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From the Interesting to the Simple: The Zen of Meister Eckhart

May 5, 2014

by Stephen Damon

During the past month or so I have been a guest lecturer at a philosophy class on the nature of God at San Francisco State University. We have been reading the Gnostic Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalen and the writings of the 14th Century Rhineland mystic, Meister Eckhart. As I have gone deeper into the texts, especially Meister Eckhart, I have become aware of their strong similarity to Zen. Yes, the terminology is different, but the subject matter and points of view are strikingly similar. Trying to interpret Eckhart I have relied more on my Zen practice and studies than on my work in comparative religion and philosophy.

At first I thought that this was perhaps “my way” into Eckhart but then I came across a book by the Zen scholar, D.T. Suzuki, “Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist,” in which he shows the deep similarities between Eckhart and Zen. Here I must emphasize that Zen, considered this way, is not so much a sect of Buddhism as it is a way of directly experiencing the ultimate reality of oneself. Zen uses a language of the self without any “religious baggage.” Thomas Merton, the twentieth century Catholic monk who wrote many books on the inner life, said that Zen “gets back, as far as possible, to the pure unarticulated and unexplained ground of direct experience…of life itself.”

Eckhart frequently focuses on the relationship of the self with God—a relationship that is more of an identity than a similitude. He says that “He who is full of self is empty of God and he who is full of God is empty of self.” He goes on to say that it is a mistake to believe that the aim of the religious life is to make room for God in yourself. He says if there is any “yourself” that is too much of a separation from God. Expressing himself in this way he manages to strip many religious terms such as “God” and “soul” of centuries of interpretation to get to the source of things before human thought and language. He talks about the divine source, or the “Godhead,” which existed before “God became a trinity.”

At times, even his language is Zen like: “God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less.” Suzuki finds statements such as these identical to the Buddhist idea that “enlightenment is nothing more than this experience of is-ness or suchness (tathata)…” For Eckhart, God’s is-ness transcends the conventional duality of the Judeo-Christian tradition: “You should know Him without image, without semblance and without means. But for me to know God thus, with nothing in between, I must be all but He, He all but me. I say, God must be very I, I very God…” This reminded me of a Buddhist chant we recite while prostrating to a Buddha statue:
The one who bows
And the one who is bowed to
Are both by nature, empty.
Here, emptiness means that there is nothing in us or any being that has an independent, substantial existence. Everything is dependent on something else: This is because that is. Eckhart says, “All creatures are a mere nothing. I do not say that they are something very slight or even something, but that they are a mere nothing.” He goes on to say that if you take away “God” from the being of any creature, you are left with nothing. Compare this to the Buddhist idea that we are all Buddha nature.

I remember reading a book by a Catholic monk, “Christian Zen,” in which he uses the methodology of Zen as a way of prayer. In this sense you can have Catholic Zen, Jewish Zen, Confucian Zen, even atheist Zen. As Eihei Dogen, the founder of Soto Buddhism in Japan said, “It is a mistake to think about Zen as a school or a sect. It is a study of the self.” He goes on to say, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by myriad things. I think of this last statement as a description of the stages of a spiritual life. If the study of your religion goes deep enough you begin to see that it is really describing the self in a broad context that includes many, often hidden, dimensions. Finally you begin to see that if you go deep enough into yourself, “you” disappear. Then you are left with a “something” that is as “vast and unknown as outer space” (Zen koan). Eckhart’s writings about the absolute nothingness of the Godhead are, indeed, as vast and unknown as outer space.

Eckhart is not concerned so much with doctrine, theology, or even metaphysics as he with his experience of the deepest dimensions of reality, which he calls, “God.” His is not so much a “revealed” religion as it is an experiential spiritual practice. Or perhaps, it is a revealed religion, but not in the way we usually mean. In “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” Thomas Merton says: “Christian experience itself will be profoundly affected by the idea of revelation that the Christian himself will entertain. If revelation is regarded as a system of truths about God and an explanation of how the universe came into existence, what will eventually happen to it, what is the purpose of Christian life, etc., then Christianity is reduced to a world view, at times a religious philosophy and little more…Christian experience will not be so much a living theological experience of the presence of God in the world and in mankind through the mystery of Christ, but rather a sense of security in one’s own correctness….” Religion for Merton and Eckhart is not so much involved with thinking about or having knowledge about as it is having direct knowledge of. They are not concerned with “about” as much as they are concerned with “what is.”

And so what began as a philosophy class in which I wanted to show the similarities between Zen and Eckhart, became an investigation into the way things are without labeling it “Zen” or “Christian” or “mystical,” or anything. It revealed a fundamental question of all spiritual practice: How can I go beyond thinking about things into a direct experience, a direct knowledge, of things “as it is” (Suzuki Roshi) or what Eckhart called “is-ness” and Dogen called “suchness?” I saw that a lot of my Zen practice had been more about Buddha than an experience of Buddha. Taking this in, I remembered something Kierkegaard said that seemed to express my journey over the past month or so: “The aim of the religious life is to go from the interesting to the simple.”


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