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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Reposted from "Stripping the Gurus" (Chaper XXI, 2009) with permission of the author.
“SOMETIMES I FEEL
LIKE A GOD”
Andrew Cohen is not just a spiritual teacherhe is an inspiring phenomenon. Since his awakening in 1986 he has only lived, breathed and spoken of one thing: the potential for total liberation from the bondage of ignorance, superstition and selfishness. Powerless to limit his unceasing investigation, he has looked at the “jewel of enlightenment” from every angle, and given birth to a teaching that is vast and subtle, yet incomparably direct and revolutionary in its impact (from the “About the Author” section in [Cohen, 1999]; self-published).
Andrew Cohen was born in New York City in 1955.
He spent his formative yearseither from ages five to fifteen (Cohen, 1992), or from age three into his twenties (Tarlo, 1997), depending on whom you choose to believeundergoing psychoanalysis.
When Cohen was sixteen years old, he experienced a spontaneous expansion of consciousness “in all directions simultaneously” into infinite space, along with a “revelation” concerning the interconnectedness and inseparability of all life.
A few years later, he was initiated into kriya yoga (a variant of kundalini yoga in general) by a “direct disciple” of Paramahansa Yogananda (i.e., by one who knew the yogi when he was alive). Having practiced that technique for six months, Cohen was blessed with a temporary kundalini surge and a vision of blazing white light.
After giving up his musical aspirations in despair of not finding perfect, lasting spiritual happiness through them (in his version)or of not having the right stuff to get to the top as a drummer (in his mother’s version)he traveled to India, meeting his future wife (Alka) there. In 1986 in that country, after having experienced several “betrayals” at the hands of earlier teachers, he met his guru, Hari Wench Lal (H. W. L.) Poonja. The latter was presenting himself as an enlightened disciple of the widely celebrated sage Ramana Maharshi. Maharshi himself, however, not only never confirmed anyone else’s enlightenment but had no official disciples and no recognized lineage.
With or without that spiritual connection, however,
Poonjaji told me several stories of people who had faith in him and had experienced miraculous and sudden cures from illnesses (Cohen, 1989).
During Cohen’s first meeting with Poonja he fell into a profound enlightenment experience of “emptiness.” That was confirmed as real by Poonja, and seems to have duly impressed both Andrew and his guru:
Poonjaji told me that I had the same look in my eyes as his Guru Ramana Maharshi did. He said that he had seen these eyes only three times in his life: in his Guru’s, in his own and in mine (Cohen, 1992).
As Poonja himself put it:
I knew this would happenyou’re the one I’ve been waiting for my whole life and now that I’ve met you I can die
Of course, Poonja did eventually die, but not before using the same “you’re the one I’ve been waiting for all my life” line several years later on a female disciple, whom he reportedly sent to America to effectively “clean up Andrew’s mess.”
That, however, would be getting ahead of our story.
For the time being, both guru and disciple were very much in love with each other and with the idea of enlightenment. Indeed, as Poonja (in Cohen, 1992) intimated to Andrew’s mother Luna Tarlo, who had by then joined them in India:
You don’t know how rare this is. Something like him ... only happens once in several hundred years.
[Poonja] read a list of the names of all the Buddhas that had come into this world. When he got to the end of the list he read out my name and then looked at me and smiled (Cohen, 1992).
Following his enlightenment, and with only a scant two and a half weeks of training, Poonja sent Cohen out into the world as a teacher, with great expectations. Andrew himself then reportedly confirmed his own feelings, of now having a special purpose in lifeand a fairly messianic one at thatto his mother:
“Believe it or not Poonja and I might be the only two people in the whole world doing the [enlightenment] work we’re doing,” Andrew said (Tarlo, 1997).
As another early disciple of Cohen tells it:
Poonjaji has told him he will create a revolution amongst the young in the West! “I pass my mantle on to you,” Poonjaji had said (van der Braak, 2003).
If that “mantle-passing” from guru to disciple sounds disturbingly familiar, that is because the same phrase comes up between the biblical Elijah and Elisha, just before Elijah was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot, having given a “double portion” of his own blessings to Elisha:
He [Elisha] took up also the Mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan (2 Kings 2:13).
In the contemporary acting-out of that incident, then, Poonja has placed himself in the position of Elijahwho, in some
reincarnation-based interpretations (e.g., Yogananda, 1946),
was also John the Baptist. Cohen, on the other hand, plays the part of Elisha, or Jesus Christ.
H. W. L. Poonja
Such a comparison might well have displeased Poonja, however, given his positively unbridled attitude toward his own spiritual attainment:
“I’m only jealous of one man,” [Poonja] said. “Who was that?” I asked. “The Buddha,” he replied, “he’s the only one who surpassed me” (Cohen, 1992).
Of course, being the foremost disciple of such an exalted figure is bound to do wonders for one’s self-image. Thus, in Andrew’s own reported, enlightened words (in Tarlo, 1997):
[V]ery few people like me exist in the world. I can destroy a person’s karma.... If you trust me, I have the power to completely destroy your past.
Anyone who loves me ... is guaranteed enlightenment.
You know, Luna, sometimes I feel like a god.
Regarding “Luna”: Cohen always referred to his mother by her first name, even before his “enlightenment.”
At any rate, the god-like Andy C. quickly took his wife as a disciple, and reportedly pressured his mother (Tarlo, 1997) into the samethus exhibiting atrociously poor judgment in both of those relationships. Nevertheless, the latter mother, in particular, was soon to benefit from Cohen’s spiritual largesse, apparently being informed over afternoon teato her own surprisethat she was now enlightened.
Another disciple, Dvora, evidently profited comparably, reportedly being notified one morning by Andrew that “her enlightenment was complete” (Tarlo, 1997). Being thus ostensibly fully enlightened, however, apparently did not absolve loyal disciples such as Dvora of discipline at the hands of the guru. Indeed, she seems to have discovered that the hard way when bleakly informing Andrew of her parents’ pressures on her to come home, i.e., to leave India and Cohen:
“You’re a hypocrite, a liar, and a prostitute,” Andrew said [to Dvora] in cool measured cadence and he got up, and went to his bed and lay back, and turned on the TV (Tarlo, 1997).
Such, allegedly, were Cohen’s applications of “skillful means” toward the enlightenment of his followers.
It would be getting ahead of our story to disclose that Cohen’s mother no longer considers herself to be enlightened. Nor does she anymore regard herself as an “unvirgin” holy mother to the erstwhile Messiah, Andrew.
The “messiah” epithet is actually not at all out of place here, for the possibility was apparently actually floated, among Cohen’s followers, that he may have been the reincarnation of the Buddha. As Poonja himself declared: “The twentieth century is lucky to have seen the Perfect Buddha reborn to live with them to Free [sic] them from the miserable samsara” (Cohen, 1992). Not to be outdone, disciples of Cohen reportedly also suggested that Andrew may have been the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (Tarlo, 1997).
Ironically, the messiah-figure in Monty Python’s Life of Brian also had the surname Cohen. The contemporary namesake wins in quantity, however, counting around a thousand disciplesalthough only about a hundred live in his sanghato the fictional Brian’s mere dozens.
Of course, as with guru-figures in general, we should hardly be surprised to find it claimed that “respect was Andrew’s obsession.” As he himself reportedly put it:
I am no longer an ordinary man leading an ordinary life. And from now on, no one will spend time with me unless they treat me with respect (in Tarlo, 1997).
As to the loyalty which the Antidangerfield guru evidently expected from his followers, then, Andre van der Braak (2003) gives the unsettling example of a committed student reportedly needing to be willing “rather to be burned alive than betray Andrew.”
Interestingly, Poonja once stated his view of the guru-disciple relationship to Andrew as, “Do not be attached to the teacher” (in Cohen, 1989). Cohen’s own perspective in recent years, however, has apparently grown to encompass exactly the polar opposite of that position:
[O]ne cannot be too dependent upon a truly enlightened person, Cohen said, exasperated. “The more attached you get to a person like that, the more free, literally, you become.” Cohen derided the importance that people in general, and Westerners in particular, give to independence....
Cohen’s belief in his own specialness kept coming to the fore. Those who are enlightened, he said, by definition can do no wrong. They “are no longer acting out of ignorance, in ways that are causing suffering to other people”
That, of course, is the most dangerous belief which any human being could hold. Yet, it is the normal attitude of any loyal disciple toward his or her “perfect” guru, invariably demanded by the latter, as we have already explicitly seen with Trungpa, Da, and many sad others:
Maharishi [Mahesh Yogi] can do no wrong (Scott, 1978).
[Rajneesh] can’t be wrong (Belfrage, 1981).
* * *
It is easy to show, via the same contextual comparison method which we have utilized for previous “crazy wisdom” practitioners, that Cohen’s reported rude behavior, like Adi Da’s and Trungpa’s, apparently lacks any wise or noble basis.
For example, consider that in 1997 an Amsterdam newspaper printed a generally complimentary review of a lecture there by Cohen. The piece ended with the ironic but nevertheless fairly innocent observation that, although the guru had his students shave their heads, Cohen’s own hair was well coiffed.
When that article was read to Andrew in English, Cohen reportedly “shows no response until those last lines. Then he pulls a face”:
“What a bastard, that interviewer. He seemed like such a nice guy. Call him up Harry! Tell him he’s a jerk.”
When Harry sensibly resists burning that PR bridge, Cohen apparently shoots back:
He’s an incompetent journalist. Then just tell him he’s no good at his profession (in van der Braak, 2003).
If the journalist in question had been a formal disciple of Andrew’s, everyone involved would have had no difficulty at all in rationalizing Cohen’s reported temper as being a “skillful means.” That is, his rumored outburst would have been meant only to awaken the scribe from his egoic sleep. That hypothetical situation, however, is not at all the case. We should therefore not credit Cohen’s reported response, at such absolutely minimal provocation, as being anything more than infantile. Further, we must take alleged eruptions such as that as forming the “baseline” for the man’s behavior, against which all other potentially “skillful means” are to be judged.
My own considered opinion is that when the baseline of such “noise” is subtracted from Cohen’s reported behaviors in the guru-disciple context, there is nothing at all left to be regarded as a “skillful means” of awakening others in that.
* * *
Cohen has founded numerous spiritual communities or sanghas in North America. Initially, he had his disciples rent shared houses in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1988. They soon moved the community to Boston, and later to Marin County, California, in the summer of 1989. Then back to a $2 million “Foxhollow” ashram in the Berkshires of Massachusetts in 1997. For the latter privilege, each moving disciple reportedly paid one thousand dollars for each year that he had been a disciple of Cohen, to a maximum of five grand.
Andre van der Braak began following Cohen in 1987, living in the latter’s sangha for
eleven years. During that period, he acted at various times as the head of the community editorial department, specifically as an editor for both What Is Enlightenment? magazine and for Cohen’s first book, Enlightenment is a Secret.
He further (2003) expressed his own early, inflated enthusiasm for Cohen’s enlightenment work within that shifting community, as follows:
This is an evolutionary experiment; we are the forerunners in an evolutionary wave that will transform the western spiritual world!
Life within that “evolutionary” community, however, appears to have unfolded in a less than heavenly manner. Indeed, the overall inculcated attitude reportedly involved a banishing of personal or independent life in favor of enforcing Andrew’s rules, and of “living for the sake of the whole” (van der Braak, 2003).
It is, however, only by making our own mistakes as individuals that we can learn. If one goes through life simply “making other people’s mistakes,” obediently following their instructions and rules regardless of how obviously wrong those may be, the best that one can hope to learn from that is to appreciate the importance of thinking for oneself. And that latter realization, as long as it may take for one to properly appreciate, is just the start of the unfolding of one’s full human potential, never the end of it.
Toward the close of van der Braak’s own decade-long involvement with Cohen, the enforced sangha discipline reportedly took the form of six hundred prostrations each morning, done while repeating a mantra created by the enlightened master: “To know nothing, to have nothing, to be no one.”
This is the message he wants engraved in our brain (van der Braak, 2003).
Tarlo (in van der Braak, 2003) further describes Cohen as exhibiting an “ever growing paranoia and ferocious will to control.” Under that alleged mindset, disciplined life in his community is said to have entailed, at one time or another:
Followers doing up to a thousand prostrations in a ten-hour period each day, on the orders of Cohen
The guru instructing his devotees to shave their heads and maintain celibate relations to prove their dedication to his path. At one point, approximately one-fifth of the community were shaven celibates
Disciples willfully destroying $20,000+ cars, at Cohen’s instruction and indeed with him present, to demonstrate their non-attachment and sincerity
Successful painters renouncing their art, at Andrew’s misled counsel, for it allegedly being simply “an extension of ego,” and thus ostensibly an impediment to enlightenment
Followers throwing their secular books into the Ganges, and obediently incinerating their life’s writings (with no known backups), on Cohen’s demand
Disciples surviving for extended periods on five hours or less of sleep per night, not by choice but by necessity for meeting the community schedule of mandatory activities
Students on meditation retreats not being allowed to have personal conversations, only being permitted to discuss Cohen’s summary of his teachings in his “five fundamentals”
Injunctions by Cohen against his disciples entertaining intellectual pursuits. As Tarlo (1997) put it: “I mentioned to [Andrew] that I’d glanced at [Wilber’s] Up from Eden and he told me not to read further in the book because it was intellectually stimulating [sic]”
Cycles of expulsion and readmission to the community, for devotees who had fallen out of favor with Cohen. Those were then given second or third chances to work their way back up into Andrew’s good graces
And, as is the case with every spiritual community, anyone who leaves “is viewed with scorn and contempt. He hadn’t the courage to face himself” (van der Braak, 2003)
After all that, Luna Tarlo (1997) summarized her own opinions regarding Cohen’s guruship:
It just seems to me that [Andrew] is as duped by his own propaganda as were all those other brother-gurus in the marketplace who promised deliverance from sufferingfrom Hitler to David Koresh.
Note that that wholly negative, Hitler-comparing evaluation comes from Cohen’s own Jewish mother and former disciple. Tarlo still loves him “as her son,” but will rightly have nothing further to do with the activities which stem from him feeling “like a god.”
* * *
As we have hinted at above, Ken Wilber’s writings have traditionally generated a uniquely high level of interest within the inner circle of Cohen’s community. Andre van der Braak had actually done his psychology thesis on Wilber, piquing Cohen’s curiosity with his associated bookshelves full of kw’s ponderous works, and resulting in their reported collective brainstorming as to how to get Wilber in as a student of Cohen’s.
We speculate about why he hasn’t been willing to meet with Andrew. Is he afraid of ego death? (van der Braak, 2003; italics added).
Their persistent courting evidently paid off, however, for in Wilber’s foreword to Cohen’s
(2002) Living Enlightenment we read:
[Rude Boys] live as Compassionreal compassion, not idiot compassionand real compassion uses a sword more often than a sweet. They deeply offend the ego (and the greater the offense, the bigger the ego)....
Andrew Cohen is a Rude Boy. He is not here to offer comfort; he is here to tear you into approximately a thousand pieces ... so that Infinity can reassemble you....
Every deeply enlightened teacher I have known has been a Rude Boy or Nasty Girl. The original Rude Boys were, of course, the great Zen masters, who, when faced with yet another ego claiming to want Enlightenment, would get a huge stick and whack the aspirant right between the eyes.... Rude Boys are on your case in the worst way, they breathe fire, eat hot coals, will roast your ass in a screaming second and fry your ego before you knew what hit it....
I have often heard it said that Andrew is difficult, offending, edgy, and I think, “Thank God.” In fact, virtually every criticism I have ever heard of Andrew is a variation on, “He’s very rude, don’t you think?”
Of course, Tarlo’s (1997) exposé of Cohen had been published nearly half a decade before Wilber’s penning of that odd mixture of images. Had kw properly informed himself of that, he would most certainly have heard criticisms of Cohen which could in no way be dismissed as arising merely from overly sensitive egos complaining about not being sufficiently coddled. (Needless to say, Cohen disputes the accuracy of the depiction of life in his communities given by his own mother, and presumably does not agree with van der Braak’s sketching of it, either. The
WHAT enlightenment??! website, though, offers many additional, generally equally uncomplimentary stories from other former disciples.)
If being a “Rude Boy” simply means speaking unpleasant truths, then yes, “every deeply enlightened teacher” has probably done that. Such beneficial behavior, however, is vastly different from what Trungpa, Adi Da and Cohen (unlike, say, Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi) have allegedly indulged in.
Further, just because a “master” is a “Rude Boy” toward others obviously does not mean that his own “breakthrough” into claimed radical enlightenment was the product of having previously been treated in that way himself! Indeed, neither Adi Da nor Cohen nor Trungpa have recorded their own enlightenments as arising from being on the receiving end of such behavior. That fact is radically significant, as is the fact that neither Da nor Cohen, explicitly, have managed to produce even one disciple as “enlightened” as they themselves claim to be, in spite of their “rude” behaviors.
It does have to be considered at this point that there are no practitioners in the advanced and ultimate stages
(Da, in [Elias, 2000a]).
None of Cohen’s students have become liberated
Beyond that, the whole disturbingly violent “whack between the eyes” thing is, as we have seen, a rather absurdly romanticized view of Zen. Indeed, one cannot help but wonder: Has Wilber himself ever received such a beneficial, hard blow between the eyes with a huge stick, or literally had the crap beaten out of him? Was that what brought on any of his early, “verified” satoris, or his nondual One Taste realization? If not, he has no business recommending such treatment to others.
Notwithstanding all of those concerns, other revered spiritual figures have been equally impressed by Cohen, on the mere basis of his writings, as has the easily excitable Wilber. Indeed, as Penor Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism since 1991, put it
(in Cohen, 2000):
I have an appreciation for Andrew Cohen’s works on the quest of the spiritual path, which explore the essence of religious faith. His work is very beneficial for anyone curious about Enlightenment as the ultimate goal. I have confidence that Embracing Heaven & Earth will bring great benefit to readers and seekers in their spiritual practice.
Rinpoche’s endorsement there, too, came well after the 1997 publication of Tarlo’s exposé of Cohen. He and Wilber are hardly alone in that regard, however, in having failed to do the relevant research before offering a confident opinion.
Indeed, others in the same embarrassing situation include the head of the Sivananda ashram, who averred that Cohen “shines like a light in darkness.” Also, the president of Kripalu, the science fiction writer Amit Goswami, Lama Surya Das, and Swami Chetanananda of the Nityananda Institute.
(For the latter, see LNI
All of those individuals enthusiastically endorsed Cohen
(2000), as did the “God-realized” John W. White
(cf. 1997), who there commended Cohen as being a “RAMBO-dhisattva,” or spiritual peace-warrior.
Presumably, the titles “Rocky of Ages”with his trusty, admiring sidekick, the “Bullwinkle of consciousness studies”and “Cohen the Barbarian” were already taken.
Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, too, has in recent years fallen for Andrew’s brand of salvationinconsistent as that discount brand may be:
“I don’t like unconditional love,” [Andrew] says. “Love always has to be earned” (van der Braak, 2003).
Of course, such radically conditioned love would be the complete opposite of what Dr. Elizabeth Debold
(in Cohen, 2000) credits Andrew with expressing. For there, she lauds exactly “his demand that we realize and live a love that has no bounds.”
A love with “no bounds” would obviously be unconditional and not needing to be “earned,” after all, would it not?
The “real compassion” of which Wilber speaks with such certainty then allegedly manifests through Cohen in this manner:
I don’t give a damn about your personal evolution anymore. I just want to be able to use you for my community (in van der Braak, 2003).
Of course, not everyone reacts positively to such “compassionate, Rude Boy” discipline. Indeed, the reported experiences of one particularly unfortunate disciple of Cohen, who lived in a “state of chronic panic” and allegedly ultimately ended up “under a psychiatrist’s care, thoroughly sedated” (Tarlo, 1997), would reveal as much.
As Pavlov himself discovered in having animals try to distinguish between flattened circles and fairly round ellipses, initially excitable dogs could easily feel constant panic, in not knowing how to please their “master,” when pleasing the master, however little he may have merited that respect, is all that matters. Obviously then, when spiritual disciples are driven to such literal panic and madness, that breakdown has nothing whatsoever to do with their own alleged “psychological immaturity.” Nor does it have anything to do with the phenomenological nonsense of supposedly being “unable to face up to the fact that naked Reality, which reveals itself when our conceptual grids are removed, is an unimaginable richness of actualities and possibilities” (Feuerstein, 1992).
And what was Cohen’s reported “non-idiot compassion”-based response to all of that?
“Enlightenment and madness are very close.” Then he laughed, and added, spookily, “It could happen to any one of you” (Tarlo, 1997).
* * *
Aside from attempting to spread his teachings through his books and personal counsel within his spiritual community, in 1992 Cohen founded What Is Enlightenment? magazine. That bi-annual (now quarterly) periodical has been praised by Wilber
(in Cohen, 2002) as follows:
Andrew’s magazine ... is the only [one] I know that is ... asking the hard questions, slaughtering [needlessly violent macho imagery, again] the sacred cows, and dealing with the Truth no matter what the consequences.
The avant-garde biologist Rupert Sheldrake likewise opines (in
What Is Enlightenment? magazine is a unique forum for inquiry that goes deeper and reaches further than any other spiritual magazine I know.
Other former residents of Cohen’s spiritual community, however, have voiced far less complimentary opinions of that same publication, calling it “a hodge-podge of opinions that go nowhere. A foray into mental masturbation.”
At a back-issue price of $9 U.S. per glossy, full-color copy, however, there are cheaper ways of mentally ... um....
Anyway, Cohen’s own books are themselves no examples of fine literature, metaphysical or otherwise, being abundantly padded with blank pages and unnecessarily largegenerally nearly double spacedleading between lines of text. For example, of the seventy-two total pages, including front and back matter, in his self-serving (1999) tract, In Defense of the Guru Principle, twenty-six are blank, and four others contain only section/chapter headings. Eight more are taken up with the foreword and preface, giving the book an unbelievable “Don’t Need To Read This” rating of 38/72 = 53%, even independent of its nearly double-spaced content.
Cohen’s equally widely spaced Living Enlightenmentendorsed by Barbara Marx-Hubbardfares marginally better, with a DNTRT of around 30%. A rating of 5% would be more typical for an average book. Beyond both of those unimpressive texts, however, the gargantuan amount of white space in Cohen’s Enlightenment is a Secret must be seen to be believed. Was there an ink shortage? Or a paper surplus?
When you read and research a lot, you notice things like that. When you pay full price for such vacuous creative artistry and environmental unconsciousness, you notice it even more.
Centering a teaching around “emptiness” is one thing. But blatantly padding books with thick, unruled, empty sheets of paperuseful neither for note-taking nor for toiletryis taking it to an extreme. Nor would a real publisher take that route to such a painfully obvious, tree-wasting degreewhich Roddick, of all people, should have noted and objected to at first glance.
Of course, Wilber
(2000a; italics added), as usual, sees things differently:
[U]ntil the ecologists understand that the ozone hole, pollution, and toxic wastes are all completely part of the Original Self, they will never gain enlightened awareness, which alone knows how to proceed with these pressing problems.
Anyone with the least comprehension of those issues, however, can easily see that the first step in “knowing how to proceed” is simply to “stop the bleeding.” If Cohen’s “enlightened awareness” only makes the bleeding worse, that is to be expected. For, it has never been the Self-realized “meditation masters” of this world who have stood at the front line of any battles, environmental or otherwise. Rather, it has always been the looked-down-upon and “less spiritually advanced” activists who have taken the risks and effected those changes. (Rare exception: Zen roshi Robert Aitken, whose efforts have at times “depart[ed] radically from the Japanese Zen tradition in which opposition to political authority has been negligible and civil disobedience unknown” [Tworkov, 1994]. In his demonstrations against nuclear testing and sexual inequality, however, he has surely stood side-by-side with many others for whom Zen and the like were little more than distant curiosities. Yet, they were every bit as able
to see “how to proceed” as he was. Still, both Aitken and Cohen are arguably doing better than the enlightened Wilber himself, if one considers his black leather furniture
[Horgan, 2003a] and Thanksgiving turkey dinners
[Wilber, 2000a] from an animal rights perspective. One need not even agree with that often-judgmental alternative view in order to see that Wilber is in absolutely no position to lecture ecologists or the like on how to create a better world by becoming “more like him.”)
Cohen’s books themselves are all published by Moksha Press, which is again simply the self-publishing vehicle for his own teachings. In any such situation, one would confidently expect not merely the text but the promotional materials for any publication to be at least vetted, if not actually written, by the author-publisher himself. Thus, the inflated “About the Author” description of Cohen’s greatness which opened this chapter could not reasonably have been put into print without his own full approval.
* * *
Cohen eventually split from his own guru, Poonja, upon learning of various indiscretions in the master’s conduct, including his having reportedly fathered a child via a blond, Belgian disciple. He explained that communication breakdown simply in terms of himself having “surpassed [his] own Teacher” (Cohen, 1992).
Of course, all humility aside, Poonja obviously considered himself to have accomplished the same “surpassing the Teacher” feat. For he regarded only the Buddha as being above him, in spite of claiming Ramana Maharshi as his own guru and teaching lineage. That is, Poonja could not have been “second” to the Buddha if he had not, in his own mind, surpassed his teacher, Maharshi.
If Andrew has now surpassed Poonja, that presumably places him too above Maharshi, and second in line to the Buddha himself.
Freely casting aside any remaining sense of perspective, then, in experiencing unexpected resistance to his humble “revolution,” Cohen (1992) wrote that it was only the “hypocrisy and self-deception” of others in the face of his “truth” that caused them to be afraid of him.
More recently, following the publication of Tarlo’s exposé of her claimed experiences in Cohen’s spiritual community, significant concerns were publicly raised about the health of that environment. In response, Andrew (1999) gave his explanation as to the origin of the controversies then swirling around him, as being the product only of his own uncompromising integrity.
Unfortunately, integrity enforced from within the context of an allegedly “fiercely controlling” perspective, coupled with absolute authority in that same position, is still a chilling concept, bound to result in disaster. “Being true to their ideals” in such a context is, indeed, probably something which the leaders of any totalitarian regime could claim just as validly.
Sociologist Hannah Arendt, who covered [Nazi] Adolf Eichmann’s trial, made the telling statement: “The sad and very uncomfortable truth of the matter was that it was not his fanaticism but his very conscience that prompted [him] to adopt his uncompromising attitude.” Eichmann had said himself that he would have sent his own father to the gas chamber if ordered to (Winn, 2000; italics added).
* * *
It was not so long ago that Cohen was reportedly teaching that “there are no accidents” (in Tarlo, 1997). Conversely, he was
(2000) emphasizing the need for all individuals to “take responsibility for their entire karmic predicament”:
The reason that The Law of Volitionality [the second of the “five tenets” of Cohen’s formalized path] is such a challenging teaching is that we live in a world where most of us are convinced that we couldn’t possibly be responsible for everything that we do. And the reason that we believe we couldn’t possibly be responsible for everything that we do is simply because we are convinced that we are victims....
[T]hose who want to be free more than anything else ... are willing to whole-heartedly take responsibility for absolutely everything that they do [italics added].
Only slightly more recently, however:
Cohen derided the notionpromulgated by New Agers and traditional believers alikethat everything that happens to us has been divinely ordained or at the very least happens for a reason. “The narcissism in that kind of thinking is so blatant, I mean, it’s almost laughable.”
Pain and suffering often occur in a random fashion, Cohen assured me. He and his Indian-born wife, Alka, were crossing a street in New York City a few years earlier [i.e., in 1994] when they were hit by a car and almost killed. “I was going, ‘Why did this happen?’ And I realized that it didn’t happen for any particular reason. It just happened”
As far as being “almost killed,” however, Cohen merely suffered a broken right arm and injuries to his right calf in that accident; his wife sustained a concussion and a fractured jaw. All in all, those are fairly minor wounds, considering the context, i.e., one could just as well feel lucky for having incurred no spinal or internal organ damage. Indeed, a different person might actually manage to turn the same incident into a proof that “God was watching over them.” For, considering that they “could easily have been killed,” isn’t it “a miracle” that they survived with such minor injuries?
Independent of that, the responsibilities shirked by Cohen in his accidenti.e., in him not “taking responsibility for absolutely everything he has done”boil down to him simply not watching where he was going. The taxi, after all, did not ride up onto the sidewalk; rather, Andrew and his wife stepped straight into its path, albeit at a red light. But did we not all learn, well before age ten, to look both ways, even just in peripheral vision, before crossing the street?
Contrast the abdication of responsibility in his own implicit victim-hood, further, with Cohen’s reported attitude toward the supposed responsibilities of others under much harsher circumstances:
For a self-professed bodhisattva, [Cohen] was awfully contemptuous of human frailty. He bragged to me about how he had scolded a schizophrenic student for blaming his problems on his mental illness instead of taking responsibility for himself
(Horgan, 2003; italics added).
That same contempt is, of course, part of the same “Rude Boy” attitude which Wilber so inexcusably celebrates in Cohen.
This, then, is Cohen’s apparent worldview: His own stepping into the path of an oncoming vehicle has no cause, and therefore no responsibility, truly making him a “victim.” But severe mental illness afflicting others is to be overcome by an acceptance of responsibility from which he himself explicitly shrinks.
Further, since Cohen gives no examples of good things happening equally “without a reason,” one might assume that only bad things are thus spiritually acausal. Indeed, finding one’s “soul mate” or having a book on the New York Times best-seller listCohen is in
no danger of eitherwould both presumably still occur “for a reason.” That is, they would happen perhaps for one’s own spiritual evolution, or for the sake of the dreamed-of “revolution” in one’s grandiose life-mission.
And to such gibbering “Buddhas” as this, one should then “surrender completely,” for one’s own highest benefit?
Cohen describes enlightenment as a form of not-knowing. And yet his guruhood, his entire life, revolves around his belief inhis knowledge ofhis own unsurpassed perfection. To borrow a phrase, Cohen is a super-egomanic. His casual contempt for us ordinary, egotistical humans is frightening, as is his belief that, as an enlightened being who has transcended good and evil, he can do no harm. Cohen may not be a monster, as his mother claims, but he has the capacity to become one
(Horgan, 2003; italics added).
All potential monstrosities aside, however, even Cohen would surely agree, after his own “accidents” and many “persecutions”not to mention having his own Jewish mother compare him to Hitlerthat “sometimes you feel like a god ... sometimes you don’t.”
(Note: Since the writing of Stripping the Gurus, William Yenner has published an additional, insightful book-length exposé of Cohen
and his community, not otherwise mentioned here: