Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru
Monkfish Book Company, 27 Lamoree Rd., Rhinebeck, NY 12572 (www.monkfishpublishing.com), 2003, 228 pages, ISBN 0-9726357-1-8 (pbk) spirituality/memoir
Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart
Enlightenment Blues is the second significant memoir I have read by a former student/disciple of the American guru Andrew Cohen—the first was by Cohen’s mother, Luna Tarlo, who published Mother of God in 1997. Andre van der Braak knew Tarlo as they were “students” together and shared a house briefly. He read Tarlo’s book during his final struggles to defect after eleven years of devotion to Cohen’s unnerving spiritual leadership and the idiosyncratic cult of enlightenment focused on the guru. Van der Braak currently is a Ph.D. candidate and teaches philosophy in Amsterdam. During his hiatus with Cohen, van der Braak rose and fell in the community ranks and became one of Cohen’s chief editors, in one case reading over 4,000 pages of transcripts from Cohen’s talks, then pruning and shaping them into the book, Enlightenment is a Secret. Curiously, for his dissertation subject he chose Nietzsche.
Cohen, now around fifty years old, apparently has held sway over a core of one hundred fifty students, a number that has not significantly changed over the past fifteen years despite the continual turnover. Nevertheless, he has continued to teach that his enlightenment is a “revolution” that would change the face of planetary spirituality. Van der Braak describes his early years as a young Catholic with a romantic, idealistic bent. He was a good athlete but his stuttering disorder contributed to his shyness. Early on he was attracted to Transcendental Meditation, the J. Krishnamurti teachings, and Buddhism. He encountered the writings of the prolific transpersonal philosopher, Ken Wilber. Van der Braak did his Masters thesis on Wilber. [Ken Wilber who is still writing and developing remains influential among intellectually sophisticated New Age seekers. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were both reading Wilber during Clinton’s second term. Wilber was once a disciple of the teachings of Da Free John, a.k.a. Da Love Ananda, if not a supporter of that American guru’s controversial behavior and cult following.]
According to van der Braak, Andrew Cohen once entertained having Wilber as his disciple (not that Wilber ever reciprocated). I mention this because the reader of van der Braak’s book might easily react with disdain or pity for the devotees described in the book, who for all intents and purposes follow an immature trust fund hippie with a cocky self image. I know a part of me did, namely that part that works hard for a living and tires to be a good husband and father. One has to wonder how anyone could fall for such a transparently overvalued cause. Cohen had absolutely no training as a monk or a leader in the mystical tradition he claimed to embody. Until members gave significant donations (One former female student complained of succumbing to pressure from Cohen to give two million dollars.), Cohen reportedly lived mainly from a trust he inherited from his grandmother around 1985, when he left on his spiritual quest to India. In short order after some superficial seeking (a.k.a. guru hopping), he met Poonja, a then little known follower of Ramana Maharshi, who was an Indian “saint” in the Advaita tradition. Poonja somehow recognized that Andrew was special and “transmitted” or sparked feelings of “enlightenment” in him. This epiphany transformed Cohen into a driven man. He appeared to some of his friends to exude the enlightenment he claimed to have received.
Cohen’s group evolved over time from one of a free-wheeling band of devotees who had personal access to the guru and directly felt both his charm and his intensity. Within the first few years it had become, according to Cohen’s mother Luna Tarlo, just another fascist enterprise. Not unlike so many new religious movements, this one flourished initially due to the enthusiasm of these first students who advertised Cohen’s cause. The message was that there is a new messiah, a revolutionary avatar, or an emerging Buddha among us now—come and see! The bulk of this book engages the reader in the intimate world of the devotees, what they were thinking and feeling and how they struggled with an increasingly irrational if demanding leader. Cohen convinces a male student to have his twenty thousand-dollar Saab crushed to end his attachment.
We follow the author through group events and relocations from Amsterdam to India and from Massachusetts to Marin County. He describes his ascent to key editor and sub-leader as well as his demotion to common student. Along with all students of the inner circle, Cohen micro-managed van der Braak’s sexual relationships and whether any close student had sex at all. Celibates were required to shave their heads. Van der Braak’s roller coaster journey was not unique in the group. To anyone familiar with ex-cult member autobiography [I’ve read at least 100 accounts in published books and unpublished manuscripts], van der Braak inadvertently exposes the tragic pattern common to authoritarian groups that have poor checks and balances. One feature is a leader who manages by perceiving constant, often bizarre crises while demanding unquestioning loyalty, not unlike a hapless military campaign trapped in an amusement park. Cohen reportedly threw temper tantrums, if he felt criticized in the news media, for example. This is one unfortunate result of radical dualism in action or groups that devalue the “world” as an illusion while obsessing over a mysterious something or ideal they call gnosis or enlightenment.
As van der Braak so skillfully relates in his narrative, Cohen may have been immature but he was no idiot. The guru’s utter confidence in his new spiritual status was contagious to many seekers he met, and he was clever enough to reduce the experience of enlightenment to simple, radical notions that at least could attract and impress the novice. Van der Braak does help us appreciate the human need for spiritual resolution, and the need for most of us to believe that some saints or gurus have somehow managed to tap into communion with transcendental mysteries. It certainly was his need, and like so many who end up in spiritual pits instead of a path our author found many like-minded seekers who shared in his struggle to make sense of Cohen’s selfish style.
In the end he expounds to another student why he rejects Cohen: “But in Andrew’s case he actually managed to realize all his youthful fantasies, make them into a permanent lifestyle. And he managed to convince all of us to live in this way too.” Van der Braak basically describes Cohen as a narcissist stuck in his adolescence and out of control. Van der Braak holds no hostile agenda to destroy Cohen—his stated intent was to honestly describe his experience and to offer assistance to anyone else struggling to break with or understand a group like Cohen’s. This book fulfills its stated purpose well—it is more about caution and the seeker’s quest than it is about social or historical analysis, though the author does some appropriate pontificating. However, van der Braak almost lost my respect in his opening intro: “All religions point to the same transpersonal truth.” I clench my teeth whenever I hear absolute statements by someone I sense has no or little more insight into “transpersonal truth” than I do. But the book redeemed itself for me by the end, and I felt I learned something intimate about a man who matured in his humility and found strength enough to reveal his way of getting there.