Saturday, 30 October 2010

American Guru


A recent disillusioned book concerning the American guru figure Andrew Cohen (left) is difficult to ignore in any assessment of the subject. American author William Yenner (right) states: “No one knowingly joins a cult. I spent more than thirteen years following the American guru Andrew Cohen” (Yenner, American Guru, New York: Epigraph, 2009, p. 1). This vocation ended in a sense of “forced enlistment in the service of an individual bent on total control” (ibid.).

Yenner is not the only witness here. The sub-title of his revealing book includes the phrase “former students of Andrew Cohen speak out.” The diverse contributors are clearly dissidents from former beliefs. Cohen’s website states that he founded EnlightenNext in 1988, “a nonprofit educational and spiritual organisation dedicated to pushing the edge of progressive culture” (ibid., p. 6). To critics, the word “progressive” is one of the most suspicious words in the American (and English) language. That word has been in extensive usage since the early 1970s, but still fails to convince.

The dissident book relates that Cohen consulted a lawyer to impose a five year gag order on Yenner, when the latter demanded repayment of a large donation (ibid., p. 7). So why the desperate measure of a gag? Yenner divulges that the curtailed information was “my own firsthand experience of operating, managing and leading his [Cohen’s] organisation” (ibid.).

The dissidents from EnlightenNext are reported to be the invariable target of Cohen’s verdict that “they’re losers, turning their backs on the holy life” (ibid., p. 8). What was the holy life? In Yenner’s case, he found that, for example, “unbelievable as it is to me now, I put all my energy into fabricating a harshly worded demand letter... from a fictitious creditor – including a complete series of false documents on bank letterhead and stationery and a toll-free phone number for inquiries” (ibid., p. 9). However, this is described as a “relatively minor” incident in the record of Cohen excesses. In particular, Yenner draws attention to “Cohen’s pervasive demonization and abuse of those students who dare to disobey, contradict or leave him” (ibid., p. 10).

Andrew Cohen’s employment of the “guilt-inducing tactic” is implied as an intimidation for dissidents who chose to remain silent. Yet the cordon could not prevent the appearance of well known dissident books, including one by Cohen’s own mother Luna Tarlo and entitled The Mother of God (1997). See also Andre van der Braak, Enlightenment Blues (2003). Further, in 2004 dissident blog posts commenced at whatenlightenment.net, describing instances of serious abuse that were being suppressed by EnlightenNext.

Meanwhile, Cohen had inaugurated a surprisingly influential magazine called What is Enlightenment? Ken Wilber, the exponent of integral spirituality, became a standard feature in the controversial “guru and pundit” dialogues. Cohen was here the guru, and Wilber the pundit. Partisans extolled the dialogues as great wisdom, though critics were strongly resistant. See Wilber and Cohen.


Yenner eventually found that, in 2008, Cohen instigated “a comprehensive denial of well-known events in his community that dozens of his students had witnessed or actually participated in – including the fact that he’d had me sign the abovementioned contractual gag order” (American Guru, p. 14). This measure was undertaken in order to prevent an article by a journalist (ibid., pp. 124ff.).

Twenty years earlier, Yenner had first learned of Cohen; in 1988, he heard a glowing story of how Cohen had gained enlightenment in 1986 at the hands of the rather obscure guru H.W.L. Poonja, who claimed to have been enlightened by the deceased Ramana Maharshi (d. 1950). Cohen’s mother expressed surprise that her son was considered transformed after only two and a half weeks of instruction (Tarlo, The Mother of God, p. 80). Andrew Cohen had thereafter spent two years teaching in England and Israel, returning to America having gained over a hundred students (Yenner, p. 18).

Yenner quickly became a devoted follower, attracted by the Advaita Vedanta teachings that Cohen used in his discourses. Those teachings are open to fluent duplication and distortion. There transpired to be no comparison with the example of Ramana Maharshi. Cohen’s community then numbered “approximately 130 people” (ibid., p. 20), and an increasing authoritarian policy emerged, with a proliferating code of punishments for supposed transgressions. Cohen became notorious for verbal lacerations of his students. Yenner now writes that, “of 130 of Andrew Cohen’s original students, 123 have left him, and Cohen has vilified almost all of them for having done so” (ibid., p. 63).

Yenner became business manager and one of the Board of Directors at the Foxhollow estate in Massachusetts, the h/q of EnlightenNext. He was the only student to gain the privilege of living in Cohen’s house (apart from the latter’s wife). Entrance fees and donations became a hallmark feature of the proceedings, along with the confrontational severity. “Andrew referred to his updated version of ‘crazy wisdom’ - a teaching modality with centuries-old roots in some Eastern spiritual traditions – as ‘Acts of Outrageous Integrity’ ” (ibid., pp. 29-30). Other analysts consider American crazy wisdom to be an improvised attribute of extremists like Chogyam Trungpa and Adi Da Samraj, connoting a fashion in aborted mysticism.

Face-slapping and name-calling became routine at Foxhollow, and with bizarre punlishments for those who disobeyed the purportedly enlightened American guru. One female victim had four buckets of paint poured over her head by ministrants of the guru’s displeasure. “She left the property traumatised and fell ill” (ibid., p. 33), being further harassed by accusing phone calls at the guru’s instigation.

In the mid 1990s, Cohen encouraged donations to atone for mistakes. “Andrew now began attaching price tags to his forgiveness for perceived wrongs” (ibid., p. 43). The ambitions of EnlightenNext required constant funding. The extraction of donations has been described in terms of “financial exploitation” (ibid.).The coerced donations could vary from small amounts to 80,000 dollars. Yenner was a donor at this extortionate rate, which he later regretted. After leaving the Foxhollow community in 2001, he commenced legal proceedings, and did manage to retrieve his donation, which he describes as an unprecedented event (ibid., p. 48). However, the attached gag order meant that he could not openly discuss Cohen community problems for five years, a period ending in 2008. These events came in the wake of his partisan efforts in which Yenner, for example, “began each day at 3 a.m. with a three-hour practice of one thousand prostrations before a photograph of Andrew” (ibid., p. 53).

The book by Yenner includes chapters about female students. Cohen is here revealed as being very harsh towards that contingent, one of whom wrote after leaving Foxhollow in 1998 that: “I was in a state of deep traumatic stress for months afterwards; I would wake up every night in terror, with panic attacks and thoughts of suicide” (ibid., p. 76). The same victim states: “we attempted to pay for our ‘sins’ by contributing money to buy expensive clothes and floral bouquets for Andrew, which had for years been the standard way to buy forgiveness” (ibid., p. 75). An even more discrepant episode is recounted of an elderly woman, who after being bullied on the telephone in 1999 by a shouting male student, “died with a broken heart and in a state of absolute inner terror and anguish” (ibid., p. 84).

Another ex-student, Andre van der Braak, suggested that Cohen was projecting his anger towards his mother in situations adverse to the female students (Enlightenment Blues, p. 162ff.). Certainly, the rift between Cohen and his mother Luna Tarlo has been considered significant. In 2008, a representative of EnlightenNext claimed on Cohen’s behalf that Tarlo had admitted to having “fictionalized aspects of her book for dramatic effect” (Yenner, pp. 109, 133). The following year, Yenner interviewed Tarlo, who denied the claim of the Cohen camp, and said that she was prepared to go to court with her notebooks to defend the accuracy of her book (ibid., p. 110). Tarlo also said here that her son was “responsible for destroying people” and for “damaging people” (ibid., p. 117); she implicated the Indian guru Poonja in the train of errors.

William Yenner concludes that Andrew Cohen’s version of perennial wisdom “rests on a foundation of dishonesty, corruption and pernicious abuse of power” (p. 149). Yenner also queries the position of celebrities who have endorsed Cohen, including Ken Wilber, Rupert Sheldrake, and Deepak Chopra. The sector of “alternative thought” is clearly a deceptive prospect.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
October 30th 2010

ENTRY no. 34

Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Cult Problem

In an earlier blog item Pseudomysticism and Cults (entry no. 14), I reflected on some recent events that are now causing widespread concern. The subject of “cults” has invited  considerable attention from sociologists. An associated subject, meaning that of  proclaimed “spiritual teachers,” is  pressing. In my view, philosophy should also attend to these matters, and indeed to an extent that would emphasise a gap in the existing academic curricula.

Of course, the phenomenon of cults has been attended by different arguments, for example, some Christian fundamentalists in America have railed against virtually any deviation from their own doctrine, implying the competitors to be “cults.” So we have to be careful in applying the evocative term of “cult” to any grouping or organisation unless there is strong reason to do so. The stigmatised “cult” might merely be an inoffensive or eccentric religious sect or movement with no record of bad behaviour, and no strong allegations to that effect being in evidence.

Suspect organisations are an intermediate category. These groupings may not be in any bracket of religious affiliation or sectarian identity. Yet they may operate in ways that arouse suspicion as to their validity, and as to the nature of their professed abilities. One example of this is the Findhorn Foundation, linked to the UN and advertising their claims of a spiritual education alongside an ecovillage facility and CIFAL status. Unfortunately, their long-term treatment of dissidents does not encourage unqualified acceptance of the promotionalism. Even known membership details of a major stigmatised victim have very recently been denied by the management tactics. See Denial of Membership (2010) and entry no. 32.

Certain Indian gurus, some of them deceased, have become the focus of allegations and controversies. Swami Muktananda, Sathya Sai Baba, and Sri Chinmoy are by no means an exhaustive listing in that respect.

Yet some Western gurus or “spiritual teachers” have been another subject of grievance with disaffected followers who emphasise discrepancies and abuse. Some say that this phenomenon is of more immediate relevance in Western countries. In particular, the names of two Americans are becoming well known: Adi Da Samraj (1939-2008) and Andrew Cohen. The exotic name of Adi Da is just one of the titles assumed by Franklin Jones, alias Da Free John. He claimed a unique spiritual status, though his role has been strongly repudiated by disillusioned followers. See further Adi Da Archives, which is a critical presentation of relevant data. Such information is there given as:

“Adi Da was considered a controversial figure due to persistent accusations that he was having sex with large numbers of devotees, drinking obsessively, abusing drugs, engaging in incidents of violence against women, and financially exploiting his followers. He rationalised all this as his way of teaching people, claiming his behaviour was selfless service designed to quicken the spiritual development of devotees by reflecting their own tendencies back to them....

“The inner circle was perhaps the most critical piece of infrastructure Adi Da developed to enable his decades-long pursuit of every kind of fulfilment for himself at the expense of others....The inner circle’s mission, amongst other things, was to hide what they could of Adi Da’s indulgent personal life, abusive treatment of others, and psychological issues. What they couldn’t hide, they explained away as his method of spiritual teaching, tantric practice, or ‘crazy wisdom.’ ”

The problem of “crazy wisdom” and other extremist attitudes is sufficient to merit close investigation. Incredulous critics often ask how the victims could ever become involved with predatory figures who cause such disillusionment. The fact is that such involvement has been occurring extensively since the 1970s. Obviously, the mechanism of deception requires attention, a drawback being that this can be kaleidoscopic in the range of manifestations achieved.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd
October 24th 2010

ENTRY no. 33


Copyright © 2010 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved.