The Buddha of Belsize Park

Evening Standard/December 21, 2001
By Charlotte Williamson

The Buddha of Belsize Park is proving hard to track down. The Buddha Ð aka Andrew Cohen, leader of a small religious group doing big business in North London - is refusing to return my calls. As is anyone from the group's centre, situated among the chi-chi boutiques and fancy delis of England's Lane. But I know he's been here. The lady in the flower shop next door says Andrew's students buy lots of flowers when he's in the country. And they bought lots last week.

I've just missed him, then. What a shame. With Christmas coming and a new year on the way, it's always good to talk to a deity. Especially if you have one in your neighbourhood. And they don't come more godlike than Andrew - he is always referred to by his first name, incidentally. Even his own mother is worried about his delusions of grandeur. 'He thinks he is God,' she says. 'He behaves like an emperor. He makes people feel so guilty about themselves they hand over all their money.'

Andrew Cohen is the man behind FACE (Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere); the group is also known, somewhat confusingly, as the Impersonal Enlightenment Fellowship and the Moksha Foundation. It has borrowed ideas from Eastern religions - mainly Buddhism and Hinduism - added a touch of psychobabble, and bagged an estimated 800 followers worldwide. The London branch, which opened in 1994 in a converted dairy in Belsize Park, now has around 80 disciples.

The teachings don't sound too much like brainwashing - no dietary restrictions, no alcohol ban - and are centred on personal growth and renouncing the ego and wealth. There's also a biannual magazine, What Is Enlightenment?, with the tagline: 'When was the last time YOU stayed up until the wee hours pondering life's big questions?' The advert for the magazine has a buddha's head imposed on a suited man, pointing in a Lord Kitchener your-country-needs-you pose.

So far, so New Age-y. But Ian Howarth from the Cult Information Centre says worried family members have contacted him. 'This is a group we are very much aware of and we have received many complaints.' Inform, an independent research group based at the London School of Economics, also has a file on Andrew and his teachings.

Yet now Anita Roddick is championing the group. In a recent Big Issue, which she guest-edited, she interviewed the actor Linus Roache, a FACE student, under the heading 'Things Worth Fighting For'. She praises Andrew for putting the spiritual emphasis not on the individual but on the community. 'I've always considered myself guru-proof,' she writes. 'There was part of me that said I'd rather live it than navel-gaze in the name of spiritual self-help... Andrew Cohen promotes a spiritual experience not as a personal event but as something active that can benefit the community as a whole.'

Roache and fellow actor Jerome Flynn have been very vocal in support of the group. Roache (star of The Wings of the Dove and son of Coronation Street actor William) turned to the group when he was thinking about giving up acting seven years ago: 'I was looking for that thing I experienced when I was ten, that freedom and spontaneity, that letting go, release, abandon, being real, being true.' Flynn is equally enthusiastic: 'This world can be a very confusing place. Andrew Cohen has helped me to make sense of my life in a way that I never dreamed was possible.' The pair are even writing a play based on the principles of FACE. Indeed, because of the showbiz connections, FACE has been described as the British equivalent of Scientology, which counts John Travolta and Tom Cruise among its members.

Roache, Flynn and their partners are part of the Belsize Park community whose members live in one of eight flats owned by FACE or in house shares. Most are middle-class professionals and they are each expected to donate around £40 a month, but in practice give much more. The members join for an hour of meditation every morning and evening, and eat meals together. There are countless meetings as well as weekly discussions where members challenge each other about how faithfully they are living out Andrew's teachings. Ian Howarth is especially worried about this hothouse environment: 'We've had allegations of members living communally so one can watch the other. This is common practice. The group is all-important and each person enforces following the group's ideas.'

Perhaps more worrying, though, is the fact that FACE is a registered charity - for 'the advancement of religion', in case you were wondering. A spokesperson for the Charity Commission admits that although the registration process is rigorous, some organisations slip through the net. The Commission only investigates when it receives a complaint - and it has yet to receive any about FACE.

'It's easy for a religious group to become a charity,' says Amanda Van Eck from Inform. 'All they have to do is show they have charitable intentions, state their aims and objectives, and then register. The Charity Commission doesn't check the charities as often and as much as some people would like them to.'

So how easy is it to join? The internet site (www. sounds inviting, with twice-weekly meditation sessions and a discussion group every Thursday. Meditation seems a good place to start and a sure-fire way to enlightenment, so I give them a call. The Australian lady who answers is friendly enough, but quizzes me on who I am and where I heard about the group. Nonetheless, she invites me to meditate with the gang. But when I turn up at 7.30pm prompt and ring the buzzer... nothing.

I'm back the next day. The centre is situated behind security gates off the main street. Luckily, a student - a thirty-something man in motorcycle leathers - punches in a security code and opens the gates, so I slip in after him. He lets me into the main building, removes his shoes and offers me some tea. The friendly Australian appears and also asks if I'd like some tea. Her name's Kathy but she looks confused when I mention that I phoned the other day. She also looks flummoxed when I say I turned up yesterday for meditation. 'Oh, the buzzer must have broken,' she says vaguely.

Kathy shows me around the centre. It's very clean and tidy with a meditation room, a couple of offices, and a meeting room with a table stacked high with Andrew's books and videos. 'Did you hear that Andrew was in the country recently?' she asks. I nod. 'Yes. He was definitely here,' she adds, smiling in a slightly disconcerting manner, gazing into the middle distance. 'Would you like some tea?' Er, no. I don't buy the whole buzzer-not-working story, and am feeling slightly nervous about being behind two locked doors.

The elusive Mr Cohen decided he was special when he was 16. Born in 1955, he was raised in a Jewish household in New York, and after the death of his father he moved with his mother to Rome. It was there that he experienced an epiphany that led him to believe there was more to life than messing with his drum kit, experimenting with drugs, and other such adolescent pursuits. So he started his spiritual quest, first with yoga and Zen meditation, then travelling to India where he dabbled in mysticism. There, a guru called Lal Poonja taught him that humans are pure consciousness. Poonja also told Andrew he was the 'perfect Buddha reborn'. Cohen took this literally and left to start teaching. He gradually built up a number of followers and, in 1987, established a base in Massachusetts Ð in a mansion, no less, set in 220 acres where he now lives.

Although he hides himself from the media, Andrew is a busy man. He is forever doing world tours. These usually consist of meditation followed by a question-and-answer session, where he seems to develop his philosophy as he goes along.

In one meeting a couple of years ago, Andrew talked about 'people getting depressed in January... especially as here and in the US it is cold and dreary'. Hardly groundbreaking stuff. Another personal account states: 'One was struck at first by Andrew's apparent arrogance and sharp responses to the questioners, some of whom clearly looked awestruck. Andrew is an uncompromising teacher and his manner of answering, often in a mocking tone, was nonetheless generally accepted and heeded by those who questioned him.' The witness concluded that: 'It is when one crosses over the boundary towards adulation and worship of Andrew himself that one must be wary: the teaching is more important than the teacher.'

So the concern lies not in the teaching, but in the man. As the name Friends of Andrew Cohen Everywhere implies, Andrew is a pretty egocentric guy. Admittedly, faith is in the eye of the believer. But there is a fine line between listening to a load of mystic hocus-pocus on personal development, and living in an environment where your peers monitor how well you are following the commands of a single man.

I never did return to meditate with the FACE students - it just wasn't for me. Perhaps if I'd met Andrew Cohen and fallen for his reputed charisma, I too would be buying him flowers.

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