Meister Eckhart and Buddhism [02]

~D. T. Suzuki

Below are further quotations from Eckhart giving his views on ‘being’, ‘life’, ‘work’, etc.:

Being is God. . . . God and being are the same – or God has
being from another and thus himself is not God. . . . Everything
that is has the fact of its being through being and from being.
Therefore, if being is something different from God, a thing has
its being from something other than God. Besides, there is
nothing prior to being, because that which confers being creates
and is a creator. To create is to give being out of nothing.

Eckhart is quite frequently metaphysical and makes one wonder how his audience took to his sermons – an audience which is supposed to have been very unscholarly, being ignorant of Latin and all the theologies written in it. This problem of being and God’s creating the world out of nothing must have puzzled them very much indeed. Even the scholars might have found Eckhart beyond their understanding, especially when we know that they were not richly equipped with the experiences which Eckhart had. Mere thinking or logical reasoning will never succeed in clearing up problems of deep religious significance. Eckhart’s experiences are deeply, basically, abundantly rooted in God as Being which is at once being and not-being: he sees in the ‘meanest’ thing among God’s creatures all the glories of his is-ness (isticheit). The Buddhist enlightenment is nothing more than this experience of isness or suchness (tathata), which in itself has all the possible values (guna) we humans can conceive.

God’s characteristic is being. The philosopher says one creature
is able to give another life. For in being, mere being, lies all
that is at all. Being is the first name. Defect means lack of
being. Our whole life ought to be being. So far as our life is
being, so far it is in God. So far as our life is feeble but taking it
as being, it excels anything life can ever boast. I have no doubt
of this, that if the soul had the remotest notion of what being
means she would never waver from it for an instant. The most
trivial thing perceived in God, a flower for example as espied in
God, would be a thing more perfect than the universe. The
vilest thing present in God as being is better than angelic
knowledge.

This passage may sound too abstract to most readers. The sermon is said to have been given on the commemoration day of the ‘blessed martyrs who were slain with the swords’. Eckhart begins with his ideas about death and suffering which come to an end like everything else that belongs to this world. He then proceeds to tell us that ‘it behooves us to emulate the dead in dispassion (niht betrüeben) towards good and ill and pain of every kind’, and he quotes St Gregory: ‘No one gets so much of God as the man who is thoroughly dead’, because ‘death gives them [martyrs] being, – they lost their life and found their being’. Eckhart’s allusion to the flower as espied in God reminds us of Nansen’s interview with Rikko in which the Zen master also brings out a flower in the monastery courtyard. It is when I encounter such statements as these that I grow firmly convinced that the Christian experiences are not after all different from those of the Buddhist. Terminology is all that divides us and stirs us up to a wasteful dissipation of energy. We must however weigh the matter carefully and see whether there is really anything that alienates us from one another and whether there is any basis for our spiritual edification and for the advancement of a world culture.

When God made man, he put into the soul his equal, his active,
everlasting masterpiece. It was so great a work that it could not
be otherwise than the soul and the soul could not be otherwise
than the work of God. God’s nature, his being, and the Godhead
all depend on his work in the soul. Blessed, blessed be
God that he does work in the soul and that he loves his work!
That work is love and love is God. God loves himself and his
own nature, being and Godhead, and in the love he has for
himself he loves all creatures, not as creatures but as God. The
love God bears himself contains his love for the whole world.

Eckhart’s statement regarding God’s self-love which ‘contains his love for the whole world’ corresponds in a way to the Buddhist idea of universal enlightenment. When Buddha attained the enlightenment, it is recorded, he perceived that all beings non-sentient as well as sentient were already in the enlightenment itself. The idea of enlightenment may make Buddhists appear in some respects more impersonal and metaphysical than Christians. Buddhism thus may be considered more scientific and rational than Christianity which is heavily laden with all sorts of mythological paraphernalia. The movement is now therefore going on among Christians to denude the religion of this unnecessary historical appendix. While it is difficult to predict how far it will succeed, there are in every religion some elements which may be called irrational. They are generally connected with the human craving for love. The Buddhist doctrine of enlightenment is not after all such a cold system of metaphysics as it appears to some people. Love enters also into the enlightenment experience as one of its constituents, for otherwise it could not embrace the totality of existence. The enlightenment does not mean to run away from the world, and to sit cross-legged at the peak of the mountain, to look down calmly upon a bomb-struck mass of humanity. It has more tears than we imagine.

Thou shalt know him [God] without image, without semblance
and without means – ‘But for me to know God thus, with nothing
between, I must be all but he, he all but me.’ – I say, God
must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this he
and this I are one ‘is’, in this is-ness working one work eternally;
but so long as this he and this I, to wit, God and the soul
are not one single here, one single now, the I cannot work with
nor be one with that he.

What is life? God’s being is my life, but if it is so, then what is
God’s must be mine and what is mine God’s. God’s is-ness is
my is-ness, and neither more nor less. The just live eternally
with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their
work is done by God and God’s by them.

Going over these quotations, we feel that it was natural that orthodox Christians of his day accused Eckhart as a ‘heretic’ and that he defended himself. Perhaps it is due to our psychological peculiarities that there are always two opposing tendencies in the human way of thinking and feeling; extrovert and introvert, outer and inner, objective and subjective, exoteric and esoteric, traditional and mystical. The opposition between these two tendencies or temperaments is often too deep and strong for any form of reconciliation. This is what makes Eckhart complain about his opponents not being able to grasp his point. He would remonstrate: ‘Could you see with my heart you would understand my words, but, it is true, for the truth itself has said it.’ Augustine is however tougher than Eckhart: ‘What is it to me though any comprehend not this!’