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The Myth of the Totally Enlightened Guru

In the mid-1970’s, I spent a year living in Philadelphia, and while there I took classes in Kundalini yoga. The classes convened at a house, or ashram, inhabited by male and female Kundalini devotees, all of them Americans. They all wore the traditional white linen clothing and turbans of Sikhs. The lanky, bearded head of the house taught the weekly classes, which consisted of tendon- and spine-twisting postures, stomach crunches, repetition of the mantra "sat nam," and dizzying breathing exercises, including a form of hyperventilation called "breath of fire."

This form of yoga was introduced to the U.S. by an Indian adept named Yogi Bhajan, who was said by my Kundalini teacher to be completely enlightened. When Yogi Bhajan came to Philadelphia and gave a talk at the university I was attending, I went to see him. Swathed in white robes, he was a bearish, bearded, jolly man, Santa Claus as swami. I cannot recall what Yogi Bhajan said, but I remember being entranced. He exuded an intelligence and self-assurance that seemed superhuman. He had a mischievous smile that hinted, "I know." Before the talk, I had been tense and exhausted from studying for final exams. Listening to Yogi Bhajan speak, I became strangely elated, and a headache that had nagged me all day vanished. At the time, I attributed my lift in mood to being in the presence of a fully enlightened being.

I mention this episode only to show that for at least one evening decades ago I believed in the myth of the totally enlightened guru. By total enlightenment, I mean not the flashes of insight that occur during drug trips or meditation, which last scarcely longer than an orgasm. Nor do I mean the down-graded quasi-enlightenment that Ken Wilber and others speak of, which confers a certain degree of detachment from the vicissitudes of existence but leaves our needy, neurotic selves otherwise unchanged. No, I mean full-blown enlightenment, the kind that Buddha supposedly achieved. Supreme wisdom and grace and serenity, total self-transcendence, liberation from mundane reality and morality. Not just a glimpse of heaven but permanent habitation of it. This is the enlightenment that gurus such as Yogi Bhajan supposedly attained and that they promised to devotees.

The totally enlightened guru is in a sense another mystical technology. Through devotion to the guru--which Hindus call guru yoga--we too may vault beyond this vale of tears to the promised land of nirvana.

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. Susan Blackmore and James Austin, as hard-nosed and skeptical as they are, believe in total enlightenment, and I still feel the myth’s allure myself now and then.

In the summer of 1996, I was perusing a newsstand in Grand Central Station when I noticed a glossy magazine titled What Is Enlightenment? The subtitle read: "Dedicated to the discovery of what enlightenment is and what it really means." According to its masthead, the magazine was published twice a year by Moksha, an organization founded by a spiritual teacher named Andrew Cohen. This particular issue, headlined "Is the Guru Dead?", addressed the growing tendency of spiritual seekers and teachers to reject the notion of the totally enlightened guru. The magazine explored this topic in an article by George Feuerstein on crazy wisdom, as well as in interviews with a Benedictine monk, a Russian Orthodox patriarch, a rabbi, and other spiritual teachers.

The issue also featured a vigorous defense of the myth of the totally enlightened guru by Andrew Cohen, the magazine’s publisher. Just because some gurus fail us, Cohen said, we should not conclude that all gurus are flawed—or that absolute enlightenment is an unachievable ideal. "If such a goal is unattainable," Cohen wrote, that would mean "there really is no way out of the human predicament." Reading between the lines, it was obvious that Cohen believed himself to be totally enlightened.

Curious about Cohen, I did some research and found that his history teems with conflicts and contradictions. Born in 1955, he was a self-described neurotic adolescent raised in New York City by unhappily married parents. 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.

Shortly thereafter, when Andrew was sixteen, he was talking to his mother late one night when he was suddenly 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 glimpse of mystical reality. For several years Cohen practiced drumming and fantasized about becoming a professional jazz drummer, but in his early twenties he decided that he could only achieve fulfillment through 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 a guru named Poonjaji. Just after they met 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 recalled in his book. Poonjaji assured Cohen that he was now totally enlightened—as much so as Poonjaji’s own teacher, the legendary guru Ramana Maharshi--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 what Poonjaji was saying behind his back, Cohen sadly realized that his former guru was not totally enlightened, as Cohen had believed. Cohen declared that not only Poonjaji but 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 scathing history of her son’s ascent to guruhood and her disenchantment with him. Published in 1997, The Mother of God compares Cohen to cult leaders such as Jim Jones and David Koresh, who led their followers to horrible deaths.

Tarlo’s concern is understandable. Cohen has a spectacular case of the "I’m enlightened, and you’re not" syndrome. 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. They looked affluent and Bohemian, the types you would expect at a lecture on Beat poetry or hypertext novels at the New York Public Library. 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 and slighter 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 scritching 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, his dark 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. No one notices a bald man, but a bald woman...

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 the woman would be mortified by being forced to expose herself, but she radiated relief.

A burly, hairless man on the opposite side of the room announced that he had thought about getting hair plugs to counteract his baldness but had decided instead to shave 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 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. 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, and suddenly I thought he was reading my mind. My heart raced, and my breathing became labored. Fortunately, this moment of bizarre 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 issues like this.

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 in his talk 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."

Actually, 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: a guru named Aija, who was once committed by his family to a mental hospital and spent years wandering through India naked; and a woman named Vimala Thakar. 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."

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 may have made Cohen cold. For a self-professed Bodhisattva, he was awfully 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.

One of my favorite issues of Cohen’s journal What Is Enlightenment is titled "The Self Masters: Are They Enlightened?" It considers the differences between eastern-style gurus like Cohen and western "self masters" such as Anthony Robbins and Jack LaLanne, who preach the power of positive thinking to make us healthy and wealthy.

The issue features a comical dialogue between the fitness mogul LaLanne and Cohen. Cohen keeps trying to get LaLanne to talk about the need for submission to a higher power, and LaLanne keeps reiterating that his success stems from his belief in himself. Forget all this spirituality hooey, LaLanne declares. What people need is a better diet, more exercise, and plain old positive thinking! By the end of the interview, Cohen has been reduced to a nerdy New Ager standing in awe before the force of nature that is Jack LaLanne.

In an introduction to the interview, Cohen dismisses LaLanne’s philosophy as "one-dimensional," but he also expresses admiration for the exercise guru: "How many of us can claim to know the peace of mind and purity of heart of one such as Jack LaLanne?"

I suspect that Cohen sees LaLanne as a kindred spirit. 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.

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 arcana. Meanwhile, part of me was aware of Cohen at my side, quietly watching me. I had a sudden vision of how I must have appeared through his eyes: 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.

Postscript: The Kripalu Affair

Several months after my meeting with Andrew Cohen, my misgivings about the myth of total enlightenment were inforced by a visit to Kripalu, a yoga center just down the street from Cohen’s compound in Lenox, Massachusetts. One of Kripalu’s most popular teachers is Michael Carroll, a whippet-thin man in his early 40’s with short dark hair who is also known as Yoganand.

In the late 1970’s, when he was a college student in South Carolina, he fell under the spell of an up-and-coming Indian-born guru named Amrit Desai.
Carroll dropped out of college and followed Desai from South Carolina to Massachusetts, where Desai established the Kripalu center.

In the late 1980’s, with Desai’s encouragement, Carroll became a monk, with no responsibilities except the pursuit of total enlightenment. Desai gave Carroll a new name: Yoganand. He shaved his head, wore a robe, and meditated at least ten hours a day. His weight dropped to 108 pounds. Carroll practiced Brahmacharya, a yogic discipline that prohibits sexual intercourse and masturbation and discourages even casual interaction with members of the opposite sex.

Although Desai was married and had three children, he had told the community that he and his wife now practiced Brahmacharya. Beginning in 1986, however, rumors circulated at Kripalu that Desai had committed adultery with one and possibly more female devotees. Desai publicly denied the charges. He also privately insisted on his innocence to Carroll, and Carroll believed him. Carroll and the rest of the Kripalu community were therefore devastated in 1994 when their guru finally confessed to several affairs and resigned.

Carroll described this period as a kind of reverse awakening. He realized that he had devoted his entire adult life to a man who, far from being an enlightened saint, was a liar and philanderer. Approaching middle age, Carroll had never had a regular job; except for a brief relationship in college, he had never been involved with a woman. Renouncing his monkhood, he let his hair grow, exchanged his robes for western clothes, began dating. Together with other former devotees of Desai, he helped to recreate Kripalu as a guru-less yoga school.

Carroll had many powerful mystical visions during his years as a monk. Now the meaning of those experiences had changed for him. Before he had seen them as steps taking him toward enlightenment. Now, he no longer believed in enlightenment, at least if it is defined as spiritual perfection. Nor did he believe in God, an afterlife, reincarnation, or any absolute truth. How could he be certain of anything, after what had happened to him?

Carroll saw the future as a great mystery now. He had no idea where it would lead. He had traded his pursuit of enlightenment for worldly ambitions. He wanted to be a successful yoga teacher, and to help make Kripalu a successful center. He wanted to make money, so that he could buy things for himself and his girlfriend. He was thinking of writing a book. He still could not forgive the guru he had once worshipped; he called Desai a "pervert" and "liar."

But to my mind, Carroll was fortunate that his guru was a lying philanderer, and exposed as such. If Amrit Desai had not been so imperfect, Carroll might still be living the life of a monk, meditating for more than ten hours a day in pursuit of enlightenment, sealed off from the messy, painful, baffling world.