Michael Roach

An American Buddhist monk known for his unconventional journey through spirituality and business, and his role in a controversial retreat.

Michael Roach is an American figure whose life and teachings have drawn considerable attention, both for his unique blend of Buddhism with business principles and for the controversy surrounding the retreat he led, which has been described by some as a cult. Born in 1952, Roach’s early life was marked by academic excellence, receiving recognition from President Nixon and attending Princeton University on a Presidential scholarship. Initially planning to study religion and become an Episcopalian minister, Roach’s path took a dramatic turn after he was introduced to Buddhism, which captivated him due to its approach to personal relationships and the concept of impermanence.

Roach’s pursuit of Buddhist studies took him to India, where he worked at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, deeply committing to spiritual development over worldly success. Upon his return to the United States, he completed his degree at Princeton, following the advice of the Dalai Lama. His dedication to Buddhism led him to study under Khen Rinpoche Geshe Lobsang Tharchin, a respected teacher in the Gelugpa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, at a monastery in New Jersey. Roach’s commitment to his studies was profound; he embarked on a 16-year course to become a Geshe, a title denoting a high degree of learning in Tibetan Buddhism, and became distinguished for his participation in the traditional Winter Debate, a rare honor for Westerners​​.

In addition to his religious pursuits, Roach also ventured into the business world, notably within the diamond industry, where he worked to build a company from a staff of two to eight hundred. He did not initially reveal his monastic status to his colleagues, believing that exposure to “ordinary” life enriched his understanding and translation skills of Buddhist texts. Roach’s business success funded his spiritual projects and allowed him to make significant contributions to the spread of Buddhism in the West. He utilized his business experiences to enhance his teachings, emphasizing mutual profit and ethical conduct in all dealings​​.

Roach’s teachings and practices eventually evolved into something unique, drawing from a wide range of influences including Christianity, Hindu tantra, and martial arts, among others. This syncretic approach to Buddhism, combined with his charisma and the depth of his knowledge, attracted a significant following. However, his methods and the community he established, particularly around the retreat at Diamond Mountain, have been subject to criticism and controversy. Professor Robert Thurman described Roach’s group as having become somewhat of a cult, noting that while there is much to learn from Roach, there may also be aspects that lack structure and a grounding in traditional Tibetan Buddhism​​.

The controversies surrounding Roach, particularly the tragic death of a follower in the Arizona desert, have led to increased scrutiny and debate about the nature of his teachings and the practices at Diamond Mountain. Despite this, Roach remains a significant figure in American Buddhism, emblematic of the complex interplay between traditional religious practice, modern life, and the challenges of spiritual leadership in a contemporary context​​.

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