Buddha and Eckhart: On The True Spiritual Life
"Dear children, you must know that true spiritual life leads to perfect freedom from self and all things." (The quotations in this article comprise the sermon 'Innocent's Day,' as found on page 59 of David O'Neal's wonderful little book 'Meister Eckhart, from Whom God Hid Nothing.')
As is often the case with the Master Eckhart's instructions, he gets straight to the point, and so shall we. He states, in contrast to conventional ideas of what the fruits of a Christian life are, that the results of a successful spiritual practice result in the destruction of the delusion of self and, as he puts it, all things. Let's start with the former: the "perfect freedom from self." Does this not echo an important part of the Buddha's teaching, anatta (the reality of there being no self)? Moreover, in enlightenment, we are freed from identifying with the delusion of being a self, which also seems to be what Eckhart is getting at. This is radical statement for a Christian priest to make (especially in the medieval ages), for the usual beliefs were that the goal of the spiritual life was resurrection and salvation of the self, to live for eternity as a separate self in the presence of a separate God. Indeed, this apparently forms the central hope for the majority of Christians to this day, which may be one reason why Eckhart's teachings are not more widely known and followed.
The Master also mentions that perfect freedom from "all things" is achieved at the end of a true spiritual life. Again, this doesn't seem to be the mainstream doctrine of the Christian Church, whichever denomination or order we amy consider (apart from the Franciscans, perhaps, to which Eckhart did not belong - he was a Dominican priest.) Often, modern Christian preachers will declare that if someone believes in Jesus enough, "all things will be given unto him." This is taken by such preachers to mean that if we have strong faith in Jesus, we will get whatever we desire (or covet, perhaps). Wanna new car? Have faith in Christ enough and you'll get one! Eckhart rejects this idea, however, just as he does not teach that good Christians will have everything they want in heaven; instead, he states that they will be free from all things, desired or otherwise. This parallels the Buddha's teaching on equanimity, in that Buddhists are encouraged to see beyond greed, hatred, and delusion to the freedom that lies beyond.
"One cares nothing, seeks nothing, has nothing, wants nothing for oneself, but frankly resigns oneself to eternal law, always so clearly shown to the discerning but which none may know unless he is inwardly atoned and outwardly obedient to the discipline perfectly exemplified in our Lord Jesus Christ."
Not caring or seeking after anything is of course freedom from desire, which the Buddha taught is the cause of our suffering. He also taught the Dharma ('eternal law'), available to any discerning mind. Now, it can be argued that there are substantial differences between the laws promoted in the Bible and those revealed by the Buddha, but if we look beyond the details of biblical and Buddhist precepts, we may find that they point to similar, if not identical spiritual ends. This certainly seems the case with Eckhart's teachings on such matters. To be "inwardly atoned," as he puts it, means to be emptied of self so that the purified soul (or mind) may receive God (nirvana), which, as Eckhart explains elsewhere, is achieved through intense prayer (meditation). Outward obedience to discipline can mean to one's order, sect, Church, or monastery, etc., and is demonstrated by both Jesus and Buddha, whose lives illustrate the way to what the latter called 'the deathless.'
"Those who live this life, they verily attain to unity, and to know the truth one has to dwell in unity and be the unity."
By "this life" Eckhart of course means the spiritual life that we are examining, which he sees as being tied up with what he calls "unity." Unity suggests a lack of differentiation, a state of peacefulness without opposites or conflict. And yet, by his words we are not to take this unity as something we acquire, for although he states that it should be attained, known, and dwelt in, he also declares that it is something we should be. Interestingly, if we change the word unity to 'nirvana' in the above quotation, it works just as well. A synonym for nirvana used by the Buddha is 'non-diversified,' which is another way of saying 'unity.' In meditative terms, it indicates a mind not distracted or in conflict with itself, which is one of the main aims of both Buddhist meditation and Eckhartian 'prayer,' and is a prelude to enlightenment.
"He who is at all aware of his own mind knows nothing of God's."
As above, we could easily make sense of this statement by inserting a Buddhist word: He who is at all aware of his own mind know's nothing of Buddha Mind. Whilst some Buddhists may have doctrinal difficulties with the idea of Buddha Mind, for those that accept it, the above quotation from the Master should surely find strong parallels with their own beliefs or experiences regarding Buddha Mind. For other Buddhists, we might use a more impersonal term like 'no-mind' or (again) nirvana. Either way, Eckhart's letting go of awareness of the egoistic mind and diving (dying) into what remains is indicative of certain stages of meditation, where the personality is surrendered into a greater reality.
"By the fact of his knowing and seeing, he is not void."
At first glimpse, this statement will offer some difficulty for the complementary comparison of Eckhart's teaching and the Buddha. This is, of course, because the Buddha taught that emptiness (or void) is at the heart of us all. However, elsewhere Eckhart himself has written of God that he is empty of any particular characteristics, and that he is a "not God," so, in the sense of being "not void" in the above statement, we need to look for an alternative meaning than. In other words, by "his knowing and seeing" the spiritual aspirant is not void of what, exactly? Void of God, or in Buddhist parlance, void of nirvana. In this interpretation, it is another way of saying that whoever achieves true knowing and seeing sees God, Buddha, nirvana, or whatever word or concept we wish to attach to the ultimate ground of being. (Now, it may be that this reflection appears a little awkward or doesn't 'ring true' for the reader; that's perfectly okay. These reflections on the teachings of Eckhart and their relationship to the Buddha's philosophy aren't meant to be dogmatically accepted, but considered in an open-minded manner. If they are beneficial, that's great. If not, then they can be let go of. This goes for any etchings that we encounter, Buddhist or other.)
"The highest knowing and seeing is knowing and seeing, unknowing and unseeing."
Here, Eckhart seems more like an enigmatic Zen master than a Christian priest. What on earth (or in heaven!) does he mean by saying that knowing and seeing is the same as unknowing and unseeing? Well, the clue is in the word "highest." He seems to be stating that in meditative or contemplative heights of rapture, knowing and unknowing merge into one, as does seeing and unseeing. Moreover, in his theology, as in Buddhist teachings, the ultimate (or 'highest') aim of spiritual life is a kind of knowing but not conventional intellectual knowing as popularly understood. The same goes for seeing and unseeing. We do not 'know' or 'see' enlightenment, but it is 'known' (or 'seen') or else it would not have been talked of by such luminaries as the Buddha and Eckhart; there would be nothing to talk of. To pursue the Zen analogy: it is known and yet not known; it is seen and yet not seen; it is, and yet not is. If we try to 'know' or 'see' this in the conventional sense of these terms, we will fail miserably. Eckhart is encouraging us to go beyond the limited knowledge and senses of the egoistic self.
"To know anything of self is to know nothing of God, and he who wants God to be his is putting an obstacle in his own way."
To know about the self is know about a set of conventional, worldly, truths. There is immense value in this kind of knowledge, and both the Buddha and Christ taught us to cultivate this type of wisdom. It is a crucial step to understanding others , society, and the world, and shouldn't be dismissed lightly. But, Eckhart assumes that we understand this already. He is building on top of this conventional wisdom with something more profound. In essence, he is telling us that we must empty ourselves of the sense of being a self if we wish to know God, which is echoed in the Buddha's instructions on how we can realize enlightenment - we must let go of our attachment to the sense of self if we want to experience nirvana. However, as many Buddhist masters have taught, if we attach to the desire for enlightenment, this will itself be an obstacle to our achieving it. It seems that both nirvana and God cannot be grasped by either an egoistic mind nor one that hungers to possess them. Selflessness is the way for both Christian and Buddhist.
"'He who wants God to be his is in danger of spiritual pride,' so says one of the saints."
Or, in Buddhist terms, 'He who wants nirvana to be his is in danger of spiritual pride,' so says one of the enlightened ones! The parallels here are self-evident, so we will move on.
"With the righteous soul, the more God is to her the less he is hers, for God is all his own."
In other words, if we desire God, cling to God and thirst to know and possess him, we will never have him. God cannot be grasped, and neither can enlightenment. This is the same argument as two sentences previous, and we might accuse Eckhart of needlessly repeating himself if we didn't know that this is such an important point that both Christians and Buddhists need to bear in mind when practicing meditation or deep prayer. In the Tipitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, we find much repetition also. Some of this can be explained by the early oral transmission of teachings and the need for repetitive phrases for the ease of remembrance, but this does not explain the reassurance of certain themes again and agin throughout not only the Tipitaka but also throughout the history of Buddhist teaching. Much-repeated subjects are repeated because they are important, and therefore we shouldn't take Eckhart's words on spiritual desire lightly!
"The right humble spirit is little in itself, because the way of truth is made known to it."
By "little" the Master means that the self (delusion) is reduced to next to nothing (or actually nothing), and that the path to salvation (enlightenment) is revealed. When the truth of the-way-things-are (The Dharma) is known, then egoism goes out the window, replaced by the knowledge that these apparent selves are not much when compared to the greater reality that opens up in spiritual awakening. To be "humble" here indicates this lessening of self-importance and differentiation from all else. In conventional truth, we are conditioned beings completely dependent upon each other and the world around us for our existence, whilst in ultimate truth, what we are is not a self, a we, and is the antithesis of egoist conceit, whether dressed in religious garb or secular clothing.
"True spiritual poverty leads into it."
To be truly poor doesn't necessarily mean a lack a material possessions, although for some it does. The ideal of the Buddhist monk is someone with little more than their robes to their name, and in Christianity there is the example of the Franciscans who ideally lead a life of strict poverty. This relates to the earlier statement above where Eckhart mentions "perfect freedom from self and all things." It is a "spiritual" poverty, not always a material one, although perhaps we (and the world's millionaires) should recall Christ's declaration that "It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than it is a rich person the kingdom of God"! Then again, who's to say that Jesus was not extolling spiritual poverty when he said this; no doubt many Christians have held this view, perhaps Ecklhart amongst them.
"The soul will find no more profound humility than that of our Lord Jesus Christ, who himself declared, 'I am not of myself.'"
Perhaps this statement, with its promotion of Jesus, will stick in the throat of many Buddhist readers more than any other in this article, but only if we view it in dogmatic terms (as many Christians will, of course). On the other hand, we can see the words of the Buddha and Eckhart as tools to awaken with, as when the Buddha described his own teachings as a raft to cross over to the 'other shore' of enlightenment. If we do this, then we can simply replace the words 'Lord Jesus Christ' with 'Lord Buddha,' and the sentence will be much more appealing to the Buddhists amongst us. Either way, the final words of this Eckhartian sermon are themselves a perfect summation of its contents and meaning. Both the Buddha and Christ shared this view: "I am not of myself." Whatever self we take ourselves to be, we are not that. Enlightenment - or salvation in the eyes of Eckhart - is a transcending or letting go of any sense of self, and in the end, this is what the spiritual life is all about, whether we are Buddhist, Christian, or neither.