Masks of Authoritarian Power

Based on The Guru Papers by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad

“...To be thought enlightened, one must appear not only certain that one is, but certain about most everything else, too...”

The scientific name for humans is ‘homo sapiens,’ which in Latin means ‘knowing man.’ This name signifies that the ‘the ability to know’ is the most discerning aspect of human beings as a species. A human being does not, in a fundamental way, know who he is or why he exists. Yet ‘knowing’ is essential to being human. This discrepancy is the reason why religion and philosophy have always been so important within human culture, because they are attempts of our ‘ability to know’ to find the final answers to these fundamental questions.

In the search of human beings for these answers, two different basic attitudes can be recognized. One attitude is based on trusting oneself, the other is based on not trusting oneself. Trusting oneself means trusting your own intelligence and judgment in deciding what’s right and what’s wrong for you in your search for the answers to your life questions. Not trusting oneself means having little confidence in yourself and therefore placing your trust in an external authority to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do to find those answers. The difference between these two basic attitudes has far–reaching consequences, as we will see.

Take note here of the fact that people who do not trust their own judgment in deciding what’s right and wrong for themselves in this search, do trust their own judgment in deciding who the external authority should be that will be making those judgments for them. We’ll come back to this observation later.

So when people do not trust themselves, they want to follow those who supposedly know better. Those who are viewed as knowing better are most often the ones who claim to speak for one of the major world religions. A distinction can be made here between monotheistic religions and Eastern non–dualistic belief systems.

Monotheistic religions are based on the belief in one almighty God who created everything. Everything in God’s creation is less than God in every way, so in the monotheistic worldview humans are marked by inferiority and submissiveness in relation to their God. Because of their authoritarian nature, monotheistic religions are convenient for people who want an external authority to tell them what the truth is and how they must live.

Eastern non–dualistic belief systems are based on the mystical experience. The mystical experience is the experience of the ‘true nature of reality,’ i.e., experiencing an underlying unity in the universe (‘non-duality’).

Mystical experiences can be induced by using drugs (like LSD or psychedelic mushrooms) and by techniques that change how the mind structures experience, for example practices that bring about a trance state (‘samadhi’) or deep relaxation. The mystical experience can also be caused by brain seizures, near–death experiences, or can just happen spontaneously.

In the East, concepts acquired from mystical experiences have given rise to the non–dualistic view and a corresponding religious system. This religious system brought forth a philosophy in which the dualistic, relative side of reality is regarded as being of lesser value than the nondual, universal side of reality.

This non–dualistic ideology (which is not the mystical experience itself) manifests as a religion, in which the authoritarian God of monotheism is, for all intents and purposes, substituted by the superiority of the non–dual nature of reality.

The non–dualistic belief brought forth the notion of enlightened people who are in the state of the mystical experience all (or most) of the time. The mystical experience is perceived as being beyond ego or individuality, therefore a ranking of values arises in this belief, in which the more selfless one is, the better, with the highest ranking going to total selflessness.

That means that somebody who is truly enlightened is, by the non–dualistic belief system’s own definition, supposed to be: selfless, beyond selfish desires, full of unconditional love, without attachment to fame or fortune or lust, without feelings of competitiveness, beyond negativity and fear, completely giving, et cetera.

This (in reality unlivable) ideal appears to be innocent because it is supposed to be about being completely selfless. But it is exactly through this image of selfless perfection that authoritarianism manifests and prospers, as will be shown later on.

Although monotheism and the non–dual ideology require sacrifice and selflessness from their followers in order for them to go to heaven or attain enlightenment, the very intention to search for one’s own salvation or enlightenment is inherently self–centered. We previously also noted that people who do not trust themselves to have proper judgment in their spiritual search, do feel they can properly judge what authority can lead them in that search.

These observations show that even when you imagine that you are selflessly following an external authority, you are actually being self–centered and following your own judgment. You cannot escape this. Whether you’re aware of it or not, it’s your own judgment that decides to put an external authority on a pedestal and follow its lead, in order to get yourself into a better situation.

Some enlightenment schools try to circumvent this conundrum by stating that the proper way to do meditation is to have no goal. Or they say one should seek enlightenment for the sake of all beings. In this way one is supposed to do spiritual practices in a (more) selfless way. But these guidelines do not change the reality of the self–centered aspect that is at the core of our search for enlightenment.

In other words, these schools noticed the covert subject–object dualism (me, the subject, trying to attain enlightenment, the object) in their non–dual belief systems. Another way they attempt to resolve this is through the concept of non–dualistic dualism, proposing that there simultaneously exists separation as well as non–separation, implicitly putting them on an equal footing. This notion can be found in statements like “Nirvana is Samsara.”

Although these kinds of views show more sophistication of thought, if we were to take them seriously, there would be less reason to search for enlightenment, because oneness would not be more real than separateness, which is contrary to the basic workings of these ideologies.

Because in reality these ideologies foster an authoritarian guru–disciple framework, where disciples are taught that oneness is more real than diversity and that getting enlightened happens through becoming more selfless by surrendering to a (supposedly perfect) guru.

So instead of acknowledging and embracing the importance of diversity, self and the various aspects of the student’s own intelligence (like reason and critical thinking), these non–dualistic ideologies put up a show of the perfect guru and the imperfect disciple who has to submissively obey the guru and abandon reason, in order to find the truth.

It is, by the way, remarkable that there are enlightenment schools of Buddhism that advocate this guru–disciple framework. Remarkable, because in the Kalama Sutta the Buddha taught that people should rely on their own intelligence and judgment in their search for the truth, instead of relying on a guru. Even on his deathbed the Buddha encouraged his students to question him in case they had any doubt about him or his teachings.

Monotheism states that God is the ultimate spiritual authority. Likewise, the non–dual belief system presents enlightened beings as the ultimate spiritual authority. And so the idea of enlightenment basically brings God’s authoritarian control to the personal (guru) level.

According to monotheism, a human being cannot question God. Likewise in the non–dual belief system, a non–enlightened person cannot question the actions or words of an enlightened person. So gurus can do whatever they want because they are looked at from a different perspective and therefore whatever they do is perfect and selfless by default.

That’s why, as was mentioned earlier, this concept of enlightenment & selfless perfection almost always leads to corruption and abuse, because so–called enlightened people are worshiped and never held to account by their disciples.

Just to be clear: What is not taken issue with here is the possible usefulness of receiving guidance from a spiritual friend, who admits to being imperfect and is open to criticism. But what is examined and disagreed with here is the complete surrender to a supposedly perfect and unchallengeable guru in the context of authoritarian control.

A lot of scandals involving the abuse of power by gurus or their disciples (with the gurus’ knowledge) in different spiritual groups have surfaced in the past decades. Although there was much diversity in the type and background of these spiritual organizations, these scandals were not just unrelated incidents, because these groups did have in common that they were based on an authoritarian guru–disciple framework.

Once these abuses surface and become public knowledge, gurus will try to justify or deny the fact that they were behaving in ways that are inconsistent with their own teachings. Their disciples will also try to justify the behavior of the guru, because they are psychologically invested in believing their guru is (near) perfect. If the guru would be proven to be far from selfless and ‘enlightened,’ their whole believe system about the guru being perfect would crumble to the ground and they may think they wasted their time and energy following the guru. And so again egoism turns out to be what’s really behind (protecting) these images of the selfless and saintlike guru.

Disciples need these ideals of perfection because surrender is regarded as essential in the guru–disciple relationship. The image of surrendering to an imperfect ordinary human being who can make mistakes does not create a compelling ideal. So people need a picture of a perfect being (like a God or an enlightened guru) to be able to muster the desire to completely surrender to that being. Therefore the guru can never be selfish, make mistakes or lose control. In the disciples’ mind the guru didn’t just get angry at a student or just selfishly had sex with a student, but the guru gave an enlightened teaching to the student through the selfless use of anger or sexuality...

Authoritarian power, be it ideological or political, has been the most used form of controlling individuals and populations in human history. People have always been looking for a savior (with a supposed pipeline to the truth) to make things right and comfort them, which keeps people childish.

One aspect of developing a more mature view of life is realizing that ultimately others cannot know for certain what’s best for you in your search for the truth. And so a less dysfunctional attitude is to take personal responsibility for your own life by trusting in your own intelligence and judgment and allowing yourself to make mistakes and learn from them.

Those who see themselves as seekers of truth and awareness should be aware of the truth of what goes on behind the masks of authoritarian power.

This article is in part a summary of the book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power, by Joel Kramer & Diana Alstad.

© Steven van der Hut