Meister Eckhart and Buddhism [04]

~D. T. Suzuki 

What is the Absolute Tao?

Before we go on to the Zen conception of the ‘Absolute Tao’ or Godhead who sets itself up on ‘pure nothingness’, it may be appropriate to comment on the Taoist conception of it as expounded by Lao-tzu. He was one of the early thinkers of China on philosophical subjects and the theme of the Tao Tê Ching ascribed to him is Tao.

Tao literally means ‘way’ or ‘road’ or ‘passage’, and in more than one sense corresponds to the Sanskrit Dharma. It is one of the key terms in the history of Chinese thought. While Taoism derives its name from this term, Confucius also uses it extensively. With the latter however it has a more moralistic than metaphysical connotation. It is Taoists who use it in the sense of ‘truth’, ‘ultimate reality’, ‘logos’, etc. Lao-tzu defines it in his Tao Tê Ching as follows:

The Way is like an empty vessel 
That yet may be drawn from 
Without ever needing to be filled. 
It is bottomless: the very progenitor of all things in the world. . . . 
It is like a deep pool that never dries 
I do not know whose child it could be. 
It looks as if it were prior to God.

There is another and more detailed characterisation of Tao in Chapter XIV:

When you look at it you cannot see it;
It is called formless.
When you listen to it you cannot hear it; 
It is called soundless. 
When you try to seize it you cannot hold it; 
It is called subtle. 
No one can measure these three to their ultimate ends, 
Therefore they are fused to one. 

It is up, but it is not brightened; 
It is down, but it is not obscured. 
It stretches endlessly, 
And no name is to be given. 
It returns to nothingness. 
It is called formless form, shapeless shape. 
It is called the intangible. 
You face it but you cannot see its front. 
You follow it but you cannot see its back. 
Holding on to the Ancient Way (Tao) 
You control beings of today. 
Thus you know the beginning of things, 
Which is the essence of the Way (Tao-chi). 

When these quotations are compared with Eckhart’s we see points common to both. Lao-tzu is expressing in his classical Chinese way what the medieval Dominican preacher would talk about in his German vernacular. Lao-tzu is poetical and concrete, full of imageries, whereas Eckhart the theologian is more conceptual. He would say:

‘God has no before nor after.’ 
‘God is neither this nor that.’ 
‘God is perfect simplicity.’ 
‘Prior to creatures, in the eternal now, 
I have played before the Father in his eternal stillness.’ 

For comparison I will give another definition for Tao from Tao Tê Ching, Chapter XXV:

There is something in a state of fusion, 
It is born prior to heaven and earth. 
How still! How lonely! 
It stands by itself unchanging, 
It moves about everywhere unfailingly. 
Let us have it as mother [of all things] under the heavens. 
I do not know its name, 
But if needed call it Great. 
The Great walks on, 
Walks on to the farthest end, 
And then returns. 
Therefore the Tao is great, 
Heaven is great, 
Earth is great, 
The ruler is great. 
Within the realm there are four greats 
And the ruler is one of them. 
Man is earth when conforming to earth, 
He is heaven when comforming to heaven, 
He is Tao when conforming to Tao. 
Let him thus conform himself to the suchness (tzu jan) of things.

R. B. Blakney remarks in his preface to the Tao Tê Ching translation that Lao-tzu’s book fascinated him for many years and that he finally could not help producing his own translation in spite of the fact that there are already a large number of such transla- tions available. He suspects that every foreigner who at all knows the Chinese language and can read Lao-tzu in the original would feel the same as this new translator did. This remark or confession on the part of the translator is highly significant. In my view the fascination he feels about Lao-tzu is not just due to the Old Philosopher’s contribution to ‘the literature of mysticism’, but partly to the language in which it is expressed. It may be better to say that the charm one feels about Chinese literature comes quite frequently from visually going over those unwieldy ideogrammatic characters with which thoughts or feelings are made communicative. The Chinese books are best perused in large type printed from the wooden blocks.

Besides this visual appeal of the ideograms there is an element in the Chinese language which, while rare in others, especially in Indo-European languages, expresses more directly and concretely what our ordinary conceptualised words fail to communicate. For instance, read the Tao Tê Ching, Chapter XX, in the original and compare it with any of the translations you have at hand and see that the translations invariably lack that rich, graphic, emotional flavour which we after more than two thousand five hundred years can appreciate with deep satisfaction. Arthur Waley is a great Chinese scholar and one of the best interpreters of Chinese life. His English translation of Lao-tzu is a fine piece of work in many senses, but he cannot go beyond the limitations of the language to which he is born.

The following story may not have historicity but it is widely circulated among Zen followers who are occasionally quite disrespectful of facts. It is worth our consideration as illustrating the way in which the Zen teachers handle the problem of ‘Emptiness’ or ‘absolute nothingness’ or the ‘still desert’ lying beyond ‘this and that’ and prior to ‘before and after’. The story and comments are taken from a Chinese Zen textbook of the Sung dynasty of the eleventh century. The text is studied very much in Japan and some of the stories are used as ko¯-an (problems given to Zen students for solution).

Bodhidharma, who is the first Zen patriarch in China, came from India in the sixth century. The Emperor Wu of the Tiong dynasty invited him to his court. The Emperor Wu, a good pious Buddhist studying the various Mahayana Sutras and practicing the Buddhist virtues of charity and humility, asked the teacher from India: ‘The Su¯tras refer so much to highest and holiest truth, but what is it, my Reverend Master?’
Bodhidharma answered, ‘A vast emptiness and no holiness in it.’
The Emperor: ‘Who are you then who stand before me if there is nothing holy, nothing high in the vast emptiness of ultimate truth?’
Bodhidharma: ‘I do not know, your Majesty’.
The Emperor failed to understand the meaning of this answer and Bodidharma left him to find a retreat in the North.

When Bodhidharma’s express purpose of coming to China was to elucidate the teaching of ‘vast emptiness’ (sunyata), why did he answer ‘I do not know’ to the Emperor’s all-important and to-the-very-point question? It is evident, however, that Bodhidharma’s answer could not have been one of an agnostic who believes in the unknowability of ultimate truth. Bodhidharma’s unknowability must be altogether of a different sort. It is really what Eckhart would like to see us all have – ‘transformed knowledge, not ignorance which comes from lack of knowing; it is by knowing that we get to this unknowing. Then we know by divine knowing, then our ignorance is ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowledge.’ It was this kind of unknowing which is transcendental, divine, and supernatural that he wished his imperial friend to realise.

From our ordinary relative point of view Bodhidharma may seem too abrupt and unacceptable. But the fact is that the knowledge or ‘I do not know’ which is gained only by ‘sinking into oblivion and ignorance’ is something quite abrupt or discrete or discontinuous in the human system of knowability, for we can get it only by leaping or plunging into the silent valley of Absolute Emptiness. There is no continuity between this and the knowledge we highly value in the realm of relativity where our senses and intellect move.

The Zen teachers are all unknowing knowers or knowing unknowers. Therefore their ‘I do not know’ does not really mean our ‘I do not know’. We must not take their answers in the way we generally do at the level of relative knowledge. Therefore, their comments which are quoted below do not follow the line we ordinarily do. They have this unique way. Yengo (1063– 1135) gives his evaluation of the mondo (‘question and answer’) which took place between Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty in the following words:

Bodhidharma came to this country, via the southern route, seeing that there was something in Chinese mentality which responds readily to the teaching of Mahayana Buddhism. He was full of expectations, he wanted to lead our countrymen to the doctrine of ‘Mind-alone’ which cannot be transmitted by letters or by means of word of mouth. The Mind could only be immediately taken hold of whereby we attain to the perception of the Buddha-nature, that is, to the realisation of Buddhahood. When the Nature is attained, we shall be absolutely free from all bondage and will not be led astray because of linguistic complications. For here Reality itself is revealed in its nakedness with no kinds of veil on it. In this frame of mind Bodhidharma approached the Emperor. He also thus instructed his disciples. We see that Bodhidharma’s [emptied mind] had no premeditated measures, no calculating plans. He just acted in the freest manner possible, cutting everything asunder that would obstruct his seeing directly into the Nature in its entire nakedness. Here was neither good nor evil, neither right nor wrong, neither gain nor loss. . . . 
The Emperor Wu was a good student of Buddhist philosophy and wished to have the first principle elucidated by the great teacher from India. The first principle consists in the identity of being and non-being beyond which the philosophers fail to go. The Emperor wondered if this blockage could somehow be broken down by Bodhidharma. Hence his question. Bodhidharma knew that whatever answers he might give would be frustrating. 
‘What is Reality? What is Godhead?’ 
‘Vast emptiness and no distinctions whatever [neither Father nor Son nor Holy Ghost].’ 
No philosopher however well trained in his profession could ever be expected to jump out of this trap, except Bodhidharma himself who knew perfectly well how to cut all limitations down by one blow of a sword. Most people nowadays fail to get into the ultimate significance of Bodhidharma’s pronouncement and would simply cry out, ‘vast emptiness’ as if they really experienced it. But all to no purpose! As my old master remarks, ‘When a man truly understands Bodhidharma, he for the first time finds himself at home quietly sitting by the fireplace.’ Unfortunately, the Emperor Wu happened to be one of those who could not rise above the limitations of linguistics. His views failed to penetrate the screen of meum and tuum (you and me). Hence his second question: ‘Who are you who face me?’ Bodhidharma’s blunt retort, ‘I do not know’ only helped make the august inquirer blankly stare. 
Later, when he learned more about Bodhidharma and realised how stupid he was to have missed the rare opportunity of going deeper into the mystery of Reality, he was greatly upset. Hearing of Bodhidharma’s death after some years he erected a memorial stele for him and inscribed on it: ‘Alas! I saw him, I met him, I interviewed him, and failed to recognise him. How sad! It is all past now. Alas, history is irrevocable!’ He concluded his eulogy thus: 
‘As long as the mind tarries on the plane of relativity, It forever remains in the dark. But the moment it loses itself in the Emptiness, It ascends the throne of Enlightenment.’ 

After finishing the story of the Emperor Wu, Yengo the commentator puts this remark: ‘Tell me by the way where Bodhidharma could be located.’ This is expressly addressed to the readers and the commentator expects us to give him an answer. Shall we take up his challenge? There is another commentator on this episode, who lived some years prior to the one already referred to. This one, called Seccho (980–1052), was a great literary talent and his comments are put in a versified form full of poetic fantasies. Alluding to the Emperor Wu’s attempt to send a special envoy for Bodhidharma, who after the interview crossed the Yang-tzu Chiang and found a retreat somewhere in the North, the commentator goes on:

‘You [the Emperor Wu] may order all your subjects 
to fetch him [Bodhidharma], 
But he will never show himself up again! 
We are left alone for ages to come 
Vainly thinking of the irrevocable past. 
But stop! let us not think of the past! 
The cool refreshing breeze sweeps all over the earth, 
Never knowing when to suspend its work.’ 

Seccho (the master commentator) now turns around and surveying the entire congregation (as he was reciting his versified comments), asks: ‘O Brethren, is not our Patriarch to be discovered among us at this very moment?’ After this interruption, Seccho continues, ‘Yes, yes, he is here! Let him come up and wash the feet for me!’ It would have been quite an exciting event if Eckhart appeared to be present at this session which took place in the Flowery Kingdom in the first half of the eleventh century! But who can tell if Eckhart is not watching me writing this in the most modern and most mechanised city of New York?