Meister Eckhart and Buddhism [03]

~D. T. Suzuki

One of Eckhart’s heresies was his pantheistic tendency. He seemed to put man and God on an equal footing: ‘The Father begets his Son in me and I am there in the same Son and not another.’ While it is dangerous to criticise Eckhart summarily as a pantheist by picking one or two passages at random from his sermons, there is no doubt that his sermons contain many thoughts approaching pantheism. But unless the critics are a set of ignorant misinterpreters with perhaps an evil intention to condemn him in every way as a heretic, a fair-minded judge will notice that Eckhart everywhere in his sermons is quite careful to emphasise the distinction between the creature and the creator as in the following:

‘Between the only begotten Son and the soul there is no distinction.’
This is true. For how could anything white be distinct
from or divided from whiteness? Again, matter and form are
one in being; living and working. Yet matter is not, on this
account, form, or conversely. So in the proposition. A holy soul
is one with God, according to John 17 : 21. That they all may be
one in us, even as we are one. Still the creature is not the
creator, nor is the just man God.
God and Godhead are as different as earth is from heaven.
Moreover I declare: the outward and the inward man are
as different too as earth and heaven. God is higher, many
thousand miles. Yet God comes and goes. But to resume my
argument: God enjoys himself in all things. The sun sheds his
light upon all creatures, and anything he sheds his beams upon
absorbs them, yet he loses nothing of his brightness.

From this we can see most decidedly that Eckhart was far from being a pantheist. In this respect Mahayana Buddhism is also frequently and erroneously stamped as pantheistic, ignoring altogether a world of particulars. Some critics seem to be ready and simple-minded enough to imagine that all doctrines that are not transcendentally or exclusively monotheistic are pantheistic and that they are for this reason perilous to the advancement of spiritual culture.

It is true that Eckhart insists on finding something of a Godlike nature in each one of us, otherwise the birth of God’s only Son in the soul would be impossible and his creatures would forever be something utterly alienated from him. As long as God is love, as creator, he can never be outside the creatures. But this cannot be understood as meaning the one-ness of one with the other in every possible sense. Eckhart distinguishes between the inner man and the outer man and what one sees and hears is not the same as the other. In a sense therefore we can say that we are not living in an identical world and that the God one conceives for oneself is not at all to be subsumed under the same category as the God for another. Eckhart’s God is neither transcendental nor pantheistic.

God goes and comes, he works, he is active, he becomes all the time, but Godhead remains immovable, imperturbable, inaccessible. The difference between God and Godhead is that between heaven and earth and yet Godhead cannot be himself without going out of himself, that is, he is he because he is not he. This ‘contradiction’ is comprehended only by the inner man, and not by the outer man, because the latter sees the world through the senses and intellect and consequently fails to experience the profound depths of Godhead.

Whatever influence Eckhart might have received from the Jewish (Maimonides), Arabic (Avicenna), and Neoplatonic sources, there is no doubt that he had his original views based on his own experiences, theological and otherwise, and that they were singularly Mahayanistic. Coomaraswamy is quite right when he says:

Eckhart presents an astonishingly close parallel to Indian
modes of thought; some whole passages and many single sentences
read like a direct translation from Sanskrit. . . . It is not
of course suggested that any Indian elements whatever are
actually present in Eckhart’s writing, though there are some
Oriental factors in the European tradition, derived from neo-
Platonic and Arabic sources. But what is proved by analogies is
not the influence of one system of thought upon another, but
the coherence of the metaphysical tradition in the world and at
all times.

It is now necessary to examine Eckhart’s close kinship with Mahayana Buddhism and especially with Zen Buddhism in regard to the doctrine of Emptiness.

The Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness is unhappily greatly misunderstood in the West. The word ‘emptiness’ or ‘void’ seems to frighten people away, whereas when they use it among themselves, they do not seem to object to it. While some Indian thought is described as nihilistic, Eckhart has never been accused of this, though he is not sparing in the use of words with negative implications, such as ‘desert’, ‘stillness’, ‘silence’, ‘nothingness’. Perhaps when these terms are used among Western thinkers, they are understood in connection with their historical background. But as soon as these thinkers are made to plunge into a strange, unfamiliar system or atmosphere, they lose their balance and condemn it as negativistic or anarchistic or upholding escapist egoism.

According to Eckhart,
I have read many writings both of heathen philosophers and
sages, of the Old and the New Testaments, and I have earnestly
and with all diligence sought the best and the highest virtue
 whereby man may come most closely to God and wherein he
may once more become like the original image as he was in
God when there was yet no distinction between God and himself
before God produced creatures. And having dived into the
basis of things to the best of my ability I find that it is no other
than absolute detachment (abegescheidenheit ) from everything
that is created. It was in this sense when our Lord said to
Martha: ‘One thing is needed’, which is to say: He who would
be untouched and pure needs just one thing, detachment.

What then is the content of absolute detachment? It cannot be designated ‘as this or that’, as Eckhart says. It is pure nothing (bloss niht), it is the highest point at which God can work in us as he pleases.

Perfect detachment is without regard, without either lowliness
or loftiness to creatures; it has no mind to be below nor yet to
be above; it is minded to be master of itself, loving none and
hating none, having neither likeness nor unlikeness, neither
this nor that, to any creature; the only thing it desires to be
is to be one and the same. For to be either this or that is
to want something. He who is this or that is somebody; but
detachment wants altogether nothing. It leaves all things
unmolested.

While Buddhist emphasis is on the emptiness of all ‘composite things’ (skandha) and is therefore metaphysical, Eckhart here insists on the psychological significance of ‘pure nothingness’ so that God can take hold of the soul without any resistance on the part of the individual. But from the practical point of view the emptying of the soul making it selfless can never be thoroughly realized unless we have an ontological understanding of the nature of things, that is, the nothingness of creaturely objects. For the created have no reality; all creatures are pure nothing, for ‘all things were made by him [God] and without him was not anything made’ (John, 1:3). Further, ‘If without God a creature has any being however small, then God is not the cause of all things. Besides, a creature will not be created, for creation is the receiving of being from nothing’. What could this mean? How could any being come from nothing or non-being? Psychology herein inevitably turns to metaphysics. We here encounter the problem of Godhead.


This problem was evidently not touched upon frequently by Eckhart, for he warns his readers repeatedly, saying: ‘Now listen: I am going to say something I have never said before.’ Then he proceeds: ‘When God created the heavens, the earth, and creatures, he did no work; he had nothing to do; he made no effort.’ He then proceeds to say something about Godhead, but he does not forget to state: ‘For yet again I say a thing I never said before: God and Godhead are different as earth is from heaven.’ Though he often fails to make a clear distinction between the two and would use ‘God’ where really ‘Godhead’ is meant, his attempt to make a distinction is noteworthy. With him God is still a something as long as there is any trace of movement or work or of doing something. When we come to the Godhead, we for the first time find that it is the unmoved, a nothing where there is no path (apada) to reach. It is absolute nothingness; therefore it is the ground of being from where all beings come.

While I subsisted in the ground, in the bottom, in the river and
fount of Godhead, no one asked me where I was going or what
I was doing: there was no one to ask me. When I was flowing all
creatures spake God. If I am asked, Brother Eckhart, when went
ye out of your house? Then I must have been in. Even so do all
creatures speak God. And why do they not speak the Godhead?
Everything in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing
to be said. God works, the Godhead does no work, there is
nothing to do; in it is no activity. It never envisaged any work.

God and Godhead are as different as active and inactive. On
my return to God, where I am formless, my breaking through
will be far nobler than my emanation. I alone take all creatures
out of their sense into my mind and make them one in me.
When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the wellspring
of the Godhead, no one will ask me whence I came or
whither I went. No one missed me: God passes away.

What would Christians think of ‘the divine core of pure (or absolute) stillness’, or of ‘the simple core which is the still desert onto which no distinctions ever creep’? Eckhart is in perfect accord with the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata, when he advances the notion of Godhead as ‘pure nothingness’ (ein bloss niht).

The notion of Godhead transcends psychology. Eckhart tells us that he has made frequent references in his sermons to ‘a light in the soul that is uncreated’ and that ‘this light is not satisfied by the simple still, motionless essence of the divine being that neither gives nor takes. It is more interested in knowing where this essence came from’. This ‘where’ is where ‘the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost’ have not yet made their distinctions. To come in touch with this source and to know what it is, that is to say, ‘to see my own face even before I was born’ I must plunge into ‘the vast emptiness of the Absolute Tao’. 

‘To see one’s face which one has even prior to his birth’ is ascribed to Hui-nêng (Yeno, died 713), the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China. This corresponds to Eckhart’s statement which he quotes as by ‘an authority’: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart who leave everything to God now as they did before ever they existed.’ Those who have not tasted wine in the cellar may put in a question here: ‘How could we talk about a man’s purity of heart prior to his existence? How could we also talk about seeing our own face before we were born?’ Eckhart quotes St Augustine: ‘There is a heavenly door for the soul into the divine nature – where somethings are reduced to nothing.’

Evidently we have to wait for the heavenly door to open by our repeated or ceaseless knocking at it when I am ‘ignorant with knowing, loveless with loving, dark with light’. Everything comes out of this basic experience and it is only when this is comprehended that we really enter into the realm of emptiness where the Godhead keeps our discriminatory mind altogether ‘emptied out to nothingness’.