June 29, 2009

Andrew Cohen: A Modern Day Trungpa?

article via Duff McDuffee

Is this Crazy Wisdom, or..?

Andrew Cohen is a controversial American guru. He has a tight-knit spiritual community, a cool pop spirituality magazine (EnlightenNextwith excellent graphic design written by and edited by community members, and has several provocative books and audio programs.

Cohen is passionate about waking up, and now. He cajoles and provokes you to take awakening seriously. Cohen brands his approach “evolutionary spirituality,” and often states that his view is on the leading edge of consciousness. He encourages a kind of waking up in community, not just individually.

Cohen is friends with “pandit” and integral philosopher Ken Wilber, with whom he has regular dialogues featured in EnlightenNext about emerging integral evolutionary consciousness. Some have called these dialogues “self congratulatory,” as Cohen and Wilber tend to agree on nearly everything:

  • that they are on the leading edge of post-postmodernist thought,
  • that consciousness is arranged in natural hierarchies,
  • that the “green meme” of care for the environment and other world-centric values is a place far too many people are stuck.

But many also find Cohen and Wilber exciting and challenging, integrating and enlivening.

Obviously not all agree with Cohen and Wilber’s views, nor do all agree with the actual spiritual practices of Cohen and his community. Among Cohen’s most significant detractors is…his own mother. Not long after Cohen went to India, he became a teacher and attracted a small following. His mother joined him as his student, but later left his community and wrote a book about his alleged abuses. But, perhaps, this was due to some unresolved tension between mother and son. After all, Jesus himself had to wander from his home town to find disciples, and Buddha’s family wanted him to come back to the palace and have a family life. Even Einstein was said to be a bad father. Can we fault Cohen for having imperfect family relationships?

The story goes on, however. Cohen also has a host of ex-community members, some anonymous and some public, who accuse him of behaviors ranging from bizarre to abusive on the blog What Enlightenment??! (a play on the old name of Cohen’s Magazine “What is Enlightenment?”). Until recently, Cohen and EnlightenNext official response was that these reports were taken out of context, effectively claiming that rituals like sending a community member out to the lake to scream “I am an asshole!” and dunk himself in the lake over and over for an hour was crazy wisdom. Recently however, Cohen and EnlightenNext completely deny these events as ever happening, in response to an Israeli journalist who wanted to give a balanced view of the story.

Other accusations of abuse include pressuring community members to give large sums of money, gifts of expensive clothing or flowers to make up for grievances, requiring the women of the community to sit in a sauna surrounded by strange charictatures depicting Cohen as being attacked by the women of the community, and deciding who can be intimate with whom in the community.

Is Cohen a modern-day Chogyam Trungpa, the “crazy wisdom” pioneer in bringing Buddhism to the West in the 70s and 80s? Or is Cohen a false and abusive guru? Or both? When does crazy wisdom cross the line into just plain crazy? What should we do when we hear accusations against spiritual teachers? And why do we fall for controversial gurus anyway? The stories from the ex-community members are just one side of the story—but an important side. Abuse tends to be perpetuated when nobody talks about it. Still, to talk about it is to risk making false accusations, and certainly to question our notions of spirituality and enlightenment.

How should we negotiate such sticky situations?

Cohen is outside of any established tradition. Within traditions, scandals are addressed more readily, but there is also more conservatism and dogma. One could argue that true innovation tends to occur outside of existing institutions. Cohen is clearly attempting to go beyond existing traditions with his “evolutionary spirituality,” so he is a member of no particular lineage (he also apparently had a falling out with his own teacher shortly after his enlightenment, which perhaps motivated going his own way!). Cohen also appears like a difficult man for many to work with, but so are many entrepreneurs and innovators who forge their own unique ways of being and doing in the world.

It would be easy to reject Cohen because he is imperfect (assuming the allegations have some truth to them), thus continuing our search for the “perfect guru.” But it is the very search for this impossible perfect person that leads us to fall for people who claim perfection. Yet to be silent is to be complicit, as we all know from the Holocaust, or from survivors of domestic abuse.

How can we accept the imperfections of our spiritual teachers and communities while also making them safe for all?

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