Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions

Meister Eckhart and 13th Century, German Buddhism

I recently read a scholarly account of Meister Eckhart; as usual, I take what I will from these things. I suppose I’m more interested in the thought itself than a forced, doctoral imposition of how the thought (supposedly) affected the time it was produced in. Which is to say that I’m a bit unimpressed how the scholar shows how a passage or quote was developed and shaped by the time in which the brain was living. I don’t doubt that this is true: it’s only to say that I care to take the words for their own merit, free to talk to me today as if the past conditions which created them were totally irrelevent.
I have often said that there is a power in the soul which neither time nor the world can touch. This power proceeds from the soul and belongs to the soul for ever.
I have sometimes called this power in the soul a fortress, sometimes a light, sometimes a spark in the soul; but now I can say that it is more than any of these things.
I wish to give it a nobler name than I have ever given it, but it disowns all names.
It is pure and free from all forms and all names; as pure and free as God is.
 (Sermon no.2)
This is good stuff! And I have to blink my eyes a couple of metaphorical times while reading the scholarly analysis of how inflamatory this must have been to the medieval church. (the above quote was taken from an academic article). Come on, let’s stop missing the point and apply the thought to our current lives now. “His words contained a challenge to established ecclesiastical society, however unintential it might be.” Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.That’s what you get out of this?

–Chirs: Yo, Jimmy, you got this thing in you that’s kind of free from time and space—unbounded and infinite. It is infinte and free—just like God—and you can tap this power in your own soul!

–Jimmy (adjusting his glasses): Hmm. That’s real interesting. I bet an idea such as this would have really disrupted the 13th century church. It would have really challenged the ecclesiasticl authority of the established church at the time…

Oh well. The article provided great quotes of Meister Eckart anyway. Which, going back to his words, seem to prove the very point he was trying to say. “…there is a power in the soul which neither time nor the world can touch.” To point back to the time in which the words were spoken robs them of their influence and relevance. Yes, Eckart was speaking back then, but he was also speaking to a time in which the world can’t touch, a time which all mystics seek to describe to the would-be followers. He was speaking, even, to this time—which couldn’t have existed back then—to this place. This is as true today as true as it was back in Meister Eckart’s church-dominated day. Matters of this “soul” which he’s talking about stretch beyond the sociological theory superimposed on it.

So, what about our time anyway?

I think our existence is a bit of a paradox. Which makes it a bit of a divine joke when we try to explain it all through reason. I know we might as well try, since the consciousness we inhabit demands things be taken back to rationality, but doesn’t mean we have to buy the entire thing. Paraphasing Herman Hesse: Wisdom is never, in the end, truly communicable, because in emphasizing one aspect of wisdom, another aspect of truth always gets diminshed. Continuing the thought, our language—a tool, a wonderful tool, but a limited one—is restricted, and can only do its level best to communicate wisdom (or truth), that is in the end, never communicable. Nothing new: our existence is a bit of a pardox.

A long winded, however necessary, way of leading me to the next point: A truth that is so obvious to me now, I can’t believe I missed it for so long: everything changes. Sure, I’d given lip-service to the notion countless times, but until a lip-service truth became a heart-level one, I was still completely governed by my anxious grasping to keep the status-quo. Always petrified I might lose what I already cherished in the anxious mists of future’s horizon, I resisted the inexorable reach of change. Once fully realizing the Buddhist-saturated percpetion that everything not only does, but constantly, changes, I was able to accept that difficult fact. To be really honest, and with a honed percpetion only 20/20 hindsight affords, I can see that I only fully perceived this truth for the last 3 years of my 30.

And like waking up to a percpetion that’s always been—often a new vocabulary word suffices as the most ready analogy—suddenly, when no longer ignorant, one sees that this has been going on for God-knows-long in spite of said ignorance. The invisible hand slaps the forehead: “Why haven’t I seen this all along?”

Indeed, why hadn’t I? Society is in never-ending flux, seasons march toward their inexorable decay and subsequent reserruction. Everything changes in an incessent march to a non-existent, unstable rhythm. I would say that there is a lot of wisdom—with potential for profound comfort in the present moment—in that realized truth.

But wisdom is never communicable.

In emphasizing one aspect of a truth, we miss the paradoxical polarized, flip-side of a coin. More immediately grasped: Sure, everything is always changing; no doubt. However, I look out at the world, at the different cultures, at the changing shifts in power and economies and thought, and realize (with a little push from reading history):nothing has really changed.

Yep, I’m more and more convinced of it: nothing has really changed.

As much as the facade may change, as different as the surface appearance may look, the present situation a human being finds him/herself in has ever been the same. Take, for example, the current economic crises. I don’t think it’s changed my life a wink. I don’t think it’s changed much on the financial market, for that matter.

“What?” you gasp, agawk. “Not changed? Why the entire economy is now…well, its now changing into a whole new direction. And we are unsure about which direction to go, what to invest in…”

My point entirely. Business now must react to uncertain shifts in consumer demands and societal dictates. Nothing new. Some people are saying we are on the cusp of a complete breakdown of civilization as we know it. Nothing new. Others, of course, will say this is some sort of divine retrubition for the ambinoble acts of homosexuals or other (lesser—much lesser) sins, and the end is at last, and for the last, nigh. Nothing new. Anxiety reigns: some parts of the world are taken advantage of, millions starve, billions live in economic scarcity while others complain they don’t have quite enough whilst staring from million dollar homes at the Pacific. Nothing new.

Civilization, I guess I’m trying to point out, has always—from its advent—been on the cusp of crumbling. As much as everything threatens to tear apart once-and-for-always from the seems, I can’t help but think that this moment has ever existed. In a way, nothing has changed.

So, while the Buddhist inspired acknowledgement that everything is always changing helps one to achieve a kind of resolute calm in the face of unknown (and ultimately unreal) futures, another perception gives credence to the idea that nothing so much ever changes. But wisdom is uncommincable. Take a quick look: everything changes!

God’s foundation is my foundation, and my foundation is God’s foundation: here I am on my own ground, just as God is on his own ground. Actions spring up from this ground without asking Why?
 Base your whole life on this inner foundation; seek no other ground of action, neither heaven, nor God, nor your eternal salvation.
 If anyone thinks he will obtain God in meditation and sweet thoughts and special devotions rather than by the fireside or in the byre, he is seeking to take God and wrap his head in a blanket and thrust him under the table.
 He who seeks God in some external routine will find the routine and lose God.
 But he who seeks Him without external routine will obtain him as He is. 
(Sermon no. 5b)

Where to even begin with that rousing bit of recorded oratory? So much good stuff to expand upon, I don’t really know where to begin. But I know where not to: a discussion on how this was inflamatory back in the 13th century. Hell, I’m sure it was. Hell, I’m sure it is. Which is the point: I’m trying to show others a little bit of the inspiration that changes my life: this thing I hesitatingly call a soul. If this thing is supposedly eternal, or at least existing at all times and beyond this one-track, cause and effect train of life leading (by all apearances) to my one death, than other cultures should speak to it. Other times should speak to it. I have often said that there is a power in the soul which neither time nor the world can touch. This power proceeds from the soul and belongs to the soul for ever.

As much as everthing changes, not much has: there are–in this time, this age–still those of us who need to tap into this power. And currently, a lot of people are tapping into something of its power in a language draped by the 12-step community. For some, a “higher power” works to keep them sober from drugs and alcohol. Works, I might add, where everything else has failed. For some, the language of “higher power” works as a better reference point than “God”. A lot of us trying to stop the destructive, compulsive use of a substance had a lot of trouble with religion (in general) and God (in particular).

God, as I’m sure it does for some of you readers, evokes so much connotation and so much baggage with the mere utterance of the word that it becomes impossible for some to see new definition in that word. “Higher Power” takes off some of the edge.

It’s a bit strange to describe to those who haven’t gone through it (which again is kind of the purpose of this digital space. Once more: if you haven’t read the mission statement: PLEASE READ IT), but it becomes the reference point for me one dealing with these abstract concepts and phrases about powers in the soul which neither time nor the world can touch. For me, if I hadn’t personally experienced what I (and others) call a “spiritual awakening”, I might be tempted to analyze such passages on how they affected 13th century ecclesiastical society. As is the case, however, I try to let others experience glimpses of their own truth.

Back to Eckhart, and the soul, and this “higher power”; here’s where Meister Eckhart’s words ring true for me: I had tried for the better part of a year—again and again and again, with little more than 3 days success—to stop the substance I was chemically dependent on. I tried to stop with the aid of other pharmaceuticals and reached back to the farthest reaches of my will-power. I was able to have my parties on the weekend and take on the normal work-week tasks with the best of ’em. Which is why it made so little sense when I couldn’t anymore, no matter how hard or how many times I tried to stop.

So, with the gift (only with 20/20 hindsight can I call it one) of desperation, I was willing to try anything—at least for a little bit to stay out of jail.

And I met these 12 steps which told me I couldn’t do it on my own will (ego) and had to find a “higher power”. Essentially, these 12 steps are a systematic of honesty and admitting one’s limits and deceptions. It is a walk in humility (ego-reduction). Yes, I began praying, and opening myself to possibilities of spiritual truth. And, relatively quick for me, I “found” God. Though I must say that IT felt like it came from the deepest parts of myself. IT was really hard to define with words. However—and by far the most important part—I now was finding it easy (yes–easy) to not only stay sober but to hardly think of using alcohol or other substances: as long as I stayed aligned with this connection I’d found to my higher power.

I have sometimes called this power in the soul a fortress, sometimes a light, sometimes a spark in the soul;(Sermon no. 2)

These words are coming from the 1330s or so, and are just as true today as I’m sure they were true to some back then. That’s the funny thing about having a “spiritual awakening” or waking up to the ridiculousness of “ego consciousness”–you suddenly perceive how much of the world is built upon these notions of ego, and how much value we place on some supposed “experts” opinion, when we really need not venture far (externally, anyway) for our personal solutions. Of course the words disrupted the established power of the “world” of Eckhart’s time; Of course they can challenge the established order of our time: the established order being often built upon values of ego. Which exists in religious institutions as well, and which mask the power (the higher power in the individual soul) sometimes by becoming built upon ego-notions (external looks and appearances) rather than soul (inner, personal honesty) notions. Or, as Meister Eckhart framed it:

Base your whole life on this inner foundation; seek no other ground of action; neither heaven, nor God, nor your eternal salvation…He who seeks God in some external routine will find the routine and lose God.
 But he who seeks Him without external routine will obtain him as He is. (Sermon no 5b).

So, while I haven’t even begun to touch upon how remarkably similar these medieval sermons of Eckhart sound to Buddhist concepts of the transcendent space within, at least I’ve begun to tap some significance of what the words might mean for us in this 21st century. If Buddhists, existing in another culture, find it fit to frame this “transcendent space” (which Eckhart and Christianity likes to call the ‘soul’) with other language and words, it lends all the more credence to the concept. For, as Eckhart points out, “{the soul} is free from all forms and all names; as pure and free as God is” (Sermon no. 2).

Perhaps next time we can explore what language the 21st, contemporary century is using to talk about the “soul” and “God”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on February 5, 2012 by in Spirituality Blog and tagged , , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: