Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Cohen Ain't No Marpa

Review of Enlightenment Blues
by laffnowl

One of the most dangerous trends in modern spirituality is the misguided submission to a supposedly enlightened authority's use and abuse, in the belief that this serves one's spiritual progress. This has been documented before but not by a long-term and intimate insider with the sensitivity, thoughtfulness and laudable balance of "Enlightenment Blues," a moving memoir of Andre Van der Braak’s years with American guru Andrew Cohen.

The book is far from a stereotypical expose of a cult leader. If that was its intent, the author could have made hay of far worse documented examples of abuse of power than he experienced, which have occurred in the years since he left Cohen. (This reviewer, another disenchanted former student of Cohen's, has read and heard from other "survivors" more recent stories of levels of weirdness and cruelty far surpassing anything recounted in "Enlightenment Blues.")

Instead, the author shows both the promise and the problems (both subtle and gross) of such a spiritual community, making it understandable how intelligent folks can be seduced to give their autonomy away in a harmful manner. What is more, the author, with heart-rending honesty and vulnerability, does not hide his own shortcomings and moments of weakness. Of course, some folks will always disagree, like an earlier reviewer, who compared Cohen to Marpa, saying “Perhaps Van der Braak should write an historical deconstruction discrediting Marpa, the Tibetan teacher of the great Milarepa, known for giving his student such a hard time. I wonder if Milarepa would agree.” Such individuals will always try to justify even the worst teachers with comparisons to legendary "tough love" givers like the 11th century Tibetan master Marpa the Translator. (Andrew Cohen has used this self-serving comparison about himself many times, and the earlier reviewer and former student here has apparently bought into it.)

But comparing Andrew Cohen to Marpa is like comparing George Bush to George Washington. Marpa's apparent cruelty to Milarepa was justified, in hindsight, by its result--Milarepa became one of the great saints of Tibet. Andrew has yet to produce anyone who can stand on his own as a teacher, far less an enlightened saint. (And Cohen has been at it for almost 20 years.) Marpa's treatment of Milarepa was unique, and based on the fact that Milarepa had murdered scores of people before coming to Marpa. Andrew humiliates his students across the board for the slightest perceived transgressions.

Finally, Marpa's tough treatment of Milarepa ended once he proved himself and was initiated into the teachings. Andrew's destructive wielding of power only really begins-and steadily worsens-once the student is firmly ensconced in the group. (See earlier post “Progressive Indoctrination”.)

Teachers like Cohen (and their students), who attempt to justify their misdeeds by misleading comparisons to great teachers of the past, rely on seekers' superficial knowledge and grasp of religious history and dynamics. Anyone who reads Van der Braak's book stands to be inoculated against such error, both with regard to Cohen and to other self-appointed saviors.


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