The Cloud of Unknowing in Light of the Unborn

Of all the texts of genuine Mysticism no other work has been translated as numerous times than the Anonymous, The Cloud of Unknowing. IT was written by a 14th century Western Mystic and even unto this day his true identity is unknown. The vast majority of speculation states that he is a contemplative monk of some religious order but which one is highly debatable. I’ve always considered him as a Carthusian monk and the following translator concurs with this assessment:

But what one may call the severity, rigorousness, and strictures of the style of contemplative practice promulgated by the author gives extremely great weight to his engagement with the Carthusian tradition. No other monastic tradition promoted and practiced so thorough and scrupulous an eremitic and contemplative lifestyle as did the Carthusians. The Carthusian Order alone was committed to precisely the radical contemplative model described in The Cloud. Other monastic traditions practiced meditation and contemplation, but none fits so well with the exactitude, extremity, and specificity of The Cloud. Indeed, many of the surviving manuscripts of The Cloud were found to have been in Carthusian hands. It is also true that it has long been part of the ascetical Carthusian tradition to write and publish anonymously. (Julian, Fr. John. The Complete Cloud of Unknowing: with The Letter of Privy of Counsel . Paraclete Press. Kindle Edition.)

The Cloud specifies a type of theology that was owed to “Dionysius the Areopagite”—

The principal theological feature stressed by Dionysius and embraced by our author was the concept of the via negativa, the negative way. As we have said above, this perception implied that God was so transcendent, so immeasurably unique, and so incalculably beyond our human experience that there were literally no human words that could accurately describe God or any human concepts that could include God. God was entirely a Deus Absconditus, a hidden God, and could only be described accurately by reference to what God was not—hence the negativa. Our author embraced this understanding wholeheartedly in The Cloud. Ibid

The renowned Anglican Mystic, Evelyn Underhill, writes, “The mystic who seeks the divine Cloud of Unknowing is to be surrendered to the direction of his deeper mind, his transcendental consciousness: that “spark of the soul” which is in touch with eternal realities.” The author utilizes the image of two clouds: the cloud of unknowing above us and the cloud of forgetting beneath us (Anonymous, 2004). The cloud of unknowing represents the realization that God is beyond our ability to perceive through our senses, emotions, imagination, or intellect. The author asserted:

This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. (Anonymous, 2004, p. 11)

Certainly these eternal realities are not limited to just one spiritual tradition. Again, from Underhill, “The conception of reality which underlies this profound and beautiful passage, has much in common with that found in the work of many other mystics; since it is ultimately derived from the great Neoplatonic philosophy of the contemplative life.” With this foremost in mind the present version, The Cloud of Unknowing in Light of the Unborn, is written in such a literary vein. Its predecessors here at Unborn Mind Zen are The Dhammapada in Light of the Unborn, and The Bhagavad Gita (again, written in Light of the Unborn). Ours is a singular spiritual convention, dating back to the earliest adepts of the Lanka. My own background, in light of the present task, places me in both traditions—one as priest and as an eremitical ascetic of the Lankavatarian path. This is a valuable fact since there have been those who would discourage others from reading The Cloud since they are not of the Catholic Contemplative tradition. My background permits me the license to undertake this series since my spiritual experience is from both camps. That being said, this will be a most daring undertaking as The Cloud itself is a most extraordinary mystical text, perhaps even grander than the works of St. John of the Cross himself. Here in such fashion is the paradox of a contemplation that is at once Christocentric and imageless. Of course, our work will be Buddhocentric along with that imageless factor.

Protinus te videre!

*The editions utilized in this effort:

Julian, Fr. John. The Complete Cloud of Unknowing: with The Letter of Privy of Counsel

William Johnston, The Cloud of Unknowing and the Book of Privy Counseling

Clifton Wolters, The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works

Evelyn Underhill, The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous

Ira Progoff, The Cloud of Unknowing

James Walsh, S.J.  The Cloud of Unknowing

Carmen Acevedo Butcher, The Cloud of Unknowing With the Book of Privy Counsel


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2 Responses to The Cloud of Unknowing in Light of the Unborn

  1. n. yeti says:

    Vajragoni, it’s great to explore your commentary on this text. As you probably know it is one of my favorites. I applaud your courage and unique perspective and insights in offering this text to a wider audience.

    • Vajragoni says:

      Yes, the intent is “for a wider audience.”

      And yes, I know it’s one of your favorites. 🙂

      Many thanks–Enjoy!

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