Roach '75 runs Buddhist retreat in desert
While studying at the University, Michael Roach ’75 briefly landed in jail for helping to disrupt napalm weapons research at the Institute for Advanced Study. These days, he runs a three-year Buddhist retreat in the Arizona desert, in which retreaters isolate themselves in silence and use yoga and meditation to explore their minds.
The retreat is administered through the Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center in Arizona, an unaccredited school of Buddhist teachings founded by Roach. Jigme Palmo, a nun involved in Diamond Mountain’s retreat activities, said that the three-year retreat allows individuals an opportunity to apply Buddhist teachings to their inner lives.
“Their purpose is to take what they’ve taught and use it to have understandings about themselves and basically understand the nature of reality through meditation and other practices,” she said.
Roach did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Palmo, the typical retreat participant goes through four meditation sessions a day, which each last about two hours. When they are not meditating, participants often practice yoga. Caretakers from Diamond Mountain help retreaters find access to food and huts in the wilderness. Participants, who refrain from speaking for three years, tend to communicate through a system of sign language.
While Roach is not currently participating in the three-year long retreat, he visits the retreaters periodically for days at a time to communicate teachings and prayers. When Roach is not at Diamond Mountain, he travels around the world giving talks to spread his teachings.
Roach was the first American to receive a Master of Buddhism, or Geshe, after spending over 20 years as a monk in Tibetan monasteries. Since then, he has become a prominent businessman and philanthropist and is widely sought after for teachings and writings.
“He’s a very positive person,” Palmo said. “He’s extremely kind ... He tells people to do something, but he also does that himself.”
In 1973, while still studying at Princeton as a concentrator in the religion department, Roach traveled to India and later studied in Tibet with a grant from the Wilson School. Roach was raised in a Christian family, and while at Princeton, he served on the board of the Procter Foundation of the Episcopal Church at Princeton.
He had planned to attend seminary after graduating from Princeton until his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, prompting him to set off for India to reconsider his perspective on life.
Upon graduating from Princeton, Roach began to train at a small monastery in New Jersey. He continued his spiritual and intellectual Buddhist education over the next few decades.
Roach combined business with philanthropy by co-founding the Andin International Diamond Corporation, a jewelry company that used its annual turnover of over $200 million to support Tibetan refugees.
Roach began to define himself as an activist during his years at the University. After returning from studying abroad, Roach collected donations and clothing for Tibetan refugees from the Princeton area. A proponent of nonviolence, Roach was also one of 88 protesters of the Vietnam War who conducted a sit-in demonstration in Nassau Hall in April 1972.
The ongoing three-year retreat has been scrutinized recently after the body of an expelled retreater, Ian Thorson, was discovered in a cave in Arizona. Thorson’s wife, Lama Christie McNally, was found alive but delirious.
Roach and McNally had previously been in an extended “spiritual partnership,” which involved living and teaching in close proximity with one another for years. Their partnership ended in 2009, and McNally began to teach around the world independently, later marrying Thorson.
Thorson’s death appeared to be due to exposure and dehydration. McNally and Thorson had left the Diamond Mountain-sponsored retreat following reports that McNally had stabbed her husband with a samurai knife earlier in the spring.
In a letter of teaching from McNally, she described the incident with the knife as an accident that occurred while she was practicing as a novice in samurai swordplay. She wrote, “If I had had any training at all, the accident never would have happened. I simply did not understand that the knife could actually cut someone. Neither of us even realized he was cut when it happened.”
In a letter to Diamond Mountain supporters from early September 2012, Roach wrote that the mysterious death had not impacted the retreat.
“In general, I would like all of you to know, all of you supporting this retreat, that the retreatants are working extremely hard, and you can be proud of them,” Roach wrote. “The difficulties we’ve had earlier this year do not reflect the amazing spiritual progress that almost every retreatant is making.”
While the events surrounding Thorson’s death and McNally’s role as Roach’s spiritual partner are murky, the retreat is set to continue unaffected until 2014.
“It is one thing to put a man on the moon,” Roach wrote in the same letter to retreat supporters. “But this retreat is itself a cultural and spiritual achievement of the modern world, which I feel is almost unprecedented.”