Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist - "A Little Point" and Satori
"A Little Point" and Satori
MEISTER ECKHART is quoted in Inge's Mysticism in Religion (p. 39):
The union of the soul with God is far more inward than that of the soul and body. . . . Now, I might ask, how stands it with the soul that is lost in God? Does the soul find herself or not? To this I will answer as it appears to me, that the soul finds herself in the point where every rational being understands itself with itself. Although it sinks in the eternity of the divine essence, yet it can never reach the ground. Therefore God has left a little point wherein the soul turns back upon itself and finds itself, and knows itself to be a creature.
An interesting controversy arises regarding "a little point" referred to in this passage from Eckhart. I do not know where Dean Inge found the passage. It would be desirable to know the entire context where it occurs, if we would discuss the point fully, but we can somehow proceed according to the extent of our general knowledge of Eckhartian philosophy. One person insists that Eckhart here tells us about the human impossibility of reaching the ground of Reality or "the inmost
core [grund] of the divine nature." According to this interpretation, there is an impassable gap between "every rational being" and "the eternity of the divine essence"; God provides us, therefore, with "a little point" whereby we rational beings are made to turn upon ourselves and realize that we are after all finite creatures and barred forever from sinking into "the core of God" or "the essence of God."
The other person's way of thinking runs along the following line: judging from the whole trend of Eckhart's ideas as expressed in his sermons, he does not necessarily mean here that the gap between the divine ground and ourselves is absolutely impassable; on the contrary, he implies that he himself crossed the gap and came back to this side of rationality. This person will insist that if Eckhart did not cross the impassable himself how could he say that "God has left a little point" as if he were God himself? Or, logically speaking, when Eckhart says that there is a gap and that the gap is impassable, he must have already been there and seen the gap and actually surveyed it and found it impassable.
In our relative way of thinking, the finite is sharply differentiated from the infinite, they cannot be made one, there is no way of unifying them. But when we analyze the concept closer, we find that one implies or participates in the other and that because of this implication or participation the one becomes separable from the other in our thought. Disintegration is possible because of integration, and vice versa. It is in this sense that the finite is infinite and the infinite is finite.
But here is a subtle point over which we must take care not to slip: When we say that the finite is infinite, it does not mean that the finite as it stands relatively as finite is infinite and so with the infinite; they pass into each other and become one
when all ideas of relativity are wiped away. But we must be quite cautious not to undertake this wiping away on the relative plane, for in this case there will have to be another wiping away and this may go on eternally. This is where many intellectuals stumble and become victims of their own cleverness.
When they talk about an impassable gap and a point wherein we are made to turn back, they forget that by this very talk they are already crossing the impassable and find themselves on the other side. It is due to their discriminating habit of thought that the impassable is always left on the other side while they are actually there. We are possessed of the habit of looking at Reality by dividing it into two; even when we have in all actuality the thing we spend time in discussing and then finally come to the conclusion that we have it not. It is all due to the human habit of splitting one solid Reality into two, and the result is that my "have" is no "have" and my "have not" is no "have not." While we are actually passing, we insist that the gap is impassable.
When Eckhart says that "God has left a little point," this is, according to my understanding, to remind us of the fact that we are all finite beings, that is, "creatures," and therefore that as such we "can never reach the ground." But inasmuch as we are "sinking in the eternity of the divine essence" we are already on the ground. This is where we are God himself. It is only when we see the "little point" left by God that we return to ourselves and know that we are creatures. This seeing is splitting and all forms of bifurcation take place and we are no more God, we are no more, as Eckhart says, "One to one, one from One, one in One and the One in one, eternally." This is "where time comes in and all the properties of things which belong to time--existing beside the timeless." 1
[paragraph continues] We all make time sit beside timelessness. But why not time in timelessness and timelessness in time?
"A little point" left by God corresponds to what Zen Buddhists would call satori. When we strike this point we have a satori. To have a satori means to be standing at Eckhart's "point" where we can look in two directions: God-way and creature-way. Expressed in another form, the finite is infinite and the infinite is finite. This "little point" is full of significance and I am sure Eckhart had a satori.
Eckhart's "little point" is the eye, that is to say, "The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God's eye are one and the same--one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving." 2 Eckhart says: "If my eye is to distinguish colors, it must first be free from any color impressions. If I see blue or white, the seeing of my eyes is identical with what is seen." If the seeing is the seen and the seen is the seeing, the "sinking in the eternity of the divine essence" is the "reaching the ground," for there cannot be any "ground" which "is beside the timeless," the ground is the divine essence, and the sinking is reaching.
What makes us however think that Eckhart really advocates the doctrine of impassableness is that here he seems to remind us of our being creatures more than of our being one with God or our coming from the core (or grund) of the divine nature. The "little point" here referred to is made to turn us around back to our finite creatureliness, but the fact is that the point can readily be made to turn the other way leading us straight
to the Godhead. Eckhart calls the one who can achieve this wonder the aristocrat (Edel), and defines him:
So I say that the aristocrat is one who derives his being his life, and his happiness from God alone, with God and in God and not at all from his knowledge, perfection, or love of God, or any such thing. Thus our Lord says very well that life eternal is to know God as the only true God and not that it is knowledge that God may be known. 3
According to this, Eckhart distinguishes two kinds of knowledge: one is to know God as the only true God and the other is to know God through knowledge about him. The second kind is "twilight knowledge in which creation is perceived by clearly distinguished ideas"; while the first kind is "daybreak knowledge" where "creatures are known in God," and "in which creatures are perceived without distinctions, all ideas being rejected, all comparisons done away in that One that God himself is." 4 Cannot this kind of knowledge be called also the knowledge of impassableness? Is this not what a man gets when the "little point" makes him turn around God-way in which all creatures, all distinctions, all comparisons, all ideas are done away with, leaving God to be in himself and with himself?
Eckhart states in "The Aristocrat," from which the above quotations are culled:
Neither the One, nor being, nor God, nor rest, nor blessedness, nor satisfaction is to be found where distinctions are. Be therefore that One so that you may find God. And of course, if you are wholly that One, you shall remain so, even where distinctions
are. Different things will all be parts of that One to you and will no longer stand in your way. 5
Where distinctions are you cannot find "the One" or "Being," but when you are "that One," "wholly that One," all distinctions or all different things may be left as they are and will all be parts of that One and offer you no hindrances, to use Kegon phraseology. To tell the truth, however, distinctions can never remain as distinctions if they were not made "parts of that One," though as far as I am concerned I do not like the term "parts" in connection with the One. "All different things" are not parts but they are the One itself, they are not parts as if they, when put together, would produce the whole. "Parts" is a treacherous term.
Eckhart continues: "The One remains the same One in thousands of thousands of stones as much as in four stones: a thousand times a thousand is just as simple a number as four." This idea of number is really at the bottom of the doctrine of impassableness. The idea of distinguishing passable from impassable, or finite from infinite, is derived from the notion of duality, of one divided into two, and these two as standing absolutely against each other, or as contradicting each other, or as irreconcilably excluding each other-which makes it impossible to go over to the other. The One does not belong in the category of number, yet the intellectually strained mind tries to pull it down to its own level. Language is a useful means of communication and expression, but when we try to use it for the deepest experience man can have we trap ourselves and do not know how to extricate ourselves. Eckhart is troubled in the same way as we can see in the following extracts.
I say that when a man looks at God, he knows it and knows that he is the knower. That is to say, he knows it is God he is looking at and knows that he knows him. Now some people wish it to appear that the flower, the kernel of blessing is this awareness of the spirit, that it is knowing God. For if I have rapture and am unconscious of it, what good would it do and what would it mean? I cannot agree with this position. 6
According to this, Eckhart is apparently not satisfied with merely knowing God and being conscious of this knowing on the part of the spirit, for he goes on to declare that spiritual blessing consists in absolutely being absorbed in God and not knowing it at all:
For granting that the soul could not be happy without it [that is, being conscious of its own processes], still its happiness does not consist in that; for the foundation of spiritual blessing is this: that the soul look at God without anything between; here it receives its being and life and draws its essence from the core [grund] of God, unconscious of the knowledge-process, or love or anything else. Then it is quite still in the essence of God, not knowing at all where it is, knowing nothing but God.
Evidently here Eckhart thinks that knowing is something between the knower and God, that being conscious of God's presence is not being "quite still in the essence of God," and therefore that there is no foundation here on which spiritual blessing may be established. In this Eckhart is quite right if the knowing of God is to be understood in the way we generally understand knowledge, as issuing from the relationship of subject and object. As he says, "When the soul is aware that it is looking at God, loving him and knowing him, that already is a retrogression, a quick retreat back to the upper level of the
natural order of things." 7 To be conscious of knowing God is to know about God if this knowing follows the ordinary way of knowledge-process. But what kind of knowledge does he wish us to understand by the knowledge referred to in the following passage:
For a man must himself be One, seeking unity both in himself and in the One, which means that he must see God and God only. And then he must "return," which is to say, he must have knowledge of God and be conscious of his knowledge.
What kind of knowledge does he mean here? In this knowledge is there the division of subject and object? If this is the knowledge of an absolute unity of God and man, what does this "being conscious of his knowledge" imply? When Eckhart then tells us that we "must have knowledge of God" and that we must "return," does this mean that we after all give up "the foundation of spiritual blessing" and retreat to the natural order of things? What difference could there be between "spiritual blessing" and knowledge of absolute oneness? Is the rapture of spiritual bliss preferable to "stepping beyond creatures" or "jumping past creatures" and knowing God? 8
Eckhart quotes John, 19:12, "A certain nobleman went out into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return." "The nobleman" means, according to Eckhart, "a person who submits completely to God, giving up all he is and has"; "to go out" means that he "has nothing more to do with vanity . . . to the extent that he is now pure being, goodness and truth"; and then he has "daybreak knowledge in which creatures are perceived without distinctions." But, according to Eckhart, this knowledge is not enough, the nobleman is to
be completely free from all forms of knowledge. And then Eckhart continues, "There will be no blessing except a man be conscious of his vision and knowledge of God, but it is not the will of God that I be blessed on that basis. If anyone will have it otherwise, let him do so; I can only pity him."
Eckhart is here deeply involved in contradictions. He appraises knowledge, then repudiates it, and finally takes it up again as the thing desired. It is not apparently enough for the nobleman "to go out" and he is advised "to return." In his process of going out and receiving a kingdom, mere knowledge of the oneness of God and himself is no more than knowing about God. Such knowledge, it goes without saying, is far from being satisfactory to anyone who in all sincerity seeks God. The soul must "look at God without anything between" and "receive its being and life and draw its essence from the core [grund] of God." But when this is accomplished the nobleman is "to return," for he "must have knowledge of God and be conscious of his knowledge." Eckhart seems to be using knowledge in two different senses, one in a relative sense and the other in the absolute. Hence this apparent confusion.
The real fact, however, is that as far as we are human beings we cannot express in words our understanding of Reality in its suchness. When we try to do so we are inevitably involved in a contradiction. Eckhart says, "God's sight and mine are far different--utterly dissimilar." 9 Inasmuch as he could make this statement in regard to God's sight as being utterly dissimilar to our human sight, he must be said to have had certain knowledge of God which enabled him to bring these tidings to the human world from the other shore, from "the
inmost core of the divine nature in its solitude." 10 "If I am to see color, I must have that in me which is sensitive to color, but I should never see color if I did not have the essence of color already." 11 Unless God was not already with us, in us, we could never know how dissimilar or how similar--which is after all the same thing--God was to us. In this connection Eckhart quotes St. Paul and St. John: "We shall know God as we are known by him" and again, "We shall know God as he is." An image may be "dissimilar" to the object whose image it is, but there is no doubt that it represents the original and to that extent the image must be said to be "similar" to the original. What makes the image an image is the presence in it of the original and as such the image is just as real as the original. The original sees itself in the image as well as in itself. Being in "dissimilarity" must be said to be only in similarity. To realize this is the meaning of "returning."
To quote Eckhart again, "The soul must step beyond or jump past creatures if it is to know God." 12 But to know God is to know oneself as creature. To know God is "to go out" as the Biblical nobleman does according to Eckhart, and his "returning" means knowing oneself as creature by knowing God. When the soul knows God it becomes conscious of its oneness with God and at the same time it realizes how "dissimilar" it is. The "going out" is "returning" and conversely. This circular and contradictory movement characterizes our spiritual experience. A Zen master once produced a staff before the congregation and said: "If you have a staff I will give one to you; if you do not I will take it away from you." The giving
is the taking away, and the taking away is the giving. Another master later gave his view, saying, "You all throw your staff down!" As long as the staff crosses our way, the question of similarity and dissimilarity, of passableness and impassableness will never be conclusively settled.
Eckhart's idea of the "little point" which God left in order to make us turn back to ourselves and realize that we are after all creatures is highly suggestive and full of significance. Most readers are apt to regard such a statement as this as not really touching their own spiritual experience but as something general and impersonal which may be turned to a subject of philosophical discourse. Of course there is no harm in this as long as the statement is understood as reflecting one's personal experience in the matter.
Eckhart's "little point," according to my view, is not just a point which stays stationary. It moves or rather revolves and this movement is taking place all the time. That is to say, the point is a living one and not a dead one. Therefore as soon as we come to this point God may make us turn back toward creatureliness but at the same time he does not forget to remind us of the other side of the point. If the point is stationary and points just one way, we cannot even turn back to ourselves and find ourselves to be creatures. The reason we can turn back is because we can move on and see into the ground (grund) of the divine nature. In fact, while going back to our creatureliness we are all the time carrying with us the ground itself, for we cannot leave it behind as if it were something which could be separated from us and left anywhere by the roadside and perhaps picked up by somebody else. Creatureliness
and Godliness must go hand in hand; wherever one is found the other is also always there. To leave one behind means killing the other as well as oneself. The "little point" is a kind of axis around which we and God move. This truth will be experienced when a man once actually reaches the point. Then the problem of impassableness no longer remains with him, he will never ask himself whether he can pass on or not. He is what he was. To know the significance of the point one must see it, for God did not leave it where it is in order to make philosophers or theologians argue about its presence so as to help them advance the theories already constructed in their own minds.
Some may say that if the "little point" exists only to make us realize that we are after all creatures, what is the use of looking into the eternity of the divine essence? We all know that we are creatures even before we come to the "little point." This is however no more than mere arguing for the sake of arguing. We must remember that this seeing the "little point" makes the greatest possible difference in the world. We are indeed different creatures, we are not the same creatures any longer after our encounter with the "little point." We are now creatures in God, with God, not creaturely creatures. There are those who think that the "little point" divides us from God forever, and that when we are away from it we have eternally left God on the other side of it. The fact is just the contrary. When we turned back to ourselves after being accosted by the "little point," we have captured everything around there and are carrying it all with us. If things were otherwise we should all find ourselves deeply buried in the emptiness of the Godhead, which means an end of our creatureliness. For the
fullness of the Godhead can only be expressed in the creatureliness of all beings.
I do not think it is justifiable to use this "little point" for the support of the doctrine of impassableness. In other places Eckhart gives us statements quite contradictory to the idea of the "little point." For instance, in one of his sermons, "Into the Godhead," 13 we have the following:
As long as the least of creatures absorb your attention, you will see nothing of God, however little that creature may be. Thus, in Book of Love, the soul says: "I have run around looking for him my soul loves and found him not." She found angels and many other things but not him her soul loved, but she goes on to say: "After that, I went a little further and found him my soul loves." It was as if she said: "It was when I stepped beyond creatures that I found my soul's lover." The soul must step beyond or jump past creatures if it is to know God.
This sermon is given under the heading, "A little, and ye see me no more," which means, according to Eckhart, "However small it may be, if anything adheres to the soul, you cannot see me," that is, God. And: "Every creature seeks to become like God. If there were no search for God, the heavens themselves would not be revolving. If God were not in everything, nature would not function nor would desire be in anything." And this desire is to see God in his naked essence.
If all the shells were removed from the soul and all God's shells could be taken off too, he could give himself directly to the soul without reserve. But as long as the soul's shells are intact-be they ever so slight-the soul cannot see God. If anything even to the extent of a hairbreadth, came between the body and the
soul, there could be no true union of the two. If that is the case with physical things, how much more true it is with spiritual! Thus Boethius says: "If you want to know the straight truth, put away joy and fear, confidence, hope and disappointment." Joy, fear, confidence, hope, and disappointment are all intervening media, all shells. As long as you stick to them and they to you, you shall not see God.
These are all significant and illuminating statements whereby we can look into the core of Eckhart's philosophical thinking. He never wants us to leave the Godhead behind, he just wants us to leave our shells and also asks of God to take off his shells if he has any except those we have put on him. Both we and God are to be naked if there is to be a unification or identity of any sort between the two. To be naked means to be empty, for the two, God and creatures, can join hands only when both stand in the field of Absolute Emptiness (śūnyatā), where there is neither light nor shadow.
Let us consider other passages from Eckhart for our own further edification on the subject. The following are from the sermon with the title, "Distinctions Are Lost in God": 14
Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes leave of God. St. Paul 15 took leave of God for God's sake and gave up all that he might get from God, as well as all he might give--together with every idea of God. In parting with these, he parted with God for God's sake and yet God remained
to him as God is in his own nature-not as he is conceived by anyone to be-nor yet as something yet to be achieved-but more as an is-ness (isticheit), as God really is. Then he neither gave to God nor received anything from him, for he and God were a unit, that is, pure unity.
Statements like this must have struck Christians of his days as most extraordinary, even as blasphemous, and probably they may still affect present-day Christians in the same way. But from the Buddhist point of view they would not sound in any way strange or singular or astounding. They are rather a routine expression of Buddhist thought. Eckhart however does not stop here, he goes on:
God gives to all things alike and as they proceed from God they are alike. . . . A flea, to the extent that it is in God, ranks above the highest angel in his own right. Thus in God all things are equal and are God himself. . . . In this likeness or identity God takes such delight that he pours his whole nature and being into it. His pleasure is as great, to take a simile, as that of a horse, let loose to run over a green heath where the ground is level and smooth, to gallop as a horse will, as fast as he can over the greensward--for this is a horse's pleasure and expresses his nature. It is so with God. It is his pleasure and rapture to discover identity, because he can always put his whole nature into it--for he is this identity itself.
Is this not a remarkable utterance of spiritual intuition on the part of the author? Here, we see that God, instead of being left behind the "little point," is right out on the greensward with "his whole nature and being" in full display. He keeps nothing in reserve. He gallops like a horse, he sings like a bird, he blooms like the flower, he even dances like a young girl. Living among the conventionally minded tradition-bound
medieval Christians, Eckhart must have felt somewhat constrained in his expression and did not go so far as the Zen master would. Otherwise, Eckhart might have had "the wooden horse neigh and the stone man dance," with the same facility as the Zen master.
In one sense, this "little point" may be considered as corresponding to the Buddhist idea of ichi-nen (ekacittakṣāṇa or ekakṣāṇa in Sanskrit and i-nien in Chinese). Eckhart's "little point," if I understand it correctly, marks the turning point in the suchness of the Godhead. As long as the Godhead remains in its suchness, that is, in its naked essence, it is Emptiness itself, no sound comes from it, no odor issues from it, it is "above grace, above intelligence, above all desire," 16 it is altogether unapproachable, unattainable, as Buddhist philosophers would say. But because of this "little point" left by it, it comes in contact with creatures by making "the soul turn back to itself and find itself and know itself to be a creature." The time when the soul becomes conscious of its creatureliness is the time also when God becomes aware of his contact with creatures. Or we can say that this is creation. In Sermon 28 we have:
Back in the Womb 17 from which I came, I had no God and merely was, myself. I did not will or desire anything, for I was pure being, a knower of myself by divine truth. The I wanted myself and nothing else. And what I wanted I was, and what I was I wanted, and thus I existed untrammelled by God or anything else. But when I parted from my free will and received my
created being then I had a God. For before there were creatures, God was not God, but rather he was what he was. When creatures came to be and took on creaturely being, then God was no longer God as he is in himself, but God as he is with creatures. 18
The Godhead must become God in order to make itself related to creatures. The Biblical God as the creator of the world is no longer God as he was. He created himself as he is, by creating the world. But even this God is not to be conceived in terms of time. The chronological God is the creation of a relative mind and as such we can say that he is far removed from the Godhead. He is just one of the creatures like ourselves. Eckhart says: "If a flea could have the intelligence by which to search the eternal abyss of divine being, out of which it came, we should say that God together with all that God is could not give fulfillment or satisfaction to the flea!" 19 A chronological God has to have the intelligence of the flea if he wants to delve into the very being of the flea. The rising of this intelligence in the soul, to use Eckhartian terminology, is the positing of the "little point."
78:1 Blakney, p. 81.
79:2 Ibid., p. 206.
80:3 Ibid., p. 80.
80:4 Ibid., p. 79.
81:5 Ibid., p. 78.
82:6 Ibid., p. 79.
83:7 Ibid., pp. 79-80.
83:8 Ibid., p. 166.
84:9 Ibid., p. 81.
85:11 Ibid., p. 168.
85:12 Ibid., p. 166.
88:13 Ibid., pp. 165 et seq.
89:14 Ibid., pp. 203 et seq.
89:15 Eckhart quotes St. Paul as saying: "I could wish to be cut off eternally from God for my friends' sake and for God's sake." This I understand corresponds to the King James version, Romans, 9:3, "But I could wish that myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh." I do not know how this discrepancy takes place between the two quotations as I have no Greek texts with me. Eckhart bases his argument on his Latin text, I believe.
91:16 Ibid., p. 231.
91:17 The original German is "in miner ersten ursache." The translator has substituted this term, I do not know whether this is a happy translation or not.
92:18 Blakney, p. 228.
92:19 Ibid., p. 229.