We’re joined by spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen to explore the story of how he came to teach what he calls “evolutionary enlightenment.” Andrew begins by sharing an early spiritual experience, that really set him on the path of seeking. He also shares some of his background with Buddhist meditation, which he began with Joseph Goldstein and the famous Indian teacher Anagarika Munindra-ji. And finally he speaks about the most profound encounter he had with a spiritual master, with the late H.W.L Poonja, a teacher in the non-dual tradition of Advaita Vedanta. From here, he shares how his own thinking evolved, even after being asked to teach by Poonja, into what he refers to as enlightenment within an evolutionary worldview.
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m joined today with a special guest calling over Skype. I’m here today with Andrew Cohen. Andrew thanks again for taking the time. I know you’re right in the middle of the book tour. So I appreciate you being able to jump on and chat with the Buddhist Geeks today.
Andrew: It’s my pleasure and I’m really looking forward to speaking with you.
Vincent: Cool. And so obviously part of what we’re going to talk about is some of the material from your new book Evolutionary Enlightenment. But hopefully that would just be sort of a jumping off point for a deeper discussion around some of the things that you’ve been teaching for decades now.
A little bit of background for the people on Buddhist Geeks who may not be familiar with your work. If they haven’t heard of your name particularly they probably heard of some of the publications that you’ve helped put out in the past. You founded and help start a magazine called What is Enlightenment? that turned into EnlightenNext and this is a magazine that personally has been incredibly influential.
Actually, I don’t know if you know this Andrew but when Buddhist Geeks first launched you gave us a little plug in there and that was right in the first few months. And that was some of the most incredible feedback that we got that actually something we’re doing was being heard and that was interesting. So you probably had a pretty big part in helping Buddhist Geeks continue.
Andrew: That’s great to hear. I do remember that. But I had no idea of the impact it had or anything like that. It’s good to hear.
Vincent: It was good. It was some good early encouragement, so thank you.
I mean the other thing that you’re doing not just with the magazine and with your nonprofit EnlightenNext you’re also teaching. You do intensive retreats all around the world, public lectures. I mean you’re doing a lot of different sort of outreach stuff and teaching with respect to your teachings on evolutionary enlightenment.
But before we jump into that I figured it would be helpful to kind of get a sense of where you’re coming from, what your sort of background is. I understand, I can’t remember where I read this, that you first got into spiritual practice or at least in your early days you were doing Buddhist meditation and doing vipassana. So maybe if you could start to that since it will at least give our listeners some common reference point.
Andrew: Sure. I mean my history is I’m 55 years old. I was brought up in a secular upper-middle class Jewish household in New York City. And because of that I really had no exposure to religious or spiritual ideas. My first exposure to mysticism and to the experience of deeper dimensions of reality was when I was 16 years old and I was living in Rome, Italy at the time with my mother, and we were sitting up late one night having a discussion about that which I do not remember.
But for some reason the doors to perception miraculously and mysteriously opened and I found myself engulfed in a very profound mystical experience. I had an experience that’s traditionally called cosmic consciousness. It’s hard to really explain rationally but the experience was that I suddenly became aware of the whole universe, which is something that’s once again hard to put into words how such a thing could be possible. It’s simply what occurred.
It became apparent to me that the entire universe, the entire cosmic process was self aware. There was intelligence and self awareness. And the ultimate nature of the whole process, which I was an inseparable part of, was a kind of an impersonal absolute love that was physically overwhelming and almost physically excruciating to experience. And I was in a state of awe and wonder and tears were streaming down my cheeks but I wasn’t even really crying and my throat was opening and closing uncontrollably. I became aware in that moment that there was no such thing as death. And that all points in space where exactly the same place, in other words for some reason it became also apparent that no matter where one went in space one would always be in exactly the same place.
I had recalled that around that time I had been seeing a documentary and one of the scenes in the documentary shows hundred of Buddhist monks prostrating before a gigantic Buddha statues somewhere in the jungle of Southeast Asia. And I remember because of my secular background I didn’t understand why the monks were prostrating before the statue of the giant Buddha. I didn’t understand what would motivate an individual to prostrate oneself. And I remember in the few moments of this powerful mystical awakening I knew without any doubt why they were bowing down. This was my spiritual initiation. It seemed unsought for. I called it a visitation from the unknown. And that was really the beginning. And then I didn’t really know what to make of the experience even though I knew it was the most real few moments of my entire life. That was the only thing I was sure of.
At the time, I had wanted to be a musician, a jazz drummer. But when I was 22, in my early 20s the memory of this experience was haunting me. In my life I was struggling quite a bit. I was in an early, early life, it wasn’t a mid-life crisis but it was an early life crisis. At a certain point because the memory of this spiritual episode kept returning to me and haunting me, I finally gave up everything I was doing and consciously and very deliberately committed my young life at that time to the rediscovery of that which had revealed itself so unexpected to me.
So when I was 22 I became a spiritual seeker and I did all the things that seekers do. I learned how to meditate. I took initiation initially in the path of Kundalini yoga from an Indian spiritual master. I was getting up early morning reading spiritual books. I went to see every kind of spiritual teacher and spiritual master that came through town from rabbsi who were teaching Kabbalah to Zen masters. I even went to see Christian evangelists and some healers. I was just very curious. Yeah, I was just very curious and I wanted to learn everything. I became a very serious meditator.
And one day, you brought up the vipassana question, one day a friend of mine who was also practicing the same form of Kundalini yoga as I was had told me that I could go on to a Buddhist retreat center and do meditation retreats where one could meditate for 18 hours a day and so I found this is a very compelling idea. And that was really my introduction to Buddhism and to Buddhist thought and to Buddhist practice.
And my first retreat, my first Buddhist meditation retreat was with Joseph Goldstein, the famous vipassana meditation teacher and his teacher Anagarika Munindra. It was two 10-day retreats back to back in Barre, Massachusetts. I had a very powerful introduction to the nature of mind. I’d had a lot of experience with western psychoanalysis at that point in my early life. But learning how to be an objective witness to the arising of the content of the mind was very powerful for me and just learning how to bear witness and have no relationship to the content of consciousness. I learned and I had a very powerful experience especially in those few retreats that I have as most people do.
Once I began to do these Buddhist retreats I began to do lots of them. I made much time in my life really to devote myself to spiritual practice and I did many of them even though I never was a Buddhist and I never considered myself to be Buddhist even at the time. Because of the original experience I had I always felt that the ultimate nature of reality was something rather than nothing. And so that was why I could never really surrender myself to Buddhism as a personal spiritual path even though I found the Buddhist meditative path very powerful and very helpful to me as a seeker and I learned a lot.
Then when I was 27 like many people from my generation and it’s almost a kind of a cultural cliché, but I went to India originally just for three months. And when I arrived there I decided I wasn’t going to leave because the spiritual passion that was burning inside my heart I felt I could express fully and freely there. Whereas when I was back in the states when I felt when I told people really what I cared about, what I was interested in, most people found it a little hard to understand and found a bit curious or a bit odd.
And so I stayed in India for about 2 1/2 years. I decided I was going to go actually to Korea and be a Zen monk and practice martial arts until I became enlightened, no matter what. I always knew ever since I made up my mind when I was 22 that I would be able to do this. That I would succeed. At that point, I just felt I needed to live a life of absolute self-discipline and renunciation and it just seemed that Korea would be the easiest place for me to do it.
And right before I left, I went to visit at the time a little known teacher of Advaita Vedanta and a disciple of the great 20th century spiritual master Ramana Maharishi, and his name was H.W.L. Poonja. And I spent three weeks with him in Lucknow. He had a small room at the time in his son’s house.
He was a powerfully illumined enlightened man and a great spiritual master. And as a result of spending three weeks with him my life was transformed in the most dramatic way really as a result of a few conversations we had. He reignited the spiritual process that had really begun when I had that first spiritual initiation when I was 16 years old. And it catalyzed a powerful energetic almost process of purification. As a result of those three weeks with him, I was spiritually and physically overwhelmed. And in the first three weeks I felt like my body was being consumed by an energetic, a fire that was raging from my solar plexus all through my body and I was going in and out of the most profound and intense states of consciousness.
And during that time I was with him for three weeks and then I left him for three weeks. I started teaching quite spontaneously. I would just start speaking to my friends at the time about what had happened to me and miraculously they begin to be drawn into the same state I was. And I was quite amazed and confused by all this. And when I went back to see him he told me that he knew this was going to happen and he asked me then to teach, and initially to teach in his name. He said I want you to accept responsibility for the work that he was doing and he at the time thought that he was going to pass. And so he kind of transmitted his mantle to me. It turns out that he didn’t pass and he lived on for I think another nine years after that. But that was the beginning and that was like 25 years ago and that was how I become a teacher.
Vincent: So interesting. And did you find, it’s hard to put this into clear words, but did you find there was something fundamentally different in the work that you’d been doing with the Buddhist practices and then the conversation that ignited this transformation with Poonja.
Andrew: To be explicit he was a powerfully enlightened human being whose spiritual transmission, in other words his consciousness was powerfully illumined and by being in his physical presence especially if there was sympathetic interest in him as a spiritual master one could not help but be catapulted into higher states of consciousness simply by being in his physical presence.
In his teaching he basically taught by giving out what’s called pointing out instructions in Buddhism. And he was always pointing one’s awareness back to consciousness, away from the mind and back to consciousness. He always pointed one’s attention to beyond time and beyond the mind. And because of the place that he was pointing from, he was pointing from the place that he was pointing everyone to.
In a sense being in the presence of someone like that, enlightened awareness was an abstract concept or abstract idea but it was a tangible living presence. So that was very different because I think my first teacher who initiated me into the Kundalini yoga mediation experience had similar qualities but he was really teaching a method. With Poonjaji there was no method. It was more or less the perennial teachings of Advaita, that consciousness is all there is. And that’s what he was pointing one directly back to. He was very bold in his teachings. In the sense that he felt that any path or practice that involves time is actually taking you away from where you already are at the level of consciousness.
So he even felt that meditation–that meditation which was a practice that would led one somewhere–he said because the presumption is that you’re not already there. And of course from the perspective of enlightened awareness, we are always already there. How could we not be? From the perspective of enlightened awareness that is always true once one realizes it.
So he would remove all props and all methods and all approaches until it became patently obviously to you that you had in fact from the deepest level of your being you’d never been unenlightened, that you’d never been not already free. And I remember in my first experience with him, this is in my first meeting with him, I was with a friend of mine and what we were with him and speaking about how much effort one had to make if one wanted to be free. Then he just said that in a very calm voice very quietly almost whispering he said, “you don’t have to make any effort to be free.” And when he said those few words, “you don’t have to make any effort to be free,” I was transported into another dimension and I saw in the eye of my mind a brook or a stream. The water was running down the side of the hill and I realized that my own true nature was that water. The water running downhill there was no obstruction in the water. It was always free. And I realized that that was my own true nature. And I realized that to be un-free or to be unenlightened was the illusion from the perspective of my own true nature, deeper self that had always been the case. This all happened within the period of about 10 second. And then I was looking at the ground and he said, “What is that? That’s it. And I looked up at him and he just burst out laughing.” And I said, “How did you know?” That was the kind of situation I was in.
So I felt with many of the Buddhist teachers I had l felt they were very good at teaching the methodology of meditation, the technical methodology of meditation and were very good at pointing out and describing the nature of mind and how the mind works and helping to make it clear and apparent that the mind is a mechanical process and has no self nature, very powerfully. But I never had the experience that I was in the presence of someone who was one with the source of enlightened awareness itself and that was really the big and dramatic difference.
Vincent: Okay. Great. As you’re talking about your experience with Poonja and then him sort of handing you the mantle, sort of implied in the way you responded is that you didn’t end up teaching things just the way that he was teaching them. I mean I know that now of course that you haven’t continued that exact approach. But that opens up this question of what have you been teaching and how did that come about, particularly some of the stuff that’s you’re teaching now?
Andrew: Shortly after I started teaching, I noticed that in spite of the fact that the people who were coming to me where having very powerful experiences of transcendence and always in so many ways that their behavior didn’t change that much. And for some reason, I’m not really sure why, I always looked for the actual transformation of behavior and transformation of motive as a sign of spiritual awakening and spiritual transformation.
So really pretty soon after I started teaching I started emphasizing the necessity for the transformation of behavior, transformation of our motive and actions as a sign of spiritual illumination. This led to over a period of a few years a pretty profound philosophical disagreement between us because he felt that freedom had nothing to do with action and nothing to do with the world. It had to do with being free from. And I felt quite the opposite that freedom and spiritual truth really had everything to do and needed to be directly related to our relationship to the world and how that translated into enlightened action and spiritual motivation. That was at the beginning.
And then the next step was some of my students had invited me for lunch one day. And after lunch, I remember I was sitting by myself observing two people having a conversation and I suddenly realized that what those two individuals were sharing was more important than what they had individually received from me. In other words I was aware of the fact that that they were sharing a higher or illumined context in their conversation. It was apparent by the sound in their voice and the way that they were being together that they were sharing a higher state and higher perspective together. That was the beginning of my understanding of what I was really teaching, it was really about the transformation and evolution of our shared culture rather than what I used to call personal enlightenment or enlightenment merely for the individual. And that emphasis and that direction really continued to develop over the years.
In the work I was doing with our magazine EnlightenNext and a lot of work I was doing with my students, at a certain point discovered the evolutionary worldview and the cosmic context for life in the universe through the work of the great Pierre de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo and others. And this really helped to contextualize the direction I had already been going in for many years.
And an evolutionary world view, started to really inform my emphasis on enlightened action and enlightened behavior. This really began to fit very perfectly in my discovery of an evolutionary worldview and an evolutionary context for the human experience. That in fact the creative process emerged from primordial emptiness and evolution is a process that’s going somewhere. It’s a process of emergence from lower levels of being of existence to higher and more complex ones. The great chain of being from energy and light to matter to life to consciousness to the human capacity for higher cognition and self-reflective awareness, understanding and recognizing that progression which leads us to the grand understanding and insight that in fact the true highly evolved human consciousness, we could say that the energy and intelligence that create the universe gains the capacity to behold itself, to recognize itself, to realize itself. We are evolution becoming aware of itself.
This insight has really become the insight, the perspective that’s really formed my whole approach to spiritual liberation right now. Because the new enlightenment that I’m teaching which is fundamentally about embracing the evolutionary impulse as the source of our self. And the evolutionary impulse in this case is the human experience is the actual potential human experience of the energy and intelligence that created the universe that emerged from primordial emptiness.
And the human experience of that creative drive and creative motivation is the uniquely human compulsion towards innovation and creativity and higher consciousness and higher development. And so it’s the drive towards becoming in the universe, the drives to become, the creative drive towards becoming that give rise to higher and higher levels of being is now the fundamental focus of this new approach to enlightenment, because as in the old enlightenment we need to transcend the fears and desires of the ego and the separate self in order to be able to let go deeply enough so that we can awaken to the deepest part of ourselves that’s never been born and never entered the stream of time. In the same way the new enlightenment we need to transcend the fears and desires of the ego or the separate self so we can align ourselves and become one with the first cause or the Eros or creative energy that’s driving the creative process in the universe.