A Former “Realized” Monk Reflects on Enlightenment and Guru-Masochism
Masochist by Emil Alzamora
One day you wake up to your life and realize how far away you are from wholeness.
The story has been told before, in a memoir, in interviews, at lectures, teacher trainings, midnight conversations with strangers on lonely flights across the country, a thousand threads of the same narrative reframed in dialog, inner monologue, committed to the page (digitial and acid free paper). It has become stale, tired in my own mouth. The one constant is the emotional subtext, that is never insipid, it is still full of blood.
I was once a guru. But before that I was a monk. Raised to be a prophet from birth by devout parents of the Eastern Wisdom traditions. I was a masochist for enlightenment. I had many followers, disciples of my every word and gesture. Then, in my earliest adulthood, I was crowned with spiritual enlightenment by my master.The declaration of my enlightened sainthood dispelled a long-held illusion, and not the one expected.
I had lived my whole life in a panoptic community with my master sitting in the high tower, the invisible all-seeing guru, my every innermost thought a knowable object in the transcendent sphere that she (my master) resided in. Yet, I knew something she didn’t: I was nowhere near the myth of the Buddha. I was addicted to the idea of perfection, but my body, my genitals, my quivering flesh kept getting in the way. This lack of insight, on the part of my master, was a disruptive force.
The master, I had idealized, now conferred upon me the imperial cloth of the guru, but it was invisible, I couldn’t grasp it. In that moment I saw her nakedness and my own. We both fell short of the myth.
Sometimes you have to let your idea of the world die, so you can touch the things that are real.
I have three things to say:My life as a guru was a constant violence to my humanity.
My life as a disciple of a master was a constant violence to my humanity.
My life as a guru was a constant violence to the humanity of my disciples. It is the myth of enlightenment
, of supernatural wholeness, that produces this destructive idealism. The guru tradition is an industry of illusion and coercive dupery, which fragments, erases, and replaces our humanity with an impossible ideal of perfection.
The body continues to undermine the idea of spiritual mastery.
It is, in fact, a profoundly delicate illusion, one that must be constantly repaired and reconstructed due to the tangible reality of the world outside this myth. Enlightenment is an idea that is so terribly vulnerable to the persistent reality of the bodies involved in this obsession, not excluding my own tortured flesh—which was too lumbering, heavy-limbed, and clumsy for this idea of perfection–that all things which conflict with its idealism have to be actively negated.This is the sad truth underpinning the totalitarian structure of guru communities.
Idealizations tend to obliterate the physical, the real, and replace persons with ideas.
In order to teach my students, on the path toward perfection, I had to invalidate their shadows, their imperfections, so that they could realize an impossible ideal. I was in a constant process of deconstructing, negating through fierce Jnana
, their essential embodiedness, their fully human psychology, and replacing it with an idea. They, on the other hand, had to ignore my essential imperfection, in order to continue idealizing me as a master.This circular delusion and co-deception constructed a community entirely disconnected from the world our bodies resided in.
As a guru I was a sadist.
Thesis: Guru-Masochism underpins the dynamic of master-student. Some experience their interiority, their own minds, as a kind of tyrant; as if they were a subject to a punishing inner despot. In anguish and desperation they seek out an external tyrant, a guru, to subjugate the internal master. Suicide can be averted via a kind of spiritual masochism, the bending and submitting of the will to a dominatrix of the psyche.The myth is that the spiritual master has transcended their subjectivity, their own discrete skull-sized kingdom, and is now capable of liberating others.To submit to such a guru is a deep form of masochism, for the idea of spiritual liberation is unattainable, and so the effort to escape the inner jailer is forever frustrated by subjectivity itself–or at least as long as the person is alive.In my role as a sadist, my humanity was slowly being replaced with an archetype, an idea of an autocratic master of the spiritual domain. And my students were being dehumanized through my psychological tortures. Symbols are symbols; human beings are human beings.It was for this reason I left being a guru. A few weeks after being declared fully “realized” I couldn’t rationalize my own suffering or the suffering I was inflicting on others. I was done with enlightenment.
Sometimes I wake up in the night…
And all the fragmented parts, kept in neat compartments, fall out; a swollen belly; scars raised on the skin; a battered face. The ravages of my spiritual history form a geography of regret and pain in my inner landscape.
I have a new dream of wholeness.
This new dream is no longer to be perfect, or to transcend this world. It is to accept all these broken fragmentary bits as myself. To embrace the incomplete.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.