Saturday, March 19, 2011

Buddha & Eckhart: On Good Practices

"Any one devotional practice has things which others lack, but the effectiveness of good practices comes from God alone and is denied to none of them, for one form of goodness cannot conflict with another. Therefore people should remember that if they see or hear of a good person who is following a way which is different from theirs, then they are wrong to think that such a person's efforts are all in vain. If someone else's way of devotion does not please them, then they are ignoring the goodness in it as well as that person's good intention. This is wrong. We should see the true feeling in people's devotional practices and should not scorn the particular way that anyone follows. Not everyone can follow the same way, nor can we follow all the different ways or everyone else's way." (Davies p.29)

Eckhart's wisdom was not limited to theology, but included the practical side of the spiritual life. And, in the above quotation, he displays his wisdom with regard "devotional practice," advising people not to look down on others' practices, simply because they differ to one's own. Because Eckhart was a Christian, he advises on devotional practices rather than meditative ones, as the Buddha did, but this does not mean that this advice is useless for Buddhists, because what Eckhart has to teach is as equally applicable to the buddhist way of life as it is the Christian one. For example, when he says that "Anyone devotional practice has things that others lack," this is also true of Buddhist methods of meditation. There is anapanasati (mindfulness-of-breath-meditation), cankama (walking meditation), and metta-bhavana (cultivation of goodwill), all found in the earliest known Buddhist scriptures, the Pali Canon (or Tipitaka). Now, each meditation has different techniques and results associated with it, but they all result in goodness, promoting qualities like mindfulness and kindness. It is unhelpful and unwise for someone that practices anapanasati to criticize or belittle someone that practices metta-bhavana; there is no evidence that the Buddha did so, and surely Buddhists would be wise in following his example on this, for just as Eckhart speaks of various devotional practices coming from God, so these meditative practices came from the Buddha.

This principle can be extended, as Eckhart says, to those good people who are "following a way which is different" from our own. For, anapanasati, cankama, and metta-bhavana originate in the Pali Canon, and most Theravada Buddhists will recognize them as valid practices within their tradition. But, what of those that follow a different "way" to Theravada Buddhism? Zen buddhists practice zazen, which whilst a form of Buddhist meditation, it is not one found in the Pali Canon. Is it good for Theravada Buddhists to look down upon or criticize those that prefer zazen? On the other hand, a Zen Buddhist might frown upon Theravada Buddhists' practice as being out of date or superseded by Zen methods. Furthermore, in Shin Buddhism devotees recite the nembutsu (the mantra 'Namu Amida Butsu'), which is even further away from the Pali Canon teachings than Zen Buddhism. (Indeed, it might be argued that Shin Buddhism is more akin to the devotional practices referred to by Meister Eckhart, reflected in the rosary-based-prayers, for example.) Actually, even amongst some Theravada Buddhists the possibility of criticizing others' meditation practices might occur, as in Thailand, for instance, where there is the mantra meditation that uses the word 'Buddho" (a variation on 'Buddha'), which is not found in the Pali Canon nor its commentaries.

So, whether another Buddhist practices anapanasati, cankama, metta-bhavana, zazen, nembutsu, or any of the multitudes of esoteric practices found in Tibetan Buddhism, are we to see their disciplines as inefficacious, simply because they are different to our own? If we are wise, we will follow Eckhart's lead, and at least suspend judgement until we find out more about those practices of which we know very little. And, if we do enquire into the results of many of these meditative practices, we will find that they promote peace, kindness, compassion, wisdom, and the like, all qualities praised by the Buddha. None of them make their practitioners more violent, selfish, ignorant, or stupid. (Not if they're being practices well, that is!) As Eckhart says, "Not everyone can follow the same way," but we can be open to the possibility that other ways have good results. This principle can be extended beyond Buddhism, as well, for it seems a bit churlish to not view other spiritual practices with the same openness, given that it is not a Buddhist that has encouraged us to do it in the first place! (Of course, it may be argued that Eckhart was only addressing Christians when he wrote this advice, but given his generally positive attitude towards 'pagan' teachers, it isn't too much of a stretch to think that he would have sympathy with Buddhist meditators.) The Buddha gave us many different meditative practices, and Buddhism has developed many, many more; if they are applied wisely to our lives, it is surely the case that we will increase in wisdom and compassion. How wonderful!

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 quotation used in this article has been taken from 'Meister Eckhart: Selected Writings'  translated & edited by Oliver Davies, and published by Penguin Classics.

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