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Buddha & Eckhart: On Purity & Emptiness

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"I never ask God to give himself to me; I beg him to purify, to empty me. If I am empty, God of his very nature is obliged to give himself to fill me." (All Eckhartian quotations taken from 'Meister Eckhart, From Whom God Hid Nothing,' edited by David O'Neal, pp.8 & 9)

When reading Eckhart from a Buddhist point of view, it's always worth reviewing what the word 'God' signifies in his writings. It does not mean some bearded anthropomorphic deity sat on a throne, nor does it indicate a kind of spiritual essence in any kind of airy-fairy way. For Eckhart, 'God' represents the personification of those positive qualities that are often merged in the word 'love.'  (Echoing St. John's statement, "God is love.") The flip-side of love is wisdom, and God can indicate this, as well. Moreover, the word 'God,' at least in Eckhart's eyes, personifies the absolute, or what the Buddha called the unconditioned, nirvana. This indefinable emptiness is, in many forms of Buddhism, also encapsulated in the form of a Buddha such as Amitabha. So, when we read the word 'God' in the passages below, it is profitable to beer in mind the above, otherwise we may well get caught up in doctrinal dichotomies which neither the Buddha nor Eckhart wished us to.

Now, with the above caution in mind, on to our reflections on Meister Eckhart's teachings; he writes that he never requests of God to give himself to Eckhart, but Eckhart be emptied of himself, so that God may then 'fill' him. This means being filled with those qualities that the word 'God' signifies: love and wisdom. Eckhart states that prior to being 'filled' with God, he must be purified, or, as he then puts it, empty. According to Eckhart, if we are emptied of our own (egoistic) selves, we are filled with God; that is to say, love and wisdom fill this void, and are thereafter its expression into the world. We become selfless, wise, and loving. How wonderful!  The Buddha also taught that to be emptied of any sense of self then results in both love and wisdom to arise. Usually Buddhists don't say the love, for this is associated with sexual or romantic forms of the emotion, but it can also signify compassion and kindness, both of which are lauded by the Buddha and his followers.

"How to be pure? By steadfast longing for the one good, God. How to acquire this longing? By self-denial and dislike of creatures. Self-knowledge is the way, for creatures are all nothing, they come to nothing with lamentation and bitterness. God being in himself pure good can dwell nowhere except in the pure soul. He overflows into her. Whole, he flows into her."

Buddhaghosa, the famous fifth-century commentator on the Buddha's teachings, wrote a book called the Visuddhimagga, which in English is normally rendered 'The Path of Purification.' This monumental work (and I have a translation of it, it is monumental in several definitions of that word, believe me!) describes the step-by-step progression towards enlightenment, which is derived from the teachings of the Buddha. Such detailed methodology is not found in Eckhart's work, for he came from a very different culture and tradition than Buddhaghosa, but there are parallels to be noted nonetheless. Eckhart believes that by having an intense longing for God - the personification of love, wisdom, and ultimately, 'nirvana' - we can be emptied of self and then be filled with God. This purification is done through self-denial and 'dislike of creatures.' Self-denial is a certainly found in Buddhism; it is not the free-for-all libertinism that some westerners have taken it to be in recent decades. There is a strong thread of morality and self-denial in the Buddhist Path of Purification, summed up in the five basic precepts of not killing, not stealing, not committing sexual misconduct, not lying, and not taking intoxicants. Buddhaghosa explores Buddhist morality in the Visuddhimagga, making it clear that this is the foundation of the Buddhist Way.

As to the 'dislike of creatures,' it is clear from this passage and others that Eckhart was not denying the Christian's duties towards his fellow humans (remember 'love thy neighbor'), but was specifically referring to the spiritual journey towards God. In this meditative state, the mind should not be focused on people and animals - or angels and demons, for that matter), but on God alone. This single-mindedness is capable of leading towards that emptiness that is then filled with God, probably akin to the mystical traditions found not only within the Christian tradition, but also in Sufism, Hinduism, Pure Land Buddhism, and Kabbalistic Judaism, to name but a few more. Indeed, in the two Sukhavativyuha Sutras, the Buddha instructs his disciples on how to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha's Pure land through devoted recitation of the latter Buddha's name. God, Allah, Jahweh, Krishna, Amitabha, etc. will flow into the empty mind of the devotee, and, according to Eckhart, it is all of the 'divine' that does so, not a part. This is the bliss of salvation/enlightenment.

"What does emptiness mean? It means attuning from creatures: the heart uplifted to the perfect good so that creatures are no comfort, nor is there any need of them except in that God, the perfect good, is to be grasped in them. The clear eye tolerates the mote no more than does the pure soul anything that clouds, that comes between. Creatures, as she enjoys them, are all pure, for she enjoys creatures in God and God in creatures. She is so clear she sees through herself; nor is God far to seek: she finds him in herself when in her natural purity she flows into the supernatural pure Godhead, where she is in God and God in her, and what she does, she does in God and God does it in her."

In this segment of text, Eckhart expands on what being empty means, He reiterates that no lasting comfort is to found in creatures, but adds that they do have value in that they too can be seen to be pure and full of God - unfortunately, most of them don't know it themselves, yet! This is akin to the Buddha saying that we do not gain anything through Buddhist practice, but rather empty ourselves of the fetters that prevent us from seeing our innate enlightened state: we are already enlightened, but we have yet to wake up to the fact! The purified soul 'sees through herself' and finds God within herself. Again, this is like the Buddhist that sees through his ego, discovers emptiness at his heart, and then realizes enlightenment/Buddha-nature. In this last part of the text, Eckhart uses a word that we nay not be so familiar with: Godhead. This aspect of God is without form or any particulars whatsoever. it is not the personification of love, wisdom, or anything else, however laudable. It is the emptiness that lies beyond every sense of individuality, including God's. In the experience of Godhead - we may easily use the word Buddhahead also - 'she is in God and God in her.' And whatever is done by her is done by God and vice versa. This is the unity of true salvation/enlightenment, and reveals the essential union between the teachings of the Buddha and Eckhart.

Source: Buddha Space



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