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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Martin Erdmann is a German writer, poet, retired lecturer of Heidelberg University. He completed studies of English, French, and of legal science, both at the University of Heidelberg. He wrote several books in German focusing on the illusion of the I or Ego. As a cofounder of the German Spiritual Emergence Network (S. E. N) he provided counseling to people undergoing spiritual crises. For several years now he has conducted seminars on Advaita-Vedanta. (email: Homepage:

See also: The Real Cause of Cohen's Dilemma: Part I | Part II

Reply to Benjamin's
"What Makes a Guru
a Guru?"

Martin Erdmann

Abstract: Benjamin writes [in "What Makes a Guru a Guru?"], that "Andrew Cohen is responsible for his own actions, and how we perceive and evaluate the choice of wording for his philosophy by Ken Wilber is a separate matter." To this I respond, that "in our society every grown up person, not incapacitated, is responsible for himself, and so is Andrew Cohen. How we evaluate the choice of wording by Ken Wilber for his philosophy is a separate matter for Benjamin, for Wilber it is not. Wilber wanted to see his philosophy realized in the actions of Rude Boy Andrew. While giving ovation to Andrew he sung the praises of his own philosophy."
In our society every grown up person, not incapacitated, is responsible for himself, and so is Andrew Cohen.

In Part II mainly of THE REAL CAUSE OF ANDREW COHEN'S DILEMMA I tried to show that Cohen's spiritual practice is grounded in Ken Wilber's theory of an inimical ego that must be destroyed. Cohen is attacked by critics for the manifold abuses committed as part of his spiritual practice, which, so argues Benjamin in his critical essay-reply to my articles, has not been rightly assessed by myself.

Benjamin writes: "Let me be clear that I do not condone Wilber's 'rude boy' statements of support for Cohen, in the same way that I do not condone Wilber's lavish praise of Adi Da, nor his lack of understanding of the cult dangers of Scientology...But I believe there is a world of difference between Wilber saying 'if it rumbles toward a God realization and not egoic fortification then it demands a brutal shocking death: a literal death of your separate self, a painful, frightening, horrifying dissolution' and Cohen's hitting, slapping, punching of students....having students pour buckets of paint over the head of a former student...". Benjamin then continues to give a list of Andrew's misdeeds taken from Part I of my article.

To this I would like to reply: "There is not a world of difference" between Wilber's ego-theory and Cohen's spiritual practice, as Benjamin argues. "Wilber", as stated in Part I, "was aware of the trembling, the trepidation and the fright Cohen spread among his students. He wholeheartedly supported Cohen's actions, with the intent of seeing his own ego-theory realized in the spiritual practice undertaken by guru Cohen. While applauding Cohen Wilber applauded himself."

At the very beginning of his essay Benjamin writes: "Andrew Cohen is responsible for his own actions..." Here I side with Benjamin. In our society every grown up person, not incapacitated, is responsible for himself, and so is Andrew Cohen. Then Benjamin in the beginning phrase of his essay continues to say: "How we perceive and evaluate the choice of wording for his philosophy by Ken Wilber is a separate matter." It is a separate matter for Benjamin, for Wilber it is not. Wilber wanted to see his philosophy realized in the actions of Rude Boy. While giving ovation to Andrew he sung the praises of his own philosophy.

Benjamin then states (with figures of italics added): "Although these misguided statements of support by Wilber - both for Cohen and Adi Da - are certainly disappointing to me, I find the conclusions that Erdmann has come to in his articles to be equally disturbing...What I find his apparent lack of appreciation of, and compassion (4) for the severe indoctrinations (3), manipulations, and unwarranted and unasked for destructiveness (2) that many people have experienced in what I have described as modern religious groups with high cult danger characteristics."(1)

(1) The articles did not deal with other religious groups. They are solely concerned with Cohen's spiritual practice, in which, here I side with Benjamin again, high cult danger characteristics can be seen.

(2) Benjamin speaks of unasked for destructiveness to be found among others in Cohen's group of followers. What Benjamin states is correct again. The destructiveness to be found in Andrew's group was unasked for. The Andrewites did not ask their guru: "Please, Andrew, lead me to my own destruction." What they asked for was: "Please Andrew, slap me, hit, and punch me".

(3) This is what they pleaded for, because they had undergone these severe indoctrinations, which made them believe that the punching would destroy the inimical ego standing in the way of blissful enlightenment.

(4) Benjamin then states: "What I find disturbing in Erdmann's conclusions is his apparent lack of... compassion" with "the people" concerned. I indeed tried to arrive at dispassionate, unbiased conclusions in my own deliberations on the subject. I wanted to candidly disclose the misconception of an inimical ego that must be destroyed. This, so I wanted to show, does not lead to the Andrewites' self-liberation but to their own self-destruction.

In the last paragraph of his reply Benjamin writes: "I will add that in my own experiences with Wilber I have certainly not encountered anything remotely resembling the kind of abusive and sadistic practices that is now well documented Andrew Cohen has engaged in to his followers for many years." Wilber is not a guru. He is a pandit. Thus no one asked Wilber to hit, slap or punch him. Wilber was confined to engage in his reveries of What We Are, That We See. In this article Wilber sees his critics as "partial ass-pervs."[1] So he sees now what he himself is.

Positive and Negative Identification

Ex-followers decry Andrew for the "abusive and sadistic practices", which Benjamin condemns in his essay-reply. When they were still followers they put Andrew high up on a pedestal, while they themselves were crouching down on the floor before him. Symbiotically united with Andrew, they then saw themselves in the exalted position they had assigned to their guru. By lowering themselves they heightened themselves. They had themselves successfully debased to see themselves victoriously raised.

Breaking from Andrew and his Sangha is not equal to breaking the attachments of a symbiotic union one has become entangled in. When ex-followers decry Andrew for his "abusive and sadistic practices" this does not necessarily mean that they have severed the shackles. The former disciples may still be identified with their guru. What had been a positive identification can easily become a negative identification.

Before they lowered themselves to raise their guru on a pedestal. So, identified with their guru, they raised themselves. Now it may very well happen that they lower their guru to elevate themselves. So they are again high up in their own imagination. In this case their lives inside and outside of Andrew's Sangha are inversely mirroring each other. What had been low is high now, what had been high is low, to be seen in a guru-disciple show.

There can be no doubt that the way Andrew treated his students is opposed to what is normally considered an ethical behavior. Now let us assume for a while that Wilber is right in his ego-theory, that the ego is indeed an obstructing enemy that must be annihilated for true enlightenment to occur. In this case Cohen's behavior was ethically well justified.

If punching, hitting a student leads to blissful
enlightenment, then this by all means
is exactly the method to be applied.

If punching, hitting a student leads to blissful enlightenment, then this by all means is exactly the method to be applied. After all the student would be highly rewarded for the blows he received. And who would not be ready to have a bucket of paint poured over his head, if in recompense he could live in a state of perfect bliss forever afterwards. So the disciples who believed in the ego-theory of Wilber & Cohen had good reason to willingly undergo the pain and humiliation of Cohen's treatment,

Cohen's conduct is contrary to what is normally considered an acceptable ethical behavior. He himself, however, believes that it is the right method to be applied to bestow the benign gift of enlightenment on his disciples. So he held on to his supreme strategy in the face of all the public criticism he confronted.

"He maintains that the whole spiritual establishment is out to see him fail", writes André van der Braak, "because the vested authorities are afraid of his revolutionary ethical stance. No one understands his radical message, everyone is against him" (2003: 216)

The spiritual establishment is against him because he does not comply with accepted ethical standards. This in itself is no reason to condemn Cohen's enterprise. The breaking of social standards would indeed be a highly praiseworthy enterprise, if it lead to the state of liberation as promised by Andrew Cohen.

I tried to show in my articles that the contrary is the case. The crushing of an inimical ego does not lead to inner freedom. It leads to a state of utter slavery, in which the individuality of the disciple is crippled, annihilated. This is the reason why Cohen's undertaking must be condemned. This shows that the deeper cause for the dilemma lies in Wilber's ill-conceived ego theory.

Leaving Cohen and his Sangha leaves Wilber's ill-conceived theory untouched. Thus it may live on in a different disguise, in another guru-disciple relationship, in the manipulative, hierarchical structures of our society at large.

An intelligent person can be shown in an hour or so that Wilber's theory, on which Cohen's practice has been built, does not lead to an enhancement, but to the destruction of human individuality. This one hour could save this person from the trouble of many years of a torturous discipleship. It pays off to quite dispassionately look into the matter.


Van der Braak, André, Enlightenment Blues, My Years with an American Guru, Monkfish Book, Publishing Company, Rhinebeck, New York, 2003


[1] Ken Wilber, What We Are, That We See: Part I: Response to Some Recent Criticism in a Wild West Fashion, June 08, 2006 [added by FV]:

Well, enough. Wyatt has got to go back to work now, back to the real world of real problems, problems that beg for integral care and consciousness. And thus…. Oh, wait a minute, I forgot to include a violent metaphor. Let me think. Let me think really hard. Okay, Wyatt has got to go back to work now, protecting the true and the good and the beautiful, while slaying partial-ass pervs, ripping their eyes out and pissing in their eye-sockets, using his Zen sword of prajna to cut off the heads of critics so staggeringly little that he has to slow down about 10-fold just to see them.... and then rip their eyes out and piss in their eye-sockets, and slay the…. (Well, you get the point...)

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