Comments on “Getting tantra wrong: The Roach/McNally fiasco”

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AtaraxJim 2013-07-06

He’s back! I’ve missed your articles, David (he says without a shred of accusation, his own blog having gone fabulously by the wayside).

(0v0) 2013-07-06

Thank you for writing, David. I learn a great deal from your work; and each new post is a delight to read and re-read.

Greg 2013-07-06

I’m sure Roach received a lot of personal instruction in Buddhist tantra - he lived in close proximity to his principal vajra master in New Jersey for decades. Traditionally a Gelukpa would not publish his vajrayana resume - that is part of their conservatism. Perhaps he was conventional in that if nothing else. Roach seems to have kept most of his eccentricities private until KRLT died in 2004 and he no longer had to worry about public censure from him.

Also, for what its worth she seems to be the one who dumped him - for Thorson.

David Chapman 2013-07-06

AtaraxJim & (ovo) — Thank you very much indeed for the kind words!

Greg — The fact that he lived with a lama doesn’t mean he got any tantric instruction. Lots of lamas don’t teach tantra, especially not to white people. Especially not Geluk lamas. Geluk protocol might indeed prohibit detailing your tantric training—but his autobiography was written last year, by which time he’d pretty much burned all his bridges with the Geluk school. Probably we can’t know for sure—unless you have specific information?

I’ve read a bunch of accounts of their split. I agree that “he dumped her” over-simplifies, but I think it’s probably more accurate than “she dumped him.” Such things are complicated. In my next post, I speculate about their relationship, which is perhaps irresponsible—but relevant.

Greg 2013-07-06

The lamas who don’t teach tantra don’t generally give out highest yoga tantra empowerments out as freely as his root teacher did. There is nothing conservative about giving out the wang without and then refusing to give anyone the tri.

David Chapman 2013-07-06

Ah, interesting. If he did have Buddhist tantric training, I find it anomalous that he taught “tantra” that looked not only different, but like it was made up by an amateur who hadn’t had it. That is, his stuff looks ignorant, rather than eccentric. But, I don’t know much about it!

Nicole 2013-07-07

Michael Roach seemed to have had training in both the yamantaka and vajra yogini sadhanas – because he gave detailed commentary about them to his students. I was a student of his student and received instruction on each of those sadhanas in great detail. I know he also had photographs of KRLT in full tsechu regalia, so it seems to me that Roach participated in rituals with the tantric geluks

David Chapman 2013-07-07

Hi Nicole— Thank you very much for that! It probably answers the question… so I’ve added a link to your comment from the main body of the post.

It raises other, very interesting questions, about the nature of tantric practice. I was planning to write about them in detail, a year ago, before realizing it was more work than I could take time for.

The questions are about how tantra works—in the sense of how does it transform the kleshas and change your relationship with samsara—about whether it works—and how (and why) it was repeatedly reinvented over the past thousand years.

Condensing this extremely, Tibetan scholars have won out over Tibetan yogis politically, so textual analysis and recitation has largely replaced actual tantric practice. It’s common now for Westerners to have the supposed Big Secret revealed, and the Big Secret is “we read this text out loud together, and ring bells at designated times.” In fact, Rolling Stone quotes McNally saying exactly that:

Tantra is a word that gets imaginations rolling, but in reality it meant we would get together somewhere and go through some highly secret Tibetan text.

The “training” might consist of little more than elucidation of the syntactic difficulties of the archaic text, with maybe some general, abstract, sanitized tantric theory. I’m not saying that’s all Roach got, because I have no idea, but it’s consistent with what I’ve seen from some other Tibetan teachers.

In my opinion, this “tantric practice” is like people who have never seen a computer, and have no idea what they are for, reading the user’s manual out loud in unison, expecting a miracle, not realizing that you have to plug it in and turn it on, and then things appear on the screen.

This substitution of text for practice was originally deceptive, I think—a way of hiding tantra in plain view—but nowadays I suspect a lot of Tibetan teachers are in the dark themselves, and have no idea that chanting a text is not the practice itself. Tibetans are willing to take all sorts of absurd things on faith.

Westerners, fortunately, are more likely to balk, and a lot of Westerners who have had that sort of teaching think “this can’t be right.” Some then ask awkward questions and some eventually get the real thing.

Ultimately, you partly have to figure it out yourself. How does Vajrayogini sadhana change your psychology and perception and way of being in the real world? Your lama can say a lot about that, as you do it, if they’ve accomplished the practice. However, their psychology and life and world are not the same as yours in all details, so there’s a lot of highly personal work to do. This is particularly true when your lama comes from a different culture.

In my next post, I try to reconstruct Roach and McNally’s personal process of that (which has to be speculative). My impression is that they had little useful practice instruction and no actual guidance. They had realized that text chanting is not actual tantric practice, and were trying to figure out what the actual practice is, based on reading and experimentation. Quite possibly, they made significant progress—but they clearly got some things very wrong.

Nicole 2013-07-07

In my opinion, Roach and McNally did both the rituals and recitations AND tried to live tantric practice. They way they taught tantra seems to me to have included more of an emphasis on reading texts in the beginning… and then a grown emphasis on partying and using real and imagined pleasure and/or substances to trigger elevated mental states. The explanation for that was that the student had to prove, by doing boring recitations and having a lot of structure for years, that they were willing to make the personal sacrifice to grow and serve – basically prove that they weren’t selfishly in it for the partying – and then they would be given permission to do the more provocative types of “practice”, and be given instruction for those. The quote from McNally above I would guess is her giving the “low key” version of tantra to a reporter or something like that.

David Chapman 2013-07-07

Yes—thank you!—that’s my impression too. That’s what I find really interesting—that they were trying to figure out how to make Buddhist tantra work, as a lived practice, in contemporary America. (I hope that comes out clearly in my next post.)

Doing things the Tibetan way simply doesn’t work, because our circumstances are so different. So the work of adaption is really important, and they were presumably doing the best they could.

It seems to me, based on the descriptions of what they did, that they didn’t know much about how it works even in the Tibetan context. So they had to do a lot more invention than if they had learned the Tibetan version, and got a lot more wrong than they would have otherwise. They don’t seem to have understood the fundamental principles, except possibly as theoretical abstractions, because their adaptations weren’t consistent with the principles. That’s the challenge: how do you make those principles relevant and useful in current American life?

I think, by the way, that I detect the lineage of Rajneesh/Osho, who introduced Hindu Tantra to America in the 80s. The style of partying seems similar to what I know of, and have experienced in, that milieu.

There’s nothing wrong with partying—tsok is one of the two central Buddhist tantric practices, and it’s loosely speaking a party—but you have to understand its principle and function. I don’t see much sign that they did.

The fact that the Tibetans have mostly managed to turn tsok into a very long, boring, pointless and powerless ritual is relevant. That hides its actual function.

David Chapman 2013-07-07

Let me give a specific example…

The other central tantric ritual is called wang. That’s sometimes translated “initiation”, but that translation is seriously misleading. “Empowerment” is more literally correct, but potentially also misleading. Both suggest that the function of the ritual is to give the student permission to practice, and entry into a secret society. Those are functions, but they are strictly secondary.

The actual function of wang is to bring about an initial experience of being the deity. That initial experience makes subsequent experience, in personal practice, possible. It’s not primarily a matter of permission, it’s a matter of transmission.

McNally’s “Kali initiation” seems to have been a creative piece of theater based on this mis-translation. She knew there was supposed to be an “initiation” into the practice of a scary goddess, and came up with something similar to a college fraternity initiation hazing ritual—in which the person initiated experiences being frightened and powerless. That might function very well as an initiation. It doesn’t seem like it could have functioned at all as a wang. It would not transmit the experience of being Kali.

The wang for a wrathful Buddhist goddess can be plenty scary—but the whole point of it is to become that goddess. If you aren’t terrifyingly powerful during the ritual, it has failed for you.

Relatedly, a Buddhist scary goddess is also always enlightened in a Buddhist sense. That means she maintains continuous compassionate and empty awareness. (This is not true of Kali, I think.) The experience of being a wrathful Buddhist deity is not some sort of wild psychosis. I’m not saying McNally necessarily made that mistake, but it’s something her students might not have understood. It seems a likely danger.

Greg 2013-07-07

It sounds to me like most of the HIndu yoga stuff was incorporated more for the perceived marketing value than anything else - Roach just about says as much.

Bruce 2013-07-08

Without trying to offend anyone, I am curious whether the relatively widespread Diamond Way centers offer real tantra or finally we’ll tell you the secret, read along with the text tantra?
I’m here in New Zealand and my choices are limited. I did have a lovely time at the recent Aro retreat in the UK, and if I lived in the area would definitely try that on for size…

David Chapman 2013-07-08

Hi, Bruce,

I’m afraid I don’t know much about what the Diamond Way system teaches. From afar, the teachings are somewhat overshadowed by controversies concerning its leadership. If you google, you’ll find a ton of opinions about the controversies. Probably you can find out more about what they teach, as well.

Glad you enjoyed the Aro retreat! Pity we don’t have a teacher in your wonderful country. (I’ve visited twice and love it. Please give my best regards to the keas.)

Good luck,


Bruce 2013-07-08

Thanks for your thoughts David! The keas will be happy to eat whatever you like should you come visit again.

Bruce 2013-07-09

If you have nothing better to do with your time this article on the Diamond Way tries to be even handed and place the activities of the founder and group in the context of historical buddhist shenanigans

David Chapman 2013-07-09

Thanks, Bruce, that’s an excellent article! I’m not sure it’s super helpful in terms of telling you what they teach, but the meta-level commentary on Tibetan politics and Tibetological politics was great. Especially “The neglect of Modern Tibetan Buddhist movements by classically trained Tibetologists is deplorable”—that is so true!

It sounds like their major tantric practices (after ngöndro) are a 16th Karmapa Guru Yoga and phowa. Neither of those are appealing to me, but this is very much a matter of personal taste.

Michael Dorfman 2013-08-13

An excellent analysis, David, both here and in the follow-up.

I just want to add that Roach’s earlier, non-tantric teachings are also quite idiosyncratic, and definitely diverge from Gelug orthodoxy on some key points. Comparing his reports of his training to others who took the traditional Geshe education (like Dreyfus, for example), I suppose it shouldn’t be altogether surprising to that Roach may be lacking adequate grounding.

David Chapman 2013-08-13

Thanks, Michael! I’ve heard privately from others, similarly, that he went off the rails early on, long before it could be widely noticeable.

If so, my analysis is actually pretty much wrong. At least, his case doesn’t support my idea that lack of availability of tantric training is a cause of eccentric distortions. Oh well…

Michael Dorfman 2013-08-13

Actually, I think your analysis is pretty much correct– he was always a bit of a loose cannon, but I think the lack of available tantric training both (a) led to his particular eccentric (later) distortions, and (b) gave him a hungry (and often clueless) audience.

David Chapman 2013-08-13

Oh, I hadn’t thought about the audience point! That’s a good insight. There is a lot of pent-up demand for Buddhist tantra, I think.

Jimmy Page 2013-09-05

Love Aro, love the articles, hate this article. It’s so off base. The idea that in the Gelug tradition only (mostly) Monks practice tantra is so far off. David– write about things you know about please and your personal experience.

David Chapman 2013-09-06

Hmm, I thought that was an uncontroversial fact. Maybe I was wrong! Can you say more?

Jimmy Page 2013-09-06

Hi David:

I want to emphasize again that the idea that in the Gelug tradition (at least in the west), there aren’t many people practicing tantra is very false. Please appreciate that:

1) I already did Vajrasattva mantras (with regret but not guilt) from my first posting– I try not to post anything negative on the internet anywhere because I think there is too much of that– especially anonymously. I broke that rule above. I do love your posts generally and Aro generally and I devour particularly the books by Ngakpa Chögyam– I know i’m not unique in that regard– just much respect and love there.
2) Anything that I’m going to say naming myself who is a Gelug– absolutely I’m Rime (these are just labels you know), others, or Gelug organizations where people are practicing tantra is going to make me (rightly so) a tool– it doesn’t feel right to do that. The wonderful Venerable master Chogyam Trungpa who I love was huge in bringing dharma to the West. Lama Yeshe who you referenced (and I love) was huge in bringing Dharma to the west. Lama Yeshe, like Trungpa, founded an organization that is alive and well and exists all around the world with students who are involved in a strong and powerful lineage where tantra is practiced. Of course there are politics and a history and fighting and all that stuff in Buddhism– but throwing all of that out (I absolutely won’t go there), there are and have been “crazy wisdom” masters in the Gelug tradition, I believe they exist today (again this is already too much blah blah– this is my experience), and absolutely 100% there are tantric masters in the Gelug tradition who are teaching students actively in an active lineage. For those lucky enough to find a suitable Guru there are also very customized Ngondros in the Gelug tradition that are crafted for students according to their needs by their vajra master(s)– as well as the “traditional Gelug Ngongdro stuff” for Gelug’s you could find using google. There is room for the householder in the Gelug tradition– it is alive and well– but again I’m coming from a very Rime point of view and who I know– very limited. There are people in the Gelug tradition who know very strongly that Buddhism isn’t always about being a “good little boy or girl” as Ven. Trungpa might have said– we want to reach our human potential for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is all inclusive. Chod (not to be confused with Trek-Chod) is alive and well in the Gelug tradition– in the organization that Lama Yeshe founded. Lama himself before he manifested passing left us with his own chanting: .
The shadow is alive and well to be discovered for all demons to eat who might benefit.
3) I think I need to do more Vajrasattva mantras, I think I need to go do more practice. This is too much talk– I basically want to say I appreciate your openness, the site, and your openness to hear more. Love to you (and all) and best success. Let the 15 minutes of brain power and energy it took me to write this note be a call for me to shut up and practice.

Much love

OMkara 2013-09-07

HI David! I’ve just recently found your blog so am going through the contents.

Generally, Westerners do not have the samskaras it takes to take seriously to an Eastern traditional practice in a deep way consistently over a lifetime. Their dabbling into Buddhism and Hinduism in this life is making samskaras for their next, when they will be able to go deeper. Lucky for us these traditions are user friendly and don’t expect us to “get it” in just one lifetime, what to speak of within the first lifetime we get introduced to them.

The humility that it takes to submit to a genuine guru and follow meticulously the sadhana that she or he gives one, without trying to return to the West and make disciples (and money) of one’s own from the new age crowd of pop spiritualists is generally just not found within many Westerners.

Westerners also don’t do sufficient research into the protocols of genuine guru-ship and thus find themselves getting “cheated” by fake so called “gurus”.

That is why a firm foundation in an authentic lineage, as well as study and familiarity with not only the languages that their lineage’s texts are written in, but as well cultures from which they sprang is necessary.

Most Westerners just go that deep. But, even if they dabble a bit in this life, they will take off from a better position in the next. Gradually over time and lifetimes, samskaras for serious practice are built.

In the meantime I just don’t take very many of them seriously.

OMkara 2013-09-07

“There’s nothing wrong with partying—tsok is one of the two central Buddhist tantric practices, and it’s loosely speaking a party—but you have to understand its principle and function. I don’t see much sign that they did.”

Partying has no meaning when you are born and raised in a culture of partiers. Osho was impressed with the West’s sexual revolution because he grew up in sexually conservative India where the majority of marriages are arranged even today. So partying might help his grandparents defy their cultural conditionings and loosen up a bit. It has no such purpose for general Western folk, particularly the porn generation who is growing up now.

Westerners need more discipline, not less. I mean, what’s the divorce rate now? Do people other than gays even want to get married?

Eating animal flesh means nothing in the West but to someone who grew up a strict vegetarian, that too eating only food cooked by one’s own hand, the hand of a family member or a person of a specific caste, well breaking those food taboos might actually help them “break on through to the other side” of consciousness.

For a Western who grew up on Mickey D’s? Meh. What will help that person break on through to the other side is to adopt a strict eating regimen.

David Chapman 2013-09-07

@ Jimmy Page — Thank you for that! Very interesting indeed. Thanks for the correction! Glad to hear all this.

Jerry kelly 2013-09-22

Checking the Internet on the case on and off as we live next to the self absorbed bear killing crazy bastards and saw your post...... buddy.....Ian was a real person and your ignoring “the death thing” is pretty sickening.He was a good guy who could have been saved if the fucking leadership would have called all the retreaters out of their little luxury cabanas( filled with ups delivered goodies) and hiked up to him via the valley route or better yet done it in the days before…some of the ” holy Beings” knew they were up there and not doing to good. Only blind luck has kept more people from being killed up there…by fire,by suicide,by internal assault,by narcos after the retreaters built a trail used by cartel. thanks to this bullshit trail our neighbor Karen Gonzalez was bashed in the head and left for death on a park restroom floor 15 miles to the south after the smugglers were cut off on the way to Apache pass via the Kara trail built by the Retreat For Peace idiots.....real people real pain.....

Aminor Amajor 2014-06-19

Calling oneself a Buddhist cannot go further than having a name
by believing one is a Buddhist is fine but still go to follow the Buddha's teaching (Dhamma).

There are different kinds of Buddhists -
Those who call themselves Buddhists but don't know the Buddha who established the Dhamma (Buddhism) - they are those who neither know the Buddha nor follow His teaching (Dhamma).
Those who know the Buddha but don't follow the Dhamma.
Those who don't know the Dhamma but follow the Dhamma - by instinct, by conscience.
Those who know the Buddha and His Dhamma and follow the Dhamma.

soczip2 2014-10-22

I too considered the mishap with Michael Roach and Christie McNally, though not as deeply as you did. Obviously you have analyzed it from several angles. Proper Buddhist tantra is really not shared with lay persons, only a skeleton of the real thing is made available. And that which is abundantly disseminated under the cloak of “Tantra” is a huge array of shallow “empowerments”. And yes, Tantric concept is quite free (unbiased) and controversial compared to usual social concepts, that are stagnant. But when it is in the hands of monks, who are under 20 oaths themselves, how can it retain it’s original freedom?

Steve Alexander 2016-02-18
In my opinion, this “tantric practice” is like people who have never seen a computer, and have no idea what they are for, reading the user’s manual out loud in unison, expecting a miracle, not realizing that you have to plug it in and turn it on, and then things appear on the screen.

Reminds me of the cult of Leibowitz.

David Chapman 2016-02-18

Yes… The draft of the “history of Tantra” section of the outline has an extensive development of this sort of scenario, with the Tantras as lost, awesome technologies originally given by visiting aliens from planet India. They are rediscovered by a plucky band of rebels who wield them through history in resistance to the First Evil Empire of theocratic monastic hierarchy and the Second Evil Empire of Puritan Consensus American Buddhism.

The history section was going to be long, dull, and depressing. In the end, even light saber duels and spaceship dogfights couldn’t rescue it, so I dropped it.

zan 2017-04-20

tantra is not the opposite of sutra.

it is an elucidation of it.

emptiness is form. nothing more, nothing less.

Ringing true

Michael 2021-04-15

This all makes a lot of sense to me. I was ‘trained’ in the NKT, was on the Teacher Training Program, I was an ordained monk, and given supposed Highest Yoga Tantra initiations. There were 2 days of preliminaries with my Root Guru, a 2 day Initiation into Vajrayogini practice and another day of Initiation into Heruka practice. A lot of it felt like magical acts, with substances and blindfolds and the link, and a divination stick falling a particular way to fix some kind of direction for the practice (I can’t now remember what it indicated).

Then… we were permitted to practice the sadhana alone (in the case of Heruka) or in groups (recommended for Vajrayogini). There was a week of teachings in all and, as far as I could see, if you could find out about it and buy a ticket that was enough for entry.

Then… you’re on your own, unless you live in a dharma centre with people practicing every day and even then people would practice alone, or not show up, and the teacher was hardly ever there leading from the throne - a picture of the root guru sat on the throne instead.

We were then led to assume that the resident teacher was doing it religiously every day, upstairs in the private quarters, while we continued to muddle through as a group, playing the CD to keep us all on the same page, and barking at the text in unison. I didn’t get much more than that.

Oh… and my ordained (supposedly celibate) teacher was secretly shagging her ordained (supposedly celibate) teacher while all the while saying ‘we don’t do that, that’s a misunderstanding of tantra’

It was messy, thin, and empty recitations of the manual rather than the real ‘plugging in and having a go’ you describe.

Messy, thin, and empty recitations

David Chapman 2021-04-15

Really sorry to hear about that. Too typical I’m afraid…

I hope you’ve found something else that is more to your liking since leaving!

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