Mysticism, Christian and Buddhist - Meister Eckhart and Buddhism

11.07.2015 10:15


Meister Eckhart 1 and Buddhism


IN THE following pages I attempt to call the reader's attention to the closeness of Meister Eckhart's way of thinking to that of Mahāyāna Buddhism, especially of Zen Buddhism. The attempt is only a tentative and sketchy one, far from being systematic and exhaustive. But I hope the reader will find something in it which evokes his curiosity enough to undertake further studies of this fascinating topic.

When I first read--which was more than a half century ago--a little book containing a few of Meister Eckhart's sermons, they impressed me profoundly, for I never expected that any Christian thinker ancient or modern could or would cherish such daring thoughts as expressed in those sermons. While I do not remember which sermons made up the contents


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of the little book, the ideas expounded there closely approached Buddhist thoughts, so closely indeed, that one could stamp them almost definitely as coming out of Buddhist speculations. As far as I can judge, Eckhart seems to be an extraordinary "Christian."

While refraining from going into details we can say at least this: Eckhart's Christianity is unique and has many points which make us hesitate to classify him as belonging to the type we generally associate with rationalized modernism or with conservative traditionalism. He stands on his own experiences which emerged from a rich, deep, religious personality. He attempts to reconcile them with the historical type of Christianity modeled after legends and mythology. He tries to give an "esoteric" or inner meaning to them, and by so doing he enters fields which were not touched by most of his historical predecessors.

First, let me give you the views Eckhart has on time and creation. These are treated in his sermon delivered on the commemoration day for St. Germaine. He quotes a sentence from Ecclesiasticus: "In his days he pleased God and was found just." Taking up first the phrase "In his days," he interprets it according to his own understanding:

    . . . there are more days than one. There is the soul's day and God's day. A day, whether six or seven ago, or more than six thousand years ago, is just as near to the present as yesterday. Why? Because all time is contained in the present Now-moment. Time comes of the revolution of the heavens and day began with the first revolution. The soul's day falls within this time and consists of the natural light in which things are seen. God's day, however, is the complete day, comprising both day and night. It is the real Now-moment, which for the soul is eternity's day,

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on which the Father begets his only begotten Son and the soul is reborn in God. 2

The soul's day and God's day are different. In her natural day the soul knows all things above time and place; nothing is far or near. And that is why I say, this day all things are of equal rank. To talk about the world as being made by God to-morrow, yesterday, would be talking nonsense. God makes the world and all things in this present now. Time gone a thousand years ago is now as present and as near to God as this very instant. The soul who is in this present now, in her the Father bears his one-begotten Son and in that same birth the soul is born back into God. It is one birth; as fast as she is reborn into God the Father is begetting his only Son in her. 3

God the Father and the Son have nothing to do with time. Generation is not in time, but at the end and limit of time. In the past and future movements of things, your heart flits about; it is in vain that you attempt to know eternal things; in divine things, you should be occupied intellectually . . . .  4

Again, God loves for his own sake, acts for his own sake: that means that he loves for the sake of love and acts for the sake of action. It cannot be doubted that God would never have begot his Son in eternity if [his idea of] creation were other than [his act of] creation. Thus God created the world so that he might keep on creating. The past and future are both far from God and alien to his way. 5

From these passages we see that the Biblical story of Creation is thoroughly contradicted; it has not even a symbolic meaning in Eckhart, and, further, his God is not at all like





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the God conceived by most Christians. God is not in time mathematically enumerable. His creativity is not historical, not accidental, not at all measurable. It goes on continuously without cessation with no beginning, with no end. It is not an event of yesterday or today or tomorrow, it comes out of timelessness, of nothingness, of Absolute Void. God's work is always done in an absolute present, in a timeless "now which is time and place in itself." God's work is sheer love, utterly free from all forms of chronology and teleology. The idea of God creating the world out of nothing, in an absolute present, and therefore altogether beyond the control of a serial time conception will not sound strange to Buddhist cars. Perhaps they may find it acceptable as reflecting their doctrine of Emptiness (śūnyatā).


Below are further quotations from Eckhart giving his views on "being," "life," "work," etc.:

Being is God. . . . God and being are the same--or God has being from another and thus himself is not God. . . . Everything that is has the fact of its being through being and from being. Therefore, if being is something different from God, a thing has its being from something other than God. Besides, there is nothing prior to being because that which confers being creates and is a creator. To create is to give being out of nothing. 6

Eckhart is quite frequently metaphysical and makes one wonder how his audience took to his sermons--an audience which is supposed to have been very unscholarly, being ignorant of Latin and all the theologies written in it. This problem


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of being and God's creating the world out of nothing must have puzzled them very much indeed. Even the scholars might have found Eckhart beyond their understanding, especially when we know that they were not richly equipped with the experiences which Eckhart had. Mere thinking or logical reasoning will never succeed in clearing up problems of deep religious significance. 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 (tathatā), which in itself has all the possible values (guna) we humans can conceive.

God's characteristic is being. The philosopher says one creature is able to give another life. For in being, mere being, lies all that is at all. Being is the first name. Defect means lack of being. Our whole life ought to be being. So far as our life is being so far it is in God. So far as our life is feeble but taking it as being, it excels anything life can ever boast. I have no doubt of this, that if the soul had the remotest notion of what being means she would never waver from it for an instant. The most trivial thing perceived in God, a flower for example as espied in God, would be a thing more perfect than the universe. The vilest thing present in God as being is better than angelic knowledge. 7

This passage may sound too abstract to most readers. The sermon is said to have been given on the commemoration day of the "blessed martyrs who were slain with the swords." Eckhart begins with his ideas about death and suffering which come to an end like everything else that belongs to this world.


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[paragraph continues] He then proceeds to tell us that "it behooves us to emulate the dead in dispassion (niht betrüeben) towards good and ill and pain of every kind," and he quotes St. Gregory: "No one gets so much of God as the man who is thoroughly dead," because "death gives them [martyrs] being,--they lost their life and found their being." Eckhart's allusion to the flower as espied in God reminds us of Nansen's interview with Rikko in which the Zen master also brings out a flower in the monastery courtyard.

It is when I encounter such statements as these that I grow firmly convinced that the Christian experiences are not after all different from those of the Buddhist. Terminology is all that divides us and stirs us up to a wasteful dissipation of energy. We must however weigh the matter carefully and see whether there is really anything that alienates us from one another and whether there is any basis for our spiritual edification and for the advancement of a world culture.

When God made man, he put into the soul his equal, his active, everlasting masterpiece. It was so great a work that it could not be otherwise than the soul and the soul could not be otherwise than the work of God. God's nature, his being, and the Godhead all depend on his work in the soul. Blessed, blessed be God that he does work in the soul and that he loves his work! That work is love and love is God. God loves himself and his own nature, being and Godhead, and in the love he has for himself he loves all creatures, not as creatures but as God. The love God bears himself contains his love for the whole world. 8

Eckhart's statement regarding God's self-love which "contains his love for the whole world" corresponds in a way to the Buddhist idea of universal enlightenment. When Buddha


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attained the enlightenment, it is recorded, he perceived that all beings non-sentient as well as sentient were already in the enlightenment itself. The idea of enlightenment may make Buddhists appear in some respects more impersonal and metaphysical than Christians. Buddhism thus may be considered more scientific and rational than Christianity which is heavily laden with all sorts of mythological paraphernalia. The movement is now therefore going on among Christians to denude the religion of this unnecessary historical appendix. While it is difficult to predict how far it will succeed, there are in every religion some elements which may be called irrational. They are generally connected with the human craving for love. The Buddhist doctrine of enlightenment is not after all such a cold system of metaphysics as it appears to some people. Love enters also into the enlightenment experience as one of its constituents, for otherwise it could not embrace the totality of existence. The enlightenment does not mean to run away from the world, and to sit cross-legged at the peak of the mountain, to look down calmly upon a bomb-struck mass of humanity. It has more tears than we imagine.

Thou shalt know him [God] without image, without semblance and without means.--"But for me to know God thus, with nothing between, I must be all but he, he all but me."--I say, God must be very I, I very God, so consummately one that this he and this I are one "is," in this is-ness working one work eternally; but so long as this he and this I, to wit, God and the soul, are not one single here, one single now, the I cannot work with nor be one with that he. 9

What is life? God's being is my life, but if it is so, then what is God's must be mine and what is mine God's. God's is-ness is


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my is-ness, and neither more nor less. The just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher. All their work is done by God and God's by them. 10

Going over these quotations, we feel that it was natural that orthodox Christians of his day accused Eckhart as a "heretic" and that he defended himself. Perhaps it is due to our psychological peculiarities that there are always two opposing tendencies in the human way of thinking and feeling; extrovert and introvert, outer and inner, objective and subjective, exoteric and esoteric, traditional and mystical. The opposition between these two tendencies or temperaments is often too deep and strong for any form of reconciliation. This is what makes Eckhart complain about his opponents not being able to grasp his point. He would remonstrate: "Could you see with my heart you would understand my words, but, it is true, for the truth itself has said it." 11 Augustine is however tougher than Eckhart: "What is it to me though any comprehend not this!" 12


One of Eckhart's heresies was his pantheistic tendency. He seemed to put man and God on an equal footing: "The Father begets his Son in me and I am there in the same Son and not another." 13 While it is dangerous to criticize Eckhart summarily as a pantheist by picking one or two passages at random from his sermons, there is no doubt that his sermons





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contain many thoughts approaching pantheism. But unless the critics are a set of ignorant misinterpreters with perhaps an evil intention to condemn him in every way as a heretic, a fair-minded judge will notice that Eckhart everywhere in his sermons is quite careful to emphasize the distinction between the creature and the creator as in the following:

"Between the only begotten Son and the soul there is no distinction." This is true. For how could anything white be distinct from or divided from whiteness? Again, matter and form are one in being; living and working. Yet matter is not, on this account, form, or conversely. So in the proposition. A holy soul is one with God, according to John 17:21. That they all may be one in us, even as we are one. Still the creature is not the creator, nor is the just man God. 14

God and Godhead are as different as earth is from heaven. Moreover I declare: the outward and the inward man are as different, too, as earth and heaven. God is higher, many thousand miles. Yet God comes and goes. But to resume my argument: God enjoys himself in all things. The sun sheds his light upon all creatures, and anything he sheds his beams upon absorbs them, yet he loses nothing of his brightness. 15"

From this we can see most decidedly that Eckhart was far from being a pantheist. In this respect Mahāyāna Buddhism is also frequently and erroneously stamped as pantheistic, ignoring altogether a world of particulars. Some critics seem to be ready and simple-minded enough to imagine that all doctrines that are not transcendentally or exclusively monotheistic are pantheistic and that they are for this reason perilous to the advancement of spiritual culture.



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It is true that Eckhart insists on finding something of a Godlike nature in each one of us, otherwise the birth of God's only Son in the soul would be impossible and his creatures would forever be something utterly alienated from him. As long as God is love, as creator, he can never be outside the creatures. But this cannot be understood as meaning the oneness of one with the other in every possible sense. Eckhart distinguishes between the inner man and the outer man and what one sees and hears is not the same as the other. In a sense therefore we can say that we are not living in an identical world and that the God one conceives for oneself is not at all to be subsumed under the same category as the God for another. Eckhart's God is neither transcendental nor pantheistic.

God goes and comes, he works, he is active, he becomes all the time, but Godhead remains immovable, imperturbable, inaccessible. The difference between God and Godhead is that between heaven and earth and yet Godhead cannot be himself without going out of himself, that is, he is he because he is not he. This "contradiction" is comprehended only by the inner man, and not by the outer man, because the latter sees the world through the senses and intellect and consequently fails to experience the profound depths of Godhead.

Whatever influence Eckhart might have received from the Jewish (Maimonides), Arabic (Avicenna), and Neoplatonic sources, there is no doubt that he had his original views based on his own experiences, theological and otherwise, and that they were singularly Mahāyānistic. Coomaraswamy is quite right when he says:

Eckhart presents an astonishingly close parallel to Indian modes of thought; some whole passages and many single sentences

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read like a direct translation from Sanskrit. . . . It is not of course suggested that any Indian elements whatever are actually present in Eckhart's writing, though there are some Oriental factors in the European tradition, derived from neo-Platonic and Arabic sources. But what is proved by analogies is not the influence of one system of thought upon another, but the coherence of the metaphysical tradition in the world and at all times. 16


It is now necessary to examine Eckhart's close kinship with Mahāyāna Buddhism and especially with Zen Buddhism in regard to the doctrine of Emptiness.

The Buddhist doctrine of Emptiness is unhappily greatly misunderstood in the West. The word "emptiness" or "void" seems to frighten people away, whereas when they use it among themselves, they do not seem to object to it. While some Indian thought is described as nihilistic, Eckhart has never been accused of this, though he is not sparing in the use of words with negative implications, such as "desert," "stillness," "silence," "nothingness." Perhaps when these terms are used among Western thinkers, they are understood in connection with their historical background. But as soon as these thinkers are made to plunge into a strange, unfamiliar system or atmosphere, they lose their balance and condemn it as negativistic or anarchistic or upholding escapist egoism.

According to Eckhart,

I have read many writings both of heathen philosophers and sages, of the Old and the New Testaments, and I have earnestly and with all diligence sought the best and the highest virtue


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whereby man may come most closely to God and wherein he may once more become like the original image as he was in God when there was yet no distinction between God and himself before God produced creatures. And having dived into the basis of things to the best of my ability I find that it is no other than absolute detachment (abegescheidenheit) from everything that is created. It was in this sense when our Lord said to Martha: "One thing is needed," which is to say: He who would be untouched and pure needs just one thing, detachment. 17

What then is the content of absolute detachment? It cannot be designated "as this or that," as Eckhart says. It is pure nothing (bloss niht), it is the highest point at which God can work in us as he pleases.

Perfect detachment is without regard, without either lowliness or loftiness to creatures; it has no mind to be below nor yet to be above; it is minded to be master of itself, loving none and hating none, having neither likeness nor unlikeness, neither this nor that, to any creature; the only thing it desires to be is to be one and the same. For to be either this or that is to want something. He who is this or that is somebody; but detachment wants altogether nothing. It leaves all things unmolested. 18

While Buddhist emphasis is on the emptiness of all "composite things" (skandha) and is therefore metaphysical, Eckhart here insists on the psychological significance of "pure nothingness" so that God can take hold of the soul without any resistance on the part of the individual. But from the practical point of view the emptying of the soul making it



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selfless can never be thoroughly realized unless we have an ontological understanding of the nature of things, that is, the nothingness of creaturely objects. For the created have no reality; all creatures are pure nothing, for "all things were made by him [God] and without him was not anything made" (John, 1:3). Further, "If without God a creature has any being however small, then God is not the cause of all things. Besides, a creature will not be created, for creation is the receiving of being from nothing."} 19 What could this mean? How could any being come from nothing or non-being? Psychology herein inevitably turns to metaphysics. We here encounter the problem of Godhead.

This problem was evidently not touched upon frequently by Eckhart, for he warns his readers repeatedly, saying: "Now listen: I am going to say something I have never said before." Then he proceeds: "When God created the heavens, the earth, and creatures, he did no work; he had nothing to do; he made no effort." He then proceeds to say something about Godhead, but he does not forget to state: "For yet again I say a thing I never said before: God and Godhead are different as earth is from heaven." Though he often fails to make a clear distinction between the two and would use "God" where really "Godhead" is meant, his attempt to make a distinction is noteworthy. With him God is still a something as long as there is any trace of movement or work or of doing something. When we come to the Godhead, we for the first time find that it is the unmoved, a nothing where there is no path (apada) to reach. It is absolute nothingness; therefore it is the ground of being from where all beings come.

While I subsisted in the ground, in the bottom, in the river


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and fount of Godhead, no one asked me where I was going or what I was doing: there was no one to ask me. When I was flowing all creatures spake God. If I am asked, Brother Eckhart, when went ye out of your house? Then I must have been in. Even so do all creatures speak God. And why do they not speak the Godhead? Everything in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing to be said. God works, the Godhead does no work, there is nothing to do; in it is no activity. It never envisaged any work. God and Godhead are as different as active and inactive. On my return to God, where I am formless, my breaking through will be far nobler than my emanation. I alone take all creatures out of their sense into my mind and make them one in me. When I go back into the ground, into the depths, into the well-spring of the Godhead, no one will ask me whence I came or whither I went. No one missed me: God passes away. 20

What would Christians think of "the divine core of pure (or absolute) stillness," or of "the simple core which is the still desert onto which no distinctions ever creep"? Eckhart is in perfect accord with the Buddhist doctrine of śūnyatā, when he advances the notion of Godhead as "pure nothingness" (ein bloss niht).

The notion of Godhead transcends psychology. Eckhart tells us that he has made frequent references in his sermons to "a light in the soul that is uncreated" and that "this light is not satisfied by the simple still, motionless essence of the divine being that neither gives nor takes. It is more interested in knowing where this essence came from." 21 This "where" is where "the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost" have not yet made their distinctions. To come in touch with this source and to know what it is, that is to say, "to see my own face



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even before I was born" I must plunge into "the vast emptiness of the Absolute Tao."

"To see one's face which one has even prior to his birth" is ascribed to Hui-nêng (Yeno, died 713), the sixth patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China. This corresponds to Eckhart's statement which he quotes as by "an authority": "Blessed are the pure in heart who leave everything to God now as they did before ever they existed." 22 Those who have not tasted wine in the cellar 23 may put in a question here: "How could we talk about a man's purity of heart prior to his existence? How could we also talk about seeing our own face before we were born?" Eckhart quotes St. Augustine: "There is a heavenly door for the soul into the divine nature--where somethings are reduced to nothing." 24 Evidently we have to wait for the heavenly door to open by our repeated or ceaseless knocking at it when I am "ignorant with knowing, loveless with loving, dark with light." 25 "Everything comes out of this basic experience and it is only when this is comprehended that we really enter into the realm of emptiness where the Godhead keeps our discriminatory mind altogether "emptied out to nothingness." 26


What is the Absolute Tao?

Before we go on to the Zen conception of the "Absolute Tao" or Godhead who sets itself up on "pure nothingness," it may be appropriate to comment on the Taoist conception






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of it as expounded by Lao-tzu. He was one of the early thinkers of China on philosophical subjects and the theme of the Tao Tê Ching ascribed to him is Tao.

Tao literally means "way" or "road" or "passage," and in more than one sense corresponds to the Sanskrit Dharma. It is one of the key terms in the history of Chinese thought. While Taoism derives its name from this term, Confucius also uses it extensively. With the latter however it has a more moralistic than metaphysical connotation. It is Taoists who use it in the sense of "truth," "ultimate reality," "logos," etc. Lao-tzu defines it in his Tao Tê Ching as follows:


The Way is like an empty vessel
That yet may be drawn from
Without ever needing to be filled.
It is bottomless: the very progenitor of
all things in the world. . . .
It is like a deep pool that never dries
I do not know whose child it could be.
It looks as if it were prior to God. 




There is another and more detailed characterization of Tao in Chapter XIV:


When you look at it you cannot see it;
It is called formless.
When you listen to it you cannot hear it;
It is called soundless.
When you try to seize it you cannot hold it;
It is called subtle.

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No one can measure these three to their ultimate ends,
Therefore they are fused to one.


It is up, but it is not brightened;
It is down, but it is not obscured.
It stretches endlessly,
And no name is to be given.
It returns to nothingness.
It is called formless form, shapeless shape.
It is called the intangible.
You face it but you cannot see its front.
You follow it but you cannot see its back.
Holding on to the Ancient Way (Tao)
You control beings of today.
Thus you know the beginning of things,
Which is the essence of the Way (Tao-chi).


When these quotations are compared with Eckhart's, we see points common to both. Lao-tzu is expressing in his classical Chinese way what the medieval Dominican preacher would talk about in his German vernacular. Lao-tzu is poetical and concrete, full of imageries, whereas Eckhart the theologian is more conceptual. He would say:

"God has no before nor after."

"God is neither this nor that."

"God is perfect simplicity."

"Prior to creatures, in the eternal now, I have played before the Father in his eternal stillness." 28


For comparison I will give another definition for Tao from Tao Tê Ching, Chapter XXV:


There is something in a state of fusion,

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It is born prior to heaven and earth.
How still! How lonely!
It stands by itself unchanging,
It moves about everywhere unfailingly.
Let us have it as mother [of all things] under the heavens.
I do not know its name,
But if needed call it Great.
The Great walks on,
Walks on to the farthest end,
And then returns.
Therefore the Tao is great,
Heaven is great,
Earth is great,
The ruler is great.
Within the realm there are four greats
And the ruler is one of them.
Man is earth when conforming to earth,
He is heaven when conforming to heaven,
He is Tao when conforming to Tao.
Let him thus conform himself to the suchness (tzu jan) of things.


R. B. Blakney remarks in his preface to the Tao Tê Ching translation that Lao-tzu's book fascinated him for many years and that he finally could not help producing his own translation in spite of the fact that there are already a large number of such translations available. He suspects that every foreigner who at all knows the Chinese language and can read Lao-tzu in the original would feel the same as this new translator did. This remark or confession on the part of the translator is highly significant. In my view the fascination he feels about Lao-tzu is not just due to the Old Philosopher's contribution to "the literature of mysticism," but partly to the language in

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which it is expressed. It may be better to say that the charm one feels about Chinese literature comes quite frequently from visually going over those unwieldy ideogrammatic characters with which thoughts or feelings are made communicative. The Chinese books are best perused in large type printed from the wooden blocks.

Besides this visual appeal of the ideograms there is an element in the Chinese language which, while rare in others, especially in Indo-European languages, expresses more directly and concretely what our ordinary conceptualized words fail to communicate. For instance, read the Tao Tê Ching, Chapter XX, in the original and compare it with any of the translations you have at hand and see that the translations invariably lack that rich, graphic, emotional flavor which we after more than two thousand five hundred years can appreciate with deep satisfaction. Arthur Waley is a great Chinese scholar and one of the best interpreters of Chinese life. His English translation of Lao-tzu is a fine piece of work in many senses, but he cannot go beyond the limitations of the language to which he is born.


The following story may not have historicity but it is widely circulated among Zen followers who are occasionally quite disrespectful of facts. It is worth our consideration as illustrating the way in which the Zen teachers handle the problem of "Emptiness" or "absolute nothingness" or the "still desert" lying beyond "this and that" and prior to "before and after." The story and comments are taken from a Chinese Zen textbook 29 of the Sung dynasty of the eleventh century. The text


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is studied very much in Japan and some of the stories are used as kō-an (problems given to Zen students for solution).

Bodhidharma, who is the first Zen patriarch in China, came from India in the sixth century. The Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty invited him to his court. The Emperor Wu, a good pious Buddhist studying the various Mahāyāna Sūtras and practicing the Buddhist virtues of charity and humility, asked the teacher from India: "The Sūtras refer so much to the highest and holiest truth, but what is it, my Reverend Master?"

Bodhidharma answered, "A vast emptiness and no holiness in it."

The Emperor: "Who are you then who stand before me if there is nothing holy, nothing high in the vast emptiness of ultimate truth?"

Bodhidharma: "I do not know, your Majesty."

The Emperor failed to understand the meaning of this answer and Bodhidharma left him to find a retreat in the North.

When Bodhidharma's express purpose of coming to China was to elucidate the teaching of "vast emptiness" (śūnyatā), why did he answer "I do not know" to the Emperor's all-important and to-the-very-point question? It is evident, however, that Bodhidharma's answer could not have been one of an agnostic who believes in the unknowability of ultimate truth. Bodhidharma's unknowability must be altogether of a different sort. It is really what Eckhart would like to see us all have--"transformed knowledge, not ignorance which comes from lack of knowing; it is by knowing that we get to this unknowing. Then we know by divine knowing, then our ignorance is ennobled and adorned with supernatural

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knowledge." 30 It was this kind of unknowing which is transcendental, divine, and supernatural that he wished his imperial friend to realize.

From our ordinary relative point of view Bodhidharma may seem too abrupt and unacceptable. But the fact is that the knowledge or "I do not know" which is gained only by "sinking into oblivion and ignorance" 31 is something quite abrupt or discrete or discontinuous in the human system of knowability, for we can get it only by leaping or plunging into the silent valley of Absolute Emptiness. There is no continuity between this and the knowledge we highly value in the realm of relativity where our senses and intellect move.

The Zen teachers are all unknowing knowers or knowing unknowers. Therefore their "I do not know" does not really mean our "I do not know." We must not take their answers in the way we generally do at the level of relative knowledge. Therefore, their comments which are quoted below do not follow the line we ordinarily do. They have this unique way. Yengo, (1063-1135) gives his evaluation of the mondo ("question and answer") which took place between Bodhidharma and the Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty in the following words: 32

Bodhidharma came to this country, via the southern route, seeing that there was something in Chinese mentality which responds readily to the teaching of Mahāyāna Buddhism. He was full of expectations, he wanted to lead our countrymen to the doctrine of "Mind-alone" which cannot be transmitted by letters




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or by means of word of mouth. The Mind could only be immediately taken hold of whereby we attain to the perception of the Buddha-nature, that is, to the realization of Buddhahood. When the Nature is attained, we shall be absolutely free from all bondage and will not be led astray because of linguistic complications. For here Reality itself is revealed in its nakedness with no kinds of veil on it. In this frame of mind Bodhidharma approached the Emperor. He also thus instructed his disciples. We see that Bodhidharma's [emptied mind] had no premeditated measures, no calculating plans. He just acted in the freest manner possible, cutting everything asunder that would obstruct his seeing directly into the Nature in its entire nakedness. Here was neither good nor evil, neither right nor wrong, neither gain nor loss. . . .

The Emperor Wu was a good student of Buddhist philosophy and wished to have the first principle elucidated by the great teacher from India. The first principle consists in the identity of being and non-being beyond which the philosophers fail to go. The Emperor wondered if this blockage could somehow be broken down by Bodhidharma. Hence his question. Bodhidharma knew that whatever answers he might give would be frustrating.

"What is Reality? What is Godhead?"

"Vast emptiness and no distinctions whatever [neither Father nor Son nor Holy Ghost]."

No philosopher however well trained in his profession could ever be expected to jump out of this trap, except Bodhidharma himself who knew perfectly well how to cut all limitations down by one blow of a sword.

Most people nowadays fail to get into the ultimate signification of Bodhidharma's pronouncement and would simply cry out, "vast emptiness" as if they really experienced it. But all to no purpose! As my old master remarks, "When a man truly understands Bodhidharma, he for the first time finds himself at home quietly sitting by the fireside," Unfortunately, the Emperor Wu

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happened to be one of those who could not rise above the limitations of linguistics. His views failed to penetrate the screen of meum and tuum (you and me). Hence his second question: "Who are you who face me?" Bodhidharma's blunt retort, "I do not know," only helped make the august inquirer blankly stare.

Later, when he learned more about Bodhidharma and realized how stupid he was to have missed the rare opportunity of going deeper into the mystery of Reality, he was greatly upset. Hearing of Bodhidharma's death after some years he erected a memorial stele for him and inscribed on it: "Alas! I saw him, I met him, I interviewed him, and failed to recognize him. How sad! It is all past now. Alas, history is irrevocable!" He concluded his eulogy thus:


"As long as the mind tarries on the plane of relativity,
It forever remains in the dark.
But the moment it loses itself in the Emptiness,
It ascends the throne of Enlightenment."


After finishing the story of the Emperor Wu, Yengo the commentator puts this remark: "Tell me by the way where Bodhidharma could be located." This is expressly addressed to the readers and the commentator expects us to give him an answer. Shall we take up his challenge?

There is another commentator on this episode, who lived some years prior to the one already referred to. This one, called Seccho (980-1052), was a great literary talent and his comments are put in a versified form full of poetic fantasies. Alluding to the Emperor Wu's attempt to send a special envoy for Bodhidharma, who after the interview crossed the Yangtzu Chiang and found a retreat somewhere in the North, the commentator goes on:

p. 26


"You [the Emperor Wu] may order all your subjects to fetch him [Bodhidharma],
But he will never show himself up again!
We are left alone for ages to come
Vainly thinking of the irrevocable past.
But stop! let us not think of the past!
The cool refreshing breeze sweeps all over the earth,
Never knowing when to suspend its work."


Seccho (the master commentator) now turns around and surveying the entire congregation (as he was reciting his versified comments), asks: "O Brethren, is not our Patriarch 33 to be discovered among us at this very moment?"

After this interruption, Seccho continues, "Yes, yes, be is here! Let him come up and wash the feet for me!"

It would have been quite an exciting event if Eckhart appeared to be present at this session which took place in the Flowery Kingdom in the first half of the eleventh century! But who can tell if Eckhart is not watching me writing this in the most modern and most mechanized city of New York?


A few more remarks about "Emptiness."

Relativity is an aspect 34 of Reality and not Reality itself. Relativity is possible somewhere between two or more things, for this is the way that makes one get related to another.

A similar argument applies to movement. Movement is possible in time; without the concept of time there cannot be a movement of any sort. For a movement means an object



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going out of itself and becoming something else which is not itself. Without the background of time this becoming is unthinkable.

Therefore, Buddhist philosophy states that all these concepts, movement and relativity, must have their field of operation, and this field is designated by Buddhist philosophers as Emptiness (śūnyatā).

When Buddha talks about all things being transient, impermanent, and constantly changing, and therefore teaches that there is nothing in this world which is absolutely dependable and worth clinging to as the ultimate seat of security, he means that we must look somewhere else for things permanent (), bliss-imparting (raku), autonomous (ga), and absolutely free from defilements (). According to the Nirvāna Sūtra (of the Mahāyāna school), these four (jō-raku-ga-jō) are the qualities of Nirvana, and Nirvana is attained when we have knowledge, when the mind is freed from thirst (taṇhā), cravings (āsava), and conditionality (sankhāra). While Nirvana is often thought to be a negativistic idea the Mahāyāna followers have quite a different interpretation. For they include autonomy (ga, ātman) as one of its qualities (guna), and autonomy is free will, something dynamic. Nirvana is another name for the Emptiness.

The term "emptiness" is apt to be misunderstood for various reasons. The hare or rabbit has no horns, the turtle has no hair growing on its back. This is one form of emptiness. The Buddhist śūnyatā does not mean absence.

A fire has been burning until now and there is no more of it. This is another kind of emptiness. Buddhist śūnyatā does not mean extinction.

The wall screens the room: on this side there is a table,

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and on the other side there is nothing, space is unoccupied. Buddhist śūnyatā does not mean vacancy.

Absence, extinction, and unoccupancy--these are not the Buddhist conception of emptiness. Buddhists' Emptiness is not on the plane of relativity. It is Absolute Emptiness transcending all forms of mutual relationship, of subject and object, birth and death, God and the world, something and nothing, yes and no, affirmation and negation. In Buddhist Emptiness there is no time, no space, no becoming, no-thing-ness; it is what makes all these things possible; it is a zero full of infinite possibilities, it is a void of inexhaustible contents.

Pure experience is the mind seeing itself as reflected in itself, it is an act of self-identification, a state of suchness. This is possible only when the mind is śūnyatā itself, that is, when the mind is devoid of all its possible contents except itself. But to say "except itself" is apt to be misunderstood again. For it may be questioned, what is this "itself"? We may have to answer in the same way as St. Augustine did: "When you ask, I do not know; but when you do not, I know."

The following dialogue which took place between two Zen masters of the T’ang dynasty will help show us what methodology was adopted by Zen for communicating the idea of "itself."

One master called Isan (771-853) was working with his disciples in the garden, picking tea leaves. He said to one of the disciples in the garden called Kyōzan, who also was a master: "We have been picking the tea leaves all day; I hear your voice only and do not see your form. Show me your primeval form." Kyōzan shook the tea bushes. Isan said, "You just got the action, but not the body." Kyōzan then said, "What would be your answer?" Isan remained quiet for a

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while. Thereupon Kyōzan said, "You have got the body, but not the action." Isan's conclusion was, "I save you from twenty blows of my stick."

As far as Zen philosophy is concerned this may be all right, as these two masters know what each is seeking to reveal. But the business of philosophers of our modern epoch is to recognize or to probe the background of experience on which these Zen masters stand and try to elucidate it to the best of their capacity. The masters are not simply engaged in mystifying the bystanders.

To say "empty" is already denying itself. But you cannot remain silent. How to communicate the silence without going out of it is the crux. It is for this reason that Zen avoids as much as possible resorting to linguistics and strives to make us go underneath words, as it were to dig out what is there. Eckhart is doing this all the time in his sermons. He picks out some innocent words from the Bible and lets them disclose an "inner act" which he experiences in his unconscious consciousness. His thought is not at all in the words. He turns them into instruments for his own purposes. In a similar way the Zen master makes use of anything about himself including his own person, trees, stones, sticks, etc. He may then shout, beat, or kick. The main thing is to discover what is behind all these actions. In order to demonstrate that Reality is "Emptiness," the Zen master may stand still with his hands folded over his chest. When he is asked a further question, he may shake the tea plant or walk away without a word, or give you a blow of a stick.

Sometimes the master is more poetic and compares the mind of "emptiness" to the moon, calling it the mind-moon

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or the moon of suchness. An ancient master of Zen philosophy sings of this moon:


The mind-moon is solitary and perfect:
The light swallows the ten-thousand things.
It is not that the light illuminates objects,
Nor are objects in existence.
Both light and objects are gone,
And what is it that remains?


[paragraph continues] The master leaves the question unanswered. When it is answered the moon will no longer be there. Reality is differentiated and Emptiness vanishes into an emptiness. We ought not to lose sight of the original moon, primeval mind-moon, and the master wants us to go back to this, for it is where we have started first. Emptiness is not a vacancy, it holds in it infinite rays of light and swallows all the multiplicities there are in this world.

Buddhist philosophy is the philosophy of "Emptiness," it is the philosophy of self-identity. Self-identity is to be distinguished from mere identity. In an identity we have two objects for identification; in self-identity there is just one object or subject, one only, and this one identifies itself by going out of itself. Self-identity thus involves a movement. And we see that self-identity is the mind going out of itself in order to see itself reflected in itself. Self-identity is the logic of pure experience or of "Emptiness." In self-identity there are no contradictions whatever. Buddhists call this suchness.

I once talked with a group of lovers of the arts on the Buddhist teaching of "Emptiness" and Suchness, trying to show how the teaching is related to the arts. The following is part of my talk.

To speak the truth, I am not qualified to say anything at

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all about the arts, because I have no artistic instincts, no artistic education, and have not had many opportunities to appreciate good works of art. All that I can say is more or less conceptual.

Take the case of painting. I often hear Chinese or Japanese art critics declare that Oriental art consists in depicting spirit and not form. For they say that when the spirit is understood the form creates itself; the main thing is to get into the spirit of an object which the painter chooses for his subject. The West, on the other hand, emphasizes form, endeavors to reach the spirit by means of form. The East is just the opposite: the spirit is all in all. And it thinks that when the artist grasps the spirit, his work reveals something more than colors and lines can convey. A real artist is a creator and not a copyist. He has visited God's workshop and has learned the secrets of creation--creating something out of nothing.

With such a painter every stroke of his brush is the work of creation, and it cannot be retraced because it never permits a repetition. God cannot cancel his fiat; it is final, irrevocable, it is an ultimatum. The painter cannot reproduce his own work. When even a single stroke of his brush is absolute, how can the whole structure or composition be reproduced, since this is the synthesis of all his strokes, every one of which has been directed toward the whole?

In the same way every minute of human life as long as it is an expression of its inner self is original, divine, creative, and cannot be retrieved. Each individual life thus is a great work of art. Whether or not one makes it a fine inimitable masterpiece depends upon one's consciousness of the working of śūnyatā within oneself.

How does the painter get into the spirit of the plant, for

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instance, if he wants to paint a hibiscus as Mokkei (Mu-chi) of the thirteenth century did in his famous picture, which is now preserved as a national treasure at Daitokuji temple in Kyoto? The secret is to become the plant itself. But now can a human being turn himself into a plant? Inasmuch as he aspires to paint a plant or an animal, there must be in him something which corresponds to it in one way or another. If so, he ought to be able to become the object he desires to paint.

The discipline consists in studying the plant inwardly with his mind thoroughly purified of its subjective, self-centered contents. This means to keep the mind in unison with the "Emptiness" or Suchness, whereby one who stands against the object ceases to be the one outside that object but transforms himself into the object itself. This identification enables the painter to feel the pulsation of one and the same life animating both him and the object. This is what is meant when it is said that the subject is lost in the object, and that when the painter begins his work it is not he but the object itself that is working and it is then that his brush, as well as his arm and his fingers, become obedient servants to the spirit of the object. The object makes its own picture. The spirit sees itself as reflected in itself. This is also a case of self-identity.

It is said that Henri Matisse looked at an object which he intended to paint for weeks, even for months, until its spirit began to move him, to urge him, even to threaten him, to give it an expression.

A writer on modern art, I am told, says that the artist's idea of a straight line is different from that of the mathematician, for the former conceives a straight line as fusing with a curve. I do not know whether this quotation is quite correct, but the remark is most illuminating. For a straight line that

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remains always straight is a dead line and the curve that cannot be anything else is another dead line. If they are at all living lines, and this ought to be the case with every artistic production, a straight line is curved and a curve is straight; besides there ought to be what is known as "dimensional tension" in every line. Every living line is not just on one plane, it is suffused with blood, it is tridimensional.

I am also told that color with the artist is not just red or blue, it is more than perceptual, it is charged with emotion. This means that color is a living thing with the artist. When he sees red it works out its own world; the artist bestows a heart on the color. The red does not stop just at being one of the seven colors as decomposed through the prism. As a living thing it calls out all other colors and combines them in accordance with its inner promptings. Red with the artist is not a mere physical or psychological event, it is endowed with a spirit.

These views are remarkably Oriental. There is another striking statement made by a Western artist. According to him, when he is thoroughly absorbed in a visual perception of any kind, he feels within himself certain possibilities out of the visual representation which urge him to give them an expression. The artist's life is that of the creator. God did not make the world just for the sake of making something. He had a certain inner urge, he wanted to see himself reflected in his creation. That is what is meant when the Bible speaks about God's making man after his own likeness. It is not man alone that is God's image, the whole world is his image, even the meanest flea as Eckhart would say shares God's is-ness in its is-ness. And because of this is-ness the whole world moves on. So with the artist. It is due to his is-ness being imbued into

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his works that they are alive with his spirit, The artist himself may not be conscious of all this proceeding, but Zen knows and is also prepared to impart the knowledge to those who would approach it in the proper spirit. The is-ness of a thing is not just being so, but it contains in it infinite possibilities which Buddhists call in Chinese, toku in Japanese, and guna in Sanskrit. This is where lies "the mystery of being," which is "the inexhaustibility of the Emptiness."

The following story of Rakan Osho (Lohan Hoshang), of Shōshu, China, who lived in the ninth century, is given here to illustrate how Zen transforms one's view of life and makes one truly see into the is-ness of things. The verse relates his own experience.

It was in the seventh year of Hsien-tung [867 A.D.] that I for the first time took up the study of the Tao [that is, Zen].


Wherever I went I met words and did not understand them.
A lump of doubt inside the mind was like a willow-basket.
For three years, residing in the woods by the stream, I was altogether unhappy.
When unexpectedly I happened to meet the Dharmarāja [Zen master] sitting on the rug,
I advanced towards him earnestly asking him to dissolve my doubt.
The master rose from the rug on which he sat deeply absorbed in meditation;
He then baring his arm gave me a blow with his fist on my chest.
This all of a sudden exploded my lump of doubt completely to pieces.

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Raising my head I for the first time perceived that the sun was circular.
Since then I have been the happiest man in the world, with no fears, no worries;
Day in day out, I pass my time in a most lively way.
Only I notice my inside filled with a sense of fullness and satisfaction;
I do not go out any longer, hither and thither, with my begging bowl for food. 35


What is of the most significant interest in his verse-story of Rakan Osho's experience is that "he for the first time perceived that the sun was round." Everybody knows and sees the sun and the Osho also must have seen it all his life. Why then does he specifically refer to it as circular as if he saw it really for the first time? We all think we are living, we really eat, sleep, walk, talk. But are we really? If we were, we would never be talking about "dread," "insecurity," "fear," "frustration," "courage to be," "looking into the vacant," "facing death."



3:1 There are two English translations of Eckhart, one British and the other American. The British, in two volumes, is by C. de B. Evans, published by John M. Watkins, London, 1924. The American translation is by Raymond B. Blakney, published by Harper & Brothers, New York, 1941. Neither of them is a complete translation of all of Eckhart's known works in German. Franz Pfeiffer published in 1857 a collection of Eckhart's works, chiefly in the High German dialect of Strassburg of the fourteenth century. This edition was reprinted in 1914. Blakney's and Evans' translations are mainly based on the Pfeiffer edition. In the present book, "Blakney" refers to the Blakney translation and "Evans" to the Evans, Vol. I, while "Pfeiffer" means his German edition of 1914.

5:2 Blakney, p. 212.

5:3 Evans, p. 209.

5:4 Blakney, p. 292.

5:5 Ibid., p. 62.

6:6 Ibid., p. 278.

7:7 Evans, p. 206.

8:8 Blakney, pp. 224-5.

9:9 Evans, p. 247.

10:10 Blakney, p. 180.

10:11 Evans, p. 38.

10:12 Quoted by Eckhart, Blakney, p. 305.

10:13 Cf. Blakney, p. 214: "The soul that lives in the present Now-moment is the soul in which the Father begets his only begotten Son and in that birth the soul is born again into God. It is one birth, as fast as she is reborn into God the Father is begetting his only Son in her." (The last sentence is from Evans, p. 209.)

11:14 Ibid., "The Defense," p. 303.

11:15 Evans, pp. 142-3.

13:16 The Transformation of Nature in Art, p. 201.

14:17 Blakney, "About Disinterest," p. 82. The translator prefers "disinterest" to "detachment" for abegescheidenheit. I really do not know which is better. The German word seems to correspond to the Sanskrit anabhīnivesa or asanga (mushūjaku in Japanese and wu chih chu in Chinese), meaning "not attached," "not clinging to."

14:18 Evans, with a little change, pp. 341-2.

15:19 Blakney, pp. 298-9.

16:20 Evans, p. 143.

16:21 Blakney, p. 247.

17:22 Ibid., p. 89.

17:23 Ibid., p. 216.

17:24 Ibid., p. 89.

17:25 "Von erkennen kennelos und von minne minnelos und von liehte vinster." Pfeiffer, p. 491.

17:26 Blakney, p. 88.

18:27 Translated by Arthur Waley. (From his The Way and Its Power, published 1934 by George Allen and Unwin Ltd. The succeeding quotations from Tao Tê Ching are all my rendering.) Chapter IV. God here is distinguished from Godhead as by Eckhart. The last two lines are my own version.

19:28 Evans, p. 148.

21:29 It is entitled Hekigan-shu or Hekigan-roku meaning "Blue Rock Collection" or "Blue Rock Records."

23:30 Evans, p. 13.

23:31 "Hie muoz komen in ein vergezzen und in ein nihtwizzen." Pfeiffer, p. 14. Evans, p. 13.

23:32 Yengo is given here in a modernized fashion, for the original Chinese would require a detailed interpretation.

26:33 Bodhidharma.

26:34 in Japanese, hsiang in Chinese, lakṣaṇa in Sanskrit.

35:35 The Transmission of the Lamp (Dentoroku), fas. XI.