Toronto Star – June 2011

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June 16, 2011 – Toronto Star: “The Monk who gave away millions” (English)

Catherine Porter of the Toronto Star talks to Geshe Michael Roach about how to have everything through some unlikely methods.


Porter: The monk who gave away millions

Controversial Buddhist monk Michael Roach earned millions and gave it all away. He is in Toronto to explain why.

I sat at the feet of a Buddhist monk this week.

He told me if I was looking for companionship — i.e., a boyfriend — I should go to an old age home, and if I wanted to make money, I should give some away.

Before you roll your eyes, there are a few things you should know about Michael Roach: He was the first North American to earn the title geshe, or master of Buddhist learning — which means after decades of study he debated Buddhist principles with 1,300 monks in Tibet over three weeks and won. He spent three years, three months and three days in silent meditation in a yurt in the Arizona desert. And for 17 years while he was studying Buddhism in a New Jersey monastery, he commuted each day to a Manhattan day job, running the diamond division of a hugely successful jewelry company — since purchased by Warren Buffett.

He knows what it’s like to earn lots of money. He knows what it’s like to give it away to charity — since, as a monk, he was forbidden to keep it.

“I’m saying weird stuff,” he told a room of adoring converts sitting cross-legged on yoga mats around a white loft in Leslieville in the first of three Toronto talks, “but it really works.”

Some deeper background: Roach was a scholarship student at Princeton University when his life unravelled. During his junior year, his brother committed suicide, his father died of lung cancer and his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He was looking for meaning.

“Buddhism had the best description of the inevitable suffering of life,” Roach later tells me.

He dropped out and travelled to India, where the Dalai Lama told him to finish his degree and then join a monastery in New Jersey.

In the late 1990s, he and a female Buddhist teacher, or Lama, became “spiritual partners” — vowing to venture no more than 4.5 metres from one another. It was controversial: They said their celibate partnership was the ultimate test of Buddhism. The Dalai Lama’s office disapproved. (Roach and Lama Christie have since separated amicably.)

Roach was groomed to be a rebel monk, though. Early in his training, his teacher challenged him to apply Buddhist principles to the “dirtiest business and make it clean,” he says. For first five years of his job at jeweler Andin International, he grew his hair longer and dressed in a wool suit from Goodwill.

Only once he’d been promoted from gopher to vice-president, and was able to begin his experiment in earnest, did he reveal he was a monk. His experiment worked: the company grew from 4 employees to 500, and a $50,000 loan to $100 million in sales annually.

“My company was the fastest-growing manufacturer in the history of New York City,” he says. “It doubled every year.”

So what are the lessons?

Treat people like you want to be treated. Good things come to people who do good. They should sound familiar — your mother taught them to you!

Roach compares us to cavemen, wandering around the countryside in hopes of finding wild rice plants, instead of saving some grains and planting them ourselves.

But instead of rice, you should wisely plant love, kindness, trust, even money, with the confidence that it will return to you in bounty.

“You can farm your future and then you just enjoy,” says Roach, who at 58, could pass as an aging surfer dude — long hair, slow talking, good sense of humour.

The truth is: I want to find a hole in his story. While I’m naturally a rosy-eyed idealist, gurus make me squeamish. I lived in India for a year and visited too many luxurious ashrams. But who can disapprove of Roach’s message? Any maybe his 25 years of studying karma have taught him something worth listening to.

For instance, he did have a student who was single and looking for a man. She had a good job, a lovely apartment in Manhattan, a beautiful face, but no one to love. Roach really did tell her to visit a nursing home and give what she most wanted to someone in need — companionship. After six months of visiting an old woman she was starting to get frustrated, he tells the room.

Then, one day during a yoga class, it happened: she met her future husband. Roach presided over their wedding.

That’s not the end of the story, says Roach.

“Your motivation should be universal, like ‘I am going to be ground zero of the boyfriend-acquisition movement,’” he says. “Then, there will be lines at the nursing homes. You know what will happen? There won’t be any lonely old people.”