"Now all thoughtful people should take note. No one is more cheerful than the one that lives in the greatest detachment." (O'Neal p.123)
The teachings of Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327) have much in common with those of the Buddha. One subject upon which they have the greatest of convergence is that of detachment. As Eckhart says above, the detached person is the happiest, for to live without attachment is to live in true freedom. This is the heart of the Buddha's teaching, too, of course. There is a lot more to the teachings of the Buddha and Eckhart than that complete detachment that is enlightenment or salvation, of course, and in this brief essay the intent is only to touch upon such important aspects their teachings. It is hoped that the reader will find subjects in this essay for further exploration beyond these humble words, not only in the intellectual realm but also in the field of actual practice, whether grounded in Buddhism or Christianity. The focus of our study here is Meister Eckhart's own essay 'On Detachment.' It is found in David O'Neal's wonderful book 'Meister Eckhart, From Whom God Hid Nothing,' published by New Seeds Books. The page numbers after each quote refer to that book.
"The teachers praise love most highly, as Saint Paul does when he says: "In whatever tribulation I may find myself, if I have not love, I am nothing." But I praise detachment more than all love. First, because the best thing about love is that it forces me to love God. On the other hand, detachment forces God to love me. Now it is much nobler that I should force God to myself than I should force myself to God. And the reason is that God can join himself to me more closely and unite himself with me better than I could unite myself with God." (O'Neal pp.107/8)
Meister Eckhart never fails to surprise (or shock) us when we approach his words expecting typical Christian thinking. He was a complete original. Sure, he had influences such as the Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus and Saint Augustine, but his teaching is nevertheless very much his own. The quotation above from his short booklet 'On Detachment' is a perfect example of Eckhart's originality; from the outset, he almost seems to be deliberately contradicting traditional Christian thinking when he contradicts Saint Paul and states that detachment is more important than love. What of "Faith, hope, ad love; the greatest of which is love"? (Another Pauline quote.) Meister Eckhart does this for a purpose, of course, and that purpose is not merely to shock or gain our attention, it is to highlight the importance of a detached mind in the contemplative life. In this, he is paralleling the Buddha who also extolled the centrality of detachment, exemplified by equanimity (upekkha), found in his discourses as one of the four 'sublime states' alongside goodwill, compassion, and empathy.
Equanimity is not to be understood as a kind of cool indifference to the suffering of others, but instead a calmness that sees things as they truly are, interconnected and conditioned phenomena. There is another side to detachment in the spiritual life, however, and it is this one that Eckhart refers to. This is a quality of mind that is not distracted by outer stimuli when it is engaged in absorptive meditation. This is known as samadhi in Buddhism, and is one of the three aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to enlightenment. From the viewpoint of the Buddha, Eckhart's teaching on detachment can be understood in relation to the Buddhist understanding of samadhi. By 'God,' Buddhists can understand him to mean Nirvana, especially when we read him characterizing God as a 'not-God,' or as a kind of transcendent nothingness, which he does elsewhere. When used as the focus for devotional practice, as with Christian mystics and Pure land Buddhists, for example, 'God' can also be this 'nothingness' personified, so to give something tangible to give one's love to. In this context, Eckhart's statement about loving God and being detached toward God make more sense to Buddhist sensibilities.
Eckhart shows great insight when he promotes detachment above love, revealing in Christian language what any experienced Buddhist meditator might know but cloaked in a different conceptual framework. We can see this by replacing some key terms in the above Eckhartian quote with Buddhist ones: Emptiness (Shunyata) can join itself to me more closely and unite itself with me better than I could unite myself with Emptiness. And, this is because Emptiness (God) can 'love' the practitioner or devotee more purely than the other way around, for there is nothing in Emptiness to remain separate to the latter, whereas when we try to love the object of our devotion, whether it be Jesus, Amitabha, or whoever, a trace of ego can remain, as a sense of being humble me worshipping Almighty God or Buddha. Eckhart has more to teach us about God/Emptiness and detachment in the following paragraph:
"Secondly I praise detachment more than love because love forces me to suffer all things for the sake of God, but detachment makes me receptive of nothing but God. Now it is far nobler to be receptive of nothing but God than to suffer all things for the sake of God. For in suffering man pays some attention to the creatures through which he has the suffering. On the other hand, detachment is completely free from all creatures." (O'Neal p.108)
What Eckhart seems to saying here is that it is better to merge into Emptiness first, rather than to try to love - or be compassionate towards - all creatures first. Again, he reveals his wisdom when he states that "in suffering man pays some attention to the creatures through which he has the suffering." Therefore, whatever love comes out of this creature-centered awareness will be tainted with self, whereas if we are receptive of nothing but God (i.e. Emptiness), out of this state of purity will pour true compassion for suffering creatures. Also, in the process of deepening one's knowing of God (or samadhi) all senses of other creatures and of being a creature should be left behind if the higher meditative states are to be realized. So, with Eckhart's help, we are recognizing that both the inward-looking eye and the outward looking eye benefit from putting God/Emptiness first, so that real love will follow, naturally flowing out of a freed heart, rather than forced out of a creature-focused mind.
We can see this now simply by looking backwards instead of forwards and seeing the Emptiness at our heart here and now. (Don't take my word for it, look back at where you are looking from and be completely honest about what you see.) If we recognize the Emptiness as our true being, rather than these limited and self-limiting egos, then we can see what happens when we meet people from this persecutive rather than the usual egotistic one. If 'I' die into Empty Knowing and am filled with you instead my own sense-of-self, then 'I' am really able to love you, for there is no me to get in the way. Try this in your own life, every time you meet someone, especially if there's been ill-feeling between you. What happens to that ill-feeling when you meet someone from your Emptiness rather than your ego?
"The masters also praise humility above many other virtues. But I praise detachment above all humility, and for this reason: humility can exist without detachment, but perfect detachment cannot subsist without perfect humility. For perfect humility tends to its own destruction; but detachment borders so closely on nothing that between perfect detachment and nothingness there can be nothing. Therefore perfect detachment cannot exist without humility. Now two virtues are always better than one." (O'Neal p.108/9)
Clearly, if we accept humility and detachment as qualities to be developed as part of a spiritual life, then to have both is superior to possessing only one, and this argument of Eckhart is pretty clear. But, does the Buddha encourage humility in his followers? Absolutely! Humility is the absence of such negative mental traits as conceit, arrogance, and vanity, which are all obstacles to awakening. Furthermore, humility is the non-association with the ego and all its self-delusions. In addition, the transcendence of the illusion of self is an integral part of enlightenment, with not only self-view (sakkaya-ditthi) let go of in the earlier stages of liberation, but also the much more evasive conceit (mana) relinquished at the final release from suffering. Combined with detachment, humility is a powerful mental condition needed if we wish to understand and let go of the attachment to both the notion and the feeing of being a separate, suffering self.
"I also praise detachment more than all mercy, for mercy simply means that man, going out of himself, turns to the failings of his fellow men and for this reason his heart is troubled. Detachment is free from this; it remains in itself and does not allow itself to be troubled by anything, because, as long as anything can trouble man, it is not well with him. In short, if I consider all virtues, I find none is so completely without defects and so applicable to God as is detachment." (O'Neal p.111)
What Eckhart is saying here is not that we shouldn't bother with mercy or compassion (karuna) at all, for as stated above with regard to humility and detachment, he considered two virtues superior to one; so, to have even more virtues must surely be even more advantageous to both the person displaying them and their recipients. What Eckhart is saying, however, is that mercy without detachment can be very damaging; an example of this is the so-called 'compassion fatigue' felt by many sensitive souls who observe the suffering of others in daily news reports. We can become numb to the suffering described and shown in the media; this is because compassion is coming from the ego and is therefore fundamentally limited in its capacity to take on the world's misery. If established in detachment, compassion is coming from the spaciousness of unattached awareness and therefore isn't piling too much onto the sense of self that will otherwise collapse in on itself.
"It is right that you know that to be empty of all creatures is to be full of God, and to be full of all creatures is to be empty of God. You should also know that in this immovable detachment God has dwelt eternally and he still dwells in it. And you should know that when God created heaven and earth and all creatures, that affected his immovable detachment as little as if the creatures had never been created. Indeed, I will say more: all the prayers and all the good works which man can perform in the world have as little effect on God's detachment as if neither prayers nor good works had ever been carried out." (O'Neal p.113)
This is one of those statements by Meister Eckhart that can leave us dumbfounded at his apparent arrogance: he appears to reject the long-established Christian practices of petitionary prayers performed to gain some advantage for either those praying or others or both. He seems to be claiming that such prayers do not even reach God, let alone get answered by him! It's as if every email that we send never reaches its addressee - what a horrid state of affairs! In fact, if we refer back to how Christ taught his followers to pray (i.e. The Lord's Prayer), Eckhart's vision of prayer is actually more orthodox than the widely-enacted petitionary prayers. This kind of praying is actually an acceptance of what is as the will of God, rather than petitionary praying which wishes to change current conditions. Eckhart calls this "the prayer of detachment:"
"But now I ask: What is the prayer of the detached heart? I answer that detachment and purity cannot pray. For if anyone prays, he asks that something be given him, or asks that God may take something away from him. But the detached heart does not ask for anything at all, nor has it anything at all that it would like to be rid of. Therefore it is free of all prayer, and its prayer is nothing else than to be uniform with God. On this alone the prayer of detachment rests." (O'Neal p.120)
As to good works, which Eckhart denies reach God's attention either, Buddhism is full of them: making offerings of food, money, medicine, shelter, clothing etc. to monks and nuns; charity for the poor and ill; and every day acts of kindness that make other peoples' lives that little bit more bearable. Is Eckhart saying that these are nothing to God? Apparently. But, he is not rejecting them completely, for just as in Buddhist teaching, good works have good results for Christians, too. But, Eckhart is talking of the meditative life here, and he wishes to help us go beyond ego-based good acts as well as ego-based prayers: and it is in detachment that he believes we may do so. If we can establish ourselves in detachment, then our prayers and our good works come from the spaciousness of non-attachment. They will not only be of more advantage to our spiritual development, but will also benefit others more completely because they have not been diluted by our inherently (but not always obviously) self-centered egos.
The detached heart, according to Eckhart, has "nothing at all that it would be like to be rid of." This a pure state of mind, for sure. if we examine our everyday minds for just a few moments, we will become aware not only of the outer worldly conditions (and people) that we'd like to see the back of, but also many, many elements within our own minds that are equally undesirable. Eckhart does not talk of some holy battle between good and evil, or God and Satan, here, however. He sees "the prayer of detachment" as the means to let go of all defiling aspects of our psyches that will open us up "to be uniform with God." In the final quotation at the end of this essay, Eckhart actually states that ultimate detachment is God, so if we are "uniform" with God, this seems to indicate merging with God as God, with no hint of separation existing. This sounds uncannily like some descriptions of Nirvana as being beyond all opposites and any sense of a separate, suffering self. This is the goal of meditative practice, however, and to achieve this we will benefit from further guidance, which Eckhart readily gives us:
"Now you should know that that a religious man that loves God uses the powers of the soul in the outward man no further than what the five senses require as a matter of necessity. And the inward man does not heed the five senses, except insofar as he is their guide and leader." (O'Neal p.116/7)
Here, Eckhart is touching upon what the Buddha called the aggregates (khandha). The big difference is that the Buddha included the mind as one of the six senses, for if there were no mind, there would be no consciousness of the other five senses. This difference between the Buddha's teaching and Eckhart's may well be down to the religious traditions from which they came; sixth-century B.C. Indian religion was much more psychological in focus than medieval Christian theology. Despite this difference, Eckhart is still teaching us to behave in ways that the Buddha also previously promoted. They both taught that we should look after our bodies, indeed, to realize enlightenment, we need strong bodies that can support our meditation, as shown in the Buddha's own acceptance of sustenance from a young woman prior to achieving full awakening. Eckhart is clearly encouraging us to do the same, but no more. To indulge in the senses is a no-no for him, just as it was for the Buddha, who encouraged monks and nuns to lower their gaze when traveling around, so not to become too caught up in the world around them.
"[Hence,] if the heart is to find preparedness for the highest of all flights, it must aim at a pure nothing, and in this there is greatest possibility that can exist. For when the detached heart has the highest aim, it must be toward the Nothing, because in this there is the greatest receptivity." (O'Neal p.119)
The detached heart (or mind) is able to realize "the Nothing" that opens us up to enlightenment. This "pure nothing" is a clear awareness free of any attachments to worldly objects, whether physical or psychological in form. As written above, this detached state is what the Buddha described as samadhi, and is a profound meditative absorption that cancels out any attachment to or identification with the world. Eckhatr's language may seem somewhat vague, as well as poetical, and whilst the Buddha is credited with producing much verse, he also produced much well-organized prose. Some of this latter literary style of the Buddha features another important Buddhist teaching related closely to detachment which is often translated as 'seclusion' or even 'detachment,' and is known in the original Pali as viveka. In the commentaries to the Buddha's actual teachings on viveka, this important concept is divided into a threefold system:
1. kaya-viveka: bodily-detachment
2. citta-viveka: mental detachment
3. upadhi-viveka: detachment from the roots of suffering
Eckhart certainly promotes the first kind of detachment, the seclusion form the world in its most distracting forms. As to the second kind of viveka, it is clear that he also taught of detached states that were free of mental distractions, too. And, as for the roots of suffering, greed, hatred, and delusion, these three states no longer exist when we are in the deepest of samadhis or meditative prayer. True enough, these are temporary states, for as soon as we come out of them we are back in the world of suffering, but they are a glimpse of full enlightenment which is the complete and permanent transcendence of the three causes of suffering, which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism. And, from reading Eckhart, it can also be the goal of the Christian life, too. For, as is revealed in the final quotation below, Eckhart recognized God, which Buddhists call nirvana, to be the ultimate detachment of all:
"It purifies the soul, cleanses the conscience, inflames the heart, arouses the spirit, quickens desire, and makes God known. It separates off the creatures and unites the soul with God. Now take note, all thoughtful creatures: the swiftest animal that bears you to perfection is suffering, for no one will enjoy more eternal bliss than those who stand with Christ in the greatest bitterness. Suffering is bitter as gall, but to have suffered is honey-sweet. Nothing disfigures the body before men so much as suffering, and yet nothing beautifies the soul before God so much as to have suffered. The surest foundation on which this perfection can rest is humility. For while the natural man crawls here in the deepest lowliness, his spirit flies up into the heights of the Godhead, for joy brings sorrow and sorrow brings joy. If anyone wishes to attain perfect detachment, let him strife for perfect humility, then he will come close to the Godhead. May the highest detachment, that is, God himself, assist us to achieve this. Amen." (O'Neal p.123/4)