Poonja Ji and Andrew Cohen, Enlightenment and Personality
Poonja Ji and Andrew Cohen
In the Summer of 1986, I was staying in Haridwar, India, awaiting the opportunity to meet H.W.L. Poonja Ji, whom I had learned about from Murry, a fellow traveler, at a high Himalayan shrine.
There was a knock on my hotel room door. It was Murry and Andrew Cohen. They had news to share with me and wanted me to walk to the Ganga to talk.
At the banks of the holy river, Andrew explained that he had just become enlightened by the grace of Poonja Ji, and that he was now beginning his teaching career. They planned to have satsangs in Rishikesh while they waited for Poonja to join them. Would I like to come along?
I was determined to meet Poonja (who was not commonly available in those days) so I went with them. About a dozen of us rented the rear compound of a temple in Laskman Jhula, and plunged into an orgy of Satsang, tea drinking, and Ganga dipping.
How can I capture the rare and fascinating dynamics of a man suddenly plunged into the role of spiritual teacher? He was trying to process and understand the sudden change he had undergone and he was attempting to enlighten others at the same time. It would be easy to focus on the negatives, it would be easy to focus on the positives, but it would be impossible to convey the totality of the situation without bias.
We stayed up regularly into the wee hours of the night, engaged in one-on-one dialogs and group discussions. (Eating kilos of mangos in the process) I thought Andrew was an unparalleled genius in using Socratic questioning to guide a person to a state where they would no longer have “a place to stand.” He could force a person’s mind into a self-canceling contradiction where thought was suspended and transcendent reality might have a moment to shine through.
For me personally, I benefited by Andrew’s explanation of the simple fact that the highest Self was not “an experience” by virtue of the fact that our highest Self was the experiencing consciousness, the subject, not object, of all experience.
I spoke with Andrew a great deal about his developing perspectives on his sudden enlightenment. He freely admitted to being a miserable neurotic seeker prior to his breakthrough with Poonja Ji. Andrew was certain that through Poonja, he had reached full and final enlightenment, beyond which no further progress was relevant. He claimed to be a radically changed man.
Later I found it ironic that a “fully enlightened” man would write a gushy love book about his guru, and then manage to have an ugly falling out with him, over petty issues. In a vast universe with untold planets and beings, underpinned by a timeless reality, maybe we shouldn’t use that word “final” so easily.
Andrew was also convinced that his students were becoming enlightened, or coming to the brink of enlightenment, at unprecedented speed. Folks were becoming “enlightened” and then falling from enlightenment at record pace. All this judged as true by a man claiming final and full enlightenment.
On one hand, Andrew’s approach was refreshing. He was a Western teacher unburdened by “Indian Guru Conditioning” Satsang was free of the ritualistic culture of respect, reverence, even worship, commonly found around Gurus. You could treat Andrew as a friend.
On the other hand, there was a feedback loop of praise and discovery that was plainly leading Andrew to suspect that he was such an exceptional teacher, that he just might be the greatest of all, perhaps the fountainhead of what could be a revolution of human consciousness in the planet.
I was turned off by Andrew’s apparent arrogance and narcissism. I was no stranger to great teachers with flaws, so I reserved judgment. Still, one of the great questions seekers face is “What is the relationship between the personality of the teacher, their ability to impart wisdom, the perfection of the Absolute, and it’s application to the relativities of human life in this world?” Let’s get back to that later.
The pressure to submit to Andrew grew and grew, as Andrew’s enlightening process seemed to depend on surrender to both “the Truth” and to Andrew. As students surrendered to Andrew, they looked to influence others to do the same.
While I clearly hadn’t surrendered, I was open to satsang and deepening my spirituality, so I submitted to Andrew’s questions and challenges. I had knowledge of Hindi, Sanskrit and various Indian philosophies. Andrew believed that I was attached to that knowledge and insisted that I throw my spiritual books in the Ganga. I felt that I had already come to terms with the limitations of paper knowledge, but eventually complied in order to prove my ambivalence. I felt neither freedom nor attachment in doing so.
I’d waited long enough to meet Poonja. A former Muktananda Swami and I somehow got permission to visit Poonja in Delhi. We left Andrew and crew in Rishikesh.
Within a few weeks of meeting him in Delhi, Poonja Ji had declared me enlightened as well, and given me permission to teach as he had given Andrew permission to teach. I believe I was the second appointed teacher of Poonja’s. At this point, I don’t believe Poonja had an idea of what exactly he expected from his emissaries. It was certainly not the case, as some have suggested, that Andrew’s role was to attract followers to Poonja Ji in Lucknow. Poonja’s health was in serious question in 1986. He had no ashram, no attendant disciples, no history of collecting followers, and there was no talk of changing that. He didn’t even have a “teaching” in a conventional sense.
On the other hand, I don’t think he expected Andrew to make up his own teachings and declare himself transcendent of his guru. I had no discussions with Poonja regarding how teaching should proceed. I think Poonja Ji assumed that anyone grounded in Truth would be guided from within. Poonja always let his followers be free. He never demanded any money from me, nor gave me any orders. Rather he’d buy me a mango lassi and sit in communing silence with me if I didn’t have any questions.
I had experienced a radical transformation 8 years earlier, where I clearly perceived the unity and perfection of all things as consciousness. You could say that I was reborn, but not without my own share of delusions and confusions. The “enlightenment” that I later experienced with Poonja Ji was no such “big bang.” It was an ineffable shift that opened a clear sense of my own eternal nature as consciousness. I had always been a happy and peaceful person; my immersion in my own presence had been continuous in my mental background since my initial awakening. I’d be tempted to say that Poonja simply gave me proper understanding of my Self, but I’m afraid this would miss a transcendental aspect of his transmission that defies words and understanding.
This “enlightenment” transmission of Poonja Ji has been controversial since other paths have views of enlightenment that are much more extreme in terms of mystical knowledge and power. I consider “enlightenment” to be a term that is not only misunderstood, but misleading, and somewhat counter-productive. Our consciousness is continually being refined through experience and yet it expands in quantum leaps throughout our evolution. Every one of those quantum leaps seems like “enlightenment.” Humans are pretty blind and contracted. A glimmer of divine light seems like a thousand suns.
The reason I relate the story above is for the sake of those who would make the “enlightened” man’s behavior and pronouncements infallible and sacrosanct. I was, and am, more than capable of mistakes of all sorts, of being swayed by lust and greed, and plenty of other weaknesses and vices. I am totally confident that Andrew is in the same boat, only with his own individual set of faults and vices. Apologists will claim that I’m merely projecting my own imperfection on Andrew. Maybe so. Yes, our innermost essence is totally transcendent of these human foibles, but it isn’t the one cashing the checks either.
Here is an unfortunate nexus of spiritual law and human weakness: The spiritual law is “Ask and it shall be given, seek and you will find.” If somebody comes to a teacher, and asks from sincerity of her heart, the teacher may act as a conduit for universal consciousness to guide that person. The more faith that the questioner has in the teacher, the more likely they are to draw out an inspired answer, and the more likely they will be to accept and enact the teacher’s advice.
Unfortunately, we are all silly humans with faults. Our ego is scum floating on the ocean of truth and it gets slimy over anything that emerges from that ocean. I’m mindful to realize that observing “miracles” happening, and being showered with love, respect, and obedience could make a person believe that his scum was as pure as the ocean below.
When I returned to the United States, I determined that if I were to serve the Truth with integrity, I wouldn’t depend on proclaiming myself be the Most High and expecting folks to fall in line. I would let the Spirit guide my destiny. It turned out that I quickly fell in love and fell into drama. I have moved through those challenges but am not fooled to think my human side is obliterated or beyond influence.
After exchanging numerous letters with Poonja Ji and meeting him in New York, I continued to have questions regarding the guru’s personality versus his enlightenment. While Poonja preached non-judgment and non-comparison, he seemed to indulge in his share. I wrote him a letter asking for clarification but didn’t hear from him. Poonja was always setting his students free, not creating a dependency, so I left our connection on the inner level rather than external, and went on with life.
In 1996, it struck me that Poonja Ji had been very generous with his time and love with me. He had actually cried when he felt I was enlightened. He would also die someday. I wanted to be sure that there was no gulf between us. I had also heard about the feud between Poonja and Andrew and hoped that perhaps I could help mend fences. I was sure that Andrew, despite his faults, meant well, and I knew the same about Poonja. Why should high beings, so intimately connected, be so estranged? If the Gurus were at war, what hope do nations have?
I wanted to clear waters and test his reaction to Andrew. I wrote Poonja Ji a letter. Here is an important except.
“I believe it has been at least seven years since I have seen or written you. Even though I have not felt separate from you during all that time, I hope you still remember this wayward Son of yours and forgive me for not fulfilling my potential as a teacher. I understand that Andrew, who did accept the teaching role with both hands, has become such a demigod that he can no longer love his good Father the way he used to. When I see that, I feel glad that I judged myself as not yet fit for that work, as I would never want to fall short in such a critical role. I am not in a position to judge, so I wish love and wisdom for all, and hope Peace and Understanding ultimately prevail.”
Poonja Ji replied on 7-18-96. 99 percent of its essence can be gleaned from the following excerpt.
“..the student who abuses his teacher goes to the 7th Hell, where one is thrown into fire, and again revives, and again is thrown into the fire, this will continue for a million years in this Hell. Later he will be born into the pigs family….” And on and on! “…you are a most lucky person to have saved from living with such rascals. If you don’t have enough money, stay where you are Divine will Bless you.”
I’m afraid my friends, that we live in a dark world where the Spirit doesn’t fully rectify the personality of the fortunate ones who realize transcendent truth. Seek the truth, and follow a path with a heart, but don’t expect idealized perfection where it can’t exist.
Attempts to force “Heaven on Earth” through moralism and ideology fail to recognize that it is the very nature of life on this planet to grow by struggling though our ignorance. If this planet were to evolve beyond it’s darkness, another planet would have to come into being to fulfill that niche. It’s a greater mystery than anyone can explain in human terms, but everything at each moment has a perfect place in the totality. Change yourself, and your world automatically changes.
This world is a like a big drunk party. You might learn to see through your state of intoxication and call it enlightenment, but you’re still in danger of crashing your car if you drive too fast.
It’s important to note that realization of the Self does not necessarily convey realization of the complete spectrum of relative truth and manifest reality. The world will be saved or lost in a reflection of the totality of our consciousness. Either result will be a perfect outcome in the face of Eternal Consciousness.
Still, I’m confident that our journey in refining and awakening consciousness is something beautiful and sacred. Experience the poetry of life in love and beauty. Learn from teachers, a mysterious transmission is possible, but know that the only realization you can have is from within. Take a path with a heart, and open to eternity.