Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco

Michael Roach and Christie McNally, before they blew up, were trying to make Buddhist tantra work in 21st century America. I think that is terribly important for Buddhism, and for America.

Their blow-up is one of several current Buddhist scandals. If you’ve missed the story so far, Roach is a former Tibetan monk who taught increasingly “unconventionally,” and eventually led what has been described as a “dysfunctional” “cult.” He secretly married his student Christie McNally, then dumped her, but left her in charge of a three-year “tantric” retreat in the Arizona desert. After various goings-on, she was ejected from the retreat with another student, who died of dehydration in a meditation cave a couple months later.

The mainstream media—Rolling Stone and the New York Times for instance—found the death angle, together with Roach and McNally’s seemingly strange ideas and behaviors, sufficiently spectacular to run long articles. They have concentrated on the guru/cult/scandal aspects of Roach’s and McNally’s mistakes. Those are interesting and important, but here I’ll ignore them. They’ve been covered extensively elsewhere, and this case seems fairly typical of the pattern.

Instead, I’ll discuss the religious content of their practice. I suspect I understand what they were groping for—and failed at—better than they did. (Or, I may be confused.)

There’s enough to say that I’ve separated it into two posts. This one is a bit abstract. The next has the entertaining sex and violence in it.

Tantra, sutra, self, and shadow

Buddhist tantra defines itself by contrast with “sutra,” or non-tantric Buddhism. One way of putting the fundamental difference is that sutra leads to emptiness, whereas tantra leads from emptiness toward wholeness. Because they point in nearly opposite directions, the concepts and practices of tantra and sutra drastically diverge.

“Emptiness” is closely connected with anatman—“not-self.” Practices of sutra dissolve your identity. You see that you are not your body, not your thoughts, not your memories, not your feelings, not your social role, and so on. Especially, you reject “negative” emotions, and dis-identify with them. Eventually, you see that you are nothing at all.

Tantra does nearly the opposite. It rejects nothing. Tantric practice allows you to incorporate everything in your experience as “me,” while de-fanging their negative effects. I’ve called this “eating the shadow”—a phrase I borrowed from Jungians.

“The shadow” is everything you think of as definitely not me because it isn’t nice. (Greed, lust, and anger are common examples.) But they are you, and coming to terms with that is an important phase in spiritual and psychological development. It is only when you fully understand your own monstrosity, accepting it as a fact, that you can avoid ever expressing it harmfully.

“Eating the shadow” ends the dualistic illusion that reality can be divided into light and dark, or unambiguous good and evil.


Michael Roach was trained as a Geluk monk. This is important in my understanding of how he went wrong.

The Geluk have been the ruling party in Tibet for the past 350 years. Their distinctive approach is the subordination of tantra to sutra. With that, they subordinate lay people (natural tantrikas) to monks (natural sutra practitioners). The Geluks permit only monks to practice tantra, only a few of them, and only as far as it can be made consistent with sutra. Since their central principles and aims are quite different, that seems not very far.

Geluk tantra does seem to work for some people. Lama Thubten Yeshe is an example; I often recommend his book as an introduction to tantra. I don’t really understand how it works. Geluk tantra makes no sense to me; but I haven’t seriously studied it, nor practiced it at all.

As a perhaps-bigoted outsider, it seems to me that it often doesn’t work very well. The Geluk seem to have a huge institutional shadow. Their unusually heavy emphasis on holiness and purity (the light side) lets them ignore their own dark side—a blood-thirsty history of treachery, pogroms, torture, assassination, and civil war.

Tantra is not nice, and its not-niceness is also part of the Geluk shadow. Their denial of this undeniable fact leads—it seems to me—to trouble.

Did Roach have any tantric Buddhist training?

As far as I can tell, conservative Geluks have exerted huge political pressure to deny access to effective tantra to Westerners. (Tibetan politics is all cloak-and-dagger, so it’s difficult to get details.) Whether their motivations for that were good, bad, or both, they have been successful. Buddhist tantra is now almost completely unavailable.

Nothing in what I have read of Roach’s public autobiography suggests he ever received any practical instructions on Buddhist tantra. Mostly he describes his intensive academic study of sutra. He also says he received tantric empowerments; but nowadays those are usually empty rituals available to anyone, and are useless without extensive personal explanation.

[Update: See the comment from Nicole below for good evidence that he did have some tantric training. Other knowledgeable people have contacted me privately to say the same. I believe them, but find it puzzling; it seems to me he taught as though he was untrained.]

McNally, from what I have read, had minimal teaching on any Buddhist subject, from anyone other than Roach.

Hindu tantra and eternalism

Tantra is the Buddhism many Westerners need. Distressingly, many Western Buddhists have borrowed bits of Hindu tantra, since Buddhist tantra has been put out of reach. This has been a disaster, I think; worse than any likely misuse of Buddhist tantra.

Roach and McNally studied with Hindu teachers after he ended his Buddhist training, and incorporated lots of that into their teaching. Apparently they tried to meld some practical knowledge of Hindu tantra with theoretical knowledge of Buddhist tantra—based on reading texts, rather than the oral explanations that are absolutely necessary to make any sense of it.

Using Hindu tantra in a Buddhist context can only produce—at best—Hindu results. It’s not that Hinduism is bad, but that it points in an entirely different direction. Hindu and Buddhist tantra share some technical aspects, but their aims and principles are alien to each other.

Hinduism—like Christianity, which Roach and McNally also borrowed from—is “eternalistic.” In eternalist systems, a metaphysical Absolute (or God) gives every little thing a meaning. This is profoundly incompatible with Buddhism.

An eternalist interpretation of karma (more Hindu than Buddhist) is Roach’s central teaching. In McNally’s version of tantra everything that happens is the work of “angels,” and part of the divine reality of “a world of pure magic.” This is factually wrong—the world doesn’t work that way—and contrary to Buddhist tantra.

Buddhist tantra is easy to misunderstand as magical eternalism. (The Dzogchen Semdé texts explain how to avoid that.) Therefore, it is especially important to avoid mixing in other, overtly eternalist religions.

Making it up as you go along

Roach and McNally were, obviously, working things out as they went along. This is what I find most interesting about them. They were, I think, groping partly in directions Western Buddhist tantra should take. (My next post is about that.) But they got lots of it wrong.

The conservative response is that they should never have deviated from Tibetan orthodoxy. The problems all came from their making up their own teachings. I think that’s basically right.

On the other hand, Western Buddhism does badly need Buddhist tantra. And, the dominant Tibetan forms do not seem a good fit. Some adaptation is absolutely necessary.

To function as Buddhist tantra, new forms have to follow the same essential principles as existing ones, changing only the outer manifestations. To create new forms, you need to understand and embody the underlying Buddhist logic. It’s unlikely that anyone can do that without having mastered a traditional form.

If Roach and McNally wanted to teach Buddhist tantra, they should have learned it first. They wouldn’t have gotten that from the Geluks. They would have had to drop back to student status, and switched to a more liberal Tibetan sect.

The moral

I worry that the moral drawn from the Roach/McNally fiasco will be: “This proves again that white people shouldn’t be allowed to practice real tantra. Invariably when they do, we get another sex, power, and money scandal.”

But, as far as I can tell, Roach and McNally weren’t “allowed” to practice tantra—they just did it. Meanwhile, there are thousands of white people who are authorized, and do practice tantra, without big problems. We don’t end up in Rolling Stone exposés, however.

Prohibition doesn’t work—not in America.

A moral I’d rather draw is “If you try to ban Buddhist tantra, Americans will invent harmful substitutes. Better to make the real thing available, with suitable safeguards.”