Blindfolded, he spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness.
This is the second installment in a series.
When he tells his own story, it runs something like this:
I attended Princeton University and received an honors degree in Religion in 1975. Prior to that I had received the Presidential Scholar Medal from the President of the United States at the White House. In 1973, while still at university, I received word from my home in Arizona that my mother was seriously ill with cancer.
I had been preparing for a career as a priest in the Episcopal ministry, and had already chosen Episcopal Theological School in Boston. But the news of my mother shook me deeply, and I requested a one-year sabbatical in order to go to India and seek some answers.
He went to India in search of medicine and eventually took his mother there to be treated by a famous Tibetan doctor, Yeshi Dhonden, who was also personal physician to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. While staying in the same home as the Dalai Lama, his doctor arranged a private meeting with His Holiness. They talked about his university studies and the Dalai Lama approved his plan to study with a lama living not far from Princeton, Khen Rinpoche.
I stayed for several months in Mussoorie, learned my first basic Tibetan words and ideas there. At this time I also began intensive studies in Indian classical music — sitar and tabla — with Shri Mubarak Masih, a master from the Persian tradition. I slept in a sleeping bag on the concrete floor of a small, unheated Christian church; and I remember spending my 21st birthday there alone on a particularly cold day, and hearing that poor people in the village had died from the cold during those weeks.
In the summer of 1975 I graduated from Princeton and on the same day moved to Khen Rinpoche’s residence at Rashi Gempil Ling. This is a small Buddhist monastery and temple located in a community of Mongolian-Americans in central New Jersey.
I lived here personally with Khen Rinpoche for 25 years, as his student and assistant. He was one of the last great geshes of old Tibet, having completed the hlarampa (this is the correct phonetic of this word, often misspelled) or highest rank of geshe, with angi dangpo — highest honors, a very rare achievement in Tibet which put him in the top ten or so of all geshes graduating that year from the tens of thousands of monks in the Gelukpa tradition of Tibet. He was a fierce debater and a very demanding taskmaster — and also incredibly loving and caring of all of us who had the honor of being his students.
After some years with Khen Rinpoche, and with a degree in religion from Princeton and conversational Tibetan and Sanskrit, Michael Roach went to India to take formal vows and be ordained at Sera Mey Tibetan Monastery.
The monks checked my level of study after the first 8 years with Rinpoche, and gave me some credit for my 16 years of western education (which actually did give me a solid foundation for my monastic education). For my first day on the debate ground, still in the suit, they placed me with the 12th-year class, debating Middle Way philosophy.
He soon found the lessons overwhelmed him.
I went back to my little monk’s room and gave it some hard thought, and the next day made a brave decision: I approached the monastery and asked if I could start my education all over again from near the bottom, with kids who barely stood shoulder height to me.
The monastery gave their permission, and I spent the next 12 years growing with my class. I have always felt that these years of reviewing all that I had already studied for the first 8 years is what really helped me master the material. When I began there were about 60 monks in each of the classes, and in the end I think only four of us graduated with the geshe degree.
One of his special interests was in rare manuscripts.
When I first got to the monastery, there was a dire shortage of textbooks. Many had been lost or burned in the destruction of the original Sera Mey library. What textbooks we had were copied out by hand and then printed on paper off of flat stones coated with cow’s urine and charcoal as the ink — a true “lithograph.”
The teacher in our geshe class would have the only copy of the textbook, and we had to learn to read it upside down leaning over the front of his desk. To do our memorization lessons, pages would be slipped out of the original and taken up on the roof, where we did our memorizing. Many books got broken up this way and never restored.
Later I founded the Asian Classics Input Project (ACIP), and we began searching the world for textbooks from our monastery that had made it out of Tibet in previous centuries. We were successful in these efforts, and began a program to reprint our monastery’s textbooks off of personal computers. My friend Steve Bruzgulis and I invented the world’s first Tibetan word processor, called TTPS (Tibetan Text Processing System), for this purpose.
With funding from David Packard, Roach established a computer center in the Sera Mey library and began to digitize rare manuscripts. That work took him to China, Mongolia and Tibet and, after the fall of the Soviet Union, to St. Petersburg where he learned Russian so he could locate and translate rare texts that had been brought from China to Russia over 300 years. To date, ACIP has digitized more than 130,000 manuscripts.
Geshe Michael now teaches 10-day programs four times a year in his home state of Arizona, and spends the remainder of his time traveling in search of rare manuscripts or providing lectures.
Sometimes I just sit there and wonder why I ended up in this little strip-mall town in New Jersey; why just about all of the high geshes in America happened to be sitting there when I arrived there at age 22; why they had fled from Tibet at exactly that particular time; why the best books and teachers in the monastery kept showing up just when I needed them, and so on and so on. It seems that fate, or karma, had a lot to do with my being able to finish a geshe degree, and I think about that a lot.
Because a big part of the geshe program doesn’t have to do with books and debates at all. I watched a lot of incredibly good scholars and debaters, people I could hardly keep up with, rise and disappear in our class — die, leave the monastery, lose interest — as we passed through the years. And in the end I came to realize that the survivors were those who were doing something more than just studying: they were serving.
The Tibetan monastic system, at it best, has some failsafes in it to prevent a very smart person who doesn’t care about others from reaching a geshe degree. First and foremost, all of the students in the geshe course are expected to follow a very rigid code of conduct towards our teachers. Buddhism teaches that you don’t just study with a teacher, you serve them at the same time. And the karma of trying to serve well causes amazing teachings to fall from their lips: you make your teacher.
When I made my first trip to the monastery for my ordination, the monks were drinking out of a filthy stream that ran across the monastery cornfields, and almost everyone was sick all the time with dysentery — especially myself. Lama encouraged me to scour the refugee aid agencies in New York, and I designed and built the first wells and water lines serving every house in the monastery.
I worked in the cornfields behind water buffalo dragging an old log plow, my Irishman skin burnt to a crisp in the Indian sun. I got the monastery international aid grants to inter-plant soy among the rows of corn to keep the crop going, and helped start a tofu factory to use the soy to try to get the monks off of meat.
I built most of the dormitories for poor monks in my own college, and also built the elementary school complex for the young monks who were just learning to read and write, using the money from my job and from some Christian aid agencies in New York. The computer project to save Tibetan literary culture has for 25 years been one of the biggest sources of employment and income for the monastery and for the entire Tibetan refugee community.
I started the textbook printing project and took care of its funding for many years, so we would all have the books we needed to study. I helped build the first medical clinic at the monastery; to hire doctors and bring in medicines from western countries.
There are also several ways that monks in the geshe program in general are required to serve the monastery, even beyond what their own teacher demands of them. In my day, when your class finished the first 12 years in Perfection of Wisdom and was about to go on to Middle Way, the entire class was expected to take several months off of their studies and go begging for funds to help the monastery throughout all the Tibetan refugee camps in India — the idea being that the karma you got from this hardship would help you crack the idea of emptiness.
After 20 years of monastery life, Roach was urged by Khen Rinpoche to enter the business world. He wangled a job at Andin International Diamond Corporation, buying and selling precious stones. He commuted for 2 hours each day from the New Jersey monastery to the 47th Street diamond shop, never letting on that he was a Buddhist monk. All the while, he began analyzing how Tibetan Buddhist principles could be applied in the business world. This eventually became the subject of his 2000 book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life. Meanwhile, in the 15 years he was there, the firm grew from a backroom company to a giant global operation that generated annual revenue in excess of $100 million.
The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life
With a unique combination of ancient and contemporary wisdom from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, The Diamond Cutter…
According to Scott Carney, writing for Tibetian Buddhism in the West,
His blend of Buddhism and business made him an instant success on the lecture circuit, and even today he is comfortable in boardrooms in Taipei, Geneva, Hamburg and Kiev, lecturing executives on how behaving ethically in business will both make you rich and speeding the path of enlightenment.
Following the success of the book, Geshe Michael returned to his birth state of Arizona. After giving some lectures and attracting a small following of devotees, he decided to undertake a 3 year, 3 month, 3 day silent retreat.
In many ways, Roach’s silence was more powerful than his words. Three years, three months and three days went by, and Roach’s reputation grew. Word of mouth about his feat helped expand the patronage of Diamond Mountain and the Asian Classics Institute, which distributed his teachings through audio recordings and online courses. Every six months he emerged to teach breathless crowds about his meditating experiences. At those events he was blindfolded but spoke eloquently on the nature of emptiness.
And thus was born Diamond Mountain. With money from his books and lectures, and generous donations from businessmen who swore The Diamond Cutter brought them unparalleled success, Geshe Michael purchased more than 1000 acres of private land at the entrance to Apache Pass, just outside the Fort Bowie National Monument.
Subhüti, if there were as many Ganges rivers as the sand grains of the Ganges, would the sand grains of them all be many?
Subhüti said: Many indeed, World-Honored One! Even the Ganges rivers would be innumerable; how much more so would be their sand grains!
Subhüti, I will declare a truth to you. If a good man or good woman filled three thousand galaxies of worlds with the seven treasures for each sand grain in all those Ganges rivers, and gave all away in gifts or alms, would he gain great merit?
Subhüti answered: Great indeed, World-Honored One!
Then Buddha declared: Nevertheless, Subhüti, if a good man or good woman studies this discourse only so far as to receive and retain four lines, and teaches and explains them to others, the consequent merit would be far greater.
We are traveling at the moment and don’t have regular opportunities to post, so we have written this ahead of time, to release in the place of our regular weekly installments. This is the second in the series. Next week we will look more at the doctrine propounded by Geshe Michael.