The Kramer Papers:
A Look Behind the Mask of Antiauthoritarianism
A personal account of a meeting with the authors of
The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power by Hal Blacker
For many of us today the very word authority sounds strangely incomplete without its
common prefix "anti." If you've lived through Watergate, through Contragate, or
through any number of the other abuses of the trust reposed in our leaders, it is
difficult to prevent the reflexive arising of a deeply negative response when authority
rears its head. A long history of suffering and disappointment has caused the concepts of
authority and authoritarianism-the misuse of authority for its own selfish ends-to become
synonymous in many people's minds. In the arena of spirituality, the scandals of the past
twenty years or so surrounding numerous gurus and spiritual leaders make the response of
antiauthoritarianism to the concept of spiritual authority almost inevitable. So it is not
surprising that of late there has been a rising tide of voices suggesting that the entire
idea of authority in the spiritual world would best be resigned to the junk heap of
history, to join other concepts which most modern educated people agree have outlived
their usefulness, such as the divine right of kings and papal infallibility.
But none of the critics of the guru go as far as Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad, authors
of The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. Their book is said to have had a
profound influence on, among others, the vocal anti-guru convert Andrew Harvey during his
time of spiritual crisis, when he broke away from Mother Meera, whom he had only recently
declared the avatar who would save the world. Because of their influence on some of those
who are most vocal in articulating the anti-guru "new paradigm," I knew I had to
speak to Kramer and Alstad for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?, which examines
the role of purity and authority in the spiritual life.
Joel Kramer is a trained philosopher, having completed most of
his studies towards a Ph.D. in Western philosophy before dropping out to pursue Eastern
philosophy and yoga. When we met, Diana Alstad told me, "He studied Western
philosophy and got it. Then he studied Eastern thought and got it, too." He taught at
Esalen in the 1960s and is a self-proclaimed hatha yoga adept. Diana Alstad's credentials
are impressive as well. She received a doctorate from Yale University and taught the first
women's studies courses at Yale and Duke universities. The Guru Papers is the only
published portion of a far larger and more ambitious work called Control. It is perhaps
the most articulated attempt to deconstruct the entire concept of spiritual authority and
the philosophies underlying its uses and abuses.
When I called Joel Kramer, he readily agreed to an interview. At his request I reread
the last chapters of his book. I also sent him the last two editions of What Is
Enlightenment? A few days before our interview, however, he telephoned me and said
that he had decided to call it off. We were too far apart, he told me. He had no respect
for my point of view, or that of our magazine. He did not wish to grant us an interview,
he said. I told him that an interview would give him a chance to reach the very people he
was trying to help, seekers interested in the philosophies he saw as so dangerous and
damaging. I reminded him that I was even willing to take the journalistically unorthodox
step of granting him the right to review all of his statements for accuracy and
completeness to ensure a fair treatment of his views. But he told me that this did not
matter. He was not interested in trying to reach our readers, he said. Then he said
something that sent off shock waves of the sort I imagine might occur in the far reaches
of outer space when matter and antimatter collide. He told me that what bothered him was
that our publication's point of view is that of a morality based on selflessness. He said
that moralities based upon selflessness are a major source of the problems and
dysfunctionality of the world. He went on to say that the major themes presented by the
people included in our forum-themes he identified as those of impersonal love, detachment
and egolessness-are the ideas responsible for the horrible mess that our planet is in.
While listening to him, for no apparent reason an incongruous memory of walking down a
desert highway in the heat of the midday sun entered my consciousness. I remembered the
eerie sense of dislocation caused by the shimmering heat waves that surrounded me, how the
colors of the landscape around me began to sickeningly undulate, shift and dissolve.
Somehow, reading The Guru Papers had not prepared me for the vehemence with
which Kramer attributed the world's troubles to the influence of such ideas as
selflessness, impersonal love, nonattachment and self-sacrifice. I found his position
fascinating-and utterly incomprehensible. I had to go back and read his book again. And
there it was in black and white. Why hadn't I seen it before?
In The Guru Papers, Kramer and Alstad do not only attack the institution of the
guru due to its recent record of scandal and abuse. They go further and reject as
inherently abusive and authoritarian the entire morality which they say underlies
spiritual authority. The heart of their work is their critique of this morality, what they
call "renunciate morality," which they see as dangerously flawed because it
teaches the possibility and desirability of attaining selflessness. They say that
renunciate morality, by teaching that selflessness and self-sacrifice are possible and are
superior to self-centeredness, causes people to doubt themselves, and thus become
susceptible to authoritarian manipulation. It is simply impossible to have selflessness
without also having its opposite, self-centeredness, they say, and to teach otherwise is
just a way of confusing and controlling people. According to Kramer and Alstad, moralities
that teach selflessness as the highest goal are responsible for the mess that the world is
in today, a mess that threatens humanity's very survival. When it really hit me that this
was their underlying premise for rejecting what they call "the guru system," it
shook me up, unsettled and even scared me, in part because I could see the alluring
attraction of the idea that selfishness is natural, inevitable and OK.
During our telephone conversation, Kramer went on to say that
although he would not do an interview, he was very interested in speaking to me personally
about our views. Who knows? he said, he might change his mind about the interview after we
When we finally met, it became clear that Joel Kramer had never been serious about the
possibility of changing his mind. But we did engage in a discussion, a debate and an
encounter that lasted over four and a half hours. This encounter revealed more than a
simple interview would ever have been likely to do. It left me feeling, both as a
journalist and a human being, that I would be remiss in my duty to anyone serious about
spirituality and its difficult challenges if I failed to recount at least a portion of
what I saw of the psyche behind the mask of antiauthoritarianism that The Guru Papers's
Enjoying the dramatic beauty of our surroundings, I thanked
Kramer for meeting with me, and I told him that I had found his book fascinating. Then I
brought up the subject of its reputed influence on Andrew Harvey. Yes, he said, the book
had influenced Harvey. But he was critical of Harvey for not going far enough. Although
Harvey criticizes the guru system, he still believes in the virtues of self-sacrifice and
impersonal love, Kramer said.
It was a sunny day last summer when I went to meet Joel Kramer. I drove my car up
an unmarked winding road to the top ofthe seaside mesa where he and Diana Alstad live.
Diana Alstad met me at the door and invited me inside. Soon Kramer joined us and asked me
if I would like to sit with him on their deck outside. As we sat there high above the
Pacific Ocean's endlessly rolling and crashing waves dotted with foam, sea gulls and an
occasional surfer, it seemed somehow fitting to me that my meeting with two of the sources
of the widely proclaimed anti-guru new paradigm was taking place in the town of Bolinas,
California. Bolinas is a coastal town off Highway 1, at the West's furthermost limits. A
bastion of anarcho-libertarianism, its residents have driven the authorities to despair by
repeatedly tearing down every sign announcing its existence that the California Department
of Transportation has ever posted.
Then, obviously not a man to waste time getting to the point, he let me know in a
passionate tone that he had me and the magazine I write for pegged as perpetrators of what
he calls the "renunciate morality" based on selflessness and self-sacrifice,
which he claims is wreaking havoc upon this planet. He told me that he would never grant
an interview to a magazine that promulgates such views, because he would not want to
appear to endorse them. Taken aback, I was not sure how to proceed, but I did not have to
think about it for long.
In a still forceful yet more philosophical tone, Kramer immediately went on to say that
what is necessary is understanding-never renunciation. He asked me to explain how
renunciation could ever lead to any good. I told him that I have personally struggled with
a tendency towards anger, towards lashing out at people when I am crossed. I agreed with
him that understanding is essential, and I told him that I am interested in anger's causes
and effects. But being doubtless about its destructiveness, when I feel anger arising I
think I should renounce acting out of it. By doing this, breaking the chain of action and
reaction that anger creates, I have a better chance of coming to an understanding that
will uproot it, I explained. But Joel Kramer was clearly unconvinced.
I brought up what I considered to be the heart of the matter. I
told him that I found it hard to believe that he and Diana Alstad were serious in their
assertion that selflessness or self-sacrifice does not have a higher moral status than
self-centeredness. But I proposed to Joel Kramer that if we defined our terms it might
turn out that we were not so far apart as it appeared. Perhaps they were using the term
self- centeredness in a way that is different than usual.
"I can see aspects of what you might call selfishness or self-centeredness that
arguably should not be negated, such as creativity, individual discrimination, personal
responsibility and so on," I suggested, attempting to find some meeting ground.
"Perhaps this is what you mean by self-centeredness, and why you say it is necessary
and should not be renounced?" But he dashed my hopes for a rapprochement, informing
me in no uncertain terms that our viewpoints were diametrically opposed. This despite the
fact that in his book, and in our ensuing conversation, he cited over and over again
similar positive aspects of "self- centeredness" to those I had just proposed to
Then Kramer retook the offensive. He attacked the emphasis Eastern thought places on
oneness, on our ultimate identity. For example, he pointed out to me that everyone has to
face their death alone. I don't know if it was because we were perched so precariously
high above the Pacific Ocean's crashing waves, but I was deeply struck by his point, and
found myself sinking like a stone into the depths of a still contemplation of the
aloneness of each of us in the face of the ultimate.
"That is a very profound paradox," I heard myself say, staring at him dumbly
while vaguely recalling that paradox was one of those things Joel Kramer found especially
pernicious, a sure sign of authoritarian thought. Joel Kramer looked at me, waiting. I
repeated, "That is a mystery, and a profound paradox."
Then the answer came to me, like a silver fish leaping unexpectedly out of the blue
ocean. "We are alone in the face of death, that is true," I said, "but that
aloneness itself is a universal experience, pointing to our oneness as well as our
He remained silent. For a moment I could not tell if it was because he was struck by
what I had said or flabbergasted at my obtuseness. Then, as if I had said nothing at all
he stated, "No one else can feel my pain."
Our conversation continued in a similar vein. I wasn't surprised by the fact that our
views were different. But what disturbed me was that we were never able to meet, even when
it seemed at times that we agreed. Every time I posited a higher "one," he
acknowledged it, but then countered with a "many." Every connecting universal I
proposed was greeted with a nod, followed by the assertion of a unique and separating
Kramer told me that he does not discount the idea of oneness, or the religious
experience of it. "I've had oneness experiences," he said. But he and Alstad
argue that from the oneness experience, religions abstract philosophies of oneness,
drawing conclusions about human nature and the nature of existence from the experience of
oneness, and this is where the trouble begins. Kramer and Alstad call these philosophies
"oneness ideologies." In such ideologies, oneness and selflessness are given
precedence over separateness and individuality, and thereby authoritarianism is born. Why
is this? Because oneness is only one side of the picture, they say, and giving it higher
priority than separateness makes human beings feel bad about themselves, and consequently
susceptible to authoritarian manipulation.
We went over these points in various ways, again and again. Much was said, often with
great passion, but very little actually happened. We seemed to be continually stuck at the
same barrier, despite exploring it from every different angle. I would try to leap it, but
would be pulled back. Sometimes I would barrel on, almost feeling lush green spaces
beneath my feet, only to find I had been corralled back into the same narrow pen. At some
point I noticed that several hours had passed.
Diana Alstad eventually joined us. I hoped her feminine grace would cause the jagged
sharpness of our ideological battle to soften a little. I was growing a little tired of
all this energy without motion. We were still sparring over individuality and uniqueness
versus oneness and connectedness, and had not progressed at all. Diana solicitously took
out a handkerchief and gently wiped some moisture from her husband's face. She began to
say something to me that I did not catch, but Joel interrupted her, waving her off and
saying, "He's more sophisticated than that." Holding up the last edition of What
Is Enlightenment? and pointing to the words "impersonal enlightenment" on
its cover, she criticized all teachings that emphasize the impersonal. Turning the
conversation to the topic of love, I suggested that there is nothing uniquely personal or
special about romantic love. This elicited a strong and immediate emotional response.
"But everyone wants to feel special!" cried Diana.
"No one loves Diana the way that I do," Joel asserted.
"Yes, perhaps," I responded, "but then everyone feels that way about
their romantic involvement."
Joel Kramer changed the subject. He asked me if I thought that God or the Absolute was
identical with the universe, and if so, wasn't Adolf Hitler God?
"No, Adolf Hitler isn't God," I said.
"Well then, is God separate from the universe?" Joel wanted to know.
"No," I said, "God isn't separate from the universe, but He or She or It
is not identical to the universe."
"But that's dualistic. That's monotheism,"exclaimed Alstad. (Kramer and
Alstad believe that monotheism is patently authoritarian, whereas the authoritarianism of
Eastern "oneness ideologies" is more subtle and hidden, although equally
I replied that saying that God is identical even with the entire universe still limits
God, and God is unlimited.
A moment of stunned silence. Then I pointed out that we were enmeshed in the old debate
of transcendence versus immanence of the Absolute, a philosophical issue of great
profundity that theologians have been wrestling with for centuries. "I don't have the
answer either," I said. "The closest I can come up with at the moment is that
God is both transcendent and immanent."
"Well, you can't have it both ways," Joel protested.
I have to admit that even at this late stage in the proceedings this response surprised
me a bit. One of the more interesting aspects of Kramer's and Alstad's thought is their
insistence that we need to go beyond either/or "bipolar" thinking and become
proficient at dialectics if we are to have any hope of solving the problems of our weary
and burdened globe. The hallmark of dialectics is that out of the clash of opposites, a
higher inclusive synthesis is supposed to emerge. But despite hours of lively tete-a-tete
no glimmer of a synthesis of our opposing views was in sight. I decided to give it one
"Couldn't your understanding of oneness or selflessness be artificially
limited?" I stammered. I was getting worn out. "Isn't the very point of genuine
oneness experience and understanding the resolution of the conceptual opposites of one and
many, self and nonself, into a higher unity? And isn't this where dialectics is supposed
to ultimately lead?" It didn't work. He said that there is no higher oneness; the one
is always opposed to the many. And we were back in the same loop.
But I hadn't quite run out of steam yet. I finally asked,
"If selflessness is a harmful basis for morality, as you argue, what would you base
They both answered, "Survival." They said that given the ecological crisis
and the threat of nuclear extermination, this was the problem most urgently facing
humanity today. I could not disagree with this. But I asked how a morality of survival
could be free from the danger of authoritarianism. "In fact," I went on, "I
don't think you could find a morality more susceptible to authoritarian abuse than one
based ultimately on survival. Wasn't the survival of China, for example, the rationale for
Chairman Mao's authoritarian oppression? Couldn't survival as the ultimate yardstick
justify the most extreme forms of suppression of the individual?" Diana Alstad
hesitantly offered that respect for the individual would be seen as necessary to survival
of the race. Then Kramer changed the subject again.
Feeling that we were now beyond the point of polite philosophical debate, Kramer told
me, in so many words, that although intelligent, relatively sophisticated, and sincere, I
was very confused. "I don't hold back saying where I think things are at," he
told me, in case I was unsure of this. After four and a half hours of battle with his and
Alstad's prodigious intellects, this was one of the few things I was not unsure of at this
point. But there was one other.
Joel Kramer had told me that in his days of teaching at Esalen and elsewhere, he had
been tempted to become a guru himself. Several times during the course of our conversation
he had asserted that he could have pulled it off if he had wanted to. "I know what
people expect, and I could play that role," he told me. But when he was teaching he
saw the temptation, and the effect that adulation from others had on him, and he didn't
like it. He knew that the temptation to abuse the position was too strong and he renounced
taking the role. I respected him for that. I had even had a similar experience, although
not as dramatic as his, years ago when teaching a class on spirituality, and had made a
"Well, I haven't told you explicitly what I think is behind
your philosophy," I said. They invited me to go on.
"I think that many people have been deeply burned, both by
what they have seen in others who have abused the guru role and by what they have seen in
themselves," I said. "Being genuinely selfless is the greatest challenge. Most
of us come up against the same temptations in ourselves, and make the same mistakes, over
and over again. It is very easy to despair of ever going beyond the temptations of power
and selfishness." I was speaking from personal experience here, not from theory.
Despite years of effort at personal transformation, I was still very much struggling.
"I think that the difficulties that you faced in yourself have made you deeply
cynical about the possibility of anyone manifesting real selflessness," I concluded.
There was a moment of silence. I could not tell if they were impressed with my point,
or only affected by the emotion behind it. It seemed that for an instant there was the
possibility of meeting in mutual respect, but the moment passed. There wasn't much more to
Soon, another visitor dropped by and I took my cue to thank them both and leave. On my
way out Alstad gave me a book of teachings by Kramer from years ago, some articles by him
on yoga and a copy of a manuscript of a new book they are working on about the inherent
authoritarianism of Buddhism. Diana and I spoke for a few moments about my current
spiritual involvement, and she graciously said to Joel that she thought there was more to
it than the usual "oneness ideology." But Joel, looking annoyed, just waved this
off, said good-bye and returned to his guest.
I drove back down the mesa, through a grove of eucalyptus, and headed south on Highway
1. Bolinas Lagoon rippled orange beneath the setting sun, silhouetting statuesque egrets,
herons and other waterfowl, nature forming a picture of peaceful perfection.
Exhausted, I breathed a sigh of relief.