that if anyone saw a radio, it would have only been used for sacred music and teachings, not keeping up with news. She declined to comment on the sex, noting that they meditated in isolation.
Emerging from the retreat, Roach and McNally announced to the Buddhist community that they were now a couple – though they still kept the fact of their marriage a secret (it would remain secret until they were divorced in 2010). Their relationship was highly idiosyncratic. "I did not marry GM because I was in love with him," McNally says. "And he did not marry me because he was in love with me. That was not the nature of the relationship. He was my lama. And for him, I was an emanation of a divine being."
In public interviews, Roach maintained that he was still technically celibate, saying that he had not consorted "with a human female" – because McNally, he claimed, was the incarnation of the goddess Vajrayogini, a feminine Buddha deity.
According to former follower Matthew Remski, students were taught the tantric practice of picturing Vajrayogini as a 16-year-old in the flush of a sexual awakening, with "her vagina dripping to the floor" and holding a skull filled with the gore of her former self. Remski says the practice "links the verge of orgasm with understanding reality."
In a 2003 interview with a Buddhist journal, Roach said that spiritual sex with McNally/Vajrayogini was an ordeal. "In the actual practice of higher physical forms of tantric yoga, these are extremely difficult, physically – they are unpleasant, quite unpleasant for the physical body and quite . . ." (At this point, McNally interrupted to say, "Exhausting!") "Difficult for the physical body," he continued. "It's not fun."
McNally's mother disapproved of the union ("She did not trust GM," McNally recalls). And Tibetan Buddhists were also not amused by the relationship. The office of the Dalai Lama issued a rebuke, and Roach's associates urged him to remove his robes to indicate that he was not celibate. When he refused, Robert Thurman, a former ordained monk, tried to reason with him. "I asked him to meet," says Thurman, who is married and long ago resigned his robes. "He finally came with his consort to Columbia. I told him to go back to being a lay minister, to take off the robes. Bottom line is, he said he wouldn't give up the robes. He said, 'I have never consorted with a human female,' and I said to Christie, 'Are you human?' And she didn't say yes or no. She said, 'He said it, I didn't.'"
Thurman felt McNally was young and naive and being manipulated by Roach, but McNally felt empowered. According to her, the retreat had altered their dynamic. She had gone into it as Roach's lesser, emerging as his equal. "The roles in the play now had changed from teacher and student to 'partners,'" she says, and goes on to say that since Roach was interested in embracing his feminine side, "normal sexual relations between two married partners were absent from this relationship."
Instead of waiting for new acolytes to come to them, Roach and McNally began holding classes at popular New York yoga studios like Jivamukti, whose clientele included Wall Street bankers, fashionistas like Donna Karan and celebrities such as Sting, Russell Simmons and Madonna. He had translated the Yoga Sutra from Sanskrit and spoke of how yoga could lead to enlightenment. "His teaching was the missing link in the writings on the Yoga Sutra," says Morris. "Nobody had accomplished what was described in there, and here was somebody who had. I was moved. He was a good, holy, honest man then."
Soon Morris and other members of the yoga community were teaching their own students yoga-Buddhism – the Roach way. And, as Roach had hoped, the world beyond the small community of American Buddhists was starting to pay attention.
Roach and McNally began traveling the globe, spreading their gospel. Though the American Geshe was persona non grata in Dharamsala, in South America and especially in Asia, Roach's fast-and-easy prosperity yoga-Buddhism was gaining him a following. But there were those who were turned off by his merger of capitalism, Buddhism and yoga.
"Bringing yoga in was so far off base," one former follower says. "I asked Michael, 'What in hell were you doing trying to blend this yoga [banned term] into Mahayana Buddhism?' He said that with his teachings and tapes, how many people can I reach? 10,000? 50,000? But with yoga, I can reach millions. He is the best carny barker I have ever seen."
Soon after the retreat ended, Roach purchased a new property with funds collected from supporters – a 1,000-acre ranch in a valley beneath the ruins of Fort Bowie in the Apache Highlands. They christened the property Diamond Mountain University. "We designed it to be like Aristotle's academy," Roach says. "It would be a place for true intellectual inquiry and things like that."
In 2004, about 80 people signed up for the first six-year Diamond Mountain University course of study, a series of weekend teachings by Roach and McNally. The advanced degree in Buddhist studies promised participants the key to the mystical and supersecret tantra. In the Tibetan monasteries, monks are typically not initiated into the tantra until they have completed 20 years of rigorous study. Roach claimed to have found a way to boil it all down for busy modern laypeople.
Students came, some with money to build their own small adobe cottages or yurts, others flying in for weekends. Within a year, hundreds of people were coming and going, seekers of all sorts, from Ph.D.s in physics to never-employed hippies, some staying for a few weeks, others moving in and helping clear the tumbleweed and serve the spiritual leaders in exchange for wisdom.
Locals began talking about the "crummy carnival" and swapped stories of young women bending low on the dirt road that leads out of the property and kissing the tire tracks of cars carrying VIPs. Shrines sprouted among the cacti, with offerings of food for Buddha that attracted bears, which the state wildlife rangers had to come in and kill. Roach taught that Buddha had a special affinity for expensive chocolate, so the students put dark chocolate and other goodies at the outdoor shrines. One of their neighbors' dogs died after devouring one of these offerings.
The environment of Diamond Mountain began to trouble outside observers. "Certainly, it had become a cult," says Thurman, "defined as a religion-based community where the leader is given complete authority over his followers and is not accountable for his actions."
Roach was a Geshe, but McNally was the queen of Diamond Mountain. "She was pretty and flirtatious," says one former student, Michael Brannan. "Christie was not shy about deploying her charms to acquire whatever her heart was set upon getting." She was a "tough" meditation teacher and didn't discourage extreme devotion. DMU student Ekan Thomason recalls a celebration of McNally's birthday in November 2008: "The students spent days decorating the temple for her party and carried her in on a litter. She loved it."
Devotees flocked to McNally's meditation classes, but life at Diamond Mountain was definitely not all contemplation. Roach encouraged the students to meditate on a dakini, or ideal lover – not necessarily their partner or spouse – which inevitably led to broken relationships and jealousy.
There was a disco ball in the temple. Every two weeks the lights went down for a wild bacchanalia to celebrate Vajrayogini, which they called a tsechu. Alcohol, normally forbidden to practicing Buddhists, was on the menu. Roach denies drinking, but Morris says, "He won't admit to the partying, because everything that happens at the tsechus is supposed to be secret."
At the tsechus, Roach encouraged male adherents to better access their feminine side and honor Vajrayogini by dressing as women. Roach himself turned up at the temple on these evenings dressed as a "preppy girl," with eye shadow, eyeliner, skirts and blouses. One night, he dressed as a woman to go to dinner with a group of Diamond Mountain students at a Tucson restaurant. Thomason once bought Roach a bra and panties from a Japanese company that makes them especially for men.
The cross-dressing had a higher purpose. Besides fast-tracking students into tantric secrets, Roach was layering another American-style improvement on the ancient teachings: equality. "In Tibetan Buddhism, women are worshipped as divine, while they are told they are lower than men," says McNally. "GM did a radical thing asking me to teach beside him."
Although the subject of their "spiritual partnership" was a key part of their appeal to followers, by 2009 theirs was unraveling. "He was wonderful to me in front of an audience," McNally says. "In private, it was different."
Although McNally says Roach did not have "any physical relationships," she began to get jealous of his meditating on "other women who he saw as angels." By 2009, she was reaching the end of her rope. "Eventually, I told him, 'Listen, I can't do this anymore,'" she says. "Either be a faithful partner to me, like you are claiming – in body, speech and in mind – or I will start behaving the same way you do.' His response was that this was the situation I had walked into, and he had no intention of changing. Long story short, he started moving away from me and pushing me toward Ian."
In the spring of 2009, McNally and Roach officially split up. McNally says Roach announced their separation without consulting her. Around the time of the split, McNally began seeing Ian Thorson, a skinny, quiet follower who had served her and Roach for years as an assistant, always walking two steps behind, hauling their bags and bottles of water. Thorson wasn't the most obvious choice of mates for the hottest lama on the compound.
"He was thin and wispy," recalled former student Matthew Remski, "perhaps anemic, with impeccable lotus posture, and distant, entranced eyes. He'd sit at the front of any teaching, his eyes rolled back, clothes unwashed, hair tousled, by turns elated and catatonic in his trance."
Thorson was smart and well-educated – having majored in comparative literature at Stanford – and had been a charismatic young man who morphed into an introspective, withdrawn spiritual seeker after encountering Roach. Thorson's mother sees Roach as a cult leader. "His courses are for a wide audience and are free of charge," she says. "Gradually, classes and activities of the group take over the person's time, priorities and life. I watched my son change until he became unrecognizable to family and friends."
Thorson's family and two cult specialists staged an intervention in 2000 and pulled him away from Roach's influence. Thorson moved to Berlin, where he found a girlfriend, with whom he had a child, and reportedly worked as a language tutor. But he brought anger-management issues with him. According to a Berlin police report, in May 2004, Thorson dragged an Australian female who had been house-sitting for him through his home and threw her out in front of his girlfriend and their three-year-old daughter. Thorson's girlfriend claimed Thorson "got angry frequently," and she eventually told him to move out.
Thorson returned to the U.S. in 2004, and Roach and McNally welcomed him back into the fold at Diamond Mountain. There, according to Ekan Thomason, he was clearly in thrall to McNally. "She was his lama," Thomason says, breaking down in tears at the memory. "I think they knew each other in a past life."
But as devoted as he was to his new girlfriend, he still had trouble keeping his temper in check. One day, he flung a cup of almond milk – which he delivered to her every morning – in McNally's face.
Roach says Thorson's troubles stem from a "bad childhood," without going into detail. But shortly after Thorson's death, Roach posted a letter describing him as violent. "Ian was an accomplished poet, linguist and spiritual practitioner. . . . Sometimes those of us who spent time around him would see him get overwhelmed by this sensitivity and fly into windmills of unintended physical outbursts, which at times caused potentially serious physical harm to those close by."
Kay Thorson blames her son's problems on what she calls the cult. For a short time after her son married McNally in 2010 – weeks before McNally's divorce from Roach was finalized – she thought they were on their way to freeing themselves from Roach's orbit. "There was this happy period when it looked like they were going in a different direction from Roach," Kay told Psychology Today. "It looked even like they could be the next great yoga couple." McNally and Thorson published a yoga book together called Two as One in 2010.
As the McNally-Thorson relationship flourished, Roach turned a page and took a trip to New York. He showed up at Jivamukti and other venues and made the pages of the New York Post, reportedly hitting on a pretty, young yoga teacher and going to a club in an Armani suit. Roach denies the incident and says he never owned an Armani suit or drank alcohol.
As Diamond Mountain's first decade drew to a close, there was a lot of turmoil in the air for a space supposedly dedicated to inner peace. Roach and McNally had always referred to their students as their "kids," and now 130 adults were behaving like children caught up in a bad divorce. One student was kicked off the premises for attacking his girlfriend and rupturing her eardrum. Another broke down a door when his girlfriend switched partners. Roach himself ordered one couple to split up because of violence. Police were called to evict people on occasion, most memorably when a Canadian student named Stella strode into the dais where Roach was teaching and flung a glass of wine in his face, shouting, "You're the greatest diamond salesman in the world."
Relationships frayed in the isolation and also under the pressure of Roach and McNally's "spiritual partnership" teachings. Couples who arrived together broke up and connected with different partners. One acolyte hit on single girls, according to a former student. He "preyed on young women. . . . After they have been praying all day imagining themselves as Vajrayogini, they come out wide open, and he goes in for the kill. General assholeness."
"Good-looking girls got pawed a lot," says Diamond Mountain's closest neighbor, Jerry Kelly, who befriended a lot of the young people at the university over the years. "Kind of a sex cult" is how one former Diamond Mountain follower described it to a student.
Rumors circulated among the students about Roach's and McNally's black magic and special powers. One says she saw them walk through the temple wall together. Another says that Roach was capable of "getting inside you and seeing through your eyes." The students insist these beliefs were not connected to any drug use, although at the tsechus there was sometimes pot in the air, along with a "nectar" of some kind of punch. One student says he found Ecstasy in the temple bathroom.
Besides the metaphysical auras and experimental relationships, the teaching itself was increasingly DIY and unconventional. In 2010, McNally encouraged the students to participate in another three-year silent retreat, like the one she and Roach had undertaken nearly a decade earlier. But this one would be somewhat different. For one thing, there would be many more students taking the enlightenment challenge – nearly 40 people would sign up. But McNally had also begun worshipping the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, Kali, despite the fact that Kali is not a feature of Tibetan Buddhism. In preparation for the retreat, she decided that students should undergo a "Kali initiation." So, with Roach's acquiescence, she ordered the temple walls decorated with weapons – swords, guns, knives and chain saws. Students were led in at night, one by one, and sat down in candlelight before McNally, who said Kali required their blood, and handed devotees a lancet with which to prick their fingers and spill a drop on a piece of paper. Some of the students cried.
Around this time, Roach moved to a house in northern Arizona his followers and students had bought him for $195,000, and focused on building his international corporate-consulting practice, the Diamond Cutter Institute. McNally stepped into the void, as the chief leader of the upcoming retreat.
She and Thorson looked forward to the retreat as a kind of three-year honeymoon. They began furnishing their cottage with a cast-iron bathtub and wall tiles. "We did cute newlywed things like buying our first set of silverware," she recalls. "It was very fun for me, who had never gone through any of this before."
With Roach away and McNally planning her silent retreat, the former couple allowed the university's board of directors to keep everyone fed and cared for. The board consisted of five people, some from the nonprofit world, who would make executive decisions for the silent followers (with Roach still at the helm). Brannan, a follower who'd been there since the early days, didn't approve of McNally's Kali obsession and was afraid she was cracking up. She seemed to have succumbed to magical thinking, claiming the property was protected by an invisible diamond wall and that she could wake up the sun with her mind. "I stopped attending her classes because I couldn't shake the mental image of standing up and saying, 'What the [banned term] are you talking about?'"
In December 2010, 37 students, plus McNally and Thorson, said goodbye to the world and went into cottages scattered on the mountainside, while the board of directors and a cast of unpaid volunteers worked out of view on the periphery to support them. Almost nothing would be heard from them until February 2012, when McNally emerged to give a series of teachings. What normally would have been a routine appearance shook Diamond Mountain to its core.
McNally sat before the board and spectators, blindfolded so as not to break her vow and see the gathering of outsiders – and for three or four days, she talked about what she was learning. On the final day, to the astonishment of her audience, she began describing what sounded like episodes of domestic violence, including having stabbed Thorson with a knife sometime during the previous year. And she talked about a troubling incident with Roach during their teacher-pupil days in the first retreat. "If the lama doesn't like something you are doing, he whacks you over the head," she says today. "And on rare occasions, GM did it with me."
Over the next few days, the Diamond Mountain board of directors called the sheriff and lawyers, and they began taking written statements from the silent followers. A local dermatologist named René Miranda wrote a letter – from within the retreat – to the Diamond Mountain board describing how in March 2011, about three months into the retreat, she'd been summoned to tend to cuts that Thorson had sustained that day. She said she'd been told, "'Lama Christie McNally and Ian Thorson had been goofing off when, accidentally, Ian was cut by a knife.' I sutured the wounds."
Former student Brannan wrote a letter to the board urging it to seek psychiatric evaluations for McNally, Thorson and the rest of the followers. The board did not do so. The board's president, Rob Ruisinger, says McNally's refusal to cooperate made getting psychological help for her and Thorson impossible.
"When we found out about the domestic violence, it was addressed," Ruisinger says. "It had apparently been going on for a while. I went to the sheriff myself. We also asked for more information from the parties involved. But she refused to converse with us about it."
The board then wrote McNally and Thorson a letter, asking them to leave the property within an hour. They were offered several thousand dollars, a rental car, flights and prepaid cellphones. One influential follower was able to persuade the board to give them five days to leave. Then, she and Thorson simply disappeared.
McNally says the reaction to the stabbing was overblown and blames Roach. "There were no swords," she says. "There was no fight. It was a very frightening accident that happened when we were playing around with a kitchen knife. Frightening to me, at least. Ian thought the whole thing was funny. He also thought it was a divine message."
McNally says that the day after her "teaching," Roach gathered the community and gave his own lecture, "ridiculing my teaching, denouncing me and saying how DM was his place and he was not going to let it go. . . . GM began campaigning for our abrupt excommunication. GM told another group of people that I was the dangerous one. Dangerous for him, perhaps."
In a public letter after Thorson's death, Roach said he and the board together agreed to eject the couple because they were afraid of more violence. "Some of us felt that Lama Christie, by mentioning the abuse publicly at the only talk which I attended, was making a conscious or unconscious cry for help."
McNally and Thorson left Diamond Mountain, but instead of returning to speech and civilization, they continued their retreat on their own. A pair of Diamond Mountain students serving as McNally's assistants – a chef from Houston and a young hedge-fund analyst from Wall Street – begged them not to move into the desert. But McNally and especially Thorson were adamant, so the assistants agreed to buy them camping gear and stay in contact with them by phone. Roach and McNally had ordained the two men as monks with the Tibetan names Chandra and Akasha. Akasha (who asked that we not use his real name) says that other followers were aware the couple had remained nearby, but that nobody knew exactly where they were camping.
"We had a wonderful adventure, at first," McNally says. "We started out pitching our tent fairly close to the edge of DM property." But they heard voices and saw flashlights and figured the Diamond Mountain board was pursuing them, so they moved to a more remote location. "It was pure luck that we found the cave," she says. "It was kind of luxurious for a cave, and there were all these signs of the Apaches living in different places all up and down that same mountain ravine."
Two months passed, and the couple subsisted on canned food and water collected in a tarp. McNally says they imagined they would stay there for a year.
A few days before she activated the SPOT emergency call, McNally – through one of the assistants – released a rambling treatise. In it, she described how Ian, who she was calling "Ein," had been subject to fits of aggression during the retreat. McNally wrote that she decided to take up martial-arts training, not to defend herself but in order to "learn" whatever lesson Thorson's violence was supposed to teach her.
"He had been having a lot of physical aggression at the time (nothing too serious), and I simply didn't relate to it and wanted to understand it better," she wrote. "I wanted to understand how he felt."
She assured everyone that she and Thorson had found bliss in their "retreat place in the sky" and concluded, "I love you all very much, do not worry about us, we are still impossibly very happy – more and more joy each day."
Three days after the letter was delivered, Thorson was dead.
McNally's final days in the cave were far from blissful. She says that no sooner had they handed the message to their assistant than she got ill. She was "bedridden for days," possibly sickened by bacteria in melting snow they drank. "Ian was taking care of me. We had water but not so much, and we were rationing – a couple of bowls a day. Ian could have gone and gotten more, but he did not want to leave me. We could have texted someone, but Ian wasn't too keen on people knowing where we were. And, as I discovered, even if you described the place, it was still almost impossible to find."
When McNally recovered enough to "stumble out of the cave," Thorson was felled by the same disorder. She woke up to find him unconscious and called her assistant, who told her he would bring help. "It took nine hours before anyone found us," she recalls. "Actually, the first person to find us, thankfully, was the nurse from the retreat. She was the one to break the news to me. So gently, she said, 'I'm sorry, Lama Christie, he's gone.' That single moment will forever be the worst moment of my life."
McNally stayed with Thorson's body at a nearby funeral home, believing that she needed to assist Thorson's soul on its journey out of the body: "I would come each day and sit and hold his hand and just be there for him."
Kay Thorson lays the blame for her son's death squarely on Roach because he "induces people to value enlightenment above communication and personal safety."
After Thorson's funeral, McNally disappeared, declining all interviews. Her followers have reported they heard she was seen in Kathmandu, Nepal, but she won't reveal her current whereabouts. "I have spent this past year in various places," she says, "none of which matter very much, except for the fact that they were far from both my former community and from all the various people trying to contact me for 'my story.'"
She says the letter from the Diamond Mountain board expelling her made it clear she should stay away. "It said something like, 'The DM board feels that your teachings are not in keeping with the vision we have of DM.'"
McNally believes Roach has been vindictive in ostracizing her from her former community. "In addition to losing my husband, I had no home to go back to, no more job, and it seemed like almost every person I knew was somehow turned against me by the person I used to trust with my very life. . . . I did not realize the intensity of GM's bitterness toward me. He is a formidable enemy, especially when you do not even realize you have one."
A year later, nothing seems to have changed at Diamond Mountain. Most of the acolytes who took the vow of silence are still at the retreat. The temple's altar table remains the same. There's a photograph of Lama Christie in her trademark white, garlanded with dried red flowers. Across from it, a portrait of Geshe Michael, smiling beatifically, in maroon robes. "We didn't know what to do with their pictures when they broke up," board member Nicole Davis says. "So we left them together."
Of Thorson, there is no sign at all, not even a memorial stone among the manicured walkways and shrines around the temple. This fact upsets Jerry Kelly, the university's next-door neighbor, who got to know Thorson on his hikes outside the grounds. "I don't understand why the police didn't ask more questions," he says. "If I had stabbed my wife, and then she died next to me in a cave, you can bet they would have been hitting me with phone books in the police station."
This spring, almost a year after Thorson's death, Roach agreed to meet me at his favorite eatery in downtown Glendale, Arizona. The restaurant is near where he grew up, and about two hours from his house in the mountains near Flagstaff.
In the darkening banquette of a Mexican diner, Roach's limpid blue eyes frequently roll upward so the whites show beneath, in the manner of medieval saints. Faced straight on, he is less a messiah and more of an aging Beach Boy with a long fringe around his bald spot, exactly what one would expect of an aging boomer. But toward the end of the evening, he turns his head, and in profile, in shadow, for a moment, he is transmogrified into a man even older and smaller, a Mickey Rooney as the Wizard of Oz.
Roach is particularly proud of a new client he has engaged, a Russian banking conglomerate. "The owner is worth $8 billion," Roach says. "He was a colonel in Afghanistan, and when the Soviet Union fell, he got his hands on some oil, became an oligarch and then became spiritual." He also says that his Diamond Cutter seminars are very popular in China, Tibetan Buddhism's greatest foe. ("When I ask the Chinese about Tibetans," he says, "they say, 'Geshe Michael, you live on Navajo land. When you give the land back, we will.' ") His assistants say they need to hire bodyguards to keep at bay the adoring audiences who want to touch him. His picture is on public buses. In the Chinese industrial city of Guangzhou (population 8.4 million), Roach's program is advertised as "King Kong Rules of Success."
"I dream of this thing," he says. "Judeo-Christianity in its secular form has become democracy. I want to do the same with Buddhism. I want it to become the golden rule, where corporations understand that making money comes from serving other people and helping the poor make their own money. That's my dream."
As for his critics in Tibetan Buddhism, he says, "I don't care. I don't have much connection with American Buddhists anymore." Thurman thinks China is a key part of Roach's plan. "The big source of his money is Chinese Buddhists," he says.
Roach's supporters say he barely breaks even on the retreats and habitually hands off donations. He insists the tragedy of Thorson's death at Diamond Mountain is a matter of the past. "I will talk about Diamond Mountain if you want, but in three months nobody will care about what happened there. In a year, everyone will have forgotten about it." He spoke with the certainty of a man who believes he can make his own reality. He says that Diamond Mountain's days as a school are numbered anyway. "We should just make it online."
McNally is sad to hear this but not surprised. Roach, she says, told her he "hated the place" and used to call it "Demon Mountain" in private.
I ask Roach if he had, in fact, seen emptiness, the sine qua non of the Bodhisattva. "I can't say," he says. "It would be like seeing God for a Christian." The only thing he will confirm is that the vision involved the hardest substance known to man. "Diamonds," he says, explaining his side career. "I only wanted to be around them because of my dream." As he talks, he lifts his lip to show me the diamond implanted in his left canine.
He insists his worldly goal is to do one thing: to teach everyone how to "farm" seeds of good karma. And he's expanding beyond the Chinese and the Russian oligarchs to more immediate converts: He says that several prisons in Arizona are considering offering inmates Diamond Cutter Institute's entrepreneurship program.
"My life is so beautiful," he says. "I just want to share that with other people. I'm not interested in being a cult leader. I want to teach people to farm, and then they can go farm for themselves, and I can see them once a year. I don't need to have a church."
To that end, he has written yet another book, this one, despite the sordid demise of his relationship with McNally, about finding and keeping love – The Karma of Love: 100 Answers for Your Relationship. He told a packed audience in New York this winter that the book, which contains tips about matters such as how karma can help a man rekindle his wife's desire for him, will "automatically save the world." But despite the diamond ring on his finger, Roach says he has no plans to remarry.
This story is from the June 6th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.