I was introduced to the teachings of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) in the fall of 1982 during my first year in seminary. It was in a Spirituality-class and part of the curriculum was a book written by Dominican theologian Matthew Fox (he has since long-left the order), Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation, 1980. Eckhart “never opted for a sheltered life-style or a sheltered, exclusively academic, education. Indeed, he himself declared that life is the best teacher there is.” Indeed his was a hands-on approach to theology and preaching—with an emphasis on the latter. After many years in priesthood my own preaching-style reflected his; the congregation relates more to the preacher during a shared-praxis of understanding the scriptures—where one’s own life experiences blended with scriptural themes becomes paramount in effectiveness of “breaking-open” the gospel. In another resource for this series, Father Reiner Schürmann summarizes this theme:
[Preaching] was the literary form chosen by Meister Eckhart. It is not accidental that he was a preacher . . . His preaching urges our freedom to commit itself upon a path which, from the being of provenance or from the creatures’ nothingness, leads to the being of imminence or to the Godhead’s nothingness. Being as coming forth is encountered first of all in the preached word itself. (Schürmann, Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher, pg. 89)
Fox overemphasizes, claiming that Eckhart was overtly Creation-Centered. In fact, the Meister is an apophatic exegete, something which will be emphasized utilizing another resource during the course of this series. He mainly preaches on: detachment from one’s self and all things; being reformed into ‘that simple good which is God’; the nobility God endows upon the soul, and the purity of the divine nature. Detachment will be a main theme unraveled later on, along with imagelessness and Union with the Godhead. And bracketing them all is the theme of the Mysticism of the Ground. Fox’s treatment insists that Eckhart’s “spiritual vision was profoundly feminist”. Just another example of modernity creeping in wherein the authentically transcendent becomes lost in the immanent and the ignominious impact on society and culture have proven devastating.
The best encapsulation of Eckhart’s biography runs as follows:
Little is known about his family and early life. From 1295 onwards, he held many posts of responsibility in various states of central Germany, and as far as Cologne or Strasbourg. Among others, he was a Prior of the Dominicans, and was later made Provincial of Saxony, managing tens of convents. He also travelled around Europe and more specifically to Paris where he studied Aristotle and the Platonists. With the degree of Master of Arts, he later on became a professor of theology at the school of Dominicans in the French capital and was invited as a magister — equal to the doctorate — for two consecutive years. At this time in Europe, during the Avignon Papacy, Christianity was prey to many tensions and confusion, the Inquisition was blowing a wind of suspicion and terror, as a result of which many new groups and movements were forming in search of new avenues of practice and understanding. It goes without saying that Meister Eckhart was a coveted source of wise counsel in these times of darkness.
Let’s say it plainly: Meister Eckhart was a scholar, but it is as a preacher that he is most remembered. His sermons in the vernacular German were highly unusual for the time and took many a liberties with the conventional church rituals and dogmas. He stated: “When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things.” Seeing through and beyond the Christian jargon, he had access to a firsthand understanding of these eternal truths. He was abundantly quoting ancient philosophers like St Augustine, Dionysius the Areopagite, Gregory the Theologian, or St Paul. His sermons were truly teachings aiming at the transformation of man.
The disruptive originality and depth of his work attracted the wrath of some of his peers. He was accused of heresy by the inquisitorial power towards the end of his life and was tried as a heretic by Pope John XXII, a sentence that came only after his death. Yet these very same qualities have also brought him fame during his time, and recognition in contemporary spiritual circles for having been a genuine mystic and a foremost exponent of the most profound spirituality. Many a great philosophers and psychologists have praised him, among them Erich Fromm, Carl G. Jung, Heidegger, and Arthur Schopenhauer. (From The Dawn Within: This is Meister Eckhart.)
Thomas Merton wrote that “whatever Zen may be, however you define it, it is somehow there in Eckhart.” The renowned Hindu scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy once compared Eckhart to Vedantist traditions; the Quaker mystic Rufus Jones acknowledges a debt to Eckhart as well. (Fox)
Within Buddhist circles, D. T. Suzuki went even further as referenced in Schürmann’s book:
is-ness: 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 is-ness or suchness ( tathata), which in itself has all the possible values (guna ) we humans can conceive.”
Release and Emptiness: Only a perfectly released person, Eckhart says, comprehends, “seizes,” God. The most apparent determination of releasement is negative: one has to be devoid of all eigenschaft, of one’s own and of one’s belongings, in order to be God’s own. Only a human being that is “void,” ledig, of individuality can be full of God. It does what the Godhead does: it lets all things be. Not only must God also abandon all of his own-names and attributes-if he is to reach into the ground of the mind (this is already a step beyond the recognition of the emptiness of all composite things), but God’s essential being, releasement, becomes the being of a released man.
Tao and Godhead: Literally Tao means “way” or “road” or “passage.” The Taoists use it in the sense of “truth,” “ultimate reality,” “logos.” Suzuki comments on a passage from The Way and Ifs Power in which Lao-tzu describes his Tao Te Ching as follows: “The Way is like an empty vessel. . . . lt looks as if it were prior to God . . No name is to be given. It returns to nothingness. It is called formless form, shapeless shape . . . .”
Birth and Nirvana: The reciprocity between God and man has been called a reciprocity of birth: God begets me as his only Son, and I in turn beget the only Son in Him. Likewise, Suzuki says, a Japanese painter “becomes the plant itself” that he paints. “This identification enables the painter to feel the pulsation of one and the same life animating both him and the object.“
The spark and the satori: Eckhart’s vocabulary concerning the ground of the mind is rich: the little castle in the mind, spark, guardian, light, little point. Suzuki writes: ” A ‘little point’ left by God corresponds to what Zen Buddhists would call satori . . . This ‘little point’ is full of significance, and I am sure Eckhart had a satori. “He defines satori as the “opening of a new eye,” as “an intuitive looking into the nature of things in contradistinction to the analytical or logical understanding of it.” [indeed, to quote Eckhart, “The eye wherein I see God is the same eye wherein God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one vision, one knowing, one love—inclusion mine].”
In our own teaching here at Unborn Mind Zen, this doctrine of the ground of Mind, comes very close to our own notion of the Bodhichild: the mystical birth takes place “in the purest thing that the soul is capable of, in the noblest part, the ground, indeed, in the very essence of the soul which is the soul’s most secret part,” its “silent middle” into which no image or form of activity from outside can enter.” Hence, only in this Unbornness can this birth occur. Is there a better way to love the Godhead? The equation is thus: Dharmakaya, as Primordial Father, Bodhichild as (Word) Logos is regulated as the Imageless Summum bonum. The breakthrough is the indwelling Word within the mind (ensouled garbha) of the Unborn adept. This is the life-giving nature of the spirit [giving birth–birthing principle].
“In the language of apophatic theology the highest form of knowing is unknowing, and so the hint is that the highest form of loving is to love nothing of loving in the inferior, interested form, but to love in some unknown transcendental way.” ‘How then should I love him [God]?’, Eckhart asks his audience, ‘You should love him as he is-a non-God, a non-Spirit, a non-Person, a non-Image. Yet more, [you should love him] insofar as he is a sheer, pure and clear Absolute Unity differentiated from all duality.’ [How to love IT–love IT as the Dharmakaya. Inclusion mine.]