Serendipitously, while looking for a publisher for my own book, I came across Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, by Andre van der Braak. The guru in question happened to be Andrew Cohen, a well-known teacher of nonduality and one of many former students of H.W.L. Poonja (Papa-ji, as he was affectionately known by his students).
I have never even seen Cohen -- only heard of him. But here we have another expose, and another reminder that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And the question arises again with respect to Eastern teachings brought to the West: why do we give such power to our teachers?
Of course, a teacher who has the imprimatur of someone like Poonja is going to be listened to. According to van der Braak's account of what he heard, Poonja sent Cohen out to teach in the West, to "'create a revolution among the young,' telling him that he was the son he had been waiting for all his life." (p. 16)
So Cohen starts teaching and includes this little story about how his own teacher sent him forth to teach. Who is going to doubt? Especially since Cohen obviously exhibits such power and clarity that he just looks enlightened. But in the end, apparently Cohen used power in a very absolute way, while at the same time always telling people that what he did to them was for their own good, to help them abolish their ego.
Sound familiar? It should because this is the story again and again among communities in the West centered around Eastern spirituality. And here, of course, the interpretations of what is going on differ. Those without a deeper realization of reality will certainly say that such a guru cannot be enlightened because enlightened people don't do fascist things. Others -- especially those who experienced the guru in question -- will be more likely to say that the guru, while enlightened, or at least awakened, had a shadow side which became more and more prevalent as he accrued more power.
I believe that the solution to this, from the student's point of view, is to believe in the Truth within the teacher, not in the teacher himself. It's always, always necessary to believe in oneself first, and to let one's deepest yearning for Truth lead one to see the Truth in another. But not to worship the person of another. Therein lies danger.
After I started reading this book, I went on the web and found that last year Cohen had issued an apology for his behavior. It was in general terms, and the copious comments that followed were all over the place -- from being glad he'd owned up to saying it would never be enough to pledging continued allegiance. But one comment seemed to touch on why all of this keeps happening in community after community. The person said that the ego has a reason for existence: to help life maintain itself. This is something I myself have discovered in working through my traumatic relationship with a temple I lived at when I was young. To the extent that we put down that in us -- our ego -- that is just doing its job of keeping us alive, we abuse ourselves and leave ourselves open to abuse from others. And if a given spiritual community at large doesn't believe ego deserves to exist, there is mass denial of an essential function of the self and this allows the guru or whoever has power to use it to put down anyone whose ego dares poke its face out, while his own ego -- denied of course because he isn't supposed to have one -- runs amock.
Existence loves everything -- and that includes ego.