“The eye with which I see God is the very eye with which God sees me”
Meister Eckhart (1206-1327) is one of the greatest and most original of Europe’s mystics, quoted by influential figures like Pope John Paul II and the Fourteenth Dalia Lama. Probably born Johannes Eckhart in Thuringia in medieval Germany, he held many high positions within the Roman Catholic Church, and was an extremely popular preacher and teacher to countless devout Christians. In his teachings, however, he did not always keep to orthodox interpretations of scripture and dogma, sometimes sounding exceedingly doctrinally unsound. Indeed, such statements resulted in Eckhart being charged with heresy, and posthumously being found guilty on several counts. From the perspective of Buddhism, it is the more controversial declarations of the master that interest us, for it is in such statements as the one quoted above that Eckhart and Buddha seem in profound agreement.
In the following extracts from Eckhart’s writings, we will travel with him into what he likes to call the Godhead, the indescribable depths even less imaginable than that of God, which according to the master is being itself. In our exploration of Eckhart’s musings on God, Godhead, and being, we will be accompanied by the great exponent of Japanese Buddhism Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Suzuki, most famous for introducing the West to Zen Buddhism, gives us a somewhat different take on Eckhart’s insights which enable us to relate them more readily to the Buddha and his teachings. It is worth noting from the outset that both the Eckhartian understanding of God and the Zen experience of the Buddha as described in this article do not refer to the exalted individuals normally indicated by those titles, but instead indicates a genderless, incorporeal non-thing which lies at the heart of existence. Read Eckhart on this:
“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” (Meister Eckhart)
Eckhart has a radical understanding of God compared to almost every other Christian one might meet or read. Even more than other giants of Christian mysticism and theology, his view of God is far removed from the conventional belief in an anthropomorphic deity sat on high. His God does not possess a flowing white beard and matching locks, nor does He perch on a celestial throne, barking orders at humanity and sending the odd plague or two to punish us. The Eckhartian version of God is being itself, the very “is-ness” of life (see the following quote below). Furthermore, He resides as the very being of each and every one of us, whether we profess the Christian faith, the Buddhist one, or another, or no faith at all. God is the origin of all, and at the fundamental level of existence He is us and we are he. What your average born-again or bishop would make of this description of God only, well, God knows!
In the above quotation, Eckhart argues that because Christians conceive of God as the Creator of all things, He must be in all things as their very being. If the essential being of an entity is not God, then it is not being either, and therefore some other quiddity must be the essence of all life, including what we deem ‘God.’ This argument is a kind of self-perpetuating loop, which can be easily criticized by any half-decent philosopher, but it isn’t the central point here. What’s important to recognize in Eckhart’s thinking is where he is coming from, rather than the efficacy of his theology. This is a consideration emphasized by the Japanese Zen Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki, who was extremely keen on Meister Eckhart. He makes this point in the following observation:
“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 (tathata), which in itself has all the possible values (guna) we humans can conceive.” (D.T. Suzuki)
The erudite Suzuki recognized that Eckhart’s vision was not an intellectual or philosophical one, but grounded in the German mystic’s actual experiences. God, for Eckhart, is not a belief; He is known at the very core of being, as the “is-ness” of life. Suzuki goes a little further, as we might expect of someone so deeply immersed in the wisdom of Zen, and states that the being that is God is “At once being and not-being.” This echoes another of Eckhart’s bold statements when he announced that “God is a not-God.” This tendency amongst Buddhists and Eckhart to use apparently contradictive ideas to describe the Indescribable is a kind of safety device so that we might avoid turning the Ineffable into a mere concept or belief. For, whilst we might say with some justification that God, or Buddha for that matter, is the being of us all, if we cling to such an idea as absolute truth, the real Truth has slipped through our grasp. Of this real Truth, Eckhart says:
“God’s characteristic is being…The most trivial thing perceived in God, a flower for example 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.” (Meister Eckhart)
Usually, when we perceive the universe from the perspective of a limited, individual, separate ego, we don’t see the big picture. Instead, we view life through the distorted lens of self, sometimes seeing the most beautiful of things with an embittered mind. By contrast, Eckhart argues that if we experience something “perceived in God,” that is to say from the viewpoint of pure awareness or being, then we know it as it is rather than as we might take it to be with our egoistic, dualistic notions. This pure awareness is God to Eckhart and Buddha to a Zen Buddhist like D.T. Suzuki (and to me!). Again, it is important to remember that this understanding of God and Buddha does not refer to separate beings but being itself, which is” without image,” as Eckhart explains below:
“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, 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.” (Meister Eckhart)
It is clear from reading these passages that Eckhart sees the point of the spiritual life as a kind of union or submerging into ‘God.’ Mainstream Christianity would have nothing to do with this, considering such statements as “God must be very I, I very God, so consummately that this He and this I are one ‘is’” as heresy. For most Christians, Eckhartian mysticism is light years away from their ideas of resurrection and eternal – but separate – life with God, either in heaven or on a New Earth. In contrast to this, Eckhart surely seems closer to the Buddha’s teachings regarding transcending all dichotomies and realizing Nirvana right here and now. And, if there was any doubt as to the depth of union between God and the I in previous quotes from the master above, let’s examine one more:
“God’s is-ness is 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.” (Meister Eckhart)
According to Eckhart, not only are we unified with God at the level of ‘is-ness,’ but we become one with Him. What’s more, my is-ness is as great as God’s; how’s that for heretical assertion? (And yet, remember that at the top of this article it was mentioned that Pope John Paul II, not exactly an original theologian, actually quoted Eckhart on occasion. Presumably, it wasn’t one of the sayings we’re scrutinizing here!) Interestingly, we could change some of the terminology from Christian to Buddhist and it still works: Buddha’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. Or, recalling the quote at the top of this article: The eye with which I see Buddha is the same eye with which Buddha sees me. Despite these strong parallels, some Buddhists may still object that Eckhart’s God does not equate to the Buddha; but what of his understanding of Godhead?
“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 its light upon all creatures, and anything it sheds its beams upon absorbs them, yet it loses nothing of its brightness.” (Meister Eckhart)
God is the active, alive aspect of being in us and all things. Godhead, on the other hand, is pure No-thing, not even manifest in us as the empty heart of our being. As Eckhart intimates elsewhere, Godhead is only experienced – if that’s the right word – in deep states of prayer akin to Buddhist meditation, which correlates to the experience of complete Nirvana with the absence of outer sense data. God isn’t so evasive, and “comes and goes,” and, “enjoys Himself in all things.” This sounds like the active side of Nirvana, that is to say the awareness of Buddha Nature in the midst of the world, as opposed to only in rapt meditation. To clarify Eckhart’s distinction between God and Godhead, let’s read more of D.T. Suzuki’s analysis of Eckhartian mysticism:
“God comes and goes, 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.” (D.T. Suzuki)
The inner and outer man, as Suzuki establishes, are different because of the direction of their attention: the outer man gazes outward into the world of things (including himself), while the inner man dares to peer inwards beyond even his own mind into the depths that lie beyond all things. This is achieved through dedicated and focused attention that never wavers in its search for the ‘is-ness’ of existence. Once recognized and then let go of, this is-ness reveals its ultimate nature as nothingness, or the No-thing. All things and processes cease in the deep void of Godhead/Buddhahead. Coming out of this state, the world is experienced in relation to its is-ness or suchness (tathata). This suchness is where the Buddhist designation Tathagata (‘Thus-Come One’) comes from. To be enlightened, whether as a Buddhist or an Eckhartian, is to live in awareness of the is-ness that we come from. This is freedom from suffering, liberation from the ego-delusion, and ultimate happiness.