Friday, October 29, 2004

Letter to a Seeker

[Note: I was a student of spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen from 1990 to 1997. This is a letter I wrote today to a seeker who spoke with me because he was both attracted to Andrew and concerned about things he had heard and read about him.]

Hi _____,

Once again I found it interesting, enjoyable and challenging speaking with you last night. I am happy to discuss these things with you any time.

I am intrigued by the question of what went wrong with Andrew and his realization. I think so much is contained in that. Not being self-realized myself, I find it difficult to say with certainty. But I think there are enough pointers I have heard that correlate with my experience with Andrew.

As I mentioned last night, I recall hearing from Andrew and Jerry, an old friend of mine who was a former student of Sasaki Roshi's, and later a student of Andrew's, about Andrew and Sasaki Roshi's meeting. The story is recounted in a very early edition of What Is Enlightenment magazine, Jan. 1993, vol.2, issue 1: "Death of a Zen Student." I just looked it up. Sasaki repeatedly stressed the centrality of love to Andrew. What struck me most from their meeting was how Sasaki cautioned Andrew to not be too "flurried" in his passion. He is quoted, "Some will agree with you, some will not. All are your friends."

I was with Andrew when he met (not for the first time) with the great Tibetan lama Chatrul Rinpoche, near Kathmandu. I think it was 1993. Chatrul kept saying over and over that you must have compassion; there are as many gates to the dharma as there are individuals; there is no one right way for everyone. Andrew did not seem to get the relevance of all of this to their meeting, and could not understand why Chatrul kept repeating this.

Both of these teachers were pointing early on to something in Andrew that has manifested in increasingly more disturbing ways over the years. Andrew has absolutized his own understanding, and his own teaching, believing it is the one true way for this time and for everyone. Anyone who disagrees with him he sees as weak, an enemy, a defector, or all three. Everything is black or white for him. In an attempt to bring the absolute into manifestation, he has absolutized the relative. As you said last night, he has lost touch with the innate perfection of being, and for that reason becomes "overwrought" at the imperfection he perceives in others. By doing so, he has lost touch with real love. And this explains why he feels justified in using extreme measures such as insult, humiliation, verbal abuse and worse to try to effect change in his students.

In the Dhammapada, Buddha is quoted as saying:" 'He insulted me, he beat me; he threw me down and robbed me.' Put away such thoughts and hatred will never arise.For in this world, hate never yet has dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate. This law is ancient and will last forever."

Jesus said, "Resist not evil." Advaita teachers point to the unreality of maya and the importance of staying in the absolute perspective that is love. For this reason they go so far as to say there is no good and bad, etc. This is not to advocate unethical conduct or foster the "advaita shuffle", although such teachings have been misused that way. Rather, I think that such teachers realize that it is only from a deep knowing of the beauty and perfection of being, and its intrinsic nature as love, that proper conduct comes. So the emphasis of Ramana, Nisargadatta, and all the other advaita greats is on staying in the proper perspective and then acting from that living understanding.

Of course, Andrew claims to be doing this. What appears to be anger, guilt-tripping and punitive conduct is, he would say, really just the manifestation of his love and passion for evolution. But how is saying that any different from the "advaita shuffle" that he so vocally criticizes?

I applaud your investigation and willingness to speak with people who spent a long time with Andrew. While you may wish to take Andrew up on his offer to speak to some who are still with him, I would caution you to consider this: every word they say to you and every word you say back will be reported to Andrew; and they will be subject to severe censure for anything they say that Andrew disagrees with. This is just the nature of the situation they are in. I know, I was there. Needless to say, such circumstances don't encourage honesty and forthrightness. But even if those who say their heroic suffering was all worthwhile honestly believe it, it doesn't make it so. As far as I know, not one of them is permitted to make their own decisions about important matters in their life, without receiving permission from Andrew. Not one of them have become truly independent and free.

One personally gratifying thing that I've learned from my conversations with you is that I have little personal animosity for Andrew left at this point. I actually appreciate much of my time with him, and in many ways respect his efforts and his intentions. I do vividly recall the oppressiveness and the complete loss of personal autonomy on every level in his community that eventually caused me to leave. But I also remember many good times. Most of all, I think we--myself, Andrew and the others in the community--gave all we were capable of giving in an idealistic effort to create an enlightened society as an exemplar for the creation of an enlightened world. What more noble thing can one try to do? I don't regret a minute of it. And, strange as it might seem in light of things I've said to you, personally, I somehow still find myself fond of Andrew.

But I think things have gone seriously awry. Like living in a dysfunctional family, my own experience of this awryness was in some ways subtle, yet powerful and pervasive. It has taken years to come to the point where I can see both the good and the bad of the experience. Most people who leave find it takes years to extricate themselves from the pain, misgivings, personal self-condemnation and doubt, anger at Andrew and the community, a sense of betrayal and hopelessness, and the fear of opening their heart spiritually to another teacher. Some, I'm afraid, may never get over it. Almost no one wants to even talk about the experience at all for months or even for a year or longer after leaving. For example, ________, who you've heard left about 6 months ago, is still completely unwilling to speak with anyone about it. That alone should tell you something.

I don't blame Andrew for all of this. I think we all play a part in the creation of the painful mix of enlightenment and insanity, of hope and fear, of bondage and ecstasy that he and his community embody. What I mean to say is that Andrew is not the first and won't be the last to lead folks down this road. The forces at play are much bigger than any one individual. We are all subject to such forces--manifesting in ultimately misguided utopian dreams taking religious, political, social, and even romantic forms. We each will probably continue to be subject to such delusions--or to a cynical disillusion that may be just as bad, if not worse--until we take complete responsibility for our own awakening, our own perfection, our own being as love.

That's a lot to ask and few seem able to do it. I'm struggling with it day and night. But one thing I learned from my years with Andrew for which I'm forever grateful is that it will never occur through forcefully trying to erase oneself--through self-annihilation and destruction of one's ego--by submission to another, to a group, or to an ideal, no matter how noble that other, group or ideal might seem. It has to come from within oneself, and by oneself. A teacher might point the way or provide an example. But you can't replicate another's journey. As my teacher Ranjit Maharaj used to say, "The Master can only give you the address. You have to go there yourself." Or, as UG Krishnamurti, another friend I made post-Andrew, says: "Why would you want to be a cheap imitation of Jesus or Buddha, when you can be perfectly yourself?"

I wish you luck with this endeavor. I'm impressed by your courage and your insight and think you'll succeed. If you need to spend a few years in Andrew's spiritual "boot-camp", so be it. But I hope you find a more direct and less painful way. I really don't think false heroism is required.

Here's the Rumi quote I promised you:
"All theologies are like straws His Sun burns to dust
Knowing takes you to the threshold, but not through the Door
Nothing can teach you if you don't unlearn everything
How learned I was, before Revelation made me dumb."
(From Andrew Harvey, Light Upon Light: Inspirations from Rumi)

What a great reminder that every teaching, no matter how seemingly profound and beautiful, has to ultimately be forsaken.

Warm regards, ______________


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting. An ex-student who still harbors some positivity towards Andrew. I think that there is a very real reason for this!

The first post I've read on this first visit to the site that, while I don't fully agree with, seems at least somewhat balanced in perspective and self knowledge.

Monday, 14 February, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am amazed that after all these decades, that people still get caught up in so called "self realized" cult leaders. For that's what this guy is. Perhaps someone like Andrew exists, inadvertantly perhaps, to teach people to think for themselves, to find their own path, their own spirit, their own way.

Any teacher who does not encourage personal and spiritual autonomy from the start is not worthy of being followed. It's that simple.

Wednesday, 16 February, 2005  

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