Geshe Michael Roach’s 16 feet

The first time I heard of Geshe Michael Roach was when a Buddhist acquaintance told me about a book called “The Diamond Cutter.” The book was on the theme of Right Livelihood and since I had just completed a masters degree in Buddhism and business and since books on that topic are thin on the ground I rushed out and bought a hardback copy. Only to be greatly disappointed.

I couldn’t help thinking that he was indulging in what Sangharakshita calls “spiritual triumphalism,” which is his term for the touting of material success as an indicator of spiritual attainment. Geshe Michael was keen to impress that it was his spiritual approach to business that had helped him create a multi-million dollar business, and that his material success was the proof of his spiritual acumen. Maybe so, but I was put off by the style.

But worse than that was the sheer confusion of his thinking. The point at which I was most exasperated was when he claimed that if you see the world as full of pollution and dirt this was — wait for it — because you have a dirty mind. If your mind wasn’t preoccupied with sexual thoughts then your world would change and there simply wouldn’t be any pollution. He meant this quite literally — not metaphorically.

“The wisdom of thousands of years of extraordinary thinkers on the other side of the world says that the very particular cause of filthy or foul-smelling environments is sexual monkey-business.” (p. 110)

It was this strange literalness that made me wonder if the Geshe had a screw loose, and I thought that this was one of the worst books on Buddhism I’d ever read. No. It was the worst.

An article today in the New York Times pushes my doubts to a new level. In “Buddhist Teachers Make Their Own Limits in a Spiritual Partnership” it’s revealed that Geshe Michael and Christie McNally, another teacher, have taken a vow never to be more than 15 feet apart from one another. This means that although they claim to be celibate they are in close proximity at all times. Maybe it can be done, but she’s pretty hot.

It’s hard not to have doubts about just how celibate they are. According to the article:

The couple also admit to a hands-on physical relationship that they describe as intense but chaste. Mr. Roach compares it to the relationship his mother had with her doctor when she was dying of breast cancer. “The surgeon lay his hand on her breast, but there wasn’t any carnal thought in his mind,” he said. “He was doing some life-or-death thing. For us it is the same.”

Call me cynical, but my response is “Who are you kidding?” Hand on breast? Life-or-death? No carnal thought?

The Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy is not impressed, and the Dalai Lama’s office has prevented Geshe Roach from teaching in Dharamsala, his holiness’ home in exile.

I must say that it would be an intense spiritual practice to live constantly within 15 feet of any other human being. Man, but I need my space! I’d go crazy. It would also be intense to be subjected (as I presume the Geshe and his partner are) to constant sexual tension. But I don’t think either of these practices would be very useful — not for me, anyway. Maybe the Geshe is made of different stuff?

I’d expected to see more Buddhist blog activity about this. Maybe it’s a defect on Google, but it’s only throwing up a couple of articles at present: Fiercecupcake gives a micro-mention to the story, and there are quite a few comments following that post, some of which take the viewpoint that this is revealing misogyny in the Buddhist world (oh, and it does exist!). Bookofjoe does little more than repost the entire Times article.

I’d expect more … interest?

Technorati brings up a post on the topic by Peter Stinson, who says he is “speechless.” Maybe other Buddhist bloggers are speechless as well.


3 Responses to “Geshe Michael Roach’s 16 feet”

  1. Danny Fisher says:

    “This means that although they claim to be celibate they are in close proximity at all times. Maybe it can be done, but she’s pretty hot.”

    Hilarious!

  2. Henry says:

    I read the NY Times article as well. The one thing that struck me – and this after living for too long of a time in the West Coast – is how many of these spiritual path business man there are. Actually, and this might sound cynical, but everyone I met like this was not that nice of a person – they had no heart or soul. This might sound trivial, but the poor and destitute that I’ve met (and I count myself as being relatively poor) had a better understanding of the universal proximity of all living – and inanimate – things. Sure, these people spoke about saving the environment, being vegetarians, etc., but never once did I get a warm feeling from any of them.

    Sadly, this is the way human culture is heading. It’s not enough for these holier-than-thou capitalist to live well, but they’re even want to take the spiritual and human dimensions away from the poor.

  3. bodhipaksa says:

    Hi Henry,

    It’s worth noting that Geshe Roach isn’t a businessman any more. In fact it’s quite remarkable that he started the business following the instructions of his teacher and then gave the whole thing up.

    I can’t comment at all on whether he’s a compassionate person because I’ve never met him. I don’t think I even know anyone who knows him!

    All the best,
    Bodhipaksa


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Published: May 15 2008

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