by John Horgan
Over the past twenty years, the myth of the totally enlightened guru has taken a beating
, as one avatar after another has been accused of depraved and even criminal behavior. Given the scandalous behavior of so many self-proclaimed enlightened masters, one can understand why Huston Smith insists that no mere mortal can achieve total enlightenment, and why Ken Wilber contends that all gurus—"no exceptions, none"--have feet of clay. But the myth of the totally enlightened being has proven to be extraordinarily persistent.
I first saw Cohen in the flesh on a blustery Sunday in early spring, when he gave a talk in Manhattan. 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 and slighter than I expected, with dark hair and moustache. He asked everyone to join him in meditation, and the room fell silent for several minutes. 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.
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, his dark eyes gleaming with demonic intensity.
Two days after I heard Cohen speak in New York, he agreed to meet me at a compound in western Massachusetts that serves as his headquarters. 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.
Cohen seemed to drift in and out of focus. His eyes never rolled completely back into his head, as they had in his talk (in New York.) 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.
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."
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.
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 pridefulness.
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."
For all his talk about our need for submission, Cohen has forged his own guruhood out of sheer willpower and faith in himself. If Cohen believes, unwaveringly, that he is the equivalent of Christ and Buddha and other Bodhisattvas, then his belief will be—must be!—fulfilled.
Cohen describes enlightenment as a form of not-knowing. And yet his guruhood, his entire life, revolves around his belief in—his knowledge of--his 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. If Cohen settled for being human instead of perfect, he’d probably be a better teacher, and a better man.
Excerpted from the longer article by John Horgan