Buddha in the Desert

The death of an ousted Diamond Mountain resident raises questions about cults—and the future of American Buddhism

Courtesy of the Diamond Cutter Institute
Geshe Michael Roach

On this rural dirt road near the town of Bowie, not far from the foothills of the Chiricahua Mountains, there's hardly any noise during the day. At night, the quiet is disturbed only by chirping crickets and the yips of coyotes in the nearby hills.

But on April 22, the sounds of a helicopter disturbed this idyllic desert setting in southeastern Arizona, disrupting the intentional quiet of more than 34 people who are in the midst of a three-plus-year-long silent Buddhist retreat at a community and school called Diamond Mountain.

An Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter based in Tucson was responding to an emergency call, headed to a cave-like dwelling not far from the Diamond Mountain property. No one is sure how long 38-year-old Ian Thorson and his 39-year-old wife, Christie McNally, had been living in the cave, but when responders got there, they discovered Thorson's lifeless body, and a delirious McNally.

The helicopter transported Thorson's body to the Cochise County Medical Examiner's Office. According to reports in the Arizona Range News, McNally was treated for dehydration at Northern Cochise Community Hospital in Willcox and released. No wrongdoing was suspected, and Thorson's death was attributed to exposure and dehydration.

"I can't help but still think Ian would be alive today if the whole thing had been done differently," said Jerry Kelly, looking out at the Diamond Mountain campus from the screened porch of his home. He's convinced that if responders had taken a different route—across the Diamond Mountain property, rather than across Bureau of Land Management property—or if someone from the retreat had broken retreat rules and left to get help, the outcome would have been different.

For the past few years, Kelly said, he's found himself in an unusual situation: He's a complete outsider who has befriended many Diamond Mountain students. Judging from what he knows about the retreat firsthand, and from rumors he's heard over the years, Kelly said he's surprised that trouble didn't come sooner.

"These people are in complete isolation, and I don't know if they are all really equipped to deal with that," Kelly said. "There are a few older people, and a younger person that I think about and worry about. I've worried that they could even be targets of drug-smugglers or the elements."

Kelly said he was told McNally used a satellite emergency phone to tell a volunteer at Diamond Mountain that she needed assistance. That call went out at 9 a.m.

Kelly heard the helicopter arrive around 3 p.m.

There's a black-and-white photo of McNally and Thorson that has been used repeatedly by national media outlets since the story gained traction over the summer. It shows the couple smiling in what looks like a moment of genuine bliss and happiness. If the photo had been accompanied by an article about a couple who became lost in the desert, most of us in Southern Arizona would probably shake our heads at yet another tragic death-in-the-desert story.

However, this is hardly about a backpacking trip gone wrong.

The Tucson Weekly first wrote about Diamond Mountain in 2003, two years after a Buddhist group led by Michael Roach, who describes himself as the first American to earn the title of geshe, purchased 1,000 acres of desert just south of the small town of Bowie.

Roach says he studied in southern India at the Sera Monastery. In his book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, Roach wrote about how his teacher told him to go back to America and start a business to bring Buddhism into the American office. After working 16 years in New York City as the director of a jewelry manufacturer, and founding the Asian Classics Input Project and the Asian Classics Institute, Roach came to Arizona to start Diamond Mountain with his students.

Roach, called Geshe Michael or Geshela Michael by his students, a title used by Gelugpa Buddhist scholars, was involved in controversies long before Thorson, his former student, died in April. Roach drew criticism from American and Tibetan Buddhists alike for wearing his hair long, rather than shaving his head, and for wearing regular clothing—atypical for someone who claims to be an ordained monk.

He sparked more controversy when he showed up at teachings with McNally, whom he introduced as his spiritual partner following an earlier three-year retreat in the Dragoon Mountains. Another area of controversy followed when Roach gave McNally the title of "lama," and her students at Diamond Mountain called her Lama Christie. Roach also wrote to his teachers that he considered McNally a goddess.

Calls for Roach to renounce his vows, from prominent Buddhists such as Robert Thurman, were ignored by Roach.

Roach and McNally went so far as to wear matching rings and were known to never be more than 15 feet apart from each other, even reading the same book together and eating off the same plate. All along, Roach said, he remained true to his vows as a Buddhist monk and was celibate, because he and McNally practiced a different form of intimacy.

Attempts to contact Roach for this story were unsuccessful. But I did receive a response to an email sent to The Knowledge Base, a website described as "an ongoing project to preserve and publish the life work of Geshe Michael Roach, one of the modern world's most prolific teachers of Buddhism, yoga and meditation."

Ora Maimes, the project's executive director, wrote, "I will forward your request to Geshe Michael's assistants who help manage his schedule and correspondence. ... Please know, however, that after numerous interviews in which he was misquoted and misrepresented (by) the press on this matter, he has been declining further interviews, and is focusing his limited time on teaching and his numerous humanitarian projects."

The Weekly discussed Roach and McNally's relationship in a 2005 story about a relationship workshop the couple held in Tucson. Roach is quoted as saying, "Many people ask us about our relationship, because I'm a monk. ... We have a tradition that, after you've been trained for enough years, a monk should have a relationship with a special lady. ... You work together, not like a normal couple, not like most couples. You work for spiritual things. ... You dedicate your relationship. ... And then when you look at the other person, you should see a special person—not a human being, but an angel."

It wasn't until after Thorson's death that Roach's students discovered that Roach and McNally had been legally married and divorced, according to Michael Brannan, a former Roach student who lives in Bowie and still volunteers at Diamond Mountain.

"After Ian died, I decided I could no longer live there and made the decision on my own to move into town, but it's still an important place to me," he said.

Brannan said that when he learned that McNally and Roach had been married, he realized that Roach's story that he and McNally were spiritual partners was a farce.

"He broke his vows as a monk," Brannan said, adding that he wrote to the Diamond Mountain board of directors and asked that it cut ties with Roach to help Diamond Mountain regain credibility. "The critical eye of American Buddhism is looking at Diamond Mountain. A young man died."

Brannan claims that in response, Roach told the board that Brannan was no longer welcome to attend teaching events, but Brannan continues to volunteer by relieving caretakers assigned to provide food and other needs for each of the people in silent retreat.

In 2005, the school began preparations for a three-plus-year silent retreat—a process that started with the development of infrastructure for retreat buildings and the introduction of students to more Buddhist studies, silent meditation and yoga, to prepare them for the challenges of the retreat.

Those interested in helping the school, like Brannan, dug trenches for plumbing and other chores. Those who wanted to be part of the three-plus-year retreat, also called the Great Retreat, or the Retreat for Peace, took it upon themselves to build their own cabins at their own expense in a remote area chosen for the retreat. They would live in the cabins during the retreat, but it was understood that the cabins were Diamond Mountain property.

On the Diamond Mountain website is a blog with posts from various participants—board members, caretakers and those going into retreat—documenting the construction of the cabins and the mental preparations involved. The project also included cabins for Roach and McNally, who planned to follow their students into the retreat.

That plan changed when McNally left Roach for Thorson in 2010. The new plan had McNally going into retreat with Thorson, and signing on as the retreat director. Meanwhile, Roach would be at Diamond Mountain a few times a year to do teachings.

In February, things got more complicated when McNally said during a retreat teaching session that Thorson had acted aggressively toward her, and that she tried to help him by practicing a form of martial arts with a samurai sword she had in her possession. She said she ended up stabbing him several times.

According to a letter dated April 26, written by Roach and posted on the Diamond Mountain website following Thorson's death, Roach said that after an investigation by the Diamond Mountain board and Roach, McNally and Thorson were asked to leave the retreat and the Diamond Mountain property.

"I write this letter at the request of many friends of the University around the world. It has been a very sad and difficult week for all of us, mourning and trying to understand the loss of one of our oldest friends; a dear, courageous and dedicated spiritual seeker. I know the parents and other relatives of the affected families well, and I know that this has been a heart-wrenching time for them, too. We are deeply sorry for the loss that they and Ian's wife, Lama Christie McNally, are surely feeling," Roach wrote.

He wrote that McNally had recounted what Roach described as "serious incidents of mutual spousal abuse" between herself and Thorson.

"Lama Christie described what sounded like repeated physical abuse of herself by her husband, and also an incident in which she had stabbed Ian with a knife, under what she described as a spiritual influence.

"These statements of course caused great concern to the board of directors, and we also received many expressions of concern and confusion from retreatants' parents, families, students and friends of DMU. The board immediately initiated an inquiry, and in my own public talk on the following day, I stated that we had a moral and legal responsibility to conduct such an investigation. Our entire lineage is of course founded upon the principle of nonviolence, and the sacredness of all life. I made it clear that such violence would not be tolerated in a place of spiritual light and happiness."

Roach wrote that there had been past complaints about Thorson's behavior, which resulted in Thorson being asked to leave the campus at another time.

"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," Roach continued. "I think it's important to mention here that I do not personally believe that these were acts of malice."

The condolences offered in Roach's letter have meant little to Thorson's mother. According to television news interviews and a story in The New York Times, Kay Thorson told reporters that she thinks Diamond Mountain is a cult and that Roach is a dangerous leader. She said that she once hired cult deprogrammers to work with her son and help him leave Roach. He left for a short time, she said, but returned.

However, McNally herself posted an account of the events that led to her and Thorson's dismissal from Diamond Mountain. It was posted on scribd.com on April 19, three days before the death of Thorson. (There is also a statement that is written by two people identified as McNally's caretakers, which was posted April 22, which discusses events surrounding Thorson's death.)

The April 19 post, titled "A Shift in the Matrix Dispelling Darkness by Shining Light to the World," gives a detailed account of what happened between her and Thorson, and how they were exiled by the board.

"Dearest friends," she wrote, "I am writing now from deep retreat because I feel there is great need. ... My last retreat teaching seemed to create quite a commotion! So many crazy rumors! It is quite hard for me to believe that anyone would actually have some of the misconceptions I have heard about, especially those who have been close students of mine for so many years."

McNally said she had written to the board explaining why her expulsion was wrong. She said she was disappointed that she and Thorson were not given enough time to prepare to leave, and that she wasn't allowed to help the remaining students prepare for her absence.

"Just before we left to our retreat place in the sky, my Love and I sat on the side of a craggy hill, tucked away in our sleeping bag, gazing out over the retreat valley and wondering what will happen," McNally wrote. "This land is so beautiful. It is so strange that there is so much strife. I do believe the retreatants and I have healed much, but there is still much to go."

I tried to contact McNally through an email address on a website publicizing a book she wrote, and I also sent a message to what is identified as Lama Christie McNally's Facebook page. No one has responded; there is a blog post that claims McNally left the country for India after Thorson's death to meet with a former teacher.

Brannan said he believes Roach didn't know the couple had taken to the hills to continue their retreat. "This put some people in a difficult position, being equally loyal to both Michael and Christie," Brannan said. "They didn't tell Michael what was really going on, and (they) tried to get supplies to Christie. They knew where they were, but never told anyone."

Those people are suspected of leaving food that emergency responders found at the base of the hill where McNally and Thorson were living. McNally reportedly told responders that she and Thorson had grown too weak to climb up and down the hill to retrieve the supplies.

Brannan said it's his understanding that the followers who left the food are no longer in Arizona.

Below where the retreat cabins are located on the Diamond Mountain campus, there's a camp area with several trailers, yurts, other structures and the community's temple, built entirely from adobe bricks. Diamond Mountain caretaker Chuck Vedova met me outside of the temple. I told him I wanted to find out how to reach Roach, and that I had been told to ask for the resident nun.

Vedova said he could talk to me, and invited me to sit in the community's kitchen, which is housed in a yurt outfitted with refrigeration and plumbing.

Vedova, who said he is originally from New Jersey, talked about the work he and other volunteers did to prepare Diamond Mountain for the retreat, which started on Dec. 30, 2010.

"It's a retreat that goes for three years, three months and three days," he said.

During our discussion—which included an explanation of the different branches of Buddhism, including that Roach is part of the Gelugpa branch—Vedova said, "Diamond Mountain is not a commune; it's not a residential community. That's not its purpose. It's a school, but right now, its purpose is the retreat."

Vedova communicates in writing with several of the retreatants, and delivers their food and mail at locations near the retreat cabins. If there are problems, retreatants leave notes for the caretakers.

"You can't have a retreat without caretakers. I came here to serve," he said.

Vedova said retreatants know about Thorson's death, and that Roach visited them to explain what happened. When I asked about the controversies surrounding Roach, and now possibly Diamond Mountain, Vedova said they weren't issues to him. When I asked specifically about Roach being married to McNally, he explained that such relationships are not uncommon for Tibetan monks, who have had female spiritual partnerships going back 600 years.

"But it was never discussed. It was secret, but was going on all along," Vedova said.

Speaking of Thorson's death, Vedova brought his hands together and noted that I wasn't the first reporter to come to Diamond Mountain. Although the story gets told over and over again, Vedova said he wonders if anyone cares about the people still at Diamond Mountain who considered McNally an important teacher, and Thorson a friend.

"We lost a lama and a friend," he said. "Someone honored as a lama is gone and was asked to leave. Our friend is gone. The caretakers knew him, and no one is asking us how we feel that our friend is dead."