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Barbara O'Brien

Sad News From Arizona

By May 2, 2012

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Last week a man was found dead in a cave in Arizona. The local newspaper reported that the man was Ian Thorson, 38, who was the husband of Christie McNally.

If the names are not familiar -- Christie McNally was once the spiritual partner of Michael Roach, an American man who was ordained in the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. I believe Roach still considers himself to be a monk, although Gelugpa would disagree. His Holiness the Dalai Lama considered Roach's relationship with McNally to be a breach of his monastic vows and barred Roach from further involvement with the order.

Not quite a year ago McNally's retreat center was threatened by wildfires, which is when I learned that McNally had left the much older Roach for Thorson, someone closer to her own age. Yes, this news possibly triggered my mother instincts -- I felt this was probably for the best and hoped the two young people would have a long and happy life together.

So I was sad to hear that Thorson had died. But what happened in the cave?

McNally and Thorson had been leading a three-year retreat, but they had left the retreat venue to live in a cave, apparently at the request of the other retreat participants.

McNally's attendants published a statement saying that the couple was asked to leave "After the events of Feb. 12th." The cave is on public property within the retreat boundary, but away from the area where the other retreat participants were spending their time. I'll come back to this in a bit.

They had run low on water and were too ill to get more. Thorson died of dehydration, they said. The news story linked above did not say how Thorson had died, but did say that McNally was treated for dehydration.

There had been an earlier incident in which McNally stabbed Thorson with a knife. This was accidental, she said. I infer this was part of "the events of Feb. 12th." If you read McNally's rambling post (written before the death) closely, it appears quite a lot of things were going on to cause disharmony in the retreat, plus (reading between the lines) Thorson had some aggression issues.

Finally, Michael Roach weighed in, and said that in a talk on February 12 McNally had described "what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband." This was reported to the local police, who declined to follow up. The couple were asked to leave the retreat center campus for one year.

According to Roach, the retreat center offered the couple transportation to anywhere they wanted to go. It was their own decision to hole up in the cave, apparently. It appears no one knew they were there.

That's all I know. I am too far away from any of this to offer an informed opinion. It's easy to say that people shouldn't be teachers until they get their personal acts together, but how many of us ever do that? I've known of great teachers who had messy personal lives sometimes. So for the moment I'm telling the mother in me to shut up and not offer advice until asked for it.

May 2, 2012 at 8:12 pm
(1) Mila says:

Condolences to all involved.

May all sentient beings enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in the great equanimity free from passion, aggression and prejudice.

May 3, 2012 at 2:35 am
(2) Hein says:

What happened is sad. That is the events of 12 February and thereafter.
One thing I have learned is that human relationships can become quiet complex. Especially the romantic kind or relationships of the heart. Fortunately – it would appear – most relationships are relatively stable. I asked myself; what is the role of karma in all of this? The little I know about karma has taught me that what you do has consequences. My Taiwanese Ch’an teacher always said one should make vows if you wish your practice to grow. But one should not make strong vows if you would not be able to keep it as the effect of transgression of those vows is intense. Well, all of this was conveyed to us (a mix cultural bunch of South Africans) via a Swahili speaking Tanzanian interpreter whose second language is English and his third language Mandarin. I trust I got it right.
It appears that one should not take vows willy-nilly. And once undertaken one needs to stick to those vows religiously (no pun intended), even if it breaks your heart. In my own life I have for instance experience the strength of my and my wife’s marriage vows (married for 26 years). It can make or break a relationship, but serves as an anchor in most trouble waters. Perhaps those are the only vows I have ever taken up seriously.

May 3, 2012 at 3:07 am
(3) Michael says:

How very sad. I think many people have been concerned about the weirdness that has been going on around Michael Roach’s group for more than a while now. Not that one can lay any blame on him for what happened here. However, these Tibetan style long retreats need careful management and experienced supervision. People do go crazy in them – or at lease experience bouts of severe mental stress. If this retreat is continue they really should reach out to an established Drupon and get him to oversee it.

May 3, 2012 at 1:24 pm
(4) Yoyogi says:

I keep hearing about aggressive acts by Ian Thorsen and even the author of this articles jumps in and points the finger without any hard data. No one actually writes in any blog or report what exactly he did. The fact is , she stabbed him three times , once deep enough to be considered a threat to his vital organs. Michael roach in his open letter seems to do a lot of finger pointing towards Ian but remeber his lover left him for Ian who is much younger so there may be somewhat of an agenda there as well.

May 3, 2012 at 2:00 pm
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

I keep hearing about aggressive acts by Ian Thorsen and even the author of this articles jumps in and points the finger without any hard data.

I have not pointed any fingers. I am simply relaying what information is coming out of the Diamond Mountain Center. I believe I was clear that I am far removed from this situation and have no personal knowledge of it. Everything said here is attributed to a source.

However … what “hard data” do YOU have that McNally stabbed Thorson enough to “be a threat to his vital organs”? My impression is that the only ones who even knew about the stabbing incident were McNally and Thorson until she spoke of it publicly on Feb. 12, while he was still alive. If her public statement was not true, he was still alive when she published it and could have refuted it himself. Where are you getting other information?

Note that I’m not saying you are wrong; I’m saying maybe you have information I don’t, and I want to see it. If this is information can be properly sourced I will report it. I can only go by what has been made public so far. I will not repeat every rumor that comes along, however.

I’m not a Michael Roach fan, and have publicly said he has no business teaching. Without knowing exactly what McNally told the group on Feb. 12, however, I have no way to know if Roach is being honest or not. However, he makes rather a point of saying that his open letter was “reviewed and approved by the Board of Directors of the [Diamond Mountain] University,” and I have to assume the Board of Directors are aware of what McNally said on Feb. 12.

May 3, 2012 at 2:15 pm
(6) David says:

What a story! I guess what all this shows is that, when dealing with powerful stuff such as meditative retreats, there must be visibility and oversight. Anyone with the best of intentions can go nuts out in the desert somewhere. It is very, very easy to get dehydrated without realizing what is happening–when I lived in the Middle East for a year I had warnings over and over again to keep hydrating all day long. In any case, what a terrible shame

May 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm
(7) yoyogi63 says:

This is from Michael’s letter posted on his website. he reports the medical information relayed to him by the medical staff who treated Ian Thorsen.
“During the same public talk of February 4, Lama Christie stated that the knife wound to Ian required sutures, which were administered inside the retreat valley. The Board requested and received a written statement from a professional medical practitioner inside the retreat, stating that they had sewn up wounds sustained by Ian that they had been told were the accidental result of playing with a knife. The medical person described three separate wounds to the torso, one of which was deep enough to threaten vital organs.”
That is the written statement as reported to the board by whoever attended to Ian’s wounds. I don’t know if he was violent or not , I’m just saying it’s being reported and repeated but know one actually elaborates on anything he did. While it’s true that Michael Roach could be less than honest in his account , what are the odds that the medical personnel and board members would all lie about what happened. I’m only putting questions out there because I think it’s too easy to assume that because he is a man and she is a woman that he was abusive and that’s why this happened. if it is true then they should report what he actually did instead of speaking vaguely about acts of aggression .

May 4, 2012 at 8:11 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

yoyogi63 — Let me be clear — there are only two things that I personally believe to be true about this situation:

1. Ian Thorson is dead.
2. Whatever was going on in McNally’s and Thorson’s relationship was and is still being covered by a ten-foot thick blanket of psychological denial, and this denial was/is shared by McNally and Thorson as well as by the Diamond Mountain staff and members.

There’s a lot in McNally’s post that I linked in the article that shrieks of dissembling, but I don’t know her at all, and I have no way of knowing what her issues are and how able she is to be honest with herself about herself and her relationship. And if she is struggling with self-honesty, it may be that she was put into a teacher position way too soon, and that it would be better for her to stop teaching and to spend some years just being a student, until she gains a bit more self-insight and spiritual maturity. But, again, I don’t know her at all and I could be way off base about that.

However, a lot of this strikes me as being similar to what has gone on in some other sanghas in the West, where the teacher was engaging in destructive behavior — sexual abuse, improper use of sangha funds, etc. — and students remained in denial for a long time until something finally snapped. Nobody wants to believe that their revered holy teacher could be doing something destructive or selfish.

Likewise, it sounds as if there were signs something was out of whack with McNally’s and Thorson’s relationship, but the Diamond Mountain crew refused to see it until February 12, and then something snapped. I get the impression that the Diamond Mountain crew had a lot invested in that marriage, emotionally and psychologically, and they didn’t want to believe anything was going wrong with it.

However, the fact that the Diamond Mountain group voted to expel both McNally and Thorson, and not just Thorson, suggests that whatever was going on was something other than a simple abuser/victim pattern. But I suspect everyone involved is still dealing with a lot of denial, and so it may take years for the truth of the matter to come to light.

May 4, 2012 at 12:33 pm
(9) yoyogi63 says:

Thank you. You answered perfectly. You gave an honest and insightful outsiders view of the situation from your perspective. That is what I felt had been missing in all accounts. I’m sorry for them both because it’s clear that they suffered terribly. I met him over a course of days in NYC at an event they were having at a place I used to work. This was before he was married to Christie. He was incredibly sweet and absolutely in total happiness to be serving his teachers. Thank you again for taking the time to respond.

Om shanti

May 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm
(10) Machig says:

What makes this unique, of course, is the fact that the “teacher” is a woman and the “student” is a man. Same general issues in relation to teacher/student sexual intimacy. But just when one might have concluded — in observation of a seemingly-endless series of “scandals” (Eido Shimano, Dennis Merzel, John Friend, etc. ad nauseam) — that a solution to the problem perhaps was something as simple as having testosterone carry a Surgeon General’s Warning — something like this, which kind of turns the whole thing inside out, happens ….. sigh.

May 4, 2012 at 3:45 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

Machig — yes, human behavior is endlessly messy. Right now the people closest to this situation probably are not yet able to see it clearly, but I hope someday at least some of them can analyze it with some clarity. That may take a few years, of course. But there may be lessons to learn here.

What’s complicating this is that McNally and Roach lost their formal association with Gelugpa, which means there is no institutional authority or lineage tradition overseeing whatever they are doing. I know that institutions and traditions are not always perfect, but they do serve a useful purpose sometimes.

May 5, 2012 at 12:03 am
(12) Anuj Sharma says:

No comments …………. May the departed R.I.P

May 5, 2012 at 11:54 am
(13) Jerry says:

End the retreat now….3 other people were border line going in… attendants have been losing it all along,they are on a major drug smuggling route about to be contested by an outside cartel….I live next door and believe the rescue was delayed by not getting the “experienced hands like David Stump out of retreat and on the search….The board are not long time residents and should have a better emergency plan…just end it…

May 6, 2012 at 7:03 am
(14) Michael says:

Hey, Barbara,
You are the first person I read on this. I am really surprised that this has not broken in the mainstream press, yet. I see a few blog posts, DharmaWheel is full of it but nothing in main news sites. Are there injunctions going on or similar?

May 6, 2012 at 4:14 pm
(15) Mila says:

Elephant Journal has posted a rather extensive essay exploring this situation.

May 6, 2012 at 10:45 pm
(16) Barbara O'Brien says:

Mila — thanks for the link. That was an informative article. I’ll have more to say about it tomorrow.

I don’t know Christie McNally at all, but I’ve seen enough of Michael Roach to know that he should not be teaching.

May 7, 2012 at 10:03 am
(17) Mila says:

You’re very welcome. I was happy to read the rebuttal, also — and imagine that the “truth” lies somewhere between the two views.

In relation to the folks still in retreat, what I’d like to know is: who is now acting as Drupon (retreat master)? Seems like Ms. McNally was fulfilling that role (?) — and to have the person supposedly guiding you melt down like this ….. pretty intense, and hopefully the community has called upon someone with more experience, to step in.

One of the commenters at DharmaWheel posed the question of why someone would choose as their teacher Michael Roach et al., when Garchen Rinpoche also has a retreat center in Arizona. Initially I found myself in agreement with this — based upon my own impression (from readings & in-person connections) of the two.

cont’d below

May 7, 2012 at 10:03 am
(18) Mila says:

But the whole “how students find teachers” thing is so mysterious; and there’s part of me that feels it has an inner perfection to it: that students connect with the teachers that they’re meant to, at a certain time.

Which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t point out obvious faults and abuses — just that even if one teacher, in some “objective” sense, is indeed more mature or more skilled than another — this doesn’t necessarily imply that they are the “best” teacher for a given student. Sometimes a kind of mental-emotional mirroring is needed, before someone is ready to meet their True Face in the form of a True Guru.

May 7, 2012 at 11:37 am
(19) Michael says:

Mila, I agree with you that choice of teacher is karmic to some degree. Those who wanted do an authentic retreat with an experienced teacher are lucky that they have got to the point where they can understand the importance of that.

From what I’ve read Michael Roach is not a Buddhist teacher anymore. He passes off a New Age mixture of yoga, Tibetan Buddhism, Hindu stuff, Jesus and the sort of person who is attracted to that probably is more confused and susceptible to joining a cult than someone who sees the value of teachers like Garchen Rinpoche.

But karma can be changed and hopefully this incident will act as a wake up call for some of Roach’s students and they will leave and know what find now in an authentic teacher.

May 8, 2012 at 12:04 am
(20) Anonymous says:

Just putting out there what people often tend to exclude: partner practice is actually a high spiritual practice practiced by many monks. There are several remarks That imply that Geshe Michael broke his vows through his partnership with McNally. The Dalai Lama has also spoken in reference to his spiritual partnerships that involve a consort. The “banishment of GM” notably came about when he publicly displayed his partnership.

May 8, 2012 at 7:37 am
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

Anonymous — My understanding — and note that I’ve been keeping track of Buddhism for a couple of decades now — is that in Tibetan tantra the sexual practices are practiced very rarely, and only by the few who have reached the upper levels of tantra, and I still don’t believe the relationships are supposed to be kept secret. That certainly didn’t use to be the case. I wrote a bit about this in a more recent post, btw. The Dalai Lama has never spoken in reference to a spiritual partnership of his own that involves a consort that I’m aware of, and I’m sure if he had this would have been blabbed all over creation. If this is what Roach is telling you, he is lying.

Gelugpa monks take vows of celibacy. Roach was barred from the order for breaking his celibacy vows, not because he revealed something that was supposed to be secret. Again, if Roach is telling you something else, he is lying.

May 10, 2012 at 12:03 pm
(22) yoyogi says:

If you are curious to how ridiculous their take on buddhism is, check out this link http://ladylamas.wordpress.com/about/ . Ridiculous!

May 14, 2012 at 6:48 am
(23) Michael says:

I notice the “Lady Lamas” site has been taken down all of a sudden. I wonder why?

May 14, 2012 at 10:36 am
(24) Barbara O'Brien says:

Re the lady lamas — I don’t like to denigrate the spiritual paths of people I don’t know. But based on the biographies on the now-down site, some of the “lady lamas” don’t seem to have much of a resume beyond teaching yoga and being some guy’s “spiritual partner.” Yet other women devoted to 24/7 dharma study and practice don’t call themselves “lamas.”

May 14, 2012 at 11:46 am
(25) Michael says:

I think Michael Roach’s organization sells itself primarily to the “bliss ninny” market who would never have met a real lama (or geshe for that matter). I know several real female lamas: one has spent 14 years in enclosed retreat, two more are fully ordained bhikshuni who have spent 10 years in enclosed retreat each. None wanted the title because they hoped to remain in retreat. They are about as far from the groovy yoga teachers on that site as you can get. Also, don’t you think “lady lamas” is a bit sexist, like “lady drivers” or “lady doctors”?

May 24, 2012 at 1:49 am
(26) yoyogi says:

This is some crazy account of a ritual that happened up on Diamond Mountain that included weapons. An AK47, rifles , knives , human blood offerings etc. Notice they seemed to be using the same device to prick themselves to get the blood and sharing it. Not so bright. Anyway, it was posted by a woman named Ekan Thomason who was present and participated .Why would they have rifles and an AK 47 on a Bhuddist retreat center? It’s very informative despite her ignorance of the Goddess Kali. . I’m pasting the the link. Also on the same page a former member of the cult states that he was kissed and touched on the genitals by Christie during an initiation called the Yamantaka initiation . This is all in the comments section toward the end. It’s easy to find as there are very few comments to the follow up article:

May 26, 2012 at 10:31 pm
(27) Ted Lemon says:

Actually, Barbara, if you read How To Practice by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, he states quite clearly (somewhere around page 193, if I remember correctly) that monks can and do practice with consorts if they have reached a high level of realization, and that they do not break their vows when they do so. If a monk were to do this openly, it might cause practitioners not at the same level to have doubts, or to think that they should do the same practice, and then they would lose their celibacy vow.

As to whether Geshe Michael is at that level, this is something we can only speculate about. Many speculate that he is not. I don’t have any personal knowledge one way or the other. Anyone who claims to have such knowledge is either saying that they themselves are at that level of attainment, or they are simply making things up. Spiritual realizations are internal; only the person who has them can know one way or another whether they have had them.

This thing about AK47s is weird. I was at DM for six years and never saw anyone brandish a weapon. One person who *brought* a weapon onto the property were reported to the police and escorted off the property, but it was a sword. Bringing the sword to DM was not endorsed by anyone at DM, came as a big surprise to us, and was a matter of great concern. I think it was dealt with in a proper manner.

And as for who the retreat master is now, it’s John Brady. John is an experienced meditator, a former Zen practitioner, and has been meditating and teaching Buddhism for most of his adult life. He’s in his sixties now, so it’s been a good long time.

I think a sincere inquiry into what happened between Christie and Ian would be worthwhile, but I don’t hear anyone here talking about doing that. What I hear is a lot of idle talk, speculation, and, not to put too fine a point on it, misogyny. Is this really such a good way to spend our precious human rebirth?

May 27, 2012 at 12:55 pm
(28) Barbara O'Brien says:

“Actually, Barbara, if you read How To Practice by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, he states quite clearly (somewhere around page 193, if I remember correctly) that monks can and do practice with consorts if they have reached a high level of realization, and that they do not break their vows when they do so. If a monk were to do this openly, it might cause practitioners not at the same level to have doubts, or to think that they should do the same practice, and then they would lose their celibacy vow.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if monks at the highest levels of kalachakra were to engage in sexual tantric practices. But I’m not buying the secrecy story outside of the standard esoteric nature of upper level kalachakra. I’ve read several of the Dalai Lama’s books (although not the one you mention) and I remember at least a couple of times he casually mentioned So-and-So Rinpoche and his spiritual consort, the Venerable Such-and-Such. I don’t remember if the monks mentioned were Gelugpa or something else. But those relationships were not secret, obviously.

Regarding secrecy, I highly recommend this interview with June Campbell. Campbell claims to have been in a tantric sexual relationship with the late Kalu Rinpoche, of Karma Kagyu. The relationship was kept secret mostly so that the Rinpoche’s followers would not be disillusioned, she said. She also says she was told that consorts in the Rinpoche’s past lives who blabbed met with premature death, so she’d better keep her mouth shut. She adds, “I’ve got no doubts now that when a male teacher demands a relationship that involves secret sex, an imbalance of power, threats, and deception, the woman is exploited.”

I understand that in sexual tantra it’s ideal if both partners are advanced practitioners. Otherwise it’s just an old guy exploiting a younger woman, not tantra. While Roach might have been considered an upper level practitioner, no way was 20-something Christie McNally when the relationship began. Roach was just plain making up his own rules to justify his relationship. If you know anything at all about how sexual abuse and exploitation take place, you should be highly suspicious of Roach’s claim about secrecy.

I think a sincere inquiry into what happened between Christie and Ian would be worthwhile, but I don’t hear anyone here talking about doing that.

I think that’s rather strongly implied. However, as I said in another comment, we probably won’t know what really happened until people at the retreat are able to open up and speak about it honestly, and that may take years. The dissembling and psychological denial surrounding this episode is palpable.

June 7, 2012 at 7:47 am
(29) Jampa says:

I had a teaching from Geshe Sonam Rinchen, in which the consort topic was covered very clearly in the text (I think from memory Atisha’s Lamp). An ordained monk who holds celibacy vows simply must not enter into union with an actual person. High level or not. There are many woman believing they must do what their Lama says, but celibacy means celibacy, just like killing even if the killer is at a high level – is still killing and breaking a vow they have to pay a karmic debt for, even if others benefit or lives are saved eg one of Buddha’s prior lives, killing the murderous inclined ship captain. Even though many like the idea of spiritual sex, and there is nothing wrong with natural, consentual, ethical sex Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey made it pretty simple to one couple who thought they were ready for a consort practise – “come back when you can fly around the room”. My heart goes out to all affected and confused, but let’s just keep practising the way Buddha said to. We can’t make up our own rules about what constitutes sexual misconduct. I reckon the teachings are easy to understand, let’s keep it simple, despite the complementary not contradictory nature of many subtle ways to practise, at the end of the day it seems the ethics and keeping vows purely is still the very basis we need to preserve.

June 9, 2012 at 7:23 am
(30) Tenor says:

Had to look up Lemon’s out-of-context assertion. According to H.H. Dalai Lama’s book cited by Lemon, and other Gelug ordained lamas I’ve received teachings from, NO ONE is qualified for tantric sexual practice unless they can can enjoying eating shit and drinking piss as ambrosia.

Following Lemon’s quote from p. 193, on p. 194: “Such a practitioner can make spiritual use not only of delicious meat and drink, but even of human excrement and urine. … For people like us, however, this is beyond our reach. As long as you cannot transform piss and shit, these other things (sexual tantra) should not be done.”

If his attainments are such that shit is his tasty ambrosia, should be no problem for him to dine on such in public since he’s built his preaching career on talking about his “realizations” – or rather, ‘realization’.

June 9, 2012 at 9:32 am
(31) Barbara O'Brien says:

Tenor — I got a copy of the cited Dalai Lama book, also. What I took away from it is that sometimes advanced practitioners do enter into “spiritual partnerships,” but His Holiness said nothing at all about secrecy. I also took away from what you cite that both partners should be advanced practitioners and masters of tantra yoga, not a geshe and some cute 20-something who signed up for his class.

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