Friday, February 11, 2011

Buddha & Eckhart: On Peace & Eternity

Meister (Master) Eckhart
"God is a God of the present. He takes you and receives you as he finds you now, not as you have been, but as you are now." (Davies p.22)

To live in the present moment is a maxim that is promoted by many these days, including sportsman, artists, psychologists, and, of course, Buddhist teachers. To be alert to the present is a teaching that goes right the way back to the Buddha himself, according to the scriptures that we posses. In the Mahasatipatthana Sutta, a seminal text on mindfulness and meditation, the Buddha says, "Furthermore, when walking, the monk discerns, 'I am walking.' When standing, he discerns, 'I am standing.' When sitting, he discerns, 'I am sitting.' When lying down, he discerns, 'I am lying down.' Or however his body is disposed, that is how he discerns it." If Gos is a God of the present, then the Buddha is a Buddha of the present, too! In their different ways, the Buddha and Eckhart encourage us to live in the present moment, not lost in reveries of the past and future. For, from such focused awareness can arise the wisdom to see beyond the limitations of the egoistic self, thereby dying into what a Buddhist would call nirvana, and Eckhart names God.

"Do you know how God is God is God? God is God because there is nothing of the creature in him. He has never been named within time. Creatures, sin and death belong to time. In a certain sense they are all related, and since the soul has fallen away from time if she has fallen away from the world, there is neither pain or suffering there. Indeed, tribulation turns to joy for her there. If we were to compare everything which ha ever been conceived of regarding delight and joy, bliss and pleasure, with the delight which belongs to this birth, then it would be as nothing." (Davies p.117)

When Eckhart refers to the creature, he is making reference to the psycho-phyisical part of us all, and when he mentions God, he is describing the unconditioned element that lies at our very heart. In nirvana, there is no identification with the creaturely part of our being; it is known and cared for, as both wisdom and compassion flow out of the void, but it is not thought of of as being 'me.' For Eckhart, God is the same, without any sense of being an individual, separated being. he is without characteristics, just like the indescribable unconditioned that the Buddha taught about. Furthermore, God is betting the reach of time, and therefore death, unlike all created, mortal creatures. nirvana is like this also; the Buddha described it as being free of birth, aging, and death, which all occur within time. The pure awareness at the heart of our being is not so limited however, for it is not creaturely in nature, and when he uses the word 'soul,' this is what Eckhart refers to, not some ethereal, floating astral being. So, according to both the Buddha and Eckhart, whether in meditative states or in enlightened ones, this awareness is also out of time, just like God.

"As far as you are in God, thus far you are in peace, and as far as you are outside God, thus far you are outside peace. If only something is in God, then it has peace. It is in peace in so far as it is in God. And you can tell how far you are in God, or not, by the extent to which you have peace or not. For where you lack peace, you must necessarily lack peace, since lack of peace comes from the creature and not from God. Nor is there anything to fear in God, for all that is in him can only be loved. Similarly there is nothing in him to cause us sadness." (Davies p.51)

Peace is emphasized by both Eckhart and the Buddha. Indeed, the latter described nirvana as peace, or at least the ultimate form of peace. Clearly, from the text above, Eckhart does not equate God with peace - although in an ultimate sense of the term, he may well do so elsewhere - but he does give peace a big importance in the spiritual life. And, this sense of peace as a fruit of spiritual practice is also used by the Buddha, who saw it as a result of being mindful and meditative. And, certainly one's progress in the noble eightfold path of the Buddha can be calculated to some extent, at least, by the amount of peace that one has in one's every day life. if we are walking around in a constant rage, wanting to hit this person or kick that person, it's a safe bet that we need to meditate or pray a little more often!

Eckhart also states that there is no fear nor sadness in God. This is also true if we have a strong level of mindfulness, which can help us to let go of such negative states of mind. This is so because as our meditation deepens we become aware of these emotions and what creates them in us - and we can then let go of them by ceasing to recreate those negative influences. Moreover, when we see beyond these limited egos, we become alive to the spacious awareness that lies beyond the sense of self, and then fear, sadness, and the like melt away into the void that shines so brightly. Such a state, whether reached through the devotional practices of a Christian contemplative like Meister Eckhart, or through a systematic Buddhist meditative life, is both peaceful and out of time. It is the serene eternity which Eckhart called God and the Buddha named nirvana.

Note: Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) was a Christian Dominican priest that wrote about the spiritual life in terms that many Buddhists would find both interesting and inspiring. The quotes used in this article have been taken from 'Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings'  translated & edited by Oliver Davies, and published by Penguin Classics.

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