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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Living Together

May 16, 2008

Making Their Own Limits in a Spiritual Partnership
By Leslie Kaufman
The New York Times
May 15, 2008

Bowie, Ariz. -- TEN years ago, Michael Roach and Christie McNally,
Buddhist teachers with a growing following in the United States and
abroad, took vows never to separate, night or day.

By "never part," they did not mean only their hearts or spirits. They
meant their bodies as well. And they gave themselves a range of about 15 feet.

If they cannot be seated near each other on a plane, they do not get
on. When she uses an airport restroom, he stands outside the door.
And when they are here at home in their yurt in the Arizona desert,
which has neither running water nor electricity, and he is inspired
by an idea in the middle of the night, she rises from their bed and
follows him to their office 100 yards down the road, so he can work.

Their partnership, they say, is celibate. It is, as they describe it,
a high level of Buddhist practice that involves confronting their own
imperfections and thereby learning to better serve the world.

"It forces you to deal with your own emotions so you can't say, 'I'll
take a break,' -- said Mr. Roach, 55, who trained in the same Tibetan
Buddhist tradition as the Dalai Lama. After becoming a monk in 1983,
he trained on-and-off in a Buddhist monastery for 20 years, and is
one of a handful of Westerners who has earned the title of geshe, the
rough equivalent of a religious doctorate. "You are in each other's
faces 24 hours a day," he said. "You must deal with your anger or
your jealousy."

Ms. McNally said, "From a Buddhist perspective, it purifies your own
mind." Ms. McNally is 35 and uses the title of Lama, or teacher, an
honor not traditionally bestowed on women by the Tibetan orders.

Their exacting commitment to this ideal of spiritual partnership has
been an inspiration to many. In China and Israel, and in the United
States, where they are often surrounded by devotees, their lectures
on how laypeople can build spiritual partnerships are often packed
with people seeking mates or ways to deepen their marriages. They
hope their recently published book, "The Eastern Path to Heaven,"
will appeal to Christians and broaden their American audience.

But their practice -- which even they admit is radical by the
standards of the religious community whose ideas they aim to further
-- has sent shock waves through the Tibetan Buddhist community as far
as the Dalai Lama himself, whose office indicated its disapproval of
the living arrangement by rebuffing Mr. Roach's attempt to teach at
Dharamsala, India, in 2006. (In a letter, the office said his
"unconventional behavior does not accord with His Holiness's
teachings and practices.")

"There is a tremendous amount of opprobrium by the Tibetan monks;
they think they have gone wacky," said Robert Thurman, a professor of
Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at Columbia University.

Professor Thurman, a former monk himself, describes himself as a
friend and admirer of Mr. Roach, and said that after the geshe made
his relationship with Ms. McNally public in 2003, he begged him to
renounce his monastic vows and to stop wearing the robes that mark
him as a member of a monastic order. Mr. Roach declined, and the two
have not spoken since.

"He is doing this partnership thing and insisting on being a monk,"
Professor Thurman said. "It is superhuman. He says he is staying
celibate, but people find it hard to believe."

The yurt in which Mr. Roach and Ms. McNally live when they are not
traveling the world (which is often about half the year) sits in the
high desert some 100 miles east of Tucson, on a platform overlooking
a rift in the cactus-speckled hills. For 100 acres around, the land
is the property of Diamond Mountain University, an unaccredited
school that Mr. Roach founded with Ms. McNally in 2004 to teach
Buddhist principles and translation skills.

Although devoid of modern conveniences, the yurt they live in, which
is 22 feet in diameter, feels almost luxurious compared with the
spare, desiccated landscape around it. On one side of the tent is
their double bed, and beside it a commode elegantly disguised as a
wood side table. The floor is covered with carpets. A few carved
wooden chests hold clothes and pillows.

Light streams in from a hole at the center of the tent's roof,
illuminating its poles, which were imported from Mongolia. The
closeness to nature means that the indoor temperature is essentially
the ambient one — beyond baking in the summer and freezing in the
winter. (Their one attempt to battle the elements is a wood-burning stove.)

The couple did a three-year silent retreat in this yurt from 2000 to
2003, while their relationship was a secret to all but the few people
who brought them food. Soon afterward, Mr. Roach determined it should
be public, even if it flew in the face of two millenniums of Tibetan
Buddhist tradition.

He acted for two reasons, he said. One, he felt that it was
impossible to keep secrets in this age of Google Earth. Two, he
decided that if Buddhism was really going to succeed in America, it
would have to be more inclusive of women.

"If these ideas that will help people are going to make it in the
West," Ms. McNally said, "it can't be a male-dominated culture,
because people are not going to accept that."

Ms. McNally's path from student to co-teacher and constant partner
has been a hard one, they both say. When she met Mr. Roach in 1996,
two years out of New York University, where she majored in
literature, he was a learned Buddhist. Two decades her senior, he was
a Princeton graduate who in his years studying for the geshe degree
also built a personal fortune by helping to grow Andin International,
a designer, manufacturer and distributor of fine jewelry, from a
start-up to a $100 million-a-year business.

She went to a seminar he was teaching in New York, where he lived at
the time. She was just back from India, where she had studied
meditation. It was not long before they fell in love, although they
do not describe it that way. They say they began to see each other as angels.

In front of others, she was his acolyte. Otherwise, she was studying
the principles of karma and emptiness so that she could eventually
teach with him. In private, however, she said, they lived together
and he bent over backward to listen to her and to defer to her wisdom.

Over time the two grew toward each other, according to friends -- he
even visibly. He let his hair grow long like hers and became taut and
lean in a way he was not before.

But Anne Lindsey, a teacher at Diamond Mountain who now goes by the
Buddhist nun's name Chukyi and has known the couple almost from the
start (she was one of those who brought them their food), said Ms.
McNally had changed even more. "She has totally transformed," she
said. "For him it was a difference in appearance. For her, she was
giggly, she was shy. She never talked. She only focused on Geshe
Michael. Now she is this powerhouse of a teacher."

There have been serious sacrifices, of course. When she agreed to
join his life, two years before the spiritual partner vows, she
accepted the rigors of his training, including, at the tender age of
24, celibacy. (He had been celibate, he says, since age 22 when he
became a candidate for monkhood.) Even though she now considers
sexual touching a "low practice," she said, she still clearly
remembers the July day when she gave it up.

But if they have renounced sex, they have replaced it with a level of
communion that few other people could understand, much less tolerate.

They eat the same foods from the same plate and often read the same
book, waiting until one or the other finishes the page before
continuing. Both, they say, are practices of learning to submit one's
will to that of another.

They also do yoga together, breath for breath. "We are always
inhaling at the same moment and we are always exhaling at the same
moment," Ms. McNally said. "It is very intimate, but it is not the
kind of intimacy people are used to."

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."

This insistence that they share both purity and intimacy drives
traditionalists to distraction. Buddhism has many different branches,
most of which allow partners, spiritual or otherwise, in some form —
but not for monks. Experts say the lineage of Mr. Roach's branch of
Buddhism clearly demands that you renounce monastic vows to have a
partner. And many teachers have done just that.

There are very rare instances in the Indo-Buddhist tradition of an
individual's being considered holy enough for a chaste spiritual
partnership, said Lama Surya Das, an American Buddhist who studied in
Tibet and wrote "Awakening the Buddha Within," published in 1997. But
Mr. Roach, Lama Surya Das said, has not convinced colleagues that he
has reached that level.

"He is a good guy and learned person, but the Bill Clinton question
lingers over him," he said of Mr. Roach. "He is with a much younger
blond bombshell. What is a deep relationship that is not sexual? It
is hard to understand."

Mr. Roach and Ms. McNally, however, see their actions as in line with
those of a wave of reformers, including the current Dalai Lama, who
are taking an ancient, largely monastic and male-dominated tradition
and modernizing it to make it more accessible to laypeople and the West.

They understand that their practice is far too extreme for most
couples, but they make a point, they say, of doing mainstream things,
too. They go to the movies, for example. They tend to like films with
visions of alternative realities, like "The Matrix" (her) and "The
Truman Show" (him).

They also talk about how they continue to struggle with each other's
wills. It is not an easy practice, even now. But they believe that
the basic principles of karma and emptiness at the heart of Buddhism
can improve any relationship.

"We are not saying people should live in a tent or 15 feet away from
each other," Mr. Roach said. "What we are teaching is that there is a
direct karmic relationship between every incidence of anger you have
in the day and how you see your partner.

"If you are consciously patient with people during the day, you will
see more beauty."
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