I just watched a remarkable short documentary, “How Well-Meaning People End Up in a Cult.” Produced by The Atlantic, the film tells the story of the rise and fall of the guru Andrew Cohen, whose followers believed he had achieved the state of supreme mystical bliss called enlightenment. I interviewed Cohen in 1999, when his following was at its height, while researching my book Rational Mysticism. I didn’t use the Cohen material in my book, but I posted it on my website. I’m publishing an edited version here because many rational people—especially those attracted to Buddhism, Transcendental Meditation and other religions that advocate meditation--still believe in enlightenment. I once did, too, but no longer, in part because of my encounters with Cohen and other spiritual know-it-alls.-–John Horgan
In the summer of 1996, while passing a newsstand in Grand Central Station, I noticed a glossy magazine, What Is Enlightenment? The subtitle read: "Dedicated to the discovery of what enlightenment is and what it really means." By “enlightenment,” the magazine meant the state of supreme bliss, wisdom and grace that Buddha and other spiritual masters supposedly achieved.
According to its masthead, the magazine was published by Moksha, an organization founded by the spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen. This issue, headlined "Is the Guru Dead?", addressed the growing tendency of spiritual seekers to reject the notion of absolute enlightenment. After all, over the past few decades, many supposedly enlightened gurus have engaged in depraved behavior.
But Cohen vigorously defended enlightenment. Just because some gurus fail us, he wrote, we should not conclude that all are flawed—or that absolute enlightenment is an unreachable ideal. "If such a goal is unattainable," Cohen wrote, that would mean "there really is no way out of the human predicament."
Curious about Cohen, I did some research on him. Born in 1955, he was a self-described neurotic adolescent raised in New York City. His mother left the family when he was eleven, and for four years the boy lived with his father. After his father died in 1970 of a brain tumor, Cohen moved in with his mother.
When Cohen was sixteen, one night he was overcome with sensations of love, awe, and wonder. He "knew without any doubt that there was no such thing as death and that life itself had no beginning and no end," he recalled in his book Autobiography of an Awakening.
Having read The Varieties of Religious Experience and other books, Cohen concluded that he had had a mystical experience. For several years he practiced drumming and fantasized about becoming a jazz drummer, but in his early twenties he decided to pursue permanent mystical awakening: enlightenment. He studied under several spiritual teachers, but each time he ended up disillusioned.
Cohen was traveling in India in 1986 when he encountered Poonjaji, a guru. Poonjaji told Cohen, "You don’t have to make any effort to be free," and Cohen instantly was free. "I saw clearly that I never could have been other than Free and that any idea or concept of bondage had always been and could only ever be completely illusory," Cohen wrote. Poonjaji assured Cohen that he was enlightened and urged him to help others achieve that state.
However, as Cohen attracted a following, Poonjaji complained to others that Cohen was a delusional egomaniac. When he discovered Poonjaji’s duplicity, Cohen concluded that Poonjaji and virtually all other gurus are flawed; none are really as enlightened as they claimed to be. True enlightenment, Cohen determined, requires a purity of thought and behavior that vanishingly few mortals have attained. In his teachings, Cohen made it clear that he had reached this pinnacle of perfection. Others could reach it, too, but only through complete self-abnegation.
One of Cohen’s first devotees was his mother, Luna Tarlo, a writer. After Cohen wrote her to announce his "liberation," Tarlo left New York and joined her son in India. She was initially overjoyed that she had become "the mother of God," but she and her son eventually had a falling out. Tarlo wrote a book, The Mother of God, which compared her son to cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh.
But Cohen is no ordinary narcissistic guru. What sets him apart from other self-appointed deities—and what made him intriguing to me--is his willingness to explore some of the difficult questions raised by mystical teachings, including his own. His chief vehicle for this intellectual exercise is What Is Enlightenment? The journal is clearly Cohen’s. Each issue contains articles by him and advertisements for his books, videos, and retreats. Photographs show Cohen striking the classic guru poses, laughing blithely or gazing heroically into space.
But the magazine also features articles by and about a wide range of spiritual teachers, some with views that diverge from or even directly contradict Cohen’s. Each issue wrestles with a different topic: the tension between science and mysticism, the westernization of eastern religions, the commercialization of spirituality, the relationship between sexual and spiritual liberation. The journal’s speculative, questioning tone contrasts sharply with the air of certainty projected by Cohen in his writing and in his public talks.
I first saw Cohen in the flesh on a blustery Sunday in early spring, when he gave a talk in a penthouse atop Manhattan's posh St. Moritz Hotel. The lavishly chandeliered room was packed with 150 or so people. There were a few excessively attractive young men and women—-models, I guessed. At the upper end of the age scale was a petite, white-haired lady--70 years old, at least, and still seeking a savior.
Five minutes after Cohen was scheduled to appear, he strode briskly into the penthouse and took a seat on a platform at the front of the room. He was shorter than I expected, with dark hair and moustache. He wore western clothes: dark slacks and a dark vest over a beige, short-sleeved shirt. He asked everyone to join him in meditation, and the room fell silent for several minutes; the only sounds were the howling of the wind and the scratching of my pen. Even with his eyes closed, Cohen’s face was knotted with concentration, as if he were multiplying large numbers in his head.
"Hello," Cohen said, opening his eyes. "Hello," the audience replied as one.
With an eerily deadpan expression, Cohen began talking about how attachment to our individuality prevents us from knowing our true, timeless selves. To illustrate how self-absorption blocks true vision, he held his book an inch from his face, blocking our view of him. Liberation comes when we abandon our pathetic little egos, he said, slamming the book down.
Our sexuality, Cohen emphasized, may be the biggest trap of all. Caricaturing male sexuality, Cohen clenched his fists and growled, "I’m a man." Switching to a simpering, high-pitched voice, he said, "I’m a woman," while laying one hand on his cheek, pursing his lips, and batting his eyelids. "Those are the major categories," Cohen added drily, getting a big laugh from the audience. Gays and lesbians, he emphasized, may be even more invested in their sexuality than heterosexuals.
Cohen’s demeanor was more remarkable than his message. He punctuated his mocking riffs about human vanity with an abrupt, barking laugh--"Ha!"--followed immediately by "Sorry!" His eyes often seemed glazed, or focused on an invisible object a few feet in front of him. Occasionally his eyelids fluttered and his eyes rolled back into his head, so that only the whites showed. The first time this happened, I glanced around to see how others were reacting, but no one seemed surprised. At other times, Cohen zeroed in on one member of the audience, eyes gleaming with demonic intensity.
I was recording these observations in my notebook when Cohen stopped speaking. I looked up and found him, and everyone else, staring at me. "You don’t have to take notes," he said blandly. My face flushing, I put my pen and notebook away. Afterward, Cohen seemed to keep his eye on me. When he spoke contemptuously about "men," he looked my way. I felt as though I was on probation.
Cohen took questions after his talk. A woman in the front row wearing a knitted cap said she appreciated what Cohen had said about sex roles. Her womanhood was complicating her struggle with cancer. When chemotherapy made her hair fall out, she felt so self-conscious and unfeminine. She couldn’t help but think that it wouldn’t be so bad for a man.
Cohen commanded her to take off her cap. She did. Dark peach fuzz covered her skull. You don’t look so bad, Cohen said, and actually, she didn’t. I had feared that she would be mortified, but she radiated relief.
A burly, hairless man on the opposite side of the room announced that he had thought about getting hair plugs but instead shaved all his hair off. And it was amazing! He loved the feel of the wind on his skull when he rode on his motorcycle! The older he got, the more he did what he wanted to do rather than what others wanted him to do. And he was learning to embrace uncertainty. He was a CEO, head of his own company, and everyone expected him to have all the answers. But lately, when people asked him for advice, he often answered, "I don’t know," and it was great! Exhilarating! He felt more and more energy. He was no longer a zombie, he was Zorba!
As Zorba kept telling us about the fabulousness of his life, the tension in the room grew. Everyone watched Cohen watch Zorba. Cohen remained stone-faced throughout Zorba’s monologue. When Zorba paused to let us appreciate one of his witticisms, Cohen said abruptly, "Next question," and looked around the room. Immediately he was back in charge. He was the totally enlightened guru here, not this bald blow-hard.
Two days after I heard Cohen speak in New York, he agreed to meet me at his compound in western Massachusetts. The interview took place in a spacious, high-ceilinged room containing a long wooden table on which someone had placed a pitcher of water and two glasses. The room’s only decorations were a vase stuffed with flowers and a photograph of Cohen. After we sat at the table, Cohen asked me to remind him why I wanted to speak to him.
As I responded, I was acutely aware of Cohen watching me. My heart raced, and my breathing became labored. This moment of panic passed, and I managed to tell Cohen that I was writing a book about mysticism. I wanted to explore whether mystical experience—and especially the state known as enlightenment--can give us a knowledge that we cannot get through science or any other means; Cohen’s magazine gave me the impression that he is interested in these issues.
Cohen nodded. His primary interest is the relationship "between mystical experience and human life and how to live," he said. "Because quite often spiritual seekers tend to get vague about the relationship between mystical experience and"—he paused—"what that means about life and how to live."
As he continued speaking, Cohen seemed to drift in and out of focus. His eyes never rolled completely back into his head, as they had at the St. Moritz Hotel. But they glazed over at times, as if he was distracted by some inner vision, then locked onto mine with an unsettling directness. He kept his hands busy, chopping the air, pounding the table, even touching my hand now and then.
Some of his riffs had an incantatory effect. He spoke rapidly in a low, soft voice, often reiterating a single idea with slight variations. Occasionally he labored to find the right word. I found this trait disarming; rather than serving up pre-packaged riffs, Cohen seemed to be thinking aloud, putting effort into his responses. I also caught myself wondering: Would a truly enlightened person ever be at a loss for words?
I decided to get my big question out of the way early, although it came out not as a question but as a statement: You are an enlightened person...
"Well, I, I..." Cohen, to my gratification, seemed taken aback, but he quickly composed himself. "My policy is not to answer questions like that. I'd like for other people to make up their own minds." He paused. "You saw me teach the other night. Wasn't the implication rather direct?"
Yes, it was, I replied.
Enlightenment "is possible. It is real. And if you give enough of your heart and attention to that understanding, to that experience, then you are going to be able to realize it and manifest it yourself. Wasn't that the implication?"
Yes, it was.
"I wasn't holding back, was I?"
No, you weren't.
"I'm pretty bold."
You are pretty bold, I agreed.
"I've gotten in a lot of trouble for being bold."
In certain respects, Cohen was quite modest. He did not claim to have psychic powers—or even an interest in paranormal phenomena. He found reincarnation plausible, but he had no personal recollection of past lives. Nor had enlightenment given him answers to deep metaphysical questions. Quite the contrary. "I live in a strange state," he explained, "where the only thing that I'm sure of is that I don't know." He gave me his dry smile. "But for some strange reason, that seems to give me a kind of confidence that's very unusual."
Enlightenment does not solve the mystery of existence, he said; it illuminates the mystery. Awakening consists of knowing less and less and ultimately knowing nothing at all, arriving at a place of perfect stillness and peace. But because the self still desperately wants to know itself, this state of not-knowing co-exists with "an energetic, passionate, awakened curiosity," which is "part and parcel of the movement of creation itself." Ideally, Cohen said, you remain poised between these two states of not-knowing and wanting-to-know.
The question that fascinates Cohen above all others is how nothing gave rise to something. "There was nothing. Then, for a reason that nobody really knows, out of nothing came something." He said nothing and something in a sing-song, Mr. Rogers-ish voice, as if speaking to a toddler. Cohen did not claim to know the answer to this question. "My personal opinion is there is never going to be an answer to that question."
I asked if enlightenment reveals any divine intelligence or plan according to which the universe unfolds. "What that plan really is ultimately begins to depend on you," Cohen replied with a wide-eyed grin. When you become enlightened, you "begin to play a part in who and what God is and what his plan is for this moment," he said. "There is no God that is separate from that realization, that is separate from you."
Cohen derided the notion—promulgated by New Agers and traditional believers alike--that 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 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."
Yet 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." They display "an unusual and rare consistency" in "their words, in their deeds, in their relationship to life." Over and over he emphasized how few have reached his level of spirituality. Mystical experiences alone, he said, do not lead to enlightenment; Cohen has known thousands of people who have had "very powerful spiritual experiences" without truly transcending their egos.
Cohen recalled meeting only two fully enlightened people, both Indians. None of Cohen’s students have become liberated. To be sure, he said, many have had brief awakenings; some had insights so strong that they wanted to become teachers in their own right. But Cohen helped them to see that their desire to leave Andrew and become independent teachers stemmed from pride.
I could not let this pass. I pointed out that Cohen himself has said that he became fully liberated only after dissolving his relationship with his guru, Poonjaji. Shouldn’t he help his students achieve independence from him? Cohen shook his head. He reminded me that Poonjaji was imperfect; if you find a truly enlightened, perfect teacher, there is no reason to leave him.
"Let's say the Buddha was alive today. Let's say someone that great, that enlightened, that pure, that perfect, with such a great teaching, was still alive. I mean, could someone be too attached to someone like that?"
Yes, I replied. I did not see how you could be truly liberated while remaining dependent upon another human, even one as great as the Buddha.
But one 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. He had begun slapping the table to emphasize points. "Look," he said forcefully. "Anybody"—Slap!—"who wants to be free is going to have to bend his knee." The mind "must surrender!" Slap! "However that happens, it doesn't really matter, as long as it happens." Liberation cannot occur until the ego, the "root of all evil," is obliterated.
Enlightenment "is all about being nobody. It's going from something to nothing, someone to no one." Even some very powerful teachers still manifest egotistical pride, and a need to be revered by their followers. "You can be a powerfully realized being and be an egomaniac! You can be a super-egomaniac!"
Achieving total self-transcendence is extraordinarily difficult, Cohen said. "You have to leave the world and everyone in it behind forever and never return again. Okay? To be an independent teacher"—Slap!—"in the way that I am, means you... stand... alone."
Cohen has no friends in the usual sense, and even his relationship with his wife is to some extent impersonal. There is "no kind of personal relationship or personal affection I have for anybody that is going to interfere with my interest in the truth." If his personal desires ever interfere with his commitment to truth, "then everything would fall apart!" Cohen erupted into high-pitched, staccato laughter.
Living on the mountaintop might have made Cohen cold. For a self-professed Bodhisattva, he was 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. Cohen frowns on psychotherapy, which he believes coddles the ego. Those who combine spiritual practice with psychotherapy often have "a softness about them, and a humility, a sensitivity," Cohen said. "But the fire of liberation"—Slap!—"won't be coming out of their eyes!"
As a result of all Cohen’s slapping, my glass of water had slid to the edge of the table and was about to topple onto my lap. I slid it back to the center of the table.
Cohen describes enlightenment as a form of not-knowing. And yet his guru-hood, his entire life, revolves around his belief in—his knowledge of--his own unsurpassed perfection. Cohen is, to use his term, a super-egomaniac. His casual contempt for us ordinary, egotistical humans is disturbing, as is his belief that, as an enlightened being, he can do no harm. Cohen might not be a monster, as his mother claims, but he has the capacity to become one.
After Cohen and I had spoken for several hours, we ate a vegetarian lunch with two of his male students. Both had an interest in science; they had helped put together an issue of What Is Enlightenment? devoted to science. Aware that I write about science, the two disciples asked my opinion of various fields, theories, theorists. Delighted by their deference, I pontificated about superstring theory, artificial intelligence, and other scientific topics. Meanwhile, part of me was aware of Cohen at my side, quietly watching me. I had a sudden vision of how he saw me: vain, self-absorbed, smug in my paltry knowledge. I silently gave thanks that I was not in thrall to this guru. As soon as this lunch was over I would walk away from him, free to be my flawed, foolish self.