As was announced earlier in this series, the phrase “knowing as he was not” is indicative of mystical virginity—being lathered in imagelessness and thus freed from all that is not the Godhead; principally, all that is prior to conception. If there is a religion in the Unborn, imagelessness is its creed. The source of this vision is Eckhart’s Sermon Eight, as listed in the Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart.
“Our Lord Jesus Christ went up into a little castle and was received by a virgin who was a wife.”
Now then, pay close attention to this word: it was necessary that it be a virgin by whom Jesus was received. “Virgin” designates a human being who is devoid of all foreign images, and who is as void as he was when he was not yet.
Listen closely to the instruction that I am going to give you. I could have so vast an intelligence that all the images that all human beings have ever received and those that are in God himself were comprehended in my intellect; however, if I were in no way attached to them, to the point that in everything I do or neglect to do, I did not cling to any of them with attachment -with its before and its after-but if in this present now I kept myself unceasingly free and void for the beloved will of God and its fulfillment, then I should indeed be a virgin, without the ties of all the images, as truly as I was when I was not yet.
Yet it is philosophy, and not Scripture, that is key to this understanding.
This interpretation of the word “virgin” calls upon a philosophical rather than a biblical tradition. The “necessity” which Meister Eckhart evokes contains an allusion to the theory of the imprint which a representation places upon the intellect….
When the image enters into you, God must withdraw with all his divinity; then you belong to the images, and no longer to God. The adult “knows many things, and all these are images.” This is why the intellect must be entirely empty, in a state of pure receptivity, to completely accommodate the whole Jesus. This receptivity is the meaning of Eckhart’s concept of virginity…
Whoever wants to receive Jesus must become as free of all representations “as he was when he was not yet.” Before I was, before my birth on earth, I existed according to a mode before every mode. I was not yet that being who knows things by mediation of representations or phantasms: I was entirely free of every image taken from the world, since I was not of the world. In this original existence, when I was and was not yet, I had no need attaching me to the knowledge of sensible things by representations drawn from the sensible: no images were in me. The totality of things was not foreign to me as are representations, for everything held together in me through its “idea.” In this preexistence, each idea was equally near all the others; thanks to their simultaneous possession, I was entirely “free,” ledic, “virgin” of all images.
(Reiner Schürmann, Meister Eckhart: Mystic and Philosopher, pgs. 10-11)
As Lankavatarians, we are no strangers to this assessment. The Lankavatara Sutra itself best sums up this mystic-gnosis [imageless] process:
“Perceiving that the triple existence is by reason of the habit energy of erroneous discrimination and false reasoning that has been going on since beginningless time, and also recollecting the state of Buddhahood that is imageless and unborn, the Bodhisattva (dormant garbha-child) will become thoroughly conversant with the noble truth of self-realization; will also become a perfect master of one’s own mind, will conduct oneself without effort, will be like a gem reflecting a variety of colors, will be able to assume the body of transformation, will be able to enter into the subtle minds of all beings, and because of one’s firm belief in the truth of Mind Only, will, by gradually ascending the stages, become established in Buddhahood.”
A commentary from the Entry into the Dharmadhātu series describes it thusly:
Yea, the Citadel of Mind is an Invincible Fortress; yet all of these wondrous attributes are but mere “illusoriness” in light of the “spiritual city of omniscience.” THAT Spiritual City is the very Blessed Sanctum Santorum of the Unborn Mind wherein all sense of “otherness” is wholly eradicated in the impregnable and Deathless Face of imagelessness.
As being prior-to existence, Mind is naturally devoid of all obstructive imagery. It must therefore be empty of all images in order to Recollect Its Unborn and Noble Stature. One must therefore remain a virgin, pure and untouched by the image-making machine of the alaya-receptacle. It’s a story of the imageless Tathagatagarbha and its defiling twin, the Alaya-vijnana—the receptacle of all that IT is not.
For Eckhart, his formulations were rooted in what is termed as “Platonist Albertinism, which flourished in Germany during the 14th century.”
It held that creatures preexist from all eternity in God, by their ideal being. The theory of eternal preexistence of man and of things before their appearance in this world is not, then, an invention of Meister Eckhart. (ibid, pg. 11)
Fr. Schürmann relays the Socratic connection here: “Socrates demonstrates that the human being through recollection finds truths buried within himself just like traces and seeds of an otherwise forgotten state.” Socrates is in league with Lankavatarian Principles, which states that the Recollective Resolve sheds light on all the murky traces and seeds that emanate from within that Alaya-receptacle; this is accomplished through the process of turning- about from the images and Recollecting One’s prior and spotless state in the Unborn. Which is in actuality an UNstate.
Plato indicates that before its birth here on earth, “the soul contemplated all things in their ideas, hence remaining marked with truth and intelligence.” Similarly, in truth, you are an idea of the Buddhas.
Without a great risk of error we can state that the true source behind the paradoxical expression “as free as he was when he was not” is the Platonic doctrine of the preexistence of the soul, which Eckhart knew perhaps, though somewhat altered, through Origen. ln this existence before existence, man was free of every image or representation coming from things; everything that is was near him just as an idea is “near” another idea.
From this amalgam results the Eckhartian dictum that man become “devoid of all foreign images, as void as he was when he was not yet.” (ibid, pg. 12, 13)
All this is most delicious! Let us not forget, though, that what matters most is spirit.
I have sometimes said that there is a power in the soul which alone is free. Sometimes I have called it the guardian of the spirit, sometimes I have called it a light of the spirit, and sometimes I have said that it is a little spark. But now I say that it is neither this nor that; and yet it is a something that is more exalted over ‘this’ and ‘that’ than are the heavens above the earth.
Neti, Neti—neither this nor that but Unborn and free. A poem that is attributive to Eckhart unravels this in majestic fashion:
THE GRAIN OF MUSTARD SEED
When all began
(beyond mind’s span)
the Word aye is
Oh what bliss
When source at first gave birth to source!
Oh Father’s heart
from which did start
that same Word:
yet ’tis averred,
the Word’s still kept in womb perforce.
From both doth flow
a loving glow:
in double troth known to both
comes forth from them the Holy Ghost,
of equal state
The three are one:
who grasps it? None!
Itself it knows itself the most.
The threefold clasp
we cannot grasp,
the circle’s span
no mind can scan:
for here’s a mystery fathomless.
Check and mate,
time, form, estate!
The wondrous ring
its central point stands motionless.
The peak sublime
if thou art wise!
Thy way then lies
through desert very strange to see,
so deep, so wide,
no bound’s descried.
This desert’s bare
of Then or There
in modeless singularity.
This desert place
no foot did pace,
no creature mind
ingress can find.
It is, yet truly none knows what.
‘Tis there, ’tis here,
’tis far, ’tis near,
’tis high, ’tis low,
yet all we know
is: This it’s not and That it’s not.
It’s clear, it’s bright,
it’s dark as night;
no name or sign
can it define,
beginningless, of ceasing free.
’tis flowing there.
Where it may dwell,
whoso can tell,
should teach us what its form may be.
As a child become,
both blind and dumb.
Thy own self’s aught
must turn to naught.
Both aught and naught thou must reject,
without a trace
of image, time, or space.
Go quite astray
the pathless way,
the desert thou mayst then detect.
My soul within,
come out, God in!
Sink all my aught
in God’s own naught,
sink down in bottomless abyss.
Should I flee thee,
thou wilt come to me;
when self is done,
then Thou art won,
thou transcendental highest bliss!
(From the Complete Works of Meister Eckhart, pgs. 14-16)