by Stephen Batchelor

I first met Andrew Cohen in the autumn of 1985. He stayed for
a few days in the Sharpham North Community near Totnes
in Devon, England, to which I belonged at the time. I remember
him as a rather intense and voluble young man. Shortly afterwards
he left for India to participate in a vipassana retreat in Bodh

About six months later, a friend returned from India and told
me in hushed, ecstatic tones that Andrew had become enlightened
upon meeting an Indian guru called Poonja-ji in Lucknow. I was
surprised: I had no idea of what to make of the information. Over
the next weeks, a trickle of people arrived in Totnes, all bearing
the same good news. Many of them had just spent time around
Andrew in Rishikesh. They were convinced that something extraordinary
was happening. Then Alka, Andrew’s girlfriend, arrived
in Devon and joined the staff at Gaia House, a nearby retreat
centre, where I was starting to teach. I listened to her recount the
same story again and again. She was calm, collected and focused
yet fired with a passionate conviction that a great guru, a world
teacher comparable to the Buddha, had appeared. As much as I
liked and respected Alka, I was skeptical.

Andrew returned to Devon, his way having been well prepared
by those who preceded him. The anticipation and curiosity
about him had reached a fever pitch by then. He started holding
satsang, or teaching, in a small house in the village of Ashprington,
near Sharpham. The meetings were soon packed. Andrew and his
followers moved to a larger venue in Beenleigh, a nearby farm.
One by one, my fellow community members and other friends in
the area went to hear Andrew. Almost without exception, they
were overwhelmed by the extraordinary effect Andrew’s teaching
and presence had upon them.

I was reluctant to go. This may have had to do with my own
insecurity as a young Buddhist teacher. I did not want my convictions
to be undermined by someone who, despite all the claims
made about him, still struck me as immature. Nor had I ever had
much time for Advaita Vedanta and Indian mysticism in general,
which I found over-emotional and intellectually incoherent. But, I
had to admit, perhaps this was just my Buddhist prejudice against
Hinduism. So one evening I went to the satsang at Beenleigh to see
what the fuss was about.

I squeezed into a poorly lit room, packed with people, many
of whom I knew, sitting in silence, eyes closed, cross-legged on
the floor. Then Andrew appeared, radiant and smiling, and sat
on an old armchair in one corner. It was one of the most tedious
evenings I can remember.

My strongest impression was one of massive transference
and counter-transference—these were psychoanalytic terms I recall
using at the time to best describe what I witnessed. Much of
the evening was spent in silence, punctuated by a phrase or comment
from Andrew, then, toward the end, a number of exchanges
between him and some of the students. Andrew said nothing
that was remotely memorable: it was blend of mystical Hindu-
Buddhist platitudes of the sort found in many popular tomes on
Eastern philosophy and religion. But the audience was entranced.
Often after Andrew made some remark, you would hear an orgasmic
gasp from someone in the room as though they had just
been shown the face of God.

What was going on here clearly had little if anything to do
with what Andrew was saying. The “teaching” and “dialogue”
were merely devices for building and sustaining an emotional
bond between Andrew and the students. While the students experienced
some sort of ecstasy by collectively projecting their spiritual
longings and ideals onto Andrew, Andrew seemed to need
the adulation of others to endorse the sense of being the enlightened
guru he and his students wanted him to be. The more this
interchange of mutually reinforcing desires went on, the greater
became the certainty that Andrew really was the savior of our age
and the students his first blessed circle of disciples. As long as this
bubble of shared conviction remained intact, everyone got what
they wanted.

I found it bewildering that so many of my friends were sucked
into this solipsistic whirlpool. The Sharpham community emptied
out until only my wife and I and one other person were left. The
committee that ran Gaia House dwindled to almost nothing as
trustees resigned in order to follow Andrew. People I thought I
knew well ignored me. Being outside their charmed circle, it was
as though I were invisible. I would find myself in the same room
as a group of shiny-eyed “Androids” but was excluded as they
ranted on about their sole obsession: Andrew Cohen. For them,
I was just another benighted soul who was unable to “open” to
what Andrew was saying. I confess that there were moments
when I had the terrifying doubt that rather than being the only
sane person in a community gone mad, perhaps I was the last
surviving madman in a community gone sane.

Then, to my relief, Andrew and his followers decided to go to
America. I saw Andrew only once again, when he briefly returned
to Devon a year or two later. I went to another satsang, but found
it just as incomprehensible as the time before.

The only way I can describe what I witnessed in Devon in the
1980s was the formation of a cult: a closed system of millenarian
belief exclusively focused on a single person who claimed absolute
authority. I regret now not having spoken out more strongly
against what was going on around Andrew Cohen at the time. But
not only was I confused and uncertain myself, it was impossible
to have a rational conversation with anyone who had chosen to
follow Andrew. For what could an unenlightened intellectual like
me possibly have to say about a teacher whose every word is an
expression of his unconditional relationship with the Absolute?

Authoritarian religion is one of the greatest dangers facing
humankind in our world today. Whether that authoritarianism
be Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist makes no difference. In
each case, an elite group claims absolute authority on the basis of
a text or a mystical revelation, then seeks to impose that authority
on others as the only way to achieve personal and collective salvation.
In this way, imperfect humans will be rendered more perfect
until the day comes when a heaven on earth is realized. Yet no
matter how often we observe such fantasies inflict enormous human
suffering, our appetite for more seems undiminished. This is
curious. Even intelligent and educated people remain vulnerable
to the ex cathedra promises of messiahs. It is as though a core part
of ourselves has never really grown up. Rather than take responsibility
for our own lives, we willingly hand it over to someone
else who claims to have direct access to God or the Absolute.

“I do not deny that we may have ‘experience of God,’” wrote
the English Buddhist monk Nanavira Thera in 1965. “Numinous
experience is just as real as sex or romantic love or aesthetic experience;
and the question that must be answered is whether these
things are to be taken at face value as evidence of some kind of
transcendent reality or whether the eternity they point to is a delusion.”
All belief in an unconditioned reality that transcends the
contingent, painful flux of this world is, I suspect, an understandable
but dangerous delusion. Rather than directing our longing
and energy towards the Absolute and the spiritual freedom it
promises, we need to turn our attention back to this world with
all its messiness and suffering. For if there is any liberation to be
found, it will be found here, in the midst of ordinary life, as a
freedom from the grasping and craving for the self or the world
to be perfect.

Stephen Batchelor
Aquitaine, March 2009