May 11, 2012

Tragedy strikes an American Buddhist Community

Connie HansenOn April 22nd, Ian Thorson, a 38-year-old Buddhist practitioner, died in a cave near Geshe Michael Roach’s Diamond Mountain University and Retreat Center in Arizona. Thorson's body was found attended by his wife, Christie McNally, Roach's former student and partner, known to the Diamond Mountain Community, and globally, as “Lama Christie.” While there hasn't yet been any major media coverage of Thorson's death and the circumstances surrounding it, the Buddhist blogosphere is commenting on it extensively.

In the past, when serious problems have beset Buddhist communities, isolation and lack of transparency have been a common thread. Some bloggers have called for an international Buddhist advisory board of sorts to provide ethical overview of the Buddhist communities worldwide. In this case, the Geluk school, to which Roach initially belonged, had distanced themselves from Roach to some extent.

For those unfamiliar with the story, what follows is a roundup of blog posts covering it. We include a rebuttal defending the Diamond Mountain Community, which Roach leads, as well as an open letter by Roach himself. If you know of more information worth sharing, please do so in the comments of this post.

Keep in mind this is a developing story and no doubt, as some of the bloggers we list point out, the circumstances surrounding the event are not entirely clear. A lot of questions remain to be answered and we can expect more reports in the coming days.

"Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona" by Matthew Remski (Elephant Journal)
"Rebuttal: Psychosis, Stabbing, Secrecy & Death at a Neo-Buddhist University in Arizona" by John Stillwell (Elephant Journal)
"Death in the Desert in an American Buddhist Cult" by Justin Whitaker (American Buddhist Perspective)
Statement by Lama Christie’s attendant
Open Letter by Michael Roach
Statement from Christie McNally
"Sad News From Arizona" by Barbara O’Brien (

Background on Michael Roach and Christie McNally’s spiritual relationship:
"Making Their Own Limits in a Spiritual Partnership" by Leslie Kaufman (New York Times)


Image: By Connie Hansen, from Christie McNally and Ian Thorson's book Two as One: A Journey to Yoga.

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dharmonia's picture

I cannot help but think that some of the psychological problems manifesting here could be the long-term result of a young and impressionable Vajrayana student being identified by her Lama, who by the way is also her partner, as an emanation of Vajrayogini. I have for many years been a great admirer of Geshe Michael's books, and once in the late 1990's attended a very inspiring lecture by him. However, even when I first read about his relationship with Ms McNally, I wondered what effect it might have on her to be identified this way, and to be given what was in effect a rather staggering amount of spiritual responsibility, especially when coupled with the very complicated situation of being partnered with a man whom she identified as her Lama. My heart goes out to her; she has a difficult and complicated path before her.

Sareen's picture

Wow, what a mess. The problems started from the beginning of her relationship with her teacher. Her teacher did not recognize the imbalance in power between him and his student. Teachers have a responsibility, as do others in positions of power, to keep their students free of confusion by having the same standards as others we trust in our society(psychologists, physicians) when we are dealing with highly personal and sensitive parts of ourselves. How many more disasters do we need for buddhist teachers to awaken to the harm they cause by seeking intimate relationships with their students.

There is an excellent article in Buddhadharma magazine this month with clear recommendations on how a buddhist community can set up structures to protect themselves from devolving into this kind of confusion. One of the most powerful recommendations was that it should be standard for people outside of the organizational structure to be consulted when the actions of the teachers are brought into question. It is impossible for people who continue to be involved in the spiritual community to act with clarity and integrity when they are under the continuing influence of the teacher who's conduct is under review.

jrpetti's picture

I would agree that she has significant psychopathology. Moreover, no reputable martial arts "master"/instructor would ever let a beginning student train, or suggest training, with live blades, ever. So, in addition to her other more primal problems, Lama Christie also has extremely poor judgement.

cortnie1's picture

Yes, chilling and broadly disturbing and dangerous projections, I think. No looking within; she is above the law, and others are simply wrong:
"No, you don’t need to call the sheriff, just sit down and think about what I was trying to show you."

christinajohnson8's picture

Simply reading Lama Christie's statement, my visceral reaction is one of fear.
She clearly needs psychological help, teacher or no.
"So that is our little knife story"... chilling.