My Brief Rendez-vous with the Guru

It was one week after actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose and Michael Roach, the leader of his own off-shoot of Tibetan Buddhism, was going to be speaking about addiction to a group of followers in Manhattan’s quirky East Village neighborhood.

“Peel-off your addiction with ancient Tibetan wisdom,” the flyer read. “Secrets from the Wheel of Life” was the name of the talk.

It was a frigid February evening when I headed down to Asher Levy elementary school to hear Roach speak. I had been trying to interview him for months. The subject: a strange story of guru devotion, delusion, diamonds, tantric sex, and a mysterious, grizzly death in the Arizona desert.

The truth is, I had met Roach once in 2006 when a friend brought me to one of his lectures, called “teachings,” in New York. He sat cross-legged up on a stage alongside Christie McNally, his then “tantric partner,” who was also, in his eyes and in the eyes of many of their followers, the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist goddess.

At the time I had no idea about the goddess thing. After the talk, I remember him walking by me in his mulberry-hued monk’s robes, tall and muscular with long hair and piercing blue eyes. He was in his 50’s at the time, and by his side was the beautiful pixy-like McNally, twenty years his junior, clad in white robes with long flowing hair the color of wet sand.

I listened to the teaching but I don’t remember what it was about, just that as each one spoke the other would gently rock back and forth gazing intently at the other. It was sweet, actually, albeit a bit weird, and my friend whispered in my ear that it was a very high spiritual practice to honor your partner in this way.

Roach was selling his book, The Diamond Cutter, and copies were lined up on card tables outside the auditorium. The book outlines how he used Buddhist principles to make huge profits for a diamond business he co-founded in midtown Manhattan with an Israeli couple.

Roach said his Tibetan teachers had encouraged him to try to make a million dollars within a year using ancient wisdom from monasteries on the other side of the world. Diamonds are important in Buddhist mythology, but the diamond industry has dark ties to genocides in Africa. There was no mention of that.

Roach said in his business affairs he would take every opportunity to help others and thereby “plant karmic seeds,” and those seeds would eventually flower into fruitful profits. He said it worked and soon the money was flowing in. And, he said, you could apply this principle to every aspect of your life.

After the talk I went back to my busy life attending to the heavy demands of my investigative journalism job, and quickly forgot about Roach. In fact I didn’t give him a thought for years. I didn’t hear about it when in 2009, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway bought Roach’s jewelry business, though Roach likes to highlight that fact in the teachings he’s given since, which can be found online.

Fast forward to April 2013. I was sitting in the doctor’s office flipping through a magazine and I stumbled upon an article about a tragic death in the Arizona desert. The body of Ian Thorson, a tall handsome Stanford grad, was found in the lee of some boulders on a mountain overlooking Diamond Mountain, Roach’s Buddhist “university” where he conducted spiritual teachings and even a three-year silent retreat.

Thorson had been a devout follower of Roach for years. And he was the husband of Christie McNally. I was stunned. McNally had obviously split from the guru. What had happened out there in the Arizona desert?

I immediately wanted to know more. And so I started calling members of the Diamond Mountain community, his devotees and disillusioned former followers of Roach, alike. I asked to come to Diamond Mountain and have a tour, film the whole thing, but Roach’s representatives declined. There had already been articles written in print about Thorson’s death, and they were all critical of Roach, so they decided they did not want to take a risk on me. I began a series of requests to interview Roach, and they declined for the same reason.

Christie McNally, too, was reluctant to speak with me. She had corresponded in writing with a Rolling Stone reporter, and I’m not sure how she felt about the resulting article. By most accounts, she had become delusional, drunk on the power that comes with being considered a goddess for fifteen years. That same article described Roach as looking like an “aging Beach Boy,” and I can’t imagine he liked that.

I did get in touch with his Israeli former business partner, who calls Roach a good friend, and vouched for everything in The Diamond Cutter.

But most of the people I interviewed said they felt conned by Roach, that his theories about life aren’t true, that in subtle ways he demanded total devotion, led them down a rabbit hole, and that he ruined McNally and essentially created a goddess monster. They said he had been sexually promiscuous while wearing his monk’s robes, therefore embarrassing the traditional Buddhist community. (All Buddhist monks take a vow of celibacy.) I even corresponded off-the-record with a young woman who said she had a sexual relationship with Roach and was now afraid of him.

Columbia Professor of Buddhism, Robert Thurman—who happens to be Uma Thurman’s father—is a former monk, who disrobed, as is the custom, to get married and have a family. He said that spiritual leaders can become megalomaniacs in every tradition. But in this case he was referring to both Roach and McNally.

Geshe Michael Roach (L) and Christie McN
Hong Kong, CHINA: Geshe Michael Roach (L) and Christie McNally holds a yoga session during the Asia Yoga Conference dubbed "Evolution." TED ALJIBE / AFP/Getty Images

I spent a week in Arizona and hiked up to the cave where Ian died. It was several hours straight up, bush-whacking, trying to avoid cactus spines and loose scree. It was eerie to be up there, and sad. Thorson and McNally had been living off the land for two months. One search and rescue sergeant told me to try to live in such a harsh environment was a “suicide mission.” But perhaps they thought they were above worldly weaknesses.

So after all of the interviews, all the filming, even a helicopter shoot in Arizona, we came back to New York and began the writing process… six acts to make an hour of television. The piece was strong, but it would have been great to interview either Roach or McNally on camera. And then a source of mine forwarded me a flyer advertising Roach’s upcoming talk in New York City. It was to be the following week -- just in time.

That night was bitter cold, as most nights have been this winter. A beautiful young woman greeted me at the school’s entrance. I said I was there to see Roach’s talk, and she ushered me down the stairs to the anteroom of the school’s auditorium. A handful of more attractive women signed me in. I paid the suggested $20 donation in cash and nervously wrote my name down on the page. Roach knew about my story.

The room started to fill up with yoga types in knits, mostly young people. Unexpectedly, a 60-something acquaintance of mine arrived. I could tell he recognized my face but couldn’t place who I was, not in this context. I stared straight ahead, not wanting to be distracted by small talk.

Through a glass window in the door of the auditorium I could see Roach on stage practicing his sitar alongside a woman who would be singing a chant at the start of the teaching. After a while they left the stage and we were finally allowed to file in. I sat in the back. Two Dateline colleagues joined me in the auditorium. I was planning to ask the guru some questions about Ian Thorson’s death, about the goddess, Christie McNally, and about the allegations by former followers that he was a shyster.

It would be awkward to say the least.

Roach began to speak about his philosophy of planting karmic seeds and he went on for an hour.

And then it was time for a break. I got in line with the other acolytes and was given a yellow rose to offer to the guru. One by one the people in line ahead of me when up onstage and sat opposite Roach. There was such a din in the auditorium that you couldn’t hear a word they said. My heart was racing.

When finally it was my turn, the guru got up and walked to the edge of the stage to speak with one of his minions. Now my heart was pounding in my throat as I thought I had been identified and would be thrown out. But no, he was only saying that I would be the last person allowed to speak with him – his show had to go on.

And so I approached the chair in the middle of the stage, awkwardly putting the yellow rose on the table between us.

“Hi, my name is Anna Schecter. I’m with Dateline NBC and I’ve been trying to reach you for quite some time,” I began.

He looked back at me smiling.

“I’m doing a story on Diamond Mountain and what unfortunately happened to Christie McNally and Ian Thorson…There are former devotees who feel like they were duped, like they were conned. What do you say to them?” I asked.

“You can see, you can see, here, you can see what I do, you can see what I teach,” he said.

“And some of them say you created an environment where people become completely devoted and get out of touch with reality and so, do you have any responsibility in Ian Thorson's death?” I asked.

“I think every teacher is responsible for their students,” he replied.

“Do you still think Christie McNally is a goddess?”

At that he laughed uncomfortably. I imagined it hurt to be asked that question of his former lover. An acolyte approached us with a plate of cookies and she placed them on the table beside the yellow rose.

“You know what I was hoping would be to speak about what I believe, my teachings, and I really don't like to talk about more sensational things because I don't feel they're so helpful,” he said.

Then I asked about the Dalai Lama, who had publically distanced himself from Roach years earlier and no longer welcomed him to Dharamsala. He laughed nervously again, said he had to get back to the teaching, and I took the stairs at the opposite side of the stage down to the main hall. No one else had heard our conversation because of the acoustics.

It was time to go. Footage from our conversation would go into the final act of my story about Thorson, Roach, McNally, and Diamond Mountain.