What Happens When Your Guru Disappears?

Followers expected the swift return of spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen after he stepped down in the wake of scandal. That was two years ago, and there’s been no sign of him since.

03.27.15 9:20 AM ET

What happens when the guru up and quits?

The controversial American spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen did just that about two years ago, and his disappearing act became an enduring mystery in the New Age world. 

In June 2013, amid increasing allegations of abuse and cultish behavior, Cohen formally apologized in an open letter to his worldwide community of followers and voluntarily relinquished his 27-year reign as their “Perfectly Liberated Spiritual Master.” Perhaps this is not earth-shaking news to observers accustomed to tales of cult leaders gone bad, but within the spiritual subculture, Andrew Cohen quitting his job and vanishing was a very big deal. 

Despite all “the blood and tears he left in his trail,” as he sometimes boasted, he had consistently weathered all attempts to expose and depose him, and actually seemed to be at the top of his game. He was the author of 11 provocative books about the spiritual path; he served as editor of What Is Enlightenment?, a once-popular, thoughtful and respected magazine; he was the founder of EnlightenNext, a nonprofit global organization. He lectured internationally, often appearing in public dialogue with leading theologians, philosophers, and scientists. He led retreats around the world; and in 2012 he was #28 on Mind Body Spirit magazine’s list of the top 100 most spiritually influential people alive.

Before his ascent to spiritual stardom, Andrew Cohen was an ardent seeker and committed meditator, but it wasn’t until a fortuitous meeting in 1986 that he was quite suddenly propelled into the guru profession. That cataclysmic “awakening” event occurred in Lucknow, India, only 20 minutes into his first encounter with H.W.L. Poonja—“Poonja-ji”—a guru who declared Andrew to be “finished” with his spiritual path and destined to be the successor Poonja-ji had waited for his entire life.

Cohen took that ball and ran with it, and before long had followers and communities all over the world. He also denounced Poonja-ji along the way, leaving him standing alone at the head of the spiritual class, without a lineage, or at the very least, some qualified supervision, which is required even to become a licensed social worker, though clearly unnecessary for an Enlightened Master.

I first went to see Cohen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1989, and was unimpressed. He was presiding over a room of perhaps 200 acolytes who appeared to have surrendered their personal decision-making power over to this conservatively dressed Jewish guy who resembled many of the kids I grew up with in the New Jersey suburbs. He fielded questions like, “Should I eat meat?” or “Should I break up with my girlfriend?” or “Where should I live?” He responded to all of them with authoritative instructions.

I stood in the back, dead center, and at one point he looked up and picked me out of the crowd: “Do I know you?” he asked. I immediately answered, “B’nai Israel Hebrew School? Fair Lawn, New Jersey? Little League?” And that was the end of our interaction. For eight years, anyway.

Then in 1997 I found myself in Rishikesh, India, on my own spiritual pilgrimage, and discovered that Andrew’s photograph was plastered all over town, announcing his upcoming two-week retreat. The local bookstores were carrying all his published works. I quickly read them all, and decided to attend.

Unlike our first encounter, on the retreat I did notice something very interesting. I had always been a restless meditator, never able to last longer than 15 minutes before needing to adjust my position. Sitting with Andrew, however, I found to my amazement that I was able to sit effortlessly for 90 minutes in perfect stillness. So there was definitely an “energy” in that room with which I was previously unfamiliar.

But as a seasoned Buddhist practitioner later pointed out to me, “Energy is not inherently a good thing.”

As the two weeks of the retreat unfolded, my “cult antennae” became increasingly aroused. Disagreeing with or challenging Andrew about anything was simply not permitted, and would be met with public humiliation and scorn from him, accompanied by his particularly annoying, cackling laughter. Cohen likened his “Perfect Teachings” to a glittering diamond, shining and flawless no matter through which facet it is viewed.

When the retreat was over, Andrew’s written works went on display and I picked up an early copy of his newsletter and discovered that his followers addressed their letters to him with the salutation “Dear Lord.”

That very same newsletter grew and expanded over the years into the aforementioned What is Enlightenment?, in which Cohen managed to attract and interview respected luminaries not only from the spiritual world, but esteemed social activists, eco-pioneers and other visionaries on the cutting-edge of contemporary, paradigm-shifting work. Although it often seemed as if he was actively cultivating “respect-by-association.”

While Andrew consistently presented a public face as the very model of integrity, often denouncing other teachers for their imperfections and bad behaviors, he was engaging in them himself. He had a community of devotees living with him on a property in Lenox, Massachusetts, adhering to a strict regime of rules and regulations, with him comfortably ensconced as King of the Castle.

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It gradually came to light that anyone deviating in the slightest from their leader’s ideas or instructions were subject to bizarre punishments, humiliation, and community shunning, and anyone who wanted to leave often had to literally escape in the dead of night.  Scores of people reported suffering emotional, physical, financial, and spiritual trauma at his hands.

Notably, however, sexual misconduct was not part of these allegations. According to his critics, Cohen was manipulative, dictatorial, demanding, and mean. But not a sexual predator.

Gradually, disaffected members of his community revealed horrific tales of Andrew’s misdeeds online, and his attempt to hide behind a cultish veil of secrecy became more and more untenable as the Internet grew. A website was established to serve as a sounding board for those who finally escaped the clutches of Cohen’s charismatic hold on them, and—not unlike the meltdown underway at the Church of Scientology—it included people formerly in his inner circle.

Even Cohen’s own mother, Luna Tarlo, publicly turned against him. In an astonishing memoir entitled The Mother of God, she characterized her son as a living Buddha or Christ, and like any good Jewish mother, was his most loyal devotee. But later she had a disagreement with Andrew’s methods and he kicked her out of his community. She then altered her assessment, calling him “a dangerous tyrant” and compared him to Jim Jones and Hitler. Freud would have had a field day with that one.

Unaware of any of that, I unwittingly incurred Andrew’s public scorn on the retreat when I made the innocent comment that “One measure of enlightenment is the quality of one’s relationship with one’s parents.” Oops. 

Although Cohen was able to fend off all the allegations for quite some time, and had many loyal, staunch defenders counterattacking his attackers, eventually his reputation moved beyond “damage control,” and his global empire crumbled in a single day, just as he had originally become an Enlightened Master overnight.

That was two years ago. Since then, his disappearance has turned into a spiritual version of Where’s Waldo. All Google hits terminate abruptly in 2013, and there hasn’t been a peep out of him since.

Initially it was unclear whether his seeming contrition was for real or merely a political necessity. Many to whom he apologized said that he seemed robotic, as if begrudgingly doing what was required of him to salvage his reputation.  Even more telling, an email from his P.R. team was leaked at the time of his demise, letting his inner circle know how they intended to “spin” his humble retreat from public life and possibly pave the way for his return in the spring of 2014.

But that never happened, and I’ve since learned that the P.R. team itself abandoned ship soon after that first email circulated.

What is known is that Cohen embarked on a soul-searching pilgrimage to India. Several former devotees (who requested anonymity) have confirmed spotting him there, and some have said he appeared to be suffering a great deal, and growing more authentic in his brokenness and more sincere in expressing his regrets. He was even engaged for a time in voluntary service work with the poor, the sick, and the homeless.

Even his mother has come around.  The current website for her book says that the two “have reconciled and see one another when Andrew is not traveling.”

If Cohen’s path of repentance is genuine, it is a significant departure from the usual pattern of disgraced gurus. I have witnessed other fallen spiritual leaders be publicly exposed, subsequently disappear, and invariably pop up in a new location several years later only to repeat the same pathological patterns that led to their downfall the first time around. The taste of power often seems to be so inebriating and irresistible that offenders are doomed to repeat their history again and again.

Time will tell. And, truth be told, I wish Andrew well. His penetrating “energy” could be put to good use here at home, if he is truly doing the personal healing work he needs to do. May the noblest aspects of his character prevail.