Michael Roach has lived many lives as an esteemed monk and scholar turned disgraced teacher. Now, he seems to be pivoting to an unlikely new career path—relationship expert—penning a love advice book in 2013 and lecturing on the topic this past weekend at New York’s Lincoln Center. But those familiar with his background might find this ironic to say the least.
The first American to earn a geshe degree, the Tibetan Buddhist equivalent of a doctorate, Roach ordained in the eighties and became a highly respected teacher, attracting a large following of students before rumors began circulating that he was sleeping with one of them, Christie McNally.
McNally was 23 and fresh out of college when she met Roach in 1996, who was then 43. In 1998, undeterred by monastic precepts, the two “took vows never to separate, night or day,” according to the New York Times, and they married in secret that year.
The pair had an, um, unique dedication to each other, according to people who had been a part of the community that formed around Roach in the nineties. Former community member Matthew Remski described seeing McNally leave Roach’s quarters every morning at dawn in 1999, in addition to “carrying his shoulder bag,” “fetching food for him at every communal meal,” and “waiting outside the men’s room while he took a leak.”
In 2000, the lovebirds went into three-year retreat. When they emerged, they were finally ready to announce their marriage to the world, although they still claimed they were practicing “celibate intimacy.” Roach wrote a letter to numerous Tibetan lamas, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and Lama Zopa Rinpoche, in which he requested endorsements for an upcoming book and added that he had “enclosed some small current, personal news about myself.”
This “small current, personal news” was written in verse:
And now for three years
In isolation, in the desert
Here in America,
In a small Mongolian yurt,
I have stayed together
In the great retreat, in the proper way,
With a Lady, who is an emanation
Of the Angel of Diamond, a Messenger;
And I’ve undertaken the hardships needed
To try to complete the two stages
Of the secret teachings.
So too nowadays
To help to trigger
The final transformation into
The Diamond Sow herself,
I wear my hair
As the Angel Herself does,
And her bracelet
And other accoutrement
Together with my robes.
Roach knew this letter, essentially a confession that he was with McNally and had openly stopped following the protocols of monkhood, was likely to disturb his teachers. Toward the end of his poem, he wrote:
Highest Lama, may Your heart not be troubled
Highest Lama, may this rather cause You to rejoice
Highest Lama, may You never abandon this yogi/monk . . .
And yet abandoned he was. The well-known scholar Robert Thurman wrote to Roach urging him to disrobe. The Dalai Lama’s office received concerned letters. Students expressed their confusion and disappointment. And three years later, after His Holiness caught wind that Roach planned to attend and give teachings in Dharamsala, India, accompanied by his followers, the Dalai Lama’s office advised Roach not to come due to the “unresolved controversy” around his behavior—what many viewed as tantamount to a censure.
Meanwhile, Roach and McNally continued in much the same way. As the 2008 New York Times profile described their behavior:
If they cannot be seated near each other on a plane, they do not get on. When she uses an airport restroom, he stands outside the door.
They eat the same foods from the same plate and often read the same book, waiting until one or the other finishes the page before continuing. Both, they say, are practices of learning to submit one’s will to that of another.
Goals of interdependent submission aside, in 2008 or 2009, the couple divorced, and Roach finally gave up his robes. McNally then married the couples’ longtime attendant, Ian Thorson, who would die in 2012 under bizarre and tragic circumstances during a three-year retreat led by McNally.
And Roach? He seems to have figured that this mess—a reading of which, at its absolute best and most generous, raises a host of red flags about exploitative power dynamics—was as good of a qualification as any to start proffering his relationship advice. In 2013, he released The Karma of Love: 100 Answers for Your Relationship, which promises to share “ancient secrets on how to find a partner, keep them, and achieve lasting happiness together.” He has also been teaching internationally on the topic, and on February 8, he kicked off a speaking tour with a talk at Lincoln Center about, of all things, “Nagarjuna’s Wisdom on Love.”
The event description promises to reveal “the greatest wisdom on love” from the 2nd-century Buddhist giant, who is better known for his philosophy of emptiness than his tips on finding and keeping a partner (but then again, attendees would have Roach for that).
“This Valentine’s Day,” the description says, “don’t passively wait to fall in love; take wise action to make sure you have that special love forever and help that dream come true for all,” calling Roach an “American nontraditional teacher of Tibetan Buddhism.” (The event was donation-based, plus a $5 ticketing fee, but you could have chosen to pay between $500 and $1,357 for the privilege of having lunch with Roach the next day.) The organization Three Jewels NYC posted that the talk sold out at around 200 people.
This Valentine’s Day, I’m not so sure Roach would be the one I would turn to for wise advice on love. How to practice shamelessness, though—that I think he would be good on.
Related: Will Sanghas Learn from the Scandals in the Buddhist World?