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Transcendental brightness of enlightened awareness

by | Autumn 2023, Print Articles, Spiritual Living

Andrew Cohen, author of When Shadow Meets the Bodhisattva, shares his gripping spiritual odyssey from the heights of illumination, down into the existential ashes of failed aspirations, to the underworld of inner darkness and back again into the light. Building upon the lessons he learned, including the need to deal thoroughly with one’s own shadow, the author explains the necessity of the guru in spiritual practice, while also exposing the dysfunctions of the traditional guru-disciple model.

A friend had told me about the master H. W. L. Poonja, who lived in Lucknow, in northern India. He was a direct disciple of the illustrious Ramana Maharshi, the most revered realiser of the 20th century. My friend, a seasoned spiritual practitioner, spoke about Poonjaji with great wonder, amazement and enormous enthusiasm. It was clear from his stories that this master had a rare spiritual attainment. So I decided to delay my trip to Korea and visit with him for three days.

I arrived in Lucknow on March 25, 1986. I can still remember that first fateful meeting with the master as if it were yesterday. I entered his small room, where he was sitting on his bed. He was a large, imposing man with a beautiful face and incredibly luminous, big eyes. I said “Hello!” and sat down on the floor. With confidence I continued, “I don’t have any expectations,” thus boldly declaring my independence. “That’s good!” he exclaimed with even greater confidence. His words made me feel at ease at once because he let me know that he didn’t want anything from me.

Then I asked him, “How much effort do you have to make to be free?” With a slightly singsong tone in his voice, he almost whispered, “You don’t have to make any effort to be free.” The moment I heard those words, a vision appeared in my mind’s eye. I saw water flowing down the side of a mountain. I realised that this water was like my own true nature, ever unobstructed and always free-flowing. With a shock of recognition, I saw that I had always been free and that unenlightenment was just a thought. It wasn’t real. Suddenly he shouted loudly, “That’s it!” and burst out laughing. I was stunned and somewhat puzzled. I asked, “How did you know?” He replied, “When a man sees his own face, he recognises it.” That very instant I realised that I was in the presence of an extraordinary being.

I was thrilled, yet couldn’t quite grasp what had just happened. So I went back to my hotel and, as was my habit, sat on my bed and crossed my legs to meditate. The minute I closed my eyes I got a terrible headache. Then the thought dawned on me, Oh my God, he just told me that you don’t have to make any effort to be free and look what I’m doing! I burst into laughter, realising that I was defying him and his teachings. Master Poonjaji taught the direct, nondualistic path of Advaita Vedanta. His position was very radical: You are always already free, therefore there is nothing to be done except to recognise your own true nature as that freedom. He didn’t teach any spiritual practices and even made jokes about people who meditated. By that time I had given up everything in my life to be free except the practice of meditation and the thought of having to give that up as well was intimidating. But I trusted him. So I got off my bed, stopped meditating and surrendered.

The next three weeks spent in the presence of this remarkable being would be the most mysterious and wonderful of my life. Most of the time I was alone with him. We would talk or drink tea together. Sometimes we would just sit quietly or go for a walk in the park. He was gracious, kind, generous, compassionate and enormously patient with me. He answered all my questions and told me the most amazing stories about his life, his experiences with Ramana Maharshi and profound events and mysterious encounters with extraordinary beings. His inner experience was alive to deeper dimensions of consciousness that were unknown to me. And soon a deep bond of divine love and sacred intimacy came alive between us. I suddenly found myself living in a fairy tale with a perfect master. We shared many magical, transcendental moments together that I will never forget. There were experiences of love and deep mystical union and powerful Zen-like breakthroughs in which new insights suddenly announced themselves with thundering clarity.

One day we spoke about an existential conundrum I had been wrestling with for a long time. In Buddhism, ultimate reality is said to be sunyata, or emptiness. But my own deepest experience of ultimate reality had always been one of intense fullness, of love and bliss. I shared with him my first experience of kosmic consciousness when I was 16. His eyes got very big and he said, “You already know everything!” He spoke with such authority that I literally felt something unlock deep within my being, as if his affirmation allowed me to embrace once again the extraordinary truth my initial experience had revealed to me – as if that truth were now set free to come to full fruition. He pointed out that my experience had arisen spontaneously, without effort or practice and that, afterwards, I had tried to recapture it with effort. He instructed me that instead of me trying to grab it, I should simply surrender and let it grab me!

Then we dove deeply into my existential quandary about the nature of ultimate reality and the paradox of emptiness versus fullness. He explained how emptiness and fullness are two sides of the same coin, and how the manifest universe is only the outward creative expression of the uncreated. But he added that there was something unknowable that was beyond emptiness and fullness that witnessed both. It is the Self – the beginningless, endless being that can never be grasped with the conceptual mind, but can only know itself. When I heard him explain this, I was suddenly struck by the inescapable obviousness of his clarification, and a huge burden lifted off my shoulders.

On another occasion, we were sitting quietly in his room together when out of nowhere I heard myself say, “I am ready to die but I don’t know how.” I was startled, because my words did not come from my mind. His eyes opened wide and welled up with tears. He looked at me with great intensity but remained silent. The deepest part of me had just expressed itself, a part I later came to call my authentic self.

At some point during my stay, I made a remark that indicated that I was second-guessing my own intuition. He promptly rose up from his bed and screamed right in my face, “Never, ever doubt yourself!” His ferocity was scary, as if God was shouting a divine ordinance in my ear. It was immensely impactful and awakened a deep self-­confidence in me.

Many such powerful transformational moments unfolded while I stayed with Poonjaji and, as a result, the mist of my ego, ever-concealing the immediacy of enlightened awareness, was slowly dissipating. Little by little I was dying to everything I had ever known.

When I came to the end of my stay, the master said, “Andrew, after you leave, something very big is going to happen to you.” I had no idea what he could possibly mean and my inner skeptic thought, How does he know? I expressed my gratitude for our precious time together and then said goodbye. As I was walking down the street, I turned around to look at him one more time. He burst out laughing. He was wildly mysterious and his laughter was both annoying and compelling. I boarded the train to Delhi and sat down quietly in a carriage by myself.

All of a sudden I could feel a powerful current of spiritual energy pulsing through me. My consciousness widened. I could see myself sitting in the train from some other dimension, an infinite distance away. I was overwhelmed by waves of extraordinary love and bliss, the ecstasy of freedom without limit. I was consumed by the living, conscious presence of the infinite, vibrating powerfully, pulling me into itself. I hadn’t meditated for weeks, yet all of a sudden I was being meditated by reality itself, by a seamless oneness, unborn and never dying. It was so compelling that I had no choice but to let go. It felt like boundless love and I realised that this was who the master truly was.

This state kept washing over me in waves, waxing and then receding like the tides. The profound exhilaration and ecstasy I experienced was interspersed with deep terror because I realised that “I” was dying. But I knew that this was exactly what I had signed up for. My dream was coming true and it was infinitely more profound than I could ever have imagined. This mystical process, this metaphysical alchemy, would continue unabated for three weeks.

The next morning when I woke up in my hotel room in Delhi, I sat up in my bed and heard myself say, I surrender my life to you, do with me what you will. My authentic self revealed itself again, affirming my surrender to this beginningless, endless presence that was consuming me. As these words arose in my mind, I saw a whirlpool of water going down a drain. I realised that the water was my life, my karma, my destiny and my will and that all of it was being swallowed by the infinite. That was the moment when something deep within my being completely shifted. I stepped out of the ordinary world and entered a different dimension.

I wrote to Poonjaji:
Dear Master,

I love you… The process has continued since I left you… You have entered me… I am dying and soon there will be nothing left… There is only joy and love… I am somewhere beyond time and yet at the same time fully here… I feel the cells in my body are changing… Other people can feel it… You and I are One…

The nightmare of samsara had come to an end and, with that, all the unresolved anguish and pain of my early life was completely obliterated by the transcendental brightness of enlightened awareness.

When Shadow Meets the Bodhisattva by Andrew Cohen with Hans Plasqui, published by Inner Traditions International and Bear & Company, ©2022. All rights reserved. http://www.Innertraditions.com 
Excerpt reprinted with permission of publisher.

Andrew Cohen is a spiritual teacher, cultural visionary and founder of the global non-profit EnlightenNext and its award-winning publication EnlightenNext magazine. After the collapse of EnlightenNext in 2013, Cohen took several years off from public teaching. In 2020, he and a group of collaborators launched Manifest Nirvana, a sanctuary for deep transformation, where 21st century spiritual explorers and integral pioneers will find their home. The author of several books, including Evolutionary Enlightenment, he lives in India.

Hans Plasqui is a writer, scholar and spiritual practitioner who has studied with several teachers, including Saniel Bonder, Terry Patten and Ken Wilber. He has specialised in Wilber’s Integral Theory, which he studied at JFK University. The author of Sincerity Uncompromised, he lives in Belgium.