Cult fear as stars make new Friends

An obscure religious group is attracting some big names, reports Cole Moreton

THEY may be a tiny religious group, suspected of being a cult, but the Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere certainly know how to pick high-profile recruits.

The first to emerge was Linus Roache, star of Priest and the new hit film Wings of a Dove. The latest is even bigger: Jerome Flynn, who formed a singing duo with his fellow Soldier Soldier heart-throb Robson Green and had three consecutive number one records. Their first, "Unchained Melody", sold 1.8 million copies. The album made pounds 50m.

Robson Green is now the highest-paid actor on television. Jerome Flynn, on the other hand, will spend the next few weeks by the banks of the river Ganges, on retreat with 300 other followers of the American guru Andrew Cohen. Flynn's agent this week confirmed that he was in India until next month. Asked if there were any plans for a return to the screen or recording studio, she said he had already taken a long time off and was "not set for anything at the moment".

Flynn, Roache and their partners now live in community with around 80 other members of the Friends - or Face - in Belsize Park, north London. While in India, the two actors are helping to make a documentary about Cohen, who demands and attracts absolute commitment to his teachings.

They draw on Tibetan Buddhism and Hindu mysticism, but Cohen goes further. Enlightenment is available here and now, to those who realise that all human beings are spiritually one, he says. They must renounce the ego and all self-centred thoughts, feelings and instincts, and live for each other.

"Andrew's students," as they call themselves, meet together for an hour of silent meditation each morning and evening, and devote sacrificial amounts of time, energy and money to the cause. Some shave their heads as a sign that they have taken a vow of celibacy.

They live very closely together in eight rented flats, shared by groups of five or six people, including couples and singles. Breakfast and other meals are shared, and there is an exhaustive schedule of meetings at the group's English headquarters in a converted dairy in Belsize Park. Men and women meet separately each week to discuss and challenge each other about how well they are living out "the teachings". The most committed pledge pounds 40 a month, but in reality give far more. Mostly professional people under 40, they include teachers, lawyers and computer experts.

Cohen admits that living together so closely can be very difficult. "Indeed, the idea would make one feel that one couldn't breathe, because in that intimacy there would be no room left for oneself. But that's the whole point. The whole point is to die to that need to see oneself as being separate in any way."

Worried families have contacted the Cult Information Centre, whose spokesman says they have described relatives "going through the changes of personality that you would expect from those involved in any of the groups we're concerned about". This includes an alleged loss of critical ability. Inform, an independent charity that researches new religious movements, says it has also been contacted by families and former friends of Cohen's students.

On Friday morning, after their meditation session, members of the core group talked openly about the intense demands their beliefs made on them. It would be almost impossible to have intimate relationships with outsiders, they admitted, and some couples had split up as a result of one partner joining Face. Shayne, who has her own business as a relocation agent, said she had lost contact with a lot of her former friends since helping to form the group. "They think I'm a fruitcake," she said, but stressed that the intensity and reliability of her new relationships made up for that.

All those present described having had a profound spiritual experience after hearing Cohen speak. "Sometimes it's like a really physical, out of mind experience," said Shayne. "You experience that you are not your mind, you're not your thoughts, you're not your feelings. It's like you're up in the sky looking down on yourself. I felt that I was like a gas, I didn't exist, and I was everything. I know it sounds off-the-wall, but it's true."

Such an experience led to a radical shift in priorities, they said. Linus Roache has told interviewers how Cohen's teaching has changed his attitude to life and acting, making him less self-centred. "You want to give your whole life to it," said Harry, who works for Face full-time in Amsterdam. "If you find that which you know very deeply is the most precious thing in life, the pull is to give. You want to become an expression of that."

Andrew Cohen was born in New York City in 1955 and brought up in a troubled home by secular Jewish parents. He moved to Rome with his mother and while there with her at 16 he experienced "an explosive and overwhelming revelation of the inherent oneness of life". This started him on a spiritual search which took in yoga, martial arts and Zen meditation.

While in India in 1986 he met and studied under Harivansh Lal Poonja, a guru who subsequently came to recognise Cohen as "the Perfect Buddha reborn". Unfortunately, they fell out. Cohen said later that after first meeting the guru he had been followed by a spiritual presence, to which he surrendered in a New Delhi hotel room. As a result he expanded Poonja's teachings with his own. If the human race embraces them, he promises an evolutionary leap forward.

Cohen has since criticised Poonja and attacked "the medieval structure" of Tibetan Buddhism, whose ideas and practice inform his own. He accuses some of its masters of drunkenness and of taking sexual advantage of their students. Other spiritual leaders are guilty of corruption and manipulation, he says, while asserting his own claims to purity. His own mother, however, has reportedly called him a monster and a tyrant.

Face was formed in 1991, and has an international centre set in 220 acres in Massachusetts, where Cohen lives. There are also communities in Holland, Germany, Sweden and Australia. Two intensive retreats are held every year: in India during winter, and Switzerland in summer.

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