Meister Eckhart and Buddhism

~D. T. Suzuki

In the following pages I attempt to call the reader’s attention to the closeness of Meister Eckhart’s way of thinking to that of Mahayana Buddhism, especially of Zen Buddhism. The attempt is only a tentative and sketchy one, far from being systematic and exhaustive. But I hope the reader will find something in it which evokes his curiosity enough to undertake further studies of this fascinating topic.

When I first read – which was more than a half century ago – a little book containing a few of Meister Eckhart’s sermons, they impressed me profoundly, for I never expected that any Christian thinker ancient or modern could or would cherish such daring thoughts as expressed in those sermons. While I do not remember which sermons made up the contents of the little book, the ideas expounded there closely approached Buddhist thoughts, so closely indeed, that one could stamp them almost definitely as coming out of Buddhist speculations. As far as I can judge, Eckhart seems to be an extraordinary ‘Christian’.
While refraining from going into details we can say at least this: Eckhart’s Christianity is unique and has many points which make us hesitate to classify him as belonging to the type we generally associate  with rationalised modernism or with conservative traditionalism. He stands on his own experiences which emerged from a rich, deep, religious personality. He attempts to reconcile them with the historical type of Christianity modeled after legends and mythology. He tries to give an ‘esoteric’ or inner meaning to them, and by so doing he enters fields which were not touched by most of his historical predecessors.

First, let me give you the views Eckhart has on time and creation. These are treated in his sermon delivered on the commemoration day for St Germaine. He quotes a sentence from Ecclesiasticus: ‘In his days he pleased God and was found just’. Taking up first the phrase ‘In his days,’ he interprets it according to his own understanding:

. . . there are more days than one. There is the soul’s day and
God’s day. A day, whether six or seven ago, or more than six
thousand years ago, is just as near to the present as yesterday.
Why? Because all time is contained in the present Nowmoment.
Time comes of the revolution of the heavens and day
began with the first revolution. The soul’s day falls within this
time and consists of the natural light in which things are seen.
God’s day, however, is the complete day, comprising both day
and night. It is the real Now-moment, which for the soul is
eternity’s day, on which the Father begets his only begotten Son
and the soul is reborn in God.

The soul’s day and God’s day are different. In her natural day
the soul knows all things above time and place; nothing is far
or near. And that is why I say, this day all things are of equal
rank. To talk about the world as being made by God to-morrow,
yesterday, would be talking nonsense. God makes the world
and all things in this present now. Time gone a thousand years
ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant.
The soul who is in this present now, in her the Father bears his
one-begotten Son and in that same birth the soul is born back
into God. It is one birth; as fast as she is reborn into God the
Father is begetting his only Son in her.

God the Father and the Son have nothing to do with time.
Generation is not in time, but at the end and limit of time. In
the past and future movements of things, your heart flits about;
it is in vain that you attempt to know eternal things; in divine
things, you should be occupied intellectually. . . .

Again, God loves for his own sake, acts for his own sake: that
means that he loves for the sake of love and acts for the sake of
action. It cannot be doubted that God would never have begot
his Son in eternity if [his idea of ] creation were other than [his
act of ] creation. Thus God created the world so that he might
keep on creating. The past and future are both far from God
and alien to his way.

From these passages we see that the Biblical story of creation is thoroughly contradicted; it has not even a symbolic meaning in Eckhart, and, further, his God is not at all like the God conceived by most Christians. God is not in time mathematically enumerable. His creativity is not historical, not accidental, not at all measurable. It goes on continuously without cessation with no beginning, with no end. It is not an event of yesterday or today or tomorrow, it comes out of timelessness, of nothingness, of Absolute Void. God’s work is always done in an absolute present, in a timeless ‘now which is time and place in itself ’. God’s work is sheer love, utterly free from all forms of chronology and teleology. The idea of God creating the world out of nothing, in an absolute present, and therefore altogether beyond the control of a serial time conception will not sound strange to Buddhist ears. Perhaps they may find it acceptable as reflecting their doctrine of Emptiness (sunyata).

From: Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist